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World roundup: February 10 2022
Stories from Syria, Cameroon, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 9, 1943: US Army Major General Alexander Patch confirms that Japanese forces have retreated from Guadalcanal, marking the end of the six month long Guadalcanal Campaign. Japan’s retreat allowed the US to establish bases on Guadalcanal and the island of Tulagi to support further Pacific operations. The US victory is regarded as one of the major turning points in World War II’s Pacific Theater, helping to put Japan on the defensive.
February 10, 1258: The Mongols sack Baghdad and topple the Abbasid Caliphate.
February 10, 1972: Ras Al Khaimah becomes the seventh and final Gulf state to join the United Arab Emirates, roughly two months after the UAE and its member states gained independence.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that attacks by Islamic State fighters against units of the Syrian Democratic Forces militia in Deir Ezzor province have left at least nine SDF fighters dead over the last day or so, while Russian airstrikes have killed at least nine IS fighters in Hama and Raqqa provinces over the same period. It’s unclear to me whether the Russia strikes came in retaliation for the attacks against the SDF but if they did that would represent an interesting development given that the SDF and Russia are not exactly on great terms. The Observatory claims that the death toll could rise as several IS fighters were seriously wounded in those Russian airstrikes.
Meanwhile, US officials are admitting that the civilian death toll from the operation earlier this month that ended in the death of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi may have been higher than the three (one of Qurayshi’s wives and their two sons) they originally acknowledged. Most non-Pentagon accounts have reported that at least 13 civilians were killed in the US special forces raid. The Pentagon continues to insist that Qurayshi killed himself with a suicide vest rather than be taken captive and that any civilians killed during the raid died in the explosion, but they’re now saying that there may have been other people caught in the blast whose bodies were buried in rubble. Countering the Pentagon are multiple claims that at least some of the civilians killed during this attack died in the gun battle that ensued and despite the fact that US officials say they have no video evidence of the supposed suicide explosion. The US military is pretty obsessive about recording its activities—obsessive enough that when it somehow doesn’t get footage of a major incident that should raise some questions about the official narrative.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the departure of United Nations monitors from Yemen has coincided with a near-doubling in civilian casualties in the Yemeni war. The UN Human Rights Council voted down a two year extension of the monitors’ mission back in October, amid reportedly heavy lobbying by Saudi Arabia (which wasn’t on the council at the time but does have substantial political weight it can throw around in international forums). In the four months prior to the termination, the NRC says that 823 civilians were killed in the Yemen conflict. In the four months since, 1535 civilians have been killed. In what I’m sure is purely a coincidence, the NRC reports that the number of civilians killed in (mostly Saudi) airstrikes in Yemen has increased 39-fold.
Interim Iraqi Electricity Minister Adel Karim said Thursday that Baghdad is some $1.6 billion behind on its electricity payments to Iran. The issue doesn’t seem to be a lack of cash, but rather the fact that US sanctions on Iran oblige the Iraqi government to pay for Iranian electricity in kind (with shipments of Iraqi natural gas) rather than in cash. Iran is then required to jump through several sanctions-related hoops to convert that gas into imports of basic goods. The process is so convoluted that the Iraqis have been unable to pay their bills. Karim called on the Biden administration to allow Baghdad to make cash payments before Iranian officials cut Iraq off. I’m skeptical the administration will do that, except maybe in the context of a successful conclusion to the ongoing nuclear deal talks in Vienna. In the absence of a reliable electrical supply from Iran it’s possible the Iraqis could turn to Gulf Arab states instead, which the US would presumably view as a positive development.
Saudi authorities say that at least 12 people were wounded by “falling debris” on Thursday after the kingdom’s air defenses shot down a drone attempting to carry out an attack on the airport in the southern city of Abha. Yemeni rebels launched the attempted drone strike on Thursday afternoon.
The US military has apparently determined that the buck, with regards to the haphazard US evacuation from Afghanistan, stops at the White House and possibly the State Department rather than at the Pentagon:
Senior White House and State Department officials failed to grasp the Taliban’s steady advance on Afghanistan’s capital and resisted efforts by U.S. military leaders to prepare the evacuation of embassy personnel and Afghan allies weeks before Kabul’s fall, placing American troops ordered to carry out the withdrawal in greater danger, according to sworn testimony from multiple commanders involved in the operation.
An Army investigative report, numbering 2,000 pages and released to The Washington Post through a Freedom of Information Act request, details the life-or-death decisions made daily by U.S. soldiers and Marines sent to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport as thousands converged on the airfield in a frantic bid to escape.
Military personnel would have been “much better prepared to conduct a more orderly” evacuation, Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top U.S. commander on the ground during the operation, told Army investigators, “if policymakers had paid attention to the indicators of what was happening on the ground.” He did not identify any administration officials by name, but said inattention to the Taliban’s determination to complete a swift and total military takeover undermined commanders’ ability to ready their forces.
Voters in India’s Uttar Pradesh state began heading to the polls for local elections on Thursday. Local elections are not really our bailiwick here at Foreign Exchanges, but given that Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state elections there can be a bellwether for the country as a whole. Additionally, this month will see three other states holding local elections that will have something to say about the current popularity of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party with a general election looming sometime between now and May 2024. BJP controls all four states at present and the expectation is it will maintain control in all four after these elections.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., AKA “Bongbong,” has been cleared to run for president. The Philippine Commission on Elections ruled Thursday that a 1995 conviction on tax evasion charges did not disqualify Marcos from standing in the May 9 election. He’s likely to face further attempts to strike his name from the ballot, but polling indicates that if he is allowed to run, Marcos is the prohibitive favorite to win the election.
New anti-junta protests gripped several Sudanese cities on Thursday, with police in Khartoum using tear gas to drive marchers away from the presidential palace. Protesters are reportedly blockading the “Northern Artery,” a major overland commercial route to and from Egypt, stranding hundreds of trucks around the border. That blockade seems to have been sparked by the junta’s decision last month to raise electricity prices and demands for better treatment for Sudanese farmers and herders, but the organizations opposing the junta have supported the blockade.
Libya now has two prime ministers, after the House of Representatives based in the eastern city of Tobruk elected former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha to that post on Thursday. Bashagha was apparently the only candidate (a second candidate withdrew from consideration) so he was elected by acclimation. Incumbent interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh hasn’t gone away, though somebody may have tried to make him go away as he’s claiming he was attacked overnight in Tripoli in an “assassination attempt.” He survived the alleged attack and the UN has already thrown its support behind him as opposed to Bashagha.
We’ve covered the details of this situation already, specifically the question over whether Dbeibeh’s mandate expired in December, when Libya was supposed to hold new elections, or is still active since Libya didn’t actually hold those elections. I think the selection of Bashagha is an interesting one. He served as interior minister for the western Libyan government based in Tripoli during the civil war, which basically meant he was a militia commander whose forces fought against the “Libyan National Army” aligned with the Tobruk parliament. So he’s a “national unity” pick in some respects and that may undercut Dbeibeh’s leverage as the head of the possibly defunct Government of…wait for it…National Unity. If Dbeibeh’s only constituency winds up being the UN, it’s difficult to see how he could remain relevant here. Looming behind all of this is a potential return to armed conflict, which doesn’t seem terribly likely at the moment but that could very well change.
The French government says that its forces in the Sahel carried out an airstrike earlier this week that killed ten members of an unspecified Islamist militant group as well as four civilians in the northern Burkinabé town of Ouahigouya.
A new report from Human Rights Watch alleges serious wrongdoing by US authorities in deporting dozens of Cameroonian asylum seekers over the past couple of years:
After the United States rejected her asylum claim and deported her in October 2020, Esther [the report uses pseudonyms], a Cameroonian woman, found herself trapped in a nightmare in the country she had previously fled. “I was arrested and detained [by gendarmes]... I was raped. I was well [seriously] beaten, I was tortured, I lived mostly on bread,” she said. “They said we are the people that have gone out and spoiled the name of the country… so I have to pay for it dearly.”
Like Esther, many other Cameroonians denied asylum and deported by the United States between 2019 and 2021 have suffered persecution and other serious human rights violations in Cameroon post-return. This report traces what happened to several dozen of them, both during their time in the US and after deportation. It focuses in particular on the estimated 80 to 90 Cameroonians deported on two flights in October and November 2020.
Human Rights Watch research shows that US authorities not only sent Cameroonians back to harm, but also subjected them to serious human rights violations in US immigration detention, failed to fairly adjudicate many of their cases, and failed to protect confidential asylum documents, which were confiscated by their government. For these reasons, US deportations of Cameroonian asylum seekers violated US obligations under international human rights and refugee law.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra has appointed a new prime minister, Economy Minister Félix Moloua, to replace Henri-Marie Dondra, whom he sacked on Monday. The upheaval may reflect a factional dispute within Touadéra’s government between those who are inclined toward France (like Dondra) and those inclined toward Russia (including Moloua and Touadéra himself). Touadéra appointed Dondra in 2021 in part as a concession toward Paris, but apparently his relationship with Touadéra had become dysfunctional.
An al-Shabab suicide bomber killed at least six people in Mogadishu on Thursday. The bomber targeted a bus carrying delegates participating in Somalia’s indirect parliamentary election, which is scheduled to end on February 25. One unconfirmed report from the scene suggested that the bus had already passed out of range and that its occupants were not among the casualties.
It was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s turn to audition to be Europe’s Anti-Putin on Thursday, as he followed Emmanuel Macron’s tryout earlier this week by visiting NATO headquarters and then Warsaw to sternly opine that the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis “is probably the most dangerous moment, I would say in the course of the next few days, in what is the biggest security crisis that Europe has faced for decades.” Johnson, who’s under a good deal of heat at home amid revelations that he and/or his staff spent the past couple of years partying almost on a nightly basis while the rest of the UK was under lockdown, does have some personal reasons for hyping the current state of affairs (and for finding an excuse to leave the country for a couple of days).
Johnson also dispatched his foreign minister, Liz Truss to Moscow for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Truss, recently seen confusing the Baltic and Black seas, apparently wowed Lavrov by telling him that she did not recognize southwestern Russia’s Voronezh and Rostov regions—where Russian military forces have been massing and/or holding exercises uncomfortably close to the Ukrainian border—as Russian territory. Truss later said that she mistakenly thought those two very Russian regions were Ukrainian.
Representatives of the four “Normandy Format” nations—France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine—met in Berlin on Thursday to try to advance the Minsk peace process that’s supposed to be settling the frozen civil war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. They apparently got nowhere, though they did agree to keep negotiating—which, under the circumstances, is not insignificant. On a related note, Ukrainian officials on Thursday criticized ongoing Russian naval exercises off the Ukrainian coast, saying that they’ve rendered it impossible for commercial vessels to traverse the Black and Azov seas. Kyiv regularly accuses the Russian military of effectively blockading Ukraine by interfering with maritime traffic in the Black Sea.
Meanwhile, the United States has reverted to war panic, advising on Thursday that all Americans should leave Ukraine immediately, despite the Ukrainian government’s request that its foreign friends not engage in that sort of rhetoric.
A new investigation by Instituto Centro de Vida, Greenpeace, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism finds vast stretches of rainforest in Brazil’s Mato Grosso state being deforested by soybean farmers despite a Brazilian law banning deforestation for that purpose. The law is apparently written so narrowly that farmers can simply convert other parts of their farms, areas used for pasture, corn, or other uses, to soybean cultivation and then clear forested area to replace that converted land. The revelation calls into doubt claims that the soybean industry has made in recent years about its improvements with respect to deforestation.
Finally, writing for The New York Review of Books, Stephen Wertheim sees a change in the way The Blob talks, or rather has stopped talking, about the dreaded “i” word:
As Russia threatens a new invasion of Ukraine, a segment of politicians and pundits in Washington, D.C., are talking tough. At times, their rhetoric can recall the lead-up to previous wars. But this occasion looks different. From the start, President Joe Biden ruled out the use of force. “We have no intention of putting American forces or NATO forces in Ukraine,” he affirmed last week. His administration is hardly inactive; it is pursuing diplomatic negotiations to head off a conflict, sending weapons to help in Ukraine’s defense, and gearing up to impose significant economic sanctions on Russia should it attack. The emphasis, however, lies in what America won’t do. No longer are all options, as the saying goes, on the table.
Biden’s distinct approach toward this crisis reflects an evolution in what the country does, and does not, fear. Recent years have fostered much distress: about democratic disarray, racial violence, unending pandemics, American decline. Yet one specter may be receding. It is the worry that the United States, weary of world affairs, might revert to its purported tradition of isolationism.
Could that be? We are just one year removed from the presidency of Donald Trump, who was feared to be an isolationist incarnate. That, at least, was how foreign policy elites sought at once to interpret and discredit Trump, along with Senator Bernie Sanders, since the 2016 election. Their alarm was great, but their concern was familiar. If one concept has run through US foreign policy since World War II, it is the belief, professed by each consecutive president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama, that isolationism had previously held sway and must never return. The lesson they imparted: US global dominance, whatever its faults, is better than the alternative.
Today, though, as American preeminence wanes, so does the story that national leaders have told about America’s place in the world. Trump broke the eight-decade streak of presidents who warned the US public off isolationism. He had no use for the term, either to describe himself or to denounce others. And Joe Biden, after liberally decrying “the forces of isolationism” as vice president, has yet to utter the word as president, even as he seeks to project a new era of restoration in US global leadership.
This is a healthy development. Isolationism is not, and has never been, a real position, whereas fear of it creates problems of its own.