World roundup: February 11-12 2023
Stories from Turkey, China, Nicaragua, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 11, 1990: Nelson Mandela is released from South Africa’s Victor Verster Prison after serving 27 years for resisting the apartheid government. Mandela, whose remarkable life story probably doesn’t need to be recounted here and would be beyond the scope of this newsletter, became after his release the key figure in the negotiations to dismantle South Africa’s apartheid regime and in 1994 was elected overwhelmingly as South Africa’s first truly democratically elected president.
February 11, 2011: After over two weeks of protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigns, becoming the second Arab leader to step down as a result of the Arab Spring movement after Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt underwent a transition to a democratic election in 2012, all of which was undone by the 2013 military coup that installed current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
February 12, 1502: Queen Isabella of Castile promulgates an edict outlawing Islam in her kingdom. The edict built on previous forced conversions in Granada and indeed was premised on the somewhat dubious rationale that it would be unfair to keep Islam legal in the rest of Castile when it had been outlawed in Granada. Muslims living in the kingdom were obliged to leave or convert, and since leaving cost money and meant uprooting one’s entire life, most chose conversion. Of course that only bought people about a century before King Philip III of Spain expelled the Moriscos, the descendants of converted Muslims, in 1609.
February 12, 1912: Puyi, the final emperor of both the Qing dynasty and China overall, abdicates, giving way to the Republic of China and marking the end of the Xinhai Revolution. Rebel leader Sun Yat-sen succeeded him as the first president of the provisional government of the Republic of China. Puyi would later serve as the “ruler” of the “Empire of Manchuria,” a puppet state established by Japan in northern China and Inner Mongolia that existed from 1932-1945.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A group of Islamic State fighters reportedly attacked a crowd of truffle hunters in Syria’s Homs province on Sunday. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights they killed ten civilians and one Syrian security officer. Syrian media is reporting the deaths of four civilians in the incident.
The Syrian government agreed on Friday to allow “the delivery of humanitarian aid to all parts of the Syrian Arab Republic” in the wake of last week’s earthquake, according to an official statement. This means even rebel/Turkish-controlled northwestern Syria may receive assistance delivered through official channels via organizations like the Red Cross/Red Crescent. I say “may receive” because I’m not sure the Syrian government has earned the benefit of the doubt in this regard, but we’ll see.
There has been international pressure on Damascus to announce something like this, as there’s only one open access point for aid to get to northwestern Syria via Turkey and that corridor was already struggling to accommodate the humanitarian demand before the quake. The United Nations Security Council is apparently going to debate the possibility of opening up additional corridors this week and it sounds like the Syrian government may actually be open to that idea but we’ll see. Cross-border aid remains crucial because even if the Syrian government doesn’t interfere with assistance going to rebel-held areas there are rebel groups—most prominently Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province—that won’t accept aid if it’s perceived as coming from Damascus. Better to let people starve, I guess.
There’s been comparatively little pressure on the US to lift sanctions on the Syrian government to facilitate relief, which is not hugely surprising though it probably should be. Nevertheless, the US Treasury Department on Thursday announced a six month blanket exemption on all Syrian sanctions for earthquake-related programs. The US already insists that its sanctions don’t apply to humanitarian aid but that insistence means nothing, since broad banking sanctions chill all forms of economic activity and most institutions would rather avoid interacting with the sanctioned country at all than risk the chance that their interactions might not be covered by limited exemptions. Thursday’s announcement may facilitate some aid but that chilling effect probably won’t dissipate very much.
The US apparently conducted a drone strike near the Yemeni city of Maʾrib on January 30 that killed three al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula members. That’s unconfirmed, but the target and the weapon that appears to have been used (the Hellfire R9X or “knife bomb,” which is only used by the US military and the CIA), both point to a US strike. A few media outlets are making an issue out of this strike because the Biden administration claims that it’s restricted the use of drone strikes outside of war zones but this particular strike, which didn’t kill any especially high value targets, doesn’t seem consistent with a more restrictive drone policy. The only thing that’s ever really been consistent about US drone policy is that the US government does whatever it wants to do wherever it wants to do it.
As of this writing, the confirmed death toll from last week’s earthquake has reached 29,605 in Turkey and 3581 in Syria, and UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths told reporters on Saturday that he expects it to rise at least into the 50,000s. Some 26 million people are estimated to have been impacted by the disaster, many of them displaced during a period of freezing or near-freezing weather across the region. Among the many countries that have sent relief assistance to Turkey has been Armenia, which opened its Alican border crossing to send aid despite the less than stellar state of Turkish-Armenian relations. The gesture could have geopolitical ramifications moving forward, depending partly on what the Turkish government looks like in a few months.
It may be crass to talk about politics at a time like this, but Turkey is looking at a general election in May (assuming it’s not delayed) and disaster response in an inherently political act. On that front, then, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to be taking a fair amount of criticism for the manner in which his government has responded to this quake and there have been suggestions that he’s doled out what should have been emergency relief funds to “government associates” in major infrastructure projects. Erdoğan has admitted “shortcomings” in the government’s response but has also referred to critics as “dishonorable, dishonest people.” If I had to guess I’d say if Erdoğan believes he’s going to lose the election he’ll try to use the quake as justification for postponing it.
Israeli occupation forces killed a 14 year old Palestinian boy during an arrest raid in Jenin on Sunday. As ever the Israelis say their forces came under attack and responded in self defense. The previous day, an Israeli settler shot and killed a Palestinian in a village near the West Bank city of Nablus. Israeli forces responded to the shooting and, according to a witness who spoke to Reuters, protected the settlers amid a confrontation with Palestinian villagers. Saturday’s shooting came one day after a Palestinian drove his car into a crowd of people at a bus stop near Jerusalem, killing three.
Following Saturday’s shooting there was a report of a rocket fired out of Gaza that was apparently brought down by Israeli air defenses. The Israelis bombed what they say was a Hamas rocket facility in Gaza early Monday in retaliation, and there’s also a report of some sort of battle between Israeli forces and members of the Palestinian “Den of Lions” group in the West Bank city of Nablus, but that’s just emerging as I wrap up this newsletter so there are few details available yet.
The Israeli government on Sunday retroactively legalized nine West Bank settlements. These are settlements that were previously considered illegal even under Israeli law, to say nothing of international law. This could raise tensions in the West Bank although frankly it’s difficult to imagine how tensions could get any worse at this point. The US government mouthed empty opposition to this step as it routinely does when the issue of settlements comes up, but the Israelis ignored it because they know better than anyone that the opposition is purely rhetorical.
Myanmar’s ruling junta is reportedly about to start arming its own civilian defense forces in a step that seems all but certain to intensify the country’s ongoing civil war. The plan involves issuing gun licenses to adults who demonstrate “loyalty” to the state, such as one might demonstrate by “volunteering” to serve in a pro-junta militia, and who have a “need” for firearms, such as one might develop were one to “volunteer” for service in said militia. The junta would also begin importing firearms and ammunition to sell to those same folks. The junta is looking for new ways to suppress resistance from several of Myanmar’s ethnic militias as well as “People’s Defense Force” units that have emerged since the February 2021 coup.
The Great Balloon War of 2023 has continued apace, with the Biden administration on Thursday revealing Major Intelligence on the “fleet” of Chinese spy balloons that has allegedly been spying on some 40 countries. The US military is still collecting debris from the balloon it shot down off the eastern US coast last weekend so it’s dodging questions about how it worked or what intelligence it might have been aiming to collect. The administration blacklisted six Chinese entities in connection with the devious balloon program.
But the story doesn’t end there. Since Thursday’s revelation the US military has shot down two more unidentified devices over North American airspace, one on Friday near Alaska and the other on Saturday over Canada’s Yukon territory. There’s still no confirmation as to what these things were or whence they came, but unlike the Balloon of Death they were flying at an altitude (around 40,000 feet) where they could have posed complications for civilian aircraft. They apparently don’t resemble the Balloon of Death very much and as it happens there’s some possibility that they were research balloons sent aloft by US government agencies. This is just a stray thought but maybe we should try figuring out what things are before we shoot them out of the sky? Nah, what fun would that be?
The military also detected an “anomaly” over Montana on Saturday and scrambled fighters to intercept, but they were unable to find it. And as I write this, there’s BREAKING NEWS about the US downing yet another unidentified object over Lake Huron. There are no details about this one but in general I think the simplest explanation is that the Balloon of Death saga has juiced up the US security community and they’re now shooting down everything they find, including or perhaps exclusively non-threatening research craft. If that’s the case then I suspect these unidentified objects will remain “unidentified” in perpetuity.
FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA
The US and Micronesian governments have agreed on a “memorandum of understanding” regarding the renewal of their “free association” agreement. The US and three Pacific island states—the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau—concluded those agreements in the 1980s, giving the three island nations access to US aid and other programs in return, essentially, for allowing the US military to have access to those countries. The deals were renewed in 2003 and are up for renewal again. The Biden administration had already concluded MoUs with the Marshalls and Palau, having prioritized these renewals due to the New Cold War with China.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
The US is also reportedly close to reaching a defense cooperation agreement with the Papua New Guinean government, again motivated mostly by the New Cold War. Representatives of both countries spent five days in Hawaii over the course of the week hashing out the details (which probably won’t become public unless/until there’s an actual agreement).
Unspecified attackers killed at least ten Nigerien soldiers in an incident that took place on Friday evening in southwestern Niger’s Tillabéri region. The attackers reportedly withdrew into Mali after Nigerien forces called in air support. Presumably these were jihadist militants but it’s unclear whether they were IS or al-Qaeda aligned.
Supporters of Nigerian Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi were reportedly attacked on Saturday in advance of a scheduled rally in Lagos. There’s no indication as to responsibility, but Nigeria’s presidential campaign has already been marked by violence and there are understandable concerns that the violence may escalate as the February 25 election approaches.
The Somaliland regional government announced on Friday that it had imposed an “unconditional” ceasefire on security forces, who spent most of the week battling militias around the town of Las Anod. At least 57 people were killed and over 400 wounded in five days of fighting (Monday through Friday) after “local leaders” apparently declared that they no longer recognized the separatist Somaliland government and wanted to throw in with the federal government of Somalia instead. If you’re wondering whether the ceasefire took, the answer is no—at least not initially—as at least another nine people were killed and 14 wounded in additional fighting on Saturday. Somaliland officials claim their security forces were only defending themselves.
A NATO spokesperson announced on Saturday that Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will not seek to extend his time in office and plans to leave in October as scheduled. The announcement came in response to a media report that alliance members were planning to extend Stoltenberg’s term for a fourth time so as not to change secretary-generals in the midst of the war in Ukraine.
The Russian government announced on Friday that it will unilaterally cut oil production by 500,000 barrels per day starting in March, supposedly in response to the cap that the European Union and G7 imposed on the price of Russian oil. It’s unlikely that cap has materially impacted Russian oil revenue as the cap was set fairly high and Russia is already selling oil at steep discounts. What’s probably happening is that, with many of its European customers phasing out Russian oil altogether, Moscow hasn’t been able to find enough alternative buyers to justify current production levels. The OPEC+ group announced that other members will not be increasing production to make up the difference.
Elsewhere, the Russian government suggested over the weekend that NATO should hold an “emergency meeting” on the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines last September. Obviously they’re having a little fun here at NATO’s expense, but the suggestion stems from a piece that investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published via Substack a few days ago alleging that the US was responsible for the bombing and laying out a scenario by which it might have been carried out. The piece relies almost entirely on a single anonymous source and contains some peculiar errors (e.g., the suggestion that Stoltenberg, who was 15 in 1975, has “cooperated with the American intelligence community since the Vietnam War”) that are at least eyebrow raising, though I don’t know that its claims can be discarded entirely out of hand. Somebody blew up those pipelines, and the theory that the “somebody” in question was the United States is still pretty reasonable.
In Ukraine news:
Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on Sunday that his forces had captured Krasna Hora, a village located on the northern outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Prigozhin has a tendency to make these kinds of claims a bit more quickly than either the Russian or Ukrainian governments but that doesn’t mean this one is inaccurate. Ukrainian forces are still defending Bakhmut but the Russians continue to advance on the ground while pounding Ukrainian infrastructure from the air.
Satellite imagery reportedly shows that the Russians have been draining the Kakhovka Reservoir in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia oblast, which under normal circumstances feeds drinking water to cities, supplies irrigation canals across southern Ukraine, and provides coolant for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Prior to Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 it also provided drinking water to the peninsula, but Ukrainian authorities blocked that water flow in recent years. It appears the Russians are draining the reservoir in order to refill several smaller reservoirs in Crimea. The impact to local water supplies is unclear, as all the major cities around the reservoir are now under Russian control. But if water levels drop low enough the risk of some sort of meltdown at the nuclear plant will once again become uncomfortably high.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Ukrainian artillery—especially its longer-range artillery—is entirely or almost entirely dependent on targeting information provided by the United States. I don’t really have anything profound to say about this because I’m not sure it comes as new information to anyone who’s been paying attention. But I will say that if the US government wants anyone to believe that it’s not an active combatant in this war it should probably stop acting like an active combatant. US officials insist that they’re just providing advice and that they’re not selecting or approving targets on Ukraine’s behalf, but this seems like hair-splitting and anyway the Ukrainians who spoke to the Post seemed to indicate that there is at least a tacit US approval process in place.
Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita and her cabinet resigned on Friday, blaming the war in Ukraine (and Russia, specifically) for the energy price hikes and other political and economic challenges that have soured public opinion toward her government. President Maia Sandu is expected to name her security adviser, Dorin Recean, as Gavrilita’s replacement. A Russian missile apparently crossed Moldovan airspace on Thursday, an act officials characterized as one of many Russian attempts to “destabilize” Moldova. The Ukrainian government claimed the missile also passed through Romanian airspace though Romanian officials later denied that claim.
Former Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides won Sunday’s presidential runoff, defeating Andreas Mavroyiannis with a bit less than 52 percent of the vote. The race was notable in that the nominee of the Democratic Rally (DISY) party of incumbent Nicos Anastasiades failed to make it into the runoff for the first time in the party’s history. Christodoulides is considered a Greek Cypriot nationalist and therefore a relative hardliner on the question of reunifying Cyprus. But he’s also shown some interest in restarting negotiations with Turkish Cypriot leaders and with Turkey, their patron, perhaps by offering improvements in Turkey’s relationship with the EU in return for concessions from Ankara.
Seven Peruvian National Police officers were killed on Saturday when their vehicle came under attack in the VRAEM region. The identity of the attackers is unknown but the location means the attack likely had some connection to Peru’s cocaine industry. VRAEM is home to ex-Shining Path rebel elements who have gravitated toward work as security for traffickers.
The Nicaraguan government on Thursday freed 222 prisoners, most of whom could probably be classified as the “political” variety, and deported (or maybe “released” would be the better term) to the United States. Among them are many of the opposition politicians Nicaraguan authorities detained in the lead up to the 2021 general election. The Biden administration has characterized this as a “unilateral” move by President Daniel Ortega’s government, but it seems like some negotiation with Washington was involved. The Biden administration has apparently been offering to take the prisoners, though it’s looking for another country (most likely Spain) to accept them on a more permanent basis.
While the US did not make any concessions to Ortega to secure the prisoners’ release, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did hold a rare call with Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada on Friday and said that the release “opens the door to further dialogue.” Ortega characterized the deportations as exile for prisoners he said were “returning to a country [the US] that has used them … to sow terror, death and destruction here in Nicaragua.”
Finally, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill argues that calls for international justice related to the war in Ukraine are being undermined by, well, their overwhelming hypocrisy:
These factors explain why Ukraine and its allies have been calling for a “special tribunal” to prosecute senior Russian officials for the crime of aggression, even if they have to do some trials in absentia. In January, the EU Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution asserting “the urgent need” for European nations “to push for the creation of a special international tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression against Ukraine perpetrated by the political and military leadership of the Russian Federation and its allies.”
The resolution argued that “the establishment of this special tribunal for the crime of aggression would send a very clear signal to both Russian society and the international community that Putin and the Russian political and military leadership can be convicted for the crime of aggression in Ukraine; underscores that the establishment of this tribunal would also be a clear signal to the political and business elite in Russia and Russian allies that it is no longer feasible for the Russian Federation under Putin’s leadership to return to ‘business as usual’ with the West.”
Such a venue, established at the behest of nation states that are hostile to Russia and its president and whose lawmakers have included a guilty verdict in their demands for trials, would be summarily dismissed by Moscow as a biased court plotting a predetermined outcome. Just replace the word Ukraine with Iraq, Russia with the United States, Russian with American, and Putin with Bush, and ask if the U.S. government would have recognized the legitimacy of such a tribunal established to bring accountability for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
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