World roundup: February 14 2023
Stories from Turkey, Tunisia, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 13, 1945: The World War II Siege of Budapest ends with the Axis (German and Hungarian) defenders surrendering the city to the Soviet Red Army and allied Romanian forces. Casualties were high on both sides, but at this point in the war they were casualties the Soviets could withstand while the Nazis could not. Some 38,000 civilians are estimated to have died from combat and starvation during the nearly two month siege. On the same day, Allied forces in the west began their extended firebombing of the German city of Dresden, which lasted for three days and killed at least 25,000 people. There continues to be a debate over the legitimacy of Dresden as a target and of the justification for such an overwhelming air campaign against what was predominantly a civilian population.
February 14, 1876: Alexander Graham Bell files a patent application for the telephone on the same day when Elisha Gray filed a patent caveat for a similar technology. The US Patent Office later informed Gray of the conflict and he withdrew his caveat, which was less an application than a notification of an intent to file an application and therefore wasn’t as far along as Bell’s claim. Gray later won a court decision finding that the information in his caveat was leaked to Bell and some of it appeared in the latter’s application, but nevertheless Bell became known as the inventor of the telephone and Gray, uh, didn’t.
February 14, 1943: The World War II Battle of Sidi Bouzid begins.
February 14, 1945: Franklin Delano Roosevelt hosts Saudi King Abdulaziz ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Mediterranean. Roosevelt was sailing home from the Yalta Conference and took the occasion to hold face-to-face meetings with several regional leaders. This one was the first meeting ever between a Saudi royal and a US president. The agreement they concluded (which offered US military protection to the Saudis in return for US access to Saudi oil) created the basic contours of a US-Saudi alliance that has survived (albeit with some rough patches) to the present day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A United Nations panel of experts has concluded that the man who goes by the name “Sayf al-Adel,” who may be a former Egyptian military officer who among other things helped train the 9/11 hijackers, has replaced the departed Ayman al-Zawahiri as the leader of al-Qaeda. There’s been no announcement to that effect from al-Qaeda, which could be for a couple of reasons—one, al-Qaeda doesn’t want to embarrass the Afghan Taliban by confirming Zawahiri’s death and therefore acknowledging that he was living in Kabul when he was killed, and two, Sayf al-Adel is by most accounts living in Iran and announcing that he’s taken over could raise questions that both al-Qaeda and the Iranian government would rather not address.
With the confirmed death toll from last week’s earthquake now approaching (and possibly surpassing by the time anyone reads this) 40,000, a humanitarian relief convoy crossed from Turkey into northwestern Syria via Bab al-Salama for the first time since that crossing point was closed by the United Nations in 2020. Whatever skepticism I might have had about the prospect of opening additional aid corridors appears thankfully to have been misplaced.
There’s been some speculation that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to the temporary opening of these additional crossings because of some backroom deal or the possibility of a backroom deal. But there’s no reason to assume that since he’s already getting something in return, in the form of positive PR and the perception that he was the final decision-making authority, which bolsters his claims to control over rebel/Turkish-held northern Syria. Still, even if he does get some other concession over this it was almost certainly worth it under the circumstances.
Parts of this piece are a bit outdated in the wake of the Syrian news above, but World Politics Review’s Lina Khatib does a solid job here outlining the political issues surrounding the Turkish government’s response to the quake:
The disasters were natural, but not all of the fallout was: The humanitarian catastrophe caused by the earthquakes has been worsened by corruption, politics and geopolitical rivalries.
In Turkey, for instance, an “earthquake tax” was imposed in the aftermath of the Izmit earthquake of 1999, raised from a surcharge on telecommunications services. The funds were meant to be set aside for disaster relief, both for Izmit and in the event of future emergencies. But it is unclear where the money was spent, with some reports claiming it was in fact diverted to public works projects run by associates of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the aftermath of last week’s quakes, there has also been public outcry in Turkey about the quality of many of the buildings that were destroyed. Eyup Mehcu, president of the Chamber of Architects of Turkey, said that in the pursuit of economic growth, many buildings were poorly constructed, without conforming to earthquake-resistance regulatory standards. Critics of the Turkish government say corrupt authorities turned a blind eye to such transgressions and that, had these regulations been followed, fewer people would have died.
The authorities’ slow emergency response has also been the target of public criticism. Some of the areas affected by the earthquakes, like Hatay, did not see rescue services arrive for days after the temblors struck. Part of the blame is being directed at Turkey’s centralized model of governance, which has meant that municipalities outside the capital Ankara and major cities like Istanbul are restricted in their ability to operate.
More broadly, the political opposition is pointedly blaming Erdogan’s 20-year leadership of Turkey for the failures. Erdogan, for his part, has responded by arguing that it is impossible for the state to prepare for a disaster on this scale.
Israeli security forces killed a 17 year old Palestinian during an arrest raid in the West Bank’s Tubas district on Tuesday. At least 50 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces so far this year. Also on Tuesday, a Palestinian man who was left a quadriplegic after being shot by Israeli forces in January 2021 died of complications related to that shooting.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited China on Tuesday, where he was welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping with some warm words about the level of “solidarity and cooperation” between the two countries. Raisi will be looking to deepen the latter, particularly on the economic front where China has become the only real international lifeline for heavily sanctioned Iran. He’ll likely get some new business deals out of this trip but I’d expect Xi to do what he usually does with respect to Iran, which is to focus on short-term projects and avoid making any firm long-term commitments. If that’s how it goes then Raisi will presumably come away somewhat frustrated by the outcome.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan is reportedly going to visit Turkey on Wednesday, in what will be the first visit by an Armenian FM to that country since 2014 and another sign that relations between the neighbors are improving. Mirzoyan’s agenda will include a meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and a trip to southwestern Turkey to tour the earthquake zone and the Armenian rescue and aid operation there. The Armenians temporarily opened their overland border crossing into Turkey over the weekend in order to send aid to the quake zone. That crossing had been closed since 1988.
Afghan security forces raided an apparent Islamic State safehouse in Kabul overnight, killing at least three alleged IS members and arresting a fourth.
The Pakistani government has jacked up the country’s natural gas tax from 16 percent to a whopping 112 percent, at the friendly request of the International Monetary Fund. This is one of many tax increases the IMF is demanding before it will release the $1.1 billion in bailout funds it’s been withholding since December. It’s certain to worsen inflation, which is already high, and its effects are not going to be confined to wealthy Pakistanis. With foreign currency reserves dwindling, Pakistan is dependent on this next tranche of IMF relief and all the austerity that comes with it.
Indian authorities raided the BBC’s offices in Mumbai and New Delhi on Tuesday. Ostensibly this was over some sort of tax issue, but the real problem seems to have been the BBC’s decision to air an unflattering documentary about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few weeks ago. Said documentary focused on Modi’s handling of the 2002 Gujarat riots, when he (then governor of Gujarat) condoned or may even have helped facilitate a pogrom against Muslims in the wake of a Muslim attack on a group of Hindu pilgrims. Modi’s government attempted to suppress the documentary but, as Al Jazeera’s Aditi Agrawal writes, only wound up generating more buzz for it. Several members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have suggested that the BBC’s Indian operations could be shut down altogether and this tax allegation could be the first step toward that end.
Tunisian authorities have been on a bit of an arresting spree in recent days, targeting politicians who have run afoul of President Kais Saied in one way or another. Two more of Saied’s political opponents were arrested on Monday and it’s believed around 20 have been taken into custody since Saturday. The arrests make it clear, as though any more evidence were needed, that Saied is ruling Tunisia effectively as a dictator. He’s tried to justify the arrests as part of an “anti-corruption” campaign and has accused the detainees of somehow causing recent food shortages and price increases, without explaining how they’re supposed to have done that. Maybe they invaded Ukraine.
Africa Is a Country’s Jessy Damba Diamba breaks down the deportation agreement between Rwanda and the United Kingdom:
In April 2022, the governments of Rwanda and the United Kingdom signed the Migration and Economic Development Partnership, a plan to deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel to the East African nation, in exchange for additional development funding.
Included in the partnership is the initial investment of £120 million by the UK, “to boost the development of Rwanda, including jobs, skills and opportunities to benefit both migrants and host communities,” according to the British Home Office.
The deal has prompted significant backlash across borders, from global advocacy groups, church leaders and human rights activists.
“Rwanda can say they’re a compassionate nation,” said Claude Gatebuke, executive director for the African Great Lakes Action Network, and a survivor of the genocide. He calls this collaboration between both nations “a legalized human trafficking deal.” The Rwandan government benefits from a boost in public relations on the global stage, he contends, while the UK gets to keep out travelers it may deem undesirable: African and Asian migrants.
The mining firm Gemfields Group has reportedly shut down some of its operations in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, following an attack by Islamist militants on the village of Nairoto over the weekend. The company’s very large nearby ruby mine is still operating. The Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique, which has been claimed by Islamic State, has disrupted several resource extraction operations, most prominently offshore oil and gas exploration but also mining.
In Ukraine news:
Ukrainian officials are advising any civilians remaining in Bakhmut to go somewhere else at their earliest convenience, suggesting they’re not hugely confident about being able to hold on to the city for much longer. There are only around 5000 civilians still believed to be in Bakhmut and one assumes that they either really want to stay or really don’t have the means to leave or else they’d already have gone. The Ukrainians are now preventing aid workers from entering the city, which will make it more difficult to evacuate any remaining civilians who need assistance. They also reportedly blew up a bridge near Bakhmut on Monday to try to complicate the Russian advance, which is another indication that the city is in serious danger at this point.
In addition to the Russian advance around Bakhmut there are indications that Moscow is preparing once again to ratchet up the air war over Ukraine. This has created a new sense of urgency among Western government with respect to supplying Ukraine with air defense systems and could increase pressure on those governments to accede to Kyiv’s demands for fighter aircraft.
To the latter point, The Washington Post reported on Monday that the Biden administration is trying to impress upon the Ukrainians that the gushing spigot of Western military aid to which they’ve become so accustomed over the past year is unlikely to remain wide open indefinitely. Republicans in the US House of Representatives have hinted at drawing down aid to Ukraine though I’ll believe that when I see it, and it’s unclear how much longer other NATO members will be able to keep supplying Ukraine with arms. Even if the will to do so remains constant the fact is that some of those countries are literally running out of ammunition.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov named three new deputies on Tuesday, as part of the fallout from a recent scandal in which the Ukrainian military was found to be significantly overpaying for food supplies. I mention this mostly because these appointments suggest that Reznikov himself, who was rumored to be on the verge of getting sacked last week, is probably going to stick around for the foreseeable future.
Moldovan authorities closed the country’s airspace on Tuesday over reports that—you guessed it—a “balloon-like” object was observed near the Ukrainian border. The Romanian military reported a similar sighting and actually scrambled aircraft in response, though nothing seems to have come of it. The Moldovan airspace closure lasted less than an hour and a half but came amid an increasingly wild series of allegations from the Moldovan government regarding Russian interference. Moldovan President Maia Sandu accused Moscow on Monday of plotting a coup in Chișinău, based apparently on intelligence that the Ukrainian government claims it’s recently uncovered. There does appear to be evidence of some sort of Russian political influence operation in Moldova, whose breakaway Transnistria region is also a Russian dependency, but whether that rises to the level of “coup” is unclear.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg appeared on Tuesday to broach the possibility of Finland entering the club without, or at least ahead of, Sweden, telling alliance defense ministers in Brussels that it was more important that both countries become members “as soon as possible” than that they become members simultaneously. To this point both the Finnish and Swedish governments have insisted that their respective national security depended not just on joining NATO but on joining it together. But Sweden’s bid is barely treading water right now thanks to Turkish opposition, while Turkish officials have intimated that they’re prepared to approve Finland’s application. Finnish officials have not suggested that they’re prepared to go it alone.
The US government has apparently come to believe that the three objects its military shot down over the weekend were a) not Chinese and b) not doing any spying. Instead there seems to be an emerging consensus that they were all research or commercial devices of one sort or another. Don’t worry, though—there’s no indication that we’re going to start trying to figure out what things are before we shoot at them. That would be un-American. You may also be interested to learn that the F-16 that shot down one of those objects, the one that was detected over Lake Huron on Sunday, needed two shots to get the job done. This may mark the first time in history that a military jet had to dogfight a weather balloon but I can’t say for certain. The errant missile fortunately didn’t cause any collateral damage but—and maybe this is just me—the Pentagon might want to account for the possibility of stray missiles the next time it thinks about trying to shoot one of these things down.
Finally, at The New Republic Samuel Moyn looks at how unrepentant interventionists like neoconservative grandee Robert Kagan are reinventing their somewhat message to shed the baggage of their disastrous recent record:
By the late 2000s, the consensus was that neoconservatism, as the writer Jacob Heilbrunn observed, “not only destroyed conservatism as a political force for years to come but also created an Iraq syndrome that tarnishes the idea of intervention for several decades.” In fact, a new left and new right demanding military restraint reemerged from the blowback, carnage, and defeat to which Americans have seen their wars lead. The isolationist right roared into prominence thanks to Donald Trump’s call to end “Endless Wars” and attempt to withdraw troops around the world. And, inspired by peace candidate Bernie Sanders, the left gained a hearing for its critiques of liberal internationalism since 1989, with figures such as Trita Parsi and Stephen Wertheim launching initiatives for a policy of restraint.
And yet in this desperate pass, Kagan—the most sophisticated spokesman for the neoconservative foreign policy school—has gotten another hearing. In the last few years, Kagan has reconstructed himself as a defender of America’s liberalism against threats within and without, and helped to reforge a centrist pact that approaches world affairs from the shimmering belief that the greatest armed power in history is the exceptional and indispensable force for global freedom. That belief had been tottering on the precipice; the Ukraine War restored its appeal overnight.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: Neoconservatives, at least, can get a second act in American life. Kagan’s new history of U.S. foreign policy in the early twentieth century, The Ghost at the Feast, shows how he has repackaged his beliefs for an era of recently challenged but suddenly renewed optimism about America’s exceptional role in world affairs. The book is a study of the years leading up to World War II—a period that both liberals and neoconservatives like to use to prove that sometimes America’s only responsible option is military intervention. Yet as Kagan proceeds through the years of rejection of U.S. warmongering before 1941, and the “great debate” about whether to intervene at all before Pearl Harbor, he inadvertently recognizes the power of the historic and recent alternatives to U.S. militarism. While he is regaining influence, his history can equally be read as cautioning against militarist lessons so often drawn from the past.
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