World roundup: February 25-26 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, China, Tunisia, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 24, 1525: In a battle outside the northern Italian city of Pavia, a besieging French army under King Francis I is so thoroughly defeated by a Habsburg relief force that Francis himself is taken prisoner. Francis’ capture led directly to the end of the 1521-1526 Italian War, which had begun over Charles V’s election as Holy Roman Emperor in 1520 and Pope Leo X’s decision to switch alliances from Francis to Charles, Leo having decided that the emperor would be a more useful partner in his spiritual battle against Martin Luther. Francis spent the rest of the war in captivity, first in Genoa and later in a series of Spanish cities, before he and Charles signed the Treaty of Madrid in 1526, ending the war on terms favorable to the Habsburgs.
February 24, 1739: The Battle of Karnal
February 25, 628: Sasanian nobles overthrow Emperor Khosrow II in favor of his son, Kavadh II, who promptly had his brothers and his father executed. Khosrow was on the verge of losing the 602-628 war against the Byzantines, which had begun very promisingly for the Sasanians but fell apart beginning with Khosrow’s ill-advised 626 siege of Constantinople. One of Kavadh’s first actions as emperor was to make peace with Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, after which his brutality toward the rest of his family plunged the Sasanian Empire into a civil war from which it never fully recovered.
February 25, 1943: The World War II Battle of Kasserine Pass, in central Tunisia, ends in an Axis tactical victory but a strategic stalemate.
February 26, 1815: Napoleon Bonaparte escapes his exile on the island of Elba in a bid to return to France and restore his empire. The erstwhile emperor entered Paris on March 20, chasing off the just enthroned Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, and beginning the “hundred days,” his brief revival/reunion tour. Napoleon’s attempt at a second act came to an end on June 18 at the Battle of Waterloo, in which British and Prussian armies won a decisive victory. He withdrew to Paris to find that the city had already turned against him, and abdicated on June 22. His second exile, on the more remote island of St. Helena, would prove permanent.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
AFP is reporting that at least four Yemeni soldiers were killed and an unspecified number wounded on Saturday in some sort of clash with Houthi rebel fighters in Maʾrib province. These sorts of incidents are not uncommon, though there is always a risk that one of them could spark a return to full-scale war. Government and rebel forces have so far managed to avoid escalation in the months since the Yemeni ceasefire expired in October.
On the plus side, a commercial cargo ship docked at Yemen’s largest port, Hudaydah, on Saturday. This otherwise mundane occurrence is not so mundane in this situation in that it’s the first time something like this has happened there since 2016. To the extent that any cargo ships have been able to get through the Saudi blockade in that time, the United Nations screening process has limited their shipments to basic goods like food and fuel. The decision to allow a general cargo ship (and maybe more than just the one) to enter Hudaydah is being characterized as a gesture meant to improve the prospects for peace talks. This development seems very well-timed, as only a few days ago the Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline argued in a new policy brief that restrictions on imports into Hudaydah were threatening those same talks:
Rather than the War Powers Act complicating current or future negotiations, the Biden administration should be more focused on the much more serious threat to negotiations posed by import restrictions, especially if the Houthis decide to reinitiate transborder violence to try to force the Saudis and IRG to allow imports.
Yemenis continue to face restrictions on the movement of people and goods into the territory the Houthis control, specifically through Sana’a airport and the port of Hodeidah. The truce loosened but did not lift restrictions on imports and flights imposed by Saudi Arabia and the IRG. Although the truce agreement addressed key Houthi concerns, the effects of the restrictions persist, which may eventually push the Houthis to return to violence, regardless of U.S. support for diplomacy.
I originally started this segment by writing that “it’s been another troubling weekend in the West Bank,” but as the situation has continued to deteriorate that wording no longer seems to capture what’s happening. On Sunday morning a Palestinian attacker gunned down two Israelis in or near the town of Huwara, which is located near the West Bank city of Nablus. In response, a horde of Israeli settlers descended on Huwara late Sunday and rampaged through the town and surrounding villages in what could probably be best described as a pogrom. According to Haaretz’s live file Israeli authorities say they’ve gotten control of the situation though I would consider that unconfirmed at this point. Witness reports (taken from Twitter so again I’d consider them unconfirmed) suggest that Israeli security forces permitted or even enabled the settler violence, which is certainly believable given the relationship between the security forces and the settler movement. It’s too soon to assess the damage but at least one Palestinian has been killed and dozens wounded in the violence.
In what should probably qualify as a bit of morbid irony, Sunday’s violence took place as Israeli and Palestinian representatives were in the Jordanian city of Aqaba discussing ways to lower the temperature in the West Bank. I doubt anything that was said there still applies following what happened in Huwara, but it may be worth noting that the Israeli delegates agreed to a four month moratorium on new settlement construction and a six month moratorium on retroactively legalizing West Bank settler outposts. Both commitments were almost immediately rebuked by Israeli Finance Minister/settlements manager Bezalel Smotrich and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At least five people were killed and 16 more wounded in a bombing in the city of Barkhan, in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, on Sunday. There’s no indication as to responsibility. Baluchistan frequently sees attacks from Baluch separatists as well as Islamist militants like the Pakistani Taliban.
A protest organized by Sri Lanka’s main opposition party, the National People’s Power party, flared into violence in Colombo on Sunday when police brought out the tear gas and water cannons. At least 15 people were wounded. The party organized the demonstration after the Sri Lankan Finance Ministry announced that it would not be able to allocate funds for local elections that were scheduled for March 9, forcing election authorities to postpone the voting. Sri Lanka is mostly broke pending a still-under-negotiation $2.9 billion International Monetary Fund bailout. The IMF is waiting for Sri Lanka’s creditors to agree on a debt restructuring plan, with China apparently the biggest remaining holdout.
Nepalese Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal may be in danger of losing his coalition after announcing that he will support the opposition Nepali Congress party’s nominee, Ram Chandra Paudel, in next month’s presidential election. Dahal’s Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) and Nepali Congress have a fairly close historical relationship even though the latter did not join his coalition when it came together in late December. However, in choosing to back Paudel Dahal appears to have irritated his largest coalition partner, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist), which has nominated its own candidate for the presidential vote. On Saturday, four cabinet ministers—including deputy PM Rajendra Prasad Lingden—resigned from Dahal’s government. There’s been no official announcement that any parties have quit the coalition so at this point it’s impossible to say how tenuous Dahal’s position is.
The Nepalese presidency is constitutionally quite limited in power but presidents can take on a more prominent role during times of political instability—like, say, when a coalition is fracturing and the government might be in danger of losing a parliamentary confidence vote.
After US Secretary of State Antony Blinken took to the Sunday news programs last week to warn of indications that the Chinese government was planning to send weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA Director William Burns hit a couple of those same programs this Sunday to say there’s no evidence that Chinese leaders have decided to take that step. Burns, in fairness, did say he’s “confident” that they’re thinking about it. Sunday’s comments come after President Joe Biden said on Friday that he doesn’t think Beijing will decide, ultimately, to provide Russian with arms. So I guess the upshot is that China might not do this but then again they might. Glad we’ve narrowed that down.
Burns also says that Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered his military to be prepared to invade Taiwan by 2027. But, he added, the CIA’s “judgment” is that Xi and Chinese military leaders are beginning to doubt whether they could pull such an invasion off, given how rocky Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been. I have no idea how they could know either of these things. But the news that the US government thinks China is preparing to go to war in 2027, which could mean that the US is also preparing to go to war in 2027, is worth noting.
France 24 reports on a rise in the mistreatment of sub-Saharan Africans by Tunisian authorities:
Tunisian law enforcement has launched a wave of repression against the country’s sub-Saharan African population, carrying out random identity checks and sometimes violently arresting them, leaving their children abandoned and offering no access to any kind of legal support. Xenophobic and racist sentiments have also been circulating widely on Tunisian social media, a toxic climate that recent statements by the Tunisian president only exacerbated.
Tunisian police in a number of cities carried out a campaign against the migrant community, arresting and detaining around 300 people from sub-Saharan Africa, including women and children, between February 14 and 16.
Police in a western suburb of Tunis arrested the staff working at a daycare run by an Ivorian couple… as well as a number of parents who had come to pick up their children on February 16. The adults were brought to the police station, apparently so that authorities could check their papers, according to the Tunis-based media outlet Radio Libre Francophone.
Some of the parents who were arrested managed to get their small children to friends or family. Other children were taken into the care of staff with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. However, many of the children were taken from their parents and placed into a foster centre in a Tunis suburb.
Tunisian President Kais Saied tossed fuel on the fire a few days ago when he opined during a meeting of his security council that “the undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations.” This is a paranoid delusion, to say the least, but Saied repeated his comments a couple of days later while hilariously insisting that he wasn’t being racist. His remarks prompted hundreds of people in Tunis to protest in support of immigrants on Saturday. With Tunisia’s economy in tatters and his political “reforms” (shelving Tunisian democracy in favor of something closer to dictatorship) proving increasingly unpopular, Saied like many authoritarians has turned to xenophobia as a way to maintain some public support.
The voting is over in Saturday’s Nigerian general election, though in some cases it stretched through Sunday due to some apparently severe logistical breakdowns. Results could be released in the next few days—initial hopes that they’d be available by Sunday night were dashed due to the delays. The election seems to have proceeded without any major violence, though there were reports of relatively minor incidents at a number of polling places.
A bomb blast left at least 19 people wounded during a racing competition in the Cameroonian city of Buea on Saturday. Nine competitors were injured along with ten spectators. Buea is the capital of Cameroon’s Southwest region, which is one of two predominantly English-speaking regions in which anglophone separatist militants are active. One such militant group, the Ambazonia Defense Forces, claimed responsibility for the attack but said it had meant to target Cameroonian security forces and “regretted” that civilians were injured.
Belarusian “partisans” apparently blew up a Russian plane at Belarus’s Machulishchy airbase on Sunday. There’s no confirmation of this let alone any verified details about what happened, but media outlets connected with the Belarusian opposition are claiming the aircraft was a Beriev A-50 reconnaissance plane. It’s possible the plane was being used in Ukraine though that’s speculation and again there’s no confirmation that any of this actually happened.
Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on Saturday that his forces had captured a village called Yahidne that lies just north of Bakhmut. The Ukrainian military is insisting that Yahidne remains under their control. Wagner apparently seized the nearby village of Berkhivka a few days ago. Russian forces seem to be trying to encircle Bakhmut rather than making any more direct attacks against it, which has once again raised questions about whether the Ukrainians should withdraw from the city to avoid being surrounded.
Polish oil refinery firm PKN Orlen says that Poland has been cut off from Russian oil. The company’s CEO announced as much on Saturday, one day after Polish tanks began arriving in Ukraine. Poland was getting about 10 percent of its oil imports from Russia via pipeline, deliveries that were left untouched when the European Union banned seaborne Russian oil imports last year. At that level it shouldn’t be terribly difficult for Polish officials to find alternative suppliers.
Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have turned out in Mexico City’s Zócalo Square on Sunday to demonstrate against President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s plan to slim down the National Electoral Institute (INE). AMLO, who’s made a point of cutting what he views as wasteful government spending, says he can save $150 million per year by slimming the INE down. But his opponents, both in Mexico and in the US, have accused him of trying to undermine the institution charged with ensuring the legitimacy of Mexican elections in order to serve his own political aims and/or in retribution for AMLO’s loss in the 2006 presidential election, a defeat he maintains was due to voting irregularities. The Mexican Congress has passed a law under which the INE will see staffing and budget levels cut, but that law is already facing a court challenge and could be ruled unconstitutional.
Finally, Transparency International’s Colby Goodman discusses the use of “offsets,” which in some cases may amount to out and out bribes, in the arms business:
The United States continues to dominate arms sales to the UAE, but it faces competition from major players like China and European countries, as well as the growing defense production capabilities of countries like Turkey and Israel. Defense companies often rely on offsets to make their proposed arms sales more attractive to foreign buyers. Offset packages are essentially the selling company’s promises to invest in the buyer country’s defense industry (direct offsets) or broader economy (indirect offsets).
U.S. defense companies regularly agree to offset packages worth billions of dollars each year. In 2019, U.S. defense contractors reported entering into 31 new offset agreements with 12 countries valued at $8.2 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The value of these agreements often equaled more than half the total value of the arms deal. Some of the common types of U.S. company indirect offsets include agreements to purchase items from the procuring country, subcontract with their businesses, transfer desirable technologies, or provide credit assistance.
At the 2019 IDEX, the UAE announced a new offset policy for their arms purchases, which requires defense companies to include offsets for contracts at $10 million or more. Unlike some previous policies, this one focuses more on offsets to areas outside the defense sector (indirect offsets), including infrastructure, food and water security, and other strategic sectors. The policy encourages defense companies to use cash payments to satisfy offset requirements. The UAE has made it policy not to release any information publicly about its offsets agreements.
Needless to say, it’s pretty easy for offsets made as cash payments to wind up somewhere other than where they’re ostensibly supposed to go. Goodman’s piece outlines many of the potential risks.
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