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World roundup: February 28 2023
Stories from Iran, Nigeria, Russia, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 27, 1844: A group of leading Dominicans called La Trinitaria declares independence from Haiti. Thus began the 12 year Dominican War of Independence, after which the Dominican Republic was established as an independent nation. Commemorated today as Independence Day in the Dominican Republic.
February 27, 1933: The Reichstag building in Berlin is set on fire one month after Adolf Hitler had become chancellor. Hitler and the Nazis pinned the arson on a communist named Marinus van der Lübbe, either alone or in collaboration with other communists. As far as I know, most historians nowadays believe that van der Lübbe set the fire alone, and that the Nazis manufactured the collaborator scenario to justify an already planned crackdown on communists that allowed them to tighten their grip on power.
February 28, 202 BCE: Former rebel leader Liu Bang is crowned Emperor Gaozu, ending the Chu-Han war and marking the start of the Han Dynasty. The Han ruled China until 220 CE, except for a brief interlude during the years 9-23 CE.
February 28, 1991: US President George H. W. Bush declares that Iraqi forces have withdrawn from Kuwait and announces a ceasefire. Bush’s announcement marked the end of the Gulf War but was only the start of the US obsession with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The man who was shot in a drive-by incident outside the West Bank city of Jericho on Monday, presumably by a Palestinian attacker though as far as I know there’s been no arrest in the case as yet, has reportedly died of his wounds. He was a US national.
The situation in the West Bank town of Huwara appears to be calm in the wake of Sunday evening’s settler onslaught, but there continue to be reports of settler violence in other parts of the West Bank. While it rarely rises to the level seen on Sunday, settler attacks against Palestinian communities in the occupied territory are a fairly routine occurrence and are largely tolerated by Israeli authorities—witness the fact that of the scant eight settlers detained over Sunday’s attack on Huwara, all of them have now been released from custody (at least two into house arrest).
Before we paint with too broad a brush, it’s probably important to mention that Israeli donors have raised somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 for Huwara residents. But the violence, by both settlers and Israeli security forces, has unsurprisingly given a boost to the popularity of armed Palestinian groups. Their activities—indeed their very existence—then becomes the justification for an Israeli government that wants this situation to escalate because escalation is the path toward achieving the aims (annexation and ethnic cleansing) of its most radical members.
US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that Iran would need approximately 12 days to enrich enough weapons grade uranium to construct a nuclear weapon, should Iranian leaders decide to go that route. For reference, Iran was a year away from the same endpoint back in 2018, when Donald Trump eviscerated the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) under the claim that doing so was in the US national interest.
It’s unclear if Kahl was factoring into his estimate the International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent discovery of trace amounts of 84 percent enriched uranium at Iran’s Fordow enrichment plant. The IAEA confirmed that discovery for the first time in a report to member states on Tuesday. The Iranians are blaming “unintended fluctuations” in the enrichment process for the find, insisting that they have not intentionally enriched uranium to that level. The IAEA says it’s holding “discussions” with Iranian officials about the issue, and Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi may visit Iran soon to advance those discussions. With the JCPOA still deader than disco, Laura Rozen reports that there’s growing sentiment behind the idea of a much smaller agreement between the US and Iran that trades a measure of sanctions relief for greater levels of monitoring with respect to Iran’s nuclear activity. However, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for such a deal on either side.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Kazakhstan on Tuesday for a meeting of the “C5+1” group, which is the US plus Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Washington is keen to improve its stature in Central Asia, particularly relative to the traditional regional heavyweight, Russia, and the emerging power, China. Blinken reportedly used the war in Ukraine to advance that agenda, warning that Russia could do the same thing to any of the five Central Asian states that it’s done to Ukraine.
Blinken also seems to have shifted his rhetoric away from the Biden administration’s usual defense of “democracy” against “autocracy” and instead emphasizing (somewhat hilariously, given the historical context) US respect for “sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence.” Friend of FX Stephen Wertheim has argued for such a shift in focus, given the tepid international response the “democracy vs. autocracy” framework has gotten. It’s unclear whether Blinken’s rhetoric reflects a change in focus globally or just with respect to Central Asia, but even if it’s just the latter it’s a sensible move on the administration’s part given that “democracy” doesn’t exactly have a lot of salience for the governments in that region.
Afghan authorities say their security forces have killed two “senior” Islamic State figures in recent weeks. One, an intelligence operative named Qari Fateh, was one of two IS members killed during a raid in Kabul over the weekend. The other, Ijaz Amin Ahingar, was among three IS members killed during a raid, also in Kabul, earlier this month. The Afghan government seems to have gotten the upper hand in its conflict with IS over the past couple of months, killing a number of the group’s members in multiple security operations.
According to the advocacy group “Access Now,” the Indian government led the world in internet shutdowns in 2022 for the fifth straight year. Way to go everybody! Indeed, New Delhi seems to have lapped the field, accounting for 84 of the 187 total internet shutdowns recorded worldwide last year. Of those, 49 of them were imposed in the restive Kashmir region. Indian authorities justify these shutdowns on security grounds though they’re accused of throttling or blocking internet access to limit political opposition. Ukraine experienced the second highest number of shutdowns at a mere 22, and most or all of those were apparently attributable to the war.
Sudanese security forces killed one anti-junta protester in the Sharg En Nile district near Khartoum on Tuesday. Authorities are claiming that the police officer involved acted of his own accord and has been arrested. This makes 125 protesters killed since the Sudanese military’s October 2021 coup. Protests against the junta have been taking place at least weekly if not more frequently, but this is the first related fatality in some time.
According to AFP, Mali’s ruling junta is preparing to rewrite the country’s constitution, ahead of planned February 2024 elections, in ways that would strengthen the Malian presidency and make a number of local languages “official” while reducing French to a “working” tongue. Malian governments would be legally accountable to the president rather than parliament, as is currently the case, and presidents would be empowered to propose legislation and to dissolve parliament. There is a nebulous plan to put the new constitution to a national referendum prior to the election, possibly as soon as next month though that seems a bit ambitious.
Reuters is reporting, based on provisional vote counts, that All Progressives Congress candidate Bola Tinubu has an “unassailable” lead over the two other presidential contenders, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party and Peter Obi of the Labour Party. Reuters has Tinubu at 35 percent of the vote against Abubakar’s 30 percent and Obi’s 26 percent. The PDP and Labour have already said they reject the results and are calling for a new election amid widespread delays in both voting and counting as well as several incidents of ballot theft, among other irregularities.
The Washington Post reports on new evidence of a massacre that was perpetrated by Eritrean soldiers during the waning days of the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region:
Just days before a deal to end the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, soldiers from neighboring Eritrea last fall massacred more than 300 villagers over the course of a week, according to witnesses and victims’ relatives.
Eritrean forces, allied with Ethiopian government troops, had been angered by a recent battlefield defeat and took their revenge in at least 10 villages east of the town of Adwa during the week before the Nov. 2 peace deal, witnesses said, providing accounts horrifying even by the standards of a conflict defined by mass killings of civilians.
The massacres, which have not been previously reported outside the Tigray region, were described in interviews with 22 relatives of the dead, including 15 who witnessed the killings or their immediate aftermath. They spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
There’s a new report of fighting in the Somaliland region, as at least one person was killed and a number of people wounded on Tuesday when the main hospital in the embattled town of Las Anod was shelled by mortars. Somaliland security forces and local militias have been battling in the vicinity of Las Anod for several weeks now, leaving dozens dead and thousands displaced. Local leaders are trying to effectively secede from Somaliland, which declared independence in 1991 but hasn’t been recognized as such, and bring the region back under the control of the federal government of Somalia.
Several Ukrainian drones apparently penetrated Russian airspace late Monday and into Tuesday, with one coming within about 100 kilometers of Moscow. They don’t appear to have caused any material harm either to people or to property, but needless to say there seem to be some holes in Russia’s air defense network. A drone may have been responsible for the temporary closure of St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, though the Russian military claims it was conducting drills in the vicinity that forced the suspension of civilian flights. Along with the drones, several Russian TV stations were reportedly hacked to broadcast a missile warning.
Officials in Belarus are claiming that stories of Belarusian partisans blowing up a Russian surveillance plane at Machulishchy airbase on Sunday are hashtag fake news. As far as I know there’s been no confirmation from anywhere that the alleged bombing actually did take place and I would think the burden of proof here would have to rest with the alleged bombers.
There doesn’t seem to be much new to report on the ground in Ukraine, as Russian forces are continuing to pressure Bakhmut as they have for the past several weeks and the city is continuing to hold out, though for how much longer is anyone’s guess. Russian forces also are reportedly on the offensive near the town of Kupiansk in northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv oblast. The immediate aim there may be to retake the bit of Luhansk oblast that the Ukrainians recaptured last September.
Elsewhere, International Criminal Court lead prosecutor Karim Khan is in Ukraine to investigate Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure as possible war crimes. It’s hard to imagine a scenario under which this case would ever be prosecuted so I’m not sure the outcome of the investigation matters in any material sense.
Finally, at Rolling Stone Nick Turse discusses the propensity for US-trained African military officers to overthrow their civilian governments, and the US government’s propensity to dodge questions about that inconvenient truth:
For decades, U.S.-trained officers—from Haiti’s Philippe Biamby and Romeo Vasquez of Honduras to Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan—have overthrown U.S.-allied governments all over the world. Rarely, however, have so many coups been so concentrated in a region over such a short period of time.
Last fall, after returning from a trip, alongside other top State Department and Pentagon officials to the Sahelian states of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, Ambassador Victoria Nuland was upbeat. “We went to the region in force. We were looking, in particular, at how the U.S. strategy towards the Sahel is working. This is a strategy that we put in place about a year ago to try to bring more coherence to our efforts to support increased security,” she said during an October conference call with reporters.
After Rolling Stone pointed out that U.S.-trained military officers had conducted seven coups in these same countries—Burkina Faso, three times; Mali, three times; and Mauritania, one time—since 2008, Nuland was less sanguine. “Nick, that was a pretty loaded comment that you made,” she replied. “Some folks involved in these coups have received some U.S. training, but far from all of them.”
Not only has it been “all of them,” there may be an eighth coup on this ledger. Nobody seems to know whether Ibrahim Traoré, who led Burkina Faso’s second coup last year, ever attended any US training programs. If the Pentagon knows, and you’d have to think they could figure it out, they’re refusing to say. Later in the piece Turse gets into all the other wonderful things US-trained officers are doing these days—corruption, human rights abuses, etc.—so it’s not just coups that are the problem.
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