World roundup: February 3 2022
Stories from Syria, Burkina Faso, the United Kingdom, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 2, 1982: The Hama Massacre begins
February 2, 1943: The remnants of the German Sixth Army surrender to the Soviets, ending the Battle of Stalingrad a bit over five months after it started. The combined Axis army that attacked Stalingrad suffered upwards of 1 million casualties as well as the loss of thousands of vehicles, the initiative on World War II’s Eastern Front, and the sense of inevitability that previous Axis victories had created. The battle served as a turning point, after which it would be the Red Army, not the Axis, that was on the offensive.
February 3, 1509: The Battle of Diu
February 3, 1966: The unmanned Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 becomes the first man-made object to make a soft, recoverable landing on the moon. The craft then sent back a series of photographs of the lunar surface—obviously the first ever taken from that vantage—before losing contact on February 6.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
An overnight US military raid in Idlib province has resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi (real name Amir Muhammad Saʿid Abdul-Rahman al-Mawla) along with at least 13 other people, including six children and four women. There were no casualties among the US forces who carried out the attack. US President Joe Biden announced Qurayshi’s death in a statement on Thursday. The circumstances of his and the other deaths, at least as described by US officials, mirror the circumstances surrounding the death of his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in another US raid in Idlib back in October 2019. The US story is that Qurasyhi killed himself with a bomb (a la Baghdadi) in the early stages of the raid, taking an unknown number of other people with him. But local reports of heavy gunfire and multiple explosions make it sound as if a somewhat extended battle ensued, and it’s certainly possible that some of those civilian casualties were inflicted by US personnel. I’m sure the Pentagon will clear itself of any responsibility ASAP.
There are many unanswered questions about Qurasyhi’s death—really there are many unanswered questions about his life, given that he kept a very low profile for the leader of a transnational terrorist organization. Who killed whom during the raid is certainly a bit one. Another question that may be settled in the weeks/months to come is how involved Qurayshi was in the day to day operations of IS and its various cells throughout Syria and Iraq, plus its overseas affiliates. US officials are contending that he was very involved but US officials also have reason to hype his death as a Big Event in the War on Terror. You may want to note here that, before this raid, the Biden administration hadn’t spent much time talking about Qurayshi as a serious threat. But now that he’s dead please note what a monumental achievement this is.
Still another question should be why IS leaders keep turning up in Idlib. That province is mostly controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a formerly al-Qaeda aligned group that is supposedly hostile toward IS and one that many members of the Syrian rebel fan club here in the US have argued would be a suitable candidate for US military aid put toward the goal of toppling Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Seems weird that first Baghdadi and now Qurayshi felt comfortable hiding out on their turf.
Turkish officials say they’ve recovered the bodies of 19 dead migrants along the Greek border this week, after seven more turned up on Thursday. All have died of exposure while stranded between Turkey and Greece, and according to the Turks all had entered Greece only to be pushed back across the border by Greek border guards. “Pushback” is a violation of international law, which obliges countries to give would-be entrants an opportunity to apply for asylum before expelling them. The offense would be magnified if Greek authorities mistreated the migrants before forcing them back into Turkey, and there have been allegations made to that effect. Greek officials are insisting that these migrants never entered Greece in the first place.
Unknown gunmen shot and killed an Iraqi police major in Maysan province early Thursday. There’s no indication as to responsibility but the victim was related to two senior members of the Asaʾib Ahl al-Haqq militia so that could have had something to do with it.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Speaking of the Iraqi militia community, Wednesday’s attempted drone strike on the UAE has been claimed not by Yemeni rebels but by a small and possibly fictitious Iraqi militia called the “True Promise Brigades.” That militia also claimed an attempted drone strike on Saudi Arabia back in January 2021, so it’s not brand new. But there’s also some reason to believe that it acts as a front for the much better known Kataʾib Hezbollah militia, which under this theory would use the “True Promise” name as a cover for attacks it doesn’t want to claim itself for whatever reason. At the very least there seem to be some peculiar ties between the two groups. If it’s true that an Iraqi group was behind this latest incident that could create some significant challenges, for example for an Iraqi government that I’m sure would prefer not to be ground zero for attacks on the UAE.
The Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman, arguably the favorite reporter for opponents of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, is reporting that US officials now believe a restoration of that deal will not be able to extend Iran’s “breakout” timeline back to 12 months, where it stood when the agreement went into effect in early 2016.1 The anti-deal crowd is seizing on this report as a sign that the Biden administration should walk away from the negotiating table in Vienna, which is galling because the reason things have gotten to this state is because the Trump administration scrapped the deal on their advice back in 2018. It’s the advances Iran has made in centrifuge design and processing experience since then that have brought down their breakout timeline. If any of these people actually cared about this issue they’d be advocating for an immediate US return to the agreement, which is the only thing that will keep Iran’s breakout timetable from shrinking further.
Turkish and Armenian negotiators will hold a second round of normalization talks in Vienna on February 24. After last month’s meeting in Moscow, Turkish representatives suggested that future talks should take place in either Yerevan or Ankara, sans mediator. It’s possible that was a bit too fast for the Armenian side, hence the decision to stick with a neutral site. Still, it does sound like they’ll be meeting without a mediator, which would indicate that both sides are more comfortable than they were heading into that first round of talks.
Witnesses in two villages in Myanmar’s Sagaing region are claiming that military forces rolled through this week and torched some 400 homes, apparently on the hunt for members of a local “People’s Defense Force”—one of the many local militias that have sprung up in opposition to the junta that seized power in last February’s coup. Myanmar security forces have used this sort of tactic in the past against militant groups, and that soft-touch approach to counterinsurgency may help explain why the country was already dealing with multiple regional rebellions even before the coup.
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Thursday that Washington is going to be so mad if Chinese companies try to evade Western sanctions against Russia in the event Moscow decides to invade Ukraine. This outburst was apparently prompted by a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday in Beijing, after which the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that Wang had offered “understanding and support” for Russia’s position with respect to Ukraine and NATO. Their chat could be seen as the prelude to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Beijing for the Olympics, during which he’ll have his first in-person meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping since 2019 (Xi has scrupulously avoided overseas travel since the onset of the pandemic).
While Russia and China have a friendly relationship that’s getting friendlier thanks to a mutual antipathy toward the US, Beijing has mostly adopted a “not our problem” outlook with respect to Russian-related drama in Europe. So this meeting and the statement afterward were somewhat out of the ordinary, hence the blustery US response. The US could blacklist Chinese companies that try to evade sanctions but it’s unclear whether that threat would be enough to deter their activities in this case (risking penalties to do business with Russia is a bit different than risking them to do business with, say, Venezuela, and Chinese companies do skirt US sanctions in dealing with Iran and North Korea fairly frequently). Price also offered some friendly buzzword-packed advice to the Russians, saying that if they cut ties with the West and become more dependent on China they will “significantly degrade [their] productive capacity and [their] innovative potential.” Much to consider, I guess?
Thousands of people marched again in Khartoum, Omdurman, and other cities across Sudan on Thursday in opposition to the country’s ruling military junta. Opponents of the junta have been organizing multiple large demonstrations each week, but they seem to be having little political impact as the junta shows no signs of relinquishing control of the state. As far as I’m aware there were no fatalities reported on Thursday, leaving at 79 the number of people security forces have killed in demonstrations like this one since the military seized power in October.
Economic Community of West African States member states met on Thursday to discuss imposing sanctions on Burkina Faso’s ruling junta, and opted to hold off while asking junta leaders to propose a date for the restoration of civilian governance. The bloc is also calling on the junta to release former Burkinabé President Roch Kaboré from custody and may impose sanctions if that doesn’t happen soon. ECOWAS’s maximum pressure attempts to speed up transitions in Guinea and Mali haven’t worked so it may be adopting a lighter touch in this case.
At Foreign Policy, the Costs of War Project’s Stephanie Savell looks at America’s contribution to Burkina Faso’s ongoing jihadist threat and, therefore, to last month’s coup:
Burkina Faso’s military seized power last week, claiming President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré’s democratically elected government was not adequately dealing with the country’s unrest. This is the same military that, in the name of fighting supposed jihadism, has been implicated in widespread human rights abuses and targeted killings of ethnic Fulani people, a minority group that made up about 6.3 percent of Burkina Faso’s population in 2019 (though some estimates put it at 8.4 percent as of 2010). The Fulani traditionally are Muslim pastoralists who live across West Africa and herd cattle semi-nomadically.
Since 2009, the United States has been supporting Burkina Faso’s military with funding, weapons, and training as part of Washington’s post-9/11 counterterrorism efforts. That support, while not directly responsible for last week’s coup, helped lay the groundwork for the country’s increased militarism—and, ultimately, the coup it produced.
US counter-terrorism aid is predicated on the notion that terrorism is an international military problem that requires a military solution. But jihadism in West Africa, as elsewhere, is rooted in a wide array of causes, many of them involving very local grievances that can’t necessarily be addressed by a military response. Indeed, militarizing the situation often inflames those grievances, for example when security forces abuse civilians and at times entire communities. US-funded Burkinabé security forces went looking for an enemy and settled on the Fulani community. Fulani across West Africa are targets for collective punishment because jihadist groups recruit within that community. But the collective punishment only radicalizes more Fulani and worsens the jihadist threat.
Russian authorities on Thursday ordered the closure of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Moscow bureau and booting its non-Russian employees out of the country. This move comes in retaliation for a decision by German regulators this week to ban the broadcast of Russian outlet RT’s German-language service within Germany. It’s also arguably an escalation, in that the German decision didn’t include the expulsion of any RT journalists.
On a possibly more serious, or fabricated, note, the US intelligence community claims that it has uncovered and hence possibly foiled Russia’s plan to carry out a “false flag” operation in order to justify an invasion of Ukraine. It allegedly involves staging a fake “Ukrainian military” attack, either on Ukraine’s separatist and predominantly Russian speaking Donbas region or on Russia itself, the latter scenario being substantially more fanciful than the former. This “attack” would of course be filmed, and that film would then be broadcast to provide the aforementioned justification. UK officials are seconding these US claims, but neither country has offered any specific details about the alleged plan or how they learned of it because they say that to do so would compromise their intelligence gathering sources and methods. It’s either that or they’re making the whole thing up, I guess.
Honestly, there’s probably no reason to keep worrying about a potential Russian invasion, because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visiting Kyiv on Thursday bringing with him a generous offer to mediate peace talks with Moscow. Given Erdoğan’s track record of successfully mediating peaceful resolutions to conflicts in…wow, there’s just too many of them to list, so let’s just say he should definitely be able to knock this thing out in an afternoon’s confab with his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts, OK?
In seriousness, Erdoğan does have decent relationships with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which could position him to serve as a mediator, and in his Ukrainian visit he defended the principle of Ukrainian territorial integrity (and sold Zelensky some more Turkish drones to boot) while also supporting Russian calls for a return to the Minsk Agreement framework for settling the Donbas conflict, so maybe it couldn’t hurt to let him give this a try.
Northern Ireland First Minister Paul Givan resigned on Thursday to protest Brexit-imposed rules governing the region’s commerce. As we’ve mentioned in this newsletter in the past, the UK’s Brexit agreement effectively imposed a customs border within the UK, on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and other parts of the country. That state of affairs has been intolerable for Northern Irish unionists and for right-wing British nationalists, but the truth is there are only two options here and neither is ideal. The European Union and the UK agreed to more or less leave Northern Ireland within the EU single market to avoid reimposing a hard border between it and the rest of Ireland, a scenario that risked a resurgence of the Troubles. Their intention was to eventually come up with a bespoke solution to the Northern Ireland question that would satisfy everybody, but at this point I think it’s fair to say that no such solution exists.
Hey, so you know the guy Peruvian President Pedro Castillo picked to be his third prime minister in a little over six months? Well, it turns out he may have been a repeat domestic abuser. Peruvian police have in their possession at least two complaints against Héctor Valer for domestic violence, including a 2016 complaint in which his daughter alleged that he punched and kicked her. There is also at least one complaint alleging that Valer physically abused his late wife. Valer is, unsurprisingly, denying these allegations.
There’s a reasonable chance that these revelations will prevent Valer’s confirmation in the Peruvian Congress, and a serious argument to be made that they should prevent it. At this point I think it’s fair to say that Castillo is either completely in over his head or he’s a political genius. The former seems much more likely, to be frank, but the latter is not out of the question. Why, you ask? Well, because if the Congress were to reject Valer and then also reject whomever Castillo selects in place of Valer, Peruvian law would give Castillo the right to dissolve Congress and order a snap election. The current Congress is deeply unsympathetic to Castillo’s agenda and is already tossing around the idea of impeaching him, so it’s not out of the question that he’s selecting lousy PM candidates on purpose, to force that election. That’s a pretty convoluted plan, though, which is why I think “over his head” is the more likely option.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Hartung offers some thoughts on Washington’s out-of-control military spending:
2021 was another banner year for the military-industrial complex, as Congress signed off on a near-record $778 billion in spending for the Pentagon and related work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy. That was $25 billion more than the Pentagon had even asked for.
It can’t be emphasized enough just how many taxpayer dollars are now being showered on the Pentagon. That department’s astronomical budget adds up, for instance, to more than four times the cost of the most recent version of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which sparked such horrified opposition from Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and other alleged fiscal conservatives. Naturally, they didn’t blink when it came to lavishing ever more taxpayer dollars on the military-industrial complex.
Opposing Build Back Better while throwing so much more money at the Pentagon marks the ultimate in budgetary and national-security hypocrisy. The Congressional Budget Office has determined that, if current trends continue, the Pentagon could receive a monumental $7.3 trillion-plus over the next decade, more than was spent during the peak decade of the Afghan and Iraq wars, when there were up to 190,000 American troops in those two countries alone. Sadly, but all too predictably, President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops and contractors from Afghanistan hasn’t generated even the slightest peace dividend. Instead, any savings from that war are already being plowed into programs to counter China, official Washington’s budget-justifying threat of choice (even if outshone for the moment by the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine). And all of this despite the fact that the United States already spends three times as much as China on its military.
The Pentagon budget is not only gargantuan, but replete with waste — from vast overcharges for spare parts to weapons that don’t work at unaffordable prices to forever wars with immense human and economic consequences. Simply put, the current level of Pentagon spending is both unnecessary and irrational.
“Breakout,” in this context, refers to the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade nuclear material (enriched uranium in their case) to fuel one nuclear warhead if they decided to “break out” of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and race to a bomb. It’s a dumb milestone, because it doesn’t account for all the technical achievements the Iranians would have to make in order to build the warhead and because its logic rests on the idea that a country would risk annihilation in order to build a single nuclear weapon, which no rational actor would do. But a 12 month breakout period was the marker the Obama administration used to argue that the 2015 deal was good and so it’s the marker the opponents of that deal are now using to argue that the Biden administration shouldn’t return to it.