World roundup: February 3-4 2024
Stories from Iran, Senegal, El Salvador, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
TODAY IN HISTORY
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 before losing contact on February 6.
February 4, 1789: George Washington is elected the first President of the United States. John Adams finished second with 34 votes and thereby became vice president. New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island didn’t participate—the latter two because they still hadn’t ratified the Constitution, and New York because its legislature failed to choose its slate of electors in time.
February 4, 1861: Representatives of seven US states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—meet in Montgomery, Alabama, to draw up a preliminary constitution for a new secessionist nation. Texas would soon join once the results of its February 1 referendum were tabulated. The “Montgomery Convention,” as the meeting is sometimes known, formed the basis of the future Confederate States of America.
With a couple of days’ distance from the event, we have more detail regarding Friday’s substantial US assault on Iranian-linked targets in Iraq and Syria. US Central Command said then that its operation struck over 85 sites mostly connected with the militia groups it’s blaming for last weekend’s drone strike that killed three US soldiers in Jordan. The airstrikes killed at least 45 people—29 in Syria and 16 in Iraq. There’s some discrepancy as to whether any civilians were among the dead. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, all 29 killed in Syria were guarding the sites that were hit, which presumably means they would not be classified as civilian. In Iraq, authorities initially claimed that an unspecified number of the 16 people who were killed were civilians. However, the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella group later seemed to indicate that all 16 were militia personnel. Iraqi officials are maintaining that two civilians were killed, possibly in addition to 16 militia fighters (which would put the death toll in Iraq at 18).
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC News on Sunday that the Biden administration is planning “to take additional strikes, and additional action” against Iranian interests in retaliation for the Jordanian drone strike. He refused to say whether those strikes might include targets inside Iran itself but my inclination is that if the administration were going to do that it would have done it on Friday. This initial retaliation seems to have been calibrated to avoid the kind of escalation that a direct attack on Iran would trigger. This includes the administration’s decision to telegraph its plans days ahead of time to give the Iranian government a chance to prepare. There’s always the chance that the Iranians, or one of their affiliated militias, might escalate things in response but we haven’t seen anything like that yet.
Somewhat lost in all the “Iran-militia-US” morass is the fact that these strikes took place on the territories of two sovereign nations whose governments, as it happens, aren’t terribly thrilled about the US military running roughshod within their borders. The Syrian government called on Saturday for an end to the US “occupation of Syrian territory,” while the Iraqi government—ostensibly a US partner—lodged an official complaint with the US chargé d’affaires in Baghdad. The Russian government demanded a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the incident.
Hamas is reportedly continuing to “weigh” the latest ceasefire proposal, and I think at this point it’s fair to say its leaders aren’t embracing it enthusiastically. They’re presumably angling to negotiate some of its details, though it’s still unclear what they want and it’s possible they haven’t even reached an internal consensus yet. While Hamas leaders talk it out, the Israeli military (IDF) is expanding its Gaza operations into Rafah in southern Gaza and Deir al-Balah, which is located in central Gaza and has escaped the worst of the violence thus far. Both of these areas are home to Gazans displaced by IDF operations in Gaza City and Khan Younis.
Regarding the ceasefire deliberations, one detail that is known is that Hamas is demanding the release of Marwan Barghouti in any prisoner exchange. Barghouti is a major figure in the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah Party who was convicted of murder in 2002 for his role in the Second Intifada. His imprisonment has insulated him from growing dissatisfaction with the PA and its institutional rot, and gives him a fair amount of broad-based credibility as a Palestinian leader—except for the pesky fact that he’s in an Israeli prison. Hamas leaders may feel that they could point to Barghouti’s release as proof of their own legitimacy and of the efficacy of the October 7 attacks—which probably don’t look terribly efficacious to most Gazans right now. The Israeli government is unlikely to release him.
Elsewhere, the Biden administration is reportedly sending Secretary of State Antony Blinken back to the Middle East this week to perform diplomacy without actually accomplishing anything (this is sort of his idiom now). And the Canadian government has decided to piggyback on the Biden administration’s precedent to sanction a handful of violent Israeli settlers, though Canadian officials have promised to balance things out with new sanctions against Hamas as well. It remains to be seen whether the US decision to blacklist all of four (4) individual settlers will have any ramifications for the wider settlement enterprise. As we’ve seen in other cases—Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, etc.—US sanctions can have crippling secondary effects in that the mere threat can be enough to scare off businesses and especially banks. In this case I have my doubts that we’ll see similar impacts but it is possible.
The US and UK militaries undertook another major round of airstrikes against Houthi targets in northern Yemen on Saturday, this time targeting 36 sites. This is by my count the third major wave of attacks over the Houthis’ threats to Red Sea shipping to date, which doesn’t include smaller US strikes in between (and on Sunday, as it turns out). Presumably the timing had something to do with the wider US response to that Jordanian drone strike (see above). Certainly the two are related in terms of the mounting chaos in the Middle East and the unsustainability of the Biden administration’s current approach.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was handed another prison sentence on Saturday, his third in less than a week. This time around a court found Khan and his wife guilty of violating Islamic marriage law because they did not observe the mandatory waiting period following her divorce before they wed in January 2018. It sentenced them to 7 years in prison each, which means Khan has been sentenced to 21 years total in recent days. There are still dozens of cases pending against him in what he and his supporters insist is a politically-driven effort.
The Maldivian Foreign Ministry announced on Saturday that the Indian government has agreed to withdraw the 80 or so soldiers it has stationed in the Maldives by May, in two waves. Maldivian President Mohamed Muizzu campaigned for last year’s election on a pledge to remove India’s military presence and he’d previously demanded the troops’ ouster by the middle of March. The plan now is for the first wave to take place on March 10, partially meeting that deadline. The Indian soldiers will be replaced with civilians.
Philippine national security adviser Eduardo Ano threatened on Sunday to use force to prevent any secession attempts. What would prompt him to make such an odd statement, you ask? Well, apparently former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is now threatening to take the island of Mindanao independent amid what has become a public feud with current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. After uniting with Duterte through the 2022 election, Marcos broke with him over foreign affairs among other things (Marcos favors the US, Duterte favored China). Their falling out has continued over Marcos’s proposal to amend the Philippine constitution (Duterte accuses him of trying to get rid of term limits) and the two spent part of this past week accusing one another of being on drugs. At least they’re keeping it classy.
Senegalese politics have been thrown into turmoil after President Macky Sall announced on Saturday that he’s postponing the country’s February 25 presidential election. Sall cited irregularities in the vetting of candidates, claiming that several of the 20 people running have been found to have dual citizenship—making them ineligible to run by law. Two judges on Senegal’s Constitutional Council, which approved the candidates, are now under investigation on corruption charges that opposition figures and the country’s judicial association say are bogus.
There’s some danger here that Sall is trying to carry out a self coup. He only finally announced last year, amid heavy protest, that he would not seek an unconstitutional third term in this election and under the circumstances it’s more than fair to wonder if he’s now having second thoughts and/or has become worried that his handpicked successor, Prime Minister Amadou Ba, was cruising toward defeat. He hasn’t yet announced a new date for the election but Reuters reports that the Senegalese parliament is considering a bill that would reschedule it for August 25 and, hey would you look at that, extend Sall’s term through the new election date. Who knows what might happen by then?
There’s already been a significant public outcry in Senegal, where protesters hit the streets of Dakar after Sall’s announcement and were met with police wielding tear gas. Opposition candidates in the now-postponed vote have called on their supporters to rally in the capital. Internationally, the French and US governments, along with the Economic Community of West African States and the European Union, have all expressed concern over Sall’s announcement.
Unspecified gunmen killed four police officers in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno State late Saturday night. Presumably the attackers were jihadists but there’s apparently no confirmation as to their identities. Curiously, Nigerian authorities are denying claims of a jihadist attack on a police headquarters in the regional capital, Maiduguri, on Saturday. This shooting took place in an area just north of that city.
At least 37 people have reportedly been killed this weekend in another outbreak of inter-communal violence in the disputed Abyei region along the Sudanese-South Sudanese border. “Armed youth” from South Sudan’s Warrap state, followers of a “spiritual leader” named Gai Machiek, reportedly entered Abyei and commenced to killing residents, at least 19 on Saturday and another 18 on Sunday. They also apparently stole some 1000 head of cattle. Authorities are blaming Machiek for inciting the violence, which involves competing factions of the Dinka community, though he denies any involvement.
Namibian President Hage Geingob died on Sunday while under treatment for cancer. He was 82 and clearly ill, so his death doesn’t exactly come out of the blue. He was also term limited ahead of November’s election so any political disruption from his death should be relatively contained. Former Vice President Nangolo Mbumba is now serving as acting president and apparently does not intend to run in said election.
A Ukrainian drone strike sparked a fire in the large Russian oil refinery complex at Volgograd on Saturday. It’s unclear whether any significant damage was done to the facility but the strike itself reinforces a recent trend toward deeper Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil. The Ukrainians appear to have developed a longer-range drone capability, though it’s also possible they’re conducting short-range drone strikes from within Russia.
Ukrainian shelling reportedly killed at least 28 people in a bakery in the Russian-occupied city of Lysychansk, in Ukraine’s Luhansk oblast, on Saturday. Russian authorities say the Ukrainians attacked the city with a US-made HIMARS rocket launcher. There’s been no comment from Ukrainian officials.
Swedish authorities say they are investigating the discovery of what they’re calling a “dangerous object” on the grounds of the Israeli embassy as a possible attempted terrorist attack. The object, which unconfirmed reports are calling a grenade, was found near the embassy’s fence on Wednesday. It was destroyed without further incident and the embassy staff remained in place.
An explosive device did go off outside the Greek Labor Ministry office in Athens on Saturday, though it caused no casualties. Police were able to secure the area after a newspaper received a call alerting them to the device. The caller attributed the explosive to what Reuters is calling “a previously unknown guerrilla group.”
The Russian government on Saturday moved to ban some Ecuadorean banana imports, ostensibly for public health reasons but more likely over a growing geopolitical spat. The Ecuadorean government has irked Moscow by agreeing last month to transfer some of its older Soviet/Russian military hardware to the United States. In return it will receive some $200 million in new US hardware, and the materiel it sends to the US will be transferred on to Ukraine. The banana ban (sorry) is no small thing—Ecuador sells about $700 million per year in bananas to Russia. Saturday’s move doesn’t affect that entire amount but it certainly sends a signal.
To what I assume is nobody’s surprise, incumbent Nayib Bukele has declared himself the winner of Sunday’s Salvadoran presidential election. Polling showed that this election was going to be no contest. Bukele also indicated that his New Ideas party was on track to win at least 58 seats in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly. Bukele reduced the legislature from 84 to 60 seats last year, with the reduction taking effect in the new session.
Finally, The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz looks to history to understand the Biden administration’s response to last month’s International Court of Justice ruling on the Israeli military campaign in Gaza:
The court did not make a determination on South Africa’s first request, which was to instruct Israel to “immediately suspend its military operation in and against Gaza” — i.e., engage in a ceasefire.
However, the ICJ did demand that Israel take actions that for all intents and purposes do require it to stop its assault on Gaza. “Israel must,” the ICJ stated, “take all measures in its power to prevent the commission of all acts within the scope of Article II of this [Genocide] Convention, in particular: (a) killing members of the group [i.e., Palestinians in Gaza].”
If history is anything to go by, the United States will now step in to prevent any enforcement of the ICJ’s ruling. While it’s totally forgotten today by Americans — and indeed was barely noticed at the time — the ICJ responded to a complaint from Nicaragua during the 1980s by ruling that the U.S. had violated international law in numerous ways by mining Nicaragua’s harbors and supporting the Contras in their attempt to overthrow the country’s Sandinista government.
This backstory tells us a great deal about how the U.S. views international law: meaning, the U.S. has complete contempt for it, and sees it purely as a tool that can sometimes be used against our enemies, but can never be permitted to apply to us or our allies like Israel.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.