World roundup: February 8 2022
Stories from Syria, Libya, Russia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 7, 1992: The 12 member states of the European Community—Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and West Germany—sign the Maastricht Treaty, deepening European integration and helping to create the European Union. The EU now consists of 27 member states, while one of these founding dozen, the UK, has very famously quit the bloc.
February 8, 1250: The Battle of al-Mansurah begins.
February 8, 1963: Iraq’s Ramadan Revolution
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Israeli military reportedly conducted missile strikes in the vicinity of Damascus early Wednesday, while Israeli officials are claiming that an anti-aircraft missile was fired from Syria into northern Israel. That Syrian missile reportedly exploded in mid-air. Details are spotty but we may have more to say tomorrow. It sounds like the Syrian missile was fired in response to the Israeli attack but I’m not entirely clear on the sequence of events.
The US and Russia have reportedly agreed to relax the United Nations Security Council’s focus on Syria:
The United States has quietly cut a deal with Russia that eases the political pressure on Syria at the United Nations. If the 15-nation Security Council endorses it, the U.N. security body would hold fewer meetings on Syria’s chemical weapons and consolidate separate sessions on humanitarian relief and a political transition that have gained little traction over the past several years.
The proposal—which is still under negotiation by the council—reflects the growing fatigue in the council over a seemingly endless procession of meetings that diplomats contend hash over the same material, exacerbate big-power squabbles, and result in desperately few concrete achievements.
But it also represents the latest in a series of incremental concessions the United States and other Western powers have been making to Russia, which holds the presidency of the council this month. These concessions arise from key U.S. foreign-policy objectives: avoiding a clash with Moscow and ensuring the survival of a humanitarian lifeline for moving supplies from Turkey to northwestern Syria that Russia wants to shutter.
It remains to be seen how this deal will actually play out, but it could be that the US has agreed to hold fewer meetings about the status of Syria’s chemical weapons program (from monthly to quarterly) and about the effort to draw up a new Syrian constitution (from monthly to bi-monthly) in return for a Russian agreement to maintain the cross-border humanitarian corridor from Turkey into northern Syria. If that’s the arrangement it might turn out to be a pretty good deal. The constitutional effort in particular has gone nowhere while the need to maintain humanitarian access is as acute as ever.
Pro-government forces have reportedly undertaken a new offensive against the rebel-held town of Harad in northern Yemen’s Hajjah province, though it’s unclear how far they’ve been able to advance. At least 32 pro-government fighters and 56 rebel fighters have reportedly been killed so far in this battle, which as far as I know is ongoing. Meanwhile, fighting around Maʾrib city actually seems to be tapering off in the wake of a recent government advance to retake control of nearby Shabwah province. Pro-government paramilitaries have reopened a supply line into Maʾrib from southern Yemen and for now seem to be inclined to defend what they’ve won rather than continuing to advance. In addition to the casualties it’s caused, Oxfam says that the battle for Maʾrib has displaced around 100,000 people over the past year.
The Turkish government is apparently renewing a long-standing grievance regarding what it deems as the illegal militarization of Greek islands in the eastern Aegean Sea, some quite close to Turkey. The Turks have long held that Greece is barred from militarizing those islands by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, a reading of history with which Greece disagrees on multiple grounds. Athens contends that Lausanne only applies to a few islands in the northeastern Aegean and that it allows the stationing of small defensive military assets on even those applicable islands.
The status of Greek islands in the eastern Aegean is one front in a bigger dispute over the entire sea. Greece and Turkey also fundamentally disagree on the extent of Greek maritime claims in the Aegean, which under the most Greek-friendly terms would leave Athens in control of almost three quarters of that body. At issue there is ownership over potentially very large offshore natural gas resources that could be worth upwards of $250 billion at current market prices.
Israeli occupation forces killed at least three Palestinians in the West Bank city of Nablus on Tuesday. Circumstances are in some dispute but it seems Israeli forces opened fire on a car containing the three victims in a Nablus neighborhood, leaving the vehicle “totally riddled with bullets” according to Al Jazeera. The Israelis are claiming that all three of the victims were known militants and are suggesting there was a “clash” of some sort, while Palestinian authorities sound like they’re accusing the Israelis of shooting up a random car.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The US embassy in Abu Dhabi issued a warning on Wednesday morning about a possible drone or missile attack. There were reports early Wednesday of a fire in downtown Abu Dhabi that authorities attributed to “a gas cylinder explosion” on the roof of a building. I’m not sure if the embassy was just being overly cautious or if authorities are reconsidering the gas cylinder explanation. Either way the incident does not appear to have caused any casualties.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is reporting that it has come into possession of a document allegedly pilfered by a hacker group from the files of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that warns that societal discontent within Iran has risen to such an extent that the country is now in a “state of explosion.” I’m reluctant to even share this story given the source and the fact that even RFE/RL cannot say for certain that the document is genuine, but the situation it describes—an Iranian populace angry over the country’s continued economic collapse—is in keeping with public protests that have been visible on and off in major Iranian cities for at least the past two years. If this document is legitimate, then what’s noteworthy about it is that whatever hope Iranians might have had that President Ebrahim Raisi’s government could finally arrest that economic collapse is running out.
A grenade attack on a bus station in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on Tuesday killed at least one person and wounded two others. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but Pakistani authorities have been dealing with a surge in attacks by Baluch separatist groups in recent weeks.
The Washington Post outlines latest scandals that are rocking South Korea’s scandal-packed presidential race:
Among the latest is the leak of seven hours of phone conversations between a Voice of Seoul reporter and Kim Keon-hee, the wife of the conservative candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol. In an election where gender issues have become a flash point, Kim’s comments questioning the motives of #MeToo victims struck a chord.
The conservative People Power Party has attracted younger men who believe the current liberal president’s push for gender equality has hurt their economic opportunities and so they are leaning conservative as part of galvanized “anti-feminist” movements. After Kim’s comments that sexual harassment victims were just opportunists caught fire, her online fan club grew and her husband saw a bump in the polls.
Meanwhile, the liberal Democratic Party’s candidate, Lee Jae-myung, is linked to a controversial land development deal, in which a small group of private investors profited from a publicly funded project, under Lee’s watch. Two officials who were under investigation for charges related to the scandal recently died by suicide.
What’s become an almost completely negative campaign between the two main candidates seems to have turned off South Korean voters and has sent disapproval ratings for both Lee and Yoon into the mid-50s. Even so, neither of the two other candidates in the race has been able to capitalize on voter disgust and both are stuck in single digits in most polls.
It should probably come as no surprise that interim Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh is not prepared to accept the Libyan House of Representatives’ proposal to replace him with a newly chosen PM later this week. Dbeibeh delivered a televised speech on Tuesday in which he said that he “will not allow a new transitional period” and that his “Government of National Unity will continue until handing over power to an elected administration.”
Leaders of the HoR have argued that Dbeibeh’s mandate expired in December, when Libya was supposed to hold a presidential election that officials ultimately postponed on account of the fact that they were wholly unprepared for it. They’ve proposed a new transitional period that basically goes back to step one and would see the HoR and the Tripoli-based High State Council write a new constitution before holding elections for state offices, which would mean delaying those elections to a degree that many Libyans seem to find unpleasant. Clearly Dbeibeh believes his mandate is still very much unexpired, and since Libya currently lacks the sort of political institutions that could arbitrate this dispute it’s unclear how this situation is going to play out. Hopefully it won’t result in the country’s civil war starting up again.
According to the French military, joint operations involving the European Union’s Takuba Task Force and Malian soldiers killed some 30 Islamist militants last week. Around 20 of those were killed in one February 3 attack involving French airstrikes and a Takuba-Malian ground unit. The European Union is supposed to decide by next week whether or not to shut Takuba down, given its growing tensions with Mali’s ruling junta. In another sign of those tensions, interim Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga argued in a speech on Monday that the French military effectively partitioned Mali when it intervened to counter an Islamist uprising in the northern part of the country in 2013. Articulating a not-uncommonly held Malian grievance, Maïga accused the French forces of actually protecting and harboring militants in the parts of northern Mali that were under their control. Although the French intervention halted the initial jihadist advance in 2013 there’s some feeling among Malians that the intervention ultimately allowed the jihadists to regroup and reemerge as a serious threat the following year.
The government of Ethiopia’s Afar region is claiming that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s latest foray into Afar has displaced more than 300,000 people. The regional government’s statement on Monday also said that TPLF forces had “massacred innocent people” and “looted and destroyed various institutions,” but it didn’t go into any specifics on either of those allegations. Additionally, the UN is saying that the fighting in Afar is blocking efforts to bring humanitarian aid into the war torn Tigray region. From reports of the TPLF’s movements it sounds like their fighters may be attempting to cut roads connecting Ethiopia to its primary seaport in Djibouti.
The Biden administration on Tuesday issued a visa ban on “current or former Somali officials or other individuals who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Somalia, including through violence against protestors, unjust arrests or intimidation of journalists and opposition members, and manipulation of the electoral process.” The family members of these unspecified individuals may also be subject to travel bans. The administration may have decided to leave the ban open-ended so that it could serve as a threat to anyone thinking about interfering with Somalia’s ongoing indirect election, which is scheduled to wrap up later this month.
The European Union has decided to start sending financial assistance to Burundi again, reviving a program it suspended in 2016 due to human rights concerns surrounding then-President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government. Nkurunziza died in 2020, shortly after his chosen successor, Évariste Ndayishimiye, had won the presidency in an election Nkurunziza had opted not to run for a fourth term. Human rights organizations contend that Burundi has made little or no improvement in that area under Ndayishimiye, but both the UN Human Rights Council and now the EU have taken steps to ease the penalties they imposed while Nkurunziza was still alive.
The Putin Whisperer community in Washington is apparently starting to think that maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin does not actually want to risk World War III over Ukraine. This revelation comes after Putin’s lengthy meeting (at least five hours and possibly longer) with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on Monday, after which Putin gave an extended press conference in which he repeatedly stressed an interest in finding a diplomatic way out of the ongoing crisis. Personally I am still of the opinion that the best evidence that Putin doesn’t want to invade Ukraine (OK, invade Ukraine again) is that he hasn’t already done it. But there’s some genuine insight to this argument. Again just speaking for myself, there’s no way I would spend five hours talking to Emmanuel Macron about this issue and I don’t even really care that much whether NATO puts defensive missiles in Ukraine or whatever. For Putin to have subjected himself to that experience suggests he does in fact want to give diplomacy a chance.
If Putin ever was interested in undertaking an invasion, it’s possible he’s thinking twice because of public sentiment in Russia and/or Ukraine. Polling suggests that the Russian public is deeply uninterested in a war, particularly one that could easily escalate from a regional conflict to something much more serious. Polling in Ukraine, meanwhile, suggests that a populace that once professed at least cordial feelings for Russia isn’t terribly keen on its eastern neighbor anymore. The percentage of Ukrainians interested in joining the European Union and/or NATO has shot from around half or less during the 2014 Euromaidan protests to solid majorities today, a shift that can at least partially be explained as a backlash against Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its support for Donbas separatists. Moscow might be smart to shift its Ukraine policy to one that relies on more carrot and less stick.
Macron visited Kyiv on Tuesday to bother Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (it’s a principle of shuttle diplomacy that you must reward or, in this case, punish each side equally). He emerged from that interaction declaring that both Zelensky and Putin had committed to reviving the 2015 Minsk Agreement, which is still supposed to serve as the basis for settling the Donbas conflict. Macron also claimed that he’d received “guarantees” from Putin that Russia will not further escalate this situation and (contrary to what many European officials seem to think) will not establish a permanent military presence in Belarus. Russian officials rejected those claims, particularly Macron’s suggestion that the Russian military would stop conducting exercises in Ukraine’s vicinity. Still, the Russian military on Tuesday started a new three-week exercise that is being held in southern Russia but conspicuously is not taking place near the Ukrainian border.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
Milorad Dodik, leader of the Bosnian Serb community and one-third of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three-person presidency, appears to be pulling back a bit from his previously declared plans to pull the Republika Srpska out of several Bosnian state institutions. Instead of racing to withdraw from the Bosnian military as well as the country’s judicial and tax collection apparatuses, as he’d been indicating, Dodik has decided to merely propose the creation of a separate Republika Srpska judiciary. Which kicks off a legislative process that could take months or even years to reach a resolution. It’s not clear while Dodik has decided to throttle back on his de facto secession plans, but he has been blacklisted by the United States and one of his foreign patrons, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, may be encouraging him to tone it down.
Thousands of people marched in Buenos Aires on Tuesday in opposition to an agreement that President Alberto Fernández reached with the International Monetary Fund last month on the terms of repayment for a $44 billion loan Fernández’s predecessor, Mauricio Macri, took from the IMF in 2018. Argentina does not have a great history in terms of its interactions with the IMF’s austerity agenda, so the opposition is understandable, but Fernández has responded to criticism by arguing that he cut the best deal he possibly could to try to mitigate any austerity-related pain.
Peruvian President Pedro Castillo has named his fourth cabinet in a bit over six months in office, this one led by his former justice minister, Aníbal Torres. The new cabinet leaves Finance Minister Oscar Graham and Foreign Minister César Landa but otherwise seems to lean toward the “technocratic” side, with appointments like nuclear physicist Modesto Montoya as environment minister and Doctor Hernán Condori as health minister. Torres seems like a safe pick as prime minister—presumably if he had any major skeletons in his closet they would have emerged while he was heading the justice ministry.
The Nicaraguan government is accusing the Salvadoran military of sailing some number of armed vessels into Nicaraguan territorial waters in the Gulf of Fonseca on Friday. The Salvadorans are denying the claim. The three countries that ring the gulf (including Honduras) regularly dispute their various territorial claims, though Honduras and Nicaragua signed a treaty defining their claims last October that El Salvador rejected.
Finally, according to The Intercept’s Nick Turse, the Costs of War Project at Brown University has produced a new report that may be the most definitive condemnation of the “War on Terror” yet articulated:
On September 19, 2001, CIA officers collected cardboard boxes filled with $3 million in nonsequential $100 bills to buy off Afghan warlords, beginning America’s martial response to the 9/11 attacks. A day later, President George W. Bush stood before Congress and declared a “war on terror” that would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”
Over the next 20-plus years, the tab on that conflict, which began in Afghanistan but spread across the globe to Burkina Faso, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, has ballooned to more than $6 trillion. The payoff has been dismal: To date, the war has killed around 900,000 people, including more than 350,000 civilians; displaced as many as 60 million; and led to humanitarian catastrophes and the worst U.S. military defeat since the Vietnam War. American cash has built armies that have collapsed or evaporated when challenged; meanwhile, the number of foreign terrorist groups around the world has more than doubled from 32 to 69.
It didn’t have to be this way, according to a new study of counterterrorism approaches from Brown University’s Costs of War Project. “Terrorism is a political phenomenon,” writes researcher Jennifer Walkup Jayes in “Beyond the War Paradigm: What History Tells Us About How Terror Campaigns End,” which was shared exclusively with The Intercept ahead of its release on Tuesday. “Counterterrorism strategies which address the root causes of terrorism, rather than the organizations and people that commit it, might end the waves of terrorist violence.”
Sophisticated statistical analyses have demonstrated that there are proven, effective methods to hasten the demise of terrorist organizations, according to Walkup Jayes’s report. But the “war paradigm,” which was a departure from America’s previous law enforcement approach to counterterrorism, is not one of them.