World roundup: February 8 2024
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Guinea-Bissau, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
February 8, 1250: A Crusader army in Egypt led by French King Louis IX suffers a major setback in the Battle of Mansurah.
February 8, 1904: The Imperial Japanese Navy launches a surprise attack against elements of the Russian Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur (modern Lüshunkou, in China), damaging several ships including the Russian battleship Tsesarevich. The initial night attack was less successful than Japanese commanders had hoped, and after a second engagement the following day they withdrew. This was the opening strike in the Russo-Japanese War, which was formally declared on February 10. Russian and Japanese interests overlapped in Korea and Manchuria and the two empires had been unable to find a way to coexist. The war ended in September 1905 with a decisive Japanese victory that shifted the balance of power in eastern Asia and sent Russia into a political tailspin (which in turn affected the balance of power in Europe).
February 8, 1963: In what’s become known as the “Ramadan Revolution,” former deputy Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul Salam Arif leads a coup that topples President Abd al-Karim Qasim and puts a coalition of Baathists and Nasserists in power.
The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) announced on Thursday that between February 2023 and January 2024 the planet Earth averaged 1.52 degrees Celsius higher than global average temperatures in the late 19th century, the baseline used in the vaunted 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. It’s previously been known that humanity had briefly topped the 1.5 degree threshold by the end of last year but the C3S finding raises the possibility that we’ve blown by it for good. The Paris agreement, of course, set 1.5 degrees as the danger line that humanity should try to avoid in order to minimize the risks posed by climate change. A determination on permanent warming can’t be made on the basis of even a full year of data, however, so at least technically we’re still OK, I guess?
However, a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that humanity didn’t cross the 1.5 degree threshold last year. Instead, it suggests we blew through it in 2020 and are now at 1.7 degrees and approaching the Paris agreement’s “break glass in case of emergency” 2 degree Celsius threshold. The study involves the measurement of sea sponges and…look, I’ll be honest, I barely remember high school biology so if you’re really interested in the details I’d recommend giving it a read yourself. Whatever the details it’s unlikely this study will seriously change the public debate around climate change, for political reasons if nothing else.
The divergence has to do with when one starts measuring. The Paris agreement takes as its baseline global temperatures in the late 1800s because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is responsible for tracking global temperature rises, doesn’t have accurate data prior to that. Apparently the advantage of studying sea sponges is that they offer data about temperatures going all the way back to pre-industrial times, which really should be the baseline. The sponge data corresponds closely to IPCC temperature data for the period when they overlap, so it seems reasonable to conclude that it’s also accurate for earlier periods. But the finding is controversial, and telling people that we’ve already passed 1.5 degrees is in a sense declaring defeat so I expect climate scientists will be reluctant to do that.
With ceasefire hopes now in tatters, the Israeli military (IDF) on Friday intensified its focus on the last remaining population center in Gaza, the city of Rafah. The day saw heavy bombardment of Rafah, amid reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered the IDF to “prepare” for a ground invasion that is likely to be a bloodbath unless serious consideration is paid to protecting the civilian population that’s now crowded into the city. Meanwhile, the IDF says it’s “peeling back” parts of Khan Younis under the belief that Hamas’s Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar, is still hiding somewhere in that city. Capturing or—more likely, let’s be honest—killing Sinwar could offer an opportunity for Netanyahu to push the pause button on the Gaza operation, but he’s shown no indication that he’d be prepared to do that.
Apparently there are still ceasefire discussions happening in Cairo. According to Reuters another delegation of Hamas officials turned up there on Thursday, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken—whose fifth trip to the Middle East since October 7 not only didn’t improve the situation but coincided with a decided turn for the worse—is apparently still keeping a candle burning. But given how far apart the Israeli government and Hamas appear to be, the chances of finding common ground in time to stop a massacre in Rafah seem slim. It’s not just Rafah, by the way. United Nations Relief and Works Agency director Philippe Lazzarini sounded the alarm on Thursday about an estimated 300,000 people currently trapped in northern and central Gaza without food, even the tiny trickle of aid that’s getting into southern Gaza. According to Lazzarini, UNRWA hasn’t been able to deliver aid to those areas since January 23. It won’t be able to get to them absent a ceasefire.
I’m sure nobody could have predicted this, but the Iraqi government seems to be a bit irked that the US military carried out another drone strike in Baghdad on Wednesday. We’ve long passed the point where it was possible to say the US is disrespecting Iraqi national sovereignty—at this point it’s more like Washington is tap dancing over the grave of Iraqi sovereignty. The repeated insults are fueling the Iraqi government’s push to negotiate an end to the “anti-Islamic State coalition” that is Washington’s justification for maintaining a military presence in Iraq.
The US military carried out more airstrikes in northern Yemen on Thursday. According to US Central Command the “self-defense strikes” targeted “two Huthi mobile anti-ship cruise missiles prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea.” Another strike Thursday night targeted “a Huthi mobile land attack cruise missile prepared to launch.”
Just as I was about to send out tonight’s roundup the AP reported that Thursday’s strikes “destroyed four explosive-loaded drone boats and seven mobile anti-ship cruise missile launchers,” again according to CENTCOM. I assume there’s some overlap between this and that earlier AFP report above, but these strikes are happening so frequently at this point that it’s getting hard to keep track of them.
The Georgian parliament on Thursday named the former chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, as the country’s new prime minister. He’s essentially swapped jobs with his predecessor, Irakli Garibashvili, who replaced him as party chair last week. I’m not sure anybody has offered an explanation for this switch, which comes ahead of a parliamentary election later this year, but Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili—the man who actually runs both the party and the country these days, regardless of who’s in which office—appears to favor Kobakhidze.
This may come as a shock, but Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers are saying that yesterday’s snap presidential election in Azerbaijan had some problems. Apparently they think the vote was “not competitive” and “held in a restrictive environment,” which doesn’t sound like the Ilham Aliyev I know but I guess they have their reasons for saying this. Anyway, Aliyev “won” with a very reasonable and believable 92 percent of the vote.
Voting is over in a Pakistani parliamentary election that was marred by violence and a pervasive sense that the contest is being rigged by the country’s political/military establishment. As to the former, at least seven security personnel were killed in two attacks—five in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and two more in Baluchistan, while there were reports of several other less serious attacks across the country. The entire campaign season saw multiple attacks, culminating with two bombings at candidate offices on Wednesday in which at least 30 people were killed.
With respect to the rigging suspicions, authorities suspended mobile telephone service during the vote—a decision that could be justified as an attempt to minimize violence but could also reflect a desire to preempt unrest over a disputed outcome. The Pakistan Muslim League, led by once and maybe future Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has been expected to win the election, but that’s to a large extent because the aforementioned establishment has sidelined and now imprisoned Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader and former PM Imran Khan and has crippled his party’s apparatus. Despite that, early results have looked relatively good for PTI, and which the expectation is still that PML is going win it may be a closer outcome than anticipated and that could mean more rigging to come.
The Thai government and the Red Cross are reportedly setting up a humanitarian relief operation in northwestern Thailand’s Tak province to try to reach people displaced within Myanmar by the ongoing conflict there. What’s on offer is essentially a small trial run with the possibility for expansion, but the potential for expansion will likely be severely limited due both to geography and to the fact that aid delivery on the Myanmar side will be managed by the country’s unpopular and increasingly overwhelmed ruling junta. But it is something.
Inkstick’s Obiora Ikoku writes that festering political discord in Bissau may have serious lasting effects:
Late last year, as November gave way to December, clashes erupted in Guinea-Bissau’s capital between different army factions. The ensuing tensions between President Umaro Sissoco Embalo and the opposition-controlled parliament are now reaching a breaking point — and some fear they could imperil the country’s democracy at a time when political volatility and coups have crept across West Africa.
Overnight on Nov. 30 and into Dec. 1, officers from the Presidential Palace Battalion and the National Guard, the country’s military, exchanged fire in Bissau. The shootout broke out after Embalo moved to probe two cabinet members he accused of corruption, Economy and Finance Minister Suleimane Seidi and Treasury Secretary António Monteiro.
The clash started when soldiers loyal to Embalo tried to rearrest the two ministers after they had been secretly released by the army from where they were being held for questioning. By the time the bullets stopped, the fighting had killed at least two people.
But two months on, the political fissures are still sharpening fears among many Bissau-Guineans. “For me, as a citizen who aspires to be in a stable and progressive country, I believe that there must be common sense among the political class and respect for the constitution,” said Juvinal Silva Santos Junior, a 27-year-old social activist and research assistant who lives in the capital city, Bissau.
Like many young Bissau-Guineans, Santos Junior worries the lack of consensus among the political class “impedes the country’s progress and worsens poverty, especially in a developing country.”
An apparent jihadist attack targeted three villages in southwestern Niger’s Tillabéri region on Sunday, killing at least nine people in total and stealing a number of cattle. Nigerien officials are claiming that their security forces counterattacked and killed “several dozen terrorists,” though there’s no confirmation of that.
Somali Defense Minister Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur visited Ankara on Thursday to sign a defense cooperation agreement with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar. Normally I wouldn’t make note of something like this, but inasmuch as Somalia and Ethiopia are at potentially violent odds over the Ethiopian government’s relationship with the breakaway Somaliland region it could be noteworthy that Turkey—which already has a military base in Somalia—may be obliging itself to support Mogadishu in the event of conflict.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
AFP is reporting “fresh fighting” between M23 militia fighters and local government-aligned militias in an area located about 20 kilometers north of Goma, the capital of the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province. There don’t appear to be any details beyond that but this just reinforces fears that the militia is once again advancing on Goma, which risks causing a serious calamity given how many people it puts at risk.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky finally made official what’s been rumored for a couple of weeks now by firing his top military commander, Valery Zaluzhny, on Thursday. As his replacement, Zelensky appointed Ukrainian army commander Oleksandr Syrsky. It had been rumored previously that Zelensky offered him the job and the Syrsky rejected it, but apparently either those rumors were false or Syrsky had a change of heart. Zelensky has suggested there may be more turnover to come at the upper levels of Ukraine’s military and political establishment but it’s unclear if this personnel changeover is going to come with a change in strategy as well.
It’s been apparent for several months that Zelensky and Zaluzhny were not getting along, but Zelensky has refused to offer any reason for this move other than pablum about needing a change at the top. There’s certainly a case to be made on that score but it’s still probably not going to satisfy rank and file Ukrainian soldiers, who by all accounts liked Zaluzhny and by many accounts do not feel nearly as warmly toward Syrsky. The latter does get some credit for overseeing the defense of Kyiv during the first phase of the Russian invasion and the operation to retake Kharkiv oblast in September 2022. But he’s also known as the “butcher” of Bakhmut, not for what he did to Russian forces but because he was willing to let so many Ukrainian soldiers die in a doomed defense of a city that may not have been worth the sacrifice. Defenders of that operation argue that the Russians also lost a large number of soldiers in taking the city, but that elides the fact that Russia can absorb heavy losses in manpower much more easily than Ukraine. There also seems to be some concern that Syrsky may be less willing to challenge Zelensky than his predecessor was.
At the front, meanwhile, Russian forces have reportedly broken through Ukrainian defenses and have entered the embattled city of Avdiivka. It’s presumably only a matter of time before they control it. There are reports of heavy fighting in the city and on its northern outskirts, where the Russians are attempting to cut the road that the Ukrainian military has been using to supply its forces there. And the resumption of significant US military support remains in limbo after the Biden administration’s big military/border supplemental bill crashed and burned in the US Senate. A new bill that includes aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan but does not include the border security piece is now working its way through the legislative process but it could be some time before it passes—if it passes at all.
The Finnish government announced on Thursday that it’s extending its closure of the Russian border for at least another two months, though April 14. It closed the border last year over an influx of migrants at the border that Finnish officials have claimed is the product of a “hybrid operation” against them by Moscow. In announcing the extension, Finnish Interior Minister Mari Rantanen claimed that there are still “hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants” waiting on the Russian side of the border.
It would appear that the New Cold War has shifted the center gravity of US international commerce away from China and toward Mexico:
New data released on Wednesday showed that Mexico outpaced China for the first time in 20 years to become America’s top source of official imports — a significant shift that highlights how increased tensions between Washington and Beijing are altering trade flows.
The United States’ trade deficit with China narrowed significantly last year, with goods imports from the country dropping 20 percent to $427.2 billion, the data shows. American consumers and businesses turned to Mexico, Europe, South Korea, India, Canada and Vietnam for auto parts, shoes, toys and raw materials.
Mexican exports to the United States were roughly the same as in 2022, at $475.6 billion.
Finally, at The New Republic Yousef Munayyer wonders if Joe Biden is just fundamentally incapable of regarding Palestinians as human beings:
The Biden administration has claimed repeatedly that it is working to reduce civilian casualties, increase humanitarian aid, and press the Israelis to conduct the war in a less indiscriminate way. That may be, but the numbers speak for themselves, and while the administration is sending one message from its podiums, it has repeatedly circumvented Congress to expedite weapons shipments to Israel. The real message has been: no red lines.
In addition, many people have noticed the sharp difference in tone and passion when Biden talks about Israelis versus Palestinians. Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland told The Washington Post in December: “The president, different from his graphic description of Hamas’s horrific attack on Israel and Israeli victims … has rarely talked about the Palestinian children torn to pieces, or the hundreds of thousands of people without water or food. He talks about [Palestinians] as if they’re victims of an earthquake or natural disaster, without tying them to the actions of the Israeli government with his support and backing.”
When I have made the point that Biden is likely the most anti-Palestinian person to occupy the Oval Office in recent history, many are quick to ask how different Trump’s handling of the current moment would be. Would he be any less supportive of Israel? Probably not, though that doesn’t exactly reflect well on Biden. Trump was callous toward all sorts of people, and Palestinians were not excluded from this. What sets Biden’s particular animus against Palestinians apart is that he was supposed to be different. The so-called “empath in chief” was supposed to be the polar opposite of Trump, yet he seems capable of showing empathy toward all people except Palestinians and precisely at a time of their greatest pain and suffering.
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