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World roundup: January 10 2023
Stories from Armenia, Ethiopia, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 9, 1822: Prince Pedro of Portugal, Brazilian regent for his father King João VI, rejects an order from Portugal to dissolve Brazil’s government and return home. The order had been arranged by Portuguese general Jorge de Avilez, who wanted to force Pedro out of Brazil and govern the country himself, but when Avilez subsequently mutinied he and his forces were defeated and forced to leave Brazil. This incident kicked off the series of events that led to Pedro’s coronation as Emperor Pedro I of Brazil in October and the subsequent Brazilian War of Independence.
January 9, 1916: The Gallipoli Campaign ends
January 9, 1917: The Battle of Rafa ends with the UK defeating the last Ottoman defenders in Egypt. Rafa marked the close of the Sinai portion of World War I’s Sinai/Palestine Campaign, which began with an Ottoman attack on the Suez canal in late January 1915 and would end with the Allied capture of Aleppo in October 1918. This relatively small engagement consisted mostly of the British army surrounding and wearing out a much smaller Ottoman garrison. Rafa drove the Ottomans out of Egypt and cleared the way for Britain to invade the Levant.
January 10, 49 BCE: Julius Caesar proverbially “crosses the Rubicon” by literally crossing the Rubicon River and marching his army toward Rome. Caesar took the provocative action of bringing his army with him to the capital due to fears that he would be prosecuted by his political opponents without some kind of leverage on his side (specifically, the kind of leverage you get from bringing along thousands of armed men who are ready to start killing people on your orders). The act kicked off a civil war between Caesar and Pompey (plus his traditionalist allies in the Roman Senate), that did much to usher in the end of the Roman Republic.
January 10, 1475: The Battle of Vaslui
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The US Navy’s Fifth Fleet says it interdicted a boat carrying a bit over 2000 rifles on a route that would have taken it from Iran to northern Yemen on Friday. It’s inferring that those weapons were being shipped to the Houthis. This is a reasonable inference that, if true, is not great news from the perspective of restoring a ceasefire in Yemen. The country hasn’t seen any major fighting since the previous ceasefire expired in October but one assumes the Houthis aren’t arming themselves in preparation to go quail hunting.
By the by, according to Oxfam weapons that the US and UK supplied to the pro-government coalition (i.e., to Saudi Arabia) killed at least 87 Yemeni civilians between January 2021 and February 2022. But I’m sure that’s different somehow.
More than anything, the directive illustrates the Israeli right’s fear of any symbol that seeks to remind it that, despite Israel’s best efforts, the Palestinian people refuse to disappear, and no amount of repression will help. Palestinians, who live under colonialism, occupation, and apartheid, won’t go quietly into the night. On the contrary, one can assume that Ben Gvir’s directive will lead to the opposite result: more flags in the public space, at the cost of increased police violence and arrests.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced on Tuesday that his country will not host the Collective Security Treaty Organization’s 2023 “Unbreakable Brotherhood” military exercises, contradicting a Russian declaration to that effect earlier this month. As far as I know there’s been no comment from Moscow except to say that it’s going to “clarify” its earlier announcement. Pashinyan didn’t stop with the CSTO announcement, though. He went on to express “concern” over the performance of Russian peacekeepers, who are supposed to be monitoring the ceasefire that ended the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War but appear to have done next to nothing as the Azerbaijani government has effectively blockaded the Lachin Corridor connecting Karabakh to Armenia.
Pashinyan has over the past several weeks increasingly voiced frustration with Russia’s approach to the peacekeeping mission, which seems primarily concerned with not alienating Azerbaijan and only secondarily concerned with actually keeping the peace. He’s suggested replacing the Russians with an international peacekeeping force, an idea Moscow would undoubtedly reject. Directly contradicting the Russian government on this CSTO exercise may be the most explicit statement of frustration he’s made yet.
Christine Abizaid, the director of the US National Counterterrorism Center, told a conference audience on Tuesday that there’s still no indication that al-Qaeda has named a successor to the presumably deceased Ayman al-Zawahiri, who by all accounts was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul back in July. Whether that means the group actually hasn’t named a successor or just hasn’t publicized it is unclear. An Egyptian who goes by the name “Saif al-Adel” is thought to be next in the line of succession, but there’s a good deal of uncertainty as to his identity and it’s believed he’s currently in Iran, which could affect his ability to lead whatever is left of al-Qaeda’s organization.
The Chinese government on Tuesday announced that it’s suspending the issuance of short-term visas to South Korean and Japanese nationals in retaliation for restrictions those countries have placed on Chinese travelers. Several countries, including the two in question here, are requiring mandatory COVID testing for Chinese arrivals out of concern over the recent spread of the pandemic within China. The Chinese government has similar mandatory testing policies in place for foreign nationals but apparently feels these requirements are beyond the pale and warrant a response.
Unspecified gunmen attacked a security patrol in Nigeria’s Kaduna state on Monday, killing at least 12 people—a mix of paramilitary police officers and local militia volunteers. There’s no indication as to responsibility, but Kaduna has been subject to bandit violence and there is some jihadist presence there as well (banditry and jihadist violence are not mutually exclusive, to be clear).
Tigray People’s Liberation Front fighters have begun surrendering their heavy weaponry to federal Ethiopian forces under the terms of the peace deal they negotiated back in November. This disarmament comes well after the deadline by which it was supposed to have taken place but in this case I think the adage “better late than never” would certainly apply. The handover is taking place in the Tigrayan town of Agulae and is being monitored by representatives of the Horn of Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development bloc.
Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba named a new prime minister on Tuesday, appointing Alain Claude Bilie By Nze to replace Rose Christiane Ossouka Raponda, whom Bongo has named as his vice president. Ossouka Raponda replaces nobody, as the VP office has been vacant since 2019, and is the first woman to serve in that role in Gabon’s history. I’m a bit unclear as to whether this constitutes a promotion. Gabonese vice presidents are tasked with assisting the president but are not next in the line of succession (that falls to the president of the Gabonese Senate).
After four days of heavy fighting it would appear that Russian (i.e., Wagner Group) forces have entered the town of Soledar in Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast. Beyond that the situation is unclear—the Russians claim they’ve taken the town but Ukrainian officials are insisting that their forces are still defending it and there are reports (including from Wagner owner Yevgeni Prigozhin) of ongoing fighting. Soledar lies near a major salt mine that is probably also under Russian control at this point and has some commercial and military (more the former than the latter) value. Control of the town would also put the Russians a step closer to seizing the nearby city of Bakhmut, which has been an objective of theirs for several weeks now.
Elsewhere, Foreign Policy is reporting that the Turkish government has since November been sending dual-purpose improved conventional munitions to Ukraine. DPICMs are artillery-fired cluster bombs that are intended to target tanks and other armored vehicles. This is not the first weapon Turkey has supplied to Ukraine—that would probably be the Bayraktar drone—but it is interesting to watch Ankara try to walk a tightrope between joining its NATO allies in supporting Ukraine and trying not to alienate Moscow. This particular weapon is also somewhat troubling in that DPICM cluster bombs tend to kill civilians with alarming frequency, often long after the fighting is over as they often don’t explode when initially released. Some 110 states (a group that unsurprisingly does not include the United States) are party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a 2008 treaty banning the production, use, and transfer of cluster weapons, because of the threat they pose to civilians.
Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes reportedly issued arrest warrants on Tuesday for Anderson Torres, the now-former head of public security for the Federal District of Brasília, and Fábio Augusto, the now-former commander of the District’s military police, in connection with Sunday’s riot by Jair Bolsonaro supporters in the Brazilian capital. Allegations have been swirling about possible police collusion with the rioters, with these two men at the top of the list because of their apparent pro-Bolsonaro sympathies. Of the 1500 or so people authorities have now detained over the riot, some 600 are believed to have been released on humanitarian grounds (due to age, family status, and other factors) while 527 of them have been formally arrested. More arrests, of officials and of people suspected of financing the riot, are likely to come.
At The New Republic, historian Andre Pagliarini considers the riot and its deeply troubling implications:
But the attack on three government buildings suggests that the challenge to Brazilian democracy has transcended Bolsonaro. The right-wing extremist who stunned Brazil’s political establishment to win power in 2018 is fading politically, dismissed by erstwhile allies and mocked online for his mundane outings as a Florida Man. His time in office, however, activated a long-running reactionary strain in Brazilian democracy that is deeply hostile to democracy. In the run-up to the 1964 coup, for example, thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in the name of anti-communism to call for the ouster of a democratically elected president associated with the left. Those demonstrations paved the way for a bloody military dictatorship that lasted 21 years. Bolsonaro has spent a decades-long career praising that regime, chafing at the conventions of democracy along the way.
Rather than a fight over a failed presidential bid, a stolen election, or anything so localized, the struggle that seems to be unfolding in the minds of so many anti-Lula fanatics is whether democracy itself is worth preserving if the left is allowed to win elections. In last year’s election, Bolsonaro earned more than 58 million votes to just over 60 million for Lula. What if Bolsonaro was a dam, channeling the right-wing authoritarian impulses of his supporters into formal government channels? With him gone, the dam has broken and those anti-democratic energies are spilling out into the open, with the former president doing nothing to stem the flow.
Authorities have imposed a nighttime curfew for at least the next three days in southern Peru’s Puno region, amid ongoing protests over the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo last month. At least 17 people were killed amid heavy protests in Puno on Monday, and one police officer was killed and another wounded in what authorities termed an “ambush” in the city of Juliaca on Tuesday. At least 40 people, most of them protesters, have died since Castillo’s removal. Southern Peru was probably Castillo’s strongest base of support, which can be attributed to the region’s relatively poor and relatively Indigenous population, so the unrest there has been particularly heavy.
Colombian Vice President Francia Márquez said on Tuesday that her security team found an improvised explosive device near her family’s home in the village of Yolombó. She’s characterized the bomb as evidence of an assassination attempt, which seems like a fair characterization though details surrounding the device and its discovery appear to be in short supply at this point.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador hosted US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday for the “three amigos” summit involving the leaders of the three USMCA member states. They appear to have made some rhetorical headway on plans to boost regional manufacturing and strengthen supply chains, particularly in the semiconductor industry, but it sounds like the dispute over AMLO’s subsidy program for Mexico’s state-owned energy firms is still a sore spot. Foreign energy firms view those subsidies as an unfair competitive advantage and the US and Canadian governments, among others, have pressured AMLO to adjust the policy (often using trumped up climate change rhetoric). There was no indication that the parties had made any progress on resolving that dispute.
The last ten senators who had remained in Haiti’s parliament saw their terms end on Tuesday, leaving the country in the awkward position of having no remaining elected officials in any part of the national government. Haiti has not held an election since 2016. Appointed Prime Minister Ariel Henry continues to serve in a de facto dictatorial capacity, and while he’s talked about organizing new elections he has yet to actually take any concrete steps in that direction and there’s no other functioning branch of government that could pressure him on that issue. Even if Henry were intent on holding elections Haiti’s dismal security situation could make it impossible to actually do so safely.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s William Hartung looks at recent caterwauling over the possibility that the newly Republican-controlled House of Representatives might shave a bit off of the bloated US military budget:
Writing for the Washington Post on Monday, Jennifer Rubin charged that the potential Freedom Caucus proposal to freeze federal spending at 2022 levels, which, if implemented across the board, could wipe out $75 to $100 billion in increased Pentagon spending included in the recent budget bill, could have “serious national security ramifications.”
She then quoted American Enterprise Institute budget hawk Mackenzie Eaglen, who said such a proposal “makes only authoritarians, despots and dictators smile,” adding, “it completely ignores the troops and is entirely divorced from strategic thought or the many and varied threats the country faces.”
Across-the-board cuts are never the best way to reduce government spending. They mean cutting effective and wasteful programs in the same proportions instead of making smart choices about what works and what doesn’t. But the idea of cutting up to $100 billion or more from the Pentagon, one way or another, should be up for discussion.
And the idea that dictators worldwide are basing their decisions on whether the Pentagon budget is an enormous $750 billion or an obscenely enormous $850-plus billion is ludicrous. What counts is having a clear strategy and a willingness to carry it out, not how many dollars one can spend (or, too often, waste).
Hartung is correct but I’m not sure it matters, as it’s highly unlikely these cuts will happen at all.
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