World roundup: January 13-14 2024
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Ukraine, Guatemala, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
January 13, 532: The Nika Riots begin in Constantinople. Two factions of chariot racing fans, the Greens and the Blues, both frustrated over taxation, corruption, and recent crackdowns on their hooliganism by the authorities, revolted during that day’s chariot races in the Hippodrome. Over the next week the mob seized control of the city, crowned its own “emperor” named Hypatius (against his wishes, it seems), and nearly put the real emperor, Justinian I, to flight. Justinian and his military officers were able to regain control of the situation by bribing leaders of the Blues and by bringing an army into the city and massacring a large number of the remaining rioters.
January 14, 1761: Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani defeats the emerging Maratha Confederation in the Third Battle of Panipat and briefly keeps it from subjugating the remnants of the Mughal Empire.
January 14, 2011: Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigns after over 23 years in power and almost a month of protests. Ben Ali’s resignation marked the successful conclusion of the Tunisian Revolution (this date is annually commemorated as “Revolution and Youth Day” in Tunisia) and the first major victory of the Arab Spring movement. It helped spark and motivate similar movements in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, though none of those worked out quite as successfully.
Sunday marked 100 days since the attack by Hamas and other militant groups in southern Israel, and it proceeded as most of the previous 99 days had with an intense Israeli military (IDF) bombardment of Gaza. The death toll has climbed to nearly 24,000, with the Israeli military claiming that some 9000 of those have been combatants. Fighting continues to focus on central and southern Gaza with no movement as far as I can tell on the issue of allowing any of the civilians presently trapped there to relocate to the now comparatively less dangerous northern Gaza.
Off the killing field, you’ll no doubt be very troubled to learn that Joe Biden is really cross with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on account of how every time Biden says “here’s some more mortar shells, please don’t use them to blow up any more kids” Netanyahu tells him to go piss up a rope. Yes, we’ve hit the point where the narrative out of the White House is that those mean Israelis won’t listen to us and, golly, there’s just nothing we can do about it. Netanyahu won’t even accede to Biden’s request that he release the tax revenue his government is currently withholding from the Palestinian Authority. Axios reporter Barak Ravid helpfully stenographed one “US official” fretting that “The situation sucks and we are stuck. The president's patience is running out.” Uh, oh, sounds like trouble!
As President of the United States, if Joe Biden wants to act on his alleged frustration he certainly can. He’s not “stuck.” These carefully leaked quotes are supposed to wash Biden’s hands of Palestinian blood and honestly they’re more offensive and more embarrassing than when the president was practically cheering on the carnage a few weeks ago. At least that seemed authentic and didn’t try to portray the United States of America, a global superpower and the Israeli government’s main arms dealer, as helpless to do anything but stand by and watch the massacre—while continuing to supply those arms.
In remarks coinciding with the 100 day mark over the weekend, Netanyahu insisted that nobody will stop Israel from achieving its objectives, including “The Hague”—phrasing that isn’t doing his legal team any favors. One of those objectives is ostensibly to free the remaining hostages, so it may be relevant that the Hamas spokesperson who goes by the name “Abu Ubaydah” said in a statement on Sunday that “the fate of many” of the hostages is now “unknown” and that some “may have been killed” because of the Israeli bombardment. It’s possible he’s offering a pre-excuse for hostages Hamas knows are dead and who may have died in any number of ways since their abduction. But it’s certainly conceivable that Israeli bombs have killed a number of the people Netanyahu claims he’s trying to rescue.
There was significant activity along the Lebanese-Israeli border on Sunday. According to the IDF a group of “gunmen” attempted to cross into Israel overnight but were intercepted by Israeli soldiers, with at least three of the would-be invaders and two Israeli civilians being killed in the firefight. The identity of the gunmen isn’t clear but Palestinian militants have attempted that crossing a number of times since October 7. Later in the day a missile attack from Lebanon killed an elderly woman and her son in the northern Israeli village of Kfar Yuval. The IDF says it retaliated by striking targets in Lebanon.
Al Jazeera catalogues the IDF’s seemingly systematic destruction of Gaza’s historical sites. There’s no way to prove the IDF is intentionally targeting these sites, but as with the shockingly high number of journalists it’s killed the notion that it’s just randomly bombing culturally significant sites over and over again starts to beggar belief. Obviously these sorts of concerns are secondary to the lives being lost but Gaza’s history and culture do appear to be very real casualties of this operation.
Islamic State fighters reportedly attacked a military checkpoint near the town of Haditha in western Iraq’s Anbar province on Sunday evening, killing at least three soldiers. At least one additional soldier was wounded.
The Turkish military spent much of the weekend bombing Kurdish militants in northern Iraq and northern Syria, in retaliation for a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attack on a Turkish outpost in northern Iraq on Friday that killed at least nine soldiers. According to Turkish officials their airstrikes on Saturday struck several targets and killed at least 45 militants.
I presume it won’t come as a tremendous surprise to learn that those Thursday-Friday US and UK airstrikes against Houthi targets in northern Yemen didn’t work. I mean, I guess that’s a subjective conclusion, but I base it on reports that: 1) the strikes didn’t meaningfully diminish the Houthis’ capacity to attack ships in the Red Sea and 2) they also haven’t meaningfully deterred the Houthis from future attacks, at least not if the group’s statements are to be believed. I’m unclear on that basis how those strikes could be considered “successful” except, I guess, insofar as we got to bomb some stuff and there’s nothing the US government and media love more than when we bomb stuff. The US military carried out additional strikes on Saturday but it is denying reports of still more attacks on Sunday.
UPDATE: The Houthis fired a missile at a US warship in the Red Sea late Sunday, so I guess that deterrence thing really is right out the window. A US fighter downed the missile and presumably some sort of retaliation will be forthcoming.
A suicide bomber attacked the office of the governor of western Afghanistan’s Nimruz province in the city of Zaranj on Sunday, wounding three guards. There’s been no claim of responsibility but it would be reasonable to assume this was an Islamic State operation.
A militant attack in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province left at least five soldiers dead on Saturday. The still unspecified attackers detonated a bomb that targeted a Pakistani military vehicle and then engaged the survivors in a firefight. Three of the militants were also killed. Also on Saturday the Pakistani military said that its forces killed four alleged militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Democratic Progressive Party candidate and current Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te won the country’s presidential election with a bit over 40 percent of the vote on Saturday, finishing just over six points ahead of runner up Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang. Legislatively, however, the DPP appears to have suffered a significant setback, losing its majority and finishing behind the KMT. It seems neither party will hold a sole majority in the 113 seat parliament, which puts a considerable amount of leverage in the hands of the small Taiwan People’s Party as the potential swing vote. The TPP aligns more closely with the KMT on the subject of Taiwan’s relationship with China, though in other areas it may find more common ground with the DPP.
Unsurprisingly the Chinese government did not react well to Lai’s victory, which leaves the independence-minded DPP largely in control of Taiwanese foreign and military policy. Beijing criticized Lai as a minority president and pointed to the legislative vote as evidence that the DPP doesn’t represent the “will” of the Taiwanese people, whatever one supposes that might be. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has also been lashing out at any foreign government that has offered congratulations to Lai. The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry has responded by, essentially, telling its Chinese counterpart to get over it.
The North Korean military conducted its first ballistic missile test of the year on Sunday, and on Monday state media reported that it had successfully tested, to borrow the AP’s terminology, “a new solid-fuel intermediate-range missile tipped with a hypersonic warhead.” There’s of course no way to confirm this but Pyongyang has been working on solid-fuel missiles for quite a while now so that part at least seems plausible. North Korea has also been working to develop hypersonic weapons but it’s unclear how far they’ve advanced on that front—though it is possible they’re now getting assistance from Russia in return for weapons.
The Sudanese military reportedly killed at least seven civilians in airstrikes in White Nile state on Sunday. The death toll aside, this incident is noteworthy in that it suggests a further expansion of the military-Rapid Support Forces conflict in the region south of Khartoum, where White Nile is located.
Somali officials are threatening to go to war with Ethiopia over the status of the separatist Somaliland region. As we’ve been covering, the Ethiopian government recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the unrecognized Somaliland government giving Ethiopia access to the Somali port city of Berbera. The parties have since expanded their relationship to include discussions around military cooperation and it seems likely that Ethiopia will become the first country to recognize Somaliland’s independence as part of this burgeoning relationship. The Somali government unsurprisingly opposes the port deal as well as anything that might legitimize Somaliland’s independence claims.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The United Nations has begun withdrawing its peacekeeping operation from the DRC and says it expects to complete the process no later than the end of this year. Some 2000 peacekeepers currently deployed in South Kivu province are expected to leave in the initial phase, which will be completed by the end of April. The force’s remaining 11,500 peacekeepers will withdraw from North Kivu and Ituri provinces in subsequent phases. The Congolese government asked the UN to wrap things up last year, citing the peacekeepers’ failure to prevent militant violence and growing hostility toward them among Congolese citizens. The UN Security Council voted in December to begin winding the operation down.
Comoran voters headed to the polls on Sunday for a presidential election that will almost certainly be won by three term incumbent Azali Assoumani, and by that I mean Assoumani has almost certainly rigged the election to ensure his victory. Opposition candidates are already complaining about serious shenanigans, including sightings of pre-marked ballots at polling sites and irregularities in terms of the operating hours of a number of polling sites.
The New York Times says the Ukrainian military is not having a very good time these days:
Ukraine’s military prospects are looking bleak. Western military aid is no longer assured at the same levels as years past. Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive in the south, where Jaeger [a Ukrainian soldier] was wounded days after it began, is over, having failed to meet any of its objectives.
And now, Russian troops are on the attack, especially in the country’s east. The town of Marinka has all but fallen. Avdiivka is being slowly encircled. A push on Chasiv Yar, near Bakhmut, is expected. Farther north, outside Kupiansk, the fighting has barely slowed since the fall.
The joke among Ukrainian troops goes like this: The Russian army is not good or bad. It is just long. The Kremlin has more of everything: more men, ammunition and vehicles. And they are not stopping despite their mounting numbers of wounded and dead.
But the soldiers’ joke had another certain truth to it. Neither side has distinguished themselves with tactics that have led to a breakthrough on the battlefield. Instead, it has been a deadly dance of small technological advances on both sides that have yet to turn the tide, leaving a conflict that looks like a modernized version of World War I’s Western Front: sheer mass versus mass.
Needless to say that’s a conflict that favors Russia—perhaps not decisively, in that the Russians are still limited to picking at the edges of Ukrainian-held territory, but enough that the dream of restoring Ukraine’s 2014 borders should really be laid to rest if it hasn’t been already.
New Danish King Fredrick X formally took the throne on Sunday. He succeeded his mother, the now-retired Queen Margrethe II, who announced on New Year’s Eve that she intended to step down. She had been the longest-reigning monarch in Europe. After 52 years I guess even being the ruler of a country starts to get a bit routine. Maybe she’ll get to do some traveling, or take up bird-watching or something. The Danish monarchy is essentially a symbolic institution akin to its British counterpart.
Some 178 Ecuadorean prison staffers, 158 of them guards, who’d been taken hostage amid nationwide unrest over the past week have now been freed, according to Ecuadorean prison authorities. President Daniel Noboa credited the country’s security forces for securing their release but I’m not clear whether they achieved this via negotiation or force. At least 19 people have been killed across the country since Monday as the overall security situation has been deteriorating. Security forces have arrested some 1000 people since Noboa imposed a state of emergency and declared the country to be in a state of “internal conflict” against criminal gangs.
It would appear that some sort of attempted coup has interrupted the planned inauguration of Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo. The swearing-in ceremony was scheduled to take place at 3 PM Sunday in Guatemala, but the opposition-controlled Congress refused to open its new session in an attempt to forestall Arévalo’s accession. The move was met with immediate opposition from both the assembled international dignitaries and a crowd of Arévalo supporters that had gathered outside the legislative building in Guatemala City. As we’ve covered in this newsletter, establishment Guatemalan politicians have been trying to find a way to disqualify or otherwise undermine Arévalo since his victory in August’s presidential runoff, likely concerned about his professed anti-corruption agenda.
I do not know where this situation stands at present. At last word the Congress had finally returned to session after a delay of several hours, but it was not yet clear whether the inauguration would proceed. Reuters reports an escalation in the number of police deployed in Guatemala City, potentially to counter any unrest from that assembled crowd of Arévalo supporters.
Finally, HuffPost’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed reports on White House Middle East “expert” Brett McGurk’s astoundingly stupid plan for solving the present crisis in the Middle East:
Top White House official Brett McGurk is quietly floating a controversial plan to reconstruct Gaza after Israel’s assault concludes, HuffPost has learned, despite serious concerns from some officials inside the administration that it would sow the seeds for future instability in the region.
In recent weeks, McGurk has been pitching national security officials on a plan suggesting an approximately 90-day timeline for what should happen once active fighting in Gaza ends, three U.S. officials said. It argues that stability can be achieved in the devastated Palestinian region if American, Israeli, Palestinian and Saudi officials launch an urgent diplomatic effort that prioritizes the establishment of Israel-Saudi ties, the officials continued. Such a development is widely referred to as “normalization,” given Saudi Arabia’s refusal to recognize Israel since its founding in 1948.
McGurk has advised four straight US presidents on Middle Eastern affairs—the results should speak for themselves—and his sole Big Idea throughout that stretch has been a Saudi-Israeli diplomatic agreement. As Ahmed points out, frustration over the possibility of such a deal, which would throw the Palestinian people and their statehood aspirations under the bus, probably contributed to the impetus for the October 7 attacks. Now he’s apparently touting the idea of Joe Biden taking a “victory tour”—this is in Ahmed’s piece—through the Middle East to trumpet this proposed deal as “an answer to Gaza’s pain.” It’s far from clear how it would answer Gaza’s pain and, given McGurk’s track record, every reason to believe that it wouldn’t.
There’s no reason to believe the Saudi monarchy would be willing to risk normalizing relations with Israel right now, when polling indicates that supermajorities of Saudi citizens would utterly reject such a move. There’s really no reason to believe that the Israeli government—this Israeli government above all, though any Israeli government really—would make the kind of meaningful concessions on Palestinian statehood that might make this scenario plausible.
There’s a nifty postscript to this story. The Biden administration, apparently hoping to blow this story up as much as possible, accused Ahmed of fabricating it, a charge that drew a substantial media backlash and that the White House has now mostly walked back. Sounds like everything is going great!
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