World roundup: January 15-16 2024
Stories from Yemen, North Korea, Guatemala, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 15, 1892: While working at Springfield College (then the “International YMCA College”), James Naismith publishes the rules of a game he’d recently invented in the campus newspaper under the very creative headline “A New Game.” The basic idea involved throwing a ball through a basket set several feet off the floor—hence its name, “basket ball.” I’m not sure what became of it but it sounds like fun.
January 15, 1967: The Green Bay Packers defeat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, in the first National Football League-American Football League championship game. You may or may not be aware, but this tradition has continued and the NFL plays one of these “Super Bowls” every year.
January 16, 929: Abd al-Rahman III declares that his Emirate of Córdoba will henceforth be the Caliphate of Córdoba. This promotion in title did nothing to materially change the conditions of Umayyad rule in Andalus, but it did upgrade Abd al-Rahman’s international stature on par with the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad and (especially) the Fatimid Caliph in North Africa. The Umayyads were concerned about the possibility of a Fatimid invasion and wanted to meet the enemy on equal terms so to speak.
January 16, 1547: Grand Duke Ivan IV of Moscow, also known as “Ivan the Terrible,” has himself crowned Tsar of Russia. He wasn’t the first to use the title “tsar,” as his grandfather Ivan III had done so at least informally, but like Abd al-Rahman III’s decision to make himself caliph this formal promotion raised Ivan’s international stature to put him on par with, for example, Mongol khans and the Ottoman sultan. Ivan’s coronation is a milestone in Russia’s transition from principality to empire.
January 16, 1979: Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi flees Iran for Egypt at the height of the Iranian Revolution. Realizing that his position was untenable in the face of massive public opposition, the shah cut a deal with opposition leader Shahpour Bakhtiar of the National Front to establish a civilian transitional government and then skedaddled out of town. Unfortunately for Bakhtiar, whose intent was to end the revolution peacefully, the deal tainted him as an agent of the shah in the eyes of the Iranian public, and so his government had no legitimacy from the start.
So, remember how the Israeli military (IDF) declared victoriously earlier this month that it had “completed the dismantling of the Hamas military framework in the northern Gaza Strip”? And how Israeli and US officials, along with a number of media outlets, spent several days after that announcement wondering What It All Meant, whether this announcement signaled a new, less violent phase of the Gaza campaign or a new, equally violent phase with the focus shifted to southern Gaza, or something else altogether? Well, about that—the IDF reportedly moved heavy armor back into northern Gaza on Tuesday because, I guess, the dismantling hasn’t been quite as complete as previously thought. One step forward, one step back. I don’t know how long this resurgence of heavy fighting in the north is supposed to last or what it means for all the excited talk of new phases. I do know that it’s already caused civilians in southern Gaza to put off plans to move north to escape the IDF. As has been the case since this massacre began, there is no escape.
In other news:
Reports of renewed fighting in northern Gaza came just one day after Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant suggested that “intensive” fighting even in southern Gaza might taper off soon. Presumably it will be taking a little longer than expected now, assuming it happens at all. Gallant is less enthralled to the Israeli far right than his boss and fellow Likud Party member Benjamin Netanyahu, so he’s probably a little more sensitive to US pressure to put a lid on the campaign because it’s making Joe Biden look bad. His comments may reflect an attempt to respond to that pressure, but that doesn’t mean there’s any substance to them.
Hamas released a video on Monday reporting the death of two of its hostages due to Israeli airstrikes. The video featured a third hostage announcing their deaths but the way this is being reported I don’t believe she said anything about how they died. There’s no reason to doubt that they are in fact dead, though there’s certainly reason to question whether the airstrike story is legitimate. Israeli officials are insisting that they were definitely not killed by airstrikes which is equally dubious without some sort of objective investigation.
IDF soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians during a protest near the West Bank city of Hebron on Monday and killed a third Palestinian outside of Tulkarm. Israeli officials claimed that the soldiers in Hebron were responding after someone lobbed a firebomb at them. Also on Monday, two Palestinian drivers reportedly carried out several car ramming attacks in the central Israeli city of Ra’anana, killing at least one person and wounding another 17. Police were apparently able to arrest both attackers.
Egyptian soldiers reportedly got into a firefight with drug smugglers near a checkpoint on the Israeli border late Monday, killing one of them. One Israeli soldier was wounded amid the shooting and the incident raised fears of a more general clash on the border—which, under the circumstances, would not be out of the question. Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, have been talking about their intention to seize control of the Philadelphi Corridor, the demilitarized zone along the Egypt-Gaza border. The Egyptian government is not terribly keen on that idea though I doubt it would do anything to prevent it.
The Qatari government announced on Tuesday that Israeli and Hamas officials have given final approval to a deal that would bring a shipment of medicine into Gaza for delivery to the remaining hostages as well as to Palestinians. The Qataris mediated the agreement along with France, and they’ll presumably take responsibility for ensuring that the appropriate medications get to the hostages.
The European Union on Tuesday blacklisted Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s political leader in Gaza. The designation freezes any assets Sinwar has in the EU and bars EU individuals from doing business with him. It seems unlikely that Sinwar actually has any assets in the EU but the symbolism is probably more important than any practical impact.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the World Economic Forum on Tuesday that the Biden administration views normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia as the key to a happy, peaceful postwar Gaza. Leaving aside the absurdity of that argument, it’s noteworthy that when HuffPost correspondent Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported precisely this over the weekend the administration accused him of making it up.
The Turkish military said on Tuesday that its airstrikes had destroyed 23 Kurdistan Workers’ Party-affiliated targets in northern Syria and northern Iraq overnight. The Turks are continuing to retaliate for Friday’s PKK attack on a Turkish military base in northern Iraq, though in fairness they bomb PKK-linked sites in Syria and Iraq pretty routinely regardless of cause. According to Kurdish officials in northeastern Syria, this latest round of strikes has damaged civilian infrastructure, threatening power and water service. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly alluded to a potential new ground invasion of northeastern Syria in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. Well, at least he’s doing this at a time when regional tensions are low.
The US military attacked four Houthi anti-ship missiles in northern Yemen on Tuesday that it says were about to be used in another attack on Red Sea commercial shipping. The Yemeni rebels attacked a Greek-flagged ship in the region on Tuesday, causing some damage but not enough to seriously threaten the vessel. The previous day they struck a US-flagged cargo ship in the same waters, likewise causing “limited damage.” I don’t know about you but the Houthis sure seem deterred to me. And to the Shell corporation, apparently, as the oil major announced on Tuesday that it’s halting shipments through the Red Sea in response to the ongoing threat of attack. The Biden administration has also reportedly decided to restore the Houthis to the State Department’s “specially designated terrorist group” list. It lifted that designation in 2021 ostensibly to facilitate humanitarian relief efforts in northern Yemen, but I guess we don’t care so much about that anymore.
Amid very reasonable fears that the US government’s decision to attack the Houthis last week has fueled an escalation cycle that will end with the full-blown regional war that the Biden administration insists it doesn’t want, it stands out that the Saudi government has opted not to get involved. The Saudis are still technically at war with the Houthis but seem intent on preserving their ceasefire. At the very least they probably don’t want to be seen assisting the US while the US is supporting the Israeli destruction of Gaza. Nevertheless there is a real possibility that the US-Houthi interchange will eventually doom that ceasefire, which could in turn doom the tenuous thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations that’s still being shepherded by the Chinese government. Chatham House’s Ahmed Aboudouh suggests that Beijing wouldn’t mind, however, because if worse comes to worst they can lay the blame for the failure of that initiative at Washington’s feet.
There was a moment on Monday evening where you would not have been blamed for thinking that the aforementioned regional war had already begun, after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired a barrage of missiles that struck uncomfortably close to the US consulate in the Iraqi city of Erbil. Those fears eased somewhat when the IRGC said that its strike was not targeting the consulate, nor anything else directly affiliated with the United States, but rather had hit what it called “spy centers” allegedly tied to Kurdish militants and/or Israel. The attack killed a Kurdish businessman named Peshraw Dizayee and four other members of his family. The IRGC said it also carried out attacks on Islamic State targets in Syria, citing the bombing in Kerman earlier this month as justification for these attacks.
The Iraqi government withdrew its ambassador from Tehran and summoned Iran’s chargé d’affaires in Baghdad in response to the Erbil attack, which the Iraqi Foreign Ministry characterized as “a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty.” The IRGC on Tuesday decided to violate another country’s sovereignty by attacking what it claims are sites affiliated with the jihadist group Jaish ul-Adl in Pakistan. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that it “strongly condemns the unprovoked violation of its airspace by Iran which resulted in death of two innocent children while injuring three girls.”
The IRGC has attacked what it calls hostile targets in Iraqi Kurdistan before and Jaish ul-Adl is a longstanding problem for the Iranian-Pakistani relationship, but despite these preexisting conditions I do think there’s some connection between these incidents and Gaza. The Iranian government has been letting its proxies do the heavy lifting in terms of responding to Gaza and may be feeling some domestic pressure to make a show of force. That pressure would have increased substantially after the Kerman bombing. The Iraq strike in particular accomplishes this but in a way that doesn’t overtly invite a US response—I don’t think it’s a coincidence, in other words, that the Erbil strike happened near the US consulate but didn’t target it.
The rebel Arakan Army announced on Sunday evening that its forces had seized the town of Paletwa, an important trade outpost on the Kaladan River in Myanmar’s Chin state. Paletwa is located near the Bangladeshi border and is also reasonably close to the Indian border, particularly given its location on the river. It’s another significant loss for Myanmar’s ruling junta and suggests that its latest ceasefire with the Three Brotherhood Alliance—of which the AA is a member—has collapsed. It’s possible that the ceasefire was only meant to cover the conflict in Shan state so it wouldn’t apply to Paletwa. But the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, another member of the coalition, had accused the junta of breaking the ceasefire over the weekend so I think the deal is at least on pretty thin ice.
While a great number of countries—to the Chinese government’s consternation—have offered congratulations to Taiwanese President-elect Lai Ching-te following his victory in Saturday’s election, the Pacific island nation of Nauru opted to mark the occasion by announcing that it’s cutting ties with Taipei and switching diplomatic recognition to Beijing. Only 12 countries now recognize Taiwan diplomatically. This is not the first time Nauru has made this shift—it switched recognition to Beijing in 2002 before restoring relations with Taipei in 2005 after a presidential transition. Taiwanese officials criticized this move as a diplomatic “ambush” by China, timed to undermine Lai’s election.
The Chinese population dropped in 2023 for the second straight year, this time by around 2 million people. The number of deaths nationwide rose substantially, an outcome that may have something to do with the Chinese government’s abrupt decision to lift most of its anti-COVID protocols at the end of 2022. Births also continued to decline. The Chinese population is expected to continue shrinking from around 1.4 billion today to less than 800 million by 2100.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has, according to state media, declared that henceforth Pyongyang will no longer pursue a policy of Korean reunification and will instead rewrite its constitution to identify South Korea as North Korea’s “primary foe and invariable principal enemy.” Toward that end, on Monday Kim dissolved government agencies related to inter-Korean dialogue, cooperation, and reunification, though he’s charitably left the door open to unifying the Korean peninsula by force. The rationale for this policy shift is unclear, except maybe as a statement that Kim thinks North Korea has grown beyond its southern neighbor and should be considered on par with major powers like the US and Russia.
The Sudanese government, such as it is, declared on Tuesday that it’s suspending its relationship with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development regional bloc. IGAD apparently invited Rapid Support Forces leader Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo to its annual summit next week, earning the Sudanese military’s ire. IGAD has been trying to mediate a ceasefire and peace talks in the military-RSF conflict, to no avail.
A suicide bombing in Mogadishu on Tuesday killed at least three people and wounded two more. To nobody’s surprise, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack. Elsewhere, in addition to blacklisting Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar (see above), the European Union on Tuesday also blacklisted a senior al-Shabab figure identified as “Ahmed Khaled Muller” under a provision allowing sanctions against individuals tied to Islamic State and/or al-Qaeda.
The Rwandan military says its forces killed one soldier from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and arrested two others, after the three of them allegedly crossed the border and shot at Rwandan soldiers. It’s unclear whether they crossed into Rwanda intentionally and the AP interviewed one witness who suggested they did so accidentally due to poor border demarcation. Relations between Rwanda and the DRC have been poor going back to the 1998-2003 Second Congo War, but they’re particularly poor at present due to Rwanda’s apparent support for the M23 militia uprising in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province.
As expected, incumbent Azali Assoumani won a fourth term as Comoran president in Sunday’s election, according to official results released on Tuesday. Assoumani won (or awarded himself, depending on your perspective) just under 63 percent of the vote. Turnout was a dismal 16 percent, presumably reflecting public sentiment that Assoumani was going to win (or “win”) no matter how anybody voted. Opposition leaders have already rejected the results though it’s unclear what (if anything) they aim to do about it.
The Ukrainian government is evacuating more than 3000 people from over two dozen villages in the Kupiansk district in Kharkiv oblast. The city of Kupiansk has been a Russian target for months and Russian forces appear to be gaining some ground—hence the evacuation order—though as with every other point on the front line any movement has been slow. On Monday, the Ukrainian military was reportedly able to destroy two Russian military aircraft, a Beriev A-50 early warning and control plane and an Ilyushin Il-22M command and communications plane. The A-50 was the target and its loss is a significant one given that the Russian military only has a handful of these types of aircraft in service. They’re used to coordinate air operations so they’re an important part of the Russian war effort.
Polish truckers have agreed to suspend their blockade of the Ukrainian border, having reached a temporary agreement with the government that will keep their protest on ice at least through March 1. They’ve been blockading the border along with Polish farmers for months, demanding that the EU begin requiring Ukrainian shipping firms to get permits for their drivers to operate in EU states. They claim that unpermitted Ukrainian drivers are undercutting their shipping rates unfairly. The farmers ended their blockade, over grain prices affected by Ukrainian imports, earlier this month. The truckers say they intend to give new Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government a chance to resolve their concerns before resuming their protest. The Ukrainian government has been complaining about the impact the blockade is having on the Ukrainian economy and on aid shipments.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is on track to win a landslide victory in next month’s election, when he’ll be running for a second term that, strictly speaking, he’s legally barred from seeking. A new poll from Francisco Gavidia University gives Bukele nearly 71 percent support and a commanding lead over second-place “unsure” and third-place “none of the above.” All of his human opponents are polling in the very low single digits.
It took a bit longer than expected, but Bernardo Arévalo finally took the oath of office just after midnight on Monday to become Guatemala’s new president. Arévalo was supposed to be inaugurated hours earlier but an apparent coup attempt by opposition legislators delayed the proceedings. The Guatemalan Congress also agreed to recognize his Seed Movement party after initially forcing its elected legislators to enter the chamber as independents. The party has been under investigation for alleged electoral misdeeds in what Arévalo and his supporters have characterized as a political move by Guatemalan prosecutors.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Hartung outlines what a great year 2023 was for our wonderful military-industrial complex:
2023 was a year marked by devastating conflicts from Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine to Hamas’s horrific terror attacks on Israel, from that country’s indiscriminate mass slaughter in Gaza to a devastating civil war in Sudan. And there’s a distinct risk of even worse to come this year. Still, there was one clear winner in this avalanche of violence, suffering, and war: the U.S. military-industrial complex.
In December, President Biden signed a record authorization of $886 billion in “national defense” spending for 2024, including funds for the Pentagon proper and work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy. Add to that tens of billions of dollars more in likely emergency military aid for Ukraine and Israel, and such spending could well top $900 billion for the first time this year.
Meanwhile, the administration’s $100-billion-plus emergency military aid package that failed to pass Congress last month is likely to slip by in some form this year, while the House and Senate are almost guaranteed to add tens of billions more for “national defense” projects in specific states and districts, as happened in two of the last three years.
Of course, before the money actually starts flowing, Congress needs to pass an appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2024, clearing the way for that money to be spent. As of this writing, the House and Senate had indeed agreed to a tentative deal to sign onto the $886 billion that was authorized in December. A trillion-dollar version of such funding could be just around the corner. (If past practice is any guide, more than half of that sum could go directly to corporations, large and small.)
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