World roundup: January 19-20 2022
Stories from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 19, 1817: Argentine rebel leader José de San Martín leads his army, along with a group of Chilean rebels led by Bernardo O'Higgins, across the Andes Mountains into royalist-controlled Chile. Although San Martín lost by some counts as much as a third of his army in the crossing, the combined force emerged in Chile and won the decisive Battle of Chacabuco on February 12, forcing royalist forces to withdraw north into Peru. The crossing is considered a milestone in the course of the Latin American independence movement.
January 19, 1883: The borough of Roselle in New Jersey becomes the first community lit entirely with electric lighting via overhead wires. The wiring system was designed by Thomas Edison as proof that an entire town could be electrified in this way. Needless to say the concept caught on.
January 20, 1981: The Iranian government celebrates Ronald Reagan’s inauguration by ending the 444 day Iran Hostage Crisis with the release of 52 US hostages. The release was the result of months of negotiations between the Iranians and the Carter administration, which produced the Algiers Accords that among other things established an international tribunal to adjudicate claims by US citizens against the new Iranian government and by Iranian citizens against the US. The timing of the release has fed “October Surprise” conspiracy theories about secret talks between the Iranians and the Reagan campaign but may simply have been a final insult to Carter, who was mostly reviled in Iran due to his perceived support for the ousted Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has decided to leave its “Doomsday Clock” at “100 seconds to midnight” for the third year in a row. I’m not a huge fan of this gimmick so I don’t see much point in hashing out their rationale, but I figured I’d mention it in case some of you were wondering.
A rocket attack on the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin killed at least four people on Thursday and wounded more than a dozen others. There’s no indication as to responsibility, but the location—a city that was once held by the YPG militia but was later seized by Turkey and its proxies—suggests Kurdish forces were involved. Elsewhere, at least two Syrian soldiers were killed late Tuesday when their checkpoint in Daraa province came under attack. There’s no indication as to responsibility in this case either, but although the active rebellion in Daraa has been suppressed the province, which is where the Syrian civil war began back in 2011, has remained fairly restive and pro-government forces are still sometimes attacked there. And in northeastern Syria, Islamic State fighters attacked a Kurdish-run prison in Hasakah on Thursday. I haven’t seen any estimates yet in terms of casualties and there are contradictory reports as to whether or not any detainees escaped.
In its ongoing investigation into the US “War on Terror” air campaign, The New York Times has learned that a 2017 attack on eastern Syria’s Tabqa Dam, which at the time the US military emphatically denied having carried out, was in fact carried out by the US military. At the time the dam was controlled by IS, but the Pentagon officially had it on a “no-strike list” because it was a purely civilian facility and because the destruction of the dam could have caused catastrophic flooding downstream along the Euphrates River. The US special forces “Task Force 9” group ordered an airstrike on the dam anyway, and likely would have destroyed it except that one bomb failed to detonate. US Central Command now acknowledges the airstrikes but says it was trying to destroy towers near the dam and had no intention of attacking the dam itself. Just another imperial “oopsie” then, I guess.
At a “year in review” press conference on Wednesday, Joe Biden said he was considering returning Yemen’s Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Re-designating them in this fashion would be in retaliation for the rebel missile and drone attack on Abu Dhabi earlier this week. The Biden administration removed the rebels from the FTO list, last year, reversing a decision the Trump administration had made to list them, because the terrorist designation complicated humanitarian relief efforts in northern Yemen and attempts at negotiating an end to the Yemen war while providing no discernible benefit. Designating them again would still offer no tangible benefit while making relief and peace efforts harder, but at least it would…um…make Biden look tough, I guess? Sure, let’s go with that.
Al-Monitor’s George Mikhail outlines the many ways the Egyptian government has been providing support to its Somali counterpart over the past several years, but particularly since 2020. I don’t think any one of these projects taken by itself is particularly noteworthy, but taken in the aggregate they reflect an Egyptian push to counter an relationship between Turkey and Ethiopia, both of which are at odds with Cairo for various reasons, that has seen Ankara’s influence in Somalia expand significantly. If you’re interested in the geopolitics of the Middle East and/or the Horn of Africa, this is a trend worth watching.
Citing “Turkish diplomatic sources,” Reuters is reporting that the Qatari and Turkish governments have settled on a plan for providing security at Kabul airport, pending of course an agreement with the Afghan government. Following the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, Taliban leaders approached the Qataris and Turks about possibly taking over operations at the airport, a project they’re only willing to undertake if they’re also allowed to make their own security arrangements. The parties appear to be in broad agreement about an operating arrangement, but have yet to iron out all the details. Smoother operations at Kabul airport could provide a boost to humanitarian relief efforts, though those remain mostly frozen while the US government works through its stages of grief over losing the Afghan war.
Taliban security personnel reportedly arrested an activist and her three sisters in Kabul on Thursday, after the activist in question participated in a small women’s rights protest over the weekend. Taliban officials are refusing to confirm the arrest but there doesn’t seem to be much question what happened. The arrest is part of a broader pattern of behavior, including retaliatory acts taken against Afghans who worked with Western organizations during the war, that seems to contradict just about every claim the Taliban made on the subjects of human rights an amnesty as it was regaining control of the country.
The New York Times has published partial footage of the August 29 drone strike in which the US military killed 10 civilians while targeting a car that it ostensibly believed was carrying IS suicide bombers. From the NYT’s description it sounds like there’s nothing in the full video 25 minutes of video (taken by two drones) that would obviously identify the car or the people around it as civilian. But it doesn’t sound like there’s anything that would identify them as would-be terrorists, either, and so the question is whether “shoot first and ask questions later”—or, as the Pentagon seems to do it, “shoot first and hope nobody else ever asks any questions”—should really be the guiding principle behind the US drone program.
At least three people were killed and more than 20 others wounded on Thursday in a bombing in a market in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore. A Baluch separatist group claimed responsibility for the blast.
The US Navy sailed one of its destroyers, the USS Benfold, through the South China Sea on Thursday on another of its “freedom of navigation” operations. This drew a response from the Chinese military, which accused the US of “illegally” entering Chinese waters and intimated that its own naval forces chased the Benfold out of the waterway. The Pentagon denied that claim.
According to North Korean state media, Kim Jong-un has instructed Workers’ Party officials “to promptly examine the issue of restarting all temporally-suspended activities,” which is a fancy way of saying Pyongyang might start conducting nuclear and/or intercontinental ballistic missile tests. North Korea has conducted no fewer than four weapons tests this month, but all involved short-range devices that don’t meet the threshold for a serious US response. Kim gave this order during a party Politburo meeting dedicated to discussing US hostility toward North Korea, which I presume means the continuation of military exercises with South Korea because I’m not sure what else it could mean. Kim may be looking to get a little attention from a Biden administration that in fairness has kind of brushed North Korea off since taking office. What he hopes to do with that attention is unclear.
The Biden administration hasn’t completely ignored North Korea, to be sure. It proposed that the United Nations Security Council blacklist five North Korean individuals on Thursday over those aforementioned weapons tests, but China and Russia prevented it.
Sudanese security forces killed at least one protester in Omdurman on Thursday, as thousands demonstrated again in opposition to the country’s ruling military junta. That’s at least 72 people, almost all of them civilians, who have been killed since the October coup that ousted Sudan’s transitional civilian government and left the military in full control of the country. Two US officials, US Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee and Horn of Africa envoy David Satterfield, visited Sudan on Thursday, where they met with protest organizers and the families of those who have been killed over the past few months. They later issued a statement saying that the United States will not restart aid to Sudan, which it suspended after the coup, until the junta reconstitutes a civilian transitional government and stops responding violently to protests.
Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Party is claiming that one of its members was killed by police during a January 14 protest against President Kais Saied’s assumption of unilateral powers. Tunisian authorities are acknowledging the death but insist that that was no indication that the deceased had been subjected to any violence. Without knowing anything more about this specific case, there’s enough anecdotal evidence of police taking liberties during that January 14 protest to make this accusation plausible.
The French government is reportedly considering a total military withdrawal from Mali, as relations between Paris and the junta governing in Bamako continue to deteriorate. Malian officials have complained about the French government’s decision to reduce its military deployment in the Sahel, while French officials have been demanding that the junta speed up its transition to elections and stop cozying up to the Russian government and/or the Wagner Group. Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga suggested over the weekend that Bamako would like to “review” its military relationship with France and on Wednesday the junta denied a German aircraft permission to enter Malian airspace, a move that could prompt Berlin to withdraw the 1500 soldiers it has in Mali on UN and European Union missions. French President Emmanuel Macron would likely prefer to do nothing for the time being, lest it look like he’s being chased out of Mali prior to April’s presidential election, but he could make a move after that.
Chad’s interim government/junta on Thursday released 22 hitherto imprisoned members of various Chadian militant groups, the first batch of some 250 prisoners it intends to free in an effort to spark peace talks with those militants. Those talks are supposed to begin next month, but there’s still uncertainty regarding the participation of the largest Chadian rebel group, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT). These prisoner releases are intended in part to entice them to the table.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Central African officials have scheduled municipal elections for September 11, a development that probably wouldn’t seem like such a big deal except inasmuch as the CAR hasn’t held municipal elections since 1988. It’s unclear to me how these elections can realistically be held when large swathes of the country are under rebel control, but the CAR’s general election in December 2020 sparked a substantial amount of violence and there’s a possibility that this vote will as well.
The US Justice Department has charged four Belarusian officials with piracy over an incident last May in which they used an apparently phony bomb threat to divert a Ryanair flight to Minsk for the purposes of arresting a Belarusian activist who was on board. There were US nationals aboard that flight, which apparently gives US prosecutors jurisdiction (at least as far as they’re concerned). The director and deputy director of Belarus’s air traffic agency were charged along with two unnamed Belarusian security officials.
There’s been a plethora of Russia-Ukraine news over the past couple of days, so let’s try to summarize in brief:
The Biden administration on Thursday sanctioned two current members of the Ukrainian parliament along with two former Ukrainian officials, alleging that they’ve been collaborating with Russian intelligence services to “destabilize” Ukraine. It also gave a green light to the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) to send US-made armaments to Ukraine. Amid concerns that a Russian invasion could happen at any time, the administration is looking for ways to get more weapons to the Ukrainian military as quickly as possible.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to Ukraine on Wednesday and Germany on Thursday, both as preliminary stops before he meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva. Lavrov has said he’s expecting a US response in writing to Russian security concerns/demands, particularly on the question of Ukraine’s potential NATO membership. Blinken has said he will not be bringing a written response with him, so it sounds like their gab session is already off to a solid start.
The Biden administration apparently sent CIA Director William Burns to Ukraine and Germany ahead of Blinken’s trip. His primary mission seems to have been encouraging German officials to cut off the Nord Stream gas pipeline in the event Russia invades Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has hedged on this question, for obvious political reasons. Cutting the pipeline would be a blow to Russia’s energy sector but it would also leave Germans scrambling for ways to heat their homes in the middle of winter, which is not something Scholz is keen to do. European leaders have apparently already talked the Biden administration out of cutting Russian banks off from the SWIFT financial network, so they’re injecting some uncertainty into Western pledges of massive economic sanctions in retaliation for an invasion.
Also injecting some uncertainty into the situation is Biden himself. During his press conference on Wednesday, the US president had what sounds like a very lively debate with himself about what kind of retaliation the US and Europe would impose and tossing around various scenarios. The bit that really seemed to attract attention was Biden’s discussion of a possible Russian “incursion,” which he didn’t define but is apparently something less serious than an “invasion.” Biden is not wrong—if there is going to be a Western response it should be calibrated to whatever it is that Russia actually does—but it may not have been a good idea to say that out loud. The White House spent some time “clarifying” Biden’s comments after he made them, suggesting that by “incursion” Biden meant some form of non-military “aggression,” and Biden himself said on Thursday that any Russian military move into Ukrainian territory would be considered an “invasion” and treated as such.
One non-military action Russia could take would be to recognize the independence of eastern Ukraine’s separatist Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, as it did in the case of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back in 2008. That would have the effect of rendering Ukraine more or less permanently destabilized (“stability” keeps coming up in these discussions) and therefore unsuitable for NATO membership, as it’s done with respect to Georgia. Moscow could even go so far as annexing the region, a la Crimea, but that would probably be treated more seriously in terms of Western sanctions.
In their public comments, Ukrainian officials appear to be emphasizing the possibility that Russia may stop short of an invasion and focus instead on doing things to keep Ukraine perpetually unstable. It’s not clear if they’re doing this because they actually believe it or because they want to try to forestall a general panic within the Ukrainan population. The Ukrainian military might be able to put up a serious fight in the event of an invasion and some of the Western sanctions that have been discussed would take a bite out of the Russian economy, so Moscow may decide it can meet its primary objective (keeping Ukraine out of NATO) with a less costly alternative to war.
The European Union is set to begin docking Poland’s pay to cover fines imposed by the European Court of Justice over environmental damage caused by the Turów lignite coal mine in Poland’s Lower Silesia Province. That mine is the subject of a lawsuit by the Czech government over said damage, and consequently the ECJ ordered Poland to shut it down, or alternatively to pay a €500,000 per day fine. Polish officials refuse to close the mine, arguing that it’s a job creator and a key part of the country’s energy infrastructure, but they’re also refusing to pay the fine. So the EU plans to begin deducting money from the payments it makes to Poland to cover the fines. Polish Environment Minister Anna Moskwa told reporters on Thursday that Polish and Czech officials are close to an agreement that would resolve the mine dispute, at which point Czechia would petition the EU to drop the matter.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić is calling for a snap election after one of the parties in his governing coalition filed a no-confidence motion in parliament. The party, “In Black and White,” joined several opposition parties in calling for the confidence vote, arguing that Krivokapić no longer has majority support in the legislature and is therefore unable to get anything done. And since at last check the coalition held only a bare majority of 41 seats in the 81 seat parliament, with the loss of one of his partners it would indeed seem that Krivokapić no longer has majority backing.
A group of smaller parties is proposing a temporary minority government that would exclude Montenegro’s two largest parties, the For the Future of Montenegro coalition and the opposition Democratic Party of Socialists, but they would need the collaboration of at least one of those parties to pull that off and it doesn’t sound like either one is prepared to help out. If the confidence vote takes place it will happen sometime next month, while a snap election, if that’s the direction this goes, will likely take place in May.
At least one person was killed and five more wounded overnight in a car bombing in the eastern Colombian city of Saravena. Authorities are blaming this attack on the 10th Front militant group, which is made up of dissident ex-members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group. Former FARC fighters are battling Colombian security forces as well as the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group for control over parts of Arauca province, where Saravena is located.
The first parliamentary election held under Barbados’ new republican government ended pretty much the same way its last election under British rule (in 2018) did. When the dust settled from Wednesday’s vote, Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s Barbados Labor Party had won all 30 seats in the House of Assembly for the second straight electoral cycle. This election didn’t need to take place until mid-2023 and Mottley took some criticism for moving it up amid the ongoing pandemic. Opposition leaders accepted the outcome but it sounds like they’re going continue to harp on that decision to made the case that the BLP’s victory wasn’t exactly legitimate.
The US Justice Department has arrested a Haitian-Chilean man named Rodolphe Jaar in connection with the assassination of Haitian President Jovenal Moïse last July. He becomes the second person arrested in the US over that incident. US authorities believe that Jaar was part of a group of about 20 people who conspired to murder Moïse while on US soil, which means they can be charged under US law.
Finally, and you may want to sit down for this one, the CIA has apparently decided that “Havana Syndrome” may actually not be the product of a terrifying yet hitherto undiscovered Russian-Chinese-Cuban-Venezuelan-Iranian-North Korean-??? ray gun:
In a new intelligence assessment, the CIA has ruled out that the mysterious symptoms known as Havana Syndrome are the result of a sustained global campaign by a hostile power aimed at hundreds of U.S. diplomats and spies, six people briefed on the matter told NBC News.
In about two dozen cases, the agency cannot rule out foreign involvement, including many of the cases that originated at the U.S. Embassy in Havana beginning in 2016. Another group of cases is considered unresolved. But in hundreds of other cases of possible symptoms, the agency has found plausible alternative explanations, the sources said.
The CIA declined to comment.
Yes, I bet they did.
If you’re really committed to the ray gun being a real thing then don’t worry, the agency hasn’t entirely ruled out the possibility of some ultra high tech attack on some US personnel. But it’s clear that in the vast majority of cases people latched on to what seemed like an easy and kind of interesting explanation for an array of symptoms that afflicted them for more various and mundane reasons, ranging from medical conditions to environmental factors to stress.