World roundup: January 20-21 2024
Stories from Yemen, Taiwan, Somalia, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
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, but Reagan got most of the credit for cowing the Iranians. 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 largely reviled in Iran due to his perceived support for the ousted Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.
January 20, 2001: The nonviolent Second EDSA Revolution ends with the resignation of Philippine President Joseph Estrada and the accession of Vice President Gloria Arroyo to the presidency (not, it should be noted, in that order). The Philippine Senate was holding an impeachment trial for Estrada over charges of corruption. On January 16 it voted narrowly to suppress the contents of an envelope that would allegedly have proven the allegations, sparking protests at the EDSA Shrine in Manila. By January 19 the Philippine military and national police had abandoned Estrada and joined the protesters, and that was pretty much that. The following day Arroyo took the oath of office at the shrine and Estrada subsequently issued a statement announcing that, while he questioned the legality of Arroyo’s accession, he would leave office. Estrada was eventually convicted on corruption charges in 2007. Arroyo pardoned him.
January 21, 763: The Battle of Bakhamra
January 21, 1793: Having been found guilty of treason by the National Convention, French King Louis XVI is executed by guillotine. His death marked what at the time surely seemed like the end of the French monarchy, though Napoleon and then the restored Bourbons had something to say about that. It also shocked even some fans of the French Revolution, and that shock may have contributed to the support for restoring the Bourbons when all was said and done.
The official death toll in Gaza since the October 7 militant attacks in southern Israel surpassed 25,000 over the weekend. Despite rhetorical nods toward an eventual end to the conflict or at least a shift to a less violent phase of the Israeli military’s (IDF) operation from both US and Israeli officials, there is no indication of any transition, let alone conclusion, on the horizon. According to The Wall Street Journal, the US intelligence community estimates that the IDF has “killed 20% to 30% of Hamas’s fighters” amid those 25,000 deaths. Given that Israeli leaders have made Hamas’s full elimination their stated goal, at this pace they’ll need in theory to kill between 80,000 and 125,000 Palestinians to be able to claim total success. And that’s assuming the current pace will remain consistent, when in reality intensifying threats like famine and disease are likely to increase the rate of death in Gaza substantially over the coming weeks and months. While I’d like to think the US government would at some point say “enough is enough” amid such a slaughter, the Biden administration has given me no reason to believe that would be the case.
In other news:
Hamas, interestingly, issued a report over the weekend that is probably the closest it will come to acknowledging any misdeeds on October 7. The report argues that the attacks of that day in principle were a justified response to the Israeli occupation but does allow that “maybe some faults happened.” It blames those “faults” on the collapse of Israeli security forces around Gaza and insists that any violence against civilians was carried out “accidentally” amid the “chaos,” while accusing Israeli security forces of killing “many” of the civilians who died during the rampage. The report seems to endorse the idea of an International Criminal Court investigation into atrocities committed on and since October 7, though Hamas’s leaders must know that’s something the Israeli government will never countenance so it’s an easy “concession” for them to make. Whether you give any credence to this report or not—it’s obviously a self serving version of events—it’s interesting that Hamas put it together. It seems intended to ratchet up international pressure on Israel by casting Hamas, of all things, as the more reasonable party.
The Israeli government announced the death of another hostage on Sunday, without going into much detail as far as I know. Amid increasing public pressure to cut a deal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed that he rejects Hamas’s prisoner release conditions, which include a ceasefire and an “all for all” swap of its prisoners for Palestinians in Israeli custody. The IDF dropped leaflets on the southern Gaza city of Rafah on Saturday asking people there to provide information on the whereabouts of the remaining hostages. Something tells me most of them aren’t going to be interested in helping the country that is presently trying to starve them, but I could be wrong.
Israeli security forces on Friday killed a Palestinian-American teenager in the West Bank. The Biden administration said that it was “seriously concerned” with reports of this incident, a claim that rings as hollow as every other statement it’s offered about Palestinian civilian casualties.
HuffPost reported this weekend on the effect the Israeli siege is having on pregnant women and newborns in Gaza. While the Biden administration continues to pat itself on the back for improving humanitarian conditions in Gaza, the reality is that they’re getting worse and the amount of aid coming in is still far too little to meet the need. Premature births are on the rise (without the necessary hospital facilities to care for the infants) and newborns are starving along with their mothers. The December United Nations Security Council resolution that called for a surge in humanitarian relief apparently hasn’t had much of an impact—shocking, I know. The French Navy has moved a helicopter carrier to the region for use as a hospital ship and that may help a bit, but it’s not nearly enough. Western governments are trying to convince Israeli leaders to allow Gaza aid to come through the port of Ashdod, but while they’ve acquiesced to bringing some flour in that way they’re resisting anything bigger.
Iraqi militias attacked Ayn al-Asad airbase with “multiple ballistic missiles and rockets” on Saturday, according to US Central Command. The attack was apparently large enough to overwhelm the base’s air defenses and CENTCOM reported that a number of personnel at the base were wounded. The size of the strike, the use of ballistic missiles, and the fact that the militias’ “Islamic Resistance in Iraq” umbrella group openly claimed responsibility for the attack all speak to some degree of escalation in the militias’ attacks against US personnel in Iraq.
The attack on Ayn al-Asad was likely meant as retaliation for an apparent Israeli missile strike that killed at least five members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Damascus on Saturday. The Iranian government characterized them as “military advisers” to the Syrian government and threatened retribution against Israel. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has put the death toll at 13, including the five Iranians and at least one Syrian civilian, and says the target was the IRGC’s head of intelligence in Syria (who was among the dead). This strike may in turn have been meant as retaliation for the IRGC’s attack on what it said was a Mossad facility in the Iraqi city of Erbil on Monday.
Israeli strikes in southern Lebanon killed at least two Hezbollah personnel over the weekend. A strike on Saturday killed one Hezbollah member and another Lebanese national, according to Reuters. On Sunday, another Israeli strike killed at least one Hezbollah member and a second person, who was either a civilian woman or a second Hezbollah member depending on which version of the story you believe. Given the difficulty of confirming details about these kinds of incidents it’s also possible the strike killed three people, two Hezbollah members and one civilian, but I am purely speculating on that.
The US military attacked another Houthi missile site in northern Yemen on Saturday, the third straight day it had undertaken such a strike. Having neither deterred the Houthis from attacking ships in the Red Sea nor meaningfully degraded their ability to do so since beginning this tête-à-tête a bit over a week ago, The Washington Post is reporting that “the Biden administration is crafting plans for a sustained military campaign” against them. So a war, then? Because that’s usually what we call open-ended military campaigns, unless the terminology has changed and I missed the memo. At this point I think it’s fair to ask, and I apologize because I try to keep these newsletters clean, if anybody in this administration has any idea what in the fuck it’s trying to achieve here.
A new US war in the Middle East—yes, I know the United States has been bombing Yemen on and off for over 20 years and was a material participant in Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthis, but this still feels new—is undoubtedly just what the region needs and what US voters crave. I don’t want to cast aspersions but this particular war, which risks human lives in defense of speedy product delivery through the Suez Canal and in order to shield the Israeli government from any sort of consequence from its war of annihilation in Gaza, is probably not going to go down in the Noble Cause Hall of Fame. So why fight it? What is the upside?
The Biden administration professes to “worry” about Gaza triggering a cascade of war that sweeps across the Middle East. But instead of doing one fairly simple thing that might prevent that—telling the proxy state that depends on its weapons to cease and desist its war (a war even the President of the United States acknowledges is being fought “indiscriminately”)—the administration is leaning in to the escalation it claims it wants to avoid. Can anyone currently working for Joe Biden explain the thinking here in a way that would make sense to a person whose brain hasn’t been boiled in US foreign policy conventional wisdom for the last 40 years? I doubt it.
An Iranian soldier reportedly shot and killed five of his fellow soldiers in the city of Kerman on Sunday. The (alleged) shooter has not yet been captured as far as I know and the issue of motive is still up in the air, but Kerman is the same city where an Islamic State-claimed bombing killed more than 90 people earlier this month. I have no idea if there’s any reason to connect those things but it can’t be ruled out either.
On Saturday, Iranian state media reported that the IRGC had successfully put a satellite, called “Soraya,” into low Earth orbit. If that holds up it will mark a significant milestone for the IRGC’s space program. It’s unclear what the satellite does—I’ve seen unconfirmed reporting calling it a “telecommunications” satellite but it’s entirely possible that it’s some kind of spy satellite or just a test dummy (or something else). The US government maintains that Iranian space activity is prohibited under UN resolutions because it serves the dual purpose of advancing Iran’s ballistic missile program.
A new poll from the firm Indikator has Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto widening his lead ahead of next month’s presidential election. This survey puts Prabowo at 48.6 percent support after two previous Indikator polls showed him flatlining at 45.8 percent. The increase, if it’s real, could put him in the ballpark for an outright first round victory. Former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan saw his support slide a bit from 25.5 percent to 24.2 percent.
According to The New York Times, an increasing number of Taiwanese citizens are beginning to question the reliability of their country’s biggest patron:
Pre-election polling showed that most people in Taiwan want stronger relations despite the risk of provoking China. They support the recent rise in weapons sales from the United States. They believe President Biden is committed to defending the island — but they worry it is not enough.
As they watch Washington deadlock on military aid for Ukraine and Israel, and try to imagine what the United States would actually do for Taiwan in a crisis, faith in America is plummeting. The same Taiwanese poll showing support for the U.S. approach found that only 34 percent of respondents saw the United States as a trustworthy country, down from 45 percent in 2021.
Some of this is a hangover from the US government shifting recognition from Taipei to Beijing in the 1970s, but that polling shift seems more likely the result of a cursory glance at the catastrophic state of contemporary US politics. The skepticism appears to be having its own effect on Taiwanese politics.
At least ten civilians were killed on Saturday when their bus reportedly struck a landmine in northern Sudan’s River Nile state. Incredibly this may be the first landmine incident in Sudan since the country’s military went to war with the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces group back in April, and of course neither side is claiming responsibility for placing the device.
The Senegalese government on Saturday released a final list of 20 candidates for next month’s presidential election. Unsurprisingly the list includes Prime Minister Amadou Ba, incumbent Macky Sall’s chosen successor. It does not, however, include Ba’s most prominent potential challenger, Ziguinchor Mayor Ousmane Sonko. Senegal’s constitutional council apparently disqualified him over past legal trouble. It’s unclear how much hostility this might engender among Sonko’s supporters. Much of the concern about potential unrest attending this election dissipated when Sall announced back in July that he would not attempt to run for a legally dubious third term. At this point there doesn’t seem to be much consensus as to a favorite.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hosted his Somali counterpart, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in Cairo this weekend, and on Sunday he expressed strong support for Somalia in its new grievance with the Ethiopian government over the status of the secessionist Somaliland region. Egypt already has its own running grievance with Ethiopia over concerns about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its impact on Nile River water levels, so it’s not surprising that Sisi has come out on Somalia’s side. But this adds another potential dimension to what could very quickly become a region-wide crisis over the Ethiopia-Somaliland port deal.
The Russian firm Novatek announced on Sunday that it’s suspending some of its operations at an oil and gas terminal in northern Russia’s Leningrad oblast. That facility was apparently targeted by a Ukrainian drone strike, perhaps using the long-range drone Ukrainian officials are claiming to have developed. The attack sparked a fire in part of the facility but there were no casualties reported.
Authorities in Russian-occupied Donetsk city say that Ukrainian shelling struck a suburban market there on Sunday, killing at least 27 people and wounding another 25. Elsewhere the Russian military said its forces had taken the small village of Krokhmalne in Ukraine’s Kharkiv oblast. Ukrainian officials described its loss as “temporary.”
Finally, in a piece written when the Biden administration was still considering the idea of military action against the Houthis, Foreign Policy in Focus’s Edward Hunt tries to understand its priorities:
While officials in Washington weigh their options, they are doing little to address the core issue, which is Israel’s ongoing military campaign in Gaza. The Biden administration opposes a ceasefire, even as it repeatedly demands that the Houthis end their attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea.
Essentially, the Biden administration is engaging in a form of imperial management, as it works to help Israel continue its military campaign in Gaza while limiting its effects on regional dynamics and global markets. Rather than backing a ceasefire, the Biden administration is hoping to minimize the repercussions of Israel’s offensive for the global economy and contain any movement toward a wider war.
What the Biden administration has shown, in short, is that it cares far more about protecting fossil fuels and the world’s most powerful businesses than it does about protecting the people of Gaza.
As I noted above I don’t agree with all of this, especially the notion that the administration is actually trying to “contain” the threat of a wider war. But I do agree that it cares much more about protecting global commerce than it does about protecting the people of Gaza. Indeed, I struggle to think of anything this administration cares about less than protecting the people of Gaza.
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