World roundup: January 22-23 2022
Stories from Iran, Burkina Faso, Ukraine, and more
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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 supporters of the French Revolution, and that shock may have contributed to the support for restoring the Bourbons when all was said and done.
January 21, 1968: The North Vietnamese siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base begins. A US relief army was able to break the siege in April, but American leaders decided that the cost of continuing to defend the facility wasn’t worth it so they had it dismantled and withdrew US forces from the area in July. So ultimately both sides claimed victory. The Tet Offensive began a few days after the Khe Sanh siege and it remains an unanswered question whether the offensive was supposed to divert attention from the siege or the siege was supposed to divert attention from the offensive. The correct answer may be neither, that the North Vietnamese undertook both operations with the intention of focusing on whichever one achieved the most initial success.
January 22, 1517: The Ottomans defeat the remnants of the Mamluk army at the Battle of Ridaniyah, one of the more consequential anticlimaxes in history. The Ottomans had all but ensured their conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate at the Battle of Marj Dabiq the previous August, but Ridaniyah technically marks the end of the sultanate and the point at which Egypt (along with Syria and the Hejaz) became an Ottoman possession.
January 22, 1905: The Russian Imperial Guard’s massacre of dozens of protesters (demanding better treatment for workers) in St. Petersburg, also known as “Bloody Sunday,” marks the start of the 1905 Russian Revolution. As reports of the massacre reached other cities, mass strikes began that sparked more violent reprisals from authorities, and the situation spiraled. The revolution ended in June 1907 with the institution of limited constitutional reforms and the creation of a parliament (the Duma). It also reshaped popular feelings about the Russian monarchy and served as a sort of prelude to the 1917 Russian Revolution.
January 22, 1946: The Republic of Mahabad is born.
January 23, 1368: Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang is crowned Hongwu Emperor. Zhu, also known as the Emperor Taizu, emerged as the leading figure in the very multi-factional Red Turban Rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty that began in the 1350s. His coronation marks the advent of the Ming Dynasty, which ruled China until the mid-17th century.
January 23, 1963: Fighters with the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) attack Portuguese forces in the Tite region, kicking off the almost 12 year Guinea-Bissau War of Independence. Badly outgunned, PAIGC fighters were able to use the terrain to their advantage and armed themselves with weapons taken from defeated colonial soldiers. They won the war simply by outlasting the Portuguese, and when the National Salvation Junta came to power in Lisbon after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, it began negotiations with PAIGC that ultimately led to Guinea-Bissau’s independence in September of that year. PAIGC also negotiated the independence of Cape Verde from Portugal the following year.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Syrian Democratic Forces militia is continuing to battle Islamic State fighters in the wake of that IS prison break in Hasakah on Thursday. The fighting is apparently going on both inside the facility, where inmates rioted during Thursday’s attack and are reportedly in control of at least one part of the prison, and outside, where IS has been launching successive follow-on attacks involving suicide bombers and gunmen. The US-led coalition has been supporting the SDF from the air but I haven’t seen any details about their involvement beyond that. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming that at least 77 militants and 39 SDF personnel have been killed so far, along with seven civilians, but the SDF seems to be claiming both a higher number of IS casualties and a lower number of its own casualties. Given that this situation still seems very much to be unfolding I’m not sure any figures regarding casualties or possible escapees can be considered reliable.
The Turkish military has been building what it says is a defensive wall around the northern Syrian city of Azaz, the better I guess to protect it from the occasional IS or (more likely) Kurdish attack. But as Al-Monitor’s Khaled al-Khateb writes, there’s some speculation that the wall’s real purpose is to help disengage the parts of Syria currently under Turkish possession from the parts of Syria that are still under Syrian jurisdiction. Maybe that speculation is unfounded, but under the circumstances concern that Turkey is trying to de facto annex portions of northern Syria probably isn’t unreasonable.
Saudi media is reporting that a Houthi/Ansar Allah ballistic missile wounded two people in southern Saudi Arabia on Sunday. Reuters says the two foreign nationals were wounded when the missile “fell,” which lacks clarity and either means it struck under its own power or was shot down by the kingdom’s air defenses and the debris caused the (minor, apparently) injuries.
Recovery work is still continuing at the migrant detention center that the Saudi military bombed on Friday, which means the casualty count is rising as more bodies are discovered. The humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders reported Sunday that the death toll had risen to 87, up from early estimates of 60 killed, with another 266 people wounded. The Saudis insist that the facility had not been put on any protected lists and so they had no idea it wasn’t a legitimate target, which even if true only indicts their “blow it up and hope for the best” approach to this conflict.
Speaking of which, Yemen is still under a near-national internet blackout three days after the Saudis also destroyed a telecommunications facility in Hudaydah. Parts of Yemen that are under government control may get back online fairly soon via connections running through the city of Aden, which still apparently has internet service. But areas under rebel control are probably out of luck, particularly since workers can’t repair the facility due to fears they’ll wind up on the wrong end of some more Saudi ordinance. The blackout is already hampering the delivering of remittance payments, which are a major lifeline for Yemenis, and could have longer term impacts on humanitarian aid delivery.
An investigation into the death of 78 year old Palestinian-American Omar Asʿad, whose body was discovered following his detention by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank village of Jiljilya earlier this month, has determined that he likely died while in custody. The Israeli personnel who pulled Asʿad from his vehicle and handcuffed him apparently noticed that at some point he “fell silent,” but they never sought medical attention for him because they for some reason assumed he’d fallen asleep. It’s all very simple and believable, really.
The Israelis say they didn’t observe “any signs of distress on [Asʿad]: a cry for help or, for example, the gripping of his hand to his chest.” Granted he was gagged and his hands were bound at the time, but surely that’s no excuse for keeping his apparent heart attack to himself, right? Anyway the important thing to take away from this is that the Israeli military did everything right, as far as it can tell, so there’s no need for any sort of discipline. What’s truly incredible about this farce is that this is how the Israelis investigate themselves when they’re under some pressure from the United States. Had Asʿad not held US citizenship I doubt they would’ve even done this much.
With US permission, the South Korean government has used a small portion of the roughly $7 billion in Iranian assets that are currently frozen (by US sanctions) in South Korean banks to pay a bit over $18 million to the United Nations on Iran’s behalf. That figure should be enough to restore Tehran’s General Assembly voting rights, which the UN suspended earlier this month over lack of dues payments. This is the second straight year Iran has lost its UNGA vote only to have South Korea step in, with US support, to make Tehran’s account current.
According to NBC News, Russian negotiators attending the ongoing negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have floated the idea of an “interim” agreement to the Iranians, apparently with at least the tacit approval of the Biden administration. The specifics of the proposed deal aren’t fully known, but one idea apparently floating around would have Iran reimposing some limits on its uranium enrichment program in return for access to its currently frozen foreign assets (like, say, the $7 billion I mentioned above). This agreement would necessarily be temporary but could be renewable, and might buy additional time for negotiators to work on reviving the full deal. So far the Iranians have rejected the idea, presumably fearing that accepting it would undercut their leverage.
While we’re on the subject of the nuclear deal, US envoy Robert Malley told Reuters on Sunday that it would be “very hard” for the US to return to the agreement unless the Iranian government releases four US nationals it has imprisoned. They are Siamak Namazi, his father Baquer Namazi (who is not technically in prison but is barred from leaving Iran), Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz. The United States regards them as hostages and as a matter of policy has always insisted that their status is distinct from the nuclear talks, so this is the first time a prominent US official has linked the two issues like this. Indirect talks between the US and Iran in Vienna are apparently focused on both the nuclear deal and Washington’s demand for a prisoner release.
Armenian President Armen Sarkissian resigned on Sunday with a complaint over his office’s lack of any actual power. It wasn’t always so. Back when his predecessor, Serzh Sargsyan, was facing the end of his two-term presidency in 2015, he shepherded a rewrite of the Armenian constitution that shifted nearly all executive authority to the prime minister. Sargsyan then switched jobs in April 2018, which he presumably thought would leave him in power for life. He resigned two weeks later amid massive protests, giving way to current PM Nikol Pashinyan. Since the November 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict ended with a ceasefire that was highly unfavorable to Armenia, Pashinyan has been under substantial political pressure. But because the presidency has been rendered powerless, there’s been nothing Sarkissian could do to capitalize on Pashinyan’s struggles.
At least seven people were killed and nine others wounded on Saturday in a bombing targeting a bus in the western Afghan city of Herat. The location, an area predominantly inhabited by members of Afghanistan’s Shiʿa Hazara community, suggested Islamic State involvement. The group confirmed that on Sunday.
The Taiwanese military scrambled fighter jets on Sunday after 39 Chinese aircraft entered the country’s Air Defense Identification Zone southwest of the main island of Taiwan. This was the largest single-day incident of its kind since October.
Guinea’s ruling junta appointed an 80-seat interim legislature on Saturday whose main task will apparently be organizing the country’s next election. When the Guinean military overthrew former President Alpha Condé in a coup in September, it promised a relatively quick transition back to civilian rule, but the junta has yet to actually put a timeframe on the process.
One French soldier was killed on Saturday in an artillery barrage that struck a military base in central Mali’s Gao region. Nine others were wounded in the attack. No group has claimed the attack to my knowledge, based on the location it seems likely that Islamic State’s regional affiliate was responsible. The French government is still considering a full military withdrawal from Mali, though I would note that its options for a new Sahelian base of operations may be dwindling by the day.
Why are they dwindling you ask? Good question! In this case it’s because there may be a military coup underway in neighboring Burkina Faso. The sound of gunfire could apparently be heard on multiple Burkinabè military bases on Sunday in what sounds like a fairly widespread mutiny. Though civilian officials insisted throughout the day that they were still in control of the country and were in talks with the unhappy soldiers, late Sunday there were reports of gunfire near the residence of President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in Ouagadougou. That seems kind of ominous, but then what do I know? Maybe they were having a party. Prior to whatever seems to be happening in the capital, the Burkinabè government had imposed a curfew and announced that schools would be closed for at least the next two days.
One of the potential unknowns anytime an army revolts against civilian authority is how the public will react. In this case, it seems citizens of Ouagadougou turned out on Sunday to cheer on the military and urge it to topple the government. They even torched the offices of Kaboré’s People’s Movement for Progress party for good measure. This was one day after hundreds of people turned out in the capital to demand Kaboré’s resignation over his failure to curtail Burkina Faso’s ongoing, possibly escalating, conflict with Islamist militant groups. Sunday’s military uprising was similarly motivated by complaints that the civilian authorities haven’t done enough to equip and support security forces in that conflict. In theory it sounds like they could be stopped short of a full coup with promises of increased resources, but only time will tell.
In addition to Thursday’s mass abduction from a village in Nigeria’s Borno state, the Islamic State West Africa Province on Friday claimed responsibility for attacking the town of Bimi, also in Borno. As the group’s statement put it, ISWAP fighters killed “many Christians” and destroyed much of the town, including two churches.
The US State Department on Sunday advised US citizens not to travel to Russia and especially not to travel to any part of Russia in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border, given the possibility of a Russian invasion. It further ordered the families of US diplomatic personnel in Kyiv to leave Ukraine. The department had previously authorized the voluntary departure of diplomatic staff.
The British government issued a somewhat odd declaration on Saturday, announcing that it had uncovered evidence of a Russian plot to topple the current Ukrainian government and impose a Russian-friendly one in its place. That claim isn’t odd in itself, under the circumstances, but the statement doesn’t seem to have offered any details as to how this regime change operation was supposed to take place other than a reference to Ukrainian politicians who are allegedly in “contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack.” The UK did identify the Ukrainian legislator who would supposedly be installed as the country’s new leader under this scenario, Yevhen Murayev, who called the allegation “absolutely unfounded” and “stupid,” among other things. The Russian government similarly denied the British claim, characterizing it as “dezinformatsiya”—or, as the British call it in their particularly devious language, “disinformation.”
Ukrainian officials said they were taking the UK claim “seriously,” though at this point what else could they possibly say? The Russian government continues to make very showy troop movements that could be the prelude to an invasion (though ostensibly they have other explanations), and the Ukrainians want every bit of Western help they can get in case that comes to pass. But the UK still hasn’t offered any actual evidence that this plot exists beyond “trust us.” Now, I’m not saying that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to broadcast and/or overhype some dubious bit of intel in order to draw attention from the fact that he’s in some danger of being ousted as Conservative Party leader, but I’m also not not saying that.
In another Ukraine-related bit of weirdness, German Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach resigned his position as commander of the German Navy late Saturday after suggesting at a conference in India that perhaps Russia is not on the brink of invading its neighbor. Schönbach argued instead that Vladimir Putin is feigning an invasion in order to destabilize the European Union, which if true is kind of working, and then engaged in a little amateur psychoanalysis by speculating that what Putin is really after is “respect.” This is probably where Schönbach cost himself his job, because he then said that “giving [Putin] respect is low cost, even no cost. It is easy to give him the respect he demands, and probably deserves.”
Schönbach is not wrong that giving Putin “respect” doesn’t really cost anybody anything, though this seems like a pretty simplistic analysis of the Russian leader’s motivations. Regardless, he probably could’ve done a better job of reading the proverbial room in terms of his phrasing. Ukrainian leaders and even some commentators in the West are expressing doubts as to whether Germany would really be on board with punishing Russia economically in the event of an invasion, and so Schönbach’s comments quickly became pretty embarrassing for Berlin. Had he not resigned it’s likely he would have been canned.
The Italian parliament will start voting on a new president on Monday, and I’m sorry to say that the dream is already over because former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has withdrawn from the race. Berlusconi had been almost openly campaigning for the office, which is somewhat uncouth as these things go but then Berlusconi is not exactly known for his refined nature. In keeping with his persona, Berlusconi insisted that he definitely had the votes to be elected but just decided it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, or something. He also seems to be dealing with some sort of health situation so that may have provided further motivation (apart from the fact that he almost certainly did not have the votes) to back away.
Sunday brought more fun times in the Honduran National Congress, as competing factions within the legislature met separately to elect two different leaders for the same body. Two heads are better than one, I guess, though probably not in this instance. As we noted on Friday, President-elect Xiomara Castro brokered a deal allowing his vice president, Salvador Nasralla, to select the speaker from his own party, whose support Castro’s Libre party needs if it hopes to get anything done in the forthcoming legislative session. But rebels within Castro’s own party—who may wind up being expelled from it—broke with her and, supported by opposition parties who just want to see Castro’s presidency fail, elected one of their own number as speaker. After Sunday’s dueling sessions, both candidates now have a claim on the office. And Castro’s agenda is on the rocks before she’s even taken office.
Finally, my fellow Discontents writer Spencer Ackerman reports that the Biden administration isn’t exactly earning high marks on the subject of arms dealing:
A year after Biden's inauguration, the Forum on the Arms Trade has graded his administration's record on arms exports and related select weapons-trade issues. A grade of C, for instance, means "no net change to pre-existing policy that was middle of the road." A grade of D is a "net decline to pre-existing middle-of-the-road policy or failure to improve dangerous pre-existing policy." At the risk of taking the suspense out of this post, we don't have to worry how the Forum defines an A or a B.
Biden gets a D Minus on Arming Authoritarians in The Middle East. Democracy for the Arab World Now's John Hursh, his proctor for the subject, recaps the past year. Going through with $170 million in weapons sales to Egypt—extra sales, atop the $1 billion annual weapons deal Egypt gets—despite Egypt showing none of the human rights improvement Congress required for that weapons package. We've already covered the weapons sales and deals with Saudi Arabia. And there’s the $23 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates, primarily for the F-35. (Hursh thinks the UAE's recent suspension of the deal is a bargaining tactic.)
"In sum," Hursh writes, "these actions show the administration’s hypocrisy towards centering U.S. foreign policy on human rights and ending military assistance to authoritarian regimes, as well as its disregard for supporting democracy and the rule of law in the Middle East."
Biden’s grades on other measures are similarly unimpressive. His highest grade is a C in the area of “Pentagon revolving door,” which as Spencer writes means he’s only exhibiting “the normal amount of corruption” when it comes to employing members of the defense contractor community in his administration. How restrained of him.