World roundup: January 23 2024
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Somalia, Sweden, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
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 start 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.
The Israeli military (IDF) said on Tuesday that its troops had, over the previous day, “carried out an extensive operation during which they encircled Khan Younis and deepened the operation in the area.” This involved “the elimination of dozens of terrorists,” according to the IDF statement. They definitely killed dozens of people, anyway. After having advised Gazan civilians weeks ago to evacuate Gaza City and go to Khan Younis for “safety,” the IDF is now doing to the latter what it previously did to the former. Many civilians have since moved further south, to Rafah. If the IDF decides it’s time to destroy that city it’s unclear where the civilians will be able to go.
The IDF lost 24 soldiers in two incidents on Monday, making that the deadliest single day for Israeli soldiers since the October 7 militant attacks in southern Israel. In the larger of the two incidents, militants fired an RPG at a group of IDF reservists who were apparently setting explosives to demolish two buildings near the Gaza security barrier. The weapon fire caused the explosives to detonate prematurely, killing 21 soldiers. The shock of the incident, which pushed the overall IDF death toll in this operation up over 200—admittedly a small fraction of the 25,000+ deaths the IDF has inflicted on Gaza’s population—may raise new concerns among Israelis about the course of this military operation.
In other news:
I think it might be worth taking stock of this RPG incident. First of all, the Israeli government acknowledged that the reservists were demolishing those buildings as part of a plan to create an unpopulated “buffer zone” inside Gaza. This is distinct from past demolitions, which Israeli officials have justified with some reference to Hamas tunnels, militant hideouts, etc. Demolishing buildings for this reason is at best a questionable act under international law, which takes a fairly hard line against the destruction of civilian buildings in occupied territories unless deemed militarily necessary. It also directly contravenes one of the Biden administration’s supposed “key elements” for this conflict, specifically the one about there being no loss of territory in postwar Gaza. And ethical considerations aside, undertaking an operation like this in what was clearly an insecure location is just stupid. International law is essentially meaningless and you can be pretty sure that the Biden administration isn’t going to stand up even for its own stated principles, but the incompetence shown here may be as shocking to the Israeli public as the loss of life.
Israeli media, citing Egyptian sources, reported on Tuesday that Hamas has rejected the Israeli government’s offer of a two-month ceasefire (with seemingly no option to extend beyond that) and prisoner exchange. I am not privy to Benjamin Netanyahu’s innermost thoughts—thankfully—but I think given his track record it’s reasonable to conclude, or at least consider the possibility, that this is the outcome he wanted. Netanyahu has evinced little real concern for the fate of the remaining Israeli hostages but he’s under pressure domestically to secure their release and internationally to mitigate the overwhelming amount of death and suffering his military is inflicting in Gaza. His offer here probably seems reasonable enough to most outside observers but it falls short of Hamas’s demands—an indefinite ceasefire and “all for all” prisoner exchange. So there was good reason to assume it would be rejected, but in a way that allows Netanyahu to say to the Israeli public and the international community that he gave diplomacy a good-faith try and Hamas spat it back in his face. This could buy him at least a brief respite from that aforementioned pressure.
All may not be lost on this front, however. The Biden administration’s top Middle East “expert,” Brett McGurk, is still in the region trying to work on this hostage deal. After all the hostages have already suffered I’m not sure why the administration would want to compound their situation by putting their fates in McGurk’s extraordinarily incapable hands, but I digress. Leaving McGurk aside, Reuters reported late Tuesday afternoon that there’s now some impetus around a proposed one-month ceasefire that would be the first phase of a longer and potentially permanent cessation. But while this seems more open-ended than the two-month-and-done ceasefire outlined above, the talks are apparently hung up as Hamas is insisting that the path to a permanent ceasefire be explicitly laid out and perhaps somehow guaranteed in advance. The Israeli government is, as you might expect, angling for a more step-by-step approach that could allow it to resume hostilities without appearing to break any commitments.
The Israeli government has decided to send Palestinian tax revenue, which it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, to Norway for…safekeeping, I guess? Back in November the Knesset decided to freeze the portion of the PA’s tax revenue that is earmarked for public sector workers in Gaza. Since then, the PA has been refusing to accept any revenue from the Israelis in protest. The Biden administration has been pressuring Netanyahu to send the revenue to the PA, which ultimately can’t function without it, but it would be politically risky for him to do so. Sending the Gaza portion of the revenue to Norway is supposed to be a gesture that gives the PA cover to soften its stance and agree to accept the non-Gaza portion of its revenue again.
The US military attacked three sites linked with Iraq’s Kataʾib Hezbollah militia on Tuesday in retaliation for Saturday’s missile strike on Ayn al-Asad airbase that left several US personnel wounded. At least two people were killed in Tuesday’s strikes.
The US/UK bombing campaign, or now war I guess, against the Houthi/Ansarallah rebel group in northern Yemen has reportedly forced the United Nations to interrupt ongoing salvage work on the FSO Safer. That oil storage vessel was stranded off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast in 2015 with a full load of oil on board. After years of effort to salvage it and thus prevent the threat of a massive oil spill, the UN finally transferred the oil to another vessel in August. But the rotting ship itself still poses a serious, if lesser, environmental risk. The operation to salvage it was delayed initially by a lack of funding, but now the conflict has put it on hold indefinitely.
An investigation by the BBC and the human rights organization Reprieve concludes that the UAE government ran a targeted killing program in Yemen from 2015 through at least 2018, relying initially on US mercenaries but later on local killers trained by those mercenaries. The Emiratis murdered at least 160 people in that 2015-2018 period but there are indications that they’ve continued killing perceived political opponents in Yemen to the present day. It seems the mercenaries may have been under the impression that they were going after targets linked with al-Qaeda and/or Islamic State, but the UAE has in fact been targeting anyone opposed to its Southern Transitional Council proxy force. Indeed they’ve apparently been recruiting former al-Qaeda fighters on the STC’s behalf.
The Pakistani government on Tuesday temporarily reopened the Torkham checkpoint along the Afghan-Pakistani border to all truck traffic. Torkham is the largest commercial crossing along that border, but the flow of commerce broke town ten days ago when Pakistani authorities began enforcing visa restrictions on truckers attempting to cross from Afghanistan. It’s apparently decided to stop doing that, but only temporarily—the restrictions will go back into effect on March 31.
Throngs of worshipers visited a newly opened temple to the Hindu deity Lord Ram in the Indian city of Ayodhya on Tuesday. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally opened the site on Monday in a combination religious ceremony/political rally meant to excite his Hindu nationalist base. The temple is somewhat controversial, in that it sits on the site once occupied by a 16th century mosque that was destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992. The mob in turn insisted that Muslims had purposely built the mosque on the site of Lord Ram’s birth in an insult to Hindus. The Indian Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that the site should be converted into a temple, providing another plot of land for a new mosque to replace the previous one in the perhaps-unlikely event it’s ever actually built.
The North Korean government has demolished a huge arch in Pyongyang that was built in 2000 and intended to represent hopes for Korean unity. Its destruction symbolizes North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s turn away from reunification as a national goal and his adoption instead of a policy of permanent (until he changes his mind) hostility toward South Korea.
The South Korean military reported Wednesday morning that North Korea had fired multiple cruse missiles off of its eastern coast. I haven’t seen any detail beyond that but there may be more in tomorrow’s newsletter.
US Africa Command announced on Tuesday that it killed three al-Shabab fighters in airstrikes over the weekend that were conducted at the request of the Somali government. Circumstances are unclear but Somali authorities may ask the US to carry out attacks like this if, say, their security forces are engaged in battle with al-Shabab. As ever, the US military insists that no civilians were harmed in the attack.
Continuing a thread from earlier in this newsletter, with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud traveling to Doha on Tuesday to enlist Qatari support for his brewing conflict with Ethiopia, World Politics Review’s Jonathan Fenton-Harvey notes the UAE’s growing role in fostering trouble in East Africa:
The latest twist in the [Somali-Ethiopian] bilateral relationship came in the form of Addis Ababa’s “historic” agreement with Somaliland for coastal access to the Gulf of Aden, a longstanding goal for landlocked Ethiopia. The initial agreement, outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding on Jan. 1, grants Ethiopia the use of 12 miles of Somaliland’s coast for a period of 50 years, as well as use of Somaliland’s Berbera port. In return, Ethiopia agreed to examine the possibility of extending diplomatic recognition to Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia that has declared its independence but remains unrecognized.
Ethiopia’s ties with Somaliland, largely facilitated by the UAE, aren’t a new development. Indeed, in 2018, DP World and Ethiopia acquired 52 percent and 19 percent stakes, respectively, in a deal to build a 155-mile highway from Berbera to the Ethiopian border, and both have cooperated on its development. The two also signed a memorandum of understanding in 2021 to develop the Ethiopian side of the Berbera highway into a key trade and logistics corridor, even as the Emiratis deepened their investment in Berbera’s port.
There’s been wide suspicion, especially within Somalia, that the UAE played a role in sponsoring the latest coastal access deal. At the very least, given its past role in facilitating ties between Ethiopia and Somaliland, the UAE likely tacitly approved it, enabling the deal to come to fruition.
The Emiratis are already under fire for allegedly (OK, most likely) providing material support to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces group, so their regional footprint is growing and not in a terribly positive way.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Congolese authorities believe that a “mobondo” militia was responsible for an attack on a village in the western DRC’s Mai-Ndombe province overnight that left at least 11 people dead. Mobondo fighters are part of the Yaka community, which has been engaged in a low-level war with the rival Teke community rooted in competing land claims along the Congo River since at least 2022.
In the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province, meanwhile, the Congolese military shelled a town controlled by the rebel M23 militia on Monday, killing one child and wounding a pregnant woman. UN peacekeepers are accusing the rebels of using town residents as human shields by preventing them from fleeing.
A major barrage of Russian missiles struck targets across Ukraine on Tuesday, including in the cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, killing at least 18 people in total. Ukrainian air defenses reportedly intercepted 22 of 44 projectiles, mostly around Kyiv, but Russia is clearly relying on high volume attacks like this to overwhelm Ukrainian air defense systems that are running out of ammunition.
NATO announced on Tuesday that it has closed a $1.2 billion deal to buy 220,000 rounds of 155 millimeter artillery shells from two contractors, one French and the other German. The purchase is intended both to help members replenish their own stockpiles and to continue funnelling shells to Ukraine, given the importance artillery is continuing to play in that conflict.
At long last, I guess, the Turkish parliament voted on Tuesday to ratify Sweden’s accession to NATO. There are some procedural steps that still have to take place to make it official, but once that’s done Hungary will be the only NATO member that has not yet agreed to let Sweden join the club. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on Tuesday invited his Swedish counterpart, Ulf Kristersson, to Budapest to discuss the matter. It’s unclear if Kristersson plans to do so. During Finland’s accession process the Hungarian government also held out alongside Turkey but, when it became clear that Turkey was moving toward ratification, Hungary did so first. It’s unclear whether Orbán is prepared to continue holding out on Sweden.
The ratification also probably clears the way for the US government to approve a sale of modernized F-16s and F-16 modernization kits to Turkey. In recent months an obvious quid pro quo has emerged with respect to these issues, though the Biden administration has never explicitly linked the two and may try to hold off the F-16 sale long enough to maintain the pretense that they’re separate matters.
Gang violence killed 4789 people in Haiti last year according to a UN report released on Tuesday. That’s a 110 percent increase over 2022. In announcing the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres also noted that gang violence appears to be spreading outside of Haitian cities into the countryside. This may be partly because Haitian police are opting, in the face of this violence and without a legitimate government behind them, to find other, safer types of employment. Some 1600 of them left the national police force in 2023.
Finally, The Atlantic’s Stephen Wertheim argues that Joe Biden’s fixation on “defending” democracy is having the opposite of its presumably intended effect:
“We’ve got to prove democracy works,” Joe Biden declared in his first press conference as president. He has dedicated his administration to this task. Biden took office weeks after his predecessor tried to overturn an election and sparked an insurrection. The violent transition of power confirmed America’s spot in the “democratic recession” that has beset dozens of countries since the mid-2000s. Several times since, Biden has remarked that future generations will see that the global contest between democracy and autocracy was in no small part decided during his presidency. Democracies, as he told world leaders at the inaugural Summit for Democracy, which he convened in December 2021, must show that they “can deliver for people on issues that matter most to them.”
Yet what matters most to the American people? Not the fortunes of democracy overseas. During the same nearly two decades in which democracy has declined globally, the public has turned against attempts to remake other countries in America’s image, especially through military intervention and nation building. In surveys, Americans rank democracy promotion among their lowest foreign-policy priorities. Biden may think he’s unifying the country by defending distant democracies, but his democracy-first framing is divisive—and may be making overseas conflicts worse.
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