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World roundup: January 28-29 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Ethiopia, Peru, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 27, 1944: The Soviet Red Army finally ends the 872 day Siege of Leningrad by driving off the last German forces still remaining in the vicinity of the city. Whether you go by the highest estimates, which put the death toll north of 5 million; the lowest, which put it around 1.2 million; or somewhere in between, Leningrad was one of the longest and deadliest military encounters in recorded history. Soviet casualties alone have been estimated at greater than the combined US and UK casualties suffered during all of World War II.
January 27, 1973: The United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the South Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government all sign the Paris Peace Accords, marking the end of the Vietnam War. The deal called for the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam and the imposition of a ceasefire, plus the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Laos and Cambodia. The ceasefire failed almost immediately, but the US was in no position to stop the eventual fall of South Vietnam in 1975.
January 28, 1077: Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV’s humiliating journey to the Castle of Canossa to beg forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII ends when the pope agrees to grant him an audience. Henry’s penitence was a highlight of the “Investiture Controversy,” during which the emperor and the pope got crosswise over the issue of which of them should have final say over the appointment of bishops in imperial cities. Gregory excommunicated Henry again in 1080, prompting the emperor to invade Italy and put his own pope (OK, anti-pope) in power. The Investiture Controversy wouldn’t be resolved until the Concordat of Worms in 1122, which affirmed the Church’s right to choose its own officials but allowed imperial authorities to have some influence on the process.
January 28, 1846: A British East India Company army under Sir Harry Smith defeats a somewhat larger Sikh force at the Battle of Aliwal. The Sikhs lost somewhere around 2000 men, many in a disorganized retreat after the British captured the village of Aliwal and were able to attack the Sikh line from two directions. The victory is seen as crucial to the British victory in the 1845-1846 First Anglo-Sikh War, because it eliminated a Sikh threat to the EIC’s supply lines and allowed its main army to undertake the decisive offensive that brought the conflict to an end.
January 29, 1258: The army of Đại Việt under the Trần dynasty defeats the Mongols at the Battle of Đông Bộ Đầu. Their defeat was so severe that the Mongols were forced to withdraw from Đại Việt, marking the end of their first attempt at conquering the region. The Mongols made two more attempts in the 1280s, both failed, before the Trần rulers decided to make themselves vassals of the Mongols in order to spare themselves any further invasions.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A drone strike targeted a convoy of trucks that had crossed into eastern Syria from Iraq late Sunday. This is a developing story as I write this and there’s no indication as to how many casualties the strike caused or to the nature of the convoy yet. Nor is there much indication as to responsibility. It sounds like the drones attacked from Iraqi airspace, which if true would indicate US involvement. But Israel has also attacked targets in eastern Syria in the past and given other events that have transpired this weekend (see below) their involvement probably can’t be ruled out.
US Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson is heading to Oman, the UAE, and Turkey next week, apparently to warn all concerned about the risks of running afoul of US sanctions. The choice of countries here suggests he’s mostly going to be talking about sanctions against Iran, though per Reuters it sounds like the Biden administration is more concerned about Russian sanctions evasion at present. In that case Nelson may focus most of his attention on the Turkish government and Turkish businesses, which have already received a number of warnings from the US with respect to Russian sanctions.
Israeli settlers have gone on a rampage in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank this weekend, following Friday night’s shooting at a synagogue in the East Jerusalem settlement of Neve Yaakov. At least one Palestinian has been killed, a man shot near the Kdumim settlement late Saturday who was allegedly carrying a gun, and there have been reports of at least 144 incidents of settler violence of varying degrees of severity. A Palestinian attacker, meanwhile, shot and wounded two Israelis near a settlement in East Jerusalem on Saturday. Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, which is tied to the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah party, has claimed responsibility for the synagogue attack.
Enabling more settler violence appears to be part of the Israeli government’s retaliation for Friday’s shooting. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a package of responses on Saturday including expedited gun licenses for Israeli citizens and expedited demolitions of suspected Palestinian militants’ homes. Collective punishment, in short. Bearing in mind that at least 32 Palestinians have already been killed in East Jerusalem and the West Bank so far this year, the stage appears to be set for an especially violent 2023 with Netanyahu’s hand on the wheel.
Reuters, citing the always-prescient anonymous “US official,” is reporting that Israel was probably responsible for a drone attack that targeted an Iranian “military industrial” facility in Isfahan overnight. The US government has denied any involvement. Details on the incident are spotty and what is available has been filtered through the Iranian government, but they’re claiming that their defenses mostly thwarted the attack and that the facility only suffered minor damage. It’s probably safe to assume that the damage was heavier than the Iranians are willing to admit but there do not seem to have been any casualties. The drones used here were quadcopters, which have relatively short range so if this attack was carried out by the Israelis they must have had personnel inside Iran. It’s unclear what exactly this facility was though satellite imagery apparently suggests it was linked with the Iran Space Research Center and that would mean something to do with missile development. The Israeli government has unsurprisingly kept mum about the strike, though that’s not likely to allay suspicion and an Iranian response of some kind may be forthcoming.
Elsewhere, an oil facility in Tabriz also caught fire overnight but that appears to have been accidental. And the Azerbaijani government was preparing to evacuate its diplomatic staff and their families from Iran on Sunday, two days after a shooting at the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran in which a security guard was killed. Iranian authorities are insisting that the gunman had a personal motive and they’ve produced a suspect who claims he attacked the facility because he believed his Azeri wife was being held captive inside. But Azerbaijani officials have suggested the attack was motivated by anti-Azeri sentiment and that it was enabled by lax Iranian attention to embassy security, hence the evacuation order.
The Afghan government has reportedly sent a reminder to private universities in the country that women are not permitted to take university entrance exams. I’m not sure why Taliban leaders thought the reminder was necessary but it may have something to do with the recent international attention that’s been focused on women’s rights under Taliban rule. Maybe this was less a reminder to those universities and more a statement to the United Nations and international NGOs.
According to The Wall Street Journal, one of China’s largest nuclear research institutes has been sidestepping US export controls with some regularity:
A Wall Street Journal review of procurement documents found that the state-run China Academy of Engineering Physics has managed to obtain the semiconductors made by U.S. companies such as Intel Corp. and Nvidia Corp. since 2020 despite its placement on a U.S. export blacklist in 1997.
The chips, which are widely used in data centers and personal computers, were acquired from resellers in China. Some were procured as components for computing systems, with many bought by the institute’s laboratory studying computational fluid dynamics, a broad scientific field that includes the modeling of nuclear explosions.
Such purchases defy longstanding restrictions imposed by the U.S. that aim to prevent the use of any U.S. products for atomic-weapons research by foreign powers. The academy, known as CAEP, was one of the first Chinese institutions put on the U.S. blacklist, known as the entity list, because of its nuclear work.
This report is relevant because the Biden administration has embraced expansive export controls in hopes of weakening China’s tech sector, presumably on the assumption that they actually work. It sounds like that assumption may be faulty, in which case the administration may risk alienating US allies, who would like to keep doing business with China, for no discernible reason.
A South Korean soldier decided to fire off a machine gun during a training exercise near the North Korean border on Saturday for reasons that are not clear. Any danger appears to have been averted as none of the bullets crossed into North Korean territory and there was no response from the North Korean military. The South Koreans also communicated to the North Korean government that the shooting was accidental.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited Libya over the weekend for a chat with one of that country’s prime ministers, the Tripoli-based Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, about trans-Mediterranean migration. As Italy’s furthest right PM since…well, you know, Meloni’s base is obviously expecting her to Do Something to stop migrants entering the country. But the real tangible outcome of Meloni’s visit seems to have been a Business Deal between Italian energy firm Eni and Libya’s National Oil Company to develop two offshore Libyan natural gas fields with an eye toward boosting gas exports to Europe. The deal, which could be worth as much as $8 billion, would also give a boost to Libya’s domestic energy market by developing those fields, but given that Dbeibeh’s legitimacy is in serious question amid Libya’s ongoing political chaos there’s some chance that this deal is not going to hold up.
Officially, turnout in Sunday’s parliamentary runoff election was 11.3 percent, or in other words about the same as turnout in last month’s first round. If President Kais Saied was hoping for a boost in participation to show that the public still supports his political project, he didn’t get it. But then I’m not sure Saied really cares about keeping up appearances at this point. He’s managed to grant himself nearly unchecked authority and despite this embarrassment there’s no clear threat to his one-man rule on the horizon.
The predominantly Tuareg Coordination of Azawad Movements alliance announced this week that it is quitting the constitutional process that’s supposed to transition Mali from military to civilian rule ahead of a March 2024 election. The CMA formed during the Tuareg uprising in northern Mali that began in 2012 and has not entirely gone away though the only active fighting now involves Islamist militants. The CMA has also suspended its participation in the northern Mali peace process and cited the Malian junta’s “lack of political will” in the statement it issued this week. The breakdown in relations between the CMA and the junta threatens a substantial widening of Malian unrest at a time when the junta seems to be overmatched just trying to deal with the Islamists.
While it was reported earlier this month that Eritrean military forces had begun withdrawing from major towns and cities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the US government says they’re still occupying parts of Tigray. UN ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters during a visit to Kenya on Saturday that Eritrean forces “have moved back to the border and they have been asked to leave,” without going into any additional detail. Ethiopian officials are insisting that there are no military forces present in Tigray other than the Ethiopian military, but the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is insisting that “thousands” of Eritrean soldiers are still present in the region. If they are still in Tigray that’s going to keep complicating efforts to implement the peace deal the Ethiopian government and TPLF reached back in November.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Suspected Allied Democratic Forces militants attacked three villages in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province on Sunday, killing at least 15 people in all. That death toll may rise as authorities continue to assess the situation.
Elsewhere, Congolese police and Rwandan soldiers reportedly shot at one another in an incident on Lake Kivu on Saturday in which one Congolese police officer was wounded. According to “a DRC navy source,” the Congolese police interdicted a group of three boats carrying Rwandan soldiers that had (according to them, at least) crossed into the Congolese part of the lake. The situation escalated from there. Tensions between the DRC and Rwanda are high due to the Rwandan military’s support (alleged, I guess, though there seems to be substantial evidence of it) for the M23 militia’s ongoing offensive in North Kivu province.
There was apparently “heavy” fighting around a village called Blahodatne in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast over the weekend, and Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is now claiming that his forces have captured it. Ukrainian officials are insisting that the village remains in their control, so perhaps Wagner has taken part but not all of it. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government expanded its sanctions list over the weekend to incorporate another 182 Russian and Belarusian companies and three individuals. All will have any Ukrainian assets frozen and properties seized.
As expected, retired Czech military general Petr Pavel won the Czech presidential runoff by a comfortable margin over former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. Pavel took just over 58 percent of the vote amid record high turnout of around 70 percent. Czech presidents are not especially powerful, but they do have some authority especially in terms of foreign policy. Pavel’s election may shift Czech foreign policy in a more overtly pro-West (or pro-Ukraine under the circumstances) direction.
An estimated 80,000 people marched in Lisbon on Saturday to demand higher wages and better working conditions for teachers and other public school employees. Teachers say they’re the worst-paid civil servants in Portugal and their salaries have not risen in line with inflation, particularly not during the recent inflation spike. They’re one of a number of professional groups who have taken to the streets in dissatisfaction over Prime Minister António Costa’s response to that spike.
One protester died in Lima on Sunday, presumably from injuries afflicted by Peruvian police. He was the first protester killed in Lima and the 58th killed overall since demonstrations began following the ouster and arrest of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo last month. Daily demonstrations have been ongoing in the capital for over a week now and are continuing to roil much of southern Peru as well. The Peruvian Congress on Saturday voted to reject interim President Dina Boluarte’s plan to defuse the unrest by advancing Peru’s next general election from 2026 to December of this year. Congress has already voted once to move the election forward to April 2024 but that plan has not yet been finalized.
Finally, while it’s clear that US defense contractors are winning the Ukraine war, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic says they’re not alone:
As unbelievable as it might sound, the invasion under which millions of Ukrainians are suffering right now will likely not be the end of their hardship. That’s because of the hand-rubbing that’s been happening the past few months over the potential business bonanza to be found in the country’s postwar reconstruction.
In November last year, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky signed a memorandum of understanding with BlackRock that will see the firm’s Financial Markets Advisory (FMA) — a special consulting unit set up after the 2008 crash to work with crisis-stricken governments — advise Ukraine’s economic ministry on designing a road map for rebuilding the war-torn country. In BlackRock’s words, the agreement has the “goal of creating opportunities for both public and private investors to participate in the future reconstruction and recovery of the Ukrainian economy.”
Ukrainian officials have been more blunt, with the ministry’s press release saying it would “primarily attract private capital.” The agreement formalizes a set of September 2022 talks between Zelensky and BlackRock chair and CEO Larry Fink, in which the president stressed that Ukraine must “be an attractive country for investors” and that it was “important to me that a structure like this be successful for all parties involved.” According to a release from the president’s office, BlackRock had already been advising the Ukrainian government “for several months” by the end of 2022. The two had agreed to focus on “coordinating the efforts of all potential investors and participants” in Ukrainian reconstruction, and “channeling investment into the most relevant and impactful sectors of the Ukrainian economy.”
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