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World roundup: January 29-30 2022
Stories from Syria, North Korea, Portugal, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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. Long story short, Gregory excommunicated Henry, who then trekked to the pope’s winter residence at Canossa to beg forgiveness in what was either an epic humiliation or a genius act of self-deprecation.
I’m going with the latter, given what happened when Gregory excommunicated the emperor again in 1080. This time Henry invaded Italy with an army and put his own pope (OK, anti-pope) in power, which doesn’t seem like the act of a broken, humiliated man. Meanwhile German nobles attempted to replace Henry and the empire descended into civil war. 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.
January 29, 1980: The Rubik’s Cube debuts at a toy fair in London. With an estimated 400+ million sold in the 40 years since, it’s generally considered the most popular toy ever devised.
January 30, 1959: After over four years, the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, Said bin Taimur, defeats a rebellion by the elected Imam of Oman, Ghalib Alhinai, that is known as the Jebel Akhdar War. The war ended the split between the coastal sultanate and the Imamate of Oman, which controlled the interior of Oman and had been nominally but not really practically subject to the sultan in Muscat. It also ensured that Said would control Oman’s oil reserves, most of which were in the Imamate’s territory. That in turn meant that Britain, as Said’s benevolent great power patron, would actually control said oil. So it really worked out well for everybody.
January 30, 1969: The Beatles give their last public concert, an unannounced affair on the rooftop of their Apple Corp (no, not that Apple) headquarters on Savile Row in London. The band played a 42 minute set before police shut them down. The Beatles broke up that September.
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 declared on Sunday that it had fully regained control of the prison facility in Hasakah where hundreds of inmates rioted in conjunction with an Islamic State attack on the facility over a week ago. Of course this is the second time the SDF has declared victory in Hasakah over the past few days, so a grain of salt may be in order here. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights seems to be the only outlet offering casualty estimates at this point, and it’s reporting that at least 332 people were killed over the course of this battle—246 Islamic State fighters (including rioting inmates), 79 SDF personnel, and seven civilians. That’s almost certainly an undercount. There’s also still no estimate on the number of inmates who escaped, though the SDF is reportedly looking for escapees.
A new United Nations report claims that more than 1968 children (aged 10-17) recruited by Yemen’s Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels have been killed on the battlefield over the past two years. The UN’s data only runs through May 2021, so the total number of child soldiers killed in 2020 and 2021 is certainly much higher. The report also contends that the rebels have been able to obtain components for their weapons (drones, rockets, etc.) from sources in Europe and Asia, possibly funneled through facilitators in Oman. The report did not assess claims of Iranian involvement in the rebels’ weapons procurement efforts.
Turkey’s state statistics agency released a report on Saturday claiming that inflation in Turkey has reached 36.1 percent in 2021, its highest level in nearly two decades. Fortunately for the Turkish people their leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, wasted no time in responding to this troubling news. Taking after other Great Men in history, Erdoğan moved decisively to address the problem, by firing the head of the statistical agency. Erdoğan apparently thinks the agency overstated the inflation number, which must mean its director is part of the global conspiracy he believes, in a totally not paranoid way, is dedicated to undermining his
sultanate presidency. It seems just as likely (perhaps more likely, in fact) that agency staffers tried to understate the figure but couldn’t bring themselves to invent a number low enough for to satisfy Erdoğan. Anyway I’m sure whatever work the agency does from now on will be free of political bias, definitely no need to worry about anything like that.
The Iraqi military carried out airstrikes on a suspected Islamic State encampment in Diyala province on Sunday, killing nine IS fighters. Authorities say the cell they attacked was responsible for an attack on an Iraqi military outpost in Diyala earlier this month in which 11 soldiers and a guard were killed. At least four of the IS fighters were Lebanese, from the city of Tripoli, which may raise some troubling questions about the group’s recruitment efforts in Lebanon.
Elsewhere, Kuwait Airways has suspended its flights to Iraq for at least the next week, following a rocket attack on Baghdad’s international airport on Friday. While initial reports had three rockets being fired at the airport and/or a nearby US military base, one of which damaged a civilian aircraft, it now appears that six rockets were involved and the attack damaged two planes plus part of a runway. Iraqi authorities still don’t seem to know who was responsible but apparently detained a suspect heading north into Kirkuk province. Given IS’s minor resurgence this month in both Syria and Iraq, I think it has to be considered alongside Iraqi militias in terms of potential culpability in this incident.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Emirati air defenses intercepted another ballistic missile fired by Yemeni rebels toward the UAE on Friday. Whether intentional or not, the attack coincided with a diplomatic visit by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, the first visit by an Israeli head of state to the UAE under the “Abraham Accords” normalization process. There’s no indication of any casualties or damage caused by the missile attack, but Emirati authorities subsequently released images of what they said was a retaliatory strike on a rebel missile launcher in Yemen’s Jawf province. There may have been casualties in that strike.
According to Reuters, a new UN report suggests the further collapse of Afghanistan since the Taliban regained power in August. Among other alarming details, the UN says it’s received “credible allegations” that over 100 people who worked for the previous Afghan government, its security forces, and/or foreign militaries formerly stationed in Afghanistan have been killed since the Taliban takeover, with at least two-thirds of them being killed by the Taliban or its allies. When it took power, the Taliban declared a general amnesty for those individuals, so it would seem that either the declaration was empty or that elements within the Taliban have decided to ignore it. The report also found evidence of dozens of extrajudicial executions of alleged Islamic State fighters.
Two unspecified gunmen killed one Christian priest and wounded another in the city of Peshawar on Sunday, attacking them as they were driving home from church. Although there’s been no claim of responsibility, an attack on Christian clergy in Peshawar suggests Pakistani Taliban involvement, or possibly Islamic State.
Thai police killed two southern Thai separatists in Narathiwat province on Saturday following an extended “siege” of their safehouse that began late Friday. Elsewhere, no fewer than 13 small bombs exploded in the town of Yala on Friday, wounding at least one person. Police later discovered three more explosives that failed to detonate. The goal appears to have been more to create a disruption than to cause casualties. The bombing was presumably also linked to southern Thailand’s ongoing, low-level separatist insurgency. Predominantly Muslim Malay peoples in southern Thailand have engaged in insurgent activities on and off since the 1940s. Thai officials announced earlier this month that they were restarting negotiations with the largest Malay insurgent group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional, after the previous attempt at negotiations collapsed in part due to COVID in early 2020.
The North Korean military conducted its seventh weapons test of this month on Sunday, and this one represents a fairly significant escalation over the previous six. North Korean officials say the test involved the Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range ballistic missile, which corresponds to descriptions of the test from both the Japanese and South Korean militaries. The North Koreans haven’t tested anything above a short-range ballistic weapon since 2017, after which they throttled back on their testing amid a flurry of diplomacy between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
If Pyongyang was trying to get the Biden administration’s attention, this might have been the thing to do it. An anonymous “senior official of the Biden administration” told reporters in a briefing on Sunday that the administration is “concerned” about the possibility that North Korea is ramping up to a resumption of nuclear and/or intercontinental ballistic missile testing. The official said that the US would be “taking some steps that are designed to show our commitment to our allies ... and at the same time we [will] reiterate our call for diplomacy. We stand ready and we are very serious about trying to have discussions that address concerns on both sides.” It’s not clear what those “steps” might be.
Sudanese security forces killed at least one more anti-junta protester on Sunday, bringing their total body count to at least 79 since the October coup that purged the country’s civilian transitional government. The death occurred in Khartoum but there were reports of marches involving thousands of people in cities across the country.
The Algerian government on Sunday accused its Moroccan counterpart of carrying out “assassinations targeting civilians” in Western Sahara—which, as the Algerians put it, lies beyond Morocco’s “internationally recognized borders.” Last week a Sahrawi media outlet reported that an apparent Moroccan drone strike hit a family car and killed one person in Western Sahara. Rabat of course claims that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a claim that the United States now recognizes, courtesy of Donald Trump, but that most of the rest of the world does not pending a final diplomatic resolution to the region’s status. Algeria has long supported Sahrawi separatists in their conflict against Morocco.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Fighting this week between Congolese security forces and the militant March 23 Movement (M23) group has reportedly displaced at least 2000 people from an area north of the city of Goma, in North Kivu province. At least six villages have been impacted by the fighting, with most of their residents now having fled to makeshift shelters without access to food or other basic needs.
The Canadian government has withdrawn its nonessential diplomatic personnel out of Ukraine out of concern for a Russian invasion that several Western governments keep insisting is imminent even as the Ukrainian government itself seems to think otherwise. Ukrainian officials are probably better positioned to determine whether or not their own country is about to be invaded than, say, somebody in Washington, DC, though as the Biden administration has begun noting there is a bit of a disconnect between the Ukrainian insistence that there’s probably no invasion coming and its incessant requests for more weaponry to defend against that same supposedly unlikely invasion.
That said, I think a new rationale for the invasion hype may be coming into focus: gas sales. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg remarked on Sunday that Europe may be “too dependent on one supplier of natural gas” (that supplier being Russia), and that it would behoove European leaders to “work and focus on diversification of [natural gas] supplies.” It is true that Russia has the rest of Europe somewhat over a barrel in terms of energy supplies, which could come into play in a hypothetical crisis such as what might follow a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Now, “diversification” could mean moving away from natural gas to renewable energy sources, but let’s be real—it means getting more natural gas from someplace else. And, wouldn’t you know, the United States has natural gas (liquefied natural gas or LNG, specifically) to sell! What a lucky coincidence! We’ve even tried to encourage European governments to buy it from us in the past—purely to reduce their dependence on Russia, mind you—but the idea didn’t really catch on. It might catch on now, though, thanks to this whole panic over Ukraine. The US doesn’t have the capacity to replace Russian gas for the European market, even in combination with other large LNG exporters. But that wouldn’t really be Washington’s problem.
I’m not suggesting there’s no substance at all to Western warnings of a Russian invasion. Just that there may be some non-military reasons why those warnings have become so loud and so frequent.
Before Italian electors began their efforts to elect a new president, a process that archeologists estimate began sometime in the latter half of the first millennium BCE, one thing was absolutely clear: incumbent Sergio Mattarella did not want to be considered for a second term. So, everybody, say hello to your new Italian president: Sergio Mattarella. Electors decided on Saturday to leave their president in office, whether he liked it or not, reelecting him with a whopping 759 votes. That’s well clear of the 505 votes he would have needed for a simple majority. It had become pretty clear by Friday that Mattarella was the only candidate who had a shot at winning this vote, given the deeply atomized nature of current Italian politics, so it would appear he set aside his desire for retirement.
In Portugal, meanwhile, voters headed to the polls on Sunday for a snap election whose outcome seems to have bucked the trend of recent pre-election polling. Surveys over the past few weeks had been indicating that Prime Minister António Costa’s Socialist Party was losing ground to the center-right opposition Social Democrats, with neither party anywhere close to winning a sole majority. But with 95 percent of the vote counted, the Socialists are at 42 percent, which is within the mathematical range of possibility for a sole majority. Costa is claiming the party won 117-118 seats (116 is the threshold for a majority), and while the official seat count won’t be available until all the votes are counted that estimate is probably accurate.
Another result of note involves the far-right Chega party, which looks like it’s emerged from this election as the third largest party in the legislature behind the Socialists and the Social Democrats. While it doesn’t look like it will play much of a role in the aftermath of this election, the rise in Chega’s prominence mirrors the destabilizing growth of far-right parties in many other European countries.
There has even been a begrudging chorus of admissions by the Pentagon that go back more than a decade. In 2010, the Joint Chiefs of Staff completed its classified “Joint Civilian Casualty Study.” In 2013, a Pentagon office called Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis published a report titled “Reducing and Mitigating Civilian Casualties: Enduring Lessons.” The remarkable thing about that 2013 report — other than the fact that it included most of the remedies Austin mentioned this week — was that it contained a list of a dozen other reports on civilian casualties that JCOA alone had published in the previous five years.
And five years later, in 2018, the Joint Chiefs completed yet another classified report on civilian casualties. The Washington Post, which revealed its existence, described that report as “a major examination of civilian deaths in military operations, responding to criticism that [the Pentagon] has failed to protect innocent bystanders in counterterrorism wars worldwide.” Sound familiar? And that secret report came two years after President Barack Obama had issued an executive order that said the military was killing too many civilians and needed to take a range of actions to change that.
You get the point. The Pentagon’s protestations of disappointment at what has happened, and its promises to do better, are the standard confetti of insincerity. In many ways, it’s similar to executives at Facebook expressing dismay and regret at some of the ways their platform has been used and abused, and promising to do a better job. The important thing to watch is not what powerful institutions promise to do but what they actually do. And when they do nothing after promising again and again to make changes, you would be foolish to regard their latest vow as meaningful.
“While a serious Defense Department focus on civilian harm is long overdue and welcome, it’s unclear that this directive will be enough,” noted Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project. “What’s needed is a truly systemic overhaul of our country’s civilian harm policies to address the massive structural flaws, likely violations of international law, and probable war crimes that have occurred in the last 20 years.”