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World roundup: January 31 2023
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Mali, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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 Ibadi 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 the 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.
January 31, 1865: The US Congress passes the 13th amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. President Abraham Lincoln signed it the following day, and the amendment was then submitted to the states for ratification, reaching the required three-fourths threshold in December. Several states took longer to ratify the amendment, including Mississippi, whose leaders finally decided that slavery ought to be illegal in, ah, 1995. I guess they just really needed some time to think about it.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
OPEC+ member states will hold their monthly “how are everybody’s profit margins” meeting on Wednesday and the expectation is they’ll leave global oil production unchanged. Oil prices are hovering in the $80-$90 per barrel range, which is a comfortable level for most of The Gang, global demand is high and getting higher, and trying to squeeze the market beyond that could draw the ire of the United States. So they don’t have much reason to cut production at this point.
The Lebanese Central Bank will on Wednesday unveil a new official exchange rate of 15,000 pounds per US dollar. That’s still a far cry from the actual exchange rate, which last time I looked was around 58,000 per dollar, but it’s certainly much more realistic than the 1507 per dollar peg that’s been the official rate since 1997. Attempting to normalize the exchange rate is part of the economic reforms that Lebanese officials will need to adopt to qualify for assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken continued his Middle East trip with a visit to the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, where he expressed his non-specific “sorrow” over “the innocent Palestinian civilians who have lost their lives in escalating violence over the last year.” Said violence apparently has neither cause nor perpetrator, it’s just sort of happening of its own accord. It’s quite tragic, really. If only there were something the US government could do, other than reviewing the $4 billion (give or take) that it provides the Israeli government in military aid every year of course. Obviously there’s no connection between that support and those deaths. Blinken also announced a generous $50 million in new US aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency, which manages Palestinian refugee issues. For context that’s a bit less than half of the cost of a single F-35A.
A new report from the human rights organization Reprieve shows that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power has coincided with a significant rise in the number of executions carried out by Saudi authorities, who weren’t exactly winning any awards for leniency before that. From 2015, when MBS became deputy crown prince, through 2021, executions in the kingdom increased by a whopping 82 percent. During that time he’s been claiming that he’s reforming the Saudi criminal justice system to make it more humane, and the international community has played along mostly because of the size of his sovereign wealth fund.
The US Commerce Department on Tuesday blacklisted seven Iranian firms linked with the country’s drone program and specifically with helping to supply Russia with drones for use in the Ukraine war. The listing places export controls on those firms and requires any company trying to do business with them to submit its plans to the department for approval.
I realize we haven’t discussed the Mahsa Amini protests of late here and that’s because there hasn’t been much to discuss as far as I can tell. The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that large scale demonstrations have tapered away as it became clear they weren’t having enough of an effect on the Iranian government to justify the risks to protesters’ lives and/or freedom. According to the WSJ focus has now shifted to quieter forms of civil disobedience—women refusing to wear hijab, in particular. To the extent that polling can be done inside Iran the results seem to show a deep breach between the Iranian people and their government, with majorities now favoring something other than the “Islamic Republic” under which they’re currently living. So the Amini movement may have significant long term repercussions even if it’s died off in the short term.
The death toll from Monday’s suicide bombing at a mosque in a police compound in Peshawar has climbed to at least 100 and it’s possible it will continue rising as more rubble is cleared. Nearly all of them were police officers. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, one of many factions that collectively make up the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the bombing but the overall TTP leadership has denied involvement.
The US and several other Western states (Australia, Canada, and the UK) are commemorating the second anniversary of the coup that brought Myanmar’s military back to power with a raft of new sanctions. Among the new additions to the US blacklist are Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise and the Union Election Commission. The latter is presumably being targeted over the junta’s plan to hold an election sometime this year that looks like it will be rigged to ensure the victory of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. Said election will most likely inflame, rather than ease, the country’s ongoing civil war—a war that, according to a new report from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, is getting more violent as the junta turns increasingly to air power as a tactic.
The US government has reportedly stopped renewing export licenses for US companies that deal with the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, in the latest salvo of an emerging effort to cripple China’s high tech sector. Huawei has been on the Commerce Department’s export control list since 2019 over allegations that it is linked to the Chinese military. The Chinese government on Tuesday accused the Biden administration of practicing “technological hegemony” and of “abusing state power” in rejecting these license renewals.
According to AFP Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of the al-Qaeda aligned Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) militant group, has been negotiating with a range of other armed groups in northern Mali about forming something of a united front against Islamic State’s regional affiliate. In particular it seems he’s been in contact with the predominantly Tuareg Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) coalition. Ag Ghaly has interacted with CMA leaders in the past but the growth of IS as a common threat is apparently galvanizing efforts at forming some sort of alliance. These contacts could theoretically lead to contacts between JNIM and the Malian government—Ag Ghaly has in the past shown a more local focus than other Malian jihadist leaders and that’s fueled calls for the government to negotiate with him and the groups he’s led—though I would imagine Mali’s current political instability would make that difficult and anyway the IS threat is really the immediate concern.
Elsewhere, a panel of experts advised the United Nations Human Rights Council on Tuesday to investigate allegations that Russia’s Wagner Group private military firm has committed human rights violations in Mali. This shocking revelation means that Wagner Group has been accused of committing such violations in…everywhere it’s operated, come to think of it. It also may place the infamous mercenary outfit on a par with other serial human rights violators in Mali, like JNIM, the Islamic State, the CMA…um, the Malian military, the French military…well, you get the idea.
At least 32 people have been killed in a series of suspected jihadist attacks across Burkina Faso over the past several days. Four were killed in the Centre-Est region on Saturday when their van was attacked, 20 were killed in the Cascades region in western Burkina Faso on Sunday after their bus came under attack, and another 12 people (soldiers and civilians) were killed amid fighting between militants and Burkinabé security forces in the Sahel region on Monday. There seems to be an escalating cycle of violence in Burkina Faso since Ibrahim Traoré’s junta seized power last September. The junta has been emphasizing the mobilization of civilian defense forces to counter jihadists, but those defense forces are themselves being accused of attacks against civilians. That has the effect of empowering jihadist groups and sparking more violent attacks.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
World Politics Review has published a very detailed analysis of current conditions in the CAR, looking among other things at the often overestimated role of outside players in shaping local power dynamics:
In Bangui, Russian advisers wield influence and perhaps reap the financial benefits of resource extraction, but they have not translated these gains into substantial foreign policy wins for the Kremlin. And though Touadera attends events hosted in Russia, he does not always follow Moscow’s agenda. As recently as March 2022, CAR—together with Mali and Sudan—abstained from the U.N. vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Indeed, as much as Touadera relies on them, Russia and Rwanda also rely on him and his networks to pursue their economic and political interests in CAR.
Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that Touadera gets the better deal in his dealings with Russia and Rwanda. Security assistance has paved the way for companies from both countries to invest in CAR’s mining sector. Whether these investments are profitable, however, is an open question. Experts estimate the maximum annual value of CAR’s diamond production to be around $40 million, while for gold the figure is around $320 million; Russian and Rwandan companies have access to a fraction of the total output. Moreover, production is artisanal and takes place in a conflict zone, suggesting only significant long-term investment can yield a profit. Touadera, therefore, is able to outsource the investment costs of mining and utilize these security forces to enhance his own domestic political position, while benefiting from a “tough on armed groups” image.
For France, CAR’s former colonial ruler, the arrival of Wagner has provided a convenient scapegoat for its own failed interventions in Africa. In mid-December, the last of the French troops quit CAR, leaving the country without a French deployment for the first time since 2013. Fearing Wagner’s expansion to other former colonies, French President Emmanuel Macron is increasingly vocal about the threat posed by the private military contractors. But the brunt of his criticism falls on Mali, where Paris’ interests in counterterrorism and its own great power status are more acute.
Those of you who might be interested in subscribing to WPR, which I find to be a useful resource, please stay tuned for Sunday’s roundup. I’m hoping to have something to share with you then.
The US State Department is accusing Russia of violating New START, the only active treaty limiting the US and Russian nuclear stockpiles. Moscow suspended the inspections portion of that treaty in August, citing Western travel restrictions that would prevent Russian personnel from physically inspecting US nuclear facilities. Russian officials insist they’re still committed to the treaty but they postponed negotiations on resuming inspections that were supposed to have taken place in November. At issue is not just the future of New START, but the question of whether or not the two countries (or three, if China participates) will be able to negotiate a successor treaty to pick up when New START expires in 2026. At this point the chances do not look promising.
In news from Ukraine:
The Russian military said on Tuesday that its forces have seized the village of Blahodatne, located near the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast. The claim is unconfirmed, but the Wagner Group claimed to have taken Blahodatne over the weekend so it seems likely that the village either is completely in Russian hands or soon will be. The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, claimed on Tuesday that its forces had repelled a Russian attempt to encircle Bakhmut and cut off its supply lines. This claim is also unconfirmed. In their effort to seize Bakhmut, the Russian military and Wagner seem to have shifted tactics from their previous reliance on artillery superiority to rely instead on their numerical superiority. Either way it seems likely they’ll take the city eventually, which raises questions as to why the Ukrainians are continuing to sacrifice men and materiel in its defense. Much Western coverage of Russia’s Bakhmut offensive has argued that the city isn’t strategically vital, but the all-out Ukrainian defense might suggest otherwise.
According to Reuters the Biden administration is putting together another whopper of an arms package for Ukraine, this one totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion. This new package will address the Ukrainian demand for longer-range artillery munitions by including Boeing’s 150 kilometer Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB). It’s not the 300 km Army Tactical Missile System, which Ukraine wants, but it will bring additional Russian targets within the range of Ukrainian guns. The US continues to slowly give ground on providing Ukraine with ever more advanced weapons, which is why I still think F-16s can’t be ruled out notwithstanding whatever Joe Biden is saying this week.
Human Rights Watch is accusing the Ukrainian military of dropping thousands of “petal” antipersonnel mines in and around Izyum during the period (April-September) when that region was under Russian control last year. Dozens of people have reportedly been injured by the devices. Using antipersonnel mines in civilian areas is not great from an international law perspective and would seem to violate the commitment Kyiv made in joining the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Ukrainian officials say they’ll look into HRW’s claim but would not comment beyond that.
Slovakian legislators voted on Tuesday to schedule a snap election for September 30. A snap election became necessary following the collapse of Prime Minister Eduard Heger’s government in December and his failure to rebuild his governing coalition. Parliament voted last week to amend the constitution to allow the possibility of a snap election, but a second vote was required to formally set the date. Opposition parties, including former PM Robert Fico’s SMER-SD, appear to be polling well, which may augur a shift in Slovakia’s position with respect to the war in Ukraine if they win the election.
The US Congress may be wading into the Turkey-Sweden dispute. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told an audience at a Washington event on Tuesday that there is “no scenario” under which Congress would approve a sale of F-16s to Turkey if Ankara does not ratify the NATO applications of both Finland and Sweden. The latter’s bid is hanging by a thread amid Turkish dissatisfaction on an array of issues. Van Hollen also raised the possibility of economic sanctions against Turkey in the event of a new Turkish incursion into northern Syria. It’s unclear whether Van Hollen speaks for enough members of Congress to block the sale though Turkey hasn’t exactly been winning a lot of friends in Washington over the past few years so it’s quite possible that he does. It’s similarly unclear whether the corollary to Van Hollen’s threat—Congress approving the F-16 sale if Turkey does ratify Sweden’s NATO accession—would also necessarily hold.
The French Interior Ministry estimates that some 1.272 million people joined demonstrations around the country on Tuesday in opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age:
More people participated in Tuesday’s demonstrations than participated in the previous round on January 19. As before these protests coincided with a national strike, though participation in that seems to have been down from the previous event. This may simply reflect that some people couldn’t afford to take another day off of work or it may reflect frustration over a reform plan that is likely to be passed by parliament in spite of these massive displays of public opposition.
The Peruvian Congress on Tuesday reconsidered interim President Dina Boluarte’s call to move the 2026 election forward to December of this year instead of April of next year, but failed to reach a consensus on the idea. That legislators reopened the discussion and didn’t immediately close it again is significant given that they voted to reject the idea outright on Saturday, so perhaps continued unrest in Lima is causing some of them to give this idea a second look.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Astore offers some thoughts about taming the ever expanding military-industrial complex:
So, when I talk to organizations that are antiwar, that seek to downsize, dismantle, or otherwise weaken the MIC, I’m upfront about my military biases even as I add my own voice to their critiques. Of course, you don’t have to be antiwar to be highly suspicious of the U.S. military. Senior leaders in “my” military have lied so often, whether in the Vietnam War era of the last century or in this one about “progress” in Iraq and Afghanistan, that you’d have to be asleep at the wheel or ignorant not to have suspected the official story.
Yet I also urge antiwar forces to see more than mendacity or malice in “our” military. It was retired general and then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after all, who first warned Americans of the profound dangers of the military-industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address. Not enough Americans heeded Ike’s warning then and, judging by our near-constant state of warfare since that time, not to speak of our ever-ballooning “defense” budgets, very few have heeded his warning to this day. How to explain that?
Well, give the MIC credit. Its tenacity has been amazing. You might compare it to an invasive weed, a parasitic cowbird (an image I’ve used before), or even a metastasizing cancer. As a weed, it’s choking democracy; as a cowbird, it’s gobbling up most of the “food” (at least half of the federal discretionary budget) with no end in sight; as a cancer, it continues to spread, weakening our individual freedoms and liberty.
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