World roundup: January 4 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Mali, Russia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 3, 1521: Pope Leo X issues a bull, titled Decet Romanum Pontificem, in which he excommunicates Martin Luther. Leo had threatened to excommunicate Luther in a bull issued the previous year that Luther made a show of burning in defiance. With the benefit of hindsight I think we can say that this whole incident didn’t go the way Leo expected that it would.
January 3, 1868: Japanese Emperor Meiji issues an edict declaring an end to the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate and a restoration of the authority of the emperor—marking the “Meiji Restoration.” Although the last Tokugawa Shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, had resigned in November 1867 it was this edict that marked the official end of the shogunate and the establishment of a centralized imperial government. Tokugawa Yoshinobu would subsequently lead an unsuccessful rebellion against the Meiji Restoration that began in late January.
January 3, 1919: In the lead up to the Paris Peace Conference, Arab Revolt leader Faysal b. Hussein and Zionist activist Chaim Weizmann conclude an agreement under which Faysal agrees to support a Jewish homeland in Ottoman (soon to be British) Palestine while Weizmann agrees to support the creation and development of an Arab state under Faysal’s father, King Hussein of the Hejaz. When that Arab state failed to materialize in the wake of World War I, as France and the UK divvied up the Middle East between them, the Faysal-Weizmann agreement was rendered meaningless.
January 4, 1878: The Battle of Sofia, part of the 1877-1878 Russian-Ottoman War, ends with a Russian victory and the Ottoman loss of the city. In the course of the battle the Ottoman Orkhanie Army was completely destroyed, a loss the empire couldn’t afford. The capture of Sofia and the Russian victory in the war secured the autonomy (and effective independence) of Bulgaria after five centuries under Ottoman control.
January 4, 1948: Under the terms of the Burma Independence Act, which passed the UK parliament the previous December, the Union of Burma becomes an independent state. Commemorated today as Independence Day in Myanmar.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Six new studies suggest that COVID’s Omicron variant is more effective at infecting the upper respiratory system (the throat, mostly) than the lungs. With the caveat that more research is needed, this conclusion could explain the observations that Omicron is both more infectious and potentially less deadly than its predecessors.
In a rare moment of comity, or at least of something other than overt loathing, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US) issued a joint statement on Monday pledging to work to prevent nuclear proliferation and minimize the chances of nuclear war. Presumably this is their offer of penance for refusing to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was negotiated in 2017 and went into effect last January. For the rest of us, “nuclear war is bad” is not a particularly controversial thing to say. But for these five countries to agree on anything at all these days is something of a minor miracle, and there seems to be some hope that if they really work together on this issue it could lead eventually to warmer relations in general.
The OPEC+ group met on Tuesday and agreed to increase global oil production by another 400,000 barrels per day in February, the same rate it’s been increasing production for the past several months. There was some possibility that Omicron’s rapid spread could have caused The Gang to pull back on the throttle a bit, but OPEC+ leaders seem to feel that the new strain is not going to cause another collapse in oil demand. OPEC+ cut global production by 10 million bpd in April 2020 due to the pandemic and has been slowly ratcheting things back to full capacity.
The international, US-led coalition in Syria reportedly bombed “threatening” rocket positions near the “Green Village” in eastern Syria on Tuesday, according to Reuters. No other details have been released as I write this, including which coalition member or members carried out the bombing. The Green Village lies on the eastern bank of the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor province, which is at least nominally under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces militia. The rockets may have been Islamic State property but there’s also some reason to suspect they belonged to an Iranian-backed militia or militias (see “Iraq,” below).
Saudi state media reported early Wednesday that the kingdom’s military was conducting a new round of airstrikes on Sanaa in response to Houthi drone attacks. The Houthis launched five drones toward Saudi Arabia on Monday, all of which were reportedly downed before they could reach their targets. The Saudis claim to be targeting manufacturing and launch facilities used in the Houthi drone program.
The Saudi-led coalition reported on Tuesday that some 200 combatants had been killed in fighting in central Yemen over the previous 24 hours. Around 125 of those were Houthi fighters, mostly killed in Saudi airstrikes, while pro-government forces lost around 70 fighters. Most of the combat took place in Bayda and Shabwah provinces, which border Maʾrib province, the epicenter of the conflict for the past several months.
Elsewhere, the Saudis are threatening to attack seaports under Houthi control, unless the rebels release a UAE-flagged cargo ship they impounded on Monday. The coalition claims the vessel was carrying medical supplies, but the Houthis are claiming that it was transporting weapons and “carrying out hostile activities” in Yemeni waters, whatever that means. A major Saudi attack on Hudaydah, Yemen’s largest seaport, could be all she wrote for even the meager humanitarian relief efforts currently reaching northern Yemen through the Saudi blockade.
A US C-RAM (Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar) system shot down two armed drones near Ayn al-Asad airbase in western Iraq’s Anbar province on Tuesday, one day after the C-RAM system at Baghdad airport did likewise. Monday marked two years since the US assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, who was quite popular in the Iraqi militia community, so it’s not hard to figure out who was responsible for the attempted drone strikes. It sounds like the drones were launched from eastern Syria, where US forces also reported coming under artillery fire on Monday. There were no casualties in that incident but it certainly seems like militias on both sides of the border are taking potshots at US soldiers to mark the anniversary.
The Lebanese pound hit 30,000 per US dollar for the first time in black market trading on Tuesday. The Lebanese Central Bank adjusted the exchange rate for banks from 3900 pounds per dollar to 8000 pounds per dollar last month in an effort to bring that rate into closer alignment with the black market rate, but that only seems to have accelerated the currency’s decline.
CNN, citing “US intelligence agencies,” reported just before Christmas Saudi Arabia now appears to be building its very own ballistic missiles, with an assist from China. The Saudis already own ballistic missiles, again thanks mostly to China, but the US apparently has intelligence showing that China has been selling missile-related technology to the Saudis and there are now satellite images that appear to show a missile manufacturing plant near the town of Duwadimi, in Riyadh province. This new intel confirms, or at least builds upon, sketchier reports that emerged regarding the Saudi missile program back in 2019.
Materially this development doesn’t do very much to alter the security situation in the Persian Gulf, since the Saudis have always been able to buy any weapon they wanted, save maybe biological weapons or nukes (even those could probably be had if the Saudis really wanted them). But if anyone in the US government still harbored the belief that they could convince the Iranian government to curtail or suspend its missile program, maybe this news will convince them to stop deluding themselves. The Iranians aren’t going to restrict their own missile program while the Saudis keep theirs going unfettered.
A new Iranian space launch last week failed to put any of its three intended payloads into orbit, according to a statement issued Friday by the Iranian Defense Ministry. It’s not clear what those payloads were but they don’t appear to have been satellites, as the Iranians characterized this launch as a test run in advance of a future satellite launch. Iranian space launches routinely become matters of international controversy because of the perception that they’re a backdoor way for the Iranian military to test out missile technology, though as the Middlebury Institute’s Jeffrey Lewis pointed out on Twitter Iran’s missile program has already advanced beyond the point where these sorts of launches are a serious reason for concern. New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi appears to be interested in space launches on their own terms, partly for military reasons but also for economic and “national pride” reasons.
It does not appear that the space launch impacted ongoing talks on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Tuesday that the talks made “some modest progress” last week, and the South Korean Foreign Ministry announced that Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun would be heading to Vienna this week for discussions on unfreezing Iranian assets that are currently held in South Korean banks. Presumably this indicates that the talks are moving in a positive direction.
The Armenian government has lifted an embargo on Turkish imports that it imposed early last year over Turkey’s role in the fall 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Yerevan and Ankara have been making tentative progress on normalizing their bilateral relationship, including the appointment of special envoys who are scheduled to hold their first meeting sometime this month. Continuing the embargo would have been an impediment to that effort. It’s unclear how effective the embargo actually was. Local industry wasn’t really able to fill the void left by the loss of Turkish imports, and efforts to find alternative suppliers (i.e. China) also don’t seem to have been terribly successful.
Some 5000 people marched in Almaty on Tuesday, the third day of a rapidly escalating national protest over rising fuel prices as the Kazakh government phases out subsidies. The Almaty demonstration reportedly turned violent, with protesters breaking windows and setting fire to police cars while authorities used stun grenades against the crowds. There’s some evidence that the protests have shifted focus from the specific grievance over fuel costs to a more general complaint over economic inequality. Kazakhstan has substantial oil wealth, but most of the country lives in or near abject poverty even as prices on many staples, not just fuel, keep rising. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has now declared a two-week (at least) national state of emergency in response to the protests.
It’s clear that, aside from and perhaps even moreso than the Taliban, the biggest winners of the 20 year US war in Afghanistan were American contractors. Last week, The Wall Street Journal looked at the size of their victory:
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, military outsourcing helped push up Pentagon spending to $14 trillion, creating opportunities for profit as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq stretched on.
One-third to half of that sum went to contractors, with five defense companies— Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., General Dynamics Corp., Raytheon Technologies Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.—taking the lion’s share, $2.1 trillion, for weapons, supplies and other services, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, a group of scholars, legal experts and others that aims to draw attention to what it calls the hidden impact of America’s military.
A panoply of smaller companies also made billions of dollars with efforts including training Afghan police officers, building roads, setting up schools and providing security to Western diplomats.
The decision to use contractors is a tradeoff. It allows politicians to put the true cost of their foreign adventures somewhat off the books and minimizing the use of active duty military personnel and, thus, the chances of the kind of bad press that comes when those active duty personnel wind up dead. On the other hand, it costs more and those contractors are if anything even less accountable than the almost completely unaccountable regular military. This is a dangerous tradeoff under normal circumstances but can be absolutely catastrophic when you’re doling out tens of billions of dollars in contracts and proper oversight is virtually impossible. But at least the very rich people who own those contractors were able to get even richer on the government dime.
An Indonesian security unit reportedly killed Ahmad Gazali, allegedly a senior figure in the extremist East Indonesia Mujahideen group, in a clash in Central Sulawesi province on Tuesday. The EIM is aligned with Islamic State and has carried out violent attacks against both security forces and civilians. Gazali was reportedly one of the gang’s more violent members.
Taiwan’s state-owned liquor company has bought over 20,000 bottles of Lithuanian rum that were supposed to go to mainland China until Beijing blocked the shipment on diplomatic grounds. If you’re anything like me then your first reaction to this story is “they make rum in Lithuania?” but I digress. The Chinese government is still punishing the Lithuanian government for opening a “Taiwan Representative Office”—a de facto embassy—in Vilnius back in November. It behooves Taiwan to support its friends in the face of Chinese economic pressure, and Taipei has made similar gestures in the past toward Australia, for example. I hope people in Taiwan like mojitos.
The Chinese government followed up Monday’s big anti-nuke statement (see above) with a clarification of its own nuclear plans on Tuesday. Fu Cong, the director of the arms control office in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told reporters that Beijing intends to continue modernizing its nuclear arsenal, while rejecting US assertions that China also intends to rapidly expand that arsenal. Fu also threw some cold water on the notion that China will be participating in trilateral arms control talks alongside the US and Russia anytime soon, reiterating Beijing’s longstanding mantra that the other two countries should first drastically reduce their stockpiles and then bring China into the process.
Both the Japanese and South Korean militaries are reporting some sort of projectile launch off of North Korea’s eastern coast early Wednesday. Preliminary analyses of these sorts of events can be substantially wrong, but officials in both countries seem to think this was a ballistic missile test.
Large anti-junta protests gripped Khartoum, Omdurman, and several other Sudanese cities on Tuesday, with numerous reports of violent clashes between security forces and protesters but no word yet (as far as I can tell) on any casualties. The protests took place two days after civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigned, citing a failure to get Sudan’s rocky political transition back on course following the military coup that initially ousted Hamdok from his post back in October. Hamdok tendered his resignation hours after security forces killed two more protesters, bringing the number of demonstrators killed since the coup to at least 56. Hamdok’s resignation once again leaves the Sudanese military in unchallenged control of the country, and despite its rhetorical commitment to a democratic transition I would assume it’s going to remain in control for the foreseeable future.
According to the French Foreign Ministry some 300 mercenaries have left eastern Libya since the parties to the Libyan conflict renewed their commitment to the departure of foreign fighters at a conference in Paris back in November. Unconfirmed reports say that the mercenaries in question hailed from Chad. The “Libyan National Army” of Khalifa Haftar employed a large number of Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries, among others, at the height of the civil war. When last we checked in on Libya, authorities were busy postponing their December 24 presidential election. All foreign fighters were already supposed to have departed Libya by that point, and it would probably behoove Libyan authorities to keep delaying the election until that goal has been achieved.
Tunisian media is reporting that a security patrol in the southern part of the country was attacked by an alleged member of the jihadist Ansar al-Sharia group, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, on Tuesday. One person was injured in the attack.
Mali’s ruling junta is proposing that it remain in power through 2026, according to a document revealed by The Associated Press on Sunday. The junta has laid out a plan that would see the country hold a constitutional referendum in 2023, a legislative election in 2025, and finally a presidential election the following year. It claims the extended transition is needed to implement necessary though seemingly unspecified “political and institutional reforms.” The Economic Community of West African States, which has already sanctioned the junta and its members, has said it intends to impose additional penalties if the junta doesn’t complete a democratic transition by February, in keeping with the 18 months timetable the Malian military laid out when it originally overthrew the country’s civilian government back in August 2020. The junta overthrew the civilian interim government in a second coup last May, and its leaders have since suggested that the February deadline was unrealistic in part due to Mali’s tenuous security situation
Speaking of Mali, it was one of three African states to be excised from the African Growth and Opportunity Act’s customs program over the weekend, the other two being Guinea and Ethiopia. The Biden administration cited concerns about the juntas running both Guinea and Mali in announcing its decision, while in Ethiopia’s case it cited alleged human rights abuses by Abiy Ahmed’s government and its allies amid the ongoing conflict against the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The AGOA program gives preferential customs treatment to imports from African nations that meet certain benchmarks in human rights, governance, and other areas.
According to The Wall Street Journal, DC types are increasingly concerned about the level of military collaboration between Russia and China:
U.S. officials and military specialists say it is difficult to pin down the level of collaboration between two nations that tightly control information, and whose actions are increasingly opaque to outsiders. But Western officials and defense experts are growing more convinced of the closer relationship based on recent economic alliances, military exercises and joint defense development, as well as the few public statements from government leaders.
While U.S. officials have long been skeptical of a unified threat from the two countries, some are now changing their tune. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence reported that Beijing and Moscow are now more aligned than at any point in the past 60 years.
“They are distinct threats. But they are now interrelated because of the collaboration,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis group in Arlington, Va.
Biden administration officials say they are watching closely but caution against reading too much into actions unlikely to flower into a full military alliance.
That last bit undeniably true. Russia and China are competitors on multiple fronts, and as the WSJ piece points out the main reason they’re working together now is that they’ve both found themselves confronted by a hostile United States. I’m less interested in the substance of this story, whose claims are hard to distill from the threat inflation that always accompanies this sort of “US officials are concerned about…” story, than in the fact that it’s being reported. Conflating Russia and China into one all-consuming Existential Threat is an excellent way to keep the US public worried and therefore docile as the official Pentagon budget continues skyrocketing toward $1 trillion per year.
NATO announced on Tuesday that it will hold a virtual meeting of member state foreign ministers on Friday to discuss ongoing tensions along the Ukrainian-Russian border. That meeting should set the tone for a flurry of diplomatic activities scheduled to take place over the next couple of weeks, including talks between US and Russian officials on Sunday and Monday, a meeting of the Russia-NATO Council next Wednesday, and a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe next Friday. If you’re inclined to believe that Russia is planning (or at least laying some preliminary groundwork for) an invasion of Ukraine later this year, then this may be the last chance (or one of the last chances) for everybody to step back from the brink. Vladimir Putin may have painted himself into a corner of sorts, wherein he needs to win some kind of concession from NATO in order to justify standing down.
Colombian authorities reported on Monday that at least 23 people have been killed in recent fighting between National Liberation Army (ELN) and former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fighters in northeastern Colombia’s Arauca province. It’s unclear how many of those casualties are combatants and how many civilians. President Iván Duque announced that he’s sending two army battalions to the area to try to tamp down the violence.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry was chased out of the city of Gonaïves on Saturday after an apparent assassination attempt interrupted planned New Year’s Day festivities. At least one person was killed and two more wounded as police and Henry’s security detail battled armed attackers in the city. Gonaïves is not particularly friendly to Haitian leaders—former President Jovenal Moïse, the man Henry has replaced in all but title—skipped the traditional New Year celebration in that city back in 2020 due to threats of violence.
The US Justice Department on Tuesday charged former Colombian military officer Mario Palacios in connection with Moïse’s assassination last July. Palacios is accused of being one of five men hired for what was initially an operation to kidnap the then-Haitian president and then later escalated into a murder scheme. He’s been in Panamanian custody since October and agreed on Monday to be extradited to the US rather than face extradition back to Colombia. He’s the first person to be charged in the Moïse case—Haitian authorities have made several arrests but haven’t formally charged anyone as yet. I’m not entirely clear why the DOJ feels it has jurisdiction here, though apparently US officials believe the assassination plot may have involved people in the United States. Feel free to insert your favorite CIA-related theory here.
According to data provided by Johns Hopkins University, the United States on Monday became the first country to record over 1 million new COVID cases in a single day. I know ne’er-do-wells and subversives like to claim that this is a nation in decline, that we’re no longer capable of leading the world in any meaningful way. To them, I say: suck on this, haters. We’re #1 baby! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Finally, it seems appropriate to end this roundup with another installment in the New York Times investigation into atrocities committed under the rubric of the “War on Terror,” since that investigation was just starting to emerge when I went on my holiday break. Last week, the NYT revealed an outrageous level of ineptitude in the way the US military evaluates claims of civilian casualties:
The Times obtained more than 1,300 confidential Pentagon assessments of allegations of civilian casualties in the American-led air war in the Middle East, between September 2014 and January 2018, during the height of the war against the Islamic State. Based on those documents, The Times recently reported patterns of failed intelligence, decision-making and execution behind deadly airstrikes.
These documents detail the criteria and rationales for how the Pentagon chose to classify civilian casualty allegations as either credible or noncredible.
A vast majority of assessments — more than 1,100 — were deemed noncredible. In some cases, there was not enough information for reviewers to search for airstrikes that might coincide with allegations or to conclude that civilian casualties occurred as a result of a coalition strike. However, The Times had found that many allegations of civilian casualties were erroneously dismissed for reasons ranging from insufficient quality and quantity of video to the inability to determine which of many strikes in an area was the subject of a claim.
This investigation focuses on reviewers’ inability to establish details about the locations of strikes. In reviewing 80 assessments, including those with high numbers of reported civilian casualties, The Times repeatedly found what appeared to be simple mistakes. In a dozen instances, Pentagon assessors said that a location could not be identified, even though it was easily found on the internet, or they seemed to have just looked in the wrong place.
Following recent revelations in The Times about botched strikes by U.S. forces, the Pentagon has said that it is committed to investigating its mistakes. But this examination raises further questions about the capability, or willingness, of the U.S. military to accurately count civilian casualties from its air war.
Of course I would never discount the possibility of incompetence within the US government, it seems reasonable to conclude that the Pentagon botched these investigations intentionally in order to dodge accountability for its actions. Anyway I’m sure they’ll try to Do Better moving forward.