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World roundup: January 6 2022
Stories from Syria, Kazakhstan, Australia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 5, 1912: The 6th All-Russian Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party begins in Prague. This otherwise relatively unremarkable event became quite historically significant when, during the multi-day conference, party bigwig Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik supporters broke away to form their own party, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik). That breakaway faction of course eventually became the ruling party of Russia and, later, the Soviet Union.
January 5, 1957: US President Dwight Eisenhower promulgates the doctrine that comes to bear his name, calling for US intervention in the Middle East to prevent the region from coming under Soviet domination.
January 6, 1449: Constantine XI Palaiologos is crowned Byzantine Emperor. This also relatively unremarkable event is noteworthy in that Constantine XI was the last Byzantine Emperor, falling in battle (though his body was never identified) during the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Legend has it that he was miraculously turned into marble and will return one day as the ruler of a restored Roman Empire.
January 6, 1809: A joint Portuguese-British army attacks the city of Cayenne, capital of French Guiana. This operation was part of a larger British campaign to attack French colonies all over the Americas, which were being used by French privateers to interfere with British commerce. The mostly Portuguese force succeeded in capturing French Guiana, though the colony was returned to French control after Napoleon’s removal from power.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Western nations (France, the UK, and the US) revived several lingering grievances regarding the state of Syria’s chemical weapons program in a United Nations Security Council session on Wednesday. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons suspended Syria’s membership last year over claims that the Syrian military has continued to use chemical weapons since it publicly forswore them, signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and joined the OPCW back in 2013. The UN claims that 20 of the 24 issues the OPCW cited in imposing the suspension remain unanswered. The Syrian government, backed by Russia, insists it destroyed its chemical weapons in 2013 and has not produced any more since then.
Russia’s Security Council veto protects Syria from sanction by that body. The debate over whether or not these Western allegations are or could be true has been raging for years now and you can find arguments in either direction elsewhere (Aaron Maté has for example amplified questions about how the OPCW has conducted its investigations). Their veracity (or lack thereof) aside, these chemical weapons claims probably will be used to justify further US sanctions against Syria and will certainly complicate efforts to bring the Syrian war to some kind of resolution.
Israeli occupation forces killed one Palestinian man while undertaking a raid in the West Bank city of Nablus on Thursday. According to the Israelis, they were attempting to make an arrest when they came under attack. They returned fire and killed one of the attackers. There were no Israeli casualties.
A joint committee established by the governments of Canada, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom issued a statement on Thursday declaring that it has given up trying to negotiate a settlement in the case of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which the Iranian military shot down outside of Tehran two years ago. Those four countries, which represent most of the people killed in that incident, have formed a “coordination group” to lead settlement talks but are apparently now going to pursue other means (asset seizures, perhaps) to secure compensation. A Canadian court just this week ordered Tehran to pay some $83.94 million (that’s 107 million in Canadian dollars) to the families of six of the victims. Iran has offered compensation payments but they are considerably more modest than that.
Kazakhstan’s political crisis moved fully into the backlash stage on Thursday, as Russian peacekeepers arrived courtesy of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Kazakh security forces dealt harshly with protesters, at least in Almaty. Details are spotty thanks in part to a communications/internet blackout, and details from outside of Almaty (Kazakhstan’s largest city) are especially spotty. At least 12 police officers have been killed in clashes with protesters, with Almaty city officials citing a death toll of 18, and hundreds have reportedly been injured. Specific data on civilian casualties isn’t available as far as I can tell, but statements from Kazakh authorities put the death toll there in the “dozens.” Even these minimal details are unconfirmable at this point but they are supported by scattered video evidence of violent engagements involving police and demonstrators.
I haven’t seen any indication that the Russian peacekeepers have engaged with the protesters or even whether they’ve been deployed as yet. But that didn’t stop the Biden administration from chirping about their arrival, with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters that the US is “closely monitoring” the situation and suggesting that there are “questions about the nature of this request and whether it was a legitimate invitation or not.” I realize it would be futile to suggest that DC mind its own business, since the people who run the US empire believe that this, along with everything else that happens in the world, is their business. But this is ridiculous even by typical imperial busybody standards. Whatever else you want to say about the CSTO getting involved here—sending “peacekeepers” to deal with protesters isn’t ideal—it’s indisputable that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested it. If the US has “questions” about that request, maybe that’s because the United States is not Kazakhstan and isn’t in the CSTO, and none of the parties involved in this transaction owe Washington any explanation or clarification of their actions.
By evening the government claimed it had secured control over Almaty’s government buildings, its airport, and its main city square, all of which had either been threatened or outright seized by protesters over the previous couple of days. Despite continued reports of gunfire in the city over the course of the day, these developments—plus the arrival of the CSTO forces—may be enough to bring this week’s outburst to an end. If that’s true, questions will linger about the nature of these protests and the reason they turned so violent. Tokayev has asserted the involvement of external “terrorists,” a label that is broad enough to mean anything or nothing. I’ve seen talk of “provocateurs” within the crowds of otherwise peaceful demonstrators, but I’ve also seen claims that Kazakh security forces escalated first and that sparked a violent reaction from the protesters.
In the long run the most significant outcome of this week’s events may be the ouster of former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev from his perch as head of the country’s Security Council. Nazarbayev, the apparent target of much of the protesters’ ire, left the presidency in 2019 but had retained much of his authority by virtue of the council, his chairmanship of the ruling Nur Otan party, and his technically honorary “leader of the nation” title. He’s now given the first two posts over to Tokayev, who also took the opportunity this week to sack a key Nazarbayev ally from his post as the head of Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, the country’s domestic intelligence agency. Somewhat paradoxically, Tokayev could emerge from this week of serious political unrest with far more control over the country than he had previously.
According to Foreign Policy reporter Lynne O’Donnell, the Taliban is trying to broker a prisoner exchange with the United States to secure the release of Bashir Noorzai, a drug trafficker who helped finance the Taliban but was convicted and sentenced to two concurrent life terms in the US back in 2009. O’Donnell reports that the Taliban are offering to release a US engineer named Mark Frerichs who’s been in their custody for two years as of this month. She further claims they’re threatening to block thousands of Afghans with proper US travel papers (dual citizenships, visas, etc.) from leaving the country. There’s no word from the Biden administration as to how receptive they are to this idea.
According to The Associated Press, so far the Afghan Taliban have given no indication that they’re trying to root out Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) units that have over the past several years taken up residence on the Afghan side of the border. This may come as a disappointment to the Pakistani government, which has been backing the Afghan Taliban and probably assumed they’d do a better job controlling the TTP than Afghanistan’s previous government, which at times treated them more as a useful proxy against a hostile Islamabad.
Although the Afghan Taliban and the TTP share ideological roots they are distinct organizations that do differ in important operational ways (for example, on the question of whether to regard Pakistan as an ally or enemy). So it’s an open question as to whether the Afghan Taliban has made a conscious decision to leave the TTP alone or simply isn’t prioritizing the TTP given all the other challenges it’s facing. Whatever is going on, it’s likely other countries in and around the region—China, particularly—are watching this situation and wondering how the Taliban will deal with other militant groups operating on Afghan soil, like the jihadist and predominantly Uyghur Turkistan Islamic Party.
Infighting among South Korean conservatives appears to have caused polling to flip ahead of March’s presidential election. Throughout November and into mid-December, polling consistently showed conservative People Power Party nominee Yoon Suk-yeol leading Lee Jae-myung, the nominee of incumbent Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party, in some cases by double digit or near-double digit margins. But the aforementioned infighting and a minor corruption scandal involving his wife (she apparently lied on her resume some years ago) have sent Yoon’s popularity into a tailspin, and polling now shows Lee with a lead that in a couple of polls has reached as high as 12 points. Lee is facing some campaign hiccups, his son has apparently been caught up in a scandal of his own ( something to do with illegal gambling), and Yoon has purged/replaced his flailing campaign team, so things may tighten up before election day.
As expected, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio signed a military cooperation treaty, known as a Reciprocal Access Agreement, on Thursday. The measure opens the door to significantly expanded cooperation between the two countries’ militaries and is a significant diplomatic development—Japan only has one other RAA and that’s with the United States. The agreement is obviously motivated by a shared concern with China and will immediately become part of the patchwork of treaties and relationships (AUKUS, the “Quad,” etc.) that the US and its allies have been forming across the Indo-Pacific. On a related note, the US and Japan are reportedly on the verge of signing a new agreement to collaborate on military-related research and development.
Tennis fans out there may be aware that the Australian government has rescinded defending Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic’s COVID vaccine exemption and is denying him a visa to enter the country. Sports are not our usual fare here and to be honest I couldn’t possibly care less about Djokovic’s title defense. The incident has apparently created a diplomatic rift with Serbia, but what’s really interesting about this story is that, pending his visa appeal, Australian officials have decided to treat Djokovic just as they treat asylum seekers, which is to say wretchedly:
Novak Djokovic’s wrangling with authorities over entering Australia has inadvertently highlighted a different plight: those of the refugees and asylum seekers stuck for months, and years, at the Park Hotel.
The infamous detention hotel in Carlton, Melbourne, where the tennis star is likely to spend the weekend as he awaits a court hearing over his visa cancellation has been described by detainees as a “torture cell”.
“There is no fresh air, there was recently a fire, the food is not great, we do not have access to a gym, the hotel is totally locked up,” 38-year-old Jamal Mohamed tells Guardian Australia.
“I am suffering each and every day. I have nightmares every night, all I want is freedom. It’s really terrible, I don’t know one person here who feels good about it.”
There’s a slim chance that having an international tennis superstar staying in this penal camp will draw some attention to the conditions in which these refugees have been living, in some cases for several years. That would be worthwhile.
Sudanese security forces killed at least three more anti-junta protesters on Thursday, as demonstrations gripped Khartoum and other cities across the country. That brings the number of people killed since the military reasserted control over the country in a late October coup. The three killings on Thursday took place in the cities of Omdurman and Bahri, which neighbor Khartoum around the conjunction of the White Nile and Blue Nile rivers. Marchers in Khartoum attempted to reach the presidential palace but were reportedly driven off by tear gas.
Unspecified gunmen attacked a hydroelectric power plant construction site in Niger state on Tuesday, killing two Nigerian nationals and abducting three Chinese nationals working on the project. Kidnapping can be big business in Nigeria, and the bandits who kidnapped these three expats will presumably be looking for ransom.
The UN refugee office is reporting that at least three Eritrean nationals were killed on Wednesday in an airstrike on their refugee camp in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The UN doesn’t seem to have any details beyond that, so it’s unclear for example who carried out the strike (the Ethiopian military presumably, though I would argue the Eritrean military can’t be ruled out).
With travel down significantly because of Omicron, European airlines are flying potentially thousands of unnecessary flights to and fro across the continent so as not to lose their landing slots at major airports, wasting money and spewing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. In normal circumstances, air traffic rules require airlines to use at least 80 percent of their allotted landing slots at a given airport or risk losing those slots to another airline. The Federal Aviation Administration in the US has waived this minimum requirement until at least the end of March because of the pandemic, but the European Union has only reduced the minimum to 50 percent. As the AP notes, this has created a very odd situation in which environmental activists and airline executives are on the same side in that they both want the EU to follow the FAA’s lead and waive the requirements altogether until demand picks up again.
The Polish government has decided to recall its ambassador to Czechia after said ambassador, Mirosław Jasiński, criticized his own government amid an ongoing dispute over a coal mine. The EU has ordered Polish officials to close the Turów coal mine, which is located near the Czech border and whose environmental impact has been felt in Czechia. The Polish government has refused to abide by that order, contending that it needs the mine to meet its national energy needs. In an interview with German news outlet Deutsche Welle, Jasiński was asked about the dispute and seemed to place most of the blame for it on Poland, which to be fair is kind of an odd choice for a Polish ambassador to make.
Finally, if you missed it yesterday now would be an excellent time to check out Daniel Bessner’s latest FX column, on the death of mass politics as a meaningful pursuit in the United States:
If social media is any indication—and, despite what people might say or hope, it very much is—the major feelings experienced by most Americans are dislocation and unease. In the last twenty years, the US government has lurched from failure to failure, to the point where a repetition of American-led disasters—Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, the Great Recession, Libya, Trump—reads like a negative doxology. After living through Washington’s inability and/or unwillingness to address adequately the COVID-19 pandemic either at home or abroad over the past two years, many Americans have resigned themselves to a reality in which their lives are getting, and will continue to get, worse.
Ordinary people, it seems, have almost no influence on politics. Despite clear majority support for ideas like public health care or universal childcare, little headway has been made in getting these or similar programs enacted.
We live in an era when the institutions of mass politics—mass-based political parties, the mass media, mass protests, and social media—have proven themselves unable to serve as vehicles of the people’s will. This, I believe, is a major if under-appreciated reason why Americans feel so disconnected from their government and their communities, and why so many of us are depressed: we are told, and we trust, that there are productive ways to channel our political desires, but in actuality this is simply not true.