World roundup: January 7-8 2023
Stories from Syria, China, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. This is going to be a long one so I won’t belabor it with an extended intro except to say a belated Merry Christmas to those following the Orthodox calendar. Let’s get to it.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 7, 1610: Galileo Galilei mentions in a letter his discovery of three of the four Galilean moons (Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, and Io) of Jupiter. This is the first time Galileo documented having observed the moons, though he apparently hadn’t yet realized what they were. Initially assuming them to be fixed stars, over the days and weeks after writing this letter Galileo determined that they were moons and discovered a fourth one.
January 7, 1942: The Imperial Japanese army lays siege to US and Philippine forces on Luzon Island’s Bataan Peninsula. The beleaguered US and Philippine soldiers held out for a bit over three months, but finally surrendered to Japan on April 9. Some 78,000 soldiers surrendered, 12,000 of them American—one of the largest single surrenders in US military history. Over 20,000 Philippine and hundreds of US prisoners subsequently died in the ensuing Bataan Death March to the city of San Fernando and due to the brutality with which the Japanese military treated the captives.
January 8, 1926: Abdulaziz ibn Saud is crowned king of the Hejaz, adding that kingdom to his original dominion in the Nejd. This personal union lasted for six years and became the nucleus of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1932, Ibn Saud unified the Hejaz and the Nejd (as well as al-Hasa, east of the Nejd) into a single state, to which he later added Asir, Najran, and Jizan after a 1934 war with Yemen.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The rebel National Liberation Front coalition says its fighters killed three Syrian soldiers and wounded three more in western Aleppo province on Saturday. As far as I know this claim is unconfirmed and, if true, the circumstances surrounding the clash are unclear. The NLF’s umbrella organization, the “Syrian National Army,” also claimed that its forces battled Syrian Democratic Forces fighters on Saturday near Afrin. Details on that alleged encounter are similarly unclear.
Speaking of the SDF, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar hinted on Wednesday at a possible expansion of joint Turkish-Russian patrols in northern Syria. This would be part of a Russian attempt to forestall a new Turkish invasion of parts of that region that are under SDF control. It could also be a step toward something the Russian government has been after for some time now, namely a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A thaw in relations between Ankara and Damascus would seriously undermine the position of Syria’s remaining rebel groups, which are dependent on Turkish support, and would thus go a long way toward securing Russia’s policy aims in Syria. Moscow has brokered a couple of high-level Syrian-Turkish meetings, most recently between their respective defense ministers late last month, and an Erdoğan-Assad confab would presumably be the final step before a formal diplomatic reopening.
A large aid convoy entering northern Syria on Sunday via Turkey highlighted the fact that the United Nations Security Council is scheduled to vote Monday on extending that cross-border aid mission for another six months. According to the AP Russia, which has argued that all aid shipments in Syria should be conducted via the Syrian government, is expected to abstain from Monday’s vote rather than vetoing it, which should mean the extension will pass.
Thousands of people turned out in Tel Aviv on Saturday to protest against newly installed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultra right-wing government. Netanyahu and Friends are moving quickly to implement a list of far-right priorities, perhaps most importantly a measure that would effectively strip the Israeli Supreme Court of its authority. The Court has been a thorn in the Israeli right’s side for some time now, what with its occasional insistence on things like basic human rights for Palestinians and immigrants. The Gang intends to pass a law allowing the Knesset to override Court rulings with a simple majority vote.
The new government has also hit the ground running with respect to Palestinian issues, with new National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir making a provocative visit to the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount site on Tuesday that may have been intended to spark a Palestinian uprising. It seems not to have done so, though it did spark a fair amount of international criticism, and these guys have only been in office for a couple of weeks so they probably need some time to cook. They’re reportedly planning a mass expulsion of Palestinians from the Masafer Yatta hamlet in the southern West Bank in order to turn the site into an Israel military training ground. This would involve the expulsion of more than 1000 people and would be one of the largest such incidents since Israel seized the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Day War. Netanyahu’s cabinet has also begun revoking travel documents from senior Palestinian Authority officials and is withholding PA tax revenues over payments the Palestinian government makes to the families of Palestinians who are killed or imprisoned by Israeli authorities.
The Danish Foreign Ministry says it will summon Iran’s ambassador in Copenhagen on Monday to lodge a formal protest over the Iranian government’s treatment of protesters. Specifically the ministry is expressing outrage over the executions, announced on Saturday, of two more imprisoned demonstrators. Iranian authorities have now executed at least four people in connection with the Mahsa Amini protests, with another nine currently on the Iranian equivalent of death row. That’s in addition to the hundreds allegedly killed by Iranian security forces during the protests.
The Afghan government’s systematic exclusion of women from public life is hampering aid delivery, according to Norwegian Refugee Council boss Jan Egeland. He’s not just referring to the restoration of funds to the Afghan central bank, which Western governments have tied to the Taliban’s treatment of women. Aid agencies are often unwilling to abide by Taliban restrictions on women’s rights, and at any rate Afghan authorities have now barred women from working for international NGOs. Beyond that, these agencies employ women in part to interact with other local women, for example in female-headed households, which is something that the Taliban’s own ideology prevents male NGO staffers from doing. Egeland is in Afghanistan right now and is apparently hoping to meet with senior Taliban figures to press his case on this issue.
Unspecified militants attacked a Pakistani police vehicle in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Saturday, killing one police officer. There’s been no claim of responsibility but this is almost certainly the work of the Pakistani Taliban.
Myanmar’s ruling junta appears to be preparing to hold some sort of election, as it’s reached out in recent months to a number of ethnic militant groups about conducting said election on the territories those groups control. Authorities are currently meeting with officials from three militant groups—the National Democratic Alliance Army, the Shan State Progress Party, and the United Wa State Party—that have for the most part stayed out of the internal fighting that Myanmar has seen since the military seized power in February 2021. There’s not yet any indication as to when this election might be held or what it might entail, either in terms of the offices up for grabs or the rules under which they’d be contested. It could offer a path out of military rule, though I suspect it will only entrench military rule under a veneer of legitimacy.
The overall impact of lifting China’s “Zero-COVID” policy remains unclear, but World Health Organization emergencies director Mike Ryan says the WHO believes official Chinese figures “under-represent” the extent of COVID infections and deaths since lockdown policies were relaxed last month. Anecdotal evidence suggests fairly widespread infections and it sounds like Chinese authorities may be using what I’ll euphemistically call a “highly refined” definition of what constitutes a COVID-related death in an effort to keep that figure down. The Chinese government has now rescinded quarantine requirements for people returning from overseas travel, which should spark an increase in the number of Chinese nationals going abroad. China’s domestic COVID status will partly determine how those travelers are received in the countries to which they intend to travel. Chinese arrivals are already subject to mandatory testing in a number of nearby countries.
Mali’s ruling junta has pardoned the 49 Ivory Coast soldiers it arrested back in July. You may recall that Malian authorities accused the Ivorians of entering the country without permission as mercenaries, though it was pretty clear at the time that they were attached to the UN’s Mali peacekeeping operation. The UN later admitted to some procedural failure surrounding their deployment but the junta’s reaction still seemed excessive (to put it mildly). Late last month a junta court sentenced 46 of the Ivorians to 20 years in prison (the other three had been given death sentences but only after being released). The pardoned soldiers returned to Ivory Coast on Saturday.
Relations between Burkina Faso’s ruling junta and the French government took another downturn last Monday, when the junta asked Paris to recall its ambassador from Ouagadougou. It’s unclear why, but the French-Burkinabè relationship seems to be following the same general pattern that’s played out in Mali and the Central African Republic, to pick two examples. Governments that had previously been somewhat dependent on France for security assistance are turning instead to Russia (seeing no real improvement in their security conditions, it must be said) and cutting ties with Paris.
Beninese voters headed to the polls on Sunday to elect themselves a new parliament. Results won’t be available for a few days, but the election is already something of a milestone in that opposition parties are participating—something that was not the case in the previous (2019) election. Only two parties met the strict requirements for entry into the 2019 field and both were affiliated with President Patrice Talon. This time around the field is wider and expectations are that there will not be a repeat of 2019’s political unrest.
Somali Deputy Defense Minister Abdifatah Kasim claimed on Saturday that al-Shabab leaders are requesting talks with the Somali government, which if true would be a first in that jihadist group’s history. There’s no confirmation of this claim and al-Shabab has unsurprisingly not commented. That said, Kasim’s claim does make a certain amount of sense, what with al-Shabab currently embroiled in what appears to be a losing campaign against a joint militia-government opposition in central Somalia’s Hirshabelle state and a government effort to root out and eliminate the group’s revenue sources. Kasim suggested that the government is prepared to engage with Somali members of al-Shabab who are willing to surrender, but would insist that the group’s foreign fighters leave Somalia altogether.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
According to the UN there are indications that the M23 militia is still actively seizing territory in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province, in violation of a ceasefire that was supposed to have taken effect on December 23. Under the terms of the ceasefire, to which M23 says it is committed, the group was to have withdrawn from a number of areas it had already seized, and needless to say the UN is indicating that they haven’t done much of that either. M23 has denied these UN allegations, and it does have until January 15 to complete the first withdrawals envisioned by the ceasefire, and it sounds like the East African Community peacekeeping force, which is supposed to be taking control of the positions from which M23 is supposed to be withdrawing, is waiting for that deadline before it reevaluates the situation.
In news from Ukraine:
The Russian military adopted a 36 hour ceasefire in Ukraine on Friday to mark Christmas on the Orthodox calendar, but it sounds like nobody in Ukraine noticed since the Russians never actually ceased firing. Russian artillery continued to be active across the front line throughout the alleged lull in fighting, with Russian officials later justifying the shelling as a response to multiple Ukrainian attacks. The Ukrainians, for what it’s worth, rejected the ceasefire as a “ploy” shortly after the Russians announced it.
The Russians acknowledged that at least 63 of their soldiers were killed on January 1 in a Ukrainian artillery strike that hit a building housing Russian conscripts in Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast. The strike raised a bit of outrage among Russian war commentators, who accused the Russian military of unspecified errors that may have led to the attack and/or exacerbated its effects. Russian officials blamed the soldiers themselves for using cell phones and thus drawing Ukrainian attention, a bit of victim blaming that doesn’t seem to have gone over well with the pro-war crowd. On Sunday the Russians claimed to have killed more than 600 Ukrainian soldiers in a retaliatory missile strike on a barracks in Kramatorsk, but Ukrainian officials are denying that claim and so far there’s no independent confirmation either way.
Ukraine and Russia undertook another prisoner swap on Sunday, with 50 POWs from each side being repatriated.
The Ukrainian government on Sunday added 118 people to its expansive Russian sanctions list. Most of these new targets appear to be involved in the arts in some capacity, including opera singer Anna Netrebko. All will have any assets in Ukraine frozen for at least ten years. Also on Sunday it emerged that the Ukrainian government stripped 13 clergy members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of their citizenship last month. The details around this are unclear, including the reason for their denaturalizations. Presumably they’re accused of aiding and abetting the Russian war effort somehow.
The Biden administration announced on Friday that it’s putting together a whopping $3.75 billion military aid package for Ukraine, including the provision of Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. The Bradley offer was actually announced on Thursday, along with a German pledge to provide Ukraine with Marder infantry fighting vehicles, and came one day after the French government promised to send Ukraine a number of its AMX-10 RC armored combat vehicles. These vehicles are not main battle tanks, something the Ukrainians have been requesting, but they’re a step in that direction. They’ll help Ukrainian ground forces move more quickly and bring more firepower to bear along the front line of the conflict and could support a new Ukrainian counter-offensive if one is in the offing. More importantly, this represents another escalation in Western support and suggests that if this conflict goes on long enough, the Ukrainians will eventually get everything they want—including tanks, longer-range artillery, and potentially advanced Western aircraft. Some $682 million of the package is earmarked for European countries that have provided (and, the US hopes, will continue to provide) weapons and ammunition to Ukraine.
On Sunday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić revealed, to I assume nobody’s surprise, that NATO’s KFOR peacekeeping operation in Kosovo had rejected a Serbian government request to deploy its security forces to northern Kosovo. Tensions between the majority-Serb population of that area and the Kosovan government have been running high for several weeks now, and Vučić made his request under the terms of the UN resolution that ended the 1998-1999 Kosovo War, or at least the Serbian government’s interpretation of that resolution. He acknowledged at the time that the request was sure to be rejected, but apparently felt it was important to get NATO’s rejection on the record.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson told an audience at a conference in Sweden on Sunday that his government will not be able to meet all of the demands the Turkish government has made in return for approving Sweden’s NATO application. Nevertheless he’s apparently “confident” that Turkey will ultimately agree to allow Sweden into the club. Kristersson’s main objection appears to relate to extradition. Turkey has requested/demanded the extradition of a number of Swedish residents who are wanted on various charges in Turkey, but Kristersson is insisting that those cases be handled “within Swedish law” rather than rubber stamped.
Supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stormed and ransacked government buildings in Brasília on Sunday in an assault that echoed the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol by supporters of former US President Donald Trump. Bolsonaro’s fans swarmed past security forces—who, it must be said, didn’t seem especially interested in stopping them, to storm the Congress building, the presidential palace, and the offices of the Brazilian Supreme Court. It is entirely unclear what, if anything, they hoped to achieve, but it doesn’t appear they achieved anything beyond international condemnation and an angry rebuke from new Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Oh, and a bunch of them eventually seem to have been arrested, so they’ve got that going for them.
Bolsonaro is not in Brazil, of course, having made some tepid efforts to prevent Lula’s inauguration over the past few months before fleeing into what looks like a fairly dismal Florida exile to avoid potential criminal charges. Sunday’s events are already raising calls for his deportation/extradition back to Brazil and it will be interesting to see whether and how the Biden administration responds to those calls.
The US embassy in Havana is once again conducting full consular services including visa processing. That hasn’t been the case since 2017, when the facility cut staff and services over concerns about the so-called “Havana Syndrome” and because the Trump administration was ideologically committed to rolling back the Obama administration’s diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba. For the past several years any Cuban hoping to enter the United States had to first travel to Guyana to obtain a visa, an onerous requirement that may have helped fuel an increase in the number of Cubans trying to enter the US without proper documentation.
Finally, the venerable F-35 has had another of its periodic hiccups, wherein the aircraft that’s costing the US government $1.7 trillion or more once all of its lifetime costs are added up turns out not to be able to do the main thing you’d like any aircraft to be able to do: fly. The plane’s Pratt & Whitney F135 engine is apparently not quite up to snuff, based on an investigation into the crash of an F-35B during a test flight in Texas last month. The engine has been a repeated source of problems for the F-35, but it certainly hasn’t been the only source. As I’m sure most of you realize, the entire F-35 program has been a mess almost from the conception of the aircraft—which, as Michael Brenes writes for his newsletter, makes it an appropriate symbol for Washington’s military spending problem:
“We spent 1.7 trillion on this [F-35],” tweeted commentator Kyle Kulinski in response to the crash. Not quite. That $1.7 trillion figure is the projected cost of the F-35 over sixty-six years, so it is not real — yet. (Some not so fun related facts: $1.7 trillion is also the amount of the spending bill that was approved by Congress to keep the government open next year and the same amount of total federal student loan debt.) But in some ways, the exorbitant cost of the F-35 downplays its impact on the future of American warfare.
The F-35 now has an over twenty-year history. After the Cold War, the Air Force looked to replace outdated F-16 fighter jets. After entertaining competing bids from Lockheed and Boeing, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed with the contract for a new fighter jet in 2001. The F-35 debuted in 2006. For over fifteen years, F-35s have rolled off production lines to face a myriad of problems: the weight of the plane, its software, even its ability to maneuver properly. By 2015, after more than a decade of investment, when the plane was still projected to cost under $1 trillion, the F-16 still proved to be the superior plane.
Yet the problems that plagued the F-35 are historical; they are systemic across the defense industry. Indeed, the F-35 is not an anomaly. It is a feature, not a bug, of the defense acquisition process and the public-private relationships between the military, defense contractors, and Congress that trace their origins to the early Cold War.
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