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World roundup: January 8-9 2022
Stories from Kazakhstan, Sudan, Russia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 7, 1610: Galileo Galilei mentions in a letter his discovery three of the four Galilean moons (Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, and Io) of Jupiter. He presumably had already observed them, but this is the first time he documented it. Initially assuming them to be fixed stars, over the days and weeks after writing this letter Galileo determined that they were moons and discovered that there was 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.
January 9, 1822: Prince Pedro of Portugal, Brazilian regent for his father King João VI, rejects an order from Portugal to dissolve Brazil’s government and return home. The order had been arranged by Portuguese general Jorge de Avilez, who wanted to force Pedro out of Brazil and govern the country himself, but when Avilez subsequently mutinied he and his forces were defeated and forced to leave Brazil. This incident kicked off the series of events that led to Pedro’s coronation as Emperor Pedro I of Brazil in October and the subsequent Brazilian War of Independence.
January 9, 1916: The Gallipoli Campaign ends
January 9, 1917: The Battle of Rafa ends with the UK defeating the last Ottoman defenders in Egypt. Rafa marked the close of the Sinai portion of World War I’s Sinai/Palestine Campaign, which began with an Ottoman attack on the Suez canal in late January 1915 and would end with the Allied capture of Aleppo in October 1918. This battle relatively small engagement consisted mostly of the British army surrounding and wearing out a much smaller Ottoman garrison. Rafa drove the Ottomans out of Egypt and cleared the way for Britain to invade the Levant.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen on Saturday accused the Houthis of using the two Yemeni ports under their control, Hudaydah and Salif, as military bases, thus making them legitimate targets for Saudi airstrikes. The Houthis responded somewhat obliquely with a statement about regular United Nations visits to Hudaydah that emphasized that port’s role as the key inlet for humanitarian aid flowing to northern Yemen. Hudaydah in particular is supposed to be governed by the 2018 Stockholm agreement, which was meant to keep it open and demilitarized but has never been implemented completely. A sustained assault on that port could have calamitous humanitarian consequences.
The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday on the existence of a confidential UN report alleging that three arms shipments that have been intercepted by the US and Saudi navies over the past two years originated at Iran’s Jask seaport. There’s no way to definitively prove that these shipments were intended for the Houthis but it seems a reasonable assumption. “Iran Arming Houthis” isn’t breaking news, exactly, but the identification of Jask as the point of origin confirms (apparently) what the US military had previously suspected.
Three Turkish soldiers were reportedly killed on Saturday in a bombing in the town of Akçakale, which is located in Şanlıurfa province just across the border from the Syrian town of Tell Abyad. Turkish officials accused “terrorists” of planting the explosive, without going into further details. Presumably they were referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) or its Syrian affiliate, the YPG.
The Iraqi parliament met on Sunday for the first time since October’s election, and after a delay caused by a health emergency involving its oldest member, 73 year old Mahmood al-Mashhadani, it set about the business of electing a new speaker. Well, when I say “new” speaker I don’t mean “new” new. The legislature reelected incumbent Mohamed al-Halbousi to a second term in that post. As for their other main orders of business, the election of a president and nomination of a prime minister, legislators may need some time to work on those. Two competing Shiʿa factions are arguing over which of them should be considered the largest bloc in the new parliament. Muqtada al-Sadr’s party emerged from the election as the largest single party, but a coalition of smaller Shiʿa parties has amassed a larger number of seats and is petitioning to be treated as a single party. The largest parliamentary bloc typically gets to propose the PM, so this dispute could have serious ramifications.
According to The Financial Times, Saudi Arabia is running out of missiles to load into its Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries and has gone begging to other Gulf Arab states for help as a stopgap until it can secure more from the United States. Over the past year or so the Houthis have significantly ramped up their air attacks on the kingdom, which even when they’re not successful (and they usually aren’t) still force the Saudis to shoot down a drone costing hundreds or at most thousands of dollars with a missile that costs $1 million or more per unit. Ultimately the only thing that’s going to resolve this issue for the Saudis is an end to the Yemeni war, but that would require lifting their blockade and they’ve shown no interest in doing that.
Saudi authorities have reportedly released Princess Basmah bint Saud, a prominent women’s rights activist who’s been in government custody since March 2019, along with her daughter Souhoud. The Saudis have never really commented on her detention except to claim that she was arrested for trying to forge a passport, and they haven’t offered any reason for her release.
The World Bank is sending $90 million in COVID financing to Iran, with the money to be administered by the World Health Organization presumably to get around US sanctions and any general concern that the funds might be diverted toward other uses.
Speaking of sanctions, the Iranian government imposed some on Saturday, targeting 52 US nationals accused of involvement in the January 2020 assassination of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. I haven’t seen the full list but it sounds like the most prominent name on it is that of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley, whose massive (I assume) savings account at Bank Melli will now be frozen by the Iranian government. In the grand tradition of US threat inflation, the Biden administration decided on Sunday to elevate this meaningless symbolic gesture into A Thing via an angry statement from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. I’d say there’s no reason for them to take this step but I think we all know what the reason is.
Kazakh media reported Sunday that at least 164 people were killed during the past week’s nationwide protests that began over the lifting of fuel price caps but quickly turned into a more widespread and violent uprising. Of those, 103 took place in Almaty alone, which as Kazakhstan’s largest city saw the largest protests and received the lion’s share of what media coverage there was. That’s up substantially from the figures Kazakh officials were bandying about as recently as Friday. I say “at least” 164 because authorities have separately identified 16 police officers killed in clashes with demonstrators, and it’s unclear whether they’re included in that 164 figure or whether that refers only to civilian deaths. Some 2200 people have been reported injured, a figure that I suspect does not include the 1300 injured members of the security forces, and authorities say they’ve arrested some 5800 people. Some portion of them may have been released already but that’s unknown.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has continued to assert that unspecified foreign “terrorists” were responsible for fomenting the violence. His government still hasn’t offered any evidence to back up that claim but I don’t know that you can draw any serious conclusions from that.1 At the very least there’s reason to ask whether these protests, or the violence that commandeered them, was organized in some way, if not necessarily by some foreign actor.
On that note, Kazakh authorities announced on Saturday that they’d arrested Karim Masimov and charged him with treason. Masimov had been running Kazakhstan’s domestic intelligence agency, the National Security Committee, until Tokayev canned him a few days ago amid the protests. He’s also a close ally of Tokayev’s predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was similarly moved out of his post as chair of Kazakhstan’s national security council this week and who appeared to be the target of much of the protesters’ ire. Has there been some factional infighting playing out in this week’s events? Nazarbayev has conspicuously not been seen in public since late December, and there have been rumors that he’s fled the country. But Nazarbayev’s spokesperson said on Saturday that he’s in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, and is urging people to “rally around the president of Kazakhstan to overcome current challenges and ensure the integrity of the country.”
As to the state of the situation in Kazakhstan on Sunday it sounds like things are still calm, if tenuously so. Mostly Russian peacekeepers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization have been deployed to secure sites like the Almaty airport but Kazakh officials say they’re not involved in any operations that could involve protesters (or provocateurs, as the case may be). US media is unsurprisingly still treating this deployment of allied security forces at the Kazakh government’s request as a Russian invasion, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Sunday that the Biden administration has “real questions” about Kazakhstan’s CSTO request and is “asking for clarification,” presumably from the Kazakh government. The level of entitlement here would be astonishing coming from the foreign minister of any other nation, but for the US it’s just standard operating procedure.
Afghan authorities have reportedly arrested an academic, Faizullah Jalal, who’s been a prominent critic of the Taliban, charging him with trying to “instigate people against the system” over comments he allegedly made on social media. Jalal’s family says they have no knowledge of his whereabouts.
Pakistani authorities said on Sunday that a counter-terrorism police unit killed six alleged Islamic State fighters in an overnight raid in Quetta. Officials say they had intelligence that an IS cell was planning some sort of attack in that city.
The US military has agreed to confine its personnel in Japan to their bases, except in cases of “essential activity,” for at least the next 14 days. Japan is dealing with several major COVID outbreaks that have been linked to US bases across the country, prompting some local lockdown measures.
Sudanese security forces killed at least one person Sunday in another day of widespread anti-junta protests across the country. The Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said the man died after being shot in the neck with a tear gas canister. It’s unclear where he was, though as usual the largest demonstrations seem to have taken place in Khartoum and its sister cities, Bahri and Omdurman, so odds are he was in one of those places. Security forces have killed at least 62 people since the Sudanese military seized full control of the country’s transitional government in a coup in October. The UN is scheduled to announce a new initiative on Monday aimed at mediating a national dialogue to get Sudan’s political transition back on course to democratic rule, but also on Sunday the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, which has been the driving force behind these protests, rejected that process and reiterated its demand for full civilian rule.
The Economic Community of West African States on Sunday responded to the Malian junta’s proposal to delay that country’s political transition by imposing sweeping economic sanctions. ECOWAS has been demanding that Mali hold elections next month, but the junta, which seized power in a coup in August 2020 and then unseated its own transitional government in a second coup last May, has floated a plan to push the transition back to late 2025 and possibly into 2026. Among other effects, the ECOWAS measures close off transportation between Mali and other member states and freeze Malian state assets that have been deposited in banks in other ECOWAS member states as well as in the Central Bank of West African States.
Citing reports from local residents, Reuters is reporting that 200 or more people were killed when hundreds of armed bandits rolled through several villages in Nigeria’s Zamfara state on Tuesday evening. The bandit attacks continued through Thursday. The previous estimate of the death toll was around 100, but as residents returned to their homes over the weekend it became clear that the earlier count was low.
An apparent Ethiopian airstrike hit a displaced persons camp in the northern part of the Tigray region late Friday, killing at least 56 people and wounding 30 more. Ethiopian officials have no commented on the strike but have consistently denied targeting civilians during their war against the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front despite, it must be said, evidence to the contrary. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued a statement on Sunday saying that aid groups were suspending their operations in the displaced persons camps in northern Tigray, which mostly house Eritrean refugees, in the wake of the strike.
Separately, the TPLF on Sunday accused the Eritrean military of attacking its forces in northwestern Tigray. The rebels didn’t go into any detail and as has consistently been the case throughout the Tigray conflict there’s no way to verify that claim. The Eritrean military has been allied with its Ethiopian counterpart against the TPLF since this conflict began in November 2020, though both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have sought to downplay its involvement.
Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble and the leaders of Somalia’s various states have reportedly come to an agreement to hold parliamentary elections that will end no later than February 25. So that’s nice. It’s unclear, however, whether President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed is also on board with this plan. At last check, Mohamed was suspending Roble over alleged corruption in the latest iteration of their long-running feud, which has been fueled in part by tensions over an election that was supposed to have taken place last year. Roble ignored his suspension, clearly, but suffice to say the political situation in Somalia is a bit up in the air at present. Because of Somalia’s complex indirect electoral system, it could take some time for state legislatures and tribal councils elect the new parliament, which will then elect a new president—at least in theory.
Both the Russian and US governments spent the weekend lowering expectations ahead of a week of meetings at which they’re expected to air their various grievances with each other and at least attempt to reach some sort of accord. In the wake of Friday’s NATO foreign minister summit, after which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected a Russian demand that the alliance stop expanding, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov suggested to state media on Sunday that the planned week of talks could come to a premature end as of Monday, when US and Russian officials are set to meet in Geneva. Blinken, meanwhile, used his CNN interview on Sunday to discount the possibility of “any breakthroughs in the coming week.” Ryabkov, to be fair, seemed a bit more upbeat about Monday’s talks after he dined with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Geneva on Sunday evening. So maybe that’s a good sign.
Each side is insisting it won’t concede anything under the other’s pressure—Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine and the US threat to impose sanctions in the event of an invasion. US officials have suggested they’d be willing to discuss mutual restrictions on missile deployments and military exercises, though there’s been no indication that the Russians would accept those as compromises in lieu of the full cessation of NATO expansion that they say they’re after. One potential complication may be that Russia expects the US to make decisions on behalf of Ukraine and/or NATO, something the Biden administration may be unable, or unwilling, to do.
Analysis ahead of these upcoming meetings has been all over the place. I’ve seen suggestions that Russian President Vladimir Putin means for the talks to fail in order to justify an invasion he’s already decided to undertake and suggestions that Putin just wants something that he can spin as a victory so that he can justify backing down from an invasion he doesn’t want to undertake. Putin has already passed up a couple of potential justifications for an invasion so I don’t think he’s committed to that course of action. But I also don’t think he’s just looking to save face and back down with dignity. Putin wants a genuine concession about US involvement in Russia’s near abroad (the same kind of assurances the US would demand with respect to, say, Canada or Mexico, or Cuba, or the east cost of Africa as the case may be). He has a mix of reasons for this that include domestic politics, national security, and his own sense of Russian nationalism, but the point is I don’t think resolving this situation will be as simple as some token gesture on Washington’s part.
According to The Guardian, the recent travails of the Turkish lira—whose value has been steadily eroding against the US dollar and and Euro for several years, a recent spike notwithstanding—have had a substantial negative impact on the economy of Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus. That in turn seems to have fueled a growing sentiment that maybe Northern Cyprus would be better off reunited with Greek-speaking southern Cyprus and out of Turkey’s direct control. Despite this backlash, the Northern Cypriot pro-independence movement still outweighs the pro-reunification movement. The actual politics of the island are far closer to partition than reunification, particularly since the election of hardline nationalist Ersin Tatar as Northern Cypriot president in October 2020. And the Turkish government has been cracking down on Turkish Cypriot leaders who don’t toe Ankara’s line on the subject of independence.
New polling still has Portugal’s Socialist party in the lead ahead of the country’s snap election on January 30, but that lead appears to be shrinking. The latest survey from Catolica University has the Socialists at 38 percent support with the Social Democrats at 32 percent. That’s a two point bump for the Social Democrats over Catolica’s previous poll, while the Socialists are unchanged. The real upshot of this and other polling is that Portuguese politics are unlikely to emerge from this snap election any more stable than they were previously. The Socialists are still likely going to be dependent on two smaller parties, the Communist-Greens alliance and Left Bloc, to pass major legislation. It was the opposition of those parties to Prime Minister António Costa’s 2022 budget proposal—they criticized it for being too austere—that forced him to call this snap vote. If Costa still needs their backing after this vote then his political situation will remain unchanged.
The rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) carried out a bombing in the Colombian city of Cali on Sunday that wounded at least 13 police officers. The attack targeted a vehicle carrying officers in Colombia’s anti-riot police unit, the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron or ESMAD. There are no reports of any deaths, but some of the injuries are believed to be serious so that could change.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Nick Turse argues that the winner of the glorious US War on Terror has, in fact, been terror:
It began more than two decades ago. On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” and told a joint session of Congress (and the American people) that “the course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain.” If he meant a 20-year slide to defeat in Afghanistan, a proliferation of militant groups across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and a never-ending, world-spanning war that, at a minimum, has killed about 300 times the number of people murdered in America on 9/11, then give him credit. He was absolutely right.
Days earlier, Congress had authorized Bush “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determine[d] planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 or harbored such organizations or persons.” By then, it was already evident, as Bush said in his address, that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. But it was equally clear that he had no intention of conducting a limited campaign. “Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he announced. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.”
Congress had already assented to whatever the president saw fit to do. It had voted 420 to 1 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate to grant an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that would give him (and presidents to come) essentially a free hand to make war around the world.
“I believe that it’s broad enough for the president to have the authority to do all that he needs to do to deal with this terrorist attack and threat,” Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) said at the time. “I also think that it is tight enough that the constitutional requirements and limitations are protected.” That AUMF would, however, quickly become a blank check for boundless war.
In the two decades since, that 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force has been formally invoked to justify counterterrorism (CT) operations — including ground combat, airstrikes, detention, and the support of partner militaries — in 22 countries, according to a new report by Stephanie Savell of Brown University’s Costs of War Project. During that same time, the number of terrorist groups threatening Americans and American interests has, according to the U.S. State Department, more than doubled.
On the subject of foreign involvement, Eurasianet’s Peter Leonard reports that the Kazakh government’s attempt to put a face to their claim has backfired. They put a man on TV claiming to have been paid $200 to riot in Almaty, but the man turned out to be a popular Kyrgyz musician named Vicram Rouzakhunov. The Kyrgyz government released details about Rouzakhunov’s travel to Kazakhstan that appear to undermine the Kazakh claim that he was enticed to go there to participate in the protests. In the ensuing backlash, the Kazakhs tried to claim that the man who “confessed” was a different Kyrgyz national but that claim apparently didn’t hold up. Again this may not mean anything but it does suggest some problems with the “foreign agent” narrative.