World roundup: January 9 2024
Stories from Lebanon, China, Ecuador, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
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 so that he could 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 Rafah ends with the UK defeating the last Ottoman defenders in Egypt. Rafah drove the Ottomans out of Egypt and 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.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken turned up in Israel on Tuesday for the fourth time since the October 7 militant attacks in southern Israel. He is trying for the fourth time to convince Israeli leaders 1) to stop killing Palestinian civilians indiscriminately, 2) to make a meaningful effort to improve a humanitarian situation that has left Gaza “uninhabitable,” and 3) to begin planning for a post-conflict scenario that does not include the territory’s ethnic cleansing. He will almost certainly fail to achieve any of those things for, yes, the fourth time.
Part of this trip’s focus appears to be on opening northern Gaza up to civilians again. In theory this is possible, now that the Israeli military (IDF) has “dismantl[ed] the Hamas military framework in the northern Gaza Strip.” It’s true that the IDF has left northern Gaza in no condition to support human life, but that’s surmountable in the short term if the Israeli government opens the area for the construction of a displaced persons camp and medical facilities. Civilians now in the middle of the war zone in central and southern Gaza could move north to get away from the worst of the violence. In practice, it’s unlikely to happen for multiple reasons. For one thing, there’s no indication the IDF is actually going to taper off its bombing in northern Gaza. For another, shifting the civilian population to the north would also involve bringing humanitarian aid into Gaza via northern access points from Israel proper. For still another thing, moving those civilians into northern Gaza puts the Israeli government further away from what seems increasingly to be its postwar goal: forcing those civilians out of Gaza and into Egypt and beyond.
The final reason this relocation is unlikely to happen is because the Israeli government flat out opposes it. According to Axios, Israeli officials were planning to tell Blinken that they won’t allow civilians to relocate to the north unless/until Hamas and company agree to release the rest of their hostages. An agreement like that would presumably involve a new short term ceasefire and securing the hostages’ release is a laudable goal, but dangling relief for Gaza’s civilian population to extract concessions from Hamas is the definition of collective punishment and thus something the Biden administration, as champion of the “rules-based order,” should oppose. Israeli officials have reportedly agreed to allow the United Nations to inspect conditions in northern Gaza with an eye toward a potential future relocation, but if that was meant as a concession to Blinken it barely qualifies as one.
In other stories:
According to The Wall Street Journal there has been some movement on the hostage front, with “an Israeli delegation” heading to Cairo on Monday for more talks. The last round of negotiations broke down earlier this month after the IDF strike that killed senior Hamas political official Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut. Hamas had apparently proposed freeing 40 hostages at a rate of one per day, ensuring an extended ceasefire, with Gazans permitted to return to the northern part of the territory. I’d be shocked if the Israelis agreed to anything close to those terms but the general framework is essentially the same as their previous ceasefire deal.
The IDF reported on Tuesday that nine of its soldiers had been killed in Gaza over the previous day, which would make that the deadliest 24 hour period for Israeli personnel since October 7—at least as far as official casualty figures are concerned. Apparently six were killed in a single accidental explosion at what the IDF called a “weapons production site” below the Bureij refugee camp. Officially the IDF says it has lost 187 soldiers in Gaza to date, not including those killed in the October 7 attacks.
The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor highlights the shocking number of journalists killed in Gaza since October 7—79 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, over 100 according to Palestinian figures. That’s upwards of 10 percent of all journalists in Gaza. The IDF has insisted it is not deliberately targeting journalists but that claim is increasingly difficult to sustain as the death toll continues to rise. It’s also hard to square with reporting that suggests the IDF knows with a high degree of certainty who it’s targeting.
The International Court of Justice will hold its first hearing on Thursday on the South African government’s filing accusing the Israeli government of violating the 1948 Genocide Convention. Israel is a signatory to that convention so it is on paper obliged to obey any ruling the ICJ makes in this case. It almost certainly won’t obey a ruling that goes against its operation, which would undermine the credibility of the convention and the ICJ. I would not be surprised if the court were to find a way to rule against the Gaza operation without imposing anything on the Israelis in order to avoid the inevitable act of defiance.
The US military carried out an airstrike on a rocket launch site near Ayn al-Asad airbase in western Iraq on Tuesday that Iraqi sources say foiled an attack on that facility. The attack destroyed the launcher but there’s no word on casualties. Nor is it clear who was planning the alleged attack—probably an Iraqi militia, but Islamic State can’t be ruled out.
IS was responsible for an attack on a Syrian army bus near Palmyra on Tuesday that killed at least eight soldiers, according to the Syrian military, or 14 soldiers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. IS remnants use Syria’s desert regions as cover to carry out these sorts of hit and run attacks, frequently against military personnel.
Elsewhere, Reuters is reporting that the Jordanian military carried out no fewer than four airstrikes in Syria on Tuesday targeting facilities linked with drug trafficking. Local media is reporting at least three deaths but that’s unconfirmed. The Jordanian government attributes most of the drug smuggling out of Syria to Iranian-backed militias, including Hezbollah.
An Israeli drone strike reportedly killed three Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, Hezbollah said that it had carried out a drone strike targeting the IDF’s command facility in northern Israel, in response for the recent Israeli attacks that killed Arouri and Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil. According to Israeli officials the attack had no effect in terms of casualties or damage.
As of Tuesday evening the IDF was claiming that it had killed Hezbollah official Ali Hussein Burji in an airstrike. Burji was reportedly the leader of the militia’s drone unit in southern Lebanon and had been responsible for the drone strike on the IDF facility. Israeli officials continue to risk escalating this back-and-forth into a full blown war while demanding that Hezbollah withdraw its fighters north of the Litani River under Israel’s interpretation of the 2006 UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
Houthi forces in northern Yemen fired drones and missiles at commercial ships in the Red Sea again on Tuesday evening. There’s no indication that they successfully struck any vessels. The Houthis continue their efforts to disrupt Red Sea shipping in response to the situation in Gaza.
A bombing targeting a minivan in eastern Kabul on Tuesday left at least three people dead and four more wounded. As far as I know there’s been no claim of responsibility but I think it’s safe to assume IS was involved.
UPDATE: IS has indeed claimed responsibility for this bombing.
The People’s Democratic Party led by former (and presumably future) Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay has apparently emerged victorious from the second round of Bhutan’s parliamentary election on Tuesday. The PDP is expected to control 30 seats (give or take) in the 47 seat National Assembly, with the remainder going to the other second round participant, the Bhutan Tendrel Party. The current ruling party, Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, did not make the runoff. The campaign turned largely on economic issues.
This week has seen the resumption of in-person military-to-military contact between the US and China at the Pentagon. Such meetings had been a fairly regular occurrence until then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in 2022 prompted Beijing to suspend them. Restoring military-to-military contact was Joe Biden’s main objective heading into his summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping back in November. Eventually a meeting of defense ministers would be in order, but at the moment US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s health is in question (more on that below) and Xi only just appointed a new defense minister, Dong Jun, late last month.
A group called the “Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights” is accusing the Tunisian government of a variety of actions, including “mass expulsions and arbitrary arrests,” targeting African migrants on behalf of European governments. Much of this activity appears to be centered on the city of Sfax, which is a jumping off point for migrants from other parts of Africa attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Although he’s taken a wrecking ball to Tunisian democracy, President Kais Saied has continued to receive European financial aid in return for interdicting the movement of people toward Europe. Saied has in turn stoked hostility toward sub-Saharan Africans by claiming that their arrival is part of a plot to alter Tunisia’s “demographic makeup.”
At least ten people have been killed in two separate landmine incidents along the same highway in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state over the past two days. The first incident killed at least three people late Monday while the second involved a truck and left at least seven people dead on Tuesday morning. Both blasts occurred near the Cameroonian border. Islamic State West Africa Province and Boko Haram are both active in that region.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Congolese soldiers are accused of killing at least seven civilians in an incident that took place on Monday in North Kivu province. Local militia also killed three soldiers, but the sequence of events is unclear and the militia may have been responding to an initial outburst of violence by the soldiers. Authorities have arrested six soldiers in connection with the shooting. Local sentiment toward Congolese security forces is not terribly positive under normal circumstances and this incident will certainly not do much to win over hearts and minds.
A Ukrainian drone strike killed one person in Russia’s Kursk oblast on Tuesday. Drones also attacked a “fuel facility” in neighboring Oryol oblast, causing a fire but apparently no casualties.
Ukrainian officials are saying that they’re running out of air defense missiles in the face of major Russian drone and missile attacks. This was already apparent from the declining rate of air interceptions by Ukrainian defense systems, and this isn’t even the first time that Ukrainian leaders are talking openly about their depleted stockpiles, but this warning comes as new military funding for Ukraine remains stalled in the US Congress and so there’s no indication when (or if) new missiles are going to be arriving, at least for the short term. Ukraine has no domestic air defense missile industry, though there’s been talk of creating one, so it is dependent on foreign suppliers.
French President Emmanuel Macron named Education Minister Gabriel Attal as his new prime minister on Tuesday, replacing the departed Élisabeth Borne. At 34, Attal is the youngest PM in French history and also the first openly gay individual to serve in that office. His appointment is intended to turn the page on some of the less popular initiatives Macron has undertaken over the past year or so, particularly last year’s pension reform, and to fend off a growing far right challenge ahead of this year’s European Parliamentary election. Presumably Attal can also be considered a potential successor to Macron, who is term limited, though the next French presidential election isn’t until 2027 so handicapping that race right now is kind of a sucker’s game.
Ecuador’s emerging security crisis escalated drastically on Tuesday when gunmen interrupted a live broadcast on Ecuadorean TV station TC in Guayaquil and took a number of hostages. Police say they’ve arrested 13 people in connection with that incident, which now appears to be at an end, but that was only the most dramatic of several violent encounters that have been taking place across the country. At least eight people were killed in various incidents just in Guayaquil on Tuesday and scores of police officers and prison guards have reportedly been taken hostage in recent days. One day after imposing a state of emergency following the apparent escape of formerly imprisoned gang leader José Adolfo Macías, Ecuadorean President Daniel Noboa on Tuesday declared that the country is under “internal armed conflict” and classified 22 criminal gangs as “terrorist organizations.”
Finally US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hitherto unspecified health problem has now been specified: according to the Pentagon he is in treatment for prostate cancer. He has apparently known this since early December, but the White House only became aware of it after news broke over the weekend that Austin had been in the hospital for an infection since January 1 but hadn’t notified anyone in the Biden administration. A desire for medical privacy is certainly understandable, but is one of the things one generally surrenders in return for assuming a position like Secretary of Defense. The White House has criticized Austin’s handling of this situation, for which he’s apologized, but there doesn’t appear to be any indication that Joe Biden is planning to fire him.
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