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World roundup: July 18 2023
Stories from Syria, Sudan, Russia, and elsewhere
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Welcome back to our regular programming! I hope you’re all doing well and as ever thanks for sticking with this newsletter! As is always the case after a lengthy break I’m not going to even try to recap everything that happened while I was gone, but if there’s a story you think has fallen through the cracks please let me know!
TODAY IN HISTORY
July 18, 1195: The Battle of Alarcos
July 18, 1290: English King Edward I (also known as Edward “Longshanks”) issues his Edict of Expulsion, forcing an estimated 16,000 Jews out of England. Edward, financially broken by wars on the Continent, cut a deal with English nobles in which he traded the expulsion of the Jews for the right to levy new taxes (the chance to seize abandoned Jewish property must also have appealed to him). But he was also building on a long tradition of English anti-semitism, much of it the product of his father’s (Henry III) reign. The edict’s ban on Jews living in England lasted until Oliver Cromwell lifted it in 1657.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Israeli military bombarded targets around Damascus early Wednesday morning, wounding at least two Syrian soldiers. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming that warehouses connected to Hezbollah were among the targets.
The United Nations’ cross-border aid operation in northern Syria has come to at least a temporary end, after the UN Security Council on Monday failed to renew that operation’s mandate. The Russian government vetoed a resolution that would have renewed the mandate for another nine months, while the council then rejected a Russian proposal for a six month renewal. Russia has been threatening to shut down the operation—which it insists violates Syrian sovereignty—for a number of years, despite the devastating impact this is likely to have on civilians in parts of northern Syria that are outside government control. The Syrian government has offered to reopen the border crossing operation at Bab al-Hawa for at least another six months under its own auspices rather than the UN’s, but UN officials have questioned the conditions attached to that offer.
While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to be mending some fences with his friends in NATO (see below), he’s also on a tour of the Persian Gulf with similar intent. Erdoğan arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday aiming to do business, and it seems his visit was a success on several fronts. Best wishes to the Saudis on their new military drones, by the way, and condolences to pretty much everybody else. Erdoğan is also set to visit Qatar (already a close Turkish partner) and the UAE during his visit.
During a phone call on Monday, US President Joe Biden at long last agreed to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sometime later this year. Assuming it actually happens this would be the first meeting between the two since Netanyahu became PM again in late December, which is quite an interval to make a new Israeli PM wait to meet with the sitting US president. There’s some dispute about the nature of the meeting, apparently, with Israeli sources claiming Biden invited Netanyahu to the White House in September and US sources claiming he simply agreed to meet the Israeli leader somewhere in the US at a yet-to-be-determined time.
Biden extended the offer (such as it was) one day before he met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who is also scheduled to address Congress during his US visit. As a former Labor Party leader, Herzog isn’t associated with Netanyahu’s extreme right government and its controversial (for US officials) judicial overhaul and West Bank annexation agendas. He also occupies a purely ceremonial position so the practical utility of his interaction with Biden is minimal. Back in Israel, meanwhile, said judicial overhaul generated substantial protests on Tuesday as Netanyahu moved forward with a bill that would narrow the Israeli Supreme Court’s authority.
I’m sad to have to bring this to your attention, but according to The Wall Street Journal Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed (MBS and MBZ, respectively) may not be buddies anymore. MBS apparently told a group of reporters in Riyadh back in December that the UAE had “stabbed us in the back”—I’m unclear exactly how—and the WSJ is claiming the two men “haven’t spoken in more than six months.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE are increasingly pulling in different directions on an array of issues, including oil production and in conflicts in Sudan and Yemen, where they’re backing rival factions. They’re also competing for soft power cachet (in European football and golf, for example). Really, MBS all but ensured trouble in this relationship a couple of years ago when he started demanding that foreign companies operating in the Persian Gulf base those operations in Saudi Arabia rather than the UAE, lest they lose access to the Saudi market.
If you take the personal gossip out of it, the WSJ story is over-dramatizing what are some fairly normal policy divergences. But if the personal gossip piece is accurate then that could add an unpredictable element to an otherwise mundane dynamic, with troubling implications for regional stability.
A suicide bombing in the Pakistani city of Peshawar on Tuesday left at least seven people wounded and both attackers dead. A relatively new group that calls itself “Tehreek-e Jihad Pakistan” claimed responsibility for the attack.
Pita Limjaroenrat, whose Move Forward Party won Thailand’s parliamentary election back in May, lost his first bid to become prime minister last week. Despite leading an eight party coalition with a clear majority in Thailand’s 500 seat House of Representatives, Pita failed to muster an overall majority in the 750 seat combined parliament. According to laws set up to maintain military influence over civilian politics, a PM candidate has to win a majority of the combined House and Senate, whose 250 seats (249 are currently occupied) are all military appointees. Only 13 senators backed Pita’s candidacy.
Pita is planning to give it another shot on Wednesday, but it’s still unclear whether he can legally get a do over and anyway there’s not much reason to expect him to be more successful the second time around. He’s expressed a willingness to let election runner up Pheu Thai take the lead in forming a new government, which in theory might have more Senate backing.
Biden administration climate envoy John Kerry is in China this week, continuing a string of high profile US diplomatic visits intended to bring the bilateral relationship back to some degree of normalcy. In some respects Kerry’s visit could be seen as more important than recent trips by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, in the sense that if the US and China could only collaborate on one thing you’d hope it would be climate change. That said, there’s no expectation of any major breakthroughs.
The North Korean military fired off two projectiles on Wednesday morning, probably ballistic missiles of some sort though it’s unclear at this point. This is the second such launch in two weeks, following an apparent intercontinental ballistic missile test last Wednesday, and may be intended as a show of force in response to the arrival of the US ballistic missile submarine Kentucky to South Korea on Tuesday. This is the first time the US Navy has deployed such a vessel to South Korea since 1981 and needless to say it probably hasn’t sparked much joy in Pyongyang.
Elsewhere, a US soldier named Travis King crossed the Demilitarized Zone into North Korean on Tuesday and was unsurprisingly detained by North Korean security personnel. He was apparently about to be sent back to the US after having run afoul of South Korean authorities and was presumably hoping to dodge any further disciplinary action. I’m not sure defecting to North Korea is going to leave him in any better shape but I guess we’ll see.
With the conflict between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces now more than three months old, there was a somewhat positive development over the weekend when the military sent representatives back to the Saudi city of Jeddah for an apparent resumption of ceasefire talks. The Jeddah negotiations were halted last month due to sustained lack of success, but there’s been no alternative diplomatic venue opened since then and in general it’s better for the belligerents to be communicating somehow. However, there hasn’t been any indication to my knowledge that the RSF has also rejoined the talks.
Elsewhere, The Washington Post cites people displaced by the violence in Darfur who say they see uncomfortable similarities between what’s currently happening in that region and what happened there 20 years ago, when Arab tribes carried out a genocidal campaign against non-Arab Darfuri communities. It’s been difficult for media outlets to get steady news out of Darfur since this conflict began but anecdotal indications suggest the violence could be just as serious as what’s happening in the capital region around Khartoum, if not more so. The RSF emerged from those Arab tribes and still has a strong support network in the region.
Anglophone separatist fighters reportedly killed at least 10 people and wounded three more in an attack in Cameroon’s Northwest region on Sunday. The incident targeted civilians at an intersection in the regional capital, Bamenda.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
According to Congolese authorities, “at least 40 civilians” were killed in a series of attacks in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province last week. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced the death toll on Tuesday, apparently without going into much detail beyond that. There are several active militant groups in Ituri, where at the OCHA says at least 600 civilians have been killed so far this year.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative is officially (at least for the moment) kaput, after the Russian government declined to renew its mandate on Monday. This has been a long time coming, as Moscow has regularly insisted that the benefits it was supposed to derive from the agreement never materialized. It means there is no longer any guarantee of safe passage for cargo ships attempting to ferry Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea, a state of affairs reflected in the fact that the insurer that had been underwriting Black Sea grain shipments quickly stopped doing so.
Global wheat prices rose by about 3 percent on the news early Monday before dropping slightly, while countries that depend to one degree or another on Ukrainian grain exports—both commercially and in terms of humanitarian aid supplies—are going to struggle to find alternative food sources. Efforts have been made to expand the capacity for Ukraine to export grain via the Danube River and overland through the European Union, but it’s unlikely that will be enough to replace the lost Black Sea shipments. For whatever it’s worth the Turkish government, which was central to brokering the deal and maintaining it this long, is still engaging with Moscow about restoring it. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
In Ukraine news:
The Ukrainian military attacked the Crimean Bridge, which links Crimea to Russia across the Kerch Strait, on Monday, killing at least two people. The bridge is a key supply route for the Russian military into southern Ukraine, but the attack didn’t damage its rail line and the roadway was at least partially repaired within a few hours. The Russian military later bombarded Odessa in what it claimed was retaliation for the bridge attack—I guess we’re supposed to believe they wouldn’t have attacked the city absent that provocation—and shelled it again late Tuesday amid reports of explosions in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
The Russian military claimed a small advance toward the city of Kupiansk in Ukraine’s Kharkiv oblast on Tuesday, but Ukrainian officials rejected that claim and are insisting that their forces “have taken the initiative” in that region. As ever it’s impossible to confirm either account. The Ukrainians are also claiming slow but steady progress along the southern front of their counteroffensive. There haven’t been any major breakthroughs there in the time I was away and according to The Washington Post US officials are urging the Ukrainians to commit more forces to the front in an attempt to speed up their advance. They’re concerned that the Ukrainians don’t have enough ammunition to maintain their methodical, artillery-heavy approach, while the Ukrainians are concerned that moving too quickly could get a lot of their soldiers killed in Russian airstrikes. Either way seems unsustainable.
The Biden administration is reportedly advancing another $1.3 billion military aid package to Ukraine in the coming days that will include, among other things, more artillery ammunition. This round of aid is going to involve purchases from arms makers rather than the transfer of existing US stocks, and that means it will take longer to manifest. USAID has announced a $750 million aid package, with two-thirds earmarked for humanitarian relief and the other third bound for farmers adversely impacted by the Black Sea Grain Initiative’s collapse.
Faced with the divisive question of whether to open the door to membership for Ukraine or close it permanently at last week’s NATO summit, alliance leaders looked themselves in the mirror and mustered up the courage to kick the proverbial can further down the road. Ukraine’s status is no clearer now than it was before the summit—NATO members might in theory welcome Kyiv into the club at some indeterminate future date, but it won’t be anytime soon and it may or may not happen under an expedited process. But NATO is definitely still supporting the war, don’t worry. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s angry response to the lack of clarity on the membership question almost soured his relationship with the alliance, but whatever tension briefly emerged appears to have passed—at least publicly.
As I assume most/all of you know, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week announced a stunning change of heart regarding Sweden’s NATO accession. Well, maybe—we’ll get to that. After a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson last Monday, billed as the final chance to get Turkey on board before The Gang’s big Vilnius summit, Erdoğan said he would ask the Turkish parliament to ratify Sweden’s membership. The Hungarian government, which has for some reason been acting as Turkey’s shadow when it comes to the latest round of NATO expansion, subsequently announced that it, too, would (probably) move to bring Sweden on board.
There’s been a great deal of speculation as to why Erdoğan dropped his block on Sweden’s accession and what he might have gotten out of it. I think the first thing to note here is that Erdoğan in fact hasn’t dropped the block yet. He’s said he will drop it but he’s also said the Turkish parliament won’t take up the issue it returns from recess in October (it may take up the issue in committee before then), which gives Erdoğan several weeks to change his mind. The second thing to note is that it’s possible Erdoğan viewed the days leading into the summit as his point of maximum leverage and decided it was time to grab whatever concessions he could get and pivot toward improving Turkey’s strained relations with most of its NATO allies.
Keeping that in mind, the Swedish government has agreed (in somewhat vague terms) to address Turkish grievances around the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Fethullah Gülen organization (or, in Turkish parlance, “terrorists”) within Sweden, and more significantly he seems to have awakened Turkey’s dormant purchase of modernized F-16s and F-16 modernization kits from the US. Erdoğan may also win concessions around Turkey’s relationship with the European Union. His last-minute demand that the EU admit Turkey in return for approving Sweden’s NATO membership was a moon shot that even he knew wouldn’t happen, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the EU throw something Turkey’s way in terms of a refurbished trade deal and/or visa concessions for Turkish passport holders. There’s still much here that remains to be seen.
New protests against interim Peruvian President Dina Boluarte and her government are expected to kick off on Wednesday with leaders from southern Peru’s mining communities already apparently on board with the plan. I mention this because Boluarte is already referring to the planned unrest as a “threat to democracy,” and given the lack of restraint her security forces showed during similar demonstrations earlier this year it seems likely she’s going to give them free rein to violently suppress this round of protests too.
Finally, over at Foreign Affairs Michael Brenes argues that privatization and consolidation have left the US defense industry incapable of supporting the demand for arms and ammunition in Ukraine, to say nothing of broader US security demands:
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the United States pledged its “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.” This support has materialized in over $75 billion in security assistance to date, with the United States committed to aiding Ukraine until the fighting stops. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in announcing a new installment of weapons to Ukraine: “The United States and our allies and partners will stand united with Ukraine, for as long as it takes.”
These unlimited commitments to furnishing Ukraine with weapons to counter Russian aggression have invoked parallels to World War II. Weeks after the fighting began, the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued that the United States and its allies are “serving as the ‘arsenal of democracy,’ giving the defenders of freedom the material means to keep fighting” in Ukraine. The journalist Elliot Ackerman then wrote that the workers building missiles for Ukraine’s defense “are a key component of America’s arsenal of democracy.” President Joe Biden has also embraced the “arsenal of democracy” analogy. When he visited a Lockheed Martin plant in Troy, Alabama, in May last year, Biden told the audience that the United States “built the weapons and the equipment that helped defend freedom and sovereignty in Europe years ago” and is doing so again today.
But this lofty rhetoric does not match the reality on the ground. Shortages in production, inadequate labor pools, and interruptions in supply chains have hamstrung the United States’ ability to deliver weapons to Ukraine and enhance the country’s defense capabilities more broadly. These problems have much to do with the history of the U.S. defense industry since World War II. Creeping privatization during the Cold War, along with diminished federal investment and oversight of defense contracting since the 1960s, helped bring about the inefficiency, waste, and lack of prioritization that are complicating U.S. assistance to Ukraine today.
After the Berlin Wall fell, major players in the U.S. defense industry consolidated and downsized their operations and labor forces. They also pursued government contracts for expensive, experimental weaponry to obtain larger profits to the detriment of small arms and ammunition production. As a result, the industry has been underprepared in responding to the Ukraine crisis and unmoored from the broader national security needs of the United States and its allies. Although reforms are possible, there are no quick fixes to these self-inflicted injuries.
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