World roundup: July 27 2023
Stories from Syria, China, Niger, and elsewhere
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PERSONAL NOTE: If you read last night’s newsletter (it’s above the paywall for non-subscribers) then you know my dad passed away on Tuesday. Right now I’m planning to take a little break this weekend and maybe come back to the newsletter next Tuesday, but I could easily change my mind so if you get a roundup or two (or three) in the next few days please just roll with it.
TODAY IN HISTORY
July 27, 1794: Challenged by Maximilien Robespierre to arrest all those he deemed “traitors” to the revolution, which could have included pretty much any or all of them (he didn’t specify), France’s National Convention decides it would just be easier to arrest Robespierre instead. In what is now known as the “Thermidorian Reaction” since it took place in the month of Thermidor on the revolutionary calendar, Robespierre and dozens of his associates were rounded up by a faction within the National Convention called—wait for it—the Thermidorians. A group of 22, including Robespierre himself, were executed the following day. The Thermidorians established a new constitution the following year that dissolved the Convention and established the five-member Directory as the main organ of the revolutionary government.
July 27, 1953: The Korean Armistice Agreement, signed by the United Nations Command, the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army at Panmunjom, halts fighting in the Korean War. The agreement set terms for a ceasefire, a prisoner exchange, and the fixing of what was supposed to be a temporary border and demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, with subsequent peace talks meant to finalize the details surrounding the end of the war. So, about that—those subsequent talks, at the 1954 Geneva Conference, failed, and the temporary armistice has remained the last word on the Korean War since its signing.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Although July 2023 is not yet over, a new analysis from Leipzig University in Germany says that it is already a lock to be the hottest single month ever recorded, topping previous record holder July 2019. This probably comes as no surprise to anybody who’s gone outside at any point this month in, say, the southeastern US or large swaths of Europe and Asia. But having it verified should and probably will set off alarm bells in several quarters—except among Western politicians and fossil fuel company executives, the people who might actually be able to do something to change this situation.
A car bombing outside Damascus on Thursday killed at least six people and wounded 26 more, according to Syrian media. The blast occurred in Sayyidah Zaynab, one of the Syrian capital’s satellite cities and home to the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine, a site venerated by Shiʿa Muslims. It’s not entirely clear who the bomb was meant to target—it may have been civilians, but the bombing apparently took place near sites that house pro-government militias so it may also have been meant for them. For what it’s worth Friday is the Shiʿa holy day of Ashura, which can and often does bring with it attacks against Shiʿa communities by Sunni jihadists.
Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic reports on the obstacles US sanctions continue to put in the way of Syria’s earthquake recovery efforts:
Nearly six months ago, after a devastating earthquake that killed more than seven thousand people and left $5.1 billion worth of damage in Syria, the Biden administration did the bare minimum decent thing and issued an exemption for the more-than-decade-long US sanctions on the country. The sanctions had already made life for ordinary Syrians brutal and borderline unlivable at what might charitably be called the best of times, so you could only imagine the kind of deadly mayhem they would have caused in the middle of this disaster.
Half a year on, how is it going? The verdict is mixed, according to a report put out earlier this month by the Carter Center, the human rights organization founded by former president Jimmy Carter.
Based on conversations with a dozen figures from the United Nations, NGOs, banks, and other entities involved in post-earthquake efforts, the report makes clear that while the exemptions have helped, numerous obstacles to humanitarian work in the country remain as a result of the sanctions, writes the report’s author, Dr Erica Moret of the Swiss Centre for International Policy Engagement.
US policy is also undermining the Iraqi dinar, which is currently trading at 1570 per US dollar, around 17 percent weaker than the official 1300-to-1 exchange rate. The Biden administration last week barred 14 Iraqi banks from conducting dollar transactions, causing a spike in the dollar’s value against the dinar. The banks are apparently not large so the effect may be transient. There’s been no comment from either the US Treasury or the New York Federal Reserve about last week’s action but it was undoubtedly taken to try to stop the flow of dollars from Iraq into Iran.
A Palestinian militant group called the Ayyash Battalion claimed on Thursday that its fighters fired a rocket at a northern Israel village just beyond the West Bank’s border. The Israeli military later confirmed the recovery of “improvised rocket remnants” near the West Bank city of Jenin but otherwise there doesn’t seem to be any indication that the rocket caused casualties or material damage.
The results of a new survey from the Pew Research Center suggest that China’s global image is souring. The poll included people in 24 countries and found a median of 67 percent felt at least somewhat negatively toward Beijing against a median of 28 percent who felt at least somewhat positively. People living in higher-income countries tended to view China more negatively than people living in lower-income countries like Indonesia, Mexico, and Nigeria. Beijing is apparently losing luster both as an economic power and a geopolitical actor, with a median of 71 percent saying that China “does not contribute to global peace and stability” despite its still fairly recent role in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Another country with a low Q Score, North Korea, has welcomed delegations from China and Russia this week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Korean armistice agreement. Notably this is the first major visit by foreign dignitaries to North Korea since the onset of the pandemic. North Korean media reported on Thursday that Kim Jong-un accompanied those delegations, featuring Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, to a military event where he got to show off his country’s various ballistic missiles. Sounds like a real fun time. Another novelty appears to have been how openly the Chinese and Russian teams inspected these heavy North Korean arms, when past delegations to Pyongyang have tended to be a bit more circumspect in that regard.
There were reports of heavy fighting in and around Khartoum on Thursday, as the Rapid Support Forces attacked a military airbase north of the capital. According to the RSF its fighters “killed or wounded dozens” and “destroyed three fighter jets, as well as stores of weapons, military equipment and supplies.” Further details, or indeed even any confirmation of the RSF’s claim, have not been forthcoming. There were also reports of fighting in West Darfur and South Darfur states, where the military-RSF conflict is raising fears of another genocide against non-Arab communities.
Authorities in Sierra Leone said on Thursday that they’re communicating with other governments in the Gulf of Guinea littoral region in an effort to clamp down on piracy, after a Chinese fishing vessel was reportedly hijacked in Sierra Leonean waters on Sunday. They’re in particular working with Liberian authorities, as the vessel in question was eventually recovered in Liberian waters in an operation that also involved Ivory Coast. The Gulf of Guinea is perhaps the hottest spot for piracy in the world at present.
Any lingering uncertainty over the outcome of Wednesday’s coup in Niger appears to have dissipated by Thursday morning, when the high command of the Nigerien military announced that it was on board with the project. It’s unclear how enthusiastic the military leadership is, however, as they cited a desire to avoid a “bloodbath” and to “preserve the physical integrity” of President Mohamed Bazoum and “the security of the population” for the decision to acquiesce. At this point it’s not entirely clear who’s running Niger, but evidence points toward the commander of the presidential guard, General Omar Tchiani. His motives are unknown but there has been some speculation that Bazoum was about to fire him for some unknown reason.
Bazoum, or at least his staff, was still posting to social media on Thursday morning, pledging that Niger’s “hard-won gains” in the area of democratic governance “will be safeguarded.” That Bazoum and company are still able to communicate suggests they’re not fully in custody yet though it’s clear they are being held inside the presidential palace in Niamey. There are reports of tension on the streets of the capital between supporters and opponents of the coup but so far I haven’t seen any indications of open violence.
Islamic State West Africa Province fighters killed at least 32 people in two incidents that took place on Tuesday in the Lake Chad region of Nigeria’s Borno state. In the larger incident the group killed at least 25 Fulani herders who’d apparently been told to vacate the area, while the second incident involved seven smugglers who attempted to enter ISWAP controlled territory and were gunned down for their trouble. A local anti-ISWAP militia said the seven men were found to be carrying drugs.
The deputy leader of the interim government of Ethiopia’s Tigray region, Tadesse Worede, told Tigray TV on Wednesday that “over 50,000” former Tigray People’s Liberation Front fighters have been demobilized to date under the terms of the agreements that ended the 2020-2022 Tigray War. Some 50,000 Tigrayan soldiers are supposed to be incorporated into the Ethiopian military later this year as part of the peace process and it seems as though one of the lingering sticking points in that process is resolving as Eritrean soldiers are gradually leaving Tigray. Amhara regional forces are still occupying much of the disputed western part of Tigray, so that may continue to be a source of tension.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Congolese army accused soldiers from neighboring Rwanda of crossing the border and attacking Congolese forces on Thursday. I haven’t seen any indication of casualties and the Rwandans apparently retreated back over the border. Given tensions over Rwanda’s support for the M23 insurgency in the eastern DRC any skirmish like this is potentially of concern. Speaking of M23, World Politics Review’s Sophie Neiman reports on the humanitarian crisis facing the estimated 1 million people displaced by that conflict:
More than a third of the displaced are clustered in ramshackle camps around Goma. Tents made of foraged leaves and plastic line the roads. Churches and schools play host to uprooted families. Children wander into the city to beg. According to the latest assessment by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, aid agencies are cash-strapped, and funding for critical aspects of the response, such as health, nutrition and sanitation, hovers between around 20 and 50 percent of what is required.
Aid workers say that the humanitarian fallout from M23 is among the most difficult crises they’ve faced, even amid the ongoing insurgencies in Congo’s restive east. “The funding in DRC has been steadily decreasing, while the needs are increasing exponentially,” said Pauline Ballaman, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Congo. “I’ve been in DRC before, and this is the worst I’ve seen it.”
Cholera has spread in a number of the crowded displacement sites, with few toilets and little access to clean water, as have cases of measles. Sexual violence is another concern among the displaced. A group of NGOs responsible for gender-based violence prevention programs in Goma recorded a 37 percent increase in cases of rape over the first three months of 2023, compared to the same period last year. Doctors Without Borders also claimed it had treated some 674 survivors of sexual violence over the last two weeks of April alone, amounting to an average of some 50 patients a day.
In an effort to smooth any feathers ruffled by his decision to quash the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the attendees at his Africa-Russia summit in St. Petersburg on Thursday that he intends to provide free Russian grain to the next six lucky callers who remember today’s secret catch-phrase! No, wait, sorry, I was working off of the wrong set of notes there. He promised free grain shipments to six African nations: Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. So that’s nice. Humanitarian handouts are nice but probably can’t make up for the loss of Ukrainian grain exports due to the Black Sea’s closure, though Putin insists that Russia can and will pick up the slack both in terms of aid and commercial grain exports. Putin stressed that Western governments were to blame for the Initiative’s failure, in that they failed to address Russia’s grievances about how the program had been implemented.
The Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive made a bit of progress on Thursday, capturing a village called Staromaiorske in Donetsk oblast. I don’t know how significant that is apart from signifying that the counteroffensive is still moving forward, albeit slowly. It remains unclear how much of their forces Ukrainian leaders have committed to the operation despite indications earlier this week that they’d begun throwing previously reserved units into combat in an effort to open some sort of breach in the Russian line. US sources who claimed that a new and more intense phase of the counteroffensive was underway seem to have backed off somewhat from those claims, suggesting that the Ukrainians still haven’t made the decision where or when (or maybe whether) to commit the bulk of their troops and materiel.
New Left Review Sidecar’s Ewaln Engelen assesses the career of departing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte:
With the fall of the Dutch government on 7 July, the reign of Mark Rutte, the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history, has come to an end. He was the managerial politician par excellence: a man who honed his skills in the Human Resources department of Unilever before serving a long stint in the engine room of the right-wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). His premiership was characterized by major political and economic turbulence, yet for more than a decade he succeeded in weathering successive crises and securing a string of electoral victories for his party. By stepping down of his own volition he has deftly avoided being ousted by his rivals. His farewell session in parliament was warm and convivial; the mainstream opposition had only complimentary things to say. Rutte himself was overheard whispering to one of the centre-left opposition leaders that he ‘loved’ him.
November’s snap election may well result in another right-far right coalition government in Europe, if VVD enters government alongside the xenophobic BBB party. Which would serve as a fitting legacy for Rutte, who continually pulled VVD further right, primarily on immigration, in an effort to extend his political relevance.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Rebecca Gordon traces the United States’ fall from Leader Of The Free World to global outlaw:
In 1963, the summer I turned 11, my mother had a gig evaluating Peace Corps programs in Egypt and Ethiopia. My younger brother and I spent most of that summer in France. We were first in Paris with my mother before she left for North Africa, then with my father and his girlfriend in a tiny town on the Mediterranean. (In the middle of our six-week sojourn there, the girlfriend ran off to marry a Czech she’d met, but that’s another story.)
In Paris, I saw American tourists striding around in their shorts and sandals, cameras slung around their necks, staking out positions in cathedrals and museums. I listened to my mother’s commentary on what she considered their boorishness and insensitivity. In my 11-year-old mind, I tended to agree. I’d already heard the expression “the ugly American” — although I then knew nothing about the prophetic 1958 novel with that title about U.S. diplomatic bumbling in southeast Asia in the midst of the Cold War — and it seemed to me that those interlopers in France fit the term perfectly.
When I got home, I confided to a friend (whose parents, I learned years later, worked for the CIA) that sometimes, while in Europe, I’d felt ashamed to be an American. “You should never feel that way,” she replied. “This is the best country in the world!”
Indeed, the United States was, then, the leader of what was known as “the free world.” Never mind that, throughout the Cold War, we would actively support dictatorships (in Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, among other places) and actually overthrow democratizing governments (in Chile, Guatemala, and Iran, for example). In that era of the G.I. Bill, strong unions, employer-provided healthcare, and general postwar economic dominance, to most of us who were white and within reach of the middle class, the United States probably did look like the best country in the world.
Things do look a bit different today, don’t they? In this century, in many important ways, the United States has become an outlier and, in some cases, even an outlaw. Here are three examples of U.S. behavior that has been literally egregious, three ways in which this country has stood out from the crowd in a sadly malevolent fashion.
Those three examples are the continued existence of the Guantánamo detention camp, the continued manufacture and use of internationally proscribed weapons like cluster bombs and landmines, and our profound climate sins. Click through to read the whole thing.
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