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World roundup: June 14 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sweden, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
June 13, 1983: The space probe Pioneer 10, launched in 1972, crosses the orbit of Neptune and becomes the first man-made object to pass the orbits of all the major planets of this solar system. It continued to transmit telemetry data until April 2002 and still sent weak signals back to Earth until January 23, 2003. It’s believed to be further from the sun at this point than any spacecraft save Voyager 1, though it will be surpassed by Voyager 2 sometime in the next few years.
June 14, 1821: Badi VII surrenders Sudan’s Sennar Sultanate to Egyptian forces under the command of Ismail Pasha. Sudan would remain Egyptian until it gained independence in 1956, though to be fair after 1899 it was really governed more as a separate British colony than as part of Egypt.
June 14, 1830: The French army lands at Sidi Fredj, beginning France’s invasion of Ottoman Algeria. Algiers fell on July 7 and France formally annexed the country, though it would take decades for French colonial rule to really take hold. Algeria gained its independence in 1962.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the global supply of nuclear weapons is likely to increase over the next several years. So if climate change or global pandemics are bringing you down, at least we can look forward to new nukes. While individual nuclear-armed states have in some cases increased their stockpiles in the past (China, for example), this will mark the first time since the end of the Cold War that the number of nukes will increase overall. The US, for example, is planning to spend upwards of $1.5 trillion (which means the real total will be substantially higher than that) to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal over the next 30 or so years, and you can probably assume it will have more nukes at the end of that process than it has currently.
The Biden administration made it official on Tuesday, informing reporters that President Joe Biden will be making a trip to the Middle East next month (July 13-16). Biden will start his excursion in Israel-Palestine, with a visit both to Israel proper and to the occupied West Bank, but the big buzz around this announcement is of course surrounding the Saudi leg. Biden will attend a summit of the “GCC+3” (the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council states plus those of Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan) in Jeddah, during which he will have some sort of interaction with Saudi Crown Prince and surgical tool aficionado Mohammed bin Salman. Just what sort of interaction is unclear—the White House only seems to be allowing that the two men will see one another while the Saudis are talking about a full on official meeting. Either way, I would caution Biden not to accept any invitations to visit the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
It seems silly to insist that Biden isn’t going to Jeddah to meet with MBS, given that he’s spent the past few months begging the Saudis, and by extension their crown prince/de facto ruler, to open up the oil spigots ahead of November’s US congressional election. This visit has been rumored for weeks and always in the context of high global oil prices. Regardless of whether the Saudis actually have the ability to affect the global supply of oil in a meaningful way, any gesture they make toward increasing production could bring oil and therefore gasoline prices down a bit, and Biden seems desperate not to go into that aforementioned election with gas at or above $5 per gallon. The Saudis, via the OPEC+ bloc, did announce a limited production increase earlier this month, but it remains to be seen whether they’re willing to go further even if Biden promises to meet their demands with regard to security commitments and displays of public groveling.
Given Biden’s itinerary it seems obvious that Iran will be on the agenda. The Israeli government seems particularly keen to talk about regional military collaboration to counter The Iranian Menace, maybe as a distraction from the slow collapse of Naftali Bennett’s coalition. Biden, who would definitely prefer not to see Benjamin Netanyahu return to the Israeli premiership, will support Bennett to whatever extent he can. They may be able to talk about a new Iranian space launch, as satellite imagery of the Imam Khomeini Spaceport suggests the Iranians are making preparations for one. The Iranians are keen to put satellites in orbit to demonstrate their technological development but they’ve struggled in recent years to do so. The US regards Iran’s space program as a thin cover for ballistic missile development, which is not entirely off base but oversimplifies the connection between the two programs.
Elsewhere, Iranian Labor and Welfare Minister Hojjatollah Abdolmaleki resigned on Tuesday, becoming the first major departure from President Ebrahim Raisi’s cabinet (though he’ll apparently be staying on as an adviser). It sounds like he’s the designated fall guy for Raisi’s failure to turn Iran’s economy around as the anniversary of his inauguration approaches. It seems unlikely the protesters who have been demanding economic relief in recent weeks will be mollified by his resignation.
Another skirmish along the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border has left at least one Tajik border guard dead and three more wounded. The clash took place near the Tajik city of Isfara, in a region that’s seen at least one other border incident this month. There’s no word as to casualties on the Kyrgyz side but unsurprisingly each side is blaming the other for starting it.
According to Foreign Policy, The Gang (of people who ravaged Afghanistan for 20 years under the cover of the US military occupation) is getting back together:
The back-to-the-future moment for the old guard came in May when 40 of the like-minded converged in the Turkish capital, Ankara, to meet with Uzbek leader Abdul Rashid Dostum and his hangers-on. Dostum, like some of his fellow warlords, used the wealth accumulated during the 20 years of the U.S.-backed Afghan republic to build his own patronage network, the coin of the realm in Afghanistan’s political landscape. At the time, Dostum and men like him supported the reconstruction effort funded by the United States and allies and encouraged education for women, including the dispatch of thousands of Afghan students abroad to study.
But the Ankara gathering had a bigger crowd. Among the group was Ahmad Wali Massoud, uncle of Ahmad Massoud, the head of the National Resistance Front and one of the few personalities of Afghan politics untainted by accusations of corruption or atrocities. His late father, Northern Alliance general Ahmad Shah Massoud, is renowned for keeping the Taliban from taking full control of the country before they were crushed in 2001.
In a statement, those in the group said they had formed a “High Council of National Resistance” to demand that the Taliban negotiate their return to Afghanistan and include them in government—or face the consequences. If the Taliban don’t talk, a spokesman for Dostum threatened, “Afghanistan will experience civil war once again.”
Oh goodie, I’m sure the Afghan people will be happy to hear it. This council wants the Taliban to relax its control over Afghanistan and allow the warlords to come back and divvy the place up again. They’d each get their own piece of the country and presumably kick some of the revenue they make upstairs to the overall Taliban authorities. You know, like an organized criminal network, or a feudal state. Those sorts of arrangements are always very beneficial to the people living under them. Their threat of a return to civil war is dubious given the lack of international appetite to support such a venture, but they might be able to exploit the Taliban’s governing failures to generate some sort of low-level resistance.
According to Tom Andrews, the United Nations rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, at least 382 children have been killed or maimed since last February’s coup. While many have died in fighting between state security forces and anti-junta militias—fighting that’s also displaced some 250,000 children—a number of them have suffered intentionally at the hands of those security forces. The UN says it has reports of at least 142 children who were tortured by police or the military.
South Korea’s trucker strike is apparently over, the truckers union and government having reached some sort of agreement on Tuesday. There had been concerns that the economic impact of the strike, which had been felt largely domestically so far, could spread globally had it continued much longer.
Inter-communal violence in Sudan’s West Darfur and South Kordofan states has now claimed at least 145 lives and left at least 180 other people wounded. The vast majority (126) have been killed in West Darfur, where the Arab Rizeigat tribe and the non-Arab Kimr people have been battling each other over a land dispute. At least 101 Kimr and 25 Rizeigat have died in that clash. At least 50,000 people have been displaced by the Darfur fighting and another 15,000 in South Kordofan, where clashes began earlier this month in the wake of a robbery.
Fighters from the rebel Oromo Liberation Army, working with the rebel Gambela Liberation Front, have claimed responsibility for an assault on the city of Gambela in western Ethiopia on Tuesday. The attack kicked off an hours long battle with Gambela regional security forces. I haven’t seen any word regarding casualties but there’s reason to believe they could be high.
Elsewhere, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced on Tuesday the formation of a committee charged with negotiating a peace agreement with the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The committee will begin meeting to formulate its negotiating approach before engaging with the TPLF, but the Tigrayan rebel leader, Debretsion Gebremichael, has already expressed his willingness to participate in peace talks provided that they are “credible, impartial, and principled.”
The Australian mining company Triton says that its graphite mine in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province came under attack on June 8, possibly/probably by jihadist militants. At least two mine employees were killed. The next day, a unit of the regional military force tasked with suppressing jihadist violence in Cabo Delgado reported engaging those militants in a battle in which one of its soldiers was killed along with an unknown number of jihadists. It seems there’s been something of a resurgence in jihadist activity in Cabo Delgado this month, which has caused at least four other deaths in addition to the three mentioned above. At least 10,000 more people have been displaced, on top of hundreds of thousands previously displaced in the same conflict.
In new from Russia:
The Russian government on Tuesday banned 29 British journalists and 20 other British individuals, all apparently linked to the UK’s defense industry, from entering the country. Hopefully they’ll find a way to move on with their lives.
According to Bloomberg, “some Biden administration officials” are starting the think that maybe, just maybe, Western sanctions aren’t having any effect on the Russian government’s behavior and are just punishing ordinary Russians for no particular reason. Man, who could have seen this coming? I mean aside from anybody who’s seen US sanctions in action over the past 30 years or so. In particular it seems the rapid departure of Western companies, many of which are afraid of running afoul of sanctions even if they’re not actually in danger of doing so, has had a particularly negative impact on Russian citizens. Those departures have also had detrimental effects on international supply change, creating negative effects for ordinary Americans at the gas pump and for ordinary people all over the world who previously depended to some extent on Russian food exports.
The European Union is hoping that gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean could help the bloc wean itself off of Russian energy exports. That’s why an EU delegation was in Israel on Tuesday. Israel appears to be on the verge of becoming a major gas exporter, and there are plans in the works for a pipeline running through Cyprus and on to Greece as well as plans to export Israeli gas to Europe via Egypt. Neither of these options is anywhere close to fruition, though, so this isn’t a realistic short-term alternative to Russia.
Speaking of things that are extremely bad for the environment, a Canadian satellite monitoring firm called GHGSat says it’s found perhaps the largest methane leak in the world coming out of a massive coal mine in Russia’s Kemerovo oblast. That leak reportedly spewed around 90 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere per hour in January, and while it’s declined in intensity since then it’s also believed that the leak was active for upwards of six months before finally being detected.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine:
Russian forces are now controlling an estimated 80 percent of Severodonetsk, according to Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai. As we noted yesterday, the Russians have destroyed all three bridges leading into and out of the city across the Donets River. This will make it more difficult to evacuate the remaining 12,000 or so civilians still in Severodonetsk. The Russians say they plan to open a “humanitarian corridor” on Wednesday specifically for the estimated 500 people holed up in the Azot chemical plant, and they’re urging the Ukrainian combatants in that facility to surrender.
In an address on Tuesday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that Ukrainian forces in the Donbas and around Kharkiv were suffering heavy losses while calling for more military support from the West. Zelensky argued in particular for more anti-missile weaponry. This will likely lead to further arms pledges from the US, et al, though frankly it sounds like just following through on previous pledges has been a tall order. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Anna Malyar, said on Tuesday that Kyiv has only received around 10 percent of the weaponry it’s been promised to date.
The AP reports on the Swedish politician who’s positioned to dictate the terms of any accord Stockholm reaches with Turkey over its NATO application:
When Turkey’s president rails against “terrorists” in the Swedish Parliament, Amineh Kakabaveh is convinced he is talking about her.
The former Kurdish rebel fighter turned Swedish lawmaker has emerged as a central figure in the drama surrounding Sweden and Finland’s historic bid to join NATO. Turkey opposes NATO membership for the two Nordic countries, accusing them of harboring Kurdish militants.
Kakabaveh, a strong advocate for Kurdish self-determination in the Middle East and a fierce critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, holds extraordinary leverage because the Swedish government depends on her vote for its one-seat majority in Parliament.
Boris Johnson’s government has been forced to cancel its first deportation flight to Rwanda, which had been scheduled to depart London on Tuesday. The European Court of Human Rights stepped in to order that one of the potential deportees, an Iraqi national, be removed from the flight due to concerns about how he would be treated in Rwanda and because his UK asylum case had yet to be concluded. Then the refugee charity Care4Calais, which opposes the deportations, argued that the ECHR’s logic could be applied to many other people who were supposed to be on the same flight. In the resulting uproar the planned number of passengers dwindled from 130 to seven and then to zero.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s world tour brought him to Qatar on Tuesday, where he’s scheduled to meet tomorrow with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Maduro visited Kuwait on Monday after spending the weekend in Iran. It’s unclear what he’ll be discussing with Sheikh Tamim, but presumably energy will be on the agenda in some form.
“Heavily armed” militants, presumably from one of Mexico’s criminal gangs, reportedly attacked a unit of Mexican security forces in Mexico state on Tuesday. At least ten of the attackers were killed and seven more arrested, while three security personnel were wounded.
The Danish and Canadian governments have reportedly settled a 50 year running dispute over Hans Island in the Arctic Ocean, agreeing to simply divide it between them. Hans Island is uninhabited and lies roughly halfway between Greenland and the undisputed Canadian island of Ellesmere, hence the dual claims on ownership. Apparently those claims overlapped without either country realizing it until they finally got around to talking about their maritime boundary in the 1970s. They then decided to just drop the matter before agreeing in 2018 to finally settle it.
Finally, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs’ Dan Kovalik says that details from former US Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s recent tell-all book make it clear that the Trump administration knew its pursuit of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab violated international law:
In his new memoir, Sacred Oath, former US Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, who served under President Donald Trump at the time of the arrest of Alex Saab in Cape Verde, effectively admits that the White House was quite aware of the fact that Saab was a diplomat at the time of his capture.
As Esper writes, “At Maduro’s direction, Saab was reportedly on special assignment to negotiate a deal with Iran for Venezuela to receive more fuel, food, and medical supplies. Saab was Maduro’s long standing point man when it came to crafting the economic deals and other transactions that were keeping the regime afloat.” Esper’s recognition that Alex Saab was “on special assignment” and negotiated economic deals for Venezuela is a tacit recognition of Saab’s diplomatic status. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that Esper was unaware of documentation from both Iranian and Venezuelan authorities that verifies Saab’s special envoy status at the time of his apprehension in Cape Verde.
The inconvenient fact is that Saab was a Venezuelan diplomat, and had been for some time, when his plane was forced to land in Cape Verde, as opposed to in Senegal or Morocco which the US prevailed upon not to allow Saab’s plane to land and refuel, and he was arrested by Cape Verde authorities. Saab was therefore entitled to diplomatic immunity as provided for by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, and his arrest and continued detention to this day, in spite of this immunity, was and continues to be illegal under international law. So painfully aware of the illegality of their actions, and the dangers this of course may pose for Washington’s own diplomats if they were treated in the same fashion, that, as Esper makes clear, “the officials at State, Justice and the NSC [National Security Council] who were working on this case” were filled with trepidation (though Esper himself had no such qualms).
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