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World roundup: June 7 2022
Stories from Syria, Afghanistan, Russia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
June 6, 1982: The Israeli military invades Lebanon, beginning a new phase in the Lebanese Civil War that’s also known as the Lebanon War.
June 6, 1944: The Allied invasion of France begins with the “D-Day” amphibious landings in Normandy, the largest amphibious military operation in history. Despite heavy losses, the Allies were able to establish five beachheads and by mid-June (though it took longer than planned) they secured a small but crucial foothold in northern France. From there they began the final phase of World War II on its Western Front.
June 7, 1494: In the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain and Portugal agree to divide the world, or at least any “newly discovered” parts of it, along a north-south meridian that runs through the eastern half of modern Brazil. The negotiations superseded a decree previously issued by Pope Alexander VI that threatened both Portugal’s control of the around-Africa sea route to India and any claims it had on India itself. The agreement, which was mostly undefinable (and therefore unenforceable) but did the job in terms of avoiding a Spanish-Portuguese conflict, left most of the recently-“discovered” Americas in Spanish hands save what eventually became Brazil. It was duly ignored by later expansionist European powers—particularly Protestant England, which viewed the treaty as a Catholic accord that it was not obliged to honor.
June 7, 1942: After a four day battle and thanks in large part to having decrypted Japan’s pre-battle communications, the US Pacific Fleet defeats a larger Japanese naval force in the Battle of Midway, around the Midway Atoll west of Hawaii. One of a handful of naval battles in the running for most decisive in history, Midway was the first major US victory in World War II’s Pacific Theater and permanently degraded the Japanese fleet, which lost four large aircraft carriers and almost 250 planes. The US victory gave it an opening to go on the offensive following the Pearl Harbor attack in December, helping to shift the balance of power in the Pacific.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Monday’s Israeli missile strike targeted military facilities south of Damascus, causing damage but no casualties according to Syrian media. Later on Monday, Syrian and Russian military aircraft conducted their first joint exercise since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in late February. The coincidence is noteworthy, though I haven’t seen any indication that the exercise was conducted in response to the missile strike and one presumes that sort of thing would have been scheduled in advance.
In northeastern Syria, meanwhile, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces militia declared on Tuesday that it is prepared to work with Syrian and Russian forces in the event of a new Turkish border incursion. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been threatening such an incursion for some time now, possibly thinking that the war in Ukraine would minimize the amount of blowback he might face from either the US or Russia. He may be right, though it’s worth noting that there are reports of Syrian and Russian forces being redeployed to the border since Erdoğan began making his threats. The SDF’s statement on Tuesday may have been meant to pressure the US to in turn pressure Erdoğan not to invade, as any improvement in relations between the SDF and Damascus would make the US position in northeastern Syria more precarious.
I wrote an uncharacteristically upbeat piece for Jacobin on the ceasefire in Yemen. It’s nothing we haven’t covered here in the newsletter—good news, but more work ahead to get to a peace deal—but it summarizes where things stand and suggests a way the US could contribute to the peace process (which is by not getting involved).
Speaking of the US, you may be surprised to learn that, according to a new Government Accountability Office report, the US State and Defense departments haven’t bothered to track Yemeni civilian casualties caused by arms that Washington has provided to, and maintained on behalf of, Saudi Arabia and company. Given America’s recent track record such indifference to civilian casualties in a Middle Eastern state seems hard to believe, I know. The GAO hasn’t released this report yet and the State Department is still trying to get the really awkward parts classified.
A senior figure in the Kurdish People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran survived—but was badly wounded by—an apparent assassination attempt in Erbil on Monday. The PMOI member, Akbar Sanjabi, was the target of a car bombing and at last word was undergoing surgery. There’s been no claim of responsibility and most speculation along that line seems to be focused on Iran.
In a report as stunning as that GAO number I mentioned above, the commission of inquiry appointed last year by the United Nations Human Rights Council to study the Israel-Palestine conflict has determined that Israel’s “perpetual occupation” of Gaza, eastern Jerusalem, and the West Bank is a major cause of Palestinian resentment and hostility. Wow. I haven’t been this floored by a UN agency report since the International Maritime Organization issued its landmark “Parts of the Ocean Are Very Deep” finding a few years ago. The Israeli government castigated the report as part of the council’s “witch hunt” against Israel, even after it helped substantiate the report’s findings by denying the commission’s members access both to Israel proper and to the Occupied Territories. The US State Department also criticized the report, saying that it “does nothing to advance the prospects for peace.” Ironically one could say the same thing about the occupation, but I digress.
A new report from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimates that “tens of millions of dollars” went missing from the Afghan treasury last year as the US-backed government collapsed and gave way to a resumption of Taliban rule. I know, this is another stunning conclusion.
The most interesting of the report’s findings may be the determination that former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who was rumored to have taken some $150 million with him into exile, likely made off with less than $1 million and perhaps around $500,000. My thoughts and prayers go out to him. Assuming the bit about Ghani is accurate, that leaves the question of what happened to the rest of the money, particularly some $70 million in cash that disappeared from the offices of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. According to SIGAR the answer is…undetermined. The investigation is hampered by a lack of access to things like surveillance footage and records that are most likely in Taliban hands now, if they still exist at all.
Myanmar’s “National Unity Government,” a shadow rebel body that contests the junta’s rightful claim to power, announced plans to form its own national police force on Tuesday. It is entirely unclear how a shadow police force could be formed or how it would operate in practice. The NUG is supported by local “People’s Defense Forces” militia groups that could I suppose be rebranded as some sort of gendarmerie, but they wouldn’t have any more freedom to operate openly than they have now, which is to say not very much.
Elsewhere, there are indications that the Arakan Army, one of the few ethnic militias that is not in open conflict with the junta, may be on the verge of resuming the rebellion it began back in 2009. There have reportedly been several clashes between Myanmar security forces and AA fighters in recent weeks, as well as an exchange of hostile rhetoric between AA leaders and the junta. Relations between the AA and the junta have come close to breaking down a few times since last February’s coup, but this time seems a bit more serious. If the AA were to break with the junta it could be a considerable boost to the resistance, as the Arakan group has built itself into one of the strongest ethnic militias in Myanmar. It would also be absolutely awful for the people of Rakhine state, who have seen plenty of violence in recent years between the Rohingya genocide and the AA’s rebellion.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shuffled his cabinet a bit on Tuesday, promoting Finance Minister Lawrence Wong to deputy prime minister effective June 13. The 70 year old Lee has been setting the table for Wong to succeed him as leader of the People’s Action Party (and thus, presumably, as PM) since a somewhat disappointing 2020 election cost previous heir apparent Heng Swee Keat his position in the party. The intent is to have Wong replace Lee at the head of the PAP’s ticket heading into Singapore’s 2025 parliamentary election.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Tuesday that Moscow will “suspend the implementation” of a 1998 bilateral agreement that allows Japanese fishermen to fish the waters around the southern Kuril islands. Russia and Japan dispute ownership of those islands and have since the closing days of World War II. The 1998 deal at least removed one irritant from that dispute. The Russians are claiming that Tokyo hasn’t kept current on the payments it’s supposed to make in return for those fishing rights, but it wouldn’t be shocking if Japan’s eager participation in the Western-led effort to punish Russia economically over the Ukraine war were also a factor in this decision.
Inter-communal fighting has claimed the lives of at least 16 people in Sudan’s West Darfur state and at least 11 people in South Kordofan state in recent days. In West Darfur, ethnic Kimr have been engaged in a land dispute with the Arab Rizeigat tribe that apparently turned violent. The fighting in South Kordofan involves two Arab groups, the Hawazma and the Kenana, who are clashing for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
In eastern Sudan, meanwhile, members of the Beja community have reportedly ended their blockade of Port Sudan after the governor of Sudan’s Red Sea state resigned. The Beja have been protesting a 2020 peace deal between the Sudanese transitional government and several of the country’s rebel groups. It’s unclear to me why this resignation was enough to prompt them to stand down, but as this was at least the second time they’ve blockaded Port Sudan it’s entirely possible they’ll do it again down the road if they’re still not satisfied.
The Economic Community of West African States responded Tuesday to the Malian junta’s offer of a two year (as of this past March 26) transition back to civilian rule. Its response was not positive. In a statement, ECOWAS said that it “regrets” that Malian authorities made a unilateral decision on a transition timetable instead of waiting for negotiations between the regional bloc and the junta were ongoing.
Cameroonian authorities acknowledged on Tuesday that a unit of soldiers killed nine civilians in the Northwest region last week in what they’ve termed “an inappropriate reaction.” The soldiers were searching for a fifth soldier who’d gone missing and, upon being confronted by hostile villagers, acted in a “manifestly disproportionate” manner and opened fire.
According to Addis Standard, at least 19 people were killed last week during a battle between security forces from Ethiopia’s Benishangul-Gumuz region and fighters from the rebel Gumuz People’s Democratic Movement. The breakdown of casualties isn’t entirely clear but it sounds like most of those killed were rebels but at least one civilian was among the dead.
In what’s becoming something of an international theme (one I mentioned in my Jacobin piece on Yemen, see above), a regional official with UNICEF suggested on Tuesday that the war in Ukraine is siphoning humanitarian funding away from places where the need is just as dire as it is in Ukraine. Deputy regional UNICEF director Rania Dagash told reporters that the international community must “widen its gaze from the war in Ukraine” to support relief efforts in Somalia, where the agency has only raised about a third of the $250 million it needs to provide basic services this year.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Fighters believed to be from the Lendu CODECO militia attacked a village in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province overnight, killing at least 12 people.
Russian UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia walked out of a UN Security Council meeting on Monday to protest accusations from European Council President Charles Michel that Moscow is deliberately interfering with Ukrainian food exports in order to “weaponize” global food prices as part of its war effort. This is an increasingly common alarm being sounded by US and European officials, bolstered every time the Russian military, for example, destroys a major Ukrainian agricultural facility. The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor summarizes the efforts—and challenges—involved with trying to get Ukrainian foodstuffs out onto the global market:
Now, foreign governments are struggling for options to release Ukraine’s immense supply of agricultural products, particularly wheat. Ukrainian officials say some 20 million tons of grain are trapped within the country, with Russia both blockading ports that remain in Ukrainian hands and allegedly bombing Ukrainian facilities that store grain.
Through various diplomatic channels, Ukrainian officials are exploring the possibility of moving shipment of grain via train to faraway ports on the Baltic Sea, as well as neighboring Romania. But significant logistical problems remain, including whether these ports have the capacity to effectively accommodate the increased burdens. Cold War-era construction may also present an obstacle.
“Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania and other former members of the Soviet Union use the Russian standard of railway gauge,” explained the Wall Street Journal. “Poland, Romania and most of the rest of Europe use a narrower gauge. To move grain across those borders, either the undercarriages of the railcars must be changed or the cargo shifted to new trains.”
You’ll be pleased to know that Ukraine is having no trouble getting relief aid. In fact, the World Bank pledged nearly $1.5 billion for Kyiv on Tuesday. The point, in my view, is not that these crises need to be pitted against one another in a zero-sum contest to the (perhaps literal) death. It’s that, in a world where nobody bats an eye when the United States earmarks $40 billion in one fell swoop to provide more weapons to the Ukrainian military (to pick just one random example), there’s plenty of money to fund all of these causes and then some.
There’s not much new to report on the state of the war itself. Russian forces are continuing to focus on the eastern city of Severodonetsk. After their weekend counteroffensive seemed to briefly turn the tide, it sounds like the Ukrainians are once again being slowly pushed back. Russia’s edge in artillery remains decisive, though with more advanced Western rocket systems on the way the Ukrainians may be able to even things up a bit.
Swedish Justice Minister Morgan Johansson on Tuesday survived a no-confidence vote in the Riksdag that could have brought down the Swedish government, as Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and her cabinet had threatened to resign en masse if he lost. The vagaries of Swedish politics are not exactly our concern, but there may be a foreign policy implication to this vote. Johansson survived by just a single vote, with the opposition falling one shy of the 175 votes it would have needed to remove him. That one vote came down to a Kurdish lawmaker, Amineh Kakabaveh, who said that in return for her abstention she was seeking a promise that Andersson would not give in to Turkish demands regarding Sweden’s NATO application. It’s unclear whether she received any assurances in this regard and, if so, what those assurances might have been, but the ramifications could prove significant.
Jacobin’s Lukas Slothuus looks at recent political events in Denmark, where Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and her center-left (heavy emphasis on “center”) Social Democratic Party are reaching out to conservatives for support in what may be an attempt to marginalize the Danish left:
Speaking to right-wing newspaper Jyllands-Posten on June 5, Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, invited right-of-center parties to join a coalition government spanning the left-right divide. “It’s only possible to lead a country if you can unify a country,” Frederiksen declared, calling for all parties to set aside their own platforms for the “good of the country.” The move is intended to isolate and marginalize the left-wing Red-Green Alliance, on whose parliamentary support Frederiksen’s Social Democrats currently rely.
The prime minister’s call may seem like a radical step. Indeed, it breaks with a long-standing political settlement in which a left-of-center and a right-of-center bloc take turns governing Denmark. This instead marks a new era of united ruling-class governance, in which an emboldened right-leaning Social Democratic government seeks to consolidate and extend its power.
Faced with such a nadir in relations between the ruling party and the Left, socialists have to grapple with its causes and its likely fallout. Yet it should also be recognized that this moment continues a long history of anti-socialist policies by the Social Democrats — especially when faced with a more radical opposition.
Finally, at TomDispatch Andrew Bacevich cautions against overusing the term “fascism” in foreign policy discourse:
Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History at Yale University, is a scholar of surpassing brilliance. His 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin chronicles in harrowing detail the de facto collaboration of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union that resulted in the murder of millions of innocents. On any bookshelf reserved for accounts that reveal essential truths of our past, Bloodlands deserves a place of honor. It’s a towering achievement.
I just wish Professor Snyder would stick to history.
According to an old chestnut, the past is a foreign country. Even so, similarities between then and now frequently interest historians more than differences. Few, it seems, can resist the temptation to press their particular piece of the past into service as a vehicle for interpreting the here-and-now, even when doing so means oversimplifying and distorting the present. Historians of twentieth-century Europe, Snyder among them, seem particularly susceptible to this temptation. Synder’s mid-May op-ed in the New York Times offers a case in point. “We Should Say It,” the title advises. “Russia Is Fascist.”
Introducing the F-word into any conversation is intended to connote moral seriousness. Yet all too often, as with its first cousin “genocide,” it serves less to enlighten than to convey a sense of repugnance combined with condemnation. Such is the case here.