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World roundup: June 8 2023
Stories from Iran, Sudan, Colombia, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
June 8, 218: In a battle near Antioch, a rebel army supporting 14 year old imperial claimant Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus defeats an army under Roman Emperor Marcus Opellius Macrinus. After his defeat, Macrinus attempted to flee west but was captured at Chalcedon and later executed. The new emperor, who took the regal name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, was later dubbed “Elagabalus” because he had previously been a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus and he established that deity as the chief god of the Roman pantheon, displacing Jupiter. Elagabalus is known today mostly for lurid accounts of the decadence of his court and of his sexual and romantic relationships, which have led some historians to speculate that he may have been transgender. The Praetorian Guard assassinated Elagabalus in 222, when he was just 18, and elevated his cousin Severus Alexander to replace him.
June 8, 1941: World War II’s Operation Exporter begins.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Israeli security forces made a rare raid in the West Bank city of Ramallah overnight, apparently to destroy a house belonging to a man accused of involvement in a bombing in Jerusalem last year. The raid sparked a clash with residents in which Israeli soldiers wounded at least 35 people, including two Palestinian journalists. While Israeli forces operate with impunity throughout the West Bank, they tend to steer somewhat clear of Ramallah since it is the “capital” of the Palestinian Authority.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia included a meeting of the global anti-Islamic State coalition, at which he pressed the case for countries to repatriate any citizens who are currently languishing in Syrian detention camps because of their IS associations. This is an ongoing concern in that the Syrian Democratic Forces militia lacks the resources to properly maintain those facilities and the fear is that IS members within them could recruit from among the residents of the displaced persons camps to which many of the prisons are attached.
The Iranian government followed the reopening of its Riyadh embassy earlier this week by reopening its consulate in Jeddah on Wednesday. The Iranians also reopened their Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah as well. It’s unclear when the Saudis are planning to reopen their diplomatic outposts in Iran but that probably isn’t far off.
Elsewhere, the White House on Thursday denied reports, for example one published in Middle East Eye, suggestion that the US and Iran are close to agreement on some sort of “nuclear deal lite.” The reports suggest that the two countries are discussing a swap of limited sanctions relief for reductions in Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. Speculation about such a deal is apparently somewhat rampant in Israeli media, but a new report from Diplomatic’s Laura Rozen suggests that these stories are being leaked (and likely exaggerated) by Israeli government sources in an attempt to scuttle whatever US-Iranian discussions might be underway. The Biden administration reportedly sent the National Security Council’s Brett McGurk to Oman last month to do some back channel engagement with the Iranians, but there’s no real evidence that things have progressed beyond that and really, if the administration wants to get anything productive accomplished with respect to Iran, Brett McGurk should be kept as far away from it as humanly possible.
At least 11 people were killed in a bombing in northern Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province on Thursday. The bomber targeted the funeral service for a provincial official killed in another bombing in Badakhshan earlier this week. Islamic State claimed responsibility for that initial attack and while there’s been no claim yet with regard to Thursday’s incident it’s almost certain they were responsible for that as well.
UPDATE: Islamic State has indeed claimed responsibility.
The Islamabad High Court on Thursday granted former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan 14 days of bail (protection from arrest) in connection with the “abetment to murder” charge filed against him in Baluchistan province on Wednesday. Khan now says he’s been charged in some 150 cases, reflecting Pakistani authorities’ interest in putting him behind bars and therefore out of politics.
The European Council on Foreign Relations has released the findings of a new poll of citizens in 11 European countries that finds pluralities or outright majorities in all 11 want their countries to maintain neutrality should the US and China go to war over Taiwan. Narrower pluralities in ten of those countries say they regard China as a “necessary” geopolitical partner rather than a rival (or ally, to be fair). Only the German public is more inclined to view China as a rival. The findings reflect what seems to be a very substantial disconnect between European leaders and intellectuals, who tend to emphasize their alliance with the US and seem frequently to be looking for ways to be of use to Washington in the Indo-Pacific, and the European public, which isn’t quite so eager to follow Washington’s lead into the New Cold War.
In a small but positive development, some 280 children and 70 staff members have reportedly been evacuated from al-Mayqoma orphanage in Khartoum. More than 70 orphans have died there since the Sudanese military and Rapid Support Forces decided to turn the city into a war zone back in April. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been in negotiations with the belligerents for some time in an effort to get the security assurances that would allow an evacuation to take place.
In less positive news, there are reports out of Sudan’s South Kordofan state that the Sudan People's Liberation Movement–North rebel faction led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu is mobilizing its fighters. The SPLM-N is one of the largest rebel militias in Sudan. It’s unknown whether Hilu has decided to take a side in the military-RSF violence, but it may be worth noting that Hilu’s forces have had some minor engagements with the RSF recent months. That said I’m sure there’s not much love there for the military either. Either way this mobilization threatens to open a new front in the conflict.
Guinea-Bissau’s opposition PAI Terra Ranka coalition won Sunday’s parliamentary election, according to results released by the country’s electoral commission on Thursday. President Umaro Sissoco Embaló dissolved the previous parliament last May and was hoping to win a favorable majority that might support his plan to shift more authority to the presidency. Presumably that’s not going to happen now.
USAID suspended deliveries of food aid to Ethiopia on Thursday over what it says is a “widespread and coordinated campaign” to divert such aid away from its intended targets. There’s no overt indication as to responsibility in the USAID statement but according to Reuters there are suspicions that aid is being given to Ethiopian military personnel rather than civilians, particularly in the war torn Tigray region. The US State Department said that Blinken received assurances from Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen in Saudi Arabia that Addis Ababa is investigating the issue. USAID and the World Food Program had already provisionally suspended food aid to Tigray specifically over these concerns.
Has Ukraine’s big counteroffensive finally begun? Opinions continue to vary. The Russian military claimed it began days ago around Bakhmut, with a series of assaults the Russians say they repulsed with high Ukrainian casualties. But according to The Washington Post the counteroffensive began early Thursday morning, with a large Ukrainian movement in Zaporizhzhia oblast. This aligns with some of the speculation that’s attended the long-rumored operation, namely that it would attempt to cut the Russian-controlled “land bridge” connecting the Donbas with Crimea and that its ultimate target could be the city of Melitopol. There’s no indication how this Thursday assault went but The New York Times noted that the Ukrainians used a number of Western-provided armored vehicles, which does suggest they’re putting a lot of weight behind whatever they’re doing. Ukrainian officials are denying that the counteroffensive is underway, but it’s likely they’d issue such denials no matter what. It’s also possible that Zaporizhzhia is only one of several places the Ukrainians are testing the Russian line for weak spots.
Some 600 square kilometers of Ukraine’s Kherson oblast are still underwater, most of it on the Russian-controlled side of the Dnipro River, following the destruction/collapse of the Nova Kakhovka dam earlier this week. Hundreds of people were reportedly rescued from the flood area on Thursday and those efforts are continuing while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presses for more relief aid from the United Nations, the Red Cross, etc. Officials are still trying to assess the short- and long-term effects of the flooding. In the short-term, civilians in much of southern Ukraine face threats like contaminated drinking water, crop loss, and floating landmines pulled up by the flood waters. Among the longer-term concerns are habitat destruction, pollution flowing into the Black Sea, the loss of arable land due to insufficient irrigation, and the failure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant’s cooling facilities.
There are indications that the Colombian government is close to a ceasefire agreement with the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group. Colombian President Gustavo Petro was reportedly heading to Cuba on Thursday to sign the deal, but the parties have postponed the signing to Friday to iron out a few remaining details. Assuming an accord does come togther it would be a major win for Petro’s peacemaking efforts. ELN is the largest active Colombian rebel group and Petro has been pursuing a ceasefire with the group since he took office.
As his presidency approaches its final year, New Left Review’s Edwin Ackerman considers Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s emerging legacy:
The Mexican political system was shaken on 1 July 2018, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his new party MORENA achieved a resounding electoral victory, winning 53% of the votes in a four-way race – a thirty-point lead over his closest contender. This was by far the widest margin since the country’s ‘transition to democracy’ at the turn of the millennium. The parties that had dominated the political field throughout the neoliberal period were suddenly reduced to rubble. Today, the president’s approval ratings remain in the sixties, despite a relentlessly hostile press, a global pandemic, its accompanying economic crisis and inflationary pressures. Longstanding rivalries between the opposition parties have been shelved, with the PRI, PAN and PRD forced to come together or forfeit any possibility of succeeding at the ballot box.
The idiosyncrasies of AMLO’s left-populist presidency have pitted him not only against the neoliberal right, but also against the ‘progressive’ cosmopolitan intelligentsia and neozapatista-adjacent autonomists. These groups have variously accused him of ‘turning the country into Venezuela’, peddling ‘conservativism’ and acting as a ‘henchman of capital’. Yet as his six-year term reaches its final lap, a closer look at AMLO’s record reveals a much more complex picture. His overarching project has been to move away from neoliberalism towards a model of nationalist-developmentalist capitalism. To what extent has he succeeded, and what can the left learn from this endeavour?
As a general rule, transitions from neoliberalism must take place in a structural setting shaped by neoliberalism itself: the erosion of the working class as a political agent and the dismantling of state capacity. It follows that the basic historical task of the contemporary left is the reignition of class politics and the relegitimation of the state as a social actor. We can therefore assess AMLO’s administration based on three fundamental criteria: the reinstatement of class cleavage as a primary organizer of the political field; the effort to reconcentrate the power of a state apparatus hollowed out by decades of neoliberal governance; and the break with an economic paradigm based on institutionalized corruption. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
US Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Bahamas on Thursday, bringing with her a pledge of more than $100 million in new US aid for the region. About half of that is earmarked for Haiti, to support police efforts to curtail gang activity, while the rest will go toward regional projects to deal with arms trafficking and climate change mitigation.
If you’ve been feeling nostalgic for the days when “Havana Syndrome” was a thing that a lot of people really seemed to take seriously, then I’ve got some great news about a new Cuba-centered panic: China may be building “an electronic eavesdropping facility” there, according to The Wall Street Journal (here’s a Reuters summary if you want to avoid the WSJ paywall). For those of you who haven’t already smashed your phones to bits and sprinted down into your bomb shelters, you should know that (quoting the WSJ) “a Chinese base with advanced military and intelligence capabilities in the U.S.’s backyard could be an unprecedented new threat.” Unprecedented! Nothing has ever threatened the US like this before! The article later quotes a Foundation for Defense of Democracies analyst calling the facility “escalatory” and “intentionally provocative” while acknowledging that the US is already doing the same things to China. I guess when we do it, that’s not escalatory.
Anyway, I’m not sure how much to make of the report. The Cuban government denied it, though that’s not dispositive, and the Chinese government hasn’t commented. The White House and the Pentagon also questioned the report’s accuracy though they didn’t outright deny the possibility of some sort of Chinese intelligence activity in Cuba.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s William Hartung makes another probably doomed case for sanity when it comes to the US military budget:
The Biden administration requested $886 billion for national defense for Fiscal Year 2024, a sum far higher in real terms than the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam wars or at the height of the Cold War.
That figure could go even higher under the terms of the debt ceiling deal reached by President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, as hawks in Congress push for an emergency package that could not only provide aid needed to defend Ukraine but also tens of billions of dollars in additional funding for the Pentagon’s regular budget.
This is a terrible idea. There is no reason to add funds to the Pentagon budget, as documented in a report released today by the Quincy Institute.
The enormous sums lavished on the Pentagon are being marshaled in support of a flawed National Defense Strategy that attempts to go everywhere and do everything, from winning a war with Russia or China, to intervening in Iran or North Korea, to continuing to fight a global war on terror that includes military activities in at least 85 countries.
Sticking to the current strategy is not only economically wasteful, but will also make America and the world less safe. It leads to unnecessary conflicts that drain lives and treasure and contribute to instability in the regions where those conflicts are waged, as occurred with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, elevating open–ended military commitments over other security challenges — from climate change to pandemics — risks intensifying the human and security consequences of those threats by reducing the resources available to address them.
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