World roundup: March 14 2023
Stories from Lebanon, Armenia, Honduras, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 13, 624: The Battle of Badr leaves Muhammad’s followers victorious in their first serious military engagement, against a small Meccan army.
March 13, 1591: The Sultanate of Morocco’s invasion of the Sahelian Songhai Empire culminates with a decisive victory in the Battle of Tondibi, just north of the city of Gao (in modern Mali). The victorious Moroccan army continued into Gao, the Songhai capital, and sacked the city, followed by the commercially important cities of Timbuktu and Djenné. The battle shattered the Songhai Empire, which had been around since the 1460s, causing it to break into several smaller kingdoms.
March 14, 1978: The Israeli Defense Forces invade southern Lebanon as far north as the Litani River in the cleverly named “Operation Litani.” The invasion was an outgrowth of both the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War and the longstanding conflict between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Its aim was to drive the PLO out of southern Lebanon and strengthen the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia that was supported by the Israelis. In about a week of fighting Israeli forces killed somewhere between 1100 and 2000 people and displaced tens of thousands more. They withdrew in late March, ostensibly in favor of UN peacekeepers though in reality in favor of the SLA. That militia continued to clash with the PLO, sparking a second and much more impactful Israeli invasion in 1982.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Lebanese pound hit a new low on Tuesday, breaching the 100,000 per US dollar level and continuing on down (it was trading at 101,500 per dollar last time I checked). For reference the pound stood at around 60,000 per dollar about six weeks ago. Lebanese banks are on “strike”—mostly blocking withdrawals—as they protest court rulings allowing debtors to repay dollar loans at the “official” 1507 per dollar exchange rate. Elsewhere, the country has no president and only a caretaker government, which means there’s nobody empowered to negotiate with international creditors and/or the International Monetary Fund, and its central bank governor is facing serious corruption allegations whose ramifications could easily spread throughout the political elite. Other than that everything is fine.
Well, OK, not really. But let’s leave it here anyway.
The announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, under Chinese mediation, has exposed the limits of the European Union’s influence in the Middle East.
While the EU was careful to avoid explicitly crediting China, which it has referred to as its “systemic rival,” for the breakthrough, Brussels declared its readiness to build on it by engaging “with all actors in the Middle East in a gradual and inclusive approach, in full transparency.”
While such a statement suggests a pragmatic approach, it begs the question why it was China, an adversary, and not the EU, that facilitated the agreement between the two Persian Gulf rivals? Is dealing with the consequences of policies pursued by others the best the EU can do, particularly given the fact that United States, its main ally, was also excluded from a development that promises to reshape the geopolitical environment that the EU will have to navigate? What does it say about the EU’s proclaimed ambition to be a major geopolitical player?
Nothing good, as it turns out. Adopting the US government’s enemies list as your own doesn’t seem to be particularly sound geopolitical strategy.
Protesters appear to have returned to the streets of several Iranian cities on Tuesday to mark Chaharshanbe Suri, a holiday with Zoroastrian roots that’s part of the cultural celebration of Nowruz, the traditional Iranian new year. Videos circulating online purport to show these demonstrations, in which people are seen chanting anti-government slogans and burning headscarves (and, in at least one case, a picture of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei). Even the act of celebrating Chaharshanbe Suri is somewhat transgressive, as the Iranian government has tried to suppress the holiday due to its pre-Islamic roots.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Tuesday renewed his criticisms of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russian-led mutual defense bloc that’s done little or nothing—at least in Pashinyan’s view—to protect member state Armenia from aggression by non-member state Azerbaijan. Speaking to reporters in Yerevan, Pashinyan accused the CSTO of “pulling out of Armenia, whether it wishes so or not.” This comes after he’d previously opted out of filling one of the bloc’s leadership positions and canceled planned CSTO military exercises that were supposed to take place in Armenia later this year, so his argument is that the CSTO abandoned Armenia before his government began abandoning the CSTO. At the same time, Pashinyan played down any specific beef between Armenia and Russia, noting that their relationship has had some “objective problems” but is not in a state of crisis.
Pashinyan is obviously annoyed with the CSTO, and while I’m not here to adjudicate anything I’d say from his perspective he’s got reason to be annoyed. But this public break with the bloc is probably also meant to signal that Armenia is looking to strengthen its ties with Western nations that might be more willing to take Yerevan’s side against Azerbaijan. I’m not sure that’s a particularly savvy read of current geopolitics, especially given European interest in developing Azerbaijan as an alternative source of natural gas now that Russian gas is verboten. But in fairness, Pashinyan doesn’t exactly have a lot of options right now.
Two separate attacks targeting census teams in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Monday left at least two police officers dead with at least four more wounded. The Pakistani Taliban was almost certainly responsible.
Pakistani police attempted once again to arrest (or possibly to serve with a court summons, the reporting isn’t entirely clear) former Prime Minister Imran Khan at his home in Lahore on Tuesday, sparking confrontations with Khan’s supporters in that city and in other parts of the country. At least 35 civilians and 12 police officers were wounded in Lahore before authorities gave up their arrest effort and withdrew. Khan is wanted for failing to appear in court on corruption charges, which he and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party insist are politically motivated.
France 24 reports on efforts to reclaim pilfered Indian antiquities:
Hun Sen, who’s been Cambodia’s sole prime minister since 1998 and has effectively run the country since 1985, suggested in a speech on Tuesday that he could retire from that gig as soon as this year, following the general election in July. A one-off remark in one speech doesn’t necessarily mean anything and Hun Sen has previously talked about working until the next Cambodian election in 2028. Whenever he does finally step aside it’s highly likely he’ll be succeeded by his son, Hun Manet.
Indonesian politics have been thrown into a bit of chaos in the wake of a Jakarta district court ruling earlier this month that next February’s scheduled general election should be postponed until at least March 2025. The case that sparked the ruling was brought by an obscure Indonesian political party that claims authorities unfairly denied its application to participate in the election. The rationale behind the ruling doesn’t seem entirely clear and there are questions as to whether or not it’s even within the legal purview of a district court to issue an order like this. There has been some clamor to allow President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) to remain in office beyond the end of his second term, but he and his party have publicly rejected that clamor and have similarly rejected the court decision. Delaying the vote raises huge constitutional issues, which the Indonesian parliament may need to resolve somehow (to be clear I have no idea how).
The Nigerian central bank announced on Tuesday that older 200, 500, and 1000 naira banknotes will be maintained as legal tender through at least the end of this year. The bank has been in the midst of replacing those notes with new banknotes but the transition has been mismanaged and currency shortages have been the result. It’s been estimated that the situation has cost Nigeria billions of dollars (US) in lost economic activity, and the Nigerian Supreme Court essentially ordered this extension earlier this month.
According to witnesses, an al-Shabab car bombing killed at least nine people and wounded ten others in southern Somalia’s Jubaland state on Tuesday. The attack appears to have targeted the governor of Jubaland’s Gedo region, who was among the wounded and had to be airlifted to Mogadishu for treatment.
Russian Su-27 fighter jets reportedly intercepted a US MQ-9 Reaper surveillance drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday, and yada yada yada the drone crashed. I know I just yada yada-ed over the best part, but the truth is there’s some dispute over how exactly the drone came to its watery end. According to US officials one of the Russian jets made a close pass that apparently went awry, striking the drone’s propeller. This was after the Russians allegedly dumped fuel on the drone for some unspecified reason. According to the Russians the drone itself made a “sharp maneuver” and, I guess, just went out of control. The former scenario seems more likely than the latter but either way this is the kind of thing that probably shouldn’t be repeated.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told reporters on Tuesday that his government could send an unspecified number of MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine “in the coming 4-6 weeks.” Obviously they’re not the more advanced Western aircraft the Ukrainians have been demanding (F-16s above all), but a transfer like this could be a trial run in terms of the logistics that would be involved in supplying Ukraine with fighter jets in general.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson acknowledged to reporters in Stockholm on Tuesday that Finland is likely to get into NATO before Sweden does. The two countries set out last year to join the club together, going so far as to insist they had to enter together for national security reasons. But Sweden’s membership bid has stalled out over a number of Turkish grievances and isn’t likely to come unstalled anytime soon (though May’s Turkish election could shake things up depending on the outcome), while Finland’s bid seems relatively untroubled.
That said, the Hungarian parliament looks like it intends to delay again its consideration of both NATO bids, this time until at least March 27. Unlike Turkey, the Hungarian government really hasn’t explained why it hasn’t ratified these NATO bids and so it’s hard to know when or if it might finally do so.
Protests and strikes are continuing to roil France, as a seemingly pretty large portion of the French population continues to express strong opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to raise the French retirement age. These demonstrations have been going on for weeks now with absolutely nothing to indicate that they’re hampering Macron in any way, and indeed his euphemistically termed “pension reform” legislation is likely to win final legislative approval as soon as Thursday.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro declared via Twitter on Tuesday that her government will begin the process of transferring diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Castro talked about doing this during the 2021 presidential campaign but later downplayed the idea, possibly to avoid backlash from Washington. Her decision to go ahead with it now will leave Taiwan with only 13 remaining states that still recognize it diplomatically and there is still the potential for US backlash.
Polling indicates that Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is the prohibitive favorite to win next year’s presidential election, even though he’s really not supposed to run in it on account of pesky little technicalities like “the law” and “the Salvadoran constitution.” He’s going to run, the Salvadoran Supreme Court has already rubber stamped his decision so no legal authority will stop him, and he’s apparently got 68 percent support (against 13 percent opposition) in a survey conducted last month for the newspaper La Prensa Grafica.
Finally, at Forever Wars Spencer Ackerman notes that the Saudi-Iran diplomatic thaw undermines US Middle East policy, and not just because of China’s involvement:
A MEASURED STEP TO REDUCE HOSTILITIES between Middle Eastern belligerents Saudi Arabia and Iran took shape on Friday. With apologies to the Abraham Accords—and we'll turn to them in a minute—this looks like the most significant detente in the region since Oslo in 1993. And while it might turn out to be the false dawn that Oslo was, the pact was brokered by China, creating a breakout moment for Chinese diplomatic power in the Middle East and stunning a sidelined United States.
Everyone familiar with negotiations between rival powers understands that signing an accord does not trump long-standing patterns of hostility. At the same time, the American shock is justified. The China-brokered detente exposed not only the United States' irrelevance to a reduction of hostilities, but also how the United States couldn't have produced it, as its Middle Eastern strategy for roughly a decade has relied upon Saudi-Iranian hostilities. China has now called into question the basis for that strategy, all while Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman enjoys one of his favorite pastimes: making Joe Biden eat shit.
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