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World roundup: March 15 2022
Stories from Iran, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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 but 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.
March 15, 44 BC: A group of Roman senators calling themselves “the Liberators” assassinates Julius Caesar due to fears that he had designs on ending the Roman Republic and making himself a monarch. Their actions ironically hastened the end of the Republic, sparking first the Liberators’ Civil War and then the civil war between Triumvirs Mark Antony and Octavian, which left Octavian victorious and in so dominant a position that he was able to make himself emperor.
March 15, 2011: Protests against the government of Bashar al-Assad that had begun in the city of Daraa earlier in the month spread to Damascus, the Syrian capital. This is usually the date marked as the start of the Syrian civil war. I’m reluctant to try to pass historical judgment on an event that hasn’t really ended yet, but it seemed important to note the anniversary.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Global oil prices dropped to around $100 per barrel (Brent crude) on Tuesday, fueled partly by ongoing Russia-Ukraine peace talks (see below) and partly by reports of an escalating COVID wave in China. The latter undoubtedly raises the specter of a decline in global commerce that would lead to a commensurate decline in demand for oil and gasoline.
Someone attempted to assassinate the leader of the Southern Transitional Council’s Security Belt militia, Abdul Latif al-Sayed, via a car bomb in Yemen’s Abyan province on Tuesday. At least two people were killed and two others badly wounded in the incident. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but the STC has been fighting against the Ansar Allah rebel group while also tensely co-existing with other elements on the pro-government side of that conflict. Al-Qaeda and Islamic State are also both active in Yemen and either would likely view the leader of the secularist, UAE-backed Security Belt as an adversary.
The Gulf Cooperation Council is reportedly planning a days-long Yemeni peace conference, including rebel representatives, that would be held in Riyadh starting at the end of March. The rebels would be given security guarantees by the GCC to attend, though whether they’d trust those guarantees is anyone’s guess. A better alternative might be to hold the conference in a place the rebels would regard as friendlier ground, like Oman.
Three Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in separate incidents on Tuesday, one of which took place within Israel proper. In that incident, police shot and killed a man who had allegedly started shooting at them. The other two shootings took place within the Balata and Qalandia refugee camps in the West Bank, where Israeli occupation forces say they were attacked while carrying out arrest raids and killed one person in each camp while returning fire.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Saudi government is hashing out a plan to begin selling oil to China in yuan rather than dollars. This is a topic Riyadh and Beijing have broached in the past, but it’s taken on new salience in recent months as Mohammed bin Salman has come to feel that the Biden administration has been insufficiently obsequious. The Saudis haven’t sold oil in anything but dollars since the 1970s, so even a relatively small shift toward the yuan would mark a significant policy change and would deal a blow to the dollar’s stature as the global reserve currency. But such a shift would also be a major upheaval for the oil market and for the Saudis, so it’s an open question as to whether the Saudis will actually go through with it.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian visited Russia on Tuesday and seems to have averted the world-case scenario as far as the effort to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is concerned. Moscow had recently put an agreement in jeopardy with a new demand that its interactions with Iran be exempted from Western sanctions over Ukraine. But at a press conference during Amirabdollahian’s visit Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared that Russia has “received written guarantees” from the United States that apparently satisfy its concerns. Who knows what these guarantees might be, assuming they exist at all, but whether this is the US giving into Russia or the Russians backing down the upshot would appear to be that an agreement is once again in sight, though nothing is confirmed as yet.
In a sign of progress, Iranian authorities have reportedly returned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s UK passport to her. Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a dual British-Iranian national who’s been in Iranian custody for some six years now. Her release could be a part of a broader agreement around a restored nuclear deal, one that may include a British agreement to return some £400 million that the pre-revolution Iranian government deposited with the UK to pay for weapons. The UK never supplied the weapons and the current Iranian government wants that money back.
Turkmen election officials have finally announced that Serdar Berdimuhamedow, son of outgoing President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, won Saturday’s election to succeed his father. This is an outcome they could have announced before the election, but I suppose they felt the need to go through the counting motions so that Serdar’s 72.97 percent of the popular vote would seem slightly more plausible. It’s notable that Serdar’s percentage of the vote is somewhat smaller than the percentages his father won in his three presidential elections. Succeeding dad is one thing but outdoing him is another. Serdar will formally take office on Saturday, while Gurbanguly will retain his gig as chair of the upper house of the Turkmen parliament.
Data from the World Bank’s “Afghanistan Welfare Survey” does not paint a very pretty picture of Afghan welfare. According to the survey, which covers the period from October to December 2021, 70 percent of Afghans say their families are unable to meet basic needs, double the number who responded that way in the Bank’s last survey before the Taliban takeover, taken in May. Almost half say their households have reduced the number of meals they eat each day. These effects appear mostly to be caused by a sharp decline in available jobs, particularly public sector jobs, but they also highlight Afghanistan’s desperate need for humanitarian aid—most of which is still frozen by Western sanctions against the Taliban.
The United Nations human rights office issued its first major report on Myanmar since last February’s coup on Tuesday, and like the survey above the picture this report paints is not good. The UN accused Myanmar’s military of committing a wide array of human rights abuses, from torturing and summarily executing prisoners to intentionally targeting civilians amid its conflicts with various rebel groups and/or local defense militias.
Indonesian security forces killed at least two people during a violent protest in Papua province on Tuesday. Many residents of that region have been demonstration against a prospective administrative reorganization that they fear could lead to tighter levels of government control over a region where support for autonomy if not outright independence runs high. Participants in Tuesday’s demonstration in the Yahukimo district reportedly began looting stores and setting fires in the vicinity of local government offices, prompting a violent police response.
According to the South Korean military, North Korea attempted another projectile test off of its east coast early Wednesday, but the projectile in question crashed just after launch. Pyongyang has conducted two tests of what it claims is a satellite launch system in recent weeks, but the US and South Korea have contended that it’s actually been testing components of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-17, under the guise of space research.
The Senegalese military is reportedly undertaking a new offensive against the separatist Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance group. The MFDC, which advocates independence for Senegal’s southernmost region, most recently killed four Senegalese soldiers who were on patrol either in The Gambia (on a peacekeeping operation) or in Casamance—the Senegalese government claims the former, the MFDC the latter—in late January.
Human Rights Watch is alleging that Malian soldiers have killed at least 71 civilians over the past four months, a period in which Islamist militants have only killed 36 Malian civilians by contrast. This includes an incident earlier this month in which Malian soldiers are accused of massacring 35 civilians in the Ségou region. Malian authorities are rejecting that particular charge but say they’re looking into other claims of violence against civilians.
Armed bandits attacked a police station in Nigeria’s Niger state on Tuesday, killing at least three police officers and four members of a local defense force. In a separate incident, gunmen attacked a factory in Kebbi state, killing four police officers and one other person. Much of northern and central Nigeria continues to be plagued by these sorts of attacks, which are believed to be perpetrated by young Fulani who have been forced for one reason or another (climate change, for example) to shift from herding to banditry to make a living.
The UN Security Council voted on Tuesday to reauthorize its South Sudanese peacekeeping mission for another year. Russia and China abstained from the vote over objections with the wording of the US-drafted extension resolution.
In today’s news from Russia:
Tuesday was New Sanctions Day, again, and pretty much everybody jumped in the proverbial pool. The Biden administration imposed new sanctions on a number of Russian military officials (including Viktor Zolotov, head of the Russian National Guard and a close Vladimir Putin confidante) and people allegedly responsible for human rights violations, while expanding sanctions against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his family. The European Union added to its Russian oligarch blacklist while barring new investment in Russia’s energy sector and imports of Russian steel as well as exports of luxury goods to Russia. The United Kingdom blacklisted hundreds of individuals and entities after its parliament passed a new law late Monday that expands the government’s authority to take such measures. The Canadian government blacklisted another 15 Russian officials, while the Japanese government put another 17 people on its blacklist.
Not to be outdone, the Russian government retaliated on Tuesday by imposing travel bans on, among other people, US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Several senior US national security officials were also hit with travel bans. If any of them were planning a trip to the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games (Google it), they will now need to make new vacation plans.
The Russian government also announced on Tuesday that it’s quitting the Council of Europe, after which the council voted to expel Russia anyway. The council, a pan-European human rights organization formed in 1949, suspended Russia’s membership in the immediate wake of the Ukraine invasion. Russian officials spun that suspension as a positive, in that it might allow them to reinstate capital punishment. So I guess they have that to look forward to.
Russia’s UN delegation has written a draft UN Security Council resolution that calls for protecting Ukrainian civilians and providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine but apparently doesn’t really say anything about the war. Maybe the artillery shells are manifesting out of thin air. This draft is supposed to be an alternative to a French-Mexican draft that talked about the humanitarian situation but also placed the onus for the conflict on Russia, and which therefore would have been vetoed by Russia. That draft is now going to be put to the UN General Assembly, where it will certainly pass for whatever difference that will make.
The Indian Oil Company is reportedly buying an additional 3 million barrels of Russian crude oil for May delivery, at a hefty discount. India already imports a limited amount of Russian oil, but this new deal will help it alleviate high oil prices to some degree while also, obviously, providing cash to Russia. Although Western sanctions haven’t directly hit current Russian oil production, one side effect of sanctions on, e.g., Russian banks has been a sharp downturn in the amount of Russian oil being purchased.
And in Ukraine:
The UN’s confirmed civilian casualty count stands at 691 killed and 1143 injured since the invasion began. Given the difficulty in confirming deaths in active war zones that figure should always be regarded as an undercount.
There continues to be little noticeable territorial movement, but the Russian military is continuing to pound several Ukrainian cities with air and artillery strikes. The city government in Kyiv imposed a 35 hour curfew from 8 PM Tuesday through 7 AM Thursday in response to the ongoing bombardment. Residents will be obliged to stay indoors except when moving to/from an air raid shelter. While it’s of much less concern than the lives that are being lost or ruined in this conflict, this escalated shelling has added to concerns about the fate of Ukraine’s cultural heritage—which in a way was, allegedly, one of the things that motivated Putin to invade. At this point it’s impossible to know exactly how many heritage buildings, libraries, archives, etc. have been destroyed but it seems certain that that the number is substantial.
On a somewhat positive note, Ukrainian officials say they were able to evacuate some 20,000 civilians out of the besieged city of Mariupol via a “humanitarian corridor” on Tuesday. Russian and Ukrainian officials have been planning each day to open evacuation corridors out of cities on the front line of the conflict, but the implementation of those plans has been haphazard at best.
Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met virtually again on Tuesday and, while they again don’t appear to have made any major progress, seem to be planning to continue those sessions on a daily or near-daily basis. They will speak again on Wednesday. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky noted on Tuesday that there has been some movement on both sides, suggesting they’re at least making incremental progress. In particular, Zelensky himself seems to have openly jettisoned his pursuit of NATO membership, which as we all know is perhaps Putin’s number one stated grievance with respect to Ukraine. Whether that has any impact on the course of negotiations depends in part on how well Putin’s stated grievances align with his actual grievances.
There was a flurry of more performative diplomacy on Tuesday. For example, the prime ministers of Czechia, Poland, and Slovenia all headed to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky and…well, I’m not really sure. They were reportedly there to present a new EU aid package to Ukrainian leaders, something that probably could have been done over the phone with less risk of exponentially escalating this conflict. NATO announced that its leaders will hold an “extraordinary summit” in Brussels next week, most likely so that they can all agree to keep doing what they’re already doing. The summit itself is the point, since it’s a big public demonstration that NATO Cares.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming that Russia has recruited upwards of 40,000 Syrians—soldiers in the regular Syrian military as well as members of pro-government militia groups—to fight on its behalf in Ukraine. That figure seems incredibly high, but the Russians are reportedly offering considerable financial benefits (by average Syrian standards, at least) to recruits. The Syrian government is denying the claim. There are reports of Syrian rebel fighters expressing interest in going to Ukraine to fight on Kyiv’s behalf, though it’s unclear how they’d get there logistically and I would assume their numbers will be dwarfed by the number of Syrians fighting for Russia.
In addition to meeting The Gang in Kyiv (see above), Zelensky also spent part of his Tuesday addressing (virtually) the Canadian parliament in what partially served as a dress rehearsal for his Wednesday speech to the US Congress. Among other things, he took the opportunity to renew his call for NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a policy that would require the alliance to destroy Russian anti-aircraft systems and potentially shoot down any Russian aircraft that violate the NFZ. The risks of adopting such a policy should be obvious. It’s understandable that Zelensky keeps asking for it, but anyone advocating a NFZ in this situation is basically asking NATO to play a game of “chicken” with Putin, under the assumption that he would not retaliate for NATO attacks on the Russian military. This seems like a bad idea to me but your mileage may vary. What’s wild is that many of the same people calling for a NFZ are also among the folks speculating that Putin has lost his mind, which makes testing his willingness to escalate seem like an exceptionally bad idea.
To mark the occasion of Zelensky’s speech, the Biden administration is expected to unveil another $800 million in military aid for Ukraine. Arms dealers continue to be the only totally unquestioned beneficiaries of this war.
Chilean Interior Minister Izkia Siches on Tuesday visited the Araucania region, which is under a state of emergency due to violent clashes between Chilean security forces and indigenous Mapuche militants, and nearly had to cut the trip short when shots were fired in the general vicinity of her motorcade. Those shots were apparently fired in the air rather than at the convoy, so it proved to be something of a false alarm.
The US consulate in Nuevo Laredo closed on Tuesday due to an outbreak of violence sparked by the arrest of a local gang leader. Gang members (it’s believed) blockaded roads and there were reports of gunfire directed at government buildings and possibly the consulate as well. At least one person was reportedly killed amid the violence though I’m not sure about the specific circumstances.
Finally, a declassified CIA report manages to add a new low to the agency’s torture program with the news that agency interrogators used at least one of their detainees as a training device:
A detainee at a secret CIA detention site in Afghanistan was used as a living prop to teach trainee interrogators, who lined up to take turns at knocking his head against a plywood wall, leaving him with brain damage, according to a US government report.
The details of the torture of Ammar al-Baluchi are in a 2008 report by the CIA’s inspector general, newly declassified as part of a court filing by his lawyers aimed at getting him an independent medical examination.
Baluchi, a 44-year-old Kuwaiti, is one of five defendants before a military tribunal on Guantánamo Bay charged with participation in the 9/11 plot, but the case has been in pre-trial hearings for 10 years, mired in a dispute over legal admissibility of testimony obtained after torture.
I think it’s helpful every so often, especially whenever some member of the Blob starts waxing on about the innate goodness of US foreign policy, to remember the torture program and, in particular, to remind ourselves that nobody was ever held accountable for it.