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World roundup: March 16 2023
Stories from Yemen, China, France, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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 seems important to note the anniversary.
March 16, 1527: Though outnumbered, an early Mughal army under the dynasty’s founder, Babur, defeats a conglomeration of forces under Rajput leader Rana Sanga at the Battle of Khanwa in northeastern India. Babur made effective use of field artillery and wagon fortifications, as well as the defection of a large portion of Rana Sanga’s army, to win the battle. In defeat Rana Sanga’s alliance fell apart and Mughal control of northern India was secured—at least until they were (temporarily) ousted from power in 1540.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A new report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development warns that developed nations are—get ready for a huge surprise—locking developing countries out of the economic benefits of green technologies. The imbalance, according to UNCTAD, could limit carbon emissions reductions in the developing world and—again, prepare to be shocked—worsen global economic inequality.
Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Russia has apparently paid dividends on the business front, as it included agreements in principle on some 40 investment deals across a number of sectors. Those agreements need to be finalized but, according to Assad, could be signed in a matter of weeks.
One part of Assad’s visit that may not have gone so well involves Russian efforts to broker a restoration of diplomatic relations between Syria and Turkey. A meeting of the deputy foreign ministers of Iran, Russia, Syria, and Turkey that was supposed to have taken place in Moscow this week has been postponed, with no new proposed date as yet. The Turkish Foreign Ministry attributed the postponement to “technical reasons,” which could mean anything or nothing. Meanwhile, Assad told Russian media on Thursday that he’ll only patch things up with Turkey once the Turkish military stops supporting Syrian rebels and ends its occupation of northern Syria. It could be that the Turks aren’t ready to go that far yet.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that, as part of Iran’s new diplomatic opening with Saudi Arabia, the Iranians have promised to stop arming Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement. It’s basing that claim on unnamed “US and Saudi officials,” so I’m not sure its sourcing is especially iron-clad. Iranian officials have of course always denied claims that they’ve been shipping weapons to the Houthis but there’s a pretty substantial body of evidence to the contrary. All they’ve said about Yemen since Friday is that they agreed to urge the rebels not to undertake any more attacks against Saudi Arabia, but apparently the Saudis also “expect” that they’ll stop arms shipments in accordance with a UN embargo. As with everything I suppose time will tell.
According to the Kurdistan Regional Government, at least five people were killed in a helicopter crash late Wednesday in northern Iraq’s Dohuk province. At least some of the deceased have been identified members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), raising serious questions about the provenance of the helicopter. The Iraqi, Turkish, and US governments have all apparently denied ownership and the PKK says it doesn’t have any helicopters. PKK officials are questioning whether any of their personnel were even on the helicopter and have suggested instead that they were Syrian YPG militia fighters (the PKK and YPG are closely intertwined) and that the helicopter belonged to the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition. There’s no indication of foul play in the crash itself as far as I can tell.
Israeli occupation forces killed at least four Palestinians on Thursday in the West Bank city of Jenin. According to Israeli officials they were pursuing two wanted members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, who were among the dead, and killed a third person who allegedly attacked them “with a crowbar.” The identity of the fourth person is unclear. At least 83 Palestinians have been killed so far this year, roughly half of them (according to the AP) known militants.
Saudi Arabia’s two flag air carriers, Saudia and the newly-announced Riyadh Air, agreed earlier this week to purchase 78 787 Dreamliners from Boeing with an option to purchase as many as 43 more. Terms of the deal weren’t announced—it would be worth about $37 billion if the Saudis buy all 121 planes at full market price, but it’s safe to assume there are some discounts built into the equation. While this isn’t exactly equivalent to Friday’s China-brokered diplomatic agreement it does show that the Saudis aren’t exactly ready to cut ties with the US and that they still know exactly how to keep themselves on Washington’s good side—by throwing lots of money at large US companies with big lobbying operations. If the US and China are going to be jockeying for influence in the Middle East moving forward, the Saudis are well-positioned to play them against each other.
The Lahore High Court on Thursday ordered police to cease and desist in their attempts to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan until at least Friday. Police had tried on Tuesday and again on Wednesday to detain Khan at his home in Lahore, failing on both days and sparking confrontations with his supporters to boot. The court also ordered Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf not to hold a planned rally in Lahore on Sunday, but it remains to be seen whether it will comply. The former PM is wanted for failure to appear in court in response to allegations that he sold gifts he received while in office. Khan insists the charges have been concocted by authorities to bar him from running in this year’s general election.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the US government is moving to pressure the Chinese owners of the TikTok social media app to divest or lose US access:
The Biden administration is demanding that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes in the video-sharing app or face a possible U.S. ban of the app, according to people familiar with the matter.
The move represents a major shift in policy on the part of the administration, which has been under fire from some Republicans who say it hasn’t taken a tough enough stance to address the perceived security threat from TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or Cfius—a multiagency federal task force that oversees national-security risks in cross-border investments—made the sale demand recently, the people said.
TikTok executives have said that 60% of ByteDance shares are owned by global investors, 20% by employees and 20% by its founders, though the founders’ shares carry outsize voting rights, as is common with tech companies. The company was founded in Beijing in 2012 by Zhang Yiming, ByteDance Chief Executive Liang Rubo and others.
TikTok has responded by promising to address US security concerns and by insisting that divestment won’t resolve those concerns. The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday accused the US government of “spreading disinformation” about the app and called for “an open, fair and non-discriminatory environment for foreign businesses to invest and operate in the US.”
North Korean media reported on Friday that the previous day’s weapons launch did indeed involve an intercontinental ballistic missile, a Hwasong-17 to be precise. Reports characterized the launch as a response to the ongoing “Freedom Shield 23” military exercises involving the US and South Korean militaries.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol became the first South Korean leader in 12 years to visit Japan on Thursday, holding a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio that focused mostly on security issues related to China and North Korea.
Yoon’s visit was made possible when he unveiled a new proposal last week to compensate Koreans who performed forced labor during the Japanese occupation in World War II without involving the Japanese companies responsible. That plan could remove the biggest extant impediment to closer South Korean-Japanese relations, if the substantial public opposition it’s generated in South Korea doesn’t upend it. Yoon and Kishida agreed to set aside an ongoing trade dispute, which should also improve relations. Any rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo is going to be welcomed in the United States, since both countries are key to any US effort to constrain China.
The “Libyan National Army” militia says it has located the 2.3-ish metric tons of uranium that the International Atomic Energy Agency tagged as “missing” earlier this week. Apparently the uranium was only around five kilometers from where it was supposed to be. It’s always the last place you look, you know? It sounds like the uranium was discovered near the Chadian border, though whether that’s relevant to its disappearance in any way I do not know.
Ongoing protests in support of Senegalese opposition leader Ousmane Sonko turned violent in Dakar on Thursday as police resorted to tear gas to suppress protesters who attempted to follow Sonko’s motorcade to court. Sonko is being tried on libel charges and apparently also faces allegations that he raped a woman in 2021 and then threatened her to keep quiet. He and his supporters insist the charges are trumped up to prevent him from running in next year’s presidential election.
Suspected jihadist militants killed at least 18 people in three attacks on Monday across parts of northern and eastern Burkina Faso. At least seven were killed, along with four wounded, in one attack in Boulgou province, in the Centre-Est region, while a pair of attacks in Loroum province, in the Nord region, left at least 11 dead. One of those incidents in Loroum apparently targeted a Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland (VDP) militia outpost, and two VDP fighters were among the dead.
The US military held maritime exercises on Ghana’s Volta River last weekend, featuring the participation of military personnel from Ivory Coast and Nigeria in addition to the Ghanaians themselves. This was the first maritime training the US has held in West Africa and focused primarily on anti-piracy and on combating illicit fishing, which may sound picayune but apparently costs Gulf of Guinea littoral states over $9 billion per year.
In Russia news:
An explosion at an FSB facility in Rostov-on-Don on Thursday left at least one person dead and two more injured. I hesitate to make too much of this because it may well have been some sort of accident—that’s in fact what Russian authorities are saying—but under the circumstances and given both the location and the nature of the facility I don’t think a deliberate attack can be ruled out.
The US military released a video on Thursday that appears to corroborate its version of the downing of one of its drones over the Black Sea earlier this week. The video seems to show damage to the drone’s propeller immediately following a very close pass by a Russian jet and immediately before the drone crashed. The US says a Russian plane collided (presumably unintentionally) with the drone while Russian officials have insisted there was no contact and the drone simply crashed while making “sharp” maneuvers.
A UN commission of inquiry has accused Russia of committing a number of war crimes, possibly rising to the level of crimes against humanity, during the first year of its Ukraine invasion. The UN Human Rights Council set up the commission shortly after the start of the invasion. Thursday’s report also notes alleged Ukrainian war crimes but spends most of its time on Russia. This is the most significant of several reports accusing the Russians of war crimes but nevertheless there is very little chance that anyone, Russian or Ukrainian, will ever be prosecuted meaningfully over the war unless those prosecutions happen in a domestic, rather than international, legal context.
The Ukrainian government’s desire to seize frozen Russian assets as war reparations is being stymied by Western governments that fear setting a precedent that could someday be used against them, according to Ukrainian Deputy Justice Minister Iryna Mudra. She did not specify which countries are resisting this idea but I don’t know that you have to be Hercule Poirot to suss out who it might be.
Elsewhere Polish President Andrzej Duda appeared to confirm on Thursday that his government will supply Ukraine with fighter jets—around a dozen MiG-29s, to be precise. A first tranche of four aircraft could be delivered “within the next few days,” according to Duda, while the rest would be transferred after they’ve received necessary maintenance. The Ukrainian military already flies MiG-29s so its pilots won’t need any training to operate the planes, which means this transfer is not really analogous to the potential transfer of Western jets (F-16s, say) to Ukraine. But it could serve as a test run for at least the logistics of getting new planes into the country. Other European countries that still fly the MiG-29 could follow suit.
Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović dissolved parliament on Thursday, setting the stage for a snap election sometime in the next 100 days (UPDATE: the election has been scheduled for June 11). This move comes at the climax of a political impasse in which ex-Foreign Minister Miodrag Lekić was apparently unable to form a government following the collapse of former PM Dritan Abazović’s cabinet last August. Đukanović apparently rejected Lekić’s nomination on some sort of procedural grounds but I’m unclear as to the details. Đukanović is also running for a third term as president on Sunday. Polling suggests he may win the first round but would come well short of a majority, setting up a runoff in two weeks in which he may be vulnerable.
According to Daniel Hegedus, “an analyst and fellow for Central Europe at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank that seeks to promote cooperation between North America and the European Union” who spoke to the AP on Thursday, the Hungarian government keeps delaying a vote on admitting Finland and/or Sweden to NATO in order to wring concessions out of the European Union. Specifically, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to leverage this NATO vote to unlock billions of dollars in EU assistance that have been frozen by Brussels over Orbán’s…oh, let’s say “loose interpretation” of EU regulations around issues like corruption and the rule of law. Orbán has also resisted EU sanctions against Russia, which is probably motivated in part by his friendly relationship with Moscow but more by his desire to get access to this money.
Orbán has claimed that Finnish and Swedish officials have been “spreading blatant lies about Hungary” and that’s the reason for the delay in the NATO votes, but he’s never really explained what “lies” those are or what either country would have to do about them in order to make those votes happen. In other words this has never seemed like a satisfactory explanation. The EU idea makes more sense.
France 24 reports on a somewhat uproarious day in French politics:
France entered a period of political uncertainty on Thursday as French President Emmanuel Macron rammed a controversial pension reform through parliament without a vote by invoking a special executive measure. With the opposition braced for a no-confidence vote and the unions threatening more strikes, France witnessed a dramatic afternoon in politics.
The scenes in the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, on Thursday appeared to have been lifted from historical dramas dating back to the country’s revolutionary past.
“Aux armes citoyens, formez vos bataillons,” sang opposition lawmakers as the chamber echoed with the rallying cry of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, rallying citizens to take up arms and form battalions. “S’il vous plait, s’il vous plait,” pleaded Yaël Braun-Pivet, the speaker of the National Assembly, ineffectually trying to get order in the house.
The session was suspended for two minutes before Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne could announce the triggering of Article 49.3 of the French constitution, which grants the government executive privilege to pass a bill without a vote. Triggering Article 49.3 also permits the opposition to respond with a no-confidence motion.
One assumes that Macron no longer believed he could get his “pension reform” bill passed through the normal legislative process. Article 49.3 is used relatively frequently by French presidents who have weak positions in parliament. A no-confidence motion is likely to be advanced on Friday with a vote to come sometime next week. Borne’s government seems likely to survive but it’s not a given, and Macron’s decision to invoke his authority to ram an unpopular piece of legislation down the throat of an unhappy French public is likely to worsen the unrest that’s already prompted massive strikes and regular protests.
Finally, the US Senate is marking the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq by possibly moving toward a repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force that empowered the still-not-in-prison former US President George W. Bush to go hog wild on the Iraqi people. Better late than never, I guess. Meanwhile, speaking of people who should have long since been tried at The Hague, The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz has a “where are they now” look at some of the main grandees behind that war. You’ll no doubt be psyched to learn that all of them—or at least the ones who haven’t since passed away—are doing just swell:
The men and women who launched this catastrophic, criminal war have paid no price over the past two decades. On the contrary, they’ve been showered with promotions and cash. There are two ways to look at this.
One is that their job was to make the right decisions for America (politicians) and to tell the truth (journalists). This would mean that since then, the system has malfunctioned over and over again, accidentally promoting people who are blatantly incompetent failures.
Another way to look at it is that their job was to start a war that would extend the U.S. empire and be extremely profitable for the U.S. defense establishment and oil industry, with no regard for what’s best for America or telling the truth. This would mean that they were extremely competent, and the system has not been making hundreds of terrible mistakes, but rather has done exactly the right thing by promoting them.
You can read this and then decide for yourself which perspective makes the most sense.
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