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World roundup: March 18-19 2023
Stories from Kazakhstan, Sudan, Kosovo, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 17, 1861: The first Italian parliament proclaims King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia as king of a newly unified Italy. This was the culmination of a unification process (the Risorgimento) that began amid the Revolutions of 1848, though the process wasn’t completed until the Italians took Venice from Austria in 1866 and Rome from the Papacy in 1870.
March 18, 1921: The Peace of Riga formally ends the 1919-1920 Polish-Soviet War. The Poles emerged mostly victorious, regaining some of the territory that had been lost to the Russian Empire during the three 18th century partitions of Poland, and the outcome put a damper on Bolshevik plans to try to spread their revolution to other parts of Europe. Poland’s borders with what had by then become the Soviet Union were of course redrawn again during and after World War II.
March 18, 1965: During the Voskhod 2 space mission, cosmonaut Alexei Leonov becomes the first person to conduct a spacewalk. Leonov exited the Voskhod spacecraft and spent 12 minutes, 9 seconds in space. The mission’s end the following day almost became a tragedy when weather forced the capsule to touch down off course, in the heavily forested Upper Kama Upland region. Leonov and his fellow cosmonaut, Pavel Belyayev, had to spend the night in the forest because the terrain made their planned airlift impossible and ground rescuers couldn’t reach them until the following day.
March 19, 1279: A heavily outnumbered Mongol (Yuan) fleet defeats a Song Dynasty fleet at the Battle of Yamen, today in China’s Guangdong province. Despite the disparity in numbers, the Yuan were able to blockade the Song fleet in Yamen’s harbor until it ran out of food and water, and then once the Song were desperate enough to attack the Mongols engaged in a ruse to drawn them into an engagement unprepared. In the wake of the defeat, the young Song Emperor Zhao Bing committed suicide, bringing the Song Dynasty to an end and leaving China entirely in Mongolian hands.
March 19, 1962: French and Algerian forces begin a ceasefire under the newly agreed Évian Accords that would mark the end of the fighting in the Algerian War of Independence. The Accords laid out the terms of Algerian independence while preserving some French commercial and military interests, and were put to an April referendum in France and a July referendum in Algeria, winning approval in both countries.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited the United Arab Emirates on Sunday, marking his second trip to an Arab Gulf state since last month’s devastating Turkish/Syrian earthquake (he visited Oman a couple of weeks after the quake) and also marking another step toward his rehabilitation in the Arab world. No less a dignitary than Abu Dhabi ruler and UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan met with Assad, shook his hand, and said publicly that “the time has come” for Syria’s restoration to intra-Arab geopolitics.
The Iranian and Iraqi governments signed a new agreement on Sunday aiming to improve security along their shared border. The deal calls for closer cooperation between the two countries’ security forces, something the Iranians had been seeking to help curb attacks that they claim are being carried out by Iranian Kurdish militants operating from bases in northern Iraq. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has responded to recent protests by attacking Kurdish targets in Iraq on several occasions.
A presumably Palestinian gunman opened fire on a vehicle near the West Bank town of Huwara on Sunday, wounding two people (one seriously). Huwara was, as you may recall, the site of a pogrom by Israeli settlers last month that was prompted by a shooting hours earlier. I have not seen any reports of violence following this shooting. The man who was seriously wounded turns out to be a US citizen. I have seen unconfirmed reports that the gunman was later killed by Israeli forces but again those are unconfirmed. Meanwhile, Palestinian Islamic Jihad is claiming that one of its commanders was “assassinated” by Israeli operatives in Syria on Sunday. From what I can tell there are minimal details available regarding this story apart from the PIJ claim itself.
Someone fired a rocket out of Gaza on Saturday, to no effect and without, apparently, drawing an Israeli response—at least not yet. I don’t believe anyone has claimed the rocket or explained the lack of a response, but Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials did meet in Egypt on Sunday with the ostensible goal of ratcheting down tensions in the Occupied Territories so maybe the lack of a retaliatory airstrike had something to do with that agenda. Part of their agreement reportedly involved a promise by the Israelis not to discuss any new settlement construction for the next four months. This is similar to a pledge the Israelis supposedly made in a meeting in Jordan last month that was immediately repudiated by senior Israeli officials.
The Kuwaiti Constitutional Court ruled on Sunday that last September’s parliamentary election was null and void, over some sort of irregularity in the decree that Crown Prince Mishal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah promulgated last June dissolving the previous legislature. The court ordered the reinstatement of that previous parliament. This ruling is likely to worsen Kuwait’s political discord, since the parliament elected in September was favorable to opposition figures who will undoubtedly resent having their gains wiped out.
Kazakh voters headed to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament, their first under the parameters they adopted in last June’s constitutional referendum. Well, about half of them headed to the polls, anyway. Official turnout was a bit over 54 percent, which is well below historical norms—though in Kazakhstan’s case it’s unclear whether that reflects a true decline in voter turnout or signifies that authorities are no longer cooking the electoral books.
Exit polling indicates that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is the election’s big winner. His Amanat party looks to have won a majority of seats in the Kazakh Mäjilis, though again its margin of victory was lower than in previous elections (I’m starting to think the “cooking the books” explanation is correct), and five other parties in line to win seats are also generally in Tokayev’s camp. Some number of independent opposition candidates may actually win seats, which would be something of a first for a Kazakh parliamentary election, but they won’t have the numbers to seriously challenge Tokayev’s agenda.
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan turned up as promised in an Islamabad trial court on Saturday to respond to some of the various legal charges he’s facing, after which the court dismissed the arrest warrants that had been issued against him over previous failures to appear in court. Khan did not actually enter the courtroom, due apparently to violent clashes between his supporters and police around the building, and instead the judge logged his appearance while he waited in his vehicle and then headed home to Lahore. He returned to find that police there had broken through several barricades erected around his home by his supporters, arresting at least 61 of those supporters in the process. They also searched the area around the home, where according to Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah they found weapons and ammunition.
The North Korean military shot another missile into the ocean on Sunday, this one of the short-range ballistic variety according to the South Korean military. This is their fourth weapons launch in less than a week and comes in response to the ongoing “Freedom Shield” military exercise that the US and South Korea are conducting. According to North Korean media, the launch was part of a two-day drill “simulating a nuclear counterattack,” so that sounds nice. Hopefully they had a good time.
Sudan’s political factions have reportedly agreed on the composition of a transitional government that will take office on April 11. Details are spotty but apparently this includes the formation of a committee to draft a new constitution that consists of nine civilian members and one member each from the regular Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces unit. It’s unclear whether Sudan’s ruling junta is on board with this plan but junta leaders have expressed a willingness to hand power over a civilian government.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front has named its spokesperson, Getachew Reda, to head an interim government for Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Under the terms of the peace deal that the TPLF and the Ethiopian government reached last November, his nomination now goes to Addis Ababa for approval or rejection. There’s no indication yet how Ethiopian officials will respond. If Getachew is approved he’ll replace TPLF boss Debretsion Gebremichael as Tigrayan leader. Establishing an interim Tigrayan regional government is an essential component of implementing the peace deal and ensuring the distribution of humanitarian assistance throughout the war-torn area.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
At least 22 people were killed in attacks in the eastern DR Congo late Saturday. The ethnic Lendu CODECO militia is believed to have been responsible for attacks on several villages in Ituri province that collectively killed at least 12 people. Elsewhere, Islamic State, via its Allied Democratic Forces affiliate, has claimed responsibility for an attack that killed at least ten people in North Kivu province. Additionally there are reports of new fighting between Congolese forces and the M23 militia, which had been quiet for several days prior to Saturday’s clashes.
The parties to the Black Sea Grain Initiative agreed on Saturday to renew it for at least 60 days, at Russia’s behest. The Ukrainian government initially announced a 120 day extension, but Moscow subsequently made it clear that it had only agreed to the shorter extension. The Russians say they will not agree to any further extensions of the initiative beyond that unless they’re satisfied that Western countries have ensured that their sanctions are no longer blocking Russian food and fertilizer exports. The US in particular has imposed broad financial sanctions on Russia that impinge on all manner of commercial activity. While the Biden administration continues to insist that its sanctions do not apply to basic goods like food and fertilizer, that’s only true in the most technical sense. Food exports themselves may not be banned, but other sanctions can make them logistically impossible.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti met with European Union officials in North Macedonia on Saturday to discuss normalizing their relationship, and after a lengthy negotiating session they agreed to…something. I’d like to be more specific but they didn’t put anything to paper, mostly because Vučić refuses to sign any sort of agreement with Kosovo, as he fears that would be interpreted as de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence. They apparently came to a verbal agreement along the lines of a previous EU proposal that calls for the Serbian government to stop blocking Kosovo’s admission into international organizations and for the Kosovan government to create some sort of autonomous administrative structure for ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo.
Kurti’s unwillingness to commit to a detailed plan for ethnic Serb autonomy is also an ongoing sticking point in these negotiations. Both leaders appear to be constrained by domestic politics to a significant degree.
Incumbent Milo Đukanović appears to have won the first round of Montenegro’s presidential election on Sunday, but he’s projected to finish well shy of the outright majority needed to avoid a runoff. Right now Đukanović is expected to take a bit over 35 percent of the vote, which will put him in the second round alongside former Economy Minister Jakov Milatović (who looks to take a bit over 29 percent). I haven’t seen any head to head polling of this matchup but Đukanović’s relatively poor showing (for a long-time incumbent) in the first round suggests that he may be vulnerable in the runoff.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced on Sunday that his government is suspending its ceasefire with the Clan del Golfo criminal gang. That ceasefire had been in place since earlier this year as part of Petro’s overall effort to negotiate amnesty deals with all of Colombia’s armed groups. But Petro has accused the gang of destroying an aqueduct in Colombia’s Antioquia province, and on Sunday he said the gang had attacked Colombian police, without going into any detail.
The Vatican closed its Nicaraguan embassy on Saturday, roughly one week after the Nicaraguan government announced its intention to suspend bilateral ties. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has distanced himself from the Vatican, accusing the Catholic Church of siding with his political opponents. His government sentenced dissident Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez to 26 years in prison last month. Earlier this month Pope Francis referred to Ortega’s government as a “rude dictatorship” in an interview, precipitating this latest break.
Gunmen suspected of ties to La Familia Michoacana, a local drug cartel, ambushed a military unit in Mexico’s Guerrero state on Friday. At least two soldiers and five attackers were killed in the ensuing battle.
Finally, at Foreign Affairs, Stephen Wertheim wonders, 20 years after the fact, whether US policymakers have really learned anything from the abomination that was our glorious invasion of Iraq:
Twenty years ago, the United States invaded Iraq. It spent a decade breaking the country and then trying to put it back together again. It spent another decade trying to forget. “We have met our responsibility,” U.S. President Barack Obama told the nation in 2010 while declaring a short-lived end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. “Now, it is time to turn the page.”
For Obama, moving on meant taking the fight to al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan through a surge of U.S. troops. Obama’s critics, for their part, soon found another reason to tell Americans to “get over Iraq”: the debacle was, in their view, making the president and the public too reticent to use military force, this time to sort out Syria’s civil war, which erupted in 2011. Obama refrained from striking Damascus, but he ended up deploying troops to Iraq and Syria in 2014 to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), which emerged out of the maelstrom of the United States’ original invasion.
By 2021, it was President Joe Biden’s turn to urge the country to move on from post-9/11 debacles. “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war,” he declared in September. Biden had just withdrawn U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The United States nevertheless continued to conduct counterterrorism operations in multiple countries, including Iraq, where 2,500 ground troops remained. “We’ve turned the page,” Biden said.
Have we? Over two decades, Americans have stubbornly refused to move on from Iraq. That is partly because the U.S. military is still fighting there and many other places besides. More profoundly, the country cannot “turn the page” without reading and comprehending it—without truly reckoning with the causes of the war. It may be painful to revisit what drove American leaders, on a bipartisan basis, to want to invade a country that had not attacked the United States and had no plans to do so, facts widely appreciated at the time. Yet without looking back, the country will not move forward with confidence and unity.
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