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World roundup: March 23 2023
Stories from Syria, Niger, Haiti, and elsewhere
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: There will be no roundup tomorrow for subscribers and we’re also going to forego our usual “Week in Review” on Saturday as I celebrate (or really at my age “ponder” is probably a better word) turning a year older. We’ll be back to normal on Sunday and through next week but then FX will take its annual “spring break” the week after that.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 22, 1739: Nader Shah’s Iranian army sacks the Indian city of Delhi.
March 23, 1879: A small Chilean army defeats an even smaller Bolivian force at the Battle of Topáter, which helped trigger the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific. The conflict, fought over a variety of issues including control of Pacific shipping routes and nitrate deposits in the region, ended with Chile victorious over a Bolivian-Peruvian alliance. The resulting settlement saw both defeated countries ceding territory to Chile, including Bolivia’s entire parcel of Pacific coastline.
March 23, 1991: The rebel Revolutionary United Front, with the support of Liberian rebel leader Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, invades Sierra Leone, kicking off the 1991-2002 Sierra Leone Civil War. Sierra Leone government eventually emerged victorious thanks in part to substantial foreign assistance, particularly from the UK. The RUF was later charged with committing a vast array of war crimes. Taylor became president of Liberia in 1997 but lost power in 2003 toward the end of the overlapping Second Liberian Civil War. Extradited to The Hague, Taylor was tried and convicted in 2012 on 11 war crimes counts and sentenced to 50 years in prison by the post-war Special Court for Sierra Leone.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
UPDATE: This story broke shortly after I sent out tonight’s roundup:
I’m sure there will be more to say about it on Sunday.
A front-line skirmish between Syrian soldiers and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters in Aleppo province left at least ten people dead (five on either side) on Thursday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Another 10 HTS fighters and six soldiers were reportedly wounded. HTS may be escalating its activity in an effort to draw fighters away from rebel groups operating under Turkish oversight. If the Turkish government takes any major steps to normalize relations with Damascus it’s undoubtedly going to lose credibility with its rebel proxies. HTS could benefit from that by recruiting disaffected fighters to its ranks.
Reuters, citing “three sources with knowledge of the matter” (thanks for narrowing it down guys), is reporting that the Saudi and Syrian governments have agreed to reopen their mutual embassies following a visit to Riyadh by “a senior Syrian intelligence official.” Assuming this is true it comes more than 11 years after the Saudis closed their embassy in Damascus amid the first stages of the Syrian civil war and about two weeks after the Saudis and Iranians reached a similar accord (which is apparently progressing, by the way). It would be a major victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his efforts to rebuild ties with the rest of the Arab world. It’s also another diplomatic setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who desperately wants his own normalization with the Saudis but has seen them instead restoring relations with two countries that are openly hostile toward Israel.
It’s unclear if the Saudis are extracting any concessions from Assad but they have in the past suggested that an increased effort to quash the illegal Captagon trade and a reduction of Iran’s presence in Syria would be prerequisites for Saudi-Syrian normalization. The expectation seems to be that they’ll reopen the embassies sometime after Eid al-Fitr holiday that follows Ramadan. The next step would presumably lifting Syria’s suspension in the Arab League.
Joe Biden is holding his second “Summit for Democracy” next week, with 120 countries invited. Not on the guest list are two ostensible democracies that also happen to be NATO members—Hungary and Turkey. There’s certainly cause to question the democratic bona fides of both governments, but I can’t imagine that snubbing them in this fashion is going to do much for intra-alliance harmony.
Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man, Amir Abu Khadijeh, while attempting to arrest him in the West Bank city of Tulkarm on Thursday. Abu Khadijeh had been accused of involvement in recent shooting incidents and was later identified as one of the founders of the Tulkarm Brigade militant group. There’s been a proliferation of localized militias in the West Bank in response to Israeli violence going back to last year. His death sparked a protest in Tulkarm and, given that Thursday was the first day of Ramadan and that Ramadan is often a tense time in the Occupied Territories, has raised concerns about potential escalation.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Knesset on Thursday passed part of the government’s judicial “reform” package, specifically a measure that prevents a prime minister from being deemed “unfit” to govern for any reason other than health and bars any institution other than the cabinet from making that determination. This is essentially the “leave Bibi alone” act because its specific intent is to shield Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from being removed over his ongoing corruption trial. Tens of thousands of people turned out across Israel to renew their protests against the judicial package, prompting Netanyahu to deliver a televised speech promising to “mend the rift” that his government has opened. How he intends to do that I have no idea, since he’s clearly not planning to drop his judicial agenda.
Armenian authorities say that Azerbaijani soldiers killed one of their border guards in a shooting incident near the village of Yeraskh on Wednesday. It’s unclear what, if anything, might have prompted the shooting and as far as I know there’s been no comment from the Azerbaijani side.
The Diplomat’s Shafi Md Mostofa writes that a new canal project in India’s West Bengal state is likely to spark new tension with the government of neighboring Bangladesh:
On March 4, the irrigation department of the government of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal acquired around 1,000 acres of land to dig an additional two canals under the Teesta Barrage Project to draw water from the Teesta River for agricultural purposes. Under the plan, “a 32 km-long canal to draw water from the Teesta and the Jaldhaka will be dug till Changrabandha of Cooch Behar district. Another canal, which will have a length of 15 km, will be built on the left bank of the Teesta,” The Telegraph reported, citing an unnamed source in the irrigation department.
India and Bangladesh share 54 transboundary rivers. An Indo-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission (JRC) was set up in 1972 to “ensure the most effective joint effort in maximizing the benefits from common river systems.”
So far, the two countries have reached agreement on sharing the waters of only one river, the Ganga. It took the two sides 25 years of negotiations to achieve this success. The treaty for sharing the waters of the Ganga at Farakka was signed in 1996, which eased somewhat tensions between the two countries.
Success with regard to finalizing an agreement on the Teesta River remains elusive, however.
The Chinese military claimed on Thursday that its naval forces had chased off a US destroyer, the USS Milius, from waters around the disputed Paracel Islands archipelago in the South China Sea. The US military insists that the Milius has been traveling through international waters and is denying the claim that it was chased away from the Paracels. That archipelago is also claimed by Taiwan (in its “Republic of China” capacity) and Vietnam.
According to North Korean state media, the country’s military tested an underwater drone this week amid its other, visible weapons launches. The device allegedly traveled underwater for more than 59 hours before detonation and was described as “nuclear,” which I assume means “nuclear-capable” though I’m not entirely sure. The North Koreans fired off four cruise missiles tipped with dummy nuclear warheads on Wednesday to simulate a nuclear counterattack.
According to The Wall Street Journal, North Africa has become the world’s newest energy hot spot now that Russian oil is déclassé:
After years of underinvestment in North Africa’s energy infrastructure, global oil-and-gas giants from Halliburton Co. and Chevron Corp. to Eni SpA are ramping up their presence in the region as demand from Europe grows.
Executives in the industry are betting it is worth drilling again in some of the hardest places to do business in the world as Europe increasingly turns to other sources for its energy needs after shunning its main supplier, Russia, over the invasion of Ukraine. In recent months, a string of European officials have visited the region to help advance talks over potential supply deals.
Halliburton and Honeywell International Inc. are hammering out $1.4 billion worth of deals to develop an oil field and refinery with National Oil Corporation in Libya, which has the largest known oil reserves in Africa, according to the chairman of state-owned firm, Farhat Bengdara. Italy’s Eni is planning investments aimed at replacing nearly half of the gas it was importing from Russia with gas from Algeria.
Chevron is also looking to seal an energy exploration deal in Algeria, The Wall Street Journal reported last month. In January, the U.S. oil major announced a sizable natural-gas discovery in Egypt.
This is great news for anyone invested in North African oil and bad news for anyone who might be affected by the runaway climate change all these investments are going to (pardon the pun) fuel. But really, I mean, how many people could that be? 10? 20?
An apparent jihadist attack in Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord region on Wednesday killed at least 15 Burkinabé soldiers and volunteer paramilitaries. The soldiers were reportedly guarding water infrastructure that’s been a frequent target for Islamists.
At Responsible Statecraft, Alex Thurston looks at US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Niger and concludes that the US is giving its counter-terrorism project in the Sahel a “New Cold War” rebranding:
In February, U.S. officials reportedly shared intelligence with Chad, alleging that the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group mercenaries are plotting to topple Chad’s transitional government and even assassinate its president. The New York Times has compared the administration’s approach to Chad — not just sharing intelligence, but also leaking it — to the administration’s approach to Ukraine in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion.
Then, on March 16, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger, announcing $150 million in new direct humanitarian aid to the Sahel. “We’ve seen countries find themselves weaker, poorer, more insecure, less independent,” Blinken warned, “as a result of the association with Wagner.” In the wake of Blinken’s visit, there has been another round of commentary in the U.S. about a “new Cold War” in Africa.
Blinken is correct that partnering with Wagner has brought disaster. That dynamic is on display in Mali, where Wagner’s deployment since late 2021 has contributed to new heights of violence against civilians. Wagner has also become a key factor in Malian domestic politics, with significant and growing potential for corruption and collusion involving Wagner and certain members of Mali’s military junta.
Yet as the U.S. attempts to counter Russian influence, the administration’s main strategy seems to be to repurpose “War on Terror” relationships into ones adapted to the “new Cold War.” That approach involves a continued choice to gloss over undemocratic elements of Niger’s political system and the brazenly authoritarian character of Chad’s. Ignoring or downplaying those problems, however, risks reinforcing the fragility of those countries, the very fragility that makes them an attractive target for Russia and Wagner.
The Ethiopian government took another step forward in implementing its peace agreement with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on Thursday, approving a new interim Tigray regional government headed by former TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda. The Ethiopian parliament enabled this step on Wednesday when it voted to remove the TPLF from Ethiopia’s list of terrorist organizations. The interim administration will primarily be managing the distribution of aid and restoration of basic services throughout Tigray and will remain in power until a new regional election can be held. Ethiopian officials have also reportedly dropped their attempt to close down a United Nations investigation into war crimes committed during the Tigray conflict. Western governments apparently agreed not to try to renew the investigation’s mandate later this year, in return for which the Ethiopians agreed to quash a draft resolution on shutting it down early.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been touring the front lines this week, visiting Kharkiv oblast and the Bakhmut region on Wednesday and dropping in on Kherson on Thursday. He may be trying to rev up his soldiers ahead of a new offensive. Ukrainian army commander Oleksandr Syrskyi suggested via Telegram on Thursday that Russian forces are “exhausting themselves” via their slow advance through Bakhmut and that the Ukrainians are preparing to “take advantage” of that exhaustion in some unspecified way. I guess the implication here is that the Ukrainians haven’t been exhausting themselves in defending Bakhmut, which seems hard to believe. They are getting new gear from the Friends of Ukraine club, though, including four MiG-29 fighter jets from Slovakia on Thursday, so perhaps they feel they’re primed for a new operation.
US President Joe Biden headed to Canada on Thursday, where among many other topics he and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are expected to spend some time discussing What Is To Be Done About Haiti. You may note the absence of any actual Haitians in that conversation. The Biden administration wants Canada to lead an international intervention to deal primarily with Haitian gang violence, but Trudeau has shown no interest in taking on that project and has instead proposed sanctioning gang leaders and their backers and providing increased support to Haitian security forces.
There’s no question the situation in Haiti is dire. The UN World Food Program estimated on Thursday that around 4.9 million Haitians are at present struggling to feed themselves, access to clean water has become a serious problem, and the country has been wracked with cholera while large swathes of Port-au-Prince especially are effectively controlled by gangs. Ariel Henry, the unelected prime minister/de facto president who is the only thing currently passing for a national public official in Haiti, has requested an intervention, for whatever that’s worth. But in Trudeau’s defense, the international community has a long track record of making things abjectly worse any time it tries to intervene in Haitian affairs.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday that the Biden administration is “not planning to remove” Cuba from the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, put Cuba back on that list as a parting gift in January 2021 despite an absence of evidence that the Cuban government has actually sponsored any terrorism. According to Blinken, whose boss Joe Biden is frantically trying to appeal to a Cuban voting bloc in Florida that won’t support him anyway, “it's a very high bar” to remove a country from the terrorism sponsor list. Clearly it’s much higher than the bar to put them on the list in the first place.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the US military is preparing to redeploy advanced multi-role jets currently in the Middle East to facilities across other parts of Asia and Europe as part of a broader shift from the “War on Terror” to the “New Cold War.” Those aircraft will be replaced by older alternatives, chiefly the A-10 Warthog. The A-10 is regarded as something of a dinosaur, ill-suited to a potential confrontation with a Chinese and/or Russian enemy but still useful in missions against less powerful foes like Iraqi militias and jihadist militants. This redeployment reflects on some level a decision to downgrade US Central Command in favor of other theaters now viewed as more critical to US interests.
Finally, and speaking of the New Cold War, in a piece for Foreign Affairs Cornell University’s Jessica Chen Weiss calls for turning down the temperature when it comes to US prophecies of a coming Chinese invasion of Taiwan:
Fears that China will soon invade Taiwan are overblown. There is little evidence that Chinese leaders see a closing window for action. Such fears appear to be driven more by Washington’s assessments of its own military vulnerabilities than by Beijing’s risk-reward calculus. Historically, Chinese leaders have not started wars to divert attention from domestic challenges, and they continue to favor using measures short of conflict to achieve their objectives. If anything, problems at home have moderated Chinese foreign policy, and Chinese popular opinion has tended to reward government bluster and displays of resolve that do not lead to open conflict.
If Western policymakers exaggerate the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, they might inadvertently create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of worrying that Beijing will gin up a foreign crisis to bolster its standing at home or assuming that Beijing feels pressured to invade in the near term, the United States should focus on arresting—or at least decelerating—the action-reaction spiral that has steadily ratcheted up tensions and made a crisis more likely. That does not mean halting efforts to bolster Taiwan’s resilience to Chinese coercion or to diversify the United States’ defense posture in the region. But it does mean avoiding needless confrontation and identifying reciprocal steps that Washington and Beijing could take to lower the temperature.
The hard but crucial task for U.S. policymakers is to thread the needle between deterrence and provocation. Symbolic displays of resolve, unconditional commitments to defend Taiwan, and pledges of a surge in U.S. military power in the region could stray too far toward the latter, inadvertently provoking the very conflict U.S. policymakers seek to deter.
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