Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: March 24-26 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Uganda, Russia, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 24, 1999: NATO begins its bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in an effort to force an end to the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. It took 78 days of sustained bombardment but the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milošević did ultimately agree to stop fighting and Kosovo became de facto independent. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but that declaration is still not universally recognized. The campaign was conducted without United Nations authorization and its illegality has been cited as, for example, a factor in shaping Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rather dim view of the United States and NATO.
March 25, 1821: Greek insurrectionists officially declare a revolt against the Ottoman Empire, marking the start of the Greek War of Independence even though the fighting had actually begun in mid-February. The war did of course end with Greece seceding from the empire and becoming an independent state, and so this date is commemorated annually as Greek Independence Day.
March 26, 1344: The kingdom of Castile captures the key port city of Algeciras from its Moroccan and Granadan defenders after a roughly 21 month siege. This was the third of four times Algeciras came under siege during the “Reconquista”—it would return to Granadan control after the fourth, in 1369, and the Granadans would subsequently destroy it rather than lose it to Castile again. Algeciras was rebuilt in 1704 by refugees displaced by the British conquest of nearby Gibraltar.
March 26, 1945: One of the most celebrated battles of World War II’s Pacific Theater, the Battle of Iwo Jima, ends with a US victory. Remembered primarily for the famous photograph it produced of a group of Marines raising the US flag atop Mount Suribachi, the battle itself has come to be regarded by some historians as a waste of resources and particularly of lives, as some 25,000 combatants (around three-quarters of them Japanese) were killed over the course of the month-long engagement. Depriving Japan of the facility did degrade its military capabilities, but only marginally. Iwo Jima’s airfield was used by US B-29 bombers and fighter escorts, but the question of whether its value as an airfield justified the casualties incurred during the battle is still debated. And the battle did of course boost US morale and added greatly to the stature of the US Marine Corps.
March 26, 1971: Bangladeshi (or “East Pakistani” at the time) leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman issues a declaration of independence from Pakistan (“West Pakistan”), an act that marks the start of the Bangladesh Liberation War. That conflict ended in December, after an Indian intervention, with Bangladesh a newly independent state, and March 26 is annually commemorated as Bangladeshi Independence Day.
March 26, 1979: The governments of Egypt and Israel conclude a peace treaty with a signing ceremony at the White House. This was the culmination of the negotiating process that had begun about six months earlier at Camp David.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
US forces and various Iran-linked militias had themselves a bit of a back and forth in eastern Syria on Friday, with two waves of US airstrikes killing at least 19 militia fighters according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The first of those airstrikes came in response to what the US military claimed was a militia drone attack on a US base near the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah that killed one contractor and wounded another six people. The militias subsequently retaliated with rocket attacks on another US base and an oil facility, prompting the second wave of US attacks. The militias appear to have retaliated again with a rocket attack on two oil facilities, but there was no third round of US airstrikes and things have been quiet through the weekend. The Syrian government is denying that there was an initial drone strike and is accusing the US of inventing a justification for its airstrikes.
Elsewhere, Islamic State fighters killed at least 15 people and abducted some 40 others on Thursday in another attack on a group of truffle hunters in Syria’s Hama province. Truffle hunting is a popular pastime for rural Syrians, who search for them in the desert and are then able to sell them at a high price. But large truffle hunting expeditions have proven to be a popular IS target.
An apparent Houthi rebel drone strike killed a Yemeni soldier and wounded two other people near the city of Taiz on Saturday. The target may have been Yemeni Defense Minister Mohsen al-Daeri, whose convoy was near the checkpoint targeted by the drone. This incident comes just a few days after a rebel attack in Maʾrib province, and suffice to say the prospects of new Yemeni peace talks are not looking terribly good right now.
The Houthis are also reportedly restricting the inflow of humanitarian flights to Sanaa. They say this is a response to an ongoing Saudi blockade on commercial flights into and out of that city. Limited commercial flights were restarted during last year’s ceasefire and have continued despite the ceasefire’s lapse in October. The Houthis’ claim that they’re being throttled apparently cannot be confirmed, but even assuming that the Saudis are in fact blocking commercial flights it’s unclear why the Houthis think that restricting humanitarian flights is an appropriate response.
According to the AP, inter-communal violence is on the rise in Iraq’s Diyala province and has claimed at least 19 lives so far this month. Some of this violence appears to be a hangover from Islamic State’s activity in the province, as it involves attacks by Shiʿa militias against Sunni communities accused (probably unfairly) of collusion with IS. But some of the violence has been Shiʿa on Shiʿa, which may reflect rivalries between militias and/or criminal smuggling networks.
The International Court of Arbitration ruled on Saturday in favor of the Iraqi government in a long-running dispute with the Kurdistan Regional Government over oil exports. The KRG has been shipping oil by pipeline to Turkey since 2014 without the approval of the Iraqi Oil Ministry, a step the KRG says it took because Baghdad has been withholding the Kurdish region’s lawful funding. The ruling could provoke a rupture between Baghdad and the KRG, though KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani says he’s been negotiating with Iraqi officials about a new arrangement that would accommodate both parties and fulfill the court’s ruling.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has claimed responsibility for a drive-by shooting in the West Bank town of Huwara on Saturday that left two Israeli soldiers wounded. Also on Saturday, Israeli security forces stormed the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem to evict Muslims who had remained in al-Aqsa Mosque after the nighttime prayer on the suspicion that they were planning some sort of disruption come Sunday morning. Israeli assaults on al-Aqsa’s compound have been a source of tensions during previous Ramadans though there’s been no response to Saturday’s raid yet as far as I know.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, on Sunday after Gallant had the previous day called for a legislative pause in Netanyahu’s deeply divisive judicial “reform” effort, amid another massive protest against it in Tel Aviv. The firing prompted Asaf Zamir, the Israeli consul-general in New York City, to resign his post in protest. It’s also called into question whether Netanyahu now has the votes to pass the rest of his reform package. It’s unclear how Gallant will vote, but if he and at least three other members of the Likud Party now decide to join the opposition in voting against the legislation then Netanyahu will have effectively lost his majority. Adding to the turmoil, Israeli Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara accused Netanyahu on Friday of breaking the law by openly advocating for the reforms. Since Netanyahu is still on trial for corruption, his calls to strip the judiciary of its power could be viewed as a huge conflict of interest. The protests resumed on Sunday, possibly intensified over Gallant’s firing.
According to Eurasianet, Azerbaijani security forces have moved to cut off a dirt road that travelers had been using to get around the already blockaded Lachin Corridor connecting the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave to Armenia. Azerbaijani officials are alleging that Armenia was using the road to smuggle arms into Karabakh, while the Karabakh regional government has countered that it was being used to ferry supplies to a region that’s been cut off from the outside world since a group of Azerbaijani “activists” blockaded the main Lachin Corridor back in December. In a rare rebuke, the Russian peacekeeping mission in the region accused the Azerbaijanis of violating the ceasefire agreement they made at the end of the 2020 Karabakh war. Those same Russian peacekeepers have reportedly been helping Armenian traffic to get through the Azerbaijani blockade—for about $1000 per person. Very generous of them. This new Azerbaijani move is likely going to intensify fears that Baku is planning some sort of new Karabakh offensive in the near future.
Turkmen voters headed to the polls on Sunday to elect a new assembly. There’s little suspense here, as all three parties contesting the vote—the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the Party of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs of Turkmenistan, and the Agrarian Party of Turkmenistan—all support the government of President Serdar Berdimuhamedow.
The Biden administration on Friday imposed new sanctions against Myanmar’s ruling junta, targeting in particular individuals and entities connected with the military’s acquisition of jet fuel. A couple of the entities targeted are also involved in acquiring spare parts and other materiel for Myanmar’s military aircraft. These sanctions come in response to multiple reports of government airstrikes targeting civilian areas. Inside Myanmar, a lawyer accused of laundering money on behalf of the junta was gunned down in Yangon on Friday by anti-junta militants. The group that carried out the attack apparently calls itself the “Urban Owls” and is one of a large number of localized “people’s defense forces” that have emerged in opposition to the junta.
South Korean officials are reporting that the North Korean military fired off two ballistic missiles on Monday morning. It’s too soon to say what exactly the projectiles were or how long they were in the air.
Another bout of inter-communal fighting in Sudan’s West Darfur state has left at least five people dead. It would appear that a Masalit merchant was gunned down on Thursday, with the Masalit community accusing Arab herders of having killed him. That prompted a back-and-forth engagement in which the other four victims were killed.
The International Atomic Energy Agency now says it’s accounted for nearly all of the uranium that went missing in southern Libya earlier this month. The “Libyan National Army” had already announced this find but IAEA inspectors had previously not verified its claim. It’s still unclear why the material went missing in the first place but the LNA is alleging that Chadian militants made off with the stuff and then abandoned it when they realized what they’d actually stolen. A small amount of uranium is apparently still missing, but a small amount of missing natural uranium ore is not a serious concern.
Chad’s ruling junta announced on Thursday that it’s nationalizing all assets in the country belonging to oil giant Exxon Mobil. The company announced back in December that it was selling off its Chadian and Cameroonian operations to Savannah Energy, but Chad has rejected that sale and officials had suggested they could take steps to block it.
Uganda’s drive toward punishing this minority has a long history. “This is not the first time the government in Uganda has pushed for extreme legislation against LGBTQ people,” my colleagues Niha Masih and Rael Ombuor explained. “Versions of the bill have been around since 2009, and in 2014, Museveni’s government passed a similar law, whose first iteration included the death penalty for HIV-positive people and for engaging in gay sex with a minor. It was ultimately struck down by the court for not following due parliamentary process.”
At the time of that earlier wave of legislation, rights advocates pointed to the direct hand of U.S. evangelical organizations, many of which tread a well-beaten path through parts of Africa. In Uganda, in particular, U.S. Christian groups have invested millions of dollars, building schools and orphanages. But they have also left behind a profound ideological imprint.
In 2020, London-based OpenDemocracy found that more than 20 American religious organizations advocating against LGBTQ rights, safe abortion, access to contraceptives and comprehensive sex education had spent at least $54 million furthering their agendas in Africa since 2007. Close to half that figure was spent in conservative, predominantly Christian Uganda alone, where religious advocates advocate for gay “conversion therapy” and tout supposed success stories of “ex-gay” people.
The Rwandan government on Friday commuted the 25 year prison sentence of Paul Rusesabagina, the man whose activities during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide were the subject of the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina, a critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and leader of the opposition Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (MRDC), was arrested in 2020 and convicted on terrorism charges over the activities of the MRDC’s armed “National Liberation Front” wing. The Qatari government apparently brokered his release, which Kagame views as a way to “reset” relations with the US, according to a statement tweeted by his press secretary on Friday. Rusesabagina is set to return to the United States, though he was initially scheduled to stay at the Qatari embassy in Kigali for a day or two before flying to Qatar on the first leg of his journey.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The CODECO militia kidnapped 17 people on Saturday during an attack on a village in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province and wound up executing them a day later. This incident apparently began with a clash involving a local militia in which three CODECO fighters were killed. The kidnapping and murder was done in retaliation for that incident.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Saturday that he and one of his chief acolytes, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, have cut a deal that will see Russian tactical nuclear warheads stationed in Belarus. So that should be fun. The plans for this have apparently been under way for some time now, as Putin is expecting to have a storage facility ready to house the nukes in place by July 1. The nukes would remain under Russian control, a structure Putin likened to US arrangements with other NATO member states—though as arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis noted on Twitter, Putin is hearkening back to arrangements that don’t necessarily exist anymore and that he “may regret reviving.” The nukes serve a dual purpose as a little extra Russian threat to the West and as a deterrent for Lukashenko. As you might expect, this announcement was not well received, with NATO and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons both condemning it.
The Biden administration on Friday blacklisted nine individuals and three entities in connection with the Belarusian government’s suppression of political opposition. Two of the entities, Belarusian Automobile Plant and Minsk Automobile Plant, are accused of intimidating workers who protested Lukashenko’s disputed 2020 reelection.
Russian forces continued their offensive in eastern Ukraine over the weekend, amid claims by Ukrainian officials that the front line around the flashpoint city of Bakhmut is “stabilizing.” The Ukrainian military’s commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, made that claim on Saturday, backed up by an assessment from the UK Defense Ministry. His remarks came just a couple of days after the commander of the Ukrainian army, Oleksandr Syrskyi, claimed via Telegram that Russian forces around Bakhmut are “exhausting themselves” and that the Ukrainians were preparing a counterattack to take advantage of this alleged exhaustion.
Russian forces are at least in control of the eastern portion of Bakhmut, and Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has claimed they control 70 percent of the city though that, like all of these Ukrainian claims about stabilization and exhaustion, is unconfirmed. There does seem to be some indication that the Russians have slowed the pace of their advance, but whether that’s because they’ve stalled out or because they’re marshaling for a new heavy offensive is impossible to know.
The United Nations Human Rights Office released a new report on Friday accusing both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries of mistreating POWs. The report was based on interviews with some 400 repatriated POWs, roughly half on either side, who spoke of being tortured and used as “human shields,” among other potential war crimes.
Ongoing protests over French President Emmanuel Macron’s pension “reform” project have forced the indefinite postponement of British King Charles’ planned state visit to Paris. Charles was supposed to have arrived in France on Sunday but, amid the strikes and demonstrations, he’s decided to skip the French leg of his continental trip and go directly to Germany instead. I hope the French people are able to recover from this calamity.
As expected, the Honduran government on Sunday formally opened diplomatic ties with Beijing while severing them with Taipei. Honduran Foreign Minister Eduardo Enrique Reina and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang signed the paperwork making it official in Beijing. The Taiwanese government accused Reina and Honduran President Xiomara Castro of essentially selling Honduran recognition to whichever country offered a more lucrative aid package, which is probably true but then it’s not clear to me why that’s supposed to be a bad thing. Taiwan is now officially down to 13 countries that still recognize it diplomatically.
Cuban voters went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new National Assembly. Most of the attention seems to be focused on turnout rather than on the results of the election, with the Cuban government’s foreign critics itching for a low turnout contest that allows them to proclaim that the Cuban public no longer supports its Communist leaders. Anecdotally it seems like polling sites in Havana, at least, were pretty active.
Finally, you may have seen last weekend that The New York Times revealed that, according to former Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes, the 1980 presidential campaign’s big “October Surprise”—that the Reagan campaign negotiated with Iranian leaders to keep their US hostages in custody until after Reagan had defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter—really did happen. Barnes says he accompanied former Texas Governor John Connally on a trip to the Middle East in which Connally sought to pass messages to the Iranians advising them not to free the hostages. Barnes has no insight into what happened on the Iranian end, of course, but his story seemingly proves that the Reagan campaign at least intended for the Iranians to help them out in this fashion.
Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic notes correctly that Barnes’ story gives new credence to the “October Surprise” theory, which has been treated as idle conspiracy by high DC society for over 40 years now. But the Times story didn’t exactly break any news, as The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz catalogs:
All this is powerful evidence that the Reagan campaign did — as has been alleged for decades — strike a deal with the Iranian government to prevent the hostages from being released. While that has never been proven, what’s known beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the Reagan campaign was deeply worried that Carter might get the hostages out before November and thereby give a big boost to his prospects.
You might understandably ask: If this actually happened, how could it have been kept secret? Why hasn’t anyone with knowledge of it spoken up before? The answer is that it hasn’t been kept secret, and many, many people have said it occurred. But most of the people doing so have been foreigners. Barnes is merely the most important American to finally come out and support the story.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.