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World roundup: March 26-27 2022
Stories from Yemen, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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 25, 1975: King Faisal bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia is shot and killed by his nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musaid, in the royal palace. Initially Prince Faisal was declared legally insane, but that diagnosis was overturned. It’s possible the insanity diagnosis was an error or a failed attempt at a coverup and that Prince Faisal acted to avenge the death of his brother, Prince Khalid bin Musaid, who was shot and killed by police during a 1966 protest. On the other hand, it’s also possible the Saudis revoked Prince Faisal’s insanity diagnosis simply so that they could execute him under Saudi law. King Faisal was succeeded by his brother, Khalid bin Abdulaziz, in what remains the only violent succession in Saudi history.
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.
March 27, 1941: Elements of the Yugoslav Royal Army Air Force undertake a successful (well, briefly) coup, overthrowing the pro-Axis regency led by Prince Paul Karađorđević in favor of a government nominally led by 11 year old King Peter II in his own right, alongside a junta led by new Prime Minister Dušan Simović. The Axis in short order invaded Yugoslavia and drove Peter and his government into exile before carving Yugoslavia up into a Croatian puppet state and several protectorates that were either effectively or actually annexed by Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, and Italy. The Yugoslav Partisans, a predominantly communist group led by Josip Broz Tito, resisted Axis occupation and, with Soviet help, had driven the Germans and Italians out of Yugoslavia by May 1945.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Yemeni rebels announced on Saturday that they were adopting a three-day cessation of combat activity inside Yemen—not exactly a ceasefire since they didn’t swear off attacking Saudi Arabia or the UAE, but clearly a gesture they were hoping would be reciprocated in some way by the pro-government coalition. They further suggested that their proposed cessation could be made longer and stronger if the coalition (which means the Saudis) were to end their air and sea blockade of northern Yemen.
This is basically a restatement of the position they’ve had for some time, which is that they’d be willing to consider a ceasefire and peace talks once the blockades were lifted. The Saudis have consistently rejected that position in favor of a direct quid (ceasefire) pro quo (lifting the blockade) deal. And it seemed for most of the day Sunday that they’d rejected it again, given that the coalition carried out fresh airstrikes on northern Yemen, particularly Sanaa, on Sunday. Given that the rebels just carried out a number of attacks against Saudi Arabia on Friday, including one very prominent strike in close proximity to this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Formula One Grand Prix, those strikes didn’t come as much of a surprise.
But late Sunday the rebels announced something of a diplomatic breakthrough, having apparently gotten close to agreement on a very large prisoner swap with the internationally recognized Yemeni government. The deal will see the government release 1400 of its prisoners in exchange for 823 freed by the rebels, 16 of whom are reportedly Saudi nationals and one of whom happens to be the brother of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The deal isn’t completely finalized yet so the possibility of a collapse is still there.
As expected, the presidential vote the Iraqi parliament was planning to hold on Saturday had to be canceled after enough of the chamber boycotted to leave it shy of a quorum. It’s difficult to see how this gets resolved without some sort of compromise. Muqtada al-Sadr’s parliamentary majority isn’t going to be worth much to him if the opposition is continually able to block parliament from holding a legal session. So he’ll need either to bring them into his tent en masse, which he doesn’t really want to do, or figure out how to appeal to enough of their MPs to ensure they can’t keep using this tactic.
Gunmen killed two Israeli police officers in the city of Hadera on Sunday before being themselves killed by other police officers. Authorities are characterizing the attackers as “terrorists” and at least one Israeli official is suggesting they were linked to Islamic State somehow. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have both issued statements praising the attack but neither seems to have outright claimed responsibility.
UPDATE: IS has now reportedly claimed responsibility for the shooting. Again the actual link between these shooters and the organization isn’t clear but this is the first time IS has claimed an attack in Israel so it’s probably worth noting that.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell headed to Iran this weekend amid another round of speculation that a new nuclear deal is imminent. It’s unclear whether the parties are any closer to resolving what seems to be the one major lingering issue, lifting (or not) the US designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. But there are indications coming out of Iran that the IRGC might be OK with leaving that designation in place if it means a deal gets done. There is some logic to this. The designation itself may not make much material difference to the corps, which will remain heavily sanctioned either way, and leaving it in place would give them a public relations win in that they can talk about the “sacrifice” they’ve made for the greater good.
Russian authorities have accused the Azerbaijani military of violating a ceasefire agreement around the separatist Karabakh region. Russian peacekeepers have ostensibly been enforcing an agreement Armenia and Azerbaijan reached at the end of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. It’s been clear in recent weeks that Azerbaijani forces have been using the distraction provided by the war in Ukraine to test the limits of that deal as well as the extent of Russia’s willingness to enforce it. On Sunday the Russian military claimed that Baku had pulled its forces back some distance from the informal borders of the Karabakh region, but Azerbaijani officials later denied it.
Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government has reportedly told airlines that unchaperoned women are no longer permitted to board either domestic or international flights. Paired with Wednesday’s decision to close—just hours after opening—girls’ schools it seems like the Taliban is playing the greatest hits of its 1990s administration when it comes to women’s rights. That’s going to further complicate efforts to improve relations with the international community, assuming that’s still a thing the Taliban is interested in doing.
The Pakistani army says its forces killed six Baluch separatist militants during a raid in the Baluchistan region’s Sibbi district on Saturday. One Pakistani soldier was also killed in the fighting.
East Timorese officials have finally released the official results of this month’s presidential election, and as expected it will be former President José Ramos-Horta facing incumbent Francisco Guterres in next month’s runoff. Ramos-Horta took 46.6 percent of the vote to Guterres’ 22.1 percent, which should make him the favorite in the second round.
According to the South Korean government, via South Korean media, there is new activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear testing site that suggests workers are digging a new entrance to that facility’s Tunnel 3. It doesn’t sound like there would be much reason to do that unless Pyongyang is planning to undertake a new nuclear warhead test in the foreseeable future, or at least that it would like to have the option to do so.
Nigerien authorities reported over the weekend that at least six of their soldiers were killed when their unit “was ambushed by a group of armed terrorists” in the Tillabéri region on Thursday. There’s no indication who was responsible. Islamic State’s Greater Sahara affiliate is very active in Tillabéri, but al-Qaeda is also present in the larger “tri-border” region.
Unspecified attackers killed at least one person, a security guard, at an airport in Nigeria’s Kaduna state on Saturday. The gunmen reportedly tried to get to the main runway but the reason for their attack isn’t clear.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration on Friday blacklisted six Nigerian nationals who have been accused of trying to raise money for Boko Haram in the UAE. All six have reportedly been arrested and convicted by Emirati authorities for attempting to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Nigerian extremist group.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s week-long Republican Dialogue wrapped up on Sunday with no apparently progress in talks between his government and the CAR’s various rebel groups. This is not hugely surprising in that none of those rebel groups were invited to participate. The entire event appears to have been an effort (half-hearted at best) by Touadéra to show the international community that he’s Doing Something about political and militant unrest.
In news from Russia:
It seems people are still trying to figure out what the Russian military meant on Friday when it released a statement talking about wrapping up “the first stage” of their invasion and focusing on “the liberation of Donbas” moving forward. There’s been a lot of analysis produced over the past couple of days (this for example) insisting that this is definitely a policy change that definitely reflects a more modest endgame and has definitely been adopted because the war is going badly for Russia. And that’s certainly possible, but I don’t know if we can draw any major conclusions as yet. Even if that announcement was the Russians abruptly changing plans, there’s no reason to think the end of the war is anywhere in sight yet. Who knows what the “liberation of the Donbas” actually entails.
While we’re on that subject, the leader of the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” Leonid Pasechnik, suggested to Russian media over the weekend that his breakaway region might hold a referendum on becoming part of Russia in the near future. One assumes the “yes” side will win, if only because it’s hard to imagine anybody who’s still living in the LNR under current circumstances is opposed to annexation.
Joe Biden wrapped up his European trip on Friday with a Big Speech in Warsaw that he capped off with the apparently unscripted comment that “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain power.” “This man” means Vladimir Putin, and so the line sent a thrill up the legs of Western media outlets who scrambled to learn whether or not the US president had just announced a new “regime change” policy toward Russia. It seems fairly clear that he had not, given that a number of administration officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken (and Biden himself, by the way) have since gone out of their way to say he was just riffing. The thing is, presidents don’t really have the luxury of riffing in this way. It can lead to some awkward misinterpretations. In this case Vladimir Putin already believes (knows?) that the US government wants him out of power so I don’t think Biden’s off script moment is likely to have much impact. But it’s still not great.
And in Ukraine:
The United Nations’ civilian casualty count now stands at 1119 killed and 1790 wounded since the invasion began.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave an interview to Russian media on Sunday in which he reiterated his openness to accepting a neutrality agreement provided it included unspecified “security guarantees” from unspecified third party nations along with a preservation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The parties are apparently set to hold another round of in-person peace talks, this time in Turkey, in the next few days, and Zelensky’s offer here seems like it could be part of the conversation. But the thing is it’s an offer he’s made previously to no avail, and the sticking point is probably those “security guarantees.” I doubt Moscow, having gone to war in part, so it says, to keep Ukraine out of NATO, would be willing to accept some kind of US-Ukrainian security pact that is the functional equivalent of NATO membership. Frankly I doubt the US would be willing to offer such a deal. “Territorial integrity” could also be a sticking point, depending on how Zelensky defines it. The Russians are not going to give Crimea back, for example, and the Donbas is probably lost as well.
The weekend does not appear to have brought much in the way of territorial changes, but there are indications that the besieged southern port city of Mariupol is closer to falling into Russian hands completely. During his interview Zelensky said he’d given the soldiers defending Mariupol permission to withdraw if they believe their position is no longer defensible. So far at least, they haven’t taken him up on that, but they’re reportedly running low on basic supplies in addition to materiel. So their defense probably can’t last much longer. Taking Mariupol could fall within the parameters of “liberating the Donbas,” especially if what the Russians really mean is that they want to link the Donbas and Crimea and absorb that whole southeast Ukrainian region.
I shouldn’t say there were no territorial changes, because the Ukrainians are claiming that they’ve regained control of the town of Trostianets, which lies near the Russian border in Sumy oblast. The Ukrainian definition of “control” hasn’t always aligned with what most people might think about when they hear that word, however, so I’d take this claim gingerly. The Russian military still seems to be relying primarily on air power, including missiles, and it sounds like they’ve moved from strictly military targets to fuel and food storage facilities—including at least one near Lviv. Russian forces actually subjected Lviv to what sounds like a substantial bombardment on Saturday, as Biden was delivering his speech in Warsaw. That was pretty much the closest they could get to shelling Biden’s position directly without sparking World War III.
Malta’s ruling Labor Party appears to have won Saturday’s parliamentary election, though final results aren’t in yet so the magnitude of its victory remains to be seen.
The Salvadoran Congress on Sunday invoked a state of emergency in response to a spike in gang violence that saw at least 62 people murdered on Saturday alone. President Nayib Bukele, who’s generally a fan of restricting civil rights under any circumstances, had been calling for the declaration, which allows his government to curtail things like freedom of assembly and grants it expanded policing powers. El Salvador’s murder rate has been declining on Bukele’s watch, though it seems that’s due less to any savvy crime fighting on his part than to deals he’s made with Salvadoran gangs whereby they agree to keep the death toll down in return for concessions from the government. Or, maybe more to the point, the gangs don’t keep the death toll down so much as they agree to be more careful about where they put the bodies. Either way, that means that when the gangs want something from Bukele, all they need to do is ratchet the crime stats back up a bit.
Finally, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic has an update on the long-forgotten and barely acknowledged investigation into Saudi involvement in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks:
Last week, the FBI quietly declassified a 510-page report it produced in 2017 about the 9/11 terrorist attack twenty years ago. The disclosure is in accordance with President Joe Biden’s September 2021 executive order declassifying long-hidden government files about the attack, which many hoped would reveal what exactly US investigators knew about the Saudi Arabian government’s possible involvement.
They weren’t let down. These most recent revelations revolve around Omar al-Bayoumi, a Saudi national working in San Diego for a Saudi government–owned aviation company he never actually turned up to. Al-Bayoumi had long been the subject of suspicion, both because of his ties to extremist clerics and due to the strange coincidences that surrounded him, from the job he never worked to the fact that he just happened to meet two of the future hijackers in a restaurant by chance — before finding them an apartment in San Diego, cosigning their lease, acting as their guarantor, paying their first month’s rent, and plugging them into the local Saudi community.
Despite all this, and even though FBI agents had reason to believe he was a Saudi spy — something only revealed in 2016 upon declassification of twenty-eight pages of the 9/11 Commission Report that former president George W. Bush had ordered be kept secret — US authorities exonerated him. The report ultimately concluded there was “no credible evidence” that al-Bayoumi “knowingly aided extremist groups,” while the bureau decided in 2004 that he had no “advance knowledge of the terrorist attack” nor that the two hijackers-to-be were members of al-Qaeda.
This latest release makes those claims a lot less tenable. According to an FBI communiqué dated to June 2017, from the late 1990s to September 11, 2001, al-Bayoumi “was paid a monthly stipend as a cooptee of the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency (GIP),” the country’s principal spy agency. The document notes that while his involvement with Saudi intelligence wasn’t confirmed at the time of the 9/11 Commission Report, the bureau has now confirmed it. In a separate 2017 document, bureau officials judge that “there is a 50/50 chance [al-Bayoumi] had advanced knowledge the 9/11 attacks were to occur.”
Hey, look, a 50 percent chance that a shady possible Saudi agent knew about the attacks is also a 50 percent chance that he didn’t know about them, right? It’s probably fine to keep sending them weapons and so forth.