Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: March 30 2023
Stories from Saudi Arabia, North Korea, 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:
PROGRAMMING NOTE: It’s time for this newsletter’s “Spring Break,” so following tonight’s roundup the newsletter will be going (mostly) quiet until we resume a regular schedule on Sunday, April 9. Thanks for reading!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 29, 1430: The Siege of Thessaloniki ends with the Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine-turned-Venetian city.
March 29, 1857: An Indian sepoy named Mangal Pandey engages in an act of insurrection against East India Company officers at his military base outside of Kolkata. He was arrested and later hanged, as was his immediate superior for refusing to arrest him. Pandey’s case highlighted the growing dissatisfaction many sepoys were feeling toward the EIC, and his example (along with what many felt was a disproportionate punishment) helped spark the Sepoy Mutiny, also known as the Indian Rebellion of 1857. That insurrection failed, but it also prompted the British government to take direct control of India, stripping it from the EIC.
March 30, 1856: Representatives of Austria, France, the Ottoman Empire, Prussia, Russia, Sardinia, and the United Kingdom sign the Treaty of Paris, ending the 1853-1856 Crimean War. The war was a serious Russian defeat, and the terms reflected that. The Black Sea was designated as neutral territory, barring all warships—but especially Russian warships—from its waters. Russia was also forced to give up territory in the Danube region and forfeited to France any claim it had as being the protector of Christian subjects in the Ottoman Empire.
March 30, 1912: Sultan Abd al-Hafid of Morocco and French diplomat Eugène Regnault sign the Treaty of Fez, making Morocco a French protectorate. Abd al-Hafid signed the treaty with a French army encircling the city, so you might say he was well motivated to agree to a lopsided arrangement that looked more like a colonial capitulation than a protectorate along the lines of Egypt’s relationship to Britain. Of course, in fairness, Egypt’s relationship to Britain looked increasingly like a colonial one by this point too. The treaty was not well received by the Moroccan public. Riots broke out the following month in Fez, and concessions made to Spain in the Rif (or “Spanish Morocco”) helped fuel the Rif War, which ended in 1927, between Spain and the Berber tribes of the region.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A new paper published in Nature on Wednesday concludes that Antarctic ice melt is slowing ocean currents around the world. The melting water affects ocean density, which in turn disrupts circulation patterns. There hasn’t been much research on this effect in the Antarctic (more has been done on Arctic ice melting) and the findings, which suggest a 40 percent decline in “deep ocean water flows from the Antarctic,” are not good. Drastic changes in ocean currents could have enormous climate impacts and may create a feedback loop, as calmer ocean waters are in turn less able to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Syrian media is reporting yet another apparent Israeli missile strike near Damascus just after midnight local time on Friday morning. There’s not yet any indication as to damage or casualties. Normally I’d say we may have an update tomorrow but since there’s not going to be a newsletter tomorrow if there’s anything significant to report about this incident I’ll update this post.
UPDATE: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is saying that one of its personnel was killed in this attack, which according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights targeted an arms depot outside of Damascus.
Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a large demonstration that included the blockade of a highway in Tel Aviv on Thursday, a few days after Netanyahu decided to pause his judicial overhaul plans in the face of considerably larger demonstrations against it. Thursday’s protests were meant to show support for the judicial overhaul, which may be brought back in a few weeks if Netanyahu is unable to negotiate a compromise plan with opposition leaders. There are indications that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, whose firing set off a massive new wave of protests, strikes, and business closures over the weekend, may wind up keeping his job—but only after he apologizes for criticizing Netanyahu and the judicial plan. Netanyahu has still not made Gallant’s firing official but he has reportedly been interviewing potential replacements. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas party, is reportedly trying to broker some sort of deal that would leave Gallant as defense minister, though it might require him to resign his seat in the Knesset.
Writing for The Nation, activist Mohammed El-Kurd explains just how little the debate over Israel’s judiciary matters to the Palestinian cause:
Following immense pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has delayed his government’s plan to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court. The self-proclaimed pro-“democracy” camp, which was protesting the plan so that the court could be saved from the grips of the pro-government camp for whom the judiciary is laughably “too leftist,” has, for the moment, declared victory. But the pro-government camp also has reason to cheer; in exchange for his acquiescence to the delay, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir was granted a long-sought “national guard,” which would function as his own private militia.
For now, the liberal and religious Zionists tussling over the public face of their regime in the streets of Tel Aviv have taken a breather. Calm—that is, the status quo of occupying and besieging millions of Palestinians—has been restored in our bad neighborhood’s tiny Jewish haven. But tensions are expected to start anew after the judicial overhaul is presented before the Knesset again—most likely after the Jewish holidays. The conflict might not even wait that long, as pro-government protesters have called for a march against “the shackles of the Supreme Court.”
As an insider observing this food fight, it is surreal to watch reporters and commentators promote the narrative that the government’s Likud-Jewish Power-Religious Zionism coalition and the Supreme Court exist on extreme opposing ends of the political spectrum. Their differences, when it comes to how they rule over the lives of Palestinians, are purely cosmetic. In essence, one camp wants to eat with their hands while the other wants to mandate forks and knives, but in both scenarios, Palestinian rights will be devoured.
The Saudi cabinet voted on Wednesday to accept “dialogue partner” status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the eight-member (currently) economic and security bloc effectively led by China and including India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Belarus and Iran are also in line to join the club at some point (Iran perhaps as soon as this year). “Dialogue partner” is the first stage of association, a step below “observer” status, so it’s not a high-level association. But the move is another clear indication of the burgeoning relationship between the Saudis and China.
The United Nations International Court of Justice partially ruled in Iran’s favor on Thursday concerning the status of Iranian assets that have been frozen by the US government since the Iranian revolution. The ICJ found that the US has unlawfully seized funds belonging to a number of Iranian individuals and entities under the terms of a 1955 “treaty of amity” between the two countries. But the court punted on Iran’s main complaint, the status of some $2 billion in frozen Iranian central bank assets plus interest, agreeing with the US argument that the bank was not protected under the 1955 accord. The US Supreme Court ruled back in 2016 that those funds should be seized, under a 2007 verdict that ordered Iran to pay some $2.65 billion to victims of various violent incidents for which Iran is alleged to have been responsible including the 1983 US Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon.
The conviction of Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Ghandi on a defamation charge earlier this month has, according to Reuters, given new impetus to Indian opposition parties to form a united front against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. This is something Indian opposition parties have flirted with doing many times in the past, usually to no avail. But if the current opposition can somehow coalesce it could be a real threat to BJP’s chances in next year’s general election. BJP won 31 percent of the vote in 2014 and a bit over 37 percent in 2019, coming away with parliamentary majorities both times in part because of a fragmented opposition. There’s no guarantee that a joint opposition would be able to unseat Modi but its chances would presumably improve.
The Chin National Front rebel group, as well as “independent media accounts” according to the AP, is claiming that Myanmar military aircraft killed at least eight civilians in an airstrike on a village in Chin state on Thursday. The Chin National Front has been active since the 1980s but has more recently aligned itself with opponents of Myanmar’s ruling junta.
China purchased some 65,000 tons of liquefied natural gas from the UAE this week, a routine transaction except inasmuch as the sale was completed in yuan, rather than US dollars. Beijing has been pushing Middle Eastern governments in particular to conduct transactions in yuan, which if it catches on could offer a new challenge to the dollar as the global reserve currency. A small LNG sale isn’t exactly going to start a trend, but this is something to monitor.
The Biden administration on Thursday blacklisted a Slovakian national accused of trying to broker an arms deal between North Korea and Russia. US officials have been claiming for some time that Russia was looking to North Korea as a potential military supplier to help support the Russian war effort in Ukraine though as far as I know this is the first action the US has taken in connection with an alleged Russian-North Korean transaction.
Ousmane Sonko’s libel case ended (barring appeal) on Thursday with the Senegalese opposition leader being sentenced to two months in prison, suspended, along with a roughly $332,000 fine. That means he’ll be eligible to run in next year’s presidential election, which may appease the large number of his supporters who have been protesting regularly amid his trial. Sonko is also facing a sexual assault case, however, so he’s still in some potential legal jeopardy. He and his supporters insist these charges are politically motivated to prevent his presidential campaign.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir on Thursday named a member of his own Sudan People’s Liberation Movement party, Chol Thon Balok, as his new defense minister. This is a violation of the 2018 peace deal Kiir signed with Vice President Riek Machar, which stipulates that the defense post is supposed to be filled by a member of Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition faction. Kiir earlier this month sacked former defense minister Angelina Teny, who as it happens is also married to Machar. He subsequently met with Machar to discuss the issue but the two do not seem to have come to an accord. At issue is whether or not they’ll be able to continue implementing the peace deal. A general election is supposed to be held next year to cap off the peace process.
The Ethiopian government took another step in the implementation of its peace deal with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on Thursday by dropping criminal charges it had leveled against various senior TPLF officials during their conflict. In recent days Ethiopian officials have removed the TPLF from their list of terrorist organizations and approved the formation of an interim Tigray regional government led by former TPLF spokesperson Getachew Reda. He was one of the TPLF leaders facing those aforementioned criminal charges.
Russian authorities on Thursday arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich on spying charges. The Russians haven’t gone into any detail or offered any evidence regarding his arrest so it’s somewhat difficult to know what to make of it. It’s likely this case will command a similar level of attention as the Brittney Griner arrest did last year, and as with that case the ultimate outcome may be a prisoner swap though it’s too soon to say that with any degree of certainty. The Russians may also regard this as an opportunity to put some fear into foreign journalists, in which case they’ll likely want to hold on Gershkovich for a while to emphasize their point. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement on Thursday calling on Moscow to “immediately and unconditionally release” Gershkovich and “allow the media to work freely.”
Ukrainian officials are now saying that their forces only control a third of Bakhmut, which aligns with claims that have been coming from Russian sources this week and suggests the front line in that city hasn’t been quite as stable as other Ukrainian officials have been insisting in recent days. The Ukrainians still say their garrison in Bakhmut has not been surrounded.
The last obstacle to Finland’s accession to NATO dissipated on Thursday when the Turkish parliament voted to ratify the country’s membership. With the Hungarian parliament having done the same thing on Monday, all 30 NATO members have now voted to let Finland into the club. They’ll presumably make it official at the next NATO leaders’ summit, scheduled for July 11-12 in Vilnius. NATO leaders would like to admit Sweden at the same time, but neither Hungary nor Turkey has yet ratified that country’s accession nor is there any indication they’re planning to do so in the near future.
The Vatican on Thursday formally rejected the “Discovery doctrine,” a legal theory introduced in the 1823 US Supreme Court cast Johnson v. M’Intosh that asserts that Europeans who “discovered” land in the Americas were entitled to that land, its indigenous inhabitants notwithstanding. The doctrine, which amazingly still gets cited in contemporary law (see the 2005 Supreme Court case City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, for example), is partially rooted in the papacy’s various Age of Discovery-era missives. The Vatican didn’t rescind said missives, mind you, it just repudiated the notion that they’re connected with the doctrine. It seems unlikely that this will have any real legal effect but I am not a lawyer so what do I know?
After holing up in Florida for three months following the end of his presidential term, Jair Bolsonaro returned to Brazil—possibly on a “Harry Potter-branded plane”—on Thursday to what seems to have been a sizable reception but was perhaps smaller than what he was expecting. Bolsonaro told supporters he intends to lead the right-wing opposition to current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, though before he can do that he’s going to have to wade through multiple investigations into his conduct as president and his possible role in fomenting the January 8 riot by his supporters in Brasília.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Ben Freeman and Yameen Huq look once again into the ethically spotless DC think tank community, which is apparently quite upset with the Biden administration’s paltry $842 billion 2024 Pentagon budget request:
“For defense, this is a pretty substantial step backwards,” a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told The Hill. This amounts to a “$28 billion cut to programs and activities” after you account for a troop pay raise and inflation, an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) expert told Defense News, which added that the AEI expert was pushing for a DOD budget of at least $882 billion. That $882 billion figure is, perhaps coincidentally, the exact amount of Pentagon funding another AEI scholar promoted in a recent op-ed for Breaking Defense.
Unsurprisingly, think tank arguments for increasing Pentagon funding have also found their way into mainstream media outlets. The day before the Biden administration released its fiscal year 2024 budget, the Washington Post published an article bemoaning the defense industry’s limited capacity to “build things to kill people,” as the head of a munitions facility told the Post. The piece cited CSIS research on the defense industry’s struggles to replace stockpiles of the tens of billions of dollars in munitions the U.S. has given Ukraine.
Earlier that same week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article proclaiming “The U.S. Is Not Yet Ready for the Era of ‘Great Power’ Conflict.” As evidence, the author cited a CSIS wargame that simulated a Chinese attack on Taiwan in which “the U.S. side ran out of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles in a week.” That same CSIS study was cited in a New York Times article published last week titled “From Rockets to Ball Bearings, Pentagon Struggles To Feed War Machine.”
What goes unmentioned in any of these articles is that these think tanks clamoring for more defense funding are funded by the defense industry.
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.