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World roundup: March 31 2022
Stories from Iraq, Mali, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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 has 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.
March 31, 1492: The proto-Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile issue the Alhambra Decree, expelling all Jews from their kingdoms by the end of July. The decree’s goal was two-fold. One, the expulsion of practicing Jews was meant to eliminate their influence on the region’s conversos, those who had converted from Judaism to Christianity. Two, the terms of the expulsion, which required those being expelled to finance their own relocation, were made deliberately onerous in order to encourage more Jews to convert to Christianity as an alternative. Isabella seems to have been the driving force behind the decree, likely influenced by her new confessor, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros.
March 31, 1854: The United States, in the person of Commodore Matthew Perry, and Japan, amid the waning years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, sign the Convention of Kanagawa, which permits US ships to use the Japanese ports of Hakodate and Shimoda. Kanagawa, negotiated almost literally at gunpoint with Perry threatening to turn his warships loose on Edo, marks the “opening” of Japan to Westerners after a period of near-isolation that stretched back to the early 17th century. Over the next several years Japanese officials would sign a lopsided commercial treaty with the US along with similar capitulations with France, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
To the surprise of hopefully nobody by this point, the OPEC+ crew held another of its monthly chats on Thursday and decided once again to stay the course with respect to their very gradual escalation in global oil production in spite of continued high prices. However, those high prices dropped a bit on Thursday anyway, to under $108 per barrel (Brent crude), mostly because Joe Biden announced a major dip into the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Biden intends to release 1 million barrels of oil from the SPR per day for the next 180 days. His administration also apparently plans to punish energy companies that have leased tracts of federal lands but are not currently extracting anything from them, a fun new way to ensure that whatever rhetorical gestures Biden and company have made toward capping or reducing carbon emissions will remain purely rhetorical. All of this produced a reduction in global oil prices of around $2 per barrel that will surely be wiped out within a few days. Success!
The Saudi government says it’s “responded positively” to a new ceasefire proposal from United Nations Yemen envoy Hans Grundberg. The details haven’t officially been made public but based on the reporting it sounds like Grundberg is proposing a temporary ceasefire in exchange for a partial and also temporary easing of the Saudi air and sea blockade of northern Yemen. This seems like a shrunken down version of the quid pro quo that Yemeni rebels have been rejecting—they’re insisting that the blockade be lifted as a precondition for negotiations on a ceasefire rather than as part of a straight tradeoff—but it’s conceivable they could put that objection aside since Grundberg’s proposal is not a permanent ceasefire. The rebels haven’t commented as yet as far as I know but Grundberg has met with their representatives in Oman so he should have some idea of what they’re thinking.
UPDATE: In possibly the most surprising even to occur since the Saudi intervention began in 2015, Yemeni combatants have reportedly agreed to a UN-brokered two-month ceasefire, starting Saturday. The agreement calls for a partial easing of the blockade. It could be renewed, though presumably that will depend on whether the parties are able to make any headway on peace talks. It sounds like they intend to start small, with talks on facilitating traffic through front-line areas and possibly a prisoner swap.
Turkish prosecutors are asking that their case dealing with the 2018 murder of former Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi be suspended and transferred to Saudi Arabia, where presumably Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will make sure that it’s quietly dismembered and its remains disposed in a way that prevents their later reconstitution. Metaphorically, I mean. The Turkish government has been trying to heal its strained relationships with Arab states like the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia and you can regard this legal gesture as part of that process.
After failing again to secure the election of his preferred presidential candidate on Wednesday, Muqtada al-Sadr has announced that he and his parliamentary bloc are taking a 40 day break from attempting to form a government. This move puts the rival Shiʿa Coordination Framework bloc on the spot to form its own government rather than simply obstructing Sadr’s efforts. Doing so will require winning over some of Sadr’s current coalition partners, which may be a tall order. It’s unclear whether Sadr intends to use any of the same obstructive tactics the Coordination Framework has used—boycotting sessions to ensure there’s no quorum, for example—though he says he’s told his followers not to interfere with the Framework’s efforts and that could be interpreted as a rejection of those tactics.
Sadr’s goal in the almost six months since Iraq’s election has been to form a majority government rather than continuing the tradition of unwieldy national unity coalitions. It’s possible that if he can’t form that government he’d rather take his party into the opposition than join the coalition. But that remains to be seen.
Israeli occupation forces killed at least three Palestinians on Thursday in two incidents in the West Bank. Israeli personnel shot and killed two people, one a 17 year old boy, and wounded 15 others (some critically) in a raid in the city of Jenin. Earlier in the day, Israeli forces in the Gush Etzion settlement, near Bethlehem, shot and killed a Palestinian man who had allegedly wounded four people in a knife attack. The Jenin raid appears to have been connected to Tuesday’s shooting spree in Bnei Brak, as the apparent shooter lived just outside of Jenin.
I think it’s been a few days since we touched on the status of the Iran nuclear deal process and that’s because there’s really not much to say. Diplomatic’s Laura Rozen has an update but essentially, as she writes in her opening sentence, the talks are “in a state of limbo.” Mostly this is over the issue of removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US State Department’s foreign terrorist list, or more specifically figuring out a way the Biden administration could remove it without incurring a political cost.
The government of the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia is reportedly planning to hold a referendum on becoming part of Russia, news that drew a sharp rebuke from the Georgian government on Thursday. There’s no guarantee Russia would agree to annex the region assuming the vote went that way (which I think is a safe assumption). Georgia’s other breakaway republic, Abkhazia, reiterated that it’s not seeking annexation.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev are reportedly planning to meet in Brussels next Wednesday to test the waters around opening talks on a comprehensive treaty between their nations. Given the recent renewal of tensions over the Karabakh region a comprehensive settlement of the many grievances in the Armenian-Azerbaijani relationship could not come at a better time. But the chances of actually reaching such an agreement are probably fairly slim, especially given that most of the leverage right now probably lies with Azerbaijan (with Turkish support) and Aliyev may insist on terms to which Pashinyan can’t or won’t agree.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imram Khan is refusing to resign as parliament takes up a no confidence motion that he seems likely to lose once it’s finally put to a vote. That vote is currently scheduled for Sunday but it remains to be seen if it will actually take place then, as National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser abruptly adjourned Thursday’s session before legislators had a chance to begin debating the motion as scheduled and he may be trying to stall the vote. Khan is now alleging that the move to oust him is being orchestrated by the United States in concert with Pakistani opposition parties. This isn’t out of the question, though Khan hasn’t produced any supporting evidence and for him to roll this argument out at this late stage smacks a bit of desperation.
Sri Lankan authorities have imposed a curfew in Colombo after protesters attempted to storm the presidential residence earlier in the day. There’s no word as to whether President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was home at the time. The protesters are angry over an economic crisis that stems primarily from the pandemic and some questionable government decisions in terms of managing its various repercussions. Things have gotten bad enough that the country is experiencing rolling blackouts and there are shortages of basic goods like food and fuel.
Debate is still raging over whether last week’s North Korean missile test involved its Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile or its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile. The South Korean military has been somewhat unusually pronounced in declaring that the North Koreans launched a Hwasong-15 doctored up to appear to be a Hwasong-17, based on a variety of factors including trajectory data, satellite imagery, and a disparity between the weather conditions in North Korea last Thursday and those visible in Pyongyang’s propaganda images of the launch. While it’s certainly possible the North Koreans attempted to pull a fast one with this test, it’s also possible the South Koreans are overstating their evidence for their own propaganda purposes. There’s a third possibility: that the North Koreans tested a souped up Hwasong-15, which would still reflect an advance in their missile program even if it’s not as significant an advance as they’d like everyone to believe.
Sudanese security forces killed at least one person on Thursday amid another round of protests against the country’s ruling junta. The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors said the victim was shot by live ammunition during a demonstration in Khartoum. Sudanese forces have now killed at least 93 people under similar circumstances since October’s coup ousted the civilian transitional government. Over the past few weeks the protests have taken on a more economic component in addition to their political motivation, as the Sudanese economy has been floundering and the war in Ukraine has caused food prices to spike.
Ennahda party leader and nominal speaker of the Tunisian parliament Rached Ghannouchi told reporters on Thursday that he “rejects” President Kais Saied’s move to dissolve the legislature on Wednesday. Which I guess might be relevant if Saied didn’t have the police and military working for him. Ghannouchi also said that Ennahda, which remains the best organized party in Tunisia and is/was the largest in parliament (though in a very fragmented body that isn’t saying much), will boycott Saied’s planned constitutional referendum.
The UN is deploying peacekeepers to the Malian portion of the “tri-border” region, where Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger all come together. That region has been beset by jihadist violence for several years now, with both al-Qaeda’s Sahelian franchises and Islamic State’s Greater Sahara affiliate active there. ISGS has been particularly active in recent weeks, engaged in what appears to be a sustained conflict with Tuareg militias to the great detriment of any civilians who get in between them. An anonymous Malian source told Reuters that as many as 500 people have been killed amid this conflict in Mali’s Gao and Ménaka regions in just the past three weeks.
In news from Russia:
Vladimir Putin on Thursday signed an executive order requiring “unfriendly” nations to begin paying for their Russian gas purchases in rubles as of Friday under threat of having the tap turned off. However, the details of this ruble scheme seem to be in line with what Putin reportedly described to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz the previous day, which seemingly doesn’t require European consumers of Russian gas to do anything differently than they’re already doing. The plan, as it’s being reported, allows European governments to continue paying in euros and/or dollars as before. The new system simply inserts a step whereby Gazprombank—which as the name suggests is the financial arm of Russia’s state-owned gas firm, Gazprom—then converts those payments to rubles before closing the transaction. It’s unclear what, if anything, this actually accomplishes other than maybe allowing Putin to claim that he’s forced Europe to buckle to his gas threat. The bottom line is that he does not seem interested in actually risking the loss of revenue that would come from ending gas exports to Europe.
A new poll from Russia’s Levada Center suggests that, however it’s been received internationally, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has been well-regarded in Russia. The poll has Putin at 83 percent support among Russians, much nicer than the 69 percent support he had in January. I’m not sure how reliable the actual figures are (though it’s worth pointing out that Levada is not exactly well-liked by the Russian government) but the improvement from January to now probably does reflect something real. What that might be is harder to say. The already restrictive Russian media environment has by many accounts gotten more restrictive since the invasion began, and anecdotally it seems that many Russians who oppose the war and have the means have opted to leave the country over the past month or so. Those factors may be artificially pumping Putin’s numbers up. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that the outpouring of condemnation and economic sanctions emanating from Western countries over the past month may well have sparked a “rally around the flag” effect and brought more Russians into Putin’s camp.
A couple of factors may cut into Putin’s popularity over the next few weeks, though who can really tell anything at this point. One is his decision to call up 134,500 conscripts in this year’s annual spring military draft. Russian authorities insist none of them will be sent to Ukraine, but Putin has insisted before that he wouldn’t send conscripts to Ukraine and yet his own military has acknowledged that it has done that. Throwing more conscripts into the proverbial meat-grinder could prove unpopular. What also may prove unpopular is the contraction of the Russian economy, which the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development estimates could hit 10 percent this year mostly as a result of sanctions. Ukraine’s economy is likely to shrink by double that, but getting invaded tends to have that kind of effect. The bank’s estimates assume a relatively short war, so if this goes on longer than another month or two that 10 percent contraction could become a best case scenario.
The UK government blacklisted another 14 Russian individuals and institutions on Thursday, with a focus on media. Among those on the list was TV-Novosti, the parent company of Russia’s RT outlet, and Sergey Brilev, an anchor on the Rossiya TV network.
And in Ukraine:
There are continuing indications that Russian forces are pulling back in the areas around Kyiv and Chernihiv, as they suggested they would earlier this week. In particular, the Ukrainian military is claiming advances in both of those regions that would be consistent with a Russian draw-down. Additionally it seems the Russians have negotiated the return of the Chernobyl site, which they’d seized some time ago, back to Ukrainian control. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Tuesday that those Russian forces that pull out of northern Ukraine are likely to be redeployed to eastern Ukraine to support a heavier Russian offensive there. He said this as though NATO had uncovered some shocking evidence that the Russians had lied about their plans, even though this is pretty much exactly what the Russian military said it was going to do last week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Thursday that his military is preparing for an intensified Russian operation in the Donbas, where the Russians aim to seize the whole of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and also possibly to envelope Ukrainian military units stationed in the eastern part of the country. The central battle in that region right now is of course in Mariupol, which is located in Donetsk oblast and has been under a Russian siege/partial occupation for weeks. A Red Cross aid convoy is reportedly staging to enter Mariupol on Friday, as the Russians have announced a humanitarian ceasefire. An effort will also be made to evacuate civilians from the city, though it remains to be seen how effective it will be as past evacuation attempts seem to have been very hit or miss.
Zelensky appears to be in the process of canning Ukrainian diplomats who are unable to convince the governments of the countries in which they are stationed to support the Ukrainian war effort via arms shipments and/or sanctions against Russia. He relieved Ukraine’s ambassadors to Georgia and Morocco on Thursday and it sounds like they won’t be the only ones who find themselves out of work.
Although the war in Ukraine has lit a fire under some European governments to boost defense spending, it seems any plans the Italian government may have had to join the trend have run into domestic political obstacles. Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced on Thursday that his goal of bringing Italy up to the NATO-suggested defense spending minimum of 2 percent of GDP will have to wait until at least 2028, not 2024 as he’d originally planned. The 5-Star Movement, a key part of Draghi’s broad unity coalition, threatened to oppose the 2024 plan, which could have brought the entire coalition down.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, polling indicates that far-right challenger Marine Le Pen has over the past couple of weeks not only solidified her position as the candidate who will face French President Emmanuel Macron in next month’s presidential runoff, but she’s gained substantial ground on Macron in that hypothetical head-to-head matchup. Macron still consistently leads Le Pen in runoff polling, but in several recent surveys that lead has dropped into single digits and in a couple it’s as low as five or six points. A new survey from Elabe has Le Pen as the second most popular politician in France with 35 percent who have a positive image of her, trailing only former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe at 44 percent.
Former Brazilian judge Sergio Moro is reportedly withdrawing from October’s presidential race and is also leaving the centrist Podemos party to join the conservative Brazil Union party. He’ll presumably run for something under that party’s banner, but what that is remains to be seen.
Moro was not going to win the presidential election or even make it into the runoff, but he did poll consistently in the 8 percent range and it’s unclear where those voters will go now. Moro is famous for two things: his (probably politically-motivated) corruption prosecution of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that cleared the deck for Jair Bolsonaro to win the 2018 election, and his high-profile split with Bolsonaro that resulted in his resignation as justice minister in 2020. So he’s got some bad blood with both of the leading candidates. I suspect he’ll find a way to let bygones be bygones and throw his support behind Bolsonaro.
While the Colombian military says that its forces killed at least 11 militants from the Segunda Marquetalia group in a clash earlier this week in Putumayo state, the indigenous organization Opiac, Human Rights Watch, and the Colombian government’s own human rights ombudsman are reporting that there were civilians among those casualties. Both Opiac and HRW are saying that at least four of those 11 casualties were civilian, including an indigenous governor.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Nick Turse reports that US Africa Command seems to have no idea what becomes of African military officers who undergo US training programs—and, therefore, no idea how many of them later go on to try to topple their own governments:
Last week, senior leaders from the U.S. Army and more than 40 African nations met at Fort Benning, Georgia for the 10th African Land Forces Summit. The theme had the catchy title: “Resilient Institutions Build Resilient Leaders.” The experience, said Maj. Gen. Andrew M. Rohling, the commander of U.S. Army Southern European Task Force, Africa, “would be good to showcase a way, the American way, that we train and build leaders not only in their tactical tasks, but in the ethos of the United States Army, the values and the discipline that is a hallmark of my Army.”
Those values have been lacking in West Africa, where U.S.-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups (and succeeded in at least eight) across five West African countries, including Burkina Faso (three times), Guinea, Mali (three times), Mauritania, and the Gambia. The four most recent coups by U.S. trainees have occurred in Burkina Faso (2022), Guinea (2021) and twice in Mali (2020 and 2021).
During a conference call with reporters, Responsible Statecraft asked Maj. Gen. Rohling, why so many U.S. trained officers overthrow the very governments the U.S. is attempting to bolster through its summits, trainings, and assistance. “It is the United States policy – well, I’m not going to – yeah, the United States policy is to promote human rights, to promote values, to promote civil and democratic law across the countries,” he said. “Exercises – or events such as today’s African Land Forces Summit bring those values to the forefront, and we will continue to hold meetings and training exercises that continue to promote human rights, human values, the ethos of the United States Government, the United States Army, and then we will do our best to ensure that the countries that participate understand what we’re training and will present a viable role model for those countries.”
Rohling’s uncertain answer is mirrored by U.S. Africa Command’s uncertainty about its coup-prone trainees. AFRICOM does not track what becomes of the officers it trains, nor does it know which have conducted coups. “AFRICOM does not actively track individuals who’ve received U.S. training after the training has been completed,” AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan told Responsible Statecraft, noting that the command does not maintain a list or database of African officers who have overthrown their governments or even keep a count of how many times its occurred. “AFRICOM does not maintain a database with this information.”