World roundup: May 11 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Pakistan, Greece, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
May 11, 868: A woodblock printed copy of a Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text, is completed. Why is this noteworthy? Because this particular copy, included among a trove of documents discovered in a cave in Duhuang, China, in 1900, is—at least as far as the British Library is concerned—“the world’s earliest dated, printed book.” Thanks to the intact dedication, scholars know when, by whom, and for whom the document was produced—it reads “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents on the 15th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong.” That apparently corresponds to May 11, 868.
May 11, 1258: King Louis IX of France and King James I of Aragon sign the Treaty of Corbeil, which proved to have significant ramifications for the development of the modern nations of France and Spain. The main provision from our perspective involved Louis’ surrender of any claim on the region known as the “Hispanic March,” which largely corresponds with the region better known today as Catalonia, including the city of Barcelona. That region became more firmly attached to what would eventually become Spain as a result. James, meanwhile, gave up claims on several future French regions, including Toulouse and (a bit later) Provence.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A newly published report from the Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that some 71 million people are now displaced worldwide, due to some combination of wars, natural disasters, and economic crises. The war in Ukraine has been a major driver both in its direct effects and in its knock-on effects on global food supplies, while flooding in Pakistan and drought in the Horn of Africa have been major contributors on the “natural disaster” front.
The Saudi government’s lead Yemen negotiator, Mohammed al-Jaber, spoke with AFP on Thursday and seemed to throw some cold water on the possibility of a quick settlement to the Yemen war. While stressing that “everybody is looking for peace,” Jaber said that following last month’s Saudi-Houthi negotiation in Sanaa “nothing is clear” in terms of next steps. There’s not even, apparently, any concrete plan for more negotiations. Part of the problem here may be that the Saudis, inexplicably, view themselves as third party mediators between the Yemeni government and the rebels rather than as a direct participant in the war. In reality the Saudis have been not just a participant in the war, they’ve completely subsumed whatever remains of a Yemeni government. The Houthis want to negotiate with the Saudis because the Saudis have been their primary antagonist, while the Saudis apparently want to pretend that they’re above the fray.
Whatever fears Turkish opposition supporters may have had about Muharrem İnce siphoning votes away from main opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in this Sunday’s presidential election presumably dissipated on Thursday when İnce abruptly dropped out of the race.
If we assume that this is good news for Kılıçdaroğlu—which it probably is but it’s hard to know for sure—it’s one of several pieces of good news he’s gotten in the past couple of days. Two new polls, from KONDA and MetroPOLL, put Kılıçdaroğlu not just ahead of incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but give him over 49 percent of the vote, well within range of a “50 percent plus one” outright first round victory. Both polls had İnce still in the mix, so if a) they’re accurate and b) the majority of his supporters were to gravitate to Kılıçdaroğlu, then a first round victory may very well be in the offing. That said, İnce has apparently not endorsed Kılıçdaroğlu and suggested that he dropped out so that he wouldn’t be blamed for Kılıçdaroğlu’s eventual defeat. Both polls put Erdoğan’s AKP-MHP alliance ahead of the joint opposition slate in the legislative portion of the election.
The Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government have reportedly concluded an agreement that will see the KRG resume oil exports via pipeline through Turkey. The International Court of Arbitration ruled back in March that the KRG’s exports were unlawful without Iraqi government approval. The two parties negotiated an interim export deal last month but never implemented it due to lingering technical disagreements. This new agreement will see the KRG’s exports managed by Iraq’s state oil company and the revenues shared between Erbil and Baghdad. The Iraqi Oil Ministry says that KRG exports will resume on Saturday, so presumably the Turkish government is on board with this new deal as well.
Israel’s three-day bombardment of Gaza has now killed at least 30 people, after another day of steady airstrikes on Thursday.1 At least ten of those killed have been civilians. Also on Thursday, one of the hundreds of rockets PIJ and assorted Gazan militant groups (notably not including Hamas) have fired out of the enclave in response killed an Israeli civilian (and wounded two others) in the city of Rehovot. He was the first Israeli killed since this conflict began on Tuesday. Efforts at brokering a ceasefire, led primarily by Egypt with involvement from Jordan, France, and Germany, have thus far achieved nothing. In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israeli security forces killed two Palestinians on Thursday, one during an arrest raid near Tulkarm and one who died from wounds suffered during an Israeli raid the previous day.
The Israeli military issued an apology for killing reporter Shireen Abu Akleh on Thursday, the first anniversary of her death. You may recall that the IDF grudgingly acknowledged that one of their soldiers probably shot Abu Akleh during an operation in the West Bank, but only after a series of independent investigations concluded not only that an Israeli soldier was responsible, but that there was a strong possibility that Abu Akleh was intentionally targeted. Israeli authorities insist that, if it was an Israeli soldier who fired the fatal shot, it was done “accidentally.”
A new round of cross-border fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani security forces left at least one Azerbaijani soldier dead and several soldiers on both sides wounded on Thursday. The clash took place along the border in Armenia’s Gegharkunik province, some distance from the flashpoint Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. As you’ve probably already guessed, each side blamed the other for provoking the incident. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev are scheduled to attend another peace conference, this one in Brussels, on Sunday and there’s no indication that Thursday’s incident has altered those plans.
Northern Afghanistan, which is probably the most agriculturally productive region of that country, is reportedly facing the possibility of a locust swarm just as the area seemed to be emerging from an extended drought. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a full locust outbreak could wind up destroying somewhere between 700,000 and 1.2 million metric tons of wheat, and while farmers are trying to kill as many immature locusts as they can the Afghan government is, needless to say, not up to the task of organizing a national response.
The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Tuesday’s arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan was unlawful and ordered his release from custody. Khan was indeed released, though he’s apparently being kept more or less under guard in Islamabad for the time being (his lawyers say there are no restrictions on his activities). Khan is due to appear before the Islamabad High Court on Friday as that body reconsiders its decision to order his arrest and tries to figure out what to do next. It’s conceivable that he could be re-arrested on the same charges, or on new charges related to the protests that cropped up in the wake of his initial arrest, or that he could be set free altogether with some legal protection against future arrest.
In the meantime, it’s unclear what will happen to the estimated 2000 Khan supporters who have been arrested since Tuesday. Presumably they’ll remain in custody even though the incident that precipitated their protests has now been nullified. At least ten protesters have been killed by Pakistani security forces and hundreds of protesters and police officers have been injured, again all over an arrest that Pakistan’s highest court now says should never have happened.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reportedly met with senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in Vienna on Wednesday and Thursday, marking the second high-level interaction between US and Chinese officials this week. They agreed mainly on the need to maintain such communications, which presumably means an end to the Chinese government’s recent reticence to interact with Washington. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been suggesting he’d like to reschedule the Chinese visit he canceled at the height of the Balloon Of Death hysteria, which not coincidentally is when the bilateral relationship really took a turn for the worse.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk addressed the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday on the subject of the conflict in Sudan. He called for greater international pressure on the Sudanese military and the “Rapid Support Forces” unit to resolve their conflict or, at the very least, agree to a genuine ceasefire and humanitarian relief. The Sudanese government opposed Thursday’s council session and as a result there seems to be some reluctance from the body’s African and/or Arab members to vote for a resolution calling for a cessation of fighting. Whether or not it passes is unlikely to have a tangible effect on the conflict, which according to AFP has killed an estimated 750-plus people since it began on April 15.
Early Friday morning news broke that military and RSF negotiators in Saudi Arabia had agreed on a very vague-sounding pledge to protect Sudanese civilians and to allow the provision of humanitarian aid in conflict zones. They’ve apparently further agreed to keep negotiating over a genuine ceasefire. As I say this all sounds quite vague, and since the parties haven’t honored any of their previous ceasefires I don’t think there’s any particular reason to think this agreement will fundamentally change the situation in Sudan. I hope I’m wrong.
An army captain was killed on Wednesday by what authorities are calling “a group of terrorists” in northern Algeria’s Tissemsilt province. Four “terrorists” were arrested during the operation. The Algerian government generally uses “terrorist” as a catchall term for any jihadist militant, so it’s hard to know who specifically these militants are.
According to opposition parties and civil society groups, at least seven people were killed, and another 32 wounded, in Wednesday’s anti-junta protests in Conakry and several other Guinean cities and towns. Protests continued for a second day on Thursday but I have yet to see any reports of casualties. At least 56 people have been arrested. The demonstrations were intended to press for a faster transition to civilian rule, but the violence of the government’s response may itself fuel more protests.
Unknown gunmen attacked a village in southern Chad’s Logone Oriental province early Monday morning, killing at least 17 people. There’s some possibility that this was an ethnically motivated attack and that the victims, members of the predominantly agricultural Kabba people, may have been attacked by nomadic, possible Arab, peoples.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Members from the ethnic Yaka “Mobondo” militia reportedly attacked a village around 75 kilometers outside of Kinshasa on Thursday, killing one Congolese soldier while losing four of their own personnel. The Mobondo has been involved in the Yaka community’s ongoing conflict with the Teke people in nearby Mai-Ndombe province. The rationale behind this attack is unclear.
South African officials say they’re investigating an allegation, leveled by US ambassador Reuben Brigety on Thursday, that a Russian vessel left South Africa with a shipment of weapons and ammunition back in December. South Africa is free to sell arms to Russia, though that would certainly put it on Washington’s “naughty” list. Additionally, it’s kind of hard to sell arms to Russia and also maintain “neutrality” in the Ukraine war, as the South African government claims to do.
Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN representatives met on Thursday to try to reach some sort of agreement to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative. They did not reach such an agreement, but the UN apparently presented a number of proposals meant to appease Russian grievances about the way the Initiative has worked thus far, and it’s possible the Russians will find something to like in those proposals. Moscow is demanding that the US restore the Russian Agricultural Bank to the SWIFT international financial network in exchange for extending the deal again, and there’s no indication that the Biden administration is prepared to do that.
The Russian military on Thursday rejected claims that the Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut have routed a Russian unit and gained some ground back in that city. Pro-war Russian bloggers have apparently begun amplifying those claims, building on earlier statements from Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Ukrainian military. There’s some disagreement as to whether this Ukrainian advance, assuming there’s been an advance, constitutes the start of the big “spring counteroffensive.” Prigozhin and other Russian sources are indicating that it is, but Ukrainian sources, chiefly President Volodymyr Zelensky, are denying that. Zelensky on Thursday said that the Ukrainians are still waiting for more weapons from their Western patrons before the counteroffensive begins. Maybe the long-range missiles they’re getting from the UK will do the trick. Or maybe this is the counteroffensive and Zelensky is trying to mislead the Russians as to what’s happening.
The Norwegian government on Thursday assumed the presidency of the eight-member Arctic Council from Russia, sans ceremonial handover for obvious reasons. The Council is now dysfunctional anyway. The other seven members spent the past year-plus refusing to cooperate with Russia, and now Russia will presumably refuse to cooperate with the other seven members. Fortunately it’s not as though the Arctic is a geopolitically and/or environmentally sensitive region.
World Politics Review’s Yiannis Baboulias argues that Greece’s May 21 snap election is likely to usher in a new wave of political turbulence:
As things stand, New Democracy is polling at around 30 percent, far below the 47 percent required for an absolute majority in the 300-seat parliament. Nevertheless, Mitsotakis has stated that, absent an absolute majority, he will call for new elections immediately, assuming no other party is able to form a government after the first round. If a second contest takes place, the system introduced by the 2020 electoral law ensures an absolute majority with approximately 37 percent of the votes. But if current polling holds, that too would be out of reach.
Greece’s electoral system has been subject to constant changes for decades. Critics of the bonus system, which awards extra seats—50 in the last few elections—to the party that wins the most votes, argue that it significantly distorted election results. According to its supporters, it ensured stable majorities in turbulent times.
But as things stand, even in the event of a second election under the bonus system, no party would come close to reaching an absolute majority of seats. It seems, then, that whatever the electoral system, the days of single-party majority governments alternating between two dominant parties in Greece are truly over. It’s impossible not to see a period of political uncertainty ahead, with coalitions forming and falling apart, and calls for a government of national unity looming.
The Colombian and Venezuelan defense ministers met in Caracas on Thursday and agreed to a mutual increase of security forces along their shared border. Drug traffickers, various other smugglers, and militant groups pass back and forth across that border with some regularity. It’s unclear how many extra forces will be deployed and I doubt they’ll have much success tightening a border that is a) quite long and b) very remote in several sections. But the agreement is another indication that the two countries are enjoying a period of good relations after a fairly chilly last few years under former Colombian President Iván Duque.
Finally, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic looks at a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research on the harm US sanctions do to targeted populations:
The report, titled “The Human Consequences of Economic Sanctions” and drawing on thirty-two studies of sanctions and their effects, concludes that “economic sanctions generate significant levels of distress in target economies,” and that “the populations most often harmed, and in some cases killed, by sanctions are also voiceless in decisions about their adoption.”
The author of those words, Francisco R. Rodríguez, is far from a bomb-throwing iconoclast: an economist who has done stints at the United Nations and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Rodríguez also served as the chief economist for the National Assembly of Venezuela, one of the countries examined in the report, and in 2018, advised an opposition presidential candidate who challenged current Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.
Surveying the research on sanctions, the report finds that thirty of the thirty-two papers examined conclude there are “significant negative long-run effects on indicators of human and economic development.” This body of research has found that sanctions lead to significant rises in everything from poverty, mortality, income inequality, and childhood HIV infection rates, to instances of international terrorism and the likelihood of government repression and human rights violations — even a decline in democracy.
Amazingly, the study concludes that the “humanitarian exemptions” US policymakers always cite when defending their sanctions don’t actually work. Who could have known?
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There’s a reasonable likelihood that some of these deaths were directly attributable to errant Gazan rocket fire, but as those rockets wouldn’t have been fired absent the Israeli military strikes the causality remains the same.