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World roundup: May 13-14 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Thailand, Russia, and elsewhere
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Happy Mother’s Day!
THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
May 13, 1805: The Battle of Derna ends
May 13, 1846: The US Congress votes to declare war on Mexico, marking the formal start of the Mexican-American War though the fighting had actually begun several days earlier. The war ended formally in February 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which has to be one of the most lopsided treaties ever negotiated, in which Mexico acknowledged US sovereignty over the whole of Texas and ceded most of what is now the southwestern United States.
May 14, 1560: The Battle of Djerba ends
May 14, 1796: English doctor Edward Jenner administers an experimental smallpox vaccine to the eight year old son of his gardener, inoculating the boy with pus from a woman who was infected with cowpox. This technique was already in use, but Jenner then intentionally exposed the child to smallpox and is thus credited with proving that the vaccine actually worked.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Syrian government has agreed to leave two checkpoints along the Turkish border, at Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai, open for at least another three months in order to allow humanitarian relief to keep flowing through them to areas still recovering from February’s major earthquake event in Turkey’s Gaziantep province. The United Nations had requested the extension. The crossings are key to bringing aid to areas controlled by Syrian rebel factions that refuse to accept relief from Damascus.
The largest of those rebel factions, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is apparently on another of its periodic missions to convince Western governments to forget its past ties to al-Qaeda and remove it from their various designated terrorist group lists, and as always Western media is dutifully providing PR support to the effort. HTS boss Abu Mohammad al-Julani is, we’re told, bending over backwards to show that he’s not all all like those weirdo extremists in al-Qaeda, even though he was one of the network’s most prominent figures in Iraq and then Syria from 2003 through his big breakup in 2016. He’s “spreading a message of pluralism and religious tolerance,” don’t you know, and “has cracked down on extremist factions and dissolved [HTS’s] notorious religious police.” He wears Regular Clothes (“shirts and trousers”) instead of Weird Clothes (“white turbans and robes”). He’s just like Us!
None of these cosmetic changes indicates that Julani has really altered his worldview and there’s every reason to think that, if his position were suddenly made more secure via an influx of international support and recognition, he would before too long revert back to overt extremism. With most regional governments normalizing relations with the Syrian government, Julani is desperate to attract US support (well, OK, more US support) to reify his informal position as the leader of Syria’s rebel-controlled Idlib province, so it’s clear why he keeps trying to attempt this pivot to Sensible Moderate. It’s unclear why media outlets keep falling for it.
As you undoubtedly know, Sunday saw the first round of Turkey’s general election, with most attention focused on a presidential race that polling suggested could see the defeat of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After a wild vote count that featured vastly different projections by different outlets and a healthy dose of conspiracy theorizing, the result appears to be the most mundane of all possible outcomes: a runoff. Erdoğan and lead challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu will face each other head-to-head in two weeks. There are still first-round votes to be counted, but as it stands right now Erdoğan finished with around 49 percent of the vote to Kılıçdaroğlu’s 45 percent.
If that lead holds one would have to assume that Erdoğan is the favorite to win the second round. Kılıçdaroğlu will have slightly underperformed and Erdoğan slightly overperformed their polling, and if this becomes a contest to appeal to third place finisher Sinan Oğan’s roughly 5 percent of the vote, well, the nationalist Erdoğan has more in common with Oğan ideologically than does Kılıçdaroğlu. That said, it is a red flag when any long-standing incumbent gets taken to a runoff, and presumably if Oğan’s voters were prepared to vote for Erdoğan they would have done that in the first place. This is particularly uncharted territory for Erdoğan in that it will be the first presidential runoff in Turkish history—though, to be fair, Turkish voters only started directly electing their presidents in 2014. Even with all of that in mind, it seems easier to envision Erdoğan picking up another point than Kılıçdaroğlu picking up another five points. Again, this is assuming that 49-45 lead holds—if Kılıçdaroğlu finishes in a stronger position then that changes things.
There is also a possibly consequential parliamentary side to the election, which I realize is getting drowned out by the presidential contest. But I don’t yet know how that part of the election has shaken out, and given how overpowered Erdoğan has made the Turkish presidency I’m not sure how much it matters anyway.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned Iraq’s ambassador in Tehran on Saturday to complain about the presence of “terrorist groups” in Iraqi Kurdistan. These would be groups like the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and other pro-Kurdish parties/militant groups. Iranian officials say the presence of Iranian Kurdish groups in Iraq violates a border security deal the two governments reached back in March.
The Israeli government and Palestinian Islamic Jihad reached a ceasefire agreement that went into effect Saturday night, a final exchange of fire notwithstanding. At least 33 Palestinians (at least ten of them civilians) and one Israeli were killed over the course of five days of violence. The Egyptian government took the lead in mediating the truce, though the Biden administration also thanked the Qatari government for some unspecified contribution. Sunday saw one more rocket fired out of Gaza, which Hamas officials claimed was the result of a “technical error,” and an apparent Israeli airstrike in retaliation. Whether that proves to be an aberration or causes the collapse of the ceasefire remained to be seen at time of writing.
According to The New Arab, the Iranian and Egyptian governments have agreed to restore diplomatic relations, including the opening of embassies. In some ways this is an even more significant landmark than Iran’s diplomatic thaw with Saudi Arabia, in that Egypt and Iran cut ties all the way back in 1980 after Egypt normalized relations with Israel and gave refuge to deposed Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Geopolitically Egypt isn’t nearly as important as Saudi Arabia, of course.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev got together on Sunday for more peace talks, this time in Brussels under European Union mediation. Apparently recent border clashes were not enough to disrupt the planned meeting. As with their foreign ministers meeting in the US earlier this month, there’s no indication the two leaders agreed on anything of substance but that didn’t stop EU officials from insisting that the session helped advance the bilateral peace process.
Unspecified militants attacked a camp operated by Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps force in Baluchistan province on Friday. The Pakistani military responded and eventually drove them out of the camp, but when the fighting was done at least six soldiers, six militants, and one civilian had been killed. There does not appear to be any indication as to who was responsible for the initial attack.
The electoral picture in Thailand seems substantially clearer than the one in Turkey. At time of writing nearly all of the vote had been counted and the country’s two main civilian opposition parties—Pheu Thai and Move Forward—were well ahead of the military’s Palang Pracharat party and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s United Thai Nation party. An opposition victory was expected given polling, but it is mildly surprising to see that Move Forward is leading the race, which seemingly puts its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, in line to replace Prayut as PM. However, the Thai military has put a number of measures in place since its 2014 coup to ensure that it retains at least a very substantial political role regardless of electoral outcomes, so the real political drama may only be starting.
There were reports on Sunday of heavy shelling and airstrikes being traded by Sudanese military and “Rapid Support Forces” units in Khartoum and its sister cities, Bahri and Omdurman. There are also reports of very heavy fighting in and around the city of Geneina in West Darfur that left more than 100 people dead between Friday and Saturday. United Nations envoy Volker Perthes is warning of an influx of foreign fighters. From what I can tell these are fortune seeking mercenaries and not—overhyped Western rhetoric about the Wagner Group’s involvement aside—part of any organized intervention. But their presence is only going to make the conflict more intractable as they bolster the warring sides.
Libyan security forces have reportedly deployed to the western city of Zawiyah in the wake of factional fighting there that has killed at least three people in recent days. Details are scarce, but these factions have apparently been clashing on and off for several weeks. The combination of the deployment and the intervention of local grandees (tribal leaders, mostly) has perhaps gotten things under control.
Mali’s ruling junta and the UN are disputing a claim that Malian soldiers and unspecified foreign fighters (Wagner Group mercenaries, most likely) massacred some 500-plus civilians in the village of Moura in March 2022. The UN Human Rights Office leveled that accusation in a report it released on Friday. The junta issued a statement on Saturday saying that it “vehemently denounces this biased report that is based on a fictitious narrative and does not meet established international standards.” The junta insists that not a single civilian life was lost in the Moura operation, which seems a little too good to be true but I guess that’s their story.
Suspected jihadist militants attacked a village in western Burkina Faso’s Boucle du Mouhoun region on Thursday, killing at least 33 people. The identity of the attackers is unclear. On Saturday authorities extended for at least six more months a state of emergency in place since March in eight of the country’s 13 regions, including Boucle du Mouhoun.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Members of the ethnic Yaka “Mobondo” militia are believed to have been responsible for an attack on a village in the western DRC’s Kwango province late Friday that left at least 11 people dead. The same attackers reportedly continued their rampage on Saturday with an assault on a village in Kinshasa province. The Mobondo’s recent activity is a spillover from the Yaka’s ongoing struggle with the Teke community in Mai-Ndombe province.
Four Russian aircraft—an Su-34, an Su-35, and two Mi-8 helicopters—were all shot down in a single incident near the Ukrainian border over western Russia’s Bryansk oblast on Saturday. The jets were on their way to carry out airstrikes in Ukraine and the helicopters were there in support of that mission. The obvious conclusion is that they were downed by Ukrainian air defenses, but Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin—who could really earn some extra income these days doing press releases for the Ukrainian government—speculated via Telegram on Sunday that they were instead shot down by Russian air defenses. Presumably he meant in a “friendly fire” incident of some kind, though who really knows at this point.
There have been a couple of new Ukraine-related revelations from the Discord leak in recent days. Prigozhin was of course the subject of one of them, because how could he not be at this point? According to the leak, back in January Prigozhin offered to provide the Ukrainian military with Russian troop positions if they agreed to withdraw from Bakhmut. The Ukrainians rejected his offer because they believed it was a trick. The Discord leak alleges that Prigozhin has been in regular contact with Ukrainian intelligence services throughout the war. It’s hard to believe the Russian military has been reluctant to provide his men with ammunition. It will be interesting to see if this leak exacerbates Prigozhin’s tensions with the Russian Defense Ministry.
The other leak makes some unflattering claims about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, specifically that he’s been agitating behind the scenes for more serious attacks against Russian targets of the sort that Washington has at least overtly been trying to argue against due to fears of escalating the war. Among his big ideas was blowing up the Druzhba oil pipeline running from Russia to Hungary, which in case anyone has forgotten is a NATO member. This leak raises some concerns about what Zelensky might do if he were, say, given long-range missiles that can hit targets inside Russia—which, hey, the British government recently gave him! Cool!
Finally, The Intercept’s Stephen Semler wonders how serious the Biden administration really is about that whole “democracies vs. autocracies” business:
Of the 84 countries codified as autocracies under the Regimes of the World system in 2022, the United States sold weapons to at least 48, or 57 percent, of them. The “at least” qualifier is necessary because several factors frustrate the accurate tracking of U.S. weapons sales. The State Department’s report of commercial arms sales during the fiscal year makes prodigious use of “various” in its recipients category; as a result, the specific recipients for nearly $11 billion in weapons sales are not disclosed.
The Regimes of the World system is just one of the several indices that measure democracy worldwide, but running the same analysis with other popular indices produces similar results. For example, Freedom House listed 195 countries and for each one labeled whether it qualified as an electoral democracy in its annual Freedom in the World report. Of the 85 countries Freedom House did not designate as an electoral democracy, the United States sold weapons to 49, or 58 percent, of them in fiscal year 2022.
To be fair, the United States accounts for about 40 percent of all global arms sales every year, and you can’t maintain that kind of pace just selling to The Good Guys. Surely you don’t want our fine defense contractors to have to take a haircut, do you?
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