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World roundup: May 17 2022
Stories from Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 16, 1916: The British government ratifies the Sykes-Picot Agreement, establishing it as the Allied blueprint for the post-war remains of the Ottoman Empire.
May 17, 1997: Having chased Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, into exile the day before, military forces aligned with Laurent-Désiré Kabila and the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo enter Kinshasa, bringing an end to the First Congo War. Kabila succeeded Mobutu as president of Zaire, which was quickly renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The war, which had begun the previous year when Rwandan Patriotic Front forces invaded Zaire in pursuit of fleeing Hutu génocidaires, was reignited the following year when Kabila expelled his erstwhile Rwandan and Ugandan allies from the country. The Second Congo War technically ended in 2003, though conflict in the eastern DRC has persisted through the present day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Both Finland and Sweden to designate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates (the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, for example) as terrorist organizations.
Both Finland and Sweden to lift restrictions they imposed back in 2019 on the shipment of weapons to Turkey.
Re-inclusion in the US military’s F-35 program, with its right to purchase that aircraft restored.
Approval for the sale of a number of F-16 aircraft to Turkey.
Removal of sanctions imposed by the US under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, triggered by Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system.
Only the first two actually have to do with Finland and Sweden and Ankara might have a hard time maintaining its opposition if both of those demands are met. However, while I can’t see either Finland or Sweden making a big deal out of those arms restrictions, I would expect both to object to the first demand in that it amounts to Turkey dictating their foreign policy. Some kind of compromise may be necessary there, and that could be where these other demands come into play. Turkey most likely isn’t getting the F-35 unless it gives up the S-400, but I’m sure the US government, and General Dynamics for that matter, would be very happy to move forward on the F-16 sale, and those CAATSA sanctions are probably fair game too.
How this goes depends on how intransigent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is prepared to be. He’s picked a pretty awkward time to antagonize the rest of NATO, but he may view elevating the Kurdish issue in this way to be good domestic politics ahead of next year’s general election. And he’s not exactly known for exhibiting much finesse in foreign policy.
The results of Sunday’s Lebanese parliamentary election are in and, as we discussed yesterday, the result is a setback for Hezbollah and its coalition partners. That political alliance appears to have won 61 seats (all of these figures are give or take a seat or two pending an official announcement of the results), which is down six from the 67 it won in 2018 and means the Gang has lost its majority in the 128 seat legislature. Hezbollah itself seems to have done fine, winning all 13 seats it contested, but other coalition members didn’t fare so well including the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement, which likely dropped 3 seats.
With no coalition holding a majority, independents may control the balance of power in the new legislature. Voters elected somewhere around 14 new independents, somewhat higher than expected, several of whom emerged from Lebanon’s 2019 protest movement and were running on some version of a reformist agenda. The outcome likely also ensures some level of gridlock moving forward. At the end of the day, though, the likeliest outcome is another ineffectual consensus government featuring roughly the same gang of political elites who always emerge at the top of Lebanon’s political structures, in perhaps a slightly different configuration. That’s been the outcome of every Lebanese election in recent memory and there’s not much reason to expect that to change significantly. The big question is how much wrangling it will take to get there.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline notes the significance of the delegation the Biden administration sent to the UAE on Monday and what it says about the administration’s concerns over the state of the US-UAE relationship:
After initially voicing its devotion to promoting democracy and human rights in the Middle East, the Biden administration has instead decided to prioritize Washington’s commitment to the security of both the Saudis and Emiratis, notably by providing additional Patriot anti-missile systems to Riyadh in March and sending a naval Destroyer and fifth-generation fighter planes to help defend Abu Dhabi following the Houthi drone attack. This largely reflects concerns that if Washington does not solidify ties to the Saudis and Emiratis, they will turn to China and Russia for future weapons sales, undermining America’s dominance as the world’s largest arms dealer.
The seniority of the American officials dispatched to Abu Dhabi on Monday reflects the Biden administration’s view of the UAE as a critical partner and an opportunity to reset the relationship.
According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, Iranian security forces have killed at least five people over nearly two weeks of protests over rising food prices. Those price hikes came into sharp relief last week when the Iranian government slashed subsidies on a number of basic staples, including eggs, milk, and cooking oil. But prices on non-staple items had been rising for several weeks, part of a general regional trend fueled mostly by the war in Ukraine. Protests began to break out on May 5 and the killings—only two of which have been confirmed by authorities—have all occurred since then. Hundreds of people have also reportedly been arrested.
Pakistani authorities claim that members of their security forces killed two Pakistani Taliban militants in an incident in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday. Details beyond that are unclear.
Elsewhere, protesters have been blocking roads in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province for two days now. They’re upset over the arrest of two women in connection with what Pakistani officials claim was a suicide bomb plot that would have targeted Chinese nationals working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. Pakistan police announced one of these two arrests on Monday and said they seized explosives in the operation. They announced the second arrest on Tuesday. They’re claiming that the woman are affiliated with Baluch separatist militants, who frequently target CPEC sites and Chinese nationals. The protesters insist that both women are innocent.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe warned on Tuesday that the country was down to about one day’s worth of gasoline and needs roughly $75 million in fairly short order just to keep the government’s lights on—proverbially, I mean, because the fuel shortage has caused rolling nationwide blackouts for as much as 15 hours per day. Meanwhile, parliament on Tuesday debated and ultimately rejected a motion to fast track a proposed condemnation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a measure that would have no practical effect but might increase the already substantial public pressure on Rajapaksa to resign.
The Diplomat’s Sebastian Strangio highlights an interesting Myanmar-related meeting that took place following last week’s US-ASEAN conference:
On the weekend, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah had an in-person meeting with his counterpart from Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), the first time in which a Southeast Asian official has held a publicly acknowledged meeting with the country’s opposition shadow government.
The “informal” meeting with the NUG’s Foreign Minister Zin Mar Aung took place in Washington, D.C. after the conclusion of the two-day U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit on May 13. Saifuddin wrote on Twitter that during the meeting, he “express[ed] Malaysia’s support and solidarity with the people of Myanmar” and said that his government “stands ready to work towards restoring peace and democracy in Myanmar.” The two also discussed the challenges faced by the NUG, “including humanitarian assistance, technical training, and education for the Myanmar refugees.”
As he notes, ASEAN members have hitherto basically ignored the NUG, at least publicly, for fear of alienating Myanmar’s ruling junta. That the meeting took place at all likely reflects the bloc’s growing frustration with the junta’s refusal to make any concession toward restoring civilian rule.
Speaking of the NUG, its “defense minister,” Yee Mon, is calling for military aid along the lines of the billions of dollars in support Western governments have provided to Ukraine. The analogy is understandable from the NUG’s perspective but I highly doubt it’s going to get much traction in Western capitals. Myanmar just isn’t a priority and intervening in its civil war doesn’t advance broader Western foreign policy goals the way intervention in Ukraine does vis-à-vis Russia.
The new Guardian Essential poll finds the Australian Labor Party’s lead over Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coalition slipping ahead of Saturday’s election. The poll puts Labor up by two points, 48-46, in head to head preference, with 7 percent undecided. Two weeks ago the same poll had Labor up 49-45 with 6 percent undecided. The ingredients are in place here for a repeat of Australia’s 2019 election, when the conservative coalition won a somewhat surprising victory despite trailing in polling. That doesn’t mean this election will turn out the same way, but it does I think mean that the race is too close to make any predictions.
In what I’m sure was an unwelcome reprise of Libya’s civil war, armed supporters of Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh battled one another in Tripoli on Tuesday, leaving at least one person dead in their wake. Bashagha and his supporters apparently attempted to force their way into the Libyan capital, which is controlled by Dbeibeh and his supporters, sparking the battle. He withdrew to the city of Sirte several hours later. Each side is of course blaming the other for shooting first.
Questions of legal legitimacy aside this seems like an act of desperation by Bashagha, and since the gambit failed there’s some possibility that it will leave his position weakened as compared with Dbeibeh. Which could increase the potential for more violence, if Bashagha and his eastern Libyan backers see no other way to remove Dbeibeh from office.
The Spanish and Moroccan governments have agreed to reopen the border crossings between Morocco and Spain’s two North African cities, Ceuta and Melilla. Those crossings were closed in 2020 due to COVID, and that closure was later extended due to diplomatic disputes over Western Sahara and the rebel Polisario Front. The Spanish government changed its Western Sahara policy back in March, expressing support for a Moroccan proposal for regional autonomy in lieu of outright independence, and the bilateral relationship has been improving since then.
Malian authorities have arrested a number of suspects in the coup attempt they claim to have foiled last week. All appear to be military officers, including a Colonel Amadou Keïta who was reportedly “close” (link is in French) to the leaders of Mali’s current ruling junta. Malian officials have alleged the involvement of an unspecified Western government (most likely France, assuming the accusation is true) in the plot. Alex Thurston argues that the junta may be inventing this supposed foreign-orchestrated coup plot to generate more domestic support, though as he also writes a coup would not be out of the question and it’s impossible to assess the veracity of these claims either way without more information from sources other than the junta itself.
At least 28 people were killed amid a series of cattle raids in South Sudan’s Unity state on Sunday and Monday. At least 18 of the dead are believed to have been attackers. The attacks took place in Unity’s Leer county, which is one of the more violent places in South Sudan and where the UN says that some 72 civilians were killed just between February 17 and April 7 of this year. Inter-communal violence remains a serious threat to South Sudan’s still-tenuous peace process, with the prospect of a return to civil war looming if an incident like this escalates out of control.
In news from Russia:
A retired Russian colonel and media commentator named Mikhail Khodaryonok went on Russian state TV on Monday to offer a dismal assessment of the way the Ukraine war has gone for Russia. Khodaryonok suggested the war is progressing in Ukraine’s favor and warned that it’s left Russia isolated internationally. In addition to breaking with Moscow’s assessment of the war, which generally prevails in Russian media these days, this is noteworthy in that Khodaryonok had been praising the Russian war effort as recently as last week.
The US State Department announced on Tuesday that it’s launching a new project called the “Conflict Observatory” to collect and analyze evidence of US war crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere during the “War on Terror,” as well as crimes committed by US allies, many enabled by the US, in Yemen and other conflict zones. I’m kidding, of course. The Observatory will be collecting evidence of alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Accountability for thee, not for me, etc. The US could share whatever information it collects with the Ukrainian government or with international bodies like the International Criminal Court, though the latter would be kind of awkward seeing as how the US doesn’t legally recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction. The chances of a systematic prosecution of Russian personnel coming out of this war are extremely slim, so mostly this project seems meant to serve as a public relations instrument.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Tuesday that it’s expelling two Finnish diplomatic personnel from the country, in retaliation for a previous decision to boot two Russian staffers from Finland.
And in Ukraine:
With fighting finally over at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, attention in Ukraine has shifted to the whereabouts of the combatants who’d been defending the site from a Russian siege for the past few weeks. Around 50 seriously wounded fighters were evacuated to the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk in Donetsk oblast for medical treatment, while the rest, over 200, have been sent to another Russian-controlled part of Donetsk, the town of Olenivka. Ukrainian officials have suggested these fighters, some 265 in all, could be repatriated in a future prisoner swap, but rhetoric on the Russian side suggests they may wind up being tried and potentially executed. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that Russia’s treatment of the Azovstal prisoners would be “in accordance with international standards,” but that’s vague enough to be meaningless. Moscow should by rights treat these people as prisoners of war, with the international legal protections that status mandates. But there’s plenty of recent precedent, courtesy of the aforementioned “War on Terror,” for designating irregular/militia fighters as “unlawful combatants” or whatever—in which case all bets are off.
In case you’ve been wondering how peace talks are going, according to The New York Times they’re not going at all at this point. Presumably this is not surprising given the lack of any coverage of the negotiations in weeks. At this point the issue seems to be one of territory—Russia isn’t willing to cede much, if any, of the Ukrainian territory it’s captured, while Ukraine’s relative success (at least compared with expectations) has Ukrainian officials feeling confident enough to suggest they don’t just want to drive Russia out of the areas it’s seized since February, but out of places it’s controlled for several years—i.e., out of Crimea. That’s the definition of an impasse.
Chilean Interior Minister Izkia Siches has reportedly declared a state of emergency (link is in Spanish) in southern Chile’s Araucanía region as well as two districts in the neighboring Biobío region, in response to the Chilean state’s ongoing conflict with the Indigenous Mapuche community. Chilean President Gabriel Boric has resisted taking this step and in fact when he assumed office he ended the state of emergency imposed in that region by his predecessor, Sebastián Piñera. The declaration allows for a sustained military deployment, and unsurprisingly it’s met with opposition from both Mapuche leaders and elements of Boric’s left-wing base.
There are new signs of a thaw in the US-Venezuelan relationship, with Reuters reporting Tuesday that the Biden administration is lifting a ban on talks between the oil company Chevron and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government. The administration also seems set to remove Erick Malpica, the nephew of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores and a former official with Venezuela’s state oil firm, PDVSA, from the US sanctions list. On a presumably related note, there are also reports that reconciliation talks between Maduro’s administration and the Venezuelan opposition may resume in the near future. These are the first tangible developments to emerge from a March meeting between a US delegation and Venezuelan officials in Caracas, a meeting that was prompted by concerns about the Ukraine war’s effect on global oil prices. The administration is likely hoping to bring more Venezuelan oil to market to help bring those prices down.
This report, along with yesterday’s revelation that the Biden administration is relaxing some sanctions on Cuba, also comes as questions are swirling over whether the administration will invite Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to next month’s Summit of the Americas conference in Los Angeles. Several Latin American leaders have threatened to boycott that conference if those three countries are excluded, which would be embarrassing for Washington and would minimize the chances of anything substantive emerging from the event.
Speaking of which, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei announced on Tuesday that he will not be attending the Summit of the Americas event, after the Biden administration sanctioned his attorney-general. Giammattei appointed María Consuelo Porras for a second four year term on Monday. The administration regards Porras as corrupt and after news of the appointment broke it barred her from traveling to the United States. It’s unclear whether Giammattei’s decision will prompt any other Latin American leaders to skip the summit, but since he’s voluntarily snubbing the event rather than being excluded by the US his situation seems fundamentally different from that of the three countries mentioned above.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Nan Levinson expresses dismay at the way the US public has responded to the war in Ukraine:
I, too, find myself appalled and saddened by the situation and frightened by the looming dangers. I, too, want to meet the needs of those more than six million refugees. And I, too, am susceptible to the way both Washington and the media are playing on my sympathies: the child with contact information written on her back in case she gets lost as her family flees Kyiv; President Zelensky in that hoodie resolutely staying put; and besieged Ukrainian soldiers flipping off Russian demands to surrender.
After all, this mix of horror and heroism catches what war is, not the gauzy all-American version with supposedly super-accurate, super-bloodless drones and those celebratory homecomings Americans were fed for 20 years. The extensive and vivid reporting on the nightmarish nature of the war in Ukraine has certainly helped bolster NATO’s sense of purpose and common cause, even as it’s drawn our fractured country closer together on at least one issue.
So why am I complaining?
I just wish our compassion had been more capacious and had kicked in for the Afghans and Iraqis when our military invaded their countries, bombed their cities, and terrorized their people. I wanted Americans to pay attention then because I held out hope that public pressure could end those wars much sooner. I wanted American feelings of empathy for the terrorized to translate into the gift of peace, and now, I want some of our resources to be made available to rebuild the places and lives we destroyed in those countries over so many years.
Instead, just as in the previous two decades, America’s involvement in war, this time with Russia, is above all a bonanza for war profiteers and our military-industrial-congressional complex.