World roundup: May 18 2023
Stories from Thailand, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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Today’s roundup is coming out early because I have a commitment this evening. As always, anything I miss we will cover tomorrow.
TODAY IN HISTORY
May 18, 1291: Among several other notorious Crusades anniversaries, May 18 was the date on which the city of Acre, the last Crusader state in the Levant, fell to the besieging Mamluks. It would take several more days to clear out the city, whose fall marked the end of the main Crusading movement.
May 18, 1974: The Indian military successfully detonates the country’s first nuclear weapon in a test ironically (I assume) code named “Smiling Buddha.” The test made India the world’s sixth acknowledged nuclear weapons state after the US, USSR, UK, France, and China. In reality it’s widely believed that Israel already had nuclear weapons by this point as well, but since the Israelis refuse to acknowledge their nuclear weapons program its origins remain murky.
May 18, 2009: The nearly 26 year long Sri Lankan Civil War ends with the government’s defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (AKA Tamil Tigers) rebel group. Sri Lankan authorities had declared victory on May 16 and the LTTE had acknowledged its defeat on May 17, but it was on the morning of May 18 when LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was caught and killed by government forces while attempting to flee the final LTTE-controlled enclave. The war is estimated to have killed upwards of 100,000 people in total and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Thursday lambasting the US military for anchoring warships, specifically, the destroyer USS Arleigh Burke, at Cyprus’s Limassol port. The Arleigh Burke is apparently detailed to the eastern Mediterranean to monitor Russian activity related to the war in Ukraine. Its presence at Cyprus, according to the Turks, threatens to “disrupt the balance at the expense of the Turkish Cypriot side” and also undermines Washington’s “long-standing neutral position” with respect to the Turkish Cypriot-Greek Cypriot dispute. I’m not entirely clear how it does those things any more than, say, Cyprus’s European Union membership does, but Turkey’s real objection may be to the escalation in US naval presence in the region since Russia began its invasion.
Israeli security forces reportedly opened fire on a group of Palestinians protesting near the Gaza fence on Thursday in opposition to the Israeli right’s “Flag Day” march in East Jerusalem. “Flag Day” is celebrated by Israeli settler groups and their political allies to mark the day Israeli forces seized East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. It is as you might imagine typically a very tense event, though this year it appears to have passed in East Jerusalem itself without any major incidents (which is not to suggest that it was without incident altogether). A number of the Gaza protesters were wounded but I have not seen any reports of fatalities or of any sort of response (at least not yet) from Gaza’s militant groups.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told state media on Thursday that his government “will not allow the rights of our people to be violated,” specifically in reference to water rights on the Helmand River. Raisi’s statement serves as a warning to the Afghan government not to interrupt the Helmand’s upstream water flow, which is supposed to be governed by a 1973 treaty between the two countries. Iran is overall suffering from a serious water crisis, largely fueled by climate change, and there are concerns that the Taliban may try to take more than its share of the river. Raisi wants Kabul to allow Iranian personnel to monitor the Helmand’s water levels. Relations between Iran and the Afghan Taliban have worsened somewhat since the latter regained control of Afghanistan in 2021 but they haven’t completely collapsed—though a water rights dispute could certainly move the needle in that direction.
Speaking of the Taliban, its leaders have sidelined Afghan Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, replacing him with senior Taliban official Maulvi Abdul Kabir. This may only be a temporary switch—an Afghan government statement suggested that the 78 year old Akhund has been ill of late—but speculation has run toward one of Afghan observers’ favorite topics, the possibility of Taliban factional infighting. Abdul Kabir briefly served as PM in the Taliban’s previous (1996-2001) Afghan government so he’s not a new face by any means. There’s no reason to think this switch indicates any sort of policy change.
Pakistani police are continuing to surround (“besiege,” to use the AP’s verbiage) Imran Khan’s home in Lahore, while authorities demand that he hand over the suspects in last week’s violent protests he’s allegedly harboring. They apparently gave Khan a 24 hour ultimatum to turn over these alleged fugitives, which has now come and gone. Khan insists that any violence that took place last week was caused either by security forces or by government provocateurs, not by his supporters. As to whether he’s actually harboring fugitives your guess is as good as mine, but there have been reports of police arresting individuals who have left Khan’s home so presumably they were wanted for something. There’s some possibility that this is going to end with Khan in jail again, which would undoubtedly trigger more protests.
The leader of Thailand’s Move Forward party, Pita Limjaroenrat, told reporters on Thursday that he’s in the process of forming an eight party coalition government that would control 313 seats in the 500 seat Thai House of Representatives. That still may not be enough to form a government. Assuming this coalition does come together, it still leaves Pita well short of the 376 votes he’ll need in the combined parliament (including the 250 seat, military-appointed Senate). He seems to be counting on the military to “respect” the election outcome and not block his path to government, but that may be a naïve expectation. To some degree this process may hinge on Pita’s approach to Thailand’s controversial lèse-majesté law, which criminalizes criticism of the monarchy and which opponents say is regularly invoked to stifle political dissent. Weakening (if not eliminating) that law was one of Move Forward’s key campaign commitments, but Pita may need to be somewhat flexible if he’s hoping to attract conservative support for his coalition.
Fijian officials have suspended the country’s main opposition party, Fiji First, meaning its 24 members of parliament are barred from participating in that body. The party, along with three smaller parties, apparently failed to provide “audited accounts” to government authorities. Fiji First is historically tight with the Fijian military, which has taken a…let’s call it “proactive” role in politics in the past, so this might be a situation that bears watching.
In addition to the by now ubiquitous airstrikes and clashes between Sudanese military and “Rapid Support Forces” personnel in and around Khartoum, there were also reports on Thursday of new fighting in the city of Nyala, capital of South Darfur state. Witnesses reported artillery fire so this seems to be a clash between the military and RSF rather than between local communal militias. A localized ceasefire had been in place in Nyala prior to Thursday’s events. The security situation across Sudan is continuing to deteriorate, with more reports of violence and looting in the capital of North Kordofan province, El Obeid. It’s unclear if the situation there is directly linked to the military-RSF conflict or merely enabled by it.
The death toll from Monday’s attack on three villages in North-Central Nigeria’s Plateau state has risen to at least 80, as police and local residents continue to discover more bodies. The area is still not fully secure so this recovery effort is ongoing and the death toll seems likely to rise further. Authorities seem fairly certain that the attackers were herders or former herders who have taken up banditry amid violent competition for resources with local farming communities. Police have reportedly arrested seven people in connection with the attack so far.
At least 11 villagers were killed on Wednesday in an attack authorities attributed to “armed bandit cattle rustlers” in southern Chad’s Logone Occidental region. Chadian security forces pursued the attackers and reportedly killed seven of them while arresting another eight. Chadian authorities said on Wednesday that they carried out an operation alongside security forces in the neighboring Central African Republic to deal with bandit groups that operate on both sides of the border. They claimed to have killed “dozens of thieves.” The Central African government later corroborated the collaboration, which is a rarity between two countries that often do not get along.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
A local Mai Mai militia is being blamed for an attack on a “convoy of vehicles” in Virunga National Park in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province on Thursday. At least four people were killed in the incident. The convoy reportedly included staffers from the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature. Several militant groups operate in and around the park and have attacked groups like this in the past.
Joe Biden arrived in Japan on Thursday, one day ahead of a G7 leaders summit in Hiroshima in which one of the main topics of conversation is expected to be new sanctions against Russia. There seems to be some appetite for a very splashy new round of penalties that targets Russia’s energy and tech sectors as well as beefed up penalties for anyone deemed to be enabling Russian sanctions violations, but it’s unclear whether there is internal consensus on these points. The failure of sanctions to fully cripple the Russian economy thus far may be diminishing the enthusiasm for new sanctions in some quarters.
Perhaps in an effort to pressure The Gang to go big, the Biden administration is reportedly planning to announce its own major new sanctions package on Friday. This package that will see hundreds of individuals and entities added to the US blacklist and will impose export controls on dozens of entities allegedly helping the Russian military procure key materiel. The Russian diamond sector may be targeted, though for those sanctions to work they’d need to be observed by India’s diamond sector. It just so happens that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is attending the summit in an observer capacity.
In Ukraine news:
It was apparently another busy night in terms of Russian missile strikes, which targeted Kyiv and Odessa among other places. At least one person was killed in Odessa. Ukrainian officials have been making some frankly difficult to believe claims about the effectiveness of their air defenses of late, and last night claimed to have shot down all the missiles fired at the capital. Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis went into some detail on Twitter about these outlandish claims and other aspects of the “missile defense” discussion with respect to Ukraine. As he also notes, the Ukrainians aren’t under any obligation to honestly assess the performance of their air defense units (and have good reasons to lie about it) and the Russians are using weapons that are not all that accurate, so at least some of these alleged interceptions may be Russian misfires.
The Ukrainian military claimed further gains around the city of Bakhmut on Thursday amid more reported Russian retreats. Their claims were backed up by none other than Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose continued beef with the Russian Defense Ministry has made him quite willing to accuse Russian soldiers of routing. Prigozhin still says his own fighters are advancing within Bakhmut, but if his claims that the Russians are withdrawing from Wagner’s flanks are accurate then those fighters could wind up being overextended and exposed. There’s still no indication that these Ukrainian advances are the long-awaited “spring counteroffensive”—if they were, and if the Russians were really in full rout as Prigozhin keeps claiming, the Ukrainians would probably be advancing further than they have so far—but Foreign Policy suggests that the Ukrainians may be “probing” the Russian line to find the best place to focus their offensive when it does come.
Authorities in Crimea halted rail traffic between regional capital Simferopol and the major port city of Sevastopol on Thursday, after a freight train derailed along that track. There were no casualties reported in the incident but Crimean Railway issued a statement blaming the derailment on “interference by outsiders” and that presumably means pro-Ukrainian saboteurs. There were reports of an explosion along the track as well. There have been similar derailment incidents in recent weeks in Russia’s Bryansk oblast.
According to Reuters, the US military has discovered an accounting error in which it’s overvalued US military assistance to Ukraine by perhaps $3 billion or more. Apparently it’s been valuing that assistance at the current cost to replace existing US stockpiles instead of at the lower prices the Pentagon originally paid for the items in question. This financial miracle comes as the US found itself down to its last $6 billion out of a $48 billion Ukraine aid package (military and financial) Congress allocated back in December. The revelation of the accounting oopsie means that $6 billion could actually be $9 billion or more, which would delay the Biden administration’s need to go to the Republican-led House of Representatives and ask for more Ukraine funding. I’m not sure how the Pentagon caught this goof-up but I do know that we should absolutely trust the organization that can’t pass an audit when it says it’s found a bank error in its own favor. Replacement cost is in actuality the right way to value the aid, but doing it that way would deprive Washington of this pool of found money, and what fun would that be?
Finally, The New Republic’s Casey Michel reports that the Biden administration has decided to let think tanks go back to hiding their funding sources:
At some point over the past few years, the Biden administration revoked one of the few progressive policies that Trump-era officials implemented in the effort to bring greater transparency to foreign influence in Washington. The New Republic has learned that with little fanfare, and with even less explanation, the White House has stopped requesting that American think tanks disclose funding from foreign governments. “This is not the policy of the U.S. State Department,” an agency spokesperson said last month.
The policy initially emerged in 2020, when then–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department would finally request that think tanks “disclose prominently on their websites funding they receive from foreign governments, including state-owned or state-operated subsidiary entities.” As Pompeo continued, “The unique role of think tanks in the conduct of foreign affairs makes transparency regarding foreign funding more important than ever.” He added that State Department staff would “be mindful of whether disclosure has been made.”
It was a move that didn’t generate much publicity outside of Washington but promised to provide unprecedented insight into which foreign regimes were funding American think tanks and what those regimes may have been receiving in return. But under the Biden administration, that request is no more.
Officials did not respond to further questions about when or why this policy was revoked. But it is a clear blow to those calling for greater transparency in the key policymaking vehicles in Washington—and it is a clear reprieve for think tanks reliant on these kinds of foreign funds—especially those that receive such boodle from dictatorial regimes around the world.
The Trump administration set a very low bar in general for governance in general, so in a way it’s kind of impressive to see the Biden administration finding ways to get under it.
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