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World roundup: May 19 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS 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.
May 19, 1919: The Turkish War of Independence begins.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 59.1 million people were catalogued as “internally displaced” by either conflict or natural disaster in 2021, the highest that figure has ever been. Of those, 38 million were newly displaced last year, the second highest figure of new displacements after…2020, so humanity is really on a roll here. The number of new displacements due to combat rose to 14.4 million, substantially higher than in 2020, and with the Ukraine war causing displacement on a massive scale 2022 looks like it may exceed that figure. People who are internally displaced are often harder to track than those who are externally displaced (i.e., refugees), but their plights can be just as serious.
The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Organization reported Thursday that a “sailing vessel” came under attack off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast. Nothing appears to have come of the incident and there’s no indication as to who the attackers were, but given that Yemen is currently approaching the end of a two-month ceasefire any incident like this is going to draw attention.
The Biden administration on Thursday sanctioned a Lebanese businessperson named Ahmad Jalal Reda Abdallah, along with five associates and eight companies linked to him, over allegations that he’s been acting as a “financial facilitator” for Hezbollah.
King Abdullah of Jordan announced in an unusually nasty open letter on Thursday that he’s placing his half brother, Hamzah bin Hussein, under house arrest. Well, it’s more like palace arrest but you get the idea. Hamzah was implicated in an alleged plot to overthrow Abdullah last year, for which he allegedly issued a formal public apology earlier this year. Last month, however, he publicly announced that he was giving up his royal title in protest over the way Abdullah is running the kingdom. This seems to have been the last straw for Jordanian authorities, who are now restricting Hamzah’s movements to prevent him from acting on what Abdullah called his “delusion” of one day making himself king.
An Arab member of the Israeli Knesset from the left-wing Meretz Party, Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, announced on Thursday that she’s quitting Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition, officially leaving Bennett in control of only 59 seats in the 120 seat legislature. In announcing her departure, Zoabi cited the coalition’s “hawkish, rigid and right-wing stances regarding basic issues of utmost importance for Arab society” including police raids at al-Aqsa Mosque and the recent killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank. Although under normal circumstances the coalition’s loss of its Knesset majority might trigger a snap election, in this case there are enough parties in the broad opposition that still prefer this government to one led by official opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu that it’s unlikely they’d join Netanyahu in voting to dissolve the current government. So Bennett probably doesn’t have to worry about his job, though he will struggle to pass any sort of controversial legislation.
On the subject of the Abu Akleh killing, the Israeli military says it’s identified the gun that may have been used by one of its soldiers to shoot the reporter during an arrest raid in Jenin earlier this month. It wants Palestinian authorities to hand over the bullet that was retrieved from her body in order to do a ballistics test. The Palestinians are unlikely to turn over the bullet because they don’t trust the Israelis to conduct a fair investigation. Regardless, Israeli authorities seem to have decided that even if one of their soldiers did kill Abu Akleh, they didn’t mean to do it and therefore there’s no need to pursue a criminal investigation into the shooting.
According to CNN, the Biden administration is trying to organize a face-to-face meeting between Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, perhaps as part of a larger overseas trip by Biden next month. This would be the culmination of a months-long effort to curry favor with the de facto leader of a kingdom Biden categorized as a “pariah” when he was running for president. For most of his first year in office, Biden scrupulously refused to interact with MBS, arguing that it was only proper for him to interact with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz instead. That thinking has clearly changed. MBS has seemed intent on doing everything in his power to sink the Biden presidency, primarily by maintaining high oil prices, and rather than push back against that the administration has essentially been begging for mercy, especially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine really sent oil prices skyrocketing. Should be a fun meeting, assuming it actually does take place.
Iranian police used tear gas and in some cases live ammunition to quell protests over high food prices in cities across the country on Thursday. Unconfirmed reports are that security forces have killed at least six people during these protests, which began at low levels earlier this month but intensified last week when Iranian officials announced cuts to subsidies for basic foodstuffs like cooking oil.
The Guardian is reporting that Tajik security forces killed at least 25 people in Wednesday’s outbreak of violence in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan region. All were apparently members of the ethnic Pamiri community, suggesting that what happened on Wednesday wasn’t so much heroic Tajik security forces beating back a militant assault as another episode in a long-standing and at times very deadly ethnic conflict between the Pamiris and the Tajik government. At present the Pamiri are demanding the removal of the regional government. A group of protesters attempted to march on the center of the regional capital, Khorugh, but were met by security forces and violence ensued. Tajik authorities talked about undertaking an “anti-terror” operation in the region but they’re likely evoking the “t-word” in an attempt to justify the carnage.
A group of former Afghan warlords, led by former Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, gathered in Ankara on Tuesday and announced the formation of a new “High Council of National Resistance” to oppose Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government from exile. The council claims it isn’t seeking to overthrow the Taliban, but instead wants to talk the group into forming a broader based and less extremist Afghan government. This group includes Ahmad Wali Massoud, whose nephew Ahmad Massoud is leading the “National Resistance Front” and has allegedly been waging an insurrection against the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said on Thursday that he intends next week to lift the palm oil export ban his government imposed last month. At the time, Indonesian officials were concerned about rising prices for cooking oil, sparked largely by the war in Ukraine, and imposed the ban in an effort to ensure a domestic supply of the staple. That decision has been met with outrage by palm oil farmers suddenly forced to sell in a domestic market in which oil prices have been falling thanks to the ban. The end of the ban should nudge global cooking oil prices down a bit.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Chinese Communist Party is telling officials that they may be denied promotions if they or members of their families have large foreign asset holdings. The goal, it would seem, is to avoid having senior members of the party who are vulnerable to the kind of asset freezes Western governments have been imposing on Russian elites since the Ukraine war began. The directive also fits more broadly within Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption agenda, which doubles as a way for him to wield power over party officials.
An apparent jihadist attack on a military unit in Burkina Faso’s Est region left at least seven soldiers dead on Thursday. Separately, one civilian was killed in an attack on a passenger bus in the Sahel region. There’s been no claim of responsibility in either case as far as I know. There are active al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in Burkina Faso.
Togolese authorities say they’ve determined that 15 militants were killed during last week’s apparent jihadist attack in the Savanes region in which eight soldiers were also killed. Initial reports following the incident did not mention any casualties among the attackers.
In news from Russia:
The Biden administration is reportedly considering a major escalation in energy sanctions against Russia, one that would bring the concept of “secondary sanctions” into play. These are the sorts of measures Washington uses to pressure foreign entities and individuals to stop doing business with a targeted state, by threatening them with a loss of access to the US market and, most importantly, US financial networks. According to The New York Times the administration may impose a price cap on sales of Russian oil, with sanctions kicking in against anyone paying above that limit. The apparent thinking is that this would have limit Russian oil revenue without completely eliminating it, meaning Moscow would still be incentivized to keep the pumps going. That in turn would avoid a sudden decline in global oil supplies and would mean countries dependent on Russian oil would be able to keep buying it.
There’s been some talk recently about cajoling Russia into lifting its blockade on Ukrainian seaports for the purposes of food exports, so as to help mitigate the effect the war is having on global supplies of (and prices for) staples like wheat and cooking oil. David Beasley, director of the World Food Program (which buys a very large amount of Ukrainian grain as a rule), made this pitch directly to the Russians earlier this week. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko responded on Thursday, suggesting that opening these ports ought to be part of an effort to examine “the whole complex of reasons that caused the current food crisis.” Like, say, Western sanctions on Russia. Since I don’t think Western governments are going to be receptive to doing that, I suspect any chance of opening Ukrainian ports is probably off the table as well.
And in Ukraine:
Since Monday, more than 1730 Ukrainian fighters have surrendered at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. That figure was released earlier in the day and may already be higher by this point. There’s no indication how many combatants remain in the plant but it’s possible that some are still refusing to surrender though I haven’t seen any reports of fighting on the site since fighters began surrendering. The Red Cross has begun registering these fighters as prisoners of war, which in theory should offer them some protection under international law. But with Russian officials seemingly intent on putting Ukrainian combatants on trial—possibly to counter the Ukrainian trials of Russian POWs that are currently underway—it seems likely that at least some of those captured at Azovstal are going to find themselves facing criminal charges.
The US Senate voted Thursday to approve $40 billion in new emergency aid to Ukraine, a bit more than half of which will go toward military assistance. This package started out as a $33 billion request from the Biden administration but ballooned to $40 billion as soon as Congress got hold of it, and really the only surprising thing there is that they didn’t make it even bigger. It’s now up to Joe Biden to sign the spending measure into law, which needless to say is a foregone conclusion.
The Biden administration cleared another $100 million in military expenditures for Ukraine on Thursday, drawing on what remains of the $14 billion aid package Congress approved in March. This tranche of weapons includes new long-range howitzers and “tactical vehicles” no doubt bound for the front line in the Donbas. The new $40 billion aid package will replenish the Presidential Drawdown Authority, the budget Biden keeps tapping every time he authorizes one of these arms shipments, to the tune of $11 billion, while earmarking another $9 billion toward replenishing US weapons stockpiles that have been dwindling because of these shipments to Ukraine. That $11 billion cut will in part likely include the provision of newer and more advanced anti-ship missiles, either directly to Ukraine or to a European intermediary that would pass its own stockpiles of those missiles on to the Ukrainians. The purpose would be to break that Russian blockade I mentioned above.
The Senate also voted late Wednesday to confirm Bridget Brink as the new US ambassador to Ukraine. Brink is a career diplomat who had been serving as US ambassador to Slovakia. She’s the first US ambassador to Ukraine since Donald Trump canned Marie Yovanovitch back in 2019.
Switzerland on Thursday became the latest country to announce that it’s reopening its embassy in Kyiv. There’s been a steady stream of these reopenings since the Russian military withdrew from the Kyiv region and refocused its efforts on the Donbas.
According to Reuters, the Biden administration is preparing to re-certify that Cuba is “not cooperating fully” with the US in our glorious War on Terror. This is not the same as Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror (a status the Biden administration claims to be reviewing), but it is roughly as inexplicable and, because of the way the certification process works, the administration doesn’t have to explain its decision other than to offer some boilerplate jargon.
Hey, you want to see a funny video? Check this out:
“Iraq,” get it? It’s funny because he should be in prison.
Finally, according to The Intercept’s Sara Sirota, the next escalation in US arms shipments to Ukraine may be considerably more provocative than anti-ship missiles:
After failing to convince the Biden administration to ship NATO fighter jets to Ukraine, the military-industrial complex is now trying to coax the White House into sending what are, essentially, unmanned fighter jets to counter Russia’s invasion. Kyiv reportedly met with the major defense contractor General Atomics about obtaining the “Hunter-Killer” MQ-9 Reaper drone, armed with Hellfire missiles, which the U.S. has infamously used in botched airstrikes that killed and maimed civilians in Afghanistan, Somalia, and other countries around the world. The company and Kyiv’s allies in Washington are appealing to policymakers to greenlight the export, despite the high risk of escalation that could turn the devastating war nuclear.
Take retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the influential and General Atomics-funded Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, who penned an op-ed in Forbes advocating for the U.S. to give Ukraine Reapers in March, before Kyiv’s interest was publicly known. He blasted skeptics who voiced concern about offering Poland’s MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, saying they’re “being cowed by Putin,” the Russian president.
In a phone call with The Intercept, Deptula reiterated his hawkish stance, arguing concern about conflict escalation “is being fed by the Russians through a very sophisticated information operations campaign to deter U.S. and NATO actions to assist the Ukrainians. Anything’s fair up to, but not including, the use of NATO forces in the conduct of hostile operations against the Russians.”
Reaper drones may not be F-16s but they’re close enough that, in a situation where the US is trying to provide just enough weaponry to support Ukraine without provoking serious Russian retaliation, the fact that this is being discussed ought to prompt some pushback. On the other hand, they’d generate a lot of revenue for General Atomics.