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World roundup: May 2 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Sudan, Russia, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
May 2, 1611: This is probably the date upon which English printer Robert Barker produced the very first edition of the King James Version of the Bible. I say “probably” because it’s the date you most often find cited for the KJV’s publication but as far as I know there’s no documentary evidence backing that up. Regardless, the KJV proved to be a monumental achievement that not only stands as probably the most important vernacular (meaning I’m excluding the Latin Vulgate) translation of the Bible but also a fundamental text in the development of the modern English language. So it’s probably worth commemorating.
May 2, 2011: Not long after midnight (local time), according to the official narrative, a team of US special forces operators raids a house in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, in the process killing al-Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden. There have been more than a few alternative theories offered about bin Laden’s death, partly to try to explain how America’s Most Wanted Man was able to spend years living in the Pakistani equivalent of West Point without our good pals in Islamabad ever finding out and/or letting us know. The official story has relevance, since it’s the version of events most people believe. Anyway, the good news is that we all lived happily every after.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A “senior Turkish official” has passed Reuters some details surrounding the still-unconfirmed death of Islamic State leader Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurayshi in a Turkish intelligence operation in Syria over the weekend. The main one seems to be that the erstwhile “caliph” blew himself up with a suicide vest, which is not terribly surprising in that I believe each of his predecessors has (allegedly) gone out the same way. Assuming Qurayshi is dead IS will presumably appoint a new “caliph” at some point, though the group may be running out of potential heirs.
The US and Turkish governments collaborated on Tuesday to sanction alleged “financial facilitators” working for two Syrian jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Katibat al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad. The latter operates under HTS’s umbrella in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province but is composed primarily of Uzbek nationals and has carried out attacks in Russia and Central Asia. The US Treasury Department blacklisted both men and the Turkish government froze their Turkey-based assets.
A Palestinian man with alleged ties to Islamic Jihad, Khader Adnan, died in Israeli custody on Tuesday after an 87 day hunger strike. The announcement of his death prompted a round of rocket fire out of Gaza, which drew an Israeli military response that in turn provoked a second, larger round of rocket fire as well as a small barrage of mortar fire. The Israeli military retaliated for that second round with airstrikes late Tuesday night, but the two sides then agreed to a ceasefire that went into effect early Wednesday morning. Adnan’s death—Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh characterized it as a “deliberate assassination”—also sparked a general strike in the West Bank and protests across the Occupied Territories. Also on Tuesday, a group affiliated with al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade shot at a group of Israeli settlers near the West Bank city of Tulkarm, wounding at least one of them. This incident may have been directly connected with Adnan’s death but it’s not clear.
Two people were killed on Tuesday in an explosion at an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps facility near the Iranian city of Damghan. There’s some reason to think the blast was accidental, involving ammunition stored at the facility, but Iranian authorities are investigating.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says it’s starting to reinstall monitoring cameras at key Iranian nuclear sites. Iranian authorities removed those devices last year and had previously stopped sharing their data with the IAEA, in both cases having done so in response to the US decision to scrap the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The IAEA and Iranian officials negotiated a partial resolution to their dispute earlier this year, but the two parties have expressed different interpretations of what that resolution entails and so it is unclear, for example, whether the IAEA will actually have access to these reinstalled cameras or to the information they collect.
Human Rights Watch published a new report on Tuesday accusing security forces in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan of intentionally targeting civilians during their multi-day border clash back in mid-September. The accusations include evidence that Tajik forces assisted a mob of irregular fighters that attempted to clear Kyrgyz civilians from a disputed border region and that Kyrgyz forces targeted a public square in a Tajik village while civilians were present. The two countries have never fully demarcated their border, which was poorly defined and complicated by the creation of several enclaves during the Soviet period. This has led to periodic violence, each instance of which makes it harder to negotiate some sort of border accord.
The United Nations’ “Let’s Talk About Afghanistan Without Any Afghans” conference wrapped up in Doha on Tuesday with no apparent consensus on anything other than having another conference at a yet to be determined date. UN Secretary-General Antònio Guterres offered a rebuke to Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government for its “unprecedented, systemic attacks on women and girls’ rights,” but nobody seems to have any idea what do. Isolating and sanctioning the Taliban hasn’t accomplished anything other than the further immiseration of the Afghan people, including women and girls. But diplomatic recognition and/or economic engagement won’t improve the status of Afghan women and girls either, except inasmuch as it might alleviate some overall suffering.
Pakistani security forces killed at least three militants and wounded two others on Sunday in raids against two “hideouts” in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. These were presumably Pakistani Taliban facilities though that’s not entirely clear from the reporting. In a third operation in the same province on Sunday security forces arrested seven Pakistani Taliban fighters.
The International Crisis Group warns that the peace process in the southern Philippines Bangsamoro region is in trouble:
Almost ten years after the parties signed the peace deal, several issues are putting the transition it envisaged at risk. For one, violence is flaring up in the region. Some of these skirmishes, especially in central Mindanao, can be traced to conflicts over land and politics between and among [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] members and militias controlled by powerful clans. That is not exclusively the case, however: the ceasefire between the government and MILF suffered a serious breach in November, when a clash in Basilan province resulted in the death of ten soldiers and MILF members. Meanwhile, although the interim governing authority in Bangsamoro has made headway in leading the war-scarred region toward greater peace and development, it has not passed major legislation required to complete the transition – including rules for local governance and procedures for revenue collection.
There have also been delays in normalisation, particularly in reintegrating rebels and allowing for economic development in the Bangsamoro. For example, some former MILF fighters have not received the socio-economic assistance packages the government pledged to give them. The Philippine military and the MILF are also not in full agreement about how many weapons the ex-rebels should hand over. Another difficult point is “camp transformation” – ie, the process of turning erstwhile MILF-controlled areas into peaceful communities integrated into economic and civic life. Much of the Bangsamoro is economically depressed, and the MILF camps need significant support in order to develop. The normalisation program aims to get them that assistance. For now, however, the effort is sputtering, due partly to slow implementation but also to political realities. There are also concerns about development happening at the expense of Indigenous communities.
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Tuesday that the State Department will open an embassy in Tonga sometime this month. This is another in a growing string of embassy openings designed to increase the US diplomatic presence in a region that lies on the “front line” of the “New Cold War” with China. The US has already reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands and is negotiating details about opening new embassies in Kiribati and Vanuatu.
The Sudanese military and the rival “Rapid Support Forces” group agreed on Tuesday to extend their largely aspirational ceasefire for at least another seven days, from Thursday through May 11, according to an announcement from the South Sudanese Foreign Ministry. Both sides have also reportedly agreed in principle to participate in peace talks, though no talks are yet scheduled and neither side seems prepared to negotiate without some (unspecified) preconditions. The extended duration of this new ceasefire could create more space for relief agencies to operate in Sudan and/or for civilians to evacuate combat zones. But that of course assumes that the two sides will actually honor these ceasefires, something neither has done yet. There were continued reports of fighting on Tuesday, despite the current ceasefire.
The Ugandan parliament on Tuesday passed a new version of its draconian anti-LGBTQ+ bill at the behest of President Yoweri Museveni. The new version is slightly toned down from the previous one, though it retains the harshest penalties for certain activities including potential death sentences for something called “aggravated homosexuality.” Museveni had asked for the legislation to be redrafted to allow for the possibility of “rehabilitating” LGBTQ+ individuals. The new draft also clarifies that it’s not a crime to simply be LGBTQ+, so that’s something I guess. It remains to be seen whether this new version will meet with Museveni’s approval.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Allied Democratic Forces fighters attacked a village in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province late Monday, killing at least six people. The death toll may rise as authorities search the surrounding area for bodies.
Another freight train derailed after an explosion on the tracks in Russia’s Bryansk oblast on Tuesday, in another apparent instance of pro-Ukraine sabotage. As with Monday’s incident there do not appear to have been any casualties. Bryansk Governor Alexander Bogomaz also claimed via Telegram that the Ukrainian military shelled a village in that region on Tuesday morning, also without casualties.
There are other questions to ask, however. Notably, the Post failed to probe whether U.S. officials might be exaggerating the threat from Wagner to Chad, or to Africa more generally. It is true that Wagner has aggressively and sometimes quite effectively inserted itself into multiple theaters on the African continent, notably Mali, Libya, and the Central African Republic. And yet Wagner is not invincible — witness a recent jihadist attack on what some locals described as a Russian camp in Mali.
Even some governments that appear curious about Wagner have nevertheless tread carefully, well aware of the group’s noxious reputation; it remains unclear, for example, whether Burkina Faso’s most recent crop of military rulers plan to invite in the mercenary force or not, even after more than a year of rumors to that effect.
There is a marked tendency in Washington to overstate Wagner’s role in conflicts. For example, as a tragic and terrifying war has erupted in Sudan since April 15, pitting the country’s military against a powerful paramilitary force, breathless reports have suggested that Wagner is a major element in the conflict. Yet some of the foremost experts on Sudan and neighboring Libya (the provenance of some of the alleged Wagner involvement) have cast doubt on the idea that Wagner is the main story, or even that there is solid evidence for specific claims about Wagner’s actions.
The US will reportedly unveil another $300 million tranche of military aid for Ukraine in the next few days. The headline of this package seems to be a supply of Hydra 70 air-launched rockets, which could be mounted on Ukrainian aircraft to provide cover for, say, a large-scale ground offensive. The package also may include new howitzers and several types of ammunition.
The Colombian government and National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels began their third round of peace talks in Cuba on Tuesday with most attention being focused on the possibility of a ceasefire. Both parties have expressed a desire to reach a ceasefire agreement, but if they don’t get one in their third go-round I think it’s fair to wonder whether these talks are actually making much progress. A ceasefire is relatively low hanging fruit compared with the next step in the process, negotiating a full-fledged peace deal.
A new poll from Prensa Libre puts businessman Carlos Pineda atop the field heading into Guatemala’s June 25 presidential election. The survey has Pineda at 23.1 percent support, narrowly ahead of former Guatemalan first lady Sandra Torres at 19.5 percent. Other recent polls have put Zury Ríos and Edmond Mulet in the mix, and while neither did especially well in this survey it seems pretty clear that this is a fairly open race at this point. Certainly it seems unlikely that any candidate is going to be able to win an outright first round victory, which means lucky duck Guatemalan voters can look forward to an August 20 runoff.
At Forever Wars, Spencer Ackerman reports on the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s call for the United States to release torture victim Abu Zubaydah:
The report, reiterating an earlier finding by a different U.N. body, dismisses American claims of the lawfulness of Abu Zubaydah's detention as "speculative and unsubstantiated." In August 2006, the U.S. quietly abandoned its assertion that Abu Zubaydah was ever a member of al-Qaeda, an organization to whom the Authorization to Use Military Force applies, let alone the "number three" figure in the organization, as the Bush administration had claimed. The very next month, it shipped him to Guantanamo Bay, where he's been ever since.
I've written so much over the years—decades, now—about Abu Zubaydah's torture that I don't really want to detail it yet again. This is a person tortured so extensively that, the 2014 Senate torture report records, he would lay down on the waterboard when one of his torturers snapped their fingers twice. The CIA medical "support" branch, complicit in the post-9/11 torture program, concluded that "in retrospect" Abu Zubaydah would probably have cooperated with his interrogators pre-torture. If you still want the snapshot version of what they did to Abu Zubaydah after reading this paragraph, read this piece of mine.
"This is a really important judgment for our client, but a really important decision beyond that. It's a reminder of the complete lawlessness of Guantanamo and Abu Zubaydah's situation in particular," said Helen Duffy, the international human-rights attorney who brought Abu Zubaydah's case to the Working Group. "It's important that [the U.N. Working Group] makes clear that the only appropriate legal remedy for Abu Zubaydah is immediate release [and] that there's no possibility of a fair trial for him at this point. Beyond that, for other detainees as well, the continued existance of Guantanamo is itself described as being arbitrary, as amounting to torture and even forced disappearance. It's a really profound indictment of where we are."
The Working Group’s report notes that its findings with respect to Abu Zubaydah also apply to other US detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and goes so far as to suggest that their treatment “may constitute crimes against humanity.” The United States is above international law and so there’s nothing in this report, including the call for Abu Zubaydah’s release and compensation for his imprisonment, that’s enforceable. But it’s still surprising to see an international body use that terminology with respect to US actions.
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