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World roundup: May 24 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Colombia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 23, 1618: Two Catholic Bohemian nobles, Jaroslav Bořita of Martinice and Vilém Slavata of Chlum, are thrown out of the top floor window of the Bohemian Chancellery in Prague by a group of Protestant nobles angered over the religious policies of the Bohemian king, the future Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. Both somehow survived the 70 foot drop, but this “Defenestration of Prague” (one of three such incidents but the one most people likely mean when they talk about the Defenestration of Prague) helped trigger the Thirty Years’ War.
May 24, 1991: The military arm of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front enters the city of Asmara, securing (as it turns out) Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia and thus marking the end of the Eritrean War of Independence. May 24 is commemorated in Eritrea annually as Independence Day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Yemeni government on Tuesday announced that Egyptian authorities have cleared the way for direct flights between Sanaa and Cairo. This news comes just over a week after Sanaa’s airport saw its first commercial departure in some six years, a flight bound for Amman. Full details on the Cairo flights aren’t available but the arrangement will probably look like the Sanaa-Amman deal, meaning one round-trip flight per week.
The resumption of limited commercial flights to and from Sanaa was part of the two-month ceasefire deal Yemeni rebels and the Saudi-led, pro-government coalition struck in early April. That agreement is close to expiring and at this point it’s anybody’s guess whether it will be extended. While developments like this could help build support for an extension, the fact is that many of the ceasefire’s conditions have yet to be implemented, especially those dealing with transit across the lines between rebel- and government-held areas. Every unmet obligation from the initial ceasefire agreement can become a justification for letting it expire.
Via Twitter, Turkish journalist Ragıp Soylu offers some idea where Turkey’s apparently forthcoming military offensive will focus, which is on parts of northern Syria that are still controlled by the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces militia and from which Kurdish fighters have at times launched attacks on Turkish forces in Syria or across the border into Turkey itself. In addition to the military aspects of such an operation, he argues that Turkish officials are also looking for new Syrian enclaves in which they can relocate Syrian refugees who are currently still in Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s announcement of the planned offensive may be related to his decision to resist Finland and Sweden joining NATO. It seems reasonable to conclude that Erdoğan is seizing the opportunity to invade northern Syria again at a time when any opposition, or even criticism, from other NATO members is likely to be minimal given the leverage Turkey has over the NATO expansion process. Speaking of which, both Finland and Sweden are reportedly sending diplomatic delegations to Ankara later this week to discuss Erdoğan’s various grievances and try to address them.
Sticking with Turkey’s foreign military adventures for a moment, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that five of its soldiers were killed in clashes with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters in northern Iraq. It didn’t go into much detail beyond that. Turkey has now lost at least 17 soldiers in “Operation Claw Lock,” its latest anti-PKK operation on Iraqi soil.
An apparent Islamic State attack killed at least six Iraqi civilians in Diyala province on Monday. That’s in addition to the IS attack, which the group has now claimed, that killed at least six people in Kirkuk province. As far as I know IS hasn’t yet claimed responsibility for the Diyala attack but it’s fairly active in that province and of course has no compunctions about killing civilians.
Whatever effect this month’s Lebanese parliamentary election may have in the long run (“slightly adjusted status quo” is in the lead as far as I can tell), it’s clear the vote hasn’t done anything to arrest the country’s economic implosion in the short run. The Lebanese lira hit a new record low in value on Tuesday, trading at around 34,000 per US dollar. That beats the previous record of around 33,000/dollar set back in January. The Lebanese parliament approved an economic recovery plan on Friday in accordance with its ongoing bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund, but ambiguity about how much of a haircut large bank depositors are going to have to take may have contributed to Tuesday’s currency slide.
No less mainstream an outlet than CNN says that its own investigation points to the intentional murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli soldiers during an arrest raid in the West Bank city of Jenin earlier this month. The network says it’s found nothing to indicate that there were any Palestinian militants near Abu Akleh’s position, let alone any active shooting, which undermines claims that Israeli soldiers might have accidentally shot her in a crossfire. Instead video indicates that Israeli soldiers opened fire on a group of reporters, including Abu Akleh, as they approached an Israeli military vehicle. Audio and forensic evidence further indicates that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh came from the Israeli position and was the product a discrete, deliberately aimed shot.
Although they acknowledge that an Israeli soldier may have been responsible for killing Abu Akleh, Israeli authorities have already ruled out a criminal investigation into the shooting. It seems they decided almost immediately to rule out any possibility of an intentional killing.
According to Axios, the Biden administration is trying to broker the last leg of an agreement to transfer the Egyptian Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been trying to give those islands to the Saudis since at least 2016, largely in gratitude for Saudi economic aid though the Saudis have long claimed that they’re the rightful owners of the islands, which control the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba via the Tiran Straits. According to this claim, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud placed them Egyptian custody back in 1950 due to fears that the islands could be seized by the Israeli military. Egypt stationed military assets on the islands but agreed to demilitarize them as part of its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Sisi’s effort to give (or return) Tiran and Sanafir to the Saudis triggered a political crisis in Egypt that’s since been resolved, but there’s a holdup because under the 1979 treaty Israel has to assent before Egypt can transfer ownership.
Enter the Biden administration. It wants to mediate the final transfer agreement as a way to a) improve relations with Saudi Arabia and b) potentially broker a broader political normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would “top” (in bizzaro-world DC logic) the “success” (ditto) of the Trump administration’s “Abraham Accords” project. Israel doesn’t seem to have an objection to the transfer of ownership but there are a number of details to be worked out regarding the international monitoring operation that’s supposed to insure that the islands remain demilitarized and that Israel can continue to enjoy safe passage through the Tiran Straits. The Saudis want that monitoring effort ended so the administration is trying to negotiate an alternative that meets with everybody’s approval.
Reuters on Tuesday noted a “subtle shift” (their words) in the way Biden administration officials are talking about the revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Specifically, the administration appears to have dropped its “time is running out” talking point, which was based on the fact that parts of the original agreement are starting to approach their expiration dates. Instead the administration seems to have concluded that regardless of how much time has passed, restoring the deal is better than not restoring the deal.
Unfortunately for them, their boss, President Joe Biden, has according to Politico come to a “final decision” (again their words) not to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list. Iranian officials have made the IRGC’s delisting a condition for agreeing to revive the nuclear deal, so barring some new show of flexibility on somebody’s part it would appear the prospects for reviving the deal are nil, regardless of the time frame.
The newly formed Armenian and Azerbaijani commissions tasked with delineating the countries’ shared border held their first joint meeting on Tuesday along their internationally recognized border, which hasn’t been formally accepted by either state. This seems to have been little more than a formal introduction, with the two sides planning at least two future meetings—one in Moscow and another in Brussels.
The Afghan government announced on Tuesday that it’s signed an agreement with a UAE firm called GAAC Solutions to manage airports in Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul. Those facilities are still largely in ruins. The Qatari government previously sent assistance to repair Kabul airport enough for Afghan airlines to resume using the facility, but it remains inaccessible to foreign carriers. The Afghan government seems to think that getting these international airports back up to full functioning will mean a flood of international travel and investment. My guess is the Taliban’s recent return to form is going to scare a good deal of international business away, but the country’s mineral resources will still attract investors.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe previewed his forthcoming interim budget on Tuesday, indicating his intention to slash spending on infrastructure and public sector offices in order to divert as much money as possible into “welfare.” Some level of austerity is presumably unavoidable if Wickremesinghe is going to reach an agreement with the IMF on a bailout, as he’s been trying to do. He also suggested that Sri Lanka would be looking for emergency aid to keep the country supplied with basic needs like food, medicine, and fuel.
There’s been a new alleged leak of information regarding the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region. This leak once again features researcher Adrian Zenz, whose background raises questions about his work, but I feel it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge the story. Zenz claims that an anonymous hacker has sent him a tranche of Chinese state files that detail the extent of the Uyghur internment effort. If legitimate, this would corroborate the notion of an ratcheted up “war on terror” targeting Uyghurs, with all the abuses in terms of surveillance and internment that label might conjure up.
According to the South Korean military, North Korea fired no fewer than three ballistic missiles into the sea off of its eastern coast early Wednesday. The launch, which seems to have involved short-range weapons, sort of coincided with the end of Joe Biden’s Asia trip, which concluded with a meeting of the Quad alliance in Japan on Tuesday (see below). That said, I think we’d have to conclude that had the North Koreans wanted to disrupt that trip they could have done something more provocative, like a nuclear test or an ICBM launch.
As I said above, Tuesday’s Quad summit (involving Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and new Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese) capped off the Biden Asia trip. The Gang, who are always at pains to stress that their alliance is not anti-China in nature even though it quite clearly is, announced vague plans to invest $50 billion in infrastruture projects in the Asia-Pacific and more concrete plans for a joint maritime traffic monitoring service that would provide data, culled from commercial satellites, on shipping traffic in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Both measures are “soft power” initiatives meant to win favor with countries throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
Meanwhile, in addition to North Korea’s honorary missile barrage, the Russian and Chinese militaries—which have been conducting joint exercises in the Pacific in recent days—saw Biden off with a celebratory bomber patrol that flew close enough to both South Korea and Japan to cause both countries to scramble their own airforces.
An apparent jihadist attack on the town of Rann in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state left at least 50 people dead on Monday, according to witnesses. Those witnesses identified the attackers as “Boko Haram,” though as is often the case it’s unclear whether they were referring to the original Boko Haram, which has been floundering in recent months, or its ascendant splinter group and rival, Islamic State West Africa Province. There are still a number of people reportedly missing so the death toll may rise.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
There are reports of an attack on a Congolese military outpost near the city of Goma, capital of the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province, though details beyond that don’t appear to be available. The predominantly Tutsi M23 militia has been increasingly active in North Kivu over the past few months, and this claim of new fighting comes a day after the Rwandan government—which Congolese officials have accused of supporting M23—claimed that civilians on its side of the border had been shelled by Congolese security forces.
In news from Russia:
Border security personnel in Ukraine’s Chernihiv oblast are claiming that they see signs of a new Russian military buildup along that portion of the border. Russian forces quit Chernihiv weeks ago when they decided to refocus their war effort more narrowly on securing the Donbas and parts of southern Ukraine, but Russian artillery artillery strikes have become a daily event and that could indicate plans to reinvade the province. There are similar signs of a renewed conflict in neighboring Sumy oblast. It seems unlikely that the Russians have enough reserve forces to reinvade either or both of those provinces but the shelling alone could force the Ukrainian military to divert resources away from the Donbas to counter.
A new poll from The Associated Press and the survey research firm NORC finds indications that the US public is growing less sanguine about punishing Russia if it means economic blowback for them. The survey finds that 45 percent of US adults want the Biden administration to prioritize sanctions against Russia over the health of the US economy while 51 percent prefer the reverse. The same survey conducted last month found 51 percent prioritizing sanctions against 45 percent prioritizing the economy. These results could impose new constraints on the Biden administration, which hasn’t shown much willingness to ignore political considerations when it comes to a host of other foreign policy issues.
And in Ukraine:
Reuters reported Tuesday that Russian forces had launched what it termed an “all-out assault” to seize what remains of the Donbas and surround the Ukrainian military positioned there. Russian forces reportedly captured three towns in Donetsk oblast on Tuesday and are advancing toward the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in Luhansk oblast. Russian officials are claiming that their hitherto slow progress through the Donbas has been intentional, motivated by a desire to give civilians time to leave the warzone, rather than a consequence of Ukrainian resistance. The Ukrainian government unsurprisingly rejected that claim.
Fighting is also continuing around Ukraine’s Snake Island, in the Black Sea. The island now appears to be functioning as the de facto command “vessel” in Russia’s blockade of the remaining Ukrainian coastline, filling the same radar and air-sea defense functions that the Russian cruiser Moskva would be filling had it not been sunk weeks ago. The blockade has strangled Ukrainian shipping, with particularly negative impacts on global food supplies. The Ukrainians have been using Turkish-made Bayraktar drones to attack the island but to no discernible effect.
It looks like the Macedonian Orthodox Church is about to win recognition of its autocephalous status, a scant 55 years after declaring it. The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, announced on Tuesday that he’s prepared to recognize the Macedonian church’s separation from the Serbian church, which the Macedonians originally asserted in 1967. That should clear the way for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I to recognize the Macedonian church forthwith.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took advantage of the war in Ukraine to assume the power to govern by decree under a newly declared state of emergency on Tuesday. Orbán has assumed temporary dictatorial powers at least twice before on largely economic grounds, which was also the justification for Tuesday’s measure. Orbán’s word is already law in Hungarian politics but this just removes the formality of parliamentary approval.
Rio de Janeiro police carried out a raid in the city’s Vila Cruzeiro favela that ended with at least 21 people dead and several more injured on Tuesday. Authorities claim the police came under fire during an operation to arrest members of a local gang outside the favela, necessitating the raid and, I guess, the subsequent bloodshed. Rio police are somewhat infamous for leaving sizable body counts in their wake during these sorts of operations, leading the Brazilian Supreme Court to impose rules of conduct earlier this year. The court ordered police to begin using bodycams and other recording devices to verify their compliance with those rules, but gave the force 180 days to implement that requirement.
Leftist Gustavo Petro, considered the front runner heading into Colombia’s May 29 presidential election, is reportedly turning to a somewhat unorthodox source for security in the face of multiple death threats:
The stage was ready, surrounded by a small army of police officers, Indigenous guards and martial artists. A crowd of thousands, soaking wet from the rain, waved flags under the dark sky as they awaited the candidate vying to become Colombia’s first leftist president.
Also helping provide security to Gustavo Petro, the front-runner in the first round of the presidential election Sunday, was an unusual group of volunteers: Members of Cali’s front line, protesters at the epicenter of a massive nationwide uprising last year. Now, a year after they clashed with police, they stood beside hundreds of officers with a new mission: Protecting the candidate they saw as their only hope.
When Petro walked up, the crowd could hardly see him. He hid behind four men carrying large bulletproof shields. And as he spoke, the armor remained on either side of him, reminding those in the plaza of what it means to run for office in this South American country.
Finally, media outlets are still trying to process whether Joe Biden’s comments on the US-Taiwan relationship on Monday were a gaffe, or a policy shift, or something in between (“saying the quiet part out loud,” so to speak). At the Carnegie Endowment, Stephen Wertheim finds Biden’s comments troubling, not so much in their own right as because of what they reveal about the way Taiwan policy is trending in DC:
For decades, China has refrained from attempting to conquer Taiwan by force but has retained the threat to do so. Many analysts believe that Beijing would prefer to use gradual pressures toward “reunification” than to mount a costly and risky campaign of sudden conquest. The possibility of full-scale Chinese aggression can never be discounted, especially in light of the country’s growing military capabilities and international ambitions. One reason Beijing’s calculus could change, however, lies in Washington. If the United States appears to regard Taiwan as an irrevocable strategic asset that could never join with the mainland, then China may resort to plan B: launch an invasion out of fear that it must act now or accept that Taiwan is lost forever.
No single presidential utterance is likely to cause Chinese President Xi Jinping to make a policy decision of enormous consequence. Xi and Biden know each other from direct and continuing conversations. The People’s Liberation Army already takes seriously the possibility that the United States would intervene militarily in defense of Taiwan. So Biden’s comment, in and of itself, may have little effect.
More troubling, however, is the larger policy drift in Washington to which the gaffe contributes. Over the past few years, members of Congress have increasingly called for strategic clarity about using force to defend Taiwan and have promoted other steps to restore the appearance of diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei. Under Donald Trump’s administration, the United States loosened restrictions on high-level contacts with Taiwanese officials, and the Biden administration has issued new guidelines to reflect “our deepening unofficial relationship.” Most important, these measures have accompanied the growing hostility across U.S.-China relations, as the world’s two leading countries engage in intensifying economic, technological, and security competition.
At a minimum, then, Biden’s vow to defend Taiwan risks conveying that the United States is degrading the long-standing policies that have underpinned the bilateral relationship and preserved peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Even if Chinese officials were to accept the White House’s clarification that U.S. policy remains unchanged, they may conclude that the United States will grow only more determined to defend Taiwan as time goes on and that China’s existing threats no longer suffice to keep Taipei from drifting toward independence. In that case, China could move up its timeline for “reunification” and become more willing to risk military and economic conflict with the United States.