World roundup: May 6-7 2023
Stories from Syria, South Korea, Sudan, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
May 6, 1527: A group of around 20,000 Habsburg soldiers and mercenaries, who were mutinying over not being paid, sack the city of Rome and besiege Pope Clement VII in the Castel Sant’Angelo. The city was heavily looted, and Clement was only released after agreeing to pay a ransom. Some art historians consider the sack and the devastation it entailed to mark the end of the Italian High Renaissance. It definitely marked a shift in the Catholic world. Clement and the papacy were badly weakened, and although Habsburg Emperor Charles V may have been a little embarrassed about how it happened, he was happy to take advantage, and so power shifted away from the popes and toward the emperors. Among other things this meant that the Church did not pursue the Crusade against Protestantism that Clement had favored, which helped solidify the Reformation.
May 6, 1954: British runner Roger Bannister becomes the first person to verifiably run a mile in under four minutes. That’s cool. I run a three minute mile myself, but four is really nice. Bannister’s time of 3:59.4 obviously stood as the world record, but only for about six weeks before it was broken on June 21 by Australian runner John Landy’s 3:58 mile.
May 7, 1942: The naval Battle of the Coral Sea reaches its climax, which is…mixed. The Japanese Navy won a tactical victory, sinking several heavy US vessels, including the fleet carrier USS Lexington, while losing comparatively less. But the losses Japan suffered severely curtailed its naval strength, preventing a planned invasion of Port Moresby in Papua and to the Allied victory at the Battle of Midway in June. What’s most noteworthy about this engagement is that it was the first naval battle in history in which the actual ships involved never directly fired on one another. The entire battle was fought via carrier aircraft. Needless to say this had a profound impact on naval warfare moving forward.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Arab League foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo, voted on Sunday to readmit the Syrian government to the club immediately and, seemingly, unconditionally. The decision means that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could conceivably participate in this month’s Arab League leaders summit in Riyadh. The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership after the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, but several member states have moved toward normalizing relations with Assad’s government in recent months and the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic thaw has intensified that process.
The vote was somewhat surprising, in that momentum toward Syrian readmission had seemed to slow down a bit in recent days amid objections from some Arab League members (chiefly Qatar, whose government made a point on Sunday of rejecting normalization) and a push by the Jordanian government to condition Syrian readmission on Assad’s willingness to adopt measures to speed the return of refugees to Syria and to crack down on Captagon trafficking. As I wrote above, though, there’s no indication of conditionality attached to this vote.
The Israeli government has repatriated Jordanian member of parliament Imad al-Adwan, after having arrested him two weeks ago on charges of attempting to smuggle arms and gold into the West Bank. There is, interestingly, no indication that Adwan’s arrest has damaged Israeli-Jordanian relations, which are bad but for other reasons. Jordanian authorities have apparently agreed to investigate claims that he’s made multiple smuggling trips across the border over the past year, and to prosecute him if warranted. He’s been stripped of parliamentary immunity and presumably his diplomatic passport has been seized.
Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians on Saturday during an arrest raid in a refugee camp near the West Bank city of Tulkarm. According to Israeli authorities both men were involved in a shooting near Tulkarm on Tuesday in which one Israeli settler was wounded. Hamas has identified both of them as members.
The Israeli government has quietly approved tenders for the construction of 1248 new West Bank and East Jerusalem settlement housing units. This is somewhat noteworthy in that the Israeli government supposedly agreed back in February to put any talk of new settlement construction on ice for at least the next four months. I say “somewhat,” because the chances that this Israeli government in particular would actually abide by such a thing were always pretty slim.
Iranian authorities on Saturday executed Habib Chaab, a Swedish-Iranian dual national who allegedly led the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz. That group, which seeks independence for the Arab population in southwestern Iran, claimed (then subsequently denied) responsibility for a September 2018 attack on a military parade in the city of Ahvaz that left at least 29 people dead. The Swedish government, which opposes capital punishment as a matter of policy, says it intervened to try to prevent Chaab’s execution, obviously to no avail.
Indian soldiers killed two suspected Kashmiri militants in two separate engagements on Saturday, one in the Rajouri district and another in the Kunzer district. Rajouri has been a particularly hot spot in recent days, and militants killed at least five Indian personnel there the previous day. India is hosting a G20 “working group” in Kashmir later this month to try to spur tourism and investment in the region, and consequently New Delhi has security forces there on particularly high alert.
Elsewhere, inter-communal violence appears to be continuing in the Indian state of Manipur, despite the deployment of soldiers (reportedly with “shoot on sight” orders) to that region on Thursday to, among other things, enforce a strict curfew. Local morgues say the fighting has killed at least 54 people so far, with scores more wounded, thousands displaced, and substantial amounts of property damage. Detailed information about the situation has been difficult to ascertain as the Indian government has imposed an internet blackout on Manipur ostensibly in an effort to suppress the violence. Al Jazeera has published an explainer on the fighting, which began on Wednesday when members of the Kuki tribe marched to protest an effort by the Meitei people, the largest ethnic group in the state, to obtain “scheduled tribal” status from the government. That status is meant to protect the rights of small communities and there are concerns that giving it to the relatively sizable Meitei could have adverse effects on Manipur’s current designated tribal groups.
According to The Financial Times (this Reuters piece summarizes the FT report and isn’t paywalled), European Union member states will discuss a new round of sanctions this week related to the war in Ukraine. Among the items on their agenda will be blacklisting seven Chinese companies accused of selling “dual use” products to Russia. Adopting these sanctions could be a significant step for the EU, which is clearly split internally about whether and how much it should toe the US line with respect to China policy.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio spent the weekend in South Korea, making him the first Japanese PM to visit that country in 12 years. Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol furthered their bilateral reconciliation process with a series of events that seem meant mostly to show how contrite—but notably not apologetic—Kishida is about the 20th century Japanese occupation of Korea and its attendant atrocities. This was presumably for Yoon’s benefit, as his efforts to improve ties with Japan by, for example, trying to absolve Japanese companies of reparations for said atrocities, have not been entirely popular with the South Korean public. The two leaders are trying to improve relations due to shared concerns about North Korea and under some pressure from the US to get along as part of the anti-China “New Cold War” bloc Washington is trying to build in the Indo-Pacific.
Representatives of Sudan’s warring factions, the military and the “Rapid Support Forces,” spent the weekend in the Saudi city of Jeddah in an effort to negotiate a durable ceasefire. They were joined on Sunday by United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, to discuss at least opening up humanitarian corridors to allow desperately needed aid to get into combat zones and to give civilians trapped in those zones some opportunity to evacuate. There’s no indication they made any progress on either front—certainly there’s been no sign of any reduction in the intensity of the violence in Sudan—though the conflict is at a stage where just getting the two sides to talk is itself progress.
A Nigerien military vehicle struck a landmine in the Tillabéri region on Sunday, killing seven soldiers. Islamic State is particularly active in Tillabéri though there are other jihadist groups in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso that sometimes operate in western Niger as well.
Islamic State West Africa Province fighters attacked a group of farmers in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state on Thursday, killing at least three people with another 11 still missing. Earlier in the week a group of loggers was attacked in a different part of Borno, in an incident that saw at least four people killed with 11 more still missing. Because of the location of that earlier attack Boko Haram is suspected of having been responsible.
A pro-war Russian writer named Zakhar Prilepin was the target of a car bombing outside of Moscow on Saturday that left him wounded and his driver/bodyguard dead. Russian authorities say they’ve arrested a suspect in connection with the incident, which they’re unsurprisingly blaming on the Ukrainian, UK, and US governments. A Crimean Tatar militant group called Atesh claimed responsibility for the bombing via Telegram. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has denied that Kyiv had any involvement in the incident though other Ukrainian officials have been more coy in their comments.
In news from Ukraine:
An apparent Ukrainian drone strike targeted Crimea early Sunday morning. Russian officials are claiming that at least ten Ukrainian drones were involved and have not acknowledged any damage or casualties (getting independent verification is understandably difficult). It sounds like Sunday also brought another eventful night of Russian missile strikes across Ukraine, with reports of a significant explosion in Odessa and air raid sirens going off in Kyiv.
Ukrainian army commander Oleksandr Syrskyi claimed late Sunday that Russian forces are intensifying their efforts to seize all of the city of Bakhmut ahead of Russia’s May 9 “Victory Day” celebration. Here too any independent confirmation is impossible. You may not be surprised to learn, under the circumstances, that Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has walked back the threat he made on Friday to pull his fighters out of Bakhmut due to an alleged lack of ammunition. He announced via Telegram on Sunday that the Russian military had promised to supply Wagner with “as much ammunition and weapons as we need to continue further operations.”
Elsewhere there are suggestions that Russian forces may be preparing to give some ground. Ukrainian officials are claiming (again without confirmation) that Russian authorities are evacuating civilians from the town of Enerhodar, in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia oblast. Enerhodar is near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which has been taken offline by the war but still represents a potential meltdown risk. It’s possible the Russians are anticipating a Ukrainian offensive in that area. Zaporizhzhia makes sense as a target if the Ukrainian goal is to cut the Russian “land bridge” between the Donbas and Crimea, but there’s still no indication where the Ukrainians are preparing to attack—assuming their “spring counteroffensive” is actually going to happen. The evacuation itself is potentially cause for concern, if it affects maintenance activities at the nuclear plant.
The Ukrainian military said on Saturday that its forces had successfully shot down a Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missile over Kyiv two days earlier using a US Patriot air defense battery. Here too there’s no confirmation (this is becoming a theme, sorry) but if true you can be sure the US military will be keenly interested in learning how it went down. “Hypersonic” missiles are generally thought to be too fast and too maneuverable to be intercepted by existing air defense technology, so intercepting one with a Patriot is potentially significant.
The Ukrainian and Russian governments concluded a prisoner exchange on Saturday. Full details aren’t available but the Ukrainians received at least 45 members of the Azov Battalion who were captured in Mariupol last year while the Russians received at least three captured pilots.
Caretaker Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger abruptly resigned his post on Sunday, leading President Zuzana Čaputová to select the deputy governor of Slovakia’s central bank, Ľudovít Ódor, as his replacement. Heger’s government lost a no-confidence vote in parliament in December and the country is in a holding pattern heading into a snap election in September. A number of Heger’s ministers have resigned in recent days, forcing him to quit as those posts could not be filled under an interim government.
A far-right bloc led by former presidential candidate José Antonio Kast looks set to win Sunday’s election for a new constitutional assembly. With a bit over 90 percent of the votes counted, the bloc is leading with 35.53 percent of the vote. A leftish bloc aligned with President Gabriel Boric is at 28.34 percent while the establishment center-right bloc sits at 21.2 percent with smaller centrist elements making up the rest of the group. Given that any proposed articles will require a three-fifths vote to be adopted into a new constitution this splintering of the vote suggests that gridlock may be the order of the day. If a new draft constitution does emerge it seems unlikely to differ significantly from the current Augusto Pinochet-era charter.
Finally, for The Nation Spencer Ackerman argues that the Biden administration’s plan to empty the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay without officially closing it does not go far enough:
Few of us are paying attention to Guantánamo Bay right now. But a recent United Nations report reveals that the post-9/11 forever prison is shifting into a macabre new phase: providing end-of-life care for its aging captives with its characteristic brutality. It’s a grim testament to how normalized Guantánamo is in 21st-century America.
Some will see the impending detainee deaths as Guantánamo solving the problem of itself. President Biden, to his credit, isn’t one of them. He has accelerated transfers out of Guantánamo, but his approach has a central flaw: Even if transfers could vacate the detention camp, emptying Guantánamo is not the same as closing Guantánamo. And unless the camp is permanently shuttered, it’s only a matter of time before one of Biden’s successors takes up Donald Trump’s unrealized call to fill it back up with “some bad dudes.” It could well be Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who’s about to be the first presidential candidate with Guantánamo service on his résumé.
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