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World roundup: May 8-9 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY (AND YESTERDAY) IN HISTORY
May 8, 1429: The Siege of Orléans ends with the withdrawal of the besieging English forces and, therefore, a French victory. This siege was the first victory by the French army under the leadership of Joan of Arc and helped reverse French fortunes in the Hundred Years’ War. It was not a devastating defeat for the English army, but had the English army captured Orléans it likely would have been able to conquer all of France so the victory prevented a total French defeat. The ensuing Loire Campaign was more decisive, opening up the city of Reims to the French army and giving the French Dauphin Charles the legitimacy to have himself crowned King Charles VII.
May 8, 1945: The German high command in Berlin signs its instrument of unconditional surrender, providing for the withdrawal and disarmament of the German military and the ouster of the Nazi-led government and ending World War II in Europe. Because the instrument was signed late into the evening, and thanks to the wonder of time zones, Victory in Europe, or “V-E,” Day is celebrated on May 8 in points west of Berlin and on May 9 in most points east of Berlin, like Russia and Israel.
May 9, 1271: Lord Edward, Duke of Gascony—the future King Edward I of England, AKA “Edward Longshanks”—lands at Acre to begin what historians now regard as the Ninth Crusade. Edward’s Crusader army was far too small to make any serious gains, in part because the French army that was supposed to join him was wiped out besieging Tunis. But with some assistance from the neighboring Mongolian Ilkhanate he was able to win a number of small victories against Mamluk forces that prevented Sultan Baybars from eradicating the Crusader presence in the region. Admittedly this only bought the Crusaders another couple of decades—Acre, the last Crusader state in the Levant, fell to the Mamluks in 1291—but as Crusades go that counts as a success.
May 9, 1865: US President Andrew Johnson issues a proclamation declaring that the Confederacy’s armed resistance was “virtually” over and obliging any countries or ships at sea that were harboring Confederate fugitives to turn them over to authorities. There were still small rebel units in the field, so the fighting wasn’t completely at an end, but this date is frequently cited as the formal conclusion of the US Civil War.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
US Central Command is looking into reports that its May 3 airstrike in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province killed a civilian and not, as it initially claimed, “a senior Al Qaeda leader.” Syrian Civil Defense, AKA the “White Helmets,” said at the time that the strike had killed a local shepherd. It seems they’re both talking about the same individual, as the victim’s family is publicly denying allegations that he was involved in al-Qaeda. CENTCOM issued a statement on Tuesday that, highlighting the US military’s impressive capacity for gibberish, said in part that “we are aware of the allegations of a civilian casualty and the outcome of the confirmation process will inform if further investigation is necessary and how it should proceed.”
Elsewhere, the Jordanian military was apparently responsible for airstrikes on Monday that damaged a drug manufacturing facility in southern Syria’s Daraa province and killed an alleged drug trafficker in neighboring Suwayda province. Jordanian officials to my knowledge have refused to confirm their involvement. Interestingly the facility, which is reportedly linked to Hezbollah, was abandoned at the time of the strike. I’m not saying that Bashar al-Assad’s government enabled these airstrikes as part of some kind of backroom deal to crack down on drug trafficking in return for its readmission to the Arab League. But I’m also not not saying that.
In Turkish election news:
A record percentage of Turkish expats have participated in this year’s general election, with officials reporting some 1.76 million absentee ballots cast out of 3.5 million expat voters for a participation rate of around 51 percent. By comparison, about 45 percent of Turkish expats voted in 2018. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won 60 percent of that vote, but it’s hard to predict how six years and a significant increase in participation might affect that result.
There seems to be some concern that third party candidate Muharrem İnce could split the opposition vote in the May 14 presidential first round and thereby throw the election to Erdoğan. İnce polls in the single digits but he does tap into some demographics that are overall good for main opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Still, I’m not sure this is all that big a deal. For one thing there’s no guarantee that İnce’s voters would necessarily go for Kılıçdaroğlu (or, indeed, vote at all) were their candidate not on the ballot. For another, while it’s possible that İnce could prevent Kılıçdaroğlu from winning a first round victory it’s also possible that his supporters could broaden the electorate enough to prevent Erdoğan from doing the same, which would give Kılıçdaroğlu a chance to unseat the incumbent in a head-to-head runoff.
The opposition’s biggest concern, of course, is that Erdoğan is going to steal the election or, barring that, simply refuse to accept any defeat. He and his supporters are already violating the “fair” part of “free and fair elections” by, for example, trying to stone prominent opposition politicians at political rallies. Media coverage is overwhelmingly tilted in Erdoğan’s favor and “disinformation” laws have been wielded to stifle opposition campaigning via social media. Despite this, and despite Erdoğan’s theoretical control over Turkish election authorities, Gönül Tol and Ali Yaycıoğlu make the case that Erdoğan could really lose this election in a new Foreign Policy piece.
The Israeli military spent Tuesday bombarding Gaza in an attempt to take out senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders and, apparently, their families too. Pre-dawn airstrikes killed three PIJ officials along with ten other people, including four children. Another airstrike on Tuesday afternoon killed two more people, their identities unknown at time of writing. An Israeli military spokesperson stressed that the IDF “takes all feasible precautions to mitigate harm to civilians,” which is a fascinating statement to make after you’ve just made four kids into collateral damage in a decapitation operation.
There’s been no military response from PIJ or Hamas as yet but both groups have suggested that one could be forthcoming, which means the Israeli government may have just triggered another Gaza war in which many more civilians (many of those children) will presumably be killed. But the good news is that National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, last seen ridiculing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not killing enough people in Gaza and threatening to quit Netanyahu’s coalition because of it, is now back in the fold. I’m sure those four children would be pleased to know their sacrifice has brought the Israeli government back from the brink of collapse. It’s also knocked Ben-Gvir’s most recent international humiliation out of the news, so that’s a win-win if you ignore the body count.
The Saudi and Syrian governments announced on Tuesday that they’ve agreed to reopen their respective embassies. Reuters reported that this was in the cards in late March, part of the overall Arab normalization with Assad’s government and the normalization between the Saudis and Iran. It’s unclear when exactly the embassies are expected to be up and running again.
According to the United Nations, Iranian authorities have executed 209 people so far this year, an astonishing pace of more than 10 executions per week. By comparison, Iran is believed to have executed somewhere around 314 people all of last year. Most of these executions appear to be for drug-related crimes.
Pakistani authorities finally made good on their threat to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday, sparking protests across the country that in some instances involved violent encounters with security forces. The charge, ostensibly, is corruption, or more specifically Khan’s failure to appear in court to answer charges that he illicitly received some $24.7 million in land from a corrupt property developer while PM. There are other details involving a UK money laundering case and Khan’s handling of related funds but the main point is that he’s been facing legal jeopardy for some time now. Khan’s real offense is running afoul of Pakistan’s security establishment and of publicly criticizing said establishment in the lead up to this year’s general election. Khan himself has dismissed the corruption charge as politically motivated.
Following Khan’s arrest, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party asked its partisans to “shut down Pakistan,” and it seems they’ve given it their best shot. Protesters have blocked roads in several major Pakistani cities and have attacked a number of military facilities. At least one person has been killed and 12 wounded in unclear circumstances and authorities have imposed internet blackouts. I’ve seen discussions online about the possibility of nationwide martial law (authorities in three of the country’s four provinces have imposed some restrictions on public gatherings) but no indication as yet that it’s been imposed. It’s unclear (partly due to the blackouts) just how heavy handed security forces have been thus far in their response to the demonstrations but this situation has the potential to spin out of control very quickly.
The situation seems to be a bit more under control in the Indian state of Maripur, where inter-communal violence has killed at least 62 people and displaced some 35,000 since last Wednesday. A local curfew apparently kicked in over the weekend and authorities are now starting to bring some of those displaced persons back home.
Human Rights Watch is now accusing Myanmar’s military of using a thermobaric bomb in last month’s airstrike in Sagaing region. The strike targeted a ceremony for the opening of an anti-junta “People’s Defense Forces” militia office and killed at least 168 people, at least 40 of them children. The use of a thermobaric, or “fuel-air,” device would explain the high casualty rate.
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met US ambassador Nicholas Burns in Beijing on Monday, after which both mouthed some predictable platitudes about stabilizing US-Chinese relations. The words are less relevant than the meeting itself, which comes after members of the Biden administration had been complaining for weeks—since the Chinese Balloon Of Death saga—that Chinese officials wouldn’t take their calls. If this meeting signals an end to that communications blackout then that’s a positive development.
The UN now says that at least 604 people have been killed and over 5100 wounded since the Sudanese military and the “Rapid Support Forces” unit went to war with one another on April 15. It’s hard to know whether these figures are accurate let alone to identify the casualties, but the Sudanese Doctors’ Syndicate said on Monday that it’s confirmed 487 civilian deaths thus far. Almost 700,000 people have now been displaced by the conflict, which shows no sign of abating though negotiations between the two parties are continuing in Saudi Arabia. The focus there seems to be on achieving a basic commitment to allowing humanitarian relief to get to people who need it, though even that may be too ambitious. Sudanese military commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is insisting that all RSF forces vacate Khartoum before he’ll be willing to negotiate a real ceasefire, and there’s no indication the RSF is prepared to go along with that stipulation.
Conflict between the Hausa and Nuba communities in southern Sudan’s White Nile state has reportedly left at least 16 people dead since Sunday. There’s no indication as to what started the fighting and no reason to think it’s connected with the military-RSF conflict. But the fact that whatever passed for order and security in Sudan is now gone could contribute to more outbreaks of inter-communal violence and make it much harder to get a handle on those outbreaks if/when they occur.
At least four people, including the attacker, were killed Tuesday in a shooting targeting Africa’s oldest synagogue, the El Ghriba Synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The attacker was apparently a security guard at a nearby Tunisian National Guard base. He killed two visitors to the site and a police officer, while wounding nine other people, before being killed by security forces. There’s no known motive as yet, though the synagogue has been the target of attacks in the past.
UPDATE: The death toll now stands at six, including a second police officer and another guard from the base who was apparently the shooter’s first victim.
According to Niger’s national radio station, Voix du Sahel, some 13,000 people have fled jihadist violence in southwestern Niger’s Tillabéri region since Saturday. Militants attacked a village that day, killing at least four people. Since then residents of a number of isolated islands in the Niger River have sought refuge in the town of Ayorou. AFP’s report suggests there may be some sort of ethnic component to the violence, possibly fueled by jihadists. Islamic State is particularly active in Tillabéri.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Inter-communal violence claimed the lives of nine people on Sunday in the DRC’s Mai-Ndombe province, not far from Kinshasa. The Teke and Yaka communities in that area are battling primarily over land rights, a conflict that Human Rights Watch says has killed over 300 people and displaced more than 50,000 since June. Sunday’s attack appears to have been carried out by a Yaka militia.
The British government is reportedly set to designate Russia’s Wagner Group private military firm as a terrorist organization. The designation would outlaw Wagner in the UK and open up potential sanctions against the organization. Wagner is already under UK, as well as European Union and US, sanctions, and earlier this year was designated as a “transnational criminal organization” by the US. The EU may be next to consider slapping the “terrorist” label on the group.
Elsewhere, Russian President Vladimir Putin marked “Victory Day” on Tuesday with a meager military parade (as you might imagine most of Russia’s military equipment is otherwise occupied at the moment) and an angry speech in which, as he’s done repeatedly over the last year-plus, he attempted to cast his invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war against Western aggression. There was nothing particularly notable about the event except possibly for the lack of hardware available for the parade.
In Ukraine news:
The Russian military commemorated the day with another overnight missile barrage targeting primarily Kyiv. Ukrainian officials claimed that their air defenses intercepted most of the Russian projectiles. The previous day also saw a robust Russian bombardment that hit scores of targets across Ukraine, including a Red Cross humanitarian facility in Odessa, and killed at least four people.
Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is once again complaining about mistreatment by the Russian military. After seemingly patching things up over the weekend, on Tuesday he released an audio message reiterating his claim that the Russian military is not providing his fighters with the ammunition they need and said that he’d been warned against pulling Wagner out of Bakhmut (as he’d previously threatened to do) as such a move would “be regarded as treason against the motherland.”
Russian authorities have reportedly suspended operations at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant over threats of Ukrainian “provocations.” It’s unclear what that means, but fears of a Russian withdrawal from the plant, abandoning what is still a very dangerous site, are growing.
The US is preparing another $1.2 billion tranche of military aid for Ukraine, this time in the form of funds that would be used to make direct purchases from defense firms. The money (assuming none of it gets siphoned off somehow) will likely go toward ammunition and satellite imagery. The UK government, meanwhile, is reportedly leading a European group requesting procurement bids from arms manufacturers to provide Ukraine with long-range (up to 300 kilometers) armaments. Ukrainian officials have been asking for longer range munitions for months now but the US has rebuffed those demands, presumably due to fears that they could be used to strike targets well inside Russia and thus potentially escalate the war.
Sunday’s conservative victory in Chile’s constitutional assembly election looks close to complete, as the far-right Republican ticket emerged with at least 23 seats and the center-right bloc with 11. The left of center coalition supported by Chilean President Gabriel Boric emerged with 16 seats, which means it won’t be able to block any constitutional initiative that has right-wing and center-right consensus (proposals for the new constitution will require a three-fifths majority in the 50 seat assembly to be adopted). Any proposed constitution that comes out of this body is likely to be indistinguishable from Chile’s current charter, if not more conservative in some ways.
Ecuador’s National Assembly voted on Tuesday to open an impeachment trial against President Guillermo Lasso on corruption charges, even though investigators for its oversight committee had issued a report last week recommending against such a step. Lasso has threatened to dissolve the legislature and move to a snap election if he’s threatened with removal from office. Tuesday’s vote saw 88 legislators agree to open the trial, just four shy of the number that would be needed to remove Lasso, with 21 legislators absent.
According to the UN, over 600 people were killed by gang violence in Haiti last month. Gang activity has grown increasingly out of control since former President Jovenal Moïse’s assassination in July 2021. The UN continues to push for an armed international intervention, despite the at-best checkered history of such operations from the Haitian perspective.
The Canadian government on Monday expelled a Toronto-based Chinese diplomat named Zhao Wei, amid allegations that he’d been involved in an effort to intimidate a Canadian politician who’s been critical of the Chinese government. The Chinese government retaliated on Tuesday by expelling a Canadian staffer who’d been working at that country’s Shanghai consulate.
Finally, at the Alameda Institute Daniel Bessner links the US interest in Ukraine to Washington’s fears about its precious “rules”:
Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency in 2017 contributed to a significant uptick in chatter in Washington, DC about the decline of the ‘rules-based international order’. The just-so story told by those who valorise such an order goes as follows: after World War II, the United States, in concert with Western European allies, constructed an international system in which liberal norms of engagement and exchange, and institutions like international law and the United Nations, helped end major wars and ensure (relative) geopolitical stability. Though those who promote this tale often admit that mistakes were made in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods—the Korean, Vietnam, and Iraq Wars are usually highlighted as especially egregious errors—they nevertheless claim that, on balance, the rules-based international order proved a force for good in the world.
Trump’s victory took the wind out of the sails of this triumphalist narrative. The reality star’s willingness to openly criticise his forebears’ launching of endless wars; his vulgarity and xenophobia; and his discursive insouciance toward traditional US ideas about global power and responsibility, generated an almost hysterical panic among defenders of the liberal order. Trump, it seemed to many, was a harbinger of US hegemony’s end, or at least its attenuation. These anxieties were also held by US allies, especially in Western Europe, who likewise fretted about the end of the era of US ‘leadership.’
When President Joseph R. Biden assumed office in 2021, his primary foreign policy goal was to reinvigorate the rules-based order by persuading allies that the United States was committed to reinvigorating its ‘leadership.’ The war in Ukraine provided Biden, Blinken, and other key members of the administration with a seemingly ideal opportunity to show the world that the United States wasn’t going anywhere. Unsurprisingly, the administration seized this opportunity with aplomb.
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