World roundup: November 11-13 2022
Stories from the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
November 11, 1918: Marshal Józef Piłsudski becomes Chief of State of the first Polish nation to have existed since Austria, Prussia, and Russia carved up the previous one in the “Third Partition” in 1795. The German and Austrian governments had formed a Polish Regency Council the previous year, and with Germany defeated, Austria-Hungary defeated and disintegrating, and Russia in chaos following its 1917 revolution, the council availed itself of the opportunity to declare independence in October 1918. But it’s Piłsudski’s appointment that’s considered the foundation of the modern Polish state and it’s therefore this date that’s commemorated every year as Polish Independence Day.
November 12, 1893: Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan agrees to accept the boundary drawn by British Foreign Secretary for India Sir Mortimer Durand as the new border between Afghanistan and British South Asia. The Durand Line, which ran through the traditional homelands of both the Pashtun and the Baluch peoples, has for better or worse (usually worse) remained the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the present day.
November 12, 1942: The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal begins. The battle ended three days later with a decisive US victory over Imperial Japan that ensured the Japanese would be unable to provide significant support to their soldiers on Guadalcanal itself. It thus marks a decisive turning point in the Guadalcanal Campaign and, at least for some historians, marks the overall turning point in World War II’s Pacific Theater.
November 13, 1918: Allied forces occupy Istanbul. Under the Armistice of Mudros, the Ottoman Empire’s World War I surrender document, Allied soldiers were permitted to garrison the empire’s Bosphorus Fort. A military occupation of the entire city was something of a gray area, though the Ottomans were in no position to object. The later Treaty of Sèvres would have made Istanbul an “international city,” but the Turkish War of Independence and subsequent Treaty of Lausanne incorporated it into the new Republic of Turkey.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A new report from the group Climate Action Tracker argues that the recent flurry of investment in new sources of natural gas, spurred in large part by European anxiety over losing its steady supply of Russian gas, threatens to spew another 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere by 2030. Needless to say, if humanity does still have even a slim chance of holding planetary warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, that additional carbon will put the final nail in the proverbial coffin. Most of the problem comes in the form of new liquefied natural gas projects that might not have ever come online without the war in Ukraine. The natural gas industry continues to insist that their product is Actually clean, which is of course absurd but they have enough money to get their point across regardless.
An Israeli airstrike on the Shayrat airbase in Syria’s Homs province killed at least two people and wounded three others on Sunday. This is an interesting choice of target for the Israelis because Shayrat is used by several combatants in Syria—the Syrian military of course, Iran and its militias, and Russia. The Israelis tend to steer clear of facilities used by Russian personnel, though in this case they seem to have been careful to hit parts of Shayrat used by Iran and the militias.
An apparent bombing along Istanbul’s busy Istiklal Street left at least six people dead and 81 wounded on Sunday. There’s no indication as to responsibility and I’m not sure authorities have entirely confirmed that the blast was caused by a bomb, though they seem pretty certain that it was. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to the incident as a “treacherous attack” and “terrorism” in remarks to reporters. And just before I hit “send” on this newsletter Reuters reported that Turkish authorities have arrested a bombing suspect, which presumably means there was, in fact, a bomb.
To nobody’s surprise, Israeli President Isaac Herzog officially tapped Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government on Sunday. Netanyahu and his increasingly far right partners won this month’s snap election and should hold a 64 seat majority in the Knesset when all is said and done. Netanyahu has four weeks to form a coalition and could request another two weeks if necessary, but he shouldn’t need more than a few days given that his coalition was already formed prior to the election.
Bahraini voters headed to the polls on Saturday for the first round of their parliamentary election. Six of the 40 seats in Bahrain’s Council of Representatives were determined this week—the other 34 will be determined after the runoff round next week. Normally we’d discuss the results, but since Bahraini authorities have proscribed both of the country’s main opposition parties there’s really no point to analyzing what is effectively a rigged election.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
A new US National Intelligence Council report, whose contents were revealed on Saturday by The Washington Post, finds that the UAE has been engaged in a lengthy effort to influence US politics, capitalizing on the US government’s “reliance on campaign contributions, susceptibility to powerful lobbying firms and lax enforcement of disclosure laws intended to guard against interference by foreign governments.” The NIC doesn’t typically look at issues related to domestic US politics and it certainly isn’t in the habit of studying influence operations by governments considered friendly by establishment Washington, so this is a unique document.
Much of what the document describes is legal, like the $154 million the UAE has dropped on US lobbying firms since 2016 and the much larger chunk of change it’s invested in—uh, I mean, donated to—think tanks and universities. But some of the behavior at least verges on spying, and some of it fits into the expansive legal gray area that exists because US policymakers refuse to tighten laws about foreign influence peddling and generally also refuse to enforce those laws that do exist.
After banning women from public parks and fairgrounds in Kabul a few days ago, the Afghan government banned them from gyms and public baths over the weekend—even, apparently, gender segregated facilities. At this point it wouldn’t be surprising to learn the Taliban has banned women altogether, though the logistics of such a move might be daunting. The Taliban naturally insists that these restrictions are imposed in the best interests of women, though oddly enough women who protest them are usually arrested and beaten for their trouble.
One Pakistani border guard was killed and two others were wounded in recent days when they apparently got into a shootout with Afghan security forces at the Chaman crossing along the countries’ shared border. It’s unclear when or why this incident took place but the Pakistanis have apparently closed Chaman, which is one of the most active commercial crossing points on the border. An unconfirmed report has the Afghan personnel confronting their Pakistani counterparts about alleged mistreatment of Afghans trying to enter Pakistan, with things spiraling from there.
The Biden administration dispatched Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to India on Friday in its latest pitch to woo the Indian government not just toward the US, but away from China and Russia. The administration has been encouraging companies to shift global supply chains away from those countries, which is easier said than done when it comes to China, and the carrot in its pitch to New Delhi is that much of the global manufacturing capacity that’s now in China could move to India—provided, of course, that India makes The Right Choice when it comes to its geopolitical alignment. Getting India to separate itself from China, with which it has generally lukewarm relations, is one thing. But Indian officials haven’t shown much interest in rethinking their much closer ties to Russia, and they don’t seem all that dazzled by promises of closer economic ties with the US.
According to AFP, “residents and media” in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are accusing Myanmar soldiers of killing at least five Rakhine civilians in a retaliatory raid on Friday. That death toll may be higher, as many of the witnesses fled and may not have been in a position to comment on the full extent of the raid. The raid took place after an attack on a military convoy by the rebel Arakan Army, whose relationship with Myanmar’s ruling junta has gone from mostly cordial following last year’s coup to increasingly frayed at present.
Leaders of G20 member states (well, most of them anyway) are descending on Bali for The Gang’s big 2022 summit this week. The main event is likely to be Monday’s planned meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first face to face meeting for the principals in the New Cold War since Biden took office. Otherwise the highlight is sure to be a litany of criticism directed toward Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, which is probably why Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to skip the event and send his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.
Philippine authorities and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on Thursday night agreed on a ceasefire to end days of clashes in Basilan province in which at least ten people were killed. It’s still not clear what provoked the fighting, which each side has accused the other of starting, but there are indications it may have had to do with the government’s desire to disarm the Moro fighters, or at least more tightly regulate their possession of firearms. A “decommissioning process” established in a 2014 peace deal has not been well implemented and this latest outbreak of violence could inject some urgency into that project.
The Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front agreed on Saturday to immediately begin delivering humanitarian assistance to “all in need” in areas impacted by their recently ended (hopefully) conflict. That includes virtually everyone in the Tigray region as well as those impacted by the war in neighboring Afar and Amhara regions. The two sides agreed to end their conflict earlier this month but that agreement didn’t include plans for meeting the peace deal’s milestones, including the humanitarian component. They spent last week meeting in Kenya to try to iron out those details.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Congolese military sources told AFP on Sunday that their forces were battling M23 militia fighters in a village just 20 kilometers north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. If true that means M23 has moved about ten kilometers closer to the city since Wednesday, despite the Congolese military’s decision to employ airstrikes against the group’s fighters. The fighting apparently esalated in earnest on Friday. The East African Community bloc announced on Sunday that it will hold a “peace conference” for the eastern DRC on November 21 in Nairobi. It’s unclear who will be invited or whether Goma will still be in the Congolese government’s control by then. The EAC has deployed a multilateral peacekeeping force to the eastern DRC but there are many active armed groups in that region and it remains to be seen what role, if any, the bloc intends to play specifically in the M23 conflict.
After arriving in Indonesia for the G20 summit, Yellen suggested to reporters on Sunday that at least some US sanctions levied against Russia since the start of the Ukraine invasion would likely remain in place after a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Truly nobody could have predicted that those sanctions might take on a life of their own, beyond the war over which they were ostensibly imposed. Yellen graciously allowed that there could be some “adjustment” in the sanctions in support of a Ukrainian diplomatic effort. But based on her comments it doesn’t seem likely that Washington would be willing to lift all the sanctions, should the Ukrainians request that.
Contradicting reports from Thursday that it could still be days or even weeks before the Russian military completed its withdrawal from Kherson city, and thus until Ukrainian forces would be prepared to enter and reclaim it, the Ukrainian military moved into the city on Friday after the Russians had apparently already left. Such a quick pullout, completed just two days after the Russian military announced it, suggests that Russian forces had been quietly trickling out, or at least preparing to leave, for some time. Even so, there have been reports (denied by Moscow) of Russian soldiers drowning during a hasty retreat to the more defensible eastern side of the Dnipro River, and reports that straggling Russian soldiers have traded their uniforms for civilian clothes after being trapped in the city (or possibly with an eye toward future insurgent operations). That latter claim could prove significant if Ukrainian authorities begin arresting suspected Russian personnel.
The Ukrainian retaking of Kherson is the biggest shift in the war since Ukrainian forces were able to retake much of Kharkiv oblast back in September, and in terms of symbolic meaning this one is more humiliating for the Russians, as it involves the loss of a region Putin dramatically “annexed” in late September. Kherson is also the largest city to be taken, then lost, by the Russians during this invasion. Ukrainian authorities spent the weekend trying to restore public utilities and communications in the city as well as standing up a restored Ukrainian police force. Restoring utilities is likely to be a long-term project, though there is some urgency to establish basic services before the onset of winter. There are also reports that Ukrainian soldiers are finding evidence of Russian war crimes in recently recaptured parts of Kherson, which will probably spur a new round of Western sanctions but not much more than that.
It remains to be seen whether the Ukrainian military will try to continue offensive operations and where it might focus next, with speculation circling around a possible operation in Zaporizhzhia oblast. A pause in operations might be the likeliest scenario, as the Russian retreat creates a more natural front line and this is not a great time of year to start new military maneuvers in Ukraine. It seems unlikely that the Ukrainians would attempt to chase the Russians across the Dnipro, as a river crossing could leave them vulnerable to Russian counterattack.
Lawyer Nataša Pirc Musar has reportedly won Sunday’s Slovenian presidential runoff. With around 77 percent of the vote counted she was at just under 54 percent of the vote with first round winner and former Foreign Minister Anže Logar at a bit over 46 percent. Assuming she wins, Pirc Musar will be the first woman to serve as president in Slovenian history.
Belgian authorities are investigating the murder of a police officer in Brussels late Thursday as a potential terrorist incident. The alleged perpetrator of the knife attack, which also wounded a second officer, was apparently on some sort of extremism watch list. The suspect was shot by another police unit and taken into custody, and I don’t believe he’s been able to answer any questions as yet.
Bolivian President Luis Arce announced late Saturday that he’s ordered a new national census to be undertaken starting in March 2024. This is relevant partly because the city of Santa Cruz has been wracked by protests over the past three weeks organized by opposition groups that have been pushing for the census to take place next year. Those protests have at times turned violent, with at least four people dying and some 170 others having been injured. The opposition groups believe that a new census will add legislative seats to parts of the country they control, so they’re demanding that it be conducted well ahead of Bolivia’s 2025 general election. Arce’s government had been planning to start the count by June 2024, which the opposition sees as too late, so he’s moved the date up in an effort to reduce tensions.
The rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) announced on Thursday that it had captured two soldiers in Colombia’s Arauca state, without going into much detail. According to the Colombian military the soldiers “were traveling as civilians without the ability to defend themselves” when ELN fighters abducted them. This incident comes as the ELN is supposed to be preparing for peace talks with President Gustavo Petro’s government. It’s unclear how, or whether, the abduction will cause Petro to rethink those talks.
The Washington Post reports on the unease with which many Haitians regard a potential international military intervention:
As cholera races across Haiti, propelled in part by an escalating security crisis, the United Nations is mulling a request from Haiti’s government for “a specialized armed force” from abroad to quell the gang violence that has hindered the response and brought the nation of 11 million to the precipice of anarchy.
But the request, which has been backed by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and the Biden administration, is a divisive and delicate subject here, where the shadow of a long history of destabilizing foreign interventions, including the U.N. mission that introduced cholera, looms large.
And it’s renewing questions about accountability and redress. The United Nations in 2016 pledged $400 million in a “new approach to cholera,” but has raised only 5 percent of the sum, while drawing criticism for failing to center victims in its decisions.
Finally, at his Nonzero Newsletter Bob Wright tries to decipher the Biden administration’s real position when it comes to Ukrainian diplomacy:
This week—only two weeks after 30 progressives in Congress were shouted down for raising the subject of Ukraine peace talks—talking about peace talks became respectable. There was a flurry of reports about Biden administration officials discussing them—with each other and with Ukrainian officials. The question was what to make of it all, and answering the question called for the kind of detective skills employed by Kremlinologists during Cold War I.
First, last Saturday, there was a Washington Post report that President Zelensky—who in September decreed that peace talks are off the table so long as Putin is Russia’s president—was being encouraged by the White House to signal more openness to negotiations. This raised the question of what motivated this Biden initiative, and the two leading theories were: (1) a desire for peace; and (2) a desire to sustain the Ukrainian war effort.
According to the Post, the behind-the-scenes nudging of Zelensky is intended to ensure that Ukraine holds the “moral high ground in the eyes of its international backers”—in other words, it’s intended to ensure that weapons and other kinds of aid keep flowing to Ukraine.
So why shouldn’t we just embrace Theory #2 and be done with it? Because Biden may be playing five-dimensional chess! Some Bidenologists speculated that he really is trying to push Ukraine to negotiate, but doesn’t want influential American hawks to call him a squish—so the administration officials who leaked the story to the Post made the initiative sound like it’s just a clever way to keep the arms flowing.
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