Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: November 14 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
Friends, for family reasons and also because of my own mental exhaustion I will be taking a longer than usual break from the newsletter for this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. The newsletter will be going quiet following Thursday’s roundup and will return to our regular schedule on Tuesday, November 28. As I’ve written before here I can always tell when it’s time for me to take a bit of a break from the newsletter and the truth is we probably passed that point around three or four weeks ago so I’m running on fumes. Thanks for reading and for supporting this venture!
TODAY IN HISTORY
November 14, 1965: The Battle of Ia Drang, the first major engagement between the United States and the North Vietnamese Army, begins. It ended on November 18 with both sides claiming victory, though the NVA’s ability to fight the much better armed US Army to a draw was a boost to their morale and probably the battle’s most important effect.
November 14, 2001: Fighters with the Northern Alliance rebel coalition enter and occupy the city of Kabul, marking the end of the US war in Afghanista—just kidding. I had you going there for a second, didn’t I?
With deaths due to “extreme heat” projected to increase five-fold by 2050, according to The Lancet Countdown, you’ll no doubt be pleasantly surprised to learn that an AP investigative report shows that the “green transition plans” being formulated by most major fossil fuel companies are not green, not transitional, and not even really plans. Without any serious government pressure to force them to invest in genuinely renewable technologies, these firms are able to do things like, say, classify natural gas development as a “green” investment. That’s absurd, of course, but who’s counting?
The main problem with these plans has long been, and continues to be, the fact that fossil fuel companies exempt the products they sell when assessing their progress toward “net zero” carbon emissions. Firms only account for “Scope 1” emissions, which are their direct carbon outputs, and “Scope 2” emissions, the indirect output that results from their production process. The emissions that ensue when people burn the products they sell are considered “Scope 3” and energy firms disavow any responsibility for them. Like tobacco companies, they argue that what the customer does with their products is the customer’s business, not theirs. Maybe people just want to buy a barrel of oil and place it in their foyer as a conversation piece or put it to some other use that doesn’t emit carbon. Who’s to say?
Early Wednesday morning Israeli forces began what they called “a precise and targeted operation against Hamas in a specified area in the Shifa hospital” involving “medical teams and Arabic speakers, who have undergone specified training to prepare for this complex and sensitive environment, with the intent that no harm is caused to the civilians.” There are hundreds of patients and thousands of other people who have been trapped in the hospital by the IDF and the chances that “no harm” will come to any of them in the next several hours are probably slim. Israeli officials have been insisting that Hamas’s lair is located underneath the hospital but at this point it’s too soon to know if that’s the target or if this is a more limited operation. This is a developing story so there’s not much more I can say about it at this time.
What I can say is that the Biden administration gave a green light to this operation earlier in the day, when White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that the administration has “independent intelligence” (which is code for “we didn’t get this from the IDF”) that “Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad use some hospitals in the Gaza Strip — including Al-Shifa — and tunnels underneath them to conceal and to support their military operations and to hold hostages.” According to Kirby this intelligence shows that the militant groups have a “command and control” center in Shifa and “have stored weapons there.” Kirby insisted that that the administration was not endorsing an Israeli attack on the hospital, but anybody with ears to hear or eyes to read what he said should have no doubt as to what the intent was.
I wrote everything below prior to news of the Israeli assault breaking so some of it might no longer be relevant but I think most of it still is:
Gazan health authorities said on Tuesday that some 40 patients at Shifa—three of them babies—have died since that facility ran out of generator fuel on Saturday. Without electricity the hospital cannot maintain its incubator units and so there are now 36 newborns who are at critical risk. With the IDF surrounding the hospital it’s also become impossible to transfer the dead to a cemetery, so personnel are planning to bury some 120 bodies in a mass grave on site. Gazan officials have proposed evacuating the facility under the auspices of the Red Cross/Red Crescent and sending its remaining patients to Egypt but there had been no movement on that front at time of writing. The Israeli government has apparently offered to send the hospitals more incubators, a fascinating attempt at a humanitarian gesture that would be completely pointless because the problem isn’t the incubators, it’s the electricity.
In other news:
David Ignatius at The Washington Post reported (I use that term loosely) on Monday that “Israel and Hamas are close to a hostage deal.” With the caveat that if David Ignatius told me the sky was blue I’d glance out the window to double check, the terms he reported are that Hamas would release (or facilitate the release) of the women and children that it and other Gazan militant groups took hostage during their October 7 rampage through southern Israel. This would be done in stages and be matched by the release of Palestinian women and children being held by Israeli authorities. It would also involve a ceasefire of unspecified duration but “perhaps five days” according to Ignatius. The ceasefire could allow some time to address humanitarian issues in Gaza though I don’t know what that would entail and whatever it was would almost certainly be inadequate.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met with International Committee of the Red Cross President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger on Tuesday and later told reporters that the ICRC has had no access to the aforementioned hostages. It’s highly unlikely that the Israelis would agree to anything involving hostages without at least proof of life, so this could be a big sticking point with respect to the potential prisoner deal outlined above. Families of the hostages, meanwhile, are marching from Tel Aviv to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem to pressure him to take some action to secure the hostages’ release.
Israeli occupation forces killed at least eight Palestinians in the West Bank on Tuesday, seven of them in Tulkarm. The IDF carried out a drone strike in that city, an occurrence that’s still relatively rare in the West Bank though it’s certainly become more common over the past year and in particular the past month.
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich issued a statement on Tuesday endorsing what he laughably termed the “voluntary emigration of Gaza Arabs to countries around the world.” I guess “leave or die” is a choice, right? A couple of Israeli politicians floated this idea on Monday in a Wall Street Journal editorial that was less a serious proposal than a written middle finger to Western critics of the Israeli military campaign. That piece didn’t go into extensive detail about what a mass relocation would look like—again, it wasn’t meant as a serious proposal—but Smotrich’s intent is much easier to guess, and that’s the permanent ethnic cleansing of Gaza and the relocation of its population as far away from Israel as possible. Smotrich, whose ministerial brief also includes running the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories office, isn’t part of Netanyahu’s “war cabinet” but that doesn’t mean he’s completely lacking in influence.
The US and UK governments on Tuesday announced new sanctions targeting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad members along with a Lebanese entity that allegedly facilitates money transfers from Iran to Gazan militant groups. This is the third round of sanctions the Biden administration has imposed since October 7. Also on Tuesday, over 400 employees of the Biden administration sent a joint letter to their boss, Joe Biden, expressing opposition to the administration’s approach to the Gaza conflict.
Houthi rebels say they fired another barrage of missiles toward Israel on Tuesday. There’s no confirmation of this, though the IDF did say that its air defenses downed a single missile near Eilat that we can probably assume was of Houthi provenance. The leader of Yemen’s Houthi movement, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, delivered a speech on Tuesday pledging that his rebel fighters would continue attacking Israel. In particular, Houthi suggested that they could target Israeli commercial vessels in the Red Sea, which would certainly be an easier target for them than Israel itself.
A Turkish drone strike killed two people, both allegedly members of the Sinjar Resistance Units militia, in northern Iraq’s Nineveh province on Monday evening. The Sinjar militia was formed in 2014 with assistance from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and is still allied with that group, which makes its personnel potential targets for the Turkish military.
Elsewhere, the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court removed two members of the Iraqi parliament on Tuesday, one of whom just happened to be speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi. It’s not clear why, though another MP named Laith al-Dulaimi had reportedly sued Halbusi alleging that the speaker forged Dulaimi’s name on a resignation letter. Dulaimi was, as it happens, the other MP who had his term ended by the court (I assume that’s not a coincidence). The ruling created a potential political crisis for Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shiaʿ al-Sudani. As speaker, Halbusi was Iraq’s leading Sunni Arab politician, and his support was important to Sudani’s government. Three members of his Progress Party quit their cabinet posts after the court ruling and it remains to be seen how that will impact Sudani’s position.
Afghan Commerce Minister Haji Nooruddin Azizi apparently visited Pakistan this week, where—according to the Afghan government—he pressed Pakistani Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani on the issue of all those Afghan migrants the Pakistani government is presently deporting. Specifically it sounds like Azizi raised the issue of allowing deportees to at least take some of their money and/or possessions to Afghanistan with them. Deportees are currently arriving with nothing and are being housed in what are effectively refugee camps—leaving aside the incongruity of being a “refugee” in one’s home country—on the Afghan side of the border.
Reports on Monday only hinted at some new fighting in western Myanmar’s Chin state, but as more details are emerging the situation there sounds pretty serious. According to the Chin National Front, rebel fighters had by the end of the day seized two Myanmar military outposts and were working to seize control of the Myanmar-Indian border. According to Indian media the fighting has sent some 2000 people streaming across that border to escape. In neighboring Rakhine state, the rebel Arakan Army has also been seizing military outposts and authorities have imposed a curfew in the state capital, Sittwe, as a result. Rebel factions across Myanmar have launched new offensives in recent weeks, starting with the “1027” (for October 27) operations by the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in Shan state. Myanmar’s ruling junta is clearly struggling to mount a response.
Joe Biden told reporters on Tuesday that his main goal in meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco this week is to restore “normal” communications between their governments. In particular this would involve a return to regular military-to-military contacts, something Beijing ended in the wake of former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year. Any prospect of resuming those contacts was complicated by the fact that former Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu was under US sanction. But as he’s no longer defense minister that complication is no longer an issue.
Liberian voters turned out on Tuesday for the second round of that country’s presidential election, pitting incumbent George Weah against Joseph Boakai. Both candidates finished with just under 44 percent of the vote in last month’s first round. Such a close finish might augur poorly for the incumbent in a head to head matchup, though that’s just one of many factors that could sway this vote in either direction. Polls have closed in that contest but I have yet to see anything by way of preliminary or partial results.
Mali’s ruling junta says its security forces have seized control over the northern town of Kidal after battling with rebels in that region for several days. The Malian military and mercenary auxiliaries marched on Kidal after United Nations peacekeepers vacated the region as part of their ongoing withdrawal from Mali. Kidal has been a rebel stronghold since the initial northern Mali uprising in 2012 and government control there has been nebulous at best since then. There’s been no comment as far as I know from the rebels and it’s unclear what their disposition is at this point.
According to Addis Standard, Fano militia fighters attacked a predominantly Oromo community in Ethiopia’s Amhara region last week, killing at least 25 people and displacing some 3000 into the Oromia region. The Fano militia is still battling the Ethiopian government but Amhara paramilitary groups have also made a pastime of preying on ethnic Oromo communities (likewise, Oromo militias have preyed on ethnic Amhara). In this case they apparently demanded grain from the community and attacked after residents refused to comply.
On a more upbeat note, the US Agency for International Development is reportedly planning to resume food distribution across Ethiopia next month under a “one-year trial period.” The agency suspended its Ethiopian food program earlier this year amid allegations that the aid was being diverted. It resumed providing food aid to Ethiopian refugees last month and is now planning to spend the next year testing whether procedural changes adopted by aid groups and the Ethiopian government are enough to stop that alleged diversion. Solid data is hard to come by but it’s possible that hundreds or thousands of Ethiopians have died because of the decision (which the UN World Food Program joined) to suspend food aid.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The death toll from Sunday’s Allied Democratic Forces attack on a village in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province has risen to 33, according to provincial officials. ADF fighters are also believed to have been responsible for attacking a village in neighboring Ituri province on Tuesday, killing at least 11 people.
Vladimir Putin signed a new law on Tuesday that permits elections to be held even in parts of Russia that are under martial law. This apparently clears the way for the portions of Ukraine that Moscow claims to have annexed to participate in next year’s presidential election. The effect will be to try to stitch those regions a little more tightly to Russia and complicate any possible return to Ukrainian authority.
The European Union promised back in March to supply the Ukrainian military with 1 million 155 mm artillery shells within 12 months. You’ll never guess how that went. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told a meeting of EU defense ministers on Tuesday that the bloc isn’t going to fulfill its commitment and even went so far as to criticize the fact that it was made in the first place. The will was apparently there, but EU member states still don’t have the collective capacity to churn out that many shells that quickly. The effort has apparently sparked a boost in production capacity but not enough to meet the 12 month deadline.
Sweden’s NATO accession may be moving slightly forward, as the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee will take up the issue on Thursday. It’s been about three weeks since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan submitted Sweden’s accession to parliament and it should be clear by now that the folks in Ankara are in no particular hurry to work their way through that process. There may be some impetus on the part of other NATO members to have the issue resolved in time for the alliance foreign ministers summit on November 28, but Erdoğan has proven himself to be fairly impervious to that sort of pressure in the past.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Hartung wonders whether the “Arsenal of Democracy” really cares all that much about the “democracy” part:
The list of major human rights abusers that receive U.S.-supplied weaponry is long and includes (but isn’t faintly limited to) Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Turkey, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Such sales can have devastating human consequences. They also support regimes that all too often destabilize their regions and risk embroiling the United States directly in conflicts.
U.S.-supplied arms also far too regularly fall into the hands of Washington’s adversaries. As an example consider the way the UAE transferred small arms and armored vehicles produced by American weapons makers to extremist militias in Yemen, with no apparent consequences, even though such acts clearly violated American arms export laws. Sometimes, recipients of such weaponry even end up fighting each other, as when Turkey used U.S.-supplied F-16s in 2019 to bomb U.S.-backed Syrian forces involved in the fight against Islamic State terrorists.
Such examples underscore the need to scrutinize U.S. arms exports far more carefully. Instead, the arms industry has promoted an increasingly “streamlined” process of approval of such weapons sales, campaigning for numerous measures that would make it even easier to arm foreign regimes regardless of their human-rights records or support for the interests Washington theoretically promotes. These have included an “Export Control Reform Initiative” heavily promoted by the industry during the Obama and Trump administrations that ended up ensuring a further relaxation of scrutiny over firearms exports. It has, in fact, eased the way for sales that, in the future, could put U.S.-produced weaponry in the hands of tyrants, terrorists, and criminal organizations.
Now, the industry is promoting efforts to get weapons out the door ever more quickly through “reforms” to the Foreign Military Sales program in which the Pentagon essentially serves as an arms broker between those weapons corporations and foreign governments.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.