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World roundup: November 16 2023
Stories from Myanmar, Madagascar, Spain, and elsewhere
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As I previewed on Tuesday, tonight’s roundup will be our last before the US Thanksgiving holiday as I take an overdue break and get ready to host this year’s dinner for the first time in many years. We’ll return to regular programming on Tuesday, November 28. Thanks for supporting Foreign Exchanges and Happy Thanksgiving to those who will be celebrating!
TODAY IN HISTORY
November 16, 1532: Spanish forces under Francisco Pizarro ambush and capture the Incan emperor Atahualpa at the Battle of Cajamarca. Atahualpa’s captivity and eventual execution (the following August) were the first steps in the Spaniards’ conquest of the Incan Empire.
November 16, 1914: The Austro-Hungarian and Serbian armies open one of World War I’s first major engagements, the Battle of Kolubara. Over the course of the next two weeks the Austro-Hungarians would drive the Serbs back, eventually forcing them to evacuate Belgrade. However, the Serbian army regrouped and counterattacked against a by then overextended Austro-Hungarian force, and by mid-December they had retaken Belgrade and forced the surviving Austro-Hungarians out of Serbia altogether. The battle resulted in staggering casualties on both sides but thwarted the Austro-Hungarian military’s 1914 Serbian campaign. The Central Powers would invade Serbia again the following year with much different results.
The Israeli military (IDF) continued to search Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital on Thursday, and by the evening it had declared the discovery of an “operational tunnel shaft” that they’re characterizing as evidence of the Hamas command center that Israeli and US officials have been claiming was located underneath the hospital grounds. So far that claim rests on a good deal of trust in the IDF’s honesty and a few videos and photographs whose collective impression has been underwhelming according even to The Jerusalem Post, hardly an anti-war or even particularly unbiased outlet. This story has been difficult to track throughout the day as the IDF has uncovered additional evidence—or as it’s manufactured additional evidence, not that I would think of accusing the IDF of such a thing.
The New York Times sounded similarly unimpressed after Thursday’s (alleged) revelations, noting that the IDF’s displays thus far “still have not proven the existence of the sprawling Hamas operation that it said the hospital concealed.” In another piece, the NYT described the “operational tunnel shaft” as “around the size of a domestic car garage” whose “purpose” wasn’t readily apparent. In response to mounting criticism, the IDF has been arguing that it will take more time to search the hospital grounds and has suggested that Hamas somehow concealed hard evidence of that aforementioned “sprawling operation.” The former stretches credulity, given how certain Israeli officials seemed about exactly where and what this alleged command facility was prior to this operation. The latter breaks credulity, insofar as it’s absurd to imagine that Hamas somehow, in the middle of a war, was able to cover up evidence of a supposedly massive underground command and control complex.
Meanwhile, an estimated 2300 civilians (including patients) are still trapped inside the hospital and are struggling with shortages of food, water, medical supplies, and electricity. Notwithstanding a couple of orchestrated IDF photo ops there does not seem to be any coordinated effort underway to alleviate the critical humanitarian situations at Shifa or Gaza’s other non-functioning hospitals.
Beyond Shifa, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society reported a “violent” IDF attack on Gaza’s al-Ahli Hospital on Thursday, but I haven’t seen much beyond that in terms of detail. And in what appears to be a preview of coming attractions, Palestinians in eastern districts of Khan Younis have reported receiving IDF “evacuation orders” via airdropped leaflets. Khan Younis is located in southern Gaza, where the IDF corralled the vast majority of Gaza’s ~2.3 million population in what it characterized as a humanitarian gesture ahead of its assault on Gaza City. Assuming the leaflets are legitimate, and I think it’s reasonable to assume they are, they make a pretty unambiguous statement about the IDF’s plans. What is entirely unclear is where the IDF expects these people to go, other than “somewhere else.”
In other Gaza news:
Part of the reason it’s been tough to track news out of Gaza today is that communications in the territory are now down again, this time perhaps for good. Gaza’s two primarily telecom firms, Jawwal and Paltel, announced that their network had gone offline on Thursday after exhausting the last of their battery power. In addition to hampering the transmission of information out of Gaza, the blackout also undermines medical and humanitarian relief efforts. The official death toll in Gaza now stands at somewhere around 11,500 since October 7, but between the communications blackout and the shutting down of so many of the territory’s hospitals this official count is becoming increasingly unreliable. The real death toll is likely much higher.
The intense focus on the situation at Shifa and other Gazan hospitals over the last few days has crowded other news about the IDF campaign out of much of the news coverage, and now this telecom blackout is likely to exacerbate that situation. Anecdotally we know the IDF is continuing its air and ground campaign and that campaign is continuing to kill civilians, but that’s the best I can do by way of any description.
Israeli officials say the IDF discovered the body of one of Hamas’s hostages in a building near Shifa. I hadn’t seen any word as to how she died at time of writing. There’s still no definitive word on the prisoner exchange and ceasefire deal that’s been “imminent” for a couple of weeks.
Hamas gunmen killed one Israeli soldier and wounded another five security personnel at a West Bank checkpoint near East Jerusalem on Thursday. Police killed all three of the attackers. There’s also what sounds like an intense Israeli raid underway in the West Bank city of Jenin, with Al Jazeera reporting that at least seven Palestinians have been wounded. Israeli forces have reportedly surrounded the city’s Ibn Sina Hospital and have ordered its evacuation, and that’s the latest report I had seen before sending out this newsletter.
NBC News was one of a handful of outlets to comment on Thursday about the “frustration” that is supposedly “building” inside the Biden administration regarding the perception that the Israeli government is ignoring Washington. This frustration seems chiefly oriented around the IDF’s continued indifference to civilian casualties and divergent views on postwar Gaza. Whatever the level of discontent is now it’s likely to intensify as the Israeli campaign continues, though whether that will manifest in any tangible way very much remains to be seen.
An apparent Israeli missile strike hit targets near Damascus early Friday morning, according to Syrian state media. There was no mention in those media reports of the nature of the targets but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming they’re connected to Hezbollah. The SOHR also reported that ambulances responded to the scene but I have not seen any mention of casualties as yet.
The IDF and Hezbollah exchanged fairly heavy fire across the Israeli-Lebanese border on Thursday, with Hezbollah saying it attacked eight targets in northern Israel and a Lebanese official saying that Israeli shelling had struck at least 12 villages in southern Lebanon. There’s no word on casualties.
The Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers were scheduled to be in Washington next week for another round of US-mediated peace talks, but the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry pulled the plug on that plan on Thursday. Baku is angry at comments made by US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing earlier this week that Azerbaijani officials have decided were “one-sided and biased.” Whatever chances there might be for an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace deal are being undermined by the lack of an acceptable mediator. The Azerbaijani government (which may prefer another war to a negotiated peace) has now rejected US and European Union mediation, and tensions between the Armenian and Russian governments make Moscow a dicey option as well.
Myanmar junta spokesperson Zaw Min Tun acknowledged on Thursday that the regime is struggling amid what he called “heavy assaults” by multiple rebel groups across northern and western Myanmar (and recently Kayah state in eastern Myanmar as well). Apparently the rebels are making copious use of drones to attack military outposts. In Chin state, scene of some of the most significant recent fighting, 29 Myanmar soldiers reportedly fled across the border into India on Thursday, joining 43 other who had already made that trek. Indian officials say that of the some 5000 people total who had fled from Chin into India in recent days, more than half have returned to Myanmar.
The US and Philippine governments announced an agreement on Friday morning that will see the US provide technical and material support for a Philippine nuclear power program. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has decided to incorporate nuclear power as his government tries to move on from coal in order to reduce its carbon emissions. The deal requires approval in the US Congress, but given the New Cold War implications of strengthening the US-Philippine relationship it seems unlikely that Congress would reject it.
Joe Biden followed up his apparently successful meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday by publicly referring to Xi as a “dictator,” a term with which he must by now know the Chinese government takes umbrage. This is not the first time Biden has employed that terminology in reference to Xi and presumably won’t be the last. The last time he did so, in June, the impact on US-Chinese relations was negligible and that will presumably be the case this time around as well, but I guess my question would be why take the chance? Even the small possibility of undermining some of the progress that was made in that meeting isn’t worth risking just to gratutiously insult Xi. But I guess this is why I’ll never be a political genius.
On the plus side, Xi said after the meeting that he’s open to sending new giant pandas to US zoos, starting most likely with the San Diego Zoo. There’s been a steady exodus of pandas back to China in recent years as US zoos are seeing their exchange agreements expire without renewal, and at this point the Atlanta Zoo is the only remaining institution in the US to feature a panda exhibit. Xi’s remarks suggest that this trend will be reversed.
The Sudanese government, or what passes for one these days, has asked the United Nations to terminate its political mission in that country “immediately.” Acting Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Sadeq sent a letter to that effect to the UN Security Council on Thursday. The mission was established by the UNSC in 2020 to help shepherd Sudan’s political transition so clearly it’s failed, though Sudan’s current military government bears more than a little responsibility for that failure. The military has accused the UN of favoring the rival Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group and earlier this year expelled UN envoy Volker Perthes from the country.
World Politics Review’s Francisco Serrano argues that the crisis in Gaza may make at least one “Abraham Accords” participant rethink its relationship with Israel:
Ever since Morocco normalized diplomatic relations with Israel in late 2020, the government and the royal Cabinet of King Mohamed VI have had to engage in an awkward balancing act. As they nurtured fast-growing political, economic and military relations with Israel, authorities had to simultaneously portray Rabat’s official position as remaining actively pro-Palestinian.
Morocco’s stance, like that of other countries that signed up to the Abraham Accords, was always going to be a challenge. For years, the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has been marked by sporadic clashes between Israeli forces and armed groups in Gaza, the ongoing encroachment of illegal Israeli settlements amid violence in the West Bank, and diminishing hope for a genuine political resolution.
But after the brutal attacks perpetrated by Hamas on Israeli civilians and military personnel on Oct. 7 and the ruthless and escalating war unleashed by the Israeli military on Gaza in response, Morocco’s stance is close to untenable.
The biggest challenge for the government and, more importantly, the royal Cabinet is that a majority of Morocco’s population has traditionally supported the Palestinian cause. Indeed, many were not in favor of normalization with Israel in the first place.
Police appear to have killed at least one demonstrator and wounded several others during a protest in support of the Palestinian cause in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna on Thursday. The demonstration was organized by the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, the country’s largest Shiʿa organization, which has been outlawed by authorities and is thus barred from holding any sort of protest or other event. There were reports of police using tear gas against the protesters and firing in the air to try to disperse them, so it’s not much of a stretch to suggest they were responsible for the casualties, though they’ve blamed allegedly armed IMN members.
Voters in Madagascar headed to the polls on Thursday for that country’s presidential election, which originally had been scheduled to take place last week but was postponed after attacks on two opposition candidates. Well, at least some of those voters headed to the polls, I assume. The thing is, ten of the candidates challenging incumbent Andry Rajoelina wound up calling on their supporters to boycott the vote, which they’ve characterized as rigged. They’ve also argued that Rajoelina should be barred from running because he became a French citizen back in 2014, though it’s unclear whether that’s automatically disqualifying. Obviously the votes still have to be counted but anecdotal indications are that turnout was low as a result. Which means Rajoelina will probably win, but it will be a tainted victory that will exacerbate, rather than resolve, the country’s political woes.
The Biden administration unveiled another round of Russian sanctions on Thursday, this time focused on violations of the G7-imposed price cap on Russian oil sales and on alleged Russian interference in Balkan politics. The US Treasury Department blacklisted three shipping firms based in the UAE and three cargo vessels for allegedly facilitating Russian oil sales above that $60 per barrel cap. This move will bar those ships and shippers from doing business with US firms to, for example, finance or insure their activities. On the Balkan front the administration blacklisted eight individuals and six entities on corruption and influence peddling claims.
The Finnish government on Thursday announced that it is closing four checkpoints along the Russian border in response to increasing migration attempts. The Finnish government—which, for context, includes the xenophobic far-right Finns Party—is accusing the Russian government of bringing African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers to the border, going so far as to sell them bicycles to speed up their journey. Finnish-Russian relations are at an ebb to be sure, given Finland’s decision to join NATO and all, so it’s not hard to imagine that Moscow would be looking for ways to inconvenience the Finnish government. That said, this seemingly massive wave of asylum seekers apparently amounts to a whole 280 people since September, so it’s possible Finnish officials are exaggerating the scale of the challenge this has posed.
The Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee finally took up the question of Sweden’s NATO accession on Thursday, debated it, and then opted to hold off on a vote until its next session. Which it hasn’t scheduled. One suspects it might be a while. Al-Monitor’s Ezgi Akin suggests, with good reason, that the Turkish government is now waiting for some concrete action from Washington on its long-demanded F-16 purchase before it takes another step forward on the Sweden issue. That sale is still being held up at the Congressional level.
After months of deliberation, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez finally won parliamentary confirmation for another term in office on Thursday. Sánchez’s Socialist Party is joined by the leftist Sumar alliance and received support from six smaller regional parties. Among those regional parties were two that espouse Catalan separatism. Sánchez spent weeks negotiating for their support and, as we’ve covered in this newsletter, wound up bringing them onside with a promise of amnesty for Catalan officials involved in the region’s outlawed 2017 secession referendum. That amnesty has already proven to be divisive among other quarters of Spanish society, but it got Sánchez his new term and in theory he doesn’t have to face the voters again until 2027.
Far-right Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei is already claiming fraud ahead of Sunday’s runoff between him and Economy Minister Sergio Massa. This strategy didn’t work for Donald Trump in the US and didn’t work for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil but hey, maybe Milei will have better luck with it. Milei has been pushing the fraud claim for months now, insisting that it cost him a substantial number of votes in August’s primary election and was the reason he lost last month’s first round to Massa. There doesn’t seem to be any hard evidence of this, but nevertheless Argentina may be looking at a destabilizing election challenge if Milei doesn’t win on Sunday. Polling has the race neck and neck, though pollsters’ failure to accurately forecast the first round suggests that their results may not be all that illustrative.
The Kenyan parliament voted on Thursday to approve the deployment of up to 1000 police officers to Haiti, clearing one hurdle for the Kenyan-led anti-gang intervention that’s been in the works since the UN Security Council authorized it last month. The mission is still waiting on a verdict in a lawsuit brought by Kenyan opposition parties seeking to block the deployment, which is schedule to be issued in late January.
The US Defense Department has failed its sixth straight Government Accountability Office audit. Indeed, it appears the department has made little progress since failing last year’s audit. I have nothing to say here that hasn’t been said at least five times already, but it remains one of the enduring joys of US politics that the Pentagon is on a glide path to a $1 trillion annual budget without being able to conclusively account for the money it’s being handed. Good job to all concerned.
Finally, I’ll leave you with The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and his thoughts on how the Biden administration has been handling the situation in Gaza:
As Israel intensified its attacks on Gaza last week, including strikes against multiple hospitals, and presided over a forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of civilians from their homes, President Joe Biden was asked about the chances of a Gaza ceasefire. “None,” Biden shot back. “No possibility.”
With a death toll that has now surpassed 11,000 Palestinians, including nearly 5,000 children, the extent of Biden’s public divergence from his “great, great friend” Benjamin Netanyahu’s scorched-earth war of annihilation amounts to meekly worded suggestions of “humanitarian pauses.”
On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked, “far too many Palestinians have been killed; far too many have suffered these past weeks, and we want to do everything possible to prevent harm to them and to maximize the assistance that gets to them.” These disingenuous platitudes melt into a puddle of blood when juxtaposed with the administration’s actions.
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