World roundup: November 30 2021
Stories from Iran, Sweden, Honduras, and more
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: This will be another shortened week here at FX, as I’ll be traveling this weekend for family reasons. We’ll have roundups today, tomorrow, and Thursday and then will resume again next Tuesday.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
November 29, 903: The Battle of Hama
November 29, 1890: Japan’s Meiji Constitution goes into effect, codifying a semi-constitutional monarchy modeled along the lines of Prussia and the United Kingdom. In principle the charter vested substantial powers in the person of the emperor, though in practice most executive function was meant to rest with the prime minister and civilian government, while the elected Diet was to hold legislative power. Ambiguities over the relationship between these institutions may have facilitated the country’s slide into totalitarianism prior to World War II. After Japan lost that war its US occupiers drafted a new constitution, which explicitly limited the emperor to a purely symbolic role.
November 30, 1853: The Battle of Sinop
November 30, 1947: Palestinian gunmen attack several buses carrying Jewish passengers across Mandatory Palestine. The attack was a response to the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of its partition plan for Palestine the day before and began a five and a half month long period of paramilitary clashes and terrorist attacks between Jews and Arabs, essentially a “civil war” within the British colony. That conflict “ended,” along with the UK’s mandate, in May 1948, when Arab League forces invaded Israel-Palestine and the civil conflict became the Arab-Israeli War.
November 30, 1966: Barbados gains independence from the United Kingdom. This will have extra relevance for tonight’s roundup (see below).
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
I suppose the most significant thing to happen during our week apart was the revelation of a new SARS-CoV2 strain, labeled “Omicron,” which emerged (or at least was first identified) in South Africa. The variant has since been detected all over the world, including a couple of new cases in Latin America, and evidence suggests it had been spreading globally for several days before it was identified. The World Health Organization has declared that Omicron poses a “very high” global risk, though as yet nobody seems to have a very good handle on just how dangerous it really is. The variant apparently shows substantial mutation away from the initial SARS-CoV2 pathogen, and that’s fueled speculation that it could be more easily transmissible than the delta variant that’s been the world’s main COVID concern for some time now. Delta’s mutations seem to make it both more transmissible and more dangerous to unvaccinated individuals. So far the book on Omicron suggests it could be more transmissible and potentially better able to reinfect those who have already had COVID. It may also have some level of resistance to current vaccines. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence yet that it’s any more or less virulent than other strains.
The Syrian government has reportedly seized a fairly sizable haul of some 525 kilograms of Captagon, a powerful stimulant whose manufacture has become maybe the one growth business in the war-ravaged Syrian economy, that was on its way to Saudi Arabia. Captagon, or counterfeit versions of it, is manufactured and used by armed groups across Syria and is frequently exported (sometimes via Lebanon), with the Gulf Arab states serving as one of the main markets for its trade. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about this particular seizure except that it comes at a time when Arab states have been making some tentative moves toward restoring relations with Bashar al-Assad’s government. A concerted Syrian crackdown on drug shipments would certainly help Assad gain some favor with the Saudis, which could in turn speed up the process of normalization.
The Houthis’ SABA news agency reported Tuesday that Saudi artillery fire killed one civilian and wounded three others near the Saudi border in northern Yemen’s Saada province. Meanwhile, the Saudi military said its aircraft struck a Houthi camp in Maʾrib province, killing at least 60 rebel fighters. Neither claim can be confirmed.
Eli Clifton and Murtaza Hussein report on a new DC organization devoted to pursuing regime change in Turkey and featuring some familiar faces:
The Turkish Democracy Project, a political advocacy group launched this summer with the stated goal of promoting democracy in Turkey, has the surprising characteristic of having no Turkish members on its leadership board. In a press release announcing its creation the organization said that it was “committed to encouraging Turkey to adopt more democratic policies.” The two Turkish people publicly involved with the project — former Turkish politician Aykan Erdemir and academic Suleyman Ozeren — were removed from its website’s list of advisory council members not long after its launch.
Despite having no actual Turks publicly affiliated with the group, the Turkish Democracy Project boasts a roster heavy with hawkish former U.S. public officials and diplomats with close ties to Israel and the Gulf Arab states, including former Bush administration counterterrorism official Frances Townsend, former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and President Donald Trump’s famously aggressive former national security adviser John Bolton. “It’s time to sound the alarm on Turkey,” Bolton, best known for his advocacy of U.S. confrontation with Iran, said on Twitter at the time of the Turkey Democracy Project’s launch.
Under its heavy-handed ruling AK Party, democracy in Turkey has faced serious setbacks in recent years, but what the Turkish Democracy Project specifically does to address that problem is unclear. The organization does, however, have links to a network of well-funded dark money groups promoting U.S. foreign policy positions in the Middle East that dovetail with Saudi, Emirati and Israeli security interests.
If you click through you’ll learn, though perhaps you’ve already guessed without clicking, that a number of the major figures in this new project also loom large in the Iranian regime change community. It’s nice to see them broadening their portfolio like this.
Iraqi elections officials have released the final results of October’s parliamentary election, which look pretty similar to the preliminary results they released weeks ago. In particular, the results confirm that Muqtada al-Sadr’s political movement had itself a very good Election Day, taking 73 seats to finish as the largest single bloc in the new parliament. They also confirm that Fatah, the collective political arm of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization militias, had a bad day, winning only 17 seats despite a high popular vote total. Turnout was 44 percent, a record low for post-Baathist Iraq.
Militia leaders cried fraud when the preliminary results were released, going so far as organizing a protest in Baghdad and (allegedly) trying to assassinate Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. It remains to be seen how they’ll react now that their preliminary seat total has stayed the same. It also remains to be seen how the parties will approach forming a new government. Iraqi elections since the invasion have all led to the formation of an unwieldy unity government, so that’s probably the likeliest outcome here. But there is a possibility that Sadr could look to form a majority government instead, leaving some parties in opposition and maybe taking Iraqi politics in a somewhat more “normal” direction.
Monday saw the long-awaited (?) resumption of negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), with delegations from the deal’s remaining members gathering in one swanky Vienna hotel while a US delegation participated indirectly from a different swanky Vienna hotel. The Iranian team won an early victory, getting the rest of the gang to agree to discuss sanctions relief before talking about Iran’s return to compliance with its obligations under the deal. That seems minor but could be a significant PR win for the Iranians in terms of how they portray the negotiations to their domestic audience.
The Iranians, meanwhile, agreed to abide by the progress made in six previous rounds of these talks, albeit with some unspecified allowance for the fact that this is a new Iranian government with different priorities than its predecessor. They’re demanding full relief from US sanctions in return for coming back into compliance, which is a bridge too far for Washington since the original 2015 accord only obliged the US to lift “nuclear-related” sanctions. Of course, determining which sanctions are and are not “nuclear-related” is difficult, and Donald Trump’s decision to quit the deal in 2018 and begin reimposing previously nuclear-related sanctions under non-nuclear justifications only made the issue more complicated.
Another complication emerged on Monday, when Axios’ Barak Ravid reported that the Israeli government is passing around “intelligence” suggesting that Iranian officials are planning to start enriching uranium to weapons-grade (90 percent and up) levels. The Iranians are already enriching to about 60 percent, which is just a short step below weapons-grade from the perspective of centrifuge time. It’s worth noting that even if Iran took this step it still lacks every other component of a nuclear weapon. It’s also worth noting that Ravid’s report cites “two US sources briefed on the issue,” which is probably a roundabout way of saying neither source actually works for the US government. The Israeli report is of course unconfirmed and Israeli officials are not exactly above over-hyping Iran’s nuclear program.
According to Human Rights Watch, Afghan authorities have been rounding up members of the previous government’s security forces and either summarily executing them or disappearing them. HRW says it’s identified over 100 such cases, despite the Taliban’s promises of a general amnesty when it took power in August. In some cases targets have been lured out of hiding by letters promising said amnesty. The report seems to suggest that these killings/disappearances are being carried out by local Taliban officials, possibly without the involvement of the national government in Kabul, though that doesn’t absolve senior Taliban leaders of responsibility or at least of the obligation to investigate these claims and prosecute the perpetrators. So far, at least, that doesn’t seem to be happening.
World Politics Review’s Arif Rafiq outlines concerns that the Pakistani government may have given away too much (perhaps deliberately) in exchange for its one-month ceasefire with the Pakistani Taliban:
Pakistan entered this new cease-fire with the TTP from a position of strength, especially when compared to past truces. While the TTP has shown resilience in North and South Waziristan, along the Afghan border, it is no longer the insurgent threat that once held territory across Pakistan’s Pashtun belt.
However, Pakistani politicians and commentators—including those sympathetic to the army—fear that the government may have conceded too much to the TTP in the talks that led to the cease-fire, as well as follow-on negotiations conducted since then. These concerns are compounded by the secrecy surrounding the talks and the ISI’s track record of using religious extremist groups to counter mainstream political parties that challenge its power.
Local media reports have also cited contradictory claims by unnamed Pakistani security officials, generating uncertainty about the red lines of the Pakistani army, which is leading the talks with the TTP. One point of contention concerns the release of TTP prisoners as a precondition for the truce. Some Pakistani officials say only the group’s “foot soldiers” have been released, while others have named senior TTP commanders. The army could simply be testing the waters in these talks with the TTP, trying to see how much it can gain. But some observers suspect it may eventually concede a TTP quasi-emirate along the border with Afghanistan.
The increasingly convoluted saga that is the campaign to become the next Philippine president took another twist on Tuesday when Senator Christopher Go, incumbent Rodrigo Duterte’s chosen successor, announced that he’s quitting the race. Go has repeatedly made it clear that he didn’t want to run for president and it seems likely he was pushed into the race by Duterte. What’s unclear is why he’s dropped out, though he suggested in his announcement that he was doing so in Duterte’s interest. Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, is running for vice president on an informal “ticket” with presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr., so maybe Go didn’t want to get wrapped up in any Duterte family drama.
Another massive protest calling for an end to military rule filled the streets of Khartoum and other Sudanese cities on Tuesday, prompting security forces in the capital to break out the tear gas. Several demonstrators were reportedly injured though I haven’t seen any specific figures. The protesters are rejecting the agreement that restored Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok to office and want a fully civilian government to replace Sudan’s current military-civilian (but mostly military) hybrid transitional arrangement.
Meanwhile, Sudanese officials reported an attack by Ethiopian forces in the disputed al-Fashaqa border region over the weekend, in which at least six Sudanese soldiers were killed. Khartoum says that at least 84 of its soldiers have been killed in Fashaqa since it moved in to assert its control over the region late last year after the Ethiopian government became embroiled in its civil war. Ethiopia and Sudan reached an accord over Fashaqa in 2008, under which Sudan’s administrative claim on the region was recognized but Ethiopian (Amhara) farmers were permitted to cultivate the land. That deal fell apart when those Sudanese forces moved in last year and began to clear the farmers out.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Central African rebels attacked two villages in northwestern CAR over the weekend, killing over 30 people. Authorities are attributing the attacks to the Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (“3R”) group.
Speaking of the civil war, it’s been about a week since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed headed to the front lines to take command of his army as it tried to blunt a Tigray People’s Liberation Front advance and, to hear him tell it, things are going great. On Tuesday, Abiy issued a demand for the TPLF’s surrender, claiming that government forces have made major gains over the past week and have the rebel Tigrayan group on the proverbial ropes. It’s unclear where Abiy is though some evidence has him in Ethiopia’s Afar region, and state media has reported some government progress there. According to AFP there are reports of fighting on at least three fronts, including the eastern one in Afar. Another of those fronts is near the town of Debre Sina, which—if accurate—would mean that the TPLF has advanced substantially closer to Addis Ababa over the past few weeks.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Congolese and Ugandan militaries have begun a joint operation against the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces militia, with their combined forces reportedly attacking two ADF camps in the eastern DRC on Tuesday. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi has given Ugandan forces permission to operate on the DRC side of the border as part of the offensive. The ADF began as a Ugandan militant group in the early 1990s but was quickly pushed into the DRC by Ugandan security forces. In recent weeks the group, which has a still largely undetermined relationship with Islamic State under the banner of its “Central Africa” affiliate, has staged multiple attacks inside Uganda, prompting this new joint effort to deal with them.
As I’m sure you know, the hottest “will they/won’t they” story in international affairs involves the impending, or not, Russian invasion of Ukraine. The governments of Ukraine, the US, and several other NATO states all insist an invasion is forthcoming, while the Russian government insists it’s not…unless. By “unless” I’m referring to, for example, Vladimir Putin’s comments during a televised event on Tuesday, in which he reiterated that Moscow does have “red lines” when it comes to Ukraine. As to what those “red lines” are, according to The Guardian Putin said that “they are above all in the creation of threats to us which could come from [Ukraine].” Well, at least he’s not being vague. Putin did mention the deployment of defensive Western missile systems in Ukraine, arguing that they could serve as cover for offensive systems. So, and I’m just thinking out loud here, it might be a good idea not to do that.
Putin’s vagueness about his “red lines” is no doubt by design. Meanwhile, concern about Russian intentions has gotten high enough to prompt NATO foreign ministers to discuss the subject in a meeting on Tuesday. This isn’t really NATO’s fight, since Ukraine isn’t a member, but member states are talking about whether they can sanction, or threaten to sanction, Russia harshly enough to prevent the invasion that may not actually be coming. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe says its ceasefire monitors are dealing with heavier than usual interference from “armed groups”—rebels, one assumes—in Ukraine, which will only add to these tensions. And Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has now accused Moscow of involvement in an alleged “coup attempt” that Ukrainian authorities announced on Friday that they’d thwarted. Russian officials have denied that accusation.
With their country’s parliament about to open debate on a full bore abortion ban, no exceptions, Polish women protested Tuesday over a separate but maybe related plan to create a national database of all pregnancies. While Polish officials insist the database is just part of an effort to digitize records that had previously been kept on paper, it’s hard to escape the feeling that they’re compiling these records to assist in tracking and prosecuting illicit abortions—or suspected abortions, putting any woman who suffers a miscarriage at risk of prosecution.
However interesting the past week has been for you, I’m betting it wasn’t as eventful as the one Swedish Prime Minister (I think?) Magdalena Andersson had. Andersson officially became PM on Wednesday, becoming the first woman to hold that role in Swedish history, and within seven hours she’d resigned. The cause was a vote on Sweden’s 2022 budget. Parliament rejected Andersson’s own budget proposal and instead passed one advanced by the conservative opposition. The Green Party, which had been in coalition with Andersson’s Social Democratic Party, promptly quit the government, forcing Andersson’s resignation. The story doesn’t end there, however. Andersson reworked her cabinet without the Greens and was returned to office on Tuesday at the head of a single party minority government. So she’s now the first and second female PM in Swedish history, in a sense.
Even with the Greens Andersson was leading a minority government that was unlikely to get much legislation passed. Now she’s leading an even smaller minority government that probably won’t be able to do much of anything—apart from just keeping the government open—until next year’s general election.
Czech President Miloš Zeman officially named Petr Fiala as the country’s new prime minister over the weekend. The ceremony was a bit unusual as the ailing and now COVID-positive Zeman had be cordoned off in a plastic enclosure. Fiala leads a five party coalition that emerged out of last month’s parliamentary election, though its contours were already in place before people started voting. He still has to fill out his cabinet and get that approved, but that process shouldn’t be more than a formality and will likely be done by mid-December.
While polling on a potential runoff between far right candidate José Antonio Kast and leftist Gabriel Boric trended in Kast’s direction ahead of the election’s first round showed movement in Kast’s direction, polling conducted since that vote puts Boric in the lead. One such poll released Sunday, from Activa Research, gave Boric a particularly big edge, putting him at 53.9 percent support to Kast's 31.2 percent. Another poll from Cadem has Boric ahead by a much smaller 39-33 margin, obviously with a large number of voters either undecided or planning to skip the December 19 second round. With about three weeks left until the election there’s plenty of time for another shift in support.
As anticipated, the Biden administration has removed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from the US foreign terrorist organizations list. FARC no longer exists as an armed force, since its 2016 peace deal with the Colombian government. There are dissident and/or recidivist factions of ex-FARC fighters that have continued or resumed their campaign against the Colombian state, however. In announcing FARC’s removal from the FTO list, the State Department also placed two of those factions, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) and Segunda Marquetalia, on the same list.
Apart from Omicron’s unveiling (see above), perhaps the most significant event to take place while we were away was Sunday’s Honduran presidential election, which leftist Xiomara Castro has won in commanding fashion. Reuters reported Tuesday that the ruling National Party and its candidate, Nasry Asfura, were preparing to concede. This makes sense, given that the preliminary vote count has Castro ahead of Asfura, 53.5 percent to 34 percent. Castro’s victory had been somewhat expected. In addition to being the first woman elected as Honduran president, she’ll be the country’s first left of center head of state since her husband, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a 2009 coup that was backed (at least after the fact, if not before) by the United States.
Castro will succeed incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández, who was prevented by term limits from running again after two dubious elections in 2013 and 2017. His eight year administration was fairly catastrophic for Honduran society (as evidenced, for example, by the rise in Honduran migration to the US), and his myriad corruption scandals—which include his brother Tony’s conviction in the United States on drug trafficking charges—undoubtedly helped cause his National Party’s support to collapse. Tony’s legal troubles in the US led to allegations about Juan Orlando’s involvement in the drug trade and forced Washington to distance itself from the Hernández administration, even though it fulfilled the two main US demands of any Central American government: conservatism and compliance.
Barbadians are no longer subjects of the British crown, as the country marked its independence day (see above) on Tuesday by officially becoming a republic. Former governor general Sandra Mason became Barbados’ first present early Tuesday morning, having been elected to that position by parliament last month.
Finally, in his latest Foreign Exchanges column, Daniel Bessner makes the case for assuming that most practitioners of US foreign policy believe—despite mounting evidence to the contrary—that they’re doing the right thing:
But for those of us within the United States, who hope to use their unique subjective position to restrain US power and begin to weaken the US empire, I believe it’s important to understand and appreciate what those who actually staff the imperial apparatus believe. People like Antony Blinken or Samantha Power do not wake up every morning and start work worrying about whether they are contributing to a brutal global reality. Far from it—they sincerely think they’re doing the Lord’s work. In fact, they think they’re acting “progressively,” in that they’re using US power to engender the liberal world they consider central to peace and security.
I—and the anti-imperialist left more broadly—might not sympathize with this position, but we have to take it seriously when we engage in the necessary debate and politicking required to bring down the US empire.
This is especially true given that fantasies of progressivism have been absolutely central to the establishment of the US national security state, a state that has a direct and critical impact on the entire world.
In my own work, it became rapidly clear to me how many of the early builders and staffers of the national security state (understood here to include not only the official institutions of the government, but also the organizations of the parastatal “military-intellectual complex” like think tanks and academic foreign policy research centers) considered themselves to be contributing to “peacefare” instead of warfare. In their minds—and the minds of the Blinkens and Powers of the world—international relations is a dangerous, anarchic sphere that can only be tamed through American hegemony. This, most imperialists will claim, is the tragic reality that undergirds US global behavior. Sure, they might say, the United States has done some awful things (at this point in history it’s quite difficult to be a US policymaker and be unfamiliar with the various crimes committed by the US government in the past), but would you rather a different nation ruled the world?