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World roundup: October 10 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Niger, Guatemala, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
October 10 (maybe), 732 (also maybe): The Battle of Tours
October 10, 1911: An uprising in the city of Wuchang (which is now a part of the city of Wuhan) led by the Tongmenghui movement sparked the Xinhai Revolution. It ended in February 1912 with the toppling of the Qing Dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China. This marked the end of thousands of years of imperial Chinese rule. Commemorated today in Taiwan as the National Day of the Republic of China.
The United Nations General Assembly voted on Tuesday to elect Bulgaria and Albania to the UN Human Rights Council. Russia had also been contesting for one of the two East European HRC seats up for grabs, having been kicked off of the HRC last year after its invasion of Ukraine. It finished a distant third with only 83 votes in the 193 member UNGA, though as the AP notes it may be somewhat disturbing to the US and other Western leaders that it received that much support. In other voting, Brazil, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic were elected over Peru to fill three seats in the Latin America and Caribbean group, while Burundi, China, France, Ghana, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kuwait, Malawi, the Netherlands all “won” uncontested elections.
According to The New Arab, the Syrian government on Monday called for a ceasefire with rebels in Idlib province, days after a drone strike on a military college in Homs province killed over 100 people. That attack sparked a long weekend of back and forth violence that left over 40 civilians dead according to rebel sources. Interestingly there still hasn’t been any claim of responsibility for the college attack, and there are doubts as to whether any of the rebel factions in Idlib could have pulled something like that off so far from their stomping grounds. Rebels have essentially demanded that the government stand down first before they’ll agree to the ceasefire.
Elsewhere, the Turkish military attacked several Kurdish targets in northern Syria over the weekend, with one strike reportedly killing at least 29 people at a Kurdish police academy outside the city of Al-Malikiyah late Sunday-early Monday. On Saturday, Turkish officials said their overnight airstrikes had killed at least 58 Kurdish militants. The Turks are still supposedly retaliating for that October 1 suicide bombing in Ankara, an attack that to be clear wounded two people and left nobody dead apart from the two attackers themselves.
Although it’s directly linked to what’s happening in Gaza (see below), I think tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border are sufficiently elevated to warrant their own section. Cross-border artillery fire continued throughout the weekend, prompting what appears to be a mass exodus out of southern Lebanon by Tuesday morning. Hezbollah was presumably involved in this at some level though Palestinian groups (including Hamas) that have a presence in southern Lebanon have been claiming responsibility for at least some of this activity.
At least six people were killed in various clashes on Monday—three Hezbollah fighters, two Palestinian militants who were attempting to cross into Israel, and one Israeli soldier. I’ve also seen reports of cross-border shelling between Israel and Syria but without any evidence to the contrary I’d assume that’s an extension of what’s been happening along the Lebanese border given Hezbollah’s presence in both countries. There’s still no indication of any major Hezbollah mobilization that might suggest a second front, but this remains a situation to watch.
There’s obviously a lot to mention but nothing stands out as a particularly “new” development since yesterday so let’s try a quick hit format:
With the caveat that I’m not sure how much of this is confirmed, the death toll since Hamas (I’m using Hamas as shorthand but there were other factions involved as well) launched its attack on Saturday has risen well above 3000. Of those, over 900 were killed in Israel, over 900 have been killed in Gaza, and more than 1500 are Palestinian militants killed by Israeli security forces. Thousands more people have been wounded. All of these figures are likely to be wildly out of date by the time anybody reads this but given the limitations of this medium I unfortunately cannot help that. The death toll in Israel is likely to rise further as recovery work continues—every day seems to bring new horrifying details about the extent of Hamas’s atrocities—while the toll in Gaza will rise as Israel’s already brutal retaliation shows no sign of easing. The number of dead militants is based on an Israeli military estimate and I’m not sure how accurate it is. The number of people “displaced” in Gaza is approaching 200,000 and I put the word displaced in quotes because really there’s nowhere for them to go (more on that in a moment). Most of them have made their way to schools or other shelter sites though those buildings are no safer from airstrikes than any others at this point.
I do not know whether the Israelis have finally re-secured all of the territory that was seized by militants on Saturday. My sense from what I’ve read today is that they are mostly back in control of these areas but there may still be isolated fighting still happening in a few places—Ashkelon, for example. The New York Times reported that Israeli forces had “mostly” regained control by Tuesday, which seems clearly to indicate that there are still some areas where the militants haven’t yet been dislodged.
An Israeli ground incursion into Gaza seems almost a foregone conclusion at this point though it’s anybody’s guess when it will start and how extensive it will be. As violent as the Israeli bombardment has been since Saturday, this will likely be much worse, for combatants on both sides and for civilians in Gaza. Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid told reporters on Tuesday that the “endgame” here is “no Hamas in Gaza.” Perhaps he means it in the “I brought you into this world and I can take you out” sense. Lapid can’t speak for this Israeli government but I don’t think he’s far off of what the plan is. Completely uprooting and eradicating Hamas would mean a full-scale incursion and military occupation/administration of Gaza and all I can say is good luck with that.
Juan Cole makes what I think is an interesting point (putting the heated tone of his commentary aside) when considering Hamas’s future prospects, which is that like Islamic State before it (though admittedly under different circumstances) the group has through its atrocities invited a massive retaliation while operating out of a fixed, known home base. That didn’t work out terribly well for IS and probably won’t for Hamas, if you assume the group intended Saturday’s operation to benefit it politically. One big difference in these two cases is that uprooting and destroying IS’s “caliphate” didn’t require obliterating one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Regardless, even in this analogy IS wasn’t completely destroyed and I have a hard time believing Hamas will be either.
Egyptian security forces are trying to block any sort of exodus of Palestinians out of Gaza, as that might save lives but also raises the specter of mass Palestinian displacement/ethnic cleansing which it goes without saying is uncomfortable to consider for a host of reasons (including but not limited to the present Egyptian government’s allergies to refugee and indeed basic human rights). The Israeli military briefly issued an advisory for Gazan residents to use the Rafah checkpoint to enter Egypt on Monday before somebody in the Israeli government yanked on the leash and they announced the checkpoint’s closure. They’ve since bombarded Rafah, I guess to emphasize that closure. There is, in case you were wondering, no indication that the Israeli military is planning to open any corridors to move humanitarian aid into Gaza. After all, that would defeat the purpose of their ongoing “siege.”
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir announced on Tuesday that his ministry would be distributing “thousands of assault rifles” to volunteers in “border communities and mixed Jewish-Arab towns.” While couched in the language of self-defense there’s not much question that this is Ben-Gvir’s invitation to vigilantism.
This is not terribly surprising but apparently the Qatari government has decided to put a hold on any prisoner exchange talks for the time being. I can’t imagine there was much appetite for that on the Israeli side. Although Hamas leaders have threatened to execute hostages in retaliation for Israeli airstrikes I have not seen any word that they’ve begun actually doing so.
According to Eurasianet’s Heydar Isayev, the governments of Azerbaijan and Iran are experiencing a bit of a thaw in their frequently chilly relationship. For example, they’re apparently well into talks on reopening the currently shuttered Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran. What’s particularly interesting here is that the Iranians recently broke ground on an infrastructure project that could, if carried to completion, create a viable transit corridor through Iran between Azerbaijan proper and its Nakhchivan exclave. That would obviate Baku’s impulse to open such a corridor through southern Armenia, a prospect that has the Armenian and Iranian governments concerned about a de facto Azerbaijani annexation of the Armenian-Iranian border.
Pakistani Taliban fighters attacked a military unit near the Afghan border in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on Monday, killing two security personnel. Five Taliban fighters were also killed.
Myanmar’s military raided a displaced persons camp in Kachin state late Monday night, killing at least 29 people and wounding another 59 according to local media reports. The Kachin Independence Army rebel group apparently has a base near the camp so this may have been a misfire by Myanmar forces. On the other hand it may have been completely intentional.
Chuck Schumer, Democratic leader in the US Senate, led a delegation of lawmakers to China over the weekend on a trip that included a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday. Nothing substantive came of it (nothing substantive could have come of it, really), but as we’ve been tracking efforts to rebuild some sort of direct relationship between the US and China I think the Schumer-Xi meeting probably belongs in that discussion.
The Sudanese and Iranian governments announced on Monday that they will restore bilateral diplomatic ties. The two countries broke those ties off back in 2016 around the same time Iran and Saudi Arabia stopped talking, with Sudan following the Saudi lead. Admittedly Sudan doesn’t have much of a government these days, but I guess you have to take good news wherever you can find it. The two governments will endeavor to reopen their mutual embassies “soon,” according to a statement from the Sudanese Foreign Ministry.
Liberian voters headed to the polls on Tuesday for a general election headlined by the presidential contest between incumbent George Weah and challenger Joseph Boakai, among many other contenders. This is a rematch of the 2017 presidential election, which Weah won fairly handily in the runoff. Given the multiplicity of candidates a runoff is likely again this time around, and Weah will need to contend with his lackluster economic record (in fairness partly thanks to COVID) in order to win reelection. The race has been marred by incidents of violence between Weah and Boakai supporters so that may be something to watch.
More than two months after a military coup ousted Niger’s civilian government, the Biden administration on Tuesday finally got around to admitting it. The administration had previously hemmed and hawed about officially designating the July coup as a coup because of the automatic aid cuts that would trigger. Anonymous “senior administration officials” told reporters on Tuesday that they’d decided at this point to acknowledge reality “after exhausting all avenues to preserve constitutional order” in Niger. I think what this means is that they’ve given up hopes that the junta might organize a sufficiently rapid transition back to civilian rule.
The designation will cost Niger hundreds of millions of dollars in military and financial aid and potentially severs the US military’s most important counter-terrorism relationship in West Africa. There is apparently still no plan to withdraw US forces from Niger, though their activities have already been heavily curtailed and in light of this news the junta may eventually order them to leave the country. On a similar note, the French military began its own withdrawal from Niger on Tuesday. There are currently about 1400 French soldiers in the country and French President Emmanuel Macron said last month that he intends to have them all withdrawn by the end of the year.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Unspecified gunmen attacked a “Chinese-operated gold mine” in the eastern DRC’s South Kivu province on Saturday, killing at least four people, including two Chinese nationals, and wounding three other people. There’s been no attribution here as far as I know but there are a large number of armed groups active in South Kivu and the province’s mines are a frequent target.
Meanwhile, the Congolese government has given an East African Community peacekeeping force until December 8 to leave the country. The EAC authorized the peacekeeping mission last November to deal with the M23 militia uprising in North Kivu province, and last month it renewed the mission through December 8. The mission has achieved virtually nothing and M23 activity has in fact been on the rise so far this month, hence the decision to call it quits.
The governor of Russia’s Belgorod oblast, Vyacheslav Gladkov, said via Telegram on Tuesday that Ukrainian shelling had killed two people in that province. In Moscow, meanwhile, detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich lost an appeal on Tuesday and will remain in custody on espionage charges through November 30 and likely beyond. Russian officials have talked openly about orchestrating a prisoner swap with the US for Gershkovich, but they say they’ll only do it after his trial is over and they keep delaying the trial.
With winter approaching it would appear the Russian military is once again, as it did last fall, targeting civilian Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Those regular overnight Russian missile and drone barrages are increasingly finding their way to energy facilities. Ideally the Ukrainian power grid would be more resilient to this sort of thing than it was a year ago, but in reality parts of it still haven’t been fully repaired so it is likely quite vulnerable.
A number of senior Polish military officers, including the military chief of staff and top operational commander, have resigned due reportedly to a dispute with Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak. I mention this mostly in light of the parliamentary election Poland is set to hold on Sunday. Polling puts the ruling United Right coalition in the driver’s seat heading into that vote, but a big national security scandal on the eve of an election taking place amid the war in Ukraine could throw some uncertainty into the race.
NATO has apparently decided to beef up its Kosovo peacekeeping force, KFOR, with heavier armament in light of recent tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. The head of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command Naples, US Admiral Stuart Munsch, characterized the rearmament as giving KFOR “combat power,” so I guess they’ve got that going for them now, which is nice.
Former Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini told reporters on Tuesday that he and his center-left Hlas party would only consider joining a governing coalition led by Robert Fico’s SMER-SD party. This is significant because Pellegrini’s support is likely crucial to any chance Fico has of forming a government following last month’s election. It’s also significant because Pellegrini says he will insist on what Reuters termed “foreign policy continuity” as a condition of any alliance with Fico. As you may know by now, Fico has pledged to cut off Slovakia’s military assistance to Ukraine and his election was the source of much consternation within the North Atlantic world. He may have to modify that pledge now to satisfy Pellegrini.
Seven men who had been arrested over their alleged involvement in the murder of Ecuadorean presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio back in August were killed while in custody over the weekend. Six of them were killed Friday in one facility in Guayaquil and the seventh was killed Saturday in Quito. This seems too coincidental to be random but authorities have been reluctant to release any further details on the killings. The Ecuadorian government did fire the head of the country’s prison system and a senior police official in response and has moved six remaining suspects in the Villavicencio murder to a different, undisclosed facility.
The Colombian government’s ceasefire with the FARC-Estado Mayor Central militant faction went into effect on Sunday and so far appears to be holding. Assuming all goes well for the next few days the plan is for Colombian authorities to formalize the ceasefire and begin full peace talks with the EMC next Monday.
The Guatemalan government has begun sending riot police out to clear road blockades that have been erected by protesters in support of President-elect Bernardo Arévalo in his ongoing battle with Attorney-General María Consuelo Porras. Current President Alejandro Giammattei had been tolerating the protests but seems to have run out of patience with them. So far there’s been no indication of violence but this is the sort of situation that could flare up quickly, and Arévalo on Monday warned of the possibility that the government might try to trigger violence as an excuse to clamp down on pro-Arévalo activity.
The Dominican government on Monday said it would allow the passage of basic goods like food and medicine into Haiti, but otherwise the border will remain closed. Dominican authorities closed the border last month over a dispute regarding Haiti’s use of the shared Dajabón River (AKA the Massacre River). Swathes of the border were already closed because of rampant gang activity in Haiti and additional Dominican security forces will apparently be deployed to the border to prevent this partial reopening from fueling illicit activity in the DR.
Given everything that’s happened over the past four days you might think the Biden administration would slow down, if not outright freeze, its push to conclude an Israeli-Saudi diplomatic normalization agreement. It is not. Indeed administration officials are characterizing normalization as an antidote to the kind of violence Hamas unleashed on Saturday, despite the very real possibility that this normalization talk might have been part of the rationale behind the attacks. Over at The Nation, Spencer Ackerman reports on where things stand:
“The lie at the heart of American-led normalization is that this is peacemaking, and is somehow a substitute for dealing with the core Israeli-Palestinian issue, or, even more illogically, is a positive contribution in that arena,” says Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and president of the US/Middle East Project. “The accords, as choreographed by the US, intentionally keep in place an Israeli-Palestinian status quo which is antithetical to peace and security for all, including to equality and rights for the Palestinians. It is part of an architecture which encourages Israeli hubris and which has nurtured the very failings in the Israeli system which came into play so powerfully during the attacks carried out by the Gaza-based resistance movements.”
When the US champions resistance to occupation in Ukraine, it does so from the position, however cynically, of supporting a threatened democracy. There is no such veneer when it comes to a US-Saudi-Israel deal. Israel is an apartheid state whose government is working hard, against the wishes of enormous numbers of its citizens, at crippling its own democratic institutions, even as those institutions are unaccountable to its millions of Palestinian subjects. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that holds an abundance of capitalism’s most important commodity. It didn’t take long for Biden to unravel his promise to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah,” as continued dependence on hydrocarbons and rising gas prices stemming from US sanctions on Russian oil brought Biden to fist-bump MBS in Riyadh last year. That’s largely what prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to say, shortly before Biden’s trip, that, notwithstanding human-rights concerns with Saudi Arabia, “we are addressing the totality of our interests in that relationship.”
Speaking of the US-Saudi relationship and the main thing that binds those two countries together, the Saudis have reportedly said they’d be willing to increase oil production after the new year if that would help get a deal done. Woo-hoo! They said they’d only do it if global oil prices are at a level they consider high and really there’s no reason to believe them anyway, but it’s something, right? Right?
Finally, I hope you’ve all had a chance to check out Samuel Huneke’s debut FX column, published earlier today. I’ll probably come back to that piece later this week but for now I just want to say that this is the kind of work that’s only possible through the support of Foreign Exchanges’ paid subscribers. If you’re new to the newsletter or if you’ve been here for a while and on the fence about subscribing, I hope you’ll take that leap and help me to keep it going. Thanks!
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