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World roundup: October 12 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, South Korea, Argentina, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
October 12 (give or take), 539 BCE: An Achaemenid Persian army under dynastic founder Cyrus II (“the Great”) enters the city of Babylon, bringing the Neo-Babylonian Empire to an end and ushering in a (very long, as it turned out) period in which Mesopotamia was consistently ruled by outside powers. The conquest of Babylon was more or less a foregone conclusion after the Persian victory in the decisive Battle of Opis in September which appears (there aren’t a lot of details in the historical record) to have left the Babylonian army decimated and unable to offer any further resistance to the Persian invasion. Cyrus inherited the Babylonians’ conquests, including Judea, where he was later praised for allowing the exiled Judean population to return to its homeland.
October 12, 1492: Christopher Columbus’s first expedition makes landfall in, as it turned out, the Americas (as they’d soon be known). Columbus dubbed the island he’d encountered “San Salvador” and it’s believed to correspond with modern San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. Mistakenly believing he’d sailed all the way to India, Columbus began the European practice of referring to the Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere as “Indians” and spent the next three months exploring the region (losing his flagship, the Santa María, in the process). He began his return voyage in mid-January, arriving in Lisbon in early March. Needless to say more European explorers quickly began visiting the lands he’d “discovered.”
Apparent Israeli missile strikes knocked Syria’s two largest airports, Aleppo and Damascus, out of commission on Thursday. There were no casualties and there’s been no comment from Israel, whose government almost never acknowledges these sorts of attacks. Both airports have been frequent targets for Israeli attack going back at least to the start of the Syrian civil war, primarily because they serve as conduits for Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah and other affiliated militant groups. It’s obviously tempting to link Thursday’s attacks to the situation in Gaza but it’s hard to say that to any degree of certainty.
Speaking of Gaza:
With the death toll having climbed over 1300 in Israel and over 1400 in Gaza, the conflict is in a brutal holding pattern until the Israelis decide to pull the proverbial trigger on their impending ground incursion (assuming they do finally make that decision). I don’t say that to in any way diminish the intensity of the ongoing Israeli bombing campaign (more on that below), I’m just not sure how much more I can say about it that I haven’t said over the past few days. When (or I suppose if) the ground invasion comes, the Israeli military will be facing an enemy in Hamas that is well dug in and must surely have anticipated this when it launched its brutal assault on military outposts and civilian communities around Gaza over the weekend. This is not to say that Hamas will fare well—the Israelis might even be able to achieve their stated goal of wiping the group (or its leadership) out altogether—but rather to say that this is going to be a costly effort for the Israelis as well. Nobody, of course, is going to pay more heavily for an Israeli ground assault than Gaza’s civilian population.
A Palestinian gunman reportedly opened fire on Israeli police officers in East Jerusalem on Thursday, wounding two before being killed. At least 33 Palestinians have been killed in various incidents in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since Saturday, which obviously isn’t getting much attention but is a pretty shocking rate. It suggests a degree of escalation among several parties in the territory—Palestinian militants, Israeli security forces, and settlers.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel on Thursday in a show of support for the Israeli retaliation. In a sterling bit of mixed messaging, Blinken called on the Israelis to show restraint with respect to Gaza’s civilian population but also expressed “America’s unequivocal support” which means there’s probably no level of violence the Israeli military could visit on Gaza that would draw even a verbal rebuke from Washington. The Israelis say they’ve now dropped 6000 bombs on Gaza since Saturday—6000 bombs on a territory of some 325 square kilometers in six days—so “restraint” already seems to have gone out the window here anyway. Human Rights Watch is saying it has proof that Israeli forces have been employing white phosphorus, a chemical weapon that can mark targets or provide smokescreens but whose use in a populated area is a war crime. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to follow Blinken to Israel on Friday, where he will stress that the Biden administration is not conditioning military aid to Israel on the conduct of the Israeli military.
Those Gazans who manage to dodge the bombs are in danger of starving thanks to the “siege” the Israeli military has imposed on the enclave. Gaza is running out of electricity, fuel, medical supplies…you name it, chances are Gaza is almost out of it at this point. The Egyptian government has busied itself directing humanitarian aid to Sinai that could be shipped into Gaza if Israeli officials permit it. As it happens those Israeli officials made their first head nod in that direction on Thursday, suggesting they might ease the siege if Hamas and its fellow militants release the hostages they took over the weekend. The Red Cross says it’s interacting with Hamas and Israeli leaders to try to secure the hostages’ release. The Egyptians are definitely not, in case you were wondering, preparing to open any evacuation routes out of Gaza.
There are several reasons why an evacuation of Gaza’s civilian population into Egypt is problematic, and we’ve talked about a number of them over the past couple of days. World Politics Review’s Alexander Clarkson discusses another: the potential destabilizing effect of an influx of refugees into the already troubled northern Sinai region. Indeed there are risks for Egypt embedded in this war, given the potential for it to spread and the lingering presence of jihadist militants in Sinai. It seems to me that some of those risks could be lessened if an evacuation were conducted in as orderly a manner as possible with the heavy involvement of international relief agencies The possibility of a sudden, uncontrolled mass exodus of people out of Gaza and into Sinai seems significantly more destabilizing.
The Biden administration has decided to re-freeze the ~$6 billion in Iranian money it recently unfroze and had sent to Qatar as part of that prisoner exchange that took place last month. This is an entirely political decision rooted in the administration’s squeamishness about the criticism it’s come under since Saturday. That criticism has implied that somehow this money, which is securely deposited in Qatar and can only be used to purchase basic humanitarian items, paid for the militant attack in Israel, even though that attack must have been many months in the planning and this money only returned to partial (at best) Iranian control about a month ago. It doesn’t make sense by any logic other than DC logic. There is still no evidence pointing to a direct Iranian role in Saturday’s atrocities and even The Wall Street Journal has now partially walked back its BIG EXCLUSIVE suggesting otherwise. Instead of “Iran approved this attack” the narrative is now “Iran knew Hamas was planning attacks,” which, hey, I knew Hamas was “planning attacks.” Anybody who’s ever heard of Hamas should have known that Hamas was “planning attacks.” This is not a particularly high bar.
Anyway, as this is yet another agreement the US government entered into with Iran only to pull the rug out for purely political reasons we are squarely in “fool me twice” territory and there is absolutely no reason why any Iranian official (or, indeed, any official of any government that winds up on Washington’s Naughty List) should trust any deal the United States offers ever again. Which seems like it could become a problem at some point down the road. But, as always, what do I know?
The UAE discount air carrier flydubai announced on Thursday that it will be resuming flights to and from Kabul International Airport starting November 15. This makes it the first international airline to return to Afghanistan since the Taliban regained control of the country two years ago. Two Afghan carriers have been flying out of the facility to a handful of international destinations under an arrangement whereby a UAE firm is managing airport operations.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday denied a claim made in South Korean media that Beijing had repatriated some 600 “North Korean defectors” this week. According to Chinese officials there are no North Korean defectors in China. The ministry did allow that there are North Koreans who enter China seeking economic relief and insisted that it handles such cases “properly.” South Korean officials say they’ve asked their Chinese counterparts not to send North Korean nationals back home “against their will.”
In South Korea, meanwhile, the USS Ronald Reagan and its carrier strike group docked at the port of Busan on Thursday after participating in naval exercises alongside South Korean and Japanese vessels. The Reagan’s appearance is part of a new understanding between the South Korean and US governments to bring “strategic” US military assets to the Korean Peninsula more frequently and more prominently in an attempt to intimidate North Korea. These shows of force have perhaps taken on new relevance amid continued speculation that North Korea is sending or may begin sending arms to Russia to support Moscow’s war in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, the North Korean government expressed some displeasure with the Reagan’s arrival via state media. It would also not be terribly surprising if Pyongyang were to schedule an impromptu weapons test or two to emphasize its disapproval.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The United Nations has suspended and arrested eight members of its Congolese peacekeeping force over allegations of sexual abuse. All eight are reportedly South African and the allegations appear to involve reports of prostitution near their base in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province. The presence of UN peacekeepers has become an increasingly sore subject among Congolese citizens, mostly due to their apparent inability to keep the peace, and something like this could make those tensions worse. The UN and Congolese authorities are investigating but the most the UN can do in a situation like this is to send the offending peacekeepers home.
Madagascar’s High Constitutional Court has pushed next month’s presidential election back from November 9 to November 16, while leaving a hypothetical runoff scheduled for November 20. It ordered the postponement after two opposition candidates (including former President Marc Ravalomanana) were injured (both were struck by tear gas canisters) during anti-government protests earlier this month. The unrest has raised concerns about the country’s stability heading into the vote.
The Biden administration on Thursday blacklisted two shipping companies, one Emirati and one Turkish, for allegedly facilitating Russian oil sales in excess of the $60 per barrel price cap imposed last year by the G7, European Union, and Australia. These are the first sanctions the US has imposed related to the price cap. The administration has targeted individual ships under the cap in the past, generally threatening their insurance coverage. These firms will be barred from doing business with US-based companies, which could impact their ability to maintain operations.
There were more reports of what Reuters termed “fierce” fighting around the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka on Thursday. The Russian military has focused its attention on Avdiivka in recent weeks as it attempts to end the campaigning season with one more advance. Ukrainian forces are reportedly holding on for the time being but these reports are starting to take on the character of reporting from Bakhmut in the weeks before Russia seized that city.
The Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Turkish governments have agreed to form “a trilateral mechanism” to clear the Black Sea of mines. This appears to be just a general agreement without much in the way of operation detail, which the three governments will presumably flesh out in the coming days. The initiative comes in response to new concerns about the possible Russian use of floating mines to interdict commercial ships heading to and from Ukrainian ports.
Argentina’s annual inflation rate hit a whopping 138 percent in September, which I think it’s safe to assume will play a role in the country’s October 22 general election. Right-wing candidate Javier Milei remains the favorite based on his performance in August’s primary, though he still needs to make it through a likely runoff on November 19. His plan to effectively abandon the peso and dollarize the Argentine economy may play well with people concerned about inflation, though the currency switch will not be painless for a substantial number of Argentines. Some of Milei’s opponents have suggested that his rhetoric is contributing to the peso’s collapse—he has referred to it as “worth less than excrement”—but while there may be something to those accusations, the fallout only seems to improve Milei’s chances of winning.
Once and (he hopes) future Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ), already under indictment for allegedly taking bribes to influence US policy on behalf of the Egyptian government, was indicted a second time on Thursday for allegedly acting as an unregistered foreign agent for that same government. The new indictment dovetails with reporting that the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation into Menendez’s activities and may be the closest that prosecutors are willing to get to calling the senator an Egyptian asset. This charge will add to calls for Mendendez to resign from the Senate, something he’s still shown no inclination to do.
Finally, in case you missed it let me make another plea for you to check out Samuel Huneke’s new FX column on our recent societal flirtation with Nazi apologia:
On September 22, 2023, the Speaker of Canada’s House of Commons praised 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka as a “Ukrainian hero” who had fought Soviet troops in World War II. Shocked commentators quickly noted that the Soviet Union had been Canada’s ally in that war and that Hunka had been fighting on the side of the Nazis as a member of Waffen-SS. The fallout was swift. The Speaker apologized two days later and resigned his position soon thereafter. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued his own apology on September 27.
On October 2, British author Keir Giles penned a defense of Hunka and those who had lauded him in parliament. His article, published in POLITICO, contains a truly shocking paragraph that is worth quoting in full:
This history is complicated because fighting against the USSR at the time didn’t necessarily make you a Nazi, just someone who had an excruciating choice over which of these two terror regimes to resist. However, the idea that foreign volunteers and conscripts were being allocated to the Waffen-SS rather than the Wehrmacht on administrative rather than ideological grounds is a hard sell for audiences conditioned to believe the SS’s primary task was genocide. And simple narratives like “everybody in the SS was guilty of war crimes” are more pervasive because they’re much simpler to grasp.
Giles thus suggests that most people have been “conditioned” (that is, misled) into believing that the SS was primarily concerned with perpetrating genocide. Let me be as clear as possible: the SS was an organization primarily concerned with perpetrating genocide. Suggesting that this fact is something that people have been “conditioned” to accept is disturbingly close to Holocaust denial.
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