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World roundup: October 20 2022
Stories from Lebanon, Mozambique, Italy, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
October 19, 1469: Prince Ferdinand of Aragon marries Infanta Isabella of Castile in the marriage that would eventually unite the two kingdoms and give birth to the nation of Spain.
October 19, 1781: The Siege of Yorktown ends with a French-American victory over the British army under Lord Charles Cornwallis. The surrender of an entire British army marked the effective end of the American Revolution.
October 20, 1448: The Second Battle of Kosovo ends
October 20, 1962: Chinese forces attack India in two disputed border regions—Ladakh in the west and the Tibet-Arunachal Pradesh region in the east, beginning the month-long Sino-Indian War. The conflict ended with a decisive Chinese victory that stabilized the still poorly defined Chinese-Indian border on Beijing’s terms.
October 20, 2011: With the tide of Libya’s civil war having turned decisively against him, thanks in no small measure to NATO’s intervention, a fleeing Muammar Gaddafi is captured by rebels west of the city of Sirte and summarily executed. This of course brought the war to a decisive conclu-just kidding. Had you there for a minute, didn’t I?
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
In a bit of…oh, let’s go with “not terrible” climate news, the International Energy Agency is estimating that global carbon dioxide emissions will only rise by around 1 percent this year, edging up around 300 million metric tons to top out at around 33.8 billion metric tons. That same figure rose by a whopping 2 billion metric tons last year, which admittedly had something to do with coming out of the pandemic lockdown period. So this 2022 estimate isn’t great (a global emissions reduction would be much better), but given how many countries have boosted their hitherto flagging coal industries amid energy shortages things certainly could be worse. The IEA credits growth in both renewable energy use and in the electric vehicle market for keeping emissions growth relatively low.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is accusing the Turkish military of using chemical weapons against its fighters in northern Iraq and has produced videos it says back up that accusation. Additionally, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War claims its personnel uncovered “indirect evidence” of chemical weapons use—apparently hydrochloric acid and bleach, which could indicate the production of chlorine gas—in northern Iraq during a trip to an abandoned Turkish facility in the region last month. Turkish officials have acknowledged using tear gas against the PKK—which, depending on how and where it’s used, could skirt the line in terms of international law around chemical weapons. But they’re rejecting both the PKK and IPPNW claims, with presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın, for example, calling them “a futile attempt by those who try to whitewash and airbrush terrorism.”
A car bombing in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah left at least two people injured on Thursday. There’s no indication yet as to responsibility and/or motive.
Members of the Lebanese parliament tried and failed for a third time to elect a president on Thursday. While legislators did attain a quorum at Thursday’s session with 119 of the body’s 128 members present, the leading vote-getter was MP Michel Moawad with only 42 votes. That put him 13 votes behind “blank ballot” and well shy of the majority he’d need to be elected.
Incumbent President Michel Aoun’s term ends on October 31, and if there’s no successor in place his powers would devolve to the prime minister. The problem there is that the current PM, Najib Mikati, is serving in a caretaker role as parliament has not confirmed a new government since May’s election. It would be deeply awkward to have Mikati serving as both caretaker PM and caretaker president, so there’s some impetus to get him confirmed as full-fledged PM at the head of a new government by the end of the month. Of course, if parliament can’t agree on a new president there’s a good chance it won’t be able to agree on a new government either.
According to Palestinian officials, Israeli occupation forces killed one Palestinian man during an arrest raid in the West Bank city of Jenin overnight. Israeli officials have not commented on the report as yet.
As expected, the European Union imposed new sanctions on Iran on Thursday over its recent arms sales to Russia. Among the blacklisted were Shahed Aviation Industries, the contractor responsible for the Shahed-136 drone that seems to be the key to the Russian military’s recent attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, along with three generals with ties to Iran’s drone program. Iranian officials do not deny that they have a “defense cooperation” relationship with Russia but insist they’re not deliberately selling weapons for use in Ukraine. Basically the argument is that they make the weapons but it’s Russia’s decision how or where to use them. That bit of hand-washing may be somewhat undermined by reports of Iranian personnel having deployed to Crimea to train Russians on operating their drones.
The Iranian military, meanwhile, has reportedly decided to hold a very large military exercise conspicuously close to the Azerbaijani border. This seems like a not-so-subtle message to Baku related to its demands for a “corridor” through Armenia that connects Azerbaijan proper to its Nakhchivan exclave. The Iranian government opposes Azerbaijan’s insistence on a bespoke road and rail throughway running across southern Armenia, fearing (perhaps rightly) that it would effectively close the Iranian-Armenian border. Notably, the Iranians appear to be drilling on a scenario in which their forces would cross the Aras River—which just so happens to run along a large portion of the Iran-Azerbaijan border. I haven’t seen any response to these drills from the Azerbaijani government.
The Malaysian government has scheduled its forthcoming snap election for November 19. Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob dissolved parliament earlier this month as his coalition appeared to be unraveling and with the hope that his United Malays National Organization party could win a sole majority in a new election. UMNO’s popular support has taken a hit in recent years due to corruption, but the combination of a fragmented opposition and expected low voter turnout should work to the party’s favor in this election.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Thursday that he’s cut a deal to purchase heavy-lift helicopters from the United States, after scrapping a deal negotiated by his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, to purchase the vehicles from Russia. As late as Wednesday night, Russian ambassador Marat Pavlov was telling reporters that Manila had not officially canceled this sale and called on Marcos to fulfill its terms, but it seems Marcos is unwilling to risk violating Western sanctions imposed due to the war in Ukraine. Manila has already made an initial payment to Russia and at this point it’s very unclear whether it will be able to recoup any portion of that.
The US government may institute a joint weapons development program with Taiwan, essentially sidestepping concerns over shipping arms to the island or further drawing down US weapons stockpiles by producing new armaments in Taiwan instead. The head of the US-Taiwan Business Council, Rupert Hammond-Chambers, told Reuters that this idea is still in its formative stages and has a lot of hoops to jump through before it could become operational. But US defense contractors will certainly support it and that tends to go a long way in Washington.
According to the AP, over 170 people have been killed in just the past two days due to inter-communal violence in southern Sudan’s Blue Nile state. Fighting between members of the Hausa and Berta communities began last week but it’s unclear what’s caused that situation to escalate so severely. The Hausa are claiming that they’ve come under attack by some unknown group wielding “heavy weapons,” but there don’t seem to be any details beyond that.
Anti-junta protests organized by Guinea’s outlawed National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC) in Conakry turned violent on Thursday, with the group claiming that police shot at least five demonstrators. At least one of those five was reportedly in critical condition. The FNDC, which calls for a sped up transition to civilian governance, is planning to hold nationwide protests next Wednesday.
Fighting between farming and herding communities in Nigeria’s Benue state has left at least 23 people dead this week [UPDATE: at least 36 dead] and the violence may not be over. According to Reuters the violence began on Tuesday when residents of a village in Benue killed two herders and stole their cattle. That prompted a reprisal attack by herders the following day. Benue lies along Nigeria’s central band, where climate change has forced farmers and herders into closer contact and competition over dwindling amounts of arable land and other resources. That competition can at times turn violent.
Nationwide anti-junta protests in Chad left at least 50 people dead on Thursday. The demonstrations were intended to mark the date by which Chad’s ruling junta had promised to transition the country back to civilian rule when it seized power back in April 2021. Junta leader Mahamat Déby has recently reorganized the junta into a facsimile of a civilian government with himself named interim president, but fundamentally little has changed about the makeup of that government. Chadian authorities say that at least ten security personnel were among those killed and are blaming protesters in major cities like N’Djamena and Moundou for “attacking” public buildings and thus sparking the clashes.
The African Union is going to try for a second time to organize peace talks between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in South Africa, this time starting on Monday. The Ethiopian government sounds like it’s committed to attending while the TPLF’s response seems a bit less enthusiastic but not negative. The AU tried to hold talks earlier this month but they fell apart amid speculation that the TPLF wasn’t pleased with the arrangements.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Allied Democratic Forces militia fighters reportedly attacked two health centers in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province overnight, killing at least seven people and kidnapping a nurse. Local authorities also say the attackers “burned and looted villages” during their rampage, but haven’t elaborated as far as I can tell.
According to The Washington Post, the United States and European Union are increasing their assistance to the Mozambican government as it battles Islamist militants who are impacting the country’s nascent natural gas industry:
“They have completely stopped LNG operations from moving forward,” said a U.S. Embassy official in the capital, Maputo, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation freely. “There certainly is a new urgency for LNG with Ukraine.”
Africa has become a new frontier for Islamist militant groups in recent years, with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State spreading rapidly across the continent. Though the groups still claim global aspirations, they are engaged here in local conflicts, capitalizing on weak governments and exploiting old grievances and inequities.
Last year, the State Department designated the Islamic State of Mozambique, or ISIS-Mozambique, as a foreign terrorist organization, though the group is believed to have fewer than 500 fighters. The United States also imposed sanctions on the group’s leader, Abu Yasir Hassan, though it’s unclear whether he is still in charge, or is even still alive.
The Pentagon’s Africa Command is training Mozambican troops to improve their counterterrorism capabilities. The European Union is spending $89 million to train and equip 11 rapid-reaction units of the Mozambican army, in part because Portuguese and Italian oil companies also operate here alongside TotalEnergies.
The Ukrainian government on Thursday announced localized blackouts to alleviate pressure on an electrical grid that’s been pulverized by Russian attacks over the past week and a half. President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated his previous call for Ukrainians to restrict their electricity usage. He further alleged that this latest Russian tactic is intended to create a wave of Ukrainian refugees this winter, as people may have no choice but to leave the country if they’re unable to find adequate power and heat.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella opened consultations on forming a new government on Thursday, even as a festering dispute between two members of the right-wing coalition that won last month’s election is preventing them from finalizing a cabinet. Brothers of Italy party leader and presumptive prime minister Giorgia Meloni still finds herself squabbling with Forza Italia boss Silvio Berlusconi, though increasingly their discord seems to be less about the assignment of cabinet ministries and more about their polar opposite views on the war in Ukraine. Meloni, in contrast with Berlusconi and the third member of their would-be triumvirate, League party boss Matteo Salvini, has expressed support both for Ukraine and for the Western effort to arm the Ukrainian military and sanction the Russian economy. Berlusconi, meanwhile, is busy getting cases of vodka from Vladimir Putin for his birthday—probably in violation of European Union sanctions.
Where the cabinet assignments come into play is that Berlusconi has been insisting on his party controlling the foreign ministry in the still-hypothetical coalition government, but as PM Meloni is going to expect to set that government’s foreign policy tone. So she’s going to expect Berlusconi and Salvini to toe the line on Ukraine or at least not disagree with her positions publicly, which Berlusconi in particular may not be willing to do. Speculation over a deeper reason for this dispute has veered into the psychological—maybe Berlusconi isn’t happy as a junior partner in the coalition—but whatever the cause this coalition is not off to a particularly solid start. Technically it’s not off to a start at all.
With a growing number of her Conservative Party’s MPs in open revolt, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss announced her resignation on Thursday. Say what you will, but she had a good run. Well, she had a run, anyway. Just as they say only the good die young, only a truly great prime minister can resign after a mere 44 days on the job. That makes Truss the shortest serving (and therefore best) PM in British history. Truss’s already short rope ran out on Wednesday, when not only did Home Secretary Suella Braverman resign after breaking government email rules but Truss abruptly turned a vote on a fracking bill into a confidence vote in her government—in which she didn’t even bother to vote. Tory MPs didn’t care for the last minute confidence gimmick and apparently let her know about it.
There’s not much point trying to analyze Truss’s legacy because she didn’t have time to leave one, so I guess the main issue is who’s likely to succeed her. The two main losers of the party’s previous leadership election, Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, are almost certain to run, and Braverman and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace may also throw their hats into the ring. The most provocative potential candidate is, of course, the man Truss replaced, Boris Johnson. So far he hasn’t committed to anything but there are rumors that he’d like to get his old job back and there seems to be support for that among Conservative Party members.
The Financial Times is reporting that Venezuelan opposition parties may move to oust Juan Guaidó from his pretend job as Venezuela’s pretend president. There’s no word as to whether they’re planning to hold a pretend impeachment. I’d say this must be part of some bigger strategic plan but I think it’s more just a recognition of the fact that Guaidó’s attempt to claim the presidency has failed and he barely even registers as an afterthought these days. The opposition is planning to hold a primary next year ahead of Venezuela’s 2024 presidential election and having Guaidó running around still claiming to be the rightful incumbent would probably complicate that process.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Colombia grew a whopping 204,000 hectares of coca in 2021, easily the country’s largest coca yield on record. That fueled the production of 1400 tons of cocaine, up from 1010 tons in 2020. Colombian Justice Minister Néstor Osuna argued that these figures show the failure of the “War on Drugs” and, uh, it’s hard to argue with that. As alternatives to that failure, Colombian President Gustavo Petro has proposed measures ranging from amnesty for drug traffickers to land redistribution to encourage small farmers to grow crops other than coca.
Finally, in a new report the Quincy Institute’s William Hartung looks at ways to keep the tail from wagging the dog when it comes to US arms sales:
The administration needs to address a number of key issues if U.S. policy on arms sales is to be made consistent with long-term U.S. interests. The key policy consideration is how to restrict sales to those that will help allies defend themselves without provoking arms races or increasing the prospects for conflict. Of particular note, the Australia-UK-U.S., or AUKUS submarine deal will benefit U.S. contractors but risks fueling arms competition and increasing tensions with China.
Aid designed to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia has proceeded at the most rapid pace of any U.S. military assistance program since at least the peak of the Vietnam War. But the United States has failed to offer an accompanying diplomatic strategy aimed at ending the war before it evolves into a long, grinding conflict or escalates into a direct U.S.-Russian confrontation.
Finally, Washington needs to take steps to ensure that the financial interests of a handful of weapons contractors do not drive critical U.S. arms export policy decisions. Of the $101 billion in major arms offers since the Biden administration took office, over 58 percent involved weapons systems produced by four companies: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. The concentrated lobbying power of these companies — including a “revolving door” from the Pentagon’s arms sales agency and the leveraging of weapons export-related jobs into political influence — has been brought to bear in efforts to expand U.S. weapons exports to as many foreign clients as possible, often by helping to exaggerate threats.
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