World roundup: October 26 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Pakistan, Sudan, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
TODAY IN HISTORY
October 26, 1185: A revolt over high Byzantine taxes breaks out among Bulgarians living in Moesia. This insurrection, known as the “Uprising of Asen and Peter” after its leaders—two brothers (identified as Vlach but probably with mixed Bulgarian heritage) who were named, you know, Asen and Peter—quickly led to a restoration of the Bulgarian Empire, which had been subjugated by the Byzantines in the 11th century. The restored empire is dated to the start of the uprising, though its independence wasn’t secured until around 1187 and technically its war with Byzantium continued all the way until the Fourth Crusade (temporarily) ended the Byzantine Empire in 1204. This “Second Bulgarian Empire” survived until it was eradicated by the Ottomans in 1396.
October 26, 1947: Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir signs the Instrument of Accession that brings his state into union with India. When British colonial authorities partitioned India and Pakistan, they decided to leave Kashmir’s fate up to Kashmir. The region’s Muslim majority was divided between independence and union with Pakistan, while its Hindu minority favored union with India. Hari Singh seemed to favor independence, but conflict between Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus prompted him to turn to India for help and Kashmir thus joined India.
For those of you who are concerned about artificial intelligence, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres announced the formation of a new “global advisory panel” on the issue on Thursday. I don’t expect this to accomplish very much but it seemed worth mentioning.
Likewise, for those of you who are concerned about rainforest loss and its impact on the global climate, biodiversity, etc., then you might be interested in the conference of rainforest states that opened on Thursday in Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo. I don’t expect this to accomplish very much either but as humanity’s ability to withstand climate change depends to a large degree on whether tropical rainforests can be protected, this also seemed worth mentioning.
As has become the norm there are multiple stories to mention here:
The Israeli military conducted an overnight raid into northern Gaza that sounds like it was effectively a trial run for its eventual ground operation. Israeli forces have been making raids into various parts of Gaza for several days now but the reporting around this particular one seems more consequential, perhaps because Israeli officials described it as part of their “preparation for the next stages of combat.”
Al Jazeera has published a couple of before-and-after satellite images showing the extent of the destruction the Israeli bombardment has wrought on parts of Gaza. I can’t embed them here but if you want to visualize what’s happening without looking at more graphic images these photos paint a pretty clear picture. The AP has also published a similar photo essay.
According to Hamas, said bombardment has killed nearly 50 of the more than 220 hostages Palestinian militants took back to Gaza in the wake of their October 7 rampage through southern Israel. There’s no way to confirm this but given the volume of ordinance Israel is dropping on Gaza it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Gaza’s health ministry reported on Thursday that the overall death toll after 20 days has risen above 7000. Responding to recent attempts by the US and Israeli governments to discount its casualty figures, the ministry on Thursday produced a list of 6747 Gazans it says have been killed by the Israeli military since October 7, with another 281 bodies still unidentified. While this isn’t conclusive evidence, it is more evidence than any of the ministry’s critics have managed to drum up to support their claim that these figures are being fabricated.
A member of Hamas’s political leadership cadre, Ghazi Hamad, gave an interview to the AP on Thursday in which, among other things, he said “we expect more” from the group’s regional allies, including and indeed specifically referring to Hezbollah. I’m not sure if this will trigger a more intense response from those allies but it certainly bears observation. According to France 24 the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has launched an online recruitment drive for volunteers willing to go to Gaza to fight but it hasn’t amounted to much, at least not among Iranians.
A rocket or missile reportedly hit the Egyptian Red Sea town of Taba, which is close to the Israeli border, early Friday morning. Taba is situated very close to the southern Israeli port town of Eilat, which has been targeted by militants, and in all likelihood this was a stray rocket fired out of Gaza. The blast injured at least six people. (UPDATE: Another projectile hit the Egyptian town of Nuweiba, some distance south of Taba. I haven’t seen any indication of casualties there.)
A new Foreign Affairs piece from Arab Barometer’s Amaney Jamal and Michael Robbins undercut the occasionally-proffered charge that all Gazans are responsible for the actions of Hamas since Hamas did win an election prior to its emergence as Gaza’s governing authority. This is both a vile defense of collective punishment and a stupid argument that ignores the fact that the election in question was held in 2006. Arab Barometer’s polling suggests that, prior to the October 7 attacks, Hamas was deeply unpopular in Gaza. Majorities of Gazan residents disapproved of Hamas on both practical performance grounds and ideologically, rejecting its views on Israel in favor of the mythical two-state solution. Of course, after 20 days of wanton bombardment with no end in sight and no real goal beyond the killing itself those views are likely to change.
A European Union leaders summit in Brussels on Thursday produced a call for “humanitarian corridors and pauses” to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in Gaza. It may be best to view this as a rejection of a full ceasefire, which is the only way to actually make it possible to distribute aid to Gazans, in favor of a few gimmicks that create the illusion of aid distribution and make proponents (the EU in this case, the US in the case of Wednesday’s vetoed UN Security Council resolution) seem like they’re Doing Something to protect civilians. In addition to a ceasefire, a drastic increase in the volume of aid entering Gaza is also required, but Western governments are too busy patting each other on the back for securing a tiny trickle of aid to push for more.
This story just broke as I was about to send out tonight’s roundup so I don’t have a lot of detail to offer, but the US military says it has struck two Syrian facilities used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its affiliated militias. I haven’t yet seen any indication where these facilities are located within Syria nor any indication as to the attacks’ effects in terms of casualties or damage.
US forces in Iraq and Syria have now been attacked at least 16 times since October 7, presumably by those Iranian-backed militias, and the Biden administration has been threatening some sort of retaliation against Iranian interests. The White House claimed on Thursday that it had delivered such a warning to none other than Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself. The US has attacked targets like this in the past, and while this instance is obviously different because it comes amid the Gaza war that does not mean that this situation is necessarily going to keep escalating.
At World Politics Review, the International Crisis Group’s Peter Salisbury offers an update on Yemen’s de facto ceasefire and the lack of progress toward a more permanent peace deal:
Then, after agreeing to extend it twice, in October 2022 the Houthis allowed the truce to lapse. To prevent a return to fighting, the Saudis—who at the time were also engaged in quiet Chinese-mediated normalization talks with Iran that included a regional détente—had decided to take matters into their own hands and negotiate directly with the Houthis.
A year later, the situation remains largely unchanged. Some frontline clashes aside, a de facto truce has largely held, and Yemen is neither at war nor at peace. The Houthis and Saudis have held several rounds of face-to-face negotiations, including—for the first time—in Sanaa and Riyadh, and the Saudis have further eased restrictions on imports and flights entering Houthi-controlled areas. But a breakthrough is still out of reach.
The two sides are struggling to find middle ground on a welter of issues, starting with Riyadh’s resistance to a formal, written agreement, as the Saudis want to reframe their role in Yemen to one of mediator and prefer an agreement be signed by the Houthis and the government. Other sticking points include Houthi demands for salaries to be channeled through their accounts in Sanaa and for the Saudis to commit to footing the bill for reconstruction, and Saudi demands for guarantees on border security.
An overnight Israeli bombardment reportedly sparked a fire that was at last check threatening the southern Lebanese village of Alma al-Shaab. The mayor of the nearby city of Naqoura, Abbas Awada, claimed that the fire was caused by white phosphorus, which Israeli forces do use to mark/illuminate targets (and allegedly sometimes as a chemical weapon on populated areas, but I digress). Efforts to combat the blaze were confounded by high winds. According to authorities in Alma al-Shaab most, but not all, of the village’s residents have already evacuated because of ongoing border clashes between the Israeli military and Hezbollah.
An explosion at a mosque in the predominantly Shiʿa Dashte Barchi neighborhood of Kabul killed at least two people and injured nine more on Thursday. There is as yet no indication as to what caused the blast but given the location an Islamic State attack of some sort has to be one of the leading theories. (UPDATE: Indeed, IS has now claimed responsibility for the bombing, which killed at least four.)
The Pakistani government is reportedly preparing to open “deportation centers” for processing the undocumented migrants that authorities have said they intend to begin expelling starting November 1. Pakistani authorities announced their plan to expel those migrants earlier this month, primarily targeted Afghan nationals amid claims that undocumented Afghans have been involved in a disproportionate number of suicide bombings this year. The expulsion will not apply to the estimated 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan but there are an estimated 1.7 million undocumented Afghans who could be deported.
Elsewhere, the Islamabad High Court ruled on Thursday that former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif can appeal his 2018 corruption convictions, potentially helping to clear a path for him to run for his old job next year. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party is hoping to go into the forthcoming election with Nawaz at the top of the ticket in place of his substantially less popular brother, Shehbaz Sharif, who had been serving as PM before turning things over to a caretaker government in August. But he’ll need to appeal those convictions and win those appeals for that to happen.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Thursday to kick off the highest profile Chinese visit to the US since the Great Spy Balloon Crisis earlier this year. On Friday, Wang is scheduled to meet at the White House with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and will reportedly have some sort of interaction with Joe Biden. It’s unclear what Blinken and Wang discussed but we can assume that plans for Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet in San Francisco next month were on the agenda.
The Rapid Support Forces group claimed on Thursday that its fighters had seized control of the city of Nyala, capital of Sudan’s South Darfur state and the largest city in Sudan outside of the three city (Khartoum, Omdurman, and Bahri or “Khartoum North”) capital region. There’s no confirmation of this assertion as far as I know, but if it’s true it would be the biggest decisive territorial development since this conflict began. The RSF has by many accounts gained substantial ground within the capital region but it hasn’t taken an entire city like this. It also greatly strengthens the RSF’s position in the Darfur region in general, which is not great news for the region’s non-Arab inhabitants given the RSF’s roots in the genocidal Janjaweed militia movement.
The AP reports on an increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Niger, where sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States in the wake of July’s coup have caused spikes in food prices and shortages of medicine and other key goods. The impact on Nigeriens is sparking calls for relaxing the sanctions and/or undertaking a humanitarian relief mission. Since collective punishment has been in the news lately I think it’s worth noting that these sanctions have done nothing to modulate the Nigerien junta’s plans and are inflicting pain on the Nigerien public to punish it for the junta’s intransigence.
The Nigerian Supreme Court on Thursday rejected what is probably the final legal challenge to President Bola Tinubu’s victory in February’s election. The second and third place finishers in that election, the People’s Democratic Party’s Atiku Abubakar of the PDP and the Labour Party’s Peter Obi, had alleged a number of procedural violations in the vote tally and attempted to argue that Tinubu had lied about his qualifications in claiming he’d received a degree from Chicago State University in the 1970s. The Court rejected the procedural arguments and refused to consider the degree claim because it relied on new evidence improperly submitted as part of an appeal petition. Not that there was much question anyway but this should be the last word on whether or not Tinubu really won the election.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
According to AFP the M23 militia has seized control of the town of Bambo, located some 60 kilometers north of the capital of the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province, Goma. This is part of what appears to be a new M23 offensive alongside ongoing fighting against pro-government militias closer to Goma.
Hamas and Iranian representatives visited Russia on Thursday, as Moscow apparently looks to stake out a “Great Power” role with respect to the war in Gaza. There’s no indication what they discussed and even less indication that it will matter, but the event is a noteworthy shift for a Russian government that has maintained at least cordial relations with Israel despite the Russia’s close relations with Iran and the fact that Russia and Israel have been on opposite sides in Syria. The Russians presumably view support for the Palestinians as a way to improve their standing among “Global South” nations.
If you’re still on the “Vladimir Putin had a serious heart attack” kick I would say it’s time to let it go. Putin was seen in video presiding over Wednesday’s nuclear drill, and while I guess that could’ve been a body double or whatever this whole thing seems to be, as the AP called it, a “baseless claim.”
Speaking of baseless claims, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby insisted to reporters on Thursday that “we have information that the Russian military has been actually executing soldiers who refuse to follow orders” and “Russian commanders are threatening to execute entire units if they seek to retreat from Ukrainian artillery fire.” It’s all very simple and believable, I suppose. I’m not saying that this is inconceivable, just that the phrase “we have information” isn’t exactly conclusive proof, especially when it comes from a US government spokesperson.
The Biden administration on Thursday announced a new $150 million tranche of military aid for Ukraine, mostly including ammunition. The administration appears to be scraping the bottom of the Ukrainian budget barrel unless/until the US Congress approves its recent funding request.
Polish President Andrzej Duda announced on Thursday that he will not convene Poland’s new parliament until November 13, nearly a full month after the recent parliamentary election. By law that’s the maximum allowed interval between an election and the start of the next parliamentary session, and the fact that he’s waiting that long indicates he plans to drag out the government formation process as long as possible in hopes of confounding the opposition coalition that appears to be in line to take power. Duda favors the current ruling Law and Justice Party.
Keeping his most publicized campaign promise, new Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico announced on Thursday that his government will cease providing military aid to Ukraine but will continue providing humanitarian assistance. This is not much of a setback for the Ukrainian military, but as I’ve noted Fico could make some trouble for the European Union’s Ukraine policy moving forward. He’s suggested, for example, that he would oppose any new EU-wide economic sanctions targeting Russia.
Ecuador’s government said on Thursday that it is imposing daily power cuts through at least the middle of December. A massive drought, likely fueled by El Niño, has heavily impacted production at Ecuador’s hydroelectric dams and as a result the country is no longer producing enough electricity to meet demand.
The US State Department will open a “presence post” in the northern Norwegian city of Tromsoe on Friday. The facility will not provide any consular services and is meant solely to establish, as the term indicates, a US presence in Europe north of the Arctic Circle, in a region that is likely to take on greater geo-strategic significance over the coming decades. The US previously had an outpost at Tromsoe that it closed in 1994, and the city is home to the largely defunct (due to tensions over the war in Ukraine) Arctic Council.
Finally, The Intercept’s Nick Turse reports on a secret US military operation in Lebanon that, under the circumstances, is putting additional US personnel at risk:
The State Department urged U.S. citizens to leave Lebanon on Sunday “due to the unpredictable security situation.” The warning followed clashes between protesters and Lebanese security forces in a Beirut suburb near the U.S. Embassy after hundreds of Palestinians were killed last week in a blast at Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza. The unrest seems to confirm the fears of almost eight in 10 Americans that the war between Israel and Hamas will lead to a broader conflict in the Middle East.
But few Americans realize that the United States has long been embroiled in a wider war in Lebanon, and that U.S. forces may be a target there, as well. The U.S. has, over decades, poured billions of dollars in security assistance into Lebanon and conducted counterterrorism efforts against Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shia group with political and military wings. Lebanon’s dominant political and military force, Hezbollah has long been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.
In the shadow of that conflict, the U.S. has waged another “secret war” in Lebanon against Sunni terror groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, according to a former four-star commander who oversaw the effort, declassified documents, former special operators with knowledge of the program, and analysts who have investigated U.S. Code Title 10 § 127e — known in military parlance as “127-echo” — which allows Special Operations forces to use foreign military units as proxies.
Attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East have already ramped up with drone strikes on American troops in multiple locations across Iraq and Syria, and drone and missile attacks from Yemen on a U.S. Navy destroyer in the northern Red Sea. Experts say that secrecy surrounding the 127e program in Lebanon, known as Lion Hunter, whose existence The Intercept revealed last year, could embroil the U.S. in a wider war in the Middle East and pose an additional threat to U.S. troops.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.