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World roundup: October 28 2021
Stories from Turkey, Sudan, Hungary, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
October 27, 1991: Turkmenistan’s independence day
October 27, 2019: Surrounded by US special forces during an overnight raid in the town of Barisha, in Syria’s Idlib province, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonates a suicide vest, killing himself and three children.
October 28, 312: Constantine makes himself the sole ruler of the western Roman Empire by defeating his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. This battle is perhaps most famous for the religious vision that Constantine allegedly received the night before, in which either Jesus Christ or Sol Invictus (“the Unconquered Sun”), showed him a sign and promised him victory if he affixed that sign to his soldiers’ shields. This is supposedly the first step in Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, though it was still some time before he appears to have declared himself a Christian and official worship of Sol Invictus continued and was even promoted by Constantine himself for several years to come.
Surviving references have Constantine attributing the alleged sign to Christ (in these accounts it’s said to have been the “Chi-Rho,” the interlocking Greek letters that represent the first two letters of “Christ” and came to symbolize Jesus), but there are hints that Constantine may have originally attributed it to the the solar deity before his later conversion to Christianity. The battle left Constantine as the unquestioned ruler of the Roman west, with his fellow Augustus Licinius as ruler of the Roman east, and marks the effective end of Diocletian’s (d. 305) four emperor “Tetrarchy” system. Naturally the two Augusti eventually went to war with one another, with Constantine emerging victorious as the sole Roman ruler in 324.
October 28, 1922: Sticking with Rome, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party begins the two day March on Rome that would end with its takeover of the Italian government. As Mussolini’s blackshirts approached the city, Prime Minister Luigi Facta called for martial law, but Italian King Victor Emmanuel III opted instead to get rid of Facta and make Mussolini his new prime minister. I’m sure it all worked out fine in the end.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
There’s a new problem bedeviling efforts to get COVID vaccines to the developing world—a syringe shortage. The World Health Organization said on Thursday that it and UNICEF are anticipating a deficit of around 2.2 billion syringes as they attempt to distribute vaccines across Africa. At this point only five African states are expected to reach as much as 40 percent vaccination rates by the end of this year.
With the COP-26 climate summit in Glasgow looming next week, a new report from the Systems Change Lab finds that humanity is making scant progress toward meeting international emissions targets. The report looked at 31 indicators across 40 economic sectors and found that not a single one was on a track consistent with the goal of limiting the average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius and thus avoid some of climate change’s more intense effects. Well, look, at least we’re trying, right? Oh, not really? OK then.
In another alarming piece of climate news, a new United Nations report finds that ten of the 257 global forests designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites are now emitting more carbon than they absorb. Two of these are located in the US, in case you were wondering: Grand Canyon National Park and Yosemite National Park. A combination of direct human activity (overlogging) and indirect human activity (wildfires exacerbated by climate change-induced drought) has turned these former carbon sinks into carbon spigots.
At Responsible Statecraft, Daniel Davis examines the ongoing folly that is the US military presence in Syria:
Last week U.S. forces operating in Syria were attacked by armed drones, allegedly by an Iranian-backed militia. On Tuesday, Al Jazeera reported that senior Biden Administration officials emphasized the president has no intention of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. That is a mistake that may, sooner or later, result in yet more pointless deaths of American service members.
President Biden needs to withdraw all the troops from Syria, immediately.
There are too many among Washington’s foreign policy elite who have become, frankly stated, addicted to the idea of keeping as many American troops deployed in combat operations around the world as possible. For many years they have fought, aggressively, any consideration of withdrawing troops from any fight, anywhere, any time – and except for ending the war in Afghanistan last August, they have succeeded at thwarting any withdrawal. This latest resistance to ending our combat operations in Syria is only the latest example.
It was apparently another hectic day for the Saudi military in Yemen, as Saudi media is reporting that the kingdom’s forces killed 95 Houthi fighters in airstrikes around the city of Maʾrib. As always the same caveat about lack of confirmation applies.
In a sign of things to come (and some things that have already come and gone), the combination of over-irrigation and climate change is drying up lakes across Turkey. This includes Lake Tuz, which is located in central Turkey northeast of the city of Konya and is the second-largest lake in the country—or, rather, it was the second-largest lake in the country back when it still held water. It’s virtually dried up, probably for good though it sounds like some folks are harboring the hope that it could be revived with some sound irrigation management. Lake Van, Turkey’s largest lake, has also apparently receded significantly.
On the international front, the Turkish government has expressed interest in purchasing 40 new F-16 aircraft as well as 80 kits for upgrading their current F-16s to the latest model (presumably the F-16E/F variety though it’s not entirely clear from the reporting). It’s made the purchase request after having been cut from the F-35 program over its decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defense systems. The potential sale has already triggered a backlash in the US Congress, as 11 members of the House of Representatives wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week urging the Biden administration not to move forward and warning that Congress could block the transaction if it comes to that. Ankara has lost a considerable amount of Congressional support for a variety of reasons, from human rights issues to its relationship with Russia, its clashes with Greece and other European countries in the eastern Mediterranean, and the role it’s played in conflicts in Libya, Syria, and the Caucasus.
Residents of the village of al-Rashad, in Iraq’s Diyala province, reportedly attacked the nearby village of Nahr al-Imam on Wednesday, killing 11 people and causing an untold amount of damage. They’re blaming Nahr al-Imam’s residents for involvement in an Islamic State attack the previous day on al-Rashad that killed at least 15 people (up from initial reports of 11 dead). Nahr al-Imam is a predominantly Sunni village, so I guess the implication is that its residents colluded somehow with IS in attacking predominantly Shiʿa al-Rashad, though I’m not sure what exact causal linkage they’re alleging. It would appear that elements of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization militia forces participated in the retaliatory attack. The Iraqi government has now deployed special forces and has sent several senior officials to Diyala to try to tamp down what could become a full blown sectarian conflict.
The Biden administration on Thursday sanctioned two Lebanese businessmen and one member of parliament over suspected corruption. The two businessmen allegedly traded on their political influence to win lucrative government contracts, while the lawmaker is accused of trying to move tens of millions of dollars offshore.
On a happy note, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held his annual “Davos in the Desert” event—the actual name is the “Foreign Investment Initiative”—this week and it sounds like all the world’s finest Business Leaders were there, including “finance titans such as Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of the world’s biggest asset manager, BlackRock, who joined a panel that featured Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon and South African mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe.” It seems these beacons of goodness and morality have decided to forgive MBS for his little oopsie back in 2018, when he ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (also for Yemen, I guess, though they never really seemed to care about that). Desert Davos hasn’t been quite as luminous since then, but thankfully things finally seem to be getting back to normal.
The Chinese government has generously offered to build the Tajik police a brand new security checkpoint along the border between its Gorno-Badakhshan province and Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. Oh, and also China’s Xinjiang region. The facility will not (probably) house any Chinese military forces, but it will allow the Tajik government to keep a watch on happenings in Afghanistan, now ruled by a Taliban regime that has a long and not terribly friendly history with the Tajik government. And if the Tajiks should feel inclined to keep Beijing apprised of those happenings, well, I suppose that’s up to them.
The Indian military successfully (it says) tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile—nuclear capable, we’re told, as though there were any reason to manufacture an ICBM other than potentially nuking someone—on Wednesday in the Bay of Bengal. The test was undoubtedly intended to send a message to Beijing, since India doesn’t need an ICBM to nuke Pakistan should the mood strike. Coincidentally, or maybe not, the test comes as tensions over the Chinese-Indian border are rising again.
In an interview with CNN published Thursday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen confirmed perhaps one of the worst-kept secrets in international affairs, that US special forces are stationed in Taiwan training the Taiwanese military. Earlier this month The Wall Street Journal reported that US forces were in Taiwan, which it portrayed as a big scoop even though both the US and Taiwan have let that information slip on a number of occasions.
The Chinese government instituted a new emissions reduction plan on Thursday, days ahead of the start of the COP-26 climate summit in Glasgow, that is a bit more ambitious than its previous plans but not ambitious enough to matter. The new agenda still calls for China to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions in 2030 and “net zero” carbon emissions by 2060, but it does oblige China to draw 25 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels by 2030, where the previous agenda had put that figure at 20 percent. So…hooray? I guess? Like I said, the change isn’t enough to make an inadequate climate plan adequate to the global challenge.
In a conclusion that I’m sure will shock you, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has determined that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un recently lost a substantial amount of weight (some 20 kilograms or 44 pounds) because…he wanted to. Yes, that’s right, he’s not dying of COVID, or tuberculosis, or melanchonia, etc. He just went on a diet and maybe upped his exercise regimen.
I’d like to say this is the last time that a relatively innocuous change in Kim’s appearance will spark a wave of speculation about his imminent demise, but we all know that’s not true.
Two new polls from Japan suggest that the Liberal Democratic Party is at risk of winning fewer than 233 seats and thereby losing its sole majority in the House of Representatives in Sunday’s election. New Prime Minister Kishida Fumio isn’t at serious risk of losing his job, as the LDP’s coalition with the Komeito should still retain a collective majority. But it will be quite a comedown for the party, which controlled 276 seats in the 465 seat chamber in the just-ended parliamentary session.
Intense protests against Sudan’s ruling junta left at least one person dead in Khartoum on Thursday. Earlier in the day, junta boss Abdel Fattah al-Burhan canned six Sudanese diplomats on Thursday after they’d criticized the coup. Among these were Khartoum’s ambassadors to the US and China. According to Reuters, at least 11 people have been killed in protests since Monday’s coup, which continues to draw substantial international opposition in addition to the domestic protests.
Perhaps conceding to some of that pressure, Burhan delivered a speech on Thursday evening in which he appeared to suggest that the junta is “negotiating” with ousted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok over the formation of a new technocratic government. Again according to Reuters, Burhan said that Hamdok “is free to form the government” and that the Sudanese military “will not intervene in the government formation.” Who knows if any of this is true. Burhan may be trying to show the international community that he’s earnest in trying to get Sudan’s transition back on track. But I suppose it is possible that Hamdok could emerge from this at the head of a new technocratic government. How much actual power he’d have is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, Burhan’s comments raise the question of what exactly it is he’s hoping to get out of this coup. At Responsible Statecraft, Alex de Waal suggests that even Burhan himself may not really know:
As the date for al-Burhan’s rotation off the Chairmanship of the Sovereignty Council approached — his days as de facto head of state running out — he had reason to be worried. Sudan was stumbling along the right track, but he and his cabal of senior officers and crony capitalists were facing the reality that democracy, the rule of law, and the creation of a level economic playing field, meant that they were set to lose out.
Al-Burhan is a feeble imitation of his predecessors as military dictator. He has shown no confidence on the political stage, produced no powerful backers at home or abroad, offered no practical alternatives to Hamdok’s policies. He doesn’t command the institutions of state — the ministry of information and Sudan’s diplomatic corps, among others, still profess loyalty to the ”legitimate” government of Hamdok. The protesters are back on the street, undeterred by threats of violence. Al-Burhan’s coup is transparently an attempt to protect personal and factional interests, and the Sudanese populace and international community have instantly seen it as such. It’s less a seizure of power than a gesture of powerlessness.
Mali’s ruling junta, meanwhile, expelled Economic Community of West African States representative Hamidou Boly from the country on Monday, ostensibly for meeting with groups that are “hostile to the transition.” The obvious response to this would be “what transition?” even though the junta insists it still intends to hold elections at some undetermined point after the end of this year. ECOWAS on Thursday termed the expulsion “extreme.”
The Ethiopian military conducted more airstrikes on the Tigray regional capital, Mekelle on Thursday, killing at least ten people according to Reuters. Ethiopian officials say the strikes hit a factory being used as a military depot by the Tigray People's Liberation Front, while TPLF officials are claiming the strikes hit a residential neighborhood. You’ll note that both of these are possible, and as ever it’s impossible to get independent confirmation or verification.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Congolese army says its forces have killed 27 Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) rebel fighters in clashes in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province this week. Four Congolese soldiers have also been killed. CODECO is made up of local militias of the Lendu community and has been militarily active for a couple of decades now (its roots go back to the 1970s as an agricultural cooperative, hence the un-militia-like name). Congolese forces also reportedly killed three Allied Democratic Forces fighters in a separate engagement in neighboring North Kivu province on Thursday.
European Union foreign policy head Josep Borrell on Thursday accused Russia of “weaponizing” natural gas prices against Moldova. Borrell’s comments come after Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița revealed earlier this week that Russia’s Gazprom firm had more than tripled Moldovan gas prices instead of renewing its previous annual contract. It’s unclear what Russia is hoping to get from Moldova here—the Russian government insists it’s not trying to get anything, for what it’s worth—but the Moldovan government has shifted in a Western direction over the past year, so the Russians may be using them as an example to other Eastern European governments.
Polling in Hungary indicates that a newly formed alliance of six opposition parties could unseat Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party in next year’s parliamentary election. The alliance, consisting of parties whose only commonality is a desire to show Orbán the door, chose politically independent Hódmezővásárhely Mayor Péter Márki-Zay as its standard-bearer earlier this month. A survey published this week has it at 39 percent support, slightly ahead of Fidesz at 35 percent, with 23 percent uncommitted. That’s not a substantial lead by any measure and the election is still some time off (a date hasn’t yet been set), but it does suggest that Orbán is vulnerable.
The UK Foreign Ministry on Thursday summoned the French ambassador in London after another escalation in the ongoing bilateral dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights. Angry over what they say is the British government’s refusal to issue fishing permits to French vessels, French officials have issued threats to close French waters and ports to British fishing boats and to interrupt cross-English Channel shipping. There’s even some concern that French fishermen could try to use their boats to blockade British ports.
Please try to contain your shock, but Jair Bolsonaro will not be attending the COP-26 climate summit next week. To be honest this is probably for the best. Bolsonaro will instead depart this weekend’s G20 summit in Rome to visit the Italian town of Anguillara Veneta, which for reasons beyond my ability to comprehend has decided to make him an honorary citizen.
Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nations has agreed to suspend its days-long protest over fuel subsidy cuts, after President Guillermo Lasso invited protest leaders to meet with him on November 10 to discuss the issue. Unions and indigenous groups have been blocking roads throughout Ecaudor over the cuts, which have raised prices to $2.55 per gallon for gasoline and $1.90 per gallon for diesel.
Based on interviews with “hundreds of sanctions stakeholders,” the report outlines five steps that should be taken to “adapt and modernize the underlying operational architecture by which sanctions are deployed.” Yet the recommendations are so vague and generic they approach meaninglessness. Worst of all, they are still predicated on the assumption that sanctions regimes should remain in place, but simply be “improved.” The report does nothing to criticize the harsh sanctions regimes Biden inherited from Trump, nor indicate any intention to pivot away from those policies.
Remarkably, it does not mention the COVID pandemic that Biden initially cited as the impetus for conducting such a report in the first place. Those agitating for sanctions relief are alarmed. “This seems like someone procrastinated on a homework assignment and wrote it the night before,” said Cavan Kharrazian from the advocacy organization Demand Progress.
The report isn’t just short but ambiguous. The report has a section on the need to “modernize” sanctions, which may, on its face, seem like a good thing, but actually just amounts to a call for further investment in sanctions. In this case, modernization means more resources and personnel devoted to sanctions enforcement and infrastructure.
One of the calls for “improvements” is almost darkly comical: The report urges an updated and less cumbersome website “to offer clearer guidance to better support humanitarian groups and regulated entities, as well as sanctions targets themselves.” I’m sure Iranians desperately seeking care for their loved ones would find comfort knowing the Treasury Department wants to update the website.