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World roundup: October 30-31 2021
Stories from Lebanon, Japan, Ethiopia, and more
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Happy Halloween to those who are celebrating!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
October 29, 1923: Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, officially declares the country a republic, although it had been functioning as one for over three years by that point. Annually commemorated in Turkey as “Republic Day.”
October 29, 1929: The “Crash of ‘29,” which began with “Black Thursday” on October 24 and continued with “Black Monday” on October 28, ends with “Black Tuesday.” Over those final two days the stock market lost roughly a quarter of its value. By July 1932 the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at just over 40 points, down from roughly 380 in September 1929. The crash signaled the onset of the Great Depression, a global economic collapse that especially hit industrialized Western nations and those countries dependent on the West for trade and investment and that wouldn’t really end in many places until after the onset of World War II.
October 29, 1956: The Suez Crisis begins
October 30, 1270: The Eighth Crusade ends
October 30, 1340: The Battle of Río Salado
October 30, 1918: Ottoman leaders sign the Armistice of Mudros, ending the empire’s involvement in World War I and, as it turned out, its existence.
October 31, 1517: Martin Luther mails his Ninety-five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, the event that has come to mark the start of the Protestant Reformation. He’s also more famously said to have nailed the text to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, though Luther’s own recounting of events raises questions about whether he did so on October 31 or, really, at all. Regardless, it’s safe to say that word got around.
October 31, 1917: The British Egyptian Expeditionary Force defeats the Ottoman Empire’s Yıldırım Army Group at the Battle of Beersheba. The battle was won with, of all things, a cavalry charge, perhaps the last successful cavalry charge in history. The outcome broke what had been a frozen conflict in the Levant and began Britain’s march on Jerusalem, which it captured in December.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Leaders of the G20 states held their annual summit this weekend in Rome. With the United Nations COP26 climate conference beginning Monday, the summit’s focus was naturally on climate, and suffice to say the bold visionaries of the G20 did not disappoint by actually taking any concrete action. No, in keeping with the time-honored traditions of this and so many other international groups, the gang coalesced around a vague commitment (I use that term very loosely) to get to the nebulous concept of “carbon neutrality” by mid-century. Or so. Any hope of building momentum leading into the COP conference was…well, misplaced to begin with, but certainly it didn’t come to fruition in Rome.
The Israeli military carried out another missile attack on Syria on Saturday, this time against a target in the Damascus suburbs. Syrian state media is reporting that two soldiers were wounded in the strike while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming that five pro-government militia personnel were killed. These accounts are not mutually exclusive. The Observatory initially claimed that the target was an arms depot but subsequently said it was an arms shipment apparently bound for Lebanon.
The New Arab is reporting some 20 Russian airstrikes on parts of rebel-held northwestern Syria on Sunday. There’s no word on any casualties.
A car bombing in the city of Aden killed at least 12 people on Saturday. The blast took place near Aden’s airport. There’s been no claim of responsibility and there’s a plethora of possible suspects, from Islamists to opponents of the Yemeni government to opponents of the separatist Southern Transitional Council. Also on Saturday, at least three children were killed in the city of Taiz and three more wounded in what the Yemeni government said was a Houthi mortar barrage.
In the battle around Maʾrib, the Saudi military claimed on Sunday that its forces had killed over 218 Houthi fighters over the previous 72 hours. The location of the strikes, just south and just northwest of the city, suggest that the sustained Saudi air campaign is having essentially no effect in terms of driving the Houthis back.
At least two Kurdish peshmerga fighters were killed Saturday in an apparent Islamic State attack on a security checkpoint in Kirkuk province. Elsewhere, three Katyusha rockets struck Baghdad’s secure “Green Zone” on Sunday, to no apparent effect. There’s been no claim of responsibility and Katyushas are pretty ubiquitous in Iraqi, so the nature of the weaponry doesn’t help narrow down the list of suspects.
Three Gulf states have followed Saudi Arabia’s lead and pulled their ambassadors from Lebanon—Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. They’re all, I guess, Very Upset that Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi dared to criticize the huge strategic and humanitarian success that has been the Saudi war in Yemen. There are indications that Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has asked Kordahi to resign, which is presumably how this manufactured controversy will be resolved, though Kordahi clearly hasn’t agreed yet. The real issue here is Saudi irritation over the role Hezbollah plays in Lebanese politics and of Beirut’s relationship with Iran. The Saudis have long acted as though they can pummel Lebanon into rejecting Iran, even though doing so would worsen the country’s internal dysfunction, but it’s never shown any sign of working. Meanwhile, Iran has adopted a much more generous approach toward Lebanon and, wouldn’t you know, that seems to work better.
Joe Biden met with leaders of the “E3” (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome this weekend and apparently pinky swore that the United States would not quit a revived Iran nuclear deal on his watch, barring of course a significant Iranian violation of said deal. Iran’s insistence on some kind of binding US guarantee that it won’t arbitrarily quit the deal again, or at least of a mechanism for compensating Iran if it does, has been a major sticking point in negotiations on restoring the agreement to its pre-Donald Trump form. Biden’s pledge is nice, I guess, but at this point the Iranians have no reason to regard unenforceable verbal US promises as anything but empty rhetoric, especially when they’re not even made to anyone from Iran.
Three gunmen identifying themselves as Taliban fighters attacked a wedding in Nangarhar province on Friday and killed at least three people, over a dispute about the use of music in the celebration. Taliban officials are insisting that the attackers were not acting in any official capacity and say they’ve arrested two of the three with the third at large. The Taliban’s previous Afghan government banned music, but the group has not officially done so this time around, at least not so far.
Speaking of the Taliban, the group’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, reportedly popped into a religious school on Saturday to say hi. This is noteworthy in that for some time now there’s been a fairly widespread rumor that Akhundzada is dead, so if he really did show up at a school then either that rumor was incorrect or something very strange is happening. I say “if” only because there doesn’t seem to be any visual record of his appearance, though the Taliban did release an audio recording of the event that I guess is supposed to be proof of life. Akhundzada is a recluse, so his lack of public appearances isn’t necessarily indicative of anything. But the Taliban did spend a couple of years pretending that its founder, Mullah Omar, was alive when he was not, so its credibility in this particular matter isn’t terribly good.
The Wall Street Journal reports on a “relatively small, but growing,” number of former Afghan intelligence and security personnel who have apparently signed on with the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province affiliate in order to continue battling the Taliban. Whether they’re eager to keep fighting and IS offers the only way to do that, or they feared being executed by the Taliban and sought out a safer (for them) alternative is unclear, but if these reports are true they could bring significant resources and/or skills to IS, which would be akin to the benefits the “de-Baathification” program seems to have offered to the original IS’s Iraqi precursor.
The Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan has reportedly agreed to end its march on Islamabad, after a series of violent protests that left at least seven Pakistani police officers dead amid an unknown number of total casualties on both sides. TLP had been seeking the release of its imprisoned leader, Saad Rizvi, and the expulsion of the French ambassador. It’s unclear what the Pakistani government offered to convince the group to stand down but presumably the details will become known relatively soon.
Jorge Madlos, AKA “Ka Oris,” a senior leader in the communist New People’s Army rebel group, was reportedly killed Sunday in a battle with Philippine security forces in Bukidnon province. The Philippine military conducted airstrikes on an NPA base, which kicked off an extended exchange of gunfire, after which soldiers apparently discovered Madlos’s body.
Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party appears to have over-performed its weak polling in Sunday’s parliamentary election, retaining its sole legislative majority despite losing some seats. All told the LDP won 261 seats in Japan’s House of Representatives, a net loss of 15 seats but still well over the 233 needed for a majority. Polling had hinted at LDP losing its sole majority, which would have left it dependent on its coalition partner, the Komeito party, and would have been an embarrassment for new Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. This result should actually strengthen Kishida’s position despite the decline in seats. Collectively the coalition will control 293 seats in the new legislature, so it should have no problem carrying out its agenda.
With opposition groups having called for major protests against Sudan’s ruling junta on Saturday, tens of thousands of people reportedly turned out in Khartoum, Omdurman, and elsewhere, making it the largest day of demonstrations since Monday’s coup. Sudanese security forces deployed to disperse the protesters and, inevitably, people got killed—at least three of them, which means that at least 12 people have been killed in similar circumstances since Monday. By Sunday, protesters in Khartoum had taken to barricades while the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, comprised of Janjaweed militia fighters who were responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the Darfur conflict, were patrolling the streets of the capital. Needless to say this is a situation that could get much worse very quickly.
Two military units were attacked in separate incidents in southwestern Mali on Saturday, leaving a total of at least seven soldiers dead. Unspecified attackers ambushed one unit near Mourdiah, a village north of the Malian capital Bamako, killing at least two soldiers. The second unit struck a roadside bomb near the town of Segou, northeast of Bamako, leaving at least five soldiers dead.
Unspecified attackers killed at least five police officers in an incident in northern Burkina Faso’s Sourou province early Sunday morning. Given the location the attackers were presumably Islamist, but at this point there’s been no claim of responsibility and authorities haven’t released any details as far as I know.
The ongoing civil war in northern Ethiopia may have taken a turn this weekend, and not in favor of the Ethiopian government. The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front on Saturday reportedly captured the city of Dessie, while on Sunday it claimed to have taken the nearby city of Kombolcha. Both of those cities are located in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, and both are located around a strategically important highway crossing. If the TPLF really does have control of both cities—and for the record the Ethiopian government has said the fighting is not over yet and these competing claims cannot be verified in Ethiopia’s shaky media environment— that would strengthen its hold over much of eastern Amhara and put it in position to advance on the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, along the A2 highway while cutting the city off from Ethiopia’s main seaport in Djibouti.
Compounding this budding crisis from the Ethiopian government’s perspective, the rebel Oromo Liberation Army said on Sunday that it had captured the town of Kamisee, which is a bit south of Kombolcha along the same A2 highway. Not only does this put the OLA a bit closer to Addis Ababa, it means that their forces can link up with the TPLF, with which they’ve been in an alliance since August. Again these claims are nigh on impossible to verify, but there are at least a couple of reasons to think they’re accurate. For one thing, the US government has called on the TPLF to halt its advances in the Dessie-Kombolcha region. For another, the Amhara regional government and, later, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed released statements late Sunday that were very much of the “it’s time to panic” variety. Both statements called on institutions and individuals to focus all their efforts on countering the rebel advance. If the rebels were not advancing, presumably those statements wouldn’t have been made.
Western governments are reportedly tracking what appears to be a new Russian military buildup near the Ukrainian border. You may recall that a similar buildup earlier this year sent Western leaders into a tizzy before the Russians simply withdrew their forces. It is unlikely that Russia is planning to invade Ukraine, but it may see some value in appearing menacing and thereby shaking up Ukrainian politics periodically. Moscow recently warned Kyiv about its use of Turkish-made drones against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, but presumably these new deployments, if they’re as large as this Washington Post report suggests, were planned well before the drones became an issue.
It’s looking like Romanian Prime Minister-designate Nicolae Ciucă is on track to lose his upcoming parliamentary confidence vote. Ciucă, a member of the Liberal Party and currently Romania’s defense minister, has put together what would be a minority government including the Liberals and the UDMR party. He’s therefore relying on support from other parties to win confirmation, and that support doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. Assuming Ciucă does lose the vote, President Klaus Iohannis would face the choice of calling a snap election or designating another potential PM, who would be the third person so designated in the past couple of weeks. A snap election is still considered unlikely, though Romania is running out of alternatives to its political crisis.
North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev abruptly resigned on Sunday, after his Social Democratic Union (SDSM) party was battered in local elections—losing, among other things, the Skopje mayoralty. The likeliest scenario now is that another member of the SDSM will assume the premiership and the current ruling coalition will continue relatively unchanged. But there’s no guarantee of that, and Zaev’s resignation could be the first step toward a snap election.
The migrant caravan that’s been making its way through southern Mexico in recent days took a break over the weekend for health reasons. Several members of the caravan had complained of fatigue, perhaps brought on by high temperatures. The Mexican government is trying to get those in the caravan to accept “humanitarian visas” to stay and work in Mexico, but organizers say Mexican officials have failed to live up to visa pledges in the past and have rejected the offer.
Finally, at his Forever Wars newsletter, Spencer Ackerman reports on one of the more disturbing tales to emerge from testimony on the CIA’s torture program:
Content Warning: This piece contains accounts of rape, other sexual assault, torture, degradation, self-harm
IN ONE OF THE MOST HORRIFIC accounts in the entire 20-year War on Terror, a survivor of the CIA’s black sites testified at Guantanamo Bay on Thursday that his CIA captors repeatedly sexually assaulted him—sometimes as revenge for his hunger strikes.
“I was raped by the CIA medics,” Majid Khan said in an address before the Guantanamo military commission on Thursday. It was his first statement to the outside world in 18 years of captivity and abuse in Afghanistan and Guantanamo.
Khan, now 41, spent his first 16 years in Pakistan before his family moved to Maryland. He attended Owings Mills High School outside of Baltimore. He acknowledged on Thursday that his trajectory from “normal U.S. teenager” to al-Qaeda adherent to CIA and military prisoner “must be tough to comprehend.” Left unsaid was how often throughout U.S. history Americans, to say nothing of foreigners, have experienced brutality at the hands of a state that sees them as nonpersons.