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World roundup: October 31-November 1 2022
Stories from Israel-Palestine, North Korea, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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. It’s entirely possible he did—although this event has been cast as a stunning display of rebellion by history, posting disputations in a public place like the door to the city’s church was common practice at the time. Whatever actually happened, 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.
November 1, 1922: The last Ottoman Sultan is deposed.
November 1, 1955: The Vietnam War begins, at least according to the US government. Even though the Viet Cong had already begun battling the South Vietnamese government and the North Vietnamese government wouldn’t officially get involved until the following year, this is the date the US government reorganized its Military Assistance Advisory Group for Indochina by country. The birth of “MAAG Vietnam” is considered by Washington to mark the start of the war, and when it lists US deaths in the war it starts the count on this date.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Lucky duck Israeli voters headed to the polls on Tuesday for their fifth parliamentary election in less than four years. Polling has suggested that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a better position than his various, ideologically disparate opponents, in part because he’s aligned himself with a reemerging (and terrorist-adjacent) Israeli far right.
But the polls also put Netanyahu just on the cusp of controlling a majority of seats (at least 61 in the 120 seat Knesset), meaning there’s no decisive favorite. Assuming the polls are in the ballpark this means a hung parliament, where nobody can claim a majority, is a strong possibility, which means those voters could be headed right back to the polls in a few months. Other likely outcomes, like a razor-thin Netanyahu majority or an anti-Netanyahu coalition similar to the one that collapsed earlier this year, don’t promise much in the way of stability either.
UPDATE: Exit polling suggests that Netanyahu and pals are within range of a narrow majority, but a hung parliament is still in the realm of possibility as well. These are just exit polls, so of course there’s some chance they could be in error. Israeli exit polling has at times underestimated Arab voter turnout, and suffice to say that’s not a constituency with which Netanyahu typically does well.
In a rare bit of good news, I’m so pleased to be able to tell you that Saudi Aramco posted $42.4 billion in net income in the last fiscal quarter, a cool 39 percent better than it did in the same quarter a year ago. Aramco joins other major oil companies around the world, all of whom seem to be lucking into massive profits these days for some reason. These folks have gone through so much, it’s great to see things finally going their way.
Elsewhere, according to The Wall Street Journal Saudi officials have informed Washington of intelligence regarding “imminent” Iranian attacks against the kingdom and/or in northern Iraq. Of course the IRGC has already attacked northern Iraq a couple of times in recent weeks, targeting Kurdish groups Tehran blames for fomenting Iran’s ongoing protests. The idea here is that Iran now wants to attack Saudi Arabia in order to distract from those protests. It’s equally likely that the Saudis are trying to spin a ripping yarn about impending Iranian evildoing as a way to distract from the fact that the US-Saudi relationship is on the rocks, but I digress.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has reportedly seized a tanker carrying some 11 million liters of oil (street value: around $6.6 million) somewhere in the Hormuz Strait area. Iranian officials are claiming that the ship, details about which are unavailable, was carrying smuggled cargo. The IRGC invariably claims smuggling whenever it impounds a ship like this, which isn’t always necessarily the case.
Elsewhere, students at several Iranian universities, including in major cities like Tehran and Isfahan, are now engaging in sit-down strikes as the next phase in their protests over the death of Mahsa Amini back in mid-September. The Canadian government on Monday announced new sanctions targeting four individuals and two entities accused of involvement in suppressing the protests. Meanwhile, the Iranian government announced its own sanctions targeting several US individuals and entities, including the CIA. I do not know if these are additional sanctions or if Tehran had not already been sanctioning the CIA despite the Agency’s…oh, let’s say “sordid” history with respect to Iran.
Vladimir Putin on Monday took time away from his current day job, liberating Ukraine from Ukrainians, to spend a couple of hours playing mediator in the southern Caucasus. He hosted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in the city of Sochi and got them to pinky swear “not to use force” to settle the status of the predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region.
That status is one of the main stumbling blocks in the effort to finally normalize relations between the two countries over 30 years after they both became independent states. Pashinyan has suggested that he’s prepared to accept Karabkh’s status as part of Azerbaijan—he doesn’t really have much choice, given that the Armenian side lost the 2020 Karabakh war—but wants some sort of legal protection for the Armenian population living there. Most of the time Aliyev seems like he’d rather kill every Armenian in Karabakh, and maybe in Armenia too, than accord Karabakh’s residents any sort of legal status. Russian forces are currently supposed to be serving as peacekeepers in the region, but with Moscow’s attention on Ukraine Aliyev and his military have been testing their ability to get away with attacks on Armenia and Russia seems like it’s losing its place as regional mediator to the European Union.
According to Australia’s Lowy Institute, the Chinese government reduced its overall aid spending in the Pacific Islands from around $287 million in 2016 to $187 million in 2020, and the money it is spending in the region is more targeted toward countries with which it has formal diplomatic relations. To wit, Chinese aid to Kiribati, which switched its diplomatic relationship from Taipei to Beijing in 2019, and the Solomon Islands, which did likewise in 2020, has increased even as its overall regional spending has decreased. Other countries in the region seem a bit more circumspect about taking Chinese money for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but their reticence presumably creates openings for the United States and/or Australia, who view the region as the front line in the New Cold War, to offer their own assistance.
The US and South Korean militaries have undertaken yet another major joint exercise, this one an air-based operation known as “Vigilant Storm” that involves the largest air drills the two countries have conducted in five years. In response, the North Korean government lashed out on Tuesday, characterizing the drills as “grave military provocations” and threatening “more powerful follow-up measures” in response. Pyongyang further contended that US-South Korean “rashness and provocation can be no longer tolerated.” It all seems very ominous but is presumably the preamble to more weapons tests, possibly including that nuclear warhead test that analysts have been expecting for several months now.
UPDATE: North Korea reportedly fired three short-range ballistic missiles off of its east coast on Wednesday morning, close enough to the South Korean island of Ulleungdo to prompt an air raid warning. One of the missiles landed within 60 miles of South Korea’s eastern coast. The North Koreans typically fire missiles so that they splash down north of the inter-Korean maritime border zone, so Wednesday’s launches were somewhat more provocative than the norm.
UPDATE 2: The North Koreans actually fired off at least ten missiles and there may be more to come.
Australian media is reporting that the US military will build a facility to house six B-52 strategic bombers at Tindal Air Base, located in Australia’s Northern Territory. The B-52 is nuclear capable and this deployment cannot be understood as anything other than a warning to the Chinese government, either specifically over Taiwan or just in general. Unsurprisingly the report drew a rebuke from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which argued that the deployment would undermine “regional peace and stability, and may trigger an arms race.”
The Arab League is holding its first summit since 2019 in Algiers this week. It remains to be seen whether The Gang will manage to accomplish anything but they’ll have no shortage of things to discuss. Potential agenda items include the normalization of ties with Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, fallout over the decision by several League member states to toss the Palestinians under the bus and normalize relations with Israel, and the ongoing tension between Algeria itself and neighbor/frenemy Morocco. Several Arab leaders have opted not to attend the summit, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nayhan, and Moroccan King Mohammed VI.
Malian soldiers and Russian Wagner Group mercenaries are being accused of killing at least 13 civilians in an incident in Mali’s Mopti region on Sunday. Details are spotty but the allegation seems to be that a combined Malian-Wagner force attacked a village in Mopti whose Fula residents were considered to be Islamic State supporters. The maltreatment of Fula communities over their purported sympathy with Islamist militant groups usually has the ironic effect of alienating the Fula and making it easier for those extremist groups to recruit among them.
The Nigerian military reportedly fended off an attack by Islamic State West Africa Province fighters in Niger state late Saturday. The attack targeted a barracks near the Beninese border where hundreds of captured ISWAP fighters are apparently being held. At least eight of the attackers were killed. This is the latest in a string of attacks over the past few months indicating that ISWAP has moved out of its regular haunts in northeastern Nigeria and is now capable of undertaking operations virtually across the country.
The Biden administration on Tuesday blacklisted several individuals allegedly connected with an Islamic State arms trafficking “network” run out of Somalia. Several of the individuals also allegedly have ties to al-Shabab, which despite being an al-Qaeda affiliate apparently—at least according to the US government—collaborates with Islamic State in Somalia. The Treasury Department also on Tuesday sanctioned one individual accused of working as an Islamic State “liaison” in Brazil.
In news from Ukraine:
Russian missile strikes once again targeted civilian infrastructure across Ukraine on Monday, with several cities including Kyiv reporting power outages and Kyiv also reporting issues with water service. According to the city’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, some 80 percent of the city was without running water after the strikes, though I believe a substantial portion of those residences have since had water service restored.
Most attention over the past couple of days has been on whether or not the Russian military would allow cargo ships to continue transiting the Black Sea following Moscow’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative over the weekend. The answer turned out to be “yes,” as ships were able to meander about the region on both Monday and Tuesday. However, Russia is still at present outside the deal, despite efforts by the United Nations and the Turkish government to entice it back in, and so as not to press their luck those two parties plus the Ukrainian government have reportedly decided to take Wednesday off. The Russians are alleging that Ukraine abused the grain deal by launching its weekend drone attack on Sevastopol from within a shipping lane that’s been protected by the deal. They’re demanding some assurance that there won’t be any repeats of that situation. But the UN insists that there were no vessels in that corridor at the time of the strike, and it’s possible what the Russians are really after is more protection for their own food and fertilizer exports from Western sanctions. That’s been a major Russian complaint over the past few weeks.
Russian authorities in Ukraine’s Kherson oblast have extended their civilian evacuation order from the western side of the Dnipro River to its eastern side. They’re now apparently looking to create a “buffer zone” on the eastern side of the river.
The AP, citing “three former Afghan generals,” is reporting that the Wagner Group has been recruiting US-trained ex-Afghan special forces personnel to join their “foreign legion” in Ukraine. From an employment standpoint it’s not like these guys have a ton of options, and for those who have left Afghanistan, unless they’re prepared to fight an insurgency against the Taliban going back home isn’t one of those options. Naturally most of them haven’t been given visas to relocate to the United States, because that’s just not how the US rolls.
The Moldovan government on Monday expelled a Russian embassy worker over the war in neighboring Ukraine. Earlier in the day debris from a Russian missile shot down by Ukrainian air defenses landed on Moldovan territory, which seems to have then prompted this expulsion. Moscow will presumably respond in kind at some point.
Voters also went to the polls on Tuesday for Denmark’s general election, and it looks like Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s center-left coalition has retained power with a slim majority in the 179 seat Folketing. With the votes counted, Frederiksen’s Social Democratic Party has taken a bit over 27 percent of the vote, which translates to 50 seats and makes it easily the largest party in the next legislative session. With the support of other left-of-center parties, including members from the Faroe Islands and Greenland, she should have support from 90 seats for what will likely be a continuation of her current single party, minority government. She may also try cutting a deal with the newly formed Moderate Party, which won 16 seats and would appeal to her more centrist policy inclinations.
With Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva having defeated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Sunday’s runoff, capping a remarkable prison-to-president turnaround in just four years, the big question heading into Monday was whether Bolsonaro would go quietly or attempt to challenge his defeat. It took a while to find out. Bolsonaro disappeared from public view on Sunday evening and remained out of sight all day Monday, which was probably the wrong move if he was planning to contest the vote because many of his highest profile political allies wound up accepting Lula’s victory in the meantime. Bolsonaro finally poked his head above ground on Tuesday, making a very perfunctory statement in which he pointedly refused to concede and told his protesting supporters to keep protesting, albeit peacefully, but also authorized the start of the constitutional transition process. That may be as close as he ever comes publicly to acknowledging that he lost.
Those protests, by the way, have mainly manifested as truckers blockading major highways across Brazil. Those blockades are already starting to impact things like fuel distribution and food exports and so Brazilian authorities have cleared hundreds of them but there are still dozens of active blockades. Bolsonaro’s statement won’t do anything to defuse this situation but if he’s not going to contest the result actively then the unrest may fizzle out.
There are a couple of good pieces offering a look ahead in the wake of Lula’s victory. The New Republic’s David Rieff looks at the considerable headwinds the president-elect faces from an opposition-controlled Congress and a Bolsonarist movement that may actually be better off without its eponymous leader. On a more optimistic note, The Nation’s Benjamin Fogel—who was part of our election coverage at American Prestige—focuses on the positive aspects of Bolsonaro’s defeat.
At Foreign Policy, journalist Jonathan Katz looks ahead to the possibility of a new US-sponsored Haitian intervention:
At the end of the first U.S. occupation of Haiti—a period of brutal domination from 1915 to 1934—a critic warned that U.S. forces would not be gone for long. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State Department had left Haiti in the hands of a man friendly to its core interests: the Haitian conservative Sténio Vincent, whose otherwise fervent nationalism was tempered by a deep affection for U.S.-centric capitalism.
The critic, the American journalist and orator William Pickens, wrote in the NAACP’s flagship magazine, The Crisis, in June 1935: “The marines are gone, but the American Financial Adviser is still there, collecting for American creditors, and if opposing Haitian factions start cutting each other’s throats with their machetes, [Vincent] may yell for the marines to come and help him protect the money bags.”
Now, another yell is coming from Port-au-Prince. In October, the government of Ariel Henry, Haiti’s de facto prime minister and president, called for a foreign military intervention—“the immediate deployment of a specialized armed force, in sufficient quantity” to stop the street gangs that are terrorizing the population and cutting off access to Haiti’s ports, most crucially the one that receives and stores Haiti’s imports of oil and gas. He did not specify which nation would oversee this armed force. But anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Haitian history—or access to a map—knew the only country he could be referring to.
Finally, Spencer Ackerman reports on the Biden administration’s decision to revive the Obama administration’s drone death panel:
THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION has reinstated a bureaucratic structure, created under Barack Obama, that wields the power of life and death.
During the Obama era, it was known as the Disposition Matrix. A senior Biden administration official confirmed that the internal processes that comprised the Disposition Matrix, released in declassified form in a 2013 document known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, form the template for a 2022 document called the Presidential Policy Memorandum, or PPM. Thus far, they're rechristening this "the PPM Process."
The PPM Process itself is one in which a "nomination"—that is, marking someone for death—filters up from the national-security bureaucracy to select committees of senior national-security appointees and then to either the defense secretary or the CIA director and the president. On paper, this review process is supposed to filter out questionable judgments or interests and leave only righteous terrorist kills.
On one level, resurrecting the matrix is meant to operate as a constraint upon lethal counterterrorism actions. Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch and a former senior adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shorthands it, "You Must Explain Yourself." One of Donald Trump's early acts as president was to abolish the process and devolve authorities for lethal strikes to military commanders and senior CIA leaders, who no longer had to explain themselves.
On another level, one familiar to readers of REIGN OF TERROR, the move institutionalizes extrajudicial executions, creating a process that is less an obstacle to such actions and more a bureaucratic path to navigate. Based on conversations with both the senior administration official—whose perspective, according to the rules of our interview, I can summarize but not directly quote—and others familiar with the new rules, the process leaves substantial loopholes for discretionary "dynamic" strikes, much as Obama's did. And I have to report all this out because the Biden administration is opting not to release any of its guiding strategy or policy documents on counterterrorism, though the administration says it's considering whether it can make further disclosures down the line.
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