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World roundup: October 5 2023
Stories from Syria, Guatemala, Russia, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
October 5, 610: The rebel Heraclius (d. 641) becomes Byzantine Emperor after executing his predecessor, Phocas.
October 5, 1789: A group of women angry over high food prices and scarcity march from Paris to the royal residence at Versailles, attracting a crowd of supporters along the way. The “Women’s March on Versailles,” saw its goals morph along the way, from a simple demand for food to a broader call for the royal court to return to Paris, where it might be more immediately accountable to the public. Louis XVI eventually agreed to that demand, and the victory helped lend momentum to the budding revolutionary movement.
This is probably sounding like a broken record, but the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service has declared this past September the hottest September ever recorded by a fairly wide margin, beating previous record holder September 2020 by around 0.5 degrees Celsius. Notably it was 1.75 degrees hotter than the pre-industrial September average, which puts the planet above the 1.5 degree warming threshold outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. One month doesn’t officially put that threshold out of reach but it does mean things are not going the way the Paris signatories presumably hoped. Temperatures have remained high through the first days of October and needless to say 2023 is now virtually a lock to break annual temperature records.
A drone strike targeting a military college in Syria’s Homs province killed at least 80 people and wounded another 240 on Thursday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has put the death toll at 112 or more but officially the tally stood at 80 at time of writing. There’s no immediate indication as to responsibility and Syrian authorities have vaguely attributed the strike to militants “backed by known international forces” which doesn’t really narrow the suspect list much. It may be worth noting that the Syrian military subsequently shelled several parts of Idlib province, which is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, reportedly killing at least five people and wounding 40 others.
Elsewhere, the Turkish military conducted airstrikes on Kurdish-controlled parts of northeastern Syria on Thursday, killing at least eight people. US forces shot down a Turkish drone in the midst of this barrage after assessing that it posed a risk to US personnel. US officials apparently warned Turkish officials repeatedly to move the drone to another location but they did not. There’s been no response to this yet from Turkey as far as I know. Overall the Turks appear to be attacking civilian infrastructure in addition to (or possibly instead of) military sites, which I guess is in keeping with Ankara’s retaliation for Sunday’s suicide bombing but seems excessive even with that pretext.
The Iraqi central bank is planning to implement a ban on cash withdrawals and transactions involving US dollars by the beginning of the new year. Iraqi authorities view this as a way to limit the flow of dollars from Iraq into Iran, which violates US sanctions and invites potential punishments from Washington. It also appears to be an attempt to inject some life into the Iraqi dinar—that currency’s loss of value has led many Iraqis to transact business in dollars instead. This move is going to intensify a dollar shortage and likely cause the dinar to decline in value even further, but at least people will be forced to use it. The ban would apply to accounts that receive overseas cash transfers and would apply only to deposits made starting on January 1.
Israeli forces killed two Palestinians on Thursday during some sort of clash with militants near the northern West Bank city of Tulkarm. According to Israeli officials its personnel were investigating a “suspicious” vehicle when the two Palestinians opened fire on them. Both men were later identified as Hamas members. Israeli forces apparently battled Palestinian fighters during a raid in the Tulkarm refugee camp but I’m not entirely clear how that’s connected with the vehicle incident. Israeli forces killed a third alleged militant in a separate incident in another part of the West Bank. Details on that shooting were unclear at time of writing.
The Kurdish human rights organization Hengaw is claiming that Iranian authorities have arrested the mother of the 16 year old girl who fell into a coma after a confrontation with morality police in Tehran several days ago. Iranian authorities have denied the claim. If they did arrest her it is unclear why, as the girl’s parents have dutifully repeated the government’s explanation that the girl passed out due to low blood pressure and struck her head.
According to the Indian government, Afghanistan’s embassy in New Delhi is still open for business despite its operators having announced that it would close as of Sunday. The embassy is controlled by officials appointed by the former Afghan government so it no longer represents Kabul’s interests, but it is apparently still fulfilling a consular function. The embassy said that it was shutting down in part due to a lack of support from the Indian government. There’s no confirmation of the Indian claim that it’s still open but then there’s also no confirmation that it’s closed.
The Biden administration is reportedly planning to get Joe Biden and Xi Jinping together for a “face-to-face meeting” during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco next month. According to an anonymous administration official who spoke to The Washington Post, the chances of such a meeting taking place are “pretty firm,” which means the Chinese government hasn’t actually agreed yet. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is supposed to visit Washington sometime later this month and this meeting will presumably be a big part of his agenda.
Biden and Xi last met up in November 2022 on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia, but whatever goodwill they might have built up during their chat was scattered to the winds along with the remains of the CHINESE BALLOON OF DEATH when the US shot it down back in February. Biden had apparently hoped to arrange a chat with Xi at last month’s G20 summit, but Xi’s decision to skip the event snuffed that dream out.
The North Korean government has reportedly stopped its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, according to South Korean media, which most likely means it is retrieving spent reactor fuel from which it will extract plutonium for use in a nuclear warhead or warheads. The possibility of another North Korean nuclear test, perhaps involving a “tactical” warhead design, has been a long standing topic of speculation about North Korea analysts. This could be (and I stress could be) a step toward such a test.
The French military announced on Thursday that it will begin withdrawing forces from Niger “this week, in good order, safely and in coordination with the Nigeriens.” This is the first indication of movement on this issue since French President Emmanuel Macron announced the redeployment of French forces out of Niger last month. Given the dismal state of relations between France and Niger’s ruling junta it remains to be seen whether the latter will allow French forces to withdraw on their own terms—by, for example, using French air power to cover retreating personnel. Nigerien air space is currently closed to French aircraft, both military and civilian. It also remains to be seen where these soldiers are going to go once they leave Niger.
Officials in Cameroon’s Northwest region say that anglophone separatists attacked a village on Wednesday and “summarily executed” two of its residents. Allegedly they accused both men of collaborating with Cameroonian authorities.
The US Agency for International Development announced on Thursday that it is resuming food aid shipments to some 1 million Ethiopian refugees in neighboring states like Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan. USAID cut off those shipments back in June amid allegations of misappropriation and theft. The decision to restart aid was made after the Ethiopian government apparently agreed to recuse itself from managing the shipments. The agency is apparently still not ready to resume aid shipments to Ethiopia itself, despite the fact that millions of Ethiopians are in need of it, until Ethiopian officials agree to substantial procedural changes in terms of how the aid is distributed.
According to Vladimir Putin, the Russian military has “successfully tested” a 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile. According to its hype, the Burevestnik has essentially unlimited range (meaning its range limit exceeds any reasonable amount of time or distance it would ever need to be in the air) and is in that sense the ultimate “loitering” weapon in that it can meander around indefinitely, confusing enemy air defenses all the while, before finally attacking. If building a nuclear-powered missile sounds dumb that’s because it kind of is. There’s no mission for a weapon like this that couldn’t be handled, perhaps a bit differently, by something less complex, less expensive, and less dangerous to its operators. To that last point, an earlier Burevestnik test was probably what caused the radioactive explosion in Russia’s Arkhangelsk oblast back in 2019. One successful test does not eliminate the very real possibility of future nuclear accidents.
Putin also suggested on Thursday that Russia might withdraw from the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). It’s unclear whether he’d actually want to resume nuclear testing or, if so, why. Hawkish Russian commentators have suggested that restarting nuclear tests would deter the US from supporting Ukraine, but I have to say I don’t see that doing the trick. It would irradiate parts of Russia though, so that’s something. Putin has been less robust in his rhetoric about nuclear weapons, but he did point out that the US government signed the CTBT but never ratified it. He’s big on mimicking Washington’s disdain for international norms in order to show that Russia is a
Big Boy Great Power just like the US.
A suspected Russian missile strike killed at least 51 people in a village in Ukraine’s Kharkiv oblast on Thursday. Some of the victims were reportedly attending a memorial to a fallen Ukrainian soldier who hailed from that village. I say “suspected” because there is recent history of an incident like this being attributed to Russian ordinance only to later find out that it was a Ukrainian misfire.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is reportedly thinking about holding Ukraine’s 2024 presidential election as scheduled despite the war, a prospect that raises serious questions:
Analysts consider the possibility of wartime balloting a long shot, and under martial law, elections in Ukraine are suspended. Still, there is talk among Kyiv’s political class that Mr. Zelensky might seek a vote, with far-reaching implications for his government, the war and political opponents, who worry he will lock in a new term in an environment when competitive elections are all but impossible.
The debate over an election comes against the backdrop of mounting pressure on Ukraine to show to Western donors Ukraine’s good governance credentials, which Mr. Zelensky has touted. Opponents say a one-sided wartime election could weaken that effort.
A petition opposing such an election has drawn signatures from 114 prominent Ukrainian civil society activists.
Ukraine is also supposed to hold a parliamentary election this month but that’s already been postponed until at least November due to said martial law and will likely be pushed back further. It would be peculiar to say the least for Zelensky to push for a presidential election if that parliamentary vote hasn’t happened yet. He understandably wants an electoral mandate to underpin whatever forthcoming decisions he has to make about the war—enter negotiations, hunker down for the long haul, etc.—but he’s going to run into some international trouble if it looks like he’s manufacturing such a mandate illegitimately.
According to Reuters, “tens of thousands” of people marched in Guatemala City on Thursday in the fourth straight day of protests supporting Guatemalan President-elect Bernardo Arévalo. The demonstrators are demanding the resignation of Attorney-General María Consuelo Porras, as well a senior prosecutor, over her efforts to kneecap Arévalo’s incoming administration via a dubious investigation into alleged electoral fraud by his Seed Party. Groups of protesters have camped in front of Porras’s office in Guatemala City. Amid these protests, Arévalo’s campaign has reportedly restarted its transition work with the administration of incumbent President Alejandro Giammattei. Arévalo suspended that process last month due to concerns about Porras’s investigation. He’s responded to international pressure to resume the transition.
Finally, over at Responsible Statecraft Alex Thurston argues that US concerns over losing influence in West Africa if it criticizes the region’s undemocratic governments is misguided and that Washington should instead try upholding its oft-stated values:
Yet U.S. “influence” in the region is overstated — what is there to preserve? After 20 years of military training programs, the U.S. has no significant and enduring counterterrorism accomplishments to report. On the political side, if the U.S. has avoided the backlash that has greeted France, it has also not been able to convince soldiers to return to barracks, or even to temper the overreach of some of its favored civilian leaders (the decision by Senegalese President Macky Sall not to seek a third term in 2024 is one bright spot in the region, and may reflect behind-the-scenes international pressure, but Sall continues to crack down severely on the opposition).
Given that U.S. influence has not appreciably bent the curve of the region when it comes either to endemic insecurity or the militarization of politics, it would be better for the U.S. to be consistent, vocal, and clear when it comes to denouncing coups and distorted transition timetables. As of September 30, for example, there was no statement by the U.S. on the Malian junta’s delay of the elections.
Nor has the U.S. clarified, more than two months after the coup in Niger, whether it considers that takeover to be a coup in legal terms — a decision that would trigger a suspension of much assistance to Niger.
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