World roundup: October 7-9 2022
Stories from Iran, North Korea, Ethiopia, and elsewhere
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Chag Sameach to those who are celebrating Sukkot!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
October 7, 2001: The US begins its invasion of Afghanistan. Though it replaced Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government with a friendly regime within weeks, the US finally left Afghanistan nearly 20 years later (in August 2021) with the Taliban back in control of the country.
October 8, 1856: Chinese authorities storm a British-flagged ship, the Arrow, in Canton harbor on suspicion of piracy. What probably didn’t seem like a big deal at the time wound up kicking off the Second Opium War, which ended with China ceding additional territories to Britain’s colony at Hong Kong and parts of Outer Manchuria to Russia.
October 8, 1912: Montenegro declares war against the Ottoman Empire, beginning the First Balkan War. The Balkan League (Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia, backed by Russia) won a decisive victory over a decaying Ottoman military, securing Albanian independence and forcing the Ottomans to cede the rest of their Balkan territory to the League and give up the island of Crete, which promptly formalized its annexation to Greece. Disputes over the settlement of this conflict ultimately led to the Second Balkan War, when the League dissolved in acrimony.
October 9, 1740: Dutch colonial authorities and native sympathizers brutally suppress an uprising among ethnic Chinese citizens of the Indonesian city of Batavia (modern Jakarta). By the end of the massacre, on October 22, more than 10,000 people were dead—nearly all of them Chinese—and the city’s remaining Chinese residents were moved into a “Chinatown” outside the city that functioned more as a detention camp than a residential neighborhood.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A rebel “media activist” and his pregnant wife were killed in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab on Friday. To my knowledge there’s no indication who was responsible but this is only the latest of several similar attacks in al-Bab this year. The town is under the control of the Turkish military via its “Syrian National Army” proxies. On Saturday, meanwhile, somebody fired a rocket at a US military base in northeastern Syria, to no effect. US forces carried out a number of anti-Islamic State operations in Syria on Thursday and IS may have fired this rocket in an attempted retaliation.
At least eight people were killed amid reports of fighting between government and rebel forces in Yemen’s Lahij province on Friday. This is the first serious report of fighting since Yemen’s ceasefire expired on October 2 and is an indication that the prospects for a post-facto renewal of that ceasefire are diminishing. Both the rebels and the pro-government fighters, who were from the separatist Southern Transitional Council, blamed each other for starting the clash.
A car bombing in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil killed an official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party’s counterterrorism office and wounded four other people on Friday. There’s no indication as to responsibility from what I can tell.
Reuters reported on Friday that Lebanese banks have suspended their “front office” operations indefinitely after another wave of attempted “robberies” by customers attempting to access their own deposits in spite of withdrawal limits. Basically it sounds like they’re taking appointments for high roller clients and continuing back office services but they won’t be taking walk-ins again anytime soon.
Elsewhere, Syria’s cholera outbreak has apparently spread into Lebanon, where two cases of the illness have been diagnosed in Akkar province so far. According to Lebanese Health Minister Firass Abiad Lebanon has no cholera vaccines available and, given its economic crisis, acquiring vaccines will likely be difficult.
It’s been an unfortunately busy weekend in Israel and the occupied territories. On Friday, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian teenagers in separate incidents, one in the northern West Bank and the other in a village near Ramallah. Israeli soldiers killed two more Palestinian teens during an arrest raid in Jenin on Saturday, amid a clash with Palestinian militants. Later on Saturday a Palestinian gunman opened fire on an Israeli military checkpoint in eastern Jerusalem, killing one soldier and wounding another. As far as I know Israeli authorities are still hunting for the shooter.
Protests over the death of Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iranian morality police have continued more or less unabated through the weekend. Iranian security forces killed at least two people in the predominantly Kurdish city of Sanandaj over the weekend, one of whom made the dreaded move of honking at them (honking having become a symbol of civil disobedience in recent weeks). Iranian authorities are claiming that two members of the security forces were also killed, one Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps member in Sanandaj and one Basiji paramilitary in Tehran. The NGO Iran Human Rights says it’s aware of at least 185 people killed, 19 of them children, since the protests began a bit over three weeks ago. More than half of that death toll has come out of Sistan and Baluchistan province, where it’s not entirely clear the unrest was triggered by Amini’s death though whatever the cause it certainly slots in with the overall national unrest.
Western media has a tendency to hype any societal outburst in Iran as the death knell of the Islamic Republic, so it can be difficult to wade through the coverage in that respect. But the longer these demonstrations go on the more it seems like a large segment of the Iranian public really has reached a breaking point with its government. This situation appears to be well beyond the point where the violence of the state’s crackdown against the protests, and particularly security forces’ campaign against high school and university students, is itself fueling more protest. An Iranian hacktivist group reportedly broke into a state news broadcast on Saturday to display a derogatory message about Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which suggests the frustration is not limited to a particular part of the government but rather applies to its most central institutions. It’s unlikely that this is the beginning of the end for those institutions but the intensity of the outrage cannot be dismissed.
The European Union announced on Thursday that the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments have agreed to facilitate (or at least tolerate) an EU civilian mission stationed along their shared border. Presumably this would be some sort of monitoring operation, though peculiarly the EU doesn’t seem to have explained exactly what the mission would be doing. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met during the European Political Community Summit in Prague on Thursday along with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel, where this scheme apparently came into fruition. The mission will be based on Armenian territory, which is presumably why Azerbaijan agreed to it, and could (in addition to monitoring for ceasefire violations) facilitate negotiations over delineating the border. That in turn could help facilitate a broader peace deal between the two countries. But that’s all very theoretical at this point.
The Biden administration promulgated a new list of export controls on material shipped to China on Friday, in what cannot be seen as anything other than a direct assault on China’s high tech industry. The new measures bar the export of chips that contain US technology to China and apply to any chip manufacturer around the world, not just US firms. They could potentially wreak havoc on Chinese chip manufacturers, which is probably why the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by accusing the US of “abus[ing] export control measures to maliciously block and suppress Chinese companies.” Separately, the Pentagon on Friday blacklisted 13 Chinese firms for alleged ties to the Chinese military. Among them is the world’s largest commercial drone manufacturer, DJI Technology. The blacklist is a first step toward sanctions and can on its own have a chilling effect on potential investment.
The North Korean military conducted yet another weapons launch on Sunday morning, firing off what appear to have been two ballistic missiles, possibly submarine-launched. That makes seven launches in two weeks. This time the impetus may have been a visit by Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly to the Demilitarized Zone, and/or ongoing US-South Korean military exercises. The Biden administration on Friday blacklisted two individuals and three entities for allegedly facilitating North Korean fuel imports in violation of United Nations sanctions.
On Saturday there was apparently an earthquake detected near North Korea’s nuclear testing facility, Punggye-ri. The South Korean government characterized this as a natural seismic event. US and South Korean officials believe the North Koreans are planning some sort of nuclear test in the coming weeks but apparently this was not it. North Korean media on Monday referred to the country’s recent weapons tests as “tactical nuclear” exercises, even though North Korea has not demonstrated that it has developed a functioning tactical nuclear warhead. That could suggest that any forthcoming nuclear test would involve a low yield/tactical device.
According to The Diplomat’s A.B. Abrams, the South Korean military is dissatisfied with its purchase of F-35s:
The Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF), the official name of South Korea’s air force, has faced significant difficulties with its two new squadrons of Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters, 40 of which have been delivered to meet an order placed in 2014 with 20 more currently on order to form a third squadron.
According to air force data obtained by Shin Won-min, a member of the South Korean National Assembly’s National Defense Committee, inspections have found the F-35s suffered from 234 flaws over 18 months from January 2021 to June 2022. These included 172 “non-flying status” (G-NORS) and 62 “cannot perform specific mission status” (F-NORS) cases. The data recorded 117 flightless and 45 mission-specific failures in 2021, and there was little improvement in the first half of 2022, with 55 and 17 failures of these types occurring over six months. The specific mission failure rates are notably more than twice those of South Korea’s Vietnam War era F-4 and F-5 fighters, the former of which is being directly replaced by the F-35.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias met his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, in Cairo on Sunday, after which they agreed to oppose what they characterized as an “illegal” maritime energy exploration agreement between the Turkish and Libyan governments. Ankara and Tripoli reached that accord last week, building on a 2019 deal that delineated their maritime borders and that also met with resistance from Greece and Egypt. Monday’s agreement calls for joint exploration for energy deposits in Libyan waters—well, in waters defined as Libyan under these agreements, anyway. Both the Greek and Egyptian governments argue that the 2019 border deal cuts through their own territorial waters. Shoukry additionally questioned the Tripoli government’s authority to enter into international agreements, given that it’s one of two active governments in Libya and its legitimacy is somewhat uncertain.
The peace talks that the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front were supposed to attend in South Africa over the weekend were postponed for “logistical reasons” on Friday. It’s not entirely clear what those reasons might have been, but the TPLF did issue a complaint over the weekend suggesting that it hadn’t been consulted about the timing of the negotiations beforehand. It sounds like the rebels wanted to iron out a few details but the African Union, which organized the talks, put them on the schedule without the TPLF’s agreement. There’s no indication when the talks might be rescheduled.
In Ethiopia, meanwhile, an airstrike in the Tigray region killed at least five people and wounded 37 others on Friday.
Fighters from the militant Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) group reportedly attacked a military outpost in northern Djibouti on Thursday night, killing at least seven soldiers and wounding an unspecified number of others. Officials from the main FRUD faction denied involvement and instead pointed at a splinter group. FRUD, which predominantly represents the interests of Djibouti’s Afar community, split in two in 1994 when the group’s leadership opted to enter a peace deal with the government and a faction of the group rejected the deal. It’s unclear whether the “splinter group” in question is the FRUD-C, which emerged from that split, or some other unknown faction.
Lesotho’s newest political faction, the Revolution for Prosperity party, appears to have emerged victorious from Friday’s parliamentary election. At last check the party had secured at least 41 of the 80 seats apportioned by district, which puts it in line for a majority after the remaining 40 seats in the 120 seat National Assembly are apportioned by party vote shares. Lesotho’s current ruling party, the All Basotho Convention, is in danger of dropping out of parliament altogether.
It was Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday on Friday so, um, happy birthday? Many happy returns? Yeah I don’t really know what to say there. Nor can I offer any advice for what to get the man who not only has everything, he has so much of everything that he decided to toss a bunch of it out the window for a shot at conquering another country. Oh, wait, I know! Speaking of that invasion, Vladimir could probably use a new general right about now! Let’s get him Russian Air Force General Sergei Surovikin, the lucky duck who was given overall command of the Ukraine war on Saturday. Surovikin’s past service includes stints in Chechnya and Syria, so he knows plenty about killing large numbers of civilians, and he’s familiar with Ukraine after serving as the commander of Russia’s southern front there. He’s the first overall commander Putin has appointed for Ukraine, which may help alleviate some of the logistical issues the Russian military has been facing. At the very least, he’ll give Putin an easily identified scapegoat should the invasion continue to go sideways.
Surovikin’s appointment comes days after Moscow canned the commander of its Western Military District, which had responsibility for part of the Ukraine war, and in the same weekend that Moscow sacked the commander of its Eastern Military District, which wasn’t directly involved in Ukraine but has gotten some of the blowback anyway. Look it’s either the new generals or we let Putin drop a nuke and frankly I think that’s going a bit too far even for the big 7-0.
Elsewhere, it turns out that a US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft was meandering around the Baltic Sea area on September 26, the day that the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines sprung leaks that were probably of the man-made explosive variety. Go figure. The Navy says it just happened to be in the area doing routine reconnaissance. Some of the plane’s flight data is apparently missing but I’m sure that’s just a random oopsie, you know. Really it’s all very simple and believable.
In news items from Ukraine:
In easily the biggest news story of the weekend, the Ukrainian military decided to celebrate Putin’s birthday with a massive truck bomb on Saturday that killed three people and appears to have severely damaged the Kerch bridge linking Russia to Crimea. Divers are assessing the extent of the damage but it’s possible that this attack will hinder the bridge’s use in terms of shuttling soldiers and materiel into Crimea to support the Russian forces in southern Ukraine. Putin referred to the blast as an act of “terrorism” and in all fairness it may be time for somebody in Washington to have a chat with the folks in Kyiv. An attack like this—to say nothing of the gloating that followed—verges on the sort of thing that could escalate this war and bring the threat of nuclear weapons further into play. The Ukrainians are defending their country and that’s their prerogative, but as Joe Biden himself pointed out on Thursday there is something to be said for leaving Russia with a dignified way out of this conflict and for keeping that in mind when considering new operations.
Perhaps in retaliation for the bridge bombing, the Russian military bombarded the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia overnight, killing at least 12 people. The nearby Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear facility in Europe, was once again forced to rely on diesel power on Saturday to maintain its safety features after overnight shelling cut it off from the Ukrainian power grid. Fortunately the plant was reconnected to the grid on Sunday. The plant is under Russian control but the Russians and Ukrainians regularly blame each other for shelling in the vicinity. The International Atomic Energy Agency continues to negotiate with Russian and Ukrainian officials on demilitarizing the plant.
Elsewhere, to little fanfare the Russian military is reportedly continuing to advance on the town of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast. This appears to be the one place in Ukraine where Russian forces are advancing rather than withdrawing or maintaining a static line.
The US arms manufacturer BAE says it’s making plans to restart production of its M777 howitzer after the weapon’s public profile has gotten a substantial boost thanks to its use by the Ukrainian military. As ever it’s gratifying to see that our nation’s weapons dealers are the one unquestioned victor in this war.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen appears to have won reelection handily on Sunday. This outcome is unsurprising in light of pre-election polling and given that every major Austrian party other than the far-right Freedom Party had more or less backed his reelection bid.
German Economy Minister Robert Habeck lambasted the United States on Wednesday for selling natural gas to Europe at an “astronomical” markup. US providers (along with other non-European providers) are apparently seizing the opportunity posed by the Ukraine war and everything that’s gone along with it to sell their products to a captive European market at a premium. Habeck wants the European Union to bargain collectively to bring down those prices, with other options like energy subsidies or a gas price cap also on the table.
A new poll from Datafolha has Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leading President Jair Bolsonaro 49 percent to 44 percent heading into Brazil’s presidential runoff later this month. You may notice that margin is thinner than the results Datafolha was promulgating prior to last Sunday’s first round, when Bolsonaro finished considerably higher than polling had suggested he would.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry and several officials in his government are requesting armed international support to help tamp down gang activity that, among other things, has blocked access to Port-au-Prince’s Varreux fuel terminal. It’s unclear from whom or what they’re requesting this assistance but the Biden administration is reportedly considering some sort of intervention. Given the history of US activity in Haiti I can only assume the Haitian people are thrilled by this possibility. The UN is likewise considering an armed intervention, which I’m sure would be equally delightful.
The Biden administration on Friday updated US guidelines on the use of armed drones in ways that could reduce the number of drone strikes the Pentagon undertakes outside of designated war zones. It basically restores rules that were in place under the Obama administration and were loosened by Donald Trump, including among other things restoring a requirement for presidential authorization before undertaking any potentially lethal action.
Finally, with even Joe Biden now talking like this is October 1962 and Soviet ships are steaming their way toward Cuba, John Carl Baker tries a little candor when discussing the risks of a nuclear exchange emanating from the war in Ukraine:
What is the risk that Russia will fire a nuclear weapon in Ukraine? Commentators who support greater confrontation with Russia tend to describe the probability as low — so low, in fact, that we effectively shouldn’t worry about it at all. Others, including some on the Left, argue that the threat is terrifyingly high — high enough that it ought to take immediate precedence over Ukraine’s fight against an imperial occupier.
These perspectives are each half right — but also half wrong. There is a very real risk of nuclear weapons use in Ukraine, so much so that Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, has described the situation as “one of, if not the most, severe episodes in which nuclear weapons might be used in decades.” At the same time, most experts still regard the likelihood as low. Isn’t that a contradiction?
Not really. The chances of nuclear use can be small but uncomfortably elevated when compared to the last few decades of relative calm. One can conclude that detonation is currently unlikely while still being very concerned about the high consequences of escalation. Similarly, one can be extremely unsettled by recent developments while recognizing that a nuclear crisis is still several major steps away. There’s no need to fall prey to the binary of denialism and alarmism.
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