World roundup: September 1 2022
Stories from Iran, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, and more
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: Foreign Exchanges is taking a break. We will resume regular programming on September 13.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 31, 1907: Britain and Russia sign the Anglo-Russian Convention, which closes arguably the last chapter in their “Great Game” rivalry in Asia, at least until the 1917 Russian Revolution. The two empires, having already agreed to mark Afghanistan as the frontier between their domains, further agreed to divide Iran into spheres of influence (Russian in the north, British in the south), to recognize Afghanistan as part of Britain’s sphere of influence, and not to interfere in Tibetan affairs. There’s a case to be made that the Cold War brought the “Great Game” back, but historians generally mark that as something different and consider the true Great Game to have ended with this convention.
August 31, 1957: The Malayan Declaration of Independence is proclaimed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, then-Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya. The declaration acknowledged the end of the British protectorate over the nine Malay states that made up the federation. This date is annually commemorated as Malaysian Independence Day, but there is a bit of controversy about that because Malaysia didn’t come into existence until 1963, when the former British colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore joined the federation (Singapore left a couple of years later). Some folks in North Borneo and Sarawak take issue with their “independence day” commemorating an event that took place before they were part of the country.
September 1, 1880: A decisive British victory at the Battle of Kandahar ends the Second Anglo-Afghan War. British authorities deposed Afghan Emir Ayub Khan Barakzai and replaced him with his more pliable cousin, Abdur Rahman Khan.
September 1, 1939: Nazi Germany invades Poland. The German offensive began a week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the USSR and a day after the pact’s ratification by the Supreme Soviet. The initial German invasion overwhelmed the outgunned Polish military, and a subsequent invasion by the Red Army on September 17 sealed Poland’s fate and resulted in a partition of the country. The invasion is regarded as the start of World War II, as it triggered French and British declarations of war against Germany.
September 1, 1969: The 1969 Libyan Coup
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Yemeni government is accusing the Houthis of assassinating a member of the country’s Supreme Court, Judge Mohamed Homran, after still unspecified gunmen abducted him from his home in Sanaa on Tuesday and then killed him. According to the Houthi interior ministry in Sanaa, the killers have been arrested, but the government’s information ministry characterized the killing as part of a “systematic” pattern of rebel intimidation of, and attacks on, judges.
At FOREVER WARS, Spencer Ackerman looks at what Turkey’s Bayraktar drone has done for Turkey’s own “War on Terror” as well as for the global market:
[The Financial Times’ Raya] Jalabi and co-writer Laura Pitel survey the moment the Bayraktar is having. Turkey developed the drone in response to the U.S. refusing to sell its nominal NATO ally Predators or Reapers due to human-rights concerns. Ankara turned right around and validated those concerns by attacking Kurdish forces in both Syria and Iraq; Bashar Assad's forces in Syria; and a whole lot of innocent people. Pitel and Jalabi tell the story of Azad Mehdi Mem, a 26-year-old man in Shiladze, Iraq, killed by Turkish forces operating the Bayraktar on the apparently groundless suspicion of his involvement in the left-wing Kurdish guerilla movement PKK.
"In our upcoming report on drone warfare in Syria, we will argue that Turkey has replaced the U.S. as the leader in extrajudicial targeted killings due to its drone capabilities," says PAX's project leader for humanitarian disarmament, drone watcher Wim Zwijnenburg.
But the real windfall for Turkey from the Bayraktar has come from exporting the drone. Baykar Technologies, the Bayraktar's manufacturer—where Selçuk Bayraktar, Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law, is CTO—won plaudits for sending Bayraktars to Ukraine free of charge. But Ukraine, which is under the manifest threat of dismemberment by Russia, appears to be an exception among Bayraktar's users. The 22 known or suspected purchasers of the Bayraktar include Ethiopia for its assaults on Tigrayan civilians; Azerbaijan for the resumption of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia; and new customer Togo, which plans to use its Bayraktars on jihadists coming from Burkina Faso.
Monday’s violence in Baghdad spilled out to the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Thursday, when at least four people were killed in clashes overnight and into Thursday between Popular Mobilization militias and fighters from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades militia. A group of Sadr’s fighters reportedly attacked militia offices in Basra on Thursday, fitting a pattern of similar attacks across southern Iraq over the past few days. Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaʾib Ahl al-Haqq militia, has reportedly ordered his fighters to stand down, and as AAH is among the largest (if not the largest) of the Popular Mobilization factions that order may carry weight among the rest of the militias as well.
Two Palestinians were killed in separate incidents in the West Bank on Thursday, one by Israeli occupation forces and the other by unspecified Palestinian gunmen. Israeli forces carried out arrest raids in the Balata refugee camp and in the city of al-Bireh. They killed one Palestinian man in the latter incident. One Palestinian was gunned down in the Balata incident, but witnesses say the victim was gunned down after the Israelis left the camp. Palestinian officials initially blamed the Israelis for the Balata shooting but are now saying they’ve arrested three people in connection with it.
The Iranian government has reportedly submitted its response to the US response to Iran’s response (whew) to the European Union’s most recent text of an agreement to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. I don’t have any details on what it contains but it sounds like it constitutes a setback:
Tehran has submitted its latest response in the ongoing negotiations to restore the Iran nuclear deal — and the United States is slamming it as a “not at all encouraging” step “backwards.”
The negative reaction from the Biden administration — as well as European sources — suggests that a revival of the 2015 nuclear agreement is not imminent as some supporters of the deal had hoped, despite roughly a year and a half of talks.
“We are studying Iran’s response, but the bottom line is that it is not at all encouraging,” a senior Biden administration official told POLITICO on Thursday evening.
The official declined to give specifics about what the Iranians had proposed, but added, “based on their answer, we appear to be moving backwards.”
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Thursday proposed holding a snap presidential election sometime this fall, two years ahead of schedule. That vote would, according to Tokayev, coincide with a restructuring of presidential term limits, from a maximum of two five year terms to a single seven year term with no possibility for reelection. Tokayev would be eligible to run in this election but would not be eligible to run in 2029, assuming he abides by his own proposal. Tokayev further proposed moving up Kazakhstan’s scheduled parliamentary election to next year, also two years ahead of schedule. He seems eager to hold elections under the terms of the new constitution Kazakh voters approved in a referendum back in June, and to further distance himself from his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
A Pakistani court on Thursday extended former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s pre-arrest bail on terrorism charges through at least September 12. This marks the second time the Pakistani judiciary has extended Khan’s bail since he was charged last month following a controversial August 20 political rally. Khan is also facing a contempt of court charge but that’s proceeding on a separate track.
The International Monetary Fund announced on Thursday that it’s reached a preliminary agreement with the cash-strapped Sri Lankan government on a $2.9 billion loan package. Sri Lankan officials still have a number of IMF hoops to jump through before the agreement goes to the Fund’s board for final approval, including the IMF’s usual demands for fiscal austerity and balanced budgets. In Sri Lanka’s case this may involve more tax increases than budget cuts, though there will undoubtedly be plenty of the latter as well. They’ll also need to negotiate debt restructuring deals with Sri Lanka’s creditors, public and private.
The release of now-former United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s report on human rights in China’s Xinjiang region has produced what was presumably the expected set of outcomes. The US government gushed over the report’s findings, which mostly seem to have echoed allegations made in previous NGO reports on the same subject but did put the UN’s weight behind those allegations. The Chinese government didn’t see it the same way, shockingly, and produced a 131 page response (the original report was 45 pages long) that echoed its usual responses to those previous reports.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has nominated former Senegalese Energy Minister Abdoulaye Bathily as his new Libya envoy. Bathily has been serving as UN envoy for the Central African Republic since 2014 so he does have some relevant experience in this regard. He’ll replace former Slovak diplomat Ján Kubiš, who resigned in December—assuming, that is, the UN Security Council agrees to confirm his nomination. Guterres’ previous two picks for this gig stalled because of disagreements on the council.
Boko Haram fighters reportedly attacked a group of fishermen in southeast Niger’s Diffa region earlier this week. The fighters approached the fishermen, many of them Nigerian, on an island in Lake Chad on Sunday and gave them one hour to leave. Hundreds obeyed that order, but those who did not were either killed or abducted when the fighters returned. At least 11 bodies have been recovered, according to a local official who spoke with AFP, eight Nigeriens and three Nigerians. But in all likelihood the total death toll was higher than that.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front accused the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries of opening a new offensive in northern Tigray on Thursday. There are independent reports of shelling in that area so that’s at least partial corroboration of this claim. Since fighting between the TPLF and Ethiopian federal forces resumed last week it’s been largely confined to southern and eastern Tigray, near its borders with the Amhara and Afar regions, though Ethiopian officials accused the TPLF of expanding the conflict into western Tigray on Wednesday. The Eritrean military was heavily involved in this conflict when it began back in November 2020 and was implicated in some of the war’s biggest atrocities, but its participation seemed to drop off when the TPLF launched a major counteroffensive in June 2021.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The CODECO militia has reportedly been staging attacks on the town of Mongbwalu in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province since Tuesday, leaving at least 14 civilians dead thus far. The town’s mayor, Jean-Pierre Bikilisende, reported the discovery of 22 bodies on Tuesday, 14 civilians and eight CODECO fighters killed by Congolese soldiers. CODECO, an ethnic Lendu militia, is one of the more active and therefore one of the deadlier armed groups operating in the eastern DRC.
The Zambian government on Wednesday secured IMF board approval for a $1.3 billion loan package intended to help the country recover from COVID. Zambia defaulted on its debt in 2020 and has been negotiating to restructure it since then. The country’s creditors agreed to a restructuring arrangement in July, clearing the way for the IMF loan.
The Biden administration told Reuters on Thursday that it will not hold negotiations with the Russian government on a new arms control treaty to succeed New START unless/until Moscow resumes participating in the current treaty’s inspections mechanism. New START is set to expire in 2026, and as the only treaty currently governing the size of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals there is understandably some interest in crafting a successor agreement. But the Kremlin announced last month that it was shelving the treaty’s inspections piece, citing Western travel restrictions that have made it difficult for Russian inspectors to visit US nuclear sites even as US inspectors have no such complications in visiting Russian sites. The White House suggested that US and Russian officials are discussing ways to satisfy Russia’s concerns and restore the full scope of New START.
International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors finally arrived at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Thursday, though the final leg of their trek was reportedly delayed by several hours on account of fighting. The plant’s operator, the Ukrainian firm Energoatom, says it shut down one of the plant’s two working reactors due to Russian “mortar shelling,” while the Russian military is claiming that it prevented a Ukrainian attempt to seize control of the facility ahead of the IAEA team’s arrival. Part of the IAEA team, including agency director Rafael Grossi, left the plant a few hours after arrival, but several members of the team remained on site and are expected to be there for at least the next couple of days. Grossi has talked about arranging a more regular or even continuous IAEA presence at the plant but has said those discussions will have to wait until after this initial inspection is concluded.
Elsewhere, International Committee of the Red Cross Director-General Robert Mardini claimed on Thursday that his organization has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to secure access to prisoners being held in the town of Olenivka in the Russian-controlled portion of Donetsk oblast. According to Mardini the ICRC is in contact with “every level” of the Russian government about arranging permission to visit the Olenivka facility.
There’s still little definitive that can be said about the Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive in Kherson oblast. Ukrainian and Western officials have been claiming unspecified “advances,” but Russian officials continue to insist, and there are anecdotal reports supporting them, that the Ukrainians are taking heavy losses without gaining any significant ground. Without reporters in the area media outlets more or less seem resigned to parroting one of these two narratives. But without getting into the unproductive game of “Choose Your Favorite Random Twitter Account” or “Find a Telegram Channel That Seems Credible” I think we can make some tentative guesses as to what’s happening.
Whatever advances the Ukrainians have made, if any, seem to be of the relatively minor variety—a village here, part of a district there. Meanwhile, by all accounts the fighting has been quite heavy and it’s likely the casualty count will reflect that. It sounds, then, like the Ukrainians are experiencing in the south what Russian forces were experiencing in eastern Ukraine not that long ago, stuck in a quagmire and taking heavy casualties to make little or no advancement on the ground. This would align more with the Russian than Ukrainian version of events, to be sure, though it’s likely that the Russians are exaggerating their successes to some degree. It’s only been a few days so this could change, but it could change in either direction—maybe the Ukrainians are softening up the Russian position and they’ll start making major gains soon, or maybe their offensive will collapse altogether. Right now I think it’s reasonable to question whether the Ukrainians can sustain this operation and the losses they’ve likely suffered to this point.
A new poll from the firm Trend suggests that next month’s Bulgarian snap election is likely to result in another protracted and possibly doomed negotiation over forming a majority coalition. The survey has the right-wing GERB party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov leading the We Continue the Change party, 24.4 percent to 19.6 percent, which reflects a widening of GERB’s lead from a 23.6-21.4 margin in Trend’s July poll. But that result would still leave GERB well shy of a majority. Next month’s election will be the fourth parliamentary vote Bulgaria has held since April 2021. Each of the past three has resulted in heavily fragmented parliaments that in the first two cases failed to produce a government. The lone exception was last November’s election, which instead produced a government so fragile that it didn’t even survive a year.
While the Kosovan government agreed over the weekend not to impose new personal ID requirements for ethnic Serbs, it is apparently pushing ahead with plans to require any Kosovo car owner with a Serbian-issued license plate to switch to a Kosovan license plate by October 31. The proposed license requirement, along with a Kosovan plan to stop recognizing Serbian-issued ID documents, was supposed to come into effect on August 1, but a major uprising in predominantly Serb northern Kosovo forced Pristina to delay its implementation. It remains to be seen whether the license requirement alone will be enough to generate similar levels of outrage. Many Kosovan Serbs refuse to recognize Pristina’s authority, and these bureaucratic changes threaten to aggravate that tenuous state of affairs.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala and his cabinet were set to face a no-confidence vote in parliament on Thursday over high energy prices and corruption allegations surrounding the head of the Czech government’s Office for Foreign Relations and Information. I have not seen any indication as to how this vote went but expectations going in were that it would fail.
A new poll from Datafolha has former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leading incumbent Jair Bolsonaro 45 percent to 32 percent in first round voting intentions. Lula’s lead was 47-32 in Datafolha’s previous survey, so this reflects a bit of narrowing ahead of next month’s election. Lula has a 15 point lead in a prospective runoff, 53-38, but that’s also down from a 17 point lead in the previous poll.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Samuel Moyn argues that the Pentagon’s new initiative to minimize civilian casualties in US military operations is just another attempt to put a pleasant face on the forever war:
A few days ago, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the completion of a “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan” promising institutional changes so that American warmaking kills fewer innocent people.
The plan is a clear step forward in the humanization of endless war — the ethically fraught project I attempted to spotlight in my book, “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War,” which appeared a year ago and is out next week in a paperback edition.
The Pentagon commitment — and the dynamics that led to it — fit well with some of my arguments in the book. While making American war less brutal is an uplifting project when it works, it can also function by intentional design to create a new kind of war that results in greater legitimacy. The plan is entirely open about this. It begins: “The protection of civilians is a strategic priority as well as a moral imperative.”
Abetted by critical outsiders and sympathetic insiders who decry the brutality rather than existence of wars, humanizing war reflects ethical progress in the fighting of American war, while entrenching its permanence.
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