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World roundup: September 14 2023
Stories from Yemen, Russia, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
September 14, 1829: The Treaty of Adrianople ends the Ottoman-Russian War of 1828-1829. The Ottomans ceded control over the eastern shore of the Black Sea and the mouth of the Danube River, re-guaranteed Serbia’s autonomy, allowed Moldavia and Wallachia to become Russian protectorates, and paid a large indemnity to the Russians.
September 14, 1960: At a meeting in Baghdad, the governments of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela agree to form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Everything has gone really well ever since. Also on this date, with CIA help, Congolese Army Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a bloodless coup in Kinshasa. That worked out really well too.
A delegation of Houthi officials arrived in Saudi Arabia along with an Omani negotiating team on Thursday for what is supposed to be a five day visit. This is the first time a Houthi delegation has traveled to the kingdom since the war in Yemen broke out in 2014. The hope is that they’ll be able to advance the terms of a peace agreement, including the lifting of the Saudi blockade of northern Yemen and a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign military forces from the country. A formal ceasefire between the rebels and the Saudi-led coalition backing the nominal Yemeni government expired back in October after six months, but the two sides have largely maintained a de facto ceasefire since then.
The Fatah Party and rival Islamist factions within Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp have reportedly agreed to another ceasefire. Fighting within the camp has killed at least 17 people since last Thursday. The parties agreed to a ceasefire on Monday but it collapsed on Wednesday. There may not be much reason to expect this ceasefire to fare better.
Tragically, according to The Wall Street Journal it seems US sanctions disrupted a potential “megadeal” between the Saudis and one of America’s wonderful defense contractors:
American defense giant RTX and a Saudi weapons firm were heading toward a multibillion-dollar deal when it was abruptly called off early this year. The reason, say people familiar with the talks, was RTX’s concerns that its Saudi partner’s companies were pursuing business with sanctioned Chinese and Russian entities.
That unease was a deciding factor for an advisory board of retired American military officers to resign from the Saudi company, Scopa Defense, the people said. Scopa fired its American chief executive who had raised the sanctions concerns with his company’s owner and U.S. officials. And now other major Western defense companies are reconsidering early-stage agreements primarily because of the concerns around engagement with Russian and Chinese entities, the people said.
The failed talks with RTX, formerly known as Raytheon Technologies, demonstrate a challenge Saudi Arabia faces in pursuing diplomatic and business relationships with China and Russia that Washington says jeopardize U.S. national security. Doing business with sanctioned companies could undermine U.S. efforts to squeeze Russia and China financially and heighten the risks that Western companies would face sanctions themselves. It also raises the specter of Moscow and Beijing obtaining secret U.S. military technology.
The breakdown of RTX-Scopa talks also shows the challenges for countries that want to maintain relationships with both the U.S. and its top global rivals when Washington prefers its partners and allies to take sides.
The governments of France, Germany, and the UK have told European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that they will not lift sanctions on Iran when they’re scheduled to sunset next month. Under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, sanctions targeting Iran’s missile and drone programs are supposed to expire on October 18. The “E3,” as they’re collectively known, insist that Iran is so far out of compliance with its obligations under the deal that they cannot (and are not obliged to) allow those sanctions to sunset. Of course, Iran has chosen to drop out of compliance with the deal in response to the US decision to scrap the accord altogether in 2018. But apparently that detail isn’t important.
Pakistani election officials have taken the unusual step of questioning the impartiality of the country’s allegedly impartial, pre-election caretaker government. That government, which assumed control last month, is charged solely with overseeing the next parliamentary election. Under Pakistani law elected governments are obliged to step aside prior to an election to ensure no government favoritism enters the political process. But in a letter sent this week to interim Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar, the Pakistani Election Commission says that “it is a general perception that the caretaker government is a continuation of the previous government.” Specifically the letter questions a possible bias against former PM Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Kakar’s party was part of the previous governing coalition and his caretaker cabinet picks have included known Khan opponents. There’s still no indication when the election is going to take place.
The head of the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, met Philippine military commander Romeo Brawner on Thursday and suggested afterward that the Pentagon may request access to more Philippine military bases. Under a recently concluded mutual defense agreement between the two countries, the US military has access to nine Philippine bases, up from five prior to the new accord. One of those sites lies close to the disputed South China Sea and the other three are well-positioned to support a US intervention in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. It’s unclear what bases Aquilino and Brawner discussed on Thursday but nevertheless it’s unlikely Aquilino’s comments will go over well in Beijing.
According to Reuters, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu abruptly backed out of a scheduled meeting with Vietnamese officials last week. This is noteworthy mostly because Li hasn’t been seen publicly since August 29. Now, that’s only about two weeks and it’s possible that the 65 year old Li is simply ill, which was the excuse the Chinese government offered to Hanoi. However, you may recall that former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang dropped out of public view for a lengthy period earlier this year, amid similar “illness” claims, before he was suddenly sacked in July after only seven months in office. It’s possible that Li has been caught up in a corruption case related to his time as the head of the Chinese military’s Equipment Development Department, a post he held from 2017 through last October. Earlier this year that unit solicited public reports of any “irregularities” dating back through Li’s time in charge.
The Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group is reportedly expanding the territory under its control south of Khartoum. RSF fighters moved into the town of Al Kamlin in Sudan’s Jazirah state on Tuesday and the Sudanese military has begun carrying out drone strikes against RSF positions in the area. A large number of people in Jazirah state have already been displaced from Khartoum by the RSF, whose fighters have occupied much of the city and seized homes and other properties along the way.
The Libyan Red Crescent said on Thursday that it now estimates that at least 11,300 people died in recent flooding in the city of Derna brought on by Storm Daniel. At least 10,100 people are still believed to be missing so the ultimate death toll could easily top 20,000, with over 30,000 displaced. For reference, Derna’s population is usually estimated at somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000. Recovery efforts are sure to be hampered by Libya’s state failure. Indeed, state failure undoubtedly contributed to a failure to maintain the dams that burst due to the storm and its heavy rains and to a failure by authorities to evacuate residents from threatened parts of the city ahead of the storm.
An apparent jihadist attack on a displaced persons camp in northern Burkina Faso’s Sahel region last Tuesday left at least eight people dead and ten wounded according to AFP. Several people remain missing and it’s still unclear if they fled the camp, were abducted, or were also casualties of the attack.
The US military says it has resumed surveillance activity in Niger but has not restarted counter-terrorism operations that were suspended following July’s coup. The commander of US air forces in Europe, James Hacker, apparently told reporters on Wednesday that the US had resumed essentially normal operations in Niger, but the Pentagon clarified on Thursday and said that Hacker was only referring to air operations. The US military characterizes these surveillance flights as defensive in nature, meant to protect US personnel in Niger.
Meanwhile, Nigerien authorities have reportedly freed Stephane Jullien, counselor for French citizens abroad. They arrested him last week for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, and the French government earlier this week demanded his release. Relations between Niger’s junta and the French government have almost totally collapsed and Paris is currently negotiating at least a partial military withdrawal from the country.
The Russian government on Thursday expelled two US diplomatic staffers because of their relationships with Robert Shonov, a former US consular employee who has been arrested on espionage charges. Shonov is accused of passing information about Ukraine on to US personnel. Meanwhile, the government of Slovakia expelled one Russian diplomatic staffer for unspecified “violations” of diplomatic conventions. Slovakia has expelled dozens of Russians since the start of the war in Ukraine.
On the sanctions front, the Biden administration on Thursday added over 150 individuals and entities to its blacklist for allegedly helping Moscow evade export restrictions on sensitive materials. Notably, the new list includes a number of Turkish entries, Turkey being one of the biggest alleged hubs for Russian sanctions evasion, and what the US Treasury Department called “a Finland-based network” shipping electronic components to Russia. That could make the next NATO get together a bit awkward. In other sanctions news, the European Union dropped three Russian individuals from its blacklist. It’s unclear why, though Reuters reported earlier this week that there was some question whether the EU would be able to defend blacklisting them in the fact of court challenges.
Overnight Russian shelling reportedly killed a six year old boy and wounded four other people in southern Ukraine’s Kherson oblast. The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, says it destroyed a Russian air defense system in Crimea and attacked a couple of Russian ships in the Black Sea. It released video purportedly showing a successful sea drone strike on one of the ships but it’s unclear how much damage might have been caused.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti met with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Brussels on Thursday, raising hopes that an EU-mediated peace process might finally resolve the long-standing hostili-aaaand it’s over. Kurti apparently balked at an EU proposal to create an autonomous political entity overseeing ten ethnically Serb communities in northern Kosovo in concert with the Serbian government moving to recognize Kosovan independence. The Kosovan government’s position has long been that the latter must happen before the former, while the Serbian government’s position is the opposite. Kurti and Vučić refused to speak directly, forcing Borell to conduct shuttle diplomacy, so clearly there’s a long way to go here.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
At Foreign Policy, political scientist Jasmin Mujanović suggests it’s long past time to scrap Bosnia’s postwar constitution and try something else:
On Aug. 29, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) delivered a landmark decision against the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ruling by a 6-1 majority that the country’s constitution and its dominant ethnic power-sharing system grossly violated basic rights to equal democratic representation. Specifically, the court ruled that Bosnia’s constitution had unfairly limited the right to vote and be elected for large segments of the population through a “combination of territorial and ethnic requirements” that collectively amounted to “discriminatory treatment.”
Bosnia’s constitution is a strange thing. It is not a stand-alone social contract but Annex IV of the U.S.-brokered Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian War (1992-1995). As a subsection of an international treaty, the Dayton constitution is in effect an armistice operationalized as a complex power-sharing system between the country’s three largest ethnic groups: the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. As such, the constitution has always been deeply intertwined in the country’s relationship with Washington, and with the international officials who have extraordinary administrative powers in Bosnia to this day.
Dominican President Luis Abinader announced on Thursday that his government will close the country’s border with Haiti completely as of 6 AM Friday. Much of the Dominican-Haitian border is already closed due to rampant gang activity in Haiti, but earlier this week Dominican officials threatened to close the northern part of the border in Dajabon province because of a canal being built on the Haitian side that is diverting water from the shared Massacre River. There’s no indication that the Haitian government is responsible for the canal but neither is there any indication that the Haitian government is capable of intervening to shut the project down. Abinader suggested that his government could take unilateral action to stop the canal from being built.
The Cuban government seems to be internally conflicted about the idea of its citizens fighting on behalf of Russia in the Ukraine war. Last week it was reported that Cuban authorities had arrested 17 people linked to an apparent scheme to recruit Cubans to join the Russian military, whether honestly or (in some cases) under false pretenses. On Thursday, Cuban ambassador to Russia Julio Antonio Garmendia Peña told Russian media that those people had broken Cuban law but that the Cuban government in principle had “nothing against Cubans who just want to sign a contract and legally take part with the Russian army in this operation.” A short time later, however, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said via social media that “the unequivocal and unswerving position of the Cuban government, in accordance with its national legislation, is contrary to the participation of Cuban citizens in conflicts of any sort and against mercenarism and trafficking in persons.” That would seem to preclude even lawful recruitment.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Joshua Frank suggests that competition for strategic metal deposits may be fueling US-Chinese competition over the South China Sea:
This brings us back to the South China Sea, which, according to Chinese researchers, holds large reserves of “strategically important” precious metals. China has already been fervently scouting for deposits of the polymetallic nodules that hold a number of metals used in virtually all green technologies.
“Learning the distribution of polymetallic nodules will help us to choose a site for experimenting with collection, which is one of the main goals of the mission,” said Wu Changbin, general commander of the Jiaolong, a submarine that discovered just such polymetallic nodules in the South China Sea.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S., lagging behind China in acquiring minerals for green technologies, has been keeping close tabs on the competition. In 2017, a Navy P3-Orion spy plane conducted repeated flyovers of a Chinese research vessel near the island of Guam. Scientists on the ship were allegedly mapping the area and planting monitoring devices for future deep-sea exploration.
The story is much the same in the South China Sea, where the U.S. has conducted numerous surveillance operations to follow Chinese activities there. In May, an Air Force RC-135 surveillance plane was intercepted by a Chinese J-16 jet fighter, causing an international uproar. Without providing any justification for why a U.S. spy plane was there in the first place, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken quickly pointed the finger at China’s recklessness. “[The] Chinese pilot took dangerous action in approaching the plane very, very closely,” claimed Blinken. “There have been a series of these actions directed not just at us, but in other countries in recent months.”
While these quarrels no doubt have much to do with control over fossil fuels, oil, and natural gas aren’t the only resources in the region that are vital to the forthcoming exploits of both countries.
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