Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: September 2-5 2023
Stories from Syria, North Korea, Russia, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
Thanks for indulging my impromptu Labor Day weekend break. I’m going to try to cover as much of what we missed as possible, which means I’ll try to be as brief and to the point as possible but this is still going to be a long one.
TODAY IN HISTORY
September 2, 31 BCE (or thereabouts): Octavian’s forces decisively defeat the navy of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium. Actium effectively marked the end of the war between Octavian and Antony, as both Antony and Cleopatra subsequently retreated to Alexandria and eventually committed suicide after Octavian besieged the city. His rival gone, Octavian became the first emperor of Rome, taking the title Augustus to mark his new status.
September 2, 1192: The Treaty of Jaffa
September 3, 863: The Battle of Lalakaon
September 3, 1260: The Battle of Ayn Jalut
September 4, 476: Odoacer and his army depose western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustus (“Augustulus”) at Ravenna. This is the conventional date given for the final end of the Roman Empire in the west, though there were other claimants to the throne still kicking around. Modern historians tend to discount the notion that there was a specific end date for the western empire, with this date instead serving as one of many markers in a lengthy transition from the Roman world to one that was more recognizably medieval in makeup.
September 4, 1912: The Albanian Revolt of 1912 ends
September 5, 1905: The Russo-Japanese War ends with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, negotiated with the mediation of Teddy Roosevelt (who won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize as a result). The Russians were obliged to evacuate Manchuria, acknowledge Korea as within Japan’s sphere of influence, and turn over a couple of Pacific islands to Tokyo. The war marked Japan as a rising power and contributed to growing political discontent in Russia that wasn’t resolved until 1917.
Clashes between Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Turkish-backed rebels in northeastern Syria’s Hasakah province left at least 23 people dead over the weekend, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. In the SOHR’s telling, “Syrian National Army” fighters tried to enter the Tell Tamer region, sparking the violence.
The SNA may have been attempting to take advantage of the SDF’s continued infighting, as the group’s Kurdish-dominated core is still battling associated Arab militia fighters in Deir Ezzor province. The SDF declared on Tuesday that it’s intending to end that conflict, which has killed over (possibly well over) 50 people so far, within the “next 24 hours.” It sounds like it’s intending to do that militarily rather than via negotiated settlement, which will presumably involve additional casualties.
The SDF and the “Deir Ezzor Military Council” announced an official settlement to their grievances last week in the removal of former Council commander Ahmad al-Khabil or “Abu Khawla,” whose arrest last weekend is what sparked the fighting. But the violence has continued and there are indications it’s escalating into a broader fight between the SDF and Arab tribes in the region over deeper issues that aren’t really about the arrest of a single militia commander. The US government, which is seeing the tenuous architecture supporting its occupation of eastern Syria collapse before its eyes, sent a delegation to the area on Sunday to try to calm things down. There’s nothing to indicate that had any effect.
Inter-communal violence in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk killed at least four people and left at least 15 more injured over the weekend. Non-Kurdish groups in the city protested the impending handover of a building from the Iraqi government to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party. The structure in question originally belonged to the KDP but Iraqi federal security forces seized control of it during a KRG-Iraqi government dispute back in 2017. Its restoration to KDP control seems to have become a flashpoint for Arabs and Turkmens who aren’t terribly happy living under the KRG. Kurds in the city counter-protested and things spiraled from there. All four of those killed were Kurds. The Iraqi Supreme Court issued an injunction temporarily halting the handover on Sunday and Iraqi security forces have now deployed to the city.
Israeli security forces killed one Palestinian man and wounded another during another raid in Tulkarm’s Nur Shams refugee camp in the northern West Bank on Tuesday. The Israelis turned up in the camp with bulldozers and other heavy equipment looking to destroy it, or at least heavily damage parts of it. Nur Shams has been targeted in several Israeli raids this year.
Papua New Guinea formally opened its Jerusalem embassy on Tuesday. PNG becomes the fifth country—the other four are Guatemala, Honduras, Kosovo, and the US—to place an embassy in the disputed city.
The Israeli government opened an embassy in Manama on Monday, with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in attendance. Israel and Bahrain normalized relations in 2020 as part of the “Abraham Accords” project.
The Saudi government announced on Tuesday that it’s extending its unilateral 1 million barrel per day cut in oil production through at least the end of 2023. The Saudis first instituted that cut in July and it seems to be having the desired effect on global oil prices, which have risen from $70 or so per barrel to around $90 per barrel at last check. The production cut is affecting Saudi oil revenue though it’s hard to know how much as the price increase has at least partly offset the lower volume. The Saudis are risking the possibility that, as global (i.e., Chinese) demand rises (which it’s expected to do later this year), they’ll have a harder time maintaining market share. On a related note, the Russian government announced that it’s continuing its 300,000 bpd oil export cut through the end of the year as well.
The Saudi and Iranian governments exchanged ambassadors on Tuesday, putting what seems like it should be the final touch on their diplomatic rapprochement. The two countries severed ties in 2016 but have been repairing them in recent months, culminating with a Chinese-mediated normalization agreement back in March.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has produced a new quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear program that apparently laments a lack of progress toward restoring IAEA surveillance devices to a number of sensitive Iranian sites. Iranian officials promised earlier this year to put those devices back in place after removing them last year amid the ongoing dispute over the essentially defunct Iran nuclear deal, but apparently they haven’t followed through. The report is not entirely negative. The Iranians have apparently reduced their overall stockpile of enriched uranium, though it’s still many times over the limit imposed under the deal. They have increased their supply of highly enriched (to 60 percent) uranium, but by only around seven kilograms from the previous IAEA report. That can probably be viewed as a small concession by the Iranians.
Two Pakistani army raids in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Friday left at least two Pakistani Taliban (TTP) militants and three soldiers dead. The TTP has been more active this year after abandoning its ceasefire with the Pakistani government in the middle of 2022. Interim Pakistani Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar suggested on Monday that the militants are now using equipment that the US military left behind when it withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021. He didn’t offer much in the way of evidence but while the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans are not overtly connected it’s certainly possible that the Afghan Taliban—or an element within it—has been gifting and/or selling US gear to the Pakistani militants.
The Indian government is getting ready to host the 18th annual G20 summit in New Delhi on Saturday, under something of a cloud. The war in Ukraine is once again likely to dominate the forum, to the detriment of discussions around issues like climate change (to wit, G20 nations are burning more coal per capita than they were in 2015 at a time when they probably shouldn’t be burning any coal at all) and the developing world’s unsustainable debt load. For that reason, Putin is planning to skip the shindig. Chinese President Xi Jinping isn’t going to be there either, sending Premier Li Qiang in his place. It’s unclear why Xi isn’t attending as he’s usually a fixture at these gatherings. Is he trying to insult the Indian government? Is he looking to snub the G20? Is he just tired and wants to stay home? Your guess is as good as anyone else’s, but the upshot is that any joint summit statement—assuming The Gang can agree on one—is likely to have even less import than usual given his absence.
A drone attack targeting a police facility in Myanmar’s Kayin state on Sunday killed at least five people. A group called Federal Wings, which specializes in drone operations and is affiliated with the anti-junta “People’s Defense Forces” militia network, claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack appears to have been carried out in a “double tap” fashion, with an initial strike followed by another about one hour later that killed people who responded to the first one.
The New York Times reported on Monday that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will head to Russia later this month to, in part, talk to Vladimir Putin about supplying the Russian military with weapons. Kim will allegedly ask for food as well as high tech components for satellites and submarines in return for providing more basic munitions—anti-aircraft and artillery shells, in particular—to the Russians. The US has been accusing North Korea of either arming or planning to arm the Russian military for months now, making charges that are routinely denied by Pyongyang.
Kim has in recent weeks been stressing the need to increase North Korea’s arms manufacturing capabilities, which could indicate that he’s either sending weapons to Russia or intends to do so (then again it could be completely unrelated). US officials have said their threats of unspecified punishment have thwarted potential North Korean-Russian arms deals in the past and they’re issuing similar threats now. I have to admit I’m unsure what the US could possibly do to North Korea at this point short of military action, which isn’t going to happen. There can’t be much left to sanction.
Vanuatu’s parliament elected veteran politician Sato Kilman as its new prime minister on Monday, after the country’s Supreme Court ruled last month that a no-confidence vote ousting former PM Ishmael Kalsakau was legitimate. Kilman has been PM several times over the past dozen years, give or take, and had been serving as a deputy PM under Kalsakau. On Tuesday he announced that he would “revisit” a security agreement Kalsakau negotiated with the Australian government, which is what sparked the no confidence move amid opposition claims that the deal undermined Vanuatu’s neutrality. Given how that confidence motion played out it’s unlikely the parliament would vote to ratify the deal anyway.
At least 25 civilians were reportedly killed in multiple incidents in Khartoum over the weekend. According to a neighborhood committee, an airstrike in the southern part of the city late Saturday killed at least 20 people. Shelling on Sunday killed at least five more people. An airstrike strongly suggests the Sudanese military was responsible, though the Rapid Support Forces group does have drones so it can’t be ruled out. Both sides have artillery so Sunday’s shelling is harder to attribute.
Protests marking the two year anniversary of Guinea’s 2021 military coup resulted in the deaths of at least two people in Conakry on Tuesday, and there are credible but unconfirmed reports of at least one additional death. The two confirmed deceased were both shot so the obvious conclusion is that they were killed by Guinean security forces, but as far as I know there’s been no official statement to that effect.
UPDATE: An anti-junta group called “Living Forces” now says that Guinean security forces killed at least four people between Monday and Tuesday.
Malian security forces reportedly thwarted an attempted militant attack in western Mali’s Koulikoro region on Sunday. At least three of them were wounded in the incident and at least one of the attackers may have been killed.
An apparent jihadist attack in Burkina Faso’s North region on Monday left at least 17 Burkinabé soldiers and 36 members of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland paramilitary force dead on Monday. The security forces were in Yatenga province, reportedly to oversee the resettlement of a town whose residents had been driven out by jihadist violence a couple of years ago. Over the weekend, an attack in the Plateau-Central region killed at least one police officer and four VDP fighters.
The French media outlet Le Monde is reporting that Paris is in negotiations with the Nigerien military about the withdrawal of French forces from that country. Notably French officials are not interacting with members of Niger’s junta, whose authority they refuse to acknowledge, but rather with military officers not directly linked to July’s coup. Nevertheless the junta—backed by thousands of its supporters—has been demanding a French withdrawal. These talks are still in the very early stages so there’s little by way of detail.
On Monday, the junta reopened Niger’s airspace to commercial flights for the second time since the coup. Junta leaders immediately closed the country’s airspace when they took power, then opened it a few days later. They closed it again a few days after that in response to a threatened invasion from the Economic Community of West African States. Niger’s airspace remains closed to military flights.
An apparent bandit attack struck mosques in two communities in northwestern Nigeria’s Kaduna state on Friday evening, killing at least seven people in total. At least in the initial strike the primary target appears to have been a local militia leader.
Amnesty International has released a new report alleging Eritrean human rights abuses during the 2020-2022 war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, in which Eritrea participated on the Ethiopian side. These accusations are not new but this report, based on interviews with dozens of people in northern Tigray, details the extent of Eritrean forces’ atrocities, including extrajudicial executions and sexual violence including “sexual enslavement.” Eritrean officials continue to deny these claims.
Gabonese coup leader Brice Oligui Nguema officially took office as interim head of state on Monday to apparently celebratory crowds on the streets of Libreville. Oligui made a number of promises in his inaugural address, including the adoption of a new constitution, political reforms, economic development, and “free, transparent, credible, and peaceful” elections at some yet to be determined date. On Tuesday he met with Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who’s been appointed as the Economic Community of Central African States’ Gabon envoy, and opposition leader Albert Ondo Ossa, who officially lost last month’s presidential election to the now-deposed Ali Bongo Ondimba. There’s no indication of any substantive developments emerging from either session.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Monday to try to convince his Russian pal to rejoin the defunct Black Sea Grain Initiative. He appears to have failed. Putin insists he’d be happy to rejoin the accord provided that Western governments guarantee sanctions protection for Russian food exports. For Putin that means, among other things, restoring the Russian Agricultural Bank’s access to the SWIFT financial network, which is apparently a nonstarter for the US. The two men also discussed a stopgap plan by which Russia will sell 1 million tons of discounted grain to Turkey, in a deal financed by Qatar, and Turkey will ship that grain free of charge to six food dependent African countries. It’s not a sufficient replacement for Ukrainian grain on the global market but for those six countries, at least, it should be a substantial boon.
The British government is reportedly going to designate the Wagner Group a terrorist organization. This seems a bit like closing the barn door after the horse escaped, led a mutiny in Russia, then had the Russian president blow up its private jet in an act of retribution. But it would let authorities legally seize any Wagner-related assets in the UK, if there are any. As for Wagner’s assets in Russia and thereabouts, The Wall Street Journal reports that the Russian government and friendly private military firms are moving to gobble those up. This includes Wagner’s experienced fighters from the Ukraine war as well as its personnel stationed overseas in support of the organization’s various international projects. According to the WSJ the Kremlin is using those private firms more or less as cutouts to avoid any bad blood that Wagner personnel might feel toward the Russian government.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has canned his defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, intending to replace him with State Property Fund director Rustem Umierov. Zelensky didn’t offer any specific reason for this move, saying instead that the Ukrainian military “needs new approaches and other formats of interaction with both the military and society at large.” Reznikov had been defense minister for almost two years, most of that time at war, and may have welcomed his removal on some level. But he’s also overseen a ministry that’s been mired in scandal and I suspect his removal will not be particularly mourned in Western capitals. And while I don’t think you can draw a direct connection between Reznikov’s ouster and the slow progress of Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive, it’s probably safe to assume that if Ukrainian soldiers were already celebrating in downtown Melitopol that he’d still be on the job.
Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest territory declined by more than 66 percent year over year in August, according to Environment Minister Marina Silva. That’s about the same as July’s decrease and comes at a time of year when deforestation is usually at its heaviest. Obviously the baseline is skewed since Brazil’s president last year was Jair Bolsonaro, who would clear cut forest land on general principle, but it still indicates that efforts to reverse his destructive policies are having a sustained effect.
A group of Shining Path militants reportedly attacked an army unit in southern Peru’s Ayacucho department early Monday morning, killing at least four soldiers. Two of the attackers were also killed. The incident took place in Peru’s notorious VRAEM region, the epicenter of the country’s cocaine trade and arguably Shining Path’s last real sanctuary within Peru.
A battle between National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels and Central General Staff (EMC) fighters in eastern Colombia’s Arauca department on Monday left at least nine people dead. Department officials have not identified the dead so it’s unclear how many were combatants vs. civilians. The EMC is one of the largest factions of dissident ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fighters and occasionally vies with the ELN over territory or other issues. The Colombian government is currently in a ceasefire with the ELN and has reportedly just renewed a ceasefire with the EMC, but those ceasefires only cover conflict between those groups and government security forces, not conflict between the groups.
Finally, The Nation’s Spencer Ackerman argues that US foreign policy is pursuing what he calls an “extinction agenda:”
In April 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued the sort of warning that would galvanize a sane society into historic action. Unless greenhouse gas emissions cease rising by 2025, the IPCC found, humanity will not be able to limit the warming of the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which the worst ravages of climate change might still be avoided—though not all of them, just the most catastrophic. The choice implied by the IPCC was between a globe-spanning initiative to halve emissions by 2030, thereby giving us a chance of remaining within the 1.5˚C threshold, or a 21st century defined by an increasingly uninhabitable world.
Drastic as that choice is, the IPCC made clear that a path out of civilizational disaster is doable. The emissions reductions necessary to stay within a 1.5˚C rise would “shave 1-2 percent” off the projected global growth of GDP through 2050, according to a summary from Damien Carrington, the environment editor at The Guardian. But the IPCC’s ultimate point was that the timeline is unforgiving: some “30 months,” Carrington wrote, before the future promises to be unlivable for an unthinkable proportion of humanity.
Seventeen months have passed since the IPCC’s warning. Summer 2023 featured both the hottest July ever recorded and an understandable focus on wet-bulb temperatures, which helps measure the point at which external heat and humidity overwhelm the body’s ability to cool itself and survive extended exposure. Lahaina, Hawaii, once a paradise, lies in ruins from the worst US wildfire in over a century, with at least 115 people dead as of this writing. As horrific as the blackened ruins of Maui are, it’s a prologue of what nature has in store for our communities if nothing changes.
Yet US foreign-policy thinking operates as if none of this is happening—or, rather, as if US foreign policy has better things to do than mitigate the advance of global devastation. At a moment when the imperatives of survival demand unprecedented global cooperation for decarbonization, the question preoccupying US foreign-policy elites is over how many cold wars to wage.
The Biden administration insists that it can pursue those cold wars without affecting its ability to work collaboratively with its rivals when it comes to climate change. Needless to say, to date there is at best minimal evidence to support that insistence.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.