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World roundup: September 20 2022
Stories from Turkey, Ethiopia, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
September 19, 634: The Siege of Damascus ends
September 20, 1519: Ferdinand Magellan sets sail with a small fleet intending to circumnavigate the globe. Magellan wouldn’t survive the voyage, but one of his ships did, arriving in Spain in September 1522 under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano and becoming the first ship to successfully complete that journey.
September 20, 2001: George W. Bush, in an address to Congress, declares war on Terror. And we all lived happily ever after.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The annual United Nations General Assembly session began in New York on Tuesday. Well, technically it began last week, but this week it kicks into high gear with the annual “General Debate,” in which leaders from around the world gather to bark speeches at one another while nobody pays much attention. This is the first fully (or almost fully) in-person General Debate since 2019, as COVID canceled the whole shebang in 2020 and forced the UN to adopt a partially virtual format last year. UN Secretary-General António Guterres opened the session on Monday by warning that the world is in “great peril,” which is a message that probably could have been delivered every year since the UN came into existence but does seem particularly accurate at the moment. While preening for one another is a largely symbolic activity, it is one of the least harmful things most of these world leaders do all year, and occasionally there are noteworthy speeches and/or developments that take place as pairs or groups of them meet on the sidelines of the assembly. So I will mention those things as necessary but otherwise mostly ignore the event.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Syria’s 2022 wheat harvest came in at some 1 million metric tons, down roughly 75 percent from prewar levels, while its barley harvest was “almost nonexistent.” Obviously the civil war bears much of the blame for turning Syria from a net grain exporter to a country that is heavily dependent on grain imports, but climate change has played a role as well by reducing national rainfall levels and changing rainfall patterns. Officials were expecting to yield some 1.7 million tons of wheat this year so they’re now trying to make up the shortfall. The low barley yield impacts animal feed which means shepherds in particular may be unable to maintain their flocks. Now that the country is dependent on grain imports, US sanctions are complicating that process and the war in Ukraine is raising global grain prices.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has decided to upgrade his country’s partnership status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to full membership. He will certainly get pushback over that plan from within NATO, but Al-Monitor’s Nazlan Ertan suggests he may also meet resistance from within the SCO:
But a senior Russian diplomat warned that it may not be a smooth ride due to Turkey’s membership in NATO. “Turkey’s accession request would be assessed as soon as it comes,” Bakhtiyor Khakimov, a special SCO envoy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, told Ria Novosti. He said that the criteria included not being part of blocs that are “hostile or directed against members of the SCO,” noting that Turkey is a member of NATO, which “declared Russia not just an adversary, but enemy No. 1.”
“Turkey cannot become a member of the [SCO] while it is a member of NATO, and the country, no matter who is in government, would never leave NATO. We have been looking for a formula for a decade under the command of three different foreign ministers, but we have not found one,” a former diplomat familiar with the file told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “If Turkey makes an application, it is not clear how China — which has a problem regarding Turkey’s support of Uyghurs — or even Russia would react.”
The UN, backed by the United States, is reportedly preparing to take on the responsibility of paying the salaries of Lebanese military personnel. The collapse of the Lebanese pound has left soldiers earning a pittance, and many have either taken on extra work or quit the military altogether. The currency crisis has of course hit almost everyone in Lebanon hard, but military salaries are of particular concern given the various unappealing scenarios that an unhappy army might portend, especially given Lebanon’s history. Qatar is also financing salary support for the Lebanese military but even taken in combination these are at best stopgap measures.
At least one person was killed during an arrest raid in the West Bank city of Nablus on Tuesday. These sorts of stories have become disturbingly commonplace in recent months, but this time the raid was carried out by Palestinian Authority security forces rather than Israeli soldiers. The target of the raid was apparently a Hamas member. His arrest drew a public rebuke from Hamas officials and the circumstances of the raid caused violent clashes between police and Nablus residents. The details of the killing are unclear but the PA is claiming that its personnel had nothing to do with it and that the victim was killed “in a place where no security personnel were present.”
Elsewhere, Israel is reportedly close to connecting the Karish offshore natural gas field to its national pipeline infrastructure, which could trigger a response from Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization. Karish lies in coastal waters that are claimed by both Israel and Lebanon, and Beirut has insisted that it shouldn’t be exploited until negotiations on delineating the two countries’ maritime border are completed. Hezbollah enters the picture because the group has threatened to attack Israeli assets in Karish and just this weekend the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called Israeli exploitation of the field a “red line.”
Yet another investigative report has concluded that Israeli soldiers intentionally murdered Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin back in May. This report comes from the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq and a research firm called Forensic Architecture and appears to be a pretty thorough reconstruction of the events surrounding the shooting. That reconstruction indicates that not only would the Israeli soldier who shot Abu Akleh have had to target her intentionally, but that the shooter would also clearly have been able to see Abu Akleh’s “PRESS” insignia. There is no indication that, as Israeli officials have tried to claim, the shooter could have confused Abu Akleh with a Palestinian gunmen, and indeed there’s no indication there were any Palestinian gunmen in the area where the shooting took place.
The governor of Iran’s Kurdistan province, Ismail Zarei Koosha, has acknowledged that three people have been killed during protests over the death of 22 year old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iranian religious police. But he’s described those deaths to Iranian media as “suspicious,” presumably trying to imply that they were not killed by Iranian security forces. Protests over Amini’s death have been expanding, and any sign of Iranian police abuses will likely cause them to escalate further.
According to AFP, Afghan security forces killed two women in Helmand province over the weekend during some sort of security sweep. Details are spotty but it seems the security personnel wounded another woman during the sweep and then shot the two women as they were attempting to take that third woman to a hospital. The security forces appear to have been searching for weapons, and this operation was part of what seems to be an intensified security regime (the reason for which is unclear) in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The Myanmar military is denying allegations that its helicopters deliberately shot up a monastery in the Sagaing region on Friday, killing at least 13 people including seven children. Instead, authorities are accusing members of a local People’s Defense Force militia and Kachin Independence Army rebels of herding civilians into the monastery and then attacking the security forces while using those civilians as human shields. Even assuming that’s true, though, it still wouldn’t necessarily make the decision to fire on the monastery justified. As it is, the monastery incident aligns with a pattern of abuses by Myanmar forces in Sagaing since last year’s coup.
Tunisian anti-terrorism police were scheduled to interview Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi and former prime minister Ali Laarayedh on Monday over their alleged ties to “terrorism.” But as it turns out, they spent 14 hours questioning Laarayedh alone before deciding to take him into custody for sending, again allegedly, “jihadists” to fight in the Syrian civil war during his 2013-2014 stint as PM. He’s set to appear in court on Wednesday. Thousands of Tunisians have signed on with Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria over the years, though it seems a stretch to accuse Laarayedh of deliberately recruiting them as these charges suggest. Ghannouchi had his interrogation postponed to Tuesday and I have not seen any details as to how it went.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s chief spokesperson, Getachew Reda, declared via Twitter on Tuesday that the Eritrean military has launched a “full-scale offensive” in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region. It’s unclear exactly how intensive this offensive is but the TPLF’s claim was at least partially corroborated by local witnesses and the US envoy for the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer, who said that Washington is aware of Eritrean soldiers entering the Tigray region. The Canadian government also said over the weekend that it saw indications of a major Eritrean military mobilization. There are also indications that Ethiopian federal and Amhara regional forces may be attacking Tigray from the south, which would force the TPLF to try to defend from two directions at once. This escalation will, among other things, likely exacerbate an already dire humanitarian crisis in Tigray.
In news items from Russia:
An anonymous “senior US defense official” told The New York Times on Tuesday that the Russian government is “struggling” (the NYT’s word) to find new soldiers to send into combat in Ukraine. Videos circulating on social media appear to show the Wagner Group, a private military contractor with close ties to the Russian government, attempting to recruit convicts for mercenary duty, and according to this anonymous official that effort is not going well. As ever it’s unclear how any US official would know how the war effort is going inside Russia, but given recent Ukrainian advances it’s not inconceivable that recruitment has been impacted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was supposed to make a televised national address on Tuesday evening, the subject of which is unclear because he never actually made it. Instead he apparently kept Russian media on read for hours until everybody gave up and went to bed. There are now rumors that he’ll deliver the speech on Wednesday, possibly Wednesday morning. Among the speculated topics was some sort of commentary on forthcoming Ukrainian annexation referendums (see below) and/or an announcement that he’s escalating Russia’s military mobilization.
US President Joe Biden nominated a new ambassador to Russia on Tuesday in the person of veteran diplomat Lynne Tracy. Biden’s previous Russian ambassador, John Sullivan, left his post earlier this month as his wife was dying of cancer. Tracy has served various diplomatic posts in Russia in the past and is currently US ambassador to Armenia.
And in Ukraine:
About those annexation referendums: over the past day the unrecognized pro-Russian governments in Ukraine’s Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts have announced plans to hold public votes on Russian annexation in the coming days. The Russian government quickly embraced these announcements, which is unsurprising insofar as Moscow presumably orchestrated them. The legitimacy of any referendum like this, held mid-war after most of the anti-annexation populations of those regions have presumably fled, would be dubious to say the least. They won’t win much international support, but then neither did the 2014 independence referendum in Crimea and yet Crimea is now functionally part of Russia.
Another item of interest in that anonymously sourced NYT piece I mentioned above involves Ukrainian arms shipments. While thus far much of the effort to arm the Ukrainian military has involved supplying it with Soviet-era armaments from other Eastern European countries, since those are the types of weapons with which Ukrainian soldiers are familiar, Washington is apparently looking ahead to transitioning the Ukrainians to Western-made arms, including tanks. I’m sure the folks at Raytheon, General Dynamics, etc. are pleased to hear it.
The Ukrainian government is reportedly planning to ask the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for what Reuters is calling “bespoke packages” of assistance in the tens of billions of dollars range. The Ukrainian economy has unsurprisingly been obliterated by the war and it’s apparently looking to these organizations for a program that would support its budget (including reconstruction funding) through what promises to be a difficult next few years at least.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro seems to have given the most memorable first day address at the UN on Tuesday, making a powerful pitch for ending the “War on Drugs”:
In his remarks, Petro compared the Western obsession with drug prohibition with its unshakeable addiction to fossil fuels:
“What is more poisonous for humanity, cocaine, coal or oil? The opinion of power has ordered that cocaine is poison and must be persecuted, while it only causes minimal deaths from overdoses…but instead, coal and oil must be protected, even when it can extinguish all humanity,” he said, adding that such reasoning was “unjust and irrational”.
“The culprit of drug addiction is not the rainforest; it is the irrationality of the world’s power. Give a blow of reason to this power. Turn on the lights of the century again”, he urged.
Finally, according to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden will spend part of his time at the UN this week advocating changes in how the UN Security Council functions. Specifically he intends to address the issue of Russia using its UNSC veto to block any action that might interfere with its invasion of Ukraine. It’s unclear how far he intends to push this message or whether he plans to make it publicly or behind the scenes. Technically the UN charter forbids permanent UNSC members from vetoing measures in which they are directly implicated, but that prohibition has never been enforced and the US has a vested interest in keeping it that way should it ever decide to, say, carry out its own unjustifiable invasion of another state—Iraq, for example, just to pick one country completely at random.
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