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World roundup: September 23-24 2023
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Niger, and elsewhere
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Tzom Kal to those who are observing Yom Kippur.
THIS WEEKEND (PLUS) IN HISTORY
September 21, 1860: A combined British and French army defeats a Qing Dynasty army at the Battle of Palikao, named for a bridge in the eastern part of Beijing. The defeat caused the Xianfeng Emperor to flee his capital, leaving the city in European hands and hastening the end of the Second Opium War.
September 22, 1965: The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, fought over Kashmir, ends with a UN-brokered ceasefire. The outcome was indecisive, but the war caused India and Pakistan to look for new allies, as the US and UK imposed an arms embargo on both countries. Pakistan’s current relationship with China and India’s Cold War relationship with the Soviet Union developed as a result.
September 22, 1980: The Iran-Iraq War begins
September 23, 1803: A small British army defeats a Maratha army as much as six or seven times its size at the Battle of Assaye. The British victory helped establish military supremacy in the Deccan, the Maratha Empire’s home turf, and led to Britain’s victory in the Second Anglo-Maratha War. It also boosted the military career of the British commander, Major General Arthur Wellesley, who would later be made the first Duke of Wellington and become a major thorn in Napoleon’s side.
September 24, 1877: The Japanese Army defeats a heavily outnumbered and even more heavily outgunned samurai force under the command of rebel leader Saigō Takamori, whose entire 500 man army was wiped out, in the Battle of Shiroyama. The battle ended the Satsuma Rebellion and the role of the samurai as Japan’s warrior class. The 2003 film The Last Samurai depicts a heavily fictionalized (and arguably quite ahistorical) version of this battle and the wider rebellion.
According to AFP the Syrian military shelled a displaced persons camp in northwestern Syria on Saturday, killing at least two people and wounding two more. AFP’s source here is the “White Helmets” group, which is rebel-affiliated. An “AFP correspondent” appears to have corroborated the rocket strike.
That Houthi negotiating team that traveled to Saudi Arabia on September 14 left on Tuesday after five days of negotiations that, according to Al Jazeera, made “some progress” on “some of the main sticking points” that need to be unstuck in order to conclude the Yemen war. Those issues include a full lifting of the Saudi blockade of northern Yemen, a withdrawal of foreign fighters from the country, and an agreement on the use of public funds to pay public sector salaries in rebel- as well as government-held parts of Yemen. An agreement between the Houthis and Saudis would have to be the pretext to a bigger peace deal. The Saudis seem interested in settling this conflict and may be feeling pressure to wrap it up as a precondition to a US-Saudi defense pact (more on that below).
Israeli security forces killed at least two Palestinians in a raid early Sunday in the Nur Shams refugee camp outside the West Bank city of Tulkarm. Hamas identified one of them as one of its fighters. Israeli officials claim their forces came under attack as they were dismantling an “operational command center” in the camp. In Gaza, meanwhile, tensions have been high for several days amid a new round of protests near the enclave’s fence line. Israeli forces shot and wounded at least three people near the fence on Saturday and the Israeli military bombarded sites linked to Hamas on Friday and Saturday, with no reported casualties.
As I hinted at above, the rumor mill is continuing to grind over the possibility of a Saudi-Israeli diplomatic normalization agreement that would include a US-Saudi defense-plus pact as part of the appeal to Riyadh. The Wall Street Journal reported a few days ago that there’s been movement behind the scenes toward setting up a uranium enrichment program, as part of a new Saudi nuclear program, that would be the “-plus” part of that pact. This would be a huge change in policy for the US and Israel, both of which have long opposed anything that might risk nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East (beyond the nukes that Israel itself definitely doesn’t possess, at least). The enrichment program would apparently be “US-run,” though it’s unclear what that would mean in practice and it may be a fiction intended to ease fears of a Saudi nuclear weapon in the US Congress.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been open about his desire for an enrichment program to compete with Iran’s and with his intention to use that program to manufacture nuclear weapons should the Iranian government decide to go in that direction. Israel would be involved at a technical level, using the expertise it’s developed over decades of definitely not researching and building nuclear weapons to help set up this ostensibly civilian enrichment operation. Indeed an Israeli green light is necessary both because this effort is ultimately in service of an Israeli-Saudi diplomatic agreement and because it would help allay those aforementioned congressional fears, so Israeli leaders do have something of a veto over this whole scheme. The current Israeli government will need to weigh the political cost of allowing a Saudi enrichment program over the political benefit of normalization.
The anticipated Iran-US prisoner swap has finally taken place, with five previously imprisoned US nationals and two family members departing Iran for Qatar last Monday. I’m not sure what else to say about this deal as we’ve covered its terms fairly extensively in past roundups, but I think it’s important to note that at present there is absolutely no overt indication that this is going to lead to further US-Iranian negotiations about other issues. That may still manifest at some point and, if it does, will probably happen as covertly as either government can manage.
There’s also not much new to say about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh since Thursday’s update. The ceasefire has more or less held, albeit with scattered claims of violations here and there, and Karabakh defense forces are reportedly disarming while at least one convoy carrying humanitarian aid entered the region over the weekend. The one potentially major development, which isn’t entirely unexpected, is that there were indications on Sunday of a nascent mass exodus of Armenians out of Karabakh and into Armenia proper. I hesitate to speak too soon but leaders in Karabakh’s Armenian community and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan indicated on Sunday that they expected all or nearly all of the 120,000 or so Armenians resident in Karabakh to leave rather than take their chances living under Azerbaijani rule.
Azerbaijani officials have spent the past few days checking off the necessary rhetorical boxes about treating Armenians as “equal citizens” and “reintegrating” them into Azerbaijani society. The thing is, Karabakh’s Armenians were never really integrated into Azerbaijani society in the first place, since they’d already declared independence when the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan became an independent state. Given that they’ve been cast as The Enemy in Azerbaijani media and politics for over 30 years now and given that the Azerbaijani government doesn’t even treat its current citizens well, it’s not terribly surprising that most or all of those Karabakh Armenians are now looking for an exit. I expect Azerbaijani officials will be happy to let the Armenians ethnically cleanse Karabakh for them.
The Canadian government last Monday expelled the Indian government’s intelligence chief in Canada while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused New Delhi of having executed a Sikh independence leader named Hardeep Singh Nijjar earlier this year. Nijjar was murdered in British Colombia back in June. He’s considered an activist among the Sikh but is regarded as a terrorist criminal by the Indian government, which had pressed Canadian officials for his extradition. The response from Indian officials to Trudeau’s accusation has been two-pronged, denying it while insisting that if they had been responsible for Nijjar’s murder it would have been justified.
This spat, which escalated on Thursday when the Indian government stopped processing visa applications in Canada, has put the US government in an uncomfortable position. Canada is a NATO ally but courting India has been a major part of the “New Cold War” project and Canada is just not all that vital for US strategic interests. Trudeau has yet to release any evidence linking India to Nijjar’s killing, but the US position may have gotten a bit more awkward over the weekend when several outlets reported that it was the US that provided Canadian officials with intelligence pointing toward Indian involvement. Un-Diplomatic’s Van Jackson argues that this incident should cause Washington to rethink its devotion to India and its reactionary government, and certainly under any interpretation of international law or basic norms what New Delhi allegedly did here was not permissible. Of course, since 2001 the US government has granted itself the right to kill people in several other countries at will, so this is probably not a norm that the US can credibly enforce.
According to Reuters the US and Vietnamese governments are working on their biggest arms deal ever, one that would include the provision of F-16s to Hanoi. This is apparently still in the very preliminary stages and could easily fall apart, particularly over financing—the Vietnamese government isn’t exactly able to pay full markup for US hardware. But if it comes to fruition it would be a fairly stunning commentary on the state of the Vietnamese-US relationship and, by extension, the state of the Vietnamese-Chinese relationship. The latter is still strong but it’s fraying over competing claims in the South China Sea and it seems the US is benefiting.
Speaking of relationships that are fraying because of the South China Sea, the Philippine government on Sunday accused China of installing a “floating barrier” to prevent Philippine nationals from fishing in the disputed Scarborough Shoal. China kicked Philippine fishermen out of the shoal about a decade ago but allowed them to return as bilateral relations improved under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. With relations souring again under current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., it seems Beijing has decided to kick the fishermen out again.
Since we seem to be on a New Cold War streak, the Biden administration is hosting another Pacific Islands summit starting on Monday, but it will be doing so without Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. He’s sending his foreign minister instead, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear but probably have to do with Sogavare’s preference for China over the US.
Vanuatu’s prime minister, Sato Kilman, is also skipping the summit, but in his case he has an excuse: he needs to stay home to oversee a no-confidence vote on Monday. Kilman took power earlier this month after his predecessor, Ishmael Kalsakau, lost a confidence vote. Monday’s vote is over whether or not to suspend Kalsakau from parliament. As you may recall, Kalsakau’s removal was linked to a security deal he reached with Australia, which isn’t exactly a US cutout in the Pacific region but is certainly aligned with US interests in a broad sense. Kilman has insisted on his neutrality, though he’s been put in office by the China-friendly faction in Vanuatu’s legislature. He apparently wants to reopen the Australia pact for revisions rather than just doing away with it altogether.
Among the developments expected to emerge from the summit, the Biden administration appears set to establish direct diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands and Niue. Both countries are in free association with New Zealand, and right now the US manages relations with them out of its New Zealand embassy. I’m unclear what this step will entail—the US isn’t building new embassies in either country and I doubt it will name new ambassadors but it could do something at the consulate level. Regardless, this will continue the administration’s efforts to broaden the US diplomatic footprint in the region.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Sunday that he’s withdrawing French military forces from Niger along with his Nigerien ambassador, Sylvain Itté. Niger’s military government has effectively been imprisoning Itté and his staff in the French embassy in Niamey since Macron ignored their expulsion order last month. They’ll apparently be repatriated immediately. The decision also leaves around 1500 French military personnel in limbo, particularly as the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso have already told Macron to get bent. Those French forces will be withdrawn probably over the next few months, and Macron may try to find them a new African base—Chad, perhaps—in the meantime.
Niger’s ruling junta banned French aircraft—both military and commercial—from Nigerien airspace on Saturday. I’m assuming that decision didn’t factor into Macron’s announcement the following day, but it does illustrate how dismal French-Nigerien relations are at this point.
A truck bombing in the central Somali city of Beledweyne on Saturday killed at least 21 people and left another 52 wounded according to local authorities. Nobody has yet claimed responsibility for the attack but it would be surprising if this were not an al-Shabab operation.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni announced on Saturday that his military carried out an airstrike in the DRC earlier this month—September 16, to be exact—that killed several members of the Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces group. Apparently among the dead was an ADF member named Meddie Nkalubo, who according to Museveni “has been the author of the bombs in Kampala.” The ADF began as a Ugandan militant group that later relocated to the eastern DRC, but it does carry out attacks in Uganda from time to time.
In Ukraine news:
Russian airstrikes killed at least two people and left nine wounded in Ukraine’s Kherson oblast on Sunday. A Ukrainian drone strike apparently caused just some minor damage in Russia’s Kursk oblast, but that came after a fairly substantial two-day bombardment of Russian positions in Crimea on Friday and Saturday. Friday’s attack damaged the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and left at least one Russian missing. Ukrainian officials are claiming that their attack killed at least nine people and wounded at least 16 including a senior Russian general, but there’s been no independent confirmation of that claim. If the facility was as damaged as videos and photos of the strike appear to suggest then it does seem likely that there were multiple casualties.
Down on the ground, Ukrainian officials are claiming that their forces have broken through Russian anti-tank defenses near a village called Verbove, in Zaporizhzhia oblast. That would represent their deepest penetration into Russian lines since the start of the counteroffensive, if it’s true. Again there’s no confirmation of this claim, but if the Ukrainians have really made a breakthrough it should become apparent at some point.
NBC News reported on Friday that Joe Biden has told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the US will be sending him the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), fulfilling a long standing Ukrainian demand. The ATACMS can be loaded into the rocket launchers the US has already been providing Ukraine and has a range of about 300 kilometers or 180-ish miles. The US apparently doesn’t have all that many of these weapons in stock so it will presumably need to engage some of our fine defense contractors to make more, which I’m sure they’d be happy to do.
The Russian artillery strike that supposedly killed at least 15 people in the Ukrainian city of Kostiantynivka earlier this month turns out probably to have been a Ukrainian missile strike instead. A misfired Ukrainian air defense missile, to be specific. After initially trying to block a New York Times investigation into the incident, Ukrainian authorities now say they’ve undertaken their own investigation.
Gunmen attacked a police patrol in northern Kosovo on Sunday, killing one police officer before barricading themselves in a monastery for several hours while more police officers surrounded and besieged the place. The standoff had apparently come to an end as of Sunday night, with at least three of the gunmen (some 30 of them in total) having been killed over the course of the day. Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti characterized the incident as an act of terrorism and blamed it on the Serbian government, absent any evidence as far as I know. Serbian officials denied any involvement. I’m unclear as to the identity of the gunmen but the assumption seems to be that they’re ethnic Serb partisans of some description.
The Colombian government and the Estado Mayor Central faction (FARC-EMC), one of the most prominent of the ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) splinter groups, announced a ceasefire on Tuesday. The ten month truce is meant to kick in next month when government and FARC-EMC officials will begin negotiations on a more lasting peace deal. This will be the second go round for a government-EMC ceasefire—a previous attempt announced around the new year collapsed in May. It’s also another achievement for President Gustavo Petro’s peace initiative, coming on the heels of the six month ceasefire the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group began observing last month.
Finally, I assume most or all of you have heard by now that US Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and his wife, Nadine, have been indicted for allegedly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars (in literal gold bars) in bribes to grease the skids for US weapons sales to Egypt. Menendez has faced multiple corruption allegations over the years but until Friday remained, shamefully, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a key Democratic Party power broker with respect to foreign policy. He has stepped down “temporarily” from that position but remains, again shamefully, a sitting US senator. He’s faced numerous calls to resign from inside and outside of the party, which he’s apparently decided to chalk up to racism. Menendez’s foreign policy views are generally terrible so even leaving aside the corruption he will not be missed as SFRC chair. Van Jackson has more on this story at his Un-Diplomatic newsletter:
Two quick things to note about this Bob situation.
One, as my Kurt Campbell mini-series has tried to make clear, it literally pays to be a foreign policy hawk in Washington.
Menendez has long been a leading voice of Democratic-Party foreign policy on the Hill, and his record is pure sanctions, coercion, “great-power competition,” and arms sales (the latter of which got him the latest indictment).
The whole point of my Kurt history (not exposé) is not Kurt himself, who is a marginal public figure even if he looms large as a policy celebrity. It’s that the most successful Democratic operatives are national security popularists; they have no ideological mooring whatsoever beyond American exceptionalism and an ethos of opportunism. The ones with real political convictions, like Barbara Lee, get shunted by the Party. The ones who just do Republican foreign policy but smarter get the guap and the clout. That’s the Kurts and the Bobs.
Two, isn’t anyone curious how Bob Menendez is possible?
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