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World roundup: September 26 2023
Stories from Syria, Tunisia, Russia, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
September 26, 1799: A Republican French army under André Masséna outflanks and defeats a Russian-Austrian force at the Second Battle of Zürich. The French victory recovered what Masséna had lost in his defeat at the First Battle of Zürich in June and led to Russia’s decision to quit the Second Coalition. Shortly afterward Napoleon returned to Paris from Egypt and made himself First Consul, and the French Revolutionary Wars began to go in a whole new direction.
September 26, 1983: The Soviet Union’s early warning network determines that the United States has launched one intercontinental ballistic missile and recommends retaliating, but an air force lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov, under the assumption that the US would not launch a nuclear first strike with a single weapon, decides that it must be malfunctioning. He made a similar determination when the system later showed four more US missiles in fight, and turned out to be correct—Soviet satellites were somehow misreading sunlight reflecting off of high altitude clouds as missiles. Petrov’s decision not to rely on the warning system probably single-handedly prevented World War III.
According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, satellite data shows that Antarctic sea ice reached a winter maximum extent of 16.96 million square kilometers earlier this month, a record low. In fact that’s more than 1 million square kilometers less than the previous low. Antarctic sea ice also achieved a record summer minimum of 1.79 million square kilometers back in February. On the other pole, Arctic sea ice hit a summer minimum of 4.23 million square kilometers this year, the sixth lowest minimum recorded over 45 years of record keeping. Loss of sea ice obviously doesn’t contribute to sea level rise, but it does serve as an indicator of ocean warming and can help hasten that process as white ice reflects more solar energy back into space than dark ocean water.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 25 people have been killed over two days of renewed fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces group and Arab fighters around the town of Diban near the Iraqi border—21 Arabs, 3 SDF personnel, and a civilian. The Observatory and SDF are claiming that the Arab combatants entered Diban from the opposite side of the Euphrates River, which is government-controlled territory, with Syrian military support in the form of artillery strikes. The SDF and Arab tribes on its side of the river have been battling on and off for weeks but if the accounts of this latest incident are accurate it suggests the Syrian government is now involving itself in that conflict as well.
It sounds like intermittent violence along the Saudi-Yemeni border is threatening to upend the de facto ceasefire that Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition have been observing for the past several months. Responding to their drone strike that killed two Bahraini soldiers on Monday, the Houthis told Reuters on Tuesday that over the past month a dozen of the group’s fighters have been killed in various incidents along the border. Responding to that claim, the Saudis insisted that those incidents have involved Houthi attacks on coalition positions. It seems unlikely that these occasional events are going to upend recent momentum toward negotiating a full peace deal, but if they start becoming more frequent that could be a different story.
Protests are still going on at the Gaza fence line and continue to involve violent exchanges between Israeli security forces and demonstrators. At least 11 people were wounded in those protests on Tuesday, presumably by Israeli gunfire. In response to the demonstrations the Israeli military conducted several airstrikes on what it says were military positions in Gaza on Tuesday, with no casualties reported in those.
It’s not as though the people trapped in Gaza need a reason to protest, but these demonstrations appear to be fueled by several things, including repeated Israeli acts of violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as Gaza’s perpetually weak economy. Israeli authorities have closed both the Erez checkpoint, the crossing point for Palestinians attempting to enter Israel proper, and the Kerem Shalom checkpoint, an important largely commercial crossing at the juncture of the Gaza-Israeli dividing line and the Egyptian border. Those closures have exacerbated the economic crisis and are also fueling the protests.
The Saudi government sent its new non-resident ambassador to Palestine, Nayef al-Sudairi, to Ramallah on Tuesday to present his credentials and to assure Palestinian leaders that Saudi Arabia Cares even as it prepares to throw them under the proverbial bus to strike a normalization agreement with Israel. Leading the first Saudi delegation to the Occupied Territories in over 30 years, Sudairi reiterated that the Saudis are insisting on real Israeli concessions toward Palestinian statehood in return for normalization. Let’s just say that’s a definite “believe it when you see it” assertion. The current Israeli government would likely collapse before it made any serious move toward enabling a Palestinian state, so if the Saudis want normalization (and all the US goodies that will entail) then something has to give.
Meanwhile, perhaps to emphasize that the Israelis and Saudis really are on the road to normalization, Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz is attending a United Nations conference in Riyadh this week. While the Israeli government has sent lower level delegations to Saudi Arabia in the past, Katz is the first Israeli cabinet minister to make a publicly acknowledged visit to the kingdom.
The Iranian government has indicted more than 50 current and former US officials, including President Joe Biden and former presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush. All stand accused of supporting an opposition group called the “Kingdom Assembly of Iran” or “Tondar,” which is led by imprisoned German-Iranian national (and US resident) Jamshid Sharmahd and which they claim has carried out terrorist attacks inside Iran. I’m sure extraditions will be forthcoming. Hopefully those guys can afford decent lawyers once they get to Tehran.
An explosion at a fuel depot in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Monday has killed at least 20 people, with over 290 injured badly enough to require hospitalization and many of those still in critical condition. The blast occurred in the context of a mass evacuation of the region by its Armenian population. More than 28,000 of them (a bit shy of 25 percent of Karabakh’s total population) had arrived in Armenia at time of writing and that number will almost certainly have gone up by the time you read this. Most, if not all, of the Karabakh population seems intent on relocating to Armenia rather than take their chances living under direct Azerbaijani rule. Azerbaijani authorities are letting the evacuation proceed—indeed they’re probably thrilled that it’s happening—but they have talked about screening refugees for anyone they’ve deemed a “war criminal” so there is some potential for this situation to turn violent.
UPDATE: The death toll from that explosion is up to 68 now and may well rise beyond that.
The UN’s human rights office issued a new report on the conflict in Myanmar on Tuesday that accuses the country’s ruling junta of perpetrating a “seemingly endless spiral of military violence” between April 2022 and this past July. The UN has confirmed at least 22 incidents in which Myanmar security forces killed at least ten people in a single attack, including an airstrike in the Sagaing region back in April that killed over 150 people. The junta’s human rights record also includes documented cases of extrajudicial execution, collective punishment, and sexual violence.
The South Korean Constitutional Court has overturned a 2020 law that criminalized “leafleting.” The term refers to the practice of using balloons to drop propaganda leaflets and USB drives over North Korea. This has never achieved much of anything beyond irritating the North Korean government, which has in the past ordered its military to fire on the balloons and which destroyed the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong in retaliation for leafleting back in 2020 (that incident was what prompted the adoption of the anti-leafleting law). The court voted 7-2 to abolish the law on the grounds that it restricts free speech, while still allowing that authorities could prevent balloon launches in specific instances if there is a perceived threat to South Korean border communities.
Jacobin’s Marc Martorell Junyent outlines the myriad problems with the European Union’s plan to outsource its migration policy by sending a cool $120 million to Tunisian dictator Kais Saied:
In her visit to Tunis, [European Commission president Ursula] von der Leyen stated that one of the objectives of the EU-Tunisia agreement was to provide funds to Tunisia “to support a holistic migration policy rooted in the respect of human rights.” However, it is complicated to see how migrants and asylum seekers can feel safe in Tunisia. In February 2023, Saied portrayed black Africans in Tunisia as “hordes” bringing “violence and crime” to the country. The Tunisian president took a page from white supremacist hate speech, adopting the “great replacement” conspiracy theory to blame sub-Saharan African countries for trying to change Tunisia’s demographic composition.
Saied’s racist remarks greatly contributed to an increase of racism in Tunisia, with many sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia losing their jobs or being attacked by mobs. Furthermore, less than a month after the EU-Tunisia deal, five hundred migrants and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa were pushed by the Tunisian National Guard into a dangerous no-man’s-land on the Libyan border and denied access to basic necessities. At least twenty-seven people were reported dead after being abandoned in the scorching heat of the Libyan desert. Faced with an increasingly racist environment, and special vulnerability to Tunisia’s economic crisis, more migrants and asylum seekers are deciding to attempt the difficult crossing of the Mediterranean.
Around 126,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached Italy’s shores this year, doubling the numbers from 2022. Many of them first arrive at the island of Lampedusa, where they are hosted in overcrowded facilities. And even so, those who land in Lampedusa are comparatively fortunate. According to the Missing Migrants Project by the International Organization for Migration, only in the Central Mediterranean, at least 2,020 people died in 2023, in what is likely a severe undercount due to the difficulties in collecting accurate data.
Nigerian security forces have managed to rescue 14 of the 20 or more students abducted from a university in Zamfara state last week. Gunmen, possibly bandits, kidnapped those students from the Federal University Gusau. It’s the first mass student abduction since President Bola Tinubu took office back in May.
New census research from Mekelle University has reportedly documented 1329 deaths due to hunger since the end of the Ethiopian government’s war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front back in November. The project found that hunger has become the leading cause of death in Tigray. Underlying challenges stemming from the conflict were greatly exacerbated back in March when the US Agency for International Development and the UN suspended food assistance in Tigray amid allegations of theft. The Ethiopian government has been calling for that suspension to be lifted but the US in particular is insisting that the Ethiopians relinquish control of distribution to international oversight.
The Biden administration on Tuesday suspended “certain foreign assistance programs” to Gabon as a consequence of last month’s military coup. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the move in a statement without detailing which programs would be impacted. The international reaction to the Gabonese coup has been fairly muted, but a suspension of some aid while US officials “review” the situation was to be expected.
In Russia news:
An apparent Ukrainian drone strike knocked out power to seven villages in Russia’s Kursk oblast on Tuesday, according to provincial officials. There were no casualties. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denounced what he called Ukraine’s “practice of drone strikes against civilian infrastructure,” and I have to say I’m kind of impressed that he wasn’t immediately rendered incoherent by cognitive dissonance.
A new analysis from Reuters suggests that European countries are much better positioned to survive the coming winter without Russian natural gas than they were heading into last winter. European gas prices are fairly low and stable, storage facilities are almost completely full, and the continent seems to have found alternative sources, including Norwegian natural gas and liquefied natural gas from the US and other suppliers. Several European states have made substantial investments in building LNG infrastructure and the EU has instituted rules obliging members to share gas supplies with neighboring states in necessary.
The Russian military released video and photographs on Tuesday purportedly showing Black Sea fleet commander Viktor Sokolov remotely attending a meeting of senior officers. This could undermine Ukraine’s claim that Sokolov was among at least 34 people killed in a recent Ukrainian bombardment of the fleet’s headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The images cannot be fully authenticated so it’s possible the Russians are playing a con here, but Ukrainian officials did say that they’re now reassessing whether Sokolov was actually among the Sevastopol casualties. During the meeting, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared that Ukraine has lost over 17,000 soldiers and 2700 weapons this month, figures that also cannot be authenticated though there’s no question the Ukrainian military has taken a beating during its ongoing counteroffensive.
Ukrainian officials say their air defenses shot down 26 of 38 drones fired by the Russian military overnight Monday into Tuesday. A number of drones do appear to have made it to their targets in the city of Izmail, a major Danube River port, wounding at least two people and causing material damage.
The Biden administration on Tuesday blacklisted nine individuals linked to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel for drug trafficking (OK, I guess that was kind of obvious). The cartel has been receiving heightened scrutiny from US officials for its role in the fentanyl trade, and also because Republicans in particular seem quite taken with the idea of invading Mexico to deal with the cartel’s activities. The head of Colombia’s Clan del Golfo paramilitary group, Jobanis de Jesús Ávila Villadiego, also landed on the Treasury Department’s naughty list for similar reasons.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Astore imagines what a “progressive”—or at least non-regressive—US military might look like:
A progressive military shouldn’t stop with “more Black faces in high places,” more female generals “leaning in” around conference tables, and similar so-called triumphs for diversity. Consider Lloyd Austin, the first Black secretary of defense, whose views and actions have been little different from those of former Defense Secretaries James Mattis or Donald Rumsfeld, and whose background as a retired Army four-star general and well-paid former board member of Raytheon makes him the very stereotype of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex.
No, all-female air crews aren’t nearly enough. Indeed, they are, I’d argue, a form of “woke” camouflage for a predatory military leopard that refuses to change its spots — or curb its appetite.
A truly progressive military should start with the fundamentals. All service members swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, the system of laws that defines and enshrines our vital rights and freedoms (speech, a free press, the right to assemble, privacy, and so on); in short, the right to live untrammeled by domineering forces. Yet, almost by definition, that right is threatened, if not violated, by a massive military-industrial-congressional complex that penetrates nearly every domain of American life. That complex, after all, is anti-democratic, shrouded in secrecy, and jealous of its power, as well as fundamentally and profoundly anti-progressive. Indeed, it’s fundamentally and profoundly anti-truth.
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