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World roundup: September 28 2023
Stories from Saudi Arabia, China, Somalia, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
September 28, 1538: The Battle of Preveza
September 28, 1961: A group of Syrian military officers carries out a coup that pulls Syria out of the United Arab Republic, the political union that Syria and Egypt had formed in 1958. In addition to ending the UAR, the coup kicked off about 18 months of political chaos in Syria that finally ended (well, sort of ended) with the March 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power.
Fighters affiliated with the secessionist Southern Transitional Council battled al-Qaeda members in Yemen’s Abyan province late Wednesday, reportedly retaking areas that had been seized by the jihadists in recent weeks. At least five STC fighters were killed along with an unknown number of al-Qaeda insurgents. The STC and al-Qaeda have been clashing with some frequency in Abyan and Shabwah provinces of late.
Israeli authorities reopened the Erez checkpoint, the main crossing for people traveling between Gaza and Israel proper, on Thursday. That appears to be easing the tensions that have fueled the protests that have been taking place near the Gaza fence line for the past couple of weeks. Several thousand Gaza residents work in Israel proper and their inability to pass through Erez has added to the enclave’s overall economic misery. Officials from Egypt and Qatar have spent several days meeting with Israeli and Hamas officials to try to resolve the situation and late Wednesday they reached agreement on a reopening of Erez in return for a suspension of the protests. Israeli authorities will probably close the checkpoint again on Friday for the Sukkot holiday so there’s a chance this crisis could flare up again in the coming days.
In what appears to be another step toward implementing a domestic nuclear program, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman announced earlier this week that the kingdom has decided to open itself up to a full nuclear safeguards regime with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This means more intensive IAEA oversight of the kingdom’s nuclear activities, which right now are governed by the agency’s light-touch “Small Quantities Protocol” as the Saudis do not yet possess a nuclear reactor. Given the kingdom’s oft-stated intention to develop a robust nuclear program, the IAEA has been pushing for a more normal safeguard arrangement for some time now. The US would presumably insist on that as a precondition for helping the Saudis establish a nuclear program with a domestic uranium enrichment component, as is reportedly under discussion.
The Biden administration on Wednesday blacklisted five entities and two individuals allegedly involved in a network helping the Iranian government obtain drone components in violation of US sanctions. Iran’s drone program has taken on new salience given that the Russian military is most likely using Iranian Shahed-136 devices in Ukraine. The network includes entities in China, Turkey, and the UAE in addition to Iran.
The president of the secessionist “Republic of Artsakh,” Samvel Shahramanyan, signed a decree on Thursday dissolving his unrecognized government effective January 1. This was inevitable following the Azerbaijani military’s seizure of the Nagorno-Karabakh region last week, and it remains to be seen whether there will still be any Armenians left in Karabakh by the new year. At last count, over 75,000 people had fled Karabakh for Armenia and that number will likely continue to rise.
The Taiwanese military unveiled its first domestically produced submarine on Thursday, the diesel-electric Narwhal. While largely symbolic—it’s not like one submarine is going to stop or deter a Chinese invasion should one materialize—it is nevertheless a significant milestone for the Taiwanese defense industry. It’s also a significant political achievement for President Tsai Ing-wen and may help boost her preferred successor, Lai Ching-te, in next year’s presidential election.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the US and Chinese governments are making headway toward a presidential summit:
Beijing and Washington are paving the way for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to visit the U.S., moving ahead with high-level official exchanges and taking other steps to improve the tone of their turbulent relations.
Both sides are discussing a trip to Washington by Xi’s top economic-policy aide, Vice Premier He Lifeng, according to people briefed on the matter. He would be the most-senior official to travel to the U.S. since President Biden took office. Meantime, planning is also under way for Foreign Minister Wang Yi to visit Washington in October to prepare for a Xi summit with Biden, the people said.
China facilitated the transfer this week of an American soldier from North Korean custody, U.S. officials said. National security adviser Jake Sullivan had raised the soldier’s case in a meeting 10 days ago with Wang, the officials said.
The latest developments push forward the momentum both governments have been trying to create after months of across-the-board tensions and suggest an increased likelihood that Xi will attend a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders to be held in San Francisco in November. Beyond that gathering, Beijing is seeking a separate high-profile summit with Biden, something both governments see as a potential boost to the months of tentative efforts to stabilize ties.
The aforementioned soldier, Travis King, has arrived back in the US after departing North Korea on Wednesday. King was due to receive military discipline over an assault charge in South Korea before he apparently attempted to defect to North Korea back in July. It’s unclear whether he’s still facing that or indeed any discipline. Also unclear is why North Korean officials decided to “expel” him, as they’ve characterized what happened yesterday. Pyongyang didn’t make much propaganda hay out of King’s defection and there’s no overt quid pro quo involved in his return—or at least none that’s manifested so far. Analysts seem to think the North Koreans decided that whatever value they might have extracted from keeping King was outweighed by the hassle it would bring. Releasing him without getting anything from Washington might even be a political statement of its own, essentially saying that they’re secure enough geopolitically that they don’t need to try to wring concessions out of the US anymore.
The Biden administration also blacklisted two entities and one person in connection with the conflict in Sudan on Thursday. Both companies are alleged to have procured weapons for the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group, while the individual, ex-foreign minister Ali Ahmed Karti, is head of the military-aligned Sudanese Islamic Movement and is accused of hindering potential negotiations between the RSF and the military.
Three Malian military outposts have come under attack over the past two days in various parts of the country. The military says its forces successfully resisted a major attack on a base in the Timbuktu region on Wednesday. That attack was subsequently claimed by the al-Qaeda aligned Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin group, which claims that its fighters seized the base and looted it for weapons before setting it on fire. Later Wednesday an outpost in western Mali’s Koulikoro Region was attacked by what authorities called “terrorists,” probably also JNIM fighters. On Thursday, Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) rebels attacked a base in central Mali’s Mopti region and, according to the CMA, captured it. Mopti is further south than the CMA’s usual stomping ground, but the group only resumed its rebellion a couple of weeks ago so the scope of that conflict probably isn’t well established at this point.
Niger’s ruling junta says that at least 12 of its soldiers were killed in an apparent jihadist attack in southwestern Niger’s Tillabéri region on Thursday. There are Islamic State and al-Qaeda elements active in that area and it’s unclear which (if either) was responsible for this attack.
A car bombing killed at least six people and wounded another 14 in central Somalia’s Hiran region on Thursday. The target was a crowded meat market. There were also reports of two attacks in the city of Dusmareb in the Galguduud region that apparently did not cause any casualties. These were all presumably al-Shabab operations though I’m not sure that’s been confirmed yet.
Writing for Foreign Affairs, the International Crisis Group’s Sarah Harrison argues for a shift in US policy toward Somalia:
In one sense, Somalia has long been a footnote in the United States’ war on terror. The administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump were focused on other regions; as a result, the United States failed to develop a long-term strategy focused on resolving the conflict in Somalia. At the same time, these presidents also sought to respond aggressively to the threat from al Shabab, emphasizing the links between the local militants and al Qaeda, backing Ethiopian and African Union (AU) military interventions, and ramping up airstrikes.
By now, the United States has become content to simply manage the problem through a containment strategy—one some U.S. officials have described as “mowing the lawn,” or periodically shearing al Shabab’s capacities without seriously pushing for lasting peace in the suffering country. Now is the time to change tack. Next month, diplomats representing a so-called quintet of Somalia’s most influential security partners—Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States—will meet with Somali leaders in Ankara. At this meeting, Washington should communicate a plan for peace based on stabilization and reconciliation, not solely on counterterrorism measures.
This might sound like an expansion of the U.S. mission—an approach that is at odds with the goals of a president generally committed to winding down troubled military engagements overseas. But the truth is that al Shabab is unlikely to be defeated purely through military means. If the United States ever wants to withdraw its forces from Somalia for good, it must go beyond military containment and develop a Somalia strategy that prioritizes supporting reconciliation and helping Mogadishu stabilize its territorial gains. Washington cannot “mow” the Somali “lawn” indefinitely. It must, instead, support the growth of a peaceful Somalia that can function on its own.
Russian shelling reportedly killed at least three people in Ukraine’s Kherson oblast and two people in Donetsk oblast on Thursday. The shelling came after a major overnight Russian drone barrage including some 44 aircraft. Ukrainian officials say their air defenses downed 34 of them and have not revealed whether the rest caused any significant damage.
Kosovan President Vjosa Osmani on Thursday outright accused the Serbian government of complicity in Sunday’s apparent insurgent attack in northern Kosovo. I say “apparent” because as far as I know there’s still been no confirmation who the gunmen who participated in Sunday’s attack on a Kosovan police patrol actually were or what their motive was. Serb nationalism is a reasonable assumption but I’m not sure it’s anything more than that at this stage. Serbian officials have denied any involvement in the incident, but both Osmani and Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti have been suggesting that the affair could be fatal to hopes of normalizing relations between the two countries.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to the Corsican regional parliament on Thursday and suggested that he would try to “establish a form of autonomy” for the island. It’s been about a year and a half since Corsica was gripped by widespread riots sparked by the murder of nationalist leader Yvan Colonna in a French prison. The Corsican parliament has been agitating for autonomy and members appear to have welcomed Macron’s remarks. He said he’s aiming to have a plan in place to amend the French constitution to change Corsica’s legal status within six months.
Finally, a new report from Brown University’s “Costs of War” project analyzes the true costs of the US government’s post-9/11 surveillance state:
The United States has witnessed an explosive expansion of mass surveillance since the 9/11 attacks. This post-9/11 expansion has built on slavery, colonial occupation, and longstanding racism, as well as wartime spying and the War on Drugs. Yet it is also markedly different from what existed before, in both its technological capacities and its scale and breadth. This report illustrates how the pervasive fear, Islamophobia and xenophobia, weakened civil liberties protections, and exponentially increased funding of the post-9/11 era enabled the unprecedented breadth and scale of surveillance reigning across the United States today.
The report is a comprehensive overview of the contemporary surveillance programs that emerged in the post-9/11 landscape and illustrates their costly ramifications. These mass surveillance programs allow the U.S. government to warrantlessly and “incidentally” vacuum up Americans’ communications, metadata and content, and store their information in data centers and repositories such as the database authorized by Section 702 — a provision up for reauthorization this year. The report illustrates how federal agencies also increasingly obtain data from private companies and track Americans using facial recognition, social media geomapping, and other technologies. These efforts have particularly impacted Muslims, immigrants, and protesters for racial and labor justice, and have cost untold dollars, normalized an erosion of privacy and freedom, and entrenched an expanding surveillance infrastructure that grows ever more difficult to control.
Other than that I’m sure it’s been fine.
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