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World roundup: September 7 2023
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Gabon, Italy, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
September 7, 1191: The Battle of Arsuf
September 7, 1822: Brazilian Independence Day—Portuguese prince and Brazilian regent Dom Pedro (the future Pedro I of Brazil) declares Brazil’s independence from Portugual. The ensuing war, which had already begun at a low level in early 1822, ended in 1825 with a Brazilian victory.
September 7, 1901: The Boxer Rebellion ends with the defeat of the Yìhétuán rebels and the signing of the Boxer Protocol. Under the treaty, the Chinese government was obliged to pay an indemnity to the Allies—Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden, and to take steps to diminish its military capabilities.
Syrian Democratic Forces commander Mazloum Abdi told Reuters on Thursday that he’s hoping to fix “mistakes” in the way his organization has been administering the eastern Syrian territory under its control. Those mistakes have created tension in the relationship between the Kurdish-run SDF and Arab tribal networks that erupted over the past week and a half into open conflict. That conflict, despite the SDF’s “Mission Accomplished” declaration on Wednesday, does not appear to be at an end and indeed according to Al Jazeera may still be escalating. Even if the outright violence is over, for now, trying to restore the previous status quo may be akin to trying to cram toothpaste back into the tube.
Among the concessions Abdi seemed to offer in his Reuters interview was the release of Arab fighters detained by the SDF over the past several days. Presumably that will not include former Deir Ezzor Military Council boss Ahmed al-Khabil, whose arrest kicked off the violence but now appears to have been little more than a pretext for deeper tensions to come to the fore. Abdi also says he intends to meet with prominent Arab figures in Deir Ezzor to hear and address their wide-ranging grievances against SDF governance. Lurking in the background here is the future of the US military occupation in eastern Syria, which probably cannot be sustained unless the SDF and these tribes are able to at least maintain the pretext of cordiality.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Gulf sovereign wealth funds, like Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, have capitalized on high oil prices to make themselves a key component of the global financial system:
Five years ago, Saudi officials watched a wave of American finance executives pull out of a free investment confab in Riyadh after the murder of a dissident journalist made the kingdom a toxic place to do business.
This year, the conference, nicknamed “Davos in the Desert,” is expecting so much demand it is charging executives $15,000 a person.
Middle East monarchies eager for global influence are having a moment on the world’s financial stage. They are flush with cash from an energy boom at the very time traditional Western financiers—hampered by rising interest rates—have retreated from deal making and private investing.
The region’s sovereign-wealth funds have become the en vogue ATM for private equity, venture capital and real-estate funds struggling to raise money elsewhere.
Unspecified gunmen killed two police officers in southeastern Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province on Wednesday. Sistan and Baluchistan is plagued by violence from multiple and potentially overlapping sources—Sunni jihadists, Baluch separatists, criminal gangs—so it can be difficult to assign responsibility for these kinds of attacks.
Pakistani Taliban fighters attacked two military checkpoints in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Wednesday, killing at least four soldiers. At least 12 attackers were also killed. Pakistani officials said that the attack was launched from inside Afghanistan, but in a statement claiming responsibility the Pakistani Taliban denied that claim.
Chinese export and import data for August suggests that the country’s economic slump may be starting to level off. Both figures were still down for the month but by less than forecast and considerably less than July’s decreases, which corresponds with a number of other indicators hinting at slowing decline. This is somewhat positive news for countries whose economies depend on exports to the Chinese market, like South Korea and Japan, but may not be good enough to stave off a downturn.
The North Korean military, according to the state-run KCNA outlet, has deployed its first “tactical nuclear attack submarine.” I’m not entirely sure what that means. Attack submarines are primarily used to attack other naval vessels although they are frequently equipped with missiles for attacking other kinds of targets. Presumably this one is equipped to fire short-range ballistic missiles, which would be capable of carrying tactical nuclear warheads though North Korea believed to still be working on its tactical nuclear program.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan hopped a flight to Qatar on Thursday, making it the third country visited by the Sudanese military commander in the past two weeks following trips to Egypt and South Sudan. He and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani apparently had a cordial discussion of Sudan’s various crises, chief among them the military’s ongoing conflict with the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group. This flurry of trips has raised speculation that Burhan is trying to amass regional support for some sort of peace agreement with the RSF.
Burhan’s recent rhetoric, which has referred to the RSF as a rebel force and rejected any sort of compromise with the group, does not really support that speculation. But this would certainly not be the first time a national leader said one thing and did something else. Burhan’s visit to South Sudan, where President Salva Kiir has been trying to offer himself as a mediator in the Sudanese conflict, is particularly noteworthy. He could conceivably have visited Egypt and Qatar to drum up military and/or financial support, but I’m not sure what Kiir really has to offer apart from his diplomatic services. Burhan is also expected to attend this month’s United Nations General Assembly session, where he may try to drum up additional international support for negotiations. He’ll probably need to tread carefully when it comes to the US and Saudi Arabia, who jointly coordinated ceasefire talks during the early months of the conflict before abandoning them for lack of any tangible progress.
A pair of jihadist attacks in northern Mali on Thursday left at least 64 people dead in total, according to Malian authorities. Militants struck at a passenger boat on the Niger River in Mali’s Timbuktu region, killing at least 49 civilians. The second attack, also along the river in the Gao region, targeted a military outpost and left at least 15 soldiers dead. Both attacks were claimed by al-Qaeda’s Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin affiliate. Malian authorities are claiming that at least 50 JNIM fighters were also killed.
The US military said on Thursday that it “is repositioning some of our personnel and some of our assets from Air Base 101 in Niamey to Air Base 201 in Agadez,” referring to the two main US facilities in Niger, and has withdrawn some “non-essential” personnel from the country. Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh characterized this as a “precautionary measure,” without specifying what the Pentagon is taking precautions against. Niger’s junta has been agitating for a French military withdrawal from the country but as far as I know has not made any official comment regarding US forces. The Biden administration won’t even acknowledge July’s coup officially so tension between Niamey and Washington does not seem especially high given the circumstances.
Gabon’s ruling junta appointed a prominent member of the country’s political opposition, economist Raymond Ndong Sima, as its prime minister on Thursday. Ndong served as PM under recently ousted President Ali Bongo Ondimba from 2012 to 2014 but subsequently emerged as a leading Bongo critic and was one of several candidates who ran against him in Gabon’s (allegedly rigged) 2016 presidential election. His appointment marks the first real indication that the junta might be willing to bring the opposition into government and genuinely move on from Bongo and the rest of Gabon’s ruling elite. Thus far there’s been considerable speculation, including from other Gabonese opposition figures, that last week’s coup was a purely intra-elite affair.
The junta announced late Wednesday that new head of state Brice Oligui Nguema and Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the Economic Community of Central African States’ (ECCAS) new Gabon envoy, had agreed to draft a “roadmap” for a transition back to civilian rule. They don’t seem to have agreed on what should go in that roadmap but even agreeing to agree at this point puts the Gabonese junta on more stable international footing than the junta in Niger.
Negotiations between the US and the EU over the proposed “Global Arrangement for Sustainable Steel and Aluminum” trade agreement are reportedly breaking down, as the two sides head toward an October 31 deadline to avoid the re-imposition of bilateral tariffs. The proposed deal, which is ostensibly about reducing the climate impact of metals manufacturing but is more about trying to cut China out of the global steel market, is apparently hung up over disagreements about environmental standards and provisions the EU regards as protectionist. Failure to reach an agreement could result in the snap-back of steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the Trump administration in 2018 and a series of retaliatory tariffs imposed on US goods by EU members.
Meanwhile, EU members are reportedly close to agreement on separating military spending from the bloc’s deficit rules. The EU caps member states’ annual budget deficits at 3 percent of GDP and empowers the European Commission to take action against members that exceed that threshold. The proposed rule change isn’t an outright exemption for military spending, but would give the EC discretion not to penalize members that exceed the 3 percent cap because of their military expenditures. The exercise of this rule would apparently be at the EC’s discretion so you can probably expect it to become a source of disagreement at some point.
The Russian military bombarded Ukraine’s Danube River port at Izmail on Thursday for the fourth time in the past five days. Ukrainian authorities reported at least two injuries and material damage, without going into specifics. Ukraine’s Danube ports have emerged as the main alternative to its Black Sea ports for shipping grain out of the country and consequently that’s made them a prime target for the Russians.
The Italian government is reportedly looking for a graceful exit from the Belt and Road Initiative:
Italy is preparing to cancel its controversial membership in China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, engaging in an elaborate diplomatic dance to avoid angering Beijing and triggering retaliation against Italian businesses.
Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani held talks in Beijing on Sunday and Monday to facilitate as smooth an exit as possible from the initiative while laying the groundwork for alternative economic deals with China.
“We didn’t achieve great results with the Belt and Road, but that doesn’t matter,” Tajani told reporters in Beijing. “We are determined to move ahead with plans to strengthen our commercial ties.”
The Italian government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has long signaled its discomfort with the Belt and Road memorandum that a previous Rome government signed with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019.
Meloni was ideologically opposed to the agreement long before she became PM so it’s not terribly surprising that her government is looking to quit the arrangement. But if Italy were reaping massive economic benefit from its BRI membership one assumes Meloni would have a harder time justifying this decision. The reality is Italian exports to China haven’t increased much under the deal, nor has there been a flood of Chinese investment in Italy, so she hasn’t had to do much heavy lifting politically. The Chinese government says it wants to address Italian grievances to keep it in the project, but given that Meloni is doing something she’d probably want to do anyway I don’t think she’s going to be particularly receptive to their overtures.
Mexico’s two largest political coalitions, the Juntos Hacemos Historia alliance that includes President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s MORENA party and the opposition Broad Front for Mexico, have both nominated women for next year’s presidential election—former Mexico City head of government Claudia Sheinbaum and Senator Xóchitl Gálvez respectively. This means that, barring some very unforeseen development, Mexican voters will elect the country’s first female president next year. Polling has suggested that Sheinbaum, a close ally of the still broadly popular AMLO who would also become Mexico’s first Jewish president, is in strong position heading into the campaign. But the race is only just starting to take shape so it’s too soon to draw any strong inference from survey results.
Finally, TomDispatch has published another 9/11 retrospective, this time from Norman Solomon on the bloody “War on Terror” that ensued:
Under the “war on terror” rubric, open-ended warfare was well underway — “as if terror were a state and not a technique,” as Joan Didion wrote in 2003 (two months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq). “We had seen, most importantly, the insistent use of September 11 to justify the reconception of America’s correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war.”
In a single sentence, Didion had captured the essence of a quickly calcified set of assumptions that few mainstream journalists were willing to question. Those assumptions were catnip for the lions of the military-industrial-intelligence complex. After all, the budgets at “national security” agencies (both long-standing and newly created) had begun to soar with similar vast outlays going to military contractors. Worse yet, there was no end in sight as mission creep accelerated into a dash for cash.
For the White House, the Pentagon, and Congress, the war on terror offered a political license to kill and displace people on a large scale in at least eight countries. The resulting carnage often included civilians. The dead and maimed had no names or faces that reached those who signed the orders and appropriated the funds. And as the years went by, the point seemed to be not winning that multicontinental war but continuing to wage it, a means with no plausible end. Stopping, in fact, became essentially unthinkable. No wonder Americans couldn’t be heard wondering aloud when the “war on terror” would end. It wasn’t supposed to.
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