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World roundup: September 9-10 2023
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
September 9 (or thereabouts), 1141: A Qara Khitai army led by that dynasty’s founder, Yelü Dashi, defeats a Seljuk-Karakhanid army at the Battle of Qatwan, north of the city of Samarkand. Yelü Dashi was a relatively minor royal during the last days of China’s Liao dynasty who fled during the accession of the Jin dynasty and founded the Qara Khitai empire (sometimes also called the Western Liao) in Central Asia. Doing so meant displacing the Karakhanids, which his victory at Qatwan helped accomplish. The defeat of its Karakhanid vassal and the loss of a substantial chunk of eastern territory also triggered, or at least contributed to, the collapse of the Great Seljuk Empire. Sketchy tales of this battle may have provided the basis for the Christian legend of “Prester John,” a mythical Nestorian Christian ruler who was supposed to make war against Islam from the east while the Europeans did so from the west.
September 9, 1855: The nearly year-long Siege of Sevastopol ends with a Russian withdrawal from the city. The siege is among the most famous in history and the centerpiece of the Crimean War—it’s pretty much the reason we call it the “Crimean War” even though most of the other fighting in that conflict took place somewhere other than Crimea. The Allied capture of the city contributed heavily to Russia’s eventual defeat.
September 10, 1813: In one of the largest naval engagements in the War of 1812, a US fleet defeats a smaller British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie. This was a significant strategic victory, in that it gave the US control of the lake and enabled both the recapture of Detroit in late September and the US defeat of Tecumseh’s confederacy at the Battle of the Thames in early October. The victory also prompted US Commodore Oliver Perry’s famous message to General William Henry Harrison: “we have met the enemy and they are ours.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces group might want to stop declaring “Mission Accomplished” every couple of days because clearly its fighters are still battling Arab tribes in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province. On Saturday an SDF raid on the town of Diban, which the group claimed to have secured on Wednesday, left at least one person—a 12 year old child—dead. According to The New Arab, witnesses say SDF fighters were responsible. SDF leader Mazloum Abdi’s offer to meet with tribal leaders has apparently been rejected by at least one major provincial grandee, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Hafil of the Uqaydat tribe. He’s called for continued resistance to the SDF.
More fighting between Palestinian factions in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp left at least three people dead and ten wounded on Saturday. The Fatah Party and Islamist elements in the camp have been battling on and off since the killing of a senior Fatah figure in late July, for which the party says the Islamists were responsible. Lebanese authorities have been trying to mediate between the two sides and are managing the effects of the fighting, in particular by caring for people displaced from the camp. On Sunday it appeared that both Fatah and the Islamists had agreed to a ceasefire, which is at least a start assuming it holds. But their last ceasefire eventually fell apart and this one likely will too without a resolution to the underlying tension.
Israeli security forces gunned down a 16 year old Palestinian boy near the West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday. According to Israeli officials, one of their military outposts came under attack and they returned fire. It’s unclear whether the deceased was one of the alleged attackers.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government hasn’t (yet) made ethnically cleansing the West Bank its official policy, but Local Call’s Oren Ziv reports that settlers—with official indulgence—are already doing the job piecemeal:
There are almost no Palestinians remaining in a vast area stretching east from Ramallah to the outskirts of Jericho. Most of the communities who lived in the area — which covers around 150,000 dunams, or 150 square kilometers, of the occupied West Bank — have fled for their lives in recent months as a result of intensifying Israeli settler violence and land seizures, backed by the Israeli army and state institutions. The near-total emptying of the region’s Palestinian population shows how Israel’s slow but gradual process of ethnic cleansing is continuing apace, effectively annexing large swathes of the occupied territory for exclusive Jewish settlement.
More than 10 settler outposts — which are illegal even under Israeli law, though the current far-right government is working hard to legalize them — have been established in this area over the past few years, with their settlers weaponizing shepherding as a means to take over Palestinians’ land and force them out. The few small Palestinian communities that remain in the area may also soon be forced to leave, out of grave fear for their physical safety and mental wellbeing. In the last year alone, hundreds of Palestinians have been forcibly displaced in this way.
Amnesty International issued a statement on Friday accusing the Saudi government of undertaking a “relentless killing spree” to commemorate the kingdom’s 100th execution of 2023. Saudi authorities generally claim that they are executing people arrested for drug-related offenses, though the kingdom has sentenced at least one person to death this year over his social media activity and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is noted for preferring death for his critics. Amnesty criticized the death sentences as products of “grossly unfair trials that fell far short of international human rights standards.”
The Biden administration, which promised shortly after Joe Biden took office to “put human rights at the center of US foreign policy,” is according to The Wall Street Journal collaborating with the Saudis on a plan to secure a steadier supply of metals from Africa. A specific plan has not come into fruition, but the WSJ says one idea would involve the Saudis buying stakes in African mining projects with the US backstopping those purchases with guarantees to buy some portion of the metals they produce. A partnership could help the US get around China’s domination of the market for battery-critical materials like cobalt and lithium while also helping the Saudis bolster their own mining sector and energy transition.
According to Reuters we may be just days away from the completion of the US-Iranian prisoner swap that was announced last month. Banks in South Korea are reportedly preparing to wire some $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds to Qatar, where that money would be used to purchase non-sanctioned products under Qatari oversight. Once that’s done the Iranians will release five US nationals they’ve been holding, all of whom will be evacuated to Qatar before being repatriated to the US. A number of Iranian nationals will also be released by the US. They will also fly to Qatar before returning to Iran. As the deal’s primary mediator and guarantor, the Qataris will get a major diplomatic and public relations boost.
The legislature in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave elected a new regional president on Saturday in the person of Samvel Shakhramanyan. As you might expect, the vote was roundly condemned by the Azerbaijani government, whose foreign ministry called it (among other things) a “serious blow to the efforts of normalization in the region.”
Nevertheless, after the election both the Karabakh regional government and the Azerbaijani government announced a deal to ease the latter’s blockade of the Lachin Corridor, which connects Karabakh to Armenia. This was part of a deal under which Karabakh authorities would allow a Russian aid shipment to enter the enclave from government-held Azerbaijani territory, a concession to the notion that Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan. Something appears to have gone wrong there, however, as Reuters reported on Sunday that the aid shipment was stalled outside Karabakh. There’s no indication what might be the problem.
A “shootout” between security forces and unspecified militants in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province late Saturday left at least one Pakistani soldier dead. The militants were presumably Pakistani Taliban but I’m not sure if that’s confirmed.
This weekend’s G20 summit in New Delhi did produce at least one tangible outcome, that being The Gang’s decision to make the African Union a permanent member. Presumably this makes it the “G21,” though I haven’t seen anybody make that change yet so who knows? The AU has been chasing G20 membership for several years and about the most you can say here is that it’s long overdue. Indeed, it could be viewed as somewhat insulting that the AU is just the second African entity admitted to the group, after South Africa.
As far as the summit accomplishing anything else…well, not really. Attendees did manage to produce a joint statement, which in fairness is itself kind of miraculous, but it punted on both of the summit’s big issues: Ukraine and climate change. On the former, the statement condemned the conflict in vague terms that avoided directly criticizing Russia. On the latter, everybody agreed that clean energy is nice, but they shied away from calling for a definitive move away from fossil fuels. A perusal of the weather over the past couple of months shows how insufficient that sentiment is. Nevertheless, the production of a statement was a positive from host India’s perspective, as failure to agree on one would have been a diplomatic embarrassment.
Maldivian voters went to the polls to elect a new president on Saturday and, well, they’re going to get to do it again on September 30 as neither of the two main candidates was able to win a first round victory. In something of a surprise, however, Mohamed Muizzu of the opposition Progressive Party of Maldives took 46 percent of the vote, well ahead of incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih at 39 percent. Muizzu wasn’t even his party’s first choice as candidate, but former President Abdulla Yameen was barred from running due to a corruption conviction. Geopolitically Maldives bounces between pro-India and pro-China policies, and in this case the more pro-China Muizzu ran against Solih’s pro-India policies including the stationing of Indian soldiers in the country.
Joe Biden followed up his G20 excursion with a trip to Vietnam on Sunday where he and Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng upgraded Vietnamese-US relations to the “comprehensive strategic partnership” level, the same level as Vietnamese-Russian and Vietnamese-Chinese relations. That designation doesn’t really mean much in a practical sense but it’s meant in part to encourage US businesses to invest in Vietnam by showing that the political relationship is strong and stable. Vietnam is one of several South China Sea littoral states that has come to see the US as a counterweight to China and its maritime claims in that region. That doesn’t mean Chinese-Vietnamese relations are falling apart or that the Vietnamese government is going to start turning military bases over to the Pentagon or anything. But this has become a major “New Cold War” diplomatic theater.
A drone strike killed at least 40 people and wounded 70 more on Sunday in a market in Khartoum. Both the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces group use drones, but in this case Al Jazeera is reporting it was a military strike.
The Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security, and Development, a coalition of groups that signed the 2015 peace deal in northern Mali, warned civilians in the region on Sunday to avoid military outposts in what sounds like the prelude to a resumption of hostilities with the Malian government. The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a network of former rebel groups that is part of the Framework, is claiming that its forces shot down a Malian military aircraft that had attacked them in the country’s Gao region on Saturday, which if true suggests maybe those hostilities have already resumed. The CMA’s relationship with Mali’s ruling junta has been deteriorating for months so it’s not terribly surprising that it has reached this point.
Niger’s ruling junta claimed on Saturday that the French military has positioned forces across West Africa with the intention of carrying out “an aggression against Niger” which it’s apparently planning “in collaboration” with the Economic Community of West African States. There’s no confirmation of these allegations and as far as anybody can tell Paris is at present negotiating a military withdrawal from Niger. That said, it wouldn’t be out of the question for France to move assets into the region to support a potential ECOWAS intervention to unseat the junta.
The AP is reporting that an airstrike in Somalia’s Galmudug state on Wednesday killed at least one civilian and wounded five more. The strike took place during a Somali military operation in which at least three al-Shabab fighters were killed, two of them possibly in the airstrike. This was almost certainly a US airstrike and indeed local officials are saying as much. US Africa Command, exhibiting all the transparency and accountability that we’ve come to expect from the US military, is saying not only that it didn’t kill any civilians but that it didn’t even carry out an airstrike in that region on Wednesday. Maybe it was the Airstrike Fairy, the Tooth Fairy’s much less popular cousin. To be fair there is some possibility that this was a Somali drone strike, but it’s exceedingly unlikely that the Somali military would conduct such an operation without US support so even in that scenario AFRICOM probably bears some responsibility for the casualties.
The AP claims that AFRICOM in the past “has acknowledged killing civilians with airstrikes” in Somalia, which is true but elides the fact that AFRICOM always begins its bombing assessments from the position that it kills only militants and never harms civilians. In the rare instances when it does acknowledge causing civilian casualties that’s generally only after repeated denials and with the utmost reluctance.
Russian artillery fire killed at least two foreign aid workers in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast on Sunday. The four were working for a Ukrainian organization called “Road to Relief.” Earlier in the day the Russian and Ukrainian militaries launched competing drone strikes against Kyiv and Crimea, respectively. Russian officials say they downed all the Ukrainian drones and destroyed three speedboats carrying Ukrainian soldiers toward the peninsula. There’s no confirmation of the latter claim. Ukrainian officials said their air defenses shot down most of the Russian projectiles over Kyiv but one person was wounded and the barrage did cause some damage.
The Biden administration is reportedly close to giving in to another Ukrainian weapons demand, with ABC News reporting on Saturday that it’s about ready to supply Kyiv with the long-range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). Ukrainian officials have been asking for ATACMS for months. Used with the HIMARS rocket launchers the US has already provided, ATACMS has a range of up to 300 kilometers (190 miles). The administration has been hesitant to provide these arms to Ukraine for fear that they could be used to strike targets inside Russia. But as with the F-16, the M-1 Abrams tank, cluster bombs, multiple rocket launchers…well, let’s just say there’s an extensive list of Ukrainian demands that the administration has initially resisted only to wind up acquiescing months later.
This orchestrated dance, and that’s probably what it is, either helps to limit escalation or costs the Ukrainains precious time waiting for Washington to make up its mind, depending on your perspective. Maybe it does both. Realistically the Ukrainians can only accept all this new gear slowly anyway, given the need to train on using and maintaining it. One now wonders what the Ukrainians will want next. Stealth bombers? Aircraft carriers? The possibilities are endless.
Finally, a new Government Accountability Office report highlights the social and ecological catastrophe that was Donald Trump’s celebrated border wall:
The report found that vehicle barriers in remote areas were changed to pedestrian barriers, which makes migration more difficult, including for endangered species like wolves, ocelots and the Sonoran pronghorn, an antelope-like animal.
The bigger barriers also had larger footprints and often included lighting, which could further harm wildlife in the area.
Construction of the border wall disrupted water flow during heavy rain events, exacerbating flooding, GAO found. Contractors also drained groundwater in San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, which has in turn drained some ponds and threatened water levels in others that contain endangered fish.
The construction also “caused significant damage and destruction” to Native cultural sites, the report stated. Explosives used to clear way for a patrol road damaged parts of Monument Hill in Arizona, which was historically used for religious ceremonies by the Tohono O’odham and other tribes. Contractors also destroyed a burial site in the Sonoran Desert near a sacred spring, GAO found.
In an inspiring show of bipartisanship the Biden administration has apparently half-assed its own efforts to roll back the wall project, leaving reclamation work unfinished, failing to care for transplanted flora, and in some cases simply abandoning construction in ways that compounded the damage. And people say the parties can’t work together anymore.
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