World roundup: January 11 2022
Stories from Syria, Kazakhstan, Russia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 10, 49 BCE: Julius Caesar proverbially “crosses the Rubicon” by literally crossing the Rubicon River and marching his army toward Rome. Caesar took the provocative action of bringing his army with him to the capital due to fears that he would be prosecuted by his political opponents without some kind of leverage on his side (specifically, the kind of leverage you get from bringing along thousands of armed men who are ready to start killing people on your orders). The act kicked off a civil war between Caesar and Pompey (plus his traditionalist allies in the Roman Senate), that did much to usher in the end of the Roman Republic.
January 10, 1475: The Battle of Vaslui
January 11, 630 (or thereabouts): Muhammad conquers Mecca
January 11, 1942: In battles at Kuala Lumpur and Tarakan, the Imperial Japanese military wins major victories over Britain and the Netherlands, respectively. Tarakan was the more significant victory as the Japanese military was able to seize control over a substantial oil drilling and refinery operation as well as a major regional airfield. While the victory at Kuala Lumpur helped expand Japan’s control over Southeast Asia, the city was not nearly as large or important as it is today, so this was perhaps not quite as significant a victory as it might seem at first glance.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service reported on Monday that 2021 was the fifth hottest year on record, despite La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean that would have lowered average global temperatures. The service further reported that the last seven years have been the seven hottest years on record “by a clear margin.” I know this seems bad, but I think the important thing to do is not to do anything at all and certainly not to stop, say, burning coal or anything. After all, maybe things will get better on their own. We don’t know that they won’t, right?
The United Nations Security Council has quietly extended the UN’s cross-border humanitarian relief effort in northwestern Syria for another six months, doing so without a vote because the Russian government apparently decided not to threaten a veto. On previous instances of this renewal, Russia has used its veto to force the council to close down aid routes into Syria in an effort to redirect all international aid through the Syrian government, and back in July it threatened to use its veto to end the cross-border relief program altogether. It’s not clear why the Russians opted not to make that threat this time around.
On the subject of Syria’s humanitarian situation, Foreign Policy’s Anchal Vohra reports on the dire impact that broad-based US sanctions, under the rubric of the “Caesar Civilian Protection Act,” are having on Syrian civilians:
Nine out of 10 Syrians are living in poverty and are unable to afford basic necessities such as bread, milk, and meat. The local currency devalued sharply over the last year in parallel with the crash in neighboring Lebanon, and food prices spiked by more than a 100 percent. Nearly 7 million remain internally displaced and cash-strapped with no means to rebuild their homes and communities.
The country’s economy collapsed as a result of devastation caused by war, decades-long corruption by the Assad government, and the crash of the banking sector in Lebanon, in which not just Lebanese but Syrians too lost their deposits. But Western sanctions that banned reconstruction of any sort, including of power plants and pulverized cities, certainly exacerbated Syrians’ miseries and eliminated any chance of recovery.
Syrians had no expectations from a government that turned their homes, shops, and schools into debris in the first place. But they had hoped that foreign investors might come to their aid, rebuild the country, and allow them to restart their lives. That hope evaporated when the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act came into force in June 2020. The U.S. law threatens sanctions on any entity, American or otherwise, if it provides “significant financial, material, or technological support” to the Syrian government.
The Yemeni government on Tuesday confirmed—or “affirmed,” maybe, as I’m not sure you can consider this confirmation—a claim that one of its militia allies made the previous day, namely that pro-government forces have driven the Houthis completely out of Shabwah province. The Houthis have not officially commented on this situation but The Associated Press claims it’s spoken with two anonymous “rebel leaders” who confirmed (that would be confirmation) that the rebels have lost their Shabwah foothold. That’s a serious blow to their effort to capture Maʾrib city and could be an opening for the government coalition to push for a ceasefire and negotiations, though I suspect it’s unlikely they’ll take advantage of it.
Polling indicates that the travails of the Turkish economy, best exemplified by the lira’s fluctuations in value, are weakening Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s public standing. One survey, from Metropoll Research, puts Erdoğan’s approval rating at just 38.6 percent, which is low even considering that he doesn’t face reelection until 2023. Two other surveys both show that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) now has the support of 27 percent of voters, and its coalition (with the nationalist MHP) trails the combined support for three opposition parties (the CHP, the HDP, and the İyi Party) by almost double digits. Turkey isn’t obliged to hold a parliamentary election until next year either, so there’s no immediate political implication to these results.
Protesters turned out to block major roads across Lebanon on Tuesday over that country’s economic collapse, which like Turkey’s economic struggles can be exemplified in the implosion of the Lebanese pound. The currency reportedly hit a new low in black market trading on Tuesday, a whopping 33,600 per US dollar.
At Responsible Statecraft, Abby Baggini and Farah Jan look at the economic considerations that are pushing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toward a better relationship with Iran:
Saudi Arabia’s efforts to reduce its dependence on oil exports and diversify its economy are creating new patterns of regional partnerships and rivalries. The Kingdom’s ambitions to be a regional financial hub for global business and tourism — linked to the core objective of the survival of the House of Saud — are driving it to revisit its long-fraught relationship with Iran.
In the last weeks of 2021, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation met in Islamabad to address the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. As foreign ministers discussed the group’s commitment to the Afghan people, a key development in regional politics unfolded quietly on the summit’s sidelines: Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Hossein Abdollahiyan met with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud. The meeting in Islamabad was the fifth in a series of direct talks between senior Saudi and Iranian officials.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has expressed the hope that “talks with Iran will lead to tangible outcomes to build trust and revive bilateral relations.” Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said there were no obstacles to resuming “diplomatic ties” with the Kingdom. The Saudi-Iran talks represent a significant development for the two regional rivals that have been fighting proxy wars across the region for more than a decade. This shift in Saudi foreign policy demonstrates the Kingdom’s regional political and economic insecurities and its recalibration of ties with the Muslim world. It also signals the key role played by two mediating powers: Pakistan and China.
If US officials really imagine that they’re entering or have entered a “new cold war” with China, then they might want to pay attention to this. China is helping to broker these Saudi-Iranian interactions, because it has good relations with both countries and the conflict between them is detrimental to Chinese interests. China’s participation in this process also improves its regional standing, while Washington’s insistence on hostility toward Iran may have reached a point where it is detrimental to the US standing in the region. From a sheer great power competition standpoint, America’s obsession with Iran is bad policy.
New cross-border fighting left at least two Armenian soldiers and one Azerbaijani soldier dead on Tuesday. The incident took place in the Kalbajar region, but beyond that details are spotty and each side is accusing the other of instigating the violence. Kalbajar is one of the regions Azerbaijan retook from Armenia during the fall 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The border in these areas can be ill-defined and there have been allegations of Azerbaijani troops squatting on Armenian territory since the end of that conflict.
The Kazakh military is in a little hot water with the UN after its forces were observed wearing blue UN peacekeeping helmets while suppressing, violently at times, last week’s anti-government protests. Needless to say they weren’t doing so under UN auspices, so wearing that headgear was a bit of a faux pas. The Kazakhs seem to be claiming that the soldiers who used the UN helmets did so because they didn’t have any other helmets available, which seems implausible but isn’t entirely out of the question.
As far as the actual designated “peacekeepers” in Kazakhstan, the mostly Russian ones sent by the Collective Security Treaty Organization last week to help Kazakh authorities deal with the protests, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Tuesday that they’d start leaving within two days. This is weird, because I remember somebody important saying a couple of days ago that it’s hard to get Russians to leave your house once they’ve arrived. Oh well! In fairness, it’s possible Vladimir Putin will be looking for long-term political concessions in return for helping Tokayev weather the storm, but that remains to be seen. Kazakh authorities have upped the number of people arrested in connection with the protests to around 9900, substantially more than the 7900 or so they mentioned yesterday. Again it’s unclear why this number keeps spiking higher and higher each day. Maybe Kazakh police are on an arrest spree or perhaps it’s taking a while to get arrest figures from around the country.
Tokayev on Tuesday unveiled his new cabinet, led by new Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov. He also delivered what seems to have been a major address that included a number of shots at his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Tokayev criticized the former Kazakh leader for creating a drastically unequal society, which was seemingly at the root of last week’s unrest, and laid out the broad strokes of plans to overhaul Kazakhstan’s security apparatus and its basic social contract. The latter will involve what Tokayev is calling the “People of Kazakhstan” fund, a program intended to fund a substantial expansion of Kazakhstan’s social safety net via “contributions” from wealthy Kazakhs and large corporations that will somehow be run by “the public” rather than by Kazakh political leaders.
Tokayev also announced that he’s stripping Nazarbayev’s daughter, Aliya Nazarbayeva, of her recycling monopoly (one of the perks of pseudo-royalty, I guess) and said he intends to bring the recycling business under state control. This, I think, highlights the main outcome of all of these recent events. There’s no way at this point to know if the “People of Kazakhstan” fund will actually come to pass or work the way Tokayev described it. But what is clear is that, whether he planned it this way or now, the Kazakh president has availed himself of the opportunity presented by last week’s crisis to significantly strengthen his political position relative to Nazarbayev and his allies.
The Taliban has reportedly released Faizullah Jalal, the prominent Afghan academic and Taliban critic they’d arrested over the weekend in response to comments he’d allegedly made via social media. Authorities are claiming that he’d made unspecified “allegations” against the current Afghan government, but Jalal’s family claims the account to which those “allegations” were attributed is fake. Jalal’s arrest provoked an online backlash as well as a small protest in Kabul, as well as drawing what I’m sure was unwanted international attention to the Taliban’s human rights record. It’s unclear why the Taliban let him go.
The UN announced Tuesday that it’s making its largest ever humanitarian appeal, just over $5 billion, to manage Afghanistan’s massive needs for 2022. Most of that money, around $4.4 billion, would be earmarked for the estimated 22-23 million people in Afghanistan in critical need of aid, while another $623 million is needed to care for around 5.7 million refugees in countries around Afghanistan. The UN intends to disburse the funds via NGOs rather than directing them through the Taliban-led Afghan government, which by the way is currently paying workers in wheat for lack of funds, while the US continues to freeze Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it’s contributing another $308 million in Afghan aid, which would bring the total amount of aid it’s earmarked for Afghanistan to $782 million since October. To put that figure in context, it’s about 0.1 percent of this year’s US military budget as outlined in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. It’s the least we could do—almost literally so, in fact.
At least one child was killed and six more wounded in a bombing targeting a bus in the southern Philippine city of Cotabato on Mindanao island on Tuesday. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but Mindanao is home to a number of Islamist militant groups including Islamic State’s “East Asia Province” affiliate.
The North Korean government is once again claiming to have tested (successfully, of course) a hypersonic glide vehicle weapon on Tuesday morning. That’s the second such test (allegedly) it’s conducted in under a week. This time around, the South Korean military—which cast doubt on Pyongyang’s claims about last week’s test—seems inclined to accept that this test did indeed involve a glide vehicle and was indeed successful.
North Korea may also be testing a new missile fueling system, a “missile fuel ampule,” that would alleviate some of the drawbacks of its mostly liquid fueled missile stockpile. When it comes to ballistic missiles, solid fuel is preferred because it allows the weapon to be stored fully fueled and ready to go in as short a turnaround time as possible. North Korea hasn’t quite cracked solid fuel yet, at least not for anything other than short-range weapons, which means it’s using liquid fuel. Liquid fuel isn’t stable enough to allow missiles to be pre-fueled, which means they have to be fueled in the field in a slow and fairly public process that invites preemption by a potential adversary. These ampules provide a bit more stability, so missiles can be pre-fueled a la solid fuel. The downside is that the ampules still aren’t all that stable, so the risk of accidental explosion is fairly high.
Tunisia’s press syndicate is claiming that members of the country’s political parties have been banned from appearing on news programs or talk shows, which if true would be the first time such a ban has gone into place in Tunisia since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship was brought to a well-deserved end in 2011. Tunisian officials are denying this claim, but this doesn’t seem all that out of character for Tunisian President Kais Saied, who seized unilateral power in July and doesn’t seem inclined to give it up anytime soon.
An apparent jihadist attack killed at least four Burkinabé soldiers in the country’s Sahel region on Tuesday. Security forces responded to the initial attack and likely killed some number of attackers in the process, but there’s no indication how many.
Two recent Ethiopian airstrikes on towns in the southern part of the Tigray region have killed at least 19 people in total. The larger of the two strikes took place on Monday in the town of Mai Tsebri, leaving at least 17 dead, while two more people were killed in the town of Hiwane on Tuesday. “Dozens” of people were reportedly injured in both strikes. Monday’s strike apparently coincided with a phone conversation between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and US President Joe Biden in which Biden expressed concern over civilian casualties in Ethiopia’s civil war. I guess Abiy really took his words to heart.
Both US and Russian officials struck pessimistic notes about the possibility of resolving their mutual grievances on Tuesday, a day after US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov aired those grievances in a meeting in Geneva. While they apparently had a cordial enough chat that they were still on speaking terms afterward, it’s clear that they made no real headway on either the main Russian (a guaranteed end to NATO expansion) or US (the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Ukrainian border) demands.
A meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Wednesday and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Friday will provide further opportunities to hash these issues out, but it seems unlikely they’ll make any substantive progress in those venues either. The US and European Union have threatened to impose heavy economic sanctions on Russia should it invade Ukraine, while Russian officials have denied any intention to invade but have threatened to take “military-technical measures” (without going into specifics) should their demands about NATO expansion and Ukraine’s relations with the West go unresolved.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to be helpful on Tuesday by issuing a statement saying he’s ready to take “the necessary decisions” to bring Ukraine’s frozen civil war to an end via the “Normandy Format” negotiating process (which includes Russia as well as France and Germany). Normandy talks have been somewhat derailed in recent months, which may have contributed to the Russian decision to position tens of thousands of soldiers in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border. It may be too late to revive them, but it probably can’t hurt to give it a shot. Moscow seems amenable to the idea and the French and German governments have been pushing for a resumption for some time now.
The Hungarian government has set April 3 as the date for its next parliamentary election, which may be the biggest political challenge that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have faced since taking power in 2010. Hungary’s multiple opposition parties have agreed to join forces in a very broad coalition, led by Hódmezővásárhely Mayor Péter Márki-Zay. Polling has leaned Fidesz’s way of late, but as a bloc those opposition parties are far more competitive than they would be separately and the election may be a close-run contest. The threat they pose is serious enough that Orbán has spent the past year or so implementing multiple populist policies, from middle-class tax breaks to a major increase in Hungary’s minimum wage. Along with the parliamentary ballot, Hungary will also be holding a referendum on LGBTQ issues that Orbán is presumably hoping will increase turnout among his right-wing supporters.
Far-right French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour is reportedly struggling to gain the minimum 500 endorsements from elected officials that he needs in order to be put on April’s ballot. Since 2016 those endorsements have been public information, and given Zemmour’s politics it is perhaps unsurprising that most elected officials in France don’t want to be associated with him in the minds of the public. This is not a trivial issue, since Zemmour’s absence from the race could provide a boost to fellow far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and punch her ticket into the runoff—though Le Pen also seems to be having trouble amassing enough endorsements. It’s possible that supporters of Republican Party nominee Valérie Pécresse could endorse Zemmour in order to ensure he remains in the race, since his presence splits the far-right vote and could help put Pécresse, rather than Le Pen, in the runoff.
The opposition Democratic Action party’s Sergio Garrido won a gubernatorial election in Venezuela on Sunday, and not just any gubernatorial election. With 55 percent of the vote, Garrido won the governorship of Barinas state, birthplace of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Barinas has remained a solid base for Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro and their “Chavismo” agenda—until now, I guess.
The result is a sign that Maduro’s popular support could be waning. It’s also a pretty strong indication that, despite repeated US and Venezuelan opposition claims about the unfairness of Venezuelan elections under Maduro, it is in fact possible for opposition parties to win elections, even in perceived Maduro strongholds. Naturally the Biden administration is characterizing this result as a victory in spite of Maduro’s authoritarianism, rather than as a sign that maybe he’s not as authoritarian as Washington has been insisting.
One of the guests at Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration ceremony on Monday has raised the ire of the Argentine government. On the guest list was Iranian Vice President for Economic Affairs Mohsen Rezaee. Which would be fine, except that one of Rezaee’s former jobs was commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from 1981 to 1997. The Argentine government believes that the IRGC was primarily responsible for the 1994 suicide bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society office in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people (not including the bomber) were killed. Iranian officials have consistently denied involvement, but nevertheless Rezaee has been on Interpol’s wanted list since 2007 because of the bombing.
The Argentine government sent its Nicaraguan ambassador to the inauguration, and consequently it’s now under fire domestically for having participated in an event at which Rezaee was present. Its complaints to the Nicaraguan government may be partly meant to deflect that domestic criticism.
Finally, Foreign Policy’s Jeffrey Kucik and Rajan Menon question whether the Biden administration can truly, as the “New Cold War” would seem to demand, decouple the US and Chinese economies:
Despite their differences, U.S. President Joe Biden has continued his predecessor’s hard line toward Beijing. Biden, like former U.S. President Donald Trump, believes the United States must “decouple” from China by reducing U.S. dependence on Chinese products and supply chains—for both economic and national security reasons. Biden is not alone in this conviction. Much to the disappointment of those who favor more U.S.-Chinese trade and investment, moves to put distance between the two economies are gaining support among Democrats and Republicans alike.
Yet despite bipartisan support, economic decoupling is a tall order. If the Biden administration wants to succeed, the United States will not only have to reorder large parts of its own globalized economy but also ensure the participation of other countries that are big trade partners of—and investors in—China. Both objectives will be harder to achieve than many in Washington expect.
Although the motivation is misguided, reducing US dependence on Chinese products would probably be a good thing, as Kucik and Menon suggest. We’re currently living through the kind of thing that can happen when the global supply chain breaks down and there’s no alternative to pick up the slack. More diversity in commercial networks could help cushion against supply shocks.