World roundup: January 12 2023
Stories from Libya, Sweden, Peru, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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.
January 12, 1945: The Soviet Red Army begins its Vistula–Oder Offensive, a massive push into Poland involving over 2.2 million soldiers. The operation ended on February 2 with the defeat of German Army Group A, the successful conquest of most of Poland, and the liberation of several Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Although at one point Soviet forces had advanced close to Berlin with little or no remaining German defenses between them and the city, Marshal Georgy Zhukov opted to halt the advance and shore up his flanks against German attack, buying the Germans a bit more time to, shall we say, put their affairs in order.
January 12, 1970: “Operation Tail-Wind” ends with the surrender of the separatist Biafran army, bringing the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War (or the “Biafran War” if you like) to a close. Biafran rebel leader Odumegwu Ojukwu fled into exile on January 9 and the remaining leaders of the would-be country formally surrendered to Nigerian authorities on January 15.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Houthi officials held a funeral on Wednesday for eight of their fighters recently killed in battle with government forces. It’s unclear when or where they were killed. Since Yemen’s ceasefire expired in October any sign of clashes between the Houthis and the government will raise fears of a return to full-scale warfare.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu suggested on Thursday that he could meet with Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad sometime early next month. This sort of contradicts the “senior Turkish official” who was quoted on Wednesday speculating about a possible confab as soon as next week, but it does indicate that the FM meeting is likely to happen relatively soon. The Russian government has been trying to broker a reopening of relations between Turkey and Syria as a way to help stabilize the Assad government in Syria.
Israeli occupation forces killed three Palestinians on Thursday in two arrest raids in the West Bank. They killed one person in an operation in the Qalandia refugee camp, which is located near Ramallah, and two people during a raid in a town outside of Jenin. In both cases, as always, the Israelis are insisting they acted in self-defense. Last year was the deadliest on record for Palestinians in the West Bank, and while it’s still early and I don’t have any cumulative statistics it seems like 2023 is already shaping up to be even deadlier.
Elsewhere, Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut took the rare step of wading into politics on Thursday to denounce an effort by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to strip the court of much of its authority. Netanyahu and his far-right partners view the court as an obstacle when it comes to things like annexing large swathes of the West Bank and they’ve moved quickly to advance measures that would give politicians more control over the judicial appointment process and give the Knesset the ability to override court rulings. Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin countered by arguing that the measures would protect the balance of power in the face of what he called “judicial overreach.”
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The United Nations COP28 climate summit won’t officially open in Dubai until this autumn, but it’s already off to a great start with the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber as summit president. Al Jaber’s day job is CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, so he’s certainly well-positioned to understand the climate crisis in that he and his firm have had a fairly significant hand in helping to perpetuate it. He’s promised to emphasize a “pragmatic” approach to climate change at the summit, which is probably code for “we’re definitely going to phase out oil, but not anytime soon.”
Relations between Collective Security Treaty Organization allies Russia and Armenia may have taken another turn for the worse on Thursday, when Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the Armenian government of abandoning peace talks with the Azerbaijani government. Armenian officials have been increasingly critical of Moscow, which is the guarantor for the ceasefire that ended the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and is supposed to be brokering a broader agreement between Yerevan and Baku. Most recently, earlier this week Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan suggested that not only are Russian peacekeepers in the region not keeping the peace, they’re actually a threat to Armenian security. This public sniping would seem to indicate that the relationship is getting rockier.
This seems like a wonderful development:
President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea said for the first time on Wednesday that if North Korea’s nuclear threat grows, South Korea would consider building nuclear weapons of its own or ask the United States to redeploy them on the Korean Peninsula.
Speaking during a joint policy briefing by his defense and foreign ministries on Wednesday, Mr. Yoon was quick to add that building nuclear weapons was not yet an official policy. He stressed that South Korea would for now deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat by strengthening its alliance with the United States.
Such a policy includes finding ways to increase the reliability of Washington’s commitment to protect its ally with all of its defense capabilities, including nuclear weapons.
If Yoon ever broaches either of these possibilities with the US, hopefully whatever administration is in office at the time will pat him on the head and politely decline. Not only would this undoubtedly provoke a serious response from North Korea—heck, North Korea will probably respond just to Yoon’s suggestion—but it would have a number of undesirable knock-on effects in terms of nuclear nonproliferation and future arms control talks between the US and either or both of Russia and China. I realize that there’s a strong incentive—created largely by US behavior over the past quarter-century, though the Russian invasion of Ukraine isn’t helping either—for countries to acquire their own nuclear arsenals. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s desirable and particularly not in this case.
The Australian and Papua New Guinean governments are reportedly close to signing a new mutual security pact that would presumably have repercussions for the glorious New Cold War. Nothing is set in stone yet, but Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese seems to believe the treaty should be concluded by mid-year. It would likely focus more on areas that could broadly be considered “law enforcement” rather than “military,” but mirroring the security deal China reached with the Solomon Islands last year the pact would bring PNG more tightly into the Australian (or US, really) sphere of influence.
The Biden administration dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Libya on Thursday for meetings with a number of senior figures affiliated with both of the country’s governments. Burns spoke with Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, leader of the western-based government, and he was expected to meet with “Libyan National Army” boss Khalifa Haftar, the de facto head of the eastern-based government. The administration frequently dispatches Burns in a quasi-diplomatic role when it would like a bit less transparency than it would be able to get by sending, say, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
In this case it’s believed Burns was after information on the Russian firm Wagner Group’s activities in Libya. He may also have been sent to deliver a “knock it off” message to politicians, whose failure to organize or even make any significant progress toward organizing new elections to end their impasse is generating increasing frustration among Libyans and with Western diplomats—especially as they’re apparently giving themselves pay raises while their country falls apart. The two governments reached an accord earlier this month on crafting a “constitutional base” for holding elections, which means they agreed to agree on finding agreement on how to create the framework for an agreement. Suffice to say Libya is years past the point where that should be viewed as meaningful progress.
Unspecified militants attacked a mosque in northern Burkina Faso’s Sahel region on Wednesday evening, killing at least nine people. The village where the incident took place, Goulgountou, is relatively close to the Nigerien border. That detail, combined with the choice of target, suggests that Islamic State was responsible.
The main Beninese opposition party, the Democrats, announced on Thursday that it’s rejecting the preliminary results of Sunday’s parliamentary election. The party is alleging fraud—everything from stuffing ballot boxes to buying votes to just making up results—in an outcome that saw two parties with ties to President Patrice Talon finish as the two largest in the National Assembly, with the Democrats in third place. It’s unclear whether or how the Democrats intend to press their case. Any legal challenge to the outcome would wind up with Benin’s Constitutional Court, which Talon and his allied parties control and which has already confirmed Wednesday’s vote count.
Special forces personnel from Ethiopia’s Amhara region have reportedly left the Tigrayan city of Shire, in another sign that the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front are finally making substantive progress on implementing the peace deal they signed in November. The TPLF has reportedly begun surrendering its heavy weaponry to federal authorities, and it’s likely these two things are linked as the Tigrayans had been stalling on disarmament because of the lingering presence of “third party” forces like the Amharans in Tigray. Work is continuing on expanding humanitarian relief, as well as restoring electricity and other basic services, to remote parts of Tigray.
There appears to be a good deal of speculation circulating in Western outlets that the real reason Vladimir Putin named Russian military chief of staff Valery Gerasimov as his new commander in Ukraine was more political than military. The story goes that the previous Russian commander in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, was viewed as too close to Wagner Group owner Yevgeni Prigozhin, whose ownership of the Russian campaign around Bakhmut (more on that in a minute) may be rubbing some folks in the Kremlin the wrong way. I’m hesitant to place too much stock in the latest bit of Kremlinology emanating from Western media but I’d probably be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it. Whatever the politics one assumes the state of the conflict must have been at least part of Putin’s thinking in changing commanders.
While Prigozhin has claimed that his Wagner Group fighters are in control of the Ukrainian town of Soledar, the Ukrainian government is insisting that its soldiers are still battling. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his regular video address on Thursday that two Ukrainian units remain in Soledar and there are reports that more than 550 civilians are still trapped in the town as well. The Russian government has yet to confirm Prigozhin’s declaration of victory and there are other sources on the Russian side who have said that there’s still some fighting going on in Soledar.
Contrary to a report that emerged on Wednesday it seems the Ukrainians and Russians have not come to an agreement on the contours of another prisoner exchange. Russian Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova, the source for Wednesday’s story, says media misinterpreted her comments. She met with a Ukrainian official in Ankara on Wednesday and they apparently exchanged names of POWs who could potentially be released but neither was authorized to actually agree to anything.
The Turkish government summoned the Swedish ambassador in Ankara on Thursday to lodge a complaint over a protest in Stockholm earlier this week in which members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) apparently hung an effigy of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by its “feet” outside city hall. Their expectation is apparently that Swedish authorities will arrest those responsible for the demonstration, though it’s unclear whether anything they did was actually against Swedish law. Needless to say this is another bump in the road with respect to Turkey approving Sweden’s application to join NATO—as is the Swedish government’s apparent decision to refuse the extradition of four people wanted by Turkish authorities over alleged ties to the outlawed Fethullah Gülen organization.
Elsewhere, a Swedish mining firm called LKAB has reportedly discovered a sizable deposit of “rare earth” minerals in northern Sweden’s Lapland region. It’s estimating that the deposit contains more than 1 million tons of unspecified oxides. Rare earths are essential in all sorts of high tech industrial products and European firms have, until now, been largely dependent on China for supplying them. This deposit could fundamentally change that, though the site is years away from producing anything.
In case you missed it, earlier today FX published a translation of a piece by The Intercept Brasil’s Rafael Moro Martins that looks at the role played by Brazilian security services in enabling Sunday’s riots:
Controversy notwithstanding, nothing happened to [Federal District police officer Luiz Fernando Ramos] Aguiar. On the contrary, he continues at his position in the military police and receives a salary of R$ 18,000 a month (~$3,600 USD), according to Brazil’s Transparency Portal. And the authorities’ lenience towards far-right radicals in Brazilian security forces has extended well beyond Aguiar. Police and military have been some of Bolsonaro’s strongest supporters and politicized declarations of support, prohibited under their codes of conduct, have become commonplace in recent years. Bolsonaro used police and military during October’s election to intimidate and obstruct voters in pro-Lula areas.
It’s because of this that no well-informed Brazilian was surprised by the ease with which the terrorists of January 8th invaded and ransacked the Planalto Palace (the seat of Brazil’s President), the National Congress, and the Supreme Court. We already know that Major Aguiar’s colleagues sipped coconut water while watching the terrorists destroy the Three Towers Plaza (shorthand for the buildings that house the three branches of Brazil’s federal government).
Another person died on Thursday of wounds suffered during protests in southern Peru’s Puno region, bringing the total number of people killed in similar circumstances since last month’s ouster of former President Pedro Castillo to 49. Unrest in southern Peru has forced the closure of Cusco’s airport, while the Peruvian mining firm Minsur says it’s suspended operations at the San Rafael tin mine in “solidarity” with protesters who have been killed in encounters with security forces in recent days. The violence shown by those security forces may be reinforcing the same feelings that have animated these demonstrations:
The protesters are demanding [interim President Dina] Boluarte’s resignation. But analysts say the visceral discontent with the government here is rooted in decades of racism and marginalization by decision-makers in Lima, who have long ignored the people of the Andes and the Amazon — people who believed that in Castillo they had finally found a president who would stand up for them.
“This shows that deaths in the provinces are not worth the same as those in Lima,” said Rolando Rojas, a historian at the Institute of Peruvian Studies. Puno is Peru’s poorest and most Indigenous region, he noted, and “racism runs through everything. The people of Puno have not been recognized as citizens or interlocutors. The response to their protests has been purely repressive.”
Human Rights Watch is reporting that at least ten people were killed in clashes earlier this week between National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels and former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fighters in Colombia’s Arauca department, near the Venezuelan border. Both groups operate on either side of that border and these sorts of encounters are not uncommon. The Colombian government’s ombudsman office has acknowledged the fighting but has not confirmed the number of casualties. The Colombian government announced a ceasefire with ELN earlier this month but had to take it back after ELN denied having agreed to it.
The Salvadoran Congress has once again extended the country’s state of emergency for a month, this time to February 15. The emergency declaration was first imposed back in March ostensibly over gang violence. Said violence has declined somewhat since then but there are questions as to whether that can be attributed to the state of emergency and there have been multiple allegations of human rights violations by Salvadoran security forces.
You’ll no doubt be stunned to learn, courtesy of a recently published study, that scientists at one US oil company knew about climate change as far back as the 1970s but that said company has spent the past few decades lying about the subject anyway:
In the late 1970s, scientists at Exxon fitted one of the company’s supertankers with state-of-the-art equipment to measure carbon dioxide in the ocean and in the air, an early example of substantial research the oil giant conducted into the science of climate change.
A new study published Thursday in the journal Science found that over the next decades, Exxon’s scientists made remarkably accurate projections of just how much burning fossil fuels would warm the planet. Their projections were as accurate, and sometimes even more so, as those of independent academic and government models.
Yet for years, the oil giant publicly cast doubt on climate science, and cautioned against any drastic move away from burning fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change. Exxon also ran a public relations program — including ads that ran in The New York Times — emphasizing uncertainties in the scientific research on global warming.
There’s probably a lesson to be learned here, but we probably shouldn’t trouble our beautiful minds trying to figure out what it is.
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