World roundup: January 14-15 2023
Stories from Iraq, Ukraine, Ecuador, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 13, 532: The Nika Riots (think soccer riot on steroids) begin in Constantinople. Two factions of chariot racing fans, the Greens and the Blues, both frustrated over taxation, corruption, and recent crackdowns on their hooliganism by the authorities, revolted during that day’s chariot races in the Hippodrome. Over the next week the mob seized control of the city, crowned its own “emperor” named Hypatius (against his wishes, it seems), and nearly put the real emperor, Justinian I, to flight. Justinian and his military officers were able to regain control of the situation by bribing leaders of the Blues and by bringing an army into the city and massacring a large number of the remaining rioters.
January 14, 1761: Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani defeats the emerging Maratha Confederation in the Third Battle of Panipat and briefly keeps it from subjugating the remnants of the Mughal Empire.
January 14, 2011: Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigns after over 23 years in power and almost a month of protests. Ben Ali’s resignation marked the successful conclusion of the Tunisian Revolution (this date is annually commemorated as “Revolution and Youth Day” in Tunisia) and the first major victory of the Arab Spring movement. It helped spark and motivate similar movements in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere, though none of those worked out quite as successfully.
January 15, 1892: While working at Springfield College (then the “International YMCA College”), James Naismith publishes the rules of a game he’d recently invented in the campus newspaper under the very creative headline “A New Game.” The basic idea involved throwing a ball through a basket set several feet off the floor—hence its name, “basket ball.” I’m not sure what became of it but it sounds like fun.
January 15, 1967: The Green Bay Packers defeat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, in the first National Football League-American Football League championship game. You may or may not be aware, but this tradition has continued and the NFL plays one of these “Super Bowls” every year.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
An apparent rebel drone strike in Yemen’s Lahj province killed one Southern Transitional Council fighter on Saturday. The STC unit in the area responded with artillery fire targeting a nearby rebel position. There doesn’t appear to be any word on casualties from that barrage.
There have been a couple of noteworthy developments from the world of Iraqi politics. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shiaʿ al-Sudani told The Wall Street Journal that he supports a continued US/NATO military presence in Iraq in an interview that was published on Sunday. Those forces are there ostensibly to assist Iraqi security forces in dealing with Islamic State, but their presence is an irritation to the Iranian-linked militia groups whose political wings put Sudani in office last year. So it’s a little interesting that he seems just as solicitous of Western support as his predecessors. No Iraqi prime minister wants to run afoul of either the US or Iran if they can help it, but Sudani could reasonably have been expected to tilt more in Tehran’s direction.
Meanwhile, Iraqi political boss Muqtada al-Sadr organized a Friday prayer service for his followers in Baghdad and indicated that these could become regular events, which suggests he’s making a return to political life a bit less than five months since he abruptly “retired” from it. Surely nobody could have predicted that Sadr, who has un-retired from politics a number of times, would do so again. He may see an opening for a return to politics in the reported breakup of rival (and former PM) Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, a number of whose parliamentary representatives have apparently quit to form their own party. Or maybe he just got bored in “retirement.”
Israeli occupation forces killed at least three Palestinians in the West Bank over the weekend, bringing the total number of people they’ve killed in that territory through the first 15 days of 2023 to at least 13. They killed two Palestinian men, both later identified as members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, during an arrest raid in a village near Jenin on Saturday, while the third was killed on Sunday near Ramallah after reportedly getting into an “argument” with Israeli soldiers. Israeli authorities are claiming he reached for a soldier’s weapon but the Palestinian Authority is characterizing the incident as an “execution.”
Elsewhere, some 80,000 or more people gathered in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to demonstrate against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its efforts to strip the Israeli Supreme Court of much of its authority. Critics of the plan argue that it will decimate Israeli democracy—a concept that, to be fair, is already abstract at best—while Netanyahu continues to insist that the proposed judicial changes are necessary to correct “overreach.” It’s all very simple and believable, I guess. In reality, there’s no indication that Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners really care all that much about preserving Israeli democracy and Netanyahu himself, whose main source of inspiration these days is keeping himself out of prison on corruption charges, isn’t in a position to oppose what his partners want.
The Iranian government announced on Saturday that it had executed British-Iranian dual national and former deputy defense minister Alireza Akbari over espionage allegations. We highlighted Akbari’s situation a few days ago and I noted at the time that the execution of a dual national (particularly one who had previously been a senior Iranian government official) would be a fairly provocative step even for the Iranian government, whose propensity for capital punishment in general is well documented. In fairness it’s possible that the Iranians had already executed him by the time I mentioned it—Saturday’s announcement did not specify when he’d been killed. The UK government has responded by pulling its ambassador from Iran and blacklisting Iranian Prosecutor-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri. More retaliation may be forthcoming, though the UK’s ability to punish Iran for this act is limited by the fact that the West is already punishing Iran so comprehensively that there’s simply not much left that can be done.
A former member of the Afghan parliament, Mursal Nabizada, was murdered over the weekend along with one of her bodyguards in her Kabul home. Two other people, her brother and another bodyguard, were wounded in the incident. There are reports of a third bodyguard taking “money and jewelry” and “fleeing” the home but it’s unclear whether that person is suspected of having carried out the killing. Given the climate in Afghanistan when it comes both to prominent women and to members of the country’s previous government, Taliban involvement probably can’t be ruled out.
Pakistani Taliban (TTP) militants attacked a police station on the outskirts of Peshawar on Friday, killing three police officers. The TTP also claimed responsibility for killing two police officers in an attack in Pakistan’s Punjab province on Friday.
Myanmar’s ruling junta is accusing a “people’s defense force” of killing at least one person and wounding eight others in an attack on a government rally on Sunday in eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state. These PDFs are local militias that sprang up after the military seized power in a February 2021 coup and function in sort of a loose network affiliated with the opposition National Unity Government. Authorities are alleging that a regional ethnic militia, presumably the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front, was also involved in the attack.
Unspecified attackers, presumably of the jihadist variety, reportedly ambushed a police unit in central Mali’s Ségou region on Sunday, killing four police officers and wounding three more. As far as I know there’s been no claim of responsibility but as we’ve mentioned before Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin is particularly active in central Mali these days.
At least eight people were killed on Saturday in a bombing in the central Somali city of Buloburde that was later claimed by al-Shabab. The group attempted two other attacks on Saturday, one in the town of Jalalaqsi in which only the bomber was apparently killed and the other in an unspecified location that Somali authorities say they foiled. All of these operations took place in the Hiran region, a part of Somalia’s Hirshabelle state and the epicenter of an ongoing joint government-militia operation that appears to be driving al-Shabab out of areas it previously controlled.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
At least ten people were killed and 39 wounded on Sunday when fighters from the Islamic State-linked Allied Democratic Forces group bombed a church in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province. Those casualty figures are tentative and could rise.
A Russian missile strike destroyed an apartment complex in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro on Saturday, killing at least 30 people and likely several more than that. Rescuers were able to pull more than 30 people from the rubble alive, but hopes of finding any more survivors have dimmed with perhaps as many as 40 people still missing. Saturday brought a heavy Russian bombardment across Ukraine, primarily targeting civilian infrastructure, but the Dnipro strike stands out as one of the deadliest single incidents for civilians since the Russian invasion began last February.
The UK government on Saturday pledged to supply Ukraine with 14 of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks, becoming the first (but probably not the last) Western government to offer that type of vehicle to Kyiv. The Polish government has also offered to supply Ukraine with main battle tanks, German-made Leopards, and the Finnish government has indicated a similar willingness with respect to its own Leopards. I suspect it’s safe to assume that the US and France will follow along soon; indeed, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg indicated on Sunday that more heavy weaponry could be on its way to Ukraine in the near future. On a related note, the US military began its expanded combined arms training program for Ukrainian personnel in Germany on Sunday. The aim is to send a newly trained 500-person battalion back to Ukraine within the next two months.
The Russian government reportedly scrapped a planned prisoner exchange on Saturday. It’s unclear why, but Russian officials did accuse the Ukrainians of trying to extort Russian POWs on Saturday so that may have had something to do with it.
Retired Czech general Petr Pavel just edged out former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in the first round of Czechia’s presidential election, according to results released on Saturday. Amid turnout a bit over 68 percent, Pavel took around 35.4 percent of the vote to Babiš’s roughly 35 percent. Since neither came close to the 50 percent margin they’ll meet in the runoff in two weeks, where polling suggests that Pavel is a prohibitive favorite. Babiš got the runoff campaign off to kind of an odd start, warning that Pavel’s background as an intelligence officer made him similar to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who similarly served as an intelligence officer prior to his political career. What’s odd about this is that, of the two of them, Babiš is far more favorably disposed toward Russia. The Czech presidency isn’t a terribly powerful office, but it does exert some authority over judicial appointments and in foreign policy matters.
Turkish government spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin suggested on Saturday that Ankara will not be in a position to address the issue of Sweden’s (and Finland’s) potential NATO membership until at least June. Kalin referred to the timing of Turkey’s June 18 general election as an obstacle to a speedier confirmation, since the Turkish parliament will adjourn a month before that for campaign purposes, but mainly he was seeking to pressure Sweden in particular on making the concessions Turkey is demanding before it ratifies these applications.
Turkey and Hungary are the only two NATO members who have not yet approved the new members (by NATO rules all member state parliaments must approve any new alliance entrants), and it seems likely that the Hungarians are waiting to see what Turkey does before they act. Ankara wants Sweden especially to make concessions related to its relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the presence of a large number of Turkish opposition figures in Sweden.
Former Brazilian Justice Minister Anderson Torres was arrested upon his return to Brazil from the United States on Saturday. Brazilian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on Tuesday amid allegations that, in his most recent gig as head of public security for the Federal District of Brasília, he helped facilitate last weekend’s riot by supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro. On Thursday it was reported that police discovered a “draft decree” in Torres’ home that suggests Bolsonaro was at one point preparing to interfere in the work of Brazil’s electoral court and overturn last October’s presidential election.
The Peruvian government on Sunday extended states of emergency in Lima and in southern Peru’s Puno and Cusco regions in response to ongoing protests by supporters of former President Pedro Castillo. Those emergencies, which stem from a nationwide state of emergency first imposed in mid-December, will run through at least the middle of next month. Interim President Dina Boluarte has somewhat paradoxically apologized for the deaths of more than 40 people at the hands of Peruvian security forces even as she’s continuing to give those security forces greater latitude to use force against the protesters. She is, unsurprisingly, refusing to give in to protester demands for her resignation.
According to The New York Times, economic pressures are pushing the Ecuadorean government toward destroying some of the country’s most environmentally critical territory:
In a swath of lush Amazon rainforest here, near some of the last Indigenous people on Earth living in isolation, workers recently finished building a new oil platform carved out of the wilderness.
Teams are drilling in one of the most environmentally important ecosystems on the planet, one that stores vast amounts of planet-warming carbon. They’re moving gradually closer to an off-limits zone meant to shield the Indigenous groups. It turns out that some of the country’s largest oil reserves are found here, too.
Ecuador is cash-strapped and struggling with debt. The government sees drilling as its best way out. The story of this place, Yasuní National Park, offers a case study on how global financial forces continue to trap developing countries into depleting some of the most biodiverse places on the planet.
Former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa proposed back in 2007 that the rest of the world purchase the environmental protection of this region for $3.6 billion, which was half of the estimated value of the oil there. The rest of the world essentially told him to get bent and that was that. Aside from the direct effects of this drilling in Ecuador, this story doesn’t exactly augur well for what will have to be similar international efforts to protect what’s left of the Amazon and other vital rainforests in southern Africa and Southeast Asia.
Finally, in a piece at his Substack newsletter, Warfare and Welfare, FX contributor Michael Brenes argues that the eventual reconstruction of postwar Ukraine should be paired with a broader effort to fundamentally change the international order:
Ukraine’s future, our future, will be determined by an investment in bureaucratic politics on an international scale unrealized since World War II. This requires prescience and planning. It also requires summitry that will invariably be legislated by realpolitik, as well as sacrifice and collaboration among nations willing to exploit the abundance of goodwill, the outpouring of sympathy for Ukraine for the purposes of peace. And finally, building a postwar order must truly be a global effort that offers recourse and remuneration to nations in the Global South who have received less attention than Ukraine, but who have suffered from war, environment catastrophe, or political disorder—many of which have sidelined their criticisms of Russia and withheld support for Ukraine. This is an effective way to ameliorate great-power conflict, to pull “non-aligned” nations away from Russia, and create better conditions for a lasting peace.
Indeed, the reconstruction of Ukraine can be the basis for a reconstruction of the global community. And restrainers can be on the frontlines of such an effort. The issue for restrainers is how to create a progressive, feasible paradigm for world cooperation in a time of great-power competition, to align nation-states around progressive goals for global justice and material redistribution among rich and poor nations.
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