World roundup: January 16-17 2023
Stories from Yemen, China, Somalia, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 16, 929: Abd al-Rahman III declares that his Emirate of Córdoba will henceforth be the Caliphate of Córdoba. This promotion in title did nothing to materially change the conditions of Umayyad rule in Andalus, and the Umayyads had no pretension of ruling the entire Islamic world. The new title was instead meant simply to upgrade Abd al-Rahman’s international stature. At the time Córdoba was facing the possibility of an invasion by the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa, and if that invasion came Abd al-Rahman thought it would be better to meet the Fatimids caliph to caliph, as it were.
January 16, 1547: Grand Duke Ivan IV of Moscow, also known as “Ivan the Terrible,” has himself crowned Tsar of Russia. He wasn’t the first to use the title “tsar,” as his grandfather Ivan III had done so at least informally, but like Abd al-Rahman III’s decision to make himself caliph this formal promotion raised Ivan’s international stature to put him on par with, for example, Mongol khans and the Ottoman sultan. It also, as it turns out, had historical significance, as Ivan’s coronation is considered a milestone in Russia’s transition from principality to empire.
January 16, 1979: Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi flees Iran for Egypt at the height of the Iranian Revolution. Realizing that his position was untenable in the face of massive public opposition, the shah cut a deal with opposition leader Shahpour Bakhtiar of the National Front to establish a civilian transitional government and then skedaddled out of town. Unfortunately for Bakhtiar, whose intent was to end the revolution peacefully, the deal tainted him as an agent of the shah in the eyes of the Iranian public, and so his government had no legitimacy from the start.
January 17, 1915: The Battle of Sarikamish ends with a very decisive Russian victory over the decimated Ottomans.
January 17, 1961: Former Republic of the Congo-Léopoldville Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba is executed within hours of being handed over to secessionist forces (and Belgian mercenaries) from the breakaway “State of Katanga.” Future dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had removed Lumumba from office in a military coup in September but the ex-PM refused to accept his removal and continued to be a source of resistance. Mobutu had Lumumba arrested in late November 1960 as the latter made his way east to join an opposition movement based in Stanleyville (modern Kisangani). Mobutu turned him over to the Katangans for execution. Congolese authorities did not announce his death until February 10, claiming falsely that he’d been killed by a mob of angry civilians after escaping custody.
January 17, 1991: Operation Desert Storm begins.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Recent movement toward reconciling the Turkish and Syrian governments is just the most obvious manifestation of a process that’s been going on for some time now and seems to be gaining momentum of late—bringing the Assad government back into the international community. World Politics Review’s Dalia Dassa Kaye explains:
The UAE was at the forefront of reconciliation efforts with the reopening of its embassy in Damascus in 2018. Other Gulf Cooperation Council states like Oman and Bahrain reinstated their ambassadors to Syria in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Egypt’s foreign minister met with his Syrian counterpart on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in 2021, and the Emirati foreign minister’s first visit to Syria in November 2021 continued the normalization drive. Amman similarly backs engagement with the Assad regime to address challenges in Syria that affect neighboring Jordan—particularly its sizable Syrian refugee population as well as drug smuggling—and to facilitate regional economic cooperation. Assad’s visit to the UAE in March 2022 was his first to an Arab capital—or really anywhere other than Moscow or Tehran—since the onset of the civil war in 2011, further breaking taboos about engagement with the once ostracized Syrian dictator.
The motivations for Arab states’ recent embrace of Assad vary, and they are by no means unified. One common interest is preventing conflicts from spilling over and destabilizing the domestic affairs of neighboring countries. This encourages regional de-escalation efforts to wind down civil conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya. For oil-rich states in the Gulf, tempering their previously interventionist policies appears to be driven in part by a desire to focus on ambitious domestic reform programs. Arab countries outside the Gulf, many of which face mounting socioeconomic challenges following the pandemic and a food security crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, also have higher priorities than confronting Assad. With Lebanon on the brink of economic and political meltdown, even the U.S. did not oppose a plan for the transfer of natural gas from Egypt to Lebanon through Syria and Jordan, despite U.S.-led sanctions against the Syrian government that remain in place.
The AP, citing “Yemeni, Saudi and UN officials,” reports that Yemeni rebels and the Saudi government have reopened “back-channel” negotiations aimed at reviving the ceasefire they allowed to lapse in October. The two sides haven’t resumed widespread fighting since then so there seems to be some mutual interest in maintaining the current tenuous state of calm. Ideally they’d not only revive the ceasefire but begin laying the groundwork for a final peace settlement. One person who has gone on the record, United Nations envoy Hans Grundberg, told the Security Council on Monday that he believes the parties are on the verge of “a potential step change” in terms of the overall course of the war. I’m not entirely sure what that means but basically it seems to mean he thinks they’re making progress.
The Jordanian government summoned Israel’s ambassador in Amman on Tuesday over an incident in which Israeli police reportedly blocked Jordan’s ambassador to Israel from visiting the al-Aqsa site in Jerusalem. This is dicey on religious grounds alone, but it’s particularly dicey on political grounds in that the Jordanian government is supposed to be the administrative authority for the Islamic facilities (al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock) on the site. Israeli officials say the ambassador, Ghassan Majali, failed to notify authorities that he was planning to visit and was detained by a police officer who didn’t recognize him. It’s unclear why they would have expected prior notification given that, as far as I know, there are currently no restrictions in place on access to the site for Muslims.
Israeli occupation forces killed a Palestinian man near the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday after he attacked (according to Israeli authorities and Palestinian media) an Israeli security checkpoint. He may have carried out a previous attack sometime within the past couple of days but I’m not clear whether that’s confirmed or just Israeli speculation. He is the 15th Palestinian whom Israeli forces have killed in the West Bank in 2023, following the killing of a 14 year old boy on Monday during an arrest raid in a refugee camp outside of Bethlehem. Israeli authorities say their soldiers were acting in self-defense, as always.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “stressed” to Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Jeyhun Bayramov on Tuesday that his government needs to remove the “protesters” currently blockading the Lachin Corridor, the road that links the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh enclave to Armenia. According to the Azerbaijani government, Bayramov denied that there was a blockade in place and maintained Baku’s official line that the protests are a spontaneous response to environmental degradation caused by illegal Armenian mining. Seems like a pretty clear display of the ineffectiveness of Russian efforts to guarantee the agreement that ended the 2020 Karabakh war. The Azerbaijani government apparently has no fear that refusing the Russians will cause any undesirable repercussions.
The apparent weakness of the Russian peacekeeping operation is of particular concern as Azerbaijani officials, particularly President Ilham Aliyev, have recently started talking up a supposed historical claim on parts of eastern Armenia—or “Western Azerbaijan” in this context. Tens of thousands of ethnic Azeris who lived in Armenian territory during the Soviet period relocated to Azerbaijan when those two republics began feuding over territory during the final years of the USSR, a conflict that continued as the first Karabakh war once both republics became independent states. The Azerbaijani government maintains that they were forcibly displaced and have a right to return, which may well be fair. But it probably will come as no surprise to learn that the Azerbaijani government does not extend the same status to the tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians who relocated from Azerbaijan to Armenia during the same period. They all left voluntarily, or something.
It seems unlikely that Azerbaijan could enforce a one-sided right of return on the Armenian government, but if the Russians are unwilling or unable to support Yerevan in this then anything is possible. And that’s to say nothing of the perpetual threat now facing the hundreds of thousands of Armenian residents of Karabakh, whose one connection to the outside world is currently at risk.
A new report from a group calling itself the “Special Advisory Council for Myanmar” outlines the growth of Myanmar’s arms industry since the February 2021 military coup. It found evidence that companies in 13 countries (and possibly more), including the United States, have been helping to build up Myanmar’s arms manufacturing capacity. That’s enabled the ruling junta to overcome international arms embargoes by producing all the small arms and ammunition its security forces need domestically. Much of the support may involve the export of so-called “dual use” products, which ostensibly have civilian applications in addition to their military ones.
Vietnamese President Nguyễn Xuân Phúc has submitted his resignation, according to the Vietnam News Agency. The Vietnamese Communist Party has reportedly found him responsible for past corruption on the part of several Vietnamese officials, including two former deputy prime ministers who resigned under a cloud of scandal earlier this month. Both served under Phúc during his 2016-2021 stint as prime minister. Phúc’s resignation is subject to a vote by the Vietnamese National Assembly, which sounds like it will happen this week. Vice President Võ Thị Ánh Xuân will assume the office on an interim basis.
The Chinese population stood at roughly 1,411,750,000 at the end of 2022 according to official government figures, which is a decrease of some 850,000 people compared with where things stood at the end of 2021. That represents the first annual decline in the Chinese population since 1961 and demographic trends strongly suggest it’s the first of many such declines to come. UN forecasts have the Chinese population declining by over 100 million people by 2050 and the country should soon be (or may already have been) overtaken by India as the most populous nation on Earth. There are concerns about the effect that an aging, shrinking population will have on China’s economic growth, but efforts by the Chinese government to encourage higher birth rates over the past few years have not been successful.
Jihadist militants reportedly abducted 50 women in northern Burkina Faso’s Soum province last week in a single mass kidnapping. All were foraging for food, an activity that has become necessary because jihadist violence has cut entire communities off from the rest of the country and that must be done by women because of the possibility that militants will kill groups of men on sight. It’s unclear whether these were al-Qaeda or Islamic State affiliated militants.
Al-Shabab fighters attacked a Somali military base in central Somalia’s Hirshabelle state on Tuesday, killing at least five soldiers and perhaps as many as 11 before being driven off. It’s unclear how many of the militants were killed. The attack came one day after Somali officials announced that a combination of federal and state security forces and local militias had captured the port town of Harardhere, in nearby Galmudug state, from al-Shabab. That’s the biggest single gain the Somalis have made at al-Shabab’s expense since the government’s current offensive began in Hirshabelle last year.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi on Tuesday accused the M23 militia of faking its supposed withdrawal from territories in North Kivu province. Under a ceasefire proposal made by the East African Community regional bloc in November, M23 was to have pulled back from the territory it’s seized over the past year (give or take) by January 15. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Tshisekedi claimed that “they’re simply moving around, redeploying elsewhere, and they stay in the towns that they have captured.” An M23 spokesperson denied the allegation and accused the Congolese government of failing to abide by the ceasefire. The UN earlier this month also alleged that M23 was not withdrawing so much as it was shuffling personnel around and possibly even seizing additional territory.
The Biden administration on Tuesday imposed new visa restrictions on 25 Belarusian officials in response to ongoing legal proceedings against a number of opposition figures. Specifically these new sanctions come in response to the opening of the trial, in absentia, of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. She ran against incumbent Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus’s 2020 presidential election, whose results she and her supporters rejected, sparking nationwide protests.
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley met with the Ukrainian military’s top commander, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, at the ever-popular “undisclosed location” in Poland on Tuesday, the first time the two countries’ senior military officers had met in person. It’s unclear what they talked about but it seems part of Milley’s mission will be to take Zaluzhnyi’s weapons requests to this week’s meeting of NATO military chiefs of staff in Brussels. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is also in Europe to attend a meeting of the “Ukraine Contact Group” in Germany, where it’s likely The Gang will announce a round of new support that could feature German Leopard 2 main battle tanks and more US-made Patriot air defense units.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev turned to the Socialist Party on Monday for one last-ditch attempt to form a government and forestall another snap election. The top two finishers in October’s parliamentary election, GERB and We Continue the Change, have already tried and failed to form majority coalitions, and there’s no reason to expect the Socialists to fare any better. A third failure by law triggers a new election.
Lucky duck Slovak voters are also likely getting a snap election, after Prime Minister Eduard Heger on Tuesday gave up his attempt to form a new majority coalition in the wake of the old one’s collapse last year. Slovak law does set some hurdles that will have to be overcome before a snap election can be held, but at this point the alternative would be political limbo until the next regularly scheduled election in 2024.
And there’s a slim chance that Czech voters will also get to enjoy a snap election, as Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s government is facing a no-confidence motion in the Chamber of Deputies. The motion is unlikely to succeed and is probably meant more as a campaign stunt by former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, whose ANO party is the main opposition bloc in parliament and who is currently preparing for the second round of the Czech presidential election.
There is apparently an emerging spat involving the Colombian and Guatemalan governments, rooted in Colombian Defense Minister Iván Velásquez’s past gig as head of a UN team assigned to investigate corruption in Guatemala. That body, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, had its mandate quashed by then-Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in 2019. The government of current Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has accused Velásquez of corruption of his own, which has prompted Colombian President Gustavo Petro to preemptively declare that he will not honor any Guatemalan warrant for his arrest. Such a warrant has not yet been forthcoming but Giammattei has taken offense nevertheless, and the two countries have recalled their respective ambassadors as a result.
Finally, Juan Cole discusses a new report from Oxfam that finds that two-thirds of all the wealth created globally over the past two years has accrued to the richest 1 percent of humanity, while 1.7 billion workers saw their real incomes decline:
Oxfam doesn’t say so, but the problem with this concentration of wealth in a few hands, those of the world’s 2,668 billionaires, is that they are not only hogging resources but they are way too powerful. It is from among this group that propaganda originates against our taking firm and swift steps to halt carbon dioxide emissions. They just want their piles of gold to grow, like Smaug the dragon in Tolkien. They don’t seem to care that their grandchildren will drown, or burn up in wildfires, or drop dead from heat exhaustion. Maybe they think their family wealth will protect them. But billionaires can die in sudden fires like anyone else.
Billionaires also distort democracy in menacing ways. They attempt to gut workers’ unions, as with Jeff Bezos at Amazon. In the absence of strong unions, workers’ real income declines over time, forcing some into poverty. The billionaires corrupt the courts. They engage in legislative capture, buying the very politicians who regulate their industries. They also form a powerful standing lobby for bad tax policy, i.e. tax breaks for the rich and the starvation of government in provision of services. Donald Trump should not have been allowed to use his personal fortune to buy the presidency. People like Trump are proof positive that making a lot of money is no guarantee of soundness of mind.
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