World roundup: January 24 2023
Stories from Lebanon, Myanmar, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 23, 1368: Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang is crowned Hongwu Emperor. Zhu, also known as the Emperor Taizu, emerged as the leading figure in the very multi-factional Red Turban Rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty that began in the 1350s. His coronation marks the start of the Ming Dynasty, which ruled China until the mid-17th century.
January 23, 1963: Fighters with the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) attack Portuguese forces in the Tite region, kicking off the almost 12 year Guinea-Bissau War of Independence. Badly outgunned, PAIGC fighters were able to use the terrain to their advantage and armed themselves with weapons taken from defeated colonial soldiers. They won the war simply by outlasting the Portuguese, and when the National Salvation Junta came to power in Lisbon after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, it began negotiations with PAIGC that ultimately led to Guinea-Bissau’s independence in September of that year. PAIGC also negotiated the independence of Cape Verde from Portugal the following year.
January 24, 41: The Roman Praetorian Guard assassinates the sitting emperor, Caligula, for…well, a bunch of reasons, including the regular ridicule he heaped upon the Guard’s commander, his (alleged) plans to move the imperial capital to Alexandria, and his, shall we say, grandiose sense of self. With no real plan in place for succession, another Guard faction smuggled Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, out of the city and he was subsequently proclaimed emperor. Claudius turned out to be a competent emperor, and modern historians tend to put him in the “good” (or sometimes even “very good”) tier when ranking Roman rulers. His reputation definitely benefits by comparison with both his predecessor and his successor (Nero).
January 24, 1984: Apple begins selling a new computer it calls the “Macintosh.” I would have to say the product turned out to be fairly successful.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set its famous “Doomsday Clock” at 90 seconds to “midnight” on Tuesday, mostly due to the war in Ukraine, which is ten seconds ahead of where its been for the past three years. This is apparently a “record,” which I guess is significant if you find value in this completely subjective measurement of Danger. It’s never done much for me, though I take their point that things are particularly tense at the moment.
On a more positive note, the Carter Center says it recorded only 13 cases of Guinea Worm worldwide last year, confined to four African countries—six in Chad, five in South Sudan, and one each in the Central African Republic and Ethiopia. The Center’s efforts to eradicate Guinea Worm have been trending in the right direction for several years now, but getting from “few” cases to “zero” cases can be an arduous process that is vulnerable to disruption.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 2022 was a particularly deadly year for media workers around the world. At least 67 of them were killed globally last year, up considerably from 45 in 2021. Most of that increase can probably be explained by the war in Ukraine, where at least 15 journalists were killed. That said, the most dangerous region last year was Latin America and the Caribbean, which accounted for 30 of those 67 killings. That’s apparently the highest annual figure the CPJ has ever recorded for that region.
Judge Tarek Bitar, the judge who’s overseeing the investigation into the August 2020 explosion that destroyed much of Beirut’s seaport, resumed that investigation on Monday after having been sidelined for more than a year over political and legal issues. He’s gotten off to a running start by formally charging former Lebanese Prime Minister Hasan Diab, current Prosecutor General Ghassan Oweidat, and several other current and former Lebanese officials in connection with the blast. Oweidat hasn’t responded directly to the charge but he reportedly sent Bitar a letter on Tuesday informing him that his investigation was in fact still on ice and cannot be resumed until courts rule on a number of legal challenges that have been leveled against it. It seems unlikely that Bitar is going to be able to make any progress under the circumstances and there’s some possibility that he may wind up facing charges.
Also on Tuesday, the Biden administration blacklisted a Lebanese money changer named Hassan Moukalled, along with his two sons and his business, over allegations that he’s been working for Hezbollah.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Amman on Tuesday for a chat with Jordanian King Abdullah II, the first time he’s made that trip since 2018. I’m sure the people of Amman were thrilled to see him. Among other issues, Abdullah warned Netanyahu against changing the legal status quo surrounding al-Aqsa Mosque and its surrounding compound in Jerusalem, a warning that presumably stemmed from last week’s dust-up over Israeli treatment of the Jordanian ambassador.
Two Iranian police officers were ambushed and killed early Tuesday in southeastern Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province, according to provincial officials. Sistan and Baluchistan is generally mired in some degree of instability, owing to a mix of Baluch separatists, Sunni jihadists, and criminal networks involved in smuggling to and from Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s been more troubled than usual in recent months and there have been indications of an Iranian police buildup there that could prefigure some sort of crackdown. This incident will likely increase the chances of something like that coming to pass.
There are reports of recent fighting between Myanmar security forces and anti-junta “People’s Defense Force” rebels in southern Myanmar’s Kayin state. According to AFP militia fighters launched a drone strike “a few days ago” on a military outpost near the town of Kyonedoe, sparking an artillery battle that forced over 1000 residents of that town to flee (I haven’t seen any casualty information). Ethnic Karen rebels also reportedly attacked the town of Payathonzu late Monday, sending civilians fleeing across the nearby border into Thailand.
Elsewhere, it seems the Myanmar military may have breached Indian airspace earlier this month when it carried out strikes on Chin National Front rebels at a facility very close to the Indian border. The Indian government has denied that claim but does acknowledge that at least one bomb used in those strikes landed on Indian territory. The risk of escalation in situations like this is obviously high, though in this particular case Indian officials seem willing to let the border violation slide.
The Indonesian government summoned Sweden’s ambassador in Jakarta on Tuesday to lodge a complaint over a protest in Stockholm over the weekend in which far-right politician Rasmus Paludan burned a copy of the Quran. Most of the reporting surrounding that protest has focused on the angry reception it received in Turkey and what that might mean for Sweden’s NATO bid (more on that in a moment), but it seems worth noting that the incident has generated outrage across the Islamic world.
The Biden administration has named diplomat Julie Turner as its new special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, a position that has existed in the US State Department since 2004 but that went unfilled under the Trump administration and into the first half of Joe Biden’s presidency. She’ll need to be confirmed by the US Senate but that’s not likely to be an issue. Elsewhere, the FBI on Monday alleged that North Korean hackers were behind the theft of some $100 million in digital assets from the cryptocurrency firm Harmony last year. Most of that money has apparently been laundered, though the FBI claims it’s been able to freeze some of the stolen assets.
Jacinda Ardern officially stepped down from her post as New Zealand prime minister on Tuesday, finalizing the resignation she announced abruptly last week. The Labour Party quickly elected former COVID response minister Chris Hipkins as its new leader, clearing the way for Ardern to leave office sooner than the February 7 deadline she’d previously set. Hipkins officially took over as PM on Wednesday. Ardern is intending to stay in parliament but presumably will try to keep a low profile moving forward.
A World Health Organization doctor, Mahamadou Diawara, was reportedly abducted by unknown assailants on Monday in eastern Mali’s Ménaka region. According to Reuters Diawara “has been leading efforts to provide medical care to remote communities at risk of violence” in eastern Mali. Jihadist militants affiliated with both al-Qaeda and Islamic State are active in eastern Mali and it’s likely one of those groups is now holding him.
The Nigerien military says its personnel killed 11 “terrorists” in operations last week in the Tillabéri region. According to AFP those operations included a move against a “fuel trafficking network” that was supporting militant activities. These operations also apparently included support from French military personnel.
The Great Tank Debate of 2023 can finally be put to rest, as both Germany and, somewhat surprisingly, the United States are reportedly set to announce that they will be sending their main battle tanks (the Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams, respectively) to Ukraine. These decisions could be announced as soon as Wednesday. It’s a given that the German government will also announce that it’s granting permission to other European governments whose militaries use the Leopard to transfer their tanks to the Ukrainians. The decisions are related, as despite their denials over the past week or so German officials really do appear to have been waiting for the US to move on this issue first.
From a purely military perspective the influx of tanks should help the Ukrainian military defend territory or even contemplate retaking additional territory that’s currently under Russian control. That said, it remains to be seen what the timetable will be for delivering these vehicles to Ukraine—some countries can probably transfer their Leopards fairly quickly, but transferring large numbers of Leopards or Abramses will probably take a fair amount of time, and that’s not including the time it will take to train Ukrainian soldiers to operate them. It’s not even clear whether the Ukrainians particularly want the Abrams, which by many accounts is both more complicated and less reliable than the Leopard, but apparently it was both or neither.
Off the battlefield, the big concern here is of course the possibility of escalation. Russian officials have suggested that they would regard a decision to supply Ukraine with tanks as some sort of red line, though they’ve made similar threats so many times now that there’s a “boy who cried wolf” quality to them at this point. On the other hand, with the tank issue seemingly settled one wonders what will be the next major weapons platform that Ukraine absolutely needs and that will totally change the complexion of the war. My guess is aircraft, some mix of F-16s, F-15s, A-10s, and various other NATO jets, though anything is possible—Reaper drones, cruise missiles, tactical nukes, the sky really may be the limit.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is cleaning house amid a corruption scandal over the purchase of food at suspiciously inflated prices by the Ukrainian military. Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, quit amid the scandal and is the highest profile person connected with it so far. The turnover hearkens back to Zelensky’s 2019 presidential campaign, when he ran on an anti-corruption agenda that went pretty much nowhere after his election. While there hasn’t yet been any allegation of misappropriation of international support I don’t think there’s any question that this very public purge is intended to assure Ukrainian allies that their generous contributions aren’t being pilfered.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić suggested on Monday that he’s open to a proposal tabled by European Union officials last month to ease tensions between Serbia and Kosovo and put both countries on a path toward EU membership. The proposal would not require the Serbian government to recognize Kosovan independence, which is a non-starter from their perspective. Belgrade would instead just have to drop its opposition to Kosovo joining international bodies like (to pick the most obvious example) the United Nations, where Russia and China have been vetoing Kosovo’s potential membership at Serbia’s behest. Kosovo in turn would need to implement long-stalled plans to grant autonomous status to municipalities with predominantly Serb populations. The two countries would open “representation offices” in their respective capitals in lieu of embassies, since the latter would also require Serbia recognizing Kosovo’s independence. US ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill praised Vučić’s remarks on Tuesday.
The Turkish government has indefinitely postponed a meeting with Swedish and Finnish officials to discuss both countries’ NATO membership bids. The confab was supposed to take place in Brussels sometime next month, but after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan strongly hinted that Sweden’s bid is kaput on Monday it’s not terribly surprising to find that they’ve canceled.
The Rasmus Paludan protest in Stockholm (see above) is Turkey’s immediate justification for postponing the meeting, though in general the Turks have not seemed terribly thrilled with the Swedish government’s response to their demands over, e.g., the extradition of dozens of Turkish expats currently living in Sweden who are wanted on various charges by Turkish authorities. Perhaps ironically, Paludan’s little Quran-burning show has probably strengthened Erdoğan’s position in terms of giving him leverage to demand further concessions from Sweden and/or from other NATO members (he’d like to conclude a currently frozen F-16 purchase with Washington, among other things).
During a press conference on Tuesday, with protests continuing in Lima for the fifth straight day, interim Peruvian President Dina Boluarte called for “a national truce to allow for the establishment of dialogue, to fix the agenda for each region and develop our towns.” It’s unclear whether she has any influence over either the protesters who are demanding her resignation or the security forces who keep killing those protesters such that her call might be heeded. Boluarte has refused to resign but has said she intends to leave office after the next general election, which is likely to be brought forward to April 2024. She’s apologized for the dozens of people who have been killed since the protests started with the ouster and arrest of former President Pedro Castillo last month, but she’s also tried to absolve security forces of at least some of those deaths though it’s unclear who else could have been responsible.
Colombian security forces are apparently following through on President Gustavo Petro’s plan to shift drug war tactics away from efforts to eradicate illegal coca crops. Colombia’s national police force earlier this month said it would seek to eliminate 20,000 hectares of coca this year, down by 60 percent from the 50,000 hectare target it set last year. The Colombian military is expected to announce a similarly reduced target at some point. Petro has proposed targeting traffickers and industrial-size farming operations rather than small coca farmers, which makes sense given that targeting farmers with eradication programs has never actually succeeded in reducing the cocaine trade. Under former Colombian President Iván Duque the country eradicated some 130,000 hectares of coca in 2020 and, well, the non-results speak for themselves. For smaller farmers Petro intends to improve upon subsidy programs that are supposed to help support a shift out of the coca business.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Michael Klare argues that the US military is making a fundamental error in its assessment of the threat posed by China:
Given the secrecy typically accorded to the military and the inclination of government officials to skew data to satisfy the preferences of those in power, intelligence failures are anything but unusual in this country’s security affairs. In 2003, for instance, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq based on claims — later found to be baseless — that its leader, Saddam Hussein, was developing or already possessed weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, the instant collapse of the Afghan government in August 2021, when the U.S. completed the withdrawal of its forces from that country, came as a shock only because of wildly optimistic intelligence estimates of that government’s strength. Now, the Department of Defense has delivered another massive intelligence failure, this time on China’s future threat to American security.
The Pentagon is required by law to provide Congress and the public with an annual report on “military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China,” or PRC, over the next 20 years. The 2022 version, 196 pages of detailed information published last November 29th, focused on its current and future military threat to the United States. In two decades, so we’re assured, China’s military — the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA — will be superbly equipped to counter Washington should a conflict arise over Taiwan or navigation rights in the South China Sea. But here’s the shocking thing: in those nearly 200 pages of analysis, there wasn’t a single word — not one — devoted to China’s role in what will pose the most pressing threat to our security in the years to come: runaway climate change.
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