World roundup: March 11-12 2023
Stories from China, Australia, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 10, 241 BC: A Roman fleet under Gaius Lutatius Catulus and Quintus Valerius Falto defeats a Carthaginian fleet at the Battle of the Aegates, just off the west coast of Sicily. The Carthaginians subsequently agreed to the Treaty of Lutatius, which ended the First Punic War by forcing Carthage to abandon Sicily and pay a war indemnity to Rome.
March 10, 1861: The Toucouleur Empire of Omar Saidou Tall conquers the city of Ségou, bringing an end to the already reeling Bamana Empire and consolidating much of West Africa (modern Guinea, Mali, and Senegal) under Omar Tall’s control. Although it was riding high at this point, the Toucouleur Empire’s further expansion was stymied by the Fula Massina Empire to the north, and by the 1890s it was swept aside by French colonization.
March 10, 1916: The British high commissioner for Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, pens the tenth and final letter in his exchange with Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Over the course of those ten letters the two men established the conditions under which Hussein would lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Britain later reneged on its promises to support the creation of a single “Arab Caliphate” ruled by Hussein.
March 11, 1917: British forces capture Baghdad from the Ottoman Empire.
March 12, 1930: Mahatma Gandhi leads a 24 day march covering more than 240 miles from the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat to the village of Dandi, known as the “Salt March” or the “Dandi March.” Gandhi’s aim was to protest the British monopoly on salt production, so he and his followers manufactured their own salt at Dandi after arriving there on April 6, in violation of the 1882 British Salt Act. The march was a landmark event in both the conception of non-violent protest and the Indian independence movement.
March 12, 1938: Nazi Germany occupies Austria in an event known as the Anschluss. Uniting Austria and Germany was one of the primary tenets of the Nazi Party and the most important component of its Heim ins Reich project to incorporate all ethnic Germans into a “Greater Germany.” The Nazi occupation, which was welcomed by many Austrians, rendered irrelevant a planned referendum on unification that Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg had scheduled for the following day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Israeli military was almost certainly responsible for another airstrike on a Syrian military target on Sunday morning. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the target was located “between Tartus and Hama provinces” and was used by Iranian-backed militia forces. One Syrian soldier and two militia members were killed in the attack and two other soldiers were wounded. The SOHR also reported on Saturday that Islamic State fighters had attacked a group of truffle hunters in Aleppo province, killing at least three people and abducting 26 others.
Israeli forces killed three Palestinians on Sunday near the West Bank city of Nablus. According to Israeli officials four Palestinians opened fire on the Israelis, who then returned fire. The fourth Palestinian was apparently taken prisoner.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people turned out in several Israeli cities on Saturday to once again express opposition to the government’s effort to strip the Israeli judiciary of much of its authority. These demonstrations have been going on at least weekly for some time now, but as sizeable as they’ve been (see the photo below) there’s little indication that they’re affecting the legislative process.
Saudi Aramco says it cleared a cool $161 billion in profit last year, which according to The News is the highest profit ever recorded by a publicly traded company. So at least they’ve got that going for them. It’s nice to see these guys catch a break, you know? High oil prices do wonders for the bottom line, of course, though any good feelings this result generates should probably be tempered by the knowledge that every year Aramco has record profits is another nail in the proverbial coffin for any chance of mitigating climate change.
Unknown attackers killed two police officers in southeastern Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province on Friday. There’s no indication as to responsibility but that province is home to criminal smuggling networks, Baluch separatists, and Islamist militants (with at least some overlap between those categories).
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told state media on Sunday that the Iranian and US governments “reached an agreement in the past few days” on a prisoner exchange. Later in the day the Biden administration denied that there’s a deal in place, but this has been rumored for some time now and the basic contours—a prisoner swap plus the unfreezing of some $7 billion in Iranian money currently stuck in South Korean banks due to sanctions—seem to have been established. So it may only be a question of political will in terms of whether or when a deal gets done.
A bombing killed at least one person and wounded eight others in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Saturday. Islamic State unsurprisingly claimed responsibility for the attack, which targeted an event celebrating journalists. IS also most likely carried out a bombing in Mazar-i-Sharif on Thursday that killed the governor of Balkh province.
Two bodyguards for a member of the Baluchistan provincial legislature were killed and a third wounded on Saturday when their vehicle ran over a landmine in the Kacchi Bolan region. There’s been no claim of responsibility.
The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor discusses China’s apparent emergence as a Middle Eastern peace broker:
Away from the conflict in Ukraine, over which U.S. and Chinese officials have recently locked horns, Beijing laid down a new milestone. Washington has a huge footprint in the Middle East, but — or perhaps because of that — it was never poised to achieve rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran. The United States picked its sides long ago and hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Iran for decades. In recent months, Iran’s suppression of a major protest movement and acceleration of its uranium enrichment capacities only pushed it closer to collision with the United States and its allies.
China resolutely picked no side and positioned itself as an equal opportunity consumer of hydrocarbons from the Persian Gulf kingdoms, Iraq and Iran. This made Beijing a far more plausible mediator between the Saudis and Iranians, and appears to have allowed it to step into what could be seen as a geopolitical vacuum in the region. “China has truly arrived as a strategic actor in the gulf,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, of the Arab Gulf States Institute, to my colleagues.
The North Korean military appears to have test fired a couple of submarine-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missiles on Sunday, at least according to state media. The US and South Korean militaries are set to begin a very large joint exercise this week so I’m sure this launch is but the first of several fun escapades to come.
Also at The Washington Post, Michael Miller wonders if this week’s big AUKUS rollout event is going to upset recent improvements in the Australian-Chinese relationship:
Three years after China launched crippling trade restrictions on Australia, the two countries have begun to patch things up. Their leaders met for the first time in half a decade in November. Top officials have resumed regular dialogues. And Australian Trade Minister Don Farrell is expected to soon travel to Beijing.
“In almost every aspect where we’ve had trade blockages or disputes, there appears to be progress being made,” Farrell, a winemaker, told state broadcaster ABC on Thursday. “My job is to convert those discussions into practical outcomes for Australian businesses.”
But even as business owners in both countries begin to dream of a return to the roaring trade of 10 years ago, the rapprochement faces an early road — or, rather, sea — block.
An NGO called the Collective Against Immunity and Stigmatisation of Communities (CISC) is accusing the Burkinabé military of massacring at least 21 mostly Fulani civilians in a village in the country’s Centre-Nord region on Wednesday. CISC is claiming that elements of the regular Burkinabé security forces participated in the attack as well as members of the volunteer VDP militia. Attacks on Fulani civilians are a relatively frequent thing across the Sahel, based on the erroneous belief that the Muslim Fulani community is generally supportive of jihadist militants. Perversely the violence has the effect of driving more Fulani toward jihadist groups.
A group of ethnic Fulani killed at least 16 people in a firefight with police in Nigeria’s Kaduna state on Saturday. The incident was apparently precipitated by some sort of confrontation between Fulani herders and local farmers, groups that are often at odds over access to scarce resources like arable land and water.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Islamist Allied Democratic Forces is believed to have been responsible for an attack on a village in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province early Sunday morning that left at least 19 people dead. The attackers also looted and torched a local hospital and a hotel. There are several people still missing so the casualty count could rise.
The British military has now backed up claims that Russian forces have seized all or most of the city of Bakhmut east of the Bakhmutka River. The Wagner Group had made that claim a few days ago without any corroboration from any other source. The Ukrainian military says its defenses are still holding—indeed, the Ukrainians are still apparently reinforcing the city—and with bridges across the river now destroyed it may take a bit of time for the Russians to get a foothold on its western bank.
Whether or not the US and Iran are talking about a prison swap, two anonymous Biden administration officials were pretty unequivocal in telling Reuters on Sunday that there are no prisoner exchange talks underway between the US and Venezuela. Eyvin Hernandez, a US national currently in Venezuelan custody, apparently sent a message to Joe Biden last month asking him to cut a deal to send Venezuelan national Alex Saab back to Caracas in return for US prisoners in Venezuela. Saab is awaiting trial in the US on some sort of corruption charge and the administration has said it will not discuss releasing him until that proceeding is concluded.
The Nicaraguan government is closing its Vatican embassy and has ordered the closure of the Vatican embassy in Managua. It’s not cutting diplomatic ties with the Vatican altogether, but it has considered “suspending” them over an interview in which Pope Francis referred to the Nicaraguan government as “a crude dictatorship.” Relations between the Catholic Church and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega are not good to say the least, and Bishop Rolando Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison last month on a variety of charges including treason.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Jacob Batinga suggests that the Biden administration should consider applying its new rules around arms sales to a longstanding US ally:
Over the last four decades of heavy American subsidization of Israel’s arms industry, Israel has transferred weapons to over 100 countries, including South Africa under apartheid, Serbia during the ethnic cleansing of Bosnians, and the repressive military juntas in Guatemala and El Salvador (as well as human rights-abusing non-state actors like the Contras in Nicaragua). Within the last decade, Israel continued to supply arms to Myanmar even as the military junta committed genocide against the Rohingya, and exported weapons to South Sudan “despite a near-universal arms embargo over the bloody civil war there.” Israel is currently transferring arms to human rights abusing governments such as the Philippines, Morocco, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Azerbaijan. According to a recent Haaretz report, the Israeli government has “approved every single arms deal brought to them since 2007.”
So, the United States subsidizes Israel’s domestic arms industry with around $815 million annually, and Israel subsequently exports those subsidized arms — without any transparency — to governments committing grave human rights abuses, including genocide.
The Biden administration’s new arms export policy is a significant win for human rights advocates. However, the United States’ significant financial contribution to Israel’s arms industry should not be excluded from this policy. This extensive subsidization means that Israel’s domestically-produced arms are, in a very real sense, American arms as well.
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