World roundup: March 9 2023
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Tunisia, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 8, 1010 (or thereabouts): Persian writer Abu’l-Qasim Ferdowsi completes his monumental epic, the Shahnameh.
March 8, 1722: At the Battle of Gulnabad, a Ghilzai Afghan army under Mahmud Hotak defeats the Safavid army, inflicting heavy casualties. The Safavid defeat exposed their capital, Isfahan, to the Afghan forces, who then besieged it. The Safavids surrendered on October 23, and while they had a brief semi-revival in the early 1730s, for all practical purposes this defeat brought their dynasty to a close.
March 8, 1963: Syria’s 8 March Revolution
March 9, 1500: Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral sets sail with a fleet bound for India by a circuitous route through the western Atlantic Ocean. In April, Cabral’s fleet made landfall in what is now eastern Brazil. It’s unclear whether he knew the land was there or just stumbled on it while making a wide turn toward the southern tip of Africa. Either way, this was the one part of the Americas that was far enough east to fall within Portugal’s allotted colonial domain under the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. Cabral’s fleet eventually continued on around Africa to Calicut, where he and his crew massacred around 600 people on ten merchant ships in retaliation for an attack on a Portuguese factory, and then headed back to Portugal.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, Antarctic sea ice shrunk to its lowest monthly level on record in February. We did it! Congratulations to everyone involved. Melting sea ice doesn’t directly cause sea level rise because it’s not adding additional volume to the oceans, but it does help to expose and destabilize ice sheets that are over land, leaving them more vulnerable to melting, and the loss of ice cover means less surface area reflecting solar radiation back out to space. So it’s really not great.
The United Nations’ “Least Developed Countries” summit, an event intended to raise loan and grant money for the world’s 46 poorest countries, produced a scant $1.4 billion as of its close on Thursday. Suffice to say the UN, which estimates that those countries need a collective $500 billion per year to meet their UN sustainable development goals, had a much larger number in mind.
Islamic State fighters killed three people and stole some 1000 sheep in an assault on Thursday in Syria’s Hama province. Both state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are reporting the incident.
Syria’s Aleppo International Airport will reportedly reopen on Friday. The facility was closed on Tuesday following an apparent Israeli missile strike, which disrupted humanitarian relief deliveries to earthquake victims in northern Syria.
The United Nations said on Thursday that it has purchased an oil tanker for the purpose of offloading oil from the stranded FSO Safer off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast. The Safer has been stuck in place since 2015 and its deterioration threatens to spill some 1.1 million barrels of oil into the water in what would be one of the largest environmental disasters in human history if it were to happen. The decision to purchase a ship comes after the UN appealed for several years for a donation or lease without success. The ship is scheduled to set out for the Red Sea month but there are still several details around this operation that remain unsettled. For one thing, the UN says it needs $129 million to complete the mission but so far has raised only $75 million in cash with another $20 million pledged. For another thing, it’s unclear what is going to happen to the oil, which is claimed by both the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebel movement, once it’s recovered.
Israeli forces killed at least three Palestinians on Thursday near the West Bank city of Jenin. Israeli officials say they were carrying out another arrest raid when their personnel came under attack. Later, a Palestinian gunman killed at least one person and wounded two others in a shooting in Tel Aviv on Thursday evening. Police killed the shooter as he was apparently attempting to flee.
The Wall Street Journal, citing “people involved in discussions between” the US and Saudi Arabia, reports that the Saudis are prepared to normalize relations with Israel in exchange for yet-to-be-negotiated “security guarantees” as well as US help standing up a Saudi nuclear program. The security aspect could mean making Saudi Arabia a “major non-NATO” ally, which would bring with it alliance obligations around defense and arms sales. The nuclear aspect is probably going to be a tougher sell in Washington as it would include the establishment of a domestic Saudi uranium enrichment capacity. Depending on how closely that capacity is monitored it could essentially guarantee that the Saudis will develop their own nuclear weapons (or at least the capacity to make them).
You’ll note that there’s nothing in the above paragraph about the Palestinians, whose status has previously been cited as the main reason the Saudis were reluctant to normalize relations with Israel. But it’s been widely speculated, I think with good reason, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is ready to toss the Palestinians overboard in exchange for a closer alliance with both Israel and the US against Iran. The Israelis would probably have to offer some cosmetic concession like a new round of peace talks, but ultimately that would be meaningless. MBS may also want to keep an eye on Saudi public opinion, which according to polling favors some relationship with Israel but not full normalization.
The Biden administration on Thursday blacklisted 39 entities around the world allegedly providing “shadow banking” services for the Iranian government. Essentially they’re accused of giving previously sanctioned entities access to the international financial network. Several of these entities are based either in the UAE or Hong Kong. The administration also blacklisted five entities and one individual accused of being part of a “network” that’s enabled Iran’s production of military drones.
After several nights of major protests, Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party announced on Thursday that it has decided to withdraw its bill that would have required organizations receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from overseas to register with the government as “foreign agents.” The withdrawal should take place during a special parliamentary session on Friday. In the meantime, protest organizers have apparently decided to keep their followers in the streets to keep pressure on the government and to call for the release of people who were arrested during the protests that already took place.
A bombing in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif killed the governor of Afghanistan’s Balkh province and two other people on Thursday. This was almost certainly an Islamic State operation though there’s been no confirmation of that yet either from IS or from Afghan authorities.
Nepali Congress party boss Ram Chandra Paudel was elected Nepal’s new president on Thursday. Nepalese presidents are elected in a weighted vote of the federal and provincial parliaments, and Paudel took around 65.5 percent of that vote to finish well ahead of Subaschandra Nemwang of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist). The run up to this election was fairly divisive, as the CPN (UML) quit Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s coalition when Dahal agreed to back Paudel.
The Indonesian government has officially broken ground on its new capital, Nusantara, which is being constructed on the island of Borneo and is expected to open for business by August 2024. Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced last year that plans were underway to replace Jakarta, which is overcrowded, heavily polluted, and sinking due to a combination of rising sea levels and subsidence due to the depletion of the city’s underground aquifers. Nusantara, unfortunately, lies smack in the middle of an environmentally sensitive rain forest, and despite assurances from Indonesian officials that the new city will be environmental conscious the damage to the ecosystem and to Indigenous communities will be severe.
The North Korean military reportedly launched a short-range ballistic missile off of the country’s eastern coast on Thursday evening. The US and South Korean militaries are scheduled to being major joint exercises next week so this may have been intended as a small taste of things to come.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio have decided to meet in Japan next week to talk about improving their bilateral relationship. It would seem that Yoon’s plan to compensate World War II victims without involving the Japanese firms that victimized them is already paying off. They’ll undoubtedly discuss closer cooperation on North Korea and—to the delight of the Biden administration, I’m sure—with respect to China as well.
Speaking of cooperation with respect to China, the Biden administration’s proposed 2024 budget includes some $7.1 billion in aid for the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau, the three Pacific Island states that have agreed to renew their “Compacts of Free Association” with the United States. The money would be paid out over 20 years as part of the new CFA agreements and in part serves as compensation for the harms done by US nuclear testing in the South Pacific in the mid-20th century.
Running out of democratic institutions to dissolve, Tunisian President Kais Saied turned on Thursday to municipal councils, of all things. Saied apparently considers Tunisia’s current municipal councils to be “states within a state,” which does indeed sound like the definition of local government, and dislikes them because they’re “not neutral,” which is a weird complaint to have about an elected political entity unless one has an issue with elections and/or politics. He’s planning to replace the councils with bodies that will still be elected but under rules Saied devises, which likely means rigging local elections to his satisfaction moving forward. He may also strip the new councils of their power, though that would be hard to do inasmuch as Tunisia’s municipal councils didn’t have all that much power in the first place.
Suspected Boko Haram fighters reportedly killed at least 37 fishermen in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state in an attack that began Wednesday evening near the town of Dikwa. Authorities are still assessing the attack and it’s possible they’ll discover additional casualties.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Suspected Allied Democratic Forces fighters killed more than 40 people in overnight attacks on two villages in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province. Here too the death toll is likely to rise as authorities assess the aftermath of the attacks.
The Russian government on Thursday blacklisted 144 people from the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The list of afflicted includes politicians, government officials, and journalists. All are accused of “inciting Russophobic sentiments” and pushing for more Western sanctions against Russia.
The Russian military launched its first major missile barrage in several weeks against multiple Ukrainian targets on Thursday, killing at least nine civilians and knocking out power to several localities. The attack temporarily knocked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant off of Ukraine’s electrical grid but backup generators were sufficient until it was reconnected. Russian forces reportedly fired several hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, which are nearly impossible to intercept especially with the air defenses Ukraine is operating but which don’t exactly grow on trees so it’s interesting to see the Russians using up their stockpile in this way. Russian officials characterized the barrage as retaliation for last week’s attack by some sort of pro-Ukrainian group in Russia’s Bryansk oblast.
The unrecognized government of Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region is claiming that its security services prevented a plot hatched by Ukraine’s SBU intelligence agency to assassinate President Vadim Krasnoselsky. This is the latest in a series of claims by Transnistrian and Russian officials about alleged Ukrainian plots against the region, though there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of these plots and you’d have to assume the Ukrainian government has bigger fish to fry at the moment. There are fears in the West that the Russians could annex Transnistria and/or use it to stage attacks into Ukraine, but so far neither of those scenarios has materialized.
Representatives from Finland, Sweden, and Turkey met at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday to discuss Turkey’s ratification (or lack thereof) of the other two countries’ NATO applications. They agreed to meet again, but that seems to be about it. Still, for Finland and particularly Sweden this is a better situation than they were in a few weeks ago when the Turks weren’t even talking to them. Swedish officials still seem to be banking on the passage of a new “anti-terrorism” bill to win Turkish support, but without knowing how the bill defines “terrorist organization” it’s impossible to say how Ankara will respond.
The Argentine government has converted a bit under $21.7 billion in bonds that were due to mature in June for new bonds that won’t mature until next year and the year after. That’s around 64 percent of the Argentine debt that was set to come due in June and could be enough to prevent a default.
An estimated 300,000 people across northwestern Colombia’s Antioquia and Córdoba states are believed to be facing food and medicine shortages due to an ongoing uprising by illegal miners. They’re blockading highways in retaliation for the destruction of nine machines that filter river silt in search of gold. Those machines, like everything else about these mining operations, are an environmental calamity. Colombian authorities say they’re prepared to discuss the miners’ grievances but only after the roadblocks are lifted.
Finally, at Responsible Statecraft William Hartung breaks down the Biden administration’s 2024 military budget request and assesses our chances of getting to the magic $1 trillion level:
The Pentagon released its budget request for Fiscal Year 2024 today. The figure for the Pentagon alone is a hefty $842 billion. That’s $69 billion more than the $773 billion the department requested for Fiscal Year 2023.
Total spending on national defense — including work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy — comes in at $886 billion. Adding in likely emergency military aid packages for Ukraine later this year plus the potential tens of billions of dollars in Congressional add-ons could push total spending for national defense to as much as $950 billion or more for FY 2024. The result could be the highest military budget since World War II, far higher than at the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the height of the Cold War.
The proposed budget is far more than is needed to provide an effective defense of the United States and its allies.
You think? Eh, I’m sure it’s all fine.
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