World roundup: May 21-22 2022
Stories from Iran, Australia, Ukraine, and more
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up for free today:
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 20, 1498: Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrives at the port of Calicut (modern Kozhikode), completing his expedition from Lisbon around the African coast to India. Da Gama, who was expecting to extract favorable trading concessions from the ruler of Calicut, found instead that his token gifts were too shabby to win him any goodwill and Muslim traders spread scandalous gossip about the Portuguese arrivals. He left with only a smattering of local trade goods, but needless to say the opening of the trade route had some very long-lasting repercussions.
May 20, 1927: Abdulaziz Al Saud, also known as Ibn Saud, concludes the Treaty of Jeddah with the United Kingdom. Under the terms of the treaty, the UK recognized both Ibn Saud’s independence and his sovereignty over the kingdoms of the Nejd and the Hejaz, which he merged into Saudi Arabia in 1932.
May 21 878: The Aghlabid Emirate captures the Sicilian city of Syracuse after a roughly nine month siege.
May 21, 1799: Napoleon lifts his failed siege of Acre and withdraws to Egypt (and, not long after that, to France).
May 21, 2006: Montenegro holds a referendum on leaving what remained of Yugoslavia and becoming an independent state. Amid allegations of irregularities, 55.5 percent voted in favor of independence, which was just over the 55 percent needed to pass the referendum. May 21 is now annually commemorated as Independence Day in Montenegro.
May 22, 853: A Byzantine army/fleet attacks and sacks the Egyptian port city of Damietta.
May 22, 1990: The Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) are united as the Republic of Yemen. After the formation of a unified government that tended to favor northern Yemen, southern Yemen attempted to secede in 1994, touching off a short (May-July) Yemeni civil war. A lingering southern secessionist movement has once again become prominent amid the current Yemeni civil war.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A crowd reportedly tens of thousands large turned out in Istanbul on Saturday to protest the recent conviction of Republican People’s Party (CHP) official Canan Kaftancıoğlu on the grounds that she insulted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Kaftancıoğlu, who heads the opposition CHP’s Istanbul office, was apparently charged over actions related to the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, though I’m unclear as to exactly how she’s supposed to have “insulted” Erdoğan. Since I imagine some of you are already starting to ask the question, yes that is a crime under Turkish law. She was sentenced to a bit under ten years in prison but that sentence was later reduced to just under five years. Sentences under five years are regularly suspended in Turkey so Kaftancıoğlu will likely not be imprisoned.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned US ambassador Jeff Flake on Sunday to complain about an alert issued by the US embassy in advance of Saturday’s rally. The alert apparently included a warning about the possibility of police violence, which Turkish officials didn’t appreciate.
Israeli occupation forces shot and killed a 17 year old Palestinian youth during an apparent arrest raid in a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin on Saturday. According to Palestinian authorities they also critically wounded another Palestinian during the same operation. Israeli officials are claiming their forces came under attack and returned fire in self-defense. It’s unclear whether the deceased was one of the alleged attackers.
Meretz Party Knesset member Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi announced on Sunday that she’s returning to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition, just a couple of days after she said she was leaving it. Zoabi said she was put under “immense pressure” to rejoin the coalition. Her decision leaves Bennett in control of 60 seats in the 120 seat Knesset, which—while not a majority—does afford him some additional protection against a potential no-confidence motion.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has purchased a 16.9 percent stake in Prince al-Waleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding Co. investment firm for a cool $1.51 billion. It’s nice to see the Saudi royal family all getting along like this. The last time al-Waleed and his extended family tangled was during Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2017 anti-corruption drive/mass shakedown, during which al-Waleed was one of many wealthy Saudis temporarily imprisoned at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Unconfirmed reports suggest that al-Waleed spent around $6 billion to purchase his freedom in that incident. Given that context, it’s unclear how enthusiastic he really was about selling part of his company to MBS’s fund.
An officer in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, was murdered by two as yet unspecified gunmen outside his Tehran home on Sunday. Khodaei served in the IRGC’s Quds Force, which means he mostly worked outside of Iran and whatever work he did was highly classified. Some wording in Iranian media reports of the shooting suggests he served in Iraq and/or Syria as part of the Quds Force’s operations in support of Bashar al-Assad and/or in opposition to Islamic State.
Without delving into too much speculation there’s a lot about this killing that indicates Israeli involvement, including the fact that Israeli operatives have carried out targeted attacks like this in Iran before. Iranian media is reporting that the IRGC has broken up a “network” of Israeli agents, but details are sparse and there’s no link between this story and the Khodaei killing at this time as far as I can tell.
According to Eurasianet, locals in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region are accusing Tajik security forces of killing an influential leader of the ethnic Pamiri community, Mamadbokir Mamadbokirov. Tajik forces have been engaged in some sort of operation in Gorno-Badakhshan for several days now, with reports alleging that they’ve killed a number of Pamiris in that time. The government claims it’s undertaken an “anti-terror” operation but that appears to be cover for the brutal suppression of protests calling for greater regional autonomy. Tajik authorities say that Mamadbokirov was killed during some sort of intra-Pamiri clash but residents are alleging that he was shot by a government sniper. At the root of this outbreak of violence may be a government plan to partition the region into predominantly Tajik and predominantly Pamiri halves and then to revoke its autonomous status.
The Taliban is now enforcing a recent edict obliging women appearing on Afghan television as news presenters to be fully veiled while doing so. Afghan authorities issued the order on Thursday, but after many networks refused to enforce it voluntarily the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue began enforcing it involuntarily over the weekend. The Taliban 2.0 is increasingly indistinguishable from Taliban 1.0, particularly on the subject of women, which may be a sign that more hardline elements within the group are calling the shots.
Joe Biden on Sunday finished a three day trip to South Korea that, surprisingly, didn’t feature any statement from North Korea via either weapons launch or nuclear test. Instead it featured Business Deals, particularly a $10 billion investment deal with automaker Hyundai, and a lot of assurances that the United States is committed to its allies in the Pacific region. Biden and new South Korean President Yoon Sook-yeol discussed expanding US-South Korean military exercises, though they didn’t come to any concrete decision in that regard. Biden later headed to Japan to continue what is his first Asia trip as president.
Australian voters headed to the polls on Saturday and this time around the result was more or less consistent with pre-election polling. The Australian Labor Party won the right to lead new government, unseating former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coalition. Labor leader Anthony Albanese was sworn in as Australia’s new PM on Monday, the timetable for his accession rushed a bit so that he could attend a meeting of the “Quad” alliance leaders alongside Joe Biden in Tokyo (see above). It remains to be seen whether Labor will be able to govern with a sole majority or if it will need to form its own coalition. The party needs to win at least 76 seats in the 151 seat Australian House of Representatives to form a government on its own, and with several races still left to be called it’s currently at least four seats shy of that mark. If it falls short, Albanese should be able to find the votes he needs from the Green Party and/or independents.
Australian politics isn’t my thing so I won’t try to hazard any Deep Thoughts as to why Labor emerged victorious—or more to the point, why Morrison’s Liberal-National coalition saw such a significant drop in support compared with 2019. But a surge in support for the Greens suggests that maybe, just maybe, Australian voters were displeased with Morrison’s near total disinterest in addressing climate change, which bordered on climate denialism.
Sudanese security forces killed a protester in Omdurman on Saturday during demonstrations calling for an end to military rule. That makes at least 96 protesters they’ve killed since last October’s coup.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Bintou Keita alleged on Sunday that the M23 militia in the eastern DRC has been responsible for multiple attacks against UN peacekeepers. Keita’s statement coincided with a new Congolese military operation in North Kivu province targeting the predominantly Tutsi group, which rebelled against the DRC government from 2012 to 2013 and emerged from dormancy earlier this year.
In news from Russia:
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Saturday added 26 Canadians to its burgeoning travel ban list, while also publishing its full list of 963 US nationals who are similarly barred from entering Russia. Hopefully all of these people have already had a chance to see the Museum of Hygiene in St. Petersburg, because suffice to say their window of opportunity has closed on that one.
Leonid Slutsky, a Russian politician and member of Moscow’s negotiating team for Ukrainian peace talks (such as they are), suggested on Saturday that the Russian government might be amenable to trading the prisoners its collected from the now-surrendered Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol—or some number of them—for the release of Ukrainian businessman Viktor Medvedchuk. Presumably Slutsky wouldn’t have said this without reason, though who knows whether it constitutes a serious offer. Medvedchuk was Vladimir Putin’s Man in Kyiv and there have been rumors Putin intended to place him in charge of a post-invasion Ukrainian government, had the initial Russian invasion gone according to plan. Ukrainian authorities placed him under house arrest in May 2021 but he escaped shortly after the invasion began only to be recaptured last month.
And in Ukraine:
Fighting in eastern Ukraine seems to have consolidated over the past few days (perhaps because of the resolution of the Azovstal siege) around the city of Severodonetsk, the last major population center in Luhansk oblast that’s still in government control. The front line there seems to be moving slowly, if at all, but if the Russians are able to take Severodonetsk they could move on Ukraine’s eastern military command site at Kramatorsk. Russian airstrikes over the weekend appear to have concentrated on the Donbas and the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine. Mykolaiv is still an obstacle to a Russian advance on Odessa, further to the west.
Ukrainian forces appear to be preparing again for the possibility of an attack by the Belarusian military, based on signs of a buildup along the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. The Belarusian military announced such a buildup earlier this month while warning of some unspecified threat from Ukraine and NATO.
The US military is reportedly planning to send special forces personnel to Ukraine—but just, like, to guard the US embassy in Kyiv and stuff, you know how it is. US special forces have been training the Ukrainian military since at least 2014 along with special forces detatchments from other Western governments, though (as far as you or I know at least) those trainers haven’t gotten involved in the conflict themselves. Putting US soldiers in Kyiv where there’s a reasonable chance they’ll be in the line of fire (via occasional Russian airstrikes) would presumably represent an escalation on the part of the Biden administration, and should those soldiers come under some sort of attack I suppose there’s no telling what might happen next. On the plus side there’s definitely no precedent in US history for these sorts of small escalations in the presence and role of the US military in a combat zone to eventually snowball into larger and larger escalations.
With out of control gang violence effectively shutting down life in an ever-expanding swathe of Port-au-Prince, The New York Times has produced a timely accounting of the punishing slave reparations and other economic depredations that have left the Haitian economy and Haitian society perpetually broken:
But for generations after independence, Haitians were forced to pay the descendants of their former slave masters, including the Empress of Brazil; the son-in-law of the Russian Emperor Nicholas I; Germany’s last imperial chancellor; and Gaston de Galliffet, the French general known as the “butcher of the Commune” for crushing an insurrection in Paris in 1871.
The burdens continued well into the 20th century. The wealth Ms. Present’s ancestors coaxed from the ground brought wild profits for a French bank that helped finance the Eiffel Tower, Crédit Industriel et Commercial, and its investors. They controlled Haiti’s treasury from Paris for decades, and the bank eventually became part of one of Europe’s largest financial conglomerates.
Haiti’s riches lured Wall Street, too, delivering big margins for the institution that ultimately became Citigroup. It elbowed out the French and helped spur the American invasion of Haiti — one of the longest military occupations in United States history.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Michael Klare assesses the Ukraine war’s global impact:
The war in Ukraine has already caused massive death and destruction, with more undoubtedly to come as the fighting intensifies in the country’s east and south. Many thousands of soldiers and civilians have already been killed or wounded, some 13 million Ukrainians have been forced from their homes, and an estimated one-third of the country’s infrastructure has been destroyed. Worse yet, that war’s brutal consequences have in no way been limited to Ukraine and Russia: hunger and food insecurity are increasing across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as grain deliveries from two of the world’s leading wheat producers have been severed. People are also suffering globally from another harsh consequence of that war: soaring fuel prices. And yet even those manifestations of the war’s “collateral damage” don’t come close to encompassing what could be the greatest casualty of all: planet Earth itself.
Any major war will, of course, inflict immense harm on the environment and Ukraine’s no exception. Although far from over, the fighting there has already resulted in widespread habitat and farmland destruction, while attacks on fuel-storage facilities (crucial targets for both sides) and the wartime consumption of fossil fuels have already released colossal amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. But however detrimental they may be, those should be thought of as relatively minor injuries when compared to the long-term catastrophic damage sure to be caused by the collapse of global efforts to slow the pace of global warming.
Mind you, even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the possibility of preventing the world’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above its pre-industrial average seemed to be slipping away. After all, as a recent study by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear, without a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, global temperatures are likely to exceed that target long before this century ends — with terrifying consequences. “In concrete terms,” as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres pointed out when releasing the report, “this means major cities under water, unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, and the extinction of one million species of plants and animals.”
Nonetheless, before the Russian invasion, environmental policymakers still believed it might be possible to avoid that ghastly fate. Such success, however, would require significant cooperation among the major powers — and now, due to the war in Ukraine, that appears unattainable, possibly for years to come.