World roundup: November 17 2022
Stories from Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
November 16, 1532: Spanish forces under Francisco Pizarro ambush and capture the Incan emperor Atahualpa at the Battle of Cajamarca. Atahualpa’s captivity and eventual execution (the following August) were the first steps in the Spaniards’ conquest of the Incan Empire.
November 17, 1869: The Suez Canal officially opens in a joint French-Egyptian ceremony. Although it quickly came under financial pressure due to the costs of construction and some technical flaws that required improvements, the canal made an immediate impact on international commerce, both for better and worse (it helped cause the Panic of 1873 because of its detrimental effect on British maritime trade). The Egyptian monarchy’s heavy debt obliged it to sell its shares in the canal to the British government, which provided an opening for Britain to establish control not only over the canal, but ultimately over all of Egypt.
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In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Negotiations on establishing global carbon offset markets are continuing at the United Nations’ COP 27 climate summit, but according to Reuters it’s unlikely they’ll come to a resolution before the summit ends. This is probably not a bad thing, since carbon offset programs can be pretty scammy and even the reputable ones often rely on estimated carbon reductions whose measurements are a lot less reliable than just cutting emissions. One of the hold ups in these talks is apparently resistance to higher levels of regulation and scrutiny with respect to offset projects and their actual impacts.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for an attack on a Syrian military base in Raqqa province late Wednesday in which it says its fighters killed at least two soldiers and wounded five others. Separately, a pro-government militia fighter was reportedly killed in Raqqa by an IS landmine.
Elsewhere, the US “Green Village” military base in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province came under rocket attack on Thursday. There were no casualties nor does the facility seem to have been damaged in any way. It’s likely an Iranian-backed militia was responsible though there’s no concrete information on that front.
The Lebanese parliament tried and failed for the sixth time to elect a new president on Thursday. As has become the pattern for these votes, MP Michel Moawad took the largest number of votes but that only amounted to 43 in a 120 seat legislature, which isn’t even a simple majority let alone the two-thirds majority he would have required for a first ballot election. Former President Michel Aoun’s term ended on October 31 so Lebanon is without a president at the moment. Aoun’s son in-law, former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has graciously suggested that he could, you know, run for president himself. I mean, only as a last resort of course, if he’s unable to find a “consensus” candidate. Bassil has hitherto opted not to throw his name into the hat, probably because he didn’t think he could win. I’m not sure his chances have improved but at this point anything is possible.
Israeli and Jordanian delegates to COP 27 have inked a “declaration of intent” to try to save the Jordan River. That vital waterway is suffering from overpollution, overuse, and climate change, among other issues, and the tense relationship between Israel and Jordan has made collaboration on water issues dicey at best. The declaration is as vague as it sounds, and there’s not all that much the two countries can do about climate change, but in general terms they’re aiming to improve sewage and water treatment along the river and to try to implement more sustainable farming practices to reduce water usage.
Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to legalize a large number of hitherto illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This is the deal he’s apparently striking with far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose support is vital for Netanyahu to cobble together a parliamentary majority. I doubt Netanyahu, whose zeal for annexing the West Bank is pretty well established at this point, had to think very long before agreeing to Ben-Gvir’s demand. These are settlements that are currently illegal even under Israeli law—all the West Bank settlements are illegal under international law—though the Israeli government often legalizes such settlements retroactively. Among the newly legitimized settlements is at least one, Homesh, that was previously (in 2005) cleared out by Israeli authorities. It will undoubtedly now be resettled.
The Biden administration has decided that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman should be granted sovereign immunity protection from the US lawsuit he had been facing over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. MBS had himself made prime minister back in September, at least in part because he was hoping to gain the legal protections that come with being a head of government. There will likely be some criticism leveled at the administration over this but immunity for heads of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers is a pretty well established diplomatic norm and this administration was never likely to challenge that norm by denying immunity to MBS.
In news from Iran:
There are questions swirling around Wednesday’s mass shooting in a market in the southwestern Iranian city of Izeh, which killed at least seven people and wounded eight. Iranian media has identified the two attackers, who reportedly fired into the market from a motorcycle, as “terrorists.” But a man claiming to be a relative of one of the victims (the victim in this case being a nine year old child) is accusing Iranian security forces of carrying out the attack. However, there was apparently a similar attack (again featuring two gunmen on a motorcycle) in Isfahan later on Wednesday in which Iranian security forces (specifically members of the Basij paramilitary group) seem to have been the target—at least two Basijis were killed. Whether that indicates some sort of coordination in these attacks is an open question.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors on Thursday voted to order Iran to comply with the IAEA’s investigation into trace amounts of enriched uranium that the Agency’s inspectors have discovered at undeclared Iranian sites. The vote was 26-2, with Russia and China opposed, plus five abstentions and two absences. It is the second resolution on this subject that the IAEA has adopted this year, following an earlier vote in June, and its language suggested that the next step could be referring the case to the UN Security Council. While that might be embarrassing for Iran, presumably Russia and China would be prepared to use their vetoes to block any serious repercussions.
The US Treasury Department blacklisted another 13 firms accused of helping the Iranian government evade sanctions blocking its oil exports. These firms are based variously in China (including Hong Kong) and the UAE. This is the fifth round of US designations on this particular issue since June.
I’m somewhat reluctant even to mention this last story because it’s so ridiculous, but you may have seen a claim floating around earlier this week that Iranian authorities had sentenced 15,000 people to execution over the ongoing Mahsa Amini protests. Is it true? Ah, no. Human rights groups estimate that Iranian authorities have arrested some 15,000 people in connection with the protests, and they have imposed death sentences against at least five of them so far in addition to the more than 325 people security forces are believed to have killed in cracking down on the demonstrations. These things are bad enough without the exaggeration. The claim of 15,000 executions was “reported” by garbage sheet Newsweek and then amplified, via Twitter, by genius Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. There is certainly an audience in the West that regards Iran as more or less a barbarian state and will believe pretty much anything about it, but you’d expect an ostensible journalistic enterprise and the prime minister of Canada to be a bit less credulous than that.
Kazakh voters will head to the polls on Sunday for a snap presidential election, which isn’t something you see all that often but it’s what incumbent Kassym-Jomart Tokayev wanted and he usually gets what he wants these days. He’d like to be reelected and he’s almost certainly going to get that too, in case you were wondering. Tokayev insisted on moving up the scheduled March 2024 presidential election in order to implement his recently adopted constitutional reforms, which devolve some presidential powers to parliament and limit presidents to a single seven year term. He also seems eager to win an election in which he’s not running as former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s chosen successor, to establish some distance between himself and his not-so-popular predecessor. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has already criticized this election for issues related to “conditions of eligibility and registration of candidates,” which to put it more succinctly means Tokayev has ensured there’s no credible candidate running against him.
In the run up to the election, Kazakh officials claimed on Thursday that they’d thwarted a coup plot and arrested seven people in the process, all of them linked to former Kazakh Energy Minister Mukhtar Ablyazov. He’s wanted by Kazakh authorities on murder and embezzlement charges (for which he’s already been convicted in absentia) and lives in France while encouraging protests back home.
The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued a postmortem on the collapse of the former Afghan government on Wednesday. It may come as no surprise that SIGAR puts much of the blame on the United States, which established a corrupt Afghan government that had little legitimacy and failed to build any durable institutions that could have survived a US withdrawal. It also points a finger at former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani for running said corrupt government in an overly centralized and deeply nepotistic way under the apparent assumption that the US military would remain in Afghanistan until the heat death of the universe.
Myanmar’s ruling junta announced the release of 5774 prisoners in a mass amnesty on Thursday. Among that group are four foreign nationals, including former UK ambassador Vicky Bowman and US citizen Kyaw Htay Oo, as well as three former ministers from Myanmar’s pre-coup government. Most appear to have been arrested on charges related to the protests that emerged after the military junta seized power in February 2021. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners estimated that the junta was holding 13,015 people on related charges as of Wednesday.
If you’ve been intent on following the news out of this week’s G20 summit for some reason, you’ve most likely seen a video of Chinese President Xi Jinping appearing to dress down Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday for allegedly leaking details about the chat they held the previous day. If you haven’t seen it but want to for some reason, well, don’t say I never did anything for you:
The Chinese Foreign Ministry now says that, despite what your lying eyes may see in that video, Xi was not admonishing Trudeau, just having a frank conversation with him. Sure, let’s go with that. I’m not sure it matters that much either way.
The North Korean military launched what appears to have been a short-range ballistic missile off of the country’s eastern coast on Thursday. It had been eight days since the last North Korean missile launch so they were overdue, but apart from that it also seems Pyongyang was irritated by a meeting that US President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio held on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Cambodia on Sunday. They made some vague post-meeting comments about maintaining a unified front with respect to North Korea, hence the irritation. North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui also warned of a “fiercer” response to what it perceives as hostile US actions.
UPDATE: We didn’t have to wait very long to find out what Choe meant by “fiercer,” as the North Koreans launched what may have been an intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday morning. That’s a preliminary assessment from the South Korean military so it could change as more information becomes available.
The Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, which is affiliated with the “Libyan National Army,” says it killed seven Islamic State fighters and captured two more in an operation near the Chadian border in southern Libya on Wednesday. The LNA says it took no casualties in the operation.
Elsewhere, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias flew into Tripoli on Thursday for what I suspect was a planned diplomatic stunt meant to embarrass the western Libyan government. Dendias refused to leave his plane after learning that the foreign minister of the western government, Najla Mangoush, had come to the airport to meet him. This is standard protocol in these situations, but according to the Greek Foreign Ministry Dendias had specifically requested not to meet with Mangoush during his Tripoli visit. The Greek government is angry at the western Libyan government over an offshore gas exploration deal it reached with Turkey last month that, according to Athens, infringes on Greece’s maritime borders. Dendias had been scheduled to meet with the chair of Libya’s presidential council, Mohamed al-Menfi, while in Tripoli but instead flew off to meet with officials from the rival eastern Libyan government in Benghazi.
The French government has decided to stop sending development aid to Mali, an indication of continued souring in the relationship between Paris and Mali’s ruling junta. France will continue sending humanitarian aid but a number of aid organizations have said that the end of this development funding will have severe impacts on programs meant to provide basic services to “poor and vulnerable communities.”
Officials of Gulf of Guinea littoral states Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Togo met in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, on Thursday to discuss intensifying collaboration with respect to countering jihadist violence. That violence has been steadily metastasizing south, from Mali into Niger and Burkina Faso and now to the coastal states. The European Union is also participating in this conference and the UK government as well as the Economic Community of West African States bloc are expected to join the proceedings, which will run into next week. With the UK and France quitting Mali there’s some possibility that they’ll redeploy part of their West African-based counter-terrorism forces to the coastal region.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Congolese military aircraft bombarded the town of Kibumba in North Kivu province on Thursday in an effort to stem the M23 militia’s march toward the provincial capital, Goma. Kibumba lies just 20 kilometers north of Goma, but M23’s southern advance has paused since capturing the town a few days ago. That may be partly because the militia has instead decided to push west into the Masisi territory. A multilateral peacekeeping force deployed to the eastern DRC by the East African Community bloc is reportedly prepared to defend Goma and is calling on M23 to stop its offensive and engage in negotiations.
In Ukraine news:
With the Russians having retreated from much of Kherson oblast, the most active military fronts in Ukraine right now are in Donestk oblast and in the skies above most Ukrainian cities. As to the latter, the Russian military continues to bombard those cities with a particular eye toward destroying civilian infrastructure. With winter weather beginning to take hold across much of Ukraine an estimated 10 million people are at present without electricity. In Donetsk, meanwhile, at least some of those Russian forces that were pulled out of Kherson seem to have been redeployed to the east, which has translated into an uptick in the intensity of Russian artillery activity but not, so far, to much movement on the ground.
On a rare positive note, UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced on Thursday that Ukraine and Russia have agreed to renew the Black Sea Grain Initiative on its current terms for another four months. This is not the “bigger and better” agreement Guterres wanted—he was angling for a one year renewal covering a wider variety of exports from a larger number of Ukrainian ports—but given Russian dissatisfaction with the way the agreement has been implemented a simple renewal was probably the best possible outcome. The Initiative, which would have expired on Saturday, has permitted Ukraine to resume grain exports through the Black Sea. Moscow has complained that its own food and fertilizer exports, which the deal is also supposed to facilitate, are still being impeded by Western sanctions.
The IAEA board also adopted a resolution calling on Russia to vacate the Ukrainian nuclear facilities it’s occupied as part of its invasion. That most especially includes the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, as you might expect. This is the third resolution the IAEA has adopted on this subject and I get the sense at this point that the Russians aren’t really listening.
The Colombian government and the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) are expected to open new peace talks next week in Caracas. These will be the first negotiations between the two parties since former Colombian President Iván Duque broke off talks in 2019. Current President Gustavo Petro came into office pledging negotiations with ELN as well as Colombia’s myriad other armed militant groups. Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela will serve as guarantors for these talks and Petro’s government has already suspended warrants for the arrest of ELN members in order to facilitate the process.
Finally, Quincy’s Sarang Shidore seems generally pleased with how this week’s G20 summit played out:
In sum, the G20 agreed where it could, but also agreed to disagree where it couldn’t. This itself is a victory of sorts. Washington’s tone on Ukraine has long been overly moralistic, delegitimizing voices calling for a middle ground and a diplomatic pathway. But at Bali, all sides gave ground and showed a newfound maturity.
Washington’s more conciliatory attitude is consistent with recent revelations about secret U.S.-Russia talks on limiting nuclear escalation and Washington’s encouragement for Ukraine to show more flexibility on negotiations. A recent letter by progressive U.S. lawmakers, roundly criticized and ultimately withdrawn, in fact aided Biden’s efforts in that direction.
The reality is that the world, and particularly the Global South, is not in favor of an escalating rivalry between the three great powers, the United States, Russia, and China. “We should not divide the world into parts,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo told the gathered leaders. “We must not let the world fall into another cold war.”
I generally discount these sorts of summits as showpieces, but I figured we could do with a view that’s a little less pessimistic.
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