World roundup: November 23 2021

Stories from South Korea, Tunisia, Sweden, and more

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With Thanksgiving approaching here in the US, Foreign Exchanges will be taking some time off. Barring any unforeseen events, we will resume normal programming next Tuesday, November 30. Let me take this opportunity to wish an early and very Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah to those who are celebrating either or both.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

November 22, 1943: Amid considerable international pressure, especially from the United Kingdom, the French government acknowledges Lebanon’s independence. Annually commemorated as Lebanese Independence Day.

November 22, 1963: US President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, either by Lee Harvey Oswald or [REDACTED]. Oswald would be arrested and then was himself killed while in police custody on November 24, either by Jack Ruby or [REDACTED]. Successive US presidents have promised to declassify documents related to the assassination, but those promises have so far been [REDACTED].

November 23, 1248: The Muslim military commander in the city of Seville, Axataf, surrenders the city to King Ferdinand III of Castile (later Saint Ferdinand) in the capstone of the so-called “Early Reconquista.” Fueled primarily by the retreat of the Almohad Caliphate back to North Africa, the 20 years from 1228 to 1248 saw Christian kings conquer the entire Iberian Peninsula save for the Emirate of Granada, which was reduced to the status of Castilian vassal. Things remained relatively frozen that way until 1482, when Ferdinand and Isabella began the campaign that eventually eliminated Granada and left all of soon-to-be Spain in Christian hands.

November 23, 1934: British and Ethiopian (Abyssinian) officials discover an Italian-Somali fortress in the town of Walwal, which is well beyond the designated borders of Italian Somaliland and thus is regarded as a provocation by those same British and Ethiopian officials. The ensuing “Abyssinia Crisis” led into the 1935-1937 Second Italo-Ethiopian War and the Italian annexation of Ethiopia.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Syrian rebel sources are claiming that a Russian airstrike in northern Idlib province killed at least two people on Tuesday. Idlib is technically under a ceasefire but the rebel and pro-government sides routinely violate it in isolated incidents. It’s likely that at some point the Syrian government will undertake a new offensive against the rebel-held pocket of northwestern Syria, though as far as I know there’s no sign that such an operation is going to happen anytime soon.

Syrian media is reporting another Israeli missile attack somewhere around the city of Homs early Wednesday. The target is unclear but the reports say that at least two civilians have been killed and another seven people (one civilian and six soldiers) have been wounded.

YEMEN

Among the targets bombed in Saudi Arabia’s Tuesday airstrikes on Sanaa was a plastics factory, according to Houthi rebel officials. Obviously the implication here is that this was a civilian facility targeted illegitimately by the Saudis, though I’m not sure it’s as cut and dried as that since plastic manufacturing certainly can have military applications. There’s still no word of any casualties from Tuesday’s airstrikes, but there is a report of heavy casualties from a battle last Friday near the southern Yemeni coastal city of Makha (or Mocha, as it’s sometimes transliterated, and yes that’s where we get the name of the coffee drink). Pro-government forces, who have controlled the city itself since 2017, apparently made some advances at Houthi expense outside the city in fighting that left “dozens” of people dead. I haven’t seen any details more specific than that.

The Saudis apparently launched another round of airstrikes on Sanaa on Wednesday morning. No word on targets or casualties.

TURKEY

The Turkish lira hit a record low of 13.45 per US dollar on Tuesday before rebounding a bit, apparently in response to a Monday speech by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which he defended his opposition to interest rate hikes in order to curb Turkey’s high level of inflation. Erdoğan’s views on interest rates and inflation are to say the least well outside the prevailing economic orthodoxy, which is neither here nor there except that diverging from that orthodoxy tends to panic traders and it’s their perception that’s really relevant. Erdoğan also doesn’t help convince anyone of the soundness of his theories when he portrays Turkey’s overall weak economy as the product of some sort of nefarious plot by his enemies to weaken the Turkish state, as he does constantly and apparently did again on Monday. It’s unclear whether Erdoğan actually cares about a weakened lira—the piece I linked above cites analyst Ömer Taşpınar saying that he might view it as a positive thing in that a weak lira could boost Turkish exports and encourage foreign tourism.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

The crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is apparently planning a visit to Turkey on Wednesday. It’s unclear what, if anything, he intends to accomplish while there, but the visit itself is evidence that one of the Middle East’s longest running geopolitical rivalries is tapering off. In part this is because of Turkey’s economic woes, which have pushed Erdoğan to thaw his previously frosty relations with the UAE and the Saudis.

ASIA

KAZAKHSTAN

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is resigning as the leader of his Nur Otan party and will pass the baton to current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. This somewhat unexpected move hands over one of the main offices through which Nazarbayev has retained his authority since he resigned the presidency in 2019. He still chairs the state Security Council and holds the partly-honorary-but-also-sort-of-real title of “Leader of the Nation,” which parliament bestowed upon him in 2010.

CHINA

The US Navy sailed the destroyer USS Milius through the Taiwan Strait on Tuesday on another “freedom of navigation” mission. As usual, this drew criticism from Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a Chinese province and therefore the strait as part of China’s territorial waters, but nothing more serious than that.

SOUTH KOREA

The Diplomat’s Mitch Shin writes that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s last ditch attempt to improve the state of inter-Korean relations is being undermined by the US and Chinese governments:

U.S. President Joe Biden said on November 19 that his administration is “considering” a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, due to concerns over China’s human rights violations.

Moon had been eyeing the Beijing Winter Olympics as the potential impetus for a breakthrough on restoring dialogue with North Korea. However, with Washington publicly expressing the possibility of a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics next year, Seoul’s hands are tied. It looks likely that Moon’s peace process will fall victim to rising China-U.S. tensions.

Biden held a virtual meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on November 16 to discuss the regional issues and ease tensions between the two countries. However, the meeting could not narrow the two leaders’ different views on major points of friction – especially human rights in Xinjiang and Taiwan – and the leaders did not bring up new measures on North Korea during the meeting.

Additionally, as the South Korean presidential race has kicked off, other countries see no rush in dealing with the North Korea issue. The candidates of the ruling Democratic Party and conservative People Power Party have introduced different overtures on major foreign policy issues, including North Korea and Japan. Depending on the result of the presidential election in March, there could be a major shift in Seoul’s approach, and it seems the U.S. and China are content to wait to see what happens.

AFRICA

LIBYA

United Nations Libya envoy Jan Kubiš abruptly announced his resignation on Tuesday, just over a month before Libya is scheduled to hold a presidential election that will help mark its transition out of civil war—an election in which all of 98 people have registered to run, at least a couple of whom should probably be preparing for their trials at The Hague instead of running for president. I’m sure there’s no reason to connect those two things in any way. Well, pretty sure, maybe. There’s no indication why he’s stepping down or when he’s actually leaving, though presumably the timeline for the latter will be based on how quickly the UN moves to replace him.

TUNISIA

The Arab Center’s Daniel Brumberg suggests that Tunisia is in the process of a political transition toward something other than democracy:

If in the coming months Tunisia undergoes a transition, given current conditions, it will probably not be along a path back to democracy. Indeed, while President Kais Saied himself may be unsure where he wants to take the country, the most likely scenario is that Tunisia will stumble into semi-authoritarianism, or what this author has called “liberalized autocracy.” This kind of hybrid system has the virtue of tolerating some measure of political openness, but only under the umbrella of institutions, laws, and rules that give a regime the means to deter (or if need be, crush) threats to its ultimate control.

The incentive for some opposition leaders to tolerate (or accept) this kind of system is that the alternative—which we can simply call full autocracy—would cast Tunisia back into an era of repression that few leaders, including Saied himself, want to restore. For some groups, some version of liberalized autocracy might even be a reasonable alternative, especially if it excludes their political rivals from participating in elections. Thus, despite their misgivings, many Tunisian leaders have yet to fully repudiate Saied’s coup. While they want to reform a feckless power sharing democracy, many would not shed a tear if the resulting system excluded Islamist parties and the Ennahda Movement in particular. Kais Saied knows this: this ambivalence is his ace in the hole.

For this reason, if Tunisia is to avoid moving toward liberalized autocracy, what it urgently needs is a unified opposition that includes Islamists, liberals, and leftists. The November 14th massive protests in front of the parliament building—which were led by a new organization calling itself “Citizens Against the Coup”—might suggest the first stirrings of such a unified front. But the president can still count on the support of many leaders, a good portion of the wider populace, and the keen or tacit backing of high-level military officers. Indeed, Saied could prevail, especially if he continues to display his ample capacity to manipulate nationalist sensitivities by associating his opponents with “outside forces.”

Saied’s success would be Tunisia’s loss. The country needs constitutional democracy because the political and economic alternatives are worse, and the country could implode without the guarantees of pluralist democracy. Democracy and stability could go hand in hand, but their productive coexistence requires a sustained bid by Tunisia’s leaders to agree on a revitalized democratic roadmap. Despite the risk of playing into Saied’s populist rhetoric, the European Union and the United States have an urgent and concrete interest in pushing for a genuine political settlement.

MALI

Malian officials have decided to postpone, indefinitely at this point, a national dialogue that was supposed to have taken place next month and would have begun the process of transitioning toward new elections. I’m not clear on how this dialogue was supposed to have taken place anyway, but the delay is ostensibly to allow time to make the process more inclusive somehow. That said, anyone whose been skeptical of the Malian junta’s commitment to a democratic transition will presumably view this as proof that their skepticism is warranted.

BURKINA FASO

In addition to the nine police officers who were killed in Sunday’s jihadist (probably) attack in Burkina Faso’s Centre-Nord region, authorities have confirmed ten civilian deaths as well. There’s still no indication who was responsible. Both al-Qaeda and Islamic State have active Burkinabé affiliates.

ETHIOPIA

US Horn of Africa envoy Jeffrey Feltman told reporters on Tuesday that peace efforts in Ethiopia have made “nascent progress” but not enough to forestall a Tigray People’s Liberation Front attack on Addis Ababa. The TPLF has apparently continued advancing on the Ethiopian capital, to the point where the French and German governments have now joined their US and UK counterparts in urging their citizens to leave Ethiopia ASAP. The UN has also begun evacuating the family members of its international staff.

According to Feltman, the TPLF and the Ethiopian government are broadly in agreement about the issues that need to be ironed out in a peace settlement, but they’re far apart and seem relatively immovable on questions of how and in what order those issues should be addressed. He seems to think both sides are convinced that they can win militarily, which makes sense in the TPLF’s case but not so much on the Ethiopian side. Maybe Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed really does think the TPLF has overextended itself, but I think it’s more likely he’s unwilling to negotiate with the rebels on his own doorstep and in a position to dictate terms.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu suggested on Tuesday that the US military conducted a simulated nuclear strike on Russia during its “Global Thunder” exercise earlier this month, involving bombers that came to within 20 kilometers of the Russian border. The Pentagon defended its war games, saying they were publicly announced and comported with relevant international law. Which, you may have noticed, is not a denial. Shoygu made this claim during a virtual meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, where they discussed increasing bilateral military cooperation.

SWEDEN

Swedish Prime Minister-designate Magdalena Andersson has reached an agreement with the Left Party to support her new government, probably ensuring that she will be able to take over as PM. Andersson assumed leadership of her Social Democratic Party earlier this month, putting her in line to succeed its previous leader, Stefan Löfven, as PM in Wednesday’s parliamentary confidence vote. She now has agreements from both the Left and Centre parties not to block her accession. Assuming she does become PM, Andersson’s next order of business will be passing a 2022 budget. That may still be easier said than done. The Left Party has also agreed to back Andersson’s budget, but their support alone won’t be enough.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Observers from the European Union have concluded that Sunday’s local and regional Venezuelan elections were “implemented in better conditions in comparison with previous electoral processes.” The EU mission is claiming to have found irregularities and the head of the mission, Isabel Santos, notably would not characterize the process as “free and fair.” Though it’s possible she was just reluctant to praise Nicolás Maduro too effusively. Maduro’s Socialist Party had a good night, winning at least 18 of the 23 governorships at stake (earlier reports had them winning 20 but only 18 seem to be definitely in the bag at this point).

COLOMBIA

The Biden administration is preparing to remove the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from the US foreign terrorist organizations list, perhaps sometime this week. I would assume this has something to do with the fact that FARC doesn’t really exist anymore, having given up its armed revolution and signed a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016. Some ex-FARC fighters never gave up the fight, and others have returned to the fight in dissatisfaction with the Colombian government’s halfhearted attempts to implement the terms of that peace deal, but their organizations can be separately designated if necessary. Lifting FARC’s FTO designation could actually have some effect on the implementation of the 2016 deal, since it will make it easier for US resources to be put toward that effort.

UNITED STATES

The Biden administration on Tuesday unveiled a big bold plan to help bring gasoline prices down so that Americans can spew as much carbon as possible into the atmosphere this holiday season. It will release 50 million barrels of oil from the US strategic reserve, joining similar (if smaller) measures by the governments of China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. It’s unclear how much oil these other governments are prepared to release (India announced a commitment at the 5 million barrel level), so it is conceivable that this could have a measurable impact on gas prices through the December holiday season. It will not have any impact beyond that. Apart from the environmental impact, that is.

Finally, Sarah (Holewinski) Yager and Leah Hebron of Human Rights Watch say it’s time for Congress to review what the US military is and is not doing to minimize civilian casualties:

Human rights groups in the United States have long questioned the validity of the Defense Department’s reporting on civilian casualties. Consider that since the Times report on the 2019 Syria strikes, the U.S. government has only acknowledged killing four civilians. They claim that they cannot conclusively identify the combatant status of the 60 others killed. We’re familiar with this line of reasoning, having heard it as a mantra in response to mountains of evidence we’ve submitted for years of harm to civilians.

It is past time for statements, tweets, and apologies. And it’s certainly past time for us to trust the Defense Department to fix this since those explicitly responsible for doing so have failed over and over.

Congress should have been conducting this kind of robust oversight of military operations all along. It simply hasn’t.

The House Armed Services Committee has already announced an investigation and the Senate Armed Services Committee should immediately do the same. SASC’s involvement is especially critical given that its 2008 report on detainee treatment can serve as a model for what an investigation into civilian harm could look like.  

The critical piece is to evaluate not just the individual strikes but systemic failures by the U.S. military and its civilian leadership — failures to set the right guidance on civilian harm, to follow up on investigations, to avoid safeguards and oversight. The timeline should be the 20 years of military operations beginning after 9-11. But let’s at least start with a review of what current policies and procedures are in place to protect civilians.