World roundup: November 29 2022
Stories from Syria, China, Venezuela, and elsewhere
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Hello everybody! I’m pleased to be back and very pleased to say that the family situation that took me away from the newsletter a few days earlier than planned seem to be OK now. We’re getting back to regular programming this evening but please bear with me as this could be a long roundup.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
November 28, 1814: The Times of London is published via a new steam-powered printing press, making it the first major newspaper so produced. The use of the faster steam press took newspapers from a niche business to a mass market one, in the process boosting efforts to increase literacy.
November 28, 1943: Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin begin the Tehran Conference, the first of three major World War II meetings between the leaders of the UK, US, and USSR. The main outcome of Tehran was that Roosevelt and Stalin managed to get Churchill to commit to an invasion of France, in part to force Germany to pull forces away from their eastern front with the Soviets. They also discussed the eventual partition of Germany and creation of the United Nations.
November 29, 903: The Battle of Hama
November 29, 1890: Japan’s Meiji Constitution goes into effect, codifying a semi-constitutional monarchy modeled along the lines of Prussia and the United Kingdom. In principle the charter vested substantial powers in the person of the emperor, though in practice most executive function was meant to rest with the prime minister and civilian government, while the elected Diet was to hold legislative power. Ambiguities over the relationship between these institutions may have facilitated the country’s slide into totalitarianism prior to World War II. After Japan lost that war its US occupiers drafted a new constitution, which explicitly limited the emperor to a purely symbolic role.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Turkish military has spent the past week or so laying the groundwork for its forthcoming (maybe) invasion of northern Syria. Turkish air power and artillery units have been bombarding targets linked with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia (or the Syrian Democratic Forces if you prefer, though the two are basically identical especially in this context) for the past several days, and according to a “senior official” quoted by Reuters, Turkish ground forces would need only “just a few days to become almost fully ready” to roll across the border, again. I think it’s important to note that this will be at least the third Turkish invasion of Syria, depending on your definition of “invasion,” and may well not be the last.
We’re apparently supposed to believe that this incursion has been motivated entirely by the terrorist bombing in Istanbul earlier this month, which Ankara blames on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and therefore also on the YPG (Turkish officials don’t differentiate between the two). This would be very simple and believable except for the fact that the Turkish government has had a new Syrian operation on the cards since at least May. The more salient question may be why the Turks are still holding off. Stated US opposition to another incursion may be part of the reason, though that opposition has been milquetoast at most (as Syrian Kurds have noted) and at the end of the day the US didn’t oppose Turkey’s two previous invasions in any practical sense and that’s likely going to be the case this time around as well. It’s more probable that Russian opposition is giving Turkey pause. Moscow is reportedly negotiating a deal with the SDF that would see its forces along the Syrian-Turkish border give way to the Syrian military, and it sounds like the Turks are waiting to see how that plays out before they make any irreversible decisions.
Israeli occupation forces killed at least five Palestinians amid multiple incidents in the West Bank on Tuesday, including one who injured an Israeli soldier in an apparent car ramming. The Israelis shot and killed four people they characterized as “rioters,” two overnight near the city of Ramallah, one on Tuesday afternoon also near Ramallah, and one near Nablus. The apparent ramming attack took place near the Migron settlement, also near Ramallah and a bit north of Jerusalem. This is on pace to be the deadliest year on record for Palestinians in the West Bank, and with Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu offering ultra-right wing political leader Itamar Ben-Gvir expanded powers in a newly created position of “national security minister” there’s no reason to expect that to change.
Netanyahu’s forthcoming cabinet is still taking shape, but you’ll no doubt be pleased to learn that he’s offered another far-right Israeli party leader, Avi Maoz of the Noam Party, a position as a deputy cabinet minister with responsibilities related to the “Jewish identity” of the Israeli populace. Maoz comes from the settler community so he has all the expected views of the Palestinian issue, but he also brings with him strident opposition to LGBTQ+ rights and a feeling that non-Orthodox Jews may not really be Jewish. He sounds nice.
The Guardian has published a lengthy piece on the palace intrigue that surrounded the 2017 ouster of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as heir apparent in favor of current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. I can’t vouch for its accuracy and it’s not terribly relevant to current events (though it does touch on the legal protection the US government has been offering MBS), but it’s a gripping read if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Amirali Hajizadeh, a general in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, told Iranian media on Tuesday that the ongoing protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini back in September have seen “perhaps more than 300 martyrs and people killed.” Presumably “martyrs” refers to members of Iranian security forces while “people” refers to protesters. This is notable because its by far the highest death toll an Iranian official has acknowledged, though it’s still well shy of the 448 protesters that the Oslo-based NGO Iran Human Rights says have been killed by Iranian security forces.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev won reelection with 82.45 percent of the vote in Kazakhstan’s November 21 snap election. I know, I was really surprised too. Tokayev will now serve a single seven year term, in accordance with the constitutional changes he shepherded into being earlier this year. He’s 69 years old so he may be ready for retirement by the end of that term, though if he’s not then the “single term” issue can probably be revisited one way or another.
The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) announced on Monday that it’s quitting the ceasefire agreement it struck with the Pakistani government back in June. If this sounds unsurprising to you it’s probably because both parties have been openly violating that agreement for several weeks. The TTP cited an ongoing military campaign against it as its justification for formally abandoning the pact.
According to Reuters the Russian government has sent New Delhi an extensive laundry list of things it would like to import from India, given that its ability to source imports has been drastically limited by Western sanctions. The Indian government is still considering this Russian request so there’s not much to say about it, but this is a situation that bears watching. On the one hand, India would presumably appreciate the chance to expand its imports to Russia, with which it currently has a significant trade deficit mostly fueled (sorry) by oil. On the other hand, Indian officials are undoubtedly concerned about running afoul of those aforementioned sanctions.
In an outcome that I think would have to be considered surprising, Anwar Ibrahim became the new prime minister of Malaysia on Thursday after the country’s November 19 snap election resulted in a hung parliament. Malaysia’s King Abdullah tapped Anwar as PM after holding parliamentary consultations, but there remains some question about whether or not he actually controls a legislative majority. Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan coalition is the largest bloc in the new parliament, but at 82 seats it’s still 30 shy of the 112 needed for a majority. He was unable to demonstrate control of a majority prior to his appointment but could be challenged to do so in a legislative session. Former PM Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who’d been hoping to emerge from this vote with a stronger majority that was not dependent on coalition partners, instead saw his Barisan Nasional bloc’s support collapse—it won only 30 seats.
It’s beyond our scope, particularly in what’s already a long roundup, but Anwar’s appointment as PM caps a real roller coaster ride of a career in which he’s come very close to the premiership on two previous occasions. Sandwiched in between those occasions was a lengthy prison stint on sodomy charges that Anwar insists were politically motivated. Anwar has positioned himself as a defender of minority rights, though he’s promised to protect the status of the country’s majority Malay people.
The US Defense Department issued its “2022 China Military Power” report on Tuesday, with the headline being the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal. Two years ago the Pentagon estimated that China would be up to 400 nuclear warheads by the end of this decade, but according to this latest report China has already hit that mark and now could have upwards of 1500 warheads by 2035. Speculating about the size and growth of the Chinese nuclear arsenal has been a hobby among the defense set for several years now, and with the US government set to spend around $1.5 trillion (and possibly more) modernizing its own nuclear arsenal, it’s become a pretty lucrative hobby at that.
Elsewhere, the past few days have seen what appear to be significant protests across China sparked by frustration over the Chinese government’s “Zero-COVID” policy and its attendant lockdowns. The immediate trigger for these demonstrations was an apartment building fire in the city of Urumqi, in China’s Xinjiang region, on Thursday that killed ten people. Their deaths drew people into the streets out of a sense that lockdown restrictions may have prevented those people from evacuating and/or hampered efforts to respond to the fire. Those protests spread from Urumqi to cities throughout mainland China and Hong Kong, and through Chinese social media, over the weekend.
This has been arguably the most intense outburst of public discontent since Xi Jinping became Chinese president in 2012. I’m reluctant to make any sweeping pronouncements about What It All Means, however. For one thing, there are indications that the protests are winding down as Chinese authorities on the one hand clamp down and on the other hand relax some of the most restrictive of their lockdown measures. For another, as is frequently the case in these kinds of situations it’s hard to know how deep the disenchantment runs. That there is disenchantment is unsurprising—as successful as “Zero-COVID” seems to have been in terms of saving lives, you can’t keep people under maximal lockdown conditions indefinitely without something breaking at some point. But it’s difficult to say much more than that without getting into idle speculation.
Kim Jong-un’s daughter, Ju Ae, has been seen in public twice this month alongside her father. I’m reluctant to even bring this up, but in a media environment where any change in Kim’s appearance sparks dozens of breathless takes about his health and/or succession plans, these public appearances have sparked a bunch of breathless takes about whether or not Kim is preparing Ju as his eventual successor. For the record, Kim is believed to be either 39 or 40 years old, and though he’s spent several years dying of about 50 different conditions according to Western media he appears to be fine. His daughter, meanwhile, is believed to be around 10 and is unlikely to be taking power anytime soon, if ever.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Some unknown party apparently decided to conduct an airstrike near a military base used by Russian Wagner Group mercenaries in the Central African town of Bossangoa on Monday. The aircraft that conducted the attack flew off to the north, according to CAR officials, for whatever that’s worth. I haven’t seen any indication as to casualties.
Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang won reelection to a sixth term on November 20, according to a tweet over the weekend from his vice president/son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue. The vote was a real nailbiter, with Obiang squeaking through with around 95 percent of the vote. He remains the longest-serving non-monarchical head of state in the world. I was going to say “elected head of state” but I think that stretches the definition of the word “elected.”
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Though tensions in the eastern DRC remain high, the Congolese military and M23 militia both appear to be sticking to a ceasefire agreement reached during a regional peace conference last week in Angola. M23 did not attend that conference but agreed to abide by the ceasefire, which was backed by the threat of a regional military intervention. A new round of talks opened in Kenya on Monday with the goal of moving beyond the ceasefire to the disarmament and rehabilitation of M23 and other armed groups active in the eastern DRC. The next step, presumably, would be for M23 to pull back from the towns and cities it’s captured since resuming its insurgency in earnest back in March, but M23 leaders say they don’t trust the Congolese government to honor its commitments and are likely to want some regional assurances before they take that step.
European Union member states may be approaching an agreement on a Russian oil price cap, which they’re hoping to complete before their embargo on seaborne Russian oil imports takes effect on December 5. There’s still no apparent agreement, however, on the cap’s price level. This dubious scheme is supposed to reduce Russian oil profits without impacting Russian oil exports, which means EU members need to find a price that’s lower than what Russia is currently receiving on the oil market but not so much lower that Moscow decides to cut its oil sales. Earlier this year the G7 proposed a cap of around $70 per barrel, but Russian oil is currently trading for less than that so this EU cap would need to be lower to have any effect. Eastern EU members are pushing for a cap that’s just a bit higher than Russian oil production costs, so somewhere around $30/barrel, but it seems likely Moscow would simply stop exporting oil at that price.
The Russian government, meanwhile, has pulled out of a scheduled arms control meeting with US representatives this week. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the two sides couldn’t agree on the scope of the session, with the US focused on resuming arms inspections under New START and the Russians looking to discuss an array of topics including US support for the Ukrainian military. Ryabkov stressed that Russia has not given up on New START but at this point there’s no indication when or if this session is going to be rescheduled and that’s going to raise fears that tensions over Ukraine could quash the world’s only remaining strategic nuclear arms treaty.
NATO foreign ministers met in Bucharest on Tuesday and promised yet more aid to Ukraine, both military and logistical. The latter is especially significant right now, as Russian airstrikes continue to target Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure in an effort to leave Ukrainians without power and/or heat through winter. Replacement parts for Ukraine’s power grid are high on the list of necessities.
On the military side the focus still appears to be air defense systems and ammunition, though the US may also be preparing to send Boeing’s “Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb” to Ukraine for use with its High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) units. The GLSDB is a modification of an air-delivered munition that incorporates a rocket engine so that it can be fired from ground-based units. It has a range of around 150 kilometers (94 miles), which is significantly longer than Ukraine’s current HIMARS ammunition but well short of the 300ish kilometer Army Tactical Missile System. The US has been rebuffing Ukrainian requests for ATACMS munitions due to concerns that they could be used to target sites well inside Russia. The GLSDB is being portrayed as a reasonable compromise, though the pressure to keep sending Ukraine more advanced arms is only going to keep growing the longer this conflict continues.
Supporters of lame duck Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are engaging in increasingly violent forms of protest, particularly in Mato Grosso state, in the belief that their hero’s defeat in last month’s runoff was somehow fraudulent. Bolsonaro actually filed a formal challenge to the outcome last week over an alleged bug in some 60 percent of Brazil’s electronic voting machines. The challenge was quickly dismissed by electoral court Judge Alexandre de Moraes, who among other things called Bolsonaro’s request “bizarre and illicit.” It’s likely Bolsonaro made the challenge not because he had any expectation of winning, but rather in an effort to boost the protests.
A group of 67 members of the Peruvian Congress has filed a motion to impeach President Pedro Castillo, their third attempt at removing Castillo since he assumed office in July 2021. Castillo’s presidency has been marked by outward dysfunction as well as allegations of corruption, but opposition parties have as yet been unable to cobble together the 87 votes that would be needed to oust him and it’s difficult to imagine they’ll have any better luck this time around. Castillo reshuffled his cabinet yet again last week, appointing former Culture Minister Betssy Chávez as his fifth prime minister. Opposition leaders are accusing Castillo of trying to leverage a potential no confidence vote in the cabinet to force the dissolution of Congress and a new legislative election.
The Biden administration over the weekend gave Chevron permission to resume “limited” energy operations in Venezuela, which could be the first step toward bringing that heavily sanctioned country fully back into the global oil market. The move came in response to an announcement that Nicolás Maduro’s government and Venezuelan opposition leaders had agreed to resume negotiations on resolving their political stalemate. The two sides signed what they called a “partial agreement on social matters” that mostly seems to be a broad proposal for humanitarian aid along with a commitment to negotiate toward holding 2024’s scheduled presidential election with the full participation of the opposition.
When we left off, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction had just released a postmortem on the collapse of the previous Afghan government. Responsible Statecraft’s Adam Weinstein argues that the report ought to be a helpful warning for US policymakers about the futility of “nation building.” Meanwhile, at his Forever Wars newsletter, Spencer Ackerman argues that SIGAR went too easy on those same US policymakers—both in this report and throughout its history:
SIGAR told true stories about the trees while avoiding the forest – and the people trying to survive the changing ecosystem. The way to do so, often, was to present the Afghans as incapable and thieving. That Khost City-power-grid example, which I picked at random from SIGAR's website archive, concluded that the U.S.' engineering improvements delivered more electricity, but "due to the GIRoA [the U.S.-backed Afghan regime, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] and local operators' limited capability to sustain the infrastructure and the considerable safety hazards which negatively impact the operation of the facilities, there is risk to the U.S. Government's investment of $1.6 million."
This blinkered focus runs throughout what may be SIGAR's final (I think?) consumer report, released Thursday, titled "Why Afghanistan's Government Collapsed." The war ultimately failed, SIGAR tells us, because of "endemic corruption"—a phrase SIGAR reserves for the Afghan government and never its American patron. In sheafs of reports for something like 15 years, SIGAR presented corruption as the central problem of the war, and SIGAR meant the Afghans' corruption. American corruption, the inevitable corruption of an endless-war economy, got treated as unfortunate, marginal, or exceptional, rather than as context for Afghan political, economic and security decisions.
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