World update: January 28 2020

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

January 27, 1944: The Soviet Red Army finally ends the 872 day Siege of Leningrad by driving off the last German forces still remaining in the vicinity of the city. Whether you go by the highest estimates, which put the death toll north of 5 million; the lowest, which put it around 1.2 million; or somewhere in between, Leningrad was one of the longest and deadliest military encounters in recorded history. Soviet casualties alone have been estimated at greater than the combined US and UK casualties suffered during all of World War II.

January 27, 1973: The United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the South Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government all sign the Paris Peace Accords, marking the end of the Vietnam War. The deal called for the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam and the imposition of a ceasefire, plus the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Laos and Cambodia. The ceasefire failed almost immediately, but the US was in no position to stop the eventual fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

January 28, 1077: Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV’s humiliating journey to the Castle of Canossa to beg forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII ends when the pope agrees to grant him an audience. In what’s known as the “Investiture Controversy,” Henry and Gregory got crosswise over the issue of whether the emperor or the pope should have final say over the appointment of bishops in imperial cities. So before Easter, 1076, Gregory excommunicated Henry and declared all pledges of loyalty to him by the various German princes to be null and void. Henry, in serious risk of losing his throne and maybe his life, trekked across the Alps to Canossa, where the pope was wintering. He arrived on January 25 but then spent the next several days locked out of the castle on the pope’s orders, wearing a hair-shirt and generally doing all the things an extremely penitent man would do in the year 1077. Henry’s humbling didn’t take—by 1080 Gregory had excommunicated him again, and this time Henry invaded Italy with an army and put his own pope (OK, anti-pope) in power. Henry’s eventual resistance to Rome later became fodder for both Protestant and German nationalist identities.

The barefoot and penitent Henry, with his family, waiting outside Canossa, from English historian John Foxe’s 1563 book Actes and Monuments (Wikimedia Commons)

January 28, 1846: A British East India Company army under Sir Harry Smith defeats a somewhat larger Sikh force at the Battle of Aliwal. The Sikhs lost somewhere around 2000 men, many in a disorganized retreat after the British captured the village of Aliwal and were able to attack the Sikh line from two directions. The victory is seen as crucial to the British victory in the 1845-1846 First Anglo-Sikh War, because it eliminated a Sikh threat to the EIC’s supply lines and allowed its main army to undertake the decisive offensive that brought the conflict to an end.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

After days of advances the Syrian military captured the city of Maarrat al-Numan in southern Idlib province on Tuesday. Pro-government forces attacked from the north, south, and east, after months of aerial bombardment that weakened rebel defenses and drove almost all of the city’s civilian population to flee north to escape the fighting. From the looks of things the Syrian army may be pushing west to take the nearby town of Kafr Rumah. Then the Syrian government will face a choice: stop and consolidate its new gains or press further north. Maarrat al-Numan sits on the vital M5 highway between Damascus and Aleppo. The next town of any size on the M5 is Saraqib, which seems a good bet to be the next target—especially since Russian aircraft have already started striking it. After Saraqib the Syrians could continue north along the highway or turn west to attack the city of Idlib, the main population center in the rapidly shrinking rebel enclave in northwestern Syria.

YEMEN

The Houthis are also apparently on the move. According to AFP they were able to capture a major highway on Monday connecting Sanaa to the provinces of Jawf and Marib, and their forces are now on the outskirts of the city of Hazm, Jawf’s provincial capital. If these reports are accurate then it would represent a serious setback for the Yemeni government, which launched an attack on the Nihm district in Sanaa province several days ago that has apparently been routed so badly that the Houthis are now capturing new territory. The government may have intended that attack as a statement to the Saudis and Emiratis about its capabilities. It’s been a statement, but presumably not the one Yemeni officials wanted to make.

IRAQ

The United Nations has raised concerns about the manner in which Iraqi authorities are trying accused Islamic State fighters. In addition to confessions obtained through torture and what appear to be serious procedural issues—one defendant was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death after having been assigned his lawyer on the day of the trial, for example—the Iraqis have made no distinction between people who actually took up arms for IS and people who merely provided support services, like food and medical care. There’s obviously a case to be made that those people should be tried as well, but their offenses are probably not as serious as those of the people who actually participated in violence.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

As promised, Donald Trump unveiled the political portion of the Kushner Accords on Tuesday. And as expected, the deal is pretty much the Israeli government’s wish list on White House letterhead (OK, OK, I don’t actually know if they put in on White House letterhead). I don’t want to give this “deal” more attention than it deserves, but the upshot is this: Israel gets to annex the Jordan Valley and existing squatter settlements in the West Bank while agreeing to a four year settlement freeze. This will give the Palestinians four years during which they’ll be expected to jump through a number of arbitrary hoops on subjective issues like “freedom,” “human rights,” “transparency,” to prove that they should be allowed to govern themselves. In the event that they somehow do jump through those hoops, what will emerge is a nebulously defined Palestinian state occupying a series of Bantustans in the West Bank, Gaza, and in a couple of new landlocked pockets in the Negev Desert. These will all be linked by a promised network of roads, tunnels, and bridges, but they will not constitute a contiguous entity. The capital of this hypothetical Palestinian state will be “East Jerusalem,” but that’s “East Jerusalem” as defined by the Trump administration.

In other words, this plan gives Israel what it wants now, and in return it sort of pats the Palestinians on their collective head and says “don’t worry, we’ll probably give you some stuff later.” The stuff it gives them is mostly second-rate: a country divided into easily isolated segments, which overall is almost entirely surrounded by and dependent upon Israel, barred from providing for its own defense, with an “East Jerusalem” capital that’s shunted out into the suburbs of the actual East Jerusalem (which will now belong to Israel). There’s no right for refugees of the 1948 creation of Israel to return home and only vague mention of finally compensating them and their descendants. The productive land the Palestinians are losing to the newly legal Israeli settlements in the West Bank will be swapped for worthless patches of desert in the Negev. You get the idea.

The kicker to it all is of course that the Palestinians won’t even get any of these lame benefits—the state, the bridges, the compensation—which are all strategically placed in the near-but-not-that-near future. What they’ll get instead is a strung out, bad faith four year negotiating process, at the end of which the Israeli government can either say they haven’t met the obligations for statehood or (more likely) extend the negotiating period, perhaps indefinitely. We’ve seen this movie already with respect to the Oslo Accords. The Kushner Accords are kind of like Oslo, if Oslo had required a full Palestinian capitulation up front. But they’re also very different, in that Oslo—as bad as it was—probably was meant to serve as the basis for a negotiation on some level, while this “deal” is basically designed to be rejected. Its aim instead is to create a new status quo reality in which there’s international momentum behind a massive Israeli land grab in the West Bank, and in which Palestinian recalcitrance, rather than the Israeli occupation, can be blamed for the lack of progress. This process has in fact already begun:

The deal has, unsurprisingly, already been panned by Palestinian leaders. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was at the White House for the big reveal, seems quite pleased. How much of that has to do with the nature of the deal and how much with the fact that the announcement has taken all the focus away from his corruption case back home is an open question. Facing the prospect of a losing vote in the Knesset, Netanyahu on Tuesday withdrew his demand for immunity from prosecution and prosecutors indicted him shortly thereafter. The indictment will hang over Netanyahu as he heads into March’s snap election, so he’ll have to hope voters are too dazzled by the Trump deal to pay attention to anything else.

QATAR

Qatar has a new prime minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani, who will also assume the post of interior minister. Both of those gigs were previously held by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has resigned. There’s been no explanation for the change, but the Qatari government frequently reshuffles itself for reasons that aren’t made public. Khalid bin Khalifa is known to be close to the emir and has been the head of the royal court since 2014.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Israeli government has decided to allow its citizens to travel directly to Saudi Arabia as part of its “can’t we all get along against Iran and just forget about the Palestinians” regional diplomatic initiative. The Saudis seem a little hesitant, and have said that Israeli passport holders are still not permitted to enter the kingdom. So I wouldn’t expect a flood of Israeli tourists or anything just yet. But this could open the door to Israeli Arabs flying direct to Jeddah for the Hajj. Currently they have to enter the kingdom via Jordan.

IRAN

The Iranian parliament is apparently going to take up the issue of withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, after the required number of legislators signed on to a request for debate on the matter. Iranian officials have raised the possibility of withdrawal from the NPT as a retaliation for the restoration of UN sanctions, if the British/French/German move to invoke the 2015 nuclear deal’s dispute mechanism proceeds that far. I have my doubts the Iranians would withdraw even then but they’re certainly not going to do it before that, so this effort is either meant to lay the groundwork for a possible withdrawal or it’s just meant to scare the Europeans.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

A day after a US E-11A communications plane crashed over Ghazni province, US forces were able to get to the crash site and recover the remains of those who were aboard the aircraft. The US personnel reportedly recovered two bodies, which aligns with statements after the crash about a two person crew but doesn’t entirely preclude the possibility that there were more people on the plane. At this point the Pentagon is still sticking with its story that the plane crashed due to mechanical issues or some other relatively benign reason, in the face of the Taliban’s insistence that its fighters shot the aircraft down. Iranian outlets are even suggesting the incident was part of Iran’s retaliation for the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani earlier this month and have released the name of a CIA official they claim was on the flight. Iran does have an operational relationship with the Taliban, so it’s not out of the question, but at this point there are too many open questions to really assess what happened.

Taliban fighters attacked a police compound in Baghlan province on Monday night, killing at least 11 people. This appears to have been an “insider” attack, as multiple accounts have said that one of the police officers opened a gate into the compound and let the Taliban attackers inside.

LAOS

Dams built under the auspices of China’s Belt and Road Initiative are killing the Mekong River and its tributaries, like Laos’s Nam Ou River:

The Mekong River and its biodiversity-rich tributaries — the lifeline for more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia — dropped to their lowest levels in a century last summer. A section of the river has changed from muddy brown to sky blue. Experts say this is a sign of the river’s compromised health, the result of a dramatic drop in sediment. Fish supplies are scarce. Rice cannot be planted on dried-up banks starved of nutrients. Entire ecosystems are being forever changed.

The region is at “a tipping point,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center and author of a book on the Mekong.

If the dam-building continues unchecked, the Mekong basin is on a path toward “ecological peril,” accelerated by climate change. The last days of the river, he added, could be “here and now.”

CHINA

According to the latest government figures, the Wuhan coronavirus has now infected 5974 people in China and has killed 132. The fatality rate remains considerably lower than that exhibited by the SARS virus during its 2002-2003 global outbreak, but the transmission rate appears to be picking up, and those are only the cases that are known to the public. The virus continues to spread outside of China as well, albeit much more slowly, putting the total number of known cases worldwide at over 6000. In the good news column, a group of Australian scientists has been able to replicate the virus in a lab, which could open up new possibilities in terms of developing a treatment and/or vaccine.

AFRICA

SUDAN

The UN refugee agency estimates that inter-communal fighting in West Darfur province has sent some 11,000 people fleeing across the border into Chad since late last month. The clashes, mostly between Arabs and the Masalit people who straddle the Sudan-Chad border, appear to be escalating, as 4000 of those 11,000 have been displaced just in the past week.

LIBYA

Al Jazeera reports on the latest front to open in the Libyan civil war, outside of Misrata:

Forces aligned with Libya’s Government of National Accord say they were able to shoot down one of the “Libyan National Army’s” drones on Tuesday. That’s…not a terribly big deal, except inasmuch as GNA-allied militias have struggled to deal with the LNA’s drones in the past. This incident hints at the possibility that they’ve started getting air defense help from Turkey.

BURKINA FASO

Militants attacked the isolated village of Silgadji in northern Burkina Faso’s Soum province over the weekend, killing at least 39 people. It’s unclear who was responsible but as should be well established by now both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have groups that are active in the area. They’ve collectively killed hundreds of people in attacks like this over the past couple of years, and in addition to that their violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of people who are now crowding into small towns and villages further south:

“Almost all of the families [in Pissila] are hosting at least one displaced family. Some families have taken in around 80 people. So that is putting pressure on their way of life. It changes everything ... for them,” said Pissila prefect Simplice Traore.

Lines snake outwards from the town’s central water well and from a food distribution center set up by the U.N.’s World Food Program. Residents’ houses are crammed with people, many of whom sleep dozens to a small room on thin mats among piles of emergency water or food supplies stacked against the walls. The unlucky ones sleep outside.

Medical centers are full, said Traore, and the sick and elderly go untended, resting where they can out of the hot sun that sucks moisture from the parched surrounding farmland. There is no room for more children in the school and an estimated 2,000 children do not attend, he said.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Inter-communal fighting is also creating misery in the Central African Republic. Clashes over the weekend between two ex-Séléka militias, both formerly part of the Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central African Republic (FPRC), in the town of Bria killed at least 38 people and likely a few more than that. UN peacekeepers were able to restore order by Sunday and it seems things have remained stable since then.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The European Union levied sanctions against seven Russians involved in organizing last year’s local elections in the “Russian” province of Crimea. The most prominent of these would seem to be Crimean “Prime Minister” Yury Gotsanyuk. The sanctions freeze any assets those individuals are holding in EU member states and bars them from traveling into or within the bloc.

FRANCE

A group of French cities and climate advocacy groups has sued the mammoth French energy firm Total for its “climate inaction.” The suit falls under a 2017 French law requiring large French companies to develop plans to limit their environmental damage, and under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, whose obligations the plaintiffs say France won’t meet due in part to Total’s inadequate environmental plan.

UNITED KINGDOM

The Donald Trump-Boris Johnson bromance may have just hit its first really rocky patch in the form of Chinese telecommunications technology:

On Tuesday, however, Mr. Johnson was confronted with a stark choice: In deciding to give the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, limited access to Britain’s new high-speed broadband network, he broke abruptly with the president who once praised him as a “really good man” and a British version of himself.

That risks opening a rift between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Trump at the very moment Britain is leaving the European Union. It could also jeopardize efforts to negotiate a trans-Atlantic trade agreement that Mr. Johnson has promoted as one of the prizes of Britain’s newly independent status.

The Trump administration put heavy pressure on Mr. Johnson’s government to rule against Huawei, dispatching a high-level delegation to London two weeks ago to warn of the risks of opening up fifth-generation, or 5G, networks to a firm that they assert has ties to Chinese security agencies and the People’s Liberation Army.

UK officials say they’re only planning to use Huawei technology in the “fringes” of their network, but there are questions as to whether they can realistically limit whatever security risk the use of Chinese technology poses. The bigger risk may be that Trump will have one of his delightful mood swings and either restricts intelligence sharing with the UK or strikes a harder than expected bargain in post-Brexit trade talks.

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

Finally, University of Washington historian Daniel Bessner and foreign policy analyst David Adler make the progressive case for ending the hegemony the US dollar holds over the global economy:

Ending the U.S.’s “endless wars” has become common sense within the Democratic Party. From activists on the street to presidential candidates on the debate stage, a new consensus has emerged that the nation must shrink its military budget and restrain the executive branch’s power to launch unwinnable foreign conflicts. In an essay for The Atlantic on Monday, in which she promised to seek congressional authorization for the use force if she becomes president, Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote that “having a strong military means using it with the utmost responsibility,” adding that “we must reassess our global posture to ensure that U.S. forces are engaged in realistic missions, and that the risks and costs of military deployments must be appropriately limited.”

But in its laser focus on military restraint, the present debate about endless war largely overlooks the financial architecture of U.S. empire. As the Iraq case illustrates, the dollar is a linchpin of U.S. military dominance, motivating and enabling its expansion around the world. To curb America’s imperial adventurism—and the president’s personal ability to engage in it unilaterally—it is essential not only to draw down the nation’s enormous global military presence but to reduce the dollar’s centrality to international trade and finance.