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World roundup: August 16 2022
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Kenya, Panama, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 15, 718: The Siege of Constantinople ends
August 15, 1914: The Panama Canal formally opens with the passage of a US commercial vessel, the SS Ancon. After the US took over the canal project from France in 1904 the project cost some $500 million to complete. It also cost the lives of some 5600 workers, a frighteningly high figure that is nevertheless much improved from the 22,000 workers who died on the job during the initial French effort in the 1880s.
August 15, 1960: Republic of the Congo Independence Day
August 16, 1972: A rogue element within the Moroccan military attempts a coup against King Hassan II by attacking his airplane. The midair assassination attempt killed eight people but was thwarted by the king himself, who jumped on the radio and shouted “The tyrant is dead,” thereby causing the attacking aircraft to break off. Mohamed Oufkir, Moroccan defense minister and the ringleader of the coup plot, was later found dead with multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. Moroccan authorities deemed it a suicide.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A Turkish airstrike near the northern Syrian town of Kobani hit a Syrian army position on Tuesday, killing at least 11 people and wounding eight more according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The SOHR was unsure how many of those casualties were Syrian military personnel. One local media outlet is reporting 16 killed and another 22 killed, all Syrian soldiers. The Syrian military reportedly retaliated but there don’t seem to be any details on what effect that retaliation had if any. The strike took place amid a border skirmish between the Turkish military and the Kurdish YPG militia, in which the Turkish military says one of its soldiers were killed along with at least 13 Kurdish fighters.
Russian media reported on Tuesday that Moscow had reached agreement with Ankara on a new sale of S-400 air defense systems. Turkish officials later rejected that framing, though not the substance of the story, saying that the “new sale” was actually a “second batch” of S-400s that was included as part of Turkey’s original 2020 agreement to purchase the devices. Additionally, according to the Turks they’re still in “technical talks” with Russia about that second batch on details like incorporating Turkish firms into the manufacturing process, so there’s no agreement yet.
Clearly the Turks have some interest in portraying this as a transaction that was already completed years ago, so there’s no reason for anyone in, say, Washington to get upset. The Russians would like to portray it as a brand new deal in hopes that people in Washington will be upset. It sounds like the reality is there was a general understanding in the 2020 sale that there would be a second batch of S-400s but that the parties would work out the details of that batch later.
An Israeli soldier was reportedly killed late Monday in a “friendly fire” incident near the northern West Bank city of Tulkarm. He was returning to his outpost when the soldiers inside mistook him for a Palestinian attacker and opened fire. The Israeli military initially treated the shooting itself as a Palestinian attack and entered Tulkarm to find the “attacker.” Fortunately they didn’t kill anybody during that operation.
Elsewhere, an explosion that killed five children in Gaza during Israel’s bombardment of the enclave earlier this month seems to have been caused by an Israeli missile. This is news because Israeli officials at the time insisted that an “errant rocket” fired from within Gaza caused this particular blast. But an investigation by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights has determined the projectile was Israeli, and the Israeli media outlet Haaretz has reported that an internal Israeli military investigation came to the same conclusion. On the plus side, at least by making up that errant rocket story the Israelis were able to dodge any public outcry until well after the fact.
At his MENA Academy newsletter, Marc Lynch describes Gaza as a perpetual atrocity that remains so because the status quo benefits all the major players involved:
In Washington, Biden administration officials quietly took credit for successfully managing the crisis and securing a ceasefire with Egyptian and Qatari assistance. No doubt, they viewed ending the violence after only a few days as a success, like after the May 2021 version. No matter how well they did or didn’t settling down this round of mayhem, the truth is that every American official who has worked on Middle East policy for the last fifteen years - to say nothing of Israeli, Egyptian, and other Arab officals - should feel shame over Gaza. The problem is not the episodic moments of bloody crisis when the world awakens to horrific images of bombardment and death. It’s the largely invisible, relentless effects of a draconian blockade which has made an already impoverished and overpopulated area into an open air prison, starved of electricity and nutrition, subjected to episodic slaughter, its young population trapped both physically and politically within a horror they have no ability to change.
It’s a strategic failure and a moral atrocity which has become so normalized and routinized that alternatives are rarely even considered. So it’s hard to view the ceasefire as any kind of success story. This isn’t an unfortunate unanticipated consequence of a policy designed for other purposes. Israel and Egypt both prefer to keep it that way, and the United States is evidently fine with it. Hamas — ostensibly the target of the policy — does just fine under the blockade, with its total control over smuggling and black markets giving it the means and the justification to repress any sign of dissent. As with the 1991-2003 sanctions on Iraq, Gaza’s endless human suffering represents the system working exactly as intended.
Unspecified gunmen attacked a polio vaccination team in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday, killing at least two members of its police escort. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is in the midst of a still small but troubling polio outbreak, which has raised pressure on authorities to vaccinate the population. But vaccine workers are frequent targets for Islamist militants, partly as a sort of general anti-modernization ideology and partly because of the role a CIA-orchestrated fake polio vaccination campaign played in the operation that located and eventually killed Osama bin Laden.
The Sri Lankan government announced on Tuesday that it will not extend its state of emergency past this week. President Ranil Wickremesinghe imposed the emergency last month after protests forced his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to resign and flee the country. Those protests have largely abated, hence the decision to bring the state of emergency to a close. Wickremesinghe is trying to restructure Sri Lanka’s foreign debt and indications that the country is still in political crisis would make that effort more difficult.
The Chinese government on Tuesday imposed sanctions against seven Taiwanese individuals, including five legislators, activist Lin Fei-fan, and Hsiao Bi-khim, the head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (Taiwan’s de facto US embassy). They’ll all be barred from traveling to or doing business with anyone in mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Macao. Three other previously sanctioned officials, including Premier Su Tseng-chang, will see their sanctions intensified under Tuesday’s order. These new sanctions should be viewed as another retaliation for two US congressional delegations that have visited Taiwan this month, chiefly the first one that included US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In an indication that tensions around those visits are nonetheless diminishing, the US military says it has carried out a test launch of a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base. The test had been planned for earlier this month but was delayed amid the kerfuffle that emerged from Pelosi’s Taiwan visit.
Al-Monitor’s Sghaier Hidri reports that an outbreak of public unrest in southern Libya is, among other things, threatening to impact the country’s oil industry:
A fresh wave of protests has recently erupted in southern Libya, organized by the so-called Fezzan Anger Movement, which consists of a group of youth and tribesmen who claim an uprising is necessary to enable the residents of southern Libya near the troubled countries of Chad and Niger, to obtain their rights.
Fezzan is the historical name of the oil-rich southern region of Libya, stricken by marginalization that regularly triggers popular anger. In late 2018, protests driven by young people against the poor development state in the region led to the formation of the Fezzan Anger Movement.
The movement is, however, accused of being politicized in light of the ongoing divisions among the Libyan parties.
The fresh round of escalation between protesters in southern Libya with the central authorities follows a fuel tanker explosion Aug. 1 in the Bint Baya area of Sabha city, the capital of Fezzan province. The explosion, whose causes remain unknown, killed 22 people and injured dozens. The absence of hospitals in the south of the country to treat the wounded was widely condemned by the residents of the region, prompting popular protests that threatened to disrupt the country’s oil sector.
Liberian President George Weah suspended three senior government officials on Tuesday, a day after they were blacklisted by the US Treasury Department for alleged corruption. He further announced that all three—including his own chief of staff, Nathaniel McGill—would be subject to investigations.
The apparent runner up in Kenya’s presidential election, Raila Odinga, labeled the official results of that election a “travesty” on Tuesday, signaling his intention to take the matter to court. Overnight protests by Odinga supporters in Nairobi and Kisumu appeared to subside on Tuesday but I’d say the likelihood that they’ll resume at some point is fairly high, even though Odinga himself has urged calm. Additionally, the four members of Kenya’s electoral commission who essentially disavowed the results on Monday reaffirmed that decision on Tuesday, citing irregularities in the count that commission chair Wafula Chebukati apparently dismissed. On the other hand, Kenya’s Elections Observation Group said on Tuesday that the final results were consistent with their own projections, which were based on independent data collected by 5000 observers stationed at polling sites around the country.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that the UK government has signaled its intent to fly one of its RC-135 reconnaissance airplanes on a route that would take it over Russia. In a statement, the ministry referred to this planned overflight as “a deliberate provocation” and indicated that the Russian Air Force was prepared to intercede to prevent it. Indeed that seems to have happened on Monday, when Russian aircraft intercepted an RC-135 that had flown over Russian territory in the Svyatoy Nos region in Murmansk oblast. The Russian statement seems to indicate the UK is planning a second attempt at an overflight though it’s possible they were referring to Monday’s incident.
Amid growing discussion of a full European Union-wide ban on tourist visas for Russian nationals, the Estonian government will starting Wednesday revoke the Schengen-area visas it has issued to Russian nationals. The revocation comes with several exceptions but nevertheless it has caused concern among Russians who travel to Estonia frequently. Finland has likewise announced its intention to reduce the number of visas it issues to Russian nationals by 90 percent starting next month. These are significant developments in that, with European airspace forbidden to Russian aircraft, many Russian nationals have been traveling overland to Estonia or Finland and then booking flights from those countries to other parts of the EU. It’s not clear what the collective punishment of Russian travelers is meant to achieve.
The Russian military says that Ukrainian “saboteurs” were responsible for several explosions that targeted an arms depot in northern Crimea on Tuesday. At least two people were injured and it’s clear the blasts did cause material damage, though the Russians didn’t go into any detail on that score. Nor is there any indication how the attack was carried out, though drones may have been involved. This is the first time Russian officials have acknowledged Ukrainian involvement in an incident like this in Crimea, though last week’s explosions at Russia’s Saki airbase also seem likely to have been intentional rather than accidental. Ukrainian officials are not taking credit for these attacks but they are promising more to come, which is perhaps as close as they’ll get to a full admission.
With Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his main challenger, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, both officially starting their campaigns on Tuesday, a new poll from IPEC gives Lula a comfortable but not insurmountable lead heading into the October 2 first round. That survey has Lula at 44 percent support to Bolsonaro’s 32 percent in first round intentions, with Lula ahead in a hypothetical runoff with 51 percent to Bolsonaro’s 35 percent. Polling of late has suggested a tightening race, though Lula remains consistently in the lead and usually by double digits. There are of course serious concerns about whether Bolsonaro will accept defeat or try to foment some sort of insurrection, and whether the Brazilian military would support him in such an effort.
As of the time of writing, it’s been just over two weeks since the beginning of negotiations. The blockades have been lifted and, on some of the nine points of discussion, consensus has been reached: a reduction of 30 percent to the basic food basket (from $289.92 to $207.92), with seventy-two additional caps to product prices; a reduction in gas price to $3.25 per gallon; and allotting 6 percent of the GDP for public education. Furthermore, the government has approved a temporary price reduction of 30 percent to 170 medicines. But the Alliance has denounced the government for not honoring these agreements and yielding instead to a corporate boycott. On Wednesday, workers took to the streets again in response to the continuous rise in the price of food in supermarkets.
Finally, let’s end tonight’s newsletter with a glimpse into the wonderful weather future that awaits the United States in the not too distant future:
An area of intensely warm weather — a so-called "extreme heat belt" — with at least one day per year in which the heat index hits 125 Fahrenheit (52C), is expected to cover a US region home to more than 100 million people by the year 2053, according to a new study.
The research, carried out by nonprofit First Street Foundation, used a peer-reviewed model built with public and third-party data to estimate heat risk at what they called a "hyper-local" scale of 30 square meters.
First Street Foundation's mission is to make climate risk modeling accessible to the public, government and industry representatives, such as real estate investors and insurers.
A key finding from the study was that heat exceeding the threshold of the National Weather Service's highest category — called "Extreme Danger," or above 125F — was expected to impact 8.1 million people in 2023 and grow to 107 million people in 2053, a 13-fold increase.
This would encompass a geographic region stretching from northern Texas and Louisiana to Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin — inland areas far from the more temperate weather often seen near the coasts.
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