World roundup: August 25 2022
Stories from Syria, Ethiopia, Brazil, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 24, 410: A Visigothic army under Alaric sacks Rome. This was the first time the city had been sacked by a foreign army since the Gauls did so around 800 years earlier and is considered one of the milestones in the collapse of the empire in the western Mediterranean.
August 24, 1516: The Battle of Marj Dabiq
August 25, 1580: An army under the Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, fighting on behalf of King Philip II of Spain, defeats an army under António, Prior of Crato, at the Battle of Alcântara, part of the War of Portuguese Succession. Both António and Philip were claimants to the then-vacant throne of Portugal, and this victory allowed Philip’s army to capture Lisbon and eventually led to Philip’s crowning as King of Portugal in March 1581. The crowns of Portugal and Spain were held in personal union (the “Iberian Union”) until the 1640-1668 Portuguese Restoration War.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
An apparent Israeli missile strike on targets in Syria’s Hama province left at least two civilians wounded on Thursday according to state media. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is saying that the targets belonged to Iranian-linked militias, which is consistent with the Israeli military’s usual targets in Syria.
Elsewhere, the US military is assessing that its attack targeting a Syrian militia camp in Deir Ezzor province on Wednesday killed at least four militia fighters. That attack came at the end of an exchange of fire that began with US airstrikes early Wednesday morning. The SOHR is claiming that those airstrikes targeted a camp belonging to the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia whose members have been recruited primarily from among Afghan Shiʿa, and killed at least six people. Militants responded with attacks on two US facilities in Deir Ezzor, wounding at least three US soldiers, which in turn prompted a second US attack in which those four fighters mentioned above were killed. There are also reports that the US struck additional militia targets in Deir Ezzor on Thursday, killing at least three fighters.
These sorts of clashes could be avoided if the US were to withdraw from Syria, where its soldiers have no legal right to be in the first place. But I digress.
The HSA Group, a multinational conglomerate based in the UAE but founded in Yemen, has reportedly pledged some $1.2 million toward the United Nations project to recover the estimated 1.1 million barrels of oil currently stowed aboard the FSO Safer, a tanker that’s been marooned off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast since 2015. As we’ve mentioned in this newsletter in the past, there are fears that said oil could at any time begin spilling out of the tanker’s deteriorating hull, a scenario that would create a massive environmental catastrophe in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The UN has raised around $64 million so far, including this HSA pledge, but says it needs $80 million to begin the project.
By the by, the unit cost of a single F-35C variant, built to take off from and land on an aircraft carrier, is currently a bit over $94 million. But again I digress.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad is accusing the Israeli government of “evading the commitments it made” in the ceasefire agreement that ended the latest Israeli bombardment of Gaza earlier this month. According to PIJ, in that agreement the Israelis agreed to release two Islamic Jihad figures: Bassem al-Saadi, whose arrest in the West Bank was the first step toward the aforementioned bombardment, and Khalil Awawdeh. But an Israeli military court has now charged Saadi with several offenses, which suggests there’s no plan to release him. Similarly there’s no indication the Israelis are even considering Awawdeh’s release. There’s no confirmation of PIJ’s claim that the Israelis actually agreed to release Saadi and/or Awawdeh, but their failure to do so could still spark another round of Gaza violence.
Writing for The Intercept, the Quincy Institute’s Ben Freeman looks at Riyadh’s intensive—and lucrative, at least for lobbying and PR firms, think tanks, and academic institutions—effort to rebuild its reputation in the United States:
There was a moment when the Saudi foothold in the U.S. — for years supported by an extraordinarily well-financed lobbying and influence operation — appeared to be in trouble. Starting in October 2018, the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the behest of MBS sent just about every facet of Saudi influence reeling. Some countries suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and more issued travel bans against those suspected of the killing. Several lobbying and public relations firms stopped working for the Saudis. Some think tanks pledged to stop taking Saudi money. Prominent American universities that had taken tens of millions of dollars from the Saudi monarchy put those ties under review. Even the sports and entertainment world spoke out against the Saudi regime’s brutality.
But in professional sports as in politics, these initial outcries and severed ties have been quieted and mended in the nearly four years since Khashoggi’s murder. Just like Biden and Mickelson, many of the people and organizations that once treated Saudi Arabia’s rulers like pariahs are now welcoming them with open arms.
Afghan officials claim they have yet to locate the body of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was at least allegedly killed in a US drone strike in Kabul last month. I don’t see any particular reason to believe them, but this is a good place for a reminder that Zawahiri’s death remains unconfirmed. The phenomenon of militant leaders supposedly being killed only to resurface alive and well (or alive, at least) is a very real one, and while I think it’s safe to assume that Zawahiri is no longer among us it’s not absolutely certain.
A Pakistani court on Thursday extended former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s pre-arrest bail for at least another week. When police charged Khan under Pakistan’s notoriously expansive anti-terrorism law on Sunday, the court gave Khan pre-arrest bail (this is essentially an injunction barring police from arresting him) through Thursday. This extension further delays a potential arrest and, therefore, also delays any potential confrontation between police and the group of Khan’s supporters who have taken up positions around his Islamabad residence.
Indian security forces say they killed three men who crossed the “Line of Control” separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir on Thursday. According to Indian officials this was the fourth “infiltration” attempt in the past five days, following an incident over the weekend in which Indian forces captured one man after he crossed the border and two incidents on Monday in which two “infiltrators” were killed in a minefield and several others fled back across the border.
US Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) has decided to visit Taiwan for some reason, marking the third and easily most pointless visit to the country by US legislators this month. Perhaps we’ll see a veritable parade of US senators and representatives visiting Taiwan between now and November’s election. Wouldn’t that be fun? In fact let me preemptively offer my apologies to the Taiwanese people should that happen.
Outgoing UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet is intimating that she might not finish her promised report on the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang region as scheduled. Bachelet has been insisting that she’ll have the report completed by the time she vacates her post at the end of this month, but walked that back on Thursday while citing the “tremendous pressure” her office is under “to publish or not to publish” the report.
Fighting between Ethiopian federal forces and the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which resumed on Wednesday after a roughly five month ceasefire, apparently showed no sign of letting up on Thursday. Details are spotty, which is par for the course when it comes to Ethiopia, but residents of the Amhara region’s Kobo area told Reuters that they’d observed the sights and sounds of conflict nearby. There’s still no indication who broke the ceasefire on Monday—government and TPLF officials have been accusing each other of firing the first shot—nor have I seen any details as to casualties.
Talk of a potential upset victory by the opposition National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) party in Wednesday’s Angolan general election appears to have been a bit overheated. With over 97 percent of the vote counted at last check, the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) is reportedly sitting at 51.7 percent of the vote, compared with UNITA’s 44.5 percent. Election officials are calling this result effectively final, while officials within UNITA are beginning to allege shenanigans in the vote count. Assuming this result does hold and is legitimate, it’s the MPLA’s worst showing since Angola began holding elections in 1992. But it is still a win and therefore should see President João Lourenço remain in office for a second term.
Vladimir Putin on Thursday issued a decree ordering an increase in the size of the Russian military from 1.9 million personnel to 2.04 million personnel. Included in the decree is an increase in the number of combat personnel to 1.15 million, some 137,000 more than are currently in the Russian ranks. Moscow hasn’t been forthcoming when it comes to the casualties its forces have suffered in Ukraine, but this decree certainly seems to be a response to however many casualties they have suffered. And it suggests that Russia is preparing for an extended conflict, a sentiment the Biden administration also recently signaled.
Nervousness over the safety of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear power plant is likely to increase in the coming days after the plant was temporarily disconnected from the Ukrainian power grid on Thursday. Technically it was disconnected twice, after shelling caused a fire at a coal power plant nearby that cut the last remaining line linking the nuclear plant to the grid. In addition to causing a localized blackout, the disconnection risked the failure of the plant’s cooling system, and when reactor cooling systems fail very bad things can happen to the reactors themselves and/or to their spent fuel storage facilities. One of the plant’s failsafes—a direct line to a local power plant—apparently kicked in, but had that line been cut staff would have been reduced to using diesel generators to try to maintain the cooling system. And if those generators fail—well, it’s probably best not to think about it. There are still nebulous plans for an International Atomic Energy Agency inspections team to visit Zaporizhzhia, something all concerned agree needs to happen but which for some reason still hasn’t actually happened.
A new web-based poll from the firm AtlasIntel suggests a substantially tightening Brazilian presidential race. The survey has former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leading incumbent Jair Bolsonaro by just 8.4 percent, 46.7 percent to 38.3 percent, in first round voting intentions and by just 11 percent, 51.8-40.8, in a potential runoff. While still fairly comfortable margins, they’re substantially closer than other pollsters, who have given Lula double digit first round leads and larger runoff margins. It’s also narrower than Lula’s past leads in the AtlasIntel poll—he was leading Bolsonaro by 18 points in first round intentions back in March. The one thing on which every pollster seems to agree is that this race is tightening ahead of the October 2 first round, and it’s likely to keep tightening as Bolsonaro’s new welfare enhancements take effect.
Defense Minister Iván Velásquez announced on Thursday that the Colombian military will cease airstrikes against armed groups. This tactical shift is meant to achieve a couple of things. One, it’s hoped that eliminating airstrikes will decrease collateral casualties, both among civilians and among the child fighters many of these sorts of groups recruit into their ranks. Two, it’s intended as an extension of President Gustavo Petro’s efforts to prioritize negotiations over violence when it comes to dealing with Colombian militants. Velásquez suggested that the military might resume using airstrikes as a tactic once “an absolute guideline can be established” as to when they’re appropriate.
Finally, in a new piece for Foreign Affairs, the Carnegie Endowment’s Stephen Wertheim reckons with how to conceive a progressive US foreign policy in a world in which the US is no longer the unquestioned dominant power:
One year ago, progressive foreign policy was riding high, or so it seemed. Joe Biden was beginning to deliver on the priorities he had outlined during his presidential campaign, chief among them putting an end to the United States’ “endless wars” and spurring a transition to green energy. Biden immediately rejoined the Paris Climate Accords and pursued bold legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He withdrew U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And he launched a review of U.S. global force posture that might have downsized the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. “Major military operations to remake other countries” were out, Biden said; “a foreign policy for the middle class” was in.
Today, however, progressives are losing ground on policy and losing distinctiveness in politics. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Biden administration was halting its efforts to scale back U.S. political-military objectives: The force posture review affirmed the status quo, and Biden repeatedly claimed that the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan. The war in Europe accelerated the turn to primacy, setting up the United States to bear mounting financial costs and risk involvement in major conflicts for the foreseeable future. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belligerence, meanwhile, has fractured the American left. In the emotionally charged debate over the war, advocating restraint is alleged to resemble appeasement. On the other side, arming a victim of aggression appears liable to generate blowback and fuel U.S. militarism.
Progressives can count important victories under the Biden administration, including recent legislation that makes historic climate investments. But the past year exposes deficiencies in the project of progressive foreign policy that will only get worse unless they are confronted now. As the United States descends into intense rivalry with China and Russia, progressives can no longer treat great-power competition as a secondary concern. They need to decide where they stand, or else great-power competition will decide for them.
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