World roundup: July 19 2022
Stories from Sri Lanka, Russia, Brazil, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
July 18, 1195: The Battle of Alarcos
July 18, 1290: English King Edward I (or Edward “Longshanks”) issues his Edict of Expulsion, forcing an estimated 16,000 Jews out of England. Edward, financially broken by wars on the Continent, cut a deal with English nobles in which he traded the expulsion of the Jews for the right to levy new taxes (the chance to seize abandoned Jewish property must also have appealed to him). But he was also building on a long tradition of English anti-semitism, much of it the product of his father’s (Henry III) reign. The edict’s ban on Jews living in England lasted until Oliver Cromwell lifted it in 1657.
July 19, 64: The Great Fire of Rome ignites in the area around the Circus Maximus under uncertain circumstances. The conflagration would continue to rage for six days before subsiding, only to reignite and rage for another three days. The actual circumstances behind the fire have been lost in an ocean of legends and rumors. Chief among these is the story that Emperor Nero blamed the fire on Christians and under that pretense launched the first imperial persecution of the nascent religious sect. Another theory has Nero himself ordering the fire in order to destroy Rome and rebuild it to his own tastes (in this narrative he uses the Christians as a scapegoat to escape his own culpability). Modern scholars seem generally to be skeptical of these theories. A more mundane but also more plausible theory is that the fire started accidentally and spread quickly due to high winds.
July 19, 711: The Battle of Guadalete
July 19, 1864: The Third Battle of Nanjing ends with a decisive Qing victory and the final eradication of the rebel Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The battle, which ended after the death of rebel leader Hong Xiuquan and saw the Taiping forces lose perhaps as many as 100,000 men (double that if you include losses incurred over the course of the entire siege, which began in March), was the last major engagement of the Taiping Rebellion.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
World Politics Review’s Thanassis Cambanis offers a first-hand account of an unsurprisingly dismal political situation in Lebanon:
The intersection of public malfeasance and private suffering is overwhelming. Every friend and colleague I met had a tale of woe: life savings now held in worthless Lebanese lira accounts; extended families struggling to survive on once-comfortable public sector salaries that now barely cover household expenses for a day or two; and wave after wave of emigration. My friends spend their days looking for deals on food staples and visiting banks that don’t let them freely withdraw whatever money they still have in them. Then they rush home so as to do household chores in the event the electricity comes on for an hour.
Perhaps this obstacle course that consumes daily life is part of the plan; it certainly saps energy that could otherwise go into political opposition. As Saghieh put it, the system that caused all this suffering “wants to keep people distracted.”
Remarkably, that system has not yielded in the least. Lebanon’s politicians are in the process of choosing a new government that so far looks exactly like the last one and more or less like every government since 1991. At the same time, Lebanese leaders are negotiating a bailout plan with international donors, but don’t want to include any reforms or accountability for the private banks that were most responsible for torpedoing the country’s economy. They’re playing a game of brinkmanship, betting that international donors will ultimately feel more pity for the Lebanese people than the country’s own rulers and blink first on a condition-free bailout.
The Israeli military bombarded another alleged Hamas military site in Gaza on Tuesday, in retaliation for a gunshot that apparently came out of the enclave and struck a building in southern Israel. I can already imagine what you’re saying and sure, we could quibble about the proportionality of carrying out airstrikes in response to what may have been merely a stray gunshot. But what’s done is done, you know? Let’s just accept that it was all fine—and certainly very normal—and move on with our lives.
For the first time since he ordered his military to bring peeance and freeance to Ukraine back in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin went abroad on Tuesday. The Russian leader joined Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in visiting Iran, where he met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi. The trip seems mostly to have been a chance for Putin to commiserate with the Iranians over their shared experiences on the wrong end of Western sanctions, amid talk of the long-term relationship between Russia and Iran and their plans for undermining US global hegemony (by, for example, removing the dollar as the global reserve currency).
It’s unclear, really, whether Russia and Iran can keep up their bilateral friendship under current conditions, which have more or less made the two countries direct competitors in the Chinese oil market (China being the one country that can buy their oil without much concern about sanctions). The two countries did announce an agreement for Russia and Russian private firms to invest up to $40 billion in Iran’s oil industry, but at this point that’s just an expression of vague intent.
Apart from stressing the closeness of the Russian-Iranian relationship, Tuesday’s trilateral summit also touched on the conflict in Syria, where Erdoğan continues to threaten a new Turkish offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia. Khamenei reportedly warned Erdoğan against undertaking such an invasion, arguing that it would be “detrimental.” It’s unclear whether he went into detail as to how it might be detrimental or simply left that vague threat hanging out there. For his part, Erdoğan pushed for “solidarity” in battling the YPG.
One of the leading candidates to replace former Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sajith Premadasa of the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, abruptly withdrew from the race on Tuesday. Premadasa endorsed Dullas Alahapperuma, who was nominated by a faction of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party, with the aim of preventing prime minister and acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe from winning Wednesday’s parliamentary vote. Wickremesinghe has been nominated by the main SLPP party and has been viewed as a slight favorite to win the election, though it’s not clear what effect Premadasa’s endorsement may have. A third candidate, Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party, is regarded as an extreme long shot.
The Arakan Army rebel group is claiming that its fighters have captured 14 Myanmar soldiers and killed an unspecified number of others. This all allegedly took place during two clashes between the military and AA fighters near the Bangladeshi border on Monday. There no verification of the group’s claims and Myanmar’s ruling junta does not appear to have commented upon them. Ironically, given the violence it’s seen over the past several years, Rakhine state was the only part of Myanmar that didn’t experience an upsurge in violence following the February 2021 coup that restored Myanmar’s military to power, as the junta and the AA agreed to maintain a ceasefire that was already in place. That tenuous accord began breaking down late last year and has continued to do so throughout 2022.
According to Reuters, the Chinese government is trying to suppress a report from United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. Bachelet visited China in May and spent part of her trip on a curated tour of the Xinjiang region investigating allegations that the Chinese government has been mistreating the region’s Uyghur population. She’s promised to release a report on Xinjiang before she leaves office at the end of August. Beijing has reportedly been “circulating” a memo among UN delegations in Geneva warning that Bachelet’s report would “intensify politicization” and “undermine the credibility” of Bachelet’s office.
Thousands of members of Sudan’s Hausa community marched again in Khartoum on Tuesday over the recent outbreak of violence in Blue Nile state. Police responded with tear gas but I haven’t seen any reports of casualties. At least 105 people have been killed and 246 wounded in clashes between members of the Hausa and Berta (also known as Funj) communities over what can be characterized as an extended land dispute. More than 17,000 people have been displaced by the fighting. Hausa protests across the country turned violent on Monday, particularly in the eastern city of Kassala where there are reports of heavy property damage and an unspecified number of casualties.
US Africa Command says it killed two al-Shabab fighters in an airstrike in southern Somalia’s Lower Juba region on Sunday. According to AFRICOM no civilians were killed or wounded in the strike, though it should be noted that the US military has an especially poor track record when it comes to assessing civilian casualties in Somalia.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
At least one Congolese soldier and three alleged Allied Democratic Forces fighters were killed in a clash in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province on Tuesday. The incident took place near the city of Beni, which has been the target of multiple ADF attacks over the past several days.
In news from Russia:
The European Union is set to release a winter energy plan on Wednesday that assumes Russia will cut off natural gas shipments to EU member states. The plan calls for minimizing gas consumption and aims to prioritize key sectors like healthcare to ensure they aren’t interrupted by a loss of Russian gas supplies. Meanwhile, however, there are indications that the panic over the possibility Russia’s Gazprom firm completely shutting down the Nord Stream 1 pipeline may be overblown. Two anonymous sources have told Reuters that Gazprom is aiming to restart the pipeline on schedule at the end of its annual ten day maintenance period on July 21, but that it will likely operate the pipeline at something less than full capacity. Gazprom cut gas flows to around 40 percent of capacity last month and may aim to restore them to that level. While painful for European customers, that’s still easier to deal with than a full shutdown.
The EU plans to issue somewhat relaxed guidelines on Wednesday regarding frozen Russian bank assets. These guidelines will allow the unfreezing of assets that could be used to finance exports of Russian food and fertilizer products. The US and EU have been looking for ways to ease the Ukraine war’s impact on global food markets by restarting Ukrainian food exports and by adjusting sanctions policies to eliminate bottlenecks in Russian exports.
The US State Department issued its annual report on human trafficking on Tuesday and, surprise, it names Russia and China as among the worst global offenders in this arena. Some of you may be thinking that this report was politicized so as to criticize the two most prominent US rivals on the international stage, to which I can only say let’s not worry our beautiful minds about such things and move on. In fairness, Russia has been something of a fixture on the human trafficking report, and claims that it’s been forcibly relocating Ukrainians are only going to add to that track record. The report also accused Russia of being among the worst offenders in terms of using child soldiers, citing the alleged recruitment of children by Donbas militants and other charges related to the Ukraine war.
As far as the situation in Ukraine is concerned there doesn’t seem to be much to report apart from ongoing Russian missile strikes on cities across Ukraine. The cities of Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, and Odessa reported Russian missile strikes on Tuesday, with at least one person killed in Kramatorsk. While it seemed a few days ago that the Russians were on the verge of resuming their ground offensive through Donetsk oblast, it appears they’re still ramping back up to that.
Speaking of natural gas, the Italian and Algerian governments have signed a number of deals that will expand Algerian gas supplies to Italy and potentially to other parts of Europe. The Italian government has turned to Algeria, historically its second largest gas supplier after Russia, to potentially supplant Russian natural gas in the wake of the Ukraine war. These deals should be looked at in concert with the EU’s recent gas deal with Azerbaijan and France’s recent oil and gas agreement with the UAE as part of the continent’s effort to find alternatives to Russian energy products.
Speaking of the Italian government, it must be noted that it may still be on the verge of collapse. Prime Minister Mario Draghi is scheduled to speak to parliament on Wednesday to try to rebuild his broad coalition government after the Five Star Movement withdrew from it last week. Draghi has enough parliamentary support to continue on without Five Star’s support, but has made it clear that he would rather resign than go that route. Now the conservative League and Forza Italia parties are saying that they will refuse to serve in any coalition that still counts Five Star as a member, further complicating Draghi’s path forward.
The UK’s government turmoil, meanwhile, is drawing a little closer to a resolution now that the Conservative Party’s internal race to replace Boris Johnson is down to three candidates. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak has won every round of voting thus far, but polling indicates that he would lose to either of his remaining opponents in the final runoff, when party members at large finally get to cast their votes. Minister of State for Trade Policy Penny Mordaunt, who at one point led every other candidate in the field in head-to-head match ups, has slipped behind Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who may now be the favorite assuming she can get into the runoff round.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continues to lay the groundwork for contesting his likely defeat in October’s presidential election. Bolsonaro on Monday invited some 40 diplomats to the presidential residence to listen to him deliver a screed on the insecurity of Brazil’s electronic voting system. It may be worth noting that this is the same voting system that delivered Bolsonaro the presidency in 2018, though he didn’t seem too worried about its security back then. His latest gambit has been to propose that the Brazilian military conduct its own vote count in parallel with elections officials, which said officials rejected even though I’m sure it would have been a completely fair and impartial count.
Ongoing protests over high fuel prices and other inflation impacts continued across Panama on Monday even after the Panamanian government and protest leaders announced on Sunday a deal to try to alleviate those problems. Sunday’s deal included a reduction in the price of fuel to $3.25 per gallon along with more vague promises to address the high cost of food and medicine, but this apparently was not enough to satisfy the protesters in the streets. Demonstrators blocked roads in Panama City as well as the Pan-American Highway on Monday.
Joe Biden on Tuesday signed an executive order authorizing economic sanctions and travel bans in retaliation for the detention of US citizens overseas. The measure would apply to Americans deemed unjustly imprisoned and was presumably hastened into being by the arrest of WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia back in February. In addition to these penalties the order also obliges the US State Department to issue travel advisories regarding countries where travelers are deemed to be at high risk of detention.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Rami Khouri offers an appropriately scathing review of Biden’s recent Middle East trip:
Biden had no issues of substance to discuss with Israeli and Arab leaders that could possibly break new ground because of the many limiting factors that have been built into U.S.-Mideast policies for half a century. Even Biden’s easy request for greater Arab oil output to ease inflation in the West got nowhere because OPEC+ producers have very limited extra capacity to export oil right now, and most Arab leaders have been hesitant to line up with the U.S. against Russia when they are exploring closer ties with Russia themselves.
Biden’s overall agenda for this trip never had a chance, frankly, because of the five policy constraints that have shaped the violent modern legacy of American involvement in the region:
supporting Israel over Palestinian and Arab rights, both in the region and for gains in domestic U.S. politics;
using military power to try to achieve political goals;
seeing Arab energy and cash surpluses as the main focus of U.S. engagement;
promoting strategic links with Arab states mainly to contain undesirable powers in the region, and,
totally ignoring the conditions and rights of the hundreds of millions of Arab, Iranian, and Turkish men and women in this predominantly Muslim region, while cementing links with handfuls of autocratic leaders who engage the U.S. on the basis of the first four principles above.
The Biden trip deepened these legacies, offering glib throwaway comments that purported to express Washington’s commitment to peace, security, democracy, and prosperity for all the people of the region. But does anyone take that commitment seriously today — particularly after decades of hearing Washington speak of rights and values while implementing policies that helped send the Arab region and most of its people into cycles of economic stagnation and regression (except for about 20 percent of the region’s citizens who are wealthy)? Most feel they remain as unofficial colonial subjects ruled by compliant satraps who see American and Israeli interests as superior to their own.
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