World roundup: July 21 2022
Stories from Myanmar, Somalia, Italy, and more
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: I’m taking a short break to visit family this weekend so tonight’s roundup will be it for a couple of days. We’ll resume our regular schedule on Tuesday.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
July 20, 1402: The Battle of Ankara
July 20, 1969: The crew of Apollo 11 carries out the first manned landing on the moon. Very early the following morning, mission commander Neil Armstrong became the first human being (as far as we know, anyway; I don’t want to upset any Ancient Aliens fans) to walk on the lunar surface. Possibly you’ve heard about this before so I don’t think we need to go into much detail.
July 21, 1774: The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca
July 21, 1798: The Battle of the Pyramids
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Syrian state media is reporting that an Israeli missile strike on Damascus killed at least three soldiers and wounded seven others overnight. This is a developing story so there aren’t many details at this point.
According to The New Arab, Yemeni rebels shelled a village in Yemen’s Bayda province on Wednesday amid accusations that villagers had killed a “supporter” of the Houthi movement. Villagers denied the allegation but apparently that didn’t matter to the Houthis. At least four people were killed and eight more wounded in the attack.
The Lebanese government intends to deport 15,000 Syrian refugees per month back to Syria, citing an economy that can’t even support most Lebanese citizens let alone hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians. The threat of being sent back to a place that is in no condition to receive them has apparently driven a number of those refugees to attempt a sea crossing to Europe, alongside people who are making that attempt for purely economic reasons. Lebanese security forces have thwarted a number of attempted crossings but there are reports of groups of people drowning and no reason to think that any of them will be welcomed if they do make it to Europe.
Hundreds of people marched in Baghdad on Thursday in anger over the apparent Turkish bombardment of a northern Iraqi resort area the previous day. At least nine people were killed in the still unexplained incident and more than 20 others wounded. The Turkish government is still denying that its forces were responsible for the attack and is blaming the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It’s unclear what rationale the PKK would have for undertaking such an attack. Perhaps PKK fighters intended to frame the Turks for an attack on civilians, but that’s an extremely tenuous theory without supporting evidence.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry has recalled its ambassador to Sweden, Ahmad Masoumifar, over the conviction and sentencing of Iranian national Hamid Noury last week. Stockholm District Court convicted Noury on human rights charges for having participated in the Iranian government’s 1988 mass execution of political dissidents and other prisoners.
Responsible Statecraft’s Eldar Mamedov takes issue with the new natural gas deal between the European Union and Azerbaijan, which probably can’t deliver on its promises but is happy to use the EU’s desperation as a chance to launder its lousy human rights record:
As a bonus for Aliyev, Von der Leyen avoided any criticism of Azerbaijan’s notoriously poor human rights record and its inflexible position on its Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia, notably by refusing to countenance even a limited cultural autonomy to the Karabakhi Armenians – the very issue that was at the root of the conflict some thirty years ago. Von der Leyen’s silence on these issues was strongly criticized by a number of members of the European Parliament who only in March adopted a resolution condemning Azerbaijan’s policy of destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Karabakh, with over 600 MPs voting in favor of it, and only 2 against.
That such criticisms ruffled feathers in Baku was evident in Aliyev’s treatment of a European Parliament delegation that happened to visit Azerbaijan the day after Von der Leyen’s sojourn there. Aliyev berated the parliamentarians for supposedly acting in the interests of the “Armenian lobby.”
The European Commission may shrug off the human rights-related criticisms as an inevitable, if regrettable, cost of practicing realpolitik. With a cold winter coming, who could object to keeping European homes warm as the first priority? Yet, if “European values” are to be sacrificed, it at least should be done in a country that can deliver. Azerbaijan, given its maximum potential contribution, does not count as one.
Sri Lanka’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is expected to name former Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena as his new prime minister on Friday, alongside a brand new cabinet. Gunewardena is regarded as an ally of ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, so his appointment may not be especially popular nationally. That said, expectations of protests in response to Wickremesinghe’s election have not really panned out so far, so maybe the protests that forced Rajapaksa from office have lost their momentum for now. Sri Lankan security forces began raiding protest camps in Colombo and seized control of the Presidential secretariat from protesters on Friday morning, arresting a number of protest leaders. It’s unclear whether this signals a shift to more violent police tactics to suppress any remaining demonstrations. If it does, that could trigger new large-scale protests in response.
In his Thursday newsletter, The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor has a very welcome update on the big picture in Myanmar’s ongoing civil war:
The fighting ebbs and flows on many fronts, ranging from Myanmar’s insurgency-riven borderlands to the rural heartland of the Bamar people — the country’s ethnic majority. It involves what analysts have cast as at least seven discrete conflicts that pit a thicket of factions against each other, from the junta’s army to well-equipped rebel ethnic militias to ragtag resistance guerrillas to pro-regime Buddhist extremist vigilantes.
Casualty counts are somewhat unclear, with independent access to much of the country impossible. U.N. officials believe that the junta has killed more than 2,000 civilians and arrested more than 14,000. Anti-regime forces have also allegedly carried out attacks on civilians believed to be abetting the military. The United Nations estimated last month that more than 700,000 people have been displaced since February 2021, adding to a population of nearly 350,000 people displaced before the coup.
Neither the junta nor its opponents really seem to be in a position to gain a clear upper hand in this conflict, and given the lack of any diplomatic initiative to negotiate an end that suggests the war could chug along indefinitely. It may not surprise you to learn, as Tharoor writes, that there are calls for the US and other Western governments to arm the insurgents a la Ukraine (albeit on a lower scale, at least initially). There doesn’t appear to be any interest in doing so within those Western governments, however.
Sudanese security forces killed another protester during nationwide anti-junta demonstrations on Thursday. The protester was killed in the city of Omdurman. Security forces have now killed at least 115 people under similar circumstances since last October’s coup. Demonstrations have continued since junta leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan floated the idea of establishing a new, purely civilian transitional government earlier this month. Protest organizers regard that offer as a fraud, perhaps because there’s no indication that the military would take orders from the civilian government.
Guinea’s National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC) organization is calling for new protests against that country’s ruling junta, starting in Conakry on July 28 and going national on August 4. The FNDC is accusing the junta of failing to establish conditions for negotiating a return to civilian rule. It had been planning to stage mass protests last month but held off and decided to meet with junta officials instead. Those discussions apparently didn’t go very well from the FNDC’s perspective, hence the decision to reschedule the protests.
Fighters affiliated with al-Shabab reportedly attacked two Somali villages close to the Ethiopian border on Wednesday, killing at least 17 people including civilians and Ethiopian police personnel. At least 63 al-Shabab fighters were also killed in the fighting. An Ethiopian official is claiming that the al-Shabab fighters had crossed into Ethiopia to try to establish a cell there, which would mark a major expansion of the group’s activities. Al-Shabab, whose accounts of incidents like this usually differ markedly from the official version, is claiming that its forces captured the two villages and killed “dozens” of Ethiopian police.
Russia’s Gazprom firm restarted natural gas flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline on Thursday as scheduled, ten days after it shut the pipeline down for annual maintenance. But—of course there’s a “but”—it only brought the pipeline back up to around 40 percent capacity, the same reduced level at which it was operating prior to the maintenance break. For European countries, like Germany, that are reliant on Russian gas, this is obviously preferable to a full shutdown but far from adequate to meet demand, particularly through fall and winter. European governments are taking steps to stockpile gas and cut back on usage, while prioritizing key infrastructure like hospitals. They’re also on a search for alternative gas suppliers, but no potential alternative is in position to supplement more than a small portion of the amount of gas Russia exports to Europe under normal circumstances.
EU member states approved their seventh tranche of sanctions against Russia on Thursday morning. As we’ve discussed, the new package includes a ban on Russian gold exports and adds new sanctions on Russia’s SberBank as well as a number of individuals who are apparently enabling Vladimir Putin in one way or another. Included on the list are ten Syrian individuals accused of recruiting mercenary fighters to join the Russian war effort.
In news from Ukraine:
According to the Turkish government, officials from Russia and Ukraine—along with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and UN Secretary General António Guterres—will be in Istanbul on Friday to sign an agreement unblocking Ukrainian food exports via the Black Sea. Details are spotty but it sounds like this deal would also protect Russian food exports, which have been hindered at least in part by Western sanctions, somehow. It would establish a coordination center in Istanbul for monitoring the safety of shipping lanes and the shipments themselves. Assuming this actually comes to fruition and that the parties implement the deal’s terms it could be a massive development in terms of securing global food supplies and minimizing the most harmful global impact of this war. It would also be a big feather in Turkey’s diplomatic cap.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, Russian artillery killed at least three people and wounded at least 23 others in the city of Kharkiv on Thursday. There are unconfirmed claims that the Russians employed cluster bombs in this attack. Cluster munitions are broadly prohibited under international law, especially when used against civilian population centers.
The United Kingdom is sending more weapons to Ukraine. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced on Thursday a new £1 billion arms package featuring hundreds of anti-tank weapons and artillery along with drones and ammunition. The UK has now pledged £2.3 billion in total to arming the Ukrainians.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella accepted Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s expected resignation on Thursday and then dissolved parliament, committing to a snap election sometime this fall. Draghi will apparently remain on as caretaker PM until the vote. If polling is accurate this upcoming election will mark a sharp right-wing turn for Italian politics. A coalition of the conservative Forza Italia party, the far-right League party, and the neo-fascist Brothers party is likely to win a collective majority, with the Brothers leading opinion polls and likely in position to control a coalition government.
While I continue to resist turning this into a weather newsletter, I would be remiss not to mention the recent heatwave that’s swept across much of Western Europe, bringing record high temperatures to the UK and killing more than 2000 people in Portugal (1063) and Spain (1047). These high temperatures have been twinned with huge wildfires around the Mediterranean, from Portugal and Spain in the west to Slovenia, Greece, and now Lebanon in the east. Anyway, the climate is doing great so I don’t think we have anything to worry about.
Brazilian police raided favelas in Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo do Alemão area on Thursday in an operation that left at least 18 people dead including one police officer and one confirmed civilian. The target was allegedly a criminal organization implicated in bank robberies and cargo thefts. Police are known for carrying out favela raids that leave large numbers of dead bodies in their wake, particularly in the past couple of years while they’ve had a violence-friendly president, Jair Bolsonaro, in office.
A group of six major Colombian criminal organizations—including the country’s largest drug cartel, Clan del Golfo—issued a joint statement on Thursday offering to institute ceasefires concurrent with President-elect Gustavo Petro’s August 7 inauguration. Petro has proposed talks with Colombia’s various armed groups as an alternative to largely unsuccessful military efforts to reduce violence in the country. He’s proposed a ceasefire with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has responded favorably though as far as I know has not actually agreed to his proposal as yet. I haven’t seen any comment from Petro on Thursday’s joint statement.
The US State Department has green lit the sale of some $2 billion in weapons and materiel to four countries—Australia, the Netherlands, Kuwait, and the UAE. The details are probably unimportant, but you’ll be thrilled to know that these sales will help Raytheon and Lockheed Martin pad their bottom lines. It’s so nice to see those companies get a break for once.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Faezeh Fathizadeh and Nick Cleveland-Stout highlight one way in which Ukraine is clearly winning its war against Russia:
As chronicled in a brand new Quincy Institute brief by Research Fellow Ben Freeman, “The Lobbying Battle Before the War: Russian and Ukrainian Interests in the U.S.,” Russian interests spent $42 million on Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) registered firms, compared to a paltry $2 million by Ukrainian interests. While much of the Russian spending (around $38 million) was for Russian state media in the U.S., like RT, Russian interests still spent more than double what Ukrainian interests spent on traditional lobbying and public relations firms.
Aided immensely by former members of Congress working on their behalf, Russian banks and energy companies leveraged this advantage in an attempt to lobby against sanctions and for the Nordstream 2 pipeline. Even right up until the invasion of Ukraine, former Senator David Vitter (R-LA) and former Representative Toby Moffett (D-CT) of Mercury Public Affairs lobbied on behalf of the Russian bank Sovcombank, with Vitter insisting that Russia’s ninth-largest bank would be an “extremely counterproductive sanctions target.” This strategy seemingly worked for Russian interests before, so there was reason to believe it could work again.
But, while the Ukraine lobby might have been small in terms of spending, it was most certainly mighty and, above all, extraordinarily zealous. The paltry financial investment made by Ukrainian interests led to an astounding 13,541 political contacts on behalf of Ukrainian clients in 2021, a feat that far surpasses even the most active lobbies in Washington.
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