World roundup: July 22 2021
Stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, Brazil, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
July 20, 1402: The Battle of Ankara
July 20, 1917: Serbian and other south Slavic representatives sign the Corfu Declaration in Greece, paving the way to the formation of Yugoslavia. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
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 20, 1974: Turkish forces invade Cyprus in response to the pro-union with Greece coup d’etat that took place on July 15. Though the coup failed, this invasion and a followup in August led to the partition of the island between its Greek and Turkish portions, which is still in place today.
July 21, 1774: The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca
July 21, 1798: The Battle of the Pyramids
July 22, 838: An outnumbered Abbasid army defeats the Byzantines under Emperor Theophilos at the Battle of Anzen/Dazimon, in eastern Anatolia. The victory allowed the Abbasids to proceed unimpeded to the major Byzantine city of Amorium, in central Anatolia, which they would eventually sack in one of the most devastating episodes of the Byzantine-Abbasid conflict.
July 22, 1456: The Siege of Belgrade ends
July 22, 1946: Members of the Irgun, a Zionist terrorist group that was one of the predecessors of the modern Likud party, bomb the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and kill 91 people in the process. Their target was the headquarters of the British mandatory authority and the attack was meant as a response to the British arrest of hundreds of Zionist militants in Operation Agatha in late June. Most Zionist leaders condemned Irgun, which in turn blamed British authorities for not evacuating the hotel despite telephoned warnings about the bomb.
As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 193,364,217 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 4,150,640 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 3.75 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 49 for every 100 people.
In today’s global news:
The International Monetary Fund’s board on Thursday approved an increase in the organization’s interest-free loan program. IMF officials say the increase will enable greater levels of support for developing economies emerging from the pandemic and will allow the organization to lift loan caps entirely for some countries. The Fund will, of course, only make these loans to countries with “strong economic programs,” according to IMF official Sean Nolan. Austerity all around, in other words. Sounds great!
I don’t want to alarm anybody, but newly published research suggests that the Amazon rain forest is now emitting more carbon than it absorbs. I’m not a scientist but I believe the appropriate technical term here is “yikes.” Researchers found that the most heavily deforested areas of the rain forest are the areas that are emitting the most carbon. Go figure. What’s particularly worrisome is the possibility that this tip-over from net carbon sink to net carbon emitter is irreversible.
According to Syrian media there were no casualties stemming from Thursday morning’s Israeli missile attack against targets in western Homs province. The strikes did apparently cause “material damage” but understandably Syrian officials aren’t very interested in saying what was damaged. Thursday’s attack was the second Israeli missile strike in Syria this week, following an earlier incident in Aleppo province, and has drawn accusations from the Syrian government that the Israelis are coordinating with rebel groups so that their missile strikes coincide with rebel attacks (“terrorist attacks” as Damascus puts it) on the ground. There’s no direct evidence of this sort of collaboration, though to be fair the Israeli military did from time to time assist rebels in southern Syria (mostly with medical treatment) back when that region was still an open front in the civil war.
Rebel activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are reporting that a Syrian artillery bombardment killed seven members of a single family (four of them children) in a village in southern Idlib province on Thursday. Exchanges of fire along the frozen front line in northwestern Syria seem to be getting more frequent though it’s unclear exactly why or what that means. According to UNICEF at least 17 children had been killed in the region just this month, prior to Thursday’s incident.
According to The Wall Street Journal the Biden administration is set to announce the removal of US combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2021, after coming to an agreement with the Iraqi government. The move will not be a total military withdrawal as is happening (at least allegedly) in Afghanistan, as US trainers, intelligence officers, and support personnel will remain to aid Iraqi security forces. Indeed, at least some combat personnel currently in Iraq may simply have their job description changed so the actual net withdrawal here may not amount to very much.
The hope is that this will be a win-win for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is under political pressure to usher the US military out of the country but has concerns that his own military isn’t ready to operate without a net. This way he keeps American support but can claim to have rid Iraq of the most visible elements of the US military presence. My guess is that the factions pressuring Kadhimi to get the US out of Iraq are not dumb enough to fall for what may amount to an accounting trick.
At least one person was killed and ten more wounded in an as yet unexplained explosion in Gaza City on Thursday. This may have been accidental, though some kind of factional violence inside Gaza also wouldn’t be out of the question. The Israeli military says it wasn’t involved, and it seems unlikely that this was some kind of air or artillery strike. That said, if this was an accidental explosion caused in some way by Gaza’s pulverized infrastructure then I would submit that the Israeli military was very much “involved.”
Those two decrepit Iranian naval vessels that were once threatening to cross the Atlantic and, according to POLITICO at least, kill you and everyone you’ve ever cared about, have turned up in the Baltic Sea. It would appear that they’re on their way to participate in a Russian “naval parade” in St. Petersburg. It’s unclear whether this was their intended destination all along or simply the fallback option when a planned transatlantic mission became untenable for whatever reason.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told Russian media on Thursday that the militant group controls “90 percent” of Afghanistan’s borders. It would be difficult at best to fact check this statement but it is impossible to deny that the Taliban has made major gains in border regions over the past several weeks or longer. That’s undoubtedly part of the reason they were willing to take this week off to celebrate Eid.
Because of the Taliban’s recent advances, Reuters is reporting that the Afghan military is changing its strategy to focus on securing key targets (Kabul, provincial capitals, border crossings, that sort of thing) rather than broadly engaging the Taliban. This will basically cede the Afghan countryside to the Taliban but might relieve pressure on Afghan security forces that are clearly overwhelmed—able, for example, to drive Taliban forces out of a region but incapable of holding on to any gains they make. This is a common move for national militaries that are losing to paramilitary insurgencies, but my admittedly anecdotal sense is it generally doesn’t work. The expansion of local militias could help a bit if they’re able to challenge the Taliban in places the Afghan military intends to abandon, but while that approach might work in a particular region, like the Hazarajat, its viability as a nationwide strategy is questionable.
The US military has reportedly been conducting periodic airstrikes against Taliban fighters to support Afghan security forces, mostly carried out by drones flown in from outside Afghan airspace. It apparently intends to keep carrying out these strikes at least through the formal US withdrawal date of August 31, but it’s unclear whether they might continue beyond that.
The Associated Press has apparently been granted access to the largest of China’s detention facilities in Xinjiang, the Dabancheng facility in Urumqi, and suggests that whatever role these sites may once have had as so-called “training centers” is being supplanted by a more obviously carceral purpose:
China has described its sweeping lockup of a million or more minorities over the past four years as a “war against terror,” after a series of knifings and bombings by a small number of extremist Uyghurs native to Xinjiang. Among its most controversial aspects were the so-called vocational “training centers” – described by former detainees as brutal internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
China at first denied their existence, and then, under heavy international criticism, said in 2019 that all the occupants had “graduated.” But the AP’s visit to Dabancheng, satellite imagery and interviews with experts and former detainees suggest that while many “training centers” were indeed closed, some like this one were simply converted into prisons or pre-trial detention facilities. Many new facilities have also been built, including a new 85-acre detention center down the road from No. 3 in Dabancheng that went up over 2019, satellite imagery shows.
The changes seem to be an attempt to move from the makeshift and extrajudicial “training centers” into a more permanent system of prisons and pre-trial detention facilities justified under the law. While some Uyghurs have been released, others have simply been moved into this prison network.
The French military says its forces, with US assistance, killed two members of the Islamic State’s Greater Sahara affiliate in Mali’s Ménaka region overnight. French officials don’t seem to have gone into much detail beyond that.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
United Nations peacekeepers say they discovered the bodies of 13 people in the Central African Republic’s Bongboto region on Wednesday. It’s not clear how they were killed apart from some vague talk about “clashes” in that area. Central African authorities are blaming the rebel Coalition of Patriots for Change group for the killings, though apparently without going into any detail.
The opening of a new front in Ethiopia’s civil war has reportedly displaced some 54,000 people in the Afar region over the past several days. Tigrayan forces entered Afar on Saturday and have seized at least three of its districts thus far. Their aim isn’t entirely certain, but an army marching through Afar could cut the main route between Addis Ababa and Djibouti City, which serves as Ethiopia’s main seaport, and could eventually threaten the Ethiopian capital directly. Tigrayan leaders want to force the national military and Amhara regional forces to retreat from the last parts of Tigray that are still under their control as a precondition for ceasefire talks.
Madagascan authorities say they’ve broken up a plot to assassinate President Andry Rajoelina, arresting six people (so far) in the process. This report, which didn’t go into detail, comes about a month after authorities announced that they’d thwarted a plot to murder national police chief General Richard Ravalomanana. One of the six people arrested was characterized as a “foreign national” and two others as “binational,” but beyond that their identities haven’t been made public.
According to World Politics Review’s Dave Keating, EU leaders are growing frustrated with a lingering US travel ban that seems to be motivated more by domestic politics surrounding vaccination than by the state of the pandemic in Europe:
The opposition to easing travel restrictions and requiring proof of vaccination in order to enter the U.S. is reportedly coming from Biden’s COVID-19 czar, Jeff Zients. There are reportedly two major concerns inside the Biden administration, and both of them are political. The first is that they are worried about a domestic backlash against a decision to ease restrictions on European visitors, driven by the lingering impression among much of the U.S. public—or at least those in the news media and policy circles—that the EU remains largely unvaccinated.
The other is that the Biden administration believes the ban could only be reversed if European visitors are required to present proof of vaccination to enter the U.S. If so, it would be difficult not to also require so-called vaccine passports for Americans returning from Europe, a pandora’s box the Biden team seems unwilling to open. Though the EU has instituted a union-wide digital COVID-19 certificate showing EU citizens’ vaccination status, or else a negative COVID-19 test or presence of antibodies, Biden has ruled out a similar national plan in the U.S. According to Politico, the Biden administration is worried about “pushback among conservatives who have raised concerns about government overreach and discrimination against Americans who opt not to get vaccinated.”
European politicians and business leaders are exasperated that a domestic dispute in the U.S. about vaccination is stifling tourism, keeping families apart and slowing economic recovery on both sides of the Atlantic. “If that’s really their problem, then just let Europeans enter with a negative test like we’ve done for Americans,” grumbled one EU official who spoke off the record. Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner in charge of the internal market, had a contentious meeting with Biden administration officials in Portugal last month and came back visibly frustrated. “We’ve been extremely clear here,” he said at a press conference following the meeting. “We believe we have the conditions needed for reciprocity. We have the same kind of vaccines on both sides of the Atlantic. We know they’re working. We expect to have this reciprocity as soon as possible.”
Brazilian politics were rocked on Thursday by reports that Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto had threatened to cancel next year’s presidential election. Braga Netto allegedly told Arthur Lira, president of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, that Jair Bolsonaro’s government would refuse to hold the vote unless authorities agreed to its demand to use paper ballots. I say “allegedly” because there’s no confirmed report that Braga Netto actually said this and both he and Lira are denying it. However, there is no denying the fact that Bolsonaro has been musing with some regularity about the possibility of either canceling next year’s vote or ignoring its outcome. The frequency of those musings seems to be inversely correlated with Bolsonaro’s poll numbers, which continue to tank. Bolsonaro has suggested that Brazil’s electronic voting systems are insecure, with an eye toward claiming fraud if/when he loses.
Anti-government protests resumed in several Colombian cities earlier this week, a bit over a month after organizers suspended them amid a backlash by security forces that has left at least 60 dead according to opposition leaders (the government insists the figure is closer to 20). Police have picked up roughly where they left off previously, arresting some 70 people and clashing violently with demonstrators. At least 50 people have been injured, 24 civilians and 26 security personnel.
Colombian authorities say they’ve also arrested ten people in connection with attacks on a military base and on a helicopter carrying President Iván Duque last month. They’ve blamed both attacks on dissident ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fighters with the splinter “33rd Front,” operating on orders from ex-FARC leaders who are based across the border in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government denies harboring Colombian militants.
Violent demonstrations rocked Haiti’s Quartier-Morin area on Wednesday in advance of the funeral for former President Jovenel Moïse that is scheduled to take place tomorrow in the city of Cap-Haïtien. Moïse hailed from Trod-du-Nord, which is close to Quartier-Morin, and the demonstrators appear to have been Moïse supporters demanding justice for his assassination. The AP is reporting that at least one person may have been killed in the violence but details are pretty sparse at this point.
The Biden administration on Thursday named diplomat Daniel Foote as its special envoy to Haiti. According to Reuters he’ll work with US ambassador Michele Sison “to help coordinate U.S. assistance in Haiti.” As I’m sure you know, history shows that when the United States decides to pay special attention to Haiti it always works out really, really well for the Haitian people.
The Biden administration on Thursday unveiled new sanctions against the minister of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, General Álvaro López Miera, as well as a special forces unit inside the Cuban Interior Ministry. These are the first sanctions the administration has imposed in connection with last week’s Cuban protests, but they almost certainly will not be the last—Joe Biden himself said that “this is just the beginning,” which is weird phrasing when referring to a country the US has had under embargo for over 60 years. Biden and other senior Democrats are undoubtedly thrilled to have the chance to Get Tough On Cuba for domestic political reasons.
Finally, The New Republic’s Kate Aronoff looks at all the “centrist” Washington think tanks raking in cash from ExxonMobil to help fund their (completely impartial, I’m sure) research into critical policy issues—like, say, climate change:
Not everyone is happy about Unearthed’s recent exposé on ExxonMobil. Shortly after the Greenpeace-attached journalistic outfit published quotes top Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy unknowingly gave to an undercover reporter about the oil giant’s attempts to shape climate policy, Brookings Institution Executive Vice President Darell M. West penned a blog post declaring that “using secret video recordings to embarrass opponents is undermining the health of our already ailing American democracy.” He also likened Unearthed to the right-wing sting operation Project Veritas.
West didn’t mention that Brookings received $100,000 from ExxonMobil last year,according to the oil company’s own disclosures. He also didn’t mention that, in parts of the transcript Unearthed did not publish but which they subsequently provided to The New Republic, Brookings is mentioned explicitly by McCoy as one of two think tanks his company is “actively involved in.”
Brookings isn’t the only policy shop getting ExxonMobil’s cash. Exxon’s annual “Worldwide Giving Report”—released last month—tallies up the company’s “community investments” to “address strategic local priorities where we do business around the world.” These include anti-malaria efforts and STEM education programs along with its funding for groups that provide “Public Information and Policy Research.” This last group includes a few standard right-leaning, business-friendly outfits like the Chamber of Commerce, but also several institutions widely considered to be more politically neutral, whose experts are frequently quoted as outside analysts on everything from infrastructure talks to oil markets. These institutions often feed experts to top posts in the White House and serve aslanding pads for ex-administration officials when their parties lose control,weighing in on key policy debates with recommendations for lawmakers.
The list of organizations on ExxonMobil’s annual giving list might surprise you! Or not. Probably not.