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World roundup: July 26 2022
Stories from Myanmar, Tunisia, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
July 25, 1139: An army under the future Afonso I, then Count Afonso of Portugal, defeats the Almoravids at the Battle of Ourique. Details of this battle are sketchy, but it was apparently such a glorious victory that in its aftermath Afonso declared Portugal’s independence from the Kingdom of León and thereby gave himself a promotion from count to king. Later legends had Afonso being visited on the eve of the battle by, variously, Saint James the Greater (whose tomb is held to lie in Santiago de Compostela), Saint George, or even Jesus Himself, guaranteeing victory.
July 25, 1799: The Battle of Abukir
July 26, 657 (give or take): The Battle of Siffin
July 26, 1847: A constitutional convention in the Commonwealth of Liberian adopts a declaration of independence and constitution establishing the Republic of Liberia as an sovereign nation. Annually commemorated as Liberian Independence Day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The World Health Organization on Saturday declared the ongoing international monkeypox outbreak to be a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC), its most serious rating. According to the US Centers for Disease Control some 18,095 cases of monkeypox have been diagnosed globally in 75 countries—only six of which have suffered monkeypox outbreaks in the past. The illness is primarily spread among men who have sex with other men, which creates the potential for discrimination and/or social stigma to impede efforts to identify and treat cases. The WHO declaration should intensify those efforts and potentially open up new funding for development of treatments and vaccines.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 10 people were killed Tuesday in clashes between pro- and anti-government forces in the southern Syrian province of Suwayda. The abduction of two anti-government individuals in the predominantly Druze province on Monday apparently sparked the violence.
Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman had a new piece on Monday that I think does a pretty good job of assessing where things stand with respect to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to undertake another invasion of northern Syria. It seems clear that Erdoğan didn’t get the approval, or at least acquiescence, that he wanted during his visit to Iran alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, so for the time being his Syrian ambitions may be in limbo. But the US is still ineffectually trying to walk a line between supporting its Syrian Kurdish proxies and alienating Turkey (failing on both counts), so may be some leeway for the Turks to draw up an invasion plan that meets with Russian approval without sparking a US backlash.
The Coordination Framework, the coalition of Iraqi Shiʿa political parties opposed to Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement that now holds a parliamentary majority with Sadr’s MPs having quit, has nominated Mohammed al-Sudani as its candidate for prime minister. It sounds like Sudani is meant on the surface to be a boring apparatchik-type figure, too boring and establishment to spark much opposition, but then it also seems as though he’s being put forward as a proxy for the leader of his State of Law Party, controversial ex-PM Nouri al-Maliki. He may encounter resistance from the US, which probably prefers that current PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi remain in office, and while that’s not necessarily fatal to his chances it’s also true that no Iraqi PM has come to power since the US invasion without at least tacit approval from Washington.
As Joel Wing writes over at Musings on Iraq, Sudani’s candidacy will face an immediate challenge from Sadr, who still wields significant influence even if his party no longer has a presence in parliament. If Sudani is able to form a government, that government will face Sadr’s movement and its proven ability to put massive crowds in the streets demanding political change. And there’s no guarantee he’ll even get that far, as the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are still at loggerheads over the selection of Iraq’s next president. Although the Iraqi presidency is a relatively weak office, it’s the president who legally names the PM. Sudani can’t be appointed PM if there’s no president to make the appointment.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz decided to let everybody know on Tuesday that a Russian anti-aircraft battery opened fire on Israeli planes during an airstrike on Syria back in May. The Russians missed, but I think we can all imagine what a cool, fun time we would have had if they’d hit their targets. It’s unclear why Gantz decided to share though Russia and Israel are somewhat peeved at one another these days over the Ukraine war and the Kremlin’s effort to close down the Jewish Agency, a Russian non-profit that helps facilitate emigration to Israel. Technically Russian authorities have cited privacy issues in closing down the agency, but Israeli leaders seem to suspect this is retaliation for Israeli criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is packing up his bonesaw and taking it on the road, visiting Greece and then France on his first trip to Europe since that whole unfortunate Khashoggi business back in 2018. I don’t imagine anything significant will come of this trip so I don’t really have anything to say about it, but it’s nice to see this guy finally getting a break you know?
The Iranian government has removed International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring cameras from its declared nuclear sites and says it will not turn them back on, nor will it communicate with the IAEA regarding traces of enriched uranium found at three undeclared sites, unless and until the 2015 nuclear deal is restored. Suffice to say the chances of that happening do not appear to be very good.
According to Reuters, US and Afghan officials have been discussing proposals to unfreeze at least part of the $7 billion in Afghan Central Bank reserves that the Biden administration pillaged earlier this year. The US proposal would reportedly disburse roughly half of the total to a third-party “trust fund” that would be responsible for then distributing it to Kabul, contingent on the implementation of “reforms” at a central bank that’s now run by at least one person who’s been blacklisted by Washington. Afghan officials haven’t rejected this plan outright but they don’t like a number of parts of it, unsurprisingly. And the other half of that $7 billion is, of course, still being held by the US for potential disbursement to victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, even though the Afghan people who deposited those funds had nothing to do with planning or executing those attacks.
Myanmar state media reported on Monday that the country’s ruling junta had executed four individuals, two activists and two other men accused of “terrorism.” These were the first executions carried out in Myanmar since the 1980s but maybe also the first of many more to come, as the junta’s courts have sentenced over 110 people to death since the February 2021 coup. And that’s not counting the 2000+ killed without any sort of legal ruling since the junta seized power. The fallout from the executions has been fairly severe, rhetorically at least, with the Malaysian government for example suggesting that they’ve undermined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ plan to resolve Myanmar’s post-coup civil war. It remains to be seen whether that rhetorical backlash is going to translate into something more tangible.
Since we previously discussed the heatwave that’s been sweeping across the Mediterranean it’s only fair that we mention the one that’s sweeping across China, where hundreds of cities were forecast to top out at over 35 degrees Celsius on Tuesday. The high temperatures and consequent need for air conditioning are placing an unprecedented level of demand on the Chinese electrical grid, which is causing blackouts. That, in turn, means more demand for coal since it remains the quickest vector by which to get more power capacity onto said grid. The extra coal burning will then belch more carbon into the atmosphere, leading to still more heatwaves and higher temperatures and creating even more need for air conditioning, and so the cycle can continue until we’ve all been air fried to a crispy exterior while leaving our interiors nice and juicy.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
The United Nations says that “dozens” of people have been killed over weeks of election-related violence across Papua New Guinea, including 18 who were killed last week in an apparent outbreak of inter-communal violence in PNG’s Enga province. At least 22 people have been killed since the extended voting period opened earlier this month, on top of 28 killed during the campaign leading up to the vote. Tensions surrounding the vote are high in part because of a poorly maintained electoral roll that may wind up disenfranchising upwards of 1 million voters this year and because various simmering inter-communal tensions seem to flare up around voting time as those communities compete to put their people in office.
Sudanese security forces killed at least one person during anti-junta protests on Tuesday, bringing to at least 118 the number of people they’ve killed in similar circumstances since the Sudanese military’s October coup. The demonstrator was shot and killed in the city of Omdurman, but Tuesday’s protests—organized around calls for democratic reform as well as for an end to recent inter-communal violence in Sudan’s Blue Nile state—took place across the country.
Clashes between partisans of Libya’s two prime ministers, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and Fathi Bashagha, have reportedly left at least 17 people dead over the past week as Bashagha tries to navigate a changing Libyan political landscape. Most of the victims were killed in fighting throughout last week in Tripoli that claimed at least 16 lives and wounded at least 34 more. At least one other person was killed in fighting on Wednesday in the city of Misrata, where Bashagha is attempting to establish a presence in a city that’s been largely pro-Dbeibeh. Bashagha is attempting to build a new power base in the wake of the apparent deal between Dbeibeh and “Libyan National Army” boss Khalifa Haftar, who had been Bashagha’s most important supporter. He’s focusing on Misrata because a) Bashagha is from Misrata and b) Misratan militias may be more anti-Haftar than they are pro-Dbeibeh. They’re also the only military force in Libya that can potentially counter the LNA.
Tunisian voters overwhelmingly voted to adopt President Kais Saied’s new constitution in a national referendum on Monday. Or, at least, the four or five of them who bothered voting did. I’m exaggerating, a bit—the official result is 94.5 percent voting “yes” with turnout of 28 percent. That latter figure, fueled by opposition boycotts and probably a healthy dose of apathy, is dismal enough to call into question the legitimacy of the vote as well as the level of public support for Saied and his power grab, but as there was no minimum turnout standard the vote is legally official.
The new constitution will largely enshrine the expanded powers Saied has amassed since suspending parliament last July. In theory it transitions Tunisia from a “semi-presidential” to a “presidential” political system. In practice it shifts substantial authority from parliament to the executive and leaves that executive (i.e., Saied) virtually uncheckable by the legislative or judicial branches of government.
Chadian rebels announced on Friday that they will resume peace talks with Chad’s ruling junta, reversing a decision they’d made a week earlier to suspend those talks. It’s unclear why they had this change of heart but the switcheroo suggests the rebels will actually participate in Chad’s “national dialogue” next month. That process is supposed to lead into a transition to civilian governance and end Chad’s myriad rebellions, but if the rebels aren’t involved then that latter goal at least would be impossible.
Security forces in Ethiopia’s Somali region reportedly killed some 85 al-Shabab fighters in clashes along the Ethiopian-Somali border on Monday. Regional officials claim their security personnel have killed 243 al-Shabab fighters since the group raided two border villages last week. For some reason al-Shabab has been particularly active along the border over the past week, after mostly avoiding the area (and Ethiopian security) for several years.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Protests against the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC left at least 15 people dead and 50 more wounded on Tuesday in the eastern Congolese cities of Goma and Butembo. These demonstrations began in Goma on Monday and are fueled by allegations that peacekeepers are not protecting Congolese civilians from militants in the region. They spread to Butembo and turned violent on Tuesday, with protesters attacking UN facilities and peacekeepers responding with live ammunition. One peacekeeper and two other UN personnel were killed in Butembo along with seven protesters, while another five people were killed in Goma.
In news related to Russia:
The European Union announced a new natural gas rationing deal on Tuesday amid fears of a full Russian gas cutoff this winter. The deal is intended to reduce European gas usage by 15 percent from August through March, with member states initially given the chance to implement cuts voluntarily before mandatory steps take effect. The new measures were agreed just a day after Russia’s Gazprom firm announced that effective Wednesday it will halve the amount of natural gas currently going to Europe via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. Since the pipeline was already operating at 40 percent of capacity, that means its gas flows will plummet to just 20 percent of capacity.
Newly-appointed Roscosmos director Yuri Borisov said on Tuesday that Russia will withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024 to focus on its own space projects. Moscow has been signaling an intention to quit the ISS project for some time now but hasn’t settled on a date (“after 2024” is still fairly vague). Lately Russian officials have floated the idea of continuing their participation in the ISS in return for sanctions relief, but that’s clearly not something the US has been willing to discuss. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been hoping to keep the ISS running through at least 2030 but that will be challenging (to say the least) without Russian participation.
In news from Ukraine:
As expected, Russian and Ukrainian officials signed a deal in Istanbul on Friday to permit grain shipments to resume from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. The next day the Russian military bombarded the largest of those ports, Odessa. That attack doesn’t seem to have caused significant damage but it did immediately throw into doubt the sustainability of the grain deal. Nevertheless, and even though the Russians have continued to bombard Ukraine’s coast in subsequent days, the deal’s “Joint Coordination Center” has already apparently been established in Istanbul and officials in Ukraine and at the United Nations are talking about an initial shipment embarking in a matter of days.
Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Naď suggested on Tuesday that Bratislava might be willing to send its 11 MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine. He was speaking alongside British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who in turn suggested that the UK could provide air defense assistance to Slovakia in return for the transfer. The Slovak military is already scheduled to swap out its MiG-29s for US F-16s, but the transition isn’t scheduled to happen until 2024. The pressure to supply Ukraine with military jets is continuing to build, even though the logistical and escalatory considerations around doing so are no less confounding than they were when this same idea was considered and discarded earlier in the war.
Zsuzsa Hegedüs, a long-serving adviser to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktór Orban, finally broke with her boss on Tuesday. All it took was a speech Orban delivered in Romania over the weekend condemning “peoples of mixed race” (meaning European and non-European). Apparently this convinced Hegedüs that Orban might just be a teensy bit racist. The thought is stunning, I know, but there it is. Anyway, on an unrelated note, Orban is scheduled to give the opening address at next week’s Conservative Political Action Conference Texas event in Dallas.
According to the UN at least 471 people were killed, wounded, or are missing as a result of clashes between the rival G-9 and G-Pep gangs in Port-au-Prince’s Cité Soleil neighborhood earlier this month. The fighting displaced some 3000 people and destroyed at least 140 houses.
Some 18 billion tons of water melted off of Greenland’s ice sheet in just three days earlier this month (July 15-17), fueled by temperatures that averaged a balmy 60 degrees Fahrenheit or about 10 degrees warmer than Greenland is supposed to be at this time of year. That amount of water would be enough to flood the entire state of West Virginia to a depth of one foot, which on the plus side might leave more space for Senator Joe Manchin to sail his houseboat. The level of melting actually worsened last week, with a lost of 8 to 10 billion tons of water per day from July 20-23. Maybe we can get all that water into West Virginia too and really open up the houseboat market. The melting is so bad that the East Greenland Ice-core Project, which takes ice samples to try to assess the impact of climate change, can’t land a plane on the ice sheet in order to fly its samples out of Greenland so that they can be studied. In other words, everything is mostly fine.
Finally, at Foreign Affairs scholar Mark Lynch argues that Joe Biden’s recent trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia shows that the United States still doesn’t really understand the Middle East:
Yet the Biden administration had broader ambitions for the trip that aren’t fully captured by the scorecard of short-term deliverables. The administration believed that it needed to reset relations with Saudi Arabia and other regional allies, working on the relationships for their own sake to better deal with a range of issues. The likely impending demise of negotiations for a revived nuclear agreement with Iran, as well as the rippling shocks from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, added some urgency. While media rumors ahead of the visit about the creation of a formal military alliance with the Arab states and Israel proved premature, the intent of the trip was to push the region toward a new regional order based on Israeli-Arab cooperation against Iran under American guidance.
The trip did make some small steps in that direction—but not in ways that are likely to increase regional stability. The security architecture envisioned by the administration would not be novel. Israel’s alignment with Arab states against Iran has been growing for decades. The Abraham Accords, first brokered under the administration of President Donald Trump, made cooperation formal and public and explicitly removed the questions of Palestine and human rights from the equation. The United States is gambling on the ability of autocratic Arab states to embrace a regional order that includes Israel without concern for how these policies are received by their publics back home. But taking that risk at a time of escalating economic, political, and social crisis across much of the region is likely to backfire—as it has in the past.
Orchestrating a U.S.-led Middle Eastern regional order has been a U.S. pastime since at least 1991, when the United States successfully led a military operation to drive Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait. But today’s Middle East is in no condition to be ordered by Washington. Middle Eastern leaders prefer to hedge their bets within what they see as an increasingly multipolar world, as could be clearly seen in their refusal to take the side of the United States and Europe against Russia. Were Biden to succeed on his own terms by bringing Israel and the Arab autocracies into a formal regional alliance against Iran, it would only repeat the mistakes of the past. This would accelerate the next collapse of regional order by reversing progress toward de-escalation, encouraging domestic repression, and paving the way to the next round of popular uprisings.
Lynch also discussed this piece at his newsletter if you’re interested in a deeper dive.
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