World roundup: July 3-4 2021
Stories from Egypt, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and more
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Happy Fourth of July to those who are celebrating! We’re filing tonight’s roundup a little early for the occasion.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
July 3, 1863: The Union Army of the Potomac defeats the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Gettysburg. Their defeat ended a brief Confederate invasion of the north and, combined with the Union victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, a day later, is often considered the turning point of the US Civil War.
July 3, 1866: The Battle of Königgrätz, the key engagement in the Austro-Prussian War, ends with a decisive Prussian victory. The war ended a few weeks later and established Prussia as the dominant German state. This paved the way for German unification under Prussian auspices.
July 3, 2013: A military coup overthrows the Egyptian government of Mohamed Morsi, ending a brief experiment in democracy and returning Egypt to military rule.
July 4, 1187: The Battle of Hattin
July 4, 1776: The “Declaration of Independence” is published in Britain’s North American colonies. Commemorated annually as Independence Day in the United States.
As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 184,547,730 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 3,993,056 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 3.16 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 41 for every 100 people.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian army shelled the Jabal Zawiyah region in southern Idlib province on Saturday, killing at least nine people and wounding another 15. There’s been an escalation of artillery and airstrikes along the front line in northwestern Syria for a few weeks now though not so much that a ground attack seems imminent. Still, Jabal Zawiyah is a relatively strategic highland, so if the Syrian army were of a mind to try an advance that area would be a likely target.
The US military is denying reports that one of its facilities in northeastern Syria came under rocket fire late Sunday, which puts it at odds with Syrian state media, the SOHR, and the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, all of whom reported the attack. The rockets caused no casualties and it’s not clear who fired them, though chances are it was one of those Iraqi militias the US deterred last weekend.
Yemeni government sources are blaming the Houthis for an apparent missile strike on a military facility in southern Yemen’s Abyan province on Sunday that killed at least two soldiers and wounded 20 others. As far as I know the Houthis haven’t commented on this incident, and some skepticism might be in order because there’s no obvious rationale for them to be attacking targets in Abyan.
The Israeli military conducted more airstrikes on Gaza overnight in response to the release of more “incendiary balloons” out of the enclave on Saturday. The Israelis struck what they characterized as Hamas military targets and at this point there are no reports of any casualties. Also Saturday, Israeli occupation forces shot and killed a Palestinian man who may have been simply his village outside the West Bank city of Nablus. Palestinian media is reporting that group of Israeli settlers, accompanied by soldiers, “stormed” the Palestinian village, and the soldiers then fired on a group of residents who came out to meet them.
In Ramallah, hundreds of Palestinians turned out on Saturday to protest the Palestinian Authority government of Mahmoud Abbas, continuing a streak of demonstrations that began last month when PA security forces killed (allegedly, I guess) activist Nizar Banat. On Sunday morning, Israeli forces arrested activist Farid al-Atrash, who had taken part in Saturday’s protest, though it’s unclear whether they arrested him over that or something else.
Israeli officials are looking into claims that an Israeli-owned cargo ship came under attack en route from the Saudi port of Jeddah to the United Arab Emirates. The Hezbollah-aligned Lebanese TV network Al Mayadeen reported on the attack on Saturday, but details are sparse. If the ship did come under attack there’s no indication that it was heavily damaged and it seems to have continued on to its planned destination (Dubai) uninterrupted. If there was an attack suspicion will obviously fall on Iran, whose military has been engaged in a low-level maritime conflict with the Israelis for several months now.
The Egyptian military on Saturday opened a new naval base relatively close to the Libyan border that’s part of a larger project to rebuild Egypt’s military and geopolitical profile. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was joined by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and the head of Libya’s interim presidential council, Mohamed al-Menfi, which is I think illustrative. Egypt and the UAE are part of a budding alignment (with Greece and Cyprus) intended to contain Turkish ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean, a project that was part of the motivation for building this new facility. Prying Libya out of Turkey’s diplomatic orbit is a major part of that effort, hence the invitation to Menfi. The base is named “July 3,” not for its founding but to commemorate the date of the 2013 military coup that put Sisi in power.
Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority announced on Sunday that it’s reached an agreement with the owners of the Ever Given, the massive cargo ship that ran aground in the canal back in late March and plugged up commercial traffic for almost a week. Details of the settlement are unclear. The authority came out of the gate demanding a whopping $916 million from the ship’s owners, then lowered that to $550 million. Presumably the settlement is still lower than that. The ship, which the SCA had been holding effectively hostage while settlement talks were ongoing, is scheduled to set sail on Wednesday, when the deal will be formally signed.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Emirati officials are still pushing back on the OPEC+ group’s proposal to begin ramping back up to pre-COVID levels. The group was supposed to have announced its plans after a ministerial meeting on Thursday, but the UAE’s resistance pushed that meeting first to Friday, then to Monday, and now maybe beyond that. The proposal calls for leaving some pandemic-imposed production cuts in place through the end of 2022 instead of phasing them out entirely in April, out of concern that a quick resumption of full production might create a glut in the market. Although the UAE is not as economically reliant on oil exports as the Saudis it (Abu Dhabi mostly) is one of the world’s largest oil producers and its leaders are clearly looking to get production back on line ASAP.
The Taliban continued advancing through northern Afghanistan over the weekend, seizing several more districts and sending a number of Afghan soldiers into retreat, including some 300 who fled from Badakhshan province into Tajikistan. Taliban fighters have reportedly made particular progress through Badakhshan, where isolated Afghan forces have received little support from Kabul, and some officials in the provincial government have begun fleeing their capital, Faizabad, in anticipation of a Taliban move against that city. The Taliban continues to make securing Afghanistan’s northern borders a priority, perhaps in order to prevent any supplies coming overland to assist the Afghan government. On Sunday Taliban fighters reportedly seized Panjwai district in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, which is close enough to Kandahar city to be of serious concern.
The New York Times has details on the pace of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan that somewhat contradict the Biden administration’s claim on Friday that it will be completed by the end of August. In fact, if I’m understanding the NYT’s report correctly, the withdrawal is complete already, as of Friday’s evacuation of Bagram airbase. But the Pentagon is extending its “presence” in Afghanistan on paper in a few ways, mostly out of concern for Afghan morale. What this means is that the US commander in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, will remain in country for some indeterminate period, after which he’ll turn his authority over to US Central Command boss Kenneth McKenzie. He’ll be authorized to continue US airstrikes, including against the Taliban under certain circumstances, and he’ll have 300 soldiers on standby to move back into Afghanistan to assist the 650 US personnel staying behind to secure the embassy in Kabul. Those forces would be used to help evacuate the embassy in the worst case scenario. The US will also maintain some of its contractors in Afghanistan, primarily contractors who are involved in maintaining the Afghan air force.
Pakistani national security adviser Moeed Yousuf on Sunday accused Indian intelligence operatives of carrying out a bombing last month that killed at least three people in Lahore. According to Yousuf the investigation has led to a “main mastermind” who works for India’s Research and Analysis Wing agency. The attack took place near the home of Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba group and believed to be the man behind the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai in which some 175 people were killed. He’s obviously a wanted man in India, and he’s been convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term in Pakistan but his whereabouts are not exactly known. The bombing fueled speculation that he may be serving some sort of house arrest, but whatever his disposition he was not injured in the blast.
Myanmar’s security forces killed at least 25 people on Friday in some kind of confrontation near a village in the country’s Sagaing region. Accounts of this incident differ. The ruling junta claims its soldiers were ambushed by armed gunmen and reacted in self-defense. Witnesses, meanwhile, say the military entered the town in force and that the local “People’s Defense Force” militia tried to resist but was overwhelmed by the military’s firepower. Myanmar forces have killed more than 880 people since February’s coup, according to the United Nations.
The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum adjourned its week of meetings in Geneva on Friday with no agreement on how to approach the general election Libya is scheduled to hold on December 24. The forum was supposed to determine a constitutional basis for an election that at this point has none. It’s apparently formed a new committee to try to broker some compromise among a number of competing proposals.
Attackers ambushed a military patrol near the town of Léré in Mali’s Tombouctou region on Sunday, killing at least four soldiers. There’s been no claim of responsibility and both al-Qaeda’s JNIM affiliate and Islamic State fighters are known to be active in that area.
Efforts to address the dire humanitarian situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region may be on the verge of a breakthrough—or maybe not. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front issued a statement on Sunday saying that it had agreed “in principle” to reciprocate the ceasefire that the Ethiopian government announced on Monday. A full ceasefire could clear the way for a major humanitarian push into Tigray, where hundreds of thousands of people are believed to be in critical need of aid and millions more are struggling amid the region’s ongoing conflict.
But that “in principle” part contains a fair amount of uncertainty. In return for accepting the ceasefire, the TPLF is demanding the withdrawal of forces from Eritrea and from Ethiopia’s Amhara region from Tigray, along with the official restoration of the pre-war, TPLF-led regional government and investigations into alleged atrocities committed by Ethiopian and Eritrean personnel during the conflict. These conditions are going to meet some pushback. The Eritreans are going to do what they want, though their presence in Tigray is probably difficult to sustain and they may be looking for an exit anyway. The Ethiopian government is likely to resist putting the TPLF back in control of the regional government. But the biggest hurdle could be getting Amharic forces to agree to vacate the parts of western Tigray they’ve occupied. That region has been disputed between the Tigray and Amhara historically and the occupation may be a precursor to annexation.
An al-Shabab suicide bomber killed at least ten people on Friday in an attack on a tea shop near the headquarters of Somalia’s intelligence agency. “Dozens” more people were reportedly injured in the blast.
The Lithuanian government declared a state of emergency late Friday over an apparent surge of migrants attempting to enter the country from Belarus. Interior Minister Agnė Bilotaitė characterized the declaration as an effort to move resources in place to deal with the influx of people rather than a strictly national security decision. Lithuanian border officials said Friday that they’d intercepted some 150 people attempting to cross over from Belarus over the previous day, far higher than the normal amount of traffic. Many are not themselves Belarusian but have crossed through Belarus in an attempt to enter the European Union. European officials have promised some assistance in the form of EU border guards deployed to both Lithuania and Latvia.
Tens of thousands turned out in cities across Brazil on Saturday to express their heartfelt wish that President Jair Bolsonaro hit the bricks. The previous day, Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber cleared the way for prosecutors to include Bolsonaro in their probe into illicit activity involving Brazil’s acquisition of an Indian-made COVID vaccine, which has fueled calls for impeachment and helped motivate Saturday’s protesters.
The Peruvian government on Friday denied presidential runner up Keiko Fujimori’s request for an international audit into last month’s runoff, arguing that it cannot intervene while elections officials are still working through all of Fujimori’s various fraud claims. Having narrowly lost the runoff to leftist Pedro Castillo, Fujimori has been claiming that she was cheated but very few people seem to be listening. Her most recent gambit has been to demand that the Organization of American States step in and check the results but the OAS cannot act if the Peruvian government doesn’t request it and anyway OAS officials say they’ve seen nothing wrong with the runoff vote. Fujimori’s real goal increasingly seems to be to delay the official declaration of Castillo’s victory long enough to throw Peru into a legal and constitutional crisis.
I don’t really have a story here but in case some of you haven’t seen the video of that Pemex gas pipeline leak that set the Gulf of Mexico on fire on Friday, enjoy:
The fire was extinguished relatively quickly and there’s no word as to how much damage the leak may have done environmentally. Pemex insists there was no associated gas spill but I’m really not sure how that could possibly be the case.
Finally, I think we can take it easy on the United States on its birthday, but we should note that there’s been another major cyber attack this weekend and Joe Biden has now tasked US intelligence agencies with investigating it:
Huntress, a security company, said on Friday it believed the Russia-linked REvil ransomware gang was to blame. Last month, the FBI blamed the same group for paralyzing the meat packer JBS.
Active since April 2019, REvil develops network-paralyzing software and leases it to so-called affiliates who infect targets and earn the lion’s share of ransoms. JBS, a Brazil-based meat company, said it had paid the equivalent of an $11m ransom, escalating calls by US law enforcement to bring such groups to justice.
On a visit to Michigan, Biden was asked about the hack while shopping for pies at a cherry orchard. The president said “we’re not certain” who is behind the attack.
“The initial thinking was it was not the Russian government but we’re not sure yet,” he said.
What’s with the pessimism? If the US intelligence community has demonstrated anything over the past decade or so it’s that it can figure out a way to blame pretty much anything on the Russian government. Let’s see what they come up with this time!