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World roundup: June 12-13 2021
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Brazil, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
June 11, 786: The Battle of Fakhkh, near Mecca, results in the decisive defeat of a small early Shiʿa uprising. What makes this battle notable is that one of the rebel leaders, Idris b. Abdullah, survived and fled to northwestern Africa, where he established the Idrisid dynasty and is credited with founding the nation of Morocco.
June 12, 1898: Philippine rebel leader and dictator Emilio Aguinaldo proclaims Philippine independence with a declaration and a ceremony at his home south of Manila. This date is annually commemorated as Independence Day in the Philippines.
June 12, 1990: The Congress of People's Deputies of Russia adopts the Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, basically proclaiming Russia’s independence from the Soviet Union although “independence” may not exactly be the right term for this particular situation. This date is annually commemorated in Russia as “Russia Day.”
June 13, 1983: The space probe Pioneer 10, launched in 1972, crosses the orbit of Neptune and becomes the first man-made object to pass the orbits of all the major planets of this solar system. It continued to transmit telemetry data until April 2002 and still sent weak signals back to Earth until January 23, 2003. It’s believed to be further from the sun at this point than any spacecraft save Voyager 1, though it will be surpassed by Voyager 2 sometime in the next few years.
As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 176,702,148 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 3,818,942 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 2.32 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 30 per every 100 people.
At least 13 people were killed and 27 wounded on Saturday when the Turkish-held town of Afrin on northwestern Syria was shelled by…somebody. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is putting the death toll at 18 or more. At least two barrages reportedly hit the town, one striking a residential area and another striking a hospital. Turkish officials quickly blamed the Kurdish YPG militia for the attacks and retaliated with strikes against YPG targets in nearby Tell Rifaat, and given the location YPG involvement at least seems plausible. But the Syrian Democratic Forces militia, which is run by the YPG, says it had nothing to do with the shelling, and while that could be an artful dodge (the YPG and SDF aren’t necessarily one and the same), it is conceivable that the Syrian military or some other group was responsible.
Saudi authorities say that an explosives-carrying drone crashed on the grounds of a school in the kingdom’s ʿAsir province on Sunday, fortunately without exploding or otherwise causing any casualties. While there’s no confirmation that the was a Houthi drone, there were reports that the Houthis did launch a drone earlier in the day and ʿAsir does border Yemen.
A private Israeli security guard gunned down a Palestinian woman at a West Bank security checkpoint near Jerusalem on Saturday. The woman was allegedly brandishing a knife and “ignored calls to stop.” She’d also apparently done prison time over an attempted stabbing back in 2016.
The Israeli Knesset voted by a scant single seat margin on Sunday to confirm a government organized by the “Change” coalition and led by new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and deputy/alternate PM Yair Lapid. Bennett will serve as PM for roughly two years before Lapid takes over to see out the rest of their coalition’s term—assuming Bennett doesn’t force a new election in the meantime. Thus ends Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12+ year stint as Israeli prime minister, though not before he took one last opportunity to rail against his perceived enemies at home and in the United States. Prior to confirming the new government, the Knesset elected a member of Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, Mickey Levy, as its new speaker. He could serve as a bit of a check on Bennett if the new far right PM and his center-right alternate disagree on something.
As for Netanyahu, he seems intent on assuming the mantle of opposition leader and doing his best to undermine what promises to be a pretty tenuous coalition. But it’s not entirely clear he’s going to get to do that. There have been reports in Israeli media that a handful of senior figures in Netanyahu’s Likud party may be considering campaigns to replace him as party leader. It’s possible the ex-PM’s aura of invulnerability has taken enough of a hit that he could lose a leadership election, though this is definitely a “believe it when you see it” kind of scenario.
Saudi officials on Saturday unveiled their plan for next month’s Hajj and, unsurprisingly, it’s pretty much an expanded version of last year’s plan. The kingdom will still bar foreigners from conducting the pilgrimage, as it did last year, but it will allow some 60,000 pilgrims from within the kingdom, compared with around 1000 last year. Many of those ~60,000 slots will likely be divvied up among nationals of other countries who are resident in Saudi Arabia. Only those who have been vaccinated will be permitted to attend.
Azerbaijani authorities announced the release of 15 Armenian prisoners of war on Saturday in return for minefield maps for parts of Azerbaijan that had been occupied by Armenian forces until the conclusion of last fall’s Nagorno-Karabakh war. Presumably that answers the question of whether such maps actually exist. The issue of Armenian captives continues to be a focus for Yerevan in post-war diplomacy, and ideally this agreement will build some momentum for more difficult talks on issues like regional connectivity and border demarcation.
Two more minibuses were bombed in western Kabul’s Hazara neighborhoods on Saturday, leaving at least seven dead. To nobody’s surprise, the Islamic State—which frequently targets Hazara and has been particularly interested in bombing these minibuses of late—later claimed responsibility.
A shootout involving Indian police and Kashmiri separatists reportedly left at least two police officers and two civilians dead in the Kashmiri town of Sopore on Saturday. It would appear the militants opened fire on police who were enforcing pandemic regulations, kicking off the firefight. But witnesses have suggested that the cops killed one of the civilians after the militants had withdrawn, and that’s sparked anti-India protests in Sopore.
Philippine soldiers reportedly killed a senior Abu Sayyaf leader named Injam Yadah along with three other militants in an engagement in Sulu province on Sunday. Yadah was wanted in connection with multiple kidnappings for ransom. The soldiers joined a police unit in attempting to arrest him early Sunday morning, but the arrest attempt clearly deteriorated.
Algeria’s parliamentary election on Saturday was marked, as expected, by very low turnout. A mere 30.2 percent of eligible voters headed to the polls nationwide, even lower than the 35.7 percent who voted in the 2017 parliamentary election and the lowest turnout any Algerian election has seen in two decades. Voters are more or less superfluous to the functioning of Algerian “democracy,” so turnout in these elections is never massive. But the government’s resistance to genuine change clearly fed calls from the Hirak resistance movement to boycott the vote. Results probably won’t be known for a few days, but the Islamist Movement for a Peaceful Society party has already suggested (absent evidence) that it’s winning.
One police officer and two soldiers were killed on Saturday evening when their patrol vehicle hit an “improvised explosive device” in northeastern Ivory Coast. Jihadist violence seems increasingly to be spilling into Ivory Coast from Burkina Faso via the northeastern Ivorian border.
Another bandit attack, this time striking six villages in northwestern Nigeria’s Zamfara state on Thursday and Friday, has left at least 53 people dead. As usual it seems authorities really have no handle on who exactly was responsible though the conclusion appears to be that they were cattle rustlers.
Sadly, this year’s G7 summit came and went this weekend, with President Joe Biden having already departed the UK for NATO and European Union summits in Brussels, followed by his scheduled meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Switzerland. I know, I’m sad too. But at least there’s always next year’s summit.
The G7 delivered its end-of-summit joint communique on Sunday and unsurprisingly it’s chock full of the kind of generic pablum that usually fills those sorts of things. The gang made one quantifiable pledge, restating its completely inadequate plan to donate a collective one billion COVID vaccine doses to poorer nations. The communique also affirmed the gang’s agreement on a global corporate minimum tax of at least 15 percent. Beyond that the document mentions the need for a “transparent” investigation into COVID’s origins, calls for Russia to cool it with the hacking and Ethiopia to stop starving Tigrayans, and makes some vague promises to Get Tough On China and to Address Climate Change. In reality, G7 members can’t even agree to quit burning coal, much less to adopt measures that would reflect genuine seriousness about climate change, and there’s absolutely no consensus as to what “Getting Tough On China” should mean in an actionable sense.
Although it wasn’t on the agenda and really isn’t appropriate for a G7 summit, the weekend was apparently dominated by tension between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and several of his G7 peers—US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in particular—over the havoc that Brexit is currently wreaking with respect to Northern Ireland. Johnson keeps threatening to ignore the UK’s Brexit withdrawal agreement, which obliges him to institute customs checks on goods being shipped between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. In particular he’s trying to avoid restrictions on British meat products entering Northern Ireland, which are supposed to come into effect soon. Macron, Merkel, and EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel took turns meeting with Johnson on Saturday to insist that he abide by the Brexit agreement, and Biden—who has been a consistent critic of Brexit especially over Northern Ireland—didn’t exactly offer the UK PM any comfort.
The Intercept’s Andrew Fishman reports that as Jair Bolsonaro’s political fortunes are flagging, he seems to be turning further toward authoritarianism:
Bright red blood gushed through Daniel Campelo da Silva’s fingers, staining his otherwise immaculate white polo shirt. He was out buying work supplies on May 29 in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife. Peaceful protests against far-right President Jair Bolsonaro were sweeping Brazil, and da Silva was walking into one, unaware that riot police would soon, without warning, violently crack down. A police officer shot the 51-year-old da Silva with a rubber-tipped bullet, leading to the loss of his eye.
Da Silva’s tragic misfortune is emblematic of multiple facets of Brazil’s descent into disarray. On a basic level, a common man working to pay his bills is permanently scarred by authoritarian state violence, carried out in an effort to stamp out left-wing resistance. Beneath the surface, a more ominous dynamic was at work: Gov. Paulo Câmara, a Bolsonaro critic and commander-in-chief of the state police, insists that neither he nor anybody from his office gave the order to attack the protestors. The president’s interests had apparently overridden the governor’s legal authority over the security forces. One columnist was prompted to ask: “Who commands the police?”
The power struggle and the consequences for people like da Silva raise another, larger question: How far will Bolsonaro go to stay in power?
Bolsonaro, who faces record disapproval, has ratcheted up his pressure on opponents in various ways, attempting to fortify himself ahead of presidential elections next October. He has worked to build a solid base among local police rank and file (although that support may be fading) and replaced wavering allies with loyal shock troops in key military, intelligence, and law enforcement positions. All the while, Bolsonaro has repeatedly signaled his desire to rewrite the rules to give himself more power, even if it requires a coup to do so.
There’s really nothing new to report here. Pedro Castillo has won last Sunday’s runoff but authorities refuse to call it, presumably due to the narrow margin and the possibility of recounts but I wouldn’t discount the notion that if the conservative held this lead he (or she) would’ve gotten an official nod by now.
Nicaraguan authorities arrested five more opposition politicians on Sunday, including at least two former Sandinistas, Hugo Torres and Dora María Téllez. Interestingly it seems they’re not just arresting potential rivals to President Daniel Ortega’s reelection in November anymore and have expanded to opposition figures in general.
Finally, Nonzero Newsletter’s Robert Wright and Connor Echols take a look at some recent incidents of…oh, let’s say “threat inflation” by a couple of leading US news outlets:
This week the New York Times published an article titled “Senate Poised to Pass Huge Industrial Policy Bill to Counter China.” It details how the growing perception of a threat from China has created bipartisan support for massive new government spending on tech. What makes the piece interesting is how it subtly supports the trend it describes. Here’s the lead paragraph:
WASHINGTON — Faced with an urgent competitive threat from China, the Senate is poised to pass the most expansive industrial policy legislation in U.S. history, blowing past partisan divisions over government support for private industry to embrace a nearly quarter-trillion-dollar investment in building up America’s manufacturing and technological edge.
Note that “urgent competitive threat from China” has no attribution. The Times simply states as fact that China poses a threat—and an urgent one, the kind that must be countered immediately—even though many foreign policy analysts would take issue with this claim.
The piece was co-written by David Sanger, a star foreign policy reporter for the Times whom this newsletter has characterized as having “apocalypse-hastening tendencies.” Through melodramatic framing and occasional editorializing, Sanger has time and again heightened America’s perception of threat from such adversaries as China, Russia, and Iran.
But Sanger is far from being the only mainstream reporter who subtly promotes a hawkish worldview. The journalistic “voice of God”—the ostensibly objective and therefore authoritative tone that traditional American news outlets convey—is often used to defend interventionist American policies or push our leaders to do something about, well, everything. Indeed, as another news outlet illustrated this week, sometimes this hawkish voice of God is used to create scary stories almost out of whole cloth.
David Sanger is in my opinion truly one of the worst reporters in America so I’m always happy to amplify criticism of his grossly biased reporting. You’ll want to click the link for their take on POLITICO’s “Iran Is Sailing Across The Ocean” panic-fest.