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World roundup: May 18 2021
Stories from India, Morocco, El Salvador, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 17, 1997: Having chased Zaire’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, into exile the day before, military forces aligned with Laurent-Désiré Kabila and the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo enter Kinshasa, bringing an end to the First Congo War. Kabila succeeded Mobutu as president of Zaire, which was quickly renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The war, which had begun the previous year when Rwandan Patriotic Front forces invaded Zaire in pursuit of fleeing Hutu génocidaires, was reignited the following year when Kabila expelled his erstwhile Rwandan and Ugandan allies from the country. The Second Congo War technically ended in 2003, though military conflict in the eastern DRC has continued through the present day.
May 18, 1291: Among several other notorious Crusades anniversaries, May 18 was the date on which the city of Acre, the last Crusader state in the Levant, fell to the besieging Mamluks. It would take several more days to clear out the city, whose fall marked the end of the main Crusading movement.
May 18, 1974: The Indian military successfully detonates the country’s first nuclear weapon in a test ironically (I assume) code named “Smiling Buddha.” The test made India the world’s sixth acknowledged nuclear weapons state after the US, USSR, UK, France, and China. In reality it’s widely believed that Israel already had nuclear weapons by this point as well, but since the Israelis refuse to acknowledge their nuclear weapons program its origins remain murky.
May 18, 2009: The nearly 26 year long Sri Lankan Civil War ends with the government’s defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (AKA Tamil Tigers) rebel group. Sri Lankan authorities had declared victory on May 16 and the LTTE had acknowledged its defeat on May 17, but it was on the morning of May 18 when LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was caught and killed by government forces while attempting to flee the final LTTE-controlled enclave. The war is estimated to have killed upwards of 100,000 people in total and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for May 18:
164,883,378 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+611,227 since yesterday)
3,418,165 reported fatalities (+13,943 since yesterday)
For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here
The International Energy Agency released a new report on Tuesday that concludes that there is a path for humanity to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and possibly hold the global temperature increase to a manageable level. It’s just not a path we’re likely to take:
Nations around the world would need to immediately stop approving new coal-fired power plants and new oil and gas fields and quickly phase out gasoline-powered vehicles if they want to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change, the world’s leading energy agency said Tuesday.
In a sweeping new report, the International Energy Agency issued a detailed road map of what it would take for the world’s nations to slash carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050. That would very likely keep the average global temperature from increasing 1.5 Celsius above preindustrial levels — the threshold beyond which scientists say the Earth faces irreversible damage.
While academics and environmentalists have made similar recommendations before, this is the first time the International Energy Agency has outlined ways to accomplish such drastic cuts in emissions.
As the NYT points out, the fact that this is coming from an industry group rather than an environmental organization is a big deal in the sense that it’s more likely to be taken seriously by energy firms. But while I don’t want to be pessimistic, when you have the new US climate envoy going around blabbering that half of our potential emissions reductions are going to come from mystery technologies that don’t exist yet but will at some indeterminate point in the future, it’s hard to find much of a reason for optimism.
23,830 confirmed coronavirus cases (+42)
1710 reported fatalities (+5)
I know this is small potatoes, but the AP has published a small profile today about one of the two people who were permitted to run against Bashar al-Assad in next week’s Syrian presidential election and while I have no idea why they did so, I really think we owe it to this poor guy to read it. Mohamoud Marei, who is an opposition politician though to be fair he’s part of the officially managed/legal opposition, says he is “a real contender” to defeat Assad. Marei’s chances of winning the election, mind you, are probably less than a single percentage point better than my chances of winning the election, and that’s only to account for the fact that I’m a) not running and b) not Syrian. Still, good on him for being optimistic.
In perhaps more meaningful news, the Syrian Democratic Forces militia has apparently been cutting electricity to Turkish-held parts of northeastern Syria, specifically around the border town of Ras al-Ayn, despite requests from Turkish and Russian officials to keep the proverbial (and actual, come to think of it) lights on. The SDF is blaming the power cuts on low water levels on the Euphrates River, which it says has been caused in part by Turkey restricting the upstream river flow amid a serious regional drought. Turkish officials insist they’re not interfering with the river and that the problem is the drought alone (well, the drought plus the SDF’s water mismanagement) and that the SDF is intentionally cutting power to areas under Turkish control.
536,554 confirmed cases (+600)
7641 reported fatalities (+10)
Israeli soldiers wounded at least five people who were protesting the ongoing violence in Gaza (see below) on the Lebanese side of the border on Tuesday. The Israeli personnel reportedly fired smoke bombs and tear gas at the demonstrators. Demonstrators have been gathering at the Lebanese-Israeli border and the Jordanian-Israeli border for the past several days to protest the conflict. Israel forces killed one person in Lebanon on Friday, alleging that he tried to cross into Israel.
The Saudi government summoned the Lebanese ambassador in Riyadh on Tuesday to lodge a formal complaint over remarks the previous day by interim Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe. The UAE did likewise, and the Kuwaiti government also passed along its thoughts. In a televised interview, Wehbe said that “those countries of love, friendship and fraternity,” referring to the Gulf states though he didn’t specify any in particular, “they brought us Islamic State.” I know, where’s the lie, etc., but the validity of that remark (which Wehbe of course insists has been “misrepresented”) is less relevant than the fact that it shouldn’t have come out of the mouth of the foreign minister of an economically struggling Arab country that is trying to rebuild its tattered relationship with wealthy Gulf states. Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Tuesday that Wehbe wasn’t speaking in any official capacity but I’m not sure that’s going to be enough to smooth things over.
839,167 confirmed cases (+8) in Israel, 304,074 confirmed cases (+0) in Palestine
6392 reported fatalities (+3) in Israel, 3437 reported fatalities (+0) in Palestine
The casualty count in Gaza now stands at 215 killed (217 by Wednesday morning) and more than 1400 wounded in the eight days since the enclave’s most recent war began. On the Israeli side 12 people have been killed, including two Thai workers killed Tuesday when a rocket struck an Israeli farm just outside Gaza. Some 450 buildings in Gaza have been destroyed, the enclave’s infrastructure—particularly its healthcare system—is in ruins, and an estimated 52,000 people have been displaced. “Displaced” in this context is certainly relative—while those people have left their (possibly destroyed) homes, they really have no way to actually escape the violence. Israeli authorities did agree to open the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza for humanitarian aid, though mortar fire reportedly prompted them to close it again.
Palestinians in the Occupied Territories joined Palestinian-Israelis in Israel proper in a general strike on Tuesday, a display of unity that’s almost unprecedented since the creation of Israel in 1948. Al Jazeera has compiled several images of the strike and corresponding demonstrations. Israeli occupation forces killed at least two Palestinians in a demonstration in Hebron and wounded at least 97 Palestinians during demonstrations across the West Bank.
Elsewhere, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a visit to Iceland on Tuesday that the Biden administration is “not standing in the way of diplomacy” on the Gaza conflict at the United Nations. Simply put Blinken is lying, and he’s not even bothering to put much effort into it. Joe Biden did apparently express “support” for a ceasefire in a Monday phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but far from demanding or insisting on one it seems Biden more or less said “gosh Bibi, whatever you guys want to do is fine with me, ceasefire or more killing, we’re cool either way.”
Under growing criticism and after Biden’s visit to Dearborn, Michigan, on Tuesday was met with several protests (and apparently a tense conversation with Representative Rashida Tlaib), the White House went into damage control mode late Tuesday via leaks to POLITICO and the New York Times. From the Times we learn that, despite the public shows of support, Biden had taken “a somewhat sharper private tone” with Netanyahu during their call. I see no reason to believe this and less reason to believe that Netanyahu would care even if we assume it’s true. From POLITICO we learn that Biden’s public ass-kissing and his near-saintly willingness to absorb the slings and arrows of his detractors (for, among other things, standing in the way of diplomacy at the UN) almost single-handedly prevented an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza and have ensured that an end to the fighting is near. I have no problem believing that we may be approaching an end to the fighting, if only because the Israeli military is running out of apartment buildings to destroy, but again I see no reason to believe the rest of this self-serving garbage.
This absence of a US response might present an opportunity for the European Union to try to exert some influence, but that assumes it has any to exert and that it can reach some kind of internal consensus, neither of which seems likely. The EU (except for Hungary) did call for a ceasefire on Tuesday, which is more than you can say for the US. But as you’ve presumably concluded by now, “more than you can say for the US” is a very, very low bar.
Anyone interested in reading more about the context of the Israeli occupation from a Palestinian perspective would be well advised to check out Dana El Kurd’s excellent new piece for New Left Review’s Sidecar blog:
What has led us to this point? Ever since the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, the Israelis, backed by the US and the EU, with the collaboration of the Palestinian Authority and the acquiescence or capitulation of the Arab States, established structures that institutionalized Israeli control and occupation of the Palestinian territories. The geographic fragmentation of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C, and its separation from both the eastern part of Jerusalem and Gaza, is part of this realignment. In addition, unending American intervention has done its best to demobilize Palestinians so that they cannot effectively resist their oppressors. The leadership of Fatah (synonymous with the Palestinian Authority) act as sub-contractors for the Israeli occupation on every level, forcibly putting down resistance or protest movements whenever they begin to stir. Yet, despite all this, the post-Oslo generations will not give up on the goal of self-determination that the ‘international community’ has denied them. For over a decade, their anticolonial struggle has confronted three separate forms of intervention from foreign powers: diplomatic pressure, foreign aid, and security involvement. It is worth taking a moment to examine these in turn.
2,779,415 confirmed cases (+13,930)
77,532 reported fatalities (+310)
With Iran’s presidential campaign now officially underway, Al-Monitor is reporting that the effort to encourage people to boycott that campaign is also hitting full stride. Turnout for last year’s parliamentary election was around 42.5 percent, which was unprecedentedly low for the Islamic Republic. Turnout for this election may well be lower, especially if (as it did last year) the Guardian Council excludes any candidate who could be considered “reformist” or even “moderate.” For the establishment, turnout—which is often cited as proof that Iranian politics are “legitimate,” however you want to define that—is as important as the outcome in most elections, if not more so. Very low turnout, especially in a presidential election, will be an embarrassment.
25,495,144 confirmed cases (+267,174)
283,276 reported fatalities (+4525)
It increasingly looks like India will not be able to resume exporting COVID vaccines until at least October, as it diverts its vaccine production efforts to meet the needs of its latest, massive spike in cases. Trends suggest that spike has peaked, at least as far as the official figures are concerned, but rates of new infections and deaths are still at unsustainable levels. The longer it takes India to resume exports, the worse the prognosis for vaccination drives throughout the developing world, particularly across Africa. All the more reason for the global haves, like the United States, to export a larger portion of their vaccine surpluses and to help develop alternatives to India for vaccine manufacturing.
479,421 confirmed cases (+4865)
1994 reported fatalities (+47)
Malaysian police reportedly killed five members of the Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf jihadist group during a raid on one of the group’s hideouts in Sabah state on Monday evening. One of the five was apparently a senior Abu Sayyaf leader wanted by the Philippine government. Abu Sayyaf has long had an active presence in Sabah—its fighters travel back and forth to the Philippines via the Sulu Sea.
34,272 confirmed cases (+0)
2446 reported fatalities (+0)
French President Emmanuel Macron, the fresh face of European colonialism, hosted a summit in Paris on Tuesday on the subject of supporting the economies and forgiving the debts of struggling African nations. Debt forgiveness is essential for many African states, and while Macron’s motives can be questioned—he’s not doing this out of a sense of altruism, he’s trying to improve France’s global image—and its fair to wonder about the details—whether this effort will involve a meaningful amount of debt relief, what strings will be attached, etc.—in principle this seems like a good thing. To get the ball rolling, on Monday Macron announced that his government has a deal in place to provide Sudan with a $1.5 billion bridge loan so that Khartoum can settle its accounts with the International Monetary Fund, and further suggested that France is prepared to forgive the $5 billion it’s owed by the Sudanese government.
515,420 confirmed cases (+397) in Morocco, 10 confirmed cases (+0) in Western Sahara
9105 reported fatalities (+1) in Morocco, 1 reported fatality (+0) in Western Sahara
Upwards of 8000 migrants have entered the Spanish region of Ceuta over the past two days. They are effectively being used as pawns in a diplomatic rift between the Spanish and Moroccan governments, one that escalated on Tuesday when the Moroccan government recalled its ambassador from Madrid. Last month, Spanish authorities allowed Brahim Ghali, “president” of the unrecognized “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic” and therefore the main leader of the Western Saharan independence movement, to seek treatment for a COVID infection in a Spanish hospital. This has infuriated the Moroccan government, which has apparently decided to start looking the other way with respect to migrants trying to enter Ceuta or Spain’s other North African exclave, Melilla. Those regions represent the only direct land crossings from Africa into the European Union so there is a consistent migrant push to cross the border, one that the Moroccan government typically tries to control.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited Ceuta on Tuesday and vowed to treat the newly arrived migrants with dignity and respect, and to ensure their humanitarian needs were met. I’m kidding—he actually promised to deport them back to Morocco as soon as possible. It’s unclear how long the Moroccans intend to keep this up. In addition to anger over Ghali, they may be acting out some frustration that Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Western Sahara as Moroccan territory has not prompted European governments to follow suit. They may want to push Spain in that direction.
165,778 confirmed cases (+0)
2067 reported fatalities (+0)
Nigerian police on Tuesday began a new operation to stem the rising tide of violence across southeastern Nigeria. The past few months have seen a spate of attacks, many of them targeting police in that region, for which the government has blamed the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra group, though it’s unclear how much evidence there is to support those allegations. It’s probably worth noting that Nigerian efforts to tamp down on unrest in other parts of the country haven’t been terribly successful.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
30,620 confirmed cases (+11)
776 reported fatalities (+0)
“An unidentified person” gunned down the leader of a mosque located on the outskirts of the city of Beni in the DRC’s North Kivu province on Tuesday. The imam of Beni’s primary mosque was murdered in similar fashion earlier this month. Suspicion seems to be that the Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces militia has been responsible for these killings, though there’s been no claim of responsibility.
378,711 confirmed cases (+1179)
2721 reported fatalities (+10)
The Belarusian government has reportedly opened a criminal investigation into the independent news outlet Tut.By over tax evasion charges, and on Tuesday police raided its offices and took its website offline. Tut.By has been perhaps the most popular news site in Belarus, but it ran afoul of Alexander Lukashenko’s government over its coverage of last August’s presidential election and its aftermath. Authorities suspended the site’s media credentials in October but it continued operations anyway.
2,160,095 confirmed cases (+4095)
48,469 reported fatalities (+285)
The Ukrainian government has apparently decided to adopt the cause of the Crimean Tatar community for its newest salvo against Russia. This week marks the 77th anniversary of the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars (mostly to the Uzbek SSR) by the Soviet government, a process in which thousands of people died en route and tens of thousands (estimates vary) died as an aftereffect of their relocation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky marked the occasion with a speech in which he argued that Tatars in Crimea today are being “persecuted and imprisoned” by Russian authorities. This aligns with what the Crimean Tatar community has itself been saying—Tatars largely opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and have complained that the Russian government is mistreating them in retaliation. Specific details of this mistreatment are hard to come by.
3,144,547 confirmed cases (+13,137)
82,291 reported fatalities (+482)
The Colombian government says it’s trying to verify claims that Jesús Santrich, a former commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group, has been killed in some sort of incident in Venezuela. Santrich was initially on board with the 2016 peace deal between FARC and the Colombian government, but two years ago he disappeared after being indicted on drug charges in the United States, which put a $10 million bounty on his head to boot. He’s probably been in Venezuela along with a number of ex-FARC fighters who either rejected the peace deal outright or came to reject it later. As to how he might have been killed, it’s unclear from the reporting. Venezuelan authorities have been battling one ex-FARC group, the 10th Front, in Apure State for several weeks now but there’s no indication that had anything to do with Santrich’s (alleged) death.
71,479 confirmed cases (+0)
2195 reported fatalities (+4)
The Biden administration has apparently finished compiling its lists of allegedly corrupt Northern Triangle officials:
The lists include 16 current and former politicians from the three countries, including the chief of cabinet to Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele and current Honduran and Guatemalan lawmakers.
U.S. lawmakers and analysts said the lists appeared to exclude a number of officials who have faced corruption allegations in recent years, including Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who has been implicated in drug trafficking by the Department of Justice. He has denied the charges.
Still, the lists point to one of the major challenges facing the Biden administration as it prepares to increase development assistance to the three so-called Northern Triangle countries in the hope of slowing migration to the United States. Biden has proposed a four-year, $4 billion development program for Central America, the implementation of which is likely to be complicated by corruption allegations in the region.
There were apparently a number of Bukele pals on El Salvador’s list, and while as far as I’m aware there hasn’t been an official comment from any of the three Northern Triangle governments, Bukele did very conspicuously take to Twitter after the lists became public to thank the Chinese government for investing some $500 million in El Salvador “without conditions.” The nature of those investments is not clear.
33,774,945 confirmed cases (+27,506)
601,330 reported fatalities (+733)
Finally, in case you missed it yesterday please check out Alex Thurston’s latest Foreign Exchanges piece, on some of the major warning signs of bad conflict analysis:
The only way to analyze wars, I think, is by humanizing them. There’s no trick that can cut through the need to study history, memory, geography, politics, religion, ideology, ethnicity, etc.—in other words, to understand the people participating in the conflict.
For a rising left cadre of foreign policy thinkers and analysts, one of the first necessary steps is to scrutinize and challenge lazy, reductive analysis and journalism, and not to perpetuate lazy analysis of our own. Another crucial step is to challenge the essentialist underpinnings of much policy, as well as the weird combinations of cynicism and moralism that lead Washington to treat some conflicts as implacable acts of God while treating others as morality tales where Washington acts on behalf of “the people” and casts every opposing actor as an evil meddler. Moving beyond simplistic analyses of conflict will help flesh out an emerging left foreign policy that is neither isolationist nor interventionist, but rather that seeks to minimize the harm America does in the world while maximizing its potential role as peacemaker.