World roundup: July 21 2021

Stories from Israel-Palestine, South Africa, Haiti, and more

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Hello! I’m back from a much needed vacation with a rare unlocked Wednesday newsletter. As is typical when I return from a break we’ll mostly focus on what’s happened today though we will cover a few big stories that broke while I was away.

A belated Eid Mubarak to those who were/are celebrating!

INTERNATIONAL

As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 192,782,607 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 4,141,865 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 3.72 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 49 for every 100 people.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Syrian state media is reporting that the country’s air defenses “intercepted” an Israeli missile strike in Homs province early Thursday. Details as to the effect of the Israeli attack are not yet available so we may have more on this tomorrow.

In one of the more surprising things to happen while I was gone, the Russian government agreed to reauthorize a United Nations humanitarian relief operation bringing aid into northern Syria via Turkey for another year. Moscow had been resisting the extension of what remains Syria’s last active cross-border relief program in favor of funneling aid to rebel-held territory through the Syrian government, and given its veto on the UN Security Council it could have blocked the reauthorization. Russian representatives had proposed a six month reauthorization to allow time to transition to an internal aid distribution program. The compromise calls for a 12 month extension but requires a report in six months (i.e., in January) on the state of that transition. The Russians seem to think that if they don’t like what’s in that report, they could force another reauthorization vote, though US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters that there’s no obligation for a second vote.

IRAQ

Iraqi officials are blaming the Islamic State for an attack on an Iraqi military base near the border separating Diyala and Saladin provinces early Wednesday. At least two Iraqi soldiers were killed in that incident and four others wounded. This attack comes just a couple of days after IS carried out a suicide bombing on Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, killing at least 35 people. That attack targeted a market that was likely more crowded than usual because of the approaching Eid al-Adha holiday. That marked the third IS bombing in Sadr City this year and will heighten concerns that the group is making a bit of a resurgence.

LEBANON

Would-be Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri gave up his latest attempt to form a government last week, resetting the political crisis in Beirut back to square one from square…two? One and a half maybe? My point is he really hadn’t made much progress since being designated as PM back in October. Hariri and President Michel Aoun have been unable to agree on the composition of a cabinet, with each blaming the other for the impasse and the third member of Lebanon’s political trimvirate, parliament speaker Nabih Berri, mostly siding with Hariri despite their political differences. Aoun will now reconvene party leaders to identify a new PM-designate, but Hariri remains the most prominent Sunni political figure in Lebanon so it’s hard to see anyone else credibly assuming the premiership without at least his input. Meanwhile the country’s economic crisis will continue unabated.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

According to Reuters, the Israeli government has tasked “a senior inter-ministerial team” with investigating (though they’re not calling it an “investigation”) claims that the Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware has been used to surveil elected leaders, journalists, activists, and other prominent figures around the world. Several media outlets broke this story over the weekend:

Pegasus is a malware that infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators of the tool to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.

The leak contains a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, it is believed, have been identified as those of people of interest by clients of NSO since 2016.

Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit media organisation, and Amnesty International initially had access to the leaked list and shared access with media partners as part of the Pegasus project, a reporting consortium.

The presence of a phone number in the data does not reveal whether a device was infected with Pegasus or subject to an attempted hack. However, the consortium believes the data is indicative of the potential targets NSO’s government clients identified in advance of possible surveillance attempts.

Forensics analysis of a small number of phones whose numbers appeared on the leaked list also showed more than half had traces of the Pegasus spyware.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has extensive coverage of Pegasus and the revelations about its use, and you can find Forbidden Stories’ work at their website. New information about individuals who may have been targeted is still coming out and will likely continue coming out over the next several days/weeks, but among the most shocking early revelations is circumstantial evidence of a possible connection between the Pegasus project and the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Istanbul.

Reuters is characterizing the (alleged) surveillance as “abuse” of the Pegasus program, but that’s a misleading framework. Pegasus is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, it’s just that these revelations surrounding some of its targets (those involving elected political leaders in particular) are embarrassing for NSO and the Israelis. NSO is claiming that the story is based on a “misleading interpretation of leaked data” and insists it has strong safeguards against the “misuse” of its program. Stories about the program have already drawn denials from several alleged Pegasus users, including the governments of Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

SAUDI ARABIA

OPEC+ managed to reach a consensus on ratcheting up global oil production on Monday, resolving a dispute that highlighted some signs of tension in the Saudi-United Arab Emirates relationship. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited Riyadh on Monday to patch things up or at least sweep the unpleasantness under the carpet for a little while.

The new OPEC+ plan calls for the group to increase global production by 400,000 barrels per day each month from August through December of this year, meaning production levels will be up a total of 2 million bpd by the end of 2021, and to phase out all COVID-related production cuts by next September. Previously the plan was to phase those cuts out completely by next April, but the Saudis and Russia have opted for a slower increase out of concerns about creating a supply glut. Emirati leaders had been resisting that idea but have settled for a reassessment of their pre-pandemic production baseline from just under 3.2 million bpd to 3.8 million bpd, which will have the effect of allowing them to increase production more rapidly. Several other OPEC+ states, including Russia and the Saudis, also adjusted their baselines up a bit.

IRAN

Iranian media is reporting that one police officer was shot and killed and another wounded Tuesday evening in the city of Bandar-e Mahshahr, bringing the number of people killed in almost a week of sustained protests over water shortages in Khuzestan province to at least three. Two demonstrators were killed on Friday. Iranian officials have blamed violent protesters for all three deaths though the two on Friday seem more likely to have been killed by security forces, and it’s very possible, even probable, that more people have died than the official count indicates. Khuzestan often runs low on water under the best of circumstances and thanks to skyrocketing summer temperatures in the Persian Gulf region these are not the best of circumstances. The shortages can feed into a not-completely-unjustified sense that Tehran is slighting the province, which in turn feeds allegations of official bias against Khuzestan’s large Arab population. Mismanagement and illicit water transfers are part of Khuzestan’s water problem, though whether that reflects official policy or just some garden variety incompetence/corruption is unclear.

Iranian chief negotiator Abbas Araghchi called a halt to negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal late last week, citing Iran’s presidential transition. President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is set to take office early next month and undoubtedly wants to ensure that any agreement happens on his watch rather than under the aegis of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani. Araghchi indicated that he’s still prepared to talk about a prisoner exchange, something Iranian, UK, and US representatives have apparently been discussing on the sidelines of the nuclear talks, but alleged that the US is linking any prisoner exchange to the nuclear deal. That comment drew an angry response from the State Department that, while definitely angry, was not exactly a denial.

Meanwhile, Rouhani’s government is now suggesting that a bill passed by the Iranian parliament back in December in response to US sanctions is blocking a resolution to the nuclear talks. This is not out of the question but it does smack of Rouhani trying to deflect blame for failing to revive the 2015 agreement before the end of his term. It’s not a serious obstacle to the talks because anything the Iranian parliament does can be pretty quickly undone if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei wants it to be.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban on Wednesday announced an Eid ceasefire of sorts, with a spokesperson telling AFP that the militants are in “defense status” through Friday. Presumably that means they’ll only fight if attacked though in fairness that spokesperson doesn’t appear to have explained what exactly “defense status” entails. Taliban leaders will presumably use the time to consolidate some of their recent gains, which according to US Joint Chiefs of Staff chair General Mark Milley has left them in control of almost half of Afghanistan’s 420 district centers. That’s well more than double the number of district centers the group controlled just a month ago.

Afghan and Taliban representatives met in Doha over the weekend for a new round of peace talks that produced essentially nothing, just a vague agreement to try to cut down on civilian casualties. They did agree to keep talking though, which is not an insignificant achievement in itself. Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said on Sunday that his organization “strenuously favors a political settlement” to the Afghan conflict, mountains of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding I guess. There is still no indication that a lack of progress in the peace talks is affecting US withdrawal plans.

Part of the withdrawal scenario now involves Turkey assuming responsibility for securing Kabul’s international airport, a prospect Taliban officials have rejected in the past. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said during a visit to northern Cyprus on Tuesday that he’s aiming to hold direct talks with Taliban leaders in an effort to alleviate the group’s concerns. US efforts to establish some sort of monitoring base in Central Asia to keep tabs on Afghanistan are still going nowhere fast, in no small part due to Russian concerns about a metastasizing US presence in that region. Russian officials have shown some interest in collaborating with the US—Moscow doesn’t like the idea of terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan either—but a joint effort would likely come with conditions that US policymakers would be unwilling to meet.

INDIA

There have been so many “country x has been undercounting its COVID cases” stories over the past year and a half that I’ve made a conscious decision not to feature them in the newsletter. For the record you should assume that every country is undercounting its COVID cases, either inadvertently or otherwise.

That said, new evidence suggests that India’s undercount may be considerably worse than the norm. A study released Tuesday by the Indian Council of Medical Research suggests that roughly two-thirds of the country may have developed COVID antibodies, suggesting they’ve all been exposed to the coronavirus. India’s pre-pandemic population was verging on 1.4 billion and authorities have only confirmed a bit over 31 million COVID cases, which means the study results and the official math aren’t aligning too well. Meanwhile, a Center for Global Development study of excess deaths in India since the pandemic began suggests the virus may have killed over 4 million Indians, though something in the 1.5 million range is more likely. With an official death toll of around 419,000, there appears to be a major disconnect here as well.

AFRICA

MALI

Malian junta leader/interim president Assimi Goïta is reportedly doing “very well” after surviving an apparent assassination attempt in Bamako on Tuesday. Witnesses observed an attacker or attackers “lunging” at Goïta during an Eid event, and there were subsequent reports of blood at the scene of the incident, but beyond that few details (like whether the blood belonged to Goïta or somebody else) are clear. The alleged attacker’s (or attackers’) motives are yet to be determined.

CHAD

The military junta that seized power after the death of Chadian ruler Idriss Déby back in April promised at the time to oversee an 18 month transition back to civilian rule. It’s been three months and so far it appears not to have taken a single step in that direction. In particular, its promises to hold a “national dialogue” and to establish a body to draw up a new constitution are still purely hypothetical. Mahamat Déby, the ex-dictator’s son and leader of the junta, has suggested the junta could extend that 18 month deadline should leaders fail to “come to an understanding” with respect to the transition. He and the rest of the junta are under no pressure internationally, as the African Union, France, and the United States have all concluded that they prefer a stable autocratic Chad to a possibly unstable democratic one.

ETHIOPIA

Tigrayan forces have reportedly moved into Ethiopia’s Afar province, expanding Ethiopia’s civil war beyond the Tigray region for the first time since the conflict began in November. Tigray People’s Liberation Front spokesperson Getachew Reda said on Monday that the TPLF is “not interested in any territorial gains in Afar, we are more interested in degrading enemy fighting capabilities.” It’s not entirely clear what that means in terms of the conflict, but it may be worth noting that Tigrayan forces could in theory use Afar to get around the blockade that Amhara regional forces and the Ethiopian military have established around TPLF-controlled parts of Tigray. They could even make an advance on Addis Ababa via Afar, though that seems like a long shot.

Special forces from three more Ethiopian regions have been deployed to reinforce the Ethiopian military and Amhara forces. The TPLF isn’t exactly popular throughout most of Ethiopia so support from these regional governments is not terribly surprising. Along those same lines, official results show Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party winning a landslide victory in last month’s parliamentary election, taking 410 of 436 seats. Assuming the results can be considered legitimate (voting did not take place in three regions, including Tigray for obvious reasons, so the outcome should be considered in that light), it reflects support for Abiy’s war against the TPLF, or at least substantial indifference with respect to the impact the war has had on the humanitarian situation in Tigray.

SOUTH AFRICA

At least 276 people have been killed in two weeks of escalating violence related to the trial and sentencing of former South African President Jacob Zuma on corruption charges. The unrest began in Zuma’s home province, KwaZulu-Natal, and has now spread to Gauteng province. Officials estimate that the violence has caused nearly $1.4 billion in economic harm in KwaZulu-Natal. The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor argues that these riots could be a preview of coming events elsewhere:

Every country presents its own studies in contrast, but South Africa offers some of the starkest. The celebrated “rainbow nation,” defined by its generational struggle for racial equality, is the global poster child of economic inequality, where deep poverty sits in the shadow of astronomical wealth.The post-apartheid republic is built on what’s arguably the world’s most liberal and modern constitution, but is also hobbled by age-old problems of corruption, state failure, tribalism and cronyism.

The recent riots in the country’s two most populous provinces reflect, in many aspects, a uniquely South African tragedy. But lurking within the scenes of looting and violence, which saw at least 212 people killed amid the worst unrest since the end of apartheid in 1994, is a broader global parable. What happened in South Africa is what happens when the gross inequality that shapes a whole society boils over. And it’s also what happens when a major political faction and influential leader prioritize their own interests over the integrity of their country’s democracy.

EUROPE

MOLDOVA

Moldova’s Action and Solidarity Party (PAS) won a convincing victory in this month’s snap election, taking nearly 53 percent of the vote or nearly twice the percentage won by the second-place Bloc of Communists and Socialists (BECS). That translates to 63 seats in the 101 seat legislature. PAS is the party of Moldova’s center-right, pro-European Union president, Maia Sandu, who called the snap vote to end the rancor between her and the previous, more pro-Russia, government.

BULGARIA

The electoral story in Bulgaria, which also held a snap election this month, is substantially murkier. As indicated by pre-election polling, no party emerged from the snap vote with an obvious path to a majority coalition. The anti-establishment “There Is Such a People” (ITN) party took a bit over 24 percent of the vote to finish a shade higher than the GERB party of interim Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. GERB continues to find itself with no willing coalition partners, while ITN is hampered by the fact that its seat total, combined with those of its political allies Democratic Bulgaria and the Stand Up! Mafia Out! party, still leaves it around 10 seats shy of a majority. ITN leader Slavi Trifonov says he intends to pursue a minority government rather than a coalition, but he still needs enough external support to pass a confidence vote and so he has some work to do.

GERMANY

The US and German governments have reportedly found some common ground with respect to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that, upon completion (probably) later this year, will carry Russian natural gas into Germany via the Baltic Sea. Washington has long opposed the pipeline, arguing that it will increase European dependence on Russian energy exports and will allow Moscow to cut off gas supplies to Eastern European countries (Ukraine in particular) without risking its gas sales to Western Europe. Joe Biden and Angela Merkel, who last week made what should be her last official visit to Washington as chancellor, agreed to impose sanctions on Russia should it attempt to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and to invest some $1 billion in developing Ukraine’s renewable energy sector. In exchange, the US will relax its opposition.

CYPRUS

During his tour of northern Cyprus on Tuesday, Erdoğan made a few waves by announcing additional steps to reopen the Cypriot resort town of Varosha. Joined by Turkish Cypriot “leader” (he seems to be less a leader than Erdoğan’s governor of Cyprus) Ersin Tatar, Erdoğan further insisted that any future talks on resolving the 47-ish year long division between the island’s Greek and Turkish portions must be predicated on a “two-state solution” rather than on the basis of reunification. Varosha’s Greek residents fled when Turkey invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 and seized the entire Famagusta region. It had been a veritable ghost town until Erdoğan and Tatar reopened its beachfront and commercial areas to tourism last year, and the new plan seems to involve opening up its residential areas. These declarations drew strong condemnations from the European Union and from the French foreign ministry, which says it intends to bring up the matter at the UN Security Council.

AMERICAS

PERU

Peru’s presidential crisis ended on Tuesday when leftist Pedro Castillo was officially declared the winner of last month’s runoff election. Elections officials runner up Keiko Fujimori’s challenges to the vote, and on Monday she declared that she would accept Castillo’s victory while still insisting that she’d been cheated. Castillo has bent over backwards to reassure Peru’s conservative establishment that he’ll govern as a center-leftist at least on economic issues, but despite that he comes into office with very low levels of institutional support. The threat of a coup could loom large over his presidency, if not as an actual outcome then at least as a perpetual threat to try to keep him from pursuing any major reforms.

HAITI

Haiti’s budding political crisis may have resolved itself on Tuesday, at least for now, when Ariel Henry was sworn in as the country’s new prime minister. Former Haitian President Jovenal Moïse had nominated Henry for the premiership shortly before his assassination earlier this month, but in the wake of that killing interim PM Claude Joseph seemed to take control of the country. That left two claimants for one office, but Joseph—under some international pressure—agreed on Monday to step aside and make way for Henry to take over. That still leaves the position of head of state empty, but in the absence of a widely accepted succession mechanism it may have to do until new elections can (hopefully) be held.

As far as what actually happened to Moïse, it’s still unclear. It would appear that a large number of Colombian mercenaries, most of them military veterans, were approached by a shady contractor for some kind of job, possibly in Central America, that then turned out to involve work in Haiti. These are allegedly the people who assaulted Moïse’s home and killed him, though there are some indications that the actual assassination may have been a more inside job. As to who was behind the plot, there’s a still-coalescing theory positing that Haitian elites, who were fed up with Moïse’s growing autocracy and feared he was losing his grip on the country, killed him to try to gain, or regain, some measure of control and maybe even trigger a US intervention. Among those pushing this narrative are Moïse’s widow, Martine, and both Colombian and Haitian authorities who have identified former Haitian intelligence official Joseph Felix Badio and a “Florida-based pastor” going by the name of Christian Emmanuel Sanon as the assassination’s masterminds.

CUBA

Apparently large anti-government protests gripped Cuba last week, largely motivated by the state of the Cuban economy and the pandemic. Exactly how large those protests were is difficult to assess since they’ve been filtered through a US media that routinely struggles to maintain objectivity when it comes to Cuba and/or communism and frequently goes to ridiculous/dishonest lengths to support its biases. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel characterized the media narrative surrounding the protests as “a lie,” though in fairness by Cuban standards anti-government demonstrations of any size are fairly noteworthy. At least one protester has been killed.

The Biden administration eagerly availed itself of the opportunity to Get Tough On Communism by denouncing the Cuban government and championing the rights of the protesters, albeit without any regard for what impact the ongoing and increasingly ridiculous US embargo has had in terms of creating the economic and public health conditions that sparked the demonstrations. The administration will reportedly take at least symbolic steps in the next few days to show that America Cares About The Cuban People, though it’s not clear what those steps might entail. Relief from the embargo is unlikely to be among them.

CANADA

The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it will leave COVID-related restrictions on cross-border travel to and from both Mexico and Canada in place for at least another month. The Canadian government has announced that it will ease its border restrictions for vaccinated US travelers starting next month.

UNITED STATES

Finally, at Responsible Statecraft Assal Rad argues that the definition of “forever wars” needs to be expanded to cover conflicts that aren’t fought on a traditional battlefield:

Ending endless war has become an ever-present catchphrase, employed by Republicans and Democrats alike, to appeal to the majority of Americans who wish to see an end to ineffective U.S. wars and adventurism across the world, and better use of their hard-earned tax dollars. But, while we may think of war to mean military incursions, bombs and fighting, there is an aspect to U.S. warfare that is too-often absent from the discussion: economic warfare.