World roundup: June 21 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Ecuador, and more
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: FX will be taking a break following Thursday evening’s roundup. We will return to regular programming on July 5.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
June 21, 1791: French King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attempt to flee Paris to meet up with royalist troops at Montmédy in what’s become known as the “Flight to Varennes.” As the name suggests, they didn’t make it and were arrested in the town of Varennes-en-Argonne. The attempted escape made it clear to the French public that Louis was conspiring to end the revolution and caused popular sentiment to turn toward abolishing the monarchy rather than maintaining it under constitutional limitations.
June 21, 1813: A Bonapartist army under the command of then-Spanish King Joseph Bonaparte is badly defeated near the Spanish city of Vitoria by a joint British, Portuguese, and Spanish army commanded by Arthur Wellesley, Marquess (later Duke) of Wellington. Wellington outmaneuvered the Bonapartists so thoroughly that, in their retreat, Joseph’s men left behind their artillery as well as the (soon to be former) king’s considerably baggage train. While the Battle of Vitoria didn’t entirely end the Peninsular War (only Napoleon’s surrender and abdication in April 1814 did that), it did chase Joseph out of Spain. By December, the Allied army’s position was secure enough to restore—with Napoleon’s acquiescence—the previously abdicated Ferdinand VII to the Spanish throne.
June 21, 1942: Axis forces under Erwin Rommel capture the Libyan city of Tobruk. Rommel was promoted to field marshal for his trouble, but the Allies retook the city in November.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Representatives from Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria signed an agreement on Tuesday to ship some 650 million cubic meters of discounted natural gas per day from Egypt to Lebanon’s Deir Ammar power plant. Said gas will have to transit across Syria, and consequently the deal needs a green light from the US government to avoid running afoul of sanctions. It also requires a go ahead from the World Bank, which is supposed to finance the project. The additional gas could provide Lebanon with upwards of four more hours of electricity per day, which wouldn’t end the country’s electricity shortages but would be a considerable improvement over the status quo.
According to Palestinian officials, an Israeli settler stabbed a Palestinian man to death near the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel on Tuesday. Israeli occupation authorities say they’re investigating the incident.
Egypt’s tourism industry has been another casualty of the Ukraine war, which is no minor thing for a sector that makes up around 15 percent of a generally weak Egyptian economy. Ukrainian and Russian nationals account for around a third of Egyptian tourists per year, and Russian travelers in particular are crucial to the Red Sea tourist trade at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, but under the circumstances they’re not much willing (or able, given that Russians are practically barred from accessing dollars) to go on vacation these days. Egypt is also struggling to replace wheat and cooking oil imports from Russia and Ukraine, which only makes the economic damage more acute.
Writing for MSNBC, the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi digs in to rumors that Joe Biden’s upcoming Middle East trip is going to include a whopping new US defense commitment made in service of fulfilling one of Donald Trump’s foreign policy goals:
Rumors have been circulating in Washington for months that Biden is seeking to expand Trump’s signature foreign policy initiative — the Abraham Accords — which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE; Biden wants to bring Saudi Arabia into a similar kind of arrangement with Israel. Details are beginning to leak of how he will try to get Saudi Arabia to take critical steps toward recognizing Israel. And the most alarming one is that the United States is offering a major security pact to the autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
According to a source close to the ruler of the Emirates, this would be a “binding strategic defense cooperation pact” that goes beyond anything the U.S. has agreed to in the region before. A former Biden adviser, David Shapiro, confirmed to Newsweek magazine that Saudi Arabia was looking for assurances that the U.S. will “retain significant military presence in the region to help Saudi Arabia address the threats it faces from Iran,” as well as to take Saudi Arabia’s side in its gruesome war in Yemen.
We’ll see of course, but if Biden delivers this sort of blanket commitment to the Saudis with respect to support for their war in Yemen, that probably makes the current Yemeni ceasefire less secure since it gives the Saudis a reason to believe that further conflict might be in their national interest. For that reason alone such a security commitment is a very bad idea.
The USS Sirocco patrol ship reportedly fired a “warning flare” at an Iranian speedboat in the Strait of Hormuz on Monday. The boat was one of three Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy vessels that spent about an hour buzzing the Sirocco before the flare. There was no further incident. IRGC boats do this sort of thing to US vessels with some regularity, but there is always a risk that one of these incidents will escalate beyond warnings.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev put forth a number of proposed constitutional amendments on Tuesday that would, in his telling, strengthen “democratic” institutions and Uzbekistan’s social safety net. The measures would devolve some currently presidential powers onto the Uzbek parliament while enumerating basic rights (including the basic rights of prisoners) and enshrining elements of the state welfare system in the national charter. Oh, and apparently the changes would also reset Mirziyoyev’s presidential term counter to zero, meaning he’d be eligible to run for another two terms rather than having to leave office in 2026 under the current constitution. I’m sure that last part is just, you know, incidental.
The United Nations Security Council on Tuesday removed Afghanistan’s deputy minister of education, Said Ahmad Shahidkhel, and its minister of higher education, Abdul Baqi Basir Awal Shah, from a list of Taliban personnel who are exempt from the UN’s travel ban on Taliban leaders. They’re being blacklisted over the Taliban-led Afghan government’s failure to reopen secondary schools for girls. The council voted to extend exemptions for 13 other senior Taliban figures in order to allow them to participate in international talks on stabilizing Afghanistan’s current political and economic crisis.
World Politics Review’s Michael Hart reports on the state of peace talks over southern Thailand’s long-running Malay insurgency:
The latest meeting, which concluded on April 1, led to a 40-day truce that covered the holy month of Ramadan and the Thai New Year, or Songkran. The festivities were held without incident, as the army and BRN avoided clashing, building momentum ahead of a third round of dialogue scheduled for July or August.
But there are signs that not everyone in the south is on board with the peace process. On April 15, the Patani United Liberation Organization, or PULO, an older rebel group whose remnants had been inactive for half a decade, disrupted the truce with a double bomb attack in Sai Buri, a district located in Pattani province. The first explosion killed a fisherman, while a second device injured three police bomb-disposal officers responding to the scene. PULO’s leader, Kasturi Mahkota, told local news outlets that his fighters did not approve of the recent talks involving BRN and vowed to fight for full independence rather than autonomy, which many suspect will be the most likely endpoint of the current talks. Then, less than two weeks after the truce ended on May 14, BRN fighters attacked a police station in Tak Bai, a district in Narathiwat province, with rifles and grenades, marking the first attack by the group in months.
The PDP and Malaysian facilitator Abdul Rahim Noor have stressed publicly that these attacks will not affect the peace process. Yet these incidents demonstrate that disunity on the rebel side—in the form of attacks by groups excluded from talks, like PULO, or by rogue BRN fighters fearful that their leadership will negotiate a resolution short of full independence for the south—could raise the stakes at the negotiating table, at a time when a breakthrough appears more likely than at any stage in the conflict’s six-decade history.
A US ban on products emanating from China’s Xinjiang region went into effect on Tuesday under the terms of the “Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.” The act, which was signed into law by Joe Biden last December, treats any Chinese export coming out of Xinjiang as the product of forced labor and empowers US customs officials to seize imports that can be sourced back to the region. There are a few categories of goods that will be hit hard under these measures but cotton may be the biggest, as some 84 percent of Chinese cotton exports (which account for some 20 percent of global cotton supplies) come out of Xinjiang.
On a related subject, The New York Times says it’s conducted an investigation into the extent of China’s surveillance network. Aggressive surveillance has been one of the facets of the Chinese “War on Terror” in Xinjiang and it would seem a number of tools and techniques that were first tried on the Uyghur community are finding their way into general use. Some of what’s here will be familiar to fans of the PATRIOT Act and its subsequent modifications, though if the NYT’s reporting is accurate it sounds like Chinese officials have taken mass surveillance to unprecedented levels of ubiquity.
The South Korean space agency appears to have successfully launched five satellites, plus a sixth “dummy” satellite weighing over a ton, into orbit aboard one South Korean-made Nuri rocket on Tuesday. This makes South Korea just the seventh nation or super-national entity (after China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States) to develop a rocket capable of putting a one ton or heavier satellite into orbit. The launch signals South Korea’s rise as a space power and will lead to further projects like a proposed lunar orbiter and, uh, probably a few spy satellites trained on North Korea.
The United Arab Emirates has revealed plans to invest a cool $6 billion in Sudan, spread over an array of projects including the construction of a new Red Sea port facility. The package includes an “imminent,” as Reuters put it, deposit of $300 million in Sudan’s central bank, which could certainly use the influx of foreign currency. The proposed port is by far the largest component of this investment plan and would be a joint project of Sudan’s DAL Group conglomerate and Abu Dhabi Ports. Last October’s military coup ousted Sudan’s interim civilian government and shut off most foreign investment from Western states, but Emirati leaders are presumably comfortable with supporting the Sudanese junta.
Tunisian President Kais Saied confirmed on Tuesday that the draft constitution he intends to put to a referendum on July 25 does not describe Islam as Tunisia’s state religion. Rather, he told reporters, it describes Tunisia as “belonging to an ummah [an Arabic word meaning “community” that is often used to describe the global “community” of Muslims] which has Islam as its religion.” The watered down language is presumably meant to undermine explicitly Islamist political entities like Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party that has been one of the primary opponents of Saied’s ongoing power grab. Tunisia’s 1959 and 2014 constitutions both characterized Islam as the state religion. It remains to be seen how this language will be received by ordinary Tunisians when they have a chance to vote on the new charter.
The Burkinabé military is ordering all civilians to clear out of two newly declared “military interest zones,” one of 2000 square kilometers in the rural northern part of the country and the other of 11,000 square kilometers in the southeast, which is mostly comprised of national parks. I don’t think you need to be Nostradamus to predict what’s about to happen in those zones. The problem is that authorities haven’t gone into any specifics about when they’re planning on doing whatever it is they’re planning on doing. Presumably this is for operational security reasons but it means keeping civilians in the dark about exactly how long they have to evacuate or to where they’re supposed to go once they have evacuated.
In news from Russia:
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told NBC News on Monday that two US nationals who have been captured by Russian forces in Ukraine will not be given the benefit of Geneva Conventions protections governing the treatment of prisoners of war. Essentially this means they could be—and perhaps will be, though the Russians may look to trade them back to the US—prosecuted and ultimately executed for their involvement in the conflict. The Biden administration called Peskov’s comments “appalling” on Tuesday, and I have to agree. For a government to create, unilaterally, an extralegal category of wartime captive that allows it to subvert the Geneva Conventions at will is truly the definition of “appalling.” Uh, I mean it’s appalling when Russia does that. It’s fine when we do it.
European Union leaders will hold another summit this Thursday and Friday to outline plans for a seventh major package of sanctions against Russia. Where the previous tranche of sanctions focused on Russian oil exports, it sounds like the next round may focus on gold in some yet to be determined way. The EU is at present somewhat divided between sanctions “hawks” who want to escalate and intensify the bloc’s sanctions regime and “doves” (Germany among them) who would prefer to focus on strengthening the implementation of previous rounds. Targeting gold, a much less controversial commodity than, say, Russian natural gas, could be a compromise.
Speaking of the EU’s Russian oil embargo, it hasn’t fully taken hold yet but already Russia is making up its lost European business by exporting more oil to Asian markets, and specifically to China and India. Russia has now become China’s largest oil supplier, knocking Saudi Arabia off of that perch, and India bought roughly 841,000 barrels per day of Russian oil last month, up drastically since the war began. Moscow has had to offer China and India substantial discounts to drum up these new sales, but since global oil prices are so high even at a discount the Russians are still coming out ahead.
In news from Ukraine:
According to the governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk oblast, Serhiy Haidai, Russian forces have captured several villages around the city of Severodonetsk in addition to the strategically important village of Toshkivka, which they seized over the weekend. The Russian push into Severodonetsk itself seems to have stalled a bit—though that’s probably not any comfort to people in the city who are living under heavy artillery bombardment—but whether the Russians are having difficulty taking the remaining Ukrainian-held parts of the city or deliberately paused in order to capture these surrounding villages is unclear.
The governor of Ukraine’s Kharkiv oblast, Oleh Synyehubov, reported Tuesday that 15 civilians had been killed in that province by Russian artillery. The Russians are clearly trying to revive their presence in Kharkiv, though whether that signals a new effort to capture Kharkiv city or just a diversion to draw Ukrainian attention is also unclear.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) announced on Tuesday that it’s arrested two people (one a government official the other a businessperson) who were allegedly involved in a Russian spy network. The SBU didn’t release any names but accused the two individuals of having “passed on various intelligence information to the enemy: from the state of our defence capability to arrangements at the state border and personal data of Ukrainian law enforcement officers.” Ukrainian authorities released video of the two individuals admitting that the accusations were true, though it’s possible they’d been coerced into doing so.
According to Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch, some Ukrainian military personnel are criticizing the notion that the US should supply Ukraine with advanced Gray Eagle attack drones. Senior Ukrainian officers seem keen on the idea, but lower ranking personnel (and increasingly US officials, apparently) argue that the conflict has shifted too close to the Russian border for drones to be of much use. While the Ukrainians made effective use of drones, particularly Turkish Bayraktars, in the early weeks of the war when Russian forces were deeper inside Ukraine, now the war is focused on an area where S-300 and S-400 air defense batteries stationed on the Russian side of the border are an effective counter to drone attacks. The Bayraktars are being used less and less, and a substantially more expensive drone like the Gray Eagle would probably not be worth the cost.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced on Tuesday that he’s leaving the Five Star Movement and forming his own party, in what could prove to be a blow to Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s national unity coalition. Di Maio cited the party’s “ambiguity” about supporting Ukraine as the reason for his departure, but the reality is that he and current party leader Giuseppe Conte have been at odds for some time now as the party has seen its support plummet in opinion polls. Some 60 Five Star legislators have already pledged to go with Di Maio, and they’ll presumably remain in the coalition. What remains to be seen is whether Conte and the remnants of Five Star will also remain in the coalition. If they leave (and at this point there’s no indication they will or won’t) that would undermine the “unity” basis of Draghi’s coalition and could spark an exodus of other parties that would further diminish Draghi’s majority.
Al Jazeera reports on the massive rail strike that brought UK public transit to a halt on Tuesday:
Ongoing Indigenous protests in Quito turned violent on Tuesday when demonstrators attempted to block a major road in the Ecuadorean capital and police responded with tear gas. Protesters then tried to march on a public building being used as a police staging area and were again met by tear gas. President Guillermo Lasso has declared states of exception in three provinces, giving security forces a freer hand to use force against the protesters, and Defense Minister Luis Lara described the protests as “a grave threat” to reporters on Tuesday. Add those together and it’s likely that more violence from the security forces is on the horizon.
In noting yesterday the election of leftist Gustavo Petro as Colombia’s next president, I failed to note also that his running mate, Francia Márquez, will become Colombia’s first Black vice president. This was not an intentional omission but yesterday’s update was so long that some details unfortunately had to be left out. Because of her background and her environmental activism, Márquez had been a target of death threats during the campaign just as Petro was, and her presence on the ticket likely broadened Petro’s appeal to underserved Colombian communities. It remains to be seen what role she’ll play in the administration, but Petro has talked about creating a new “Ministry of Equality” under her leadership that would focus on issues related to ethnic and gender inequality.
Almost three months in to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s state of emergency, the country’s security forces have arrested over 40,000 people and seen at least 40 of them die in custody. The causes of those deaths are unknown but likely involve some combination of deliberate acts (torture and/or summary execution, maybe) and the unintentional side effects of suddenly injecting 40,000 new inmates into a prison system that was already overtaxed.
On another front, Bukele asked the Salvadoran people for “patience” over the weekend as the price of Bitcoin, his preferred currency, continued to fall. Bukele’s government has reportedly spent about $105 million buying Bitcoin since September, an investment that’s now worth about $44 million in total. Needless to say I am no investment expert but that seems less than ideal to me. As you probably know, Bukele introduced Bitcoin as legal tender alongside the US dollar last year.
Finally, to end on a rare positive note, the Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it would realign US policy on landmines to be closer to the 1997 Ottawa Convention. The Ottawa Treaty calls for prohibiting the manufacture of new anti-personnel landmines and the destruction of current mine stockpiles. The US has never been party to the treaty, insisting in particular that it simply must be allowed to use landmines on the Korean Peninsula, but prior to the election of Donald Trump it had more or less adopted a softer version of Ottawa’s terms. As of 2014 the US military insisted that it had placed only one landmine, in Afghanistan, since 1991.
The Trump administration lifted all restrictions on the use or manufacture of landmines and that’s the policy the Biden administration is now reversing. The new policy maintains a Korean exception but otherwise bans the production or use of landmines by the US military. Obviously full adherence to Ottawa’s terms would be preferable, but this is a definite improvement over the Trump policy.
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