World roundup: June 29 2021

Stories from Lebanon, Ethiopia, Peru, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

June 28, 1914: A group of six members of a Serbian irredentist paramilitary group known as the “Black Hand” attack Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife as they’re visiting Sarajavo. Although their initial bombing attempt failed, one of the six attackers, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed both of them after a reception involving the mayor of Sarajevo and the governor of Bosnia. Arguably one of the most consequential acts in world history, within a month the assassination had caused Serbia and Austria-Hungary to declare war on one another, and when their allies jumped into the pool as well the result was World War I.

June 28, 1919: Five years later, the Treaty of Versailles is signed, ending Germany’s involvement in World War I. This is the most important of the multiple World War I peace treaties, which include the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye with Austria in September 1919, the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary in June 1920, and the Treaty of Sèvres with the rump Ottoman Empire in August 1920. The terms of Sèvres were largely superseded by the July 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that ended the Turkish War of Independence.

June 29, 1444: Albanian rebel leader Skanderbeg (George Castriot) defeats a considerably larger Ottoman army at the Battle of Torvioli by outmaneuvering the Ottomans and striking their forces from behind. This was one of the first major engagements in Skanderbeg’s 1443-1468 rebellion and his surprising victory earned him significant support from Hungary and the papacy.

June 29, 1881: Sudanese religious leader Muhammad Ahmad declares himself to be the Mahdi and begins to establish an independent political entity, kicking off the 18 year long Mahdist War against the British Empire.

INTERNATIONAL

As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 182,565,099 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 3,953,468 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 3 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 39 for every 100 people.

In today’s global news:

  • The United Nations General Assembly averted a looming budget crisis on Tuesday when its budget committee finally managed to agree on a $6 billion budget to keep the UN’s 12 ongoing peacekeeping operations going through June 2022. The full UNGA will vote on the budget on Wednesday. Funding for those missions would have run out on Wednesday without the new budget, and I suppose could still run out in the unlikely event the GA doesn’t approve it. It’s still not entirely clear (and I suspect it never will be clear) why this seemingly routine vote came down to the wire like this.

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

The press secretary for Maʾrib’s provincial government reported on Tuesday that two Houthi missiles struck Maʾrib city, killing at least three people and wounding ten others. The missiles reportedly hit the city’s Rawdah neighborhood, the same district where 21 people were killed in another Houthi missile strike earlier this month. There’s been no comment from the Houthis.

IRAQ

The Iranian government has halted energy exports to Iraq, citing an Iraqi failure to pay for them. Baghdad is some $4 billion in arrears to Iran for electricity and gas supplies, partly because of Iraq’s economic struggles but more due to the logistical challenges of sending payment to Iran without triggering US sanctions. Iraq relies on imports from Iran for around one third of its electricity and natural gas supplies, but while it’s been granted waivers to continue importing energy it’s forced to pay for those imports via a labyrinthine process whereby it purchases other items on Iran’s behalf as payment in kind. That arrangement clearly isn’t working out from the Iranian perspective. The cut-off comes amid the sweltering Iraqi summer, which thanks partly to climate change has seen temperatures in southern Iraq rise to upwards of 120+ degrees Fahrenheit (50+ degrees Celsius), making air conditioning practically a necessity for human habitation. Any loss of power is almost certain to fuel (apologies for the pun) new anti-government protests in southern Iraq.

LEBANON

Gasoline and other fuels now cost 35 percent more in Lebanon than they did yesterday, after an anticipated price hike went into effect Tuesday morning. Lebanese officials decided late last week to begin purchasing fuel imports at an exchange rate of around 3900 Lebanese pounds per US dollar, more than double the official exchange rate of 1507 per dollar. The goal was to boost imports and alleviate Lebanon’s fuel shortage while easing pressure on its nearly exhausted foreign currency reserves, but the new rate means not just higher fuel prices, but higher prices on any products that require fuel to get to consumers—or, in other words, just about everything. The shortages have led to violent encounters between people trying to fill their tanks and have fueled more anti-government protests. It remains to be seen what effect the price hike will have on the popular mood.

On the plus side, the Turkish firm Karpowership has reportedly decided to start supplying Lebanon with electricity again. It shut down operations last month, claiming that Beirut was 18 months overdue on its utility bills. That unpaid tab hasn’t been resolved but the company says it’s restoring power as a “goodwill gesture.” The move will significantly increase Lebanon’s power supply, though blackouts were already an issue before Karpowership halted its work and will presumably continue to be so moving forward.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli takeover of eastern Jerusalem continued apace on Tuesday as authorities destroyed a Palestinian-owned store in the Silwan neighborhood, which has joined Sheikh Jarrah as the main targets of the occupying forces. Citing “biblical links” for their claim on Silwan, Israeli authorities want to convert part of the neighborhood into a park and have slated some 20 buildings for elimination. They’ve tagged some 60 buildings in the neighborhood as “unlawful,” so the park could be part of a much bigger project. At least 13 Palestinian protesters were injured by Israeli police while the store was being bulldozed, while Israeli officials say two police officers were injured by the demonstrators.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

New Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made the first official visit by an Israeli FM to the UAE on Tuesday to inaugurate Israel’s new embassy in Abu Dhabi. This trip has been in the cards since Israel and the UAE agreed to normalize relations last year. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to schedule his own official visit to the UAE but domestic politics intervened and ultimately cost him his job. Lapid will also open an Israeli consulate in Dubai on this trip.

Elsewhere, Emirati officials have reportedly given the Italian military until Friday to clear out of the UAE’s al-Minhad airbase. The Emiratis ordered the withdrawal after the Italian government suspended a planned arms shipment to the UAE and Saudi Arabia back in January. Minhad is strategically located for any military with business in the Middle East or throughout central and southern Asia and is used by the British and Australian air forces in addition to Italy and a handful of other countries.

IRAN

The United Nations’ rapporteur for human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, told Reuters on Monday that he supports an “independent inquiry” into the role Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi played in the 1988 executions of perhaps thousands of Iranian political prisoners. Raisi was deputy prosecutor in Tehran at the time and there is considerable evidence that he was directly involved in the executions, which by some estimates involved 5000 or more people. Rehman says he has reason to believe that Iranian authorities are trying to cover up evidence of the executions, by among other things destroying mass graves. It’s unclear what the international community could do or would be prepared to do in terms of investigating Raisi for these killings but it’s a story that’s probably worth monitoring as he prepares to assume office.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban have reportedly launched a multi-pronged attack on the city of Ghazni, which in addition to being a large city in its own right also sits on the main highway from the Taliban’s Kandahar heartland to Kabul, which might be important at some point. Provincial officials report that Afghan forces are regaining lost positions after absorbing an initial Taliban surge, but it’s hard to know how seriously to take those claims.

Meanwhile, the US withdrawal is continuing, with the AP reporting Tuesday that American soldiers may hand Bagram airbase over to the Afghan military as soon as July 4. Bagram is the largest US base in Afghanistan and the changeover is a definite milestone for the withdrawal. It will also probably be a prime target for the Taliban once the US is gone, which may explain why the US seems intent on destroying much of the facility instead of handing it over intact to the Afghans. Bagram’s prison alone, which houses thousands of captured Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Islamic State personnel, makes it a critical challenge for Afghan authorities.

INDIA

An alleged Kashmiri rebel leader who’d been arrested by Indian authorities was somehow killed on Monday in a gun battle between police and another suspected militant in Srinagar. According to the AP police arrested Nadeem Abrar on Monday and subsequently got him to confess to the location of a house where he’d stashed his “automatic weapon.” They then took Abrar with them to raid the house and he was killed when a militant inside opened fire. Taking Kashmiri prisoners along on raids is something of a standard procedure for Indian police, and unsurprisingly it often results in the prisoners being killed in the ensuing battle. One could argue that this procedure amounts to extrajudicial execution but I’m sure for Indian police these are just tragic mishaps.

AFRICA

ETHIOPIA

The UN says the impact of Monday’s abrupt Ethiopian ceasefire is “unclear,” specifically as it impacts the region’s dire humanitarian situation. Communications into and out of Tigray are reportedly even spottier than usual and two of the principals in this conflict haven’t been terribly forthcoming about what’s happening. Specifically, the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments have yet to comment on the equally abrupt resurgence of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which has been battling both countries’ militaries since November. Ethiopian officials are continuing to characterize their unilateral ceasefire as a humanitarian gesture but it seems inconceivable that there’s no link between these two developments. Eritrean officials have as far as I know said nothing at all, but there are reports of their forces withdrawing from multiple Tigrayan towns including Adwa, Axum, and Shire. That’s in addition to the regional capital, Mekelle, which is according to the TPLF now “100 percent” under its control. Most of the rest of the Tigray region now appears to be in TPLF hands as well.

One thing that does seem apparent is that the TPLF is not planning its own ceasefire. Its leaders have pledged to continue the war against…everybody really, though their most provocative threat so far has been to pursue the conflict into Eritrea. There’s apparently some concern on the Eritrean side about this possibility, so it’s probably not an idle threat. The TPLF is also likely planning to go after Amhara regional militias, which collaborated with the Ethiopian and Eritrean militaries and are now squatting on large parts of western Tigray. Amhara’s regional government has already warned that it will resist any TPLF advance in that direction.

Bringing us back full circle, Tigray’s humanitarian situation is certainly no better today than it was yesterday, despite the ceasefire. The TPLF’s resurgence may have brought the acute conflict to something of an end, or at least a pause, but the damage in terms of living conditions has already been done. Unless/until the TPLF allows international agencies full regional access to assess and respond to the crisis the people of Tigray are going to continue to suffer.

SOMALIA

Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble told state media on Tuesday that Somalia will hold an indirect presidential election on October 10. You may recall that Somalia was supposed to hold an indirect presidential election back in February after having chosen a new parliament in December, and it didn’t do either of those things. The political uncertainty precipitated a crisis that nearly came to a head in April, with armed forces allied with President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed squared off against forces aligned with the opposition in Mogadishu, but the crisis was averted and apparently everybody has agreed to give the whole election thing a second try. Presumably this process will also involve the selection of a new parliament, which in Somali practice involves clan leaders selecting representatives who then in turn choose the president.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The Islamic State’s Central Africa Province affiliate, by which I mean the Allied Democratic Forces militia, has claimed responsibility for two bombings in the eastern Congolese city of Beni on Sunday, one targeting a church and the other a suicide bombing at a major intersection. The latter is the first ADF suicide bombing on record. The use of that particular tactic has raised some concerns that the long talked about but little evidenced relationship between the ADF and the Islamic State might finally have some substance to it, but that seems like a fairly big inference to hang on what at the moment is just one isolated attack. I’m not even sure what evidence there is that the “suicide” bombing was an intentional suicide and not a misfire of some sort. There may be such evidence, I’m just not aware of it.

ESWATINI

Protests calling for political reforms to Eswatini’s absolute monarchy turned violent on Tuesday, with security forces using live ammunition and tear gas to dissuade demonstrators. At one point there seems to have been a rumor that King Mswati III had hightailed it across the border into South Africa, but the kingdom’s acting prime minister, Themba Masuku, rejected those reports. Authorities have closed schools in the kingdom and imposed a 6 PM to 5 AM curfew in an effort to calm things down.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Russian military just so happened to test its Crimean air defense capabilities on Tuesday, I’m sure for reasons that have nothing to do with the ongoing multinational “Sea Breeze” naval exercise taking place nearby. The timing is purely coincidental.

BELARUS

The Biden administration on Tuesday issued a ban on ticket sales for flights to and from Belarus, its latest retribution for last month’s diversion of a Ryanair flight to Minsk on the basis of a phony bomb scare. It’s unclear to me how big a punishment this is as there are no direct flights between the US and Belarus anyway and I’m not sure how big the demand is even for connecting flights (which can still be purchased outside the US) into Minsk. At any rate, the ban makes exceptions for flights for humanitarian purposes or other reasons deemend to be in US national interest, and if anybody is really desperate to get to Minsk this order is more an inconvenience than a real obstacle.

ROMANIA

Romanian Prime Minister Florin Cîțu and his cabinet survived a no-confidence vote on Tuesday with a bit of room to spare, the opposition falling 33 votes shy of a win. The Social Democratic Party brought the motion, citing what it characterized as Cîțu’s economic mismanagement.

SWEDEN

In Sweden, meanwhile, where outgoing PM Stefan Löfven lost a confidence vote last week and tendered his resignation on Monday, parliament speaker Andreas Norlén has opted to give Moderate Party boss Ulf Kristersson first crack at forming a new government. Kristersson reportedly controls a right wing bloc of 174 seats, tantalizingly close to the 175 he’d need for a majority and yet oh so far away. He’ll need to convince one additional party (or even just a single member from any of the other parties) to flip over to his side if he’s going to become PM. If he succeeds it will mean mainstreaming the far right Sweden Democrats, who would be the second largest party in his coalition. If Kristersson fails then someone else will get a crack at forming a new government—possibly Löfven again—but if four successive candidates fail to put together a coalition that will trigger a snap election.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

The Brazilian government rolled out its annual ineffectual Amazon protection package this week, deploying the military ostensibly to prevent deforestation and issuing a 120 day ban on unauthorized fires. These are the same measures Jair Bolsonaro took in 2019 and 2020 and they didn’t work then so there’s little reason to think they’ll work now, especially not with Brazil suffering through a major drought that could threaten to turn even the most carefully set clearing fire into an uncontrollable conflagration.

PERU

This seems probably not good:

He was known as the Peruvian Rasputin, the spymaster of one of the country’s most corrupt and brutal regimes.

Vladimiro Montesinos masterminded a network of political espionage, mining state coffers to control the military top brass, the courts, and the media, until he was brought down by one of his own videotapes, which showed him bribing politicians.

Now Montesinos, the éminence grise of the jailed former president Alberto Fujimori, has re-emerged after nearly two decades in relative obscurity – this time amid an apparent bid to aid Fujimori’s daughter Keiko Fujimori, whose baseless claims of electoral fraud have plunged Peru into its most tumultuous weeks in recent history.

Montesinos is in a naval prison, but has somehow been allowed to make several phone calls to another ex-Fujimori loyalist who decided to record those calls and then make them public. Among other things, the recordings have Montesinos seemingly discussing a plan to bribe members of Peru’s election tribunal to support Keiko Fujimori’s efforts to annul tens of thousands of votes for Pedro Castillo, which would overturn his victory in this month’s presidential runoff. It’s unclear whether he’s actually working with Fujimori but she’s denying it.

UNITED STATES

I joined Robert Wright’s The Wright Show on Bloggingheads.TV today to talk about the state of America’s presence in the Middle East. Here’s a clip:

A transcript of that clip is available at the FX Companion website and you can see the whole program at Bloggingheads. Toward the end I break a bit of news, which is that FX columnist Daniel Bessner and I are launching a new podcast in the next couple of weeks called American Prestige. I’ll have more to say about that project probably on Sunday, but for now I’ll say it’s intended to complement FX and nothing major around here will be changing.

Finally, if you missed it here’s Daniel Bessner’s latest Foreign Exchanges column, in which he makes the case for shutting down NATO:

But once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, NATO rapidly became an arm of the US Empire. Or as NATO’s website benignly puts it, with “changing conditions came new responsibilities. From being an exclusively defensive alliance for nearly half a century, NATO began to assume an increasingly proactive role within the international community.” It participated in the Gulf War; the conflicts that rent the former Yugoslavia; the War on Terror; the Afghanistan War; and the Iraq War, to name only a few of its contributions. Indeed, by early 2021, NATO was partaking in operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Mediterranean, Africa, and elsewhere.

The alliance has also grown to thirty members, and now includes many nations that were once in the Soviet sphere of influence, like Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Unsurprisingly, the organization’s wanton expansion into Eastern Europe has provoked Russia—imagine how US decision-makers would have felt had Canada or Mexico joined the Warsaw Pact—and NATO has been a useful foil for Russian President Vladimir Putin, helping him justify his revanchist foreign policy.

As this all suggests, there are significant drawbacks to NATO’s continuing existence. For this reason, one of the major goals of the anti-imperialist left should be to dismantle NATO. Though one could have reasonably argued in 1949 that NATO was needed to pacify the North Atlantic and deter Stalin, there is no longer any reason for the United States to remain primus inter pares in Europe, spending more than any other country on NATO and deploying thousands of troops to the continent. Europe is safe, rich, and better able than the United States to determine what its security needs are.