World roundup: June 8 2021

Stories from Syria, Afghanistan, Peru, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

June 7, 1494: In the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain and Portugal agree to divide the world, or at least any “newly discovered” parts of it, along a north-south meridian that runs through the eastern half of modern Brazil. The negotiations superseded a decree previously issued by Pope Alexander VI that threatened both Portugal’s control of the around-Africa sea route to India and any claims it had on India itself. The agreement, which was mostly undefinable (and therefore unenforceable) but did the job in terms of avoiding a Spanish-Portuguese conflict, left most of the recently-“discovered” Americas in Spanish hands save what eventually became Brazil. It was duly ignored by later expansionist European powers—particularly Protestant England, which viewed the treaty as a Catholic accord that it was not obliged to honor.

June 7, 1942: After a four day battle and thanks in large part to having decrypted Japan’s pre-battle communications, the US Pacific Fleet defeats a larger Japanese naval force in the Battle of Midway, around the Midway Atoll west of Hawaii. One of a handful of naval battles in the running for most decisive in history, Midway was the first major US victory in World War II’s Pacific Theater and permanently degraded the Japanese fleet, which lost four large aircraft carriers and almost 250 planes. The US victory gave it an opening to go on the offensive following the Pearl Harbor attack in December, helping to shift the balance of power in the Pacific.

June 8, 218: At the Battle of Antioch, a rebel army supporting 14 year old imperial claimant Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus defeats an army under Roman Emperor Marcus Opellius Macrinus. After his defeat, Macrinus attempted to flee west but was captured at Chalcedon and later executed. The new emperor, who took the regal name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, was later dubbed “Elagabalus” because he had previously been a priest of the Syrian sun god Elagabalus and he established that deity as the chief god of the Roman pantheon, displacing Jupiter. Elagabalus was known mostly for the decadence of his court and for his sexual proclivities, which have led some historians to argue that he was transgender and may have contributed to the Praetorian Guard’s decision to assassinate him in 222, when he was just 18.

June 8, 1941: World War II’s Operation Exporter begins.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for June 8, 2021:

  • 174,731,942 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+359,127 since yesterday)

  • 3,762,271 reported fatalities (+10,164 since yesterday)

According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 2.18 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 28 per every 100 people.

In today’s global news:

  • The United Nations Security Council unanimously approved Secretary-General António Guterres’ reelection to a second term on Tuesday, the last formal obstacle before he’s presumably reelected by the General Assembly later this month. It is nearly unthinkable for a secretary-general not to win reelection—the US vetoed Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s bid for a second term in 1996 but to my knowledge that’s the only time something like that has happened in UN history.

  • A new World Bank Global Economic Prospects report finds that the global economy is growing faster than expected, but it may shock you to learn that growth isn’t evenly distributed. The Bank has revised its January estimate for 2021 from 4.1 percent total growth to 5.6 percent, but poorer countries—which not coincidentally also happen to be the least vaccinated countries—are likely to fare much worse than that.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Syrian media reported late Tuesday that the country’s air defenses had responded to an Israeli missile attack from Lebanese airspace. Details are very preliminary but it seems the Israelis targeted sites in Homs province and so far there are no reports of any casualties, just material damage.

According to The New Arab, the Syrian army shelled Turkish positions in southern Idlib province again overnight, killing at least three people. Syrian and Turkish forces have been trading artillery fire in southern Idlib and northern Hama provinces for several days running.

Protesters in a displaced persons camp at Alteh demonstrated on Tuesday in opposition to a Syrian-Russian plan to shut down the last cross-border humanitarian operation in Syria. Mostly due to Russian opposition in the UN Security Council, the number of border crossings for the delivery of aid to parts of Syria outside government control has dwindled to one, and it looks as though Russia will veto any attempt at the council to extend that crossing’s mandate, which expires next month. The Century Foundation’s Sam Heller argues that there are other (better) ways for Western governments to help food insecure Syrians apart from humanitarian channels:

The deterioration of Syrian food security is the product of many factors. It is, foremost, the result of an economic crisis that has overtaken Syria since 2019, and the dramatic depreciation of the national currency. Many Syrians can simply no longer afford to feed their families. Yet key imports have also been disrupted, including wheat needed for bread; and fuel, whose scarcity has affected food supply and prices. All this has been exacerbated by Western sanctions on Syria. Humanitarian assistance—itself compromised by sanctions—is not enough to compensate.

This report aims to disaggregate the factors causing Syria’s food insecurity, and to identify which of them Western policymakers can usefully influence. The answers are unsatisfying; many of the drivers of Syrian food insecurity are not within these policymakers’ power to fix. Some require action by the Syrian government and its allies. Others are now just structural features of Syria’s economy, after years of war.

There are drivers of food insecurity, though, on which Washington and its allies can have a real, positive impact. This impact may be limited, but that should not dissuade them from acting. Even a marginal effect means that more Syrians eat.

Western governments should think mostly in terms of what they can do without some larger, unlikely agreement with Damascus or its allies—and think about aid and sanctions, in particular. They should direct their aid contributions to better help Syrians feed themselves, permitting aid to sustainably reduce needs, in addition to continued emergency assistance. They should also push for renewal of the UN’s cross-border humanitarian mandate, without which millions of food-insecure people will be at risk. Policymakers should also better shield humanitarian organizations from the impacts of sanctions. Yet they should additionally recognize the limitations of humanitarian aid, and try to relieve some pressure on the broader Syrian economy. They should seek ways to reduce sanctions risks for commercial trade in essential commodities, and exercise restraint in announcing new sanctions and enforcing existing ones, lest they worsen the damaging systemic effect of sanctions.

IRAQ

One Peshmerga soldier was killed on Tuesday in a clash with Kurdistan Workers’ Party fighters in northern Iraq’s Duhok province. This incident comes just a couple of days after five Peshmerga personnel were killed by PKK fighters, also in Duhok.

Elsewhere, the commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces’ operations in Anbar province, Qasim Muslih, has reportedly been released by Iraqi authorities and all charges against him dropped. Muslih was arrested late last month on charges that he’d been involved in the killing of at least one Iraqi activist as well as attacks on other activists and the shelling of Anbar’s Ayn al-Asad airbase, which houses foreign soldiers. His arrest raised some hopes that Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was looking to Get Tough on Iraq’s unruly militia community, but apparently that’s not in the cards.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli government has offered its first explanation for the airstrike that destroyed the AP’s Gaza office (along with the offices of several other media outlets) back on May 15. Apparently, the story goes, Hamas was using the building in which those offices were located as part of its electronic warfare effort, attempting to jam Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system. Israeli officials made this assertion in a meeting on Tuesday with AP CEO Gary Pruitt, but according to Pruitt they offered no evidence to support it.

Knesset speaker Yariv Levin has scheduled a special session for Sunday, during which the legislature will debate and vote to ratify (or not) the “Change” coalition’s incoming government. Levin had previously only allowed that a confirmation vote would be held by next Monday, the legal deadline, without specifying exactly when. So Benjamin Netanyahu and his pals have until Sunday to try to find and exploit a crack in the coalition in order to salvage his premiership.

EGYPT

Five people were kidnapped Tuesday in northern Sinai. There’s been no claim of responsibility as yet but Egyptian authorities are blaming the Islamic State. Kidnapping for ransom is a frequent fund-raising tactic used by militant groups and IS is no exception to that. But as yet it’s unclear that ransom is the goal in this case.

SAUDI ARABIA

This is coming from Al Jazeera so a grain of salt might be in order, but it would appear that the Saudis are ready to forgive and forget as far as the Syrian government is concerned:

Saudi Arabia is close to reaching an agreement on diplomatic normalisation with President Bashar al-Assad’s government, as Riyadh jockeys to play a lead role in removing the Iranian presence from Syria, Al Jazeera has been told by those with close knowledge of the discussions.

According to a senior official from the Syrian opposition Free Officer’s Movement, who maintains close contacts within the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and General Intelligence Directorate (GID), “the political mood within the House of Saud has changed, many senior royals, particularly Mohammad bin Salman [MBS] himself, are keen to reengage with Assad”.

“The prevailing attitude can be defined as, ‘times have changed, the Arab Spring is history and the region is transitioning towards a new future, with new geopolitical characteristics,’” the official, who himself recently reconciled with Damascus after defecting to the Syrian opposition in the summer of 2011, added.

Although the UAE has led the way in terms of a general Gulf rapprochement with Assad, it’s been clear for a while that the Saudis were heading in that direction as well. Easing tensions with Assad has taken on additional importance given that the Saudis are also trying to reduce tensions with one of his main backers, Iran.

IRAN

The findings from a new survey from the Iran Students Polling Agency estimate that turnout in this month’s Iranian presidential election is likely to come in somewhere around 38 percent, with only 34 percent saying that they’re definitely going to vote. If that proves out it will be a shockingly low figure, easily the lowest of any presidential election since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and low enough to be embarrassing to the Iranian establishment and harmful to likely winner Ebrahim Raisi’s legitimacy. Interestingly, a government effort to encourage people to vote appears to have had the opposite effect, as fewer people expressed an intention to vote than did in the previous ISPA poll. Campaigns to boycott the vote seem unsurprisingly to have gained steam following the Guardian Council’s decision to whittle the field down drastically.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan police reportedly opened fire on a crowd of people protesting outside the offices of the governor of Badakhshan province in the city of Faizabad on Tuesday, killing at least three people. The demonstrators had assembled to demand improved public utilities (water and power) and—ironically, perhaps—better security.

It looks like the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is running ahead of schedule, with the AP reporting that it’s over halfway completed and could in theory be finished by July 4, two months before the Biden administration’s September 11 deadline. However, the pace of the withdrawal is expected to slow as the Pentagon grapples with the nitty-gritty details, like securing the US embassy and Kabul’s airport, replacing the US contractors who are supporting Afghan security forces, and maintaining some kind of long-term US counter-terrorism presence in the surrounding region. The Turkish government has reportedly offered to maintain security at the airport, so that’s one option, but it remains to be seen whether an arrangement can be worked out. On the other issues, particularly finding some helpful Central Asian country willing to host a US military base, there doesn’t seem to have been much progress.

MONGOLIA

Mongolian voters will choose a new president on Wednesday, with former Prime Minister and Mongolian People’s Party candidate Ukhnaagiin Khürelsükh considered the favorite after a campaign that was drastically curtailed by the pandemic. That would leave the MPP in pretty much uncontested control of the Mongolian government. Incumbent Khaltmaa Battulga is ineligible to run for reelection under a constitutional amendment that was adopted in 2019. Mongolia’s Constitutional Court ruled earlier this year that he could not run, rejecting his argument that he should still be eligible because the amendment was adopted in the middle of his term. Battulga subsequently attempted to dissolve the MPP, but had no luck there either.

AFRICA

IVORY COAST

At least one Ivorian soldier was killed late Monday when unspecified “armed individuals” attacked a town near the country’s border with Burkina Faso. Assuming those attackers were jihadists of some stripe, which is a safe assumption given the location, that would be the fourth likely jihadist attack Ivory Coast has suffered in a bit over two months. That should raise concerns that, having already spilled from Mali into Burkina Faso, the Sahel’s jihadist violence problem is continuing to spread south.

NIGERIA

Unspecified gunmen attacked a market and football pitch in the small town of Agatu in central Nigeria’s Benue state over the weekend, killing at least 27 people. Benue lies along the middle band across Nigeria where farming and herding communities are increasingly in conflict with one another over a shrinking supply of arable land. Agatu in particular has seen attacks from Fulani herders in the past, and it’s likely that’s what happened in this incident.

SOUTH SUDAN

Two humanitarian aid workers were killed late Monday when their convoy was ambushed in South Sudan’s Lakes state. There’s no indication as to who was responsible or their motive, though simple banditry seems a reasonable guess.

EUROPE

FRANCE

Here’s something you don’t see every day:

That’s French President Emmanuel “Jupiter” Macron getting himself smacked square across the face by a guy during a stop in a town outside the southern French city of Valence on Tuesday. I’m assuming that dude is not a fan of Macronismo or whatever, although I’m willing to entertain the possibility that Macron had a large bug on his cheek and this person was trying to get it off of there. Needless to say the slapper was arrested. I don’t really have a point here but I figured anybody who hadn’t seen the video would probably appreciate it.

AMERICAS

PERU

Peru’s presidential runoff is still technically too close to call, but with her chances of overcoming Pedro Castillo’s narrow lead diminishing on Tuesday, Keiko Fujimori decided to get out ahead of the process and declare the election fraudulent before the vote counting was over. She’s accusing Castillo’s Perú Libre party of challenging ballots in order to “distort and delay the results which reflect the popular will.” No, I don’t know what that means and I strongly suspect she doesn’t either. Fujimori’s claims appear to have drawn a fair amount of derision and comparatively little support—though in fairness, her intended audience may have been less the Peruvian public than the Peruvian political/business/security establishment, which is beginning to freak out a bit at the possibility of a leftist president. With around 97 perecent of the vote counted, Castillo’s lead over Fujimori is a bit over 0.6 percent or just under 110,000 votes. It’s unlikely Fujimori can overcome that with the vote that’s still outstanding—at least, not through any legitimate means.

COLOMBIA

The Colombian government’s human rights ombudsman office says it’s received more than 400 complaints of human rights violations and recorded 58 people killed amid anti-government protests that began in late April. Those deaths weren’t necessarily all at the hands of police, but the Colombian human rights organization Temblores says it can confirm that at least 45 of them directly involved police in some fashion. The ombudsman office delivered these findings in a report to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, which is planning to send a delegation to Colombia for consultations with activists and Colombian officials on improving the country’s dismal human rights situation. President Iván Duque has announced a package of relatively minimal police reforms, including body cameras and the establishment of a human rights unit within the national police force.

NICARAGUA

Nicaraguan authorities have arrested Félix Maradiaga, a potential candidate in November’s presidential election and…say, I’m starting to detect a trend here. It’s unclear why Maradiaga was arrested but he’s apparently been questioned over alleged links to drug trafficking and over a claim that he’s lobbied the US government to impose sanctions on Nicaragua. The arrests of the past few days have drawn an angry response from the US government, with acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs Julie Chung saying via Twitter that they “confirm without a doubt that [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Ortega is a dictator” and that “the international community has no choice but to treat him as such.”

MEXICO

Writing for Jacobin, journalist Kurt Hackbarth has a fairly positive take on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s midterm election performance:

Results from the preliminary electoral count indicate that MORENA will win between 190 and 203 seats in the lower house of Congress known as the Chamber of Deputies, equaling or bettering its result in the presidential election of 2018, when it captured 191. Add this to the range of 35 to 41 seats won by the Workers’ Party (PT) and the 40 to 48 captured by the Greens, and the coalition is set to win somewhere between 265 and 292 seats: a clear majority out of 500. The victory will allow MORENA’s legislative agenda to proceed in tandem with its majority in the Senate, which was not up for election.

In governors’ races, MORENA did even better, sweeping eleven of the fifteen statehouses in dispute, ten of which it flipped from one or other member of the right-wing alliance: from the once-feared Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) alone, it snatched seven. This will raise the total number of states governed by MORENA from a mere six before the midterms to seventeen out of thirty-two.

It’s certainly true that López Obrador’s coalition won more seats than it did in 2018, but it still lost seats compared with where it stood going into the election. It did hold on to the majority though so everything else is probably superfluous. MORENA’s performance in the gubernatorial races was a surprise and signals that the party is still in a strong position. However, it did perform worse than expected in Mexico City, the party’s traditional stronghold, possibly due to outrage over the local government’s handling of a major subway accident last month. I’m going to stick with my “mixed bag” assessment.

UNITED STATES

Finally, US Congressperson Ted Lieu had a bit of a “mask off” (no COVID pun intended) moment on Twitter a few days ago when he casually suggested that the Biden administration should prioritize sending vaccines to US allies over other nations, because I guess Iranian and North Korean lives just aren’t all that worth preserving. Writing for The Nation, the Quincy Institute’s Stephen Wertheim argues that Lieu’s mindset says less about him than it does about the sort of thinking that underpins much of US foreign policy:

But is Lieu bereft of empathy (a quality he touts in his Twitter bio, for whatever that’s worth)? Not necessarily. If America’s dozens of geopolitical allies around the globe were truly vital for the survival of the United States—and non-allies were grave threats—then his position would make sense. The United States should, in that case, help its allies first, for the same reason it helped itself first: The US government has a primary responsibility to ensure the safety of its people. If I had a life-saving medicine to give away, I certainly would not make a priority of handing it to a person who was trying to kill me. I would give it either to someone willing to protect me or to someone most in need.

So Lieu did not exhibit a distinctive personal failing. He merely followed what has been the logic of US foreign policy for decades. After America’s Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union, collapsed, bipartisan leaders opted not to pull back US military commitments and deployments but rather to extend them more widely than ever. As a result, the United States divvied up the world into allies and potential or actual enemies. The allies were supposedly vital to America’s security, so the United States shouldered the burden of protecting them. Others were supposedly threats, so America did not hesitate to counter them.

This is the premise from which Lieu quite logically arrived at an unsettling conclusion: help one half of humanity and punish the other half, even when the goal is to save lives and end a global pandemic. The problem is that the premise is false. Most of the world has no intention of attacking the United States, no capability to do so, and everything to lose by trying. The United States is remarkably secure—or would be, if it did not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy or, the flip side, dependents to save. A foreign policy of global division not only makes Americans less safe; it also leads America to treat others inhumanely. When lives are at stake, it channels compassion to some and directs punishment to others.