World roundup: September 18-19 2021

Stories from Syria, Afghanistan, Russia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 18, 1810: The Government Assembly of the Kingdom of Chile, or the “First Government Junta,” takes power in the colony by pledging allegiance to the deposed King Ferdinand VII of Spain and rejecting Napoleon’s imposition of his brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne, thus kicking off the Chilean War of Independence. Though it was supposed to be temporary, the junta continued fighting after Ferdinand’s restoration and didn’t stop fighting until Chile became an independent nation in the 1820s. Commemorated as Chilean Independence Day.

September 18, 1947: The National Security Act goes into effect, drastically reshaping the US national security bureaucracy. The previously cabinet level Department of War (renamed the Department of the Army) and Department of the Navy were subsumed into a new Department of Defense. The US Air Force was split from the Army into its own military branch, also under the new Defense Department. Outside the Pentagon, the act created the National Security Council within the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency, the first US peacetime intelligence agency. And we all lived happily ever after.

September 19, 634: The Siege of Damascus ends

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bombing that targeted an important gas pipeline near the southern Syrian town of Deir Ali late Friday night. The bombing cut electricity to some parts of Syria. Power has been restored nationally but is being rationed until the pipeline is repaired.

The Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck reports on the consistently dire security situation inside the Syrian Democratic Forces-run al-Hol refugee/prison camp:

Since January, officials report, more than 70 people have been killed inside northeast Syria’s al-Hol camp, which houses 62,000 family members of Islamic State fighters and others detained during the collapse of its self-declared caliphate more than two years ago.

Al-Hol has become an ever more dangerous and desperate place. Religious militancy is on the rise, imperiling those who are not as fanatical. Killings are often blamed on hard-line women who take advantage of the fragile security to enforce their strictures and settle scores. Security sweeps to confiscate handguns, knives and other weapons have made little difference, according to officials at the camp, which is run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. Tensions between captives and captors are boiling.

Mohamed Bashir, a supervisor for some of the guards, furrowed his brow as he ticked off recent attacks on his fingers: Ambushes against troops. Rocks thrown at aid workers. A gold shop, just outside his office on the edge of the communal market, was ransacked in July. Women in the camp often need money to buy provisions and, sometimes, to pay smugglers to get them out.

“They took gold; they took dollars,” Bashir said, wearily placing a hand to his temple.

Hours later, another person was killed on the edge of the same market, local media reported, providing no other details.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli authorities on Sunday reportedly recaptured the last two of the six Palestinians who escaped from a maximum security prison earlier this month. They’d returned to the West Bank city of Jenin, their hometown.

EGYPT

Al-Monitor is reporting that a senior Islamic State Sinai commander who goes by the name Abu Hamza al-Qadi surrendered earlier this month to a Sinai tribal association. He’s believed to be the highest-ranking of that group’s leaders to turn himself in to the authorities, and he’s potentially a valuable source of information.

IRAN

The New York Times has apparently confirmed that Israel’s assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh back in November was indeed carried out using a remote controlled machine gun and with American assent. While there are implications here for the future of remote killing machines—in certain contexts what is essentially a ground-based drone could be more effective than the airborne variety—this NYT piece is noteworthy for other reasons. Mainly it’s a good example of national security reporting that’s hyper-focused on the “cool” parts (in this case, international intrigue and killer robots) while completely missing the substantive issues (in this case, the ramifications of a state-sponsored act of terrorism that resulted in the murder of a man who, as far as anyone has been able to prove, was the lead scientist for a civilian nuclear energy program).

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In this weekend’s Afghan news:

  • The Islamic State claimed responsibility for several bombings in Nangarhar province over the weekend. At least three people were killed and 18 wounded in three explosions in Jalalabad on Saturday. The target may have been a Taliban convoy passing through the city. Another blast targeting a truck carrying Taliban fighters outside of Jalalabad on Sunday left “several” wounded, but details are spotty.

  • Another Qatari charter flight left Kabul on Sunday, reportedly carrying 236 passengers. That would make it the largest flight out of Afghanistan since the end of the Western airlift. Details on the passengers are unclear but US, European, and Afghan nationals were apparently on board.

  • Kabul’s city government may be sacking all of its female employees, saving those whose work cannot for some reason be done by a man. I’m not entirely clear on what’s happening here from the way the reporting is phrased, but suffice to say it doesn’t seem like a sign of moderation.

MYANMAR

Myanmar insurgents reportedly attacked a security convoy outside of Yangon on Friday, using a roadside bomb and then following that with gunfire. At least two of the attackers were killed in the ensuing battle but details are sparse.

INDONESIA

Indonesian authorities say their security forces killed the leader of the Islamic State-aligned jihadist group East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), Ali Kalora, in an operation on Sulawesi island on Saturday. One other MIT member was also killed in the incident and four others are still being hunted.

NORTH KOREA

New satellite imagery suggests that work is underway on an expansion of the uranium enrichment facility at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. The space that’s been cleared for the expansion suggests a facility large enough to hold 1000 centrifuge units, which would increase North Korean enrichment capacity by roughly 25 percent. North Korea also appears to have resumed plutonium production at Yongbyon, so clearly its ramping up its nuclear program.

AFRICA

TUNISIA

Some popular opposition to President Kais Saied’s power grab emerged on Saturday in the form of hundreds of protesters who gathered on the streets of Tunis to call for a “return to normalcy.” The crowd opposed to Saied’s decision to assume emergency powers back in July dwarfed a pro-Saied counter-protest. In general it seems pretty clear that most Tunisians are still in Saied’s corner, but the longer he goes without making even a nod toward restoring regular order (appointing a prime minister, for example), the more people may come to oppose what he’s done.

ALGERIA

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who served as Algeria’s president from 1999 until mass protests forced him from office in 2019, died on Friday at the age of 84. Bouteflika’s mental acuity has been in question since he suffered a stroke in 2013. He made few public appearances after that and the sense that he was no longer capable of serving as president contributed to those 2019 protests.

GUINEA

Guinean junta leader Mamady Doumbouya doesn’t seem to care that the Economic Community of West African States decided to blacklist several junta leaders and their families on Thursday. The presidents of Ghana and Ivory Coast, Nana Akufo-Addo and Alassane Ouattara respectively, visited Conakry on Friday as ECOWAS emissaries. They were there to demand a six month transition back to civilian governance and the release of former Guinean President Alpha Condé. Despite the previous day’s blacklistings, Doumbouya told them to get bent on both accounts. ECOWAS has so far treated Guinea’s junta with a much lighter touch than it used after Mali’s military coup last year, so Doumbouya’s resistance is not that surprising.

BURUNDI

The rebel group known as Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi, which goes by the acronym RED-Tabara, has claimed responsibility for a mortar attack on Bujumbura’s airport late Saturday. The shelling had no effect but it was probably meant more as a demonstration, since President Evariste Ndayishimiye was due to fly out of that airport on Sunday bound for New York and the United Nations General Assembly meeting. I assume he still made the trip.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

A combination of early results and exit polling suggests that Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party will emerge victorious from this weekend’s parliamentary election, which was a foregone conclusion. The party looks like it might win a smaller share of the vote than the 54 percent it won in 2016, so its super-majority in the Russian Duma may still be at risk.

BULGARIA

There will be a new entry in Bulgaria’s November snap election, led by interim Economy Minister Kiril Petkov and interim Finance Minister Assen Vassilev. They’ve apparently impressed some segment of the Bulgarian population since being appointed to the caretaker government back in May, particularly for their anti-corruption efforts. Anti-corruption will be the focus of their campaign. Predicting anything about Bulgaria’s third election of 2021 is probably a fool’s errand, but if this new party siphons enough center-right support from GERB and is prepared to enter a coalition with other parties, it could shake things up enough to make this election decisive, unlike the previous two.

AMERICAS

CANADA

Sunday was the last day of campaigning before Canadian voters head to the polls in that country’s snap election. Polling suggests the race is swinging back toward Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, but only enough to return Trudeau at the head of a minority government, or in other words exactly where he was when he called the snap vote last month. The Conservative-led Albertan government’s mishandling of the pandemic has apparently scared some voters back into Trudeau’s corner.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Walker Bragman updates us on the seriousness with which the Biden administration is treating climate change:

President Joe Biden has been touring climate-ravaged areas of America, warning that climate change is a “code red” emergency for the planet. And yet, his administration has continued to boost fossil fuel projects and is now preparing to vastly expand offshore drilling.

The White House argues that a court order it opposes and is appealing requires federal officials to lease more than 78 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for fossil fuel exploration. Environmental groups, however, assert that federal law gives the administration broad discretion over whether or not to hold such sales.

In fact, Biden’s officials have instead used that power to officially declare that the warnings in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report “does not present sufficient cause” to reevaluate the drilling plan.

With the help of the nonprofit public interest organization Earthjustice, several environmental and Gulf groups have now launched a lawsuit against the administration to stop the Gulf lease sale. The complaint argues that the environmental analysis behind the lease sale is based on outdated and arbitrary science, in violation of federal law.

“We’ve been very patient with his administration,” says Hallie Templeton, deputy legal director for Friends of the Earth, one of the environmental groups involved in the litigation. “The honeymoon’s over. It’s now September, they’ve been in office for eight months. It’s time for them to show that they have priorities and are meaningfully going to move in the right direction.”