World update: July 21 2020

Stories from Jordan, Ethiopia, the European Union, and more

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Since last night’s post was for subscribers only, with their indulgence I’d like to repeat the statement I wrote at the start of that post for tonight’s larger audience:

I’d like to dedicate tonight’s newsletter to Michael Brooks, the brilliant, funny, and talented host of his own show and co-host of The Majority Report. I am terribly saddened to say that Michael died suddenly on Monday. He was one of the hardest working, most dedicated people I’ve ever seen, as a writer and a broadcaster, and he will be sorely missed by everyone who was touched by his life and his work. And although we never met apart from interviewing one another for our respective shows, he was my friend. The world needs more Michaels, not fewer, and we are all the poorer for his loss. My deepest condolences go out to his loved ones. Rest in peace, Michael. You will not be forgotten.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

July 20, 1402: The Battle of Ankara

July 20, 1917: Serbian and other south Slavic representatives sign the Corfu Declaration in Greece, paving the way to the formation of Yugoslavia. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

July 20, 1969: The crew of Apollo 11 carries out the first manned landing on the moon. Very early the following morning, mission commander Neil Armstrong became the first human being (as far as we know, anyway) to walk on the moon. Possibly you’ve heard about this before so I don’t think we need to go into much detail.

July 20, 1974: Turkish forces invade Cyprus in response to the pro-union with Greece coup d’etat that took place on July 15. Though the coup failed, this invasion and a followup in August led to the partition of the island between its Greek and Turkish portions, which is still in place today.

July 21, 1774: The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca

July 21, 1798: The Battle of the Pyramids

French painter Louis-François Lejeune’s 1808 General View of the Battle of the Pyramids, based on his own eyewitness as an officer in Napoleon’s army (Wikimedia Commons)

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for July 21:

  • 15,084,943 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (5,361,419 active, +239,093 since yesterday)

  • 618,494 reported fatalities (+5678 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 540 confirmed coronavirus cases (+18)

  • 31 reported fatalities (+2)

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that Monday’s Israeli missile strike on an arms depot in southern Damascus killed five Iranian-aligned militia fighters. Seven Syrian soldiers were wounded, according to state media.

Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party won a large majority in Sunday’s parliamentary election. I know, I was stunned too. Turnout was a mere 33 percent or thereabouts, but I guess when you hold an election in a warzone you have to live with the repercussions.

IRAQ

  • 97,159 confirmed cases (+2466)

  • 3950 reported fatalities (+81)

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi visited Iran on Tuesday on his first overseas trip since becoming PM in May. Kadhimi’s first overseas trip was supposed to have been to Saudi Arabia on Monday, but King Salman’s hospitalization (see below) foiled that, and along with it Kadhimi’s symbolic display of neutrality. Kadhimi met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the latter of whom promised not to interfere in Iraq’s relationship with the US. In return, Kadhimi promised not to allow Iraqi soil to be used to stage “any aggression or challenge to Iran.” So that’s nice of them, though it’s incongruous with US Middle East policy these days. Kadhimi may be trying to position himself as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as a couple of his predecessors have tried to do, but whether the Iranians passed him any notes to slip to Riyadh during study hall is unknown.

JORDAN

  • 1113 confirmed cases (unchanged)

  • 11 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Remarking that an Israeli annexation of the West Bank would shut the door on the mythical “two-state solution,” Jordanian Prime Minister Omar Razzaz suggested in an interview published Tuesday with The Guardian that there might be a silver lining, saying that he “could very well look at this positively, if we’re clearly opening the door to a one-state democratic solution.” Of course we’re not clearly opening the door to a one-state democratic solution, because a “one-state democratic solution” means Palestinians and Israelis living together with equal civil and political rights, which is a non-starter for the Israeli government.

I think Razzaz was trolling, and his other remarks make it pretty clear he brought up the idea of a single democratic state mostly to highlight the alternative, apartheid—which is what’s already happening. But his comments are interesting. As the unofficial “other” Palestinian state, Jordan has been a useful safety valve for the Israelis in terms of keeping alive the goal of a “two-state solution” long after Israeli settlements made that impossible and Israeli policy made it clear where things were really heading. If the Jordanians are now unwilling to maintain the “two-state” fiction, it’s going to be harder for the Israelis to keep pretending it’s still on the table.

EGYPT

  • 89,078 confirmed cases (+676)

  • 4399 reported fatalities (+47)

The Egyptian military says its forces killed 18 alleged militants who had tried to attack a security checkpoint in the northern Sinai on Tuesday.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • 255,825 confirmed cases (+2476)

  • 2557 reported fatalities (+34)

Whatever health issues sent King Salman to the hospital on Monday apparently weren’t serious enough to keep him from leading a (virtual, of course) cabinet meeting on Tuesday. State media says the king’s gallbladder was inflamed, and while there’s no particular reason to trust Saudi state media there also doesn’t seem to be any sign that people inside the kingdom are concerned for Salman’s condition.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 35,615 confirmed cases (+89)

  • 1186 reported fatalities (+1)

A teenaged Afghan girl from Ghor province has become something of a national celebrity after chasing off a group of Taliban fighters who broke into her house and murdered her parents last week. The Taliban came for Gul’s father, a supporter of the Afghan government, and after they’d killed him and Gul’s mother, the girl reportedly grabbed the family’s AK-47 and opened fire on the Taliban. She killed two of them and wounded several more. Villagers and a local militia then ran the Taliban off, and the government has since taken Gul and her brother into protective custody.

TAIWAN

  • 455 confirmed cases (unchanged)

  • 7 reported fatalities (unchanged)

The Taiwanese government has reportedly rejected the residence permits of two would-be employees of the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taipei. Details are sparse but it seems certain this was related to China’s new security law in Hong Kong, and specifically to reports that Taiwanese diplomatic personnel will no longer be permitted in Hong Kong unless they sign a document rejecting the idea of Taiwanese independence.

CHINA

  • 83,693 confirmed cases (+11) on the mainland, 2020 confirmed cases (+61) in Hong Kong

  • 4634 reported fatalities (unchanged) on the mainland, 14 reported fatalities (+2) in Hong Kong

The Arab Gulf States Institute’s Robert Mogielnicki suggests that the debate over China’s role in the Persian Gulf may be missing the mark:

Foreign ministers from China and the Arab world held their ninth meeting of the biennial China-Arab States Cooperation Forum earlier this month, at which they pledged to “deepen cooperation in various fields, and embrace new prospects in building a China-Arab community with a shared future,” according to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua. The meeting is sure to renew debates over the nature of Chinese influence in Gulf Arab states. China hawks in the United States often overemphasize China’s economic power in the region by focusing on the threats posed by companies like the telecommunications giant Huawei or BGI Group, a genetics company involved in building coronavirus testing centers across the Middle East. Other analysts downplay China’s economic credentials in the region, citing an underwhelming record of capital expenditures, job creation and foreign direct investment.

Both views have merits, but each misses a crucial point: that China’s growing economic influence in the Gulf region is best measured indirectly. China consumes an outsized share of the Gulf’s oil and gas exports, actively invests in state-linked entities, and provides sleek digital services to the region’s large youth population. The coronavirus pandemic and oil price rout of early 2020 afford China the opportunity to deepen and expand these dimensions of economic influence, especially over the medium and long terms.

The energy exports alone give China a considerable amount of regional leverage. At a time when the Arab Gulf states are seeing their control over the global oil trade shrink, they’re growing more dependent on Beijing, which has become their largest and most reliable customer.

AFRICA

SUDAN

  • 10,992 confirmed cases (unchanged)

  • 693 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir went on trial Tuesday, along with 16 other people, over the 1989 coup that brought him to power. The rarity of a former dictator actually being tried for his crimes notwithstanding, I will note here that Bashir going on trial in Khartoum means he’s not (at least not anytime soon) going to be sent to The Hague to answer for his crimes in Darfur, even though the Sudanese government has suggested it would turn him over to International Criminal Court authorities. Hundreds of Bashir supporters protested the trial in Khartoum.

MALI

  • 2477 confirmed cases (+2)

  • 122 reported fatalities (+1)

The Malian opposition’s M5-RFP umbrella group announced Tuesday that it’s halting protests ahead of the Eid al-Adha holiday later this month, to give regional mediators a window to try to negotiate a settlement to Mali’s political crisis. Leaders from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger, and Senegal are heading to Bamako later this week for negotiations. The opposition is demanding that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta resign, but he’s resisted that demand so far and regional leaders seem reluctant to push him to step down (perhaps because they fear setting a precedent).

ETHIOPIA

  • 11,072 confirmed cases (+865)

  • 180 reported fatalities (+10)

Incredibly, it seems the Ethiopian, Egyptian, and Sudanese governments have reached a last-minute agreement on managing the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in order to lessen its impact on Blue Nile and Nile river water levels. No, wait, I’m sorry, they’ve apparently reached a “major common understanding which paves the way for a breakthrough agreement.” Ah, well, I mean, that’s…something, right? Almost? Maybe I’m missing a detail somewhere, but it seems like they’ve agreed to start negotiating again, but not much beyond that. The main points of dispute—how fast the GERD’s reservoir will be filled, what adjustments will be made to preserve water levels in the event of a drought, how the countries will work out any disputes that arise over the dam or related projects—still appear unsettled.

The real breakthrough appears to have come in the form of heavy rains, which have filled the reservoir past the level the Ethiopians envisioned for this year and will allow GERD officials to begin testing the dam’s turbines. Whether the Ethiopians have been deliberately filling the reservoir or not (they claim they haven’t) remains a matter of some dispute, but the rains have at least provided plausible deniability so that everybody can pretend the Ethiopians haven’t done anything and thereby resume talks without any party losing face.

EQUATORIAL GUINEA

  • 3071 confirmed cases (unchanged)

  • 51 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Guinean and Cameroonian officials met in Malabo on Tuesday and signed a border security and non-interference agreement that should reduce tensions between their countries. Those tensions were raised last summer, when the Cameroonian government accused Equatorial Guinea of building a border wall—which it was, apparently. The wall project was frozen earlier this month.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 8534 confirmed cases (+91)

  • 196 reported fatalities (+2)

At least 12 people have been killed in attacks on two villages in the DRC’s Ituri province over the past two days. Both attacks have been attributed to the Lendu Cooperative for the Development of Congo militia. The predominantly farming Lendu and the predominantly pastoral Hema peoples have been battling since the 1970s, but their conflict really ratcheted up the late 1990s. It now appears to be surging again after several relatively quiet years.

EUROPE

EUROPEAN UNION

Leaders of the EU member states concluded their budget negotiations in Brussels on Tuesday with a final agreement on a €1.8 trillion package that includes a roughly €1 trillion seven year budget and a €750 billion pandemic relief package. The bailout involves the largest joint debt issue in EU history and should generate considerable assistance for those EU members hardest hit by the coronavirus, including Spain and especially Italy. The Italian government alone is expected to receive over €200 billion in assistance, in a mix of grants and loans. The sudden expression of uncharacteristic European solidarity should help calm what’s been a rising sense of anti-EU sentiment in those countries. It’s also a major victory for French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have been pushing for a large EU-wide recovery effort.

Now everybody gets to fight about the details. With somewhat vague requirements that the relief funds be used in ways that are consistent with the EU’s push for modernizing digital infrastructure and transitioning to a green economy, as well as for ensuring the “rule of law” in member states, there should be plenty about which these same European leaders can bicker in the coming months. Which seems to be what they really enjoy doing anyway.

RUSSIA

  • 783,328 confirmed cases (+5842)

  • 12,580 reported fatalities (+153)

Protests continued in the eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk on Tuesday, over the recent arrest of former regional governor Sergei Furgal. The Russian government appointed a new interim governor on Monday, but he’s apparently from outside the region, and Furgal’s supporters remain convinced that the charges against him are politically motivated.

BULGARIA

  • 9254 confirmed cases (+325)

  • 313 reported fatalities (+5)

Unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government defeated a no confidence motion on Tuesday, with the vote 102-124 against the motion. Bulgaria is in the midst of a major protest movement over allegations that Borisov and his cabinet ministers have looked the other way, or worse, when it comes to corruption. Borisov has been resisting calls for his resignation and seems intent on serving through next year’s election at least.

UNITED KINGDOM

  • 295,817 confirmed cases (+445)

  • 45,422 reported fatalities (+110)

The UK parliament released its “Russia report” on Tuesday, concluding that the government failed, perhaps intentionally, to properly investigate allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The report didn’t show any conclusive proof of Russian involvement (a fact on which pro-Brexit campaigners have seized, claiming that they’ve been exonerated), but its focus wasn’t really on proving Russian involvement as on critiquing the response to allegations of Russian involvement by British security agencies and the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson. The release of the report and the commentary surrounding it produced an angry reaction from Moscow, where officials accused the report’s authors of “Russophobia.”

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

  • 12,774 confirmed cases (+440)

  • 120 reported fatalities (+4)

The Trump administration on Tuesday put a $5 million bounty on the head of Venezuelan Chief Justice Maikel Moreno over accusations that he’s engaged in organized crime and corruption. The announcement also levied sanctions on Moreno that will bar him from entering the United States, so that big Trump National Doral golf weekend he had planned will presumably have to be put on hold. Among the charges levied at Moreno is a claim that he’s taken bribes and another claim that he’s participated in money laundering activities on behalf of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s supposed international drug ring.

UNITED STATES

  • 4,028,569 confirmed cases (+67,140)

  • 144,953 reported fatalities (+1119)

Finally, defense technology reporter and Friend of FX Kelsey Atherton offers what should, but almost certainly will not, be the final word on one of the longest-running, most pointless, and hardest to kill fixations of the DC Blob—the EMP:

It is hard to pinpoint what, specifically, the electromagnetic pulse did to the electronic infrastructure of Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945. In the days and months after the blast, the first use of a nuclear weapon in war, electrical power remained out in the city. If no specific attention was paid to the particular way that part of a nuclear blast interacts with the electrical grid, it is because the effect of the weapon was total and horrific. Amid the rubble, the radiation, the fire and ruin and mass death, fried electronics were barely noticed.

The electromagnetic pulse that comes from the sundering of an atom, potentially destroying electronics within the blast radius with some impact miles away from ground zero, is just one of many effects of every nuclear blast. What is peculiar about these pulses, often referred to as EMPs, is the way the side effect of a nuclear blast is treated as a [danger] in its own right by bodies such as the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, which, despite the official-sounding name, is a privately funded group. These groups continue a decadelong tradition of obsession over EMPs, one President Donald Trump and others have picked up on. These EMP-specific fears are wholly divorced from the normal risk calculations of a war between nuclear-armed states and the threat of nuclear oblivion. Doing so obscures the history—and misunderstands the dangers.