World roundup: September 12-13 2020

Stories from Iran, Mali, Peru, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 11, 1565: The Great Siege of Malta ends

September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda operatives kill nearly 3000 people by flying airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. A fourth plane, probably intended for the US Capitol, was brought down over Pennsylvania.

September 12, 1683: The Battle of Vienna

September 12, 1974: A committee of Ethiopian military officers, called the “Derg,” overthrows Emperor Haile Selassie in a coup amid mass unrest caused in part by a serious famine. The Derg, which refashioned itself as the “Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia,” ruled the country until 1987, when it further transformed itself into the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

September 13, 533: The Byzantine general Belisarius and his army defeat the Vandals in the Battle of Ad Decium, near Carthage. This was Belisarius’s first victory in his invasion of North Africa and kicked off his campaign to restore the western Mediterranean to imperial control.

September 13, 1993: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Yasser Arafat sign the Oslo I Accord in Washington, DC. Oslo I established the creation of a Palestinian government as well as provisions for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories and economic cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians. It was supposed to be an interim agreement but, well, you can see how that went.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for September 13:

  • 29,175,454 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (7,226,548 active, +243,969 since yesterday)

  • 927,986 reported fatalities (+3905 since yesterday)

A new study suggests humans are having an even more harmful impact on their fellow creatures than previously believed:

Wildlife populations are in freefall around the world, driven by human overconsumption, population growth and intensive agriculture, according to a major new assessment of the abundance of life on Earth.

On average, global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles plunged by 68% between 1970 and 2016, according to the WWF and Zoological Society of London (ZSL)’s biennial Living Planet Report 2020. Two years ago, the figure stood at 60%.

The research is one of the most comprehensive assessments of global biodiversity available and was complied by 134 experts from around the world. It found that from the rainforests of central America to the Pacific Ocean, nature is being exploited and destroyed by humans on a scale never previously recorded.

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

  • 2011 confirmed coronavirus cases (+2)

  • 583 reported fatalities (+1)

Saudi warplanes attacked Sanaa for the second day in a row early Sunday, according to Saudi state media. These reports say the Saudis struck Houthi military sites around the capital, so I’m thinking a bakery, an auto parts store, maybe a couple of laundromats, you get the idea.

TURKEY

  • 291,162 confirmed cases (+1527)

  • 7056 reported fatalities (+57)

The Turkish government has reportedly recalled its Oruç Reis research vessel to port, a move that could help ratchet down tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. The Oruç Reis is a geological survey ship that Turkey has been using to snoop around for offshore energy deposits, mostly in waters that are also claimed by either Greece or Cyprus. Its extended mission has angered officials in those countries and in France, and has led to a couple of awkward situations, like last month’s collision between a Greek naval vessel shadowing the Oruç Reis and a Turkish vessel escorting it.

LEBANON

  • 24,310 confirmed cases (+641)

  • 241 reported fatalities (+2)

The European Union is apparently waiting until Lebanon has a “credible” government in place before it sends any more disaster relief assistance to help the recovery from last month’s explosion at Beirut’s seaport. Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib is reportedly set to submit his new cabinet to President Michel Aoun this week, which would be warp speed by Lebanese standards, but he’s run into some trouble over the past few days. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the senior and still arguably most influential Shiʿa politician in Lebanon, has been threatening not to support the new government, possibly over the US decision to impose sanctions a few days ago on two former Lebanese cabinet ministers and also possibly because Adib is threatening to undermine Berri’s influence over the Lebanese Finance Ministry. After a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, Berri seems to have grudgingly given his assent to Adib’s cabinet.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 155,604 confirmed cases (+2882) in Israel, 30,574 confirmed cases (+668) in Palestine

  • 1119 reported fatalities (+16) in Israel, 221 reported fatalities (+11) in Palestine

The Israeli government is imposing a three week national lockdown effective Friday, in an attempt to bring its increasingly runaway coronavirus outbreak back under some control. That lockdown will carry the country through the major Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, which is by design since holiday gatherings can accelerate the spread of the virus but also increases the likelihood that this lockdown will cause new tension between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his religious conservative base.

IRAN

  • 402,029 confirmed cases (+2089)

  • 23,157 reported fatalities (+128)

According to the American media’s favorite source, anonymous but surely trustworthy US intelligence sources, the Iranian government has hatched a scheme to assassinate US ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks, though they haven’t decided whether or not to go ahead with it. Marks, in this story, would be their revenge for the US assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani back in January.

It’s unclear why the Iranians would feel that killing Marks, who makes purses and got the job because she’s hung out with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, would be equivalent to Soleimani (in fairness, she is at least familiar with South Africa and speaks a couple of South African languages, which is much more more than you can say for most of Trump’s political appointee ambassadors). They might feel she’s an easier target than some other options, or that her personal relationship with Trump makes her more important than she appears on paper. The Iranian government does have a decent relationship with South Africa, which could make operating there easier (though it also raises questions as to why they’d want to risk that relationship on something like this).

Or the whole story might be rank bullshit, manufactured for domestic consumption by a US national security establishment that fears its regime change project in Iran is losing steam and/or a US president who may be setting up a nifty little October Surprise on the eve of his reelection bid. I mean, as long as we’re speculating.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 38,716 confirmed cases (+75)

  • 1420 reported fatalities (+0)

Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were supposed to begin Saturday in Doha, and…they did, actually. I bet I had some of you going there for a second. Little of substance happened on Saturday, really, just the opening ceremonies and some logistical discussions.

Saturday’s opening ceremony, featuring US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (State Department photo via Flickr)

The real talks began on Sunday, but it will be some time before it becomes apparent whether there’s any common ground to be had. Both sides are entering the talks pushing their main demands—for the Taliban, a return to a more theocratic form of government, and for the government, an initial focus on reducing violence with a relatively quick move toward a national ceasefire. There’s not much indication that Kabul is willing to accept the former and no indication that the Taliban is willing to concede the latter. According to the Afghan Defense Ministry, Taliban fighters carried out at least 18 attacks on Friday, the day before the talks started, causing “heavy” but unspecified casualties. That’s probably not an auspicious way to begin the peace process.

SRI LANKA

  • 3234 confirmed cases (+39)

  • 12 reported fatalities (+0)

Sri Lankan authorities say they’ve managed to plug a fuel leak in the oil tanker that caught fire off of the country’s eastern coast earlier this month. It’s unclear how much of the ship’s diesel has leaked out but on the plus side there’s no indication that any of its cargo, roughly two million barrels of crude oil, has leaked. Officials are now concerned that the cargo’s owner might try to transfer it to a new tanker at sea, which would raise new risks of spillage.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 22,781 confirmed cases (+433)

  • 362 reported fatalities (+8)

In a somewhat abrupt move, the government that’s been running eastern Libya and has dissolved, with Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and his cabinet submitting their resignations to Aguila Saleh, speaker of the eastern parliament based in Tobruk. The resignation comes after days of heavy and sometimes violent protests across eastern Libya, but particularly in Benghazi, over poor economic conditions and allegations of corruption by eastern officials. It also comes a day after the US embassy in Libya announced that “Libyan National Army” commander Khalifa Haftar had agreed to end an embargo he’s imposed on some of Libya’s largest oil facilities. It’s not actually clear that he’s done so, however.

The Tobruk parliament has blamed poor economic conditions in eastern Libya on its rival government in Tripoli, accusing it of co-opting ostensibly neutral institutions like the Libyan Central Bank and the National Oil Corporation. But Haftar’s embargo, which has effectively brought Libyan oil production to a halt, hasn’t helped.

THE SAHEL

At Foreign Policy, analyst Samuel Ramani examines the ways in which foreign actors have contributed to the Sahel’s ongoing security crisis:

As the security situation in the Sahel continues to deteriorate, the causes of escalating violence are discussed regularly, but no one is taking appropriate action to counter it.

The U.S. Department of State routinely emphasizes the role of transnational terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, in triggering the Sahel’s security crisis. Reports from development agencies and think tanks regularly highlight fragile state institutions, authoritarianism, and climate change as factors that cause instability. Still, policymakers vacillate on whether to devote resources to counterterrorism efforts or to development initiatives.

In spite of these intense debates, one vital contributor to insecurity in the Sahel is often ignored: the crisis of international governance. Instead of taking constructive steps to address the array of challenges facing the Sahel, great powers and regional institutions are exacerbating the region’s problems.

Due to their intense focus on geostrategic competition and willingness to equate authoritarianism with stability, great powers such as France, the United States, Russia, and China, have actually perpetuated conditions, such as corruption and fragile state institutions, that contribute to rising political violence in the Sahel. Regional institutions such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have exacerbated the governance crisis because of a lack of strategic coordination and their inefficient use of military resources.

MALI

  • 2924 confirmed cases (+8)

  • 128 reported fatalities (+0)

Concluding three days of consultative meetings between Mali’s ruling junta and leaders of the country’s civilian political opposition (the M5-RFP coalition), the junta issued a proposal Saturday for an 18 month interim government of 25 members, plus a transitional council, serving under an interim president appointed by the junta. This was a climb down from the two year transition junta leaders had been talking about when the meetings began, which in turn was a climb down from the three year transition they’d talked about immediately after ousting former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta last month.

On Sunday, the M5-RFP rejected it. Their main objection seems to be that, in negotiations, junta leaders agreed that the interim president would be a civilian, but the charter they drew up at the end of the talks says that person could be either civilian or military. M5-RFP leaders characterized this as an attempt by the junta to “confiscate power,” and additionally objected to the “antidemocratic and unfair” conditions under which the meetings took place, though as far as I know they didn’t get into details on that complaint. In the absence of a transition agreement, the junta could face sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as soon as this week.

MOZAMBIQUE

  • 5269 confirmed cases (+229)

  • 35 reported fatalities (+0)

Militants in northern Mozambique attacked a convoy of trucks carrying passengers on Saturday, killing at least two people and injuring many others. There’s been no confirmation of their identity but these attackers are presumably related to the Islamic State affiliated insurgents who captured the northern port town of Mocímboa da Praia last month. Mozambican forces have yet to attempt to retake that town.

MAURITIUS

  • 361 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 10 reported fatalities (+0)

At least 25,000 people, and perhaps many more than that, protested in the Mauritian town of Mahébourg on Saturday, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth and his government over what they say was a slow response to the crash of the MV Wakashio cargo ship off the Mauritian coast back in July. That ship leaked over 1000 metric tons of fuel into the ocean around Mauritius, damaging its environment in ways that haven’t fully been assessed. This is the second major protest Mauritius has seen over the Wakashio incident in a little over two weeks, after tens of thousands of people protested late last month in Port Louis.

EUROPE

BELARUS

  • 74,173 confirmed cases (+198)

  • 750 reported fatalities (+6)

Over 100,000 people turned out in Minsk on Sunday to call for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation, one day after around 5000 demonstrated in the city to demand the release of detained opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova. Belarusian security forces arrested scores of people over the course of the weekend. Lukashenko is heading to Moscow on Monday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s raised concerns that he could mortgage Belarusian autonomy in exchange for Putin’s help to remain in power. There’s no hard evidence he’s planning to do so, but neither is it out of the question.

GREECE

  • 13,240 confirmed cases (+204)

  • 305 reported fatalities (+3)

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced on Sunday that his government will build a permanent migrant “reception center” on the island of Lesbos to replace the Moria refugee camp, which was consumed by fire (possibly arson though that’s yet to be determined) earlier this month. Details are sparse, but a new facility could make for a much more humane and orderly immigration process for migrants attempting to enter Europe via Greece. On the other hand, it could function as a de facto prison for people whose only “crime” is, well, attempting to enter Europe via Greece. Unsurprisingly, news of its construction has been received poorly both by the migrants who were living at the dilapidated Moria camp, who say they want to be transferred to other European Union member states and have been clashing with Greek riot police amid demonstrations since the camp’s destruction, and by the residents of Lesbos.

AMERICAS

PERU

  • 729,619 confirmed cases (+6787)

  • 30,710 reported fatalities (+117)

The Peruvian Congress voted Saturday to begin impeachment proceedings against President Martín Vizcarra over allegations of fraud, sending a political shockwave through the Latin American na-aaaaand it’s over. Probably. Recordings have surfaced of conversations between Vizcarra and other government officials about the Vizcarra’s relationship with a Peruvian singer named Richard Cisneros, who has received a couple of questionable government contracts for “motivational speeches.” They’re alleging the conversations are evidence of an attempted coverup of some kind.

This is the second attempt by Peruvian legislators to impeach Vizcarra—the previous Congress tried to impeach him last September, but Vizcarra dissolved the legislature and forced a new election in January. This impeachment attempt already seems to be collapsing internally, as key opposition leaders are publicly downplaying the effort. A vote to oust Vizcarra, which could come Friday, would require 87 of Peru’s 130 legislators to vote in favor. The vote to open impeachment proceedings got 65 votes in favor (it only needed 52), and getting those additional 22 votes seems at this point like a pretty tall order.

UNITED STATES

  • 6,708,458 confirmed cases (+31,857)

  • 198,520 reported fatalities (+392)

Donald Trump’s pick to run the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Mauricio Claver-Carone, won his election to that post on Saturday. He’s the first US citizen to lead IDB, which has historically been led by a Latin American appointee, albeit with US approval. His candidacy was viewed as controversial for that reason and also because of his ties to the far-right and the chances that he will look to defund the IDB at Trump’s behest. There’s also the issue of whether Claver-Carone will be able to work with a potential Biden administration, especially after the Biden campaign and other prominent Democrats criticized his nomination.

Finally, it’s not specifically a US story, but since this is the last thing you’ll read in this issue I’d like to leave you with NPR’s weekend exposé about the Great Lie the petroleum industry has been telling us about plastics:

NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic.

The industry’s awareness that recycling wouldn't keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program's earliest days, we found. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.

Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true.

As much as the tobacco industry’s Great Lie about smoking and the oil industry’s other Great Lie about climate change, this story deserves to be a massive scandal and the people responsible for perpetrating this fraud deserve to be held to account for what amounts to a massive crime against humanity. I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.