Well, OK, my break is over and it seems like I should get back into the swing of things around this place. But because I have a hard time breaking back into stuff without going over all the many
disasters events that have taken place while I was trying not to pay too much attention, you’ll have to indulge me a little here.
HONG KONG: This is easily the most interesting new thing happening right now, but as it’s absolutely not my area of expertise I’d direct you to explainers at The New Yorker, Al Jazeera, Mashable, and elsewhere. Protesters are angry at what they argue is China’s failure to keep its obligations to hold free elections for the post of Hong Kong Chief Executive in 2017 (discontentment with Hong Kong’s stagnating economy isn’t helping either). For some reason, they don’t believe that an election contested only by Chinese government-approved candidates will actually be “free.” Picky, picky. The protests escalated into serious civil disobedience with the standard pepper spray/tear gas/”outside agitators” response from the government, but the government set today as the deadline for protesters to disperse, and it seems like they may have pulled back although they haven’t totally gone away. So things may be settling into a long-term, low-level protest. One hurdle facing the protesters is that, so far, a plurality of Hong Kong residents actually oppose the protest movement.
NORTH KOREA: Speaking of things I don’t know all that much about, Kim Jong Un hasn’t been seen in public in more than a month, which seems odd maybe? A former North Korean intel figure named Jang Jin-Sung is saying he thinks Kim has been toppled in a coup or at least sidelined by the country’s Organization and Guidance Department, because North Korea is literally Oceania from Nineteen Eighty-Four at this point. It’s also possible that Kim is just sick, but maybe seriously sick, given that he wasn’t the healthiest-looking guy when he took power and that he’s apparently been on a major Swiss cheese binge ever since his dad died. So we could be talking about gout, hypertension, diabetes, you name it. Or he may have broken both of his ankles on account of being fat and/or trying to walk around in high heels, which also seems perfectly reasonable.
EBOLA: Everybody knows at this point about the Liberian man who became symptomatic after arriving in the US and is now being treated with experimental drugs in a Dallas hospital. Now a Spanish nurse has been diagnosed with the disease, the first person known to have contracted it outside of Africa. Speaking of Africa (remember that place?), fears are that the reported number of Ebola cases (7200, mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea) has been vastly undercounted, owing to the difficulties of assessing the disease under the best of circumstances, let alone in the current situation where health care networks (and, really, societies) are breaking down. Overworked teams of investigators are unable to keep up with new infection reports (and it’s possible that most new infections never even get reported), and are often unable to get to where they need to be because locals are uncooperative or downright hostile. The CDC estimates that there are 2.5 actual cases of Ebola for every one that gets reported, which would put the real infection could around 18,000. At those levels the concern starts to be that the outbreak has totally outstripped any possibility for containing it.
BRAZIL: Presidential runoff! I seriously don’t have anything insightful on this, but this New York Times piece doesn’t paint the rosiest picture (the newsstand owner who said “truthfully, none of the candidates are great” kind of summed it up). At one time a genuine leftist, Marina Silva, was thought to be the frontrunner, but she cratered and finished third, so she’s not eligible for the runoff.
SYRIA: Fighting is raging the hottest around the Kurdish city of Kobani, on the Syrian-Turkish border. Daesh covets Kobani for the border crossing into Turkey but the Kurds are fiercely defending it despite being pretty clearly outgunned. The latest reports have Daesh seizing part of the city, and say that Daesh and the Kurds are “engaged in street-to-street fighting.” Yesterday a female Kurdish fighter reportedly carried out a “suicide bombing” against advancing Daesh fighters, which has led to some bizarre, “oh, look, the ‘good guys’ are terrorists too, huh?”-style “analysis” today. If you can’t tell the difference between a person who gets on a city bus intending to blow him/herself up and a person who blows him/herself up in the heat of battle, as a last-ditch effort to take out enemy fighters who are about to overrun his/her position, get out of the news and commentary business, OK? There are conflicting stories about whether or not the US and coalition aircraft have really been striking Daesh near Kobani, but everybody seems to agree that whatever air support has been provided hasn’t been nearly sufficient to counter the advanced US weaponry (captured from the Iraqi army, you’ll recall) that Daesh is using. On the other hand, it turns out that we’ve decided to waive our “near certainty of no civilian casualties” standard for airstrikes in Syria, and not a moment too soon. Those seven dead civilians will think twice before standing under any more US ordinance, am I right?
Also, McClatchy is reporting that one of the targets of the US bombing campaign in Syria was/is a French intel agent who had either been working as a mole for Al Qaeda or just up and defected to them recently. The French government kind of non-denied the story today (when terms like “totally erroneous” start getting thrown around, it’s time to start looking for nits to pick), and I don’t know if this really matters all that much but it’s a fascinating story.
IRAQ: Daesh is now reportedly controlling Anbar Province, after Iraqi Security Forces there, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, dropped everything and ran rather than standing against advancing Daesh fighters. Fallujah fell to Daesh in January, but they weren’t able to hold on to Ramadi at that time. Well, now they’ve got Ramadi again. A UN report released last week cataloged the human rights violations committed by Daesh in Iraq, like mass executions, ethnic cleansing/genocide, sex trafficking with captured women and children, using child soldiers, and basically all the worst things you could imagine them doing.
TURKEY: Parliament voted last week to authorize military incursions into Syria and Iraq, which credulous people hailed as a sign that Turkey is finally off the fence and has joined the fight against Daesh. For the more cynical among us, the fact that the authorization includes references to a “no fly zone,” when Daesh doesn’t, you know, have any aircraft, suggests that they’ll really be invading Syria to go after Assad. This is misleading, in that they’ll probably also be going in to head off any Kurdish successes against Daesh, fearing that a Kurdish victory could lead to some kind of de facto cross-border Kurdish “state” forming, which would be a major threat to Turkey given Turkey’s sizable Kurdish population. Toward that end, note the fact that the Turkish army has done nothing about the situation in Kobane despite being mobilized and stationed along that part of the Turkish border.
IRAN: There was an explosion today at or near one of Iran’s suspected military nuclear sites, Parchin (just outside Tehran), and two people were killed. Parchin is where the International Atomic Energy Agency believes Iran was carrying out nuclear weapons-related research (specifically on detonators) before it (allegedly) suspended its (alleged) nuclear weapons program in 2003. The ongoing dispute between Iran and the IAEA over Iran’s full disclosure of its past military research (the term is “past military dimensions” or PMD) is one of the side issues affecting the Iran/P5+1 talks. The P5+1 negotiations are technically separate from whatever negotiations Iran is having with the IAEA, but you can bet that the P5+1 are watching how willing Iran is to disclose its PMD, and it’s possible that continued PMD disclosure will be part of the requirements for sanctions relief in a comprehensive nuclear deal (if one is actually reached). Anyway, there’s no immediate explanation for the explosion, and obviously there’s always the possibility of an accident at a facility where explosives are researched, but there’s a bit of history here to suggest a more nefarious cause.
Also, in a bit of good news, the wife of detained Iranian-American reporter Jason Rezaian was released from prison last week, but Rezaian remains in Iranian custody.
SOMALIA: Yesterday, government forces along with African Union troops captured a port city, Barawe, that is one of Al Shabaab’s key points of entry for bringing in weapons and foreign recruits. In fact, it’s reportedly the last major port city that had been under Shabaab’s control, so its loss may be a pretty significant blow to the militant group’s continued survival. Obviously, taking the place is one thing but the Somali forces are going to have to hold on to their gains once Shabaab has had the chance to regroup and counterattack.
KENYA: President Uhuru Kenyatta is attending the International Criminal Court “in a personal capacity” to answer charges that he ordered ethnic massacres that took place after Kenya’s 2007 election. He’s leaving his VP, William Ruto, in charge while he’s at the ICC, despite the fact that Ruto is also wanted in The Hague for leading another militia that also perpetrated ethnic killings during the same period (over 1200 people were killed in the violence).
UKRAINE: The month-old ceasefire between government and rebel forces continues, as does the FOR REALS THIS TIME two week-old ceasefire between the two sides, as does fighting between them, and if that makes no sense, well, welcome to Ukraine. The rebels have continued to try to retake the Donetsk airport from the government, and it seems like both sides are prepared to allow this fighting to continue indefinitely while still also insisting that the ceasefire is in full effect. France and Germany expect to begin a joint operation to monitor the ceasefire “in the coming days,” a delightfully meaningless phrase that suggests observation is coming sometime between tomorrow and never. As the non-fighting fighting continues, residents in eastern Ukraine are trying to dig out from the rubble and are finding that there’s a whole bunch of unexploded military ordinance lying around just waiting to explode on some unsuspecting civilian.
MYANMAR: The government has offered the Rohingya people citizenship — provided they agree to be registered as “Bengali.” While citizenship might be an improvement over the legal limbo that the Rohingya are in now, if they register as Bengali then that substantiates the government’s official position that the Rohingya are not a separate ethnicity, but are instead migrants from Bangladesh who have entered the country illegally. In other words, the Burmese government is dangling citizenship in front of Rohingya while planning to eventually “deport” them to a place they aren’t from. The legal reclassification would allow Myanmar to sidestep international obligations for the treatment of minorities and/or refugees, which would make forced deportation possible.
KASHMIR: Indian an Pakistani troops are now shooting at each other, a sign that tensions between the two countries are still on a steep downward trajectory since the tease of a peace effort fizzled out over the summer.
The country has been riveted by an intense debate over the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the Islamic faith between two highly knowledgeable religious scholars HAHAHA I’m totally kidding an actor and a stand up comedian shouted at each other for 20 minutes on Friday about whether or not All Muslims Are Evil, and this is what somehow consumes the attention of our media.