International roundup: Airstrikes in Eastern Ghouta lead to “hell on earth.”
In and around the Middle East: in Syria, a “human tragedy”
In a move that underscores the complexity of the situation in Syria, pro-Assad forces moved into Afrin to bolster Kurdish forces “battling Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies,” reports Rudaw, a Kurdish news organization. Turkey launched a military invasion it’s calling “Operation Olive Branch” in order to wipe out the Syrian Kurd People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, the main military force of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The conflict in Afrin is occurring simultaneously to conflicts in Deir ez-Zour and Eastern Ghouta, both of which also speak to the increasing regional and geopolitical complexity (and brutality) of what’s happening in Syria.
In Deir ez-Zour, dozens of Russian mercenaries and other pro-Assad forces were allegedly killed in US airstrikes two weeks ago as they attempted to seize an oil field held by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Syrian government – which again, just sent troops to bolster Kurdish forces that are part of the SDF – called the airstrikes a “war crime.”
And in Eastern Ghouta, pro-Assad forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, have effectively created a “hell on earth,” as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described it Wednesday. Assad’s troops have bombarded the area in an attempt to clear it of the last remaining rebel groups. The UN estimates at least 346 civilians have been killed and 878 injured in the two-day bombardment, although “precise figures are still difficult to establish, as the BBC observes.
Elsewhere in and around the Middle East:
On Wednesday, Israel’s Knesset voted to reject a bill recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
- Per Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, the government would not take an official stance on the genocide, “in light of its complexity and diplomatic repercussions, and because it has a clear political connection.” The diplomatic repercussions Hotovely is alluding to involves Israel’s strained relationship with Turkey, with whom Israel still maintains strong military and economic ties.
- The Armenian Genocide was carried out by the Ottoman Empire and its successor state, Turkey, resulting in the deaths of approximately 1.5 million ethnic Armenians. Turkey has vehemently denied that any genocide was carried out against its Armenian population.
Speaking of Israel, a close confidante of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to testify against him in one of the corruption investigations threatening to derail his tenure.
An Iranian passenger plane crashed after taking off from Tehran, killing all 66 people onboard. Emergency teams have had a difficult time reaching the site of the crash due to bad weather and its location in a remote part of the Zagros mountains.
Africa: Ethiopia’s prime minister resigns
Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned from his office last Thursday amid mass anti-government protests.
- Some context: protests were first sparked in 2015 by an urban development plan for Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, and expanded to include protests against human rights abuses and political restrictions. Hundreds of people died in the protests, prompting the government, in October 2016, to declare a 10-month state of emergency, which stopped much of the violence. Protests have sporadically popped up since then, most recently last week.
- Per Hailemariam: “Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many… I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.” Hailemariam will continue as prime minister until a replacement is appointed at the next congress of the current Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition.
- Hailemariam is the third African leader in three months to resign his office under (mostly peaceful) pressure, following Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Elsewhere in Africa:
The leader of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party died last week.
- Morgan Tsvangirai , who headed the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, died at the age of 65 in South Africa, where he had been seeking medical treatment for his long battle with colon cancer.
Asia: North Korea cancels secret meeting with Pence at Winter Olympics
US Vice President Mike Pence was set to meet secretly with a high-level North Korean delegation but, as the Washington Post reports, “less than two hours before Pence and his team were to meet with Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, the North Koreans pulled out of the scheduled meeting.”
- The cancellation came after Pence publicly blasted North Korea and announced new sanctions against Pyongyang.
Elsewhere in Asia:
Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, called for the UN Security Council to hold Myanmar’s military responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims and to pressure Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi to acknowledge the massacres and displacements taking place in the country.
- Per Haley: “To make sure no one contradicts their preposterous denials, they are preventing access to Rakhine to anyone or any organization that might bear witness to their atrocities, including the UN Security Council.” Haley also called for the release of two Reuters journalists currently being detained in Myanmar over their coverage of the Rohingya’s ethnic cleansing.
In Afghanistan, the resurgent Taliban have published an open letter calling on the “American people” and “peace-loving congressmen” to pressure the government into starting peace talks with the former rulers of Afghanistan. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and have waged a violent insurgency against the US-backed Afghan government since then.
- From the Guardian: “The letter, released by the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, comes amid deteriorating conditions for US and Afghan coalition forces on the battlefield and after a month in which two Taliban assaults on Kabul killed 150 civilians.”
The advisor to former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 20 years in prison for abuse of power, bribery and state meddling.
- Choi Soon-sil was accused of using her influence over Park to extort millions of dollars from South Korean firms, including Samsung.
Europe: A new collective bargaining agreement earns 900,000 metal workers the right to 28-hour work weeks
Approximately 900,000 metal and engineering workers in the German state of Baden-Württemberg won the right to a 28-hour work week following collective bargaining by IG Metall, the largest industrial union in Europe.
- Under the deal, workers can take a 28-hour work week for up to two years, and employers can now offer more workers 40-hour work-week contracts.
- The union’s victory is expected to prompt work-week changes to industries across Germany.
An Olympic curler from Russia tested positive for a banned substance and will likely be stripped of his bronze medal.
- Alexander Krushelnitsky tested positive for meldonium, a substance banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
- For his part, Krushelnitsky has denied doping and claims a jealous teammate who wasn’t chosen to go to the Olympics spiked his drink during training camp.
- On a related note, one of the men behind Russia’s state-sponsored doping program, Grigory Rodchenkov, believes his life is in danger from the Russian government. Rodchenkov, who turned whistleblower and exposed the doping scheme, believes the Kremlin wants to silence him to keep him from continuing to speak out.
In contrast to Israel’s refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide (see above), the lower house of Netherlands’ parliament approved two motions recognizing the Armenian Genocide and requesting a Dutch minister or state secretary attend Armenia’s genocide commemoration in April.
- The motions are likely to further strain the Netherlands’ already-tense relationship with Turkey.
South America: Venezuela afraid of US-led military intervention
A visit by the head of the US Southern Command to Colombia has spooked the coup-weary government of Venezuela into believing the US and Colombia are planning a military intervention in the country.
- From Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, “In Colombia, they are planning to revive eras that had ended in human history, like military bombing, a military invasion or the occupation, through blood and gunfire, of a peaceful country like Venezuela. We will not allow it.”
- Officially, Admiral Kurt Tidd met with Colombian Vice President Óscar Naranjo to review efforts to stem the flow of illegal drugs from Colombia’s Pacific Coast.
- General Alberto Mejia, the commander of Colombia’s armed forces, denied that Colombia had any intention of intervening in Venezuela: “We have so many problems in our own country, and that’s what we are solely dedicated to and focused on…We’re only interested in the problems of the Colombian people.”
- The ratcheting tensions in the region come as Venezuela prepares for its presidential elections, scheduled to be held on April 22nd. Colombia, Brazil and Guyana have been dealing with an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Venezuela.
Elsewhere in South America:
Venezuela’s army engaged in a violent confrontation with illegal miners that left 18 miners dead in the southern part of the country, a mineral-rich area near the border with Guyana that President Nicolas Maduro declared to be a strategic economic priority. The area is believed to contain hundreds of illegal miners from Venezuela and Brazil.
Brazil’s president, Michael Temer, is sending the Brazilian army to the violence-plagued capital of the country to take over the city’s police force and provide security.
- Rio de Janeiro has recently faced an uptick in violence, including robberies and gunfights.
- The violence and crime have been exacerbated by a major storm that left four people dead.
- This is not the first time the army has performed security operations in Rio - the military also functioned as security in 2016, during the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. However, it is the first time since Brazil’s military dictatorship ended in 1988 that the military has been put in charge of Rio’s police force.
- Many residents of the city’s notorious favelas are concerned that the deployment of the military will only make matters worse, pointing to the army’s 15-month occupation of the Rio favela of Maré which failed to end violence between rival drug gangs.
Samples taken for the first time from some of the most remote areas of the world’s oceans were found to contain a high level of microplastic particles, results the researchers called “surprising” and further evidence of the widespread microplastic contamination of Earth’s oceans.
- The samples were taken from the middle of the South Indian Ocean by a research ship participating in the ongoing Volvo Ocean Race, a sailing event that sees participants race around the world every three years.
- Other samples taken during the race showed high plastic levels off Europe’s north Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts (180 to 307 particles per cubic meter), Cape Town (152) and Australia (114).
- Scientists also recently discovered high levels of toxic industrial chemicals in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s oceans. The chemicals do not break down in the environment, earning the name persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
- Scientists examined small crustaceans pulled up from the trench by a robotic submarine, finding them to contain 50 times more toxic chemicals than crabs that live in China’s heavily polluted rivers.
And speaking of global trade, the US, EU, and Japan are considering filing a joint complaint with the World Trade Organization against China over Chinese technology transfer rules for foreign firms.
- Under a 2002 regulation, Chinese firms are allowed to freely use technology transferred to them by foreign firms or partners if the technology is improved inside China. The aggrieved countries believe this regulation makes it difficult for their firms to maintain their competitive advantages.
header image: "kurdish ypg fighter," kurdishstruggle / flickr