The Middle East is on fire: What you need to know about the Red Sea crisis

On October 7, Hamas fighters launched a bloody attack against Israel, using paragliders, speedboats and underground tunnels to carry out an offensive that killed almost 1,200 people and saw hundreds more taken back to the Gaza Strip as prisoners. 

Almost three months on, Israel’s massive military retaliation is reverberating around the region, with explosions in Lebanon and rebels from Yemen attacking shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Western countries are pumping military aid into Israel while deploying fleets to protect commercial shipping — risking confrontation with the Iranian navy.

That’s in line with a grim prediction made last year by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who said that Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza meant an “expansion of the scope of the war has become inevitable,” and that further escalation across the Middle East should be expected. 

What’s happening?

The Israel Defense Forces are still fighting fierce battles for control of the Gaza Strip in what officials say is a mission to destroy Hamas. Troops have already occupied much of the north of the 365-square-kilometer territory, home to around 2.3 million Palestinians, and are now fighting fierce battles in the south.

Entire neighborhoods of densely-populated Gaza City have been levelled by intense Israeli shelling, rocket attacks and air strikes, rendering them uninhabitable. Although independent observers have been largely shut out, the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry claims more than 22,300 people have been killed, while the U.N. says 1.9 million people have been displaced.

On a visit to the front lines, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned that his country is in the fight for the long haul. “The feeling that we will stop soon is incorrect. Without a clear victory, we will not be able to live in the Middle East,” he said.

As the Gaza ground war intensifies, Hamas and its allies are increasingly looking to take the conflict to a far broader arena in order to put pressure on Israel.

According to Seth Frantzman, a regional analyst with the Jerusalem Post and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Iran is certainly making a play here in terms of trying to isolate Israel [and] the U.S. and weaken U.S. influence, also showing that Israel doesn’t have the deterrence capabilities that it may have had in the past or at least thought it had.”

Northern front

On Tuesday a blast ripped through an office in Dahieh, a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut — 130 kilometers from the border with Israel. Hamas confirmed that one of its most senior leaders, Saleh al-Arouri, was killed in the strike. 

Government officials in Jerusalem have refused to confirm Israeli forces were behind the killing, while simultaneously presenting it as a “surgical strike against the Hamas leadership” and insisting it was not an attack against Lebanon itself, despite a warning from Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati that the incident risked dragging his country into a wider regional war. 

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have spiked in recent weeks, with fighters loyal to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group that controls the south of the country, firing hundreds of rockets across the frontier. Along with Hamas, Hezbollah is part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” that aims to destroy the state of Israel.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry said the death of al-Arouri, the most senior Hamas official confirmed to have died since October 7, will only embolden resistance against Israel, not only in the Palestinian territories but also in the wider Middle East.

“We’re talking about the death of a senior Hamas leader, not from Hezbollah or the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards. Is it Iran who’s going to respond? Hezbollah? Hamas with rockets? Or will there be no response, with the various players waiting for the next assassination?” asked Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations.

In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday evening, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah condemned the killing but did not announce a military response.

Red Sea boils over

For months now, sailors navigating the narrow Bab- el-Mandeb Strait that links Europe to Asia have faced a growing threat of drone strikes, missile attacks and even hijackings by Iran-backed Houthi militants operating off the coast of Yemen.

The Houthi movement, a Shia militant group supported by Iran in the Yemeni civil war against Saudi Arabia and its local allies, insists it is only targeting shipping with links to Israel in a bid to pressure it to end the war in Gaza. However, the busy trade route from the Suez Canal through the Red Sea has seen dozens of commercial vessels targeted or delayed, forcing Western nations to intervene.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy said it had intercepted two anti-ship missiles and sunk three boats carrying Houthi fighters in what it said was a hijacking attempt against the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship. Danish shipping giant Maersk said Tuesday that it would “pause all transits through the Red Sea until further notice,” following a number of other cargo liners; energy giant BP is also suspending travel through the region.

On Wednesday the Houthis targeted a CMA CGM Tage container ship bound for Israel, according to the group’s military spokesperson Yahya Sarea. “Any U.S. attack will not pass without a response or punishment,” he added. 

“The sensible decision is one that the vast majority of shippers I think are now coming to, [which] is to transit through round the Cape of Good Hope,” said Marco Forgione, director general at the Institute of Export & International Trade. “But that in itself is not without heavy impact, it’s up to two weeks additional sailing time, adds over £1 million to the journey, and there are risks, particularly in West Africa, of piracy as well.” 

However, John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, noted that while “there has been disruption” and an “understandable nervousness about transiting these routes … trade is continuing to flow.”

“A major contributory factor to that has been the presence of military assets committed to defending shipping from these attacks,” he said. 

The impacts of the disruption, especially price hikes hitting consumers, will be seen “in the next couple of weeks,” according to Forgione. Oil and gas markets also risk taking a hit — the price of benchmark Brent crude rose by 3 percent to $78.22 a barrel on Wednesday. Almost 10 percent of the world’s oil and 7 percent of its gas flows through the Red Sea.

Western response

On Wednesday evening, the U.S., Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum calling the Houthi attacks “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” but with only vague threats of action.

“We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways,” the statement said.

Despite the tepid language, the U.S. has already struck back at militants from Iranian-backed groups such as Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria after they carried out drone attacks that injured U.S. personnel.

The assumption in London is that airstrikes against the Houthis — if it came to that — would be U.S.-led with the U.K. as a partner. Other nations might also chip in.

Two French officials said Paris is not considering air strikes. The country’s position is to stick to self-defense, and that hasn’t changed, one of them said. French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu confirmed that assessment, saying on Tuesday that “we’re continuing to act in self-defense.” 

“Would France, which is so proud of its third way and its position as a balancing power, be prepared to join an American-British coalition?” asked Fayet, the think tank researcher.

Iran looms large

Iran’s efforts to leverage its proxies in a below-the-radar battle against both Israel and the West appear to be well underway, and the conflict has already scuppered a long-awaited security deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Since 1979, Iran has been conducting asymmetrical proxy terrorism where they try to advance their foreign policy objectives while displacing the consequences, the counterpunches, onto someone else — usually Arabs,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of Washington’s Center on Military and Political Power. “An increasingly effective regional security architecture, of the kind the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are trying to build, is a nightmare for Iran which, like a bully on the playground, wants to keep all the other kids divided and distracted.”

Despite Iran’s fiery rhetoric, it has stopped short of declaring all-out war on its enemies or inflicting massive casualties on Western forces in the region — which experts say reflects the fact it would be outgunned in a conventional conflict.

“Neither Iran nor the U.S. nor Israel is ready for that big war,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran program. “Israel is a nuclear state, Iran is a nuclear threshold state — and the U.S. speaks for itself on this front.”

Israel might be betting on a long fight in Gaza, but Iran is trying to make the conflict a global one, he added. “Nobody wants a war, so both sides have been gambling on the long term, hoping to kill the other guy through a thousand cuts.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.



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Ukraine needs a government of national unity

Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and the author of the forthcoming book, “Battleground Ukraine: From Independence to the War with Russia” (Yale University Press).

In recent weeks, discourse about the war with Russia has turned deeply pessimistic in Ukraine.

A difficult Ukrainian counter-offensive, with lesser results than anticipated, has fueled deeply dark discussions about a deadlocked and bloody long-term war with Russia. Meanwhile, analysts and politicians have started to snipe at Ukraine’s military and political leaders, blaming them for the war effort’s failure and even speculating about defeat.

Further feeding this atmosphere of pessimism is evidence of tension between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the country’s military command, as well as delays in military aid from the United States. And these pressures now need to be addressed.

Clearly, the period of euphoria propelled by major Ukrainian military victories and territorial advances is over. So, too, is the period of grandiose promises by Ukrainian officials.

Last winter, an official spokesman for the president had proclaimed he expected to spend the next summer in Crimea. No less extravagant a promise was echoed by the head of military intelligence, who predicted Crimea would be liberated within six months, bringing official promises of a major spring counter-offensive with significant territorial gains along with it.

Early battlefield success also contributed to near universal approval for Zelenskyy among Ukrainians. Despite slow Russian advances in the Donbas and scant Ukrainian victories later on, happy talk on the state-dominated TV “marathon” — joint programming produced by the bulk of the country’s main television networks — continued to promote frontline success, helping Zelenskyy maintain his popularity.

All this changed, however, when Ukraine’s 2023 counter-offensive stalled. The massive loss of fighters amid meagre gains and a slow-moving positional war eroded public trust in the president and his team for the first time since the war began.

A subsequent mid-November poll gave Zelenskyy a trust rating of only net 32 percent plus — meaning two-thirds of Ukrainians trusted the president, while a third now did not. This was a steep decline from polls earlier in the year, and far below the trust ratings of the armed forces and their commander, General Valery Zaluzhny.

A later poll conducted for the President’s Office and leaked to the Ukrainska Pravda news site showed Zelenskyy was neck and neck with Zaluzhny in a hypothetical race for president. Moreover, Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party — which currently holds over two-thirds of the seats in parliament — would see its presence shrink dramatically if elections were held today.

And as Zelenskyy’s support weakens, Ukraine now faces a number of challenges and difficult decisions. These include a deadlock on the front, a rapidly depleting supply of munitions, some erosion of support from Europe, and an impasse in the U.S. Congress over a bill to provide for the military needs of both Ukraine and Israel. His star power notwithstanding, Zelenskyy faces new difficulties in maintaining high levels of military and financial support for Ukraine both in North America and in Europe.

Additionally, the ranks of Ukraine’s armed forces — initially populated by experienced military professionals with combat experience and highly motivated volunteers — have suffered mass casualties during these brutal two years of war. Аs a result, military recruiters — now called “people snatchers” — are scouring cities and villages in search of males aged 18 to 60 for military service. Sometimes, these recruiters are not merely using coercive tactics against draft dodgers but detaining and pressuring those not called or exempt from service into signing on. And such tactics are contributing to justifiable public anger toward the authorities

In addition to such unpopular tactics, Zelenskyy will soon likely need to need to dramatically widen the national military mobilization and shift social spending toward military expenditures, if only to hedge against any decline in, or interruption of, financing from key allies. Both moves will be highly unpopular.

All this doesn’t mean Russia will prevail. Indeed, Ukraine has basically fought Russia to a standstill. Taking minor territorial losses in the Donbas, while gaining modest territory in the south and forcing Russia’s navy to the eastern reaches of the Black Sea, it has effectively restored freedom of navigation for commercial vessels in the sea’s west.

Zelenskyy has also been a courageous and successful wartime leader. But much of this was dependent on steadfast public support. Near-universal domestic approval gave him political carte blanche to shape policy and strategy. But while Ukrainians remain united in their aim of defending the country, unqualified support for Zelenskyy and his policies is declining. And the embattled democracy is subsequently witnessing a revival in national politics.

Zelenskyy’s team itself has contributed to this politicization. After Zaluzhny soberly spoke about the difficulties of Ukraine’s war effort, while providing a road map that could ensure victory, his public comments were shot down by officials from the President’s Office.

In early November, Zelenskyy’s foreign policy advisor Ihor Zhovkva went on national television to assert that Zaluzhny’s statement “eases the work of the aggressor” by stirring “panic,” adding there should be no public discussion of the situation at the front. Zelenskyy himself then chided the general in an interview, warning the military not to engage in politics.

Deputy Head of the Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence Maryana Bezuhla piled on, alleging Zaluzhny had ignored U.S. General Mark Milley’s recommendations to mine Ukraine’s border with Russian occupied Crimea back in 2021 — an act of negligence, she implied, that cost Ukraine large swaths of territory in the south. However, Zelenskyy is unlikely to seek Zaluzhny’s dismissal, as it would instantly launch the soldier on a political career.

And that’s not all. On the heels of this kerfuffle, Zelenskyy’s allies in parliament then blocked a visit to Poland and the U.S. by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The ostensible reason behind this was a report from Ukraine’s security service suggesting Poroshenko’s trip would be exploited by Russian propaganda. Of particular concern was a planned meeting between Poroshenko and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The idea that a seasoned leader like Poroshenko, whose tenure as president earned Western praise for his diplomatic skills, could be manipulated is, on the face of it, preposterous. And it later turned out that Zelenskyy himself would be meeting Orbán and didn’t want to be preempted.

These clear fractures need to be dealt with now.

Furthermore, as importantly, as domestic support erodes, Zelenskyy’s term in office is due to formally expire in May 2024, while the parliament’s four-year term expired in October. New elections are well-nigh impossible with millions of voters outside the country, a million engaged at the front and millions more internally displaced or under Russian occupation. Elections amid bloody combat and constant missiles and drone attacks on urban centers are unlikely, and would require both legislative and constitutional changes.

This issue of expiring mandates would be moot were the ratings of Zelenskyy and his party unassailable, but polls show a creeping disenchantment with both.

In this context, the time is ripe for Ukraine’s president to consider establishing a broad-based government of national unity. Opening the government to opposition and civil society leaders in this way would instantly provide legitimacy to the leadership team, reduce opposition criticism and widen the circle of voices that have the president’s ear.

There are compelling precedents for such a step too. For example, as World War II began, Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood Britain faced an existential threat that required sustaining national unity and created a broad-based coalition government. Churchill installed his main rival — Labour leader Clement Attlee — as deputy prime minister, and added Labour’s Ernest Bevin, a former trade union leader, to the national unity cabinet.

Similarly, this practice was followed most recently by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who offered opposition party leaders a place in a unity government after Hamas’s brutal October 7 attacks. The proposal was accepted by centrist Benny Gantz.

Since the beginning of his presidency, Zelenskyy has relied on an exceedingly narrow circle of trusted advisors. But while he meets with his top military command, intelligence officials, visiting Western leaders and the media, he has largely shut himself off from civic leaders, political critics and rivals — including some with important foreign policy, national security and economic experience.

Their inclusion in leadership posts would offer Zelenskyy additional input on policy options, allow for discussions of alternative tactics and contribute to new approaches when it comes to external relations. With national unity showing signs of fraying, a government that includes the opposition would truly give it a boost.

The only questions are whether Zelenskyy is flexible enough to overcome his contempt for most opposition leaders, and change his style of governing from highly centralized decision-making to more broad-based consensus-building.



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Kamala Harris at climate summit: World must ‘fight’ those stalling action

DUBAI — The vast, global efforts to arrest rising temperatures are imperiled and must accelerate, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told the world climate summit on Saturday. 

“We must do more,” she implored an audience of world leaders at the COP28 climate talks in Dubai. And the headwinds are only growing, she warned.

“Continued progress will not be possible without a fight,” she told the gathering, which has drawn more than 100,000 people to this Gulf oil metropolis. “Around the world, there are those who seek to slow or stop our progress. Leaders who deny climate science, delay climate action and spread misinformation. Corporations that greenwash their climate inaction and lobby for billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies.” 

Her remarks — less than a year before an election that could return Donald Trump to the White House — challenged leaders to cooperate and spend more to keep the goal of containing global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach. So far, the planet has warmed about 1.3 degrees since preindustrial times.

“Our action collectively, or worse, our inaction will impact billions of people for decades to come,” Harris said.

The vice president, who frequently warns about climate change threats in speeches and interviews, is the highest-ranking face of the Biden White House at the Dubai negotiations.

She used her conference platform to push that image, announcing several new U.S. climate initiatives, including a record-setting $3 billion pledge for the so-called Green Climate Fund, which aims to help countries adapt to climate change and reduce emissions. The commitment echoes an identical pledge Barack Obama made in 2014 — of which only $1 billion was delivered. The U.S. Treasury Department later specified that the updated commitment was “subject to the availability of funds.”

Meanwhile, back in D.C., the Biden administration strategically timed the release of new rules to crack down on planet-warming methane emissions from the oil and gas sector — a significant milestone in its plan to prevent climate catastrophe.

The trip allows Harris to bolster her credentials on a policy issue critical to the young voters key to President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign — and potentially to a future Harris White House run. 

“Given her knowledge base with the issue, her passion for the issue, it strikes me as a smart move for her to broaden that message out to the international audience,” said Roger Salazar, a California political strategist and former aide to then-Vice President Al Gore, a lifetime climate campaigner. 

Yet sending Harris also presents political peril. 

Biden has taken flak from critics for not attending the talks himself after representing the United States at the last two U.N. climate summits since taking office. And climate advocates have questioned the Biden administration’s embrace of the summit’s leader, Sultan al-Jaber, given he also runs the United Arab Emirates’ state-owned oil giant. John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, has argued the partnership can help bring fossil fuel megaliths to the table.

Harris has been on a climate policy roadshow in recent months, discussing the issue during a series of interviews at universities and other venues packed with young people and environmental advocates. The administration said it views Harris — a former California senator and attorney general — as an effective spokesperson on climate. 

“The vice president’s leadership on climate goes back to when she was the district attorney of San Francisco, as she established one of the first environmental justice units in the nation,” a senior administration official told reporters on a call previewing her trip. 

Joining Harris in Dubai are Kerry, White House climate adviser Ali Zaidi and John Podesta, who’s leading the White House effort to implement Biden’s signature climate law. 

Biden officials are leaning on that climate law — dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act — to prove the U.S. is doing its part to slash global emissions. Yet climate activists remain skeptical, chiding Biden for separately approving a series of fossil fuel projects, including an oil drilling initiative in Alaska and an Appalachian natural gas pipeline.

Similarly, the Biden administration’s opening COP28 pledge of $17.5 million for a new international climate aid fund frustrated advocates for developing nations combating climate threats. The figure lagged well behind other allies, several of whom committed $100 million or more.

Nonetheless, Harris called for aggressive action in her speech, which was followed by a session with other officials on renewable energy. The vice president committed the U.S. to doubling its energy efficiency and tripling its renewable energy capacity by 2030, joining a growing list of countries. The U.S. also said Saturday it was joining a global alliance dedicated to divorcing the world from coal-based energy. 

Like other world leaders, Harris also used her trip to conduct a whirlwind of diplomacy over the war between Israel and Hamas, which has flared back up after a brief truce.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Harris would be meeting with “regional leaders” to discuss “our desire to see this pause restored, our desire to see aid getting back in, our desire to see hostages get out.”

The war has intruded into the proceedings at the climate summit, with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas both skipping their scheduled speaking slots on Friday. Iran’s delegation also walked out of the summit, objecting to Israel’s presence.

Kirby said Harris will convey “that we believe the Palestinian people need a vote and a voice in their future, and then they need governance in Gaza that will look after their aspirations and their needs.”

Although Biden won’t be going to Dubai, the administration said these climate talks are “especially” vital, given countries will decide how to respond to a U.N. assessment that found the world’s climate efforts are falling short. 

“This is why the president has made climate a keystone of his administration’s foreign policy agenda,” the senior administration official said.

Robin Bravender reported from Washington, D.C. Zia Weise and Charlie Cooper reported from Dubai. 

Sara Schonhardt contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.



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Israel’s appetite for high-tech weapons highlights a Biden policy gap

Within hours of the Hamas attack on Israel last month, a Silicon Valley drone company called Skydio began receiving emails from the Israeli military. The requests were for the company’s short-range reconnaissance drones — small flying vehicles used by the U.S. Army to navigate obstacles autonomously and produce 3D scans of complex structures like buildings.

The company said yes. In the three weeks since the attack, Skydio has sent more than 100 drones to the Israeli Defense Forces, with more to come, according to Mark Valentine, the Skydio executive in charge of government contracts.

Skydio isn’t the only American tech company fielding orders. Israel’s ferocious campaign to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip is creating new demand for cutting-edge defense technology — often supplied directly by newer, smaller manufacturers, outside the traditional nation-to-nation negotiations for military supplies.

Already, Israel is using self-piloting drones from Shield AI for close-quarters indoor combat and has reportedly requested 200 Switchblade 600 kamikaze drones from another U.S. company, according to DefenseScoop. Jon Gruen, CEO of Fortem Technologies, which supplied Ukrainian forces with radar and autonomous anti-drone aircraft, said he was having “early-stage conversations” with Israelis about whether the company’s AI systems could work in the dense, urban environments in Gaza.

This surge of interest echoes the one driven by the even larger conflict in Ukraine, which has been a proving ground for new AI-powered defense technology — much of it ordered by the Ukrainian government directly from U.S. tech companies.

AI ethicists have raised concerns about the Israeli military’s use of AI-driven technologies to target Palestinians, pointing to reports that the army used AI to strike more than 11,000 targets in Gaza since Hamas militants launched a deadly assault on Israel on Oct 7.

The Israeli defense ministry did not elaborate in response to questions about its use of AI.

These sophisticated platforms also pose a new challenge for the Biden administration. On Nov. 13, the U.S. began implementing a new foreign policy to govern the responsible military use of such technologies. The policy, first unveiled in the Hague in February and endorsed by 45 other countries, is an effort to keep the military use of AI and autonomous systems within the international law of war.

But neither Israel nor Ukraine are signatories, leaving a growing hole in the young effort to keep high-tech weapons operating within agreed-upon lines.

Asked about Israel’s compliance with the U.S.-led declaration on military AI, a spokesperson for the State Department said “it is too early” to draw conclusions about why some countries have not endorsed the document, or to suggest that non-endorsing countries disagree with the declaration or will not adhere to its principles.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the CSIS International Security Program, said in an interview that “it’s very difficult” to coordinate international agreement between nations on the military use of AI for two reasons: “One is that the technology is evolving so quickly that the description constraints you put on it today may no longer may not be relevant five years from now because the technology will be so different. The other thing is that so much of this technology is civilian, that it’s hard to restrict military development without also affecting civilian development.”

In Gaza, drones are being largely used for surveillance, scouting locations and looking for militants without risking soldiers’ lives, according to Israeli and U.S. military technology developers and observers interviewed for this story.

Israel discloses few specifics of how it uses this technology, and some worry the Israeli military is using unreliable AI recommendation systems to identify targets for lethal operations.

Ukrainian forces have used experimental AI systems to identify Russian soldiers, weapons and unit positions from social media and satellite feeds.

Observers say that Israel is a particularly fast-moving theater for new weaponry because it has a technically sophisticated military, large budget, and — crucially — close existing ties to the U.S. tech industry.

“The difference, now maybe more than ever, is the speed at which technology can move and the willingness of suppliers of that technology to deal directly with Israel,” said Arun Seraphin, executive director of the National Defense Industrial Association’s Institute for Emerging Technologies.

Though the weapons trade is subject to scrutiny and regulation, autonomous systems also raise special challenges. Unlike traditional military hardware, buyers are able to reconfigure these smart platforms for their own needs, adding a layer of inscrutability to how these systems are used.

While many of the U.S.-built, AI-enabled drones sent to Israel are not armed and not programmed by the manufacturers to identify specific vehicles or people, these airborne robots are designed to leave room for military customers to run their own custom software, which they often prefer to do, multiple manufacturers told POLITICO.

Shield AI co-founder Brandon Tseng confirmed that users are able to customize the Nova 2 drones that the IDF is using to search for barricaded shooters and civilians in buildings targeted by Hamas fighters.

Matt Mahmoudi, who authored Amnesty International’s May report documenting Israel’s use of facial recognition systems in Palestinian territories, told POLITICO that historically, U.S. technology companies contracting with Israeli defense authorities have had little insight or control over how their products are used by the Israeli government, pointing to several instances of the Israeli military running its own AI software on hardware imported from other countries to closely monitor the movement of Palestinians.

Complicating the issue are the blurred lines between military and non-military technology. In the industry, the term is “dual-use” — a system, like a drone-swarm equipped with computer-vision, that might be used for commercial purposes but could also be deployed in combat.

The Technology Policy Lab at the Center for a New American Security writes that “dual-use technologies are more difficult to regulate at both the national and international levels” and notes that in order for the U.S. to best apply export controls, it “requires complementary commitment from technology-leading allies and partners.”

Exportable military-use AI systems can run the gamut from commercial products to autonomous weapons. Even in cases where AI-enabled systems are explicitly designed as weapons, meaning U.S. authorities are required by law to monitor the transfer of these systems to another country, the State Department only recently adopted policies to monitor civilian harm caused by these weapons, in response to Congressional pressure.

But enforcement is still a question mark: Josh Paul, a former State Department official, wrote that a planned report on the policy’s implementation was canceled because the department wanted to avoid any debate on civilian harm risks in Gaza from U.S. weapons transfers to Israel.

A Skydio spokesperson said the company is currently not aware of any users breaching its code of conduct and would “take appropriate measures” to mitigate the misuse of its drones. A Shield AI spokesperson said the company is confident its products are not being used to violate humanitarian norms in Israel and “would not support” the unethical use of its products.

In response to queries about whether the U.S. government is able to closely monitor high-tech defense platforms sent by smaller companies to Israel or Ukraine, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said it was restricted from publicly commenting or confirming the details of commercially licensed defense trade activity.

Some observers point out that the Pentagon derives some benefit from watching new systems tested elsewhere.

“The great value for the United States is we’re getting to field test all this new stuff,” said CSIS’s Cancian — a process that takes much longer in peacetime environments and allows the Pentagon to place its bets on novel technologies with more confidence, he added.



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Why oil is down since the Hamas-Israel conflict started and whether that can last

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Nagorno-Karabakh evacuations begin as Armenia warns of ‘ethnic cleansing’

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KORNIDZOR, Armenia — The first convoys of civilians have left Nagorno-Karabakh for Armenia following an Azerbaijani military offensive amid growing warnings that a mass exodus could be on the cards.

On Sunday, humanitarian organizations and the Armenian government said that dozens of people had been evacuated after Azerbaijan agreed to open the Lachin Corridor that links the breakaway territory to the country. According to the Ministry of Health, the Red Cross escorted 23 ambulances carrying “seriously and very seriously wounded citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Meanwhile, other civilians say they had begged the Russian peacekeepers to take them across, after Karabakh Armenian leaders on Tuesday accepted a surrender agreement following just 24 hours of fierce fighting and shelling.

At a checkpoint near the village of Kornidzor, on the border with Azerbaijan, a steady stream of civilian cars is now crossing over — many laden down with bags or filled with loose bedding and other possessions.

At the border, POLITICO spoke to Artur, a Karabakh Armenian who had been stranded by the 9-month-long effective blockade of the region. Awaiting news of his relatives after Azerbaijani forces launched their offensive, he received a call from his sister to say she had been evacuated with the Russian peacekeepers.

After an hour of waiting anxiously, he was reunited with 27-year-old Rima. Sitting in the back of an SUV, she cried as her two children — aged three and one — unwrapped bars of chocolate, a luxury they have done without amid severe shortages of food and other essentials. “We’ve arrived,” she said.

Marut Vanyan, a local blogger, said many others were planning to follow suit. “People right now say everyone is leaving. In Stepanakert, there is no second opinion, everyone is trying to find a few liters of petrol and be ready any time, any second, for when we are going,” Vanyan said, speaking after being able to charge his telephone at a Red Cross station in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto capital.

At a Red Cross emergency aid point, one elderly man asked the camera crews and journalists why they had only taken an interest once the situation reached crisis point. “Where were you when we were in Karabakh? You want to film? Here are my legs,” he said angrily, raising the ends of his trousers to reveal bandaged, bruised shins.

At a Red Cross emergency aid point, one elderly man asked the camera crews and journalists why they had only taken an interest once the situation reached crisis point | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Meanwhile, Armenia’s prime minister warned that, despite assurances from Russia, “the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh still face the danger of ethnic cleansing.”

“If the needs of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are not met [so that they are able to stay] in their homes, and effective mechanisms of protection against ethnic cleansing not put in place, then the likelihood is increasing that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see expulsion from their homeland as the only way out,” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan predicted.

At the same time, Pashinyan said Armenia would welcome its “brothers” from the exclave — inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders but held by Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population since a war that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.

The prime minister’s stark warning comes just two days after Pashinyan said he “assumed” Russia had taken responsibility for the fate of the population, after Karabakh Armenian leaders accepted a Moscow-brokered surrender agreement following almost 24 hours of fierce fighting with Azerbaijani forces. The embattled prime minister, however, said he believed there was a genuine hope that locals would be able to continue living in Nagorno-Karabakh.

A steady stream of civilian cars is now crossing over — many laden down with bags or filled with loose bedding and other possessions | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Shortly after Pashinyan’s address, the official information center for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic issued a statement saying “the families of those left homeless as a result of recent military action and who expressed a desire to leave the republic will be transferred to Armenia accompanied by Russian peacekeepers.” Officials will provide information “about the relocation of other population groups in the near future,” according to the statement.

According to Azerbaijan’s foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, the government will “also respect the individual choices of residents.”

“It once again shows that allegations as if Azerbaijan blocked the roads for passage are not true,” Hajiyev told POLITICO. “They are enabled to use their private vehicles.”

Dozens of trucks carrying 150 tons of humanitarian aid, organized by the The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Russian Red Cross, gained rare access to the region via a road controlled by Azerbaijani troops on Saturday. Speaking to POLITICO, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser, Hikmet Hajiyev, said the guarantee for humanitarian aid access “once again shows the good intentions and seriousness of the Azerbaijan government to meet the needs and requirements of Armenian residents and also to ensure a safe and decent reintegration process.”

“People right now say everyone is leaving. In Stepanakert, there is no second opinion, everyone is trying to find a few liters of petrol and be ready any time, any second, for when we are going” | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

Azerbaijan has said the Karabakh Armenians can continue to live in the region if they lay down their weapons and accept being governed as part of the country.

However, in an interview with Reuters on Sunday, David Babayan, an adviser to the Karabakh Armenian leadership, said that “our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan. 99.9% [would] prefer to leave our historic lands.”

Accusing the international community of abandoning the estimated 100,000 residents of the besieged territory, Babayan declared that “the fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilized world. Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer before God for their sins,” he said.

Pashinyan has accused citizens with close ties to the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership of fomenting unrest in the country, with protesters clashing with police in the capital of Yerevan as criticism of his handling of the crisis grows.



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Indian-American presidential aspirant Vivek Ramaswamy pitches for stronger U.S.-India relationship

Indian-American Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has called for stronger relationships with India, South Korea and Japan to reduce U.S.’ economic dependence on China and Taiwan.

Mr. Ramaswamy, 38, whose poll numbers have surged following the maiden Republican presidential primary debate last week, spelt out his plans and foreign policy views on August 29.

He attacked another Indian-American Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, who had slammed him for his inexperience on foreign policy issues.

“We will enter a stronger partnership with India that involves an Indian commitment to close the Malacca Strait in the event of a near-term conflict with Taiwan, and enter stronger partnerships with other allies including South Korea and Japan to reduce our economic dependence on China and Taiwan,” Mr. Ramaswamy said.

The entrepreneur-turned-politician said he favours strategic clarity and advocated that the U.S. must defend Taiwan vigorously until America achieves semiconductor independence, then resume the posture of strategic ambiguity when the stakes are lower for the U.S..

“The American way of life depends on leading-edge semiconductors manufactured in Taiwan, and we can’t risk China gaining near-total leverage over the entire U.S. economy,” he said.

“By saying that we will defend Taiwan, the U.S. can strongly deter China from blockading or invading the island in the near term. Meantime, Taiwan should more than double its own military expenditures to a more rational level of 4% to 5% of its gross domestic product,” he said.

He said the U.S. should rapidly arm and train Taiwan with Anti-Access/Area Denial weapons while running at least one Destroyer warship through the Taiwan Strait each week.

The U.S. should also fortify its own homeland defence, which is at present dangerously vulnerable to major conflicts with China, he said, adding this includes improving nuclear, super electromagnetic pulse, cyber and space defence capabilities.

His campaign said that Mr. Ramaswamy is the only U.S. Presidential candidate to date who has clearly stated that the U.S. will defend Taiwan.

“I am the only Presidential candidate willing to state what is necessary: we will defend Taiwan. The U.S. currently doesn’t even recognise Taiwan as a nation. Democrats and Republicans both unquestioningly endorse the ‘one China’ policy and embrace “strategic ambiguity” toward the island,” Mr. Ramaswamy said.

Hitting out at Ms. Haley, Mr. Ramaswamy’s campaign in a statement said that in a desperate attempt to raise funds for her languishing establishment campaign, the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. was intentionally lying about Mr. Ramaswamy.

Ms. Haley has blasted Mr. Ramaswamy for not backing U.S. allies.

According to his campaign, Ms. Haley flatly lied on Fox News that “Mr. Ramaswamy said he would abandon Israel, those were his words” and that “he wants to go and stop funding Israel”. “This is false,” his campaign asserted in a late-night statement.

“We challenge the failing Ms. Haley campaign and any media outlet to find a single instance where Ramaswamy utters that he would not support Israel. They will not – because Ramaswamy never said it. Instead, they continue to recycle blatantly false headlines that they manufactured,” the statement said.

Mr. Ramaswamy said that if Israel ever gets to the point that it no longer needs U.S. financial support, that would be a mark of achievement – but that the U.S. will never cut off aid to Israel until Israel says they are ready for it, his campaign said.

It all started about a week ago when Ms. Haley at the debate stage accused Mr. Ramaswamy of not having any foreign policy experience.

Since then the Ohio-based Indian-American has been attacked both by the media and his political opponents for his inexperience on foreign policy.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ramaswamy used the ‘Namrata Randhawa’ name of Nikki Ms. Haley on his website.

“I’m not going to get involved in these childish name games. It’s pretty pathetic. First of all, I was born with Nikki on my birth certificate. I was raised as Nikki. I married a Ms. Haley. And so that is what my name is.

“So he can say or misspell or do whatever he wants, but he can’t step away from the fact that, he’s the one that said he was going to abandon Israel,” Ms. Haley told Fox News in response.

“Those were his words. Now he’s wanting to walk it back. And the reality is, you have to understand the importance of our allies and those relationships. We can never be so narcissistic to think that we don’t need friends,” she said.

It is not that Israel needs America. America needs Israel too, Ms. Haley said.

“Israel faces genocidal threats from Hamas, from Hezbollah, from Iran, from Syria. You need a president that understands that that understands that Israel is the front line of defence when it comes to us dealing with Islamic terrorism in Iran,” she claimed.

“And he just doesn’t get it. So, look, I mean, I think you can tell a lot about the kind of leader someone will be based on how they run their campaign. And he’s doing that all on his own,” Ms. Haley said.

Later in the night, Mr. Ramaswamy’s campaign issued a statement against Ms. Haley.

“We wish Ambassador Haley and her family well in their future careers in the private sector, noting that they rapidly generated an impressive fortune as military contractors following her short-lived stint as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations,” the campaign said.

Mr. Ramaswamy said the U.S. relationship with Israel is a model example of how international relationships should work.

Israel spends a greater percentage of its own GDP on defence than any major nation. 70% of the aid the U.S. provides to Israel must be spent in the U.S., and by 2028 the mandate is 100%. This is consistent with ‘America-First’ foreign policy objectives, he said.

“By the end of my first term, our relationship with Israel will be stronger than it has ever been. I will consummate Abraham Accords 2.0 by the end of 2025, adding Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Indonesia to the pact. We will work with Israel to ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon that advances U.S. interests,” Mr. Ramaswamy said.

“I won’t end our aid to Israel until the day when Israel tells the U.S. they are ready for it. That’s what true friends do: they speak honestly and openly to one another. I will speak to Bibi and invite him to the White House, something that President Biden is shamefully frightened to do,” he said.

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OPEC chief says the search is on for new members of the oil producers’ group

Haitham al-Ghais, secretary-general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), speaking at the Energy Asia Summit on June 26, 2023.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The secretary-general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries signaled that the influential producers’ alliance is actively open to recruiting new members.

Asked if he is trying to expand the OPEC coalition, the organization’s secretary-general, Haitham al-Ghais, told reporters on Wednesday, “I am, yes.”

The group currently has 13 members, predominantly based in the Middle East, North and West Africa, and South America. At stake for the organization of oil producers is a battle to reconcile an outlook of tighter crude supply in the second half of the year, current macroeconomic worries and inflationary concerns. OPEC members coordinate the amount of oil they produce in an effort to influence prices.

Ecuador exited the group in 2020 because of political circumstances, but in May was invited to rejoin the OPEC ranks, according to a letter from al-Ghais shared by the Ecuadorian Energy Ministry.

“The Organization sees as a top priority that Ecuador joins the OPEC family again,” the letter said. The Ecuadorian ministry did not reveal its response.

Al-Ghais would not be drawn into disclosing the names of potential new members. He mentioned recent visits to oil-producing countries, however, including allies that currently implement a joint production strategy with OPEC countries, in a group known as OPEC+.

“I was in Malaysia, I was in Brunei,” he said, stressing that he had not necessarily invited these countries to join the organization. “I was in Azerbaijan, I was in Mexico.”

Previous speculation about Guyana’s potential membership saw OPEC state in late June that, while the South American country is “an emerging player in the international oil market with significant potential,” it had not been invited to join.

Asked about the requirements to become an OPEC member, al-Ghais said: “They have to be a net [oil] exporter, substantial, they have to have similar goals as OPEC. This is all mentioned very clearly in our statute. And I think many countries that I just named actually fit this profile. So … work in progress.”

Unanimity

The secretary-general addressed reporters following an OPEC seminar conference in Vienna, where energy and oil ministers met on the sidelines.

No new policies were announced, but ministers expressed appreciation for the additional oil production cuts of OPEC+ members Saudi Arabia, Russia and Algeria.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia announced it would extend its voluntary 1 million barrels per day cut initially outlined for July into August, while fellow heavyweight Moscow said it would trim its exports by 500,000 barrels per day next month. Algeria also said it will reduce its production by 20,000 barrels per day in August.

All three countries and several other OPEC+ members in April declared a separate set of output cuts totaling over 1.6 million barrels per day, which they have extended until the end of 2024.

Al-Ghais emphasized that the voluntary reductions enacted by some OPEC+ countries did not suggest divisions in the policy views of coalition members.

“When people can sit down and go through an agreement that goes all the way through, with a clear vision, into 2025, I think that’s a sign of unanimity,” he said.

“These are sovereign country decisions. They are extra. We appreciate them. … It does not in any way insinuate that there is a fragmentation.”

There is a lot of ambiguity in the macroeconomic picture: OPEC secretary general

Speaking to CNBC’s Dan Murphy on Thursday, al-Ghais underscored the ongoing uncertainty that continues to cast a deep shadow on the oil price landscape.

“There is a lot of ambiguity, I would say, in terms of some of the economic macro picture. [You] talk about banking issues in the U.S. You talk about recession fears, you talk about inflation still being dealt with. And I always want to remind people that we are not out of the woods in terms of Covid,” he said.

“The first half of the year, it hasn’t really panned out the way it was expected not only by OPEC, I would say, but by most. So we’re thinking that it could materialize in the second half of the year, with China opening up, maybe at a more rigorous rate than we’ve seen so far, [with] hopefully a settling of the economic conditions in the European and the U.S. systems.”

OPEC officials have in recent months flagged a disconnect between supply-demand fundamentals and global oil prices, which have absorbed the aftershocks of banking and economic turbulence since the start of the year.

On Thursday, Brent oil futures with September expiry were up 12 cents per barrel from the previous settlement, hitting $76.77 per barrel at 12:43 p.m. London time.

Focus on investment

Echoing the comments of other OPEC officials, al-Ghais has also been advocating for simultaneous joint investment in fossil fuel projects and in renewables, in an effort to avoid energy supply deficits. Despite what he perceives as global underinvestment in hydrocarbons, he said that the OPEC alliance can still answer any potential supply crisis.

“Part of the decision to reduce production is also good because it gives us more spare capacity, and OPEC has always managed to step up in case of any shock globally,” al-Ghais said.

“Spare capacity is tight, I would say. … And our countries are investing. When I talk about underinvestment, most of our countries, if not all of them, are investing. … But it’s a global responsibility. OPEC cannot shoulder this on its own. We have to have everybody step up.” 

'What worries me is the medium to long-term supply, not the demand,' UAE energy minister says

Suhail al-Mazrouei, energy minister of the United Arab Emirates, likewise stressed focus on investment and availabilities.

“What’s important is not the price, what’s important is the level of investments that are coming to the market to balance the longer or the medium-term view of the supply,” he told CNBC’s Murphy on Wednesday. “If something worries me, that’s what worries me, the medium to long-term supply. Not the demand.”

The International Energy Agency in May foreshadowed an intense supply crunch, noting “tighter market balances we anticipate in the second half of the year, when demand is expected to eclipse supply by almost 2 mb/d.”

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Macron’s Africa reset struggles to persuade

Paul Taylor is a contributing editor at POLITICO.

PARIS — The bigger the humiliation, the more grandiloquent the relaunch. 

After a year that saw French forces conducting counterinsurgency operations against jihadist rebels hounded out of Mali and Burkina Faso by military coups, anti-colonialist street protests, and Russian disinformation and mercenaries, President Emmanuel Macron announced a fundamental overhaul of France’s Africa strategy. 

“Humility,” “partnership” and “investment” are now the keywords in a reset that Macron outlined in a speech he delivered before embarking on his 18th trip to Africa in just eight years. 

Many Africans were understandably skeptical as the French president took his new doctrine on a tour of Gabon, Angola, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — an eclectic mix of former French, Belgian and Portuguese colonies that have big economic potential, and are being heavily courted by Russia and China as well as Europe. 

“The days of la Françafrique are well and truly over,” Macron insisted in Gabon’s capital Libreville.  He was not the first president to promise an end to the postcolonial manipulation of African politics, with crony ties between the French elite and long-serving African autocrats.  

The French leader’s enunciation of a sea change in Franco-African ties sounded oddly like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s proclamation of a Zeitenwende — an epochal turning point in Berlin’s policy toward Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“We have reached the end of a cycle of French history in which military questions held preeminence in Africa,” Macron said, the first French president to be born after the end of colonial rule. Henceforth, “there will be no military bases as such,” but “new military partnerships” with African allies, and French forces on the continent will be focusing on training local troops. 

In a conscious effort to shed the mantle of paternalism and hard security, Macron built his four-day trip around the themes of saving African forests, developing agriculture, investing in African business and supporting a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. He also went clubbing in Kinshasa, beer in hand, with Congolese singer Fally Ipupa. 

He steered clear of France’s traditional West African backyard, where Paris’s counterinsurgency policy suffered its deepest setbacks.

“Our destiny is tied to the African continent. If we are able to seize this chance, we have the opportunity to anchor ourselves to the continent, which will increasingly be one of the youngest and most dynamic economic markets in the world, and one of the great centers of global growth in the decades to come,” Macron said. 

He was making a virtue of necessity, to say the least.  

By shrinking its military footprint without abandoning key footholds in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gabon and Djibouti, France hopes to avoid further forced retreats from the continent’s strategic corners. Then, referring to Russia’s Wagner mercenaries who have supplanted French forces in Mali and the Central African Republic, Macron said he was sure Africans would soon regret the paramilitary group’s presence.  

But small crowds of anti-French demonstrators in Libreville and Kinshasa were a reminder of France’s tarnished image among many young Africans, as well as accusations of political interference that dog Macron’s attempt at a new start.  

In Gabon, protesters accused the French leader of helping veteran President Ali Bongo’s reelection campaign — a charge he felt obliged to deny. And in the DRC, he faced both public criticism from President Felix Tshisekedi, as well as protests by opposition activists.  

If you’re France, in Africa, you simply can’t win. No one is going to take your professions of good faith, political neutrality, partnership and brotherly love at face value. 

Macron has arguably been the most progressive French president when it comes to Africa, officially acknowledging colonial France’s mistreatment of Algerians, and seeking an ever-elusive reconciliation. He has apologized in Rwanda for his country’s role in failing to prevent the 1994 genocide by Hutu militias against ethnic Tutsis. He has created a commission to investigate colonial massacres in Cameroon too.  

Macron has reached out to youngsters, civil society and start-ups, sometimes over the heads of African governments. He has agreed to scrap the CFA franc — the eight-nation West African currency tied to France — to be replaced by the Eco in 2027. He is the first French leader to have returned cultural treasures to Africa as well, sending a collection of statues to Benin in what is likely to set a precedent. 

Yet, though they make French nationalists’ blood boil, such gestures are too little, too late for many Africans. 

France would probably be best advised to channel its efforts instead under the more politically acceptable banner of the European Union, which is building a comprehensive partnership with the African Union — the key principles of which were outlined at a summit in Brussels in February 2022.  

As bad luck would have it, however, that budding relationship has been overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has monopolized the EU’s political and financial attention. 

Africans clearly see how the bloc — France included — has plowed billions of euros in military and financial assistance into Ukraine, while support for African peace and security efforts has been far more constrained. They also see how Ukraine has gained EU candidate status and been center stage at every summit, while Africa had to struggle to secure even belated help in procuring COVID-19 vaccines.  

Moreover, the war in Ukraine has added to food insecurity and an energy-price squeeze on the continent. For many Africans, Europe seems more concerned with blaming Russia than helping. 

Macron’s African reset is in many ways a halfway house — he admitted as much in his big speech. “We are held accountable for the past without having been totally convincing about the shape of our common future,” he said. 

The decision to rebrand the African bases as joint training ventures was itself reportedly a compromise between advisers who argued against yielding another inch to France’s adversaries, and others who want to shutter most outposts and refocus the armed forces on preparing for possible high-intensity warfare in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. 

While 61 percent of voters think France should stay in Africa because of its economic and security interests — as well as to help prevent mass migration to Europe — an Odoxa poll for Le Figaro showed that a similar majority is pessimistic about Franco-African ties, and doubtful of Macron’s ability to build a new relationship. 

This may not be the last Franco-African reset.



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US Waives Sanctions To Speed Earthquake Aid To Syria

The death toll from the huge earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria Monday continues to go higher and higher, with nearly 23,000 people estimated to have died as of today — expect that to keep going higher — and a rapidly closing window for the chances of digging more survivors from the rubble.

The situation is especially dire in northern Syria, where the response to the natural disaster has been complicated by the fact that the earthquake hit right in the heart of territory still held by rebels in the civil war against the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad. Most aid bound for the affected region has to go through Syrian government channels, although starting Thursday, the first UN aid trucks have begun reaching the area through the single open border crossing with Turkey.

Here’s a sobering Al Jazeera video explainer on why it’s so hard to get aid to the earthquake victims in Northern Syria:


youtu.be

The video explains that, for the most part, the international sanctions against Syria have been aimed at Syrian military and government leaders, as well as government agencies that have played a role in violating human rights.

But just to make sure that as much aid as possible gets where it’s needed, the US Treasury Department yesterday issued a six-month waiver on “all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited” under the sanctions. In a press release, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said,

As international allies and humanitarian partners mobilize to help those affected, I want to make very clear that U.S. sanctions in Syria will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people. While U.S. sanctions programs already contain robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts, today Treasury is issuing a blanket General License to authorize earthquake relief efforts so that those providing assistance can focus on what’s needed most: saving lives and rebuilding.

The announcement added that US sanctions, by design, already don’t apply to humanitarian assistance, but that the new waiver “expands upon these broad humanitarian authorizations already in effect,” for nongovernmental organizations, the UN, and US government aid programs. The US has made clear it will not give aid directly to the Syrian government, only to international aid groups working in the region.

Also too, Al Jazeera reports that

The US Agency for International Development on Thursday announced Washington had pledged $85m in urgent humanitarian aid on top of the 160 people and 12 dogs it had sent to Turkey to help with rescue efforts.

Since humanitarian aid is already exempt from sanctions, Karam Shaar, a Syrian economist with the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera that the new waiver will have “a limited positive impact.”

“This makes it easier still to send humanitarian funding to Syria,” Shaar told Al Jazeera. “Now you don’t have to prove to OFAC that your transaction is exempt from sanctions. You do the transaction, and then if you’re asked to, you need to prove it.”

Simply put, this means that donors and organisations don’t need to spend resources and time proving an exemption from sanctions before sending aid.

Shaar said it’s not yet clear whether private banks will be sufficiently reassured by the waiver that they’ll feel comfortable making money transfers; many avoid Syria altogether out of fear of getting into sanctions trouble. The waiver therefore may or may not result in some institutions allowing transfers, including remittances from Syrians living abroad.

As Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Politics at the University of Oklahoma, explained to Al Jazeera, Assad has made his own use of the sanctions regime to punish the rebels in the north, using the sanctions as an excuse to keep resources from getting to areas the rebels control.

Sadly, that’s unlikely to change even following the earthquake, because why would a guy who’s used poison gas and indiscriminate bombing on civilians (with Russian help) start caring about them now?

Despite demands by Assad’s government, the UN has started getting some aid to northern Syria, using the only humanitarian corridor between Syria and Turkey at the Bab al-Hawa crossing. CNN reports that the first convoy of six trucks carried only “shelter items” and other non-food supplies.

“The UN cross-border aid operation has been reinstated today. We are relieved that we are able to reach the people in northwest Syria in this pressing time. We hope that this operation continues as this is a humanitarian lifeline and the only scalable channel,” Sanjana Quazi, head of OCHA Türkiye [the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] said.

The delivery on Thursday ends a three-day period during which no aid arrived at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey to rebel-held areas of northern Syria – just 300 bodies, according to the administration that controls the only access point between the two countries.

“How are roads okay for cars carrying bodies, but not for aid?” Mazen Alloush, Bab al-Hawa’s frustrated spokesperson had asked CNN.

The bodies were of Syrian refugees who died in Turkey and were being repatriated for burial. (No, probably aid groups don’t want to risk sending food aid through in body bags, because life isn’t usually a movie.)

Even before the earthquake, northern Syria was in terrible shape, with as many as 15.3 million people needing assistance there, according to UN Resident Coordinator for Syria El-Mostafa Benlamlih.

In Aleppo alone 100,000 people are believed to be homeless, with 30,000 of that number currently sheltered in schools and mosques.

“Those are the lucky ones,” he said.

The remaining 70,000 “have snow, they have cold and they are living in a terrible situation,” he added.

The weather is also making survival even more difficult in both countries, with much colder temperatures than normal in the region, as CNN notes. Aleppo normally has chilly 36 degree Fahrenheit lows in February, but this weekend’s low temperatures are forecast to be between 27 and 28 degrees F.

Now that UN aid has started arriving, there’s hope that NGOs will be able to get aid to northern Syria; most of the big groups are already helping in Turkey. If you can spare the money, you might consider giving to the International Rescue Committee, to Doctors Without Borders, or to Mercy Corps, all of which have special appeals for the Turkey/Syria crisis.

[CNN / Al Jazeera]

Yr Wonkette is funded entirely by reader donations. For this post, we’re going to direct you to the humanitarian aid NGOs listed above. But sure, if you also want to keep us funded too, we’d appreciate that.



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