Taiwan’s new president: Five things you need to know about William Lai

TAIPEI — Forget Xi Jinping or Joe Biden for a second. Meet Taiwan’s next President William Lai, upon whom the fate of U.S.-China relations — and global security over the coming few years — is now thrust.

The 64-year-old, currently Taiwan’s vice president, has led the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to a historic third term in power, a first for any party since Taiwan became a democracy in 1996.

For now, the capital of Taipei feels as calm as ever. For Lai, though, the sense of victory will soon be overshadowed by a looming, extended period of uncertainty over Beijing’s next move. Taiwan’s Communist neighbor has laid bare its disapproval of Lai, whom Beijing considers the poster boy of the Taiwanese independence movement.

All eyes are now on how the Chinese leader — who less than two weeks ago warned Taiwan to face up to the “historical inevitability” of being absorbed into his Communist nation — will address the other inevitable conclusion: That the Taiwanese public have cast yet another “no” vote on Beijing.

1. Beijing doesn’t like him — at all

China has repeatedly lambasted Lai, suggesting that he will be the one bringing war to the island.

As recently as last Thursday, Beijing was trying to talk Taiwanese voters out of electing its nemesis-in-chief into the Baroque-style Presidential Office in Taipei.

“Cross-Strait relations have taken a turn for the worse in the past eight years, from peaceful development to tense confrontation,” China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Chen Binhua said, adding that Lai would now be trying to follow an “evil path” toward “military tension and war.”

While Beijing has never been a fan of the DPP, which views China as fundamentally against Taiwan’s interests , the personal disgust for Lai is also remarkable.

Part of that stems from a 2017 remark, in which Lai called himself a “worker for Taiwanese independence,” which has been repeatedly cited by Beijing as proof of his secessionist beliefs.

Without naming names, Chinese President Xi harshly criticized those promoting Taiwan independence in a speech in 2021.

“Secession aimed at Taiwan independence is the greatest obstacle to national reunification and a grave danger to national rejuvenation,” Xi said. “Those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland, and seek to split the country will come to no good end, and will be disdained by the people and sentenced by the court of history.”

2. All eyes are on the next 4 months

Instability is expected to be on the rise over the next four months, until Lai is formally inaugurated on May 20.

No one knows how bad this could get, but Taiwanese officials and foreign diplomats say they don’t expect the situation to be as tense as the aftermath of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in 2022.

Already, days before the election, China sent several spy balloons to monitor Taiwan, according to the Taiwanese defense ministry. On the trade front, China was also stepping up the pressure, announcing a possible move to reintroduce tariffs on some Taiwanese products. Cases of disinformation and electoral manipulation have also been unveiled by Taiwanese authorities.

Those developments, combined, constitute what Taipei calls hybrid warfare — which now risks further escalation given Beijing’s displeasure with the new president.

3. Lai has to tame his independent instinct

In a way, he has already.

Speaking at the international press conference last week, Lai said he had no plan to declare independence if elected to the presidency.

DPP insiders say they expect Lai to stick to outgoing Tsai Ing-wen’s approach, without saying things that could be interpreted as unilaterally changing the status quo.

They also point to the fact that Lai chose as vice-presidential pick Bi-khim Hsiao, a close confidante with Tsai and former de facto ambassador to Washington. Hsiao has developed close links with the Biden administration, and will play a key role as a bridge between Lai and the U.S.

4. Taiwan will follow international approach

The U.S., Japan and Europe are expected to take precedence in Lai’s diplomatic outreach, while relations with China will continue to be negative.

Throughout election rallies across the island, the DPP candidate repeatedly highlighted the Tsai government’s efforts at diversifying away from the trade reliance on China, shifting the focus to the three like-minded allies.

Southeast Asia has been another top destination for these readjusted trade flows, DPP has said.

According to Taiwanese authorities, Taiwan’s exports to China and Hong Kong last year dropped 18.1 percent compared to 2022, the biggest decrease since they started recording this set of statistics in 1982.

In contrast, Taiwanese exports to the U.S. and Europe rose by 1.6 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, with the trade volumes reaching all-time highs.

However, critics point out that China continues to be Taiwan’s biggest trading partner, with many Taiwanese businesspeople living and working in the mainland.

5. Lai might face an uncooperative parliament

While vote counting continues, there’s a high chance Lai will be dealing with a divided parliament, the Legislative Yuan.

Before the election, the Kuomintang (KMT) party vowed to form a majority with Taiwan People’s Party in the Yuan, thereby rendering Lai’s administration effectively a minority government.

While that could pose further difficulties for Lai to roll out policies provocative to Beijing, a parliament in opposition also might be a problem when it comes to Taiwan’s much-needed defense spending.

“A divided parliament is very bad news for defense. KMT has proven that they can block defense spending, and the TPP will also try to provide what they call oversight, and make things much more difficult,” said Syaru Shirley Lin, who chairs the Center for Asia-Pacific Resilience and Innovation, a Taipei-based policy think tank.

“Although all three parties said they wanted to boost defense, days leading up to the election … I don’t think that really tells you what’s going to happen in the legislature,” Lin added. “There’s going to be a lot of policy trading.”



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US and UK strike Houthi targets in Yemen after weeks of Red Sea attacks

US and British forces struck rebel-held Yemen early on Friday after weeks of disruptive attacks on Red Sea shipping by Iran-backed Houthi rebels who say they act in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.

The pre-dawn air strikes add to escalating fears of wider conflict in the region, where violence involving Tehran-aligned groups in Yemen as well as Lebanon, Iraq and Syria has surged since the Israel-Hamas war began in early October.

Iran “strongly condemned” the strikes, which the United States, Britain and eight other allies said aimed to “de-escalate tensions”.

Nasser Kanani, spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, said that the Western strikes “will have no result other than fuelling insecurity and instability in the region”, while “diverting the world’s attention” from Gaza.

China said it was “concerned about the escalation of tensions in the Red Sea”, and news of the strikes sent oil prices up more than 2 percent.

The Houthis have carried out a growing number of attacks on what they deem to be Israeli-linked shipping in the Red Sea, a key international trade route, since October 7, when the Hamas-led attack on Israel sparked the war which is still raging in the besieged Gaza Strip.

The rebels have controlled a major part of Yemen since a civil war erupted there in 2014 and are part of a regional Iran-backed “axis of resistance” against Israel and its allies.

Friday’s strikes targeted an airbase, airports and a military camp, the Houthis’ Al-Masirah TV station said, with AFP correspondents and witnesses reporting they could hear heavy strikes in Hodeida and Sanaa.

“Our country was subjected to a massive aggressive attack by American and British ships, submarines and warplanes,” said Hussein al-Ezzi, the rebels’ deputy foreign minister.

“America and Britain will have to prepare to pay a heavy price and bear all the dire consequences of this blatant aggression,” he added, according to official Houthi media.

US President Joe Biden called the strikes a “defensive action” after the Red Sea attacks and said he “will not hesitate” to order further military action if needed.

With fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles, 60 targets at 16 Houthi locations were hit by more than 100 precision-guided munitions, US Central Command said in a statement.

Unverified images on social media, some of them purportedly of Al-Dailami airbase north of the rebel-held capital Sanaa, showed explosions lighting up the sky as loud bangs and the roar of planes sounded.

Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree said at least five people had been killed.

‘Repeated warnings’

In a statement, Biden called the strikes a success and said he ordered them “against a number of targets in Yemen used by Houthi rebels to endanger freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most vital waterways”.

Biden called the strikes a “direct response” to the “unprecedented” attacks by the Houthis which included “the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles for the first time in history”.

Blaming the Houthis for ignoring “repeated warnings”, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement the strikes were “necessary and proportionate”.

Britain’s defence ministry released footage of Royal Air Force jets returning to their Cyprus base after the mission, and US Centcom video showed warplanes apparently taking off from a sea-based carrier.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the strikes “targeted sites associated with the Houthis’ unmanned aerial vehicle, ballistic and cruise missile, and coastal radar and air surveillance capabilities”.

A joint statement by the United States, Britain, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Korea said the “aim remains to de-escalate tensions and restore stability in the Red Sea”.

The Houthis said they will not be deterred.

“We affirm that there is absolutely no justification for this aggression against Yemen, as there was no threat to international navigation in the Red and Arabian Seas,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam posted on X, formerly Twitter.

He said there was no threat to any vessels apart from “Israeli ships or those heading to the ports of occupied Palestine”.

Prior to Friday’s strikes, Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said bombing the Houthis would be “counterproductive”.

Strikes against the Houthis, who have weathered years of air raids by a Saudi-led coalition, would have little impact and would only raise their standing in the Arab world, said Feierstein of the Middle East Institute think-tank in Washington.               

Saudi Arabia calls for ‘restraint’

Yemen’s neighbour Saudi Arabia is trying to extricate itself from a nine-year war with the Houthis, though fighting has largely been on hold since a truce in early 2022.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is following with great concern the military operations,” a foreign ministry statement said after the US and British strikes.

Riyadh called for “self-restraint and avoiding escalation”.

US and allied forces in Iraq and Syria, where they are part of an anti-jihadist coalition, have also faced stepped-up attacks since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, with Washington responding to several by bombing the sites of pro-Iran groups.

Israel has also stepped up strikes against targets in Syria, and has exchanged regular fire with Lebanon’s Hezbollah over its northern border.

Washington, which has said it seeks to avoid a spreading conflict, in December announced a maritime security initiative, Operation Prosperity Guardian, to protect shipping in the Red Sea route which normally carries about 12 percent of global maritime trade.

Twelve nations led by the United States warned the Houthis on January 3 of “consequences” unless they immediately stopped attacks on commercial vessels.

On Tuesday, however, the Houthis launched what London called their most significant attack yet, with US and British forces shooting down 18 drones and three missiles.

The final straw for the Western allies appeared to come early Thursday when the US military said the Houthis fired an anti-ship ballistic missile into a shipping lane in the Gulf of Aden.

It was the 27th attack on international shipping in the Red Sea since November 19, the US military said.

The intensifying attacks have caused shipping companies to divert around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Electric car manufacturer Tesla said it was suspending most production at its German factory because of a parts shortage due to shipping delays linked to Houthi attacks.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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We can tackle climate change, jobs, growth and global trade. Here’s what’s stopping us

We must leave behind established modes of thinking and seek creative workable solutions.

Another tumultuous year has confirmed that the global economy is at a turning point. We face four big challenges: the climate transition; the good-jobs problem; an economic-development crisis, and the search for a newer, healthier form of globalization.

To address each, we must leave behind established modes of thinking and seek creative workable solutions, while recognizing that these efforts will be necessarily uncoordinated and experimental.

Climate change is the most daunting challenge, and the one that has been overlooked the longest — at great cost. If we are to avoid condemning humanity to a dystopian future, we must act fast to decarbonize the global economy. We have long known that we must wean ourselves from fossil fuels, develop green alternatives and shore up our defenses against the lasting environmental damage that past inaction has already caused. However, it has become clear that little of this is likely to be achieved through global cooperation or economists’ favored policies.

Instead, individual countries will forge ahead with their own green agendas, implementing policies that best account for their specific political constraints, as the United States, China and the European Union have been doing. The result will be a hodge-podge of emission caps, tax incentives, research and development support, and green industrial policies with little global coherence and occasional costs for other countries. Messy though it may be, an uncoordinated push for climate action may be the best we can realistically hope for.

Inequality, the erosion of the middle class, and labor-market polarization have caused significant damage to our social environment.

But our physical environment is not the only threat we face. Inequality, the erosion of the middle class, and labor-market polarization have caused equally significant damage to our social environment. The consequences are now widely evident. Economic, regional, and cultural gaps within countries are widening, and liberal democracy (and the values that support it) appears to be in decline, reflecting rising support for xenophobic, authoritarian populists and the growing backlash against scientific and technical expertise.

Social transfers and the welfare state can help, but what is most needed is an increase in the supply of good jobs for the less-educated workers who have lost access to them. We need more productive, well-remunerated employment opportunities that can provide dignity and social recognition for those without a college degree. Expanding the supply of such jobs will require not only more investment in education and more robust defense of workers’ rights, but also a new brand of industrial policies for services, where the bulk of future employment will be created.

The disappearance of manufacturing jobs over time reflects both greater automation and stronger global competition. Developing countries have not been immune to either factor. Many have experienced “premature de-industrialization”: their absorption of workers into formal, productive manufacturing firms is now very limited, which means they are precluded from pursuing the kind of export-oriented development strategy that has been so effective in East Asia and a few other countries. Together with the climate challenge, this crisis of growth strategies in low-income countries calls for an entirely new development model.

Governments will have to experiment, combining investment in the green transition with productivity enhancements in labor-absorbing services.

As in the advanced economies, services will be low- and middle-income countries’ main source of employment creation. But most services in these economies are dominated by very small, informal enterprises — often sole proprietorships — and there are essentially no ready-made models of service-led development to emulate. Governments will have to experiment, combining investment in the green transition with productivity enhancements in labor-absorbing services.

Finally, globalization itself must be reinvented. The post-1990 hyper-globalization model has been overtaken by the rise of U.S.-China geopolitical competition, and by the higher priority placed on domestic social, economic, public-health, and environmental concerns. No longer fit for purpose, globalization as we know it will have to be replaced by a new understanding that rebalances national needs and the requirements of a healthy global economy that facilitates international trade and long-term foreign investment.

Most likely, the new globalization model will be less intrusive, acknowledging the needs of all countries (not just major powers) that want greater policy flexibility to address domestic challenges and national-security imperatives. One possibility is that the U.S. or China will take an overly expansive view of its security needs, seeking global primacy (in the U.S. case) or regional domination (China). The result would be a “weaponization” of economic interdependence and significant economic decoupling, with trade and investment treated as a zero-sum game.

The biggest gift major powers can give to the world economy is to manage their own domestic economies well.

But there could also be a more favorable scenario in which both powers keep their geopolitical ambitions in check, recognizing that their competing economic goals are better served through accommodation and cooperation. This scenario might serve the global economy well, even if — or perhaps because — it falls short of hyper-globalization. As the Bretton Woods era showed, a significant expansion of global trade and investment is compatible with a thin model of globalization, wherein countries retain considerable policy autonomy with which to foster social cohesion and economic growth at home. The biggest gift major powers can give to the world economy is to manage their own domestic economies well.

All these challenges call for new ideas and frameworks. We do not need to throw conventional economics out the window. But to remain relevant, economists must learn to apply the tools of their trade to the objectives and constraints of the day. They will have to be open to experimentation, and sympathetic if governments engage in actions that do not conform to the playbooks of the past.

Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard Kennedy School, is president of the International Economic Association and the author of Straight Talk on Trade: Ideas for a Sane World Economy (Princeton University Press, 2017).

This commentary was published with the permission of Project Syndicate — Confronting Our Four Biggest Economic Challenges

More: Biden administration’s antitrust victories are much-needed wins for consumers

Also read: ‘Dr. Doom’ Nouriel Roubini: ‘Worst-case scenarios appear to be the least likely.’ For now.

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‘A lesson for Taiwan’s coastal defence’: How France’s ill-fated 1884 invasion is remembered

from our special correspondent in Taiwan – The Taiwanese military regularly holds drills on what it calls “red beaches” – coastal areas deemed vulnerable to large enemy landings. As Beijing threatens to seize the island by force, Taiwanese historians and military planners are looking at past invasion attempts. Some say that a daring French amphibious attack on Tamsui, north of Taiwan, still has valuable lessons for the country’s defence planners despite taking place 140 years ago.

The sound of crashing surf almost covers the noise of airplanes landing and taking off every few minutes from Taoyuan international airport, the main transport hub to get into Taiwan. Fishermen on the Zhuwei beach throw their lines, staring at the horizon under thick, dark clouds. This stretch of sand on Taiwan’s northern coast looks deceptively normal, but it’s at the centre of sophisticated war games by Beijing and Washington.

These simulations often include an attempt by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to land troops there in a bid to capture Taiwan’s main airport as well as the port of Taipei, whose cranes are clearly visible from the beach. Both infrastructures, which would be critical in case of an invasion to bring in reinforcement, are within a 10km radius. The centre of Taiwan’s capital with its presidential office and government institutions is only 35km away.

The port of Taipei is visible from Zhuwei’s beach. Taiwan’s main international airport is located a few kilometres from where this picture was taken. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Taiwan is a rugged island with deep jungles and high mountains, geography that military planners describe as a nightmare for invading forces – similarly to the gruesome battles between US and Japanese soldiers on small Pacific islands during World War II. The relative proximity of government headquarters to the coast has made the option of a “decapitation strike” very enticing to military planners considering invading the island throughout its history.

An old bunker on a beach near Taoyuan airport. There are no signs of recent defensive structures on this so-called
An old bunker on a beach near Taoyuan airport. There are no signs of recent defensive structures on this so-called “red beach”. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Among the last to have actually tried it were French forces in the late 19th century, during the heyday of European gunboat imperialism. The battle of Tamsui saw about 600 French marines landing on a beach 25km east of Zhuwei at the mouth of the Tamsui river, which flows right into Taipei.

The attack came as part of the wider Sino-French war, while another group of French troops was bogged down near Keelung, a port in northeast Taiwan. France’s strategic objective was to seize Taiwan as a bargaining chip to obtain the withdrawal of Chinese troops from northern Vietnam. China was then an empire ruled by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

‘Decapitation strike’

“The landing in Tamsui was the operation that Chinese communists have been dreaming of: a daring military raid aimed at quickly penetrating into Taipei,” professor Shiu Wen-tang, a retired researcher from the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica, told FRANCE 24.

Shiu Wen-tang shows Qing-era cannons in a fort overlooking the mouth of the Tamsui river. Back in 1884, the French had superior artillery power, but the Qing infantry forces pushed them back to sea
Shiu Wen-tang shows Qing-era cannons in a fort overlooking the mouth of the Tamsui river. Back in 1884, the French had superior artillery power, but the Qing infantry forces pushed them back to the sea. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

“The topography hasn’t changed much. Military planners in Beijing know the island very well, thanks to their satellites. They’ve sent thousands of secret agents and corrupted Taiwanese generals … They are aware that the hills around are bristling with missiles,” he adds.

Chinese god offering help

The raid didn’t end well for the French. After successfully going ashore in the early hours of October 8, 1884, French marines faced tough resistance from Qing soldiers when they tried to move inland. Despite heavy covering artillery fire from their gunships, the invading forces were forced to retreat after a few hours of fighting.

View on Shalun beach, where French marines landed ashore in 1884. The landing itself went well, but they were quickly ambushed as they moved inland.
A view of Shalun beach, where French marines landed in 1884. The landing itself went well, but they were quickly ambushed as they moved inland. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Professor Shiu shows us several small memorials commemorating that rare Qing victory over Western invaders. Some are classic murals depicting battle scenes with historical notes. Others look a bit more strange, at least to Western eyes. An engraved artwork in a temple shows a Chinese divinity hovering over Qing troops as they repel French soldiers.

Details of the engraved artwork in the Qingshui temple representing the French assault on Tamsui.
Detail of an engraved artwork in the Qingshui temple representing the French assault on Tamsui. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

On the shore of the Tamsui river, a sculpture of a bird painted in the colours of the French flag sits atop yellow naval mines.

“This is where Qing forces operated their line of naval mines, which prevented enemy gunboats from going up the river into Taipei. The French failed to approach this location by sea. That’s why their commanders sent the marines. They got pretty close but, in the end, they didn’t reach the mines,” says Shiu.

This memorial is located where the Qing engineers controlled a line of naval mines preventing French ships from sailing into Taipei.
This memorial is located where Qing engineers controlled a line of naval mines preventing French ships from sailing into Taipei. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

As Taiwan prepares to defend its “red beaches”, does the failed French invasion hold lessons 140 years later? The country’s defence establishment is certainly aware of this historical battle, says Jiang Hsinbiao, a policy analyst at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

“One of the lessons for Taiwan’s military is that it is necessary to destroy the enemy’s landing ships while they are still travelling at sea to prevent their soldiers from landing,” Jiang told FRANCE 24.

A porcupine bristling with missiles

This fits with the “porcupine” doctrine that Taiwan’s armed forces have been working on, given that the military balance is tipped in favour of the PRC’s forces, far superior in number. Instead of investing in expensive but vulnerable kit – ships, jets or tanks – the new doctrine suggests a focus on asymmetrical warfare.

The porcupine metaphor encapsulates a fundamentally defensive strategy, with a large number of widely dispersed missile launchers playing the same role as the animal’s coat of sharp spines.

“Taiwan is currently implementing its ‘porcupine’ doctrine by stockpiling Patriot and Tien Kung surface-to-air missiles, as well as anti-ship ammunition like the Harpoon and Hsiung Feng [missiles] (…) Missile launchers have been spread all over the island to deter the enemy,” says Jiang.

Landing vehicles drive on a beach during a military drill in Taoyuan on March 23, 2023.
Taiwanese landing vehicles drive on the beach during a military drill in Taoyuan on March 23, 2023. © Sam Yeh, AFP

There are only a dozen or so “red beaches” across Taiwan, which allows defense planners to better determine potential invasion routes. Most of the island’s coastline is too rugged for large military landings, according to military analysts. The Taiwanese military regularly conducts anti-landing drills with drones, tanks, and mechanised infantry.

“The width of a typical ‘red beach’ is such that only one battalion (between 600 and 800 soldiers) can land at a time. If the subsequent landing troops echelon cannot land in time, the enemy will not be able to consolidate their beachhead. They would be easily annihilated by the defence forces,” says Jiang. “The PRC’s military will not be able to attack Taiwan by amphibious landing only; it will be accompanied by airborne warfare.”

A screengrab shows a simulated Chinese attack on Taiwan conducted by Major Maxwell Stewart for the Centre for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) in June 2023.
A screengrab shows a simulated Chinese attack on Taiwan conducted by Major Maxwell Stewart for the Centre for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) in June 2023. © CIMSEC

Invasion simulations have resulted in different outcomes, some showing PRC troops being repelled with the assistance of US forces, others showing the fall of Taipei only 31 days after the establishment of a beachhead near Taoyuan airport.

‘A contest of will’

As we walk on the very spot where French marines landed, Shiu Wen-tang says that the 1884 failed invasion still holds valuable political lessons. Overconfidence was clearly a major factor in the French defeat. Landing only 600 marines to fight thousands of entrenched troops was an outright mistake. The PRC’s military is expected to use their superior numbers but they could well underestimate their Taiwanese rivals on other aspects.

Shiu Wen-tang reflects on the ill-fated invasion of Tamsui on Shalun beach, where French marines landed in 1884.
Shiu Wen-tang reflects on the ill-fated invasion of Tamsui from Shalun beach, where French marines landed in 1884. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

A key political lesson for the Taiwanese side is that it must rely on a strong level of civilian-military trust to withstand the first invasion shock without falling into chaos. Eleven years after the French defeat, Japanese forces conducted their own amphibious landing near Keelung in northeastern Taiwan. Qing defenders were then demoralised. Law and order quickly broke down, and the Japanese invaders seized the island with limited casualties.

“This stands in sharp contrast to the Battle of Tamsui, where the Qing imperial administration had efficient leaders who were trusted by the local population,” notes Shiu. “In the end, war is always a contest of will. If a people is not willing to resist, then they have already lost.”

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Israel’s ‘refuseniks’: ‘I will never justify what Israel is doing in Gaza’

from our special correspondent in Israël – On December 26, Israel’s first conscientious objector since the start of its war against Hamas, Tal Mitnick, was sent to prison after refusing to serve in the army. Mitnick, however, is not alone. A small group of Israelis are refusing to take part in the “oppression of the Palestinians” by refusing to serve in the Gaza conflict. FRANCE 24 met with some of them in Israel.  

Young people refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are known as “refuseniks” in Israel. The term dates from the Soviet era and once referred to Jews denied the right to emigrate to Israel from the Soviet bloc.

Although military service in the Jewish state is compulsory for both men and women – with many seeing it as an important part of their national identity – the refuseniks are increasingly speaking out.

“On February 25th (my enlistment date) … I will refuse to enlist and go to military jail for it,” Sofia Orr, an 18-year-old Israeli woman, told FRANCE 24 in the Pardes Hanna-Karkur municipality of the Haifa district.

“I refuse to take part in the violent policies of oppression and apartheid that Israel enacted upon the Palestinian people, and especially now with the war,” Orr said in English. “I want to fight to convey the message that there is no military solution to a political problem, and that is more apparent than ever now. And I want to be part of the solution and not the problem.”

Orr’s words echo those of her friend Tal Mitnick, the jailed 18-year-old who was sentenced on January 2 to 30 days in prison by a military court.

In a statement published on social media before his incarceration, Mitnick said that a lasting solution will not come from the army. “Violence cannot solve the situation – neither by Hamas, nor by Israel. There is no military solution to a political problem. Therefore, I refuse to enlist in an army that believes that the real problem can be ignored, under a government that only continues the bereavement and pain.”


“I’m very proud of him (Mitnick) and also inspired by his courage,” Orr said. “Everyone has different beliefs. But in the general sense, yes, I absolutely stand behind his open letter and behind his stand.”

She said the political situation in Israel has made it harder than ever to conscientiously object.

“Right now, it’s more difficult than ever to refuse and to take this stand, because the political environment in Israel has gotten way tougher since the war started. There has been a strong shift to the right, and the entire political sphere has become a lot more violent and aggressive,” Orr said.

The Israeli army relies almost exclusively on reservists. Men are required to enlist for 32 months and women for 24, after which they can be mobilised until their 40th and 38th birthdays, respectively.

Following Hamas’s surprise attacks on October 7 that left more than 1,100 Israelis dead, the army mobilised more than 360,000 reservists, about 4 percent of the country’s population of 9.8 million, representing Israel’s largest mobilisation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

‘A politically motivated decision’

Orr, who describes herself as an “activist” and a “political person”, said it was already clear to her that she would conscientiously object at the age of 15. And she has not wavered since.

“The 7th of October changed nothing in either direction,” she said. “It should have been expected, because when you put people under extreme violence, extreme violence will rise back at you. It’s inevitable.”

She said the attacks in southern Israel “only made me surer in my decision”.

“Since the war started, and the horrible violence that is enacted on the Gazans in Gaza and the destruction of the whole place, it made me surer that we must fight for a different option and that this will never solve anything. And that I have to resist this cycle of bloodshed or it will never end,” Orr said.

The Israeli army rarely accepts refusals to enlist on grounds of pacifism or ethics.

Apart from the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs, who are automatically exempt from military service, only young Israelis suffering from physical or mental problems can be declared unfit after a medical examination.

Exemption was, however, out of the question for Orr.

“I choose to be part of the rare few who do have political motivations behind [not serving] … more than that, [who] choose to make it public [as] a public statement and a political statement,” she said. Orr chooses “to resist” and to do so publicly, “to raise awareness for the situation as a whole”.

With the support of her parents and sister, Orr is convinced that she can make a difference.

When a classmate rallied to her cause, Orr said, it “made me believe that I can change things, and that as small an impact that I have, it’s still an impact and it’s still worth it”.

Violence only leads to more violence

Seeking to bring the plight of Palestinians to public attention in Israel, Orr travelled to the West Bank to meet Palestinians.

“I went to the West Bank and talked to settlers, and then went and talked to Palestinians. And I think it’s an important experience, to see for yourself … how the settlers live and how the Palestinians live, what the settlers say and what the Palestinians say,” Orr said.

“We’ve seen for the past 70 years that the military using military means leads us nowhere. The only progress we’ve ever made on this piece of land has been by political means and negotiations and trying to make peace. So again, there is no military solution to a political problem. And this problem is both political and humanitarian. And the military does not solve either of those things,” she said.

Surprisingly mature and filled with conviction, Orr has stuck by her words and refused to abandon her beliefs even though talk of peace in Israel has mostly been silenced since the October 7 massacres.

“Israel’s attempts to eradicate Hamas is only making Hamas stronger, because if you offer no alternative to the Palestinians and they think that violent resistance is the only way … and [if they think] it’s the only language that Israel knows how to speak and … their only chance at freedom … Then, yes, of course they will join Hamas and try violent resistance,” Orr said.

The violence wrought by Hamas was also counter-productive, she said. “I don’t think that the horrible attack on October 7 made any progress for the Palestinian cause.”

But Israel’s war on Gaza pushes any hopes for a solution farther away.

“I will never justify what Israel does right now in Gaza. Violence only leads to more violence. So I think the only way to really weaken the violent resistance is to offer an alternative. And that has to come from inside Israel, and that has to come from Israel, because Israel is a much stronger side in the equation,” Orr said, adding that both Israelis and Palestinians should try to make peace amid the increasingly brutal Gaza war.

“It’s the only viable solution.”

While Orr’s words have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears in Israel, some have resorted to calling her a “traitor” and a “self-hating Jew” while others even threatened to murder or rape her.

Orr said she has also suffered other consequences of her choice to go public, whether while job hunting or in the social sphere.

“People aren’t supposed to ask if you went to the army – and definitely not why you didn’t, if you didn’t,” she said. But of someone Googles her, her decision not to serve comes up.

“It can have consequences,” she acknowledged. “The biggest consequences are social because it’s a very militaristic society, and I’m very publicly not a militaristic person … but I believe that it’s worth it no matter what … I will endure [the consequences].”

When asked if she’s afraid of going to prison, Orr, who planned on studying literature after serving her sentence, didn’t equivocate. “It’s scary. I know it will be hard … but it’s part of the whole thing. I’ve made peace with it long ago.”

Avital Rubin, a young Israeli, has already served a total of four months in prison. Then 19, Rubin was sentenced for refusing military service in 2021.

Quietly seated on the terrace of a café in Haifa, Rubin said he was born into a family that he described as “dovish Zionist” – both liberal and conciliatory in their attitude.

Evyatar Rubin, 20, spent four months in prison for having refused to enroll with the Israeli military. © Assiya Hamza, FRANCE 24

“I remember as a kid, my mother bought me these mini biographies of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. And I always viewed these people as heroes. But the moment [Donald] Trump won, there was this shift on the internet and it all of a sudden became much more right-winged or much more bigoted, homophobic, sexist. And so I had to find places that I felt comfortable being … I had to [find] more and more leftist places,” Rubin said.

Rubin, who currently works in IT, educated himself by watching videos of Noam Chomsky and calls himself “anti-Zionist”.

Rubin took part in 2021 demonstrations by Jews and Arabs in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem that has been the centre of a heavy legal battle over the past 20 years between Palestinian families and Israeli settlers.

Without knowing how to exempt himself from military service, Rubin hesitated on whether to enlist.

‘Each time, the solution is to bomb Gaza’

Rubin was introduced to a member of Mesarvot – “Those who refuse” in Hebrew – at one of the group’s gatherings.

The NGO informs and advises young people without necessarily discouraging them from joining the army.

Like Mitnick and Orr, Rubin saw that it was possible to refuse military service on political grounds.

Mesarvot provided him with legal support and even visited him in prison.

“I’m happy I didn’t do it (military service) and I refused. Not because I’m a pacifist, but because I always grew up viewing the occupation and the Nakba (“Catastrophe” in Arabic; Nakba refers to the forced exodus of Palestinians in 1948) with disgust. And so to be part of the IDF would be to be part of this thing. And I think that is what, more than anything, pushed me away from enlisting in the military,” Rubin said.

While clearly disapproving of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, Rubin admitted to having discovered the realities of the West Bank only when he was 16.

“When I was in prison, and I told people I’m refusing because of the occupation … they were like, ‘what is the occupation?’ I said, you know, over the Green Line (the pre-1967 border from before the Six-Day War). And they were like, what is the Green Line? Honestly, I didn’t blame them because three years prior to that, I didn’t know what the Green Line was either,” he said.

Rubin has since chosen to isolate himself, likening his isolation to the mark of Cain, a visible mark placed by the Abrahamic God on the biblical figure Cain’s forehead, so that others would recognise him as the murderer of his brother Abel.

This self-isolation has allowed Rubin to distance himself from the Nakba and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

“The only thing I actually sacrificed was an easy job because, if I enlisted, I would have gone to some intelligence [unit], done like three years – maybe signed for an extra two years – then I would have left and found some cushy job in high tech and gotten paid like six figures for doing nothing. Which is basically what all my high school friends are going to do,” he said.

Rubin said his family and friends didn’t try to persuade him otherwise, as they saw that he stood by his convictions, which remained unchanged even after the October 7 attacks.

“Israel has this spectacular capability of never learning from anything. It’s like, for 100 years, we’ve been bombing and murdering and occupying, and then a massacre happens, and then we bomb and occupy and kill. Then a massacre happens. But every time something happens, the solution is to bomb Gaza. This time it will work. This time it will be different … And that’s what people say,” Rubin said.

“[The PLO] committed acts of terror and massacres, but ultimately they wanted, at the beginning, a one-state secular democratic solution, then a two-state solution. And then, in the 80s, Israel didn’t want to deal with the PLO. So we invaded Lebanon to try to push PLO [out] and instead we got Hezbollah, which is like a million times worse. And then Israel didn’t want to deal with the PLO in the occupied territories in Gaza. So it helped raise Hamas, which is a million times worse … The history of Israel is just like [a series of] military solutions that just make the situation worse time and time and time again,” he said.

When asked about the future, Rubin didn’t attempt to hide his pessimism.

“I think the situation is going to become noticeably worse. Israel is in a death spiral … There’s no room left for personal agency in Israel. I feel it has all been determined by by the currents of history. The same way that the earth revolves around the sun and slowly sinks into it – the same way that Israel cannot help but fulfill its historic destiny,” Rubin said, adding that even a change in premiership wouldn’t bring about a significant change in Israel.

“It doesn’t matter who is the next prime minister – who will it be? Probably [Israeli opposition leader Yair] Lapid or no, probably Benny Gantz most likely,” referring to the MP and onetime challenger to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

“But it doesn’t matter. He’s the same as Binyamin Netanyahu,” he said.

Despite his pessimistic outlook, Rubin said he would remain in Israel.

Citing Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved hundreds of Jews from Nazi extermination camps, Rubin said he hoped to sacrifice himself in some way to save others.

“That’s the most heroic thing a man can do. The most correct thing a man can do. And that’s what matters for me most. And there’s no other place in the world where I can actually do it, other than Israel. So I will. My place will always be here,” he said.

This article has been translated from the original in French.



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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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How Houthi rebels are threatening global trade nexus on Red Sea

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The U.S. is mustering an international armada to deter Iranian-backed Houthi militias from Yemen from attacking shipping in the Red Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways for global trade, including energy cargos.

The Houthis’ drone and missile attacks are ostensibly a response to the war between Israel and Hamas, but fears are growing that the broader world economy could be disrupted as commercial vessels are forced to reroute.

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held a videoconference with 43 countries, the EU and NATO, telling them that “attacks had already impacted the global economy and would continue to threaten commercial shipping if the international community did not come together to address the issue collectively.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. announced an international security effort dubbed Operation Prosperity Guardian that listed the U.K., Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain as participants. Madrid, however, said it wouldn’t take part. 

The Houthis were quick to respond. 

“Even if America succeeds in mobilizing the entire world, our military operations will not stop unless the genocide crimes in Gaza stop and allow food, medicine, and fuel to enter its besieged population, no matter the sacrifices it costs us,” said Mohammed Al-Bukaiti, a member of the Ansar Allah political bureau, in a post on X

Here’s what you need to know about the Red Sea crisis.

1. Who are the Houthis and why are they attacking ships?

International observers have put the blame for the hijackings, missiles and drone attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have stepped up their attacks since the Israel-Hamas war started. The Shi’ite Islamist group is part of the so-called “axis of resistance” against Israel and is armed by Tehran. Almost certainly due to Iranian support with ballistics, the Houthis have directly targeted Israel since the beginning of the war, firing missiles and drones up the Red Sea toward the resort of Eilat.

The Houthis have been embroiled in Yemen’s long-running civil war and have been locked in combat with an intervention force in the country led by Sunni Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have claimed several major strikes against high-value energy installations in Saudi Arabia over the past years, but many international observers have identified some of their bigger claims as implausible, seeing the Houthis as a smokescreen for direct Iranian action against its arch enemy Riyadh.

After first firing drones and cruise missiles at Israel, the rebels are now targeting commercial vessels it deems linked to Israel. The Houthis have launched about 100 drone and ballistic missile attacks against 10 commercial vessels, the U.S. Department of Defense said on Tuesday

As a result, some of the world’s largest shipping companies, including Italian-Swiss MSC, Danish giant Maersk and France’s CMA CGM, were forced to reroute to avoid being targeted. BP also paused shipping through the Red Sea. 

2. Why is the Red Sea so important?

The Bab el-Mandeb (Gate of Lamentation) strait between Djibouti and Yemen where the Houthis have been attacking vessels marks the southern entrance to the Red Sea, which connects to the Suez Canal and is a crucial link between Europe and Asia. 

Estimate are that 12 to 15 percent passes of global trade takes this route, representing 30 percent of global container traffic. Some 7 percent to 10 percent of the world’s oil and 8 percent of liquefied natural gas are also shipped through the same waterway. 

Now that the strait is closed, “alternatives require additional cost, additional delay, and don’t sit with the integrated supply chain that already exists,” said Marco Forgione, director general with the Institute of Export and International Trade.

Diverting ships around Africa adds up to two weeks to journey times, creating additional cost and congestion at ports.

3. What is the West doing about it?

Over the weekend, the American destroyer USS Carney and U.K. destroyer HMS Diamond shot down over a dozen drones. Earlier this month, the French FREMM multi-mission frigate Languedoc also intercepted three drones, including with Aster 15 surface-to-air missiles. 

Now, Washington is seeking to lead an international operation to ramp up efforts against the Iran-backed group, under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces and its Task Force 153. 

“It’s a reinsurance operation for commercial ships,” said Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI), adding it’s still unclear whether the operation is about escorting commercial vessels or pooling air defense capabilities to fight against drones and ballistic missiles. 

4. Who is taking part?

On Tuesday, the U.K. announced HMS Diamond would be deployed as part of the U.S.-led operation.

After a video meeting between Austin and Italian Defense Minister Guido Crosetto, Italy also agreed to join and said it would deploy the Virginio Fasan frigate, a 144-meter military vessel equipped with Aster 30 and 15 long-range missiles. The ship was scheduled to begin patrolling the Red Sea as part of the European anti-piracy Atalanta operation by February but is now expected to transit the Suez Canal on December 24.

France didn’t explicitly say whether Paris was in or out, but French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu told lawmakers on Tuesday that the U.S. initiative is “interesting” because it allows intelligence sharing.

“France already has a strong presence in the region,” he added, referring to the EU’s Atalanta and Agénor operations.  

However, Spain — despite being listed as a participant by Washington — said it will only take part if NATO or the EU decide to do so, and not “unilaterally,” according to El País, citing the government.

5. Who isn’t?

Lecornu insisted regional powers such as Saudi Arabia should be included in the coalition and said he would address the issue with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Khalid bin Salman Al Saud, in a meeting in Paris on Tuesday evening. 

According to Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a number of Middle Eastern allies appear reluctant to take part.

“Where’s Egypt? Where is Saudi Arabia? Where is the United Arab Emirates?” he asked, warning that via its Houthi allies Iran is seeking to divide the West and its regional allies and worsen tensions around the Israel-Hamas war.

China also has a base in Djibouti where it has warships, although it isn’t in the coalition.

6. What do the Red Sea attacks mean for global trade?

While a fully-fledged economic crisis is not on the horizon yet, what’s happening in the Red Sea could lead to price increases.

“The situation is concerning in every aspect — particularly in terms of energy, oil and gas,” said Fotios Katsoulas, lead tanker analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“Demand for [maritime] fuel is already expected to increase up to 5 percent,” he said, and “higher fuel prices, higher costs for shipping, higher insurance premiums” ultimately mean higher costs for consumers. “There are even vessels already in the Red Sea that are considering passing back through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, even if they’d have to pay half a million dollars to do so.”

John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, said that while “there will be an impact in terms of the price of commodities at your supermarket checkout” and there may be an impact on oil prices, “there is still shipping that is transiting the Red Sea.” 

This is not “a total disruption” comparable to the days-long blockage of the canal in 2021 by the Ever Given container ship, he argued. 

Forgione, however, said he was “concerned that we may end up with a de facto blockade of the Suez Canal, because the Houthi rebels have a very clear agenda.”

7. Why are drones so hard to fight?

The way the Houthis operate raises challenges for Western naval forces, as they’re fending off cheap drones with ultra-expensive equipment. 

Aster 15 surface-to-air missiles — the ones fired by the French Languedoc frigate — are estimated to cost more than €1 million each while Iran-made Shahed-type drones, likely used by the Houthis, cost barely $20,000. 

“When you kill a Shahed with an Aster, it’s really the Shahed that has killed the Aster,” France’s chief of defense staff, General Thierry Burkhard, said at a conference in Paris earlier this month. 

However, if the Shahed hits a commercial vessel or a warship, the cost would be a lot higher.

“The advantage of forming a coalition is that we can share the threats that could befall boats,” IFRI’s Fayet said. “There’s an awareness now that [the Houthis] are a real threat, and that they’re able to maintain the effort over time.”  

With reporting by Laura Kayali, Antonia Zimmermann, Gabriel Gavin, Tommaso Lecca, Joshua Posaner and Geoffrey Smith.



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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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Putin unveils new Russian nuclear submarines to flex naval muscle beyond Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin inaugurated two new nuclear-powered submarines this week, promising to reinforce the country’s “military-naval might”. The submarines will be assigned to Russia’s Pacific fleet, underscoring Moscow’s desire to project its naval power well beyond Ukraine.

Amid freezing temperatures in the northern city of Severodvinsk, Putin extolled the virtues of the Russian navy’s two new nuclear-powered submarines on Monday. “With such vessels and such weapons, Russia will feel that it is safe,” Putin told officials and naval officers at the inauguration ceremony.

Fresh out of production, the submarines – named Krasnoyarsk and Emperor Alexander III – represent the pinnacle of Russian maritime power, each serving a specific purpose.

The Krasnoyarsk belongs to the Yasen-M class of attack submarines capable of launching both cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles (which travel at speeds exceeding Mach-5, or 6,125 km/h). Its primary purpose is “to strike targets on land or hunt other submarines at sea,” says Basil Germond, a specialist in maritime military security at Lancaster University in the UK.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech as he attends a flag-raising ceremony for newly-built nuclear submarines at the Sevmash shipyard in Severodvinsk on December 11, 2023. © Kirill Iodas, AP

The Emperor Alexander III is an elite Borei-A class submarine capable of firing nuclear missiles. “This submarine serves the primary purpose of the Russian navy: nuclear deterrence,” says Sim Tack, a military analyst for Force Analysis, a conflict monitoring company. 

Both submarines replace ageing models from the Soviet era in circulation since the 1980s. The Borei-A, for instance, is “much more manoeuvrable and discreet than its predecessor,” says Will Kingston-Cox, a Russia specialist at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona.

Beyond Ukraine 

Russia has often used submarines in the Black Sea to support the war effort in Ukraine with coastal bombardments. However, the Krasnoyarsk and Emperor Alexander III will not be used in the protracted conflict with the former Soviet republic. Instead, they are to be deployed in the Pacific.

Indeed, Putin’s inauguration speech seemed particularly disconnected from the war in Ukraine. “We will quantitatively strengthen the combat readiness of the Russian Navy, our naval power in the Arctic, the Far East, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Caspian Sea – the most important strategic areas of the world’s oceans,” Putin said.

Read moreWar in Ukraine boosts depressed Russian regions amid defence sector boom

“The commitment of expensive naval resources to areas beyond Ukraine and Eastern Europe likely aims to threaten NATO and its allies across multiple regions,” wrote the Institute for the Study of War, a North American military think tank, in its daily briefing on the war in Ukraine on Tuesday. 

Stationed in Vladivostok and several surrounding bases, Russia’s Pacific fleet has several advantages. It is the only Russian fleet that does not have to pass through a bottleneck to reach the high seas – no Øresund Strait (between Denmark and Sweden), no Bosphorus Strait or Dardanelles in northwestern Turkey – all of which are under high levels of surveillance from NATO countries.

Stationing submarines in the Pacific – often considered the territory of the US Navy and its NATO allies – also indicates a geopolitical strategy. “It is a way for Moscow to demonstrate it still considers the United States its main adversary and that, despite the war in Ukraine, Russia is also preparing to face them,” says Germond. 

Second-strike capability 

It is no coincidence that Putin chose to invest in submarines rather than other types of warships, says Germond. “Russia has never managed to create a fleet capable of competing with the West. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union could not develop an aircraft carrier that could rival those of the Americans.”

In contrast, Russia’s heavy investment in submarines has long provided guarantees against a hypothetical American nuclear attack. They are an essential element of Russia’s deterrence strategy, providing what analysts call a “second-strike capability” – a nuclear power will think twice before bombing another if it knows that somewhere under the water, submarines are hiding, ready to retaliate. 

The inauguration also serves as a reminder that Russia has ambitions beyond Ukraine. “[Putin] updated Russia’s maritime doctrine in July 2022 to emphasise the need to become a global naval power,” says Kingston-Cox. 

These submarines are supposed to illustrate Moscow’s ability to simultaneously conduct a war in Ukraine and a naval modernisation program. “The Russian military’s long-term restructuring and expansion effort aims to prepare Russia for a future large-scale conventional war against NATO,” writes the Institute for the Study of War. 

The Kremlin is certainly trying to convey the image of maritime power, but two submarines – nuclear-powered or not – will do little to change the balance of power in the Pacific, according to the experts interviewed by FRANCE 24.

‘Schizophrenic’

Moscow has signalled it does not intend to stop at two new submarines. On Monday, Putin said eight more – five Yasen-M and three Borei-A – would follow in the years to come. That is a costly plan, considering Borei-A class submarines cost over €650 million each

“The submarines will come at the expense of resources allocated to other branches of the military,” says Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian military matters and an external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research centre. While a few submarines will not cause Russia’s demise in Ukraine, “they demonstrate how schizophrenic Moscow can be in military matters”, he adds. 

Yet Putin can ill afford to abandon his maritime modernisation program, however costly it is.

“Vladimir Putin has constantly repeated that the West represents a threat, and he must now prove to his public that he is taking the necessary measures to defend Russia,” says Tack. 

The Russian president also needs a powerful navy to back up his claim to uphold Moscow’s standing among the powers that matter. That message is even more important now “that he has officially announced his candidacy for the presidential election in March 2024”, says Hawn.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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No antibiotics worked, so this woman turned to a natural enemy of bacteria to save her husband’s life | CNN



CNN
 — 

In February 2016, infectious disease epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee was holding her dying husband’s hand, watching him lose an exhausting fight against a deadly superbug infection.

After months of ups and downs, doctors had just told her that her husband, Tom Patterson, was too racked with bacteria to live.

“I told him, ‘Honey, we’re running out of time. I need to know if you want to live. I don’t even know if you can hear me, but if you can hear me and you want to live, please squeeze my hand.’

“All of a sudden, he squeezed really hard. And I thought, ‘Oh, great!’ And then I’m thinking, ‘Oh, crap! What am I going to do?’”

What she accomplished next could easily be called miraculous. First, Strathdee found an obscure treatment that offered a glimmer of hope — fighting superbugs with phages, viruses created by nature to eat bacteria.

Then she convinced phage scientists around the country to hunt and peck through molecular haystacks of sewage, bogs, ponds, the bilge of boats and other prime breeding grounds for bacteria and their viral opponents. The impossible goal: quickly find the few, exquisitely unique phages capable of fighting a specific strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria literally eating her husband alive.

Next, the US Food and Drug Administration had to greenlight this unproven cocktail of hope, and scientists had to purify the mixture so that it wouldn’t be deadly.

Yet just three weeks later, Strathdee watched doctors intravenously inject the mixture into her husband’s body — and save his life.

Their story is one of unrelenting perseverance and unbelievable good fortune. It’s a glowing tribute to the immense kindness of strangers. And it’s a story that just might save countless lives from the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs — maybe even your own.

“It’s estimated that by 2050, 10 million people per year — that’s one person every three seconds — is going to be dying from a superbug infection,” Strathdee told an audience at Life Itself, a 2022 health and wellness event presented in partnership with CNN.

“I’m here to tell you that the enemy of my enemy can be my friend. Viruses can be medicine.”

sanjay pkg vpx

How this ‘perfect predator’ saved his life after nine months in the hospital

During a Thanksgiving cruise on the Nile in 2015, Patterson was suddenly felled by severe stomach cramps. When a clinic in Egypt failed to help his worsening symptoms, Patterson was flown to Germany, where doctors discovered a grapefruit-size abdominal abscess filled with Acinetobacter baumannii, a virulent bacterium resistant to nearly all antibiotics.

Found in the sands of the Middle East, the bacteria were blown into the wounds of American troops hit by roadside bombs during the Iraq War, earning the pathogen the nickname “Iraqibacter.”

“Veterans would get shrapnel in their legs and bodies from IED explosions and were medevaced home to convalesce,” Strathdee told CNN, referring to improvised explosive devices. “Unfortunately, they brought their superbug with them. Sadly, many of them survived the bomb blasts but died from this deadly bacterium.”

Today, Acinetobacter baumannii tops the World Health Organization’s list of dangerous pathogens for which new antibiotics are critically needed.

“It’s something of a bacterial kleptomaniac. It’s really good at stealing antimicrobial resistance genes from other bacteria,” Strathdee said. “I started to realize that my husband was a lot sicker than I thought and that modern medicine had run out of antibiotics to treat him.”

With the bacteria growing unchecked inside him, Patterson was soon medevaced to the couple’s hometown of San Diego, where he was a professor of psychiatry and Strathdee was the associate dean of global health sciences at the University of California, San Diego.

“Tom was on a roller coaster — he’d get better for a few days, and then there would be a deterioration, and he would be very ill,” said Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley, a leading infectious disease specialist at UC San Diego who was a longtime friend and colleague. As weeks turned into months, “Tom began developing multi-organ failure. He was sick enough that we could lose him any day.”

Patterson's body was systemically infected with a virulent drug-resistant bacteria that also infected troops in the Iraq War, earning the pathogen the nickname

After that reassuring hand squeeze from her husband, Strathdee sprang into action. Scouring the internet, she had already stumbled across a study by a Tbilisi, Georgia, researcher on the use of phages for treatment of drug-resistant bacteria.

A phone call later, Strathdee discovered phage treatment was well established in former Soviet bloc countries but had been discounted long ago as “fringe science” in the West.

“Phages are everywhere. There’s 10 million trillion trillion — that’s 10 to the power of 31 — phages that are thought to be on the planet,” Strathdee said. “They’re in soil, they’re in water, in our oceans and in our bodies, where they are the gatekeepers that keep our bacterial numbers in check. But you have to find the right phage to kill the bacterium that is causing the trouble.”

Buoyed by her newfound knowledge, Strathdee began reaching out to scientists who worked with phages: “I wrote cold emails to total strangers, begging them for help,” she said at Life Itself.

One stranger who quickly answered was Texas A&M University biochemist Ryland Young. He’d been working with phages for over 45 years.

“You know the word persuasive? There’s nobody as persuasive as Steffanie,” said Young, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics who runs the lab at the university’s Center for Phage Technology. “We just dropped everything. No exaggeration, people were literally working 24/7, screening 100 different environmental samples to find just a couple of new phages.”

While the Texas lab burned the midnight oil, Schooley tried to obtain FDA approval for the injection of the phage cocktail into Patterson. Because phage therapy has not undergone clinical trials in the United States, each case of “compassionate use” required a good deal of documentation. It’s a process that can consume precious time.

But the woman who answered the phone at the FDA said, “‘No problem. This is what you need, and we can arrange that,’” Schooley recalled. “And then she tells me she has friends in the Navy that might be able to find some phages for us as well.”

In fact, the US Naval Medical Research Center had banks of phages gathered from seaports around the world. Scientists there began to hunt for a match, “and it wasn’t long before they found a few phages that appeared to be active against the bacterium,” Strathdee said.

Dr. Robert

Back in Texas, Young and his team had also gotten lucky. They found four promising phages that ravaged Patterson’s antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a test tube. Now the hard part began — figuring out how to separate the victorious phages from the soup of bacterial toxins left behind.

“You put one virus particle into a culture, you go home for lunch, and if you’re lucky, you come back to a big shaking, liquid mess of dead bacteria parts among billions and billions of the virus,” Young said. “You want to inject those virus particles into the human bloodstream, but you’re starting with bacterial goo that’s just horrible. You would not want that injected into your body.”

Purifying phage to be given intravenously was a process that no one had yet perfected in the US, Schooley said, “but both the Navy and Texas A&M got busy, and using different approaches figured out how to clean the phages to the point they could be given safely.”

More hurdles: Legal staff at Texas A&M expressed concern about future lawsuits. “I remember the lawyer saying to me, ‘Let me see if I get this straight. You want to send unapproved viruses from this lab to be injected into a person who will probably die.’ And I said, “Yeah, that’s about it,’” Young said.

“But Stephanie literally had speed dial numbers for the chancellor and all the people involved in human experimentation at UC San Diego. After she calls them, they basically called their counterparts at A&M, and suddenly they all began to work together,” Young added.

“It was like the parting of the Red Sea — all the paperwork and hesitation disappeared.”

The purified cocktail from Young’s lab was the first to arrive in San Diego. Strathdee watched as doctors injected the Texas phages into the pus-filled abscesses in Patterson’s abdomen before settling down for the agonizing wait.

“We started with the abscesses because we didn’t know what would happen, and we didn’t want to kill him,” Schooley said. “We didn’t see any negative side effects; in fact, Tom seemed to be stabilizing a bit, so we continued the therapy every two hours.”

Two days later, the Navy cocktail arrived. Those phages were injected into Patterson’s bloodstream to tackle the bacteria that had spread to the rest of his body.

“We believe Tom was the first person to receive intravenous phage therapy to treat a systemic superbug infection in the US,” Strathdee told CNN.

“And three days later, Tom lifted his head off the pillow out of a deep coma and kissed his daughter’s hand. It was just miraculous.”

Patterson awoke from a coma after receiving an intravenous dose of phages tailored to his bacteria.

Today, nearly eight years later, Patterson is happily retired, walking 3 miles a day and gardening. But the long illness took its toll: He was diagnosed with diabetes and is now insulin dependent, with mild heart damage and gastrointestinal issues that affect his diet.

“He isn’t back surfing again, because he can’t feel the bottoms of his feet, and he did get Covid-19 in April that landed him in the hospital because the bottoms of his lungs are essentially dead,” Strathdee said.

“As soon as the infection hit his lungs he couldn’t breathe and I had to rush him to the hospital, so that was scary,” she said. “He remains high risk for Covid but we’re not letting that hold us hostage at home. He says, ‘I want to go back to having as normal life as fast as possible.’”

To prove it, the couple are again traveling the world — they recently returned from a 12-day trip to Argentina.

“We traveled with a friend who is an infectious disease doctor, which gave me peace of mind to know that if anything went sideways, we’d have an expert at hand,” Strathdee said.

“I guess I’m a bit of a helicopter wife in that sense. Still, we’ve traveled to Costa Rica a couple of times, we’ve been to Africa, and we’re planning to go to Chile in January.”

Patterson’s case was published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in 2017, jump-starting new scientific interest in phage therapy.

“There’s been an explosion of clinical trials that are going on now in phage (science) around the world and there’s phage programs in Canada, the UK, Australia, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, India and China has a new one, so it’s really catching on,” Strathdee told CNN.

Some of the work is focused on the interplay between phages and antibiotics — as bacteria battle phages they often shed their outer shell to keep the enemy from docking and gaining access for the kill. When that happens, the bacteria may be suddenly vulnerable to antibiotics again.

“We don’t think phages are ever going to entirely replace antibiotics, but they will be a good adjunct to antibiotics. And in fact, they can even make antibiotics work better,” Strathdee said.

In San Diego, Strathdee and Schooley opened the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics, or IPATH, in 2018, where they treat or counsel patients suffering from multidrug-resistant infections. The center’s success rate is high, with 82% of patients undergoing phage therapy experiencing a clinically successful outcome, according to its website.

Schooley is running a clinical trial using phages to treat patients with cystic fibrosis who constantly battle Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a drug-resistant bacteria that was also responsible for the recent illness and deaths connected to contaminated eye drops manufactured in India.

And a memoir the couple published in 2019 — “The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband From a Deadly Superbug” — is also spreading the word about these “perfect predators” to what may soon be the next generation of phage hunters.

VS Phages Sanjay Steffanie

How naturally occurring viruses could help treat superbug infections

“I am getting increasingly contacted by students, some as young as 12,” Strathdee said. “There’s a girl in San Francisco who begged her mother to read this book and now she’s doing a science project on phage-antibiotic synergy, and she’s in eighth grade. That thrills me.”

Strathdee is quick to acknowledge the many people who helped save her husband’s life. But those who were along for the ride told CNN that she and Patterson made the difference.

“I think it was a historical accident that could have only happened to Steffanie and Tom,” Young said. “They were at UC San Diego, which is one of the premier universities in the country. They worked with a brilliant infectious disease doctor who said, ‘Yes,’ to phage therapy when most physicians would’ve said, ‘Hell, no, I won’t do that.’

“And then there is Steffanie’s passion and energy — it’s hard to explain until she’s focused it on you. It was like a spiderweb; she was in the middle and pulled on strings,” Young added. “It was just meant to be because of her, I think.”

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