Pompeo warns eastern Europe on Chinese and Russian meddling
By MATTHEW LEE
AP Diplomatic Writer
Tuesday, February 12
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday invoked the 30th anniversary of the demise of communism to implore countries in Central and Eastern Europe to resist Chinese and Russian influence.
Speaking in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, Pompeo said China and Russia pose twin threats to the democratic and free-market gains made since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
He said the post-communist countries are particularly vulnerable to Chinese and Russian predatory investment and political meddling. To combat the threat, he said, the United States is committed to boosting its engagement in the region, through defense cooperation agreements and exchange programs.
He said because of its history and geography, Slovakia has “a special appreciation for the aggressive role Russia continues to play in the region,” particularly in Ukraine.
But, he said, “Russia is not the only nation that seeks to erode sovereignty and freedom in Europe.”
Pompeo said he had raised with Slovak officials the “need to guard against China’s economic and other efforts to create dependence and manipulate your political system.”
“It’s real, it’s intentional and they are trying to do things that undermine your sovereignty,” he said.
Pompeo was in Slovakia on the second leg of a five-nation European tour that began in Hungary and will take him to Poland, Belgium and Iceland.
He renewed a warning he delivered on Monday in Budapest that the United States may be forced to scale back certain operations in Europe and elsewhere if countries continue to do business with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.
He said the U.S. had strong concerns about Huawei’s motives in Europe, especially in NATO and European Union member states, as well as its business practices.
“We’re fine with companies competing, but they have got to do so in a way that’s fair and open and transparent, and they can’t do so with anything other than an economic motive,” he said.
Pompeo said nations would have to consider choosing between Huawei and the United States. The warning was broad but pointedly delivered first in Hungary, a NATO ally and European Union member, where Huawei is a major player.
The U.S. has been warning countries about the risks of Chinese telecom technology as governments choose providers for the rollout of 5G wireless internet, which will enable faster download speeds but also greater connectivity among devices.
China has said the U.S. is trying to suppress a rising competitor, and on Tuesday it lashed out at Pompeo’s comments.
“For some time, the U.S. has spared no effort to churn out all kinds of unwarranted charges against and fabricate various kinds of China threats theory,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “It flagrantly threatened and drove a wedge into the relationship between China and other countries and slandered and cracked down on Chinese companies’ legitimate development rights and interests.”
She called the campaign “neither fair nor moral” and “bullying.”
“We hope that all parties can abandon ideological prejudice and zero-sum thinking and provide fair, just, open, inclusive, transparent and standardized conditions and environment for normal friendly and win-win cooperation,” she said.
Huawei, which manufactures telecommunications equipment and consumer electronics, also pushed back.
“We would encourage all governments to take an objective look at the evidence and maintain an open, engaged approach to 5G and other network developments,” said William Wu, the CEO of Huawei Technologies Hungary. “We believe the solution to more secure networks lies in cooperation across the whole industry. Excluding one supplier from technological developments in cyber security will damage technical and economic progress and harm competition in the ICT market.”
Pompeo said he hoped to reverse what he called a decade of U.S. disengagement in Central and Eastern Europe that created a vacuum Russia and China have exploited. Over the course of the past 10 years, he said, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leaders have become much more aggressive in the region and made inroads.
“I want to make sure that the Slovakian people understand that America is engaged, we’re back,” he said earlier at a ceremony at Slovakia’s “Gate of Freedom,” a memorial on the banks of the Morava River at the Slovakian border with Austria that commemorates the 400 people killed at the borders of the former Czechoslovakia while attempting to escape the Iron Curtain between 1945 and 1989.
Russian influence operations extend into Egypt
February 12, 2019
Author: Nathaniel Greenberg, Assistant Professor of Arabic, George Mason University
Disclosure statement: Nathaniel Greenberg does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
One of the oldest running daily news organizations in the Arab world, Cairo-based Al-Ahram, publishes stories from Sputnik, a propaganda arm of the Russian government.
As part of a 2015 agreement between Al-Ahram and Rossiya Segodnya, Russia’s government-owned news giant, Sputnik stories appear in Bawaba Al-Ahram, the paper’s digital site, side-by-side with reporting from legitimate news agencies such as Agence France-Presse and Reuters.
Unlike these news agencies, the Kremlin-controlled outlet posts a fair amount of fluff on Al-Ahram, such as a call by the Syrian Researchers network to “boycott” the use of makeup or news about the excavation and restoration of a former Egyptian president’s iconic 1958 Chevy.
Those articles help Al-Ahram by boosting the site’s overall online traffic. For Kremlin propagandists their mere presence achieves a major strategic objective: neutralizing the distinction between outlets like Reuters and Sputnik and leveling the playing field between journalism and fake news.
This collaboration is part of a long-running Russian campaign to build influence in Egyptian media and elsewhere around the world – including in the U.S. My research, including that in a forthcoming book, offers more information on Moscow’s efforts to counter democracy-promoting efforts in the Arab world through media. It’s part of Russia’s global campaign to bolster nationalist movements and politicians that are sympathetic to Russian interests.
The prevalence of Russian disinformation in Egypt is not as surprising as it might seem to a Western audience. Since at least 1961, Al-Ahram has served as the government mouthpiece in Egypt. Russia has long sought influence in a key Arab state.
In recent years, Russian corporate and government agencies have invested in Egypt’s military, its offshore gas reserves, its nuclear and industrial infrastructure and its educational programming.
Simultaneously, there has been a Russian information campaign that has found a sympathetic audience in the leadership of one of the Arab world’s foremost newspapers. As Al-Ahram’s managing editor said of the agreement with Sputnik: Egyptian-Russian relations are closer than ever and the new “protocol” for media cooperation “supports that relationship.”
The culture at al-Ahram echoes Russia’s state-run media culture. Reality as it appears in the pages of Al-Ahram echoes the government line. When the facts don’t fit the official story, editors may simply alter the image of reality – as in 2010 when Al-Ahram published a doctored White House press release photo showing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak walking in front of a group of international leaders, when really he was behind them.
Diverting the public’s attention
In 2011, when the anti-government protests known as the Arab Spring spread to Egypt, Al-Ahram began its coverage of events with Russian-style disinformation tactics, including one journalist Peter Pomerantsev called “hook and distract.”
On Jan. 25, 2011 – the day protests were scheduled to begin in Egypt – Al-Ahram’s front page featured an article about the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria three weeks earlier. It was a big story, but also a distracting one given what was happening that day in Cairo.
By contrast, Al-Shorouk, a prominent opposition paper in Egypt, began its coverage of protests on Jan. 25 with an article highlighting “online demonstrations” between government and opposition forces.
On Jan. 26, Al-Ahram continued the strategy of misdirection by running an article announcing that protests (“ihtijajat”) and riots (“idtirabat”) had intensified – in Beirut. The other lead stories that day were a recap of the church-bombing story and plans by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Industry to reject a major trade agreement with the U.S.
Again in contrast, Al-Shorouk’s Jan. 26 coverage began with the headline “A volcano of rage sweeps through the streets of Cairo and explodes in Tahrir Square.”
A second diversion
As I observed while living and researching in Cairo at the time and document in my book, various parties from inside and outside the country worked furiously at this time to shape public opinion about the protests. Al-Ahram got a helping hand from WikiLeaks.
On Jan. 28, as news organizations around the world were preparing to cover Egypt’s “Friday of Rage,” a massive demonstration that would feature for the first time the full manpower of the Muslim Brotherhood, WikiLeaks released a string of documents from a cache of U.S. State Department cables stolen the previous year. That batch of leaks provided useful fodder for Al-Ahram’s efforts to counter popular support for the protests.
London’s Daily Telegraph, which had just signed a deal with Julian Assange to publish portions of the leaks, ran a story with the headline “America’s secret backing for rebel leaders” in Egypt. Along with the article, the Telegraph published a “confidential” memo describing a 2009 meeting in Washington at which “several opposition forces agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections.”
Other leaked cables in that batch revealed the allocation of millions of dollars by the U.S. State Department for “pro-democracy groups” in Egypt. As American Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey told me, U.S. support for democratic activism in Egypt and elsewhere was not a secret.
Still, Al-Ahram, echoing Mubarak’s famous midnight speech to the nation on Jan. 28, published an article on Jan. 29 framing the information as evidence of a “plot.” The coverage’s content and timing appeared selected to undercut public support of the protesters, suggesting their funding and ambitions were born of U.S. interests – rather than being motivated by authentic Egyptian concerns.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak addresses his nation on Jan. 28, 2011.
WikiLeaks’ and Russian media operations continued to influence public debate in Egypt after Mubarak stepped down.
Independent numbers are hard to come by. But one recent study shows that traffic to the RT website far outpaces competing news organizations, like Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya or the U.S.-sponsored Al-Hurra.
And since its first story appeared on Bawaba Al-Ahram in April 2016, Sputnik has published nearly 700 articles, far more than other contributing services. These articles often push stories conducive to the Russian narrative that it’s winning the fight against terrorism in the region and countering forces of instability.
Egyptian politics are reverting to the days of dictatorship, with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi having just won the right to govern until 2034. This, combined with the increasing prevalence of Russian-controlled information, is likely to pull Egypt, along with Syria, Libya, the UAE, Saudia Arabia and others, deeper into the geopolitical sphere of Russia and China and farther away from the dream of democratization that was Tahrir Square.
US strikes IS-held mosque as Syria battle intensifies
By BASSEM MROUE
Tuesday, February 12
BEIRUT (AP) — The U.S. military said Tuesday it struck a mosque that had allegedly been used as an Islamic State control center, as American-allied Syrian forces battled the extremists in their last stronghold in eastern Syria amid reports of more civilian casualties.
The U.S.-led coalition said warplanes struck the mosque in the small town of Baghouz on Monday in support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. It said the airstrike occurred as IS was using the mosque to direct attacks and employ suicide car bombs against the SDF.
“This mosque lost its protected status when ISIS deliberately chose to use it as a command and control center,” said the coalition’s deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Christopher Ghika, using another acronym for the group.
Hundreds of mostly foreign IS fighters are believed to remain in Baghouz and nearby areas, where the SDF began its final push Saturday after months of fighting. IS has been fighting back with suicide car bombs, sniper fire and booby traps, and has been using civilians as human shields, slowing the U.S.-backed fighters’ advance.
Syrian state media reported that about 70 people were killed or wounded in an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition on the edge of Baghouz. It said the airstrike hit a settlement where hundreds of people were taking shelter from the fighting.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said seven children and eight women were killed late Monday in an airstrike near Baghouz. It was not immediately clear if they were referring to the same event.
Col. Sean Ryan, a coalition spokesman, said “we are aware of open source reports of alleged civilian casualties. We take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously, and understand there is a lot of misinformation as well.”
He added that “there are multiple actors conducting strikes within the area, so we are looking into it.”
Syrian government forces and their allies have in the past shelled the IS-held area. Iraqi forces have struck IS targets in Syria from across the border.
At least 20,000 civilians have fled the last sliver of IS-controlled territory in just the past few weeks. The numbers have overwhelmed Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria, where humanitarian conditions are already dire amid a cold winter and meager resources.
IS militants, who once controlled a self-styled caliphate sprawling across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq, are now besieged from the north and east by SDF fighters, and are hemmed in by the Euphrates River to the west and south. Syrian government forces and their allies are deployed on the river’s west bank.
The capture of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a devastating four-year global campaign against the extremist group. U.S. President Donald Trump has said the group is all but defeated, and announced in December that he would withdraw all American forces from Syria.
However, activists and residents in eastern Syria say the militants are still present in recaptured areas, where they are laying the groundwork for a future insurgency.
Syrian activists who closely follow the conflict said negotiations are underway between IS and the SDF to open a corridor for the extremists to leave the besieged area.
The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman and Omar Abu Laila, who runs a group that monitors developments in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, said the plan is to evacuate IS fighters into an area close to the Iraqi border.
The Observatory said the besieged IS commanders have about 40 tons of gold and cash worth millions of U.S. dollars that they hope to take with them.
The Sound and Picture organization, which reports on atrocities in IS-held areas, said an agreement for the evacuation was already reached. It said IS commanders agreed to reveal the fate of foreign hostages that were or are still held by the group and hand over some senior fighters.
The SDF spokesman was not immediately available for comment on possible negotiations.
In northern Syria, Turkish media reports said a bomb-laden vehicle exploded on the Syrian side of the Al-Rai border gate, opposite the Turkish town of Kilis. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Fresh protests in Sudan call for ouster of al-Bashir
Tuesday, February 12
CAIRO (AP) — Hundreds of demonstrators are gathering in different Sudanese cities, protesting against autocratic President Omar al-Bashir.
Tuesday’s demonstrations were called by the Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella of independent professional unions.
Video footage shows demonstrators gathering at intersections chanting “just fall,” and calling for a “people’s revolution.”
The current wave of protests began Dec. 19, initially over surging prices and a failing economy, but quickly shifted to calls for an end to al-Bashir’s three-decade rule.
Al-Bashir, who seized power in a military coup, insists that only elections, which he intends to run in, could bring change.
Activists say at least 57 people have been killed in the protests. The government’s latest tally stands at 30 killed, but figures have not been updated in days.
New diagnostic test for malaria uses spit, not blood
February 12, 2019
Sub-Saharan Africa bears the burden of the world’s malaria cases.
Author: Rhoel David Ramos Dinglasan, Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases & Director, CDC Southeastern Center of Excellence in Vector Borne Diseases, University of Florida
Disclosure statement: Rhoel David Ramos Dinglasan PhD MPH collaborates closely with ERADA Technology Alliance, Ltd.
Partners: University of Florida provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
“Spit here, please.”
Will this become the instruction we receive upon entering clinics, schools, apothecaries and ports of entry throughout the globe?
One of the main factors enabling the continued transmission of malaria are individuals who are free from symptoms but carry the malaria parasite in their blood. However, the parasite numbers in the blood are so low they cannot be detected by current diagnostic tests. Since these individuals are not sick and do not visit a clinic, the true size of this parasite reservoir in the human population is unknown.
Globalization complicates the situation further. Individuals with asymptomatic infections can now unwittingly carry malaria parasites across borders, on airplanes, ships and trucks. As individuals who carry the malaria parasite frequently move in and out of countries that are malaria-free, there is always the risk of mosquitoes biting these infected individuals, picking up the parasite and triggering local transmission of the disease.
If the parasite is in the blood and it can’t be detected, then is there hope that we can reduce global malaria by greater than 90 percent within the next 10 years? My colleagues and I at the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute have recently developed a new test that can detect evidence of the malaria parasite using saliva rather than blood.
Making it to your fifth birthday
Every two minutes, a child under the age of 5 dies from malaria. Every year, more than 400,000 deaths occur because of malaria, a disease caused by a parasite that is spread by mosquitoes and has co-evolved with human society for millennia.
Since much of the disease burden occurs in sub-Saharan Africa, it is something that those of us in developed nations seldom hear, and rarely worry about. But more than one-third of the world’s population is at risk for becoming infected.
Since 2007, the world has been engaged in a lofty endeavor to eliminate if not eradicate this disease for good. Elimination is local or regional; eradication involves eliminating the disease worldwide. As a malariologist and vector biologist working in this discipline for almost two decades, I was fortunate enough to be part of the “think tank” that informed the global malaria eradication road map.
Working in disease endemic countries in sub-Saharan Africa, I have seen the daily toll on parents as they see their children, their little baby girl or boy, succumb to this disease. I recall a particularly moving incident not too long ago, as I was chatting with a little girl outside of a clinic in Cameroon. She was the same age as my own 5-year-old daughter and the clinicians were treating her brother for malaria.
As I listened to her animated effort to speak to me in “American English,” I was suddenly overwhelmed. It was a powerful reminder of why the rest of the world cannot ignore the horrible toll this disease takes on the very young. This among many memories strengthened my conviction to keep contributing in some form to malaria eradication.
Despite the concerted global effort that has resulted in a significant decline in the number of deaths from 2 million to less than half a million each year, residual transmission of the parasite remains.
Early detection, early treatment, no malaria
An innovative diagnostic tool can now identify children infected with malaria parasites but who are not yet sick. Through early detection, public health workers can now provide early treatment and essentially prevent the symptomatic cascade towards malaria.
Current malaria diagnostic tests have a problem. That problem is blood. Every single parent who has brought their child to a health care provider knows what hell-raising howls a needle or sharp lancet will bring. For some adults, giving blood as a child causes lifelong trauma.
But why does it have to be blood? By understanding the fundamental biology of the parasite in its human host and with a bit of serendipity it became clear to me that noninvasive options for detecting the parasite exist.
After a routine six-month cleaning at the dentist, wherein the hygienist nicked me accidentally, I realized that perhaps the barrier between blood and saliva is a low one – especially if you have a gum disease called gingivitis (common in countries with poor overall health care). Was it possible, I wondered, that the parasite, secretes a molecule that we can detect in saliva? It turns out that this was indeed the case.
My team and I in Florida developed a mobile prototype of the conceptualized rapid (five- to 20-minute) test, which we describe in Science Translational Medicine. Our device uses only 10 microliters – 1/478th the volume of a teaspoon – of saliva to detect a new protein called PSSP17 that is secreted by the parasite. We tested it using the saliva of 5- to 15-year-old children in Cameroon, Zambia and Sierra Leone who are free of malaria symptoms.
The saliva test basically works like other blood-based malaria rapid diagnostic tests that have a test strip inside a plastic cassette, similar to a pregnancy test. It is important to note that the portable saliva test is almost as sensitive as a molecular diagnostic test, which are only available from a laboratory.
With commercial release anticipated over the next three years, discussions about the potential utility of this innovation as a commercial product are profound. With a saliva test just a few years away, how many more children will now be able to celebrate their fifth birthday?
Venezuelan opposition banking on protests, military backing
Tuesday, February 12
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s opposition is calling supporters into the streets across the country in a campaign to break the military’s support of President Nicolas Maduro.
Tuesday’s demonstrations come after more than a month of pressure led by opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido, while Maduro remains firmly in power and at the military’s helm.
Guaido in January declared presidential powers, calling on soldiers to reject Maduro and back a return to democracy.
He’s drawn masses into the streets for past protests.
The struggle now centers on emergency food and medicine from the United States warehoused on the Colombian border town of Cucuta.
Maduro says it’s part of a U.S.-led coup and won’t let it across the border.
He’s also calling on his own loyalists to take the streets.
Venezuela crisis explained: a tale of two presidents
Updated February 6, 2019 12.16pm EST
Author: Daniel Hellinger, Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Webster University
Disclosure statement: Daniel Hellinger does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Venezuela finds itself with two presidents engaged in a high-stakes game to control the country’s future. The country has also had two “national assemblies” and many questions about how the constitution should be applied. So, how did it find itself in this position?
President Nicolás Maduro claims to be Venezuela’s constitutional president because he won the presidential election in July 2018.
On January 23 2019, Juan Guaidó, one month after becoming president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, disputed Maduro’s legitimacy and declared the presidency vacant. He then took an oath to serve as the interim president of Venezuela.
Guaidó v Maduro
Although involved in politics since 2009, Guaidó was until recently little known outside political circles. A member of the Voluntad Popular (“Popular Will”) party, he was an understudy to Leopoldo López, the party’s leader who is currently imprisoned for allegedly encouraging violent protests seeking the ousting of Maduro.
The 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, written in the first year of the administration of former president Hugo Chávez, fulfilled a promise Chávez made in his successful 1998 presidential campaign to replace the constitution of 1991. Most Venezuelans had come to see the earlier constitution as a democratic façade, serving the interests of a corrupt, wealthy ruling elite that controlled the only two parties with any chance of winning power through elections.
Maduro was Chávez’s vice president and the clear choice to succeed Chávez after his death in March 2013, only five months after winning an election for a third term. Elections during the Chávez years were criticized by observers, such as the Carter Center, for the government favoritism in the campaigns, but most saw the vote count as honest.
Chávez won easily due to strong support among the country’s poor majority, who benefited from social programs funded by the country’s oil bounty – which, before Chávez, had mostly gone to the wealthy and middle class.
Maduro’s unusual elections
The Maduro era has seen more questions arise about the fairness of campaigns, but also about official results. Despite Chavez’s blessing, Maduro barely won the special election to replace the deceased leader, winning only 50.6% of the vote.
Maduro’s political standing plunged further in mid-2014 when the price of oil, which can vary from 20 to 40% of GDP in any given year, collapsed, falling from US$130 to US$30 per barrel in late 2015.
In December 2015 Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) suffered a severe defeat in the National Assembly elections of December 2015. The opposition won a super majority of seats, enough to undo the programs of the Chávez era. Much of the opposition had participated in a failed coup in 2002 and never accepted the 1999 constitution – but all now embraced it as a tool to try to remove Maduro.
They gathered enough signatures to force a recall election upon Maduro, but the PSUV used delaying tactics to ensure that an opposition win would result in the vice president taking over. The recall effort faded away.
The opposition-controlled National Assembly began to act to slow or end Chavez’s programs and to limit Maduro’s power. The country’s Supreme Court, filled with PSUV appointees, used a dispute over the election of three assembly deputies to rule that the body was unconstitutionally abusing its power and threatened to close the unicameral Congress down.
A legislature stripped of its powers
Maduro instead decided to convene a new National Constituent Assembly (NCA) to rewrite the constitution and create what Chávez himself had called the “communal state”. This state would theoretically shift much power over policies and state spending (generated almost entirely by oil exports) to local and regional citizens’ councils.
To do this, Maduro used a vague phrase in Article 348 of the constitution that says: “The initiative for calling a National Constituent Assembly may emanate from the President of the Republic sitting with the Cabinet of Ministers.”
The opposition refused to participate in the election (turnout was 41%) of delegates to the NCA – as a result it is almost entirely composed of Maduro supporters. On August 8 2017 the NCA took legislative powers for itself, away from the National Assembly, under Article 349 of the existing constitution, which is intended to avoid obstruction of a constitutional assembly’s work.
Venezuela’s electoral authorities scheduled the May 2018 presidential election half a year early. Though constitutional, the timing made it difficult for the deeply divided opposition to choose its candidate. A large faction boycotted the vote; another backed a candidate, the governor of an important state.
Maduro won with 67.8%. The turnout was 46.7%, low by Venezuelan standards. Maduro claims this election makes him the legitimate president and accuses the opposition, the United States and other foreign governments of fomenting a coup.
Guaidó claims to be the constitutional interim president after the National Assembly declared the presidency to be “vacant” under Article 233 of the constitution, which allows for an interim president to replace a sitting president “upon abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly”.
Guaidó defends his action as a constitutional route out of the country’s economic and political crises – and his move has been endorsed by much of the mainstream news media in liberal democracies. Maduro has highlighted that he won an election – and Guaidó has not. Guaidó promised he would call elections once he has actual control of government.
Why did both presidents try so hard to justify their status as “constitutional” when almost everyone agrees the military holds the keys to power? For one thing, many in the military feel it’s their job to uphold the constitution. And both sides wanted to appeal to international public opinion.
Both sides wanted the support of Venezuelans in the poor urban neighborhoods and countryside, who see the 1999 constitution as guaranteeing their right, won under Chavez, to be politically included in determining the country’s future.
This article was originally published in Spanish.