What We're Watching: A Syrian Pandora's Box

What We're Watching: A Syrian Pandora's Box

Dangerous Chaos in Syria – Turkey's military move into northern Syria had two stated goals: to push Kurdish fighters inside Syria further from Turkey's border and to create a "safe zone" inside Syria in which Turkey could place up to two million Syrian refugees currently living in camps inside Turkey. But the Kurds have now allied with Syria's army, which is backed by Russia, and these forces are now moving north into that same territory toward Turkish troops and Arab militias backed by Ankara. Meanwhile, large numbers of ISIS fighters and their families have escaped prisons where Kurds had held them captive. Turkey's President Erdogan vows to press ahead with his operation until "ultimate victory is achieved." Pandora's Box is now wide open.


Orban's Urban Rebuke – Viktor Orban's Fidesz party outperformed all others in Sunday's local elections across Hungary, but opposition candidates made headlines by winning control of Budapest, the country's capital, and ten of Hungary's 23 large cities. The fiercely nationalistic Orban, who prides himself on building an "illiberal democracy," remains hugely popular in rural areas, and we're watching to see if he responds to this setback in the cities by tightening his grip on the country's media and pushing for changes to Hungary's constitution to further centralize power. We're also watching to see how an emboldened opposition might respond.

Ecuador's Lingering Money Problems – In a deal to end nearly two weeks of violent protests, the Ecuadoran government agreed late Sunday to cancel cuts to fuel subsidies. The protests began after President Lenin Moreno ordered the government to stop subsidizing gasoline and diesel sales as part of a plan to stabilize Ecuador's finances by securing $4 billion in emergency funding from the International Monetary Fund. Protesters have gone home (for now), but oil-exporting Ecuador remains stuck with the same basic problem: lavish government spending plans rolled out during boom times are no longer sustainable now that oil prices are lower and the economy has slowed. What's more, the government is saddled with several billion dollars of outstanding loans to China. We're watching to see how President Moreno squares this circle – which requires a mix of unpopular spending cuts and tax hikes – without touching off more unrest.

Tunisia's Outsider Must Now Work Inside – An austere, stiff, and formerly little-known law professor has won Tunisia's presidential election in a striking rebuke to the country's mainstream political parties. Kais Saied, an independent who ran a deliberately low-profile campaign, defeated charismatic populist media tycoon Nabil Karoui by as much as fifty points, according to exit polls. High turnout showed that Tunisians clearly want something better after a decade of dysfunctional post-Arab Spring governments. Saied won't have it easy. Tunisia's presidency has few formal powers and the party that backed Saied in the runoff – the Islamist Ennahda – has the most seats in Parliament but will have trouble forming a government. And so Saied, who lacks a party of his own, now faces a problem familiar to many outsider candidates: how to work within a system that he was elected to overhaul.

What We're Ignoring

Vietnam's Ban on the New Yeti Movie – The Vietnamese government has banned screenings of DreamWorks' animated blockbuster, Abominable, the story of a Chinese girl who finds a yeti living on her roof. Why? Vietnam is angry that the film contains a map showing a controversial U-shaped dotted line that indicates China's claims over large portions of the oil-rich South China Sea. The so-called "nine-dash line" is a regular maritime feature on Chinese maps, but other countries bordering the sea, like Vietnam, reject Beijing's claims. We're ignoring this controversy because Vietnam's ban won't change the movie or the politics of the South China Sea—and because we like animated yeti movies.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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28: The UK and the EU have again failed to agree on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. In a 28-page document, the British government had suggested further changes to trade rules that were already negotiated as part of the Brexit settlement, but Brussels was not having any of it.

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