World Briefing, February 2013
An explosion has rocked the headquarters of Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Mexico’s state-owned oil company, killing at least 25 people and injuring over 101 others. As of February 1st, the cause of the explosion is still unknown, and early indications seem to point to negligence rather than a terrorist attack. There are several unconfirmed reports that employees were evacuated before the explosion owing to a problem with the building’s electrical system.
If negligence is confirmed to be the cause, the February 1st explosion could come to weigh heavily on the future of Pemex. The company has developed somewhat of a reputation for being bloated, inefficient, and corrupt in the eyes of many Mexicans, largely due to a seemingly never-ending string of high profile pipeline and refinery accidents. This negative image, along with a steadily decreasing oil production output, led Mexican President Enrique Nieto to announce last December that he intends to privatize parts of the Mexican energy industry. The HQ explosion could very well provide a new impetus to the process.
Canada has contributed a small contingent to the ongoing French-led military operation in Mali. The Canadian contribution comes in the form of a C-17 Globemaster III and 40 troops to support the transport plane’s operations. This announcement comes on the heels of a CBC report claiming that Canadian special forces have been deployed in Mali to protect the Canadian embassy in Bamako.
United States (Economic)
Surprising economic data out of the United States has indicated that the economy contracted at an annualized rate of 0.1 percent in the last three months of 2012. The shock contraction exposed a U.S. recovery that is extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in government spending; even with an “unlimited” Federal Reserve QE program in full swing. Declining European economic fortunes has been cited as another factor dragging on U.S. exports.
French military operations in Mali are proceeding at a steady clip. French and African forces have captured major cities such as Konna, Diabaly, Lere, Gao, and Timbuktu in their push northward. As of February 1st, troops are about to enter Kidal, the final urban stronghold of Islamists in Mali. Although the operation has produced an upsurge of goodwill in both Mali and France, fears remain that Islamists have simply melted into the countryside in preparation for a more protracted guerilla campaign. For more details, refer the latest GPM Backgrounder.
Egypt has once more descended into riots and street violence, this time following the harsh sentencing of 21 people who participated in a Port Said last year.
Though the sentencing served as a catalyst, Egypt’s problems run far deeper than a year-old soccer riot. Both sides of the political divide are unwilling to come together and compromise. The Morsi government continues to act in a heavy-handed way, targeting the judiciary and intimidating segments of the media. Liberal and secular opposition groups on the other hand are not accepting the legitimacy of Morsi’s rule, and in doing so they forego any opportunity to cooperate with the government. The net result of this political deadlock is widespread disenchantment in the general population and a growing street war between armed elements claiming to represent both sides. This is a dangerous situation that could fast devolve into anarchy, something that comes as no surprise to Abel Fatah al-Sissi, Egypt’s defense minister, who said last week that he fears a coming state collapse if something doesn’t change soon.
Despite months of standoffs, diplomatic rebukes, harsh words, and protests, Japan’s newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated a willingness to meet Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart. According to reports, the possibility of a summit was suggested by Abe by way of a letter presented to Xi by a Japanese politician visiting China. President Xi has responded that he would “seriously consider” the offer. Both sides have indicated that they would not be willing to negotiate on the status of the Senkaku Islands should a summit actually take place.
The government of Burma has announced a unilateral ceasefire and a new round of talks with Kachin rebels. The last ceasefire between the two sides broke down in 2011, when a bitter of fighting broke out. However, early reports indicate that this latest ceasefire has only produced a halt of airstrikes on the region. Mortar and RPG attacks have continued, and by some accounts even intensified, since the ceasefire was announced last week. If the last Kachin stronghold of Laiza falls, then it will undoubtedly produce large refugee flows into China, a possibility that the Chinese government claims it’s well prepared for.
The Israeli Air Force carried out an airstrike in Syrian territory on Wednesday January 30th, and it remains to be seen what the exact repercussions will be. While Israeli official channels have remained silent on the strike, its location would suggest that it might have been targeting a weapons convoy on its way to Lebanon. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the trucks might have been carrying Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which would have substantially boosted Hezbollah’s ability to deal with Israeli air power.
The Syrian government has delivered a letter to the United Nations, declaring its right to self-defence in the face of Israeli aggression. But it’s highly doubtful that the Syrian government would attack Israel and shift any military resources away from its fight with rebel forces in the north.
In other Syria news, the first of six NATO Patriot missile batteries in Turkey has become operational. When the deployment is complete, six batteries will protect three southeastern Turkish cities from missile attacks originating in Syria.
It’s possible that Europe might be sitting on a massive reservoir of shale gas similar to the one that’s pulling the United States towards energy self-sufficiency. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Europe has around 75 trillion cubic metres of shale gas, or the equivalent of a 39 year supply. If large scale extraction were ever to begin taking place, the big loser would be Russia, which currently provides Europe with most of its natural gas imports.
Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com