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Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • Hope you had a lovely week since we last saw one another. We're starting in Ethiopia tonight before swinging through Iran, Australia, Belarus and more (1,715 words, 6 minutes).
  • What would you like to read about? Just hit reply and let me know.

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1 big thing: Ethiopia's Abiy declares victory in Tigray conflict

Abiy addresses parliament today. Photo: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP via Getty

Ethiopia's army on Saturday stormed into Mekelle, a regional capital that had been controlled by a renegade political faction, leading Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare victory after three weeks of fighting in the northern region of Tigray.

Why it matters: The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has vowed to fight on, raising the prospect of an insurgency. The warring parties are exchanging allegations of war crimes and even genocide.

The big picture: Abiy ordered the offensive on Nov. 5 after a two-year power struggle with the TPLF, a rebel group turned political party.

  • The TPLF controls Tigray and was also the most powerful faction in national politics before Abiy took power in 2018.
  • Abiy sidelined the TPLF as he set out to liberalize and centralize Ethiopian politics.
  • Abiy's reforms were applauded internationally and by many Ethiopians, but they also met sharp resistance — particularly in Tigray, which is home to around 5 million of Ethiopia's 110 million people.

Tensions grew after Abiy postponed national elections in August, citing COVID-19.

  • Tigrayan authorities declared that Abiy had overstayed his mandate and defied him by proceeding with their own regional elections in September.
  • The standoff continued to escalate until the TPLF allegedly attacked an Ethiopian army base. Abiy then announced his offensive.

Driving the news: After federal troops reached Mekelle last week, Abiy and his generals vowed to use whatever force was necessary to take the city of 500,000 people. Days later, they appeared to do so with little resistance.

  • TPLF-aligned fighters appear to have "melted into the civilian population and hide-outs elsewhere in the state," per the WSJ. Their leaders — now in hiding and targeted by a manhunt — insist they'll retake the city.

What they're saying: William Davison of the International Crisis Group said this appears to be "the end of the phase of conventional conflict." Now the federal government will be tasked with restoring order and installing a provisional government.

  • It's unclear how strong the resistance will be, both from the TPLF and from local populations, he noted.
  • Samuel Getachew, a reporter based in Addis Ababa, compared Abiy's declaration of victory to George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech on Iraq in 2003.

Where things stand: More than 43,000 people have fled Tigray to Sudan to escape the fighting. The casualties are almost certainly in the thousands, though a total communications blackout makes it very difficult to verify claims from either side.

  • The reports that have emerged are grim. At least 600 civilians were massacred due to their ethnicities in the town of Mai-Kadra on Nov. 9, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which said Tigrayan youths carried out the attack aided by local authorities.
  • Meanwhile, some refugees arriving in Sudan from Tigray have described indiscriminate killing by federal soldiers against Tigrayans.

The latest: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he urged dialogue and a "complete end to the fighting" in a call today with Abiy.

  • Jake Sullivan, the incoming national security adviser to Joe Biden, has also called for dialogue and expressed concern over "potential war crimes."
  • Abiy has insisted the conflict will be resolved without international mediation.
2. An assassination, and 50 tense days ahead

The funeral ceremony in Tehran. Photo: Iranian Defense Ministry via Getty

Iranian leaders are weighing their response to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, known as the father of Iran’s military nuclear program, who was given a state funeral today in Tehran.

The big picture: Iran has accused Israel of carrying out Friday’s attack, but senior leaders have suggested that they’ll choose patience over an immediate escalation that could play into the hands of the Israelis and the outgoing Trump administration.

  • Still, some sort of Iranian response is likely in the coming weeks — as are further provocations from Israel or the U.S.

Background: The attack on Fakhrizadeh was preceded by a flurry of meetings between anti-Iran leaders — including one involving Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

  • An increasingly cohesive anti-Iran axis — consisting of Israel and several Gulf countries — has sent clear signals to the incoming Biden administration that it will oppose any attempts to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been attempting to block Biden’s path back to the deal by stoking tensions and piling on new sanctions, aided by Israel.
  • What to watch: Biden says the U.S. will return to the deal (which would require lifting sanctions) if Iran returns to compliance, but Fakhrizadeh’s killing could make a swift pivot to U.S.-Iran diplomacy much more challenging.

Zoom out: With 50 days left between now and Biden’s inauguration, governments across the Middle East are preparing for a post-Trump world.

  • Saudi Arabia is seeking a deal to end its three-year blockade of Qatar, hoping to remove one irritant in relations with Biden that are already likely to be tense, per the FT. Jared Kushner is traveling to both countries in an effort to seal such a deal, Axios’ Barak Ravid reports.
  • Palestinian leaders have ended a boycott of coordination with Israel as part of a charm offensive to encourage Biden to roll back Trump’s policies, Barak reports.
  • And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sent early signals he’ll attempt to put past friction with Biden aside and seek a pragmatic relationship.
3. Global news roundup

Protests in Paris on Saturday over the draft security law. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty

1. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology and said China’s government should be "utterly ashamed" after a senior official tweeted a doctored image showing an Australian soldier killing an Afghan child.

Background: The tweet referred to an inspector general's report about war crimes allegedly committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. But the hawkish messages from China toward Australia didn’t start there.

  • China has placed tariffs on key Australian exports like wine in response to what it claims are hostile policies from Canberra.
  • Australia’s primary offense appears to have been a call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, but China has listed 13 other grievances. They include the exclusion of Huawei from Australia’s 5G networks and critical press coverage of China.

Why it matters: Australia is deeply reliant on trade with China. So are many countries around the world who will see this as a reminder from Beijing to toe the line.

  • The hardline approach isn’t winning China any fans in Australia. Trust in China to “act responsibly in the world” has fallen to 23% from 52% over two years, per the Lowy Institute.

2. Longtime Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko said Friday that he would step down after a new constitution comes into force.

  • Between the lines: Lukashenko has not held onto power for 26 years by accident, and he's unlikely to simply fade away now — at least not willingly. He’s slow-walked the constitutional reform process so far amid three months of protests.
  • What to watch: Russia may be trying to shuffle Lukashenko aside in favor of a more pliable and less politically toxic president.

3. French President Emmanuel Macron’s party today backed off a proposal to restrict the filming of police officers in order to protect their identities.

  • The proposal sparked mass protests, particularly as it coincided with the publication of a video showing police officers beating a Black music producer in his office.
  • The proposed security law won’t be dropped, but the wording will be changed.
4. One to watch: Tussle for leadership of Human Rights Council

Fiji's nominee, Nazhat Shameem Khan. Photo: Alice Chiche/AFP via Getty

A last-minute nomination to lead the UN Human Rights Council appears to be part of an effort by authoritarian countries to preempt the incoming Biden administration's efforts to rally international attention to human rights abuses, the NYT reports.

Background: The Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the council in 2018, citing anti-Israel bias, and removed human rights as a core consideration in U.S. foreign policy.

  • But Biden is expected to both re-engage with international forums and emphasize human rights — a major concern for countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
  • According to the NYT, those countries are believed to have helped engineer a twist three days before nominations for the council's presidency closed.

Driving the news: Fiji seemed to have the post sewn up. Then Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, unexpectedly put itself forward.

  • Between the lines: "Fiji has backed investigations into reported abuses in Venezuela, Belarus, Syria and Yemen — the sort of country-specific resolutions that have been fiercely denounced by China and others," the NYT notes.
5. What I'm reading: Obama's take on world leaders

Two pals, in 2016. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

I spent much of the long weekend working my way through Barack Obama's memoir, "A Promised Land."

This volume only runs through mid-2011, but it does include portraits of several leaders who remain on the world stage:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is described as "steady, honest, intellectually rigorous, and instinctually kind." She's skilled at lowering tensions and securing compromises.

  • She's also portrayed as extraordinarily cautious — initially suspicious of the flashier Obama, resistant to any drastic action during the eurozone crisis, and at one point eyeing her overexcited French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy "the way a mother eyes an unruly child."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is "smart, canny, tough, and a gifted communicator."

  • Having "built his entire political persona around an image of strength and the message that Jews couldn't afford phony pieties," Netanyahu felt he could "justify almost anything that would keep him in power."
  • In describing negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama makes clear his suspicions of Netanyahu’s intentions.

UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed is "sophisticated, close to the Saudis, and perhaps the savviest leader in the Gulf."

  • In a "calm and cold" voice, he told Obama in 2011 that Washington's abandonment of ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak meant "the United States is not a partner we can rely on in the long term."

Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, carried himself with the "practiced disinterest" of "someone who'd grown accustomed to power" and was sensitive to perceived slights.

  • In their first meeting, Putin launched into what seemed to Obama to be a rehearsed diatribe covering years of American overreach and betrayal.
  • Putin was "genuinely popular," Obama notes, with an appeal based on "old-fashioned nationalism."
  • Yes, but: "It was this gap between the truth of modern-day Russia and Putin's insistence on its superpower status ... that accounted for the country's increasingly combative foreign relations," Obama writes.
6. One disturbing story: Online conspiracy theory turns into real-world threat

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Three prominent Chinese activists in the U.S. recently found their homes surrounded by anonymous protesters who accused them of spying for the Chinese Communist Party, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports.

The intrigue: The protesters appeared to be supporters of an anti-CCP movement led by Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire living in exile in the U.S., and former White House adviser Steve Bannon.

What's happening: The trouble began in September, when Guo made a video denouncing a long list of well-known Chinese dissidents as supposed CCP spies.

  • Among the names he mentioned were Bob Fu, Wu Jianmin and Guo Baosheng (no relation to Guo Wengui), all longtime U.S. residents who fled China amid government repression.
  • All three faced weeks of protests outside their homes. They all said they had no idea why Guo would make allegations against them, or where the protesters had come from.

Go deeper.

7. Stories we're watching

Soccer on a pier, on Koh Yao Yai island, Thailand. Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty

  1. Biden weighs retired Gen. Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief
  2. Berlin to open six mass COVID vaccination centers
  3. Israel on track for early elections
  4. Remote work shakes up geopolitics
  5. Scotland becomes first nation to make period products free
  6. China's Xi congratulates Biden on election win
  7. Map: World population density in 3D

Quoted:

“It was scored a little bit with the head of Diego and a little with the hand of God.”
— Diego Maradona (1960–2020) on one of his most famous goals