Insight and analysis on stories from across the world by Foreign Editor David Pratt

United States: Shootings and political inaction a tragic rhythm to American life

It has become grimly familiar. Even far from the United States, the place names still resonate: Columbine, Blacksburg, Sandy Hook, Roseburg, Charleston, Buffalo and now Uvalde Texas.

As one New York Times (NYT) journalist observed in the wake of last week’s shooting at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School in which 19 children and two teachers died, “at some pointin the past decade or so, our response to mass shootings turned into a series of memes.”

Writing in last Thursday’s edition of the paper the same NYT columnist, Jay Caspian Kang, tapped into the frustration felt my many Americans at what they see as the echo chamber response to such tragedies.

“As the body count rises, the same, recycled tweets, Instagram posts and fiery speeches from the last massacre make their dutiful rounds through online spaces,” noted Kang.

As ever the same plaintive questions too are asked as to how and why it happened and what can be done?

The inescapable reality remains however that such questions will continue to be asked over and again for as long as the US Congress refuses to enact the long overdue gun safety reform that so many Americans now want.

That their country seems as far away as ever from implementing such measures is underlined by the fact that this very weekend, the largest and most influential US gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is holding its annual meeting in Houston Texas.

At precisely the same time as the NRA gathers for its annual jamboree, barely a four-hour drive away, families in the small town of Uvalde are preparing to bury their children and loved ones who were shot dead by18-year-old gunman Salvador Ramos. This in a single encapsulation is the polarising contradiction and dilemma the US faces.

Any reasonably minded person might expect the NRA to cancel the event. But such is the promise to the 55,000 attendees as proclaimed on conference banners that they can expect “14 acres of guns and gear,” and a raffle to win an item from the “Wall of Guns” that the NRA have vowed to press on.

“We’re full steam ahead,” insisted one vendor, who declined to give his name when speaking to journalists as he carried his ‘wares’ into the convention centre the day after the shooting in Uvalde.

Business is business it would seem to such people, who will tell you – correctly – that Americans bought nearly 20 million guns in 2021. They don’t say much however about the more than 20,000 gun-deaths, not counting suicides, which are even more numerous, and 693 shootings that resulted in four or more injuries across the country.

Money is one thing, politics the other that keeps America’s devastating weapons culture thriving with the gun lobby in the shape of the NRA stuffing huge sums of cash in the Republican Party’s coffers over the years.

No surprises then that this year’s NRA event is being headlined by former president Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans including Texas senator Ted Cruz and the state’s governor, Greg Abbott.

More and more you can’t put a piece of tissue paper between the gun lobby and the GOP’s peddling of the same message that there is an existential threat to the US and the world and that the bearing or arms is crucial to surviving such a threat.

Such a partnership makes for a ‘perfect storm’ enabling unchecked gun ownership and the resultant mass shootings that invariably comes with it.

But it’s not just hardcore gun advocates or certain Republican politicians that share a measure of responsibility here. American voters across the board seem torn on gun control.

Yes, some 84 per cent according to one major poll -Morning Consult/Politico - taken last year show 84% of citizens support universal background checks for gun purchases. But when asked about stricter guns laws in general opinions waver.

So, will the latest shooting in Uvalde result in legislative action? One would like to think so, but that’s unlikely say many observers including political analyst Ronald Brownstein a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine.

“Gun control is one of many issues in which majority opinion in the nation runs into the brick wall of a Senate rule - the filibuster - that provides a veto over national policy to a minority of the states, most of them small, largely rural, preponderantly white, and dominated by Republicans,” explained Brownstein last week.

And so, it goes on, as Congress does nothing and this tragic rhythm to American life continues to play out.

Ukraine: Battle for the Donbas suggests shift in war’s momentum

It’s hard to escape the feeling that the war in Ukraine is entering a crucial and even more bloody phase. Regular readers of this column might remember that some months ago I wrote of how much would hinge on the battle for the Donbas region in the east of the country.

Since then and over the past month especially, Russia has stepped up its offensive there having abandoned its attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv early in May.

The advance of Russian forces in the Donbas has raised fears that cities in the region would undergo the same horrors inflicted on the people of the port city Mariupol in the weeks before it fell.

Right now, thousands of Russian troops are attacking from three sides to try to encircle Ukrainian forces in two key cities: Sievierodonetsk and nearby Lysychansk. If these two cities fall, nearly all the Donbas province of Luhansk would be under Russian control.

“Russia has the advantage, but we are doing everything we can,” General Oleksiy Gromov, deputy chief of the main operations department of Ukraine's general staff told Reuters news agency a few days ago.

Since then, punishing artillery strikes have broken much of the Ukrainian defences around Sievierodonetsk, the area where “the greatest activity of hostilities is taking place”, according to the Ukrainian army.

The battle for Sievierodonetsk starkly illustrates the way the fighting is likely to continue in the coming months as it moves into a grinding war of attrition where the decisive factors will be the size of each force and how well equipped they are, say western officials and analysts.

Some maintain that the battle for the two cities could even be a potential turning point in the war, now that Russia has redefined its principal objective as capturing the east.

There is certainly a greater sense of urgency coming from Ukrainian officials right now, whose pleas for supplies of western weapons, especially long-range artillery, has reached a new pitch. Could it be that what we are seeing is a shift in momentum in the war moving for the first time in Russia’s favour?

“Recent Russian gains offer a sobering check on expectations for the near term,” tweeted defence analyst Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the US-based CNA think-tank last week.

His comment hints at the unease among many in the West as to the potential direction in which the war might now be heading. Faced with possible Ukrainian battlefield losses pressure has grown on the US and other Western countries to concede to Kyiv’s pleas for more weaponry especially long-range rocket systems which Washington looks set to provide.

The risks in providing such weapons capable of hitting Russian territory are obvious and already Moscow has warned that such a move would be a “serious step towards unacceptable escalation”.

Then again, the risk that by not supplying what Ukraine asks for could see Russian forces build on their momentum is an even more unpalatable thought to Ukraine’s Western allies.

Colombia: Prospect of leftist election win spooks Colombian elites and the US

It’s an election widely seen as the most important in the country’s recent history. As Colombia goes to the polls today to vote in the first round of a highly contested presidential election the race until now has been dominated by two candidates that have grown to represent the political and social divisions that split the polarised South American country.

The front-runner is Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerrilla, economist and politician whose anti - establishment message is resonating with voters to whom he has promised to decrease inequality and poverty.

Polls would suggest that Petro has a good chance of defeating key rival conservative civil engineer Federico “Fico” Gutierrez, who though trailing Petro is attracting the support of many right-wing Colombians as well as the country’s political establishment, which fears what electing a leftist could mean.

They are not the only ones wary of a potential Petro win. The US which views Colombia as its closet ally in South America and given $10bn of military assistance since 2000, is also looking on with trepidation.

Part of the reason is that Petro when only 19 years old was once a member of the leftist M-19 guerrilla movement and Washington fears that some of his ideas might still hark back to those years of his youthful radicalism.

Colombia is the only major country in the region that has never elected a left-wing president though Petro has come close to office once before back in 2018 when he ran against current conservative incumbent President Ivan Duque Marquez who now has a disapproval rating of 75 per cent.

“Never before have Colombians been this open to giving the far left an opportunity to govern,” says Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis. “The left has been working towards this moment for decades. This is their clearest opportunity,”Guzman was quoted recently by the Financial Times as saying.

Petro who rejects the label of socialist firebrand has topped the polls all year, with more than 40 per cent of voters saying they will cast their vote for him

With polls suggesting no candidate will win more than 50 per cent of the vote a runoff on June 19 is almost certain. Currently the most pressing concern is what will happen right after the vote. Already Petro and his vice-presidential candidate, Francia Marquez, an Afro-Colombian have received death threats. In a country that has had more than its share of violence these past decades that’s the last thing most Colombians want.

Somalia: America redeploys to counter Islamist terror threat

Al-Qaeda, remember them? It’s strange how a terror group that was once on everybody’s lips seems to have dropped entirely off the global radar. But don’t think for a minute the threat they once posed has totally gone away.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the long-beleaguered Horn of Africa country of Somalia, where the al-Qaeda linked al- Shabab is described as “bigger, stronger, and bolder,”according to US Africa Command officials.

In a country already facing devastating hunger after rains failed for four consecutive seasons, causing the worst drought in 40 years the last thing Somalia needs is a resurgence of the Islamist inspired terror group. That however appears to be what is happening.

Following the election win on May 15 of Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud his US counterpart Joe Biden authorised approximately 500 US special operations forces personnel to redeploy to Somalia.

In a notable reversal of the Trump administration’s December 2020 withdrawal of the 700 troops stationed in the country, the move is seen as a necessary measure to counter the growing influence of Al-Shabab. Slowly over the past few years the terrorist group had seized more territory and taken advantage of rifts among security personnel stepping up attacks in the country.

Earlier this month, it overran an African Union (AU) forward operating base about 100 miles from the capital of Mogadishu, killing up to an estimated 30 peacekeepers in a bitter firefight.

Described by US Africa Command chief Gen. Stephen Townsend as the “largest, wealthiest, and most lethally active arm of al-Qaeda,” the attack was just the latest incident prompting America to deploy troops again in the country.

Speaking to Foreign Policy magazine recently Townsend also described how in early May al-Shabab released a video calling for lone-wolf attacks in the US and jihad against Americans and Westerners globally.

“That’s only a couple of weeks ago,” Townsend said. “So clearly they have the intent, and they’re saying it loudly and publicly, and we should pay attention.”

Some analysts including Ido Levy the American counter-terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, say that the US redeployment is “a tacit acknowledgement that the Biden administration-touted approach of striking terrorist groups without any boots on the ground will just not cut it.”

But only time will tell whether the fresh US presence will make a different in curtailing al- Shabab which to date has shown itself more than capable of surviving outside military pressure.