World roundup: April 13 2021

Stories from Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Mali, and more

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Ramadan Kareem to those who are observing it!

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

April 12, 1204: The army of the Fourth Crusade sacks Constantinople, temporarily eliminating the Byzantine Empire.

April 12, 1861: Batteries from the new “Provisional Forces of the Confederate States” open fire on Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, kicking off the American Civil War. The garrison commander, Major Robert Anderson, agreed to surrender and evacuate the fort the following day. Two US soldiers were killed the day after that when some ammunition in the fort exploded during a ceremonial salute to the US flag, but they were the only two fatalities connected with the battle. The fort remained in Confederate hands until they evacuated it in 1865 during William T. Sherman’s war-ending Carolinas Campaign.

April 13, 1953: Central Intelligence Agency director Allen Dulles orders the creation of Project MKUltra, a program for human experimentation into “mind control” drugs and techniques. Among its more unsavory components were experiments in which human subjects, often pulled involuntarily from prisons and mental institutions, were dosed with drugs (LSD in particular), usually without their consent. These experiments were conducted on US citizens but also surreptitiously on people overseas in places that came under US control after World War II. Some of the techniques it tested eventually found their way into the Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” (torture) program, and it has spawned innumerable conspiracy theories since its revelation in the post-Watergate environment of the 1970s.

April 13, 1975: An attack by Christian Phalangist militia fighters on a bus carrying Palestinian fighters and civilians in eastern Beirut triggers the Lebanese Civil War.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for April 13:

  • 138,006,932 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (24,007,956 active, +735,486 since yesterday)

  • 2,971,238 reported fatalities (+12,848 since yesterday)

  • For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 20,435 confirmed coronavirus cases (+104)

  • 1392 reported fatalities (+7)

Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad fired his central bank governor, Hazem Qarfoul, on Tuesday. State media offered no details as to why Qarfoul lost his job but if I had to guess I would say it has something to do with the fact that the Syrian pound was trading at around 50 per US dollar ten years ago and now it’s trading at around 3100 per dollar. This move seems a bit like sacking the Titanic’s chief purser after the ship has already cracked in half, but presumably Assad thinks he can hold Qarfoul out as a scapegoat to Syrians who are unhappy that their money is now essentially worthless.

JORDAN

  • 672,090 confirmed cases (+2790)

  • 7937 reported fatalities (+82)

Foreign Policy’s Anchal Vohra suggests that at the heart of the alleged (but probably overhyped or outright invented) coup attempt against Jordanian King Abdullah II lies a real, growing disenchantment with his rule:

According to Reporters Without Borders, Jordan ranks 128th out of 180 nations—below Afghanistan—in press freedom. Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, demoted Jordan’s status from “partly free” to “not free” in the last year. Abdullah’s Jordan is not Syria or even Saudi Arabia—yet—but those who disagree with the state run the risk of a knock on the door from the intelligence services.

No one believes Abdullah intends on meaningful political reforms, and his economic reforms have produced more allegations of corruption than positive economic results. He unleashed austerity measures to procure loans from the international community and went on a privatization drive that some international observers applauded. But these measures came at the cost of losing support from the kingdom’s tribes.

Tariq Tell, a professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut and an expert on Jordanian politics, noted that the nationalist tribes had been critical of the neoliberal economic reforms that had come to dominate policymaking under the king. “The networks of East Bank tribes have been eroding since the privatization drive,” he said. “Their children are not getting the same jobs and benefits.” As their share of the pie, state jobs, and benefits shrank and discontent set in, Hamzah saw an opportunity to curry favor with this traditional support base. He began reaching out to tribal figures, making appearances at weddings and funerals.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 836,334 confirmed cases (+176) in Israel, 272,767 confirmed cases (+1911) in Palestine

  • 6309 reported fatalities (+5) in Israel, 2901 reported fatalities (+18) in Palestine

An Israeli commercial vessel was reportedly attacked off the UAE coast on Tuesday, with Israeli media quickly suggesting it was struck by an Iranian missile. The vessel, a vehicle carrier, was heading from Kuwait to the Emirati port of Fujairah. There’s no report of any casualties and the ship was apparently able to continue to its destination despite whatever happened to it. Aside from Sunday’s attack on Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz (see below), which was probably an Israeli operation, Iran and Israel have been attacking each other’s ships in the Persian Gulf region, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean with increasing frequency. This is the third Israeli ship allegedly attacked in this fashion in the past two months.

Israel’s Haaretz media outlet (which is paywalled, so I’m citing it secondhand) is reporting that right-wing political boss Naftali Bennett will bring his Yamina Party and its seven Knesset seats into Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, leaving the prime minister with 59 seats, a tantalizing two away from a majority. He could nab an additional four seats with the support (though probably not full participation) of the Islamist United Arab List, whose leader, Mansour Abbas, has expressed openness to backing a Netanyahu-led government. But he would risk losing the Religious Zionist Party and its six seats, as party leader Bezalel Smotrich has said he will not participate in a coalition supported by an Arab party.

It’s unclear what Abbas might want in return for his support and whether there’s any way to make his demands and Smotrich’s red lines compatible. Netanyahu has until May 2 to figure it all out before somebody else (probably centrist Yair Lapid) could get a crack at forming a government, though he can appeal to President Reuven Rivlin to grant him two more weeks for talks beyond that. It’s tempting to predict that Netanyahu will find a way to bridge the gap, but he’s been close to cobbling together a coalition before and, well, there’s a reason March’s election was the fourth Israel has had to hold in less than two years.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

  • 487,697 confirmed cases (+2022)

  • 1537 reported fatalities (+4)

The Biden administration has reportedly told Congress that it intends to follow through on a battery of advanced arms sales to the UAE, including the F-35 aircraft and armed Reaper drones. What could go wrong, really. The sales are the UAE’s prize for having agreed to normalize relations with Israel under the so-called “Abraham Accords.” The State Department intends to “continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials” with respect to how these weapons are put to use, and gosh that really ought to be enough to make sure the Emiratis don’t do anything bad with them.

IRAN

  • 2,118,212 confirmed cases (+24,760)

  • 65,055 reported fatalities (+291)

Apparently in response to the incident at their Natanz uranium enrichment facility over the weekend, Iranian officials have decided to begin enriching uranium to the 60 percent level. They’re reportedly going to begin preparations for 60 percent enrichment at the Natanz facility immediately, though it may be some time before they can begin actual enrichment. The head of the Iranian parliament’s research office, Alireza Zakani, suggested to state media on Tuesday that the damage was considerable, virtually shutting down enrichment activity at Natanz. That’s the most concrete information any Iranian official has offered in terms of severity, and if true it could take some time to bring the facility back online.

As to the seriousness of this decision, it’s complicated. Obviously 60 percent sounds a lot closer to the 90+ percent enrichment needed for weapons grade uranium or the 80+ percent that could be used in a primitive Hiroshima-type atomic device. But in terms of the amount of centrifuge time and effort, Iran’s decision to go from around five percent to 20 percent was considerably more momentous. In truth, the hardest step in enriching uranium is getting from natural uranium to the low enriched (three to five percent) stage. Once you’re at 20 percent it’s relatively easy to get to 60 percent. But as a symbolic gesture this is a potent move that will likely further inflame tensions around Iran’s nuclear program.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 57,492 confirmed cases (+128)

  • 2532 reported fatalities (+3)

A suicide bomber in western Afghanistan’s Farah province killed at least three civilians and wounded 24 other people on Tuesday. While the bomber seems to have been targeting a police station, all but six of the casualties were civilians. Elsewhere, insurgents attacked security checkpoints in Baghlan and Balkh provinces in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday, killing at least five police officers in Baghlan and at least five soldiers in Balkh. The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the Balkh attack but the Baghlan attack has gone unclaimed thus far.

The Washington Post is reporting that Joe Biden intends on Wednesday to announce plans for a full US military withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that sparked the Afghan war. Obviously that’s more than four months later than the May 1 deadline the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban last February, but Biden is apparently hoping that his announcement of a clear alternative date, plus plans for phasing the withdrawal between now and then, will be enough to keep the Taliban from resuming a full scale offensive against US and NATO forces (whose withdrawal will almost certainly now be timed to coincide with the US pullout).

In the meantime, the Biden administration is pursuing its Afghan peace process, which will really kick into gear at a conference to be held in Turkey later this month. Turkish officials on Tuesday finally announced a schedule for that conference: April 24 to May 4. They say both the Afghan government and the Taliban will be in attendance, but the Taliban later contradicted that claim and said it intends to boycott any peace conference until international military forces have left Afghanistan. So that’s a bit awkward. If there’s been no progress on peace talks by September—and under this constraint it’s hard to see how there could be any—Biden will have a serious decision to make in terms of whether or not to follow through with his withdrawal plan.

PAKISTAN

  • 729,920 confirmed cases (+4318)

  • 15,619 reported fatalities (+118)

At least three people were killed on Tuesday amid clashes between Pakistani police and supporters of Saad Rizvi, the leader of the Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Authorities arrested Rizvi in Lahore on Monday for reasons that are not entirely clear but seem to be related to recent criticisms he’s leveled at the Pakistani government. That sparked demonstrations by Rizvi’s supporters, which then escalated into violence. All three of the deaths (one police officer and two TLP supporters) seem to have occurred in the town of Shahadra, outside of Lahore.

PHILIPPINES

  • 884,783 confirmed cases (+8571)

  • 15,286 reported fatalities (+137)

The Philippine government on Tuesday summoned the Chinese ambassador to complain about the ongoing presence of scores of Chinese vessels—believed to be a naval militia of sorts—near the disputed Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea. Chinese officials claim the vessels are civilian and are “sheltering” at the reef—which Beijing claims—due to “rough seas.”

JAPAN

  • 508,802 confirmed cases (+2516)

  • 9425 reported fatalities (+25)

The Japanese government has decided to start pumping around one million metric tons of water, irradiated during and since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, out into the ocean in a process that will begin in two years and continue for decades after that. Authorities are apparently running out of space to store the accumulating water, which is interfering with efforts to decommission the former reactor site. The water has been treated to remove radioactive isotopes and will be diluted before being released, but there’s only so much you can do in this regard and so this will still mean dumping some contaminants into the Pacific.

Supposedly this is safe, or at least the Japanese government and the International Atomic Energy Agency say it is, but it will perhaps come as no surprise that a diverse array of interested parties—from Fukushima’s fishing community to Japanese and international environmental groups to the governments of China, South Korea, and Taiwan—has emerged in opposition to the plan. The IAEA says that ocean disposal is a common method whereby nuclear reactors rid themselves of spent cooling water, though I’m not sure that’s much of a comfort.

AFRICA

MALI

  • 12,179 confirmed cases (+177)

  • 417 reported fatalities (+3)

Sidi Brahim Ould Sidati, the leader of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (an umbrella group for Tuareg and Arab nationalist parties based in northern Mali) was gunned down outside his home in Bamako on Tuesday. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but Sidati’s death is likely to complicate ongoing reconciliation efforts stemming from the 2012 Tuareg rebellion and subsequent 2015 peace deal. It stands to reason that he was targeted by a group that stands to gain from a breakdown in that reconciliation process, which likely means Islamists of some variety.

Over at Responsible Statecraft, FX contributor Alex Thurston looks at the US Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership initiative and finds it mostly wanting:

TSCTP’s sloppiness reflects a deeper flaw in its mission. In the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, the most conflict-torn zones within TSCTP’s ambit, the core problem is not that national militaries are being outfought by jihadists or rebels in open battles. When West African militaries make shows of force, they can constrain jihadist activity, at least temporarily. The problem, rather, is four-fold: (1) national security forces abuse and alienate civilians, creating spirals of conflict that then leave militaries overstretched and mistrusted by affected communities; (2) local militias attempt to fill the security gap left by soldiers’ limited reach and intermittent presence, perpetrating abuses of their own and triggering inter-communal conflicts that states cannot easily resolve; (3) corruption among civilian and military officials inhibits governance and development in conflict zones; and (4) the overall poverty of the countries themselves means that the resources for enhancing governance and development are limited in the first place.

In light of these profound and interwoven problems, TSCTP’s initiatives and associated activities — such as Operation Flintlock, an annual training where African military officers practice “small-unit tactics exercises to include live-fire ranges, mounted and dismounted movements, reconnaissance, close-quarters battle drills, border patrol operations, post-blast investigations, community key leader engagement, investigative interviews, intelligence sharing, and hostage rescue” — appear superficial and misdirected.

BENIN

  • 7515 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 93 reported fatalities (+0)

Beninese election officials released the final results of Sunday’s presidential election, and it turns out that incumbent Patrice Talon managed to hold on to his office with a slim majority of 86 percent of the vote, with a bit over 50 percent turnout. Talon’s decision to stand for reelection was a source of tension in the run up to the vote, since it violated a pledge he’d made in 2016 not to run again if elected. Over the past five years, Talon’s critics allege that he’s manipulated Benin’s legal system to sideline potential rivals, and indeed he does seem to have faced only a couple of b- or c-list opponents after all major opposition leaders just coincidentally found themselves barred from running for one reason or another.

CHAD

  • 4652 confirmed cases (+11)

  • 167 reported fatalities (+0)

Chadian authorities claim they’ve brought Sunday’s rebel incursion in the country’s northern Tibesti province “completely under control.” Fighters from the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) group crossed into Chad from their base in Libya on Sunday and seized (or at least say they seized) a number of military garrison towns on the Chadian side of the border. A Chadian military statement issued Monday said that government forces had dealt with the attack, though there’s no independent confirmation to support that statement.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 28,665 confirmed cases (+54)

  • 745 reported fatalities (+0)

Apparent inter-communal violence in the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma, has killed at least ten people and left more than 30 wounded over the past two days. Clashes between the Kumu and Nande communities may stem from recent protests against the United Nations peacekeeping mission in North Kivu, with the Kumu accusing the Nande of fomenting those demonstrations.

MOZAMBIQUE

  • 68,871 confirmed cases (+79)

  • 794 reported fatalities (+3)

At War on the Rocks, analysts Emilia Columbo and Austin Doctor write that the “al-Shabab”/Ansar al-Sunna wal-Jamma insurgency in northern Mozambique is being fueled in part by a large influx of foreign fighters:

The widespread coverage of ASWJ’s attack in Palma — building on a year of operational success for the group — has likely elevated the profile of this conflict, including within the jihadist community, potentially increasing its appeal to regional and veteran foreign fighters. This risks further inflating the insurgents’ growing corps of foreign recruits. While publicly available information on the exact number and role of foreign fighters in the group is limited, ASWJ — or “al-Shabaab” as it is called in Mozambique — has had a long history with the foreign fighter community. Early academic research into the group revealed the presence of youth from Africa’s Great Lakes region, Uganda, and Tanzania. More recently, the Islamic State’s media arm, AMAQ, published a video showing ASWJ fighters who appear to be foreigners alongside Mozambican fighters in Mocimboa da Praia, echoing claims that former ASWJ prisoners have made about foreigners present within the group’s ranks. Tanzanian authorities last year intercepted multiple groups of young men who the authorities claim were en route to Mozambique, and South African officials a claims that South African nationals have joined the group.

Mozambique, and Cabo Delgado specifically, boasts many of the characteristics that facilitate the entrance of foreign fighters: Poor border security, weak and declining state presence, and an ascendant insurgent movement. The presence of foreign fighters in ASWJ’s ranks is already apparent. Less clear, however, is how foreign fighters might impact ASWJ as an organization and the trajectory of the conflict in Mozambique. Foreign fighters are often a boon to a nascent group, helping its local fighters to quickly develop the necessary military and technical skills to gain advantage on the battlefield. Over time, however, the presence of these foreigners within the ranks of an organization can become a liability, potentially sowing division within the group and shifting the strategic picture with the likely introduction of foreign assistance to the government combating the jihadist group. Towards this end, insight from al-Shabaab’s experience with its foreign fighters in Somalia may serve as a valuable point of comparison.

Past examples suggest that a heavy influx of foreign fighters can be a double-edged sword. Those fighters offer obvious advantages in terms of manpower and potentially training, if they’re already experienced fighters. On the other hand, they can affect group cohesion and draw unwanted attention at the regional and/or international levels.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 4,657,883 confirmed cases (+8173)

  • 103,601 reported fatalities (+338)

Russian authorities have reportedly arrested an academic named Valery Golubkin who was allegedly caught passing secrets to an unspecified “NATO country.” They made the arrest in connection with the case of another academic, physicist Anatoly Gubanov, who was arrested in December and charged with treason.

UKRAINE

  • 1,872,785 confirmed cases (+11,680)

  • 37,758 reported fatalities (+457)

While NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Brussels on Tuesday, Ukrainian officials reported that another of their soldiers was killed and two more wounded along the front line in eastern Ukraine by a grenade dropped from a drone. That brings the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed by Donbas separatists so far this year to 29.

Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in a call that seems to have been mostly about tensions in Ukraine. According to the White House, Biden “voiced our concerns over the sudden Russian military build-up in occupied Crimea and on Ukraine's borders, and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions,” and additionally proposed that the two leaders hold a summit though it’s unclear whether Putin was receptive to that idea. According to the Kremlin, “both sides expressed their readiness to continue dialogue on the most important areas of ensuring global security,” a sentence that would only need to incorporate the word “synergy” to achieve a sort of jargon singularity.

News of the Biden-Putin call came after the release of a report from the US intelligence community that concluded that Russia “does not want a direct conflict” with the United States, over Ukraine or anything else. Really an amazing insight. The report does predict that Russia will try to “destabilize” Ukraine through various means, like its recent troop buildup along the Ukrainian border, though Moscow insists that it’s carried out that buildup only in reaction to NATO moves in Eastern Europe. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian media on Tuesday that NATO was “deliberately turning Ukraine into a powder keg,” in part via arms sales.

AMERICAS

COLOMBIA

  • 2,569,314 confirmed cases (+16,377)

  • 66,482 reported fatalities (+326)

At World Politics Review, Colombian researcher Andrés García Trujillo argues that the Biden administration could play an important role in reviving the languishing FARC peace agreement:

Colombia’s 2016 peace deal was a badly needed dose of optimism for officials in Washington. After years of meticulous negotiations—and billions of dollars in U.S. foreign assistance—the deal generated an enthusiastic consensus in international bodies like the United Nations. But, despite the disarmament of the FARC, the implementation phase has been riddled with obstacles. The lack of effective state control in many regions of Colombia has facilitated the growth of armed groups and violent drug trafficking organizations, putting civilians at risk. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating already high rates of poverty and inequality in many of these areas.

As an important regional security partner for Colombia, the U.S. could now play a crucial role in pushing President Ivan Duque to use his last two years in office to make more progress on implementing the peace accord. Unlike Donald Trump, who did not care much about the peace process, Biden could convey to Bogota that his government is concerned by the recent setbacks, but is ready to back a bold and comprehensive approach to peacebuilding—the kind that was recently proposed by a coalition of American NGOs and think tanks. This means addressing security issues—beyond the war on drugs—from a human rights-oriented perspective; addressing Colombia’s high socioeconomic inequality and lack of political inclusion, problems that are most stark in rural areas; and providing robust support to the country’s existing transitional justice institutions.

UNITED STATES

  • 32,070,784 confirmed cases (+77,720)

  • 577,179 reported fatalities (+819)

The US Senate on Tuesday confirmed Wendy Sherman as Joe Biden’s new Deputy Secretary of State. Back when she was serving as Barack Obama’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, Sherman was the lead negotiator on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. That didn’t win her any favors in the Senate, where they generally frown on any diplomatic agreements that aren’t scrawled on the nosecone of a Tomahawk cruise missile. Though in fairness she did get votes from a few stridently anti-JCPOA senators like New Jersey’s (alleged) bunga bunga king, Robert Menendez.

Finally, the Quincy Institute’s Rachel Esplin Odell argues that it’s well past time for the US Navy to give up one of its favorite activities, the “freedom of navigation” mission:

Using unilateral military operations to accuse Asian countries of violating the law of the sea — when the U.S. has not even ratified the most relevant international legal convention, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea — is probably not the best way to win friends and influence people in Asia. This is especially true when there is at least the appearance of a double standard when it comes to the U.S. pursuing diplomacy instead of military FONOPs against the “excessive” claims of white-European-descended governments in Canberra and Ottawa.

Instead of using military operations to try to impose its version of the so-called “liberal rules-based international order” on a world of mostly formerly colonized nations, the United States should adopt a less militarized approach toward freedom of navigation.

Washington should discontinue operational assertions and rely instead on the diplomatic protest and consultations track of the Freedom of Navigation Program to protect its rights to freedom of navigation.