World roundup: April 17-18 2021

Stories from Saudi Arabia, Chad, the Czech Republic, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

April 16, 1457 BCE: This is the date most commonly cited for the Battle of Megiddo, the earliest well-documented battle in human history. An Egyptian army under Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated a group of rebelling Canaanite kingdoms at Megiddo, a city that was the site of so many battles in the ancient world that it gave its name to the hypothetical apocalyptic “Battle of Armageddon.” They followed up by besieging the city, which fell seven months later. Thutmose’s victory restored Egyptian preeminence in the Levant and enabled the greatest territorial expansion in Ancient Egyptian history.

April 17, 1895: Representatives of the Empire of Japan and China’s Qing Dynasty sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki, ending the First Sino-Japanese War. Reflecting the decisive Japanese victory, the treaty obliged the Qing to renounce Chinese claims on Korea, cede islands in the Taiwan Strait (including Taiwan itself) to Japan, pay reparations, and establish “most favored nation” trade status with Japan. European powers France, Germany, and Russia intervened to force Japan to give up control of the Liaodong Peninsula, which had been another stipulation of the treaty. The newly independent Korea quickly fell under Japan’s sway, which brought the Japanese into Russia’s orbit and led to the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War.

April 17, 1975: The Cambodian Civil War ends with the Khmer Rouge capture of Phnom Penh and the ouster of the short-lived Khmer Republic. The Khmer Rouge briefly restored the Cambodian monarchy before embarking on one of the most brutal genocides in history, in which upwards of 25 percent of the Cambodian population was killed through a mix of mass executions, forced labor, and other more indirect forms of violence. That genocide finally ended when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and removed the Khmer Rouge from power.

April 18, 1897: The Ottoman Empire declares war on Greece, marking the official start of the Greco-Turkish War (which had unofficially begun the previous month).

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for April 18:

  • 141,996,689 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+709,437 since yesterday)

  • 3,032,733 reported fatalities (+9418 since yesterday)

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

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 21,142 confirmed coronavirus cases (+138)

  • 1446 reported fatalities (+9)

The Syrian government has scheduled its next presidential election for May 26. I know it’s early and we don’t even know who else might be running, but I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that incumbent Bashar al-Assad will hang on to his job.

YEMEN

  • 5812 confirmed cases (+42)

  • 1126 reported fatalities (+7)

The Houthis said on Saturday that they’d successfully attacked Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid airbase, near the city of Khamis Mushait. There’s been no word from the Saudis and of course no independent reporting that either confirms or denies the claim.

IRAQ

  • 977,175 confirmed cases (+6188)

  • 14,981 reported fatalities (+33)

Militants attacked two oilfields north of Kirkuk with explosives on Saturday. Iraq’s oil ministry reported that the damage was fairly insignificant and did not cause any production issues. That attack was later claimed by the Islamic State. On Sunday, somebody fired five rockets at Iraq’s Balad airbase north of Baghdad, which is used by US and other foreign personnel, wounding at least five people (two foreign contractors and three Iraqi personnel) and causing some material damage. There’s been no claim of responsibility.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 837,047 confirmed cases (+165) in Israel, 280,741 confirmed cases (+988) in Palestine

  • 6335 reported fatalities (+4) in Israel, 3017 reported fatalities (+34) in Palestine

As expected, the Israeli military attacked several targets connected with Hamas in Gaza early Saturday in retaliation for the rocket that somebody fired out of the enclave late Friday. That marked the second rocket fired out of Gaza in as many days, and the second Israeli retaliation as well. There have been no reports of any casualties. Later on Saturday, Israeli security forces wounded at least nine Palestinians when they used tear gas and stun grenades against a crowd of people gathered at East Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. Israeli authorities have been banning gatherings at Damascus Gate during Ramadan, which may be an anti-COVID measure though apparently they’re permitting large gatherings of Israeli settlers in other parts of Jerusalem’s old city.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party and the closest thing Israel’s broken political system has to an “opposition leader,” broached the possibility of forming a “unity government” on Sunday as a way to try to end the country’s political deadlock. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to cobble together a narrow coalition seems to have stalled, which may mean Lapid will get a chance to form his own coalition but more likely means another snap election is looming. A unity government might forestall a new election, but Israel’s March 2020 vote resulted in just such a government and it imploded in a matter of months.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • 404,970 confirmed cases (+916)

  • 6823 reported fatalities (+13)

According to Financial Times, Iranian and Saudi representatives have been holding hitherto secret talks on improving their bilateral relationship. The two sides met in Baghdad earlier this month for their first direct interaction since 2016. The scope of their talks isn’t clear but they did discuss tamping down Houthi attacks against Saudi interests and FT characterized that exchange as “positive.” They’re apparently planning more talks for this coming week, which is the clearest possible sign that things went well. The negotiations are being brokered by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is apparently trying to arrange talks between Tehran and a number of Arab governments, including Egypt’s. Kadhimi’s political future—and Iraq’s stability—is to a great extent dependent on reducing tensions between Iran and the Arab world, particularly the Saudis. Being perpetually caught between two hostile forces hasn’t done Baghdad any favors over the past several years.

I don’t want to draw any big conclusions from a diplomatic process that seems barely to have started. But I will note that it’s interesting what can happen to regional hostilities like the Saudi-Iranian rivalry when it looks like the United States might stop putting its finger on the scale in favor of one of the hostile parties. The Biden administration hasn’t even done much apart from vaguely expressing opposition to the Yemen war and vaguely signaling its intent to reengage with Iran somewhat, and apparently the Saudis are turning over a whole new diplomatic leaf. As I say, interesting.

IRAN

  • 2,237,089 confirmed cases (+21,644)

  • 66,732 reported fatalities (+405)

Iranian state media on Saturday identified an individual named Reza Karimi as the man responsible for last weekend’s incident at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. It claimed that Karimi is wanted by Interpol, but there’s been no indication from Interpol to support that claim. Israeli media has been characterizing the Natanz incident as a “cyber attack,” while the Iranians seem to be claiming it was a more conventional act of sabotage. It’s possible the Iranians are blowing smoke to try to hide their vulnerability to hackers, though it’s equally possible that the Israelis are trying to manufacture a sense of awe about their supposed cyber prowess.

In Vienna, meanwhile, negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) appear to be going fairly well. After another session on Saturday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and lead negotiator Abbas Araghchi told reporters that “there is now a shared view of the end goal between all sides and the path that needs to be taken is a bit better known,” which seems nice, if a bit vague. Araghchi suggested that the parties are circling a joint statement that would lay out the path for both the United States and Iran to return to full JCPOA compliance. Other participants were a bit less effusive but still seemed to indicate that they were making progress. Domestically, Iranian conservatives are accusing Araghchi of lying about the success of the talks in order to score political points ahead of Iran’s presidential election in June.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 57,898 confirmed cases (+105)

  • 2546 reported fatalities (+6)

Unknown gunmen killed eight members of a single family in an attack that took place at a mosque in Jalalabad late Saturday. Officials in Nangarhar province are saying a “land dispute” was the cause.

PAKISTAN

  • 756,285 confirmed cases (+6127)

  • 16,243 reported fatalities (+149)

Members of the now-outlawed Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party reportedly took six police officers hostage at the party’s offices in Lahore on Sunday. TLP supporters have been engaged in several days of often violent confrontations with security forces since the arrest of the party’s leader, Saad Rizvi, earlier this month. The party supporters are reportedly holding off security forces in Lahore and have wounded at least 11 people since taking their hostages. Four TLP supporters have also been killed in the process, and several more wounded.

INDIA

  • 15,057,767 confirmed cases (+275,306)

  • 178,793 reported fatalities (+1625)

Having apparently seen a draft of its 2021 “National Electricity Policy,” Reuters is reporting that the Indian government may be planning to build some new coal-fired power plants despite…well, by now the downside should be pretty clear. While acknowledging the need to continue shifting toward renewable energy, the draft suggests that coal plants could be necessary because they remain “the cheapest source of generation.”

BANGLADESH

  • 718,950 confirmed cases (+3698)

  • 10,385 reported fatalities (+102)

At least five people were killed in the city of Chittagong on Saturday when police opened fire on protesters outside the construction site for a power plant being built by China’s SEPCOIII Electric Power Construction company. The demonstrators were demanding payment of back wages as well as higher pay and shorter hours during Ramadan.

PHILIPPINES

  • 936,133 confirmed cases (+10,098)

  • 15,960 reported fatalities (+150)

Philippine police say they killed three alleged Abu Sayyaf militants, including one Egyptian national the AP characterized as a “would be suicide bomber,” in a confrontation in Sulu province late Friday. The Egyptian is believed to be one of a handful of foreign fighters working with Abu Sayyaf in Sulu province, and authorities seem to think that if they can arrest or kill all of them it will dry up foreign funding for the IS-aligned group.

CHINA

  • 90,499 confirmed cases (+16) on the mainland, 11,684 confirmed cases (+30) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 209 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong

Talks between US climate envoy John Kerry and Chinese negotiator Xie Zhenhua seem to have gone fairly well. The two issued a joint statement at the conclusion of their three-day meeting on Saturday in which they agreed in principle to step up joint efforts to ameliorate climate change, and in an interview in Seoul on Sunday Kerry suggested that they had been able to put the many challenges in the broader US-Chinese relationship aside and focus strictly on climate issues. That’s promising if true, because that relationship isn’t getting better anytime soon, but Washington and Beijing need to find a way to work together on climate change anyway if there’s any hope of developing a global plan to deal with it.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 171,880 confirmed cases (+749)

  • 2896 reported fatalities (+14)

Libya’s interim government said on Monday that it “welcomes” the deployment of United Nations ceasefire monitors to the country. Libyan officials didn’t immediately comment after the UN Security Council voted to approve that deployment on Friday. On Saturday they called on the UN to help get foreign fighters out of Libya. Both the eastern and western Libyan governments brought thousands of foreigners into the country to support their armies during their civil war, and the continued presence of those fighters threatens to destabilize the tenuous peace process.

TUNISIA

  • 285,490 confirmed cases (+1514)

  • 9783 reported fatalities (+66)

Tunisian President Kais Saied opined in a speech on Sunday that, as president, he is commander in chief both of the Tunisian military and of its internal security forces. This is not in line with the usual interpretations of the Tunisian constitution, which put those internal security forces under the control of the interior ministry and, ultimately, of the prime minister. But Saied doesn’t get along with his prime minister, Hichem Mechichi, and so he’s staking as broad a claim on executive authority as possible. Mechichi, unsurprisingly, disagreed with Saied’s assessment.

NIGER

  • 5131 confirmed cases (+15)

  • 190 reported fatalities (+0)

Gunmen on motorcycles swarmed through a village in Niger’s Tillabéri region on Saturday, killing at least 19 people. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but the Islamic State’s regional affiliate is active in that area and the intentional targeting of civilians is indicative of IS’s handiwork.

NIGERIA

  • 164,233 confirmed cases (+26)

  • 2061 reported fatalities (+0)

Islamic State West Africa Province fighters overran a military base near the village of Kamuya in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state on Saturday, killing at least five Nigerian soldiers and potentially many more than that. At least four Nigerian soldiers were wounded in the attack and at least 58 are still missing (41 have returned to the post after fleeing the attack), which means the casualty count could go up.

CHAD

  • 4706 confirmed cases (+15)

  • 169 reported fatalities (+1)

Partial results from last Sunday’s presidential election show incumbent Idriss Déby winning handily, which I know came as a great shock to me though I don’t know about the rest of you. However, Déby’s good news comes as reports have two columns of fighters belonging to the Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) rebel group advancing on N’Djamena from the north. The US government has gone so far as to evacuate non-essential diplomatic personnel from its Chadian embassy due to the rebel advance. Authorities claimed on Saturday that the Chadian military “destroyed” one of those two columns of rebel fighters, though without independent confirmation it’s probably best to take that claim with a grain of salt. If the rebels seriously threaten the Chadian capital there’s a reasonable chance the French government will intervene, as it did during a similar rebel operation back in early 2019.

ETHIOPIA

  • 242,028 confirmed cases (+1792)

  • 3370 reported fatalities (+42)

At least two people were killed Sunday and one other person was seriously wounded by what appears to have been a hand grenade blast in Addis Ababa. There does not yet appear to be any indication as to the reason for this apparent attack or to its perpetrator(s).

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government says it will deploy military forces to the North Shewa and Oromia zones in the country’s Amhara region to quell a recent spate of inter-communal violence. Heavy fighting between the Amhara and Oromo communities in those areas, involving Amhara regional security forces and the outlawed Oromo Liberation Army, left more than 300 people dead last month, according to Ethiopian ombudsman Endale Haile. On top of the death toll, tensions between the Amhara and Oromo contingents within Ethiopia’s ruling Prosperity Party are a serious threat to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government.

SOMALIA

  • 13,079 confirmed cases (+242)

  • 670 reported fatalities (+14)

Somali security forces on Saturday clashed with supporters of the former chief of Mogadishu’s police force, Saadaq Omar Hassan. Back on Monday, Hassan had tried to prevent the Somali parliament from voting to extend its term, and that of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, for two years. He was, uh, unsuccessful, and got canned to boot. It’s unclear why the security forces wound up in the vicinity of Hassan’s home on Saturday, though authorities insist they were not planning to attack him. There’s no report of any casualties but Somali politics are basically a pile of kindling right now and any outburst like this could set it alight.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 4,702,101 confirmed cases (+8632)

  • 105,582 reported fatalities (+389)

Doctors treating Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny seem to think that his medical condition is grave enough that he could “die within the next few days” without proper treatment. Navalny went on a hunger strike 19 days ago to demand medical care for other conditions. Navalny’s supporters are calling for “mass protests” across Russia on Wednesday over the conditions of his imprisonment, and multiple international figures—including Joe Biden—have warned of unspecified consequences should Navalny die in custody. Russian officials have alluded to potentially force feeding Navalny in order to keep him alive.

Russian authorities say they’ve arrested and will expel a Ukrainian diplomat in Saint Petersburg who was allegedly caught attempting to obtain “classified” information. Ukrainian authorities are protesting the detention and say they will expel a Russian diplomat in retaliation. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine are already running high over increasing violence in eastern Ukraine and a Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border.

UKRAINE

  • 1,946,510 confirmed cases (+10,282)

  • 39,786 reported fatalities (+250)

Ukrainian officials are accusing Iran of intentionally shooting down Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 back in January 2020, amid the aftermath of the Qasem Soleimani assassination. Iran’s foreign ministry angrily rejected that assertion over the weekend and is sticking with the findings of Tehran’s investigation into the incident, which found that the plane was downed due to “human error” at a time when Iranian air defenses were on high alert over fears of a potential US attack. I have to confess the logic of Iran deliberately shooting that plane down escapes me, though obviously in at least a technical sense it is possible.

CZECH REPUBLIC

  • 1,601,881 confirmed cases (+1534)

  • 28,426 reported fatalities (+13)

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš announced Saturday that his government will expel 18 Russian diplomats over two 2014 explosions at ammunition depots in the village of Vrbětice. Two people were killed in the first blast in October 2014, which was then followed by a larger explosion at a second depot in December. Czech authorities say they believe that agents from the Russian GRU’s infamous “Unit 29155” were responsible for the explosions, and are in particular looking for two suspected GRU agents who may be the same two men suspected of having carried out the poisoning of ex-Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK in 2018. The Czech government is also apparently withdrawing a tender it had awarded to Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned atomic energy corporation, to build a new power plant. The Russian government rejected the Czech accusations and announced on Sunday that it will expel 20 Czech diplomats from Russia.

GERMANY

  • 3,151,030 confirmed cases (+13,123)

  • 80,591 reported fatalities (+65)

On Saturday, Christian Social Union leader Markus Söder and Christian Democratic Union leader Armin Laschet were supposed to settle the issue of who will lead their parties’ Union ticket into September’s German federal election and potentially serve as chancellor should the results go their way. They, uh, did not. Polling continues to favor Söder, but most of the CDU’s senior leadership is still backing Laschet and as the senior partner in the Union, the CDU generally gets what it wants.

AMERICAS

COLOMBIA

  • 2,652,947 confirmed cases (+16,871)

  • 68,328 reported fatalities (+397)

At least 15 people were killed on Saturday in a battle between Colombian security forces and former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels in Colombia’s Cauca department. The fighting left one Colombian soldier and 14 militants dead. The militants rejected the 2016 peace deal between FARC and the Colombian government and are jockeying for influence in Cauca with the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group.

UNITED STATES

  • 32,404,454 confirmed cases (+43,174)

  • 581,061 reported fatalities (+310)

Finally, over at TomDispatch, three writers from the Center for International Policy look at Saudi Arabia’s new lobbying initiative in the US. Facing skepticism and even outright hostility in Washington, it seems the Saudis have hired a new lobbying firm that is taking their public relations effort from, as the authors put it, “K Street to Main Street”:

Also known as LS2, Larson Shannahan Slifka describes itself as a “bipartisan public relations, government affairs, public affairs, and marketing firm headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa.” It boasts an impressive collection of clients, including Walmart and the Ford Motor Company. Absent from its website, however, is any hint of the extraordinary amount of work it’s done to boost the Saudis nationally since signing a contract with the Kingdom in November 2019 worth $126,500 a month. In its FARA filings, that firm has reported conducting more than 1,600 political activities on behalf of the Saudis — more, that is, than all the other firms working for the Saudis combined in 2020, according to a soon-to-be-released report on the Saudi lobby from the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, where we work.

Add in one more factor: unlike other firms that lobby for Saudi Arabia, LS2’s work has taken place almost exclusively outside of Washington, D.C. They’ve reached a remarkably sweeping set of state and local influencers on behalf of the Saudi royals, including small businesses, local politicians, nonprofit companies, small-town media outlets, synagogues, and even high-school students.

And whether any of those Americans realized it or not, they were being swept up in a campaign to give the Saudis local clout nationally and so pave the way for a Saudi public relations rehabilitation campaign in Washington, D.C., itself.