World roundup: April 20 2021
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Mongolia, Venezuela, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 19, 1775: Two military engagements between British regulars and American colonial militia in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord mark the start of the American Revolution. The British force succeeded in destroying some cannons and ammunition at Concord but was driven back into Boston by the militia. A large (15,000 man) militia army recruited from across New England then surrounded and besieged the city, which the British evacuated the following March.
April 20, 1752: A small battle south of the city (village at the time) of Shwebo marks the start of the Konbaung–Hanthawaddy War, which helped consolidate the modern nation of Myanmar. An “army” (of around 40 men) belonging to the nascent Konbaung dynasty, under its founder Alaungpaya, defeated a small military unit detached by the southern Hanthawaddy kingdom to pacify the region. The war ended with a Konbaung victory that reunited upper and lower (northern and southern) Myanmar (Burma if you prefer) under a Bamar ruling family and marked the final time that the Mon people of southern Myanmar tried to establish an independent state.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for April 20:
143,536,206 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+824,975 since yesterday)
3,056,926 reported fatalities (+13,905 since yesterday)
For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here
In today’s global news:
The International Energy Agency estimates that humans will emit some 33 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, an increase of five percent over last year. That would virtually wipe out the decrease in emissions the pandemic wrought in 2020 and would set us up to surpass our 2019 carbon emissions levels in the very near future. The big driver is an increasing demand for coal-fired power plants, much of it fueled (sorry) by China though there’s been an increase in coal burning across Europe and in the United States as well.
Reporters Without Borders issued a new report on Tuesday finding that press freedoms around the world have taken a major hit during the pandemic. Many governments have tried to suppress independent reporting on COVID’s scope, while the organization also says it’s seen a rise in attacks against journalists in many countries.
21,433 confirmed coronavirus cases (+154)
1468 reported fatalities (+12)
It seems that those airstrikes the Russian military says it’s been carrying out near Palmyra may in fact have been targeting an Islamic State encampment, though there’s a pretty substantial difference of opinion as to how much damage they’ve done. Russian officials say the strikes have killed over 200 “terrorists” (they haven’t to my knowledge gotten any more specific than that), but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming the death toll has been only around 26 IS fighters. There’s no particular reason to believe either of these numerical estimates, but I do think given the location it’s reasonable to assume they are affiliated with IS, whose presence around Palmyra is pretty well-established.
5918 confirmed cases (+60)
1138 reported fatalities (+6)
Yemeni rebels claimed on Tuesday that they carried out a successful drone strike on Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport, near the city of Khamis Mushait. Saudi officials insist their air defenses downed the drone and there’s no independent evidence that the airport was hit.
Meanwhile, US Yemen envoy Tim Lenderking and United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths are apparently still trying to drum up support for their ceasefire initiative, by which I mean they’re trying to convince the Houthis to agree to it despite the fact that the Houthis have really no reason to accept any overture from either the US or the UN at this point. According to Reuters, the Houthis are demanding an immediate end to the Saudi air and sea blockade on northern Yemen, followed by a phased ceasefire. This would have the advantage of allowing them to make one final push to seize Maʾrib before standing down. The US and UN plan would impose an immediate nationwide ceasefire. The rebels seem to be committed to pursuing their Maʾrib offensive to its end, one way or another, before they stop fighting.
837,357 confirmed cases (+139) in Israel, 284,280 confirmed cases (+2010) in Palestine
6345 reported fatalities (+4) in Israel, 3078 reported fatalities (+31) in Palestine
Al-Monitor’s Mazal Mualem argues that opposition leader Yair Lapid’s win yesterday in a parliamentary vote on the composition of the Israeli Knesset’s Arrangements Committee may well indicate that he’s close to forming a ruling coalition. Lapid continues to push a “unity” government that isn’t really about national unity so much as it is about uniting everyone in Israeli politics who has a beef with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Far-right Yamina Party boss Naftali Bennett would serve as prime minister, but it would probably be a nominal appointment as the chances of this government surviving for any length of time would be very slim. It could, however, survive long enough to excise Netanyahu from Israeli politics, and if it could do that then a new snap election, out from under Netanyahu’s shadow, would probably (finally) prove decisive. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Meanwhile, Al-Monitor’s Daoud Kuttab reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is under growing pressure to postpone the Palestinian Authority’s upcoming slate of elections, scheduled to start with a parliamentary vote on May 22. Essentially, most of the people around Abbas, who are not especially popular thanks to a combination of ineffectiveness and corruption, are worried about losing their jobs, while the US and Israeli governments are worried about Abbas and company being replaced with a leadership group that is less compliant. The PA’s ruling Fatah party is facing strong challenges from Hamas as well as from a couple of new lists headed by ex-Fatah officials who have quit/been kicked out of the party. Despite these concerns, the fact is that Abbas could be facing an outright uprising if he postpones these votes, which are already over a decade late.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
500,860 confirmed cases (+1903)
1559 reported fatalities (+3)
The UN on Tuesday renewed its call for the Emirati government to produce some proof that Princess Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, daughter of Dubai ruler and Emirati Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is alive. Latifa has barely been seen since she was caught attempting to flee Dubai in 2018, and back in February a video surfaced in which she claimed she was being held in virtual house arrest. There has since been no word as to her condition.
407,010 confirmed cases (+1070)
6846 reported fatalities (+12)
Amwaj Media has more details about the big Financial Times scoop over the weekend that Iranian and Saudi officials have begun meeting to discuss reducing regional tensions. Their reporting says that the Baghdad meeting that was the focus of the FT report is the sixth in a series of regional meetings that began back in January with Iranian and the UAE and has since expanded to include Egypt and Jordan as well as the Saudis. Amwaj’s sources are characterizing the fifth of those meetings as an “indirect” interaction between Iran and the US, without going into any details. The UAE has actually taken the lead role in this process, which Amwaj suggests was motivated in part by the change in US presidential administrations.
2,286,927 confirmed cases (+25,492)
67,525 reported fatalities (+395)
It seems like negotiations in Vienna on reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are still going reasonably well. The parties adjourned another session on Tuesday, and while US and European representatives have been less effusive than Iranian leaders in their characterization of the progress they’ve made, nobody seems deflated by where things stand. Frankly it’s probably a good sign that the Iranians sound more positive than those other parties, since it indicates they remain engaged in the process. Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, even suggested on Sunday that Washington’s negotiating position is softening, as he said the US will return to compliance with the agreement once it has assurances that Iran will do likewise. Previously the administration’s rhetoric had suggested it would not return to the deal until Iran had already resumed compliance. Russia’s main representative at the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, suggested via Twitter on Tuesday that the negotiations are beginning to focus on the sequencing of the various steps the US and Iran will need to take to restore compliance, which is another positive sign. The previous day, Ulyanov had tweeted that talks were moving into the “drafting stage.”
58,214 confirmed cases (+176)
2557 reported fatalities (+2)
An “Afghan security forces convoy” was apparently attacked by a suicide bomber in Kabul on Tuesday. There seem to be no further details yet about this incident.
In a potentially related piece of news, the Turkish government announced on Tuesday that the Afghan peace conference they were supposed to host on April 24 has been postponed until sometime after Ramadan. This is probably because the Taliban are currently refusing to attend, due to their anger over Joe Biden’s extended US withdrawal deadline, though the Turks haven’t said that outright.
24,195 confirmed cases (+1311)
51 reported fatalities (+2)
Mongolian President Khaltmaagiin Battulga is attempting to force the dissolution of the Mongolian People’s Party, which currently holds 62 of the 76 seats in the Mongolian legislature, the State Great Khural. The MPP has used its supermajority to curtail presidential powers, for example by imposing a single term limit on Mongolian presidents in a 2019 constitutional amendment. It remains unclear whether that limit applies to Battulga’s current term—if it does, and a recent Constitutional Court ruling seems to indicate that is the case—then he will not be permitted to stand in June’s presidential election. Battulga and MPP leaders are now accusing one another of trying to manipulate the Mongolian military for their own political gain, which seems like it might be playing with fire but what do I know?
90,520 confirmed cases (+10) on the mainland, 11,704 confirmed cases (+8) in Hong Kong
4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 209 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong
In a new speech at an pan-Asian conference on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping articulated his vision of a multipolar world order:
“We must not let the rules set by one or a few countries be imposed on others, or allow unilateralism pursued by certain countries to set the pace for the whole world,” Mr. Xi said in a video speech at the Bo’ao Forum for Asia, an annual gathering on the southern Chinese island of Hainan.
“What we need in today’s world is justice, not hegemony. Big countries should behave in a manner befitting their status and with a greater sense of responsibility.”
Mr. Xi didn’t name the U.S. in his speech. But many of his remarks appeared to be aimed at Washington, and follow a testy meeting between the two countries’ top diplomats last month in Anchorage, Alaska.
In his speech Tuesday, Mr. Xi laid out his view of a world without a single dominant power, centered on the United Nations and other multilateral institutions—a post-Trump reaffirmation of his view of America and China as being on the same plane.
164,423 confirmed cases (+120)
2061 reported fatalities (+0)
Unknown gunmen attacked and attempted to set fire to two police stations in southeastern Nigeria’s Anambra and Abia states on Monday in what appears to have been a “coordinated” operation. One attacker was killed in Anambra state while two police officers were wounded, and in the Abia attack the gunmen freed two prisoners. As I say the identity of these attackers is unknown, but there has been a recent spate of violence targeting police facilities and prisons in southeastern Nigeria that authorities are blaming on a resurgence in Biafran separatism.
4723 confirmed cases (+15)
169 reported fatalities (+0)
In a truly stunning turn of events, Idriss Déby, the man who had been president of Chad for over 30 years and was just elected (well, “elected” may be stretching it a bit but let’s roll with it) to a sixth term in office earlier this month, has died.
The Chadian government announced on Tuesday that Déby succumbed to wounds he suffered “in combat” with fighters from the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT), whose forces have been advancing on N’Djamena from the north since the April 11 election. Déby, who made a habit of throwing on the fatigues and joining The Troops on the front line during his time in power, apparently did just that on Monday and yadda yadda he’s no longer with us. I don’t mean to be glib, but as far as I can tell that’s pretty much all the detail Chadian authorities have released. The reporting on this is so vague that it starts to raise some questions about whether the Chadian government is really telling the whole story, and given that we’re talking about Chad there’s a pretty good chance it is not. Hindsight is 20/20, but maybe at 68 Déby was too old to still be touring war zones.
Whenever an ultra-repressive dictator dies suddenly after decades in power, there’s a high probability that the country’s political system will follow him to the grave, and in an effort to try to forestall that the Chadian military has reportedly seized control of the country in what amounts to a bloodless (at least so far) coup. The civilian government and legislature have been dissolved in favor of a military council headed by none other than Mahamat Déby, the departed president’s son. The council will rule under a new charter that supplants Chad’s constitution and will look to restore civilian control with an election in 18 months. The younger Déby was being groomed to succeed his father, though clearly not this soon because he had not yet been positioned to take power in a constitutional line of succession. So the constitution had to go.
FACT, which was already fighting to oust the elder Déby, is unsurprisingly not inclined to accept the succession. It’s announced that it intends to continue the advance on N’Djamena, which was reportedly stalled over the weekend but now may pick up steam, especially if Idriss Déby’s death does cause a breakdown within the government and especially within the military. The military is probably strong enough to fend off this challenge and hold on to power for now, though we’ll see. Whether it can hold on to power in the longer term presumably depends on Mahamat Déby.
Déby’s death is truly the end of an era for Chad. For the West, especially for France and to a slightly lesser extent the US, his passing is a blow to an “Africa” policy that is rooted in two key interests: counter-terrorism and stability. Déby has been extremely solicitous toward Western powers and has made himself very useful to their aims, in part by devoting huge resources into building a very capable military. Those Western governments have, in turn, studiously ignored his authoritarianism and human rights abuses, even going so far as to make the protection of his regime from political adversaries part of their counter-terrorism efforts even though the former is in no way related to the latter. The quick decision to chuck the country’s constitution out the window and install Mahamat Déby as leader, while in large part meant to hold things together internally, was also a signal to those outside powers that Chad is still in The Right Hands.
245,155 confirmed cases (+1524)
3439 reported fatalities (+47)
It’s now believed that last week’s fighting between the Amhara and Oromo communities in Ethiopia’s Amhara region resulted in at least 50 deaths, up from a previous estimate of 18. Thousands of people demonstrated against the violence in the regional capital, Bahir Dar, on Tuesday. Details are not clear but there are allegations flying in both directions, with Oromo residents accusing Amhara regional security forces of targeting them and Amhara alleging that the outlawed Oromo Liberation Army is responsible for fomenting the violence.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
29,084 confirmed cases (+79)
748 reported fatalities (+3)
The DRC’s $4.3 billion lawsuit against Uganda over the latter’s role in the 1998-2003 conflict in Ituri province is holding its first hearings at the International Court of Justice this week. The ICJ ruled all the way back in 2005 that Uganda had violated international law by occupying parts of the province amid the wider Second Congo War. The court also held the DRC liable for an attack on Uganda’s embassy in Kinshasa and left it up to the two countries to negotiate mutual compensation. They’ve been unable to come to an agreement, so they’re back in court.
4,718,854 confirmed cases (+8164)
106,307 reported fatalities (+379)
According to Axios, US ambassador to Russia John Sullivan has accepted a Russian “suggestion” that he head back to the US for a few days of “consultation” in the wake of last week’s double-barreled US sanctions announcement. He had previously said he would not be leaving Moscow but apparently had second thoughts. The Russian government announced that it was expelling ten US diplomats over those new sanctions as well as barring several US officials from entering Russia. It is not planning to expel Sullivan, which would signal a much bigger diplomatic breach.
1,961,956 confirmed cases (+8940)
40,367 reported fatalities (+367)
The Ukrainian government is asking Western nations to step up their sanctions against Russia even further, in response to the Russian military buildup along its Ukrainian border. Kyiv now estimates that there are roughly 120,000 Russian soldiers massed on the border and satellite imagery shows the Russians have moved a large number of military aircraft and other key assets to Crimea, which is certainly enough to threaten an invasion even if that remains unlikely. The Russians are also moving forward with a stated plan to blockade the Kerch Strait to military and “state-owned” ships, which in effect amounts to a partial naval blockade on Ukraine.
390,911 confirmed cases (+2096)
15,518 reported fatalities (+106)
Continuing our recent game of diplomatic musical chairs, the Russian government on Tuesday expelled two Bulgarian diplomatic personnel. This move was in retaliation for the Bulgarian expulsion of two Russian personnel last month over allegations of spying. Russian diplomats are getting kicked out of countries all over Europe these days, and naturally the Russian government keeps responding in kind.
185,736 confirmed cases (+1141)
1944 reported fatalities (+19)
Writing at Foreign Policy, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Paul Angelo suggests that Venezuela’s recent conflict with the “10th Front” militia along its Colombian border could offer the UN an opportunity to draw the country back into the international community:
The Colombia-Venezuela border is a perennial powder keg, but recent events have raised the temperature to explosive levels. Fighting between the Venezuelan military and a nonstate armed group that started in March has left at least 17 people dead, dozens injured, and more than 5,000 displaced. This month, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro announced that he would seek emergency assistance from the United Nations to [defuse] landmines planted by insurgents and drug traffickers in Venezuela’s Apure region along the frontier. This follows on the heels of a request from a coalition of civil society organizations to designate a U.N. special envoy to help put an end to hostilities.
If there is a silver lining to this tragedy, it’s that Maduro’s request to the U.N. represents a rare instance of openness to international assistance, and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres should take both Venezuela and its civil society up on their offers. Doing so would not only help resolve the immediate border crisis: It would also serve to build trust between Maduro and the U.N. in ways that could rekindle negotiations to resolve Venezuela’s broader political stalemate while igniting a much-needed process of peace building in the country.
32,536,470 confirmed cases (+60,317)
582,456 reported fatalities (+883)
At Inkstick, Assal Rad considers the most recent example of US foreign policy hypocrisy:
What is the point of a rules-based international order if the rules are not applied to all? This is the question that is often raised by critics of US foreign policy both inside and outside the United States. While the US government promotes values like democracy, human rights, diplomacy, and international law, it has often been guilty of using those principles more as talking points than policy positions. The discourse on Iran and discussions of returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — also called the Iran nuclear deal — best illustrate how such insincere posturing can undermine US policy objectives.
After yet another illegal attack on an Iranian nuclear facility on April 11, 2021 in what looks to be another round of Israeli sabotage, Iran announced a decision to increase its uranium enrichment to 60%. The attack by Israel came at a time when the United States and Iran had finally made some progress toward reviving the nuclear deal, which was abrogated by the Trump administration in May 2018. A key foreign policy promise of the Biden administration has been to re-engage Iran and return to the path of diplomacy in order to resolve the nuclear issue and build on further diplomacy. So why would Israel, a close US ally, sabotage not only Iran’s nuclear facility, but also the Biden administration’s diplomatic goals?