World roundup: April 6 2021

Stories from Jordan, Ethiopia, Ukraine, and more

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Hello again! As always after an extended break, this update will be a mix of things that happened today and a few things that happened while I was gone.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

April 5, 1722: Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, in search of a hypothetical and very large southern continent dubbed “Terra Australis” or at least of the equally hypothetical “Davis Land,” finds instead a place he dubbed “Easter Island” after the day upon which it found it. Roggeveen’s expedition never did find either of those other places, probably because they don’t exist. But it did stumble upon a few other islands of note, including Bora Bora and Samoa, before reaching port at Batavia (modern Jakarta) later in 1722.

April 5, 1818: A rebel army commanded by José de San Martín and Bernardo O’Higgins defeats a royalist force led by Chilean Governor Mariano Osorio at the Battle of Maipú. The royalists lost around 2000 men, roughly double the casualties incurred by the rebels. Among the more decisive battles of the Spanish-American Wars of Independence, Maipú effectively secured the liberation of Chile, which meant that the Argentine-Chilean army was free to begin moving north to liberate parts of southern Peru.

April 5, 1879: The Chilean government declares war on Bolivia and Peru, kicking off the War of the Pacific. The war’s causes are still debated to some extent but certainly include disputes over control of rich nitrate deposits in the Atacama Desert and a growing competition for economic and political dominance in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Chile emerged victorious over the Bolivian-Peruvian alliance in 1884, seizing parts of southern Peru as well as the entire Atacama and leaving Bolivia landlocked.

April 6, 1250: The Battle of Fariskur ends the ill-fated Seventh Crusade.

April 6, 1896: The Games of the First Olympiad, AKA the first modern Olympics, open in Athens. The ancient Olympic Games, believed to have begun in the early 8th century BCE, were discontinued either by Roman Emperor Theodosius I, in the 390s, or by Theodosius II, in the 420s. French educator Pierre de Coubertin (d. 1937) was the driving force behind their revival, which led to the creation of the International Olympic Committee in 1894 and the first modern Games two years later. The IOC recognizes 14 nations as having participated but there’s no conclusive record as to which 14 they were. The most commonly cited list is problematic because it includes Australia, which was still five years away from federalization and thus nationhood.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for April 6:

  • 133,009,908 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (22,869,761 active, +575,110 since yesterday)

  • 2,885,287 reported fatalities (+11,787 since yesterday)

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

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 19,641 confirmed coronavirus cases (+115)

  • 1332 reported fatalities (+9)

Both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syrian state media are reporting that Islamic State fighters abducted several people in Hama province on Tuesday. State media doesn’t appear to have reported any numbers but the SOHR is saying that the group kidnapped 19 people in total, eight police officers and 11 civilians. An unknown number of people were also apparently wounded in the incident.

YEMEN

  • 4975 confirmed cases (+94)

  • 976 reported fatalities (+21)

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen reported Tuesday that it had shot down a Houthi drone heading toward the Saudi city of Khamis Mushait.

The coalition is also claiming that it killed a senior Houthi commander, Abdul Latif Hammoud, in an airstrike in Maʾrib province on Monday evening. The Yemen live map indicates that the front line around Maʾrib city has changed very little since we were last together. Saudi media is also reporting that another senior rebel official named Sultan Zabin, the head of the Criminal Investigation Department in Sanaa, has died of COVID-19. Zabin had been sanctioned by the United Nations and the United States for alleged human rights abuses.

JORDAN

  • 645,449 confirmed cases (+6005)

  • 7383 reported fatalities (+100)

I suppose if you do anything long enough you get to see all kinds of things you never thought possible, but here’s a sentence I really never expected to write: the biggest story that took place while we were away probably happened in Jordan. On Saturday, lawyers for former Jordanian Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, the half-brother of King Abdullah II, sent a video to the BBC claiming that he’d been placed under house arrest. Around the time the BBC began reporting on the video, senior Jordanian officials claimed that they’d thwarted a “malicious plot” to overthrow Abdullah, involving Hamzah, several other current and former Jordanian political figures, and at least one unspecified “foreign government.”

Hamzah is popular within some circles inside Jordan—he’s been a proponent of democratic reforms and one major Jordanian tribe, the Majali, issued a statement on Sunday denouncing his arrest—and could be viewed as a potential rival to Abdullah though until this weekend I’m not sure there was any reason to consider anyone a potential rival to the seemingly secure Jordanian ruler. In his video, Hamzah denied any involvement in a plot against Abdullah but was not shy about criticizing his half-brother’s rule, arguing that Jordan “has become stymied in corruption, in nepotism and in misrule.”

The “foreign government” bit of this alleged coup attempt is particularly murky. Some of those arrested are thought to have ties to Gulf Arab states, though it really seems to be their ties to Hamzah that have put them behind bars. Another person linked to the alleged plot may have links to Israeli intelligence. There’s no obvious reason why either the Gulf states or Israel would prefer Hamzah over Abdullah, particularly since the prince is an advocate for democratic reform. A new audio recording that surfaced on Tuesday appears to show Hamzah arguing with Jordanian military chief of staff Yousef Huneiti about meeting with critics and reformers within Jordan, with no mention of any foreign entanglement. After that recording leaked, the Jordanian government conspicuously imposed a media gag order around this entire affair.

There are other reasons for skepticism. We have no independent way to know what’s happening here so the claim of a coup attempt rests on the statements of Jordanian officials alone. And the relatively minimal punishment that’s been meted out to Hamzah—he was never taken into custody and has now been allowed to sign a letter pledging his loyalty to Abdullah that apparently means he’s out of legal jeopardy—belies the alleged seriousness of a supposed coup attempt. Though to be fair, it’s possible that Abdullah has decided to go easy on Hamzah in an attempt to avoid airing any more dirty royal laundry in public.

The overriding media narrative seems to be that this affair has somehow undermined Jordan’s position as a reliable oasis of stability in a troubled region. But how stable is it, really? The image of stability projected by a relatively insulated monarchy has to be contrasted with everything happening below that paper-thin surface. This is a country that runs through prime ministers the way my dog goes through chew toys. It struggles with high unemployment and a perpetually weak economy, which hits the Jordanian population hard and the large number of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Jordan even harder. As an economic and political entity it relies heavily on US and Gulf support. It’s suffering through one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks (per capita) in the Arab world. And it’s backsliding in terms of civil liberties and political freedoms. It will undoubtedly backslide even more now, as Abdullah uses this alleged coup as a justification for silencing his critics.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 834,920 confirmed cases (+317) in Israel, 256,461 confirmed cases (+2539) in Palestine

  • 6257 reported fatalities (+9) in Israel, 2735 reported fatalities (+19) in Palestine

Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man and wounded his wife at a West Bank checkpoint on Tuesday. Israeli officials are claiming that the man attempted to ram the soldiers with his car, but his wife insists that they followed the soldiers’ instructions and were fired upon anyway. The Israeli account also has to contend with the peculiarity of a man deciding to undertake a suicide attack with his wife in the car.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken to calling his corruption trial a “coup attempt,” which I think means he’s worried he’s not going to be PM much longer. If Netanyahu were confident that he’s going to retain the immunity being PM grants him, he’d probably be a little less agitated about the trial.

Netanyahu’s sour mood notwithstanding, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin did give him first crack at forming a government on Tuesday. Rivlin was obliged to do so after Netanyahu received more parliamentary endorsements than any other candidate. But in making his designation, Rivlin noted that it was “not an easy decision, on an ethical or moral level” and outright said that nobody has “a realistic chance of creating a government” as things stand now. Netanyahu will have at least four weeks to form a government and can request two more weeks beyond that, though it would be up to Rivlin whether to approve that request.

EGYPT

  • 206,510 confirmed cases (+778)

  • 12,253 reported fatalities (+43)

The clogged Suez Canal is thankfully clogged no more, though the repercussions of all the delays caused by ships waiting to use the artery or having rerouted around the Cape of Good Hope are likely to be felt for some time yet. Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post wrote a thoughtful essay last week on the many things the Ever Given affair reveals about the “fragility” of global commerce. He didn’t directly note the fact that the Suez, one of the world’s busiest maritime bottlenecks, is owned and operated by a highly secretive, deeply corrupt, and essentially incompetent dictatorship, but that’s certainly part of the overall problem.

IRAN

  • 1,963,394 confirmed cases (+17,430)

  • 63,506 reported fatalities (+174)

Iranian officials are claiming that one of their cargo ships has been struck by a mine in the Red Sea. There’s no independent confirmation of this claim, but Iran and Israel have been trading accusations about attacks on their commercial vessels of late and it does seem the Israelis have been frequently striking Iranian ships in the Red Sea and eastern Mediterranean.

There’s been some potentially good news if you’re a fan of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). After dithering around for two months demanding that Iran fix an agreement that the United States broke when Donald Trump tore it up in 2018, the Biden administration apparently did something last week to convince Iran to participate in a meeting of the JCPOA’s remaining participants in Vienna this week with US representatives on the sidelines. Now the New York Times is reporting that the US and Iran have “agreed through intermediaries … to establish two working groups” that would manage the technical details of a joint return to compliance with the agreement.

One working group will focus on restoring US compliance, which will necessitate going through every step the Trump administration took under its “maximum pressure” campaign in order to return to the previous status quo. Trump reimposed a number of formerly nuclear-related sanctions under other justifications (human rights, for example) and took some additional steps (designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization) that must be unwound and that will be a complicated process. The second working group will deal with turning back the steps Iran has taken to reduce its compliance with the JCPOA, which should be fairly straightforward in terms of what the Iranians must do but may get tricky when it comes to how they do it. The US may, for example, demand that Iran destroy new facilities or technology it’s assembled while the Iranians may insist on only mothballing it. There’s a lot that could still go wrong here, but this is finally some unambiguous progress toward repairing the agreement.

ASIA

INDIA

  • 12,799,746 confirmed cases (+115,269)

  • 166,208 reported fatalities (+631)

The Indian government is bolstering its campaign against communist Naxalite rebels, in the wake of a weekend attack in Chhattisgarh state in which the militants killed at least 22 police officers and wounded more than 30 others. That represents the deadliest Naxalite attack since at least 2017. The Naxalite rebellion has been ongoing since the 1960s, and while attacks like this have been relatively infrequent for several years now the security situation is hampering government efforts to exploit Chhattisgarh’s considerable mineral resources.

CHINA

  • 90,329 confirmed cases (+24) on the mainland, 11,532 confirmed cases (+7) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 205 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong

The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador in Ankara on Tuesday over a series of testy Twitter posts from the Chinese embassy. The embassy seems to have taken offense at remarks by Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş and nationalist politician Meral Akşener regarding alleged Chinese human rights abuses targeting the Uyghur community. The Turkish government has on occasion had some friction with Beijing over the Uyghurs, though given Turkey’s economic reliance on China Turkish officials haven’t pressed very hard on this particular issue.

AFRICA

SUDAN

  • 30,111 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 2063 reported fatalities (+0)

At least 56 people have been killed thus far in heavy fighting that began on Saturday around the West Darfur state capital, El Geneina. Arab tribes in the region are clashing with the Masalit people following an incident in which two Masalit men were killed under unclear circumstances. In addition to those killed many more have been wounded and thousands displaced in the fighting, which has also caused considerable damage to public infrastructure.

BURKINA FASO

  • 12,845 confirmed cases (+20)

  • 150 reported fatalities (+0)

Militants, probably Islamist, attacked a group of Burkinabé police and volunteer paramilitaries in the country’s eastern Gourma province late Monday, killing at least eight people. Beyond the strong likelihood that they were Islamist, the identity of the attackers is unclear.

BENIN

  • 7313 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 93 reported fatalities (+0)

Protesters demonstrated across Benin on Monday evening over President Patrice Talon’s decision to stand in Sunday’s presidential election. However, in something of a change for West African heads of state, in this case the incumbent isn’t trying to extend his reign into a legally dubious third term. Back when Talon was first elected in 2016 he pledged only to serve one term and to seek to limit future presidents to the same single term limit. So constitutionally he’s on solid ground in standing for reelection, but politically he’s taking some predictable heat for reneging.

ETHIOPIA

  • 219,381 confirmed cases (+2054)

  • 3025 reported fatalities (+25)

At least 100 people have been killed in clashes along the border of Ethiopia’s Afar and Somali regions since Friday. Officials in both regions are blaming the other side for having initiated the violence. The two regions have been in a low-level conflict since their border was redrawn by federal authorities in 2014.

Ethiopian authorities claimed on Saturday that Eritrean forces have begun leaving the Tigray region and returning to Eritrea. Given that those same Ethiopian authorities only acknowledged the presence of those same Eritrean forces in Tigray about a week ago, despite ample evidence that they were there, I’m not sure I’d rely on their word here. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged on Sunday that his government’s conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is ongoing, which is a fairly significant admission since he declared that conflict over back in November. It’s clear now that TPLF forces managed to regroup in late January and have been fighting a guerrilla campaign over the past couple of months, with particularly heavy fighting reported (albeit sketchily) just southwest of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle.

Another round of negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, this time brokered by the African Union in Kinshasa, has fallen apart with no resolution. Apparently the Sudanese delegation objected to the contents of a “joint communique” that was to have capped off the session, though Egyptian and Ethiopian officials have been trading accusations of bad faith so it’s unclear what that communique would have involved anyway. Ethiopia is likely to resume filling the GERD’s reservoir again soon, which will raise tensions with both Sudan and Egypt over their concerns about the dam’s effect on downriver water levels.

MOZAMBIQUE

  • 68,292 confirmed cases (+65)

  • 785 reported fatalities (+3)

The Mozambican military says it’s largely regained control over the town of Palma, which was still under attack by Islamist militants when last we discussed it. Authorities have been careful not to say they’ve completely recaptured the town, however, so it’s clear there’s still some insurgent presence, and many independent analysts are questioning the claim that the bulk of the town is back in government hands. Palma is an important logistical area for Western energy companies engaged in offshore drilling in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region, and the attack caused at least one of those companies—the French firm Total—to halt operations. Representatives of six southern African countries—Mozambique plus Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe—are due to meet in Maputo on Thursday to discuss the insurgency.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

  • 1,769,164 confirmed cases (+13,276)

  • 35,017 reported fatalities (+430)

The Ukrainian government reported on Tuesday that two of its soldiers had been killed by Donbas separatists over the previous 24 hours. Tensions are running high over eastern Ukraine in recent days because of a noticeable Russian military buildup along its Ukrainian border, which seems to be coinciding with increased hostile rebel activity. Russian authorities haven’t offered an explanation for the buildup but have said they aren’t intending any kind of military action and have suggested that they’re in contact with the US government over the issue. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, is openly campaigning for Ukraine’s admission into NATO, which is almost certainly not being well-received in Moscow.

BULGARIA

  • 356,859 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 13,786 reported fatalities (+0)

Bulgarians went to the polls on Sunday to elect themselves a new National Assembly, and unsurprisingly Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party appears to have emerged victorious. Well, maybe. There’s little doubt that GERB will be the largest party in the next parliament, having likely taken somewhere north of 25 percent of the vote. But its coalition partner, the far right United Patriots party, is at risk of falling short of the threshold for being seated in parliament, potentially imperiling what was already a minority government. And given the makeup of the rest of the assembly it’s not at all clear that Borissov can even convince enough parties to sit out a confidence vote to maintain minority control.

KOSOVO

  • 94,124 confirmed cases (+512)

  • 1916 reported fatalities (+11)

The Kosovan parliament on Sunday elected Vjosa Osmani as the country’s new president. Osmani had been the leader of the center-right Guxo party, though by law she was obliged to relinquish her party leadership in order to become president. She succeeds Hashim Thaçi, who resigned in November after being indicted by the Kosovo special prosecutor’s office at The Hague.

AMERICAS

CHILE

  • 1,037,780 confirmed cases (+5168)

  • 23,734 reported fatalities (+57)

Thanks to COVID, the Chilean government on Tuesday postponed the constitutional referendum that was to have taken place on Sunday. The vote will now tentatively take place in mid-May, with campaigning postponed until at least April 28. Chile’s vaccination program has been one of the most efficient in the world to date but the country is nevertheless experiencing a second-wave spike in infections.

PERU

  • 1,598,593 confirmed cases (+8384)

  • 53,411 reported fatalities (+273)

There are 18 people running to be Peru’s next president in Sunday’s election, and polling indicates that none of them will win the office outright and at least six of them are within striking distance of making it to a runoff. The “leader” at this point appears to be former legislator Yonhy Lescano of the center-right Popular Action party, but in his strongest polls he’s only topping out at around 20 percent, so needless to say the race is still fairly wide open. The electoral mood appears to be one of frustration, which is understandable in a country that’s had three presidents since November.

UNITED STATES

  • 31,560,438 confirmed cases (+62,283)

  • 570,260 reported fatalities (+906)

The Biden administration has apparently decided not restore the Obama administration’s ban on the Pentagon’s use of landmines outside of the Korean Peninsula. The Trump administration lifted those restrictions last year and its policies will apparently remain in place. There’s no real justification for this—landmines are a greater threat to civilians than they are to potential combatants, despite the US military’s “clean coal”-esque insistence that modern technology can render them safe to use. But as the Quincy Institute’s Kelley Vlahos notes, the Pentagon has long opposed any sort of landmine ban for fear that it could set a precedent for banning other kinds of military toys. I know, the possibility is too horrific to consider.

Finally, in case you missed it yesterday please check out new Foreign Exchanges contributor Kate Kizer’s first FX piece, on Joe Biden’s disappointingly (so far) conventional approach to foreign policy:

“A foreign policy for the Middle Class” has been the Biden administration’s tagline for its vision of reforming US foreign policy. It has issued Interim Strategic Guidance that highlights progressive analysis about the connections between domestic and foreign policy and that elevates the greatest existential threat the world faces—the climate crisis. It appears to be seriously engaging in diplomacy to mitigate further violence and suffering in Yemen and reducing Trump's unnecessary build up of troops in the region. And it’s true that having an administration making foreign policy decisions based on reality is a welcome breath of fresh air after four years of a near descent into fascism.

Yet, though he has a chance to enact one of the most progressive domestic agendas in history, Biden’s approach to foreign policy thus far tells a different story. In that area, at least, Biden has not capitalized on this moment of state and societal failure to make a clean break with the past. Instead, it appears his team has decided to prioritize the views of the foreign policy establishment (the “Blob”) over the needs of working people. It has adopted the tactic of antagonistic diplomacy, in the hopes of appearing tough for hawks in Washington, while largely doing the bare minimum to meet campaign promises.