World roundup: April 8 2021

Stories from Myanmar, Somalia, the United Kingdom, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

April 7, 529: The Codex Justinianeus, the first section of Roman Emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, is completed. The Corpus Juris Civilis was meant to standardize and codify imperial law, which had fragmented into multiple codices and laws that didn’t necessarily cohere with one another. Justinian ordered a review and modernization of these law codes upon his accession as emperor. The Codex is the product of that effort. Subsequent sections included the Digesta, a compendium of legal writings; the Institutiones, a training manual for jurists; and the Novellae, a compilation of new laws promulgated after the Codex was written. The Corpus Juris Civilis has influenced everything from canon law in the Catholic Church to the legal codes of the Ottoman Balkans and modern Greece to contemporary international law.

This is a bit of a reach, but I didn’t have a good image for this newsletter and I don’t think I’ve ever used the very famous mosaic of Justinian (the guy with the halo, of course) from the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna for one of these, so here you go (Mirages.nl via Shutterstock.com

April 7, 1994: One day after Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira were assassinated when their aircraft was shot down before landing in Kigali (either by Hutu extremists or by the then-rebel Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front militia), Hutu génocidaires begin slaughtering Tutsi Rwandans en masse. The ensuing genocide, which also saw the deaths of many Twa Rwandans and even moderate Hutus, left hundreds of thousands slaughtered, with high end estimates putting the death toll at over one million. It finally ended in July, with the military takeover of Rwanda by the RPF under current President Paul Kagame.

April 8, 876: The Battle of Dayr al-Aqul

April 8, 1904: France and the United Kingdom sign a package of agreements collectively known as the “Entente Cordiale,” resetting their relationship and ending over 800 years of on again/off again hostility, dating back to the Norman Conquest of England in the 11th century. The agreements included mutual recognition of colonial prerogatives and gave both countries an ally in the face of Germany’s growing prominence. The Entente, expanded to include Russia, was the counterpart to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, and thus helped draw the battle lines (Italy aside) ahead of World War I.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for April 8:

  • 134,502,688 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (23,288,186 active, +737,425 since yesterday)

  • 2,914,220 reported fatalities (+13,827 since yesterday)

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

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 19,883 confirmed coronavirus cases (+122)

  • 1352 reported fatalities (+10)

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and an opposition journalist are claiming that the Syrian military shelled the village of Najia, which lies on the rebel side of the frozen front line in Idlib province, on Thursday, killing at least seven people. UNICEF seems to have confirmed the deaths, three children among them, though it’s hard to tell from reporting whether it agrees that they were killed by the Syrian military.

The SOHR is also claiming that the overnight Israeli missile attack outside Damascus hit targets associated with Hezbollah and killed at least three non-Syrian militia fighters. Syrian state media has only mentioned four wounded soldiers, but those two claims aren’t really inconsistent with one another assuming you use a strict definition of the word “soldier.”

YEMEN

  • 5133 confirmed cases (+86)

  • 1004 reported fatalities (+18)

Yemeni rebels say that they successfully carried out a drone strike against Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid airbase outside of Khamis Mushait overnight. The Saudis, which claimed to have downed two Houthi drones on Thursday, are denying this claim and as usual there’s no independent confirmation either way.

TURKEY

  • 3,689,866 confirmed cases (+55,941)

  • 33,201 reported fatalities (+258)

The Turkish government insists it was not being sexist when it diplomatically snubbed European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen by refusing to provide her with a chair during her meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara earlier this week. The Turks say they obeyed proper diplomatic protocol, under which they regard von der Leyen as the European Union’s “head of government” and thus slightly lower on the scale than European Council boss/“head of state” Charles Michel, who was also present at the meeting and did get a chair. The EU views the two as co-equal for diplomatic purposes and the Turks are suggesting they were not aware of that, even though in previous joint visits by the two EU executives the Turks have always treated them as equals for protocol purposes. For some reason they forgot that past protocol when a woman was involved. Weird. Anyway, in Ankara’s version of this story the EU is to blame for not making its expectations known, and Turkish officials seem to be suggesting that the EU did so deliberately in order to make them look bad. Given the Turkish fondness for conspiracy theories I suppose that last bit isn’t terribly surprising.

This may seem kind of silly—well, OK, it is kind of silly—but the diplomatic fallout is real. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi criticized Erdoğan for the incident on Thursday and even called the Turkish leader a “dictator” while doing it, which of course prompted the Turkish Foreign Ministry to summon Italy’s ambassador so as to lodge a complaint. So while it was supposed to represent a diplomatic step forward in terms of the EU-Turkish relationship, the visit by Michel and von der Leyen has wound up being a step back.

Michel, by the way, has also responded to criticism he’s taken for just kind of blithely sitting there while von der Leyen expressed displeasure at her treatment. He insists he was really upset about the whole incident, but didn’t want to make a big deal about it and potentially embarrass Erdoğan.

JORDAN

  • 655,456 confirmed cases (+4775)

  • 7565 reported fatalities (+96)

The Arab Center’s Curtis Ryan links Jordan’s recent unrest to its broader political and economic struggles:

These concerns are all part of the much broader context to Jordan’s current crises. There is (and has been for some time) a crisis in public confidence. Faith in governing institutions is low—so much so that most Jordanians are forced to turn to alternative sources of information to figure out what is “really” going on with almost every incident and crisis. Many people trust neither official government statements nor the largely state-oriented press. The main Arabic daily newspapers, for example—Addustour, Al-Ra’y, Alghad—often sound indistinguishable from press releases from the prime minister’s office or the Royal Hashemite Court. At the height of the Prince Hamza crisis, they even put out remarkably similar headlines, using wording directly from the deputy prime minister’s press conference.

The point is that the lack of a vibrant free press in Jordan clearly does not serve the public well, and not even the state, since most citizens ignore the semi-official press and are forced to look elsewhere: to Twitter, WhatsApp, and now also Clubhouse. Another key point is that this is not just about stability, survival, or security. The larger issue for most Jordanians is simply their own well-being and that of their country, and the prognosis at present is grim. In short, reform—real, genuine, inclusive reform—is essential for the state and society to do more than simply survive.

The economy is suffering terribly, unemployment is soaring especially among youth, and citizens have been chafing under recent curfews and lockdown restrictions as a horrible new surge in the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the country; on April 7, Jordan had about 645,000 infections and almost 7,400 deaths from the disease. But speaking out has become increasingly difficult in Jordan. Civil society and press freedoms have regressed, and the state has steadily increased its list of red lines against protests and demonstrations in recent years. Many Jordanians—activists, journalists, or ordinary citizens—complain not only of a steadily narrowing range of options for participating in public life, but also of goalposts that seem to keep moving.

If you haven’t yet listened to this week’s Foreign Exchanges podcast with the Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline, please check it out. She does a tremendous job contextualizing and trying to explain what’s been happening in this situation.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 835,486 confirmed cases (+270) in Israel, 262,017 confirmed cases (+2884) in Palestine

  • 6279 reported fatalities (+13) in Israel, 2781 reported fatalities (+28) in Palestine

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement on Thursday declaring that his government does not recognize the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction to investigate alleged human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories and will inform the ICC of that. This was always where the kerfuffle over the ICC’s investigation was going to end, since the court cannot enforce its own rulings. International law remains as non-binding as ever.

In a completely unrelated story, Israeli authorities are set to push forward on new settlement construction in the occupied West Bank that would, once completed, geographically sever East Jerusalem from the rest of Palestinian territory. This is not the grand annexation of the Jordan Valley that Netanyahu was pushing a year ago, but it is another nail in the proverbial coffin in which lies the vaunted “two-state solution.” That coffin must be pretty full of nails by now. Maybe more nails than coffin.

EGYPT

  • 208,082 confirmed cases (+789)

  • 12,323 reported fatalities (+33)

As you no doubt are aware, Egyptian authorities have reopened the Suez Canal to commercial traffic. They are, however, not releasing the massive container ship that blocked the canal for several days last month. Cairo is holding the Ever Given while it conducts an investigation into the ship’s grounding and until it receives some $1 billion in compensation from its Japanese owners. That latter part could prove tricky, as I’m sure the owners will want the ship’s Taiwanese operators to at least pay part of that cost and they’ll have to sort out that dispute before somebody pays Egypt.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

  • 478,131 confirmed cases (+2112)

  • 1523 reported fatalities (+3)

A new report from Noria Research does not offer any good news if you were hoping the Biden administration might reassess the US-UAE relationship:

With the Democratic party now in control of the House of Representatives, Senate, and White House for the first time since 2011, a question begs asking: will the changing of the political guard in Washington shift America’s outlook on Abu Dhabi’s regional project? It is no exaggeration to say that the futures of millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa very much hangs in the balance.

Our report, Dollars and Decadence, argues that the Biden administration and its allies in the Congress are unlikely to upend the status quo-ante when it comes to the US-UAE relationship, despite having abundant cause for doing so. This prognostication derives in part from the longstanding strategic partnership that Abu Dhabi has developed with the United States’ Department of Defense as well as from its signing of the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020. It is primarily informed, however, by the nature and depth of Abu Dhabi’s entanglements within the American economy, and by the dexterity with which the emirate influences elected officials and the policy community more broadly.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 57,019 confirmed cases (+76)

  • 2521 reported fatalities (+5)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Biden administration is still on course to blow right through the May 1 deadline to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan under the terms of the deal the Trump administration reached with the Taliban last February. There’s been no definitive statement to that effect from the administration, but at this point saying (and doing) nothing to actually affect a withdrawal is itself pretty definitive. Logistically the deadline would be nearly impossible to meet at this point. Biden seems to think he can talk the Taliban into extending the deadline to buy himself another six months to retreat with dignity or something to that effect, but I’m not sure his chances of success are particularly high.

MYANMAR

  • 142,549 confirmed cases (+8)

  • 3206 reported fatalities (+0)

At least 11 people have been killed in the town of Taze in central Myanmar, where security forces deployed on Wednesday to put down a protest and were met with armed opposition. Fighting continued well into Thursday morning, with the security forces bolstered by the arrival of reinforcements overnight. Something similar happened in the town of Kale (or Kalay) earlier this week, in an incident that left at least 12 people dead. These two clashes may be the start of a trend whereby isolated towns with large numbers of hunters who have access to weapons are beginning to shift from protesting February’s coup to resisting it by force of arms. Given Myanmar’s plethora of rebel factions, the rise of an armed opposition like that could escalate to a full fledged civil war. The junta has reportedly been throttling broadband internet services and even confiscating satellite TV dishes, either in an effort to prevent information about the coup from coming into the country or to prevent information about its crackdown from getting out. Or both, let’s say both.

The Biden administration added to its growing Myanmar sanctions list on Thursday by blacklisting the Myanma Gems Enterprise, which operates under Myanmar’s mining ministry and is potentially a source of revenue for the junta. In other international news, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Kyaw Zwar Minn, has reportedly been locked out of the country’s London embassy by the junta. Minn says the embassy’s military attaché has seized control of the facility and is holding several staff and family members inside. British authorities say they’re “seeking further information” about the situation.

CHINA

  • 90,365 confirmed cases (+24) on the mainland, 11,550 confirmed cases (+10) in Hong Kong

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

The Biden administration slapped export controls on seven Chinese entities with apparent links to a Chinese push to build an “exascale computer.” I most definitely did not Learn To Code but my understanding is that exascale computing is still in the development stage but basically refers to very fast super-computing, which unsurprisingly has substantial military applicability. This decision will require anyone selling US tech to these entities (a mix of three companies and four government labs) to obtain licenses from the Commerce Department before doing so. It is generally very difficult to obtain those licenses and it’s unlikely any US firm would even bother requesting them. The administration could further extend these controls by barring foreign companies that have access to US tech from selling that tech on to China.

AFRICA

SUDAN

  • 30,111 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 2063 reported fatalities (+0)

The situation in El Geneina, capital of Sudan’s West Darfur state, reportedly remains “stable” after several days of inter-communal violence. But the death toll is still rising as more information becomes available, and it now stands at 132, up from 87 on Wednesday. West Darfur’s governor, Mohamed Abdallah Douma, said Thursday that although there continues to be some “looting” in the area there’s been “no more fighting” over the past day-plus. The clashes began on Saturday when two members of the Masalit community were reportedly gunned down in a displaced persons camp in the city and then escalated into a wider conflict along Arab/non-Arab lines.

BENIN

  • 7515 confirmed cases (+202)

  • 93 reported fatalities (+0)

At least one person has been killed and six more wounded by gunfire in the Beninese city of Save amid ongoing protests over the likely reelection of President Patrice Talon on Sunday. Demonstrators in Save had cut off a major highway that runs through that city, prompting a heavy response from security forces. Presumably all seven of these people were shot by security forces, though the specific circumstances are unconfirmed. Protesters are angry that Tolon has reneged on his 2016 promise only to serve one term, and accuse him of leading the country into authoritarianism and of rigging this year’s election.

NIGERIA

  • 163,581 confirmed cases (+83)

  • 2058 reported fatalities (+0)

At least 11 Nigerian soldiers were killed Thursday when their patrol was attacked in Benue state by…well, somebody. Parts of Benue lie along Nigeria’s “Middle Belt,” where violence is generally between farming and herding communities competing for dwindling arable land. An attack on a military patrol suggests something more than simple inter-communal violence but it’s unclear at this point what that might be. This incident comes just a few days after alleged Biafran separatists attacked a prison in southeastern Nigeria, springing some 1800 inmates. There’s no particular reason to think there’s a connection between these two incidents apart from a general sense that sophisticated violence is metastasizing out of northeastern Nigeria to other parts of the country.

CHAD

  • 4616 confirmed cases (+10)

  • 167 reported fatalities (+1)

Speaking of which, Chadian President Idriss Déby says that he “know[s] in advance that [he] will win” reelection to a sixth term in Chad’s presidential election on Sunday. I guess he meant that as a statement of confidence, but in this context it’s really more an admission that elections in Chad are more or less superfluous. Déby is in power to stay, and since he’s in good graces with every Western state he doesn’t have to worry about annoying international criticism of his undemocratic grip on power.

ETHIOPIA

  • 223,665 confirmed cases (+2121)

  • 3078 reported fatalities (+20)

At least 12 people have been killed in reported inter-communal clashes between the Konso and Ale peoples in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples region. The two communities have been at odds over rival claims to part of the Ale district. Related violence last month reportedly killed 13 people.

SOMALIA

  • 12,271 confirmed cases (+293)

  • 605 reported fatalities (+29)

A new effort to solve Somalia’s political crisis has apparently broken down:

Last weekend, for the first time in more than a month, all five state presidents, the president of the federal government, and the governor of Benadir, the capital metropolis, agreed to meet.

The aim was to set an agenda for talks about the national election. The politicians were talking about what they would talk about later.

Even after a venue was agreed, the meeting was fraught. Various international actors are said to back different factions, so no one feels safe in the same place. Some politicians think they are at risk of having their food poisoned.

On Wednesday, talks collapsed.

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed promised when he assumed office in 2017 to move away from the country’s system of indirect elections and institute popular voting for parliament. He and the country’s five regional governors, particularly those in autonomous Jubaland and Puntland, could not agree on the terms for such a vote, and they then failed to agree on the terms for another indirect vote last year. With no legitimate parliament, February’s indirect vote for president never took place and now Mohamed’s legitimacy is in question.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 28,474 confirmed cases (+64)

  • 745 reported fatalities (+0)

At least one person was wounded in the northeastern Congolese city of Beni on Thursday when police opened fire on a group of protesters demanding the ouster of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC. The protesters are angry mostly at the mission’s abject failure to prevent or even reduce the frequency of militant attacks against civilians. There have been reports of heavy gunfire in connection with this demonstration so it wouldn’t be surprising if that casualty count were to rise.

MOZAMBIQUE

  • 68,466 confirmed cases (+35)

  • 788 reported fatalities (+3)

At least 12 people, all believed to have been foreigners, have been found beheaded in the town of Palma since the Mozambican military began regaining control over that town from Islamic State-aligned militants earlier this month. Authorities now say the town is fully back in government hands after a final push this week, though there is no independent confirmation of its assertions. Meanwhile, the presidents of Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe met with Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi in Maputo on Thursday to discuss the insurgency in northern Mozambique. As far as I can tell they all expressed their deep “concern” but didn’t make any substantive decisions.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

  • 1,803,998 confirmed cases (+19,419)

  • 35,962 reported fatalities (+464)

The Biden administration said on Thursday that it is, in the words of White House spokesperson Jen Psaki, “increasingly concerned by recent escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s border.” According to Psaki Russia has more soldiers amassed along its Ukrainian border than it’s had at any time since the 2014 ouster of ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych that precipitated all the fun and excitement Ukraine has experienced since then. It’s unclear whether Psaki’s claim is true but there has been an uptick in violence in eastern Ukraine and it does appear there’s been an increased Russian military deployment along the border, though the Russians have insisted they have no plans to undertake any military action in or against Ukraine.

UNITED KINGDOM

  • 4,370,321 confirmed cases (+3030)

  • 126,980 reported fatalities (+53)

When the UK voted to leave the European Union one fear was that the restoration, or even the suggestion of a restoration, of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would spark a renewal of violence between Northern Irish communities—perhaps not quite a return of The Troubles, but something like that. It’s starting to look like that fear might become a reality:

Violence continued late Thursday in Northern Ireland as police deployed water cannons against demonstrators. Around 100 youths approached armored vehicles in an Irish nationalist area of Belfast and threw stones at authorities. The crowd was later dispersed by riot police.

Earlier in the day, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive held an emergency meeting to condemn violent unrest in a pro-British area of Belfast.

An outbreak of violence late Wednesday had left at least 50 police officers injured as crowds of mostly young men set a bus on fire with petrol bombs.

“Destruction, violence and the threat of violence are completely unacceptable and unjustifiable, no matter what concerns may exist in communities,” the executive said in a statement.

“While our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order and we collectively state our support for policing and the police officers who have been putting themselves in harm’s way to protect others.”

While the Northern Irish government managed to put out that statement condemning the violence, its two main constituent parties—the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin—are at odds with respect to its causes. In particular, Sinn Féin has accused the DUP of inflaming the violence, which is rooted in unionist anger over the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. That deal leaves Northern Ireland more or less inside the EU’s customs zone on goods, which is necessitating some customs restrictions on commerce between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

  • 31,717,404 confirmed cases (+80,161)

  • 573,856 reported fatalities (+1009)

The US National Intelligence Council issued a new report on Thursday arguing that the world is likely facing “a more conflict-prone and volatile geopolitical environment” over the next couple of days. As far as I know the council didn’t add “…because we plan to make sure that it does,” but maybe that part is just understood. Ha ha ha, I…kid? I guess? Anyway, the report identifies multiple reasons for this new era of instability, including climate change, inequality, pandemics, technology, and the burgeoning US-China “cold war” that so many folks in DC seem anxious to lock into place.

Finally, over at Responsible Statecraft, researchers William Minter and Elizabeth Schmidt look at three recent reports (from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Chatham House, and the International Crisis Group) that are all critical of the counterterrorism-heavy US policy approach toward Africa:

All three reports agree that Western counterterrorism policy in the Sahel has failed, being both over-militarized and ineffective. All suggest, in slightly varying language, that policy must be “rebalanced” or “rethought” to emphasize diplomacy and good governance. This includes “talking with terrorists.” And while the emphasis on governance, along with military action, has long been part of the rhetoric of the international community and of powers engaged in the region, the new tone is clearly different.

All three studies conclude that the problem is not the absence of state authority, but rather the presence of states that are corrupt, repressive, and unaccountable to the people. However, there is little evidence of sufficient political will to change in any of the Sahelian countries.

Nor does it seem likely that the Western powers will shift their policies and practice to align with the new rhetoric, at least not any time soon. The institutions invested in military solutions have far more influence than policy think tanks due to their superior financing and bureaucratic clout. They also benefit from broad acceptance of the assumption that military domination of insurgent groups must precede governance-focused efforts. The globally reinforced counterterrorism dogma overshadows attention to the realities of national governments and local communities, which remains sporadic and inconsistent.