World roundup: August 31 2021

Stories from Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 30, 1363: The navies of two competing factions of the Red Turban rebels vying to replace the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty—one led by Zhu Yuanzhang and the other by Chen Youliang—begin a five week battle on Lake Poyang. When it was over, Chen Youliang was dead and Zhu Yuanzhang’s faction established itself as the main rebel group opposing the Yuan. Zhu and his forces eventually overthrew the Yuan and he took the throne as the Hongwu Emperor, the first ruler of the Ming Dynasty.

August 30, 1922: The Republican Turkish army defeats an occupying Greek force at the Battle of Dumlupınar in western Anatolia. In their victory the Turks destroyed the better part of an entire Greek corps and began driving the rest of the Greek army toward the western Anatolian coast. The Greek position was untenable and they withdrew completely from Anatolia in mid-September.

August 31, 1907: Britain and Russia sign the Anglo-Russian Convention, which closes arguably the last chapter in their “Great Game” rivalry in Asia, at least until the 1917 Russian Revolution. The two empires, having already agreed to mark Afghanistan as the frontier between their domains, further agreed to divide Iran into spheres of influence (Russian in the north, British in the south), to recognize Afghanistan as part of Britain’s sphere of influence, and to agree mutually not to interfere in Tibetan affairs.

August 31, 1957: The Malayan Declaration of Independence is proclaimed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, then-Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya. The declaration acknowledged the end of the British protectorate over the nine Malay states that made up the federation. This date is annually commemorated as Malaysian Independence Day, but there is a bit of controversy about that because Malaysia didn’t come into existence until 1963, when the former British colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore joined the federation (Singapore left a couple of years later). Some folks in North Borneo and Sarawak take issue with their “independence day” commemorating an event that took place before they were part of the country.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Heavy fighting reportedly continued on Tuesday in and around a rebel-controlled section of Daraa city in southern Syria. Rebel fighters have conducted multiple hit and run attacks on government security checkpoints around the city, while security forces have responded primarily with artillery. There’s no word on any new casualties on Tuesday but it’s believed that “several thousand” Daraa families have been displaced by the fighting and have moved south toward the Jordanian border. Also in southern Syria, two civilians were killed by a roadside bomb in Quneitra province on Tuesday. It’s unclear who planted the explosives.

YEMEN

According to Saudi state media, a Houthi drone strike on Abha airport has left at least eight people wounded and damaged a civilian airplane. The damage seems to have been caused by shrapnel after Saudi air defenses shot down the projectile. The Houthis apparently targeted the same facility with a missile on Monday, but that attack caused only minor material damage. It doesn’t appear that the Houthis have claimed these attacks yet but Abha airport is a regular target of theirs.

TURKEY

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke by phone with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan (the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates) on Tuesday. It’s unclear what they discussed but the high-level chat comes as Turkey and the UAE appear to be improving ever so slightly, in that the two governments are on speaking terms again. Turkey and the UAE sharply differ when it comes to the value of political Islam and have been on opposite sides of several regional conflicts since the Arab Spring. They fell out altogether when the UAE normalized relations with Israel last year. But if blood is thicker than water then money is thicker than either, and with Turkey’s economy in tatters Erdoğan is open to mending fences in hopes of attacting Emirati investment.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban threw itself a victory party on Tuesday, complete with “funeral services” for the United States and NATO (rest in peace?) in the city of Khost. In Kabul, meanwhile, residents queued up in front of banks that have barely been open since the city fell to the Taliban over two weeks ago, amid reports of Taliban fighters attacking women in the streets. It is difficult to overstate how precarious Afghanistan’s economic situation is, but France 24’s Stephen Carroll sums up the situation fairly effectively in this video:

As Carroll says, Afghanistan is thoroughly dependent on foreign aid and the availability of that aid is now in question. The US Treasury Department has issued a license permitting the continuation of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan regardless of any sanctions against the Taliban, but as the cases of Iran and Venezuela have amply shown, these kinds of humanitarian exemptions rarely work in practice. Maybe the Afghan exemption will be different, but if it’s not then the Afghan people will be the ones who suffer, not the Taliban.

Elsewhere, a skirmish between Taliban fighters and the “National Resistance Forces” group that’s taken up residence in the Panjshir Valley left at least seven Taliban fighters dead, according to two resistance officials. That’s the first serious engagement between the Taliban and NRF and may mean their mutual talk of a ceasefire is no longer relevant.

PAKISTAN

Pakistani security forces reportedly raided a hideout belonging to the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province affiliate in Baluchistan province early Tuesday morning, killing 11 of the group’s operatives. Details beyond that are unclear, but the raid seems to have been undertaken in retaliation for an earlier IS-K attack that killed two police officers in the same district.

AFRICA

NIGERIA

Islamic State West Africa Province fighters attacked the town of Rann, along the Nigerian-Cameroonian border, on Monday, chasing off the local garrison and killing at least 11 people. They’d already killed at least six people in an earlier attack on the town of Ajiri. The Nigerian military says that its forces were able to regain control.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Allied Democratic Forces militia fighters are believed to have been responsible for a mass kidnapping on Sunday in Ituri province. The abductors kidnapped 11 children, aged 9-17, from a village in the province, possibly to indoctrinate them as fighters. In what would be a rarity for the ADF, nobody was killed in the raid.

EUROPE

ESTONIA

As expected, since he wasn’t running against anybody else, soon-to-be-former National Museum director Alar Karis was elected as Estonia’s next president on Tuesday with 72 votes in the 101 seat Riigikogu. Although the outcome was a bit anticlimactic the way the vote took place was not. Karis was supposed to have been elected on Monday, but he was unable to muster the required two-thirds majority. I’m not sure what changed between Monday and Tuesday but it may have simply been that a last-ditch search for a second acceptable candidate came up empty.

CYPRUS

The oil spill detected emanating from a power plant in Syria’s Tartus province earlier this month has spread over an unfortunately wide swathe of the eastern Mediterranean and is now approaching northern Cyprus. Syrian claims that the size of the spill “was not large” may have understated the problem just a touch. Authorities in breakaway northern Cyprus say they’re relying on Turkish assistance to try to minimize the threat posed by the slick. The Cypriot government has offered assistance, but given the tensions between it and the northern separatists their offer will likely be ignored.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

As we mentioned yesterday, the Venezuelan opposition alliance led by would-be president Juan Guaidó announced on Tuesday that it will field candidates in state and local elections to be held this November. The parties in the alliance boycotted Venezuela’s presidential election in 2018 and last year’s legislative election, and while it’s impossible to know whether their participation would have altered the outcomes of those elections, participating couldn’t have been any less productive than boycotting turned out to be. Opposition negotiators will try to wring some nod toward “free and fair” elections out of Nicolás Maduro’s representatives at their ongoing talks in Mexico City, but whether they’ll achieve anything remains to be seen.

UNITED STATES

Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan on Tuesday with the familiarly incoherent refrain that withdrawal was the right thing to do and also that Donald Trump made him do it:

The previous administration’s agreement said that if we stuck to the May 1st deadline that they had signed on to leave by, the Taliban wouldn’t attack any American forces, but if we stayed, all bets were off.

So we were left with a simple decision: Either follow through on the commitment made by the last administration and leave Afghanistan, or say we weren’t leaving and commit another tens of thousands more troops going back to war.

That was the choice — the real choice — between leaving or escalating.

I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit. The decision to end the military airlift operations at Kabul airport was based on the unanimous recommendation of my civilian and military advisors — the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all the service chiefs, and the commanders in the field.

Their recommendation was that the safest way to secure the passage of the remaining Americans and others out of the country was not to continue with 6,000 troops on the ground in harm’s way in Kabul, but rather to get them out through non-military means.

You can watch the speech if you like:

These two defenses don’t co-exist well with one another. If Biden made a principled decision not to extend the Afghan war then that’s that, and he should be commended for it. On the other hand, if Trump left him with no choice, then how principled a decision could it have been? I guess we’re meant to think that he really considered escalation as an alternative, but that seems unlikely in the extreme. On the political calculus alone, a new Afghan surge (coupled, as it would have been, with renewed Taliban attacks on American soldiers) would have been a nightmare for him.

I’ve seen headlines describing Biden’s speech as the start of a “new era,” or something similiarly overblown, in US foreign policy. In fact Biden made it very clear that the end of the Afghan war is not the end of the War on Terror:

This is a new world. The terror threat has metastasized across the world, well beyond Afghanistan. We face threats from al-Shabaab in Somalia; al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula; and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia.

The fundamental obligation of a President, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America — not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow.

That is the guiding principle behind my decisions about Afghanistan. I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars a year in Afghanistan.

But I also know that the threat from terrorism continues in its pernicious and evil nature. But it’s changed, expanded to other countries. Our strategy has to change too.

We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.

Biden went on to talk about military competition with Russia and China, which is the real motherlode for the Pentagon and will be the primary driver of the US security state, and its ever-expanding budget, moving forward. But great power competition, or the New Cold War, or whatever, isn’t replacing the War on Terror, it’s just supplanting it at the top of Washington’s list of priorities. For what it’s worth, ISIS hasn’t had a caliphate or even pretended to have one in Syria and Iraq since 2017 and the idea that the United States is seriously threatened by any of its affiliates, or al-Qaeda’s affiliates—even the dreaded al-Shabab—is absurd. This was just a reminder that despite what is admittedly a significant adjustment in the disposition of the US empire, the empire itself isn’t going anywhere.