World roundup: August 5 2021
Stories from Azerbaijan, Germany, Brazil, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 4, 1578: The Battle of Alcácer Quibir
August 4, 1791: The Treaty of Sistova ends the Austrian-Ottoman War of 1787-1791. This rather unremarkable treaty, ending a rather unremarkable war (the Ottomans lost a little territory, but that’s it), turned out to be quite remarkable in hindsight because it marked the end of the long (265 year) series of Ottoman-Habsburg conflicts. Austria’s attentions turned west, due to the French Revolution, and later turned to the rise of Prussia, while Russia became the Ottomans’ main adversary moving forward.
August 5, 1571: The Cypriot city of Famagusta surrenders to the Ottomans, ending a nearly 11 month siege. As the final Venetian-held city on Cyprus, Famagusta’s surrender meant the total Ottoman conquest of the island. What was supposed to be a peaceful handover turned violent when the Ottoman commander, Lala Mustafa Pasha, abruptly had Venetian commander Marco Antonio Bragadin mutilated and taken into custody (and ultimately executed a couple of days later) and then unleashed his soldiers on the residents of the city. It’s unclear why Mustafa did this—he argued that Bragadin had executed his own Ottoman prisoners and murdered a group of Muslim pilgrims, but it may be that he was letting out some pent up frustration that such a small garrison was able to hold off and embarrass his much larger army for so long. The siege prompted the formation of a new “Holy League” alliance that eventually defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto, though that took place after Famagusta fell.
August 5, 1960: Although it was called the “Republic of Upper Volta” at the time, this is the date when Burkina Faso declared its independence from France.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The US military is apparently concerned about a new uptick in violence in Syria’s al-Hol displacement camp:
A five-day raid that targeted Islamic State members inside northeast Syria’s sprawling al-Hol detention camp in March appears to have led to a reduction in killings there, the US military reported.
The raid led to the arrest of 125 people in the camp, including what security forces there say was a five-member assassination squad of Iraqi men believed to have been involved in a series of grisly murders in the camp.
Yet US CENTCOM assessed that the lull in violence may only be temporary, as an uptick of eight murders were recorded in the camp in June alone, according to a new report released by the Pentagon’s inspector general.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has apparently determined that Islamic State fighters are “smuggling” young men and boys out of camps like al-Hol for recruitment purposes.
Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati told reporters on Thursday that he’s made “progress,” albeit “slow” progress, toward forming a new government. Mikati’s comments came after a meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and are a bit of a change from the more pessimistic tone he struck earlier this week. International donors pledged some $370 million in new Lebanese aid this week but have signaled they won’t deliver that money until Lebanon has a government and has begun undertaking Western-approved “reforms.”
The Israeli military conducted airstrikes on targets in southern Lebanon early Thursday in response to the previous day’s cross-border rocket fire. The Israelis had already retaliated with artillery but the airstrikes apparently targeted the specific sites whence those rockets were launched. There are Palestinian militias that operate in southern Lebanon and Israeli officials seem to believe one of them was responsible. There’s still no word on any casualties, but the exchange has been significant enough for the United Nations southern Lebanon peacekeeping force to call a meeting with Israeli and Lebanese military officials on Thursday.
Ebrahim Raisi officially took the reins as Iran’s new president on Thursday. There’s not much to say about this that we haven’t already said, though it’s worth noting that amid the pablum of his inaugural address Raisi talked about his openness to diplomacy with regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. In reference to negotiations over restoring the 2015 nuclear deal, Raisi said he will “support any diplomatic plan” that secures relief from US sanctions. Of course the United States will have something to say about that, and the Biden administration’s insistence that Iran commit to follow-on negotiations (absent a corresponding US commitment to adhere to its obligations under the original deal) is something Raisi has already criticized.
Armenia’s defense ministry claimed on Thursday that Russian soldiers have been deployed in Armenia’s Tavush province as security along the border with Azerbaijan. This is something Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan asked Moscow to do last week. There are no details as to the size of the deployment or whether it’s isolated to Tavush or will be extended to other parts of the border.
One reason Pashinyan asked for Russian border guards is because of a surge in irredentist rhetoric from Azerbaijan that, taken to its extreme limits, suggests that Armenia maybe shouldn’t exist. Eurasianet’s Laurence Broers explains some of the context and implications of that rhetoric:
Ironically, Azerbaijan’s advance – physical and rhetorical – into Armenia involves two consequential reversals. The first is Azerbaijan’s apparent transformation from a defender to a challenger of the norm of territorial integrity. For decades, Azerbaijan has positioned itself as a victim of territorial injustice resulting from the occupation and ethnic cleansing of its lands in 1992-1994 – which Azerbaijan attributes to Armenian irredentism. Yet now the tables are completely turned, as Azerbaijani think-tankers now disseminate the same kinds of territorially expansionist imagery and irredentist tropes that they have spent years condemning.
The second reversal concerns the retreat from the foundational national doctrine of Aliyev-era Azerbaijan: “Azerbaijanism.” Azerbaijanism was introduced by former president Heydar Aliyev in the mid-1990s as a doctrine defining the framework of the Azerbaijani nation to be citizenship within the borders of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijanism therefore foregrounded territorial integrity as a response to Armenian secessionism. By defining Azerbaijani nationhood in terms of citizenship rather than ethnic identity, Azerbaijanism also assuaged regional discomfort with the irredentist imagery and rhetoric about a “Greater Azerbaijan” spilling over into Iran, an idea associated with Heydar Aliyev’s predecessor, Abulfaz Elchibey. As such, Azerbaijanism recognized the potentially hugely destabilizing impacts of Azerbaijani irredentism given the size of the Azerbaijani community in northern Iran
Azerbaijanism has nevertheless come under increasing pressure over recent years. Since the late 2000s, the idea of Azerbaijan as a nation defined by the citizens living on its territory has been increasingly challenged by a political discourse laying claim to the territory of the Republic of Armenia as Azerbaijani “ancestral lands.” These claims deemphasize the country’s modern map as the definition of its nationhood, suggesting instead a much wider ethnic Azerbaijani homeland extending laterally under Armenia.
As Broers writes, this surge in irredentism could be intended to pressure Armenia into agreeing to a final settlement of the two states’ borders, or it could be a charming new feature of Ilham Aliyev’s governing ideology meant to inject nationalist energy into what’s now nearly a 30 year dictatorship that began with the accession of Ilham’s father, Heydar Aliyev, in 1993. It’s hard to know which at this point.
The Afghan military continued its heavy air campaign in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, focusing particularly on the city of Lashkar Gah in an attempt to dislodge Taliban fighters who have taken control of most of the city. At least three more civilians have been killed and 40 wounded over the past day. Elsewhere, the Taliban has reportedly advanced into the capital of northern Afghanistan’s Sar-e Pol province and now controls “most” of the city according to local officials. Militants are also threatening Shibirghan, capital of neighboring Jawzjan province.
Taliban officials say they’ve turned their attention on provincial capitals in retaliation for escalations in US airstrikes in recent weeks. The arrangement under which the US agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan also committed the US to reductions in its air campaign while obligating the Taliban to steer clear of major population centers. In the Taliban’s view the US broke that agreement. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban actually has the capacity to take, and more importantly to hold, a major urban area.
The Pakistani government has deployed paramilitary security forces to the town of Bhong in the country’s Punjab region in response to a spike in inter-communal violence. A Muslim mob attacked a Hindu temple in Bhong on Wednesday in response to unverified claims, disbursed via social media, that a Hindu boy had been caught last month urinating inside an Islamic seminary. There were no casualties from the temple attack but the attackers did do considerable physical damage to the structure. There apparently is a boy in custody for allegedly “desecrating” the seminary but whether he’s a member of Bhang’s Hindu community is unclear. In theory he could be charged with blasphemy under Pakistani law, which could carry a death sentence.
The Biden administration announced on Thursday that it will offer “safe haven” refuge to people from Hong Kong currently living in the United States. Essentially this means most Hongkongers (there are exceptions) residing in the US who are at risk of deportation will now be able to stay put for at least 18 more months, with the possibility of further extensions beyond that. The announcement is unlikely to go over well in Beijing though as far as I know the Chinese government hasn’t commented yet.
Unspecified attackers killed at least 30 people in a spree of violence on Thursday near the town of Markoye in northeastern Burkina Faso. Several villages were targeted as well as Burkinabé security forces who responded to the attacks. Of those killed, 11 were civilians while the rest were either security forces or allied paramilitaries. At least ten of the attackers were also killed. This seems to have some of the hallmarks of an Islamic State operation (mainly the intentional targeting of civilians), though at this point the identity of the attackers is unknown.
Amnesty International says it’s documented 115 people killed by Nigerian security forces in the country’s restive southeastern region during the first half of 2021, demonstrating what Amnesty’s Nigeria director, Osai Ojigho, characterized as “a damning picture of ruthless excessive force.” The group also says it’s confirmed claims of other abuses by security forces, including arbitrary arrest and torture. Southeastern Nigeria has been rocked by violence over the past several months, much of which authorities have attributed to the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra group (IPOB denies these accusations).
A Chadian military patrol in the Lake Chad region was reportedly ambushed on Wednesday and at least 24 soldiers were killed. A regional official labeled the attackers “Boko Haram” but it’s considerably more likely that they were Islamic State West Africa Province fighters—Chadian authorities tend not to distinguish between ISWAP and Boko Haram Classic when discussing jihadist violence.
South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar seems to believe he’s still in control of his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) party, even though the party’s military wing declared on Wednesday that he’d been deposed. Not long after the military wing made its announcement, Machar issued a statement of his own saying that it’s actually those members of the military wing who tried to oust him who have themselves been ousted from the party. Machar further accused them of being “peace spoilers,” and the suggestion is that they’re opposed to integrating SPLM-IO forces into the national armed forces as stipulated under the 2018 peace deal Machar signed with President Salva Kiir. Suffice to say it’s hard to know what to make of this situation at this point.
Tigray People’s Liberation Front fighters have reportedly captured the town of Lalibela in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Aside from taking the TPLF deeper into Amhara this is significant because Lalibela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its 12th-13th century rock-hewn churches. There are understandable concerns about the protection of those sites, whether from the TPLF or from a potential counterattack.
A protest in the Kenyan town of Embu turned violent on Thursday when police opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least one person. The protest was held over the death of two brothers earlier this week, apparently while they in police custody for allegedly violating a COVID curfew. The two men were detained late Sunday and turned up dead two days later with no explanation from authorities. The Kenyan government says it’s investigating the incident. Several international human rights organizations have accused Kenyan police of excessive brutality in the enforcement of the country’s pandemic restrictions. They’ve identified at least 25 extrajudicial killings that can be linked to COVID enforcement, and that’s not including the two killings in Embu.
New polling indicates that Germany’s hapless Social Democratic Party, which has been languishing in third place behind the CDU-CSU Union alliance and the Greens, may be on a bit of an uptick. The latest Deutschlandtrend survey has the SPD still in third place, but trailing the Greens by a mere point, 19 percent to 18 percent. That’s three points better than SPD performed in last month’s Deutschlandtrend poll and one point worse for the Greens. The Union is still in the lead but it also lost a point, and more importantly its proposed coalition with the Greens is now polling at only 46 percent. An alternative Green-SPD-Free Democratic Party coalition now polls better, at a collective 49 percent. Fueling this small but potentially important shift may be voters’ preference for SPD leader Olaf Scholz to become chancellor rather than the Union’s candidate, Armin Laschet. The survey shows that 35 percent of voters want Scholz to succeed Angela Merkel against 29 percent in favor of Laschet. German voters will head to the polls on September 26.
Jair Bolsonaro’s inability to shut up about his intent to ignore next year’s presidential election continues to land him in legal hot water. After Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court announced earlier this week that it’s opening an investigation in the president’s frequent preemptive claims of fraud, the country’s Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it will open its own investigation into the possibility that Bolsonaro’s comments amount to slander and/or criminal incitement. The court could charge Bolsonaro with abusing his power as president. He responded in his usual level-headed fashion, threatening some sort of unspecified extra-constitutional retaliation toward the court.
Chief Justice Luiz Fux scheduled and then abruptly cancelled a planned meeting with Bolsonaro on Thursday that would have been intended to calm things down but now appears to have inflamed the situation even further. He cited Bolsonaro’s barrage of verbal attacks against the court’s justices in concluding that there was no point holding the meeting.
Colombian officials say that police have seized some 67 kilograms of explosives that dissident ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fighters were planning to use in a major attack in Bogotá. It’s unclear when this alleged attack was to have taken place.
Lawyers for Antonio Intriago, the head of the Florida-based CTU security firm responsible for hiring the Colombian mercenaries that have been arrested in connection with Jovenal Moïse’s assassination, issued a statement on Wednesday denying that their client was involved in the plot to murder the former Haitian president. This should all be taken with several grains of salt, but they contend that Intriago was initially contracted to hire the Colombians as security but they were then told to arrest Moïse. They arrived at his residence on July 7 to find (allegedly) the president already dead, possibly killed by his own security detail. The statement suggests that the assassination may have been orchestrated by former Haitian Supreme Court judge Windelle Coq-Thelot, whom Moïse sacked earlier this year. According to Intriago’s lawyers, it was Coq-Thelot who approached him about the supposed plan to arrest Moïse. She’s currently wanted by Haitian authorities and has denied involvement in the assassination.
Finally, Friend of FX Kelsey Atherton has a new piece over at Brookings’ “TechStream” outlet that will be of interest to anyone concerned about the rise of autonomous weapons systems:
Loitering missiles operate from a simple premise: What if a missile could become more accurate by slowing down?
Awkward cousins to armed drones and cruise missiles, loitering munitions were first developed as a specialized weapon to target anti-aircraft systems in the 1980s and now exist as an alternative to everything from airstrikes to mortar rounds or grenade tosses. Loitering munitions can be as small as a model airplane or longer than a surfboard. Typically fixed-wing and powered by pusher propellers, they can resemble everything from matchsticks with wings to Klingon Birds of Prey. Categorically, loitering munitions are autonomous missiles that can stay airborne for some time, identify a target, and then attack. A munition’s loiter—or the amount of time between launch and detonation—is a function of the missile’s sensors and the kinds of targets these weapons are wielded against.
For decades, loitering missiles have been on the forefront of autonomous lethality. Historically, loitering munitions were used to target things like radars but are increasingly being used to attack humans. And as they make this transition in targeting capability, loitering munitions represent a bridge between today’s precision-guided weapons that rely on greater levels of human control and our future of autonomous weapons with increasingly little human intervention.