World roundup: December 10 2020

Stories from Turkey, Morocco, Italy, and more

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Happy Hanukkah to those who are celebrating!

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

December 9, 1824: The armies of Peru and Gran Colombia defeat a Spanish royalist army in the Battle of Ayacucho. Considered one of the last major engagements of the Latin American wars of independence, the Peruvian-Colombian victory ensured Peru’s independence and cleared the way for the Peruvian commander, General Antonio José de Sucre, to enter Upper Peru (modern Bolivia) and campaign there.

December 9, 1961: The Tanganyika Territory, which later merged with Zanzibar to form Tanzania, gains independence from the United Kingdom. Annually commemorated as Tanzanian independence day.

December 9, 1987: The First Intifada begins

December 10, 1877: A Russian army defeats an Ottoman garrison and captures the town of Plevna, in modern Bulgaria.

December 10, 1898: The Treaty of Paris ends the Spanish-American War. Under its terms, Spain agreed to give up its claims on Cuba (which became a US protectorate) and turned Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico over to the United States. It is often considered the end of the Spanish empire, though Spain still held some colonies so that’s not really accurate, and the first emergence of the United States as a major world power.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for December 10:

  • 67965514 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (19407222 active, +536938 since yesterday)

  • 1550372 reported fatalities (+8399 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 8787 confirmed coronavirus cases (+112)

  • 476 reported fatalities (+11)

A car bombing at a checkpoint in the northeast Syrian city of Ras al-Ayn killed at least four people on Thursday, according to Turkish officials in control of that region. They accused the Kurdish YPG militia of carrying out the attack. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 12, including at least two civilians along with two Turkish security forces and seven Syrian rebel fighters. Elsewhere, the SOHR says that Islamic State fighters killed nine pro-government militia fighters in an early morning attack in Deir Ezzor province. Two IS personnel were also killed.

YEMEN

  • 2081 confirmed coronavirus cases (+2)

  • 606 reported fatalities (+0)

The Yemeni government and southern separatist forces have apparently begun implementing the power sharing agreement they reached in November. By which I mean November 2019. Better late than never, am I right? Under the deal, the respective military forces of the government and the Southern Transitional Council will disengage from their front line positions in Abyan province and redeploy to the war against the Houthis in northern Yemen, and both sides will stand down in the city of Aden and pull out of the surrounding province. Assuming that goes well, they will then roll out a new unity government including representatives from the STC.

TURKEY

  • 1,748,567 confirmed cases (+30,424)

  • 15,751 reported fatalities (+220)

The number of Turkish COVID-19 cases suddenly doubled on Thursday based on a new revelatory data release from the Turkish Health Ministry. I have no idea what the context is for these new figures or why the Turkish government is only just releasing them, but this does correspond with recent accusations that Ankara has been cooking the proverbial books.

According to Reuters, the Trump administration is preparing to impose sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system. This is in one sense long overdue, since Turkey bought its first S-400 in 2017 and took delivery of it last year, and the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act obliges the president to impose penalties in such situations.

Donald Trump has been trying to avoid this step because he likes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally, but I guess that doesn’t matter so much now that Trump is on his way out the door, and pressure from Congress for Trump to impose these sanctions has been mounting. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act goes so far as to present the administration with a list of possible sanctions from which it must choose something. Expectations are that Trump has selected a sanctions package at the milder end of the spectrum Congress is offering him. Nevertheless, this will obviously be a setback for US-Turkish relations.

LEBANON

  • 142,187 confirmed cases (+1778)

  • 1170 reported fatalities (+14)

Lebanese prosecutors have brought charges against interim Prime Minister Hassan Diab and three former cabinet ministers for negligence in connection with the massive ammonium nitrate explosion that destroyed most of Beirut’s seaport back in August. Diab insists he was not responsible for the circumstances that led to the blast. He’s the highest profile figure charged in connection with the blast, but as someone who was chosen prime minister without having a strong internal constituency he can also be prosecuted very prominently without much risk of alienating any of Lebanon’s major political factions.

IRAN

  • 1,083,023 confirmed cases (+10,403)

  • 51,496 reported fatalities (+284)

The US military is reportedly “on heightened alert and shoring up its forces in the Middle East to respond to a potential Iranian attack.” Is there any evidence that an “Iranian attack” is forthcoming? Who knows? Pentagon officials say they’ve seen “indicators of potential attack preparations” by Iraqi militias, but they don’t seem to have gone into any more detail than that.

Responsible Statecraft’s Paul Pillar argues that it would be a very bad idea for Joe Biden to try to use the Trump administration’s sanctions campaign as leverage to wring concessions from Iran:

Leverage — in international relations as in other situations — requires making treatment of the target of leverage conditional. Treatment must depend on what the target country does. Desirable behavior elicits rewards or at least an absence of punishment; undesirable behavior is punished with treatment that hurts.

Punishing the target country regardless of its behavior does not create leverage; it destroys it. That’s what the Trump administration has done by reneging on its obligations under the JCPOA, and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, even though Iran was fully complying with its own obligations. Iran continued to comply for a year after the Trump administration’s reneging, but the Trump people just added still more punishment and escalated to all-out economic warfare.

When Iranian leaders see their country being punished no matter what it does, the incentive for them to comply with agreements and behave the way we would like to see them behave vanishes. They start looking instead for ways to exert pressure back, which is exactly what Iran has been doing over the past year and a half in response to the Trump policies. Iranian leaders perceive — probably correctly — that the true objective of Mike Pompeo and others shaping the Trump administration’s policies on Iran has been regime change. Regime change is the ultimate killer of incentives for good behavior. Why comply with the wishes of someone who is determined to get rid of you anyway?

The only possible route to new negotiations would be for Biden to convince Iran somehow that the United States, all evidence to the contrary, is a reliable negotiating partner that will uphold its commitments. I suspect this is an impossibility, but it’s unquestionably true that trying to squeeze Iran for extra concessions because of what the Trump administration did would only reinforce Tehran’s (correct) impression that the US is acting in bad faith.

ASIA

KYRGYZSTAN

  • 76,391 confirmed cases (+379)

  • 1306 reported fatalities (+3)

The Kyrgyz parliament voted overwhelmingly (60-4, admittedly with many MPs absent) on Wednesday to approve the details of next month’s constitutional referendum. Voters will be asked whether they want to roll back elements of Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 constitution that weakened the presidency in favor of empowering the legislature. Voters will undoubtedly be inundated with messages urging them to vote yes. The referendum will be held on January 10, simultaneously with a presidential election in which de facto Kyrgyz leader Sadyr Japarov is running and which he will presumably win. For obvious reasons he strongly favors a return to a more powerful presidency.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 48,753 confirmed cases (+213)

  • 1939 reported fatalities (+18)

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the murder Thursday of a female journalist and women’s rights activist, Malalai Maiwand, in Jalalabad. IS gunmen attacked Maiwand and her driver, killing both.

CHINA

  • 86,673 confirmed cases (+12) on the mainland, 7292 confirmed cases (+112) in Hong Kong

  • 4634 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 114 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong

The Chinese government is beginning to retaliate for several recent punitive diplomatic moves by the Trump administration. On Thursday, it revoked “visa exemptions for U.S. diplomatic passport holders in Hong Kong and Macau” along with their families. The impact of these travel restrictions should be more significant than similar measures dealing with travel to mainland China, since relatively few US government and non-profit personnel visit mainland China but many still continue to travel to China’s autonomous regions. More Chinese measures may be forthcoming.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 89,183 confirmed cases (+661)

  • 1273 reported fatalities (+12)

The “Libyan National Army” says it’s released the Turkish cargo ship it impounded last week, after charging the crew with a fine. There’s no indication that the ship was carrying illicit weapons in violation of the international arms embargo, as the LNA suggested earlier this week. The seizure had raised concerns about a breakdown in Libya’s nascent peace process, which this release may avert though to some extent the damage has already been done.

MOROCCO

  • 391,529 confirmed cases (+3345) in Morocco, 10 confirmed cases (+0) in Western Sahara

  • 6492 reported fatalities (+65) in Morocco, 1 reported fatality (+0) in Western Sahara

In its latest foreign policy triumph on behalf of another country, the Trump administration announced on Thursday that it’s brokered a deal to normalize ties between Morocco and Israel. In return for normalizing relations with Israel, the Moroccan government will get something it’s been after for almost half a century—diplomatic recognition of its claim on the Western Sahara region. As it did in recognizing Israel’s claim on the Golan last year and on Jerusalem in 2017, the US will buck international consensus and international law and treat Western Sahara as part of Morocco, even though it has no real standing to make such a determination. It will also sell advanced reconnaissance drones to the Moroccan government, drones that will almost certainly be helpful in suppressing any Sahrawi resistance to annexation.

Like the “Abraham Accords” earlier this year, this agreement merely makes overt a relationship that has been covertly getting closer for many years now. Unlike the accords, in this case the Palestinians aren’t the only people being thrown under the proverbial bus (though they are being thrown under the bus, don’t get me wrong). The Palestinians now have some company under there, in the form of the people of the Western Sahara region, the Sahrawis. Western Sahara’s status has been in dispute since its former Spanish colonizers withdrew in 1975, leaving the region to be effectively colonized by Morocco instead.

A 1991 ceasefire agreement that froze the conflict between Morocco and the Sahrawi nationalist POLISARIO Front called for a United Nations-organized referendum on the region’s disposition, but that referendum never happened and it would be impossible to do so now, as the Moroccan government has spent decades incentivizing Moroccans to resettle in Western Sahara and it would be difficult to know who should even rightly vote in such a plebiscite. This makes it nearly impossible to know what status most Sahrawis support—independence, full annexation, autonomous status within Morocco, or something else—but it doesn’t really matter. The interests of the people living in Western Sahara have been deemed irrelevant when weighed against the needs and wants of Benjamin Netanyahu, Moroccan King Mohammed VI, and Donald Trump.

SOMALIA

  • 4579 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 121 reported fatalities (+0)

US Africa Command carried out two airstrikes against suspected al-Shabab bomb makers in southern Somalia on Thursday. The initial US assessment is that the strikes killed “terrorists” and caused no civilian casualties. Of course, that’s the initial assessment for all US airstrikes in Somalia, regardless of whether or not they actually cause civilian casualties.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 13,997 confirmed cases (+154)

  • 350 reported fatalities (+0)

The DRC’s National Assembly voted 281-200 Thursday to oust Speaker (well, former speaker anyway) Jeannine Mabunda, in perhaps the first step in President Félix Tshisekedi’s effort to remake the Congolese government. Mabunda is an ally of former President Joseph Kabila and his Common Front for Congo coalition. Tshisekedi earlier this week dissolved his own alliance with Kabila and has suggested he intends to break up the FCC coalition in order to put together his own governing majority. A few parties in the FCC have expressed their willingness to quit that coalition and support Tshisekedi, but the vote to sack Mabunda is the first concrete sign that the president’s efforts are working.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 2,569,126 confirmed cases (+27,927)

  • 45,280 reported fatalities (+562)

To mark “Human Rights Day” on Thursday, the Trump administration made a stunning break with US foreign policy, imposing massive penalties on serial human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Just kidding! It sanctioned a bunch of Bad Guys, by which I mean people who aren’t useful to the United States in some way that would incentivize us to ignore their foibles. That included a few Houthi rebels in Yemen, a couple of Haitians, and, most prominently, Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov. It also sanctioned five other individuals and six Russian companies with ties to Kadyrov. Under the Global Magnitsky Act, these sanctions include freezing any assets those entities have in the US as well barring US firms and individuals (banks, in particular) from engaging with them.

UKRAINE

  • 858,714 confirmed cases (+13,371)

  • 14,470 reported fatalities (+266)

The Ukrainian government said on Thursday that it’s discussed another round of prisoner swaps and potentially a troop withdrawal with eastern Ukrainian rebels and their Russian patron. Ukrainian officials say they’d like to carry out another prisoner swap before the end of the year and have submitted a list of names, but the rebels have not yet countered with a list of their own.

ITALY

  • 1,787,147 confirmed cases (+16,999)

  • 62,626 reported fatalities (+887)

Italian prosecutors say they “intend to charge four senior members of Egypt’s security services” in the 2016 murder of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni. They’re alleged to have kidnapped Regeni and then tortured and killed him, possibly because his research focused on labor unions and ways to break the Egyptian military’s hold over the country’s economy. What had been a joint investigation fell apart last year amid Italian claims that the Egyptians were dragging their feet and amid mounting evidence that elements within the Egyptian government were involved. Nevertheless, the Italian government has continued to maintain normal relations with and even sell weapons to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government.

FRANCE

  • 2,337,966 confirmed cases (+13,750)

  • 56,940 reported fatalities (+292)

Speaking of Sisi, he received the French government’s highest award, the Légion d'honneur, during his state visit to Paris earlier this week. How nice for him. In response to the obvious criticism that followed his decision to honor a known mass murderer and flagrant human rights violator, President Emmanuel Macron has had his spokespeople tell the media that it was all pro forma—every state visit includes some kind of honorific, and as a visiting head of state the only honor they could appropriately give Sisi was the Légion d'honneur. It’s all very simple and believable, I guess, except for the part where somebody clearly held Macron hostage and forced him to invite Sisi in the first place. Somebody should look into that.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

  • 6,783,543 confirmed cases (+53,425)

  • 179,801 reported fatalities (+769)

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said Thursday that his country is “at the tail end of the pandemic.” Sure thing, buddy:

VENEZUELA

  • 106,280 confirmed cases (+428)

  • 938 reported fatalities (+5)

Venezuelan election authorities say that allies of President Nicolás Maduro won more than two-thirds of the seats in this past weekend’s National Assembly election. Again this is not surprising, given that the opposition mostly boycotted, and it’s not really that momentous an achievement given that turnout was a measly 31 percent.

HONDURAS

  • 112,792 confirmed cases (+617)

  • 2961 reported fatalities (+9)

Hundreds of people whose lives were battered by hurricanes Eta and Iota last month gathered in Honduras to begin another migrant caravan to the US-Mexico border on Thursday. But Honduran and Guatemalan authorities are working to stop their march before it really gets started. A group of migrants has reportedly crossed into Guatemala but Honduran police have set up checkpoints to try to impede the caravan and the Guatemalan government has said it will require clean COVID-19 tests from anyone crossing the border.

UNITED STATES

  • 16,039,393 confirmed cases (+217,779)

  • 299,692 reported fatalities (+2974)

Finally, TomDispatch’s Michael Klare examines Donald Trump’s real military legacy—ramping down the destructive “War on Terror” in order to ramp up to a potentially cataclysmic World War III:

People seldom notice that Trump’s approach to military policy has always been two-faced. Even as he repeatedly denounced the failure of his predecessors to abandon those endless counterinsurgency wars, he bemoaned their alleged neglect of America’s regular armed forces and promised to spend whatever it took to “restore” their fighting strength. “In a Trump administration,” he declared in a September 2016 campaign speech on national security, America’s military priorities would be reversed, with a withdrawal from the “endless wars we are caught in now” and the restoration of “our unquestioned military strength.”

Once in office, he acted to implement that very agenda, instructing his surrogates — a succession of national security advisers and secretaries of defense — to commence U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan (though he agreed for a time to increase troop levels in Afghanistan), while submitting ever-mounting defense budgets. The Pentagon’s annual spending authority climbed every year between 2016 and 2020, rising from $580 billion at the start of his administration to $713 at the end, with much of that increment directed to the procurement of advanced weaponry. Additional billions were incorporated into the Department of Energy budget for the acquisition of new nuclear weapons and the full-scale “modernization” of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Far more important than that increase in arms spending, however, was the shift in strategy that went with it. The military posture President Trump inherited from the Obama administration was focused on fighting the Global War on Terror (GWOT), a grueling, never-ending struggle to identify, track, and destroy anti-Western zealots in far-flung areas of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The posture he’s bequeathing to Joe Biden is almost entirely focused on defeating China and Russia in future “high-end” conflicts waged directly against those two countries — fighting that would undoubtedly involve high-tech conventional weapons on a staggering scale and could easily trigger nuclear war.