World roundup: December 11-13 2020

Stories from Egypt, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, and more

This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:

Happy Hanukkah to those who are celebrating!


December 11, 861: The Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil is assassinated by his Turkic royal guard in his palace in Samarra. Al-Mutawakkil’s murder was the final straw in the capture of the caliphate by its Turkish slave soldiery and kicked off a 10 year period known as the “Anarchy at Samarra” in which four caliphs were enthroned and deposed in rapid succession, each backed by some faction of the military. The period ended with the accession of the caliph al-Muʿtamid, who ruled from 870-892 mostly due to the efforts of his brother, al-Muwaffaq, who pacified the Turks and essentially ruled the caliphate from behind the throne.

December 11, 1917: British General Edmund Allenby enters the newly captured city of Jerusalem.

December 12, 627: A Byzantine army under Emperor Heraclius defeats a Sasanian Persian army at the Battle of Nineveh. The Byzantine victory broke the Persian resistance and allowed Heraclius and his army to raid deeper into the heart of the empire. Two months later what was left of the Persian army and the Persian nobility overthrew Emperor Khosrow II, who was already on shaky ground due to the failure of his siege of Constantinople in 626, and so brought to an end the Byzantine-Sasanian War of 602-628. It was the last war the Romans and Persians ever fought against one another, as both empires would soon be confronted by the Islamic caliphate emerging from Arabia.

December 12, 1098: The Crusaders capture Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman

December 13, 1577: Francis Drake begins the expedition that would eventually take him around the world, returning to England in 1580. Although Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the Earth first, roughly 60 years earlier, he managed to get himself killed along the way. Drake has the distinction of being the first person to both start and finish his own trip around the world.

Flemish cartographer Jodocus Hondius’s (d. 1612) map depicting Drake’s 1577-1580 circumnavigation and Thomas Cavendish’s 1586-1588 circumnavigation (Wikimedia Commons)

December 13, 1937: The Imperial Japanese army defeats the Chinese National Revolutionary Army and captures the city of Nanjing. What followed became known as the Nanjing Massacre, as Japanese soldiers spent the next six weeks slaughtering prisoners and civilians in the city. Estimates of the death toll vary widely, but most scholars believe it was somewhere between 40,000 and the official Chinese count of 300,000.


Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for December 13:

  • 72,631,545 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (20,158,544 active, +539,289 since yesterday)

  • 1,618,562 reported fatalities (+7650 since yesterday)

In this weekend’s global news:

  • Researchers with the Global Carbon Project said Friday that global carbon emissions will be down a full 2.4 billion metric tons in 2020, or seven percent off their 2019 levels. That’s unsurprisingly the largest such annual decline on record. It’s also somewhat meaningless since those numbers will rise again once the pandemic is no longer a factor, and because the damage has to a large extent already been done.

  • Indeed, it’s estimated that humanity will need to reduce its carbon emissions by upwards of two billion metric tons every year in order to meet the Paris climate agreement’s milquetoast compromise goal of limiting global temperature increases to less than two degrees Celsius. Annual reductions of around 7.6 percent would be needed to meet Paris’s slightly less milquetoast goal of limiting the increase to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Needless to say it would be impractical to have a pandemic every year, but absent that it looks like we’re just not going to meet those goals. Lots of governments have announced ambitious long-range emissions targets, but almost none have suggested any willingness to actually start cutting emissions in order to meet those targets.



  • 9166 confirmed coronavirus cases (+125)

  • 518 reported fatalities (+12)

On Friday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons presented the United Nations Security Council with a list of 19 points where it says the Syrian government has not complied with its obligations under international law relating to chemical weapons. The grievances relate to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Bashar al-Assad’s government joined in 2013 amid the first of several crises over his military’s alleged use of chemical munitions amid the Syrian civil war. The most serious charge is a failure to disclose chemical weapons work done at a facility Syrian officials had insisted was not used for that purpose. Sampling taken by OPCW inspectors apparently suggests otherwise. The Russian government, Assad’s main protector at the UN, lambasted the OPCW for what Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia termed a “political crusade against the Assad government.”


  • 1,836,728 confirmed cases (+26,919)

  • 16,417 reported fatalities (+218)

After some blustery talk about new economic sanctions in response to Turkish activities in the eastern Mediterranean, the European Union mostly punted on Thursday, opting only to sanction a handful of individuals and companies (the list of targets is still to be determined) involved with Turkish energy exploration in the region. The bloc decided to postpone anything more punitive until at least March, when EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell is required to deliver a report on the bloc’s overall relationship with Turkey.

Turkish authorities have reportedly made multiple arrests in connection with the apprehension of Farajollah (also known as Habib) Chaab by Iranian authorities. Chaab, who is linked to the Ahvaz separatist movement, showed up in Iranian custody last month supposedly confessing to involvement in a 2018 terrorist attack in the city of Ahvaz. According to Turkish authorities, Iranian intelligence operatives essentially catfished Chaab, lured him to Istanbul, and then carted him off to Iran. There are certainly similarities between this case and the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Istanbul, except I guess for the part where Chaab is still alive (for now) and not dismembered. It’s understandable that the Turks are making a big deal out of this, but it also may mean that the recent thaw in their relations with the Saudis has motivated the Turks to take a less charitable view of Iranian activities.


  • 574,634 confirmed cases (+1012)

  • 12,579 reported fatalities (+14)

Something exploded to no effect near Baghdad International Airport on Saturday. Authorities aren’t sure whether it was a planted explosive device or a projectile of some kind. It’s also unclear whether the Islamic State or Iraqi Popular Mobilization Unit militias were responsible, if either. The militias, speaking of which, are dealing with a bit of an internal crisis, as four PMU militias aligned with religious authorities in the cities of Najaf and Karbala, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani above all, are trying to break with the PMU umbrella group. These four militias, collectively known as the “Shrine” units, are unhappy with the overall direction of the PMU, which is controlled by militias aligned with Iran. In additional ideological differences the Shrine units believe PMU leadership is discriminating against them when it comes to the distribution of resources.

The Washington Post offers some of the background to recent protests in Iraqi Kurdistan in which at least seven people have been killed so far:

Iraq’s Kurdish region is ruled by two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and both have been blamed for years of systematic corruption, neglect and political favoritism. This past week, protesters have burned buildings belonging to both.

“In comparison to previous protests these are significant as the current fiscal crisis affects larger swaths of the population,” said Lahib Higel, the International Crisis Group’s senior Iraq analyst. “Although the current protests are a direct consequence of lack of salaries, it builds on years of financial mismanagement.”

According to the United Nations, poverty levels have doubled across Iraqi Kurdistan since 2018, and more than a third of families get by on less than $400 a month. The coronavirus pandemic has only deepened that deprivation, with unemployment on the rise as authorities struggle to sustain a bloated public-sector wage bill.


  • 146,520 confirmed cases (+1275)

  • 1200 reported fatalities (+10)

Lebanese judge Fadi Sawan’s decision to bring charges against acting Prime Minister Hassan Diab in connection with August’s explosion at Beirut’s seaport is meeting with opposition. Some of that opposition is, as expected, coming from Hezbollah, which is the closest thing Diab had or has to a political base and fears that the decision to charge him is part of a wider effort to purge the party and its allies from government. But somewhat unexpectedly, former and perhaps future PM Saad al-Hariri has also spoken out against the charges. He’s not ideologically close with Diab, but he does have some obvious interests in defending the idea that a sitting PM should be immune from prosecution.

If Diab had a clearer political base I suspect the outcry over these charges would be more animated, but regardless it’s hard to see how Lebanese politicians can be made more accountable for their actions if any actual attempt to hold them accountable draws resistance from the rest of the political class.


  • 121,575 confirmed cases (+486)

  • 6920 reported fatalities (+22)

The human rights NGO Committee for Justice, based in Geneva, has issued a new report that claims the 2016 murder of Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni, allegedly/probably by members of Egypt’s security forces, is merely the tip of a very deep iceberg:

The report, The Giulio Regenis of Egypt, by the Geneva-based Committee for Justice, tracks deaths inside Egyptian prisons, official and unofficial detention centres since 2013, with a special focus on deaths that occurred from January to October 2020. The overall total has now reached 1,056.

Giulio Regeni was an Italian student and researcher whose body was found in Cairo on 3 February 2016, with signs of torture. Italy this week charged four members of the Egyptian security forces with his death.

The CFJ’s director, Ahmed Mefreh, said: “Regeni was not the only victim of the Egyptian authorities. After him came the French citizen Eric Lang, the American James Henry Lawne, and others who were killed in cold blood and without accountability for their killers and torturers so far, amid suspicious international silence, and an urgent call to press for investigations into the deaths of foreigners and Egyptians inside detention centres in Egypt.”

Since the military’s takeover of the government in 2013, a total of 731 have died in detention centres due to denial of healthcare, followed by 144 deaths due to torture, 67 through suicide, then 57 in poor conditions of detention and 29 deaths from other reasons.


  • 1,108,269 confirmed cases (+7451)

  • 52,196 reported fatalities (+247)

The Austrian, French, German, and Italian governments have all pulled out of a scheduled Iranian business forum this week that’s been targeted to appeal to European investors. They’re all protesting the Iranian government’s execution of journalist Ruhollah Zam on Saturday. Zam was critical of the Iranian government and was apparently abducted, not unlike Habib Chaab, while he was in Iraq. He was then taken to Iran for trial on charges that he “fomented” violence related to a series of anti-government protests across Iran back in 2017.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Friday summoned Turkey’s ambassador in Tehran over remarks that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made at a rally in Baku on Thursday. During his speech to commemorate Azerbaijan’s victory in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Erdoğan quoted from a poem that’s apparently popular among Azeri nationalists. For Iran, which has a large ethnic Azeri population in its northwest, Azeri nationalism is a major red flag.



  • 175,874 confirmed cases (+4451)

  • 1922 reported fatalities (+39)

Azerbaijani and Armenian officials are blaming one another for sparking a number of violations of their November 10 ceasefire. In the most recent of these, six Karabakh separatist fighters and two Azerbaijani soldiers were wounded in a clash on Saturday. The Azerbaijanis say that in addition to that confrontation, four of their soldiers have been killed amid several other clashes since the ceasefire went into effect. The skirmishes appear to be centered on Karabakh’s Hadrut region, most of which was put (back) under Azerbaijani control as part of the ceasefire arrangement. A sliver of that region still remains under Armenian (Karabakh) control and it’s likely the new boundary hasn’t quite been worked out yet.


  • 49,273 confirmed cases (+321)

  • 1971 reported fatalities (+11)

Taliban fighters attacked multiple Afghan security checkpoints in Kandahar province overnight in what could be the start of a sustained offensive. At least 51 Taliban fighters and seven civilians were killed as the Afghan military responded with airstrikes. The attacks came just hours after Taliban and government negotiators in Doha agreed to suspend their going-nowhere peace talks until after the new year, and hours after at least one person was killed in a rocket attack in Kabul. The Taliban denied involvement in that incident.

A new survey suggests that the Afghan public’s optimism about the peace process is eroding rapidly. I can’t imagine why that would be.


  • 437 confirmed cases (+1)

  • No reported fatalities

Bhutan has become the latest nation to agree to normalize its diplomatic relations with Israel. Good for them? The two countries agreed formally to establish relations on Saturday, apparently after discussing the matter for several years. There’s no connection between this development and Israel’s recent normalization deals with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates.


  • 617,820 confirmed cases (+6189)

  • 18,819 reported fatalities (+166)

Indonesian authorities on Thursday arrested Aris Sumarsono, allegedly a leader of the Islamist militant group Jemaah Islamiyah known as Zulkarnaen and a prime suspect in the 2002 Bali bombings, on the island of Sumatra. Jemaah Islamiyah is one of the oldest and most prominent terrorist groups in Southeast Asia and has longstanding ties with al-Qaeda. Zulkarnaen is believed to have been one of the group’s bomb makers and a unit commander, as such has been wanted in connection with multiple attacks in addition to Bali.


  • 86,725 confirmed cases (+24) on the mainland, 7542 confirmed cases (+95) in Hong Kong

  • 4634 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 116 reported fatalities (+1) in Hong Kong

The US government has undertaken a new project using satellite data to measure the impact of Chinese dams on downstream water levels on the Mekong River. The US has alleged that China’s dams are unfairly depriving countries downriver of their fair share of water, while Beijing has countered that the dams do not affect downriver water levels, or at least that the benefits of the electricity they generate for the Mekong region outweigh any small impacts on water flow. Those downriver nations—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—occasionally seem to question the effect of the dams but they do benefit from the electricity and anyway they don’t really have the wherewithal to challenge China.



  • 2258 confirmed cases (+59)

  • 80 reported fatalities (+0)

A group of what’s believed to have been Boko Haram fighters killed at least 27 people in an attack on a village in southeastern Niger’s Diffa region late Saturday. They also reportedly destroyed much of the village. Many people remain missing in the wake of the attack so the death toll could rise.


  • 73,175 confirmed cases (+418)

  • 1197 reported fatalities (+3)

Gunmen may have abducted upwards of 400 (or more) students from a secondary school in northwestern Nigeria’s Katsina state late Friday. Around half of the school’s 800 students are missing, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve all been abducted. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said in a statement on Saturday that his security forces had encountered the group and engaged it in a firefight, which gave some of the students a chance to escape, but as far as I know the group and its captives are for the most part still at large. Northwestern Nigeria is plagued by groups of “bandits,” whose origins are not well known but whose increasingly sophisticated acts of violence hint at something beyond simple banditry. Those groups have been known to engage in kidnapping for ransom, but typically not (to my knowledge) on anything approaching this scale.

Elsewhere, Islamic State West Africa Province fighters reportedly abducted two aid workers—one from the UN World Food Program and the other from the Red Cross—in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state on Wednesday.


  • 116,769 confirmed cases (+472)

  • 1806 reported fatalities (+3)

A Red Cross aid caravan made it to the Tigrayan regional capital of Mekelle on Saturday, bringing the first humanitarian aid to reach that city since it was besieged and captured by the Ethiopian army late last month and the first humanitarian aid to reach Tigray as a whole since the start of the war there in early November. The Ethiopian government continues to insist that its war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is all but over and that civilians are doing fine, but it’s a little weird that it won’t lift the media blackout over Tigray and let people see that for themselves. Now there are reports that Ethiopian authorities have been forcibly deporting Eritrean refugees in Tigray back to Eritrea, which would be a major human rights violation but may be payback for the assistance the Eritrean military has allegedly provided against the TPLF.

Speaking of emerging reports, details about the November 9 massacre in the Tigrayan village of Mai-Kadra, in which hundreds of people are said to have been killed, continue to swirl and there’s still no clear picture of what actually happened. Refugees in Mai-Kadra and in Sudan tell of a TPLF attack against Amhara laborers, while Tigrayan refugees claim they were attacked by a combination of the Ethiopian army and Amhara paramilitaries. Amnesty International has suggested both accounts may be accurate, or at least partially accurate, and says the information it’s receiving suggests that Mai-Kadra may be “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of civilian massacres that have taken place amid this conflict—aided, to some degree, by the aforementioned media blackout. Ominous signs also continue to point to a wider campaign of ethnic violence and discrimination targeting Ethiopia’s entire Tigray community, not just the TPLF.


  • 14,461 confirmed cases (+119)

  • 352 reported fatalities (+0)

At least 12 people were killed and as many as 24 others abducted by in an attack by the Allied Democratic Forces militia in the Beni region of North Kivu province on Saturday.


  • 6768 confirmed cases (+54)

  • 127 reported fatalities (+0)

Eswatini Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini died on Sunday of COVID-19. He’d tested positive for the virus last month and was receiving treatment in South Africa.



  • 2,653,928 confirmed cases (+28,080)

  • 46,941 reported fatalities (+488)

According to a Russian media outlet called Proekt, Vladimir Putin has had an exact replica of his Kremlin office created for his swanky Sochi vacation pad. That way, he can give televised addresses from the warm shores of the Black Sea that make it appear as though he’s actually in his official residence outside Moscow. Wow, maybe he really is an evil super-genius. Assuming this is true it doesn’t really matter except inasmuch as it reinforces an image of Putin as a guy trying to pull a fast one on his own people by pretending he hasn’t massively enriched himself in office and that he doesn’t live the life of an ultra-wealthy oligarch. But I’m pretty sure most Russians have caught on to that by now.


  • 160,295 confirmed cases (+1961)

  • 1263 reported fatalities (+9)

Dozens of protests broke out in Minsk and other cities across Belarus on Sunday, as even brisk winter weather couldn’t dissuade them from renewing their calls for President Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation. The protests do not appear to have been as large as in previous weeks, which could reflect some protest fatigue but may have more to do with the weather conditions.

On a related note, the Swiss government says it’s frozen Lukashenko’s assets. Get it? Frozen? It’s related because the temperature in Belarus…ah, never mind. I have no idea how much money—if any—Lukashenko has squirreled away in Switzerland but this in one sanction that could conceivably hurt. He’s one of 15 Belarusian officials Swiss authorities have blacklisted.


  • 1,849,403 confirmed cases (+18,447)

  • 64,170 reported fatalities (+144)

Coming down to their self-imposed wire on Sunday, British and European Union negotiators agreed to…extend the deadline for their post-Brexit trade deal talks. They don’t appear to have set a new deadline, which suggests they’re prepared to go all the way up to the actual deadline, December 31. The two sides have apparently made some progress on the issue of enforcing British compliance with the rules of the European single market, with the EU open to penalties other than tariffs and the UK conceding the EU’s right to impose some penalty if the UK breaks compliance with those rules. Both are significant concessions though the UK’s is probably the more significant.



  • 6,901,990 confirmed cases (+21,395)

  • 181,419 reported fatalities (+276)

Despite…well, everything, Jair Bolsonaro’s approval rating continues to flourish. A new survey from Datafolha finds that 37 percent of Brazilians characterize their intrepid leader’s performance as “good” or “great,” which is unchanged from the previous Datafolha poll in August. That’s the highest level of Bolsonaro’s presidency. Some 32 percent say his performance has been “bad” or “terrible,” down two points from the August poll.


  • 107,786 confirmed cases (+609)

  • 954 reported fatalities (+5)

Venezuelan opposition leaders say their week-long “popular consultation” that ended Saturday was a huge success, a claim that they made possible by smartly never defining what “success” would actually look like or what they were even trying to achieve. They claim 6.4 million people participated in their strange hybrid referendum thing, with 3.2 million participating in person in Venezuela, around 850,000 in person overseas, and 2.4 million online. OK, cool? I guess? Assuming those unverifiable figures are accurate? Nicolás Maduro is still president and now also controls the National Assembly again, but I’m sure it was a very nice app or whatever.


  • 460,743 confirmed cases (+5891)

  • 13,431 reported fatalities (+81)

The US, Mexico, and Canada agreed on Friday to maintain COVID-19 travel restrictions at their mutual land borders through at least January 21.


  • 16,737,267 confirmed cases (+187,901)

  • 306,459 reported fatalities (+1379)

On the plus side, Pfizer’s COVID vaccine is rolling out and will be administered in US hospitals starting as soon as Monday. Each state can determine its own priority list, but the federal government is recommending that healthcare personnel and nursing home patients be the focus of this initial batch.

Donald Trump is pledging to veto the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act over the fact that it doesn’t include a provision that would make social media companies responsible for the content users post on their sites. He’s also upset over funding to scrub the names of Confederate grandees off of US military facilities, but mostly he’s mad that people can make fun of him online without somebody paying a price. Anyway, his planned veto is rendered somewhat superfluous in that Congress already passed the NDAA by veto-proof margins in both houses, but I guess it’s possible he could intimidate some Republicans into changing their votes. Not likely, but possible.

Finally…well, I’m sure this is all fine:

The Trump administration acknowledged on Sunday that hackers acting on behalf of a foreign government — almost certainly a Russian intelligence agency, according to federal and private experts — broke into a range of key government networks, including in the Treasury and Commerce Departments, and had free access to their email systems.

Officials said a hunt was on to determine if other parts of the government had been affected by what looked to be one of the most sophisticated, and perhaps among the largest, attacks on federal systems in the past five years. Several said national security-related agencies were also targeted, though it was not clear whether the systems contained highly classified material.

The Trump administration said little in public about the hack, which suggested that while the government was worried about Russian intervention in the 2020 election, key agencies working for the administration — and unrelated to the election — were actually the subject of a sophisticated attack that they were unaware of until recent weeks.

The attack has been going on since this spring, which means that while the federal government was doing nothing about the pandemic, at least we can rest easy that it was also doing nothing about this. It appears to be too early to assess how much damage was actually done.