World roundup: February 11 2021

Stories from Yemen, India, Nigeria, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 10, 1258: The Mongols sack Baghdad and topple the Abbasid Caliphate.

The Mongols besieging Baghdad, from a manuscript of historian Rashid al-Din Fazlullah Hamdani's 14th century Compendium of Chronicles (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

February 10, 1972: Ras Al Khaimah becomes the seventh and final Gulf state to join the United Arab Emirates, roughly two months after the UAE and its member states gained independence.

February 11, 1979: The Iranian Revolution ends with the surrender of royalist forces. Commemorated in Iran as the climax of the “Fajr Decade,” an annual celebration marking the ten days from the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to the end of the revolution.

February 11, 1990: Nelson Mandela is released from South Africa’s Victor Verster Prison after serving 27 years for resisting the apartheid government. Mandela was a key figure in the negotiations to dismantle the apartheid regime and in 1994 was elected overwhelmingly as South Africa’s first truly democratically elected president.

February 11, 2011: After over two weeks of protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigns, becoming the second Arab leader to step down as a result of the Arab Spring movement after Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt underwent a transition to a democratic election in 2012, all of which was undone by the 2013 military coup that installed current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for February 11:

  • 108,280,428 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (25,438,761 active, +437,561 since yesterday)

  • 2,377,226 reported fatalities (+13,029 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

  • 2134 confirmed coronavirus cases (+1)

  • 616 reported fatalities (+0)

The claim that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Khalid Batarfi has been in Yemeni custody since October was called into question Thursday. The SITE Intelligence Group says it has reviewed a newly released AQAP video in which Batarfi not only appears, but talks about last month’s riot at the US Capitol. A United Nations report last month seemingly confirmed Batarfi’s arrest, though there had been unconfirmed chatter about it since October. I’m going to go ahead and say it’s “unconfirmed” again.

Although much is understandably made of the foreign players who have extended and expanded Yemen’s civil war, over at World Politics Review the International Crisis Group’s Peter Salisbury looks at some of Yemen’s internal roadblocks to peace:

A core challenge for U.S. policymakers is the military balance of power on the ground, which over the past two years has swung significantly in the Houthis’ favor. For example, the Houthis have recently closed in on the strategically and symbolically important city of Marib, east of Sanaa. Their gains are already a point of concern among the anti-Houthi forces in Yemen, which include Hadi’s internationally recognized government—now based in the southern port city of Aden—as well as tribesmen in Marib and fighters on the Red Sea coast led by the Houthis’ erstwhile ally, Tareq Saleh, a nephew of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This bloc, which views the Houthis as antidemocratic and set on installing a theocratic government with a rigid social hierarchy, argues that any deal brokered on the basis of current battleground realities would leave the Houthis in a significant position of power and territorial control. This is an outcome the ordinarily diffuse and fragmented anti-Houthi camp is increasingly unified in opposing. They see recent U.S. moves as overcorrections that have given up important leverage and handed the initiative to the Houthis, who stepped up the Marib campaign just days after news circulated that the Biden administration planned on walking back the terrorism designation. The anti-Houthi forces worry about what the new administration’s endgame in Yemen is, and how it will affect them.

Specifically, the Houthis’ rivals fear that the rebels would use the terms of any agreement to expand their territorial reach, for example by taking Marib, while extinguishing any internal opposition to their rule. Many Yemenis in this camp are also concerned that stepped-up U.S. pressure on Riyadh to rein in its military campaign could lead the Saudis to simply cut a deal with the Houthis that narrowly addresses key Saudi security concerns and is given the imprimatur of U.N. backing, but in effect hands power to the de facto Houthi authorities in Sanaa. In fact, this is exactly how the Houthis have said they believe the war will end. Concern over such an outcome on the part of anti-Houthi forces in Yemen likely explains their vociferous campaign in support of the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthi movement and key leaders as terrorists in early January, despite universal condemnation of the move from humanitarian groups.

The Yemeni government is almost completely enthralled to Saudi Arabia now and will likely do whatever Riyadh tells it. But other anti-Houthi factions—southern separatists, loosely pro-government tribes, Islamist militias including even AQAP—will not stop fighting if/when the government does.

TURKEY

  • 2,564,427 confirmed cases (+7590)

  • 27,187 reported fatalities (+94)

The Turkish government rolled out its brand new space program on Tuesday, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promising a manned voyage to the moon by 2023. Most likely Erdoğan is motivated by a desire to outdo the United Arab Emirates, whose “Hope” probe successfully entered orbit around Mars on Tuesday (no, I don’t think that’s a coincidence). That considerable achievement is only slightly tempered by the fact that the probe was made in the US and it was launched on a Japanese rocket. Hey, I mean, the Emiratis paid for it, right? So that’s, uh, something. Anyway one assumes the Turkish space program will be a bit more homegrown, if only because Erdoğan has burned a lot of international bridges and Turkey doesn’t have the UAE’s financial capacity to buy friends and allies.

IRAQ

  • 636,908 confirmed cases (+2369)

  • 13,144 reported fatalities (+4)

The Turkish military began another offensive against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters in northern Iraq on Wednesday and at least three Turkish soldiers have already been killed in the operation. Two were killed Wednesday and another Thursday, according to Turkish officials. They haven’t offered any information on PKK casualties.

ASIA

ARMENIA

  • 168,676 confirmed cases (+180)

  • 3135 reported fatalities (+5)

With the war in Nagorno-Karabakh over, the Turkish government has been suggesting it’s prepared to normalize relations with Armenia and has raised the idea of a new six-nation regional coordination organization (also involving Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Russia). But Eurasianet’s Ani Mejlumyan reports that the Armenian government is not prepared to reciprocate these gestures. The idea of normalizing relations with Turkey was politically fraught before the war, given Ankara’s continued muscular denial of the Armenian Genocide, and now it’s downright politically toxic. Yerevan hasn’t even been an enthusiastic participant in talks on collaborative infrastructure projects with Azerbaijan, and those talks are being organized by Russia, Armenia’s ostensible ally. However, Mejlumyan says that the Armenian government doesn’t really have a plan in place to protect its interests should Turkey, say, unilaterally decide to open its Armenian border. As the much larger country, Turkey does have some ability to force Armenia’s hand when it comes to commerce.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 55,445 confirmed cases (+25)

  • 2424 reported fatalities (+5)

A UN convoy came under fire outside Kabul on Thursday in an attack that left at least five of its security personnel dead. Afghan officials are pointing a finger at the Taliban but the organization denies involvement. Elsewhere, at least three people were killed in a multi-stage bombing in Kunar province, at least two more were killed amid three bombings in Nangarhar provice, and a reporter in Faryab province was wounded by unknown gunmen.

INDIA

  • 10,880,413 confirmed cases (+9353)

  • 155,484 reported fatalities (+85)

The Indian and Chinese militaries began withdrawing their personnel from the border area in India’s Ladakh region on Thursday. Those border forces have been locked in a heated and on at least one occasion deadly standoff since May, fueled by the general uncertainty of the actual border and a desire on both sides to grab strategically significant pieces of territory. This mutual withdrawal is intended to be coordinated and synchronized, so that each side will pull back in stages as the other does.

MYANMAR

  • 141,522 confirmed cases (+35)

  • 3184 reported fatalities (+3)

The Biden administration on Thursday sanctioned several individuals in Myanmar’s ruling junta along with three companies owned by a conglomerate that is in turn owned by Myanmar’s military. It also added sanctions on military commander in chief and de facto head of state, Min Aung Hlaing, as well as his deputy, Soe Win, both of whom were already under US human rights sanctions.

CHINA

  • 89,736 confirmed cases (+2) on the mainland, 10,732 confirmed cases (+21) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 191 reported fatalities (+2) in Hong Kong

The Chinese government is taking the BBC off the air due to an unspecified “content violation.” Authorities don’t seem to have been terribly forthcoming with details, but given that the official statement said that the BBC had “undermined China’s national interests and ethnic solidarity,” and the network recently ran reports on allegations of forced labor and sexual abuse involving Uyghurs in Xinjiang, I think it’s fairly obvious what the issue was.

AFRICA

NIGERIA

  • 143,516 confirmed cases (+938)

  • 1710 reported fatalities (+8)

At least 4000 Fulani have reportedly been displaced from parts of southern Nigeria over the past week by inter-communal violence. Fulani herders frequently clash with neighboring farmers across a band running through central Nigeria and much of the Sahel, where herding and farming communities are increasingly in competition for the same ever scarcer arable land. The Fulani, who are predominantly Muslim, are also frequently accused en masse of supporting jihadist groups, and now they seem to be taking the blame for banditry in northwestern Nigeria as well. Violence targeting the Fulani then has the effect of driving some members of that community toward jihadist groups, gangs, etc., who then carry out more violence and perpetuate a cycle.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

  • 4996 confirmed cases (+7)

  • 63 reported fatalities (+0)

The Central African army, along with allied Russian and Rwandan forces, has reportedly opened a major western highway into Bangui. Rebels have been effectively besieging the capital for weeks by choking off all the main roads into the city and starving it of supplies. Central African officials say their forces have been able to capture several towns near the Cameroonian border in the past few days, thereby breaking the rebel hold on the Bangui-Cameroon highway. Bangui hasn’t been suffering from critical shortages yet but the price of basic necessities has skyrocketed and shortages were undoubtedly on the horizon.

ETHIOPIA

  • 144,862 confirmed cases (+613)

  • 2171 reported fatalities (+4)

The Ethiopian government says it’s closed down two camps for displaced Eritreans in the war-torn Tigray region and relocated their residents to new facilities. Hopefully that’s true, because the alternative—as reported by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission—is that the camps have been destroyed, possibly by the Eritrean soldiers who definitely are not still active in Tigray. Ethiopian officials say there’s been fighting near the camps but not in the camps themselves, and by the way the Eritreans are definitely not involved because they’re definitely not in Tigray and definitely have not been there helping the Ethiopian army for several weeks now. It’s been impossible for any independent aid agencies to get access to the camps so as usual there’s no way to verify what the Ethiopian government is claiming.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 4,027,748 confirmed cases (+15,038)

  • 78,687 reported fatalities (+553)

Both the French and German governments reportedly support new European Union sanctions against Russia over the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This almost certainly means the EU will be imposing such sanctions, possibly at its next foreign ministers summit on February 22. This will mark the first implementation of the European Magnitsky Act, which the EU adopted in December and which gives the bloc the legal authority to impose sanctions over alleged human rights violations.

ITALY

  • 2,683,403 confirmed cases (+15,146)

  • 92,729 reported fatalities (+391)

Supporters of Italy’s Five Star Movement voted on Thursday to back Prime Minister-designate Mario Draghi’s forthcoming government, all but assuring that he’ll be able to survive confidence votes in both houses of the Italian parliament. Five Star had been waffling on the idea of backing Draghi but ultimately the vote wasn’t all that close, with over 59 percent in favor.

AMERICAS

COLOMBIA

  • 2,179,641 confirmed cases (+6294)

  • 56,983 reported fatalities (+250)

According to a new report from an organization called “Front Line Defenders,” at least 331 human rights activists were killed worldwide in 2020. More than three-quarters of them were killed in Latin America, and more than half were killed just in Colombia, where armed paramilitary groups have proliferated and where Iván Duque’s government doesn’t really seem to prioritize the protection of activists, to put it mildly. At least 177 activists were killed in Colombia last year, putting it well ahead of the Philippines, which came in second with a mere 25 such deaths.

UNITED STATES

  • 28,002,240 confirmed cases (+103,481)

  • 486,922 reported fatalities (+3068)

Finally, among his initial changes to the US immigration program, Joe Biden has ordered the preparation of a report on the impact of climate change on migration. This could open the door to adding climate-related displacement to the mix of conditions that qualify refugees for the Temporary Protected Status program, something that’s badly needed and will be even more badly needed over the coming decades. TPS has been used for refugees displaced by acute natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, but making it applicable to the kind of long-term changes caused by climate shifts would be breaking new ground.