World roundup: February 16 2021

Stories from Yemen, Myanmar, Chad, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 15, 1942: The World War II Battle of Singapore ends with the Japanese conquest of the British colony. Virtually the entire 85,000-man British force defending Singapore was lost—5000 killed or wounded and the remaining 80,000 captured. It was one of the largest surrenders in British military history and interestingly was not celebrated by Japan’s Nazi allies. Although it was an obvious success for the Axis, Adolf Hitler apparently saw the Japanese victory as a defeat for the white race and ordered Joachim von Ribbentrop not to send congratulations to Tokyo.

February 15, 1989: Soviet forces complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Commemorated today in Afghanistan as “Liberation Day.”

February 16, 1804: A small US naval crew enters Tripoli harbor and destroys the grounded USS Philadelphia.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for February 16:

  • 110,020,914 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (22,756,968 active, +342,151 since yesterday)

  • 2,428,314 reported fatalities (+9777 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 14,951 confirmed coronavirus cases (+45)

  • 984 reported fatalities (+3)

Al-Monitor’s Khaled al-Khateb catalogues a number of relatively low-level attacks against Turkish military forces in Syria’s Idlib province over the past several months, many of them claimed by alleged jihadist groups that are so obscure it’s hard to know what to make of them. There’s a strong likelihood they’re fronts for somebody else, but if that’s the case then who is really carrying out these attacks? It could be the Syrian government and/or Iranian-backed militias. It could be Hurras al-Din, the rump al-Qaeda affiliate in Idlib, which is under pressure both from Turkey and from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. It could be the Islamic State. Or it could be none of the above.

YEMEN

  • 2148 confirmed cases (+3)

  • 618 reported fatalities (+1)

The United Nations is warning that the Houthi offensive in Yemen’s Maʾrib province is putting some two million people in danger and could potentially displace a very large number of them. As the last major northern Yemeni population center still in government control, Maʾrib city and its environs have become home to many people displaced by fighting elsewhere in northern Yemen (not unlike the role Idlib province has come to play in Syria). The UN suggested that the offensive could uproot hundreds of thousands of them and threaten potential peace talks to boot.

The Biden administration on Tuesday called on the Houthis to stop their attempt to capture Maʾrib, a request that’s sure to go unheeded because, after the United States has enabled the Saudi war effort for six years, why on Earth should the Houthis respect Washington’s attempt to recast itself as peacemaker? The administration won’t even categorically end the US combat role in Yemen and it’s offered nothing to suggest it can now be trusted to broker a diplomatic end to the war. Indeed, the Houthi offensive is in large part meant to strengthen their leverage at any potential bargaining table, something they no doubt view as critical since all the other parties at that table—even the supposedly “neutral” ones—are likely to be hostile to Houthi interests.

Also Tuesday, the Saudi military reported that it shot down a Houthi drone that had gotten close enough to Abha airport that the interception caused shrapnel to land in the vicinity of that facility. And the US military announced that it’s interdicted “a large cache of weapons,” as the AP put it, off the coast of Somalia. The Pentagon claims there are “some indications” that the cargo was heading for Yemen, and if so then it’s likely it was bound for the Houthis.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 734,575 confirmed cases (+4282) in Israel, 169,487 confirmed cases (+1043) in Palestine

  • 5441 reported fatalities (+27) in Israel, 1942 reported fatalities (+6) in Palestine

The Israeli government has been resisting the notion that it bears responsibility for ensuring Palestinians are able to receive COVID-19 vaccines, despite a considerable body of “occupying power”-related international law suggesting otherwise. Wisely, the Palestinian Authority has made other arrangements for bringing vaccines into the West Bank, but it seems Israeli authorities have decided to block a shipment of Russian-made vaccines from the West Bank to Gaza. The Israelis claim the shipment is under “review,” whatever that means, and hey it’s not like there’s any reason to rush, right? Ironically, as Juan Cole writes, blocking the shipment pretty much invalidates Israel’s absurd position that it is not the occupying power in Gaza, which should oblige it to furnish vaccines for Gaza itself except for that little detail whereby international law doesn’t really mean anything.

Meanwhile, Israeli ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan told Israeli media on Tuesday that if the Biden administration is committed to reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, Israel will not “be part of such a process.” Leaving aside for a second the fact that the administration has not really shown any such commitment, that’s a real…bummer, I guess? Joe Biden and members of the administration have suggested they’ll seek input from other regional parties (Israel and Saudi Arabia, in other words) as part of any attempt to reenter the nuclear deal. So far it’s unclear whether it’s attempted to do so, or really whether it’s made any move toward rejoining the agreement at all.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • 373,368 confirmed cases (+322)

  • 6441 reported fatalities (+3)

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki revealed a couple of foreign policy details at her briefing on Tuesday. One was that Biden’s first call to a Middle Eastern leader will be with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which is surprising only insofar as it hasn’t happened yet and Biden is clearly sending a little message, but only a little one, with his minor snub. The other, slightly more interesting, piece of news was that when Biden gets around to calling Riyadh, he’ll be dialing up Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz rather than his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

This isn’t stunning news either and is really the appropriate level of contact from a diplomatic protocol standpoint. But it is a conspicuous change from the Trump administration, which elevated Junior as its main point of contact within the Saudi government. MBS is de facto running the kingdom, yes, but King Salman has shown a willingness to yank on the proverbial leash every once in a while (this is why Saudi Arabia didn’t participate in the “Abraham Accords,” for example) and routing diplomacy through him is probably a wise move. Of course, Salman is 85 and it’s a bit surprising he’s still hanging around from an existential standpoint, and once he’s gone the US will have to deal with MBS directly.

IRAN

  • 1,534,034 confirmed cases (+8011)

  • 59,117 reported fatalities (+89)

According to Laura Rozen, the Iranian government’s declaration that it will cease compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol next week has not really changed the Biden administration’s timeframe in terms of rejoining the JCPOA:

The Biden administration has repeatedly stressed that it is consulting with allies, partners and members of Congress as it formulates its Iran policy, and also noted that its Iran envoy Rob Malley only started in the job less than three weeks ago.

Since Malley got into position in late January, US consultations with the “E3”—the three European parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the UK, France and Germany – have taken off, a second regional expert, speaking not for attribution to discuss consultations with the parties, said.

In those consultations, the E3 are firmly united on a position that they want the US back in the JCPOA as soon as possible, the second expert understood.

While there have been a number of discussions back and forth between E3 political directors and Malley, the technical/working level discussions are still pending, primarily because the overall policy position was still being deliberated in Washington.

Publicly, the Biden administration has signaled that it won’t be rushed or flummoxed by Iranian threats to cease snap inspections next week.

It’s unclear what, if anything, could influence the administration’s timeframe for rejoining the deal, assuming it even has a timeframe which, again, is unclear.

ASIA

MYANMAR

  • 141,659 confirmed cases (+22)

  • 3192 reported fatalities (+2)

A small but very prominent group of Buddhist monks marched in Yangon on Tuesday as protests and civil disobedience continue in opposition to the military coup in Myanmar earlier this month. Demonstrations have been more subdued over the past couple of days after the junta ratcheted up suppression tactics over the weekend and amid what appear to be nightly internet blackouts meant to prevent organizers from communicating plans for further protests.

Ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi finally made a court appearance on Tuesday and found that authorities have charged her with a second crime, some unspecified violation of Myanmar’s natural disaster management law. I guess they weren’t sure the initial “illegally importing six walkie-talkies” charge really packed the kind of legal punch they were after. Junta leaders continue to insist that ousting Myanmar’s civilian government did not constitute a coup, which is pure absurdity, and that they’ll arrange free elections. They haven’t put a timetable on that and there’s every reason to expect that the junta’s idea of a “free” election is one in which the military is still clearly in charge of the country no matter who wins.

CHINA

  • 89,788 confirmed cases (+16) on the mainland, 10,797 confirmed cases (+8) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 195 reported fatalities (+2) in Hong Kong

Much of the developing world, including Peru and other Latin American nations, is turning to China for COVID-19 vaccines, despite some sketchy, to put it mildly, data as to the effectiveness and even safety of Chinese-made products. Why would they do this, you ask? Well, and I know this may come as a shock but please bear with me, part of the reason is that wealthy Western countries have hoovered up so many doses made by their drug companies that there’s not enough left for the rest of the world:

For Beijing, which has invested heavily in a region seen by Washington as America’s backyard, its vaccine diplomacy could be a double win: a way to open new markets for its pharmaceutical products while building goodwill in Latin America, a region where it has long sought to expand its influence.

But the opacity of the Chinese operations and the lack of published clinical data on the vaccines are raising questions about effectiveness and safety — and about the ability of Chinese laboratories to deliver millions of doses in double-quick time. In some countries, complaints over delays are already building.

For countries such as Peru, however, the Chinese vaccine is offering a possible fast track toward reaching herd immunity, or about 70 percent the population.

Peru this month reached deals for significant supplies of Western vaccines after months of being largely shut out by wealthier countries. Yet even if all of those agreements pan out — a challenge, given the delays and complications being witnessed in advanced economies — this country of 33 million would still only be able to inoculate about half its population without Chinese vaccines.

NORTH KOREA

  • No acknowledged cases

South Korean authorities are interviewing a man they believe crossed the Demilitarized Zone along the North Korean-South Korean border overnight and may be intending to defect. North Korean defections are not uncommon, but their frequency has been considerably reduced since Pyongyang began instituting COVID-19 lockdown measures last year. North Korean officials continue to insist that its efforts have prevented even a single case of the illness from entering the country.

SOUTH KOREA

  • 84,325 confirmed cases (+456)

  • 1534 reported fatalities (+7)

It’s interesting, then, that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service is claiming that North Korean hackers have been trying to access COVID-19 vaccine and treatment information from Pfizer. The North Koreans could be operating out of an abundance of caution, I guess, or maybe they’re looking to get the specs for Pfizer’s vaccine and start making bootleg copies for sale to countries that have been locked out of purchasing the real thing (see above). Or maybe Pyongyang hasn’t been entirely forthcoming about its own COVID situation. In which case the developed world might want to take a break from immiserating the North Korean people by denying them every conceivable basic good and ship them some vaccines. Just a thought.

AFRICA

SUDAN

  • 27,985 confirmed cases (+29)

  • 1863 reported fatalities (+5)

Sudan’s ongoing economic implosion is starting to generate popular opposition to the country’s interim government, though the leaders of that government apparently believe supporters of their predecessor are behind the public protests:

Seven regions of Sudan have declared states of emergency following violent protests against food price rises. Curfews have been imposed and schools have been forced to close in 10 cities across Darfur, North Kordofan, West Kordofan and Sennar. Buildings were looted and burned, and food was stolen from markets and shops. The regions are among the poorest in Sudan.

The joint military-civilian government believes supporters of the former president, Omar al-Bashir, are behind the protests. The government recently ordered the prosecution of members of Bashir’s party.

Millions of people in the country are struggling as the cost of living continues to rise amid economic difficulties. The Sudanese pound dropped against the dollar from 260 pounds (£3.40) in November to 315 pounds last month. The annual rate of inflation increased to 269% in December, up from 254% in November, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

ALGERIA

  • 111,069 confirmed cases (+175)

  • 2945 reported fatalities (+2)

Thousands of people protested in the Algerian town of Kherrata on Tuesday to mark the two year anniversary of the start of the anti-government “Hirak” movement. Kherrata saw the first demonstrations against long-time Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika back in February 2019, the start of nationwide protests that eventually forced Bouteflika—or, at least, the people who had been doing “Weekend at Abdelaziz’s” with Bouteflika’s body since his 2013 stroke—to withdraw from the 2019 presidential election and then later to resign from office completely.

The movement’s wider demands for wholesale political change, specifically the removal of the clique that’s run Algeria since the country achieved independence in the 1960s, has gone largely unfulfilled. Despite Bouteflika’s resignation and the removal of a few corrupt officials here and there, Algeria’s political elite have managed to ride out the storm, helped by general protest fatigue combined with the effect of the pandemic on public demonstrations. The anniversary seems to be reviving some of the sentiment that originally sparked the movement.

CHAD

  • 3689 confirmed cases (+25)

  • 131 reported fatalities (+0)

At a summit Tuesday involving the governments of France and the G5 Sahel nations (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger), French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he is not ready to start withdrawing French soldiers from the Sahel region. The French military’s “Operation Barkhane” is now over six years old and frankly its accomplishments speak for themselves. Feel free to take that however you want, by the way. The Chadian government announced that it will send 1200 soldiers to the “tri-border” region, where the boundaries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger meet, which is a bit higher than the 1000 troops it was reported to be sending a few days ago. I speculated on Friday that this extra Chadian contingent might be intended to give Macron some cover to pull some French forces out of the region and make French voters happy, but either I was wrong about that or he had a change of heart over the weekend.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 24,423 confirmed cases (+37)

  • 695 reported fatalities (+1)

Another probable Allied Democratic Forces attack on a village in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province has left at least ten people dead. ADF fighters struck Kalembo, near the city of Beni, late Monday and looted stores in addition to killing people. The death toll may rise as Congolese authorities get a better handle on the situation.

EUROPE

BELARUS

  • 270,921 confirmed cases (+1134)

  • 1867 reported fatalities (+9)

Belarusian police carried out at least 25 raids on Tuesday on the homes of human rights activists and journalists across the country. The activists, at least, are accused of “financing” protests against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, though whether there’s any actual evidence of that I have no idea. The simpler explanation is that Lukashenko is trying to intimidate his critics.

SLOVENIA

  • 180,520 confirmed cases (+740)

  • 3733 reported fatalities (+5)

Slovenian opposition parties attempted to oust the far-right government of Prime Minister Janez Janša in a no-confidence vote on Tuesday but fell six votes shy of a majority in the 90 seat National Assembly. Opposition leaders accuse Janša both of mishandling the pandemic and of using it as a cover to curtail freedoms and implement authoritarian policies.

AMERICAS

ECUADOR

  • 268,073 confirmed cases (+372)

  • 15,392 reported fatalities (+37)

The Organization of American States decided for some reason to comment on Ecuador’s presidential election on Tuesday, calling on election officials to “provide guarantees of certainty and transparency” in the outcome. A recount is underway after conservative ex-banker Guillermo Lasso barely edged out activist and right-wing coup aficionado Yaku Pérez for second place behind leftist Andrés Arauz in the first round of voting earlier this month. The runner up will join Arauz in April’s runoff. I have no particular reason to think there’s any funny business afoot at this point but anytime the OAS pipes up these days you have to wonder why. Still, there doesn’t appear to be any plausible scenario under which authorities—whether from Ecuador, the OAS, the US, or some combination—could deny Arauz his spot in the runoff at this point. As to whether they’re planning something for the runoff, that’s a separate question and one to which I have no answer.

MEXICO

  • 1,995,892 confirmed cases (+3098)

  • 174,657 reported fatalities (+450)

That vaccine inequality we mentioned above? The Mexican government is planning to take its complaints about that very issue to the UN Security Council:

UNITED STATES

  • 28,381,220 confirmed cases (+63,398)

  • 499,991 reported fatalities (+1787)

Finally, in something of a rarity for the New York Times, columnist Peter Beinart offers a candid take on what US sanctions really are—war by other means:

America’s sieges might be more defensible — or at least briefer — if they stood a reasonable chance of success. The sanctions on Iran that the United States and the U.N. imposed during Barack Obama’s presidency harmed ordinary Iranians. But their intent was to convince Iran’s government to compromise on its nuclear program, not utterly capitulate, or give up power. And, arguably, they helped achieve that relatively modest goal.

By contrast, none of America’s current sieges are married to remotely realistic objectives. Despite America’s efforts to oust them, Mr. Maduro and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria are more firmly in control today than when the United States imposed its harshest sanctions. After more than a decade of escalating punishments aimed at pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, that nation possesses as many as 60 of them. Iran is closer to the bomb than it was when the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign began, and just as influential across the Middle East.

Despite this, America’s other forever war retains substantial bipartisan support. That’s especially true in Congress, where politicians who have lost their appetite for deploying troops see an apparently cost-free way to signal their opposition to repressive and adversarial governments — and don’t care if the real costs are borne by the suffering people they claim to support.