World roundup: February 18 2021

Stories from Iran, Georgia, Ethiopia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 17, 1979: The Sino-Vietnamese War begins with a Chinese invasion, in response to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia (ousting the Khmer Rouge) the previous year. The “war,” such as it was, lasted only about a month and ended when the Chinese army, having stalled out around 20 kilometers over the border, declared victory and withdrew. Vietnam also claimed victory in repelling the invasion, and their claim is generally more accepted today—though admittedly the Chinese military did do serious damage to northern Vietnam’s infrastructure.

February 17, 2008: Kosovo declares its independence from Serbia. The Kosovan parliament voted (with ethnic Serb MPs boycotting) to declare independence after United Nations-supervised negotiations on a sort of independence-in-all-but-name status fell apart. Though still not recognized by Serbia and an ongoing source of tension in the Balkans, this date is commemorated as Independence Day in Kosovo.

February 18, 1229: The Sixth Crusade ends

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the…hero (?) of the Sixth Crusade, marrying Isabella II of Jerusalem and thereby staking his claim to kingship of the holy city, from an illustrated manuscript of the 14th century Nuova Cronica by Italian writer Giovanni Villani (Wikimedia Commons)

February 18, 1965: The Gambia declares independence from the United Kingdom. Initially it remained a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth as head of state, but Gambian voters opted to form a republic in a referendum held shortly after independence. Annually commemorated as Independence Day in The Gambia.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for February 18:

  • 110,822,981 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (22,605,028 active, +397,806 since yesterday)

  • 2,451,402 reported fatalities (+11,491 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

  • 2154 confirmed coronavirus cases (+3)

  • 618 reported fatalities (+0)

The Saudis are reportedly moving more forces into Maʾrib province and are increasing the intensity of their air campaign there in an effort to blunt the ongoing Houthi offensive against Maʾrib city. Information on the status of the offensive remains hard to come by, as most Western media relies on Yemeni government sources who aren’t necessarily inclined to be candid about Houthi advances. The Yemen live map, which relies on a broader array of sources but should be treated as unconfirmed, shows the Houthis having advanced pretty close to the city over the past couple of days.

IRAQ

  • 657,453 confirmed cases (+3896)

  • 13,220 reported fatalities (+16)

NATO is planning a major expansion of its military contingent in Iraq, with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announcing Thursday that the number of (non-US) NATO forces in the country will go from around 500 today to around 4000, on an “incremental” basis. This is apparently the result of an Iraqi government request to expand NATO’s training operations to include a wider array of Iraqi security units in places other than Baghdad.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 741,934 confirmed cases (+3305) in Israel, 171,154 confirmed cases (+627) in Palestine

  • 5509 reported fatalities (+36) in Israel, 1956 reported fatalities (+8) in Palestine

The Israeli government on Thursday freed two Syrian nationals it was holding for crossing into “Israeli territory” in the occupied Golan. This would seem to confirm a report from Syrian state media the previous day that Israeli and Syrian officials were negotiating a prisoner swap. In return, the Syrians are reportedly to release an Israeli woman they arrested in Quneitra. She’d recently crossed the “border” from the Golan. The Russian government has apparently been brokering talks over the exchange.

UPDATE: Syrian media has apparently confirmed the release of the Israeli woman, completing the exchange.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

  • 361,877 confirmed cases (+3294)

  • 1073 reported fatalities (+18)

Satellite imagery seen by the AP shows the UAE dismantling parts of the Assab seaport and airbase it leased from Eritrea in 2015. To be honest I think the AP is drawing some expansive conclusions from a few satellite photos, but it is possible this reflects a decision by Emirati leaders to draw down their nascent regional military footprint and refocus their attention on the Persian Gulf (i.e., on Iran). On the other hand it could just reflect some retooling now that the Emiratis are not directly involved in the war in Yemen. The facility was particularly useful for ferrying—excuse me, “allegedly” ferrying, I guess—Sudanese mercenaries over to Aden to support the UAE’s nominally pro-government war effort. In addition to Yemen, the UAE has reportedly shipped weapons to its Libyan proxies via Assab, and drones launched from that facility may also have played a role in the recent war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

IRAN

  • 1,550,142 confirmed cases (+8066)

  • 59,264 reported fatalities (+80)

The Quincy Institute’s Joe Cirincione is beginning to worry about the Biden administration’s strategy—or lack of strategy—when it comes to Iran:

Something is going very wrong with President Joe Biden’s Iran policy and it’s not clear why. Unless he corrects course, Biden risks losing a vital agreement and putting the two nations back on a path towards war — at precisely the time he wants to focus on the multiple domestic crises gripping America.

In his first month in office, Biden quickly reversed the most damaging of Donald Trump’s policies on climate, immigration, health care, and many others. But he has left untouched Trump’s Iran policy. He has retained all of Trump’s onerous sanctions and has not renewed the diplomatic exchanges between the two nations that were routine during the last years of the Obama-Biden administration.

Biden is, in effect, continuing Trump’s failed “maximum pressure” campaign and keeping intact the wall of silence between the two nations. Why?

There’s no clear answer here apart from “he doesn’t want to look weak,” which is dumb but certainly aligns with how we know DC Brain works. Biden has already been heavily critical of Donald Trump’s decision to quit the deal back in 2018, but seems to think that if he takes the logical next step of repairing what Trump broke it will open him up to accusations that he’s kowtowing to Tehran and/or somehow “embolden” the Iranians. The latter concern is, again, dumb, and the former concern is legitimate but the people who would accuse him of that are going to do so anyway. They already are. There’s nothing to be gained by letting that criticism dictate administration policy.

However, while these concerns are in my view definitely warranted, there have been some signs over the past couple of days that the administration is finally starting to move a bit on this issue. Laura Rozen reported at her Substack yesterday that Biden may make some kind of tangible proposal (or at least the outlines of one) for rejoining the agreement when he addresses the Munich Security Conference tomorrow. On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his British, French, and German counterparts to discuss Iran, after which they issued a joint statement calling on Iran not to breach its commitments under the deal any further by ceasing its compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “Additional Protocol” inspections regime, a step Iranian officials say they will take next week. It’s possible this threat is what’s finally stirred the Biden administration, but I’m just speculating on that.

It may mean nothing, but the statement notes that the US “is prepared to engage in discussions with Iran” toward mutually returning to the deal. That seems new, and the State department went to some effort to reinforce it later in the day:

Iranian officials have also been vocal in recent days about their openness to talks and willingness to return to the deal’s terms provided the US also does so. Also new is a Reuters report, and this is just developing as I’m compiling the newsletter, that the Biden administration has withdrawn the Trump administration’s attempt to invoke the 2015 deal’s “snap back” measure to reimpose international sanctions on Iran. No other country had recognized the US right to invoke “snap back,” so in practical terms the impact of this step will be minimal, but it could be the kind of thing that helps to break the diplomatic ice, so to speak. The administration has also reportedly told Iran’s United Nations delegation that it will ease the restrictions on Iranian diplomats that the Trump administration imposed—again a relatively small but potentially meaningful gesture.

What’s frustrating about these developments is that they all involve steps the Biden administration could have taken a month ago when Biden took office. It’s unclear what letting the Iranians stew for a month has accomplished other than to allow doubt and bad feelings to fester and to cause the Iranians to step further away from the nuclear deal. That will make it harder for the administration to turn these minor gestures into some real diplomatic progress.

ASIA

GEORGIA

  • 267,313 confirmed cases (+365)

  • 3399 reported fatalities (+9)

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned on Thursday amid controversy over the possible arrest of Nika Melia, leader of the opposition United National Movement. Melia is facing charges over his alleged involvement in organizing anti-government protests back in 2019. A court ruled on Wednesday that Melia should be detained for failing to post bail in connection with that case, but Gakharia’s government hesitated to act on that ruling out of concern for the political fallout. Melia and other opposition leaders are now calling for a new election, which seems like a long shot given that Gakharia’s Georgian Dream party just won an election in October and holds a comfortable parliamentary majority. Georgian opposition parties rejected the outcome of that election but it’s hard to see what leverage they could exert to force a new vote.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 55,575 confirmed cases (+18)

  • 2430 reported fatalities (+0)

Two Kabul University lecturers were killed on Thursday by a bomb attached to their vehicle. There’s been no claim of responsibility but small targeted bombings like this have become a preferred tactic in the capital. Those attacks often go unclaimed and it’s generally assumed the Taliban are behind them because of the apparent effort to minimize risk to bystanders.

NATO’s expansion plans for Iraq do not appear to include transferring any personnel from Afghanistan. Stoltenberg on Thursday more or less rejected the idea of withdrawing NATO trainers from Afghanistan by May 1, as stipulated under the US-Taliban peace deal. The thing is, NATO’s presence in Afghanistan will be untenable if the US withdraws, so this isn’t necessarily Stoltenberg’s decision to make. Luckily (?) for him, the Biden administration doesn’t seem too keen on that May 1 deadline either. As I’ve been saying, I think the important thing to remember is that the next six months will (always) be critical.

MYANMAR

  • 141,709 confirmed cases (+19)

  • 3191 reported fatalities (+0)

The British and Canadian governments on Thursday imposed sanctions against several members of Myanmar’s ruling junta over alleged human rights violations. The UK sanctioned three senior officials, including Myanmar’s defense and home affairs ministers, while the Canadians sanctioned nine individuals. The US has already sanctioned several junta members but it’s unlikely these measures will have much effect except in the very unlikely event that the Chinese government—easily the Myanmar military’s biggest foreign booster—were to follow suit.

AFRICA

ALGERIA

  • 111,418 confirmed cases (+171)

  • 2950 reported fatalities (+3)

Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune on Thursday dissolved the People’s National Assembly, the lower house of the Algerian parliament, and called a snap election for that body. Algeria was not due for another parliamentary election until May 2022, but with the “Hirak” movement starting to revive anti-government protests Tebboune may be hoping to head public unrest off at the pass, if you will. Tebboune also announced that he’s ordering the release of several protest organizers and promised a government “reshuffle,” which probably means that Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad should take one last walk around what’s about to become his former office to gather up his personal belongings.

BURKINA FASO

  • 11,703 confirmed cases (+31)

  • 139 reported fatalities (+1)

Unknown attackers killed at least nine people in northern Burkina Faso on Thursday. The attack took place in the troubled “tri border” region, where the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger meet, and seems to have targeted a group of civilians heading for a market across the border in Niger. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have active affiliates in that region.

NIGER

  • 4718 confirmed cases (+3)

  • 170 reported fatalities (+0)

Nigerien voters will head to the polls on Sunday for the second round of their presidential election, pitting former interior minister and ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism nominee Mohamed Bazoum against former president and Democratic and Social Convention party nominee Mahamane Ousmane. Bazoum, who has openly positioned himself as the successor to incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou, easily won December’s first round, finishing over 22 points ahead of Ousmane. He’s considered the prohibitive favorite to win the runoff. Barring something extremely unforeseen, this should be Niger’s first peaceful, democratic transition from one president to another since it gained independence from France in 1960.

ETHIOPIA

  • 150,179 confirmed cases (+871)

  • 2249 reported fatalities (+12)

While information is still only trickling out of Ethiopia’s Tigray region in the wake of the federal government’s war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the AP has published an eyewitness account of one horrific atrocity:

Bodies with gunshot wounds lay in the streets for days in Ethiopia’s holiest city. At night, residents listened in horror as hyenas fed on the corpses of people they knew. But they were forbidden from burying their dead by the invading Eritrean soldiers.

Those memories haunt a deacon at the country’s most sacred Ethiopian Orthodox church in Axum, where local faithful believe the ancient Ark of the Covenant is housed. As Ethiopia’s Tigray region slowly resumes telephone service after three months of conflict, the deacon and other witnesses gave The Associated Press a detailed account of what might be its deadliest massacre.

For weeks, rumors circulated that something ghastly had occurred at the Church of St. Mary of Zion in late November, with estimates of several hundred people killed. But with Tigray cut off from the world and journalists blocked from entering, little could be verified as Ethiopian and allied fighters pursued the Tigray region’s fugitive leaders.

The deacon, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he remains in Axum, said he helped count the bodies — or what was left after hyenas fed. He gathered victims’ identity cards and assisted with burials in mass graves.

He believes some 800 people were killed that weekend at the church and around the city, and that thousands in Axum have died in all. The killing continues: On the day he spoke to the AP last week he said he had buried three people.

According to the deacon and other witnesses, it was Eritrean soldiers—the same Eritrean soldiers Ethiopian officials insist are not and were never in Tigray—who carried out the worst of the violence. They seem to have just slaughtered people en masse, with no interference from Ethiopian security forces.

EUROPE

BELARUS

  • 273,659 confirmed cases (+1386)

  • 1885 reported fatalities (+9)

Two Belarusian journalists were sentenced to two years in prison on Thursday for “orchestrating protests” calling for President Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation. This is true, if by “orchestrating protests” you mean “covering protests for the Polish media outlet—Belsat—that employed them.” Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, you know what I mean? In a not-unrelated story, the Biden administration on Thursday sanctioned 43 Belarusians, whose names it didn’t release, for “undermining democracy.” These appear to have been visa restrictions, not asset freezes, so mainly these folks will have to put off any planned visits to the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Kansas (Google it) or wherever.

ITALY

  • 2,765,412 confirmed cases (+13,762)

  • 94,887 reported fatalities (+347)

Mario Draghi overwhelmingly won his confidence vote in Italy’s Chamber of Deputies on Thursday, matching his similarly lopsided win in the Italian Senate on Wednesday and meaning that he’s now officially confirmed as prime minister. The only major party that opposed his nomination en masse was the farther-than-far-right Brothers of Italy party. A group of recalcitrant Five Star Movement legislators also voted against Draghi even though party rank and file voted last week to back him. Five Star leaders have suggested they could boot those rebels out of the party.

AMERICAS

GUATEMALA

  • 169,610 confirmed cases (+730)

  • 6186 reported fatalities (+22)

Thousands of mostly rural Guatemalans protested in Guatemala City on Thursday to call for the resignation of President Alejandro Giammattei. The demonstration, organized by an indigenous rights group called Codeca, lambasted Giammattei for mishandling Guatemala’s COVID outbreak as well as for his government’s performance in terms of economic matters.

UNITED STATES

  • 28,523,524 confirmed cases (+68,924)

  • 505,309 reported fatalities (+2761)

Joe Biden will reportedly pledge $4 billion to the World Health Organization’s COVAX program when he meets with his fellow G7 leaders on Friday. Half of that pledge will take the form of an immediate donation while the other half will be disbursed over the next two years and in ways that incentivize other countries to make (and make good on) their own pledges. COVAX is the WHO’s effort to ensure that poorer nations are able to access COVID vaccines, something that’s already become a critical issue amid accusations that wealthier nations are hoarding supplies. The program has been poorly funded thus far.

Finally, at Just Security Oxford University’s Brianna Rosen makes the case for a significantly diminished drone program:

As President Joe Biden made clear in his first major foreign policy speech, the Biden-Harris administration plans to begin restoring America’s place in the world. A key aspect of this initiative that he did not address, however, will be how to responsibly end—or perhaps simply curtail—America’s “forever wars” by repealing and replacing the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force (AUMF), closing Guantanamo Bay, and reinstating transparency measures surrounding the drone program. In an encouraging sign, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in her confirmation hearing that she would support a new or revised version of Executive Order 13732, which, among other things, required all U.S. government agencies during the Obama administration to disclose publicly the number of civilians killed in drone strikes.

These reforms are a welcome departure from the Trump administration, which revoked such transparency measures, loosened restrictions on lethal action, and expanded drone operations across the Middle East and Africa. Yet ending endless war will require a comprehensive review of U.S. counterterrorism strategy and the use of armed drones within and outside of active conflicts. Increasing transparency is not a panacea for ending perpetual warfare, and it is important to build on, rather than simply reinstate, Obama-era policies.

What is missing from the debate is a broader assessment of how to align American values with the use of force in a world where the line between war and peace is blurred. In the past two decades since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the reliance on armed drones as a foreign policy tool has further eroded this line, enabling killing in remote places far from traditional battlefields. The problem is not with drone technology per se; the risk is that drones make it easier to resort to force on a continual basis without clear temporal or geographic limits, and without the scrutiny that conventional wars invite. For this reason, it is impossible to truly end the forever wars without reining in the drones.