World roundup: February 20-21 2021

Stories from Iran, Somalia, Ecuador, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 19, 197: The Roman army under Emperor Septimus Severus faces off against forces loyal to Roman usurper Clodius Albinus in the Battle of Lugdunum. After a two day fight Severus and his army were victorious, and Albinus either committed suicide or was murdered. Exact casualty figures are obviously impossible to tabulate. But there were a large number of Roman soldiers involved (a total of between 100,000 and 150,000, split more or less evenly between the two sides) and later reports suggest high casualties on both sides. Consequently, many historians hold that Lugdunum produced the greatest number of Roman military casualties of any single battle in the history of the empire.

February 19, 1913: Mexican politician Pedro Lascuráin enjoys the shortest presidency in history.

February 20, 1865: The Uruguayan War, which began as a rebellion by the Colorado Party (aided by Brazil and Argentina) against the Blanco Party-led Uruguayan government (aided by Paraguay), ends with the Blancos’ surrender and the formation of a new Colorado-led government. The results of this relatively short (a bit over six months) conflict were mostly subsumed by the much longer (almost five and half year) and more destructive Paraguayan War (AKA the “War of the Triple Alliance”) that spun out of it. Brazil and Paraguay had already gone to war the previous year, and when the Uruguayan War ended both Argentina and the new Uruguayan government also declared war against Paraguay.

February 20, 1988: Leaders of the predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave declare independence from Azerbaijan along with their intention to merge the region with Armenia, kicking off the six year long Nagorno-Karabakh War. A relatively low-level conflict in its first couple of years, the war really heated up with the fall of the Soviet Union, when both Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent states free to conduct their own wars without oversight. The conflict ended in 1994 with an Armenian military victory that established both Karabakh’s de facto independence and an Armenian military occupation in surrounding parts of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani forces recovered those regions and part of historic Karabakh in a second war in late 2020.

February 21, 1916: The Battle of Verdun—the longest battle of World War I and, indeed, in recorded history—begins. It would end with a French victory over the attacking Germans almost a full ten months later, on December 18, after more than 300,000 soldiers had been killed on either side and upwards of 800,000 wounded. The battle is remembered today for its extended brutality and, in France, for the resistance the French army showed in the face of a sustained German effort to wear it down.

February 21, 1921: The Iranian Cossack Brigade marches into Tehran and, in a coup supported by British officials in Iran, forces Ahmad Shah Qajar to appoint a new cabinet led by journalist Ziaʾeddin Tabatabaee and military commander Reza Khan—the future Reza Shah Pahlavi.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for February 21:

  • 111,953,292 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (22,157,149 active, +312,711 since yesterday)

  • 2,477,790 reported fatalities (+6293 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 15,179 confirmed coronavirus cases (+36)

  • 998 reported fatalities (+2)

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Saturday that over 24 hours a series of dozens of Russian airstrikes killed at least 21 Islamic State fighters across government-held portions of Syria. The strikes apparently covered territory all the way from central Homs province up to the Iraqi border, though most of the deaths took place in eastern Syria. The strikes came in retaliation for several IS attacks on Friday that killed at least eight pro-government militia fighters.

YEMEN

  • 2165 confirmed cases (+8)

  • 619 reported fatalities (+1)

According to the AP, the Houthis killed five members of the Arhab tribe in Sanaa on Friday, including tribal leader Sheikh Ali Abu Nashtan. Details are unclear to say the least, but the Arhab are—or were, I guess—on decent terms with the Houthis so clearly something caused a rupture in that relationship. Tensions unsurprisingly appear to be high in Sanaa but I haven’t seen any further reports of violence.

Elsewhere, United Nations-brokered talks on a prisoner exchange between the Houthis and the Yemeni government have reportedly fallen apart. The two sides have been discussing a swap for about a month now, with the hope that a successful negotiation would generate momentum toward broader peace talks.

IRAQ

  • 667,937 confirmed cases (+3187)

  • 13,272 reported fatalities (+27)

Attackers fired four rockets at Iraq’s Balad airbase on Saturday, wounding at least one foreign contractor working for a US firm. The US maintains a presence at Balad to maintain Iraqi F-16 aircraft. The little-known “Guardians of Blood Brigades,” a Shiʿa militia that may be a front for some other group (a larger militia, for example, or IS) claimed responsibility. “Guardians of Blood” also claimed responsibility for a rocket attack in Erbil a few days ago that killed one foreign contractor. Earlier in the day Iraqi militias raided an IS position near the town of Tarmiyah in Iraq’s Saladdin province, killing five IS fighters while losing two of their own number.

LEBANON

  • 355,073 confirmed cases (+1702)

  • 4340 reported fatalities (+43)

Lebanese officials have removed the judge who was heading up the official investigation into August’s explosion at Beirut’s seaport, Fadi Sawan. So if for some reason you imagined that Lebanon’s fundamentally corrupt political establishment would permit itself to be held accountable in that incident, I’m afraid I have some bad news. While Sawan has charged 33 people in connection with the blast, almost all of them have been low level bureaucrats and port officials. He made the mistake, apparently, of targeting three former cabinet ministers and current caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab, and that proved to be his undoing.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 750,043 confirmed cases (+5530) in Israel, 173,635 confirmed cases (+1320) in Palestine

  • 5577 reported fatalities (+51) in Israel, 1976 reported fatalities (+5) in Palestine

As part of the prisoner swap they concluded with Damascus a few days ago, Israeli officials reportedly agreed to fund the purchase of a number of Russian Sputnik V COVID vaccines for the Syrian government. I guess that explains why Moscow was so helpful in brokering the agreement. The $1.2 million purchase, while not huge, has already become a campaign issue, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being dinged by his conservative rivals for aiding Bashar al-Assad. It also, though this part won’t be a campaign issue for obvious reasons, highlights the fact that the Israeli government has only provided a relative handful of COVID vaccines to the Palestinian Authority, flouting its obligations under international law as the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza. Though to be fair, “obligations under international law” are more “suggestions” than actual “obligations.”

EGYPT

  • 178,151 confirmed cases (+608)

  • 10,353 reported fatalities (+55)

The Egyptian and Israeli governments have reportedly reached a deal to build a pipeline connecting Israel’s offshore Leviathan natural gas field to Egyptian liquefied natural gas facilities. Through those facilities gas from Leviathan, which is currently supplying Israel as well as Egypt and Jordan, could be exported further afield, by which I mean “to Europe.” Officials in Gaza say they’ve also struck a deal with Egyptian officials to develop Gaza’s offshore gas reserves, but given Gaza’s occupied status you should probably believe that when you see it.

IRAN

  • 1,574,012 confirmed cases (+7931)

  • 59,483 reported fatalities (+74)

International Atomic Energy Agency director Rafael Grossi visited Iran on Sunday ahead of Tehran’s announced deadline for quitting the IAEA’s Additional Protocol on Tuesday. After meeting with Iranian officials, Grossi pronounced that they’d reached a “useful” agreement under which the Iranians will still suspend participation in the AP but will allow the agency to continue “necessary verification and monitoring activities for up to three months.” No, I’m not sure what that means and Grossi didn’t go into detail. Iran’s withdrawal from the AP means the IAEA’s ability to conduct snap inspections will be curtailed substantially. Iranian officials have said they’ll restore compliance with the AP and reverse the other steps they’ve taken to reduce compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal once the US comes back into compliance with that agreement and lifts sanctions. The Biden administration continues to insist that Iran has to return to compliance first, which the Iranians don’t seem inclined to do.

ASIA

ARMENIA

  • 170,402 confirmed cases (+168)

  • 3164 reported fatalities (+5)

Thousands of protesters hit the streets of Yerevan on Saturday to renew their call for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation. The event was organized by Armenian opposition parties and featured a speech from former PM Vazgen Manukyan, whom the opposition has put forward as a compromise figure who could serve as a caretaker PM were Pashinyan to resign. There’s little chance of that happening, though. The opposition doesn’t control enough seats in parliament to oust Pashinyan and while these protests understandably draw a lot of attention, on their own they’re not enough to force his resignation.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 55,617 confirmed cases (+13)

  • 2433 reported fatalities (+1)

At least three people were killed and 20 wounded in two separate roadside bombings in Afghanistan on Sunday. One attack occurred in Kabul—a rarity, given that most recent violence in the capital has involved more targeted magnetic bombs—and killed one police officer and a civilian child while wounding five others. The second attack occurred in Helmand province and left one dead and 15 wounded. There’s been no claim of responsibility for either attack. On Saturday, three bombings in Kabul—all using magnetic or “sticky” devices—killed at least five people and wounded two others. Four of those killed on Saturday were Afghan security forces. No group has claimed responsibility for those attacks either. This suggests the Taliban was responsible, though IS also seems to have stopped claiming many of its Afghan attacks in an effort to create uncertainty and undermine peace talks.

MYANMAR

  • 141,750 confirmed cases (+15)

  • 3196 reported fatalities (+0)

UN Secretary-General António Guterres criticized Myanmar’s ruling junta by tweet on Sunday for its “use of deadly violence” in responding to protesters. He was able to use that adverb because, as of this writing, Myanmar security forces have killed at least three protesters. Security forces reportedly killed two people on Saturday when they responded to a demonstration in Mandalay with live ammunition. That demonstration, as well as many others across the country, had been sparked partly by the death of another protester, who was shot in the head by police in Naypyidaw earlier this month and succumbed to her injuries on Friday. She’s quickly become something of a martyr figure for the protest movement.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 129,797 confirmed cases (+472)

  • 2114 reported fatalities (+26)

Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha is claiming that a Libyan militia attacked his motorcade in Tripoli on Sunday, but his story is being disputed by said militia. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (who, like Bashagha, is about to give way to Libya’s new interim government) created the artfully-named “Stabilization Support Authority” last month as a paramilitary group that reports directly to his office, probably to protect himself from Bashagha. It issued a statement following the incident, blaming Bashagha’s bodyguard for firing the first shots. Nobody appears to have been injured, but the last thing Libya needs is for the long-simmering tension between Sarraj and Bashagha to now degenerate into open conflict just as the country is supposed to be starting its political transition.

NIGER

  • 4733 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 170 reported fatalities (+0)

A landmine struck a vehicle carrying Nigerien election workers in the country’s southwestern Dargol region on Sunday, killing seven people. Dargol is close to the troubled “tri-border” area (Burkina Faso and Mali being the other two borders), where IS and al-Qaeda affiliates are active. The workers were carrying ballot boxes to polling sites when they hit the mine. The violence has marred Sunday’s presidential runoff. Results of the runoff are not yet known, though establishment favorite Mohamed Bazoum is expected to win.

NIGERIA

  • 152,074 confirmed cases (+521)

  • 1839 reported fatalities (+8)

Islamic State West Africa Province fighters reportedly attacked and overran a major Nigerian military base in Dikwa, in Borno state, late Friday. Casualties are unknown but the attack displaced most civilians in the nearby town as well as the military garrison. The Nigerian military responded with airstrikes and was apparently able to chase the ISWAP attackers out of Dikwa. More than 130,000 people are living in and around Dikwa, most of them having been displaced from other parts of Borno state, so the casualty count could potentially be quite significant.

SOMALIA

  • 6017 confirmed cases (+128)

  • 202 reported fatalities (+8)

A doctor in Mogadishu claimed on Saturday that at least five people had been killed in the previous day’s violence. Protesters, reportedly joined by some Somali soldiers, battled security forces on Friday in clashes stemming from an ongoing crisis over Somalia’s long-delayed elections. A parliamentary vote to elect a new president should have happened on February 8, but the Somali government and the country’s various regional governments still haven’t been able to organize the parliamentary election that was supposed to take place last year, so there was no way to hold that presidential vote. President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed remains in office, though his legitimacy is at best questionable now and opposition leaders as well as several regional governments are insisting that he can no longer be treated as president. Mohamed’s government has started insinuating that the United Arab Emirates government is supporting Somalia’s discord. The UAE has cultivated ties with the separatist Somaliland government and the autonomous Puntland government and is therefore not on good terms with the federal Somali government.

EUROPE

SPAIN

  • 3,133,122 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 67,101 reported fatalities (+0)

It’s now been six straight nights of protests and violent clashes between protesters and police in Barcelona and other parts of Spain’s Catalonia region, sparked by the arrest of rapper Pablo Hasél. The demonstrations have generated a wider debate about the freedom of expression in Spain, particularly with respect to the country’s lèse-majesté laws. Hasél was charged with insulting the monarchy along with “glorifying terrorism” in his music.

FRANCE

  • 3,605,181 confirmed cases (+22,046)

  • 84,306 reported fatalities (+159)

At Jacobin, journalist Lucie Delaporte looks at French President Emmanuel Macron’s new crusade, and I mean that literally, against something his government has decided to call “Islamo-leftism”:

France’s academic community is in uproar after higher education minister Frédérique Vidal declared her intention to order the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) to mount an “investigation into Islamo-leftism” in the country’s universities.

The controversy began on Sunday, when the minister gave a remarkable interview to CNews — the news station beloved of the far right. Questioned on a recent front-page article in conservative daily Le Figaro, headlined “How Islamo-Leftism Corrupted the Universities,” Vidal began her comments by agreeing with its “assessment”:

What we’re seeing in the universities is that people can take advantage of their titles and the aura surrounding them . . . they are minoritarian and they do this, certainly, to promote radical or militant Islamo-leftist ideas, always seeing things through the prism of their determination to divide, to cause tension, to identify enemies.

It should go without saying that “Islamo-leftism” is not a real thing, to say nothing of the claim that this wholly invented ideology has somehow taken over the French academy.

What is real is a substantial body of polling showing Macron running neck and neck with far right challenger Marine Le Pen heading into the first round of next year’s French presidential election, and another substantial body of polling that shows Macron ahead in a potential runoff but not really by all that much given how fringe Le Pen’s views are. Macron, aware of this polling, has apparently decided that the best way to beat the far right is to become the far right. Let’s see if it pays off for him.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

  • 10,168,174 confirmed cases (+29,026)

  • 246,560 reported fatalities (+554)

Brasil Wire and Progressive International are reporting on new evidence of CIA involvement in the dubious 2018 prosecution of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva:

“I’m going to celebrate today.”— Laura Tessler

“A gift from the CIA.”— Deltan Dallagnol

These recently leaked quotes refer to the arrest and jailing of former Brazilian President Lula da Silva in April 2018 that changed the course of the country’s history. It opened the door to far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power with the support of the United States and powerful corporate interests.

Although US involvement in the once heralded anti-corruption investigation operation Lava Jato has been publicly known for some time, leaked conversations between its prosecutors like Tessler and Dallagnol and Judge Sergio Moro have revealed a level of collusion that has shocked even the keenest observers.

A petition filed with the Federal Supreme Court (STF) by the defence of ex-president Lula presents such new evidence that ex-judge Sergio Moro colluded with foreign authorities in conducting the process which led to the arrest of the Workers Party leader, and his subsequent barring from a run for the presidency in 2018.

This evidence could help Lula’s defense get the case against him withdrawn, though this is another “believe it when you see it” situation and regardless the damage—by which I mean the Bolsonaro presidency—has already been done.

ECUADOR

  • 274,673 confirmed cases (+1576)

  • 15,536 reported fatalities (+23)

Ecuadorian election officials have closed the book on the first round of their presidential election, ruling on Sunday that conservative ex-banker Guillermo Lasso will face leftist economist and former Minister of Knowledge Andrés Arauz in the April 11 runoff. Arauz won the first round earlier this month fairly handily—though not handily enough to avoid the runoff—but Lasso just barely edged out Yaku Pérez for second place. Pérez is still alleging “electoral fraud” and demanding a recount. Assuming this result stands it’s likely that Pérez, who for some reason is constantly labeled a “leftist” in English-language media, will endorse Lasso as he did in 2017. Pérez has criticized both Lasso and Arauz but his career shows a sympathy for the Latin American right that he does not have for most Latin American leftists, whether in Ecuador or elsewhere.

As far as I know there’s no polling yet on runoff scenarios. Arauz’s commanding lead in the first round suggests he’d be the favorite heading into the runoff, but since he’s seen as the protege of former President Rafael Correa he’ll bring at least some of Correa’s baggage with him, by which I mostly mean that Ecuadorian media will be squarely in Lasso’s corner. And now that the Organization of American States has involved itself in the process, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that it, and/or the United States, and/or the government of incumbent President Lenín Moreno won’t try to shade the outcome in Lasso’s favor.

On the other hand, this is Lasso’s third try at the presidency and he’s shown no ability to close the deal with voters in his two prior runs. He may also suffer from the fact that his policy agenda is pretty similar to what Ecuador has experienced under Moreno, who might have run for reelection were it not for his single-digit approval rating. It’s a little ironic that Moreno, who was himself considered Correa’s successor when he ran in 2017, could prove to be a major drag on the conservative opposition to Correa-ism this time around.

UNITED STATES

  • 28,765,423 confirmed cases (+57,198)

  • 511,133 reported fatalities (+1245)

Finally, writing for The Nation, the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung likes what he’s heard from the Biden administration so far, but says there’s much more work to be done:

In early February, Joe Biden went to the State Department to give the first foreign policy address of his presidency. His key theme was the need to restore America’s global leadership by adopting a policy of diplomacy first and repairing the damage to US alliances inflicted by Donald Trump. In support of that pledge, Biden recounted a series of steps he has taken already, from extending the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia to rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. He has also promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal.

These are all positive moves, but a more effective and progressive foreign policy requires more than just undoing the damage of the Trump years. It means putting the real risks to human security—from the pandemic to climate change to racial and economic injustice—front and center. A good place to start would be reducing the Pentagon’s bloated budget, which at nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars per year is at one of the highest levels since World War II and accounts for well over half of the government’s discretionary budget. Biden has been silent on this point, but he will need to address it if he wants to make the enduring investments in public health, environmental protection, and fighting poverty and inequality that we urgently need.