World roundup: February 23 2021

Stories from Iran, Georgia, Niger, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 22, 1848: A large crowd gathers in downtown Paris to demonstrate its anger against King Louis Philippe I and demand the resignation of his prime minister, François Pierre Guillaume Guizot. The following day, Guizot’s resignation was overshadowed when French soldiers fired on the crowd, massacring more than 50 of them and kicking off the French Revolution of 1848. The revolution toppled Louis Philippe and instituted the French Second Republic, which lasted until 1852 when its president, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (AKA Napoleon III), declared himself emperor as his uncle had done in 1804.

February 23, 1455: This is traditionally the date cited for the publication of the “Gutenberg Bible,” one of the first books mass printed in Europe using moveable metal type and certainly the most famous. Johannes Gutenberg’s work helped usher in the age of printing, in which books could be produced at such a volume that they became affordable and available to a wider segment of the public and printing scholarly works in vernacular languages (rather than just Latin) became more viable.

February 23, 1966: Leaders of the Syrian regional branch of the Baʿath Party pull off a coup d’etat, ousting traditional party leadership. The incident precipitated the splintering of the previously pan-Arab Baʿathist movement into Syrian and Iraqi national parties.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for February 23:

  • 112,637,953 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,917,829 active, +371,129 since yesterday)

  • 2,495,336 reported fatalities (+10,267 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 15,282 confirmed coronavirus cases (+52)

  • 1004 reported fatalities (+3)

The fact that Damascus has been reduced to forcing the Israeli government to fund the purchase of COVID vaccines (and only a few thousand of them at that) highlights the ongoing implosion/strangulation of the Syrian economy, something the New York Times describes in more detail:

Syria’s economy is worse than at any time since the war began in 2011. This month, the Syrian pound reached an all-time low against the dollar on the black market, decimating the value of salaries and rocketing up the cost of imports.

Food prices have more than doubled in the last year. The World Food Program warned this month that 60 percent of Syrians, or 12.4 million people, were at risk of going hungry, the highest number ever recorded.

Most Syrians now devote their days to finding fuel to cook and warm their homes, and standing in long lines for rationed pita. Power shortages are constant, with some areas getting only a few hours of electricity a day, barely enough for people to keep their cellphones charged.

Desperate women have taken to selling their hair to feed their families.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 759,572 confirmed cases (+4574) in Israel, 176,377 confirmed cases (+1408) in Palestine

  • 5634 reported fatalities (+38) in Israel, 1994 reported fatalities (+8) in Palestine

A British research firm called Forensic Architecture says its reconstruction of the events surrounding the death of a Palestinian man in the West Bank last June shows that he was effectively executed by Israeli soldiers. The official story is that the man attempted to attack a group of soldiers by car and that the soldiers killed him in self defense. But Forensic Architecture’s research suggests that the “attack” was actually a car accident and that Israeli soldiers were too quick to open fire on the man when he exited his vehicle with “his hands in the air.” After shooting him as many as six times, the report continues, the soldiers failed to call for medical aid while they watched the man die in front of them. I have no idea how rigorous this sort of reconstruction is, but the report seems worth noting, given how frequently Israeli soldiers gun down Palestinians while claiming self defense.

According to Reuters, Qatar and the European Union are spearheading a plan to connect Gaza to Israel’s large Leviathan offshore gas field via pipeline. The plan would see the Qataris finance the construction of a pipeline carrying Leviathan’s product into Israel, with the EU paying for an extension into Gaza. The Palestinians would then purchase gas from Israel. This could virtually end Gaza’s power generation struggles—except, of course, in the event Israeli authorities decide to cut the enclave off due to unrest. But a steady supply of electricity might very well reduce the level of unrest in Gaza—admittedly perhaps not by very much, but any reduction would presumably be to Israel’s benefit.

QATAR

  • 161,344 confirmed cases (+455)

  • 257 reported fatalities (+0)

Qatari and Egyptian delegations met in Kuwait on Tuesday for their first bilateral talks since Egypt and three other countries imposed a boycott/blockade on Qatar back in 2017. It’s unclear whether they discussed anything substantive but I suspect their meeting was little more than a renewing acquaintances type of thing. Coupled with Monday’s meeting between Qatari and Emirati delegations, also in Kuwait, it seems Doha is making the rounds talking to its once (and probably future) adversaries.

IRAN

  • 1,590,605 confirmed cases (+8330)

  • 59,663 reported fatalities (+91)

Iran ceased its participation in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol on Tuesday, just as the IAEA was issuing a new report saying that Iran has enriched almost 18 kilograms of uranium to the 20 percent level and that its stockpile of enriched uranium continues to increase. Withdrawing from the AP is a particularly controversial step since it substantially reduces the IAEA’s capability to inspect activity at declared Iranian nuclear sites. IAEA head Rafael Grossi visited Iran over the weekend and worked out a stopgap arrangement whereby Iranian officials will continue IAEA monitoring for three months but will not share that information with the agency unless and until the United States rejoins the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and lifts sanctions against Iran. If the US and Iran haven’t managed to come to some accord when that three month period is up, the data—along with any realistic chance of restoring US-Iranian diplomacy—will be destroyed.

The Biden administration would like you to know that it’s trying to revive the JCPOA but its good faith efforts are being rebuffed by the Iranians. It seems clear that somebody has turned on the Bat-Signal as far as US media outlets are concerned, because several of them have churned out versions of this narrative over the past couple of days. The AP’s version is indicative. This is propaganda. Although Joe Biden and his foreign policy team have talked a lot about diplomacy with Iran, it was only a few days ago that they actually took some tangible steps in that direction and those were mostly cosmetic. Despite frequently criticizing the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” approach toward Iran, Biden has left the entire Trump sanctions apparatus in place. Yes he’s only been in office a bit over a month, but the steps he’s taken thus far could have been taken on day one and might actually have gotten a positive reception from Tehran. But now, after a month of delays and demands that Iran take the first steps to fix an agreement that the US broke, they’re too little and maybe too late.

ASIA

GEORGIA

  • 268,995 confirmed cases (+493)

  • 3457 reported fatalities (+10)

Georgian authorities arrested Nika Melia, leader of the opposition United National Movement party, on Tuesday. Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned last week after he and his government hesitated in the face of a court order mandating Melia’s arrest over a bail violation related to his alleged role in organizing anti-government protests in 2019. Melia has dismissed the 2019 charge as political. Gakharia’s former defense minister, Irakli Garibashvili, succeeded him as PM on Monday. Garibashvili clearly didn’t feel the same sense of reluctance about effecting Melia’s arrest, which probably endeared him to former Georgian Dream party chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili. Although he officially stepped down from his position as the head of Georgia’s ruling party last month, it’s widely assumed that Ivanishvili, Georgia’s wealthiest person, is still calling the shots behind the scenes.

The push to arrest Melia undoubtedly stems from UNM’s ongoing refusal to accept the results of last fall’s parliamentary election, which Georgian Dream won. All of Georgia’s major opposition parties have claimed fraud and are now boycotting the new parliamentary session, which chips away at Georgian Dream’s legitimacy. No hard evidence has emerged to support the fraud claim and international observers have not outright rejected the election results, though they have raised concerns about the conduct of the voting and highlighted reports of irregularities.

ARMENIA

  • 170,672 confirmed cases (+166)

  • 3171 reported fatalities (+4)

Thousands of people protested in Yerevan on Tuesday for the second straight day (and the third time in the past four days), to call for Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation. Somewhat warmer weather appears to have awakened the anti-Pashinyan movement, which has been active since he accepted a lopsided ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh last fall, after demonstrations eased off a bit last month. Armenian opposition parties still lack the votes to remove Pashinyan via legislative procedure.

TAJIKISTAN

  • 13,308 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 90 reported fatalities (+0)

While it has grudgingly admitted to a domestic COVID outbreak—which puts it ahead of Turkmenistan, at least—the Tajik government says it’s been a relatively minor one, only killing around 90 people. It’s funny, then, that Tajikistan’s official statistical agency reported 8649 more deaths in 2020 than the country experienced in 2019. While we shouldn’t discount the possibility that all those deaths were due to other causes—maybe a bunch of people fell off of ladders or part of the country suddenly sank into the Earth’s crust or something—this seems like fairly strong evidence that the outbreak has been substantially more serious than officials have acknowledged.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 55,664 confirmed cases (+18)

  • 2436 reported fatalities (+1)

Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government’s negotiating team resumed in Doha this week. Previously the two sides had taken a month off in mid-December, briefly reconvened in mid-January, and then quickly shut things down again. The first item on their agenda is, as it has been for several weeks now, agreeing on an agenda. In other words, they’re not quite stuck at step one (they have agreed on a few technical details about the conduct of the talks), but they haven’t quite made it to step two either.

A new United Nations report finds that civilian casualties in Afghanistan dropped by 15 percent last year compared with 2019. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the decline occurred entirely during the first three quarters of the year. Between September and the end of the year, civilian casualties spiked by around 45 percent over what they had been during that same period the year before. That period just happens to coincide with the opening of those going-nowhere peace talks in Qatar. While the Taliban has been more reluctant to claim responsibility for civilian casualties since it concluded its peace deal with the United States last February, it seems fairly clear that the militant group—or factions within it—has stepped up its violence in an effort either to gain bargaining leverage or to scuttle the peace talks, or perhaps both.

NEPAL

  • 273,666 confirmed cases (+110)

  • 2065 reported fatalities (+4)

The Nepalese Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli was out of line in dissolving parliament (well, recommending its dissolution, technically) back in December and calling for an early election. Oli convinced President Bidya Devi Bhandari to order the dissolution so as to avoid a no-confidence vote brought on by discord within Nepal’s ruling Communist Party. He’ll now have to face that vote when the House of Representatives reconvenes (which the court ordered to happen within 13 days), having in the meantime been ousted from the party.

MYANMAR

  • 141,783 confirmed cases (+22)

  • 3197 reported fatalities (+0)

Myanmar’s ruling junta took a few more sanctions hits on Tuesday, as the US blacklisted two more senior military officers and the European Union cut off all direct assistance to the Myanmar government. EU foreign policy head Josep Borrell said the bloc would not cut commercial ties with Myanmar due to concerns about the effect that might have on the civilian population. Myanmar security forces have killed three anti-junta protesters this month and a fourth person was killed in Yangon in unclear circumstances over the weekend while reportedly “patrolling” his neighborhood against nighttime raids by police. Such raids have become increasingly frequent as the protests against the February 1 military coup have intensified. But these Western sanctions are unlikely to impact the junta enough to prompt it to reverse course.

AFRICA

MALI

  • 8324 confirmed cases (+18)

  • 348 reported fatalities (+0)

Unknown attackers ambushed an army convoy in central Mali’s Mopti region on Tuesday, killing at least two soldiers and wounding seven others. A tenth soldier is reportedly missing in the wake of the attack. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have affiliates in that area and attacks like this often seem to go unclaimed, at least initially.

NIGER

  • 4740 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 172 reported fatalities (+0)

Nigerien election officials on Tuesday declared ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum the winner of Sunday’s presidential runoff with nearly 56 percent of the vote. Bazoum, incumbent Mahamadou Issoufou’s chosen successor, had been expected to defeat former President Mahamane Ousmane. That hasn’t stopped Ousmane’s supporters from taking to the streets in parts of Niamey, claiming fraud, though it’s too early to say how widespread those protests might get (or, while we’re on the subject, whether or not the protesters have a point). Barring something unforeseen, Bazoum’s inauguration will mark the first peaceful transition from one president to another in Niger’s (admittedly fairly brief) history. It should also win Issoufou some credit for being the rare West African leader who didn’t go looking for an excuse to extend his presidency beyond its constitutional term limit.

NIGERIA

  • 153,187 confirmed cases (+571)

  • 1874 reported fatalities (+12)

Boko Haram fighters fired mortars into a couple of neighborhoods in Maiduguri on Tuesday, killing at least ten people and wounding 21 more. Maiduguri is the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state and has been the epicenter of Boko Haram’s insurgency since it began back in 2009.

SOUTH SUDAN

  • 7098 confirmed cases (+167)

  • 87 reported fatalities (+0)

At World Politics Review, the International Crisis Group’s Alan Boswell argues that finding a path out of South Sudan’s cycle of violence requires changing the country’s winner-take-all political system ahead of new elections:

Given the current level of tensions, rival factions will surely contest nearly every step in the leadup to the poll, so foreign diplomats in South Sudan should refrain from putting pressure on the government to rush into a potentially destabilizing election. Crucially, regional powers like Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which are the main guarantors of the 2018 peace deal, will also need to push for some form of pre-election deal that ensures a share of power to the losers.

Such an outcome could avert a violent breakdown around the vote, but it still would not resolve South Sudan’s many problems. Ultimately, the country will need to revisit its political model to avoid remaining stuck in cyclical bouts of conflict. The existing centralized state butts up against the harsh realities across the country. South Sudan still lacks roads or basic institutions, and peaceful governance is impossible without broad accommodation across its diverse patchwork of communities and groups. As the International Crisis Group argues in a recent report, instead of a king-of-the-hill system, South Sudan could evolve toward a more consensual form of governance. This would give the country’s notorious elites in Juba, as well as its beleaguered but divided population, a sense of shared interest.

ETHIOPIA

  • 154,257 confirmed cases (+716)

  • 2305 reported fatalities (+12)

The war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has displaced more than two million people and sent tens of thousands of them pouring over the border into neighboring Sudan. On top of that, the UN’s refugee agency reported Tuesday that at least 7000 more Ethiopian refugees have crossed into Sudan while fleeing inter-communal violence in a different part of Ethiopia, the country’s western Benishangul-Gumuz region. Violence has flared in Benishangul-Gumuz’s Metekel district over the past three months, with ethnic Gumuz gangs reportedly attacking members of the Amhara, Oromo, and Shinasha communities, killing scores of people.

Speaking of the conflict in Tigray, 15 ethnic Tigrayans serving as UN peacekeepers in South Sudan have reportedly refused to rotate back to Ethiopia and may be seeking asylum. South Sudanese authorities are reportedly handling their claim. There have been reports of Tigrayan peacekeepers being recalled to Ethiopia and coincidentally going missing upon their return, so there’s at least some basis for their asylum requests.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 25,144 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 700 reported fatalities (+0)

The Hutu militia accused of killing Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio on Monday has denied involvement in the attack. Congolese officials quickly identified the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) as having ambushed the World Food Program convoy in which Attanasio was traveling in North Kivu province, but in a statement to AFP on Tuesday the FDLR suggested that the Rwandan and Congolese militaries were responsible. It’s unclear why they would have attacked the convoy, but then it’s also unclear how the FDLR would have been able to attack the convoy when presumably both DRC and UN security personnel would have taken steps to protect the convoy’s route. It’s possible both of these allegations are wrong—North Kivu is brimming with armed groups and in theory it could have been one of them. Italian investigators are heading to the DRC to investigate the incident, so perhaps they’ll figure out what happened.

EUROPE

GREECE

  • 182,783 confirmed cases (+2111)

  • 6343 reported fatalities (+22)

There was a fun new flare-up in the eastern Mediterranean on Tuesday, as Turkish officials accused the Greek military of harassing a Turkish “research vessel,” the Çeşme, in international waters in the Aegean Sea. The Turks say that four Greek military jets buzzed the ship, which was doing “scientific work.” I put “research vessel” and “scientific work” in quotes because the Çeşme was looking for oil and gas deposits. Greek and Turkish maritime claims in the Aegean overlap to some degree due largely to the expanse of Greek islands, and now that everybody is convinced that the Mediterranean is loaded with carbon deposits historic tensions over those overlapping claims are reaching an all time high.

AMERICAS

ECUADOR

  • 275,780 confirmed cases (+812)

  • 15,567 reported fatalities (+20)

Hundreds of indigenous Ecuadorians protested in Quito on Tuesday over the results of the February 7 presidential election. Over the weekend election officials announced that leftist former knowledge minister Andrés Arauz and conservative ex-banker Guillermo Lasso will meet in the April 11 runoff, confirming that Lasso had just barely edged out indigenous anti-mining activist Yaku Pérez for second place behind Arauz. But Pérez is not going quietly—he’s demanded a recount and alleged fraud. In a speech to the demonstrators he said he’s giving officials “one last chance” to…well, I don’t know, put him in the runoff I guess? Or at least grant his recount request? It’s unclear what he’s planning to do if they refuse.

COLOMBIA

  • 2,233,589 confirmed cases (+3926)

  • 59,118 reported fatalities (+144)

A new UN report on the human rights situation in Colombia finds that at least 133 human rights activists were murdered there last year, up 23 percent from 2019. The UN also recorded a whopping 76 massacres (defined as any incident in which at least three civilians are killed), nearly twice the number Colombia saw in 2019. The 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) seems to have produced the worst possible combination of outcomes. For one thing it created a power vacuum in several parts of the country that the Colombian government has been unable to fill, leaving an array of armed groups competing violently with one another for turf. For another thing, the Colombian government’s failure (or refusal) to uphold its commitments to protect ex-FARC fighters and enable their reintegration into Colombian society has enabled more violence and pushed some of those ex-FARC members back into militancy. The UN report calls on Iván Duque’s government to do more to implement the peace deal.

GUATEMALA

  • 172,072 confirmed cases (+783)

  • 6315 reported fatalities (+9)

The World Food Program says that some 8 million people are suffering from hunger across four Central American nations: El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. If that sounds like a lot, consider that it’s almost four times the number (2.2 million) who were in the same situation in those four countries just two years ago. The pandemic has certainly contributed to the increase, and the double whammy of hurricanes Eta and Iota in November only made things worse, but the underlying issue is climate change, in the form of an extended regional drought.

UNITED STATES

  • 28,897,718 confirmed cases (+71,054)

  • 514,996 reported fatalities (+2404)

The US Senate on Tuesday confirmed Joe Biden’s UN ambassador nominee, former assistant secretary of state Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She’s the first Black woman confirmed to Biden’s cabinet (confirmation votes are pending for HUD Secretary-designate Marcia Fudge and Council of Economic Advisers Chair-designate Cecilia Rouse, and of course Vice President Kamala Harris didn’t require Senate confirmation) and will be tasked primarily with rebuilding a US-UN relationship that has, well, seen better days to say the least. Thomas-Greenfield’s previous gig was with the Albright Stonebridge Group, one of the many “strategic consultancies” that have become ubiqutious in Washington as people look for ways to make money doing lobbying work without being tainted as lobbyists. That’s concerning, but hey, if we canceled every one of Biden’s foreign policy picks over their consultancy work there might not be anybody left! LOL! It’s funny because everything is corrupt!

Meanwhile, the State Department may shift the position of “special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS to bring it into the department’s counter-terrorism bureau. Apparently there’s some internal debate about this, because I guess we’re all supposed to live in perpetual fear of an IS resurgence for some reason. If the department goes this route, the envoy position would essentially cease to exist, its responsibilities devolving to the counter-terrorism coordinator. The current acting envoy, John Godfrey, is also acting counter-terrorism coordinator and yet the dark forces of IS are not marching o’er the world, so maybe we should take that as a sign that those jobs really can be combined without disaster ensuing.

Finally, in case you missed it, Alex Thurston made his debut as a Foreign Exchanges contributor yesterday with some thoughts about how the United States could have handled the 9/11 attacks without making such a huge mess of everything:

Most of the choices American policymakers have made in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks have been disastrous. To be sure, a small segment of the American elite has benefited politically and financially from those choices, even when they’ve failed to work as advertised. But on the whole, this disastrous response has weakened the United States as a nation and as a society. It has affected people in other countries even more dramatically. Thousands of innocent people have died, or had their lives ruined, because of a quixotic “counter-terrorism” effort—an effort that has ultimately boosted the spread of the very movements and ideologies it is ostensibly meant to combat, as even ardent defenders of the War on Terror admit.

Yet other courses of action were possible in response to 9/11. Here I lay out four scenarios for how things might have gone differently, each of them progressively more distant from how the actual response played out.