World roundup: February 25 2021

Stories from Syria, Armenia, Libya, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 24, 1739: The Battle of Karnal

February 24, 1918: The Republic of Estonia declares independence from Russia before being occupied by German forces. Upon its defeat in World War I, Germany was obliged to turn Estonia over to an independent government, and the country remained independent until it was occupied by the Soviets in 1940. Despite Estonia’s rather lengthy Soviet interlude, which lasted until 1991, this date is recognized and commemorated as Estonian Independence Day.

February 25, 628: Sasanian nobles overthrow Emperor Khosrow II in favor of his son, Kavadh II, who promptly had his brothers and his father executed. Khosrow was on the verge of losing the 602-628 war against the Byzantines, which had begun very promisingly for the Sasanians but fell apart beginning with Khosrow’s ill-advised 626 siege of Constantinople. One of Kavadh’s first actions as emperor was to make peace with Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, after which his brutality toward the rest of his family plunged the Sasanian Empire into a civil war from which it never fully recovered.

February 25, 1943: The World War II Battle of Kasserine Pass, in central Tunisia, ends in an Axis tactical victory but a strategic stalemate.

February 25, 1980: A military coup organized around a group of 16 sergeants led by future Surinamese President Dési Bouterse ousts Suriname’s civilian government, kicking off an 11 year period of military rule during which nominally civilian leaders served under Bouterse’s control. The military government severely curtailed political freedoms and civil rights and was marked both by its corruption and its penchant for imprisoning and executing political opponents. Nevertheless, the day is still commemorated annually in Suriname.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for February 25:

  • 113,533,418 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,893,905 active, +444,466 since yesterday)

  • 2,518,344 reported fatalities (+10,552 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 15,405 confirmed coronavirus cases (+62)

  • 1014 reported fatalities (+6)

Details are still mostly unclear, but the US military has reportedly attacked “a structure connected to an Iran-backed militia in Syria” in retaliation for recent attacks targeting US-occupied facilities in Iraq. I’m not sure exactly what “a structure connected to an Iran-backed militia” means, and as I say this story isn’t exactly awash in details at this point. The militia may have been perennial US nemesis Kataʾib Hezbollah, though I’m just guessing. But hey, at least we’re bombing Syria again, am I right? It feels like it’s been forever.

According to Defense One, the anti-Islamic State coalition led by the United States is funding a project to expand the Syrian Democratic Forces’ detention facility at Hasakah. That facility currently holds some 5000 IS prisoners and this project aims to double its capacity. It should also bring the entire facility up to International Red Cross standards for the treatment of prisoners (as it stands now the facility does not) and toughen it against potential breakouts and/or attacks from IS fighters. This is probably necessary but demonstrates that other countries have refused to step up and collect their nationals who went off to fight for IS and wound up getting captured.

Al-Monitor’s Khaled al-Khateb reports that the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia comprised predominantly of Afghan Shiʿa organized by Iran to fight on behalf of the Syrian government, is heavily recruiting Syrians in Deir Ezzor province to bolster its ranks and increase its support in eastern Syria. From what he describes I’m not sure how successful this effort is going to be. He cites a Syrian opposition journalist who says that the militia’s Syrian recruits make roughly a third of what its Afghan fighters are being paid, and on top of that they’re obliged to “embrace” Shiʿism. I find the former easier to believe than the latter but if either is true then they’re not exactly making it easy for people to sign up.

YEMEN

  • 2255 confirmed cases (+34)

  • 625 reported fatalities (+1)

The United Nations Security Council on Thursday levied sanctions against a senior police official in Houthi-controlled Sanaa, Sultan Saleh Aida Aida Zabin, for, well, a frankly horrifying list of alleged human rights abuses. He’ll be under a travel ban and arms embargo, though the practical effect of either of those things is likely to be negligible.

IRAQ

  • 684,362 confirmed cases (+4074)

  • 13,351 reported fatalities (+27)

The New Arab is reporting that Iraqi security forces have killed at least three people and injured 72 others this week in responding violently to new anti-government protests in Nasiriyah. Clashes in Nasiriyah have prompted security lockdowns across Dhi Qar province and calls for restraint from Baghdad, while demonstrators have begun to demand the removal of provincial and local officials.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 767,726 confirmed cases (+3970) in Israel, 179,293 confirmed cases (+1525) in Palestine

  • 5687 reported fatalities (+27) in Israel, 2008 reported fatalities (+9) in Palestine

Satellite photos show a major construction project underway at Israel’s Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center outside the southern city of Dimona. That facility is home to a nuclear reactor and to the plutonium reprocessing operation that turns the spent fuel from that reactor into the raw material for the dozens of nuclear warheads the Israeli government refuses to admit it possesses. Obviously Israeli officials aren’t going to disclose what this new construction is all about, but given the advanced age of the center’s reactor it seems reasonable to guess that the Israelis are either decommissioning/replacing it or retrofitting it to improve safety and/or yield.

The Qatari government announced on Thursday that it will invest $60 million toward a pipeline project that would carry offshore Israeli natural gas into Gaza. Reuters reported earlier this week that such a project was in the works. The European Union is supposed to fund the segment of the pipeline that runs into Gaza. The project is intended to be completed in 2023 and will go a long way toward alleviating Gaza’s constant power shortages, albeit in a way that leaves the enclave almost entirely dependent on Israel to keep the gas flowing.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • 376,377 confirmed cases (+356)

  • 6480 reported fatalities (+5)

The AP, citing “a senior Iran-backed militia official in Baghdad” as well as an unnamed “US official,” is reporting that a drone attack on Riyadh last month, which the Saudi government blamed on the Houthis in Yemen, actually originated in Iraq. The Houthis denied involvement in that January 23 incident, which in itself was interesting since they’re not shy about claiming responsibility for attacks on Saudi Arabia even when the evidence of those attacks having occurred is dubious. An Iraqi militia calling itself “The True Promise Brigades” did claim the attack, using drones brought in from Iran and supposedly in retaliation for an Islamic State bombing in Baghdad a couple of days earlier. I know nothing about them, and whenever a small new militia or similar group pops up like this it’s worth at least considering the possibility that they’re a front for a more established organization.

While we’re all waiting for the Biden administration to release the US intelligence community’s report (or rather a summary of that report) on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the man who ordered—um, I mean allegedly ordered—that murder is sadly under the weather. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman underwent a “successful surgical operation for appendicitis” (I assume this is a needlessly lengthy euphemism for “appendectomy”) on Wednesday. He’s reportedly doing well. As far as I know he did not have the offending organ chopped into pieces and dissolved in acid, but I suppose anything is possible.

IRAN

  • 1,607,081 confirmed cases (+8206)

  • 59,830 reported fatalities (+94)

The still-murky situation in southeastern Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province led to another death on Thursday, as an armed mob attacked a police station in the city of Saravan and killed one police officer before being driven off. Local residents are angry over an incident earlier in the week in which Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps border forces reportedly fired on a group of fuel smugglers attempting to cross into Pakistan. Unconfirmed reports say that the IRGC soldiers killed ten people in that incident, though Iranian officials are claiming that it was the Pakistanis who shot the smugglers, killing two or three of them. Sistan and Baluchistan is Iran’s poorest and most remote province, so news from that region can be hard to come by and even harder to confirm, hence the continued uncertainty about what’s happening.

The Biden administration, somewhat incredibly, intends to try to censure Iran at next week’s International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors meeting, over Tehran’s decision to cease compliance with the IAEA’s Additional Protocol inspections regime. That Iran only ceased compliance with the AP in retaliation for the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal is just one of several Kafkaesque things happening here. The censure resolution’s text continues to press the Biden administration’s demand that Iran act first to restore that deal, a deal the US broke, which remains the most Kafkaesque thing about this whole story. Censuring Iran at the IAEA achieves nothing tangible but will likely further shut an already nearly closed window for US-Iranian diplomacy. In other words, it both makes no sense and is precisely the kind of action you’d expect the US foreign policy establishment to pursue.

ASIA

ARMENIA

  • 171,227 confirmed cases (+282)

  • 3179 reported fatalities (+4)

Another shoe dropped in Armenia’s months-long political crisis. Or at least it started to drop. I’m not sure it got all the way to the floor. On Thursday morning, the Armenian military issued a written statement demanding Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation. Pashinyan has been under substantial pressure, in the form of regular protests in Yerevan, to resign since he accepted what many Armenians seem to regard as a humiliating settlement to last fall’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh.

It’s unclear why the Armenian military suddenly decided that it was time for Pashinyan to go (Eurasianet’s Joshua Kucera suggests the PM’s televised criticism of the Russian-made Iskandar missile system’s performance during the Karabakh war, and the anger that criticism generated in Moscow, did the trick). But it does seem pretty clear that it wasn’t prepared to back up its demand with force when Pashinyan managed to organize a rally of thousands of his own supporters in Yerevan. Denouncing the statement as a “military coup,” the PM refused to resign or even to accede to a snap election. And the military…did nothing. It may have been caught off guard by the sudden realization that Pashinyan still has a substantial level of popular support, but that’s purely speculative. What is not speculative is that even if you don’t agree that Thursday’s events amounted to a coup, the possibility of a coup is now on the table in a way that it wasn’t previously.

INDIA

  • 11,063,038 confirmed cases (+16,568)

  • 156,861 reported fatalities (+119)

In a rare bit of good news, the Indian and Pakistani militaries announced Thursday that they’ve agreed to a mutual ceasefire across their entire border—including the disputed “Line of Control” in Kashmir. Indian and Pakistani forces regularly take shots at one another, especially in Kashmir, with each side naturally blaming the other for shooting first and civilians frequently bearing the brunt of the violence. The Indian government recorded a whopping 5000 incidents of cross-border clashes in 2020. This is the first ceasefire agreement the two South Asian adversaries have negotiated since 2003, which means both that it’s a significant development and that there’s precedent for this kind of arrangement falling apart.

MYANMAR

  • 141,841 confirmed cases (+25)

  • 3198 reported fatalities (+1)

Yangon played host to another demonstration on Thursday, but this time it was organized by supporters of Myanmar’s military junta rather than opponents. It’s good to change things up every once in a while, after all. Or it would have been, anyway, had the angry and apparently armed junta supporters not then decided to attack bystanders and anti-junta protesters. As far as I can tell there’s no word on any casualties, though of course that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. Meanwhile, the British government sanctioned six members of the junta, including leader Min Aung Hlaing, over allegations of human rights violations. I’m sure they’ll be surrendering power any minute now.

CHINA

  • 89,871 confirmed cases (+7) on the mainland, 10,927 confirmed cases (+13) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 198 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong

The US Navy sailed the destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday on one of its regular “freedom of navigation” missions. The Chinese government issued one of its regular angry denunciations of those missions on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied accusations that it’s been forcing US diplomats to undergo anal COVID swabs. This feels like the sort of thing where if you have to deny it, something has already gone very wrong, but it’s based on a claim the Washington Post reported last week that then drew a somewhat defiant statement from the US State Department about “preserving [the] dignity” of US diplomats and their families. I guess there’s some evidence that anal swabs are more accurate than other kinds of swabs (I’d really like to stop typing the word “swabs,” by the way), but I’m not sure the extra accuracy is worth it frankly.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 131,833 confirmed cases (+571)

  • 2156 reported fatalities (+5)

New Libyan Prime Minister-designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibah told reporters in Tripoli on Thursday that he’s submitted a “vision” for his still-theoretical interim government to the eastern and western halves of Libya’s divided parliament. Importantly, though, he has not submitted the government itself, as in a list of potential cabinet ministers that could then be voted up or down by those legislatures. There had been some expectation that Dbeibah would unveil his proposed government on Thursday, but he suggested he’s still vetting names. The two half-parliaments are reportedly negotiating a potential joint session, likely in the city of Sirte as it lies along the border between the warring eastern and western halves of the country, and if that comes to fruition it’s likely Dbeibah would present his cabinet at that session. Dbeibah is facing a March 19 deadline to win legislative approval for his government, which is intended to replace the warring governments in each half of the country. If he misses that deadline…well, I’m honestly not sure what, if anything, is the fallback option in that case.

Dbeibah’s chances of knitting Libya back together again would be substantially improved in the absence of the vast array of foreign military forces currently occupying parts of the country, primarily courtesy of Russia and Turkey, were shown the proverbial door. The Washington Post has put together a piece that will give you a pretty good sense of the scale of these interventions and the complications they pose to any effort to end Libya’s civil war.

BURKINA FASO

  • 11,914 confirmed cases (+27)

  • 142 reported fatalities (+0)

The Burkinabé military says its forces killed 11 alleged terrorists and captured another during an operation in northern Burkina Faso’s Oudalan province earlier this week. Attackers killed nine civilians in that province earlier this month and this operation seems to have been a retaliation for that incident.

NIGER

  • 4740 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 172 reported fatalities (+0)

Nigerien authorities say that at least two people have been killed this week amid unrest sparked by Sunday’s presidential runoff. Ex-President Mahamane Ousmane continues to allege that the vote count that shows him having lost to ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum was compiled fraudulently, and his supporters have been engaging in sometimes-violent protests, particularly in the Nigerien capital, Niamey. Government officials have accused opposition leader Hama Amadou, who was barred from running in this election due to a past criminal conviction and endorsed Ousmane, of fomenting the unrest.

NIGERIA

  • 154,476 confirmed cases (+634)

  • 1891 reported fatalities (+6)

Unknown “bandits” attacked two villages in northern Nigeria on Wednesday, one in Kaduna state and the other in Katsina state, killing at least 18 people in each instance. Parts of northern Nigeria are plagued by these seemingly random attacks by organized criminal gangs, and while these has been speculation that there’s something more than simple banditry at work in these areas there’s been no definitive proof found to support that theory.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

  • 5004 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 63 reported fatalities (+0)

Amnesty International says it has received evidence of what looks like a civilian massacre that reportedly took place on February 16 in the Central African town of Bambari. Video appears to show 14 dead bodies, and while it’s impossible to know for sure that they were civilians at least one was a woman and another a child. Amnesty also says the bodies were found in a “religious site,” though it’s unclear from the reporting what that means. The Central African military claimed to have recovered Bambari from rebels on February 17, so there’s some question about which side carried out these apparent killings.

ETHIOPIA

  • 156,112 confirmed cases (+878)

  • 2321 reported fatalities (+5)

Amnesty has also issued a new report accusing Eritrean soldiers of killing “hundreds” of people in the Ethiopian town of Axum in late November, amid the war between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. That’s just one of several alleged massacres carried out by Eritrean forces in Tigray during that conflict, massacres that Amnesty says may have amounted to “crimes against humanity.” Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments insist that no Eritrean forces ever entered Tigray, claims that are taking on a very “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes” sort of feel.

Meanwhile, Reuters is reporting that satellite photos show signs of heavy recent fighting in the area around the Tigrayan town of Gijet. The Ethiopian government insists that its conflict with the TPLF is over except for some occasional light skirmishing, but there’s growing reason to think those claims are just as reliable as the ones about no Eritrean soldiers entering Tigray.

EUROPE

EUROPEAN UNION

A major trade and investment deal the EU and China concluded back in December has come under heavy scrutiny in the European Parliament:

The European Commission was forced to defend its investment deal with Beijing from intense criticism in the European Parliament on Wednesday, signalling the challenge it faces in getting it over the line next year.

In a lively session of the Committee on International Trade, MEPs accused Brussels of ignoring concerns over China’s labour conditions, glossing over Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong, and “showing the middle finger” to the new Biden administration in the United States.

The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) was signed on December 30 but it needs to be ratified by the European Parliament and approved by the EU Council – the heads of state or government of the EU member states – before it can go into force.

The EU is walking a fine line as it tries to chart a foreign policy course that’s more independent of the US even though Europe remains heavily dependent on the US for both commercial and security reasons. The fact that its internal cohesion is not all that strong certainly doesn’t help clarify things. Neither does the Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, which has sparked a backlash within the EU.

BELARUS

  • 282,898 confirmed cases (+1191)

  • 1948 reported fatalities (+9)

EU members on Thursday agreed to extend their sanctions on dozens of officials in Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s government, including Lukashenko himself, for another year. The bloc is currently blacklisting 88 Belarusian officials for their roles in conducting last August’s disputed presidential election and in suppressing opposition protests since that vote, and a new round of additions to that list may be forthcoming.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

  • 10,393,886 confirmed cases (+67,878)

  • 251,661 reported fatalities (+1582)

Roberto Castello Branco, the CEO of Brazil’s state oil company, Petrobras, said Thursday that he will step down in the face of a concerted effort by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to oust him. Bolsonaro believes that Petrobras is charging too much for fuel in what I assume he feels is a direct personal attack on his presidency or something, and I guess Castello Branco was not amenable to the president’s suggestion that he offer fuel subsidies.

Bolsonaro is up for reelection next year and his poll numbers are starting to dip so I think you can probably figure out what his motivation is. Bolsonaro has proposed replacing Castello Branco with General Joaqium Silva e Luna, who doesn’t have any experience running an energy company but is a general, and really what has Bolsonaro’s presidency been if not a very slow moving military coup? That said, a lot of Bolsonaro’s success has come because Brazil’s more mainstream conservative, pro-business types have decided they’d rather partner with a fascist than risk having their taxes raised. If he starts meddling in their world, though, he may head into that election facing an economic meltdown and losing some of his allies to boot.

UNITED STATES

  • 29,052,262 confirmed cases (+77,377)

  • 520,785 reported fatalities (+2414)

Finally, at the New York Times the Quincy Institute’s Stephen Wertheim argues that Joe Biden’s foreign policy vision is fundamentally misguided:

“America is back,” President Biden has declared in every major foreign policy speech he has given since taking office. He means to restore what he sees as the essence of global leadership — the United States joining with allies to “fight for our shared values” — that his predecessor defiled. Back, then, is America’s quest to order the world in the name of democracy, human rights and the American way.

After four years of Donald Trump, the impulse to return to familiar habits is understandable. But those habits, especially the moralization of one country’s armed dominance, have proved destructive. What matters is whether the Biden administration will actually make America — No. 1 in armed force and arms dealing — less violent in the world. In that regard, Mr. Biden’s larger vision, of the United States dividing the globe into subordinate allies and multiplying adversaries, and shouldering the burdens toward both, remains troubling, no matter how high-minded his rhetoric or diplomatic his actions.