World roundup: February 27-28 2021

Stories from Yemen, Libya, Venezuela, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 26, 1233: The Mongols capture the Jin capital of Kaifeng after a several-month siege. The siege is notable in that it hastened the collapse of the Jin Dynasty and for its well-documented use of early gunpowder weapons.

February 26, 1815: Napoleon Bonaparte escapes his exile on the island of Elba in a bid to return to France and restore his empire. The erstwhile emperor entered Paris on March 20, chasing off the just enthroned Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, and beginning the “hundred days,” his brief revival/reunion tour. Napoleon’s attempt at a second act came to an end on June 18 at the Battle of Waterloo, in which British and Prussian armies won a decisive victory. He withdrew to Paris to find that the city had already turned against him, and abdicated on June 22. His second exile, on the more remote island of St. Helena, would prove permanent.

February 27, 1844: A group of leading Dominicans called La Trinitaria declares independence from Haiti. Thus began the 12 year Dominican War of Independence, after which the Dominican Republic was established as an independent nation. Commemorated today as Independence Day in the Dominican Republic.

February 27, 1933: The Reichstag building in Berlin is set on fire one month after Adolf Hitler had become chancellor. Hitler and the Nazis pinned the arson on a communist named Marinus van der Lübbe, either alone or in collaboration with other communists. As far as I know, most historians nowadays believe that van der Lübbe set the fire alone, and that the Nazis manufactured the collaborator scenario to justify an already planned crackdown on communists that allowed them to tighten their grip on power.

February 28, 202 BC: Former rebel leader Liu Bang is crowned Emperor Gaozu, ending the Chu-Han war and marking the start of the Han Dynasty. The Han ruled China until 220, except for a brief interlude during the years 9-23.

February 28, 1991: US President George H. W. Bush declares that Iraqi forces have withdrawn from Kuwait and announces a ceasefire. Bush’s announcement marked the end of the Gulf War but was only the start of the US obsession with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for February 28:

  • 114,674,302 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,903,030 active, +305,579 since yesterday)

  • 2,542,556 reported fatalities (+5970 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 15,588 confirmed coronavirus cases (+55)

  • 1027 reported fatalities (+4)

Syrian state media is reporting that the country’s air defenses intercepted an Israeli missile strike over Damascus on Sunday evening. Initial reports from Syrian media nearly always overestimate the success of those air defenses, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is already reporting that the strike hit areas south of the capital where Iranian-aligned militias are known to operate. There’s no information yet as to damage or casualties.

YEMEN

  • 2285 confirmed cases (+16)

  • 634 reported fatalities (+3)

According to Yemeni government sources, “hundreds” of combatants have been killed since Friday in Yemen’s Maʾrib province. The Houthis continue to view Maʾrib city and the province’s oil fields as crucial pieces of leverage they would like to seize ahead of potential future peace talks. The Yemen live map shows a Houthi front line that has shifted since Friday but does not appear to have advanced any closer to the city and may even have been pushed back a bit.

Elsewhere, five civilians were killed and three others wounded on Sunday when their house outside the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah was bombarded by…well, somebody. The Houthis are saying a Saudi airstrike was responsible, but the Saudi-led coalition claims the Houthis shelled the house with mortars. The last thing Yemen needs is renewed fighting in Hudaydah, home of the country’s largest seaport and the object of a 2018 ceasefire that has more or less remained intact and could (in theory) serve as a template for a similar regional ceasefire in Maʾrib.

Still elsewhere, Saudi officials say the kingdom’s air defenses intercepted a ballistic missile attack on Riyadh and at least six drones targeting parts of southern Saudi Arabia on Saturday. State media produced a video appearing to show the missile interception in the skies over the capital. The Houthis claimed the various attacks but mentioned the launch of 15 drones. I haven’t seen anything that accounts for the discrepancy but witnesses did apparently report multiple explosions in Riyadh. That could indicate that multiple targets were intercepted aside from the missile. It could also suggest that some of those drones made it to their targets, but the Saudis haven’t confirmed any successful strikes.

TURKEY

  • 2,701,588 confirmed cases (+8424)

  • 28,569 reported fatalities (+66)

The Turkish foreign ministry summoned Iran’s ambassador in Ankara on Sunday to complain about a comment Iran’s ambassador to Iraq made the previous day. He’d criticized Turkey’s ongoing military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. Which it, you know, probably is, despite whatever past agreements Ankara and Baghdad have negotiated with respect to the PKK. Though as the Turks noted, the Iranian government is not exactly the best messenger when it comes to respecting Iraqi sovereignty.

IRAQ

  • 695,489 confirmed cases (+3248)

  • 13,406 reported fatalities (+23)

Speaking of Turkey’s military activity in northern Iraq, it’s threatening to turn into a full-blown conflict in the Sinjar region, where the PKK established a foothold back in 2014 when its forces deployed there to help protect the local Yazidi population from the Islamic State. Turkey wants the PKK out of Sinjar. The Kurdistan Regional Government wants the PKK out of Sinjar. The Iraqi government probably wants the PKK out of Sinjar, if only to avoid a bigger crisis. But Iraqi militias apparently do not want the PKK out of Sinjar, which sits along the main corridor they use to send fighters and supplies between Iraq and Syria. And of course the PKK doesn’t want to leave Sinjar either.

LEBANON

  • 375,050 confirmed cases (+2258)

  • 4692 reported fatalities (+40)

Thousands of people marched on Saturday in Bkerké, the see of the Maronite Catholic Patriarchate, in support of Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. Back in early February, Rahi issued a public call for a United Nations conference dealing with Lebanon’s political and economic crises. Last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah slammed that proposal as a preamble to a foreign “occupation” of the country, prompting the show of support. Lebanon’s Maronite community has long championed a policy of distance from regional conflicts, which has historically pitted it against Lebanese Muslim communities that have variously tended toward pan-Arabism (more a Sunni tendency) and/or solidarity with various regional actors from the Palestinians to Syria to Iran (which is Hezbollah’s orientation). So this is a dispute that has some deep roots in Lebanese history.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 775,807 confirmed cases (+2472) in Israel, 183,612 confirmed cases (+1703) in Palestine

  • 5752 reported fatalities (+20) in Israel, 2042 reported fatalities (+17) in Palestine

The Israeli government says its “initial assessment” is that Iran was responsible for an explosion Friday morning that disabled an Israeli-owned commercial vessel in the Gulf of Oman. Iran is the obvious suspect, but as far as I can tell this “assessment” isn’t based on anything other than the location of the incident and the hostile Israel-Iran relationship.

Something has been causing hundreds of tons of tar—at least a thousand tons so far—to wash up along the coastlines of Israel and southern Lebanon, threatening marine life and causing millions of dollars in environmental damage. Israeli authorities are searching for the source of the spill, presumably a tanker that’s sailed through the eastern Mediterranean sometime over the past month or so, but at this point the investigation seems to be heading in the wrong direction. According to the Washington Post, from an initial list of about ten suspect tankers the Israelis are now looking at “dozens” of potential culprits.

Amid waves of criticism over their failure to provide COVID vaccines to Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories despite its obligations under international law as the occupying power, the Israeli government says it will provide vaccines to Palestinians who have permits to work in Israel proper or in Israeli settlements. Or, in other words, only to those Palestinians who are serious risks to spread COVID to Israeli citizens. Very humanitarian of them, really.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • 377,383 confirmed cases (+322)

  • 6494 reported fatalities (+6)

On Saturday, Joe Biden previewed a Big Announcement about US policy toward Saudi Arabia on Monday. His comment came amid heavy criticism over his decision not to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in response to the US intelligence community’s conclusion, revealed on Friday, that MBS was directly responsible for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. So naturally it sent a thrill up the legs of a lot of political and media types, thinking Biden might have changed his mind. Apparently he has not, though, since the White House later clarified that the Big Announcement is simply going to add some details to the penalties the administration already unveiled on Friday. Oh well.

The White House, in the person of Press Secretary Jen Psaki, even defended its decision to let MBS off the hook on Sunday, citing a need to “be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement — where there are national interests for the United States.” This is entirely expected.

As I said on Friday, blacklisting the head of state of any country is a monumental step that can prevent or at least seriously complicate any diplomacy with the country in question. It’s the kind of step the US typically only takes with the leaders of countries it deems to be “rogue” states, after bilateral relations have completely collapsed into open hostility, and even then it’s a big decision. MBS isn’t the Saudi head of state but he is de facto running the country and will be its de jure head of state someday. He’s also the kingdom’s defense minister, and even that would make sanctioning him very complicated. In principle MBS should be blacklisted—actually he should already have been blacklisted over the Yemen war at the time of Khashoggi’s murder. It’s frustrating that he hasn’t been. But realistically the United States isn’t going to do that to the Saudi heir apparent, particularly not under a president as deeply rooted in establishment foreign policy thinking as Joe Biden is.

IRAN

  • 1,631,169 confirmed cases (+8010)

  • 60,073 reported fatalities (+93)

The Iranian government has said “thanks, but no thanks” to the idea of sitting down with US negotiators:

Iran has informed the European Union that it will not agree to an informal meeting proposed by the EU to try to get the Iran nuclear deal back on track, according to an Iran expert source who works closely with the U.S. administration.

"The time is not right for Europe's proposed informal meetings about JCPOA,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Sunday.

The apparent rejection of a meeting, which had been considered to be held in Brussels, comes after the Biden administration carried out strikes on Thursday (Feb. 25) against a compound in Abu Kamel, Syria that the United States said has served to facilitate Iranian-backed militias which have carried out attacks against the US-led coalition in Iraq.

The Biden administration had previously said it would accept such an invitation, after the EU political director tweeted on February 18 that he proposed an informal meeting of the remaining parties to the Iran nuclear deal, the United States and Iran.

While this is disappointing it’s not terribly surprising. Iranian officials consistently rejected the idea of informal talks with the Trump administration unless it offered relief from US sanctions, and the Biden administration, while criticizing Donald Trump’s Iran policy, has adopted it nearly wholesale, apart from one or two minor differences. There’s no reason to expect the Iranians to have a different answer to the same question just because there’s a new US president asking. For its part, the Biden administration says it’s “still open,” in the AP’s words, to talks with Iran, it’s just not prepared to do anything to facilitate having them.

If there is still a path toward diplomacy it will likely have to start with indirect engagement facilitated by European diplomats. And even that may no longer be possible if the administration follows through on its intention to censure Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors meeting taking place in Vienna this coming week.

ASIA

ARMENIA

  • 172,058 confirmed cases (+265)

  • 3192 reported fatalities (+2)

Armenian President Armen Sargsyan has decided not to sack army chief of staff Onik Gasparyan, despite the insistence of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan that he do so. Pashinyan is blaming Gasparyan for the Armenian military’s attempted coup by memorandum on Thursday. Sargsyan’s refusal deepens what I think you’d have to say is already a pretty serious governance crisis in Yerevan. Pashinyan can resubmit his decree firing Gasparyan, which Sargsyan legally could either sign, in which case Gasparyan would be out of a job, or submit to Armenia’s Constitutional Court for a ruling. Or he could do neither, but in that case legally it seems the decree would be considered valid and Gasparyan would, again, be out of a job. Regardless of what Sargsyan does, the potential for an actual coup is presumably increasing.

INDIA

  • 11,112,056 confirmed cases (+15,616)

  • 157,195 reported fatalities (+108)

Indian security forces have reportedly begun finding magnetic “sticky” bombs in raids on facilities used by Kashmiri separatists. Those are the same types of bombs that are being used frequently in targeted attacks in Kabul and so their apparent arrival in Kashmir has raised fears of a rise in similar kinds of attacks there.

MYANMAR

  • 141,896 confirmed cases (+6)

  • 3199 reported fatalities (+0)

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says it has “credible information” that Myanmar security forces killed at least 18 anti-junta protesters on Sunday in “several locations” across the country. That would make Sunday the most violent single day so far since Myanmar’s military seized power on February 1. It took a while for an anti-junta protest movement to gain traction but the effort is clearly in full force now and these killings may strengthen its resolve.

On Friday, Myanmar’s UN ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, pleaded for international support against the junta in an address to the UN General Assembly. He was, unsurprisingly, fired on Saturday.

CHINA

  • 89,893 confirmed cases (+6) on the mainland, 11,006 confirmed cases (+22) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 199 reported fatalities (+1) in Hong Kong

Hong Kong authorities arrested 47 activists and opposition politicians on Sunday under the terms of the region’s controversial security law in what was the biggest mass arrest in the eight months since that law was enacted. At this point every (or almost every) prominent pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong is either in custody or out on bail for something, mostly on charges related to a “primary” opposition groups tried to hold ahead of the Hong Kong legislative election that had been scheduled for last September. Hong Kong’s regional government postponed that election until this September, ostensibly due to the pandemic. Authorities have characterized that primary as somehow an effort to undermine the Hong Kong government and so they’ve deemed it a violation of the security law.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 133,338 confirmed cases (+880)

  • 2179 reported fatalities (+5)

The leader of eastern Libya’s House of Representatives legislature, Aguila Saleh, said on Friday that his parliament will hold a session on March 8 to deliberate the interim unity government that Prime Minister-designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibah is supposed to be forming. Where that session will be held is an open question. Saleh suggested that the HoR would be willing to convene in Sirte, possible site of a joint session involving the eastern HoR and the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, provided Libya’s Joint Military Commission provides some guarantee of security. The Joint Military Commission includes five members from among the forces supporting the GNA and five from the HoR-backed “Libyan National Army.” The GNA members of the commission have already poured cold water on the idea of meeting in Sirte, because that city is still under LNA control. If the joint session doesn’t happen, Saleh says the HoR will hold its session in its regular home city, Tobruk.

Speaking of Dbeibah, he’s facing allegations that his supporters offered bribes to members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum if they agreed to back his candidacy for interim PM. That forum, which has been meeting in Tunisia, elected Dbeibah to the office earlier this month. Apparently at least one participant in the forum had a semi-public meltdown after learning that he’d sold his vote for substantially less money than a couple of other participants had been offered. AWKWARD. It’s probably too late to revisit the PM vote but this uncomfortable revelation may damage Dbeibah’s chances of winning an eventual confidence vote—assuming his candidacy actually gets that far.

TUNISIA

  • 233,277 confirmed cases (+662)

  • 8001 reported fatalities (+27)

The Islamist Ennahda party, the largest in Tunisia’s parliament, organized a major protest in Tunis on Saturday involving tens of thousands of its supporters. The rally was intended to show support for Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in his ongoing rivalry with President Kais Saied. Mechichi has been trying to rejigger his cabinet to remove several people regarded as Saied allies in favor of new ministers from Ennahda and the Heart of Tunisia party, both of which back Mechichi. In principle the Tunisian presidency is supposed to be above party politics, but Saied has shown a willingness to get down in the proverbial mud that, among other things, has caused an already broken political system to break down even further.

NIGERIA

  • 155,657 confirmed cases (+240)

  • 1907 reported fatalities (+2)

The 42 people—27 of them students—who were abducted from a boarding school in Nigeria’s Niger state earlier this month have reportedly all been released by their abductors. Well, maybe. A statement from Niger state Governor Abubakar Sani Bello noted that the kidnappers had released 38 people, 24 of them students. Presumably either four people are still missing or the initial headcount was wrong—it’s unclear which. Also unclear are the identity of the abductors and what, if anything, officials said or did to secure their release. Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the 317 students abducted from a school in Zamfara state on Friday are still unknown. Rumors circulating on social media on Sunday that they’d been released appear to have been only rumors.

CHAD

  • 3973 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 140 reported fatalities (+0)

Police attempting to arrest Chadian opposition leader Yaya Dillo killed at least two people in a raid on his house in N’Djamena on Sunday morning. That’s the official version of events, which claims that the police initially came under attack from somebody inside the house and then returned fire. Dillo, who is one of several candidates running against incumbent Idriss Déby in April’s presidential election, says the security forces killed five members of his family and says they’re now surrounding his home. It’s unclear why the police were attempting to arrest Dillo, but they appear to be preparing for serious unrest and have reportedly cut internet service in the city.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 4,246,079 confirmed cases (+11,359)

  • 86,122 reported fatalities (+379)

Thousands of protesters turned out in Moscow on Saturday to mark the sixth anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. The demonstrators gathered on the bridge where Nemtsov was shot, in what many believe was a politically-motivated hit ordered by Vladimir Putin or somebody in his inner circle. How anyone think that Vladimir Putin—kind, innocent Vladimir Putin!—could be capable of such a thing, I have no idea (for new readers, that’s sarcasm). Five Chechens were eventually convicted of accepting payment to murder Nemtsov but for some reason the identity of the person or persons who paid them has never been determined. I guess it’s a mystery!

ITALY

  • 2,925,265 confirmed cases (+17,455)

  • 97,699 reported fatalities (+192)

Former Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte apparently has a new job: fixing what ails the Five Star Movement. Conte, who was a political independent, was Five Star’s choice for PM when the party took power in coalition with the far-right League back in 2018, so they do have an established relationship. Five Star leaders say he’ll be leading “a project to refound” the party, which remains the largest in the Italian parliament but has seen its approval rating drop to a scant 15 percent, less than half of the 32.7 percent it won in the 2018 election. Who could have predicted that becoming the establishment would prove politically disadvantageous for a party whose entire ethos was about being anti-establishment, really? Conte may take over as party leader as part of his effort, but that’s unclear.

UNITED KINGDOM

  • 4,176,554 confirmed cases (+6035)

  • 122,849 reported fatalities (+144)

The controlled detonation of an unexploded World War II-era bomb in Exeter on Saturday reportedly caused “structural damage” to several buildings in the city. The ordinance, a 1000 kilogram Nazi “Hermann” bomb, was discovered on Friday near the University of Exeter campus and prompted the evacuation of hundreds of people.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

  • 139,116 confirmed cases (+377)

  • 1344 reported fatalities (+3)

According to Reuters, the Biden administration is feeling “no rush” to lift sanctions, including those imposed by the Trump administration, on Venezuela. It will, however, break with the Trump administration by “enlist[ing] more countries to help seek a diplomatic solution” to the Venezuela situation. It’s unclear what a “diplomatic solution” would look like apart from a negotiated exit for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, which he’s shown no inclination toward even considering, but at least when Venezuelans are struggling to find food they’ll be able to feel good knowing that it’s not just the US starving them, a bunch of other countries are involved too. The administration insists, as the US government always does, that current sanctions allow plenty of humanitarian exemptions and says that the fact that they’re killing thousands of Venezuelans is, um, Maduro’s fault in some way. Yeah, that’s simple and believable. This willingness to adopt Trump’s Venezuela policy, which I assume means we should now call it Biden’s Venezuela policy, also apparently applies to Cuba as well.

EL SALVADOR

  • 59,866 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 1854 reported fatalities (+7)

Salvadoran voters went to the polls to choose all 84 members of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly on Sunday. Results aren’t in yet so more on this tomorrow, I guess, or later in the week anyway. But polling suggests that President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party is likely to win a landslide victory, perhaps with over 60 percent of the vote. It will be interesting to see if the budding authoritarian Bukele employs a softer touch once he’s working with a friendly legislature.

MEXICO

  • 2,084,128 confirmed cases (+7246)

  • 185,257 reported fatalities (+783)

Attackers shot and killed 11 people in Mexico’s Jalisco state on Saturday. Presumably this was a drug-related incident but the identity of the gunmen is unknown.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

  • 239,617 confirmed cases (+608)

  • 3100 reported fatalities (+7)

To commemorate (?) the 177th anniversary of his country’s independence from Haiti, Dominican President Luis Abinader announced Saturday that the Dominican Republic is getting its very own border wall. Abinader’s government apparently intends to fence off the 376 kilometer Haitian border in an effort to stop undocumented migrants and smugglers. The fencing, which will double fencing in particularly troublesome segments, will also reportedly include “motion sensors, facial recognition cameras and infrared systems.” Sounds fun!

HAITI

  • 12,448 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 249 reported fatalities (+0)

Thousands of protesters turned out in Port-au-Prince and several other parts of Haiti on Sunday to express anger at escalating gang violence and at President Jovenel Moïse. The practice of kidnapping for ransom has been on the rise for several months, and that’s understandably got people on edge, and of course there’s the ongoing political crisis—which we’ve covered here—whereby Moïse has been ruling by decree for over a year and is now embroiled in a conflict with opposition leaders over when, exactly, his presidential term ends.

UNITED STATES

  • 29,255,344 confirmed cases (+49,412)

  • 525,776 reported fatalities (+1283)

Finally, at TomDispatch, Michael Klare explains why at least two of the main items on Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda are in direct conflict with one another:

Slowing the pace of climate change and getting “tough” on China, especially over its human-rights abuses and unfair trade practices, are among the top priorities President Biden has announced for his new administration. Evidently, he believes that he can tame a rising China with harsh pressure tactics, while still gaining its cooperation in areas of concern to Washington. As he wrote in Foreign Affairs during the presidential election campaign, “The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change.” If, however, our new president truly believes that he can build an international coalition to gang up on China and secure Beijing’s cooperation on climate change, he’s seriously deluded. Indeed, though he could succeed in provoking a new cold war, he won’t prevent the planet from heating up unbearably in the process.