World roundup: January 23-24 2021

Stories from Yemen, Taiwan, Portugal, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

January 22, 1517: The Ottomans defeat the remnants of the Mamluk army at the Battle of Ridaniyah, one of the more consequential anticlimaxes in history. The Ottomans had all but ensured their conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate at the Battle of Marj Dabiq the previous August, but Ridaniyah technically marks the end of the sultanate and the point at which Egypt (along with Syria and the Hejaz) became an Ottoman possession.

January 22, 1905: The Russian Imperial Guard’s massacre of dozens of protesters (demanding better treatment for workers) in St. Petersburg, also known as “Bloody Sunday,” marks the start of the 1905 Russian Revolution. As reports of the massacre reached other cities, mass strikes began that sparked more violent reprisals from authorities, and the situation spiraled. The revolution ended in June 1907 with the institution of limited constitutional reforms and the creation of a parliament (the Duma). It also reshaped popular feelings about the Russian monarchy and served as a sort of prelude to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

January 22, 1946: The Republic of Mahabad is born.

January 23, 1368: Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang is crowned Hongwu Emperor. Zhu, also known as the Emperor Taizu, emerged as the leading figure in the very multi-factional Red Turban Rebellion against the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty that began in the 1350s, and his coronation marks the foundation of the Ming Dynasty that would rule China until its mid-17th century overthrow and replacement by the Qing Dynasty.

January 23, 1963: Fighters with the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) attack Portuguese forces in the Tite region, kicking off the almost 12 year Guinea-Bissau War of Independence. Badly outgunned, PAIGC fighters were able to use the terrain to their advantage and armed themselves with weapons taken from defeated colonial soldiers. They won the war simply by outlasting the Portuguese, and when the National Salvation Junta came to power in Lisbon after the 1974 Carnation Revolution, it began negotiations with PAIGC that ultimately led to Guinea-Bissau’s independence in September of that year. PAIGC also negotiated the independence of Cape Verde from Portugal the following year.

January 24, 41: The Roman Praetorian Guard assassinates the sitting emperor, Caligula, for…well, a bunch of reasons, including the regular ridicule he heaped upon the Guard’s commander, his alleged plans to move the imperial capital to Alexandria, and his, shall we say, grandiose sense of self. With no real plan in place for succession, another Guard faction smuggled Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, out of the city and he was subsequently proclaimed emperor. Claudius has a fairly mixed reputation among modern historians, one that definitely benefits by comparison with both his predecessor and his successor (Nero).

January 24, 1984: Apple begins selling its Macintosh computer. As this very newsletter is being written on a Mac, I would have to say the product turned out to be fairly successful.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for January 24:

  • 99,755,721 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (25,889,681 active, +455,549 since yesterday)

  • 2,138,343 reported fatalities (+9506 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 13,628 confirmed coronavirus cases (+71)

  • 885 reported fatalities (+6)

Residents of the Kurdish-held Hasakah region in northeastern Syria are struggling with water shortages that may be intentionally caused by the Turkish government. Hasakah province relies for much of its water on a pumping station near Ras al-Ayn that’s been under Turkish control since the Turks and their Syrian proxies invaded northeastern Syria in 2019, and outages at that station are causing the water shortages. The Turks claim these outages are due to innocent mechanical failures but given the bad blood between Ankara and Syrian Kurds it’s not much of a stretch to suggest there’s something more nefarious happening.

YEMEN

  • 2118 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 615 reported fatalities (+0)

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen says it “thwarted” a Houthi attack on the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on Saturday. Interestingly, the Houthis say they didn’t launch any attacks on Saturday. Regardless, talks on a prisoner swap between the Houthis and the coalition resumed on Sunday in Jordan. The two sides made the Yemen war’s largest prisoner exchange yet back in October, and a new exchange would suggest they’re building toward more comprehensive peace talks. More than that, it’s gratifying to see that the Trump administration’s decision to declare the Houthis a “foreign terrorist organization” hasn’t impacted the peace process—at least, not yet.

Humanitarian aid agencies are still calling on the US to rescind that designation, which hinders their ability to operate in Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen despite token US efforts to protect relief work. Fortunately, the Biden administration is now here to…um, “review” the designation. Cool, yeah, let’s review it. Take all the time you need, really, it’s not like there are people at risk of starving to death or anything.

IRAQ

  • 613,763 confirmed cases (+893)

  • 12,993 reported fatalities (+5)

A suspected Islamic State ambush near Tikrit on Saturday killed at least 11 members of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization paramilitary force. Another ten PMU fighters were wounded, while there’s been no word as far as I know with respect to IS casualties.

LEBANON

  • 279,597 confirmed cases (+3010)

  • 2320 reported fatalities (+50)

The Washington Post reports that conditions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon are, I suppose unsurprisingly, getting worse:

Syrians have long struggled in Lebanon, where around a million refugees make up some 20 percent of the population. But 2020 brought a new cascade of problems. The country’s financial system collapsed and the prime minister resigned, ousted by protesters fed up with endemic corruption. Then the coronavirus hit, followed by the devastating Beirut port explosion, of which many Syrians were among the victims. In less than a year, the currency depreciated by more than 80 percent.

Communities across Lebanon are hurting, especially Syrians, amid mounting competition for resources, said Elena Dikomitis, advocacy adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Lebanon.

“The landscape of needs in Lebanon has changed dramatically over the last year,” she said. “There are a lot of increasing tensions as one can expect over access to jobs, to aid, to basic services.”

In October, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated that nearly 90 percent of Syrians in Lebanon lived below the extreme poverty line, up from 55 percent the year before. Already legally excluded from many jobs, 90 percent of Syrians reported losing their income or having salaries reduced, the agency found in July.

KUWAIT

  • 161,285 confirmed cases (+384)

  • 952 reported fatalities (+0)

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah has appointed a new prime minister: current PM Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah. Sheikh Sabah and his cabinet resigned earlier this month amid a dispute with the Kuwaiti parliament, though he’d remained in a caretaker capacity. As a royal the chances he would be retained were always pretty high, but he’ll now have to appoint a new cabinet that can pass muster with the legislature. Opposition politicians did well overall in Kuwait’s parliamentary election last month, and legislators objected to the composition of Sheikh Sabah’s cabinet for not including a larger number of opposition MPs to better reflect the outcome of that election.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

  • 277,955 confirmed cases (+3579)

  • 792 reported fatalities (+9)

The Israeli government opened its new UAE embassy on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, one of the final steps remaining to full normalization of relations between the two “Abraham Accords” participants. What remains is the UAE opening its own embassy in Israel, and the Emirati cabinet on Sunday approved the opening of that embassy—in Tel Aviv. I guess the idea of putting their embassy in Jerusalem, whose status is still disputed by the Palestinians and under international law, was a bridge too far even for Emirati leaders.

ASIA

TAIWAN

  • 889 confirmed cases (+5)

  • 7 reported fatalities (+0)

Large numbers of Chinese military aircraft have breached the southwestern part of Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone” two days running. On Saturday, a dozen Chinese planes entered the zone, flying through airspace between Taiwan proper and the Pratas Islands, which are under Taiwanese control. On Sunday 15 Chinese aircraft flew through the same area. Beijing, of course, does not recognize the existence of a Taiwanese “air defense identification zone” because it doesn’t recognize Taiwan as an independent nation (it also claims the Pratas Islands). Chinese aircraft regularly fly through the region in question, but generally in far smaller numbers and usually just reconnaissance planes, not fighters and bombers. Saturday’s incident drew a rebuke from the Biden administration, which called on China “to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan.”

CHINA

  • 88,991 confirmed cases (+80) on the mainland, 10,086 confirmed cases (+76) in Hong Kong

  • 4635 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 169 reported fatalities (+1) in Hong Kong

The US Navy on Sunday sailed the USS Teddy Roosevelt and its carrier group into the South China Sea on Sunday on a “freedom of navigation” operation. This is not a direct response to the weekend’s tension around Taiwan but may have been timed to mark the presidential transition and Send A Message to Beijing that America is Not Backing Down, or whatever, despite the political changeover.

Meanwhile, China became the world’s leading destination for foreign direct investment in 2020, surpassing the United States for the first time. The FDI gap between the US and China has been shrinking since 2016, but last year’s level of investment was heavily impacted by the pandemic so it’s probably not good to draw too many big conclusions from it. Then again, it is a pretty good sign that the Trump administration’s efforts to discourage foreign investment in China didn’t quite work out as intended.

AFRICA

MOROCCO

  • 466,289 confirmed cases (+520) in Morocco, 10 confirmed cases (+0) in Western Sahara

  • 8150 reported fatalities (+22) in Morocco, 1 reported fatality (+0) in Western Sahara

The Sahrawi POLISARIO Front insurgent group attacked a border outpost at Guerguerat overnight as well as a number of spots along the wall that divides Western Sahara into its Moroccan- and POLISARIO-controlled regions. Guerguerat is located near the Mauritanian border in the southwestern part of Western Sahara. There is a buffer zone in that area that’s ostensibly monitored by the United Nations, but POLISARIO began interdicting truck traffic along the Trans-Saharan Highway in the buffer zone last year, until Moroccan military forces dislodged them in November. Decades of tensions over Western Sahara’s status have been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Moroccan claims on the territory in exchange for Rabat’s participation in the “Abraham Accords” Israeli normalization project. These POLISARIO attacks seem to indicate an escalation of sorts, though there’s no indication that they caused any casualties or even material damage.

MALI

  • 7983 confirmed cases (+18)

  • 323 reported fatalities (+0)

At least six Malian soldiers were killed and 18 wounded in two pre-dawn Islamist attacks on military outposts in central Mali near the border with Burkina Faso. At least 30 of the attackers were also killed, apparently after French forces affiliated with Operation Barkhane came to the aid of the Malian units.

NIGERIA

  • 121,566 confirmed cases (+964)

  • 1504 reported fatalities (+2)

Pirates attacked a Turkish-owned cargo ship off the coast of Nigeria on Saturday, killing one crew member and kidnapping 15 others. Turkish authorities say they are trying to negotiate for the release of those who were taken. The three remaining crew members aboard the cargo ship, which had been bound for South Africa, were able to bring it into port at Gabon’s Port-Gentil.

ETHIOPIA

  • 133,767 confirmed cases (+469)

  • 2066 reported fatalities (+3)

Obviously this takes a distant back seat to concerns over lives lost and human rights violated amid the Ethiopian war in Tigray, but there are also serious concerns for the Tigray region’s cultural heritage—including one hypothetical artifact with which you may be familiar:

It has been hidden from view for thousands of years, and its whereabouts never proved. But if the Ark of the Covenant indeed rests in a chapel in northern Ethiopia, this extraordinary religious treasure could be at grave risk from fighting in the area.

The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, which reputedly houses the ark – a casket of gilded wood containing stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, according to the Bible – was the scene of a recent massacre of 750 people, reports filtering out of the country say.

International experts have raised the alarm over the security of the ark and other religious and cultural artefacts as a result of escalating conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

Among those voicing concern are academics from the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies at Hamburg University, who warn that Tigray’s rich cultural heritage is “highly endangered”. In an appeal, they say reports suggest “hostilities are taking place in close proximity to renowned cultural sites”.

As the article notes, the theory that the Ark is in Ethiopia is nothing more than a theory. But as the historic center of the former Aksumite Empire, Tigray is home to a number of heritage sites, artifacts, manuscripts, and more, and all of that is now in danger thanks to the conflict.

SOMALIA

  • 4754 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 130 reported fatalities (+0)

The Ugandan military says that a unit of its soldiers, working as African Union peacekeepers in Somalia, killed at least 189 al-Shabab fighters on Friday in a raid targeting several of the group’s “hideouts” near Mogadishu.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 3,719,400 confirmed cases (+21,127)

  • 69,462 reported fatalities (+491)

Russian police reportedly arrested over 3000 people in total on Saturday as major protests in support of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny took place in cities across the country. In all some 90 demonstrations are believed to have been held in 60 cities. The largest was of course in Moscow, where 1167 arrests were made. More than 460 others were arrested in St. Petersburg. Estimates of the overall number of protesters vary quite a bit between government accounts (which, for example, had between 2000 and 4000 people protesting in Moscow) and opposition accounts (which estimated between 20,000 and 40,000 in the same protest).

PORTUGAL

  • 636,190 confirmed cases (+11,721)

  • 10,469 reported fatalities (+275)

Incumbent Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won a second and final term in Portugal’s presidential election on Sunday with a bit under 61 percent of the vote. The outcome is in line with pre-election polling and so it comes as no surprise. Indeed, the lack of suspense about the outcome may have contributed to the low (sub-40 percent) turnout, as voters decided not to bother risking COVID-19 to participate in what probably seemed like a foregone conclusion. While most executive responsibility in Portugal rests with the prime minister and cabinet, Portuguese presidents do have a fair amount of power in the foreign policy and national security arenas. Of some interest, and concern, the candidate of the far right Chega party, André Ventura, finished third with around 12 percent of the vote. That’s a shockingly high percentage for a far right candidate in a Portuguese election.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

  • 8,844,600 confirmed cases (+28,346)

  • 217,081 reported fatalities (+606)

New polling suggests that Jair Bolsonaro’s approval rating is slipping again, after climbing last year due to his pandemic relief program. The latest survey, from Datafolha, finds that 40 percent of Brazilians rate Bolsonaro’s performance as “bad” or “terrible,” compared with around 32 percent in the same poll last month. Around 33 percent rate his performance “good” or “excellent,” down from around 37 percent last month. A poorly managed vaccine rollout appears to be the main factor behind the shift, along with a rise in cases in northern Brazil due to a new strain of the coronavirus. Despite the loss of support, another Datafolha poll found that a majority of the country (53 percent) does not want to see Bolsonaro impeached.

GUYANA

  • 7298 confirmed cases (+76)

  • 172 reported fatalities (+2)

The Guyanese government is accusing the Venezuelan navy of seizing two Guyanese fishing vessels on Thursday. Caracas has yet to acknowledge or even comment on the apparent seizure, which took place in waters off the northwestern coast of Guyana in what are internationally recognized as Guyanese waters. Venezuela, under a claim it’s been making since the 19th century, holds that all of Guyana west of the Essequibo River is rightfully part of Venezuela—including the iron-rich Orinoco basin and the region’s coastal waters, which are believed to contain offshore oil deposits.

UNITED STATES

  • 25,702,125 confirmed cases (+135,182)

  • 429,490 reported fatalities (+1844)

Finally, TomDispatch’s Danny Sjursen looks ahead to Joe Biden’s foreign policy and foresees a very mixed bag:

So, what can we expect from commander-in-chief Biden? In other words, what’s the forecast for U.S. service-members who have invested their lives and limbs in future conflict, as well as for the speculators in the military-industrial complex and anxious foreigners in the countries still engulfed in America’s war on terror who usually stand to lose it all?

Many Trumpsters, and some libertarians, foresee disaster: that the man who, as a leading senator facilitated and cheered on the disastrous Iraq War, will surely escalate American adventurism abroad. On the other hand, establishment Democrats and most liberals, who are desperately (and understandably) relieved to see Donald Trump go, find that prediction preposterous. Clearly, Biden must have learned from past mistakes, changed his tune, and should responsibly bring U.S. wars to a close, even if at a time still to be determined.

In a sense, both may prove right — and in another sense, both wrong. The guess of this long-time war-watcher (and one-time war fighter) reading the tea leaves: expect Biden to both eschew big new wars and avoid fully ending existing ones. At the margins (think Iran), he may improve matters some; in certain rather risky areas (Russian relations, for instance), he could worsen them; but in most cases (the rest of the Greater Middle East, Africa, and China), he’s likely to remain squarely on the status-quo spectrum. And mind you, there’s nothing reassuring about that.