World roundup: July 29 2021

Stories from Syria, Armenia, Russia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

July 28, 1821: After entering Lima a few weeks prior and having been named “Protector of Peru” by local officials, South American revolutionary leader José de San Martín proclaims Peru’s independence from Spain. Annually commemorated as Peruvian Independence Day.

July 28, 1915: The US military occupies Haiti following a revolt that culminated in the assassination of pro-US Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. Woodrow Wilson ordered the occupation out of concern that Germany could use the uprising to establish a foothold in the Western Hemisphere (and to make sure Haiti repaid the sizable loans it had received from several US financial institutions, but we don’t like to talk about that part). The US didn’t return control of Haiti to Haitians until 1934.

July 29, 1014: A Byzantine army under Emperor Basil II defeats a Bulgarian army under Tsar Samuel at the Battle of Kleidion, in what is today southwestern Bulgaria. Basil, for whom the destruction of the Bulgarian Empire was perhaps his most important foreign policy goal, invaded Bulgaria nearly every year, when he wasn’t dealing with the Fatimid Caliphate in the east, but his 1014 invasion proved decisive and Kleidion was the climax of that campaign. The Byzantine victory allowed their armies to advance into the heart of the Bulgarian Empire. Samuel escaped but died suddenly on October 6, allegedly of a heart attack caused by the stress of the war, and though the Bulgarians for a time were able to resist the Byzantines, their empire was finally destroyed in 1018. A Second Bulgarian Empire arose in the late 12th century.

The victory at Kleidion, an illustration from the “Madrid” manuscript of the Synopsis of Histories by Byzantine historian John Skylitzes (Wikimedia Commons)

July 29, 1148: The Siege of Damascus ends

July 29, 1588: The English fleet puts the final nail in the Spanish Armada’s coffin at the Battle of Gravelines. After harassing the armada for the previous nine days, forcing it to regroup in the Spanish Netherlands, the English fleet used its vastly superior mobility to inflict a serious defeat on its Spanish counterpart, sinking five ships and killing some 600 people. The Spaniards were forced to beat a hasty and badly managed retreat north, and by the time they had circled back around Ireland and returned home they had lost about a third of their ships and thousands of men.

INTERNATIONAL

As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 197,313,422 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 4,213,120 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 4.01 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 52 for every 100 people.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The Syrian military stepped up its assault on the Daraa al-Balad district (part of the southern city of Daraa) on Thursday, bringing heavy artillery and a large ground contingent to bear on the neighborhood that’s become a locus for resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s government, as it was back in 2011. Anti-government militias inside Daraa al-Balad have killed at least eight pro-government combatants and captured many more, while at least four civilians have been killed in the fighting. The Guardian outlines some of the context for this uprising:

Unlike other opposition areas won back by Assad with the help of his allies in Moscow and Tehran in the July 2018 surrender deal, the majority of Deraa’s inhabitants remained at home rather than being bussed to Idlib province, on the Turkish border. Instead, Moscow oversaw the recruitment of Deraa’s rebels into a new local security force known as the Fifth Corps, created to help the exhausted Syrian army in the battle against Islamic State.

Since Isis was driven from southern Syria, an uneasy status quo has emerged: the Fifth Corp are paid salaries by Moscow and are supposed to follow Russian orders, but have managed to retain a degree of autonomy, barring the military and secret police from areas under their control, sheltering people wanted by the regime, and safeguarding large street protests against the government’s handling of Syria’s struggling economy.

Tit-for-tat bombings and assassinations between former opposition figures and regime forces have since become routine. But mindful of the potential for military escalation if Iranian and Hezbollah forces were to fully embed so close to Israel, Russia has largely frustrated the regime’s attempts to stamp out the fledgling insurgency.

The government began blockading the neighborhood back in May, when residents opted to boycott Syria’s presidential election, and things have deteriorated badly since then. The Fifth Corps is reportedly working to mediate a resolution to the fighting but so far it’s had no success.

IRAQ

Two rockets struck inside Baghdad’s secure Green Zone on Thursday, to no apparent effect. Iraqi authorities believe they were targeting the US embassy but missed the mark. One of Iraq’s militia groups was likely responsible though nobody has claimed the attempted attack.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli occupation forces shot and killed one Palestinian man during protests sparked by the funeral of a 12 year old Palestinian boy the Israelis had gunned down the previous day near the West Bank city of Hebron. They wounded another 12 protesters.

IRAN

Secretary of State Antony Blinken took time out of his trip to Kuwait on Thursday to tell reporters that while the United States is “fully prepared” to continue negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the talks “cannot go on indefinitely.” Blinken may have been responding to comments from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei earlier this week, in which he blamed the US for the lack of progress in those talks, which are currently on hold after six inconclusive rounds and may (or may not at this point) resume after Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office.

In truth there’s no obvious reason why the talks couldn’t go on indefinitely from the US perspective—it’s not like Iran has imposed an array of sanctions that are currently ravaging the American economy—but there is a perception in Washington that at some point Iran’s nuclear program will have expanded beyond the point from which it could reasonably be wound back to where it’s supposed to be under the nuclear agreement. Of course Iran’s nuclear expansion would be halted if the agreement were revived, but it’s starting to feel like the Biden administration is more interested in setting Iran up to take the blame when the negotiations fail than it is in ensuring that the negotiations succeed. If the administration wanted the talks to succeed then I suspect it wouldn’t be looking to impose yet more sanctions against Iran, this time over its missile and drone programs. Every new sanction makes it harder to envision these talks reaching a positive conclusion.

ASIA

ARMENIA

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has asked the Russian government to deploy its military along the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in the wake of several incidents of cross-border violence, including one Wednesday in which three Armenian soldiers were killed, and allegations of illegal border crossings. Moscow has yet to comment on his request as far as I’m aware, but a Russian deployment could help ratchet down tensions enough to let Armenian and Azerbaijani officials open negotiations on a more stable resolution of their conflict and a true demarcation of their border—assuming that’s what both sides want, of course. Azerbaijan has yet to comment either, and they may have some issues with Russia handling border security given that Moscow and Yerevan are treaty allies. But the Russian government has shown no particular favoritism toward Armenia since last fall’s Nagorno-Karabakh war triggered this latest round of open hostility.

AFGHANISTAN

A new report from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction does not paint a rosy picture about the Afghan government’s chances of survival, characterizing the Taliban’s recent military advances as an “existential crisis” for Kabul. Inspector general John Sopko notes that “the speed and ease” of the Taliban’s successes raises serious questions about the massive amount of money the United States has thrown at Afghanistan over the past 20 years and “the pervasiveness of overoptimism” with which US officials have routinely described the development of Afghan security forces and other institutions. Clearly that optimism was at the very least misguided, and that’s the charitable interpretation.

AFRICA

TUNISIA

Pressure may be mounting on Tunisian President Kais Saied to at least define an endgame for his seizure of power earlier this week. Blinken, for example, told Al Jazeera on Thursday that he’d expressed concern in a phone call with Saied earlier this week that the Tunisian leaders actions “run counter” to Tunisia’s 2014 constitution. That’s probably the sharpest criticism anyone in the Biden administration has yet offered with respect to the takeover. Although he’s only suspended parliament for 30 days and presumably something will have to give after that point, Saied has been noticeably silent about how he plans to resolve this crisis, and his decision to appoint his own national security adviser as his temporary interior minister on Thursday isn’t exactly going to ease concerns about a slide into authoritarianism. The main thing Saied has going for him is that most Tunisians seem to support what he’s done so far—polling indicates that almost 90 percent are backing him. But that number is likely to start dropping unless Saied explains where he intends to go from here.

CHAD

Hundreds of people protested in N’Djamena to demand that Chad’s ruling military junta begin a transition back to civilian governance. The junta took power in April after President Idriss Déby was killed in a clash with rebels and is led by the former president’s son, Mahamat Déby. In response to the protests, which seem to have gone off peacefully, the Transitional Military Council issued a statement late Thursday promising to hold a “national dialogue” later this year leading to “free and transparent general elections” at some unspecified date.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

The United Nations Security Council voted Thursday to extend its arms embargo on the CAR for another year. Interestingly, the Chinese government—which has stated its opposition to the embargo on the stated grounds that it’s preventing the Central African government from obtaining weapons to combat rebels—opted to abstain rather than veto the measure.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Severe restrictions on the size of the US diplomatic mission in Russia are set to take effect next week, as Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer reports:

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government is forcing the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia to stop employing foreign nationals in any capacity beginning next week, slashing the number of personnel staffing the U.S. Embassy and consulates by around 90 percent and leaving only a skeleton crew of U.S. diplomats to manage relations with one of Washington’s top geopolitical rivals.

Russia’s decision to bar the U.S. Embassy and consulates from hiring foreign nationals was first announced in late April, and it goes into effect on Aug. 1. The move will leave around 120 officials working in Moscow, with zero locally hired employees, known as “foreign service nationals.” This is down from roughly 350 U.S. diplomats and 1,900 foreign service nationals operating the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and consulates across Russia a decade ago, according to current and former U.S. diplomats. U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said in an interview with NPR earlier this month there were around 1,200 people working for the U.S. mission in 2017.

US consulates in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok will be shut down in response to the staffing limits, and basic consular services are unlikely to be high on the priority list for the remaining US staff in Moscow. Basic diplomatic functions are likely to be impaired as well, which isn’t great news at a time when US-Russian relations are circling the proverbial drain. Nevertheless, there’s no indication at this point that the Biden administration is planning on imposing similar restrictions on Russia’s mission in the US.

AMERICAS

PERU

New Peruvian President Pedro Castillo named another member of his Free Peru party, Guido Bellido, as prime minister on Thursday. Naturally this has generated a fair amount of concern that the LEFTIST Castillo and his LEFTIST PM are going to do VILE LEFTIST THINGS in office, instead of governing on behalf of investors as we all know is the proper thing to do. Regardless of whether Bellido’s appointment frightens or thrills you, though, it’s going to be a pretty uphill push to get him confirmed in a Congress that skews to the right.

GUATEMALA

Thousands of people took to the streets of Guatemala City and elsewhere across Guatemala on Thursday in anger over the weekend sacking of anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval. The demonstrators targeted their ire at Attorney General María Porras, who fired Sandoval, and her boss, President Alejandro Giammattei, with many apparently calling for Giammattei’s resignation. Civil society and indigenous groups had called for a general strike in response to Sandoval’s firing.

MEXICO

Mexican officials are pushing the Biden administration to revisit the 2008 Mérida Initiative, AKA “Plan Mexico,” which provides US security assistance to Mexico for use in dealing with drug cartels. Whatever successes Mérida has wrought in terms of bringing down cartel leaders has only caused Mexican organized crime to fragment and become more violent and harder to track. Additionally it seems Mérida doesn’t comport very well with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s agenda, in that the US focus has been on improving local Mexican policing while López Obrador has preferred to nationalize and militarize Mexican security forces via his national guard initiative.

CUBA

Joe Biden reportedly plans to meet with Cuban-American community leaders on Friday, after which he will likely announce new sanctions against the Cuban government and possibly an initiative to provide internet service to all Cubans regardless of any government restrictions. Cuban protesters earlier this month organized their activities via the internet and at one point it seems pretty clear that the government cut off internet service to try to tamp down the demonstrations. It’s unclear how the United States would provide Cubans with guaranteed internet access but apparently one idea involves floating wireless hotspots over or near Cuba via balloons. No, seriously. I guess the administration decided it wouldn’t make sense to put a wireless router in an exploding cigar or whatever. Maybe we could mail AOL CDs (ask your parents) to everybody on the island.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Alicia Sanders-Zakre and Susi Snyder highlight one of the myriad conflicts of interest that can be found throughout the think tank world—in this case, on the subject of nukes:

If you read a report about nuclear weapons, odds are it was published by a think tank funded by a company producing nuclear weapons. In our recent study of global nuclear weapons spending, we found that almost all major think tanks working on nuclear weapon issues took money from companies involved in the nuclear weapons industry in 2020 — raising questions about their intellectual independence and moral integrity.

In the report, we include 12 think tanks, picked from the Global Think Tank Index’s top foreign policy think tanks that also publish regularly on nuclear weapons from France, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We found the 21 companies that received nuclear weapon contracts gave $10 million in grants to these think tanks in just one year, as reported in the think tanks’ own annual reports and on their websites. This is a systemic issue. It’s not just one think tank, or a few $100,000 grants. Half of the profiled think tanks received up to well over one million dollars in one year from at least nine different companies working on nuclear weapons.

These companies don’t just donate money; key executives also oversee and advise several of these think tanks. Three CEOs of nuclear weapons-producing companies — Guillaume Faury (Airbus), Gregory J. Hayes (Raytheon), and Marillyn A. Hewson (until recently Lockheed Martin) — sit on the advisory board of the Atlantic Council. The Center for New American Security has a similar story: up to $1.8 million received from companies working on nuclear weapons and five board seats for those whose livelihoods are tied to nuclear weapon production.

These links are a problem for two reasons: it raises questions about the think tanks’ independence, and it ties them to companies engaging in immoral activities banned under international law.