World roundup: July 31-August 1 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, Tunisia, Lithuania, and more

This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:


THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

July 30, 1419: The first of the three Defenestrations of Prague takes place when several Hussites (followers of Bohemian Reformation leader—and heretic, as far as the Catholic Church was concerned—Jan Hus), angry over the imprisonment of a few of their comrades, chuck the mayor, a judge, and several city council members out of a window in the town hall to their deaths. While not as significant as the third defenestration in 1618, which sparked the continent-wide Thirty Years’ War, this defenestration caused a breakdown in the tense relationship between Church and secular officials on the one hand and the Hussite movement and its allies on the other, leading to the first of a series of Hussite Wars that didn’t end until the mid-1430s.

July 31 (or thereabouts), 741: The Battle of Talas

July 31, 1941: The invading Wehrmacht defeats the Soviet Red Army at the Battle of Smolensk, part of World War II’s Operation Barbarossa. Though a fairly stunning German tactical victory, leaving over 400,000 Soviet soldiers killed or wounded and over 300,000 captured, strategically Smolensk contributed to the overall collapse of the Nazi invasion of the USSR. The stiff Soviet resistance caused German leaders to slow down their advance on Moscow, which gave the Soviets time to strengthen their defenses around the city and contributed to the attrition of the German army. The subsequent Battle of Moscow ended in a Soviet victory.

August 1, 1798: The Battle of the Nile

English painter Thomas Luny’s 1834 The Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 PM depicts the destruction of the French flagship (Wikimedia Commons)

August 1, 1927: The Nanchang Uprising marks the start of the Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party. In a direct response to the Shanghai Massacre of April 12, in which right-wing KMT forces purged CCP members from their ranks (and killed thousands of them, though the final casualty figures are disputed), a CCP army captured Nanchang, home of the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Nationalist Party. This was one of several CCP uprisings around the country. The Communists (or Left-KMT if you want to be a stickler about it) seized weapons and ammunition but, realizing they couldn’t hold the city against a Right-KMT counterattack, withdrew on August 5 and undertook what became known as the “Little Long March” south to Guangdong province (this didn’t go nearly as well for them as the later Long March would). China’s People’s Liberation Army dates its founding to this uprising.

INTERNATIONAL

As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 199,007,621 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 4,240,312 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 4.13 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 54 for every 100 people.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Fighting has apparently escalated again between the Syrian military and militia fighters in the Deraa al-Balad quarter of the southern Syrian city of Deraa. That district has seen off and on fighting for over a week now. There were reports on Friday of intensified negotiations on a ceasefire but the resumption of heavy fighting over the weekend would seem to indicate those talks broke down.

LEBANON

A funeral procession for a Hezbollah member killed on Saturday was apparently attacked in the Khaldah region south of Beirut on Sunday. AFP is reporting that at least five people were killed, three of them affiliated with Hezbollah, though there seems to be no indication as to who carried out the attack apart from a vague reference to “Sunni residents” of Khaldah. Whoever it was presumably also behind the previous day’s murder of a Hezbollah member, which itself seems to have been in retaliation for the killing of two people in Khaldah last year.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett directly accused Iran of carrying out the apparent attack on an Israeli-operated tanker off the coast of Oman on Friday, a charge that Iran’s Foreign Ministry subsequently denied. Two people were killed in that attack, and the Associated Press has thus decided to characterize it as “the first-known fatal attack after years of assaults on commercial shipping in the region linked to tensions with Iran” (emphasis mine). This is true in a very technical sense but it’s completely misleading, as it ignores a (presumably) Israeli attack on an Iranian ship in the eastern Mediterranean back in April that killed three people. The eastern Mediterranean is a different “region” from the Persian Gulf, so the AP can claim to be reporting accurately here even as it’s misinforming its readers.

Hamas’s Shura Council has reelected Ismail Haniyeh for a new four year term as the head of the group’s political bureau and thus its overall leader. Haniyeh, who divides his time between Turkey and Qatar, was unopposed so this is not exactly a surprise turn of events.

EGYPT

Islamic State fighters attacked an Egyptian military checkpoint in the northern Sinai on Saturday, killing at least five soldiers and wounding six others. Egyptian officials say that at least three of the attackers were also killed in the fighting. The Egyptian military reported on Sunday that its forces have killed 89 IS-Sinai militants “during the last period” while losing eight soldiers. In keeping with Egyptian practice military officials did not specify when “the last period” occurred, nor did they offer any details about the deaths apart from the top-line number.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban continued its offensives against three Afghan provincial capitals over the weekend—Kandahar city and Lashkar Gah in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, and Herat city in northwestern Herat province. There are reports of heavy street fighting particularly in Lashkar Gah, where witnesses say they’ve seen US airstrikes on Taliban positions. The one achievement that has eluded the Taliban during their dramatic recent offensive has been the capture of a provincial capital, and if any one of these three cities falls it could start a chain reaction that spreads to neighboring provinces. The fall of all three would leave the Taliban effectively in control of southern and western Afghanistan. Beyond that, provincial capitals contain large prisons, many of which are packed with captured Taliban fighters. These prisons serve as secondary objectives for the Taliban, not just because they offer the potential to bring more fighters into (or back into) their ranks but for the morale boost that freeing those prisoners can deliver.

Overall casualty figures are impossible to come by given the ongoing fighting, but a wayward mortar shell killed at least five people in Kandahar city on Sunday. The Afghan government blamed the Taliban for this incident but the Taliban denied responsibility. The previous day the Afghan air force attacked a “private hospital” in Lashkar Gah, killing at least one person, apparently on information that the facility was treating Taliban fighters. The owner of the hospital insists that there were no Taliban patients in the facility. Under international law even if there had been Taliban in the facility receiving treatment attacking a hospital still constitutes a war crime.

As the fighting continues the Biden administration is still scrambling to find ways to get former interpreters and other Afghan nationals who have assisted US military personnel out of the country, along with their families, ahead of potential reprisal attacks. It’s begun bringing a few hundred directly to the US, but only those who have passed their background checks are eligible for that treatment and the number who qualify is believed to be around 3000. They’ll be held in “humanitarian parole” status until they receive visas. The administration is hoping to place those who have not yet cleared the screening process, a number that stretches into the tens of thousands, in a third country or countries on a temporary basis.

INDIA

Indian police announced Saturday that they’ve killed a senior figure in the militant Jaish-e-Mohammed group, Mohammad Ismail Alvi, in a “shootout” in southern Kashmir. He’s considered the “mastermind” behind a JeM suicide bombing in Kashmir’s Pulwama district back in February 2019 that killed 40 Indian police officers and set off a month-long border conflict between India and Pakistan that fortunately did not escalate beyond a few tit-for-tat airstrikes. It’s not entirely clear when the shootout took place.

MYANMAR

The leader of Myanmar’s ruling junta, Min Aung Hlaing, announced on Sunday that he sees you, he hears you, and he’s going to restore civilian rule in Myanmar. In a little over two years. The junta is now targeting August 2023 for new elections, but the thing is that when Min Aung Hlaing and company seized power in February’s coup, they said they’d be holding elections within a year. Now it’s going to be two and a half years, assuming they actually stick to this new deadline—which seems like a pretty big assumption at this point. Min Aung Hlaing did appoint himself prime minister of a “new” “caretaker” government on Sunday, so that’s Nice. Now folks who don’t want to live under the junta can pretend it’s something else.

THAILAND

Min Aung Hlaing’s counterpart in the “junta leader turned civilian PM” space, Thailand’s Prayut Chan-o-cha, was the target of protests in Bangkok on Sunday over his handling of COVID. Thailand’s pandemic is spiking in what I guess you could call a second wave but that looks more like a very extended first wave on a graph. Apart from the people getting sick the crisis has left the country struggling economically.

NORTH KOREA

Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, threw a little cold water on the new era of good feelings between her brother and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, suggesting via state media on Sunday that recent advances in inter-Korean diplomacy could be undermined if joint South Korean-US military exercises go ahead next month as planned. She didn’t come right out and say the exercises were a threat to diplomacy but the hope may be that Pyongyang can use whatever leverage it’s gained with Moon over the past week to win a concession from Seoul and Washington—even one as relatively ephemeral as the delay of a military exercise.

AFRICA

TUNISIA

After suspending parliament and firing his prime minister earlier this week, Tunisian President Kais Saied is publicly insisting that he “will not turn into a dictator.” In what should probably be considered a related story, then, Tunisian police on Saturday arrested two members of parliament from al-Karama, an Islamist political alliance with ties to the Ennahda party, which brings to three the number of MPs they’ve detained since Friday. The MP arrested Friday, Yassine Ayari, had previously criticized Saied’s recent actions as a “coup” and appears to have been picked up for that very reason. The two MPs arrested on Saturday were detained on charges stemming back to March, but the reason they could be arrested is that along with suspending parliament, Saied also suspended parliamentary immunity. All very non-dictatorial moves, surely.

On Saturday, Saied made a public call for Tunisian banks to cut interest rates in order to boost the national economy. Given how Saied is apparently treating his adversaries in parliament, if I were running a Tunisian bank right now I’d probably do what he says. At least he’s not a dictator.

NIGER

At least 15 Nigerien soldiers were killed when their military unit was attacked on Saturday in the Tillabéri region. Another seven were wounded and six remain missing. The identity of the attackers is unclear and in that region could be either Islamic State or al-Qaeda affiliated.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

United Nations peacekeepers say that elements of the “3R” (Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation) rebel group attacked a Central African military unit in a village in the northeastern CAR on Saturday, leaving at least six civilians dead in their wake. There’s no word in terms of combatant casualties but it would appear that the Central African forces drove the rebels off.

SOMALIA

The US military conducted another airstrike in central Somalia’s Galmudug state on Sunday, the third Somali airstrike of Joe Biden’s presidency and also the third one in a little less than two weeks. The strike was intended to support Somali federal forces, including the US-trained Danab special forces unit, who were battling al-Shabab fighters at the time. There’s no indication as to casualties. American and Somali officials say there were no civilian casualties, but that’s the same claim they make after every US airstrike and it’s only sometimes true.

ZAMBIA

Zambian authorities have deployed the military in an effort to get a handle on violence related to the country’s upcoming (August 12) general election. Supporters of Zambia’s two largest parties, the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), have apparently taken to attacking one another in the streets, most recently in an incident that left two PF supporters dead on Friday. There may be some understandable concerns that President Edgar Lungu intends to use the violence and the military to try to keep himself in power no matter how the election shakes out, but at this point the UPND merely says it’s “studying” the situation.

EUROPE

LITHUANIA

Migrants continue to enter Lithuania at nearly unprecedented rates, and authorities continue to blame the Belarusian government for orchestrating it:

“The growing number of illegal migrants crossing the border between Lithuania/E.U. and Belarus is a hybrid attack orchestrated by the Lukashenko regime,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda told The Washington Post in a statement. “The regime is using the illegal migration as a state-sponsored weapon in retaliation to Lithuanian/E.U. policy.”

In June, Lukashenko threatened to allow human traffickers and drug smugglers to stream into Europe. E.U. officials say they have evidence that his government is also encouraging immigrants to travel there: coordinating with a Belarusian travel agency to offer tourist visas, setting up flights and then transporting people from Minsk to the Lithuanian border.

Belarus denies that it instigated the new flow of migrants. Andrei Lozovik, the country’s representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said Thursday that the increased numbers were due to relaxed pandemic restrictions, seasonality and tensions in migrants’ home countries, state news agency BelTA reported. He also blamed “the lack of genuine cooperation” from Europe and accused Lithuania of politicizing the issue.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

Thousands of Jair Bolsonaro’s fans demonstrated in Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro on Sunday to call for the use of paper ballot receipts in next year’s presidential election. This was a marked change after days of protests calling for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. Bolsonaro regularly talks these days about the need for paper ballots to supplement Brazil’s electronic voting systems, which he alleges are vulnerable to manipulation. Given that those same electronic systems were just fine when they delivered him a victory in 2018, Bolsonaro’s comments in this regard sound less like expressions of genuine concern and more like attempts by an incumbent looking at very unfavorable polling to lay the groundwork for rejecting the election’s outcome.

UNITED STATES

Finally, I’ve been trying to avoid the Israeli government’s wildly over the top freakout over the decision by the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company to stop selling its wares in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, but I think Peter Beinart has a good take on it over at his The Beinart Notebook Substack:

But although Israel is deeply formidable, it may be unwittingly assisting the Palestinian freedom movement through its arrogance. The Ben and Jerry’s episode is a good example. Ben and Jerry’s isn’t boycotting Israel as a whole. It’s only boycotting Israeli settlements. (Something I proposed, with little success, nine years ago.) That means Ben and Jerry’s is making a distinction between Israel proper—which has been recognized by both the United Nations and the PLO—and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which lacks any international legal legitimacy whatsoever. If the Israeli government wanted to counter the growth of the BDS movement—which supports boycotting all of Israel—it would celebrate that distinction. It would congratulate Ben and Jerry’s, one of America’s leftiest companies in one of America’s leftiest states, for having spurned BDS and legitimized Israel within the green line.

That’s what Israel’s friends on the Zionist left have urged. J Street called Ben and Jerry’s move “a rational and principled, even pro-Israel, position.” Americans for Peace Now (APN) congratulated the company “for making a principled distinction between sovereign Israel and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal and illegitimate.” The Palestinian Authority said something similar: “The Israeli president should thank Ben & Jerry’s. They’re an alarm bell. Either Israel wakes up from its occupation and works to end it, or it will face a total boycott.”

But Israel’s leaders haven’t taken the advice. Instead, they’ve slammed Ben and Jerry’s as anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic. President Isaac Herzog said Ben and Jerry’s has joined “The BDS campaign” which “seeks to undermine the very existence of the State of Israel” and was practicing “a new type of terrorism.” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called its boycott “anti-Israel” and a “shameful surrender to anti-Semitism, to BDS.” These responses are not merely intellectually and morally bankrupt; they’re strategically stupid. What J Street, APN, and the Palestinian Authority understand is that Palestinian statehood is Israel’s only way to arrest its plummeting reputation on the American and global left. If forced to choose between one Jewish state that holds millions of Palestinians as stateless non-citizens, and one equal state, progressives will choose the latter. It’s only a matter of time. Yet Herzog and Lapid, who are centrists by Israeli standards, the kind of people who are supposed to restore Israel’s credibility within the Democratic Party after the Netanyahu years, are doing exactly the opposite. They’re saying to American progressives: If you’re against settlements you’re against Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. To which most American progressives will eventually say, as I have: OK, we are.