World roundup: June 10 2021

Stories from Yemen, Mali, Peru, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

June 9, 721: An Aquitanian army under Duke Odo of Aquitaine defeats an invading Arab army under the Umayyad governor of Andalus, al-Samh ibn Malik al-Khawlani, at the Battle of Toulouse. Odo’s relief army was able to sucker the Arabs away from their siege of the city through a feigned retreat before turning and virtually annihilating the invaders (Khawlani was among the dead). Though much less famous than the 732 Battle of Tours, which gets great press as the battle that Saved Christendom From The Heathens or whatever, Toulouse was arguably as or even more important, because if Khawlani had been able to capture Toulouse he could have established it as a base for future campaigns against the Franks and Tours, or whatever battle wound up replacing it, might have gone much differently.

June 9, 1815: The Congress of Vienna, intended to sort out a new balance of power in Europe following the end of the French Revolution and the downfall of Napoleon—the full Congress overlapped with Napoleon’s failed “100 Days” restoration and ended just before the Battle of Waterloo—concludes with a “Final Act” establishing the terms of the new continental framework. Among other things, Vienna confirmed France’s loss of its empire while enlarging Austria, Prussia, and Russia and reorganizing the former Holy Roman Empire into the German Confederation, under Austrian-Prussian domination.

Vienna established the “Congress System” under which the five European “Great Powers”—Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom—would manage European affairs, and established the reactionary “Conservative Order” to tamp down revolutionary sentiment. The whole system fell apart under the pressures of nationalism and finally during the Revolutions of 1848, though parts of the system were restored under the Concert of Europe system spearheaded by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck during the latter part of the 19th century.

June 10, 1190: Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I drowns in southern Anatolia on his way to join what we now call the Third Crusade. His death contributed heavily to the breakup of the Crusader army and therefore to Richard the Lionheart’s decision to abandon plans to besiege Jerusalem.

June 10, 1898: US Marines and Cuban forces capture Guantánamo Bay from Spain after a five day battle. The US quickly established a naval base there that proved critical in winning the decisive naval battle and siege of Santiago in July, which essentially ended the Spanish-American war in Cuba. The conflict continued on other fronts until August.

INTERNATIONAL

As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 175,604,754 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 3,788,301 reported COVID-19 deaths. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 2.25 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 28 per every 100 people.

In today’s global news:

  • The world is closer to having five oceans now, apparently, or maybe it’s always had five oceans and we just didn’t realize it. Whatever the explanation, the folks at the National Geographic Society decided on Tuesday, World Oceans Day, to recognize the “Southern Ocean,” a body of water surrounding Antarctica out to 60 degrees southern latitude, as a distinct oceanic and ecological body. This will of course come as welcome news to groups like the Southern Ocean Liberation Front and the People’s Committee for the Liberation of the Southern Ocean, but it’s important to note that National Geographic isn’t the final word on this subject. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recognized the Southern Ocean’s independence all the way back in 1999, but to date the key deciding body, the International Hydrographic Organization, has not followed suit. National Geographic reaches a lot more people than the IHO, however, so this could represent a de facto recognition.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

An artillery barrage by the Syrian army against a rebel-held village in Idlib province reportedly killed at least 11 people on Thursday. That claim comes from rebels and from the Syrian Civil Defense group (AKA the “White Helmets”), which is a rebel-aligned organization, so take that into account. Most of those killed appear to have been rebel fighters, including at least two fairly senior officials in the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, though at least three of the dead were reportedly civilians.

YEMEN

An apparent Houthi drone/missile strike in the city of Maʾrib on Thursday killed at least five people (Yemeni media is reporting eight) and wounded 15 more, according to “local and military officials.” The Houthis have offered no comment. The Biden administration, meanwhile, announced new sanctions against several individuals and entities allegedly involved in a smuggling operation that has provided considerable funding for the Houthis.

As the conflict for Maʾrib continues, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen appears to be taking a couple of steps to try to entice the Houthis to the negotiating table. It announced on Thursday that it has stopped undertaking airstrikes on Sanaa or other major northern Yemeni cities in an effort to deescalate the conflict. The coalition made that claim in response to reports of an airstrike against a Houthi armed column in or near Sanaa, however, so make of that what you will.

Of potentially more significance, it seems the coalition may be close to reopening northern Yemeni airspace. There are signs that the Houthis have begun repairing and renovating Sanaa’s airport, which would be an odd use of time and resources unless they have some expectation that the facility will be allowed to resume operating soon. At present the United Nations is the only organization the coalition permits to fly into and out of Sanaa. The Houthis have demanded an end to the Saudi air and sea blockade of Yemen as a prerequisite for a ceasefire, while to date the Saudis have held out the possibility of ending those blockades in exchange for a ceasefire. That may seem like a minor distinction but clearly it’s meaningful to the combatants.

In case you missed it, I spoke yesterday with the Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline about the structural deficiencies in the Yemen peace process as it is and the need for a new framework to bring the Houthis on board. We talked before the airport news started to break and Annelle mentioned the Houthi demands with respect to the blockade as one element of what a stronger framework would look like.

IRAQ

The US government says it’s offering $3 million for information on attacks against the US embassy in Baghdad and/or against Iraqi military facilities housing US personnel. Two of the latter were attacked on Wednesday: Balad airbase north of Baghdad and a base attacked to Baghdad’s airport. The latter seems to have been targeted by drones rather than the more ubiquitous Katyusha rockets.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

There are more details available about the overnight incident in the West Bank city of Jenin in which Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinian Authority security officers and a third man (previously reported as wounded). Israeli officials are saying that the third man was a member of Islamic Jihad—those Israeli soldiers were in Jenin “undercover” to arrest a group of militants “suspected of having recently attacked Israeli troops,” according to Reuters. It’s still unclear how or why they wound up shooting at Palestinian Authority security personnel, who routinely collaborate with Israeli forces on security matters, but if the Israelis were “undercover” then it’s possible those PA personnel opened fire on them without realizing what was happening.

IRAN

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Biden administration has decided to lift sanctions on a number of former officials with Iran’s national oil company as well as a number of Iranian entities “involved in shipping and trading petrochemical products.” The administration describes these moves as administrative, reflecting a change in circumstances that warranted the removal of the sanctions. But there’s some reason to believe it’s taken this step as a gesture to try to get some life back into the recently lifeless talks over reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. A new round of those talks is set to begin in Vienna this weekend. The administration keeps insisting that it’s not bound by any considerations around Iran’s presidential election next Friday but I have to believe it would prefer to get a deal done before Iran’s next—likely ultraconservative—president assumes office.

ASIA

GEORGIA

The European Union’s mediation efforts appear to have successfully settled Georgia’s political crisis, with boycotting opposition legislators having finally returned to parliament in recent days. Interestingly, Eurasianet’s Giorgi Lomsadze writes that this affair seems to have given Georgians a new appreciation for the EU at the expense of the United States, which by comparison did little/nothing to help resolve the situation.

AFGHANISTAN

Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told Reuters on Thursday that, as a member of NATO, the Turkish government is just as obliged as every other NATO member to withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan under the deal the Taliban signed with the United States last year. So in other words, you can mark the Taliban down as a “no” on the question of whether the Turkish military should take responsibility for securing Kabul’s airport after the US pullout. Airport security is a major consideration for a number of reasons, but especially in terms of the viability of foreign diplomatic missions. Several countries are likely to consider closing their embassies in Kabul if they can’t be sure that the airport will be kept safe.

CHINA

Amnesty International has produced a new report summarizing its findings into the conditions under which Muslim minorities are living in Xinjiang:

Since 2017, under the guise of a campaign against “terrorism”, the government of China has carried out massive and systematic abuses against Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang). Far from a legitimate response to the purported terrorist threat, the government’s campaign evinces a clear intent to target parts of Xinjiang’s population collectively on the basis of religion and ethnicity and to use severe violence and intimidation to root out Islamic religious beliefs and Turkic Muslim ethno-cultural practices. The government aims to replace these beliefs and practices with secular state-sanctioned views and behaviours, and, ultimately, to forcibly assimilate members of these ethnic groups into a homogenous Chinese nation possessing a unified language, culture, and unwavering loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

To achieve this political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation, the government undertook a campaign of arbitrary mass detention. Huge numbers of men and women from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups have been detained. They include hundreds of thousands who have been sent to prisons as well as hundreds of thousands – perhaps 1 million or more – who have been sent to what the government refers to as “training” or “education” centres. These facilities are more accurately described as internment camps. Detainees in these camps are subjected to a ceaseless indoctrination campaign as well as physical and psychological torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

The internment camp system is part of a larger campaign of subjugation and forced assimilation of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. The government of China has enacted other far-reaching policies that severely restrict the behaviour of Muslims in Xinjiang. These policies violate multiple human rights, including the rights to liberty and security of person; to privacy; to freedom of movement; to opinion and expression; to thought, conscience, religion, and belief; to participate in cultural life; and to equality and non-discrimination. These violations are carried out in such a widespread and systematic manner that they are now an inexorable aspect of daily life for millions of members of predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

NORTH KOREA

Recent photographs appear to indicate that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has lost weight. Ordinarily you’d expect news like this, about someone of Kim’s physique, to be met with some discussion of a successful diet plan or exercise regimen, or maybe even ignored completely given how utterly mundane it is. But since this is North Korea we’re talking about, these images of an apparently slimmer Kim have sparked what feels like it might be the 500th round of speculation about the North Korean leader’s health since he assumed power back in 2011.

According to the Washington Post this insipid speculation “can sometimes seem absurd” (really, I hadn’t noticed), but it’s actually North Korea’s fault that Western analysts are going wild over whether or not Kim’s wristwatch is hanging too loosely on his wrist (I am not making that up). If Pyongyang were simply more forthcoming about Kim’s health, and I guess his whereabouts and other personal details, apparently things would be different.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Scattered protests broke out in Khartoum on Thursday after Sudanese officials announced an end to gas subsidies. The cuts effectively doubled the price of petrol and diesel for Sudanese consumers, but they’re apparently unsustainable for the cash-strapped Sudanese government. The demonstrations have started out relatively small but could gain momentum as more people encounter higher prices at the gas pump.

MALI

French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Thursday the end of “Operation Barkhane,” under which his military currently has over 5000 soldiers deployed to West Africa, working primarily in Mali, to counter Islamist militancy in the region. Barkhane will give way to a new French operation, and while its details are not yet forthcoming it will almost certainly involve some reduction in the size of the French deployment. It’s possible Macron’s decision here has something to do with political conditions in Mali, which just suffered its second coup in less than a year a couple of weeks ago, but more likely he’s trying to throw a bone to voters ahead of next year’s presidential campaign. Barkhane is not tremendously popular in France and it gets less popular every time French soldiers are attacked.

In something of a surprise, Macron also criticized the Economic Community of West African States’ soft response to the second of Mali’s coups. ECOWAS head Jean-Claude Brou said earlier this week that he’s been “reassured” that the junta’s intentions are good, absent any evidence to support that conclusion. Macron could have accepted that reassurance and used it to justify dropping his own objections to the coup, and in fairness he should probably be commended for that.

BURKINA FASO

Militants reportedly tried to ambush a security patrol in northern Burkina Faso on Wednesday but were driven off. Authorities are claiming that at least ten of the attackers were killed in the incident, while three Burkinabé personnel were wounded.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Central African Prime Minister Firmin Ngrébada and his cabinet resigned on Thursday, though his reasons for doing so are unclear as is his immediate political future. Ngrébada has been the target of criticism, over his failure to strengthen the CAR economy and his close ties to the Russian government, but he’s also a close ally of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra and there’s some speculation he could be asked to remain in his post with a new cabinet.

ETHIOPIA

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification is warning that the famine in Ethiopia’s troubled Tigray region has reached critical levels:

An IPC analysis update conducted in Tigray and the neighbouring zones of Amhara and Afar concludes that over 350,000 people are in Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) between May and June 2021. This is the highest number of people in IPC Phase 5 since the 2011 famine in Somalia.

This severe crisis results from the cascading effects of conflict, including population displacements, movement restrictions, limited humanitarian access, loss of harvest and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or non-existent markets.

As of May 2021, 5.5 million people (61% of the people in the area) are facing high levels of acute food insecurity: 3.1 million people are in Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and 2.1 million people in Emergency (IPC Phase 4). This is despite the major humanitarian food assistance that has reached up to 5 million people in the last few months.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Washington Post reports that the Russian government may be about to significantly upgrade Iran’s satellite reconnaissance capabilities:

Russia is preparing to supply Iran with an advanced satellite system that will give Tehran an unprecedented ability to track potential military targets across the Middle East and beyond, according to current and former U.S. and Middle Eastern officials briefed on details of the arrangement.

The plan would deliver to the Iranians a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera that would greatly enhance Iran’s spying capabilities, allowing continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Persian Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house U.S. troops, the officials said. The launch could happen within months, they said.

While the Kanopus-V is marketed for civilian use, Iranian military officials have been heavily involved in the acquisition, and leaders of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have made multiple trips to Russia since 2018 to help negotiate the terms of the agreement, the officials said. As recently as this spring, Russian experts traveled to Iran to help train ground crews that would operate the satellite from a newly built facility near the northern city of Karaj, the officials said.

Iran put its own recon satellite, the Noor-1, in orbit last year. But the Kanopus-V is considerably more advanced, though it’s not state of the art as far as military satellites are concerned.

UNITED KINGDOM

Joe Biden on Thursday had his long awaited (I guess?) first in person meeting as president with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Though Biden has been a critic of Brexit and in particular of its ongoing effect on Northern Ireland—as well as of Johnson himself—he and the UK leader seemed to get along OK, with Johnson (who made no secret of his fondness for Donald Trump) characterizing Biden and his administration as “a breath of fresh air.” So I guess we don’t have to worry about a do-over of the War of 1812 breaking out, which is a relief. Indulging in a bit of silly symbolism, they signed an “updated” rewrite of the Atlantic Charter, the statement Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt signed in 1941 laying out their vision of the post-World War II world.

AMERICAS

PERU

I think it’s safe to say that Pedro Castillo has eked out a very narrow victory in Peru’s presidential runoff, but as I said yesterday the margin was so narrow that I also think it’s premature to say he’s definitely going to be Peru’s next president. Apparent runner up Keiko Fujimori is reportedly challenging as many as 500,000 ballots for annulment, and given that Castillo won by somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 votes (around 0.4 percent) a recount of that size could yet be decisive. Neither Peruvian nor international election observers/officials have suggested any fraud or other irregularities in the vote count.

It may be worth pointing out that Fujimori lost the 2016 election by an even smaller margin without contesting it. But then she was running against business-friendly conservative Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, whereas Castillo is a leftist. To keep him out of office, Peruvian elites may be willing to support a recount effort or fraud claim that they would not have supported five years ago. Fujimori is also the target of a criminal investigation over illegal campaign contributions (from 2011) this time around, which was not the case in 2016, so she has some personal incentive to fight for the legal immunity the presidency would provide her.

VENEZUELA

Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez said in televised remarks on Thursday that the Venezuelan government has been unable to make payments of late to the World Health Organization’s COVAX program. Officials later produced documentation from the Swiss bank UBS showing that four payment attempts for a total of $4.6 million had all been blocked. It’s unclear why these payment attempts are being blocked but Rodríguez suggested, not without reason, that US sanctions have something to do with it. Venezuela still owes around $10 million of the $120 million total fee for purchasing vaccines from the WHO program. It had pursued securing that money from funds that have been frozen in the US, but later decided against that idea.

UNITED STATES

Speaking of COVAX, the Biden administration says it’s not looking for “favors” in return for the 500 million vaccine doses it’s planning to donate to the program. According to Reuters, an unspecified “senior Biden administration official” said on Thursday that the US is “not imposing conditions, political or economic or otherwise, on countries for receiving these doses.” It may be notable (though to be fair it also may not be) that the official didn’t deny that the administration will impose conditions on which countries receive them.

Finally, a new survey from Pew Research Center finds that Joe Biden’s accession as president has had a somewhat predictable effect on America’s global image. A survey of people in 16 countries finds a median of 75 percent have “confidence” in Biden. That same figure was at 17 percent for Donald Trump last year. A median of 62 percent now have a favorable image of the United States, compared with 34 percent across 12 countries last year. That said, with Biden already in the UK for this weekend’s G7 summit on his first overseas trip as president, POLITICO is reporting that European leaders aren’t necessarily as enamored of the new American leader as many of their citizens are:

There may be toasted marshmallows and firepits awaiting President Joe Biden and his fellow leaders on the beaches of Cornwall during this weekend’s G-7 leaders summit, but don’t expect them to be singing “Kumbaya.”

With the Biden administration crowing that “America is back” and looking to bask in applause for resetting the transatlantic relationship onto a positive path, European leaders aren’t quite ready to start clapping.They’re expecting proof that America is in it for the long haul, and are already steeling themselves for Washington’s next departure from the uneasy transatlantic marriage.

POLITICO interviewed more than a dozen prime ministers, ministers, diplomats and other officials to find out what they think about Biden and his team, and where they see Europe as fitting into the new administration’s priorities. The recurring theme: concern about perceived gaps between the administration’s rhetoric and its actions toward Europe.

The administration’s vaccine nationalism and a perceived lack of substantive progress on improving US-European relations are part of the problem. But there also seems to be some residual transatlantic hostility stemming from the Trump period—and perhaps also from the fact that “Trumpism” is now an indelible part of the US political landscape.