World roundup: June 17 2021
Stories from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Bolivia, 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
June 16, 632: Yazdegerd III is crowned ruler of the Sasanian Empire. He ruled for 19 years, much of it in a fairly nominal sense, and was the last Sasanian emperor. He fled his capital, Ctesiphon, after the Persians’ catastrophic defeat to the invading Arabs at Qadisiyah in 636 and spent the rest of his life alternately running for his life and raising armies in a futile attempt to stop the oncoming Arabs. A miller assassinated Yazdegerd at Merv (near modern Mary, Turkmenistan) in 651, though it’s unclear whether he did so in an act of simple robbery or at the orders of the regional governor.
June 16, 1407: Ming Chinese forces capture the emperor of Đại Ngu (northern Vietnam today), Hồ Hán Thương, as well as his father and predecessor, “Retired Emperor” Hồ Quý Ly, thus bringing the 1406-1407 Ming-Hồ war close to its end. The conflict’s roots lay in the Hồ dynasty’s overthrow of the Trần dynasty, a Ming vassal, and the breakup of Đại Việt (Vietnam) in 1400. Hồ Quý Ly resisted a Ming demand for the reinstatement of the Trần and the rest, as they say, is history. The Ming annexed northern Vietnam, calling it Jiaozhi province, but that only lasted until 1427, when a rebellion led by Lê Lợi drove the Ming out and reestablished an independent Vietnam.
June 17, 1462: The Night Attack at Târgovişte
June 17, 1631: Mughal Empress Mumtaz Mahal dies. The favorite of Emperor Shah Jahan’s (d. 1666) wives, her death inspired her husband to order the construction of a glorious mausoleum to commemorate her. The result, the Taj Mahal, sees upwards of eight million visitors each year according to its website.
As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 178,183,638 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 3,857,474 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 2.49 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 33 for every 100 people.
The Israeli military reportedly destroyed a Syrian army observation post in Syria’s Quneitra province on Thursday. The facility may have been used by Hezbollah personnel. There are no reports of any casualties.
Saudi air defenses reportedly shot down a Houthi drone that was headed toward Khamis Mushait on Thursday. The Houthis say they launched two drones at the nearby Abha airport so that theoretically leaves one drone at large, but there’s been no report of a successful attack on the Abha facility.
AFP is reporting that six Yemeni “security personnel” have been kidnapped this week by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in southern Yemen’s Shabwa province. Their whereabouts are unclear and there seems to be some concern that the abductions represent something of a resurgence for AQAP.
Lebanese workers held a general strike and large protests on Thursday to demand some resolution to the political dysfunction that’s prevented the government from addressing the country’s ongoing economic crisis. Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri still hasn’t managed to get President Michel Aoun’s approval on a new cabinet, meaning that even if he had a solution to the economic situation—and past experience strongly suggests he does not—he can’t do anything to implement it. The dysfunction has gotten so severe that Aoun and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who are politically aligned with one another, have started publicly berating one another over it. Berri is accusing Aoun of trying to amass an effective veto over the government, while Aoun is accusing Berri of conspiring against him with Hariri.
At the very least, a new government could unlock a sizable chunk of foreign aid, assuming said government gets Western approval. Of immediate concern are signs that the Lebanese military is starting to fall apart as soldiers complain about lack of payment and poorly maintained equipment. Several countries pledged non-specific financial support for the military at an impromptu conference on Thursday, but without a resolution to the political and economic crises there’s no sustainable way to ameliorate the threat of a military collapse. The Lebanese military has a fairly well-established tradition of staying out of politics, even during the country’s civil war when factions of the military broke off to join the warring sides but the military itself remained subordinate to civilian authorities. But soldiers are only going to work for no pay for so long before they either quit or decide that getting involved in politics wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
Israeli soldiers shot a Palestinian 16 year old during a protest in the village of Beita, near the West Bank city of Nablus, on Wednesday, and he died of his wounds on Thursday. Israeli officials are claiming the teenager threw an explosive device at the soldiers, who fired on him in response. According to Palestinian media he’s the fourth person killed by Israeli soldiers in Beita so far this month.
In Gaza, meanwhile, militants continue to release so-called “arson balloons” into southern Israel, where they’ve caused several fires over the past three days in unpopulated areas. The Israeli military conducted airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza again on Thursday, for the second time in as many days. Concerns are understandably growing that this could escalate into another full-blown conflict, but for now neither side seems interested in that and there have still been no casualties reported.
According to reporter Laura Rozen, negotiators in Vienna “continue to make progress” toward reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but this sixth round of talks has run into some “difficult issues” that “remain to be resolved.” In particular, the Iranian side is looking for a guarantee that the United States will not up and quit the deal again as it did during the Trump administration, but even if the Biden administration were willing to provide such a guarantee there’s no realistic way that it could. The issue of what happens to the deal under a future president Trump, or Cotton, or whomever, is and always has been the proverbial elephant in the room with respect to these talks or any other attempt at diplomacy with Iran. The United States has now demonstrated that it can’t be trusted to keep its agreements, and that’s a pretty hard bell to un-ring.
Those two Iranian ships that US officials have been warning were on their way to deliver weapons to Venezuela have reportedly changed course and are now heading north along the western African coast. Their intended destination is unclear, but it looks like Our Long National Nightmare is finally over.
Armenian voters will head to the polls on Sunday for a snap election that has been in the cards since Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan was forced to accept defeat in a ceasefire agreement that ended last fall’s war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Initially viewed as the likely winner in spite of public anger over the ceasefire, recent surveys show that Pashinyan’s My Step alliance is now in a statistical tie with the Armenia Alliance coalition, led by former PM and president Robert Kocharyan. If polling is accurate it’s unlikely that any single party/alliance is going to emerge with enough seats to form a government on its own, which means coalition talks and potentially a do-over if those talks fail.
At least 24 Afghan special forces commandos and five police officers were killed Wednesday in a failed operation to regain control of the Dawlat Abad district in Faryab province, which was taken last week by the Taliban. The battle was indicative of Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation:
What happened in Faryab is playing out in districts across the country, at an alarming rate. Tolo News, a national media outlet in the country, reported fighting in 80 of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts in the country Thursday.
On Thursday alone, the neighboring district of Shirin Tagab fell after Afghan forces there fought for days and ran out of ammunition, said Sebghatullah Selab, the deputy head of the provincial council in Faryab. Mohammad Nader Sayedi, another member of the provincial council, said that several hundred security forces either were captured or surrendered and the Taliban seized more than 100 vehicles and hundreds of weapons.
In the country’s south, the Taliban entered Gereshk, an important town near Helmand Province’s capital despite concerted airstrikes. And in Zabul, tribal elders negotiated the withdrawal of Afghan troops from a base in Shinkay, a district that fell to the Taliban earlier this month.
Unknown gunmen killed one Pakistani soldier on Thursday at a security checkpoint in the Turbat district of Pakistan’s Baluchistan region. There’s been no claim of responsibility but the attack bears some hallmarks of Baluch separatist militants. That said, it could have been an Islamist group like the Islamic State or the Pakistani Taliban, both of which are active in the Baluchistan region.
Anti-police brutality protests are continuing to grow and spread across Tunis, fueled in part by the brutality police are displaying in responding to these protests. Funny how that works. Protests began in a couple of Tunis’s neighborhoods last week after a man arrested for alleged drug position died in police custody, sparking claims that he was beaten to death. Videos of police beating demonstrators appear to be inspiring more and larger demonstrations. Now dozens of non-governmental organizations are calling for a nationwide demonstration on Friday.
Bandits attacked yet another Nigerian school on Thursday, the third such attack in less than a month. This time around the target was the Federal Government College in northwestern Nigeria’s Kebbi state. The attackers, deemed “bandits” for lack of any deeper understanding as to their makeup, killed one police officer and abducted five teachers along with an unknown number of students. Kidnapping students for ransom has become endemic across northern Nigeria, with over 700 students kidnapped since December. Most have ultimately been released, presumably after authorities paid ransoms for them, but there have been a number of fatalities.
New polling has Bulgaria’s There Is Such a People (ITN) party in a virtual tie with ex-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party ahead of next month’s snap election. The survey from Gallup International has ITN at 21.2 percent support, 0.2 points ahead of GERB and about 3.5 points better than it did in April’s inconclusive general election. Borissov and GERB won that election with a bit over 26 percent of the vote, but the incumbent PM was unable to recruit any coalition partners and ITN’s alliance with two smaller parties, Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Mafia Out!, fell short of a majority. The same poll has both of those parties improving on their April results as well, so it’s possible that their coalition could get over the 50 percent mark the second time around.
It looks as though Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s government is on the verge of losing a parliamentary confidence vote, after the Left Party announced that it was withdrawing its support over a disagreement about rent controls. Löfven’s minority coalition depends on the Left Party’s support, so unless he can find some way to replace those votes next week’s confidence vote is unlikely to go his way. Assuming he does lose, Löfven appears to be undecided about whether to resign, and thereby give somebody else a chance to form a government, or try to go straight to a snap election.
Argentina’s port worker unions have announced a 24 hour strike on Friday to protest the lack of available COVID vaccines. They’ll be following in the footsteps of several other shipping-related unions, including customs officials, who have gone on strike in recent weeks over the same issue. Argentina’s second COVID wave appears to have just passed its peak and the country has suffered over 87,000 COVID-related deaths to date. Its vaccine effort has actually been one of the more effective programs in Latin America, but apart from Chile and Uruguay that’s not a very high bar.
New reporting from The Intercept suggests that Bolivia came much closer to a second military coup last October than was widely known at the time:
A top official in the outgoing Bolivian government plotted to deploy hundreds of mercenaries from the United States to overturn the results of the South American country’s October 2020 election, according to documents and audio recordings of telephone calls obtained by The Intercept.
The aim of the mercenary recruitment was to forcibly block Luis Arce from taking up the presidency for Movimiento al Socialismo, or MAS, the party of former Bolivian President Evo Morales. The plot continued even though Arce, a protégé of Morales, trounced a crowded field, winning 55 percent of first-round votes and eliminating the need for a runoff election.
In one of the leaked recordings, a person identified as the Bolivian minister of defense said he was “working to avoid the annihilation of my country.” The armed forces and the people needed to “rise up,” he added, “and block an Arce administration. … The next 72 hours are crucial.”
Disagreements between ministers and divisions within the armed forces, strained under the weight of Arce’s convincing victory on October 18, 2020, appear to have undermined the plan. It was never executed, and several top officials of the outgoing government have either fled Bolivia or been arrested on separate charges linked to corruption and their alleged role in the 2019 coup.
The those arrests have generated a fair amount of ire directed toward Arce and his government, but these recordings show pretty conclusively that the people who were behind the 2019 coup remain serious threats to Bolivian democracy, and thus should justify the effort to bring them to justice.
The Biden administration on Thursday blacklisted Guatemalan Congressperson Boris España Cáceres and his family over what the State Department termed “his involvement in significant corruption.” He’s allegedly been involved in what looks like a fairly widespread influence peddling scheme.
Finally, the US House of Representatives voted 268-161 on Thursday to repeal the 2002 Iraq War Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). This is the less pernicious of the two early 2000s AUMF measures—the effects of the 2001 post-9/11 AUMF have been more wide-ranging—but it continues to have a perverse impact on US foreign policy. The Trump administration, for example, relied on the 2002 AUMF for part of its legal case underpinning the assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. Of course that strike would have occurred with or without the AUMF—the US government almost always acts first and cobbles together a legal justification later—but it’s still long past time for this particular perversion to be taken off of the books.
The repeal will now go to the Senate and then theoretically on to the White House. Joe Biden has suggested he would sign a repeal but, and maybe I’m being overly pessimistic here, I’m not sure he’ll get the chance. There doesn’t seem to be the same groundswell for repeal in the Senate that there was in the House. Even if the repeal does pass the Senate, wavering senators may demand some kind of replacement resolution that can be used as blanket authorization for continued US military activity in Iraq. That could defeat the purpose of the repeal, depending on how broadly it’s written.