World roundup: June 22 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Russia, 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 21, 1791: French King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attempt to flee Paris to meet up with royalist troops at Montmédy in what’s become known as the “Flight to Varennes.” As the name suggests, they didn’t make it and were arrested in the town of Varennes-en-Argonne. The attempted escape made it clear to the French public that Louis was conspiring to end the revolution and caused popular sentiment to turn toward abolishing the monarchy rather than maintaining it under constitutional limitations.

June 21, 1942: Axis forces under Erwin Rommel capture the Libyan city of Tobruk. Rommel was promoted to field marshal for his trouble, but the Allies retook the city in November.

June 22, 1593: Local Ottoman forces from the Eyalet of Bosnia are routed by a Habsburg army at the Battle of Sisak. This was one of the first serious Ottoman defeats in the Balkans, and the Ottomans’ desire for revenge contributed to the 1593-1606 Long War against the Habsburgs (there are some historians who consider Sisak part of that war). That war ended indecisively, which was typical for Ottoman-Habsburg conflicts until the late 17th century.

June 22, 1527: A force from the Javanese Demak Sultanate under its commander, Fatahillah, liberates the port of Sunda Kelapa from the Portuguese and renames it “Jayakarta.” I wonder whatever happened to that place.

INTERNATIONAL

As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 179,912,757 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 3,897,385 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 2.70 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 35 for every 100 people.

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

Saudi media is reporting that the kingdom’s air defenses downed a Houthi drone heading for Khamis Mushait on Tuesday. The Houthis, meanwhile, say they shot down a US reconnaissance drone over Yemen’s Maʾrib province on Tuesday, after having made a similar claim on Sunday. These appear to have been Boeing ScanEagles, which are low altitude and relatively inexpensive (a mere $3 million or so per drone) and while I’m no expert I would guess they’re probably not that difficult to bring down with anti-aircraft weaponry. There’s been no comment from the US on these claims as far as I know.

Presumably the drones were aiding pro-government forces in their defense of Maʾrib city, around which the fighting has been very heavy since the Houthis redoubled their offensive on Friday. AFP is reporting that some 90 combatants have been killed in the fighting near Maʾrib over the past two days, 63 of them rebels. There’s been no further word on Reuters’ Monday report that the Saudis were close to lifting their air and sea blockades (or at least the air blockade) against northern Yemen in return for a Houthi pledge to enter quickly into negotiations about a ceasefire.

LEBANON

Lebanese officials on Tuesday once again cut bread subsidies, this time by 18 percent. This is the fifth time the Lebanese government has reduced the bread subsidy over the past year—most recently in February—and this one is apparently linked to a previous decision to end sugar subsidies, which increased the price of bread.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli settlers and the Palestinians they’re trying to displace clashed in eastern Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood overnight, until Israeli police intervened and calmed the situation down while restraining both sides. Just kidding! The cops attacked the Palestinians, of course, leaving at least 20 wounded, mostly from chemical munitions including pepper spray and tear gas.

IRAN

The Biden administration’s Justice Department has reportedly seized some three dozen internet domains belonging to various Iranian-affiliated media outlets, alleging that they traffic in “disinformation.” There’s been no formal acknowledgement of the seizure by the Biden administration as yet, but both the Associated Press and Reuters are reporting this story out based on anonymous US government sources and a perusal of the sites in question shows that they’ve been at least intermittently out of commission and are displaying notices of the takedown.

Without some on the record comment from the administration it’s difficult to say very much about this. From a strictly legalistic perspective, the US appears to have the right to seize these domains under its Iran sanctions framework. But this alleged “disinformation” justification strikes me as dubious at best, as I don’t remember the rest of the world appointing the US Justice Department as the global arbiter of what should or should not be considered “disinformation.” Shutting down websites on those grounds seems like a dangerous precedent to set. Maybe the official announcement from the administration—assuming one is forthcoming—will offer some more substantial justification. This is not the first time the US government has seized Iranian media domains like this, though a couple of the outlets in question, like Press TV and al-Alam, are much higher profile than past US targets.

ASIA

ARMENIA

The results of Sunday’s Armenian parliamentary election are not official yet, but it’s clear that Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party has won a decisive victory with nearly 54 percent of the vote. Pashinyan will be able to form the next government and seems to have retained his two-thirds supermajority (once the parties that failed to hit the minimum five percent threshold for being seated are removed from the equation), though we’ll need to wait for the official results to know for sure.1

Questions continue to swirl about whether ex-President Robert Kocharyan’s Armenia Alliance, which finished a distant second, will actually assume its seats in the legislature, though if Civil Contract has in fact won a two-thirds majority it probably doesn’t matter that much what Kocharyan does. If the party does accept its seats it’s not clear whether Kocharyan will take one of them—he suggested to reporters on Tuesday that he may instead work outside the political system to try to whip up opposition against Pashinyan. He’s also still talking about making a legal challenge to the outcome despite little to no apparent evidence of any major irregularities.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz province’s Imam Sahib district on Monday apparently included the town of Sher Khan Bandar, which is home to the largest Afghanistan-Tajikistan border crossing and therefore a target of considerable strategic value. The Sher Khan Bandar seizure comes amid a much wider Taliban offensive across northern Afghanistan that’s brought the group close to taking Kunduz city as well as Mazar-i-Sharif, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities and the capital of Balkh province. Northern Afghanistan was the source of much of the opposition to the Taliban takeover in the 1990s (remember the “Northern Alliance”?) and the group may be trying to head such opposition off at the pass, so to speak, by seizing that part of the country before eventually moving on Kabul. Speaking of opposition, the New York Times reports that several Afghan minority communities (Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara in particular) are mustering or re-mustering ethnic militias with the intent of resisting Taliban rule in the somewhat likely event that the Afghan government and its security forces collapse.

United Nations Afghan envoy Deborah Lyon warned the UN Security Council on Tuesday that the Taliban has captured 50 districts over the past month or so, and said the group seems to be positioning itself to make sudden moves on several provincial capitals once US and other foreign forces depart Afghanistan in September. The Pentagon is now talking in vague terms about changing the “pace and scope” of that withdrawal in response to Taliban advances, but so far there’s no sign that the Biden administration is changing its Afghan plans.

MYANMAR

Myanmar security forces raided a base used by a newly-minted “People’s Defense Force” based in the city of Mandalay on Tuesday, killing at least four militia members and arresting eight. Several “People’s Defense Forces” have emerged in opposition to Myanmar’s ruling junta since the February coup that put it in power, but they’ve generally been located in fairly rural villages and small towns. The emergence of one of these militias in Myanmar’s second largest city seems noteworthy.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok made some disturbing comments at a press conference on Tuesday about cracks forming within Sudan’s interim government. Said government is a tenuous union of civilian and military elements, but what’s especially troubling about Hamdok’s comments is that he suggested that not only are those cracks between those two elements, but within each of them as well. In particular, Hamdok seems to be warning of a growing split between the regular Sudanese military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which suggests problems between the chair (military General Abdelfattah al-Burhan) and deputy chair (RSF commander General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, AKA “Hemeti”) of the transition’s executive “Sovereign Council.” There have been calls, including from Hamdok, to integrate the RSF (notorious for its past human rights abuses) into the regular military, but Hemeti has resisted those calls and has complained that the RSF is being ill treated.

BURKINA FASO

Unspecified militants ambushed a police unit in northern Burkina Faso on Monday, killing at least 11 officers. Four others are missing so that death toll may rise.

ETHIOPIA

The rebel Tigray Defense Forces—an umbrella organization consisting of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and several other local and regional groups opposed to the Ethiopian government—says it launched a major counteroffensive last week targeting several towns and cities in the Tigray region. Local reports and witnesses are describing heavy fighting in parts of the region and say the TDF’s fighters have entered at least one town, Adigrat, which is located close enough to the Eritrean border to be of some strategic value. Ethiopian officials are acknowledging some new fighting but deny that the Tigrayan rebels have made any significant progress.

The UN’s rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, told the Human Rights Council on Tuesday that Eritrean forces are in “effective control” of the Tigray region, contradicting claims from both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments that those forces are disengaging and preparing to return to Eritrea. They seem to be paying special attention to two camps for Eritrean refugees in Tigray and there are disturbing reports of Eritrean soldiers entering those camps and abducting residents. If the TDF really has captured Adigrat, that will complicate efforts to get the Eritreans back over the border and could intensify the conflict. Eritrean forces have been implicated in some of the worst human rights abuses of the Tigray conflict, which began back in November.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch reports that hopes for more intensive US-Russian engagement on arms control are running into the reality that the two sides simply aren’t anywhere close to being on the same page on multiple issues:

Officials in the Biden administration are still hashing out an agenda that could include elements of nuclear conflict, space, cyber, and crisis avoidance between two of the largest militaries on the planet; some of those things might get shoehorned into a separate negotiation. Earlier this month, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called nuclear arms control “the starting point of strategic stability talks” but said the administration was still weighing whether additional elements would come into play. There may be connective tissue between the risk of nuclear conflict and those emerging issues—as officials figure out how to mitigate cyberattacks that could disable nuclear command and control—or Russia’s emerging anti-satellite capabilities that have the potential to blind U.S. early warning systems.

And the Russians have extended a flimsy olive branch. On Tuesday, Ryabkov reiterated a call for a reciprocal moratorium on INF-range ground-based missiles, starting in Europe.

But in the nuclear space, a complicated tit-for-tat between the two sides is emerging that is likely to test Biden’s patience. Russian negotiators, including Ryabkov, have already begun publicly and privately urging upgraded U.S. missile defenses be limited in a new deal. Moscow fears it wouldn’t be able to retaliate in a nuclear exchange even while it has continued developing the S-500 air defense system that can defend against incoming missiles; the request has long been a no-go for Washington.

The Russians, who began developing a suite of nuclear-powered cruise missiles, air-launched ballistic missiles, and underwater vehicles with range beyond the New START limits, also want constraints on U.S. intercontinental weapons systems, fearing a so-called “counterforce” strike on Russian arms. Russia also wants U.S. tactical nuclear weapons scattered across Europe—unacknowledged by Washington—to be included in any accord.

AMERICAS

ARGENTINA

The Argentine government has reportedly cut a deal with creditors to avoid defaulting on a roughly $2.4 billion debt payment that had been due on July 31. It will instead make a $430 million payment and defer the remainder until at least next year. Officials are still working out a payment plan for some $44 billion Argentina borrowed from the International Monetary Fund back in 2018.

PERU

The US State Department referred to Peru’s presidential runoff earlier this month as “free, fair, accessible, and peaceful” in a statement issued Tuesday. Though fairly nondescript on the surface, that admission (I think you can assume it was made grudgingly) could deal a fatal blow to runner up Keiko Fujimori’s efforts to challenge leftist Pedro Castillo’s win, whether through legal or extralegal (i.e., military) means. It presumably means Fujimori won’t have the United States (or its proxy, the Organization of American States) to cover for her should she attempt to undermine the legitimate result.

MEXICO

Mexican authorities are blaming this weekend’s mass shooting in Reynosa, in which 19 people were killed (at least 15 of them purely bystanders) on “infighting” between rival factions of the Gulf Cartel. Two factions based outside Reynosa allegedly carried out the attack to undermine the cartel’s Metros faction, which is based in the city.

CUBA

A couple of days after announcing that one of their homemade COVID vaccines, Soberana 2, had shown 62 percent efficacy in human trials after two of its recommended three doses had been administered, Cuban officials have declared that another vaccine, called Abdala, showed 92.28 percent effectiveness in trials after a full course of treatment. It’s not entirely clear how Cuban health authorities are defining “effective” (this could refer to preventing transmission, preventing illness, or preventing serious illness), but the daily new case count has reportedly declined significantly in Havana since officials there began administering the Abdala vaccine about a month ago.

UNITED STATES

Finally, writing for the New York Times, columnist Peter Beinart picks apart one of the most meaningless bits of US foreign policy jargon:

Anyone who slogs through the diplomatic verbiage generated last week by President Biden’s inaugural overseas trip will notice one phrase again and again: “rules-based.” It appears twice in Mr. Biden’s joint statement with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, four times each in the communiqués the United States issued with the governments of the Group of 7 and the European Union, and six times in the manifesto produced by NATO.

That’s no surprise: “Rules-based order” (or sometimes, “rules-based system”) is among the Biden administration’s favorite terms. It has become what “free world” was during the Cold War. Especially among Democrats, it’s the slogan that explains what America is fighting to defend.

Too bad. Because the “rules-based order” is a decoy. It’s a way of sidestepping the question Democrats should be asking: Why isn’t America defending international law?

It’s hard to defend international law when your own foreign policy repeatedly violates it. But “rules-based order” doesn’t mean anything, and so it’s impossible to violate.

1

The distribution of seats following an Armenian parliamentary election is subject to a number of rules and formulas with which I am really not familiar, including a rule that the majority party cannot hold more than two-thirds of the seats in any given parliament. One upshot of this is that the the size of the legislature can vary considerably from the minimum of 101 seats. The 2018 snap election resulted in a 132 seat parliament, for example, while the 2017 general election resulted in a 105 seat parliament. Since Civil Contract has won more than 70 percent of the base legislature (101 seats), it should hold a two-thirds majority in the new parliament while opposition parties would be given additional seats to bring CC’s margin down slightly. That’s my very rudimentary understanding of how this works. All parties must win a minimum of five percent of the vote to be seated in the next parliament at all and only three parties hit that threshold this time around, which explains why Civil Contract’s ~54 percent result translates to such a large percentage of seats.