World roundup: March 13-14 2021

Stories from Yemen, Myanmar, Bolivia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

March 12, 1930: Mahatma Gandhi leads a 24 day march covering more than 240 miles from the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat to the village of Dandi, known as the “Salt March” or the “Dandi March.” Gandhi’s aim was to protest the British monopoly on salt production, so he and his followers manufactured their own salt at Dandi after arriving there on April 6, in violation of the 1882 British Salt Act. The march was a landmark event in both the conception of non-violent protest and the Indian independence movement. Gandhi’s decision to focus on an item that people used every day, salt, boosted the movement’s profile and led millions of Indians to follow his lead and launch their own salt protests.

March 12, 1938: Nazi Germany occupies Austria in an event known as the Anschluss. Uniting Austria and Germany was one of the earliest tenets of the Nazi Party and the most important component of its Heim ins Reich project to incorporate all ethnic Germans into a “Greater Germany.” The Nazi occupation, which was welcomed by many Austrians, rendered irrelevant a planned referendum on unification that Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg had scheduled for the following day.

March 12, 1968: With British blessing, the African island nation of Mauritius declares independence. Commemorated today as National Day in Mauritius.

March 13, 624: The Battle of Badr leaves Muhammad’s followers victorious over a small Meccan army.

March 13, 1591: The Sultanate of Morocco’s invasion of the Sahelian Songhai Empire culminates with a decisive victory in the Battle of Tondibi, just north of the city of Gao (in modern Mali). The victorious Moroccan army continued into Gao, the Songhai capital, and sacked the city, followed by the commercially important cities of Timbuktu and Djenné. The battle shattered the Songhai Empire, which had been around since the 1460s, causing it to break into several smaller kingdoms.

March 14, 1978: The Israeli Defense Forces invade southern Lebanon as far north as the Litani River in the cleverly named “Operation Litani.” The invasion was an outgrowth of both the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War and the longstanding conflict between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Its aim was to drive the PLO out of southern Lebanon and strengthen the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia that was supported by the Israelis. In about a week of fighting Israeli forces killed somewhere between 1100 and 2000 people and displaced tens of thousands more. They withdrew in late March, ostensibly in favor of UN peacekeepers but though in reality in favor of the SLA. That militia continued to clash with the PLO, sparking a second and much more impactful Israeli invasion in 1982.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for March 14:

  • 120,406,742 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (20,786,435 active, +363,965 since yesterday)

  • 2,664,943 reported fatalities (+5769 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

  • 2836 confirmed coronavirus cases (+65)

  • 689 reported fatalities (+6)

Saudi media is reporting that the kingdom’s military forces shot down a Houthi drone that was headed for the southern city of Khamis Mushait early Monday morning.

Reuters, citing local witnesses, is reporting that Houthi rebel fighters in Yemen’s Taiz province attacked a school being used as a base for pro-government fighters on Sunday, killing at least 18 people. Of those, 15 were combatants while three were children who happened to be in the vicinity of the school when the Houthi missile struck.

Elsewhere, Yemeni officials and “tribal leaders” are claiming, via the AP, that pro-government forces have made advances against the Houthis in the Abs district of Hajjah province, in northwestern Yemen. Hajjah is located just north of the key port city of Hudaydah so any developments there could have a major impact on the course of the war. As far as I can tell the Yemen live map doesn’t show any developments in that region, but according to the AP some “four dozen” combatants, mostly rebels, have been killed over the weekend in fighting in both Hajjah and Taiz combined.

Still elsewhere, on Friday US Yemen envoy Timothy Lenderking criticized what he termed as the Houthis’ prioritization of their current military offensive in Maʾrib province over US efforts to broker a ceasefire. I think this is worth pointing out because it illustrates one of the continual great failures in US foreign policy making, a dearth of strategic empathy (the ability to put yourself in the other party’s shoes). Let’s assume the US government is genuinely making a good faith effort to end the Yemen war. Why on Earth should the Houthis believe that?

The United States has spent the past nearly six years supporting a brutal Saudi war effort that has decimated northern Yemen. It’s only been about a month since the Biden administration announced, in vague terms, that it was ending that support, and so far there’s no apparent indication that it actually has ended it. It may be fair to criticize the Houthis for pressing their operation in Maʾrib, but it’s not hard to look at this situation from their perspective and realize that they have absolutely no reason to respect or even to trust this sudden US push for peace. The United States has no credibility with them. It can’t just pivot from combatant (or near-combatant) to peacemaker and expect to be taken seriously.

IRAQ

  • 758,184 confirmed cases (+3866)

  • 13,751 reported fatalities (+32)

Islamic State fighters massacred eight people, including six members of a single family, in a village just north of Baghdad on Friday. Iraqi officials are saying the attack was perpetrated by a local resident who’d been accused of IS ties and driven out of the village. It would appear, then, that he did have IS ties.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 818,548 confirmed cases (+749) in Israel, 209,304 confirmed cases (+1868) in Palestine

  • 6008 reported fatalities (+20) in Israel, 2268 reported fatalities (+13) in Palestine

The Kosovan government officially opened its Jerusalem embassy on Sunday, becoming the first majority Muslim country to recognize that city as Israel’s capital. This was part of the agreement Donald Trump brokered back in September, in which the Israeli government agreed to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

The continuing mystery of Benjamin Netanyahu’s canceled UAE trip may have gotten a bit less clear on Saturday, when Netanyahu offered what really seems like a halfhearted explanation as to why he couldn’t make alternative arrangements. The official story, if you recall, is that Netanyahu’s flight didn’t receive permission to pass through Jordanian airspace in time to proceed. This is a little weird because there are other ways to get to the UAE from Israel. In particular there’s an obvious route that goes through Saudi airspace. Netanyahu is now saying he couldn’t take that route because of the risk of Houthi missiles, which is honestly weirder than if he’d just said nothing at all. There’s no reason to believe the Houthis would have targeted or even been aware of Netanyahu’s flight and they don’t have the kind of ground-to-air missiles that would be needed to pull off a deliberate attack. I guess some kind of freak accidental collision with a Houthi cruise missile or drone isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but surely Netanyahu’s handlers could have routed his flight north of any potential Houthi target in Saudi Arabia. I am no expert in air traffic control, to be sure, but this doesn’t seem like a legitimate explanation.

IRAN

  • 1,746,953 confirmed cases (+7593)

  • 61,230 reported fatalities (+88)

Protesters attacked an Iranian coastguard facility in the town of Sirik in Iran’s Hormozgan province on Friday after a local man was killed in a confrontation with coastguard personnel. That confrontation reportedly involved fuel smugglers in the Hormuz Strait who ran into a coastguard patrol and ignored its warning shots. The patrol then decided to fire the other kind of shots. Several coastguard personnel were reportedly injured in the incident, which is somewhat reminiscent of ongoing protests Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan province that were also sparked by a shooting involving fuel smugglers. Iranian authorities have long tolerated some level of fuel smuggling, which provides income for impoverished Iranians and is a way, albeit a relatively minor one, of evading sanctions. But lately they seem to be cracking down, perhaps out of a desire to consolidate the illicit fuel trade.

Iranian authorities are now accusing the Israeli government of attacking Iranian tankers and other commercial vessels in the eastern Mediterranean. This accusation is the inevitable outcome of reports that somebody planted a bomb on an Iranian ship in that region several days ago. It’s hard to know what to make of these claims, but The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the Israelis have been making a habit of attacking Iranian oil tankers and other commercial vessels on their way to Syria. Most of these attacks took place in the Red Sea and at least one may have been responsible for causing an oil spill in the Red Sea back in October 2019. The attentive reader may recall that, earlier this month, Israeli authorities blamed a recent oil spill in the eastern Mediterranean on an Iranian tanker, alleging that the Iranians had engaged in an act of deliberate environmental terrorism. Perhaps you’ve already put two and two together here, but it seems reasonable to consider, at least, the possibility that the Israelis themselves caused that spill with one of these attacks.

ASIA

ARMENIA

  • 178,385 confirmed cases (+486)

  • 3255 reported fatalities (+2)

Hundreds of Armenian protesters again surrounded government buildings in Yerevan on Saturday to demand Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation. Armenian President Armen Sargsyan is now offering to mediate between Pashinyan and Armenian opposition leaders but at this point there doesn’t seem to be much room for common ground between them.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 55,972 confirmed cases (+13)

  • 2459 reported fatalities (+2)

The Afghan government has agreed to participate in not one but two forthcoming (maybe) Afghan peace conferences, one organized by the United States and the other by Russia. The Russian event is scheduled to take place in a few days so it seems fairly certain to occur, but the US conference, which is to be set in Turkey, is still a bit more hypothetical at this point. The Taliban has apparently not decided whether to attend either conference, but the fact that they’re being organized is an indication that the bilateral (Taliban-Kabul) negotiating track is going nowhere and things are moving toward a more international/regional path. Which could very well go nowhere as well.

It turns out that the US military has around 3500 personnel in Afghanistan, substantially more than the 2500 it claims it has deployed there. This makes withdrawing by May 1, as specified under last February’s agreement with the Taliban, more difficult. But the Biden administration has all but decided to blow past that deadline anyway. What makes this story interesting is the way it highlights how the Pentagon manages to conceal the true extent of its troop deployments from civilian leaders and/or the American public. In that sense it’s pretty troubling.

MYANMAR

  • 142,147 confirmed cases (+11)

  • 3202 reported fatalities (+1)

The New York Times is reporting that Myanmar security forces have killed at least 51 anti-junta protesters this weekend, easily the most violent since last month’s coup. At least 31 were killed late Sunday in a single incident in Yangon, which is the highest single day/single incident death toll since the coup. The junta imposed martial law in two Yangon neighborhoods overnight in an attempt to tamp down on the protests, which do not appear to be tapering off despite an escalating level of violence on the part of police and the Myanmar military. Mahn Win Khaing Than, the vice president of an underground civilian government set up in the wake of the coup, issued a recorded statement via Facebook on Saturday to rally resistance to the junta, and the continued protests speak for themselves.

CHINA

  • 90,044 confirmed cases (+10) on the mainland, 11,282 confirmed cases (+24) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 203 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong

The British government said on Saturday that it considers recent changes to Hong Kong’s electoral law to be a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. The electoral changes allow for stronger vetting of candidates for Hong Kong office on ideological grounds, which the UK regards as a violation of the declaration’s protections of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

NORTH KOREA

  • No acknowledged cases

According to Reuters, citing “a senior Biden administration official,” the North Korean government has rebuffed, or at least ignored, some unspecified “diplomatic outreach” from the administration. Reuters has no details on this supposed outreach except that it has involved “several channels” and began about a month ago. Officially the Biden administration hasn’t done very much on North Korea other than to say it’s “reviewing” the Trump administration’s approach. During the campaign Joe Biden was not complimentary of that approach, to say the least. The North Koreans may be waiting until they can make some kind of big splash, like a new missile or even nuclear test, before they engage with Biden and his administration in any way.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 144,993 confirmed cases (+1350)

  • 2386 reported fatalities (+38)

The “Libyan National Army” says its forces have captured a senior Islamic State commander who uses the nom de guerre “Abu Omar” in the southwestern Libyan town of Awbari. It’s unclear from the reporting when this arrest took place.

NIGERIA

  • 160,657 confirmed cases (+120)

  • 2013 reported fatalities (+0)

A series of Islamist attacks has left at least 37 Nigerian security forces in Borno state over the past several days. The deadliest appears to have been an attack on a security convoy on Friday that was claimed by the Islamic State West Africa Province. At least 11 government forces were killed, with ISWAP claiming 33 killed and Nigerian officials acknowledging that many people are still missing in the wake of the ambush.

Bandits attempted another mass kidnapping from a school in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna state on Sunday. But their attack on the Government Science Secondary School in Ikara was apparently thwarted by security forces before they could abduct any students. There’s still no word on the 39 students who were abducted from another Kaduna state school late Thursday.

KENYA

  • 113,236 confirmed cases (+431)

  • 1913 reported fatalities (+5)

The Kenyan government has decided to pull out of an International Court of Justice hearing scheduled for Monday to discuss the Kenyan-Somali maritime border. Kenyan officials have accused the ICJ of bias because of the presence of a Somali judge on the panel, and they’re apparently unhappy that the court refused to grant them a continuance in order to bring a new legal team on board.

Kenya and Somali dispute control of a roughly 62,000 square mile triangle of Indian Ocean territory because they cannot agree on the direction of their maritime boundary. Kenya insists that the dividing line should extend horizontally in a straight line away from the point where the Kenyan-Somali land border meets the water. Somalia claims the maritime boundary should continue along in the same direction as the land border, which would significantly expand Somalia’s territorial waters. At stake is control over fishing rights and—more importantly—any offshore oil and/or gas deposits in that disputed region. The ICJ is the international court of last resort so its rulings on these sorts of matters are final—or they would be, anyway, if there were any means of enforcing them.

EUROPE

GERMANY

  • 2,578,835 confirmed cases (+8985)

  • 73,959 reported fatalities (+52)

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union suffered significant setbacks in state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate on Sunday. State elections are not really our purview here, but German state elections can offer some indications about upcoming federal elections, and in Germany’s case these results don’t bode terribly well for the CDU’s chances in September’s federal vote. CDU party chair Armin Laschet is hoping to succeed the retiring Merkel as chancellor after that election but he may not want to get his hopes up just yet.

NETHERLANDS

  • 1,157,192 confirmed cases (+5974)

  • 16,069 reported fatalities (+23)

Speaking of elections, Dutch voters will be heading to the polls over the next three days in that country’s general election. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party is expected to retain power, unless voters get spooked by what appears to be the start of another COVID-19 spike and decide to let somebody else manage the pandemic. Assuming that doesn’t happen, the real contest will be for third place behind the People’s Party and the far right Freedom Party, since whichever party winds up in that slot will be the main partner for Rutte’s party in the next Dutch governing coalition.

AMERICAS

BOLIVIA

  • 259,004 confirmed cases (+680)

  • 11,944 reported fatalities (+14)

It was a little unclear on Friday whether former Bolivian junta leader Jeanine Áñez was among those facing arrest by Bolivian authorities in connection with the November 2019 coup that ousted former President Evo Morales. But her situation became much clearer on Saturday, when she was in fact arrested by President Luis Arce’s justice department.

Áñez, along with several members of her junta government and former heads of Bolivia’s police and military services, are facing a raft of charges over the coup and subsequent events, the most serious involving allegations of terrorism and sedition. She’s termed her arrest part of a “political prosecution,” a charge Bolivian authorities reject. Right wing politician Luis Fernando Camacho, who was recently elected governor of Bolivia’s conservative Santa Cruz state, is also potentially facing arrest though his new office may afford him some level of immunity. The charges against Áñez reportedly predate her assumption of control as “interim president” and therefore any immunity she might have had in that office does not apply.

UNITED STATES

  • 30,081,657 confirmed cases (+36,896)

  • 547,234 reported fatalities (+629)

Finally, and offered without comment, Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsch reports on the arguments within the Biden administration on how, or whether, to end—or at least revise—the Forever War:

In an interview on Thursday, a senior administration official acknowledged there was a “rigorous” debate inside the administration over how to end the forever wars, but he added: “We have not declared that we’ve reached any sort of tipping point in that objective. There are still significant terrorist threats to the homeland and our interests abroad.” He also denied that the debate was occurring along stark lines between political appointees and career military and intelligence officials. Spokespeople for the director of national intelligence and the Pentagon declined to comment.

Nonetheless, last week the administration said Biden “intends to work with Congress to repeal the war authorizations that have underpinned U.S. military operations across the globe for the past two decades and negotiate a new one that reins in the open-ended nature of America’s foreign wars,” Politico reported. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said the president wants a new “narrow and specific framework” that protects U.S. citizens “while ending the forever wars.”