World roundup: March 2 2021

Stories from Turkey, Algeria, Mexico, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

March 1, 1811: The Massacre at the Citadel

Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali relaxes while his guards massacre the leading figures in Egypt’s Mamluk class, as depicted by 19th century French painter Horace Vernet (Wikimedia Commons)

March 1, 1896: An Ethiopian army under Emperor Menelik II defeats an Italian army under Oreste Baratieri, the governor of Italian Eritrea. Their defeat forced the Italians and their local allies to retreat to Eritrea and brought the First Italo-Ethiopian War to an end with an Ethiopian victory. The Italians would, of course, be back a few decades later.

March 2, 1962: The Burmese military, led by General Ne Win, overthrows the country’s civilian government in a coup. The military stepped in amid widespread public opposition to the government, which was accused of corruption and incompetence, and fears that the government’s weakness might cause the country to break apart. It kicked off a period of military or essentially military rule in Myanmar that ended…well, I’m sure it will end one of these days.

March 2, 2002: The US military begins Operation Anaconda in Paktia province, the first large-scale battle in the War in Afghanistan. The battle ended on March 18 with a decisive US/coalition victory.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for March 2:

  • 115,281,837 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,629,366 active, +359,828 since yesterday)

  • 2,559,222 reported fatalities (+9178 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 15,696 confirmed coronavirus cases (+54)

  • 1039 reported fatalities (+7)

The beleaguered Syrian pound hit 4000 per US dollar on the black market in Damascus on Tuesday, its lowest level yet since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. Dollars in some other parts of the country were trading on slightly more favorable terms, and by “slightly” I mean 3900 pounds per dollar, give or take. Officially the pound trades at 1250 per dollar, where before the war it traded at 47 per dollar. In addition to the conflict, the economic collapse in Lebanon (see below) has contributed to the Syrian pound’s slide.

Meanwhile, a new report from a group called the Syrian Network for Human Rights alleged that the Syrian Democratic Forces militia is conscripting teachers in the parts of Syria that it controls. It says at least 61 teachers have been “arrested” for the purposes of conscripting them while over 550 have lost their jobs under the SDF’s control after refusing conscription. Another 27 have been arrested for teaching the standard Syrian governmental curriculum in their classes. The SDF denies direct involvement, blaming any arrests on Kurdish police forces called Asayish, though it doesn’t seem to be denying the existence of the conscription program.

While we’re on the subject of the SDF, Al-Monitor’s Khaled al-Khateb reports on claims that the Russian military in northeastern Syria is effectively “extorting” the Kurds into handing control of Ayn Issa to the Syrian government:

On Feb. 21, Russian forces retreated from their base in Ain Issa in northern Raqqa, which is under SDF control, and moved to their military base in Tel al-Saman, 22 kilometers (14 miles) to the southeast of Ain Issa. But the Russian forces returned Feb. 22 to their locations in Ain Issa, which Turkey is threatening to attack through its allied the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions. The Russian forces also partially withdrew from their military base in Tel Tamr in the countryside of Hasakah, before shortly returning to it.

A media activist from Ain Aissa, speaking on condition of anonymity for security purposes, told Al-Monitor, “The temporary retreat of the Russian forces from their bases in Ain Issa in northern Raqqa and Tel Tamr in Hasakah countryside stems from the SDF’s violation of the Russian orders to de-escalate the situation on the fronts with the Turkish army and the FSA as clashes and shelling continued on several axes. This may be the most common justification [for the Russian withdrawal], but I think the reasons behind the retreat from the bases and the subsequent return to them is more complicated. Russia is trying to extort the SDF and pressure it through these military moves.”

If that’s what’s happening then it represents a pattern that’s likely to repeat in other areas under the SDF’s control, making it all the more advisable for Kurdish leaders to try to cut as favorable a deal with Russia as they can, even if it threatens whatever minimal support they’re still getting from the United States.

YEMEN

  • 2342 confirmed cases (+32)

  • 640 reported fatalities (+6)

The Biden administration on Tuesday blacklisted the commanders of the Houthi rebel navy (Mansur al-Saadi) and “air force” (Ahmad Ali Ahsan al-Hamzi). I put “air force” in quotes because we’re talking about a drone fleet, not manned aircraft. Even “navy” is a bit of a stretch but sure, whatever. Regardless, their Bank of America ATM cards probably won’t work anymore and they’ll have to postpone that trip to see the Barbed Wire Museum (Google it) in Texas.

TURKEY

  • 2,723,316 confirmed cases (+11,837)

  • 28,706 reported fatalities (+68)

In a televised speech on Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unveiled his agenda for a rewrite of the Turkish constitution that, according to him, would be all about protecting people’s rights. According to Erdoğan, the reforms would “speed up trial proceedings, improve press freedoms and freedom of expression, grant minorities the right to take paid leave during non-Muslim holidays, curb violence against women and ensure that law-enforcement officials are trained in observing human rights.” There is absolutely nothing in Erdoğan’s record that should make anybody think he’s sincere about any of this. Indeed, most of these hypothetical reforms (in particular anything to do with “press freedoms and freedom of expression”) deal with areas in which Erdoğan himself has drastically curtailed human rights. And he does not appear to have offered any specific details as to how he intends to make these theoretical improvements.

The upshot is that Erdoğan’s speech was the sugary coating on what looks a lot more like a project to restrict Turkish politics and cement his own hold on power. With a parliamentary election due by mid-2023 and polling showing support for Erdoğan’s coalition has dropped below 50 percent, he’s reportedly planning to gerrymander urban legislative districts where his Justice and Development Party (AKP) typically struggles to win seats, along with lowering the current 7 percent threshold for being seated in parliament so as to protect his ally, the National Movement Party (MHP), whose current support is currently around 8 percent and falling.

Additionally it seems Erdoğan is planning to make it illegal to run for office while Kurdish—or at least while running on the ticket of the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which he’s reportedly about to outlaw. MHP leaders have been demanding this step for a while but Erdoğan has resisted, perhaps mindful that a small but meaningful part of AKP’s support comes from conservative Kurds who might be turned off by it. I guess his thinking has changed.

LEBANON

  • 380,036 confirmed cases (+3098)

  • 4805 reported fatalities (+62)

Perhaps in solidarity with its Syrian cousin (see above), the Lebanese pound hit 9975 per US dollar on the black market on Tuesday, setting its own new low. Officially it trades at 1520 per dollar. Several relatively small protests broke out across the country during the day, particularly in large cities like Beirut and Tyre. The Lebanese and Syrian economies have been dragging each other down for several years now, though over the last couple of years the Lebanese economy has been doing more of the active dragging than it had been previously. Lebanon is still under a caretaker government that doesn’t have the mandate to tackle its economic problems, let alone the wherewithal to do so.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 785,218 confirmed cases (+5260) in Israel, 187,309 confirmed cases (+1973) in Palestine

  • 5790 reported fatalities (+30) in Israel, 2063 reported fatalities (+5) in Palestine

Now that the International Criminal Court has ruled it does have the jurisdiction to investigate alleged crimes against humanity committed in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government is scrambling to figure out how to protect potentially hundreds of soldiers from investigation or even prosecution. Seems like it might have been easier not to commit the war crimes in the first place, but hindsight is 20/20 and all.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • 378,002 confirmed cases (+302)

  • 6505 reported fatalities (+5)

A Houthi “munition” wounded five civilians in Saudi Arabia’s Jizan province on Monday, according to Saudi state media. It’s unclear what this “munition” was, and the Houthis have yet to claim responsibility.

At Responsible Statecraft, Paul Pillar describes the “snake eating its own tail” nature of the US reliance on Saudi Arabia:

But even the Biden administration’s policy toward the Riyadh regime, though markedly different from Trump’s, still exhibits old habits. The administration is not penalizing the crown prince directly despite his probable ordering of the murder because, according to the New York Times account of administration thinking, the cost of a “breach, in Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism and in confronting Iran, was simply too high.” If even a grisly act of international terrorism such as the slaughter of Khashoggi is partially tolerated in this way, then it is hard to see what has been gained for counterterrorism.

And if “confronting Iran” was part of the calculation, this confuses means with ends and conflates U.S. interests with regional state ambitions. Ask how Iran threatens U.S. interests — a question asked all too infrequently — and the answer is likely to focus on damage done to an “ally” like Saudi Arabia or to U.S. overseas deployments in support of “partners” or “allies,” rather than any Iranian threat to core U.S. interests. The “allies,” in short, are at least as much a cause of Iran being a policy problem as they are a solution to the problem. Nobody needs to motivate the Saudi regime to be confrontational toward Iran.

And if, despite that current Saudi attitude, the Saudi regime were to respond to a new U.S. policy by dialing down the confrontation and moving toward a cross-Gulf détente — which Iran itself has proposed — that would make the Persian Gulf region a less dangerous and less unstable place. Such a change would be very much in U.S. interests, reducing the likelihood of the United States being swept up in more Middle Eastern warfare. The United States should applaud, not bemoan, any such development.

ASIA

ARMENIA

  • 172,456 confirmed cases (+240)

  • 3200 reported fatalities (+5)

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has apparently succeeded in sacking army chief of staff Onik Gasparyan, the man presumably behind last week’s attempted coup by memorandum. After President Armen Sargsyan decided not to sign off on Pashinyan’s decree firing Gasparyan over the weekend, Pashinyan resubmitted the decree on Monday. Sargsyan opted again not to sign off, nor did he send it to Armenia’s Constitutional Court for a ruling, his other legal option. By law, his inaction means the decree takes effect automatically. There’s no word yet as to whether or not Gasparyan is going to be willing to accept that technicality. If he doesn’t, suffice to say the already hairy situation in Yerevan could get much hairier.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 55,770 confirmed cases (+11)

  • 2446 reported fatalities (+0)

Three women working part time for Afghanistan’s Enikass radio and television station were gunned down in two attacks on Tuesday in the city of Jalalabad. Another woman was wounded in one of the attacks. A similar incident later claimed by the Islamic State left another woman working for Enikass dead back in December. IS hasn’t yet claimed these attacks but it seems reasonable to conclude they were responsible. Provincial officials, however, are blaming the Taliban, which has denied involvement. They are the latest in a long series of attacks targeting media personnel and the most recent examples of what’s become a pattern of targeted, rather than indiscriminate, violence across Afghanistan.

MYANMAR

  • 141,965 confirmed cases (+49)

  • 3199 reported fatalities (+0)

Protesters and security forces battled one another in Yangon and elsewhere across Myanmar on Tuesday, as resistance to last month’s military coup continued. Foreign ministers from Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states met virtually on Tuesday to try to find a common position on the situation in Myanmar, but apparently couldn’t come to an agreement. At the United Nations, meanwhile, Myanmar ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun is still claiming his position despite having been fired by the junta over the weekend. He has a point, having been appointed by what remains, despite facts on the ground inside Myanmar, the country’s internationally recognized government. It’s unclear how the UN intends to resolve this situation.

INDONESIA

  • 1,347,026 confirmed cases (+5712)

  • 36,518 reported fatalities (+193)

A joint Indonesian police-military unit killed two alleged Islamist militants in Central Sulawesi province on Tuesday. Both are suspected members of the East Indonesia Mujahideen, an extremist group that’s active in Central Sulawesi’s Poso region and is affiliated with the Islamic State. One soldier was also killed in the clash.

AFRICA

ALGERIA

  • 113,430 confirmed cases (+175)

  • 2991 reported fatalities (+4)

An estimated 2000 people hit the streets of Algiers on Tuesday in yet another sign that the Hirak movement is regaining the momentum it lost to the pandemic. President Abdelmadjid Tebboune tried to head the protesters off on Monday with a promise to shake up his cabinet after the parliamentary election that’s due to be held sometime this year. He’s already brought a handful of Hirak leaders into his government but the protesters haven’t been satisfied with those steps and are still insisting on wholesale changes to Algeria’s ruling elite—a clique that includes Tebboune.

MOROCCO

  • 484,159 confirmed cases (+393) in Morocco, 10 confirmed cases (+0) in Western Sahara

  • 8645 reported fatalities (+8) in Morocco, 1 reported fatality (+0) in Western Sahara

Morocco’s foreign ministry has “suspended” its interaction with the German embassy in Rabat. It took that decision in response to the German government’s criticism of Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. It’s unclear how long the Moroccans intend to unfriend Germany but presumably it won’t be an extended thing.

BURKINA FASO

  • 12,047 confirmed cases (+17)

  • 143 reported fatalities (+0)

Four people, one of them a pregnant woman, were killed Tuesday in northern Burkina Faso’s Gaskindé region when their ambulance struck a roadside bomb. Two more women were killed in a bombing in Yagha province, near the Nigerien border. As far as I can tell neither bombing has been claimed.

NIGERIA

  • 156,496 confirmed cases (+479)

  • 1923 reported fatalities (+8)

The bandits who abducted scores of students from a girls school in Nigeria’s Zamfara state on Friday have reportedly released their captives. Officials say they’ve released 279 girls, which is substantially fewer than the 317 who were originally reported as abducted. Zamfara’s governor, Bello Matawalle, is now saying that those earlier reports were incorrect. Authorities say that “repentant bandits” were involved in negotiating this release, but apart from that they’re not discussing details. Official Nigerian policy is not to pay ransom in these sorts of cases, so as not to encourage more kidnapping, but they almost certainly do pay, especially in very high profile cases like this one.

MOZAMBIQUE

  • 59,914 confirmed cases (+307)

  • 665 reported fatalities (+12)

Amnesty International has released a new report putting a pox on all available houses in Mozambique:

War crimes have been committed by all sides fighting in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, including jihadi rebels, government forces and a South African mercenary outfit that provides helicopter support to government troops, according to international rights group Amnesty International.

Hundreds of Mozambican civilians have been unlawfully killed by the three groups in the conflict, Amnesty alleged in the report published Tuesday. The rights group urged the Mozambique government and international organizations to investigate potential war crimes and bring perpetrators to justice.

The Mozambican government did not immediately respond to the allegations when contacted by The Associated Press. It denied charges of rights abuses in a report issued by Amnesty in September.

More 2,000 people have been killed, an estimated 600,000 civilians have been displaced and 1 million people are in need of food aid as a result of the three-year jihadist insurgency in Cabo Delgado, international aid agencies say.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 4,268,215 confirmed cases (+10,565)

  • 86,896 reported fatalities (+441)

The US and European Union levied new sanctions against several Russian individuals and entities on Tuesday over the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. Among them were Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov and the head of Russia’s Federal Prison Service, Alexander Kalashnikov. The US sanctions also included the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Alexander Bortnikov, the US intelligence community having apparently concluded that it was the FSB that carried out the poisoning.

HUNGARY

  • 435,689 confirmed cases (+2764)

  • 15,188 reported fatalities (+130)

The Hungarian postal service will apparently stop delivering newspapers in July, claiming that the practice is no longer profitable due to declines in subscription rates. Times are certainly tough in the newspaper business, but it seems some people are inclined to view this as an attack by Viktor Orbán’s government on the press. I can’t imagine why they’d come to that conclusion.

SLOVAKIA

  • 311,002 confirmed cases (+2077)

  • 7388 reported fatalities (+118)

There’s some drama brewing within Slovakia’s ruling coalition, over Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s decision to buy supplies of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID vaccine. It seems Matovič only bothered consulting with Health Minister Marek Krajčí, who also happens to come out of the PM’s Ordinary People party. In other words, he left his three coalition partners in the dark. And they’re not pleased with that, both because of concerns about Russian motives and because Sputnik V hasn’t been cleared for use by EU regulators.

AMERICAS

COLOMBIA

  • 2,259,599 confirmed cases (+4339)

  • 59,972 reported fatalities (+106)

The Colombian military says it killed ten militants and wounded three more in an attack on a camp formerly belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group in the Calimar region of Colombia’s Bolívar province. The militants were/are breakaway FARC fighters who never accepted the group’s 2016 peace deal with the Colombian government.

EL SALVADOR

  • 60,491 confirmed cases (+154)

  • 1869 reported fatalities (+9)

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has declared victory in Sunday’s legislative election, with projections now showing that his Nuevas Ideas party and its coalition partner, the Grand Alliance for National Unity, will win 61 of 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly. That is a very comfortable super-majority and should give Bukele a virtually free hand to govern without opposition, for better or worse.

MEXICO

  • 2,089,281 confirmed cases (+2343)

  • 186,152 reported fatalities (+437)

Joe Biden had his first conversation with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Tuesday, and it seems to have gone reasonably well. López Obrador, who had a somewhat surprisingly decent relationship with Donald Trump, took a conspicuously long time acknowledging Biden’s win in November’s election, potentially getting his relationship with the new president off on the wrong foot. But the two men reportedly got along and managed to discuss new approaches to immigration issues, with López Obrador saying afterward that Biden’s proposed $4 billion project to improve conditions in Central America would also include funding for development in southern Mexico. López Obrador also broached the subject of Washington potentially sending surplus COVID vaccines to Mexico, with Biden apparently seeming open to the idea once a higher percentage of the US population has been vaccinated. The Mexican president has been sounding the alarm of late about “vaccine nationalism” and potential inequalities in vaccine distribution among wealthier and poorer nations.

UNITED STATES

  • 29,370,705 confirmed cases (+56,890)

  • 529,214 reported fatalities (+1989)

Finally, Deputy Secretary of State-designate Wendy Sherman and Undersecretary of State for Policy Colin Kahl are scheduled to have their confirmation hearings this week, and since both were part of the team that negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015 they’re likely to face a lot of questions about Iran. Kahl’s situation is apparently a bit dicier than Sherman’s for whatever reason, but with Democrats in control of the Senate, Republicans won’t be able to sink either nomination without some help. The thing is, they might get some from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez, whose views are essentially neoconservative and who, according to POLITICO, is now more or less running the administration’s foreign policy operation:

It’s not surprising, then, that there is an ongoing White House campaign to curry favor with Menendez, who hasn’t been afraid to break with his party and has a history of making matters difficult for presidents who try to strong-arm Congress. Keeping Menendez in the loop will be critical for Biden’s foreign policy successes.

“That makes all the difference in the world,” Menendez said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to agree 100 percent of the time. But it does mean that we will understand each other, where we’re coming from — and more likely than not, we will agree.”

That may be a touch optimistic.

The hawkish Menendez and the Biden administration are likely to disagree on a handful of key areas: the Iran nuclear deal, U.S. relations with Cuba, the use of U.S. military force overseas and what to do in regard to Nicolás Maduro, the Venezuelan dictator.

That a corrupt hack (uh, allegedly) who’s never encountered an overseas problem he didn’t want to solve by bombing and/or starving everyone involved is now arguably the most important foreign policy figure in Washington is…well, really it’s business as usual, I guess.