World roundup: March 20-21 2021
Stories from Iran, China, Slovakia, and more
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A belated Happy Nowruz to those who celebrated it!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 19, 1279: A heavily outnumbered Mongol (Yuan) fleet defeats a Song Dynasty fleet at the Battle of Yamen, today in China’s Guangdong province. Despite the disparity in numbers, the Yuan were able to blockade the Song fleet in Yamen’s harbor until it ran out of food and water, and then once the Song were desperate enough to attack the Mongols engaged in a ruse to drawn them into an engagement unprepared. In the wake of the defeat, the young Song Emperor Zhao Bing committed suicide, bringing the Song Dynasty to an end and leaving China entirely in Mongolian hands.
March 19, 1962: French and Algerian forces begin a ceasefire under the newly agreed Évian Accords that would mark the end of the fighting in the Algerian War of Independence. The Accords laid out the terms of Algerian independence while preserving some French commercial and military interests, and were put to an April referendum in France and a July referendum in Algeria, winning approval in both.
March 20, 1815: Having escaped exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon makes his triumphant return to Paris as emperor, beginning the “100 days” epilogue to his reign. He would abdicate again on June 22, after losing the Battle of Waterloo and realizing on his return to Paris that there was little public appetite to resist the coalition forces that were marching on the city.
March 21, 1814: At the Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube, Napoleon is successfully able to disengage his army and retreat in order in the face of a much larger Austrian-Russian-Bavarian opponent. Though a tactical success for the French army, strategically the retreat allowed the Allies to move closer to Paris, and that’s a big part of the reason why this battle was the second-to-last engagement Napoleon fought before the Allies forced him into his first exile.
March 21, 1935: Iranian ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi’s request that the rest of the world call his country “Iran” instead of “Persia” officially takes effect.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for March 21:
123,850,246 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,345,316 active, +420,507 since yesterday)
2,727,418 reported fatalities (+5917 since yesterday)
17,411 confirmed coronavirus cases (+171)
1163 reported fatalities (+10)
The Turkish government and Turkey’s Syrian rebel proxies reported attacks by both the Syrian military and Russian aircraft in northwestern Syria over the weekend. Syrian artillery reportedly struck a medical facility in the town of Atarib in western Aleppo province, killing seven and wounding 14 more, while the Russian strikes reportedly targeted areas near the town of Kah and Sarmada. There’s no word on casualties from those strikes nor is there any indication as to what, if anything, prompted these attacks. These reports should probably be treated as unconfirmed.
Likewise, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting clashes between Turkish-backed rebels and the Syrian Democratic Forces militia around the northeastern town of Ayn Issa on Sunday. Confrontations like this have become relatively frequent along the front line separating the Turkish-held strip along the border and usually involve fighters from one side trying to grab some territory from the other. This incident may have involved a Turkish airstrike, though the Turks are denying that.
3418 confirmed cases (+140)
751 reported fatalities (+14)
Saudi forces in Yemen carried out airstrikes against Houthi positions in Maʾrib province on Saturday and then on targets in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on Sunday. The Sunday attack appears to have been a retaliation for Friday’s Houthi drone strike against an Aramco oil facility near Riyadh as well as for an attempted Houthi drone attack on the southern Saudi city of Khamis Mushait. The Saudis say their air defenses thwarted the latter attack. Saudi officials later said they’d targeted Houthi missile and drone facilities in the city. The airstrikes in Maʾrib, meanwhile, were undoubtedly meant to blunt recent Houthi advances just west of Maʾrib city. Reports also emerged on Friday that the rebels had captured a strategic high ground position that could give them a clear line of sight on the city.
Houthi officials acknowledged on Saturday that it was their teargas that caused a fire inside a migrant detention center in Sanaa back on March 7. That fire killed at least 45 detainees and has generated international calls for an investigation. The Houthis say they’ve arrested 11 facility security personnel in response to the incident, which began as a protest against the decrepit conditions inside the detention facility.
3,013,122 confirmed cases (+20,428)
30,061 reported fatalities (+102)
The Turkish government on Saturday withdrew from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, whose shorter name is ironically enough the “Istanbul Convention.” This is a step Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has talked about taking for several months now under the guise of restoring “traditional family values” or whatever jargon appeals to his religious conservative supporters. The move to actually leave the convention comes amid and despite rising claims of violence against women in Turkey (such claims have been rising all over the world during the pandemic) and as you might expect it wasn’t universally welcomed within Turkey:
Erdoğan also on Saturday canned Turkish Central Bank governor Naci Ağbal, replacing him with banker, columnist, and ex-member of parliament Şahap Kavcıoğlu. Ağbal raised interest rates on Thursday, the third time he’d done so since taking over at the central bank in November, in response to continued inflation. Erdoğan, who has long made it clear that he loathes interest rate hikes, tolerated the first two but clearly the third time was the charm, so to speak. It seems likely that this move will spark some kind of decline in the Turkish lira, though we won’t know that for sure (nor will be know how big a decline, if any) until Monday.
535,455 confirmed cases (+8789)
5876 reported fatalities (+88)
The Jordanian government on Sunday announced a new defense agreement with the United States that seems to give the US military free rein to use Jordanian territory and its military facilities at will. Presumably in return the Jordanians get to continue receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in direct and in-kind (training, equipment, etc.) military aid from the US. Opposition lawmakers in Jordan criticized the deal for violating Jordanian sovereignty, but the government insists it’s all very legal and normal.
827,772 confirmed cases (+552) in Israel, 223,638 confirmed cases (+2247) in Palestine
6092 reported fatalities (+10) in Israel, 2427 reported fatalities (+21) in Palestine
Saturday saw protesters return to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, which an estimated 20,000 turning out to express their fervent desire that the PM lose Tuesday’s snap election.
Polling strongly suggests that Netanyahu will lose, along with everybody else, as Israel meanders through yet another inconclusive vote. With an eye toward avoiding that outcome, then, Netanyahu has been casting a very wide net during the campaign, from appealing to Arab voters (which is very out of character for him) to courting far-right Kahanists (which is very in character). This is quite a stretch even for the politically (and morally) flexible Netanyahu, since it means bringing Arab Israeli voters together with a party that calls for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel.
If Netanyahu’s support helps the Kahanists win a seat (or more), it will mark a troubling milestone in the resurgence of an Israeli far right that seeks annexation in the West Bank and the total expulsion of Arabs from there and from Israel proper. Though as journalist Orly Noy points out, it will also be somewhat superfluous—Netanyahu has dragged Israeli politics so far to the right with respect to the Palestinian issue that Kahanism is now practically mainstream.
1,801,065 confirmed cases (+7260)
61,797 reported fatalities (+73)
Iranian authorities say one person was killed in a “terrorist” bombing Sunday in the country’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchestan province. The attack took place in the city of Saravan, which over the past several weeks has seen protests and violent confrontations between residents and security forces, all linked to an incident in that city last month in which several fuel carriers/smugglers were apparently killed by Iranian security forces. When talking about Sistan-Baluchistan the Iranians generally use the term “terrorist” to mean a Baluch Islamist group like Jaysh al-Adl. Authorities further said that the attackers were “linked to global arrogance,” which means the US and/or the Saudis, both of whom Iranian officials have accused of supporting those same Baluch Islamists. But they haven’t identified a specific group in this case, and it seems reasonable to at least consider that the bombing is connected somehow to the previous unrest.
In a televised address on Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reiterated his position that the United States must return to the 2015 nuclear deal before Iran will resume full compliance with its obligations. Moreover, he made it clear that his grievances with the US are bigger than just Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the accord:
“We trusted America at the time of (former U.S. President Barack) Obama and fulfilled our commitments. But they didn’t. The Americans said on paper that sanctions will be lifted, but they didn’t lift sanctions in practice,” Khamenei said in a speech on state TV. “Their promises have no credibility for us.”
“On paper they said the sanctions were lifted but they told any company that wanted to sign a contract with us that this was dangerous and risky. They scared away investors,” Khamenei said.
“The Americans must lift all sanctions. We will verify it and if sanctions are ... really cancelled, we will return to our obligations without any problems,” Khamenei said. “We have a lot of patience and we are not in a hurry.”
In point of fact Khamenei is…well, not wrong. The Obama administration lifted sanctions but did not do enough to ease concerns with businesses that were still wary of getting involved with Iran but were concerned the sanctions might return. Which, as it happens, they did. At the same time, doing business in Iran means negotiating a difficult mix of institutional corruption and bureaucracy that could deter some companies even with no risk of sanctions to consider. Regardless, it seems pretty clear that Khamenei’s position on rejoining the nuclear deal hasn’t changed, so if the Biden administration is hoping for some kind of Iranian capitulation that does not seem to be in the cards.
56,153 confirmed cases (+50)
2464 reported fatalities (+1)
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani over the weekend appointed new interior and defense ministers without offering much in the way of explanation. There’s nothing immensely surprising about these moves—Ghani may just be unhappy with the performance of his security forces, and anyway ex-Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid has been overseas getting medical treatment. What’s noteworthy is that Ghani seems to have angered Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan negotiating team and the other half of a power-sharing arrangement that emerged from the 2019 presidential election. Abdullah objected to Ghani’s dismissal of Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi, suggesting that it violated their arrangement.
The last thing Afghanistan needs is a new political crisis, but it may be heading for one anyway. Ghani is opposed to a US plan to replace his government with an interim administration to oversee peace talks with the Taliban. Abdullah, on the other hand, does not seem terribly put out by that idea. Ghani doesn’t have much leverage in a confrontation with the US provided the Biden administration is prepared to withdraw US forces should Ghani resist the interim government. But if the Biden administration is bluffing about its willingness to withdraw, then Ghani may be able to force the US to alter its plans.
142,212 confirmed cases (+0)
3204 reported fatalities (+0)
Myanmar security forces killed at least five more anti-junta protesters over the weekend and are approaching 250 confirmed kills since last month’s coup. Despite the high (and growing) level of violence, the anti-junta movement has shown no sign of wavering as yet. It’s unclear whether the junta anticipated this level of resistance when it moved to oust Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.
663,794 confirmed cases (+7757)
12,968 reported fatalities (+39)
Philippine soldiers on Saturday rescued four Indonesian national who had been kidnapped by the Islamic State-aligned Abu Sayyaf terrorist group over a year ago. All four were recovered amid a battle between a group of Abu Sayyaf operatives and Philippine forces in Tawi-Tawi province. During that battle the Philippine soldiers killed a man named Majan Sahidjuan, who is believed to have been in charge of Abu Sayyaf’s kidnapping-for-ransom operation.
A flotilla of more than 200 Chinese boats has reportedly gathered near the Whitsun Reef, part of the Spratly Islands chain in the South China Sea that is claimed by both Beijing and Manila. Philippine authorities allege that the boats are manned by “militia” forces and are calling on the Chinese government to withdraw them.
90,099 confirmed cases (+12) on the mainland, 11,380 confirmed cases (+8) in Hong Kong
4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 203 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong
Although the anticipated meeting between senior US and Chinese officials in Anchorage on Thursday and Friday produced nothing of substance, the two delegations did apparently agree to form a “working group” on climate change. Which is still nothing of substance, to be sure, but it does show that they both wanted to be seen to be Doing Something about that issue in particular, which could be a positive sign, maybe, if you think about it.
At Responsible Statecraft, Rachel Esplin Odell takes issue with the rhetoric the Biden administration has been using about China:
While the Biden administration’s China policy has improved somewhat on the Trump administration’s approach by highlighting the need for U.S. domestic reform and admitting the need for cooperation with China in some areas, its embrace of this conception of the international system, or “world order,” and the U.S. and Chinese relationships to it is overly simplistic — and dangerously misleading.
This rhetoric reflects Washington’s tendency to imagine the current world order as a monolithic, liberal system of mutually-reinforcing laws, norms, institutions, and alliances, upheld by the United States and its allies. In this view, states like China and Russia seek to overthrow this order and replace it with one that is more lawless and repressive.
But this is deeply misleading. No such version of a world order has ever existed, nor has the relationship of the United States — or its adversaries — to the present order ever been so simple. And this misconception is perilous. Vastly overstating the nature of China’s challenge to the current “world order” stands to hinder vital U.S.-China cooperation on issues like climate change, fuel a massive and harmful overreaction in American foreign policy, and in the worst case could force China to assume a more aggressive and revisionist posture than it otherwise would.
12,535 confirmed cases (+19)
145 reported fatalities (+0)
At least two Burkinabé paramilitaries were killed in two attacks by Islamist militants on Saturday against security outposts in Burkina Faso’s Namentenga and Seno provinces. At least ten militants were also killed in the two attacks. It’s unclear who carried out the attacks and whether or not it was the same group behind both of them.
4918 confirmed cases (+0)
185 reported fatalities (+0)
Probable Islamic State attackers killed at least 22 people on Sunday when they overran three villages in southwestern Niger’s Tahoua region. There’s been no confirmation that IS fighters were responsible, but IS in the Greater Sahara is very active in southwestern Niger and the zealous killing of civilians suggests their handiwork.
Niger’s Constitutional Court on Sunday confirmed that ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum won last month’s presidential runoff. Bazoum, the handpicked successor of incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou, will be inaugurated early next month. Runner-up Mahamane Ousmane has alleged fraud in the election and there do seem to be some unexplained irregularities in the vote count, but there’s little recourse for Ousmane to pursue his objections at this point.
161,737 confirmed cases (+86)
2030 reported fatalities (+0)
Boko Haram fighters killed two Cameroonian soldiers late Saturday in an attack on the town of Wulgo in Nigeria’s Borno state. Three more Cameroonian soldiers and one Nigerian soldier were wounded in the same attack. Nigerian officials say several militants were killed as well but do not seem to have offered any details.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
5087 confirmed cases (+12)
64 reported fatalities (+0)
Former Central African President François Bozizé has apparently agreed to become the “general coordinator” for an alliance of CAR rebel groups called the Coalition of Patriots for Change. Bozizé’s involvement with the rebels has been talked about for some time now. CAR authorities accused him of organizing a renewed rebel offensive in December that was meant to disrupt that month’s election. But he’d been coy about his role in the coalition, or whether he had a role at all, until Sunday’s announcement.
REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
9564 confirmed cases (+0)
134 reported fatalities (+0)
Congolese voters voted to elect their next president on Sunday, with incumbent Denis Sassou Nguesso almost certain to retain his office for another term. Just to add a layer of uncertainty about the process, Congolese officials have reportedly cut internet services. On the plus side there do not appear to have been any reports of violence attending the vote, though with the internet outage it may be hard for any such reports to filter out to media.
4,456,869 confirmed cases (+9299)
95,030 reported fatalities (+371)
The Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, arrived back in Moscow for consultations on Sunday. As you may recall, the Russian Foreign Ministry recalled Antonov to Russia after Joe Biden gratuitously insulted Russian President Vladimir Putin a couple of times during a televised interview on Wednesday. It’s unclear when he’s planning to return to the US.
303,423 confirmed cases (+943)
12,019 reported fatalities (+53)
Six people were charged in Bulgarian court on Friday with having spied on behalf of the Russian government, prompting Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov on Saturday to order Russian authorities to stop spying on his country. Somehow I don’t think it’s that simple, but hey, if it works out for him he’ll have broken new ground in counter-espionage.
348,869 confirmed cases (+925)
9044 reported fatalities (+66)
Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič offered to resign on Sunday as a possible way out of the political turmoil currently destabilizing his coalition. Tensions over what seems to be Matovič’s failure to consult with his coalition partners reached new heights earlier this month when he cut a deal to import doses of the Russian-made Sputnik V COVID vaccine, again without consultations. Matovič’s resignation could keep the coalition from falling apart, but he’s also placed several conditions on the deal, including a cabinet post for himself and the ouster of Economy Minister Richard Sulík, whose Freedom and Solidarity would also forfeit one cabinet seat. That’s unlikely to fly with Freedom and Solidarity’s leadership.
150,306 confirmed cases (+0)
1483 reported fatalities (+0)
A section of gas pipeline in eastern Venezuela exploded on Saturday, forcing authorities to shut down the pipeline to assess damages and prompting Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami to claim the blast was an act of “terrorism.” That’s not out of the question, certainly, but given the state of Venezuelan state finances a lack of proper maintenance and upkeep seems more likely.
30,521,765 confirmed cases (+39,496)
555,314 reported fatalities (+455)
Finally, this isn’t on the foreign policy beat, strictly speaking, but in the wake of the tragic shooting in Georgia a few days ago the Quincy Institute’s Jessica Lee offers some thoughts about how our foreign policy rhetoric can bleed into domestic affairs:
The truth is that what happened in Georgia is the latest manifestation of hatred borne out of racially-charged language deployed by a growing number of public officials on both sides of the aisle to cast blame on China, and indirectly, all East Asians and Asian Americans. Rep. Wittman, the top House recipient of campaign contributions from arms manufacturers and military contractors, offers perhaps one of the egregious examples of stoking fear and anxiety in order to advance a military-centered US foreign policy toward China. But he is hardly alone. Rather, Rep. Wittman is a part of an ecosystem that reinforces and normalizes such extreme views. And by not addressing this vicious cycle, government leaders are distracting the public from addressing the cause, rather than the symptoms, of violence against Americans of Asian descent.
The tragic incident in Georgia is only one of nearly 4,000 reported hate crimes against Asian Americans since terms like “China virus” and “Kung Flu” have become commonplace in Washington. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found that hate crimes targeting Asians rose by nearly 150 percent in 16 of America’s largest cities in 2020, when China was routinely blamed by presidential and congressional candidates for America’s ailments. Given the barrage of anti-China language in government and media, why would anyone be surprised that Asian Americans have become collateral damage?
One person from Milpitas, California described experiencing verbal assault this way: “I was shopping when a man started making faces at me. When I asked him what was wrong, he said ‘We delisted your companies, we shipped back your international students, when do you ship out?” The message is clear: anyone who looks Chinese is suspect and should be expelled from this country.