World roundup: March 25 2021

Stories from Israel-Palestine, Myanmar, South Africa, and more

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Programming note: our news roundups are taking a little breather (or, in other words, I’m taking a breather) and will return, barring some unforeseen development, on April 6. In the meantime we’ll have a few other things to keep the newsletter going.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

March 24, 1944: Dozens of prisoners at a German POW camp near the town of Sagan called Stalag Luft III escape in a daring overnight action. In total 76 prisoners escaped, but 73 of them were eventually tracked down and recaptured, and 50 of those were executed on Adolf Hitler’s orders in what was later deemed a war crime. The escape is best known as the inspiration for the 1963 film The Great Escape.

March 24, 1999: NATO begins its bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in an effort to force an end to the 1998-1999 Kosovo War. It took 78 days of sustained bombardment but the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milošević did ultimately agree to stop fighting and Kosovo became de facto independent. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but it is still not universally recognized.

March 25, 1821: Greek insurrectionists officially declare a revolt against the Ottoman Empire, marking the start of the Greek War of Independence even though the fighting had actually begun in mid-February. The war did of course end with Greece seceding from the empire and becoming an independent state, and so this date is commemorated annually as Greek Independence Day.

March 25, 1975: King Faisal bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia is shot and killed by his nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musaid, in the royal palace. Initially Prince Faisal was declared legally insane, but that diagnosis was overturned. It’s possible the insanity diagnosis was an error or a failed attempt at a coverup and that Prince Faisal acted to avenge the death of his brother, Prince Khalid bin Musaid, who was shot and killed by police during a 1966 protest. On the other hand, it’s also possible the Saudis revoked Prince Faisal’s insanity diagnosis simply so that they could execute him under Saudi law. King Faisal was succeeded by his brother, Khalid bin Abdulaziz, in what remains the only violent succession in Saudi history.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for March 25:

  • 126,048,914 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,569,687 active, +622,386 since yesterday)

  • 2,766,636 reported fatalities (+10,331 since yesterday)

  • For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

  • 3816 confirmed coronavirus cases (+113)

  • 810 reported fatalities (+10)

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said Thursday that they shot down multiple Houthi-launched drones targeting parts of southern Saudi Arabia. At least one drone managed to strike an oil facility in Jizan, causing a fire but apparently no casualties.

TURKEY

  • 3,120,013 confirmed cases (+28,731)

  • 30,619 reported fatalities (+157)

European Union leaders agreed on Thursday to enter negotiations on an expanded customs union with Turkey, partially fulfilling a 2016 pledge made in return for Ankara’s cooperation in preventing refugees from entering the EU. The negotiations are likely to be difficult, and may well be derailed by ongoing tensions with EU members Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 830,845 confirmed cases (+817) in Israel, 232,038 confirmed cases (+1962) in Palestine

  • 6163 reported fatalities (+9) in Israel, 2521 reported fatalities (+20) in Palestine

Haaretz has calculated the results of Tuesday’s parliamentary election and, well, I hope Israeli voters enjoyed voting for the fourth time in two years because I suspect they can look forward to a fifth election in the not too distant future. Assuming the Haaretz figures are accurate, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners control 52 seats, nine shy of a majority, while anti-Netanyahu parties collectively hold 57 seats, four shy of a majority. To retain power, then, Netanyahu would need the support of both Naftali Bennett’s Yamina Party (seven seats) and Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List (four seats), neither of which has declared its allegiance. The problem for Netanyahu is that if UAL agrees to support him, at least one of the far right parties already in his coalition has suggested it will abandon him rather than have even indirect contact with an Arab party, and if Abbas demands concessions in return for his support then it’s likely other far right parties would balk as well (Yamina possibly among them). So Netanyahu’s hope for a majority looks bleak.

On the other side, in theory the anti-Netanyahu bloc would only need the UAL to join it for a majority, but as I wrote yesterday the anti-Netanyahu bloc is incoherent. It is nearly impossible to imagine that its constituent parties could coexist with one another to form a government. The likely outcome, then, is another election. There is a slim possibility that the anti-Netanyahu parties, along with Yamina and/or the UAL, could come together as an ad hoc coalition solely to pass one piece of legislation: a bill barring anyone under criminal indictment from serving as PM—or, in other words, a bill barring Netanyahu from serving as PM. Then they’d dissolve their arrangement and hold a new election. This is far easier said than done, clearly, or else the anti-Netanyahu parties would’ve done it after last March’s election. Either way there would be a new election, and if they did attempt to exclude Netanyahu he would surely challenge that in court.

EGYPT

  • 198,011 confirmed cases (+661)

  • 11,768 reported fatalities (+48)

The Egyptian government has suspended transit through the Suez Canal, as authorities continue trying to unstick the massive container ship that ran aground and clogged the waterway earlier this week. A Dutch firm assisting the effort said Thursday that it could be “weeks” before the vessel is cleared, and the ship’s owner has apologized for the situation, though somehow I doubt that’s going to alleviate them from some pretty huge financial and legal repercussions. For international shipping this jam may be worse than any conceivable natural disaster, with scores of ships already stuck waiting for the channel to open and many more now forced to find some alternative to one of the busiest waterways on the planet. Global commercial activity has already been affected to the tune of billions of dollars, with billions more potentially on the hook. The crisis may also raise scrutiny over the Egyptian government’s management of the canal, which is just about the last thing Cairo wants or needs.

At Jacobin, Ahmed Abbes, Michael Harris, and Assaf Kfoury look at life under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s authoritarian state, and the Western support that enables him to maintain it:

On Sisi’s watch, Egypt’s multiple security agencies have indiscriminately jailed all critics from across the political spectrum, from leftists to Islamists. They have acted openly with no restraint, and brazenly cranked up the repression so that not even the faintest whispers of opposition to Sisi’s policies are tolerated.

This has all happened with unflinching American support. For decades now, the two top recipients of the US Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program have been Israel ($3.1 billion) and Egypt ($1.3 billion). Together they account for about 75 percent of the FMF’s yearly total.

European leaders have been no less complicit in empowering Sisi’s despotic regime. Some have promoted him as a paragon of wise leadership and turned a blind eye to his abuses. Last December, French president Emmanuel Macron rolled out the red carpet for Sisi in an elaborate state visit. Macron even gave Sisi the French state’s highest award, the Grand Croix de la Legion d’Honneur, in a sumptuous ceremony at the country’s presidential palace — a contemptible moment no less shameful than Trump’s praise for “my favorite dictator.”

IRAN

  • 1,830,823 confirmed cases (+7506)

  • 62,142 reported fatalities (+97)

Israeli officials are claiming that an Iranian missile damaged an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Arabian Sea on Thursday. Iranian authorities are denying the allegation. With the caveat that I am not an expert on boats or on military hardware, it seems a little bit of a stretch to say that a cargo ship could be struck by a missile and suffer so little damage that it was able to continue on to its intended destination (India) with seemingly little inconvenience.

If the Iranians did in fact attack this ship, it would be the latest salvo in a veritable maritime conflict between Israel and Iran. The scale of that conflict, according to Haaretz, is far beyond what has previously been reported:

The report in the Wall Street Journal a week ago apparently uncovered only the tip of the iceberg of the economic warfare that Israel has been waging against Iran for the past two and a half years. According to the Journal, Israel has systematically scuttled maritime oil smuggling from Iran to Syria by striking at least 12 ships. That effort, according to American sources, is intended to disrupt the use of the funds paid for the oil smuggled to Hezbollah in order to purchase combat materiel.

The Journal noted that it also drew on additional sources, including intelligence sources in the Middle East. The first leak may have come from the Biden administration, aimed at neutralizing background noise which the Americans think might soon hamper the renewal of negotiations with Iran about the United States’ return to the nuclear agreement.

An investigation by Haaretz reveals that the report last week reflects only part of the broad picture. In practice, it appears that several dozen attacks were carried out, which caused the Iranians cumulative damage of billions of dollars, amid a high rate of success in disrupting its shipping.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 56,254 confirmed cases (+28)

  • 2469 reported fatalities (+2)

The Biden administration is reportedly hoping to convince the Taliban to extend the May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and to allow the US to leave a residual “counter-terrorism” force in the country for some time beyond that. They’ll try to appeal to the Taliban’s hostility toward the Islamic State and perhaps dangle the possibility of collaboration against a common enemy. It seems unlikely that the Taliban will respond favorably to this, though they might want to give it some consideration. At this point it is logistically almost impossible to implement a full withdrawal by May 1 anyway, and if the Taliban is willing to push that deadline back a few months it could help ensure that the US will actually withdraw if a bit later than planned. Joe Biden does seem intent on getting US forces out of Afghanistan, but I don’t think he wants to be seen doing so on Donald Trump’s timetable.

MYANMAR

  • 142,315 confirmed cases (+23)

  • 3204 reported fatalities (+0)

The US government on Thursday sanctioned two large conglomerates owned by Myanmar’s military, Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Ltd. (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC). The UK government also sanctioned MEHL. These measures are considerably more serious than targeted blacklistings of individual junta members, since they will lock these very large conglomerates out of any financial network that conducts business via US-based banks. It’s not easy for a company to stay in business under that kind of restriction.

The Biden administration says it will “review” the Trump administration’s decision not to declare the Myanmar military’s operations against the Rohingya community to be a “genocide.” This comes after Reuters revealed that outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opted not to make that declaration during the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency. This is interesting particularly since Pompeo did declare China’s activities in Xinjiang to be a “genocide,” though if anything there was a stronger case for making such a declaration with respect to the Rohingya. But in both cases his decision was made not with regard for any facts so much as for what would be most expedient in terms of US China policy.

CHINA

  • 90,136 confirmed cases (+11) on the mainland, 11,429 confirmed cases (+9) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 204 reported fatalities (+1) in Hong Kong

Several Western retailers, particularly Nike and H&M, are finding themselves the target of public hostility in China after both raised concerns about textile supplies from Xinjiang amid allegations of forced labor. In a corporate statement, Nike said that it “does not source products” from Xinjiang and has “confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.” H&M announced last year that it would stop sourcing cotton from Xinjiang but for some reason the backlash only seems to have picked up this week.

On a related note, the Chinese government on Thursday blacklisted four British entities and nine individuals for trafficking in what it called “lies and disinformation” around alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The blacklisting will bar those individuals and their family members from traveling to China and will prohibit Chinese entities and individuals from interacting with them.

NORTH KOREA

  • No acknowledged cases

The North Korean government is saying that its Thursday morning weapons test involved a “tactical guided projectile.” It’s likely this was a new version of North Korea’s KN-23 short-range ballistic missile, upgraded to accommodate a larger payload. Pyongyang claims the two missiles it tested struck a target 600 kilometers away, which may be a bit exaggerated as both South Korean and Japanese analysts say the projectiles traveled somewhere around 430-450 kilometers. The Biden administration criticized this week’s tests as “destabilizing” but does not appear to be especially perturbed by them.

AFRICA

NIGERIA

  • 162,275 confirmed cases (+97)

  • 2036 reported fatalities (+5)

The International Crisis Group examines the failure of Nigeria’s “Safe Corridor” program to encourage Boko Haram fighters to abandon militancy:

But while some donors and officials hope the program might be able to facilitate thousands of defections, it has struggled to bring in the right people. To date, of the hundreds of individuals who have gone through or are currently in the program, many are not from the target group. Rather, they are civilians who threw off Boko Haram’s yoke and who, after detention by security forces, were mistakenly categorised as militants and channelled into Safe Corridor. The program has also been something of a catch-all for a wide range of other individuals, including minors suspected of being child soldiers, a few high-level jihadists and alleged insurgents whom the government tried and failed to prosecute and who say they have been moved into the program against their will. Some donors, worried Nigeria is not spending their money on the target group, are therefore cautious about further investment in the program.

Even more jarring are allegations regarding the terrible treatment that many program participants experience after they enter Nigerian government custody. Many former Safe Corridor internees have reported enduring horrific conditions, particularly in the network of detention centres where they were held prior to reaching the program’s facility, Mallam Sidi camp in Gombe state. Some of those who voluntarily defected found themselves held in government facilities for as long as three years in total and often without any contact with family members for long periods of time. Some died in confinement. Even at Mallam Sidi, where conditions are better than at regular internment sites, former internees report that they were sometimes left short of food and given no certain timeline about when they might be integrated back into society.

ETHIOPIA

  • 194,524 confirmed cases (+1949)

  • 2741 reported fatalities (+23)

The United Nations human rights office and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission announced Thursday that they intend to conduct a joint investigation into alleged human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed acknowledged earlier this week that abuses have been committed in the conflict between his government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, including by Eritrean soldiers whose presence in Tigray he’d previously denied. The EHRC is a semi-governmental body but it has shown some willingness to call out rights abuses by Ethiopian forces in the past.

SOMALIA

  • 10,664 confirmed cases (+133)

  • 471 reported fatalities (+8)

The headquarters of the joint African Union/UN Somali peacekeeping operation in Mogadishu was the target of a mortar attack on Thursday that left at least three civilians dead and five more wounded. Unsurprisingly, al-Shabab subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack.

MOZAMBIQUE

  • 66,762 confirmed cases (+113)

  • 753 reported fatalities (+1)

Mozambican security forces are engaged in an ongoing battle with Islamist militants to regain control of the northern town of Palma. Militants attacked the town on Wednesday and some reports suggested they’d taken control of it, though at this point the situation on the ground is unknown and probably too fluid to determine. Palma is located very close to a major construction camp used by Western energy companies that are developing northern Mozambique’s offshore oil and gas deposits.

SOUTH AFRICA

  • 1,541,563 confirmed cases (+1554)

  • 52,535 reported fatalities (+163)

Africa Is a Country’s Ayanda Kota attempts to put South Africa’s corruption problem in its proper historical context:

Myriad reports on the extent of corruption in South Africa—from state capture to municipal malfeasance—have flooded print and broadcast media for the past decade. There has been a tendency to reduce the crisis of governance in South Africa to bad leadership and questionable ethics, and to suggest that getting rid of the people in charge will solve the problem. For example, the ascendency of Ace Magashule to the position of Secretary of the African National Congress (ANC) encompasses what has become of the predatory political elite. In his recent book, Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture, Pieter-Louis Myburgh shows how Magashule, in his previous capacity as Premier of Free State, drained the coffers of the provincial government to buy his political career while impoverishing and diminishing the people he was supposed to represent. Meanwhile, the “new dawn” of economic growth and moral regeneration under the leadership of current State President Cyril Ramaphosa has come to little. The expanded unemployment rate is over 40% and the black working class is drowning in a sea of hopelessness and despair (more so during the COVID-19 pandemic), while corrupt practices by political elites and their beneficiaries continue to be exposed.

Corruption in South Africa is systemic and must be placed in its historical context. Corruption is certainly not limited to the activities of post-apartheid political elites. Although perhaps different in form, it was inherited from the apartheid-era, particularly in regional administrations that were spawned from bureaucracies of the former network of Bantustan (“homelands”) administrations across the country. In 1984 the prominent opposition politician Frederik van Zyl Slabbert called the homelands policy nothing but “a multiplication of bureaucratic disaster areas, consuming vast amounts of capital…to serve the wants and needs of small, privileged bureaucratic elites in seas of poverty and underdevelopment.”

EUROPE

BELARUS

  • 314,993 confirmed cases (+1141)

  • 2193 reported fatalities (+9)

Belarusian authorities reportedly arrested dozens of people in Minsk who turned out to celebrate “Freedom Day” (marking the creation of the very short-lived “Belarusian People’s Republic” under German auspices in 1918) by renewing calls for President Alexander Lukashenko’s resignation. Police in the capital employed water cannons and other crowd control techniques to quell the protests.

SLOVAKIA

  • 354,182 confirmed cases (+1654)

  • 9313 reported fatalities (+52)

Slovak Education Minister Branislav Gröhling quit Prime Minister Igor Matovič’s government on Thursday, becoming the third member of his Freedom and Solidarity Party (after Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok and Economy Minister Richard Sulík) to depart the cabinet this week. Freedom and Solidarity is now saying that it will quit Slovakia’s governing coalition altogether unless Matovič—who has angered his coalition partners with his insular decision making—himself resigns. If it does quit it could force a snap election.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

  • 154,165 confirmed cases (+850)

  • 1532 reported fatalities (+11)

Several international NGOs are saying that the clashes between Venezuelan security forces and “irregular” Colombian militants that reportedly took place in Venezuela’s Apure province over the weekend have continued unabated since then. The militants apparently are members of a group called “10th Front,” which is comprised of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group who either didn’t support the group’s 2016 peace deal with the Colombian government or have since repudiated it. The fighting, exacerbated by some allegedly rough treatment by Venezuelan forces, has reportedly driven some 3900 Venezuelans across the border into Colombia.

UNITED STATES

  • 30,774,033 confirmed cases (+67,046)

  • 559,744 reported fatalities (+1165)

The Biden administration is apparently planning to retain Trump administration rules regarding the sale of drones. Those rules greatly reduced restrictions on drone sales that had previously been in place under the 1987 international agreement known as the Missile Technology Control Regime, under which many advanced US drones are technically categorized as cruise missiles for purposes of arms sales. The Trump administration decided to start treating those advanced drones as a separate category of weapon not subject to the MTCR. This is exciting because drone sales are worth potentially billions of dollars to US arms makers, and their use helps create more conflict and therefore more demand for drones. It’s a real win-win, unless you or someone you know should happen to be in the blast radius.

On a related note, The Daily Beast is reporting that there’s some momentum in Congress to repeal the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force that permitted the Bush administration to invade Iraq. This is good, in that there’s absolutely no reason for that AUMF to still be active, but it’s insufficient in that most of the abuses of the War on Terror have been justified under the post-9/11 2001 AUMF, and there does not seem to be so much of an appetite to rescind that.

Since this is our last roundup for a few days and I’ve amassed a few pieces that might interest you, I thought I’d just link to them here for anybody who wants to check them out:

  • At the Fellow Travelers Blog, Blaise Malley examines a recent and very revealing dust-up at one of the Blob’s favorite think tanks, the Atlantic Council.

  • The New Republic’s Alex Pareene wonders why the US is fighting efforts by developing countries to manufacture their own supplies of COVID vaccines. The answer is “intellectual property rights,” of course, or in other words “greed.”

  • Foreign Policy in Focus’s John Feffer looks at the emerging shape of Joe Biden’s foreign policy.

  • At TomDispatch, Karen Greenberg argues for bringing the War on Terror to a long overdue end by repealing both AUMFs (see above), drastically reducing the use of drone strikes, and finally closing the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay.

And finally, The American Prospect’s Jonathan Guyer continues his fantastic work delving into the private sector lives of the US foreign policy elite:

It’s common for diplomats who leave the government to wear many hats at once. So common, in fact, that very few people notice.

When I began researching Joe Biden’s national-security team, I noticed that every key adviser seemed to hold three different roles at once: a university affiliation, a think-tank job, and a gig advising corporate interests. The last one, usually linked to a consulting firm, was most often left off bios.

The way Washington works is that the university or think-tank affiliations are the label of choice. Radio hosts never introduce former officials by their corporate consulting titles. The jobs where they really earn their living are omitted from campaign, transition, and White House announcements.