World roundup: March 4 2021

Stories from Iran, North Korea, Ethiopia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

March 3, 1878: The Treaty of San Stefano ends the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian War with a decisive Russian victory. The treaty was so lopsided, and in particular the amount of territory given to Bulgaria was so large, that Britain and France stepped in and forced it to be substantially revised at the Congress of Berlin held that summer.

March 3, 1918: The Bolshevik government of Russia signs the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with the Central Powers, marking Russia’s formal withdrawal from World War I. In addition to quitting the war, Russia ceded its claims on Belarus, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine in Eastern Europe, all of which were expected to come under German domination, and its territories in the Caucasus, which were expected to come under Ottoman domination. Naturally all of those plans were upset when the Central Powers lost the war.

March 4, 1493: Christopher Columbus and his crew aboard the Niña arrive at the port of Lisbon, Portugal, on their return from his first voyage to the lands soon to be known as the Americas. After navigating some legal hot water over interpretations of the 1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas, which divided the Atlantic into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence, Columbus returned to Spain, convinced he’d charted a western route to Asia. He was slightly off, but to be fair they eventually figured that out.

March 4, 1913: Greek forces defeat a very well-entrenched Ottoman army in the Battle of Bizani, one of the final engagements of the First Balkan War. The Greek victory meant that the city of Ioannina and the surrounding southern Epirus region came under Athens’ control, instead of winding up part of newly independent Albania.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for March 4:

  • 116,207,646 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,748,944 active, +446,747 since yesterday)

  • 2,580,792 reported fatalities (+9955 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 15,815 confirmed coronavirus cases (+62)

  • 1050 reported fatalities (+5)

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Biden administration had planned to undertake two Syrian airstrikes last week, but Joe Biden called the second strike off when last-minute intelligence showed that women and children were in the line of fire. He then rescued two kittens from a house fire in southeast DC before flying across town to help a child whose Frisbee had gotten stuck on the roof of his house.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a plausible story to a point, because I’m sure the administration would not want to deal with the fallout of a strike in which women and children were killed, but the whole “President Biden swoops in at the last minute to make the courageous choice to Save Lives” part strikes me as maybe overselling it a bit. Of greater concern are passages in that article that suggest this administration feels the need to demonstrate its toughness to DC establishment hawks, which doesn’t bode well for the next four years.

YEMEN

  • 2375 confirmed cases (+12)

  • 645 reported fatalities (+2)

The Houthis, meanwhile, say they carried out a missile attack on an Aramco facility at Jeddah. So far there’s been no comment from the Saudis and no independent confirmation that such an attack took place. The Saudis did say that their forces shot down a Houthi missile heading towards Jizan and a drone heading towards Khamis Mushait (or more likely the King Khalid Airbase nearby).

LEBANON

  • 386,868 confirmed cases (+3369)

  • 4919 reported fatalities (+53)

Protests gripped several Lebanese cities on Thursday for the third straight day, fueled by the country’s continued economic crisis. Protesters used burning tires and other items to block major roads, particularly in and around Beirut.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • 378,708 confirmed cases (+375)

  • 6514 reported fatalities (+4)

OPEC+, the group consisting of OPEC member states plus several other leading oil producing nations, agreed on Thursday to extend most of its current oil production caps through April, despite signs that oil demand is starting to rise again. Russia and Kazakhstan are the only countries who were given permission to increase their output to the tune of a combined 150,000 barrels per day. Expectations had been that the bloc would increase global production by 500,000 bpd. The Saudis, who more or less dictate OPEC policy, agreed to continue operating at 1 million bpd below their pre-pandemic production levels. The era of cheap oil, in other words, may be ending.

IRAN

  • 1,665,103 confirmed cases (+8404)

  • 60,431 reported fatalities (+78)

There is some surprisingly positive news to report on the Iran front, as Tehran and the “E3” (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) appear to have reached a quid pro quo arrangement that preserves whatever small chance remains of restoring the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The quid is that Iranian officials have agreed to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding the IAEA’s recent discovery of uranium traces at several previously undeclared sites. That discovery raised concerns that the Iranians have not been forthcoming about their past nuclear weapons-related activity. The quo is that the E3 and the United States agreed to drop their proposal to censure Iran at the IAEA board of governors, over its failure to comply with its obligations under the 2015 deal. The Iranians had suggested that a censure would fully close the door to any further diplomacy. Laura Rozen has more details from a Day of Good Feelings at her Substack:

In sharp contrast to the Trump administration, the acting US envoy to the IAEA today offered a robust defense of the JCPOA in his comments to the board, and reiterated the Biden administration’s desire to for a mutual return by both Washington and Iran to full compliance with it.

“As President Biden has made clear, the United States…is ready to reengage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy, and a vital instrument in addressing the international community’s longstanding concerns with Iran’s nuclear program,” the acting U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Louis L. Bono the 35-member IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna today.We hope that Iran will agree to begin necessary discussions on a diplomatic way forward without delay.

“We have much hard work ahead of us,” Bono continued. “To accomplish it, confidence must be rebuilt – in Washington, in Tehran, and elsewhere.”

Iran’s envoy to the IAEA also expressed “a glimpse of hopefulness” at the outcome of the meeting today.

ASIA

KAZAKHSTAN

  • 215,610 confirmed cases (+804)

  • 2540 reported fatalities (+0)

Central Asian countries are, unsurprisingly, frequently pulled between two regional powers, Russia and China. As The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz reports, that tug of war is being played out now in the area of “vaccine diplomacy,” with polling indicating that the region’s traditional affinity for Russia hasn’t diminished very much:

In a survey released in early February, the Central Asia Barometer found that the majority of Central Asians believed Russia was the country “best able” to help them with the coronavirus. 

An astounding 75.5 percent of Kyrgyz surveyed ranked Russia as “best able” to help them; 57.8 of Uzbeks said the same and 51.6 percent of Kazakhs did. As for China, 19.1 percent of Kazakhs said Beijing was “best able” to help them, followed by 13.6 percent of Uzbeks and 7.5 percent of Kyrgyz. The Central Asia Barometer noted a generational element: “Older respondents, more than young people, believe that, if necessary, Russia will provide assistance to their country in the fight against coronavirus. Young people constitute the largest share of those expecting support from other countries (China, USA, etc.).”

The Kazakh government has largely adopted Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Uzbekistan has been more open to using a Chinese-made vaccine but it’s still ordered millions of Sputnik V doses and may begin manufacturing the Russian vaccine domestically, as Kazakhstan has begun to do.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 55,933 confirmed cases (+136)

  • 2449 reported fatalities (+2)

A roadside bomb killed a doctor and wounded a child in Jalalabad on Thursday. The victim was a woman, continuing a spate of attacks on female professionals in that city this week. There’s been no claim of responsibility and in this case it’s not clear whether the victim was targeted specifically.

PAKISTAN

  • 585,435 confirmed cases (+1519)

  • 13,076 reported fatalities (+63)

Wednesday’s Pakistani Senate election really did not go well for Prime Minister Imran Khan. Not only did Khan’s finance minister lose his election in a vote that suggests Khan may have lost majority support in the Pakistani National Assembly, but his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and its allies failed overall in their aim of securing a Senate majority. Khan’s coalition now controls 47 seats in the 100 seat chamber, which will continue to complicate his attempts to pass legislation. Khan has already called for a confidence vote in the National Assembly on Saturday to clarify his government’s support after the disappointing outcome.

MYANMAR

  • 142,000 confirmed cases (+16)

  • 3200 reported fatalities (+1)

The Biden administration imposed new penalties on Myanmar’s ruling junta on Thursday, tightening export controls on items with potential military application and blacklisting its ministries of defense and home affairs as well as its arms industry. Myanmar’s security forces killed at least 38 people on Wednesday in the single bloodiest one-day crackdown on protesters since last month’s coup. The administration also, according to Reuters, has blocked the junta’s effort to withdraw the roughly $1 billion that Myanmar’s government has deposited with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The junta’s initial attempt to access those funds was apparently slowed down due to restrictions caused by Myanmar’s “greylisting” by the Financial Action Task Force. That gave the administration a chance to issue an executive order blocking the withdrawal altogether.

Elsewhere, the dispute over Myanmar’s United Nations representation has been resolved, for now at least, with Kyaw Moe Tun still on the job. The junta fired him over the weekend after he asked the international community to oppose the coup in an address to the UN General Assembly, but Myanmar’s UN mission has apparently rejected that dismissal and has now broken with the junta.

CHINA

  • 89,943 confirmed cases (+10) on the mainland, 11,056 confirmed cases (+9) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 201 reported fatalities (+1) in Hong Kong

The future of the US-Chinese relationship may be getting boxed in by public opinion. Two recent polls show that the American public is not feeling terribly warmly about China these days, with one from Pew Research finding that 90 percent or more “view China as a competitor or enemy and nearly half believe the U.S. should seek to limit China’s power” and another from Gallup showing that 79 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of China. The Trump administration certainly seems to have played a role in souring US public opinion in this regard, at least among Republicans, but the pandemic also appears to be playing a significant part. There is no getting around the need to engage with China on issues of global scope, like climate change and preparing for future pandemics, but numbers like this may give Biden and other leading Democrats pause about doing so.

NORTH KOREA

  • No acknowledged cases

New satellite photos show signs of activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Specifically, those photos show smoke emerging from a facility involved in reprocessing spent fuel in order to extract weaponizable plutonium. Or it could indicate that the facility is being prepared to resume reprocessing. Neither of those options seems good, though there could be more benign explanations. North Korea watchers seem to be waiting for Kim Jong-un to do something big to test the Biden administration—an ICBM test perhaps, or a nuclear test if he really wants to make a statement. So far he hasn’t done anything, perhaps because of North Korea’s internal struggles with a weak economy and/or all the COVID-19 cases Pyongyang insists it doesn’t have.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 136,587 confirmed cases (+1002)

  • 2233 reported fatalities (+14)

Libyan Prime Minister-designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has reportedly sent his proposed interim government to the Libyan House of Representatives for approval. The HoR is scheduled to vote on Dbeibah’s cabinet in a special session in Sirte on Monday, and if it confirms his picks then the new government will, in theory, supplant the rival western and eastern Libyan governments and begin the process of reunifying the country. He’ll be tasked with shepherding the country through a constitutional referendum (probably) and then a full national election in December. There are a lot of “ifs” built into that whole description there, as you can see. Monday’s vote is no sure thing, and if it doesn’t go Dbeibah’s way he’ll only have a few days to try again before a UN-imposed March 19 deadline.

SENEGAL

  • 35,247 confirmed cases (+210)

  • 898 reported fatalities (+2)

At least one person was killed on Thursday in southern Senegal, amid clashes between police and supporters of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. Senegalese authorities arrested Sonko on Wednesday due to protests that broke out while he was on his way to a court appearance in Dakar on a rape charge. The circumstances of Thursday’s death remain murky, partly because whatever happened took place in the relatively remote Casamance region. Sonko has been seen as a serious contender for the Senegalese presidency in 2024, when incumbent Macky Sall will presumably be term-limited, though underlying all of these recent issues is a rape charge that you would think might have some effect on his political future. He’s unsurprisingly denied any wrongdoing and has insinuated his legal jeopardy has a political motive behind it.

IVORY COAST

  • 33,976 confirmed cases (+691)

  • 196 reported fatalities (+2)

Ivorian voters will head to the polls on Saturday for a parliamentary election. President Alassane Ouattara’s Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace alliance currently holds 167 of the 255 seats in Ivory Coast’s National Assembly, so he’ll be hoping to hold on to that majority. A new, ideologically broad opposition coalition led by former presidents Henri Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo—who has finally been cleared to return home following his 2019 International Criminal Court acquittal, though he hasn’t yet done so—is looking to take that majority away. An RHDP victory seems likely, though perhaps with a smaller majority and with plenty of opportunity for post-election disputes.

ETHIOPIA

  • 162,954 confirmed cases (+980)

  • 2394 reported fatalities (+3)

Senior UN officials as well as US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called for the removal of Eritrean military forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray region during a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday. The drumbeat made it pretty clear that nobody is buying the Ethiopian government’s repeated assurances that Eritrean military forces are not and never have been in Tigray, assurances it’s continued to make despite copious evidence to the contrary. Eritrean soldiers have been implicated in some of the worst allegations of war crimes to emerge from Ethiopia’s civil war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front last fall. Thomas-Greenfield also called on Ethiopian officials to pull Amhara paramilitaries—who have also been accused of human rights abuses—out of the region. The Ethiopian government is still gatekeeping international access to Tigray despite repeated calls to allow access to humanitarian organizations and media outlets.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

  • 1,374,762 confirmed cases (+10,057)

  • 26,591 reported fatalities (+194)

The Russian government on Thursday expressed concern about a recent rise in violence along the frozen front line separating government- and rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine, calling on the French and German governments to use their influence over Kyiv to back the Ukrainians off. Unsurprisingly this did not go over well with those Ukrainians, who called on Moscow to use its influence over the rebels to get them to back off and accusing the Russian government of obstructing efforts to advance the peace process. At least ten Ukrainian soldiers have been killed along the front line so far this year and artillery exchanges between the two sides have become more frequent.

KOSOVO

Official results have Kosovo’s Vetëvendosje winning last month’s election with just under half of all votes cast, the highest total amassed by a single party in Kosovo’s (admittedly brief) history. The tally gives Vetëvendosje control of 58 of the 120 seats in Kosovo’s parliament, and party leaders say they’ve already lined up enough votes from among a group of smaller parties to secure a majority.

UNITED KINGDOM

  • 4,201,358 confirmed cases (+6573)

  • 124,025 reported fatalities (+242)

The European Parliament is refusing to schedule a vote on the UK’s trade deal with the European Union, due to repeated accusations that the British government is violating the terms of its Brexit agreement. London has twice now allegedly made unilateral decisions regarding customs checks on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Such decisions probably should involve the EU under the terms of that Brexit deal, which left Northern Ireland in the European single market for goods. British officials say the decisions they’ve made are in compliance with the Brexit agreement’s terms. The European Parliament was expected to vote on the trade deal later this month but next month looks more likely, with the chances of its passage decreasing every time one of these alleged violations pops up.

On a related note, loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have reportedly informed the British government that they’re suspending their participation in the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 deal that ended the Northern Irish Troubles. These groups oppose the imposition of customs obstacles to the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and while they say they intend that opposition to be peaceful the specter of renewed violence has loomed over the Brexit process virtually from the moment the results of the 2016 referendum were announced.

AMERICAS

GUYANA

  • 8699 confirmed cases (+51)

  • 199 reported fatalities (+0)

Guyanese officials say they tracked two Venezuelan military aircraft that crossed into Guyana’s airspace late Wednesday before circling back to Venezuela. The Venezuelan government denies the charge. The Venezuelan government historically claims that western two-thirds of Guyana, everything west of the Essequibo River, is Venezuelan territory, and while it’s never pressed that claim very hard the likely presence of offshore energy deposits has added some urgency to the dispute.

UNITED STATES

  • 29,526,086 confirmed cases (+68,321)

  • 533,636 reported fatalities (+1993)

Finally, TomDispatch’s Mandy Smithberger looks some of the surreal chatter surrounding the near-term future of the Pentagon’s budget:

This country is in a crisis of the first order. More than half a million of us have died thanks to Covid-19. Food insecurity is on the rise, with nearly 24 million Americans going hungry, including 12 million children. Unemployment claims filed since the pandemic began have now reached 93 million. Given the level of damage to the less wealthy parts of this society, it’s little wonder that most Americans chose pandemic recovery (including the quick distribution of vaccines) as their top priority issue.

Keep in mind that our democracy is suffering as well. After all, former president Donald Trump incited an insurrection when he wasn’t able to win at the polls, an assault on the Capitol in which military veterans were overrepresented among those committed to reversing the election results (and endangering legislators as well). If you want a mood-of-the-moment fact, consider this: even after Joe Biden’s election, QAnon followers continued to insist that Trump could still be inaugurated to his second term in office. Addressing economic and political instability at home will take significant resources and focus, including calling to account those who so grossly mishandled the country’s pandemic response and stoked the big lie of questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory.

If, however, you weren’t out here in the real world, but in there where the national security elite exists, you’d find that the chatter would involve few of the problems just mentioned. And only in our world would such a stance seem remarkably disconnected from reality. In their world, the “crisis” part of the present financial crisis is a fear, based on widespread rumors and reports about the Biden budget to come, that the Pentagon’s funding might actually get, if not a genuine haircut, then at least a trim — something largely unheard of in the twenty-first century.

The Pentagon’s boosters and their allies in the defense industry respond to such fears by insisting that no such trim could possibly be in order, that competition with China must be the prime focus of this moment and of the budget to come. Assuming that China’s rise is, in fact, a genuine problem, it’s not one that’s likely to be solved either in the near future or in a military fashion (not, at least, without disaster for the world), and it’s certainly not one that should be prioritized during a catastrophic pandemic.