World roundup: March 6-7 2021

Stories from Yemen, Senegal, Russia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

March 5, 363: The Roman Emperor Julian, later dubbed “Julian the Apostate” since he has the distinction of being the last non-Christian Roman ruler, leads his army east to invade the Sasanian (Persian) Empire. Roman invasions of Persia generally turned out to be mistakes, and though Julian was a skilled military commander this campaign was certainly no exception. After some initial successes, Julian gave up his plan to besiege Ctesiphon and instead he led his army on an aimless march through Mesopotamia, harassed the whole way by Persian forces. He died of wounds suffered in the Battle of Samarra in June. The army chose his successor, a general named Jovian who ordered a prompt retreat back to Roman territory.

March 5, 1046: One of the greatest travelers in Islamic history, Nasir Khusraw, departs the Central Asian city of Merv to make the Hajj pilgrimage. He spent the next seven years traveling the Middle East, making several more trips to Mecca, visiting Cairo, converting to Ismaʿili Shiʿism, and finally reaching the region of Khorasan in 1052 as an Ismaʿili missionary. He recorded these travels in a book, the Safarnama, which is one of the most famous travelogues ever produced and became one of the early classics of the rejuvenated Persian language.

March 6, 961: The Siege of Chandax ends with a Byzantine victory and their recovery of the island of Crete.

March 6, 1957: Ghana gains its independence from Britain, becoming the first British colony in sub-Saharan Africa to do so. Commemorated as Independence Day in Ghana.

March 7, 1573: The Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War ends with an Ottoman victory and a treaty that leaves the hitherto Venetian island of Cyprus under Ottoman control. Although this 1570-1573 war is best remembered for the 1571 naval Battle of Lepanto, which was a resounding victory for the Holy League, that victory came after the last Venetian city on Cyprus, Famagusta, had already fallen to an Ottoman siege. The treaty recognized the overall Ottoman victory and obliged Venice to pay a war indemnity on top of its loss of Cyprus and some territory in Dalmatia.

March 7, 1799: Napoleon’s army successfully captures the city of Jaffa, whose site is part of modern day Tel Aviv, after a very brief siege. The engagement is perhaps best known for Napoleon’s decision to conduct a mass execution of the defeated Ottoman garrison, killing at least 2000 and by some counts more than 4000 men. He apparently hoped that his brutality here would encourage other cities along his march into Syria to surrender peacefully, but instead it prompted the garrison in Napoleon’s next target, Acre, to resist more vigorously.

Napoleon himself commissioned this 1804 painting of his visit among the plague sufferers in Jaffa’s “pesthouse” by Antoine-Jean Gros (Wikimedia Commons)

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for March 7:

  • 117,434,469 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (21,887,928 active, +365,600 since yesterday)

  • 2,604,823 reported fatalities (+5554 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 15,981 confirmed coronavirus cases (+56)

  • 1063 reported fatalities (+5)

The death toll from Friday’s missile strikes on several oil facilities in Turkish-held northern Syria now stands at four, up from the one fatality mentioned in initial reporting. More than 20 additional people were injured in the attack, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is attributing to Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean as well as from Syrian military forces. The SOHR also reported two similar incidents last month as well as a drone strike that also targeted oil facilities in the same region.

YEMEN

  • 2473 confirmed cases (+29)

  • 651 reported fatalities (+1)

Saudi warplanes bombed Sanaa and other parts of northern Yemen on Sunday in response to an apparent flurry of Houthi drone strikes or attempted drone strikes. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen reported shooting down ten Houthi drones targeting various parts of Saudi Arabia, while the US consulate in Jeddah put out an “advisory” on the basis of reported explosions near Jeddah and Khamis Mushait. The Houthis frequently target oil facilities near the former and the Abha airport and King Khalid Airbase near the latter. Saudi officials confirmed at least one successful Houthi strike on Sunday, against Aramco facilities near the eastern city of Dammam. There’s no report of casualties and it’s unclear how much damage was done.

The Saudis insist that they struck only military targets, but given their track record those sorts of claims can’t be taken at face value. So a report that, say, a migrant detention center in Sanaa happened to catch fire on Sunday, leaving at least eight people dead and more than 170 others injured, has to be considered in light of those airstrikes. The fire’s cause is still being determined but the coincidence is difficult to ignore.

With all the excitement in Sanaa I haven’t seen a report on fighting along the active front line in Maʾrib province, but Yemeni government sources said on Saturday that the fighting there had killed at least 90 combatants over the previous 24 hours. Nearly two-thirds of those killed were rebel fighters killed by coalition airstrikes.

LEBANON

  • 395,604 confirmed cases (+2376)

  • 5046 reported fatalities (+33)

Interim Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab threatened on Saturday to resign, again, after days of heavy protests over, say it with me now, Lebanon’s economic collapse. Diab resigned as PM back in August in the wake of the devastating explosion at Beirut’s seaport, but he’s remained in office in a caretaker capacity while Lebanese politicians negotiate over forming a new government under Once And Future PM Saad al-Hariri. He’s now warning he may stop fulfilling his caretaker duties unless said negotiations start to make some progress. The declining Lebanese pound hit a new low against the US dollar on Tuesday, sparking renewed demonstrations that have at times turned violent.

IRAQ

  • 726,548 confirmed cases (+3359)

  • 13,572 reported fatalities (+24)

Pope Francis has been visiting Iraq for the past few days, making him the first Catholic pontiff to visit that country. The highlight of his trip was probably his meeting on Saturday with Iraqi Shiʿa leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The Iraqi government certainly thought so, given that it declared March 6 a “National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.” Sistani made a clear statement in support of the rights of Iraqi Christians that probably wouldn’t matter had it been made by anybody else. But Sistani carries enough weight with the Iraqi people that his call for tolerance might actually make a difference.

Francis ended his visit by celebrating a mass in Erbil on Sunday that appears to have been very well-received.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 801,575 confirmed cases (+1848) in Israel, 196,812 confirmed cases (+2264) in Palestine

  • 5891 reported fatalities (+35) in Israel, 2140 reported fatalities (+13) in Palestine

Three Gazan fisherman were killed Sunday when their boat was apparently struck by an artillery shell of some kind. Details are still a bit sketchy, but the Palestinian Center for Human Rights says the shell was “most likely” fired by Palestinian militants as part of a “training” exercise.

IRAN

  • 1,689,692 confirmed cases (+8010)

  • 60,687 reported fatalities (+93)

British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released from house arrest over the weekend, having completed a five year sentence for allegedly working to overthrow the Iranian government. She’s not going to be allowed to leave Iran, however, as she’s due in court next weekend on charges related to her original conviction. The UK government has been trying to effect Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release for several years but clearly hasn’t offered whatever it is the Iranian government wants. She’s been denied the consular services that would normally be obligatory for a prisoner from another country, because at least when it comes to criminal matters the Iranian government does not recognize dual citizenship.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 55,876 confirmed cases (+7)

  • 2451 reported fatalities (+2)

One Afghan police officer was killed and his wife, also a police officer, was wounded on Sunday by unknown gunmen in the city of Lashkar Gah. The female police officer seems to have been the intended victim, presumably in part due to her former role as the supervisor of all female police officers in Helmand province. There’s been no claim of responsibility. Late Saturday a Taliban attack on a checkpoint in Balkh province killed at least eight police officers, according to provincial officials. At least five Taliban fighters were also reportedly killed.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday expressed his openness to holding new national elections as well as his apparent conviction that any new Afghan government could only be selected via popular vote. Ghani is responding to, and maybe trying to undermine, a new US push to hold a regional conference that would form a new interim Afghan government incorporating the Taliban. It is highly unlikely that the Taliban would be amenable to selecting that interim government via elections. Meanwhile, the State Department strongly hinted on Sunday that the US is, unsurprisingly, planning to leave its remaining forces in Afghanistan beyond the May 1 deadline the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban last February. This has been in the cards for some time but the administration is only slowly rolling out its plan to extend the US deployment along side this regional conference peace plan.

PAKISTAN

  • 590,508 confirmed cases (+1780)

  • 13,205 reported fatalities (+39)

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government won a confidence vote in Pakistan’s National Assembly on Saturday, which was not terribly surprising given that the country’s two largest opposition parties—the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan Peoples Party—both boycotted the vote. Khan arranged for the vote after suffering a political setback in Wednesday’s indirect Senate election. The win will quiet any suggestion that Khan has lost his parliamentary majority.

INDIA

  • 11,229,271 confirmed cases (+18,691)

  • 157,890 reported fatalities (+99)

Indian farmers marked the 100th day of their protest against what they say is an agriculture privatization effort by blocking a major highway outside New Delhi on Saturday. The farmers oppose three laws passed by the Indian parliament back in September that create private agriculture markets alongside state markets. They argue that the private markets are intended to supplant the state markets and thereby undercut farm subsidy programs. The Indian government has offered to negotiate but has rejected the farmers’ main demand, the repeal of those laws.

MYANMAR

  • 142,034 confirmed cases (+11)

  • 3200 reported fatalities (+0)

Thousands of protesters turned out on Sunday to demand the ouster of Myanmar’s ruling military junta, just hours after a series of overnight raids in Yangon resulted in the arrest of several people and the apparent death of at least one. Khin Maung Latt, a senior official in ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy party, died sometime after being arrested. Authorities claim he “fainted” but there are indications he may have been beaten while in custody. In a related story, the junta went so far as to exhume the body of 19 year old Kyal Sin, who was shot in the head during protests last month and later died of her injuries, to try to prove that she was not killed by security forces. She was shot in the back of the head, but images taken from the protest in which she was shot show her standing with her back turned toward police. So that doesn’t really help the junta’s case.

The junta suffered another international blow on Sunday, when the Australian government announced that it’s suspending a joint military cooperation program and is redirecting aid money away from the Myanmar government and toward non-governmental organizations working in Myanmar.

PHILIPPINES

  • 594,412 confirmed cases (+3276)

  • 12,516 reported fatalities (+51)

The Philippine human rights organization Karapatan is claiming that nine of its activists were killed overnight in a series of raids by government security forces. Philippine authorities have unofficially acknowledged the deaths, according to the New York Times. Rodrigo Duterte and officials in his government have accused Karapatan of operating as an arm of the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines, and just this past Friday Duterte called on his security forces to kill communists (“in battle,” to be fair), so it’s probably not hard to do the math here.

CHINA

  • 89,975 confirmed cases (+13) on the mainland, 11,091 confirmed cases (+16) in Hong Kong

  • 4636 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 202 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong

So I don’t know if you’re using any Microsoft products these days but…well, I’m sure this will work out OK:

Businesses and government agencies in the United States that use a Microsoft email service have been compromised in an aggressive hacking campaign that was probably sponsored by the Chinese government, Microsoft said.

The number of victims is estimated to be in the tens of thousands and could rise, some security experts believe, as the investigation into the breach continues. The hackers had stealthily attacked several targets in January, according to Volexity, the cybersecurity firm that discovered the hack, but escalated their efforts in recent weeks as Microsoft moved to repair the vulnerabilities exploited in the attack.

The U.S. government’s cybersecurity agency issued an emergency warning on Wednesday, amid concerns that the hacking campaign had affected a large number of targets. The warning urged federal agencies to immediately patch their systems. On Friday, the cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs reported that the attack had hit at least 30,000 Microsoft customers.

Microsoft claims it’s attributed the hack to a Chinese group called Hafnium that has ties to the Chinese government. It’s unclear how it came to that conclusion but it says other interested parties have since begun exploiting the same vulnerability while institutions slowly work to patch their systems. On the plus side, there’s some reason to expect this hack could push Microsoft customers to move their email systems to Microsoft’s cloud, which would mean a lot more money for Microsoft and I think we can all agree they need it. How neat, and also entirely coincidental, that a vulnerability in Microsoft’s systems might wind up generating more business for Microsoft.

SOUTH KOREA

  • 92,471 confirmed cases (+416)

  • 1634 reported fatalities (+2)

The US State Department announced on Sunday that it’s reached an agreement with the South Korean government on cost sharing with respect to the US military deployment in that country. The department’s statement noted a “meaningful increase” in the level of South Korea’s contribution to those costs, but didn’t mention any specific increase. Presumably it’s less than what Donald Trump kept demanding they pay, which is the reason there’s currently no agreement in place. The new deal has to pass muster with the South Korean parliament but that probably won’t be an issue.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 138,640 confirmed cases (+1158)

  • 2273 reported fatalities (+37)

Libyan MPs from all over the country—well, OK, from Tripoli and Tobruk—are arriving in the city of Sirte for a joint legislative session at which they will consider the prospective interim government that’s been proposed by Prime Minister-designate Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. Assuming all goes well this will be the first full session of a Libyan parliament since the country held its last election, in 2014. Yes, I’m using the term “election” loosely, given that turnout was around 18 percent, but nevertheless this is something of a milestone. Nobody seems to know how many of the 200 members of the full parliament will actually make it to Sirte, given that security is still questionable and some of them have either already announced plans to boycott or have seen their circumstances change (via retirement, death, etc.) since 2014.

Dbeibeh is under a United Nations-imposed March 19 deadline to get his government confirmed in a confidence vote. That government will then be tasked with organizing a national election in December and possibly a constitutional referendum sometime prior to that. If he misses that deadline then the entire house of cards that is the Libyan peace process is liable to come apart, since the likelihood of organizing a new interim government in time to accomplish those tasks by December is almost nil.

SENEGAL

  • 35,857 confirmed cases (+225)

  • 919 reported fatalities (+11)

Senegalese authorities have shut down the country’s schools until at least March 15 amid ongoing violence related to the arrest of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. At least five people have been killed in clashes between Sonko’s supporters and police since Wednesday. That’s the day authorities arrested Sonko and charged him with inciting protesters who demonstrated over his court appearance on a rape charge. Sonko denies both the rape and incitement charges and claims he’s being railroaded for political reasons. The heaviest protests have taken place in Dakar but there have been reports of unrest in other parts of the country, including the remote southern Casamance region. A 17 year old boy was reportedly killed there during a protest on Saturday in the town of Diaobé, which has further inflamed the situation.

IVORY COAST

  • 35,187 confirmed cases (+252)

  • 202 reported fatalities (+2)

The voting in Ivory Coast’s parliamentary election is over and it looks like the immediate post-election period is heading in a familiar direction. Official results show the ruling Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace of President Alassane Ouattara winning about 58 percent of the seats in the new parliament. That would represent a bit of a comedown from RHDP’s performance in the 2016 election, when it won around 65 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, but it’s nothing compared to what the opposition is claiming. The opposition Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, led by former President Henri Konan Bédié, insists that its coalition with former President Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front has emerged victorious and is citing multiple “irregularities” in the vote count.

If this sounds familiar it could be that it reminds you of how last year’s Ivorian presidential election turned out, with Ouattara winning while the opposition, which in that case boycotted the vote, cried foul. That vote was more controversial, as Ouattara was running for a legally dubious third term, but with the country having only just emerged from the violence that attended that election, it might not take much to tip it back into violence over this election.

EQUATORIAL GUINEA

  • 6329 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 96 reported fatalities (+0)

At least 20 people have reportedly been killed and 600 or more injured by a “series of explosions” at a military barracks in the Equatorial Guinean port city of Bata on Sunday. These blasts appear to have been the accidental result of what President Teodoro Obiang termed the “negligent handling of dynamite.” According to Obiang’s official statement the blasts were large enough to damage nearly every building in Bata, the country’s largest city.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 4,322,776 confirmed cases (+10,595)

  • 89,094 reported fatalities (+368)

According to the New York Times, the Biden administration is planning a cyber attack against Russia:

The first major move is expected over the next three weeks, officials said, with a series of covert counterstrikes on Russian networks that are intended to be evident to President Vladimir V. Putin and his intelligence services and military but not to the wider world.

The officials said the strikes would be combined with some kind of economic sanctions — though there are few truly effective sanctions left to impose — and an executive order from Mr. Biden to accelerate the hardening of federal government networks after the Russian hacking, which went undetected for months until it was discovered by a private cybersecurity firm.

I don’t know how covert you can be when you’re letting the country’s largest newspaper know what’s happening, but I digress. As the NYT suggests this forthcoming attack is being characterized as a retaliation for the sophisticated, long-term Russian hacking operation, dubbed the “SolarWinds Attack,” that came to light in December. It also comes amid the fallout from the big Chinese hacking story that came to light just this weekend (see above).

UNITED KINGDOM

  • 4,218,520 confirmed cases (+5177)

  • 124,501 reported fatalities (+82)

The UK was one of many countries that decided to tell starving Yemenis to get bent on Monday in the name of, I guess, fiscal responsibility. London cut its aid pledge for Yemen to £87 million, a bit over half of the £164 million it contributed in 2020. UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock does not seem terribly impressed by the way the British government is setting its priorities:

Speaking with rare bluntness after the UK more than halved its funds to help Yemen, the former permanent secretary at the Department for International Development Mark Lowcock said he was shocked by the decision. It is understood he was given no chance to appeal to the UK to rethink.

He described the UK decision as “an act of medium and longer term self-harm, and all for saving what is actually – in the great scheme of things at the moment – a relatively small amount of money”.

“The decision, in other words, to balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen, has consequences not just for Yemenis now, but for the world in the long term,” he said.

It should be noted that the UK is not singling out Yemen—it’s apparently taking a hatchet to its entire already meager foreign aid budget. What makes Yemen special is that the UK has made a lot of money over the past few years supporting the Saudi war effort that’s put all those Yemenis in such precarious shape. So it’s particularly repugnant for the British government to cut the already small amount it was spending to help ameliorate harm that it’s caused.

AMERICAS

PARAGUAY

  • 168,043 confirmed cases (+1074)

  • 3318 reported fatalities (+24)

With public pressure growing over perceptions that his government has mismanaged the pandemic, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez canned his ministers of civil affairs, education, and women’s affairs over the weekend, after his health minister resigned on Friday. Large protests turned violent in Asunción on Friday evening amid claims that Abdo’s government has either misallocated or outright stolen millions of dollars that could have been better used on pandemic response. Almost no Paraguayans have been vaccinated while the country’s rate of new cases is spiking.

VENEZUELA

  • 142,338 confirmed cases (+453)

  • 1384 reported fatalities (+6)

The Venezuelan government introduced new banknotes in denominations of 200,000, 500,000, and 1 million bolívars on Friday, part of an effort to…well, not exactly ameliorate the country’s runaway inflation, but at least to sort of gesture at the problem as it worsens. According to Deutsche Welle, 1 million bolívars is worth around 52 US cents, or at least it was on Saturday, when that article was written. It’s probably worth substantially less now.

MEXICO

  • 2,125,866 confirmed cases (+6561)

  • 190,357 reported fatalities (+779)

Mexico will hold its midterm legislative election in July—provided, that is, that there’s anybody left alive to run in it. Since September, according to Reuters, “126 Mexican politicians and candidates” have been murdered, and the frequency of those murders seems to be increasing. A Mexican consulting firm called Etellekt says that puts this election on pace to be the most violent Mexican election since the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s, which I think we can all agree was kind of a unique period.

UNITED STATES

  • 29,696,250 confirmed cases (+41,967)

  • 537,838 reported fatalities (+716)

Finally, at a time when the Pentagon has started reassessing its biggest projects due to concerns that the the new administration might not be as generous as the last one was, Quincy’s Mark Perry explains how Joe Biden is riding to the rescue with a plan to freeze, rather than cut, the massive US defense budget:

In a now celebrated article, Pentagon reporter David Axe revealed that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown questioned whether his service should purchase the full complement of 1,763 stealth F-35 fighters, which has not lived up to its billing as “the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter jet in the world.”

In a meeting with reporters, Brown said that he favored designing a new fighter to replace the F-16, a virtual vote of no-confidence in the F-35 (Brown later walked back his comments.) Other services have also questioned the purchases they’ve made over the last years: Navy officers have argued that the Ford class aircraft carrier presents too high a profile in a contest with China, the Marines have already recast their role as America’s primary expeditionary force, and a recent article from the Modern War Institute at West Point recommended that the army reduce its force structure (and save $7 billion), by jettisoning three infantry brigade combat teams.

Now it appears none of that will happen. Rather, after the president rolls out his defense budget in May, the debate inside the Pentagon will not be how to make do with less money, but how to distribute with more than they need. Considering the president’s recent foreign policy moves (airstrikes in Syria, the refusal to act decisively against Mohammed bin Salman, the foot dragging on renewing the JCPOA, and now, his retreat on the defense budget), progressives are questioning whether the man they supported in November is as progressive as they had hoped, or whether (at least on foreign policy and the military) he’s simply Trump without the tweets.