World roundup: November 20-21 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, Sudan, Romania, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

November 19, 636: The Battle of al-Qadisiyah ends

November 19, 1256: The last Assassin imam surrenders to the Mongols, who had besieged him at his fortress at Maymun-Diz.

The surrender of the Assassins’ headquarters at Alamut, which took place a few weeks later, from a manuscript of Persian historian Rashid al-Din’s 14th century Compendium of Chronicles (Wikimedia Commons)

November 20, 1845: A joint British-French fleet defeats the Argentine Confederation’s navy on the Paraná River at the Battle of Vuelta de Obligado. Despite winning the battle, the Europeans found themselves unable to navigate upriver to impose an economic settlement on the protectionist Argentine government of Juan Manuel de Rosas, and after a lengthy blockade (that helped secure the Colorados’ victory in the Uruguayan Civil War, so it wasn’t a total bust) both the UK and France signed treaties upholding Argentine sovereignty over its own rivers.

November 20, 1979: Attackers seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

November 21, 1386: The Turco-Mongolian warlord Timur sacks Tbilisi and carries off Georgian King Bagrat V, who manages to save his own life by agreeing to convert to Islam. Bagrat’s son, the future King George VII, was able to free his father from captivity and forestall his conversion. This was the first of a whopping eight times Timur invaded Georgia between 1386 and 1403. Each of his invasions was successful from a military and plunder standpoint but indecisive from a political standpoint and very destructive from the Georgians’ standpoint.

November 21, 1894: The First Sino-Japanese War’s Battle of Lüshunkou, also known as the Battle of Port Arthur, ends with a decisive Imperial Japanese victory. The capture of Lüshunkou was a major achievement for the Japanese, but the battle may be better remembered for what followed, the alleged “Port Arthur Massacre.” Over the following 2-3 days, possibly in retaliation for earlier atrocities committed by Chinese soldiers, Japanese forces are said to have killed as many as 60,000 people in the city (that’s the high end of a range of estimates). Western reporting about Port Arthur varied widely at the time, with some accounts denying there had been any massacre at all, and even today the historicity of this event is debated.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The New York Times reported a couple of days ago that several US and Israeli officials now believe that the attack on the US military’s southern Syrian outpost at Tanf last month “was Iranian retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria.” If true that would mark the first time Iran or its allies in Syria have taken their frustration over Israeli activities out on US forces. If you’re wondering why it makes sense to leave US forces in Syria to take the blowback from things that another country is doing, you’re probably not the only one. Responsible Statecraft’s Paul Pillar argues that a full Syrian withdrawal is “overdue,” which is an understatement, and suggests that the United States stop lawlessly occupying Syrian territory and stop condoning Israel’s equally lawless air campaign.

YEMEN

The Houthis announced on Saturday that they’d fired 14 drones toward various parts of Saudi Arabia, presumably in retaliation for that Saudi air operation on Thursday. The Saudis say they retaliated in turn with airstrikes against Houthi facilities in Yemen’s Sanaa, Saada, and Maʾrib provinces. There’s been no indication that any of the Houthi drones actually completed a successful attack, though it’s possible the Saudis are just keeping mum about it. They did announce on Sunday that they’d shot down a Houthi drone targeting the airport at Najran

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A Palestinian man with ties to Hamas reportedly attacked a group of Israeli settlers in eastern Jerusalem on Sunday morning, killing one person and wounding four others before being killed by Israeli police. Israeli security forces later raided the attacker’s home in the Shuafat refugee camp and arrested several of his family members.

BAHRAIN

In remarks at the annual Manama Dialogue security conference in Bahrain over the weekend, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin promised that the United States will defend the Middle East from Iranian Aggression, in so many words. In truth nothing Austin said strikes me as particularly newsworthy, but it does show that the Biden administration wants to calm any fears among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf about America’s reliability as a security partner. It also should serve as confirmation that the US military is not leaving the Middle East, in case you were harboring any misconceptions to the contrary.

IRAN

Mahan Airlines, which has been sanctioned by the United States for supporting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, claimed on Sunday that its computer systems had been hit by a cyber attack. The attack apparently took down the airline’s website, though Mahan officials insisted that flights were unaffected. Speaking of the IRGC, its naval forces have apparently seized another foreign-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf. The commander of the vessel that carried out the seizure claims they recovered “smuggled diesel” in the amount of 150,000 liters. The IRGC seized a Vietnamese-flagged tanker last month and released it earlier this month. Iranian officials also claimed that ship was smuggling fuel, though there’s some reason to believe it had tried to deliver a shipment of Iranian fuel to China and had been unsuccessful.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan government began paying public sector salaries this weekend for the first time since the Taliban took power in August. Back pay was apparently included. It’s unclear how Kabul suddenly found itself flush with enough cash to make these payments. German and Dutch officials suggested a few days ago that they would be amenable to paying the salaries of Afghan workers in the health and education sectors, provided they could pay them directly to the workers without going through the government. But there’s virtually no way they could have undertaken such an effort this quickly so the money must be coming from somewhere else. Afghan officials are attributing their new largess to higher revenues, though again there’s no explanation as to why they would have increased.

Or maybe there is. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that poppy farming is once again on the rise in southern Afghanistan, as farmers struggle to find a way to make money and with the Taliban in no position to refuse any potential revenue stream. Ideologically the Taliban opposes the drug trade, but from a practical perspective even if it wanted to tamp that trade down it’s unlikely farmers would be willing to cooperate.

PAKISTAN

Unspecified gunmen attacked a coal mine outside of the city of Quetta on Sunday, killing at least three workers. Mines are a frequent target for Baluch separatists though it’s possible that an Islamist group (Islamic State, for example) was responsible.

CHINA

The Chinese government has downgraded its diplomatic relationship with Lithuania in retaliation for the opening of a de facto Taiwanese embassy in Vilnius on Thursday. Beijing recalled its ambassador back in August, when plans for the facility were announced, and will now permanently cap its Lithuanian diplomatic mission with a chargé d’affaires. Many countries host these de facto embassies but they generally use the word “Taipei” in their name to maintain some formal adherence to the “one China” concept. This office uses “Taiwan” in its name, which has perhaps exacerbated Chinese outrage a bit.

AFRICA

SUDAN

After lengthy negotiations, Sudan’s ruling junta has agreed to restore Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to the job from which it ousted him in last month’s coup. He’ll form a new “technocratic” cabinet, which suggests he’ll be the only element of Sudan’s pre-coup civilian interim government that will be returning. What this means for Sudan’s political transition, control of which was supposed to shift from military to civilian authorities relatively soon, is unclear.

As you might expect, this development isn’t sitting well with protesters and civilian activists who had been calling for a full reversal of the coup or, going further, the dissolution of the military-led transitional administration and its replacement with an entirely civilian authority. One of the main groups behind Sudan’s protest movement, the Sudanese Professionals Association, called Hamdok’s decision to realign with the junta “treacherous” and the “Forces of Freedom and Change,” the umbrella group that comprised the pre-coup civilian portion of the government, also rejected the agreement to reinstate Hamdok. Tens of thousands of people are believed to have turned out later Sunday to protest against the military in several cities including Khartoum and Omdurman. At least one person was shot and killed in Omdurman, presumably by security forces though that can’t be proven.

LIBYA

Interim Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh filed his candidacy for next month’s presidential election on Sunday. He joins warlord Khalifa Haftar, former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh, and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi of the Libyan Gaddafis as the most prominent declared candidates.

Dbeibeh stands out from the rest of the field a bit in that he’s legally not really allowed to be in it. As it stands, the electoral law that’s governing next month’s vote excludes members of Libya’s current interim government from running. Moreover, Dbeibeh himself promised not to seek the presidency when he was gunning for the interim PM gig earlier this year. It’s not that he wants to be president, mind you, it’s just that he feels such a strong sense of responsibility for shepherding the Libyan people through this trying time, or whatever. His own promises aside, as I say Dbeibeh is legally not allowed to run, though to the extent that laws are only relevant when somebody is willing and able to enforce them maybe he figures he can run anyway. A large segment of the Libyan political establishment has rejected that electoral law, which was unilaterally promulgated by Saleh a couple of months ago even though it’s not clear whether he and the legislature he leads actually had the power to do so.

BURKINA FASO

A French military convoy traveling through central Burkina Faso on its way to Niger was forced to change course over the weekend after days of protests in the city of Kaya had brought its progress to a halt. The situation became so volatile on Saturday that French soldiers fired warning shots and there are local reports that four people were wounded in the melee. The French commander is insisting his soldiers did not wound anyone and it is possible those reports were incorrect or that Burkinabé police, rather than the French personnel, fired the shots that wounded those people. But the reports themselves only exacerbated local hostility to the French convoy, hence the decision to divert its course to run south of the city.

NIGERIA

According to local sources, the Nigerian military carried out airstrikes on Saturday targeting two camps used by cattle rustling gangs in northern Nigeria’s Sokoto state. Bandit violence has been particularly heavy in that state in recent weeks. There’s no word on casualties but they may be fairly substantial.

SOMALIA

An al-Shabab suicide bomber killed prominent Somali journalist Abdiaziz Mohamud Guled, who went by the name Abdiaziz Afrika, in Mogadishu on Saturday. He was apparently a harsh al-Shabab critic. The bombing wounded four other people.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Unknown gunmen attacked a mine in the eastern DRC’s South Kivu province overnight, killing a police officer and abducting five Chinese nationals. Details beyond that are uncertain. Chinese mining operations have been under a microscope in the DRC of late as authorities review contracts and make allegations of illegalities, possibly because President Félix Tshisekedi is looking to strengthen his relationship with the United States. But there’s no reason to think those issues played a factor in this incident, which seems more like simple banditry than some kind of anti-Chinese action.

EUROPE

ROMANIA

Romania’s Liberal and Social Democratic parties have reportedly reached agreement on a coalition deal that will see them share power and will avoid the need for a snap election. Romanian politics have been going haywire since Prime Minister Florin Cîțu’s government lost a no-confidence vote last month. Efforts to reform the previous, Liberal-led coalition faltered and so Cîțu and company turned to the opposition Social Democrats. Under the agreement, the Liberal Party’s Nicolae Ciucă and Social Democratic Party leader Marcel Ciolacu will split the premiership for the remainder of this parliamentary session, which ends in 2024, with each serving a year and a half in that office (in which order is yet to be determined).

BULGARIA

Incumbent Rumen Radev looks set to win Sunday’s Bulgarian presidential runoff by a fairly hefty margin, according to exit polls. This is not hugely surprising, since Radev nearly won the election in last weekend’s first round. He finished just shy of 50 percent, thus forcing him into a runoff against second place finisher Anastas Gerdzhikov. That first round was overshadowed by the parliamentary election that accompanied it, partly because of the peculiar nature of that election (Bulgaria’s third parliamentary election this year) and partly because the Bulgarian presidency is almost entirely a ceremonial gig.

AMERICAS

CHILE

Chilean voters headed to the polls on Sunday to choose their next president. Final results aren’t in yet but the partial results show pretty conclusively that far right candidate José Antonio Kast and leftist Gabriel Boric will finish 1-2 and will be heading to a runoff. At last check Kast was leading Boric, 28 percent to 25 percent. Most polling around a Kast-Boric runoff favored Boric until late October, but since then sentiment seems to have tilted in Kast’s direction. The runoff will be held on December 19.

VENEZUELA

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is refusing to resume negotiations with Venezuela’s political opposition unless the US government releases Alex Saab. A close Maduro ally, Saab was arrested last year in Cape Verde and extradited to the US last month on money laundering charges. Saab had been designated as a Venezuelan diplomat and thus should have been afforded some level of immunity, though when you’re the United States such trivialities don’t necessarily mean anything. US authorities presumably want to interrogate him about Maduro, though they couldn’t have justified his extradition on those grounds.

UNITED STATES

The Pentagon announced on Friday that it has awarded contracts to Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, totalling about $60 million, to develop defenses against hypersonic missiles. It’s just so great to see the government supporting small businesses like this, so I figured you’d want to know about it.

Finally, The American Prospect’s Gabrielle Gurley has another grim postscript for the COP26 summit:

When future historians parse the great climate crisis of the 21st century, COP26 will figure prominently as a missed opportunity. As nearly 200 countries met in Scotland over 12 days to mull over their next steps, some of the signs carried by climate protesters during the Glasgow demonstrations forecast the regrettable outcome in three words: “Blah blah blah.”

The United States, China, and India set the terms of engagement, coming up with measures that nudged the fight against planetary disaster along. But they were essentially designed not to antagonize allies, upset rivals, or rouse domestic audiences coping with pandemic trauma. At the end of the Northern Hemisphere’s warmest summer on record, the United Nations announced that limiting planetary temperature level increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius relies on reducing global carbon emissions 45 percent by 2030, a goal that world governments are not on track to meet. Although pledges to curb methane emissions, deforestation, and phasing down (but not phasing out) the use of coal were secured, the COP26 countries punted on stronger emissions targets, deciding to come back next year. In short, COP26 failed to pulverize the status quo.