World roundup: October 15 2020

Stories from Yemen, Sudan, Colombia, and more

This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:


October 14, 1066: Duke William of Normandy’s army defeats the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson and his army at the Battle of Hastings. William claimed that he’d been promised the kingdom by Edward the Confessor (who’d died in January), but Godwinson was elected king by the Anglo-Saxon nobility. The Normans invaded and the two armies met outside of the town of Hastings. Accounts of the battle vary, but the general story seems to be that after repelling initial Norman attacks, the Saxons made the mistake of pursuing their retreating foe. At that point William rallied his men and turned the tide of the battle. Their victory, along with Godwinson’s death toward the end of the battle, ensured the Norman takeover of England and made Duke William of Normandy into King William I, the Conqueror.

Harold’s death, as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (Wikimedia Commons)

October 14, 1322: A Scottish army under Robert the Bruce defeats the English army of King Edward II at the Battle of Old Byland. This was the largest Scottish victory in battle with English forces since Bannockburn in 1314 and helped secure Scottish independence.

October 15, 1529: The Siege of Vienna ends


Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for October 15:

  • 39,152,334 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (8,679,306 active, +398,609 since yesterday)

  • 1,102,425 reported fatalities (+6107 since yesterday)



  • 4931 confirmed coronavirus cases (+48)

  • 238 reported fatalities (+4)

The Syrian Democratic Council released 631 former Islamic State personnel and halved sentences for 253 others as part of a general amnesty intended in part to alleviate the pressure on the undermanned Syrian Democratic Forces to maintain its considerable prison network in northeastern Syria. It’s a corollary to the SDC’s announcement earlier this month that it was releasing Syrian nationals from its sprawling al-Hol prison camp, which mostly contains the wives and children of IS fighters. SDC officials say the 631 people being released were not responsible for killing anyone and have “repented” of their decision to join IS.


  • 2053 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 596 reported fatalities (+0)

One day after releasing two US nationals and the body of a third they’d been holding hostage, the Houthis on Thursday began a large and very long-awaited prisoner swap with the Yemeni government. Six separate flights carried some 700 prisoners to freedom—three going into Sanaa (one from Saudi Arabia and two from southern Yemen) and three leaving Sanaa (likewise, with one going to Saudi Arabia and two going to southern Yemen). Over 1000 prisoners in total are expected to be released, with most of those releases happening within the first two days. The two sides agreed in principle to a large prisoner exchange back in 2018, but have been haggling over the details—or just not talking to one another at all—ever since. Now that it’s finally come to pass the hope will be that it creates an opportunity for further diplomacy.


  • 342,143 confirmed cases (+1693)

  • 9080 reported fatalities (+66)

The Turkish military looks like it’s preparing to test its Russian-made S-400 air defense system on Friday. Which isn’t really news except insofar as it may lead to some renewed calls in Washington for the Trump administration to sanction Turkey under the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. In truth the administration already should have sanctioned Turkey under the terms of CAATSA, but it’s been ignoring the law because Donald Trump likes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.



  • 59,995 confirmed cases (+1371)

  • 1046 reported fatalities (+7)

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on Wednesday acknowledged that the Armenian military has suffered “numerous casualties” in the latest round of fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. But he insisted that Armenian and Karabakh forces are in control of the conflict. This may be true on the ground, where the front lines appear to have stabilized after a few early Azerbaijani gains, but in the air the Azerbaijani military seems to be in control, thanks in large part to its stockpile of Israeli-made drones. Fighting continued on Thursday, though after what looked like a serious escalation the previous day things seem to have calmed down a bit and both sides are still referring to Friday’s Russian-brokered ceasefire so in theory at least that agreement is still hanging around.

With the fighting continuing despite that theoretical ceasefire, it’s fair to continue speculating as to whether or when Pashinyan might invoke Armenia’s membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which would oblige Russian assistance. Moscow has tried to remain above the fray so as not to alienate the Azerbaijani government, with Vladimir Putin saying that the CSTO would only apply in the case of an attack inside Armenia’s internationally recognized borders. But that’s now happened. Pashinyan has political reasons for resisting this step but he may have no choice at some point. From Russia’s perspective, if the Kremlin wants to retain some plausible deniability about its role, Al-Monitor’s Kiril Semenov suggests it could hire mercenaries—either from Russian firms like Wagner or, more provocatively, from Kurdish groups in the Middle East—to support Armenian and Karabakh forces. The idea of sending Kurdish fighters to the region is interesting because it’s a direct tit-for-tat response to Turkey’s recruitment of Syrian rebel fighters to aid Azerbaijan and because it would trigger Turkish sensitivities with respect to the Kurds.


  • 50,589 confirmed cases (+388)

  • 1099 reported fatalities (+5)

The political crisis in Kyrgyzstan took another turn, or another couple of turns, on Thursday when former (?) President Sooronbay Jeenbekov gave in to pressure from new Prime Minister Sadyr Japarov and his followers and announced his resignation. Japarov then quickly appointed himself acting president—even though constitutionally the speaker of the Kyrgyz parliament, the recently appointed Kanat Isayev, is supposed to be first in the line of succession. Apparently Isayev resigned as well, or at least refused the position of acting president, presumably because he was intimidated by Japarov and the crowd backing him.

Until this month, Japarov was most famous for going to prison a few years ago for apparently trying to kidnap another Kyrgyz politician. Now he appears to be the sole ruler of what is—or maybe was—the closest thing Central Asia has to a democracy. Japarov may be a front-man for Kyrgyz oligarch Rayimbek Matraimov, whose party first put him forward as PM, though it’s hard to gauge how deep their connection is. His political appeal seems to rest on nationalism, as well as a promise to nationalize Kyrgyzstan’s gold mines.


  • 40,026 confirmed cases (+32)

  • 1481 reported fatalities (+0)

The Trump administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced on Twitter Thursday that he’s “re-set” the deescalation agreement he negotiated with the Taliban back in February. I have no idea what that means. Khalilzad tweeted that it “means reduced numbers of operations,” and I still don’t know what that means. Does it mean the Taliban is going to stop attacking Lashkar Gah, as it’s been doing since Sunday? I guess we’ll see.


  • 321,218 confirmed cases (+755)

  • 6614 reported fatalities (+13)

Baluch separatists attacked a “convoy of Pakistani oil and gas workers” in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on Thursday, killing at least 15 people. The Baluchistan Liberation Front and its parent group, the Baluch National Freedom Front, later claimed responsibility.

The Pakistani Foreign Ministry on Thursday summoned India’s chargé d’affaires to complain about cross-border firing in Kashmir that reportedly wounded two Pakistani citizens. The Indian government accused Pakistani forces of firing first.


  • 7,365,509 confirmed cases (+60,439)

  • 112,146 reported fatalities (+835)

Leaders of Kashmir’s main political parties announced Thursday that they’ve formed an alliance to push the Indian government to restore the region’s constitutional autonomy. Narendra Modi’s government stripped that autonomy away last August and they followed that up with a systematic crackdown on both militant and peaceful opposition that has yet to be fully lifted.


  • 18,129 confirmed cases (+589)

  • 170 reported fatalities (+3)

Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim has now gotten the audience he’s been seeking with King Abdullah of Pahang to pitch his candidacy for prime minister, but at this point he may wind up in jail rather than in the PM’s office. Malaysian police reportedly want to talk to Anwar about the provenance of a list that’s been circulating on social media of some 121 legislators who are supposedly backing his PM bid. That can’t be good. They’ve apparently been getting complaints about some of the names on that list, though the nature of those complaints is unclear. It is against the law in Malaysia to make statements that might “cause public mischief or harassment,” so if Anwar or anyone in his circle is found to have circulated this list it could lead to charges. Anwar insists he hasn’t released any information about the identities of the lawmakers supposedly supporting him, but viewed cynically this could be a quick and easy way for Malaysian authorities to shut his PM bid down.


  • 85,622 confirmed cases (+11) on the mainland, 5214 confirmed cases (+12) in Hong Kong

  • 4634 reported fatalities (+0) on the mainland, 105 reported fatalities (+0) in Hong Kong

As expected, the Trump administration’s decision to appoint a coordinator for “Tibet affairs” has not gone over well in Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry accused Washington on Thursday of attempting to “interfere in China’s internal affairs and destabilize Tibet.” Don’t expect Donald Trump and Xi Jinping to talk about it anytime soon. Trump told the Fox Business channel on Thursday that he hasn’t talked with Xi “in a while because I don’t want to speak to him.” OK then. While this seems petty, at least these aren’t the leaders of the two largest economies on the planet and at least we’re not facing an array of massive global challenges that cannot possibly be addressed if they aren’t communicating. So it could be worse.



  • 13,691 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 836 reported fatalities (+0)

At least seven people were shot and killed and 30 more wounded on Thursday during a protest in the eastern Sudanese city of Kassala. The demonstrators were protesting against Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s decision to sack Kassala provincial governor Salih Amar earlier this week. It’s unclear who killed them. Amar’s initial appointment as governor had pleased the Beni Amer tribe, of which he is a member, but had angered other eastern Sudanese communities. His dismissal triggered protests among the Beni Amer that have led to clashes between that group and some of those other communities over the past few days.

Reports are circulating in Israeli media that the Sudanese government is about to announce that it’s normalizing relations with Israel. According to these reports, the Trump administration gave Khartoum a 24 hour ultimatum to agree to normalization or see its chances of escaping the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors evaporate. The offer also includes promises of economic assistance. A “heated discussion” ensued, according to The Jerusalem Post, between the military faction of Sudan’s interim government, which supports normalization, and the civilian faction, which fears it will generate a public backlash. There’s been no official announcement of anything from Khartoum yet as far as I am aware.


  • 2335 confirmed cases (+30)

  • 65 reported fatalities (+2)

Unknown “armed groups” attacked three villages in northern Burkina Faso on Wednesday, killing at least 20 people in total. Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have affiliates that are active in that region.


  • 60,982 confirmed cases (+148)

  • 1116 reported fatalities (+0)

Hundreds of people protested against police brutality in Abuja on Thursday, as the Nigerian army ominously suggested it’s ready to step in to control the crowds if necessary. Nigerian authorities earlier this week agreed to disband the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), but they’re apparently just going to reassign the officers to other units, and they’re creating a brand new SWAT unit to replace it that may just become a new vector for police brutality. Or maybe they’re going to start outsourcing the brutality. Protesters in Lagos over the last two days have reported being attacked by gangs of armed young men. Suspicions are high that the gangs have been hired by Nigerian police.


  • 3864 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 99 reported fatalities (+0)

At least 13 Somali soldiers have been killed in an al-Shabab counterattack northwest of Mogadishu. The Somali military cleared the insurgent group out of the Afgoye district on Wednesday, but al-Shabab fighters returned later in the day and ambushed the small military unit left behind to secure the area.


  • 10,935 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 281 reported fatalities (+0)

The World Health Organization has created an “independent commission” to investigate allegations that its aid workers sexually abused local women during operations to deal with the DRC’s 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak. More than 50 women have accused WHO workers of misconduct, and their accounts have been supported by local witnesses.



  • 1,354,163 confirmed cases (+13,754)

  • 23,491 reported fatalities (+286)

The European Union on Thursday unveiled its sanctions against six Russian individuals and the Russian State Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The most prominent names on the list are Alexander Bortnikov, who runs the FSB, and Sergei Kiriyenko, Vladimir Putin’s first deputy chief of staff. All on the list will face EU travel bans and asset freezes. The Kremlin unsurprisingly has vowed retribution, which I’m sure has officials gritting their teeth across Europe.



  • 949,063 confirmed cases (+17,096)

  • 25,342 reported fatalities (+421)

A dollar shortage at Argentina’s central bank is forcing its government to continue restructuring the country’s foreign debt:

Behind the dollar shortage is a growing crisis of confidence that now threatens to wipe out Argentina’s dwindling foreign reserves, testing the ability of a nationalist government to avoid another full-blown economic and financial crisis in Latin America’s third biggest economy. It is also a major political issue for President Alberto Fernández and the ruling Peronist movement.

“Argentina faces very dramatic challenges. The country is in deep recession, social conditions are worsening, [and] economic imbalances are growing,” Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said Wednesday.

As a result, Argentina and the IMF are embarking on talks to extend payment dates of a $44 billion bailout the country received in 2018.


  • 936,982 confirmed cases (+6823)

  • 28,457 reported fatalities (+151)

Former FARC rebels are being killed in Colombia at rates United Nations envoy Carlos Ruiz Massieu “alarming” in testimony before the UN Security Council on Thursday:

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ latest report to the council, circulated last week, said the U.N. political mission in Colombia verified 19 killings of former combatants from the country’s main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in the three-month period ending Sept. 25.

The latest victims included one of the highest-ranking former FARC commanders, Jorge Iván Ramos, who became a FARC political party leader and was killed Aug. 28. The U.N. chief said Ramos was actively engaged in implementing the 2016 peace deal with the government, including working on a crop substitution program and the handover process for FARC assets.

The FARC party addressed an open letter to the National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish acronym ELN, which is one of Colombia’s last remaining rebel groups, expressing shock “over information that ELN was behind the crime,” Guterres said.

He said the latest killings bring the total number of former combatants killed so far this year to 50, including two women. Since the peace agreement was signed, he said, the U.N. mission has verified 297 attacks on former FARC fighters, including 224 killings, 20 disappearances and 53 attempted homicides.


  • 8,216,315 confirmed cases (+66,129)

  • 222,717 reported fatalities (+874)

Finally, the Quincy Institute’s Stephen Wertheim calls for rethinking the assumption that underpins much of US foreign policy:

The next president, whoever he is, will not determine the future of America’s role in the world. Joe Biden does not recognize there is a problem. President Trump has no answers.

Three decades into the “post-Cold War era,” still named for what preceded it, the United States possesses no widely shared, deeply felt purpose for vast global power. America’s armed dominance today occupies a position similar to that of liberal immigration, free trade or private health insurance a decade ago. Taken for granted by political elites, it is nonetheless ripe for challenge beneath the surface.

One source of challenge comes from recent experience: America’s wars have projected mayhem across the greater Middle East and brought militarized violence home to American streets. Another source is prospective: As both liberals and conservatives rack up debt, they will face pressure to cut the gargantuan, trillion-plus sum lavished annually on national security.

But the most profound challenge is rooted deep in the past. If many Americans no longer understand why their country should police the world, it is for good reason: U.S. military supremacy has outlived its original purpose.