World roundup: October 16-17 2021

Stories from Yemen, China, Venezuela, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 15, 1529: The Siege of Vienna ends

October 16, 1934: The Chinese Red Army begins the “Long March,” a series of maneuvers that would, over the next year and over some 9000 kilometers, see his forces evade the Kuomintang army of Chiang Kai-shek. Though the Red Army lost a substantial portion of its forces, the Long March preserved the Chinese Communist Party and enabled Mao Zedong’s rise to undisputed leadership within it, in addition to being a massive symbolic success.

October 17, 1437: The Battle of Tangier ends

October 17, 1973: OPEC imposes an oil embargo against countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War—Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The embargo immediately caused a spike in oil prices and contributed to shortages that led to gasoline rationing in the targeted countries. It notably did not cause any of the targeted countries to change policy.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the rebel “Civil Defense” group are claiming that government artillery fire killed at least four people in the town of Sarmada in Idlib province on Saturday. At least 17 others were wounded. Elsewhere, a Syrian Druze politician named Midhat Saleh was gunned down on Saturday near the Israeli-occupied Golan, reportedly (according to Syrian state media) by an Israeli sniper. If that’s true it would mark a first of sorts in Israel’s campaign against (alleged) Iranian-friendly elements in Syria, which has never before involved snipers. Israeli involvement hasn’t been confirmed and there are questions as to how involved Saleh was with Iran, assuming he was involved with Iran at all.

On a positive note, I guess, United Nations Syria envoy Geir Pedersen announced on Sunday that the parties involved in the Syrian Constitutional Committee had agreed to begin drafting a new Syrian constitution. He seems to regard this as a significant accomplishment even though as far as I can tell it means he’s gotten them to agree to do the thing their committee was assembled to do two years ago. This probably counts as “progress” in the sense that the government’s committee delegates had been resisting the idea of writing an new constitution altogether. But they still have to debate the substance of a new constitution and I suspect they’re going to struggle to find common ground on much of anything.

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen seems to have had a busy weekend, announcing Saturday that its airstrikes had killed at least 160 Houthi fighters over the previous 24 hours and declaring Sunday that its airstrikes had killed at least 165 Houthis over the ensuing 24 hours. One wonders how many fighters they’ll claim to have killed tomorrow. All of the strikes targeted southern Maʾrib province’s Abdiyah district, where the fighting over Maʾrib city has been most intense in recent days and where civilians have unsurprisingly been paying heavily for it. Regardless of the high death toll (or at least the alleged high death toll), the Houthis have reportedly captured two more districts in Maʾrib province and three districts in neighboring Shabwah province. This brings them closer to capturing Maʾrib city as well as the significant oil and gas resources located in both provinces.

LEBANON

One Lebanese soldier is reportedly in custody on suspicion of involvement in last Thursday’s shooting incident in Beirut. In an interview on Friday, Lebanese Forces party leader Samir Geagea denied that his militia “planned” (in Reuters’ terminology) the shooting, which left at least seven people dead. Lebanon’s two largest Shiʿa parties, Hezbollah and Amal, have suggested that Lebanese Forces fighters were responsible for the attack, and according to Geagea Lebanese President Michel Aoun also implicitly blamed LF for the shooting in a phone call between the two men. You’ll note that Geagea isn’t denying that his men took part in the fighting, just that they were responsible for starting it. He acknowledges that LF fighters were in the area when the shooting began but says they were strictly there for security as a predominantly Shiʿa group of protesters was planning to march through a predominantly Christian neighborhood.

Concerns over the shooting may have contributed to the low attendance at a demonstration in downtown Beirut to mark the anti-government protest movement’s second anniversary on Sunday. Or maybe people are just exhausted.

JORDAN

The Jordanian government said this weekend that there’s no plan to resume direct flights between Jordan and Syria anytime soon. That seemingly contradicts reports from last month that Royal Jordanian Airlines was gearing up to resume regular direct flights between Amman and Damascus. The reason for the discrepancy is unclear.

IRAN

The Iranian navy said on Saturday that one of its warships fended off an attack by “pirates” against two oil tankers in the Gulf of Aden. It’s not entirely clear when this incident took place. According to the Iranians, five pirate boats attacked the tankers but were driven off by naval “commandos,” and the tankers were subsequently able to pass through the area.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In this weekend’s Afghan news:

  • The Taliban is promising to increase security around Shiʿa mosques in the wake of Friday’s terrorist attack on one such mosque in Kandahar city. The death toll from that incident stands at 41 but there is some concern it could rise still further. Friday’s incident was the latest in a string of attacks targeting Afghan Shiʿa in recent weeks, all claimed by the Islamic State’s Khorasan branch. IS frequently targets Shiʿa for ideological reasons, but these attacks are also meant to highlight the Taliban’s inability, or lack of desire, to protect one of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable communities, one whose ties to Iran could create a foreign policy headache for the Taliban if these attacks continue. It’s probably worth noting that the previous Afghan government generally failed to protect Afghan Shiʿa as well.

  • The deputy director of UNICEF, Omar Abdi, told reporters on Friday that the Taliban will be opening secondary schools for girls across Afghanistan “very soon.” I have no reason to doubt him, but the lack of a direct statement on this subject from the Taliban could be a warning flag. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s it prevented girls from attending school while insisting that it was trying to establish the conditions under which they could do so. Shockingly those conditions never materialized. That could be what’s happening here. That said, the fact that the Taliban has allowed girls to attend primary school (through sixth grade) and has allowed girls to attend secondary schools in five provinces (Balkh, Jawzjan, Kunduz, Samangan, and Uruzgan), suggests that maybe it is amenable to breaking with its own precedent.

  • The US government says it’s offered to compensate the relatives of the ten people it killed in its August 29 drone strike in Kabul. That strike purportedly targeted a car that the US military believed was transporting IS suicide bombers but was in actuality full of civilians. US officials have since apologized publicly for what they’ve characterized as a “mistake,” though family members in Afghanistan say they have not received a direct apology.

INDIA

It was a violent weekend in Kashmir, as militants reportedly killed four civilians and police killed at least four militants. Late Saturday, unspecified attackers killed a “Hindu street vendor” from Bihar state in Srinagar and a “Muslim worker from Uttar Pradesh state” in Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Late Sunday, attackers killed two laborers in Kashmir’s Kulgam district. Both were from Bihar state. The common thread in what’s become a long series of targeted killings seems to be that the victims all came to Kashmir from other parts of India, possibly after the government eliminated the residency requirement for property ownership in Jammu and Kashmir last October.

Additionally, Indian security forces killed four Kashmiri militants across three separate engagements, two in two clashes on Friday and two more in one clash on Saturday.

BANGLADESH

Ongoing inter-communal violence has seen at least seven people (five Muslims and two Hindus) killed across multiple incidents since Wednesday. The violence began in the city of Cumilla after an image of a Quran being placed on a statue in a Hindu temple went viral on Facebook. That sparked demonstrations by outraged Muslims in several parts of Bangladesh, with at least four protesters being killed by security forces (details on where and how those deaths occurred are not clear from the reporting). Further demonstrations in Dhaka and in southern Bangladesh on Friday and Saturday saw three more people die, two of them Hindus and one of those after an apparent stabbing (again details are not clear). Several Hindu religious sites have been vandalized, particularly temporary shrines set up for the Hindu festival of Durga Puja.

CHINA

The Financial Times reported Saturday on a recent and apparently unexpected Chinese weapons test:

China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.

Five people familiar with the test said the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle which flew through low-orbit space before cruising down towards its target.

The missile missed its target by about two-dozen miles, according to three people briefed on the intelligence. But two said the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than US officials realised.

(Reuters has a summary if you’re stymied by the paywall.)

Despite what their name implies, hypersonic missiles are slower than ballistic missiles. But they can be maneuvered to the target and can be positioned to attack from low altitude, which could in theory wreak havoc with missile defense systems that have been designed to handle ballistic missiles (and may not even be very good at stopping them). This sort of missile can attack from the south, which is the “back door” as far as US missile defenses—designed to intercept a ballistic missile attack coming over the North Pole—are concerned.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Thousands of protesters turned out in Khartoum on Saturday, and hundreds again on Sunday, essentially to call for a military coup. The demonstrators were bused into the city to express their support for the military part of Sudan’s transitional government as opposed to its civilian part. I’ll leave it to you to speculate as to who might have done the busing. Protest organizers appear to be planning a sit-in type demonstration, ostensibly to pressure the military to act but more likely to give it a pretext to do so.

EUROPE

BELARUS

The Belarusian government has expelled French ambassador Nicolas de Bouillane de Lacoste and has recalled its ambassador, Igor Fesenko, from Paris. It offered no explanation, but Lacoste apparently welcomed members of a proscribed opposition group at the embassy several days ago so I would assume that’s what got him booted.

HUNGARY

A coalition of Hungarian opposition parties has chosen Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of the city of Hódmezővásárhely, as its leader heading into next year’s parliamentary election. The entire array of Hungarian parties, from the left to the center-right, has agreed to unite on a single list for this election in what I think could be best described as a desperate effort to unseat Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party. Polling has been mixed but the united opposition does appear to have a chance of success.

AUSTRIA

A new poll from the Austrian newspaper Kurier finds that public support for the People’s Party has crashed in the wake of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s resignation amid a corruption investigation. The party now has 26 percent support, down from 34 percent in the previous Kurier poll and only two points ahead of the opposition Social Democratic Party. Most people seem to believe the allegations against Kurz and the People’s Party, which involve the use of public funds to purchase favorable media coverage, as 71 percent said he was right to resign.

ITALY

Italian media is estimating that more than 50,000 people turned out in Rome on Saturday for a rally in opposition to the Italian far-right. The demonstration was organized by Italy’s CGIL labor union, whose offices were ransacked by far-right, fascist salute-making anti-vaccine mandate protesters earlier this month.

FRANCE

At Jacobin, attorney Raphaël Kempf argues that the French government is abusing the emergency powers it assumed due to the pandemic:

In concrete terms, the sanitary state of emergency allowed the police to search and demand the papers of any person in public space, without having to give any reason why. From March 2020, we were in a completely unprecedented situation, when it was outlawed to leave your home except under certain circumstances stipulated by law. To justify doing so, you had to provide a form to explain why you were outside. This meant that anyone in public space was potentially committing an infraction.

Before, this was not possible. However, unfortunately, there were situations in which the police could search people during a specific time frame and geographical space — for instance, allowing excessive police raids against undocumented migrants.

These total police powers were not just unprecedented but entirely arbitrary. The police didn’t have to justify why they decided to search one person and not someone else. For example, they didn’t have to specify why they stopped a young black man in the 18th arrondissement of Paris rather than an elderly white man in the 16th arrondissement.

From the beginning of the lockdown, I think there was a choice to specifically target working-class and ethnically diverse areas of cities like Paris. This responded to the logic that these neighborhoods would be less capable of respecting the lockdown rules. In the governmental imaginary of the French state, there is an implicit racial bias against certain populations.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

The Venezuelan government has broken off talks with opposition representatives in Mexico City after the US government secured the extradition of an ally of President Nicolás Maduro. Colombian businessman Alex Saab was arrested in June 2020 during a layover in Cape Verde after having been indicted on money laundering charges by US prosecutors. The US government has been pursuing his extradition since then and it succeeded last month when Cape Verde’s Constitutional Tribunal issued the final legal approval for Saab’s transfer. He was shipped off to the United States on Saturday.

Saab has done substantial business with Maduro’s government, drawing sanctions from the US for his trouble, and Venezuelan officials have insisted that Saab is a Venezuelan diplomat and therefore should have had legal immunity from extradition. The US and Cape Verdean governments opted to ignore that claim. It’s unclear how much of the US effort to extradite him was motivated by the actual legal charges against him and how much by a desire to interrogate him about Maduro’s methods for evading US sanctions. I mention this because the former is at least in theory a legitimate basis for extradition, while the latter is not.

HAITI

Haiti’s 400 Mawozo gang is believed to have been responsible for kidnapping a group of US and Canadian missionaries and their family members, 17 people in all, in a community east of Port-au-Prince on Saturday. There’s been a significant escalation of kidnapping for ransom in Haiti this year, with 328 cases having been reported so far in 2021 compared to 234 kidnappings through all of last year. The somewhat notorious 400 Mawozo group, which controls parts of Port-au-Prince and areas to the east of the capital, is particularly active in that line of work.

UNITED STATES

Finally, and although it’s sadly paywalled, I would encourage everyone who’s able to check out the excellent new Foreign Affairs piece by Quincy’s Andrew Bacevich and Annelle Sheline. They outline a few of the things Joe Biden could do if he truly intends—as he claimed in his UN General Assembly address last month—to break with American’s militaristic foreign policy status quo:

There are many other opportunities to demonstrate good faith by signaling a willingness to abide by norms to which most members of the international community have committed themselves. This includes honoring the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1949, which defines collective punishment as a war crime. By that standard, U.S. economic sanctions targeting Cuba and Venezuela are illegal and immoral. They have also proven to be ineffective and should be lifted. As with force itself, coercion by other means should become a last resort. 

Biden should affirm the renewed U.S. compliance with the Convention Against Torture, ratified by the Senate in 1994 but largely ignored in the years after 9/11. And he should endorse Section 2340A of Title 18 of the United States Code, which makes it a federal crime for public officials to engage in torture outside the United States. Closing the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, once and for all offers one way to signal that the United States is moving beyond torture. Biden should also press the Senate to ratify several key treaties and international agreements, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1996), the Mine Ban Treaty, or Ottawa Treaty (1997), and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998). That a badly divided U.S. Senate led by partisans such as Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer is unlikely to take up these matters is no doubt the case. Yet if Biden is serious about aligning the United States with existing international norms, he will at least call upon the Senate to act. A gesture is better than silent acquiescence. 

Biden’s statements regarding “the power of our example” ring hollow when the United States continues to refuse to sign onto or respect key aspects of international law. The existing pattern of U.S. behavior is not difficult to decode: Washington tends to oppose or ignore any international agreement that inhibits its freedom to coerce. If Biden means what he said to the UN General Assembly, that will have to change.