World roundup: October 19 2021

Stories from North Korea, Poland, Brazil, and more

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October 18, 1009: Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim destroys the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

October 18, 1912: The Italo-Turkish War ends with a decisive Italian victory. The war not only brought Libya under Italian control—though that control initially didn’t extend very far inland—it also demonstrated the Ottoman Empire’s weakness and encouraged Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia to form an alliance (the Balkan League) and go to war with the empire. The First Balkan War led to a Second Balkan War when the league broke up, and that led (in part) into World War I.

October 19, 1469: Prince Ferdinand of Aragon marries Infanta Isabella of Castile in the marriage that would eventually unite the two kingdoms and give birth to the nation of Spain.

October 19, 1781: The Siege of Yorktown ends with a French-American victory over the British army under Lord Charles Cornwallis. The surrender of an entire British army marked the effective end of the American Revolution.


In today’s global news:



It was a bit of a down day for the Saudi military, which said on Tuesday that it had killed a mere 48 Houthi fighters in airstrikes south of Maʾrib city. The Saudis have been claiming an average of 150 or more kills per day for the past week. The Houthis have continued to gain ground, albeit slowly, despite the (unconfirmed) death toll.


The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the ambassadors of Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, [deep breath] Norway, Sweden, and the United States on Tuesday to issue a whole bunch of complaints related to Ankara’s ongoing imprisonment of activist/philanthropist Osman Kavala. Those ten countries issued a joint statement on Monday, the fourth anniversary of Kavala’s detention, calling for his release—reinforcing a 2019 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights to that same end. Kavala is accused of organizing the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul and of involvement in the Turkish military’s 2016 coup attempt, and is charged with crimes including the attempted overthrow of the Turkish government. He denies the accusations and internationally is regarded as a political prisoner.

In a similar vein, the European Commission issued a report on Tuesday that concluded that Turkey’s European Union membership application has “effectively come to a standstill.” The surprisingly (for diplomatic work) blunt document cited “the continued deterioration of democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary” within Turkey as the reason it’s unlikely to get into the club. The Turkish Foreign Ministry issued an angry denunciation of the report and its “unfair criticisms and baseless claims,” accusing the EU of adopting a “double-standard approach” with respect to Turkey’s application.


Hundreds of fans of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization militias—so, I’m guessing, mostly militia fighters and their families—have reportedly begun a sit-in protest in Baghdad’s secure Green Zone over the results of this month’s parliamentary election. Though official results haven’t been announced and there’s been some dispute over the preliminary vote count, the militias’ joint political arm, the Fatah Alliance, looks to have been one of the election’s big losers, dropping from 48 seats in the current parliament to perhaps as few as 15 in the next one. They’re insisting this is due to fraud, I guess because they can’t think of any other reason why large numbers of Iraqis might not have felt like empowering the militias. It’s a real head-scratcher. Fatah leaders are planning to appeal the results, though they can’t do so until the results have been released.


The Lebanese parliament voted Tuesday to schedule the country’s 2022 election for March 27. Lebanon was due for a parliamentary election by next May, so this is a bit early but not much. Prime Minister Najib Mikati is reasonably likely to retain his post in the next parliament, but even so he’ll likely be racing to secure an influx of foreign aid ahead of the vote. That could help reduce the chances of election-related unrest.


A Palestinian gathering to celebrate Mawlid (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) in eastern Jerusalem turned violent on Tuesday when, go figure, Israeli police showed up. In a repeat of their Ramadan practice, the cops reportedly intervened to break up crowds at the Damascus Gate leading into the Haram al-Sharif. Some Palestinians reacted by throwing rocks at the police, who in turn responded with stun grenades. The Palestinian Red Crescent has confirmed at least 17 people wounded and Israeli authorities say they arrested 11 people.

Elsewhere, Israeli officials are registering some 4000 Palestinians as legal residents of the West Bank, in what The Associated Press characterizes as a “gesture” to the Palestinian Authority. Think of it as the least they could do, though frankly I’m not sure it even qualifies as that. Most of these new West Bank residents, around 2800, have relocated from Gaza but have yet to obtain legal status, while another 1200 have been living in the West Bank for some time but haven’t qualified as residents under Israeli occupation law. This is one of several steps the Israeli government is taking to help boost the PA’s ruling party, Fatah, in its rivalry with Hamas. It’s also lending the PA around $155 million and is increasing the number of permits allowing Palestinians to work in Israel proper.



Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani has distributed cash to the families of past suicide bombers and promised them plots of land, according to a ministry spokesperson. Although I think there’s an argument to be made that those bombers were combatants in a war and therefore this is basically a survivors’ benefit program, nevertheless it’s likely to make it harder for the Taliban to gain international diplomatic recognition. I haven’t seen a reaction from the United States but if one is forthcoming I can’t imagine it will be positive or even neutral.

In concert with the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the Taliban has agreed to resume Afghanistan’s polio vaccination program effective November 8. Afghanistan has seen an increasing number of polio cases over the past few years as its vaccination efforts derailed, recently due to the pandemic but before that because of the threat of violence from both the Taliban and Islamic State.


North Korea conducted another weapons test on Tuesday, this time of what appears to have been two submarine-launched ballistic missiles according to the South Korean military and Japanese government (North Korean media later confirmed the test). North Korean has been working on SLBMs for several years now and the only real question remaining about its program is whether it has a submarine capable of launching them. Its unclear whether this test involved an actual submarine or a submerged launch platform, as North Korea’s previous SLBM tests have used.


A new poll from Japanese public broadcast network NHK finds that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is bleeding support ahead of the country’s October 31 parliamentary election. The survey puts LDP at 38.8 percent support, down from 41.2 in the same poll last week. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is also losing support—his approval rating dropped three points to 46 percent. Despite its slide, LDP remains far ahead of the second-place Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, which has a mere 6.6 percent support, so there’s little question it will retain control of the government following the election. Its margin of victory, however, remains to be seen.



French soldiers shot and killed a woman during what Agence France-Presse termed “an anti-jihadist reconnaissance operation with Malian soldiers” in northern Mali on Monday. It appears that she was one of two people riding a motorcycle who fled from the French and Malian forces. A weapon and ammunition were found with the motorcycle.

Mali’s Islamic High Council is apparently planning to meet, at the government’s request, with Iyad Ag Ghaly and Amadou Kouffa, leaders of the al-Qaeda linked Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin jihadist group. It’s unclear when this dialogue will take place or even if it will, as it sounds like the council is still trying to make arrangements with the JNIM leaders. Malian authorities have periodically pursued negotiations with Malian jihadist leaders, whose militancy is rooted more in local political grievances than in international jihadist ideology, but those sorts of interactions haven’t advanced past the local level in part due to French resistance. With relations between the Malian and French governments not looking so hot these days, Bamako may have more latitude to engage with militants than usual.


Authorities say that at least 24 Islamist militants have been killed in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno province over the past couple of days. Officials say that an army unit killed 16 Boko Haram fighters in one engagement near the city of Maiduguri while a Nigerian-Cameroonian force killed four Islamic State West Africa Province fighters in a separate engagement late Monday. Four more ISWAP were killed when their truck apparently ran over an explosive device.

Elsewhere, Nigerian authorities are claiming to have killed over 50 “bandits” in a helicopter operation in Kaduna state. It’s not entirely clear from the reporting when this operation took place.


Israeli media outlets are reporting that Comoros is in talks to become the fifth Arab nation in the past two years to agree to normalize relations with Israel, alongside Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Sudan (which hasn’t yet ratified its normalization deal). Both the Biden administration and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett are interested in building upon last year’s “Abraham Accords,” which were the product of their respective predecessors, the Trump administration and Benjamin Netanyahu. Comoros isn’t exactly Israel’s top target among Arab states but an agreement could restore some momentum to the normalization process. It’s unclear what Comoros would get out of the arrangement, if anything.



Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki found himself the star of Tuesday’s session of the European Parliament, as debate swirled over this month’s Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruling that subordinated EU law to the Polish constitution. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen laid out the possible repercussions Poland could be facing if Morawiecki’s government does not accept the primacy of EU law, which could include a loss of aid and limitations on Poland’s rights as an EU member state (up to and including its basic voting rights). The bloc has yet to take any decision as to its response but it would appear that letting bygones be bygones is not an option. Morawiecki accused the EU of attempting to “blackmail” Poland with the threat of financial penalties.


The news that Czech President Miloš Zeman’s medical condition is serious enough to prevent him from carrying out the duties of his office, which Senate President Miloš Vystrčil made public on Monday, has sparked a scandal in Czech politics. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, still in office until the Czech parliament meets to choose his successor, is now accusing Vratislav Mynář, Zeman’s chief of staff, of deliberately concealing the severity of Zeman’s situation and maybe even going so far as to forge the president’s signature. He’s calling for Mynář to be sacked, but Zeman is the only person who could do that and, well, he’s apparently incapacitated.



The Brazilian Senate’s investigation into the country’s response to COVID has concluded that President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with murder:

The draft report accuses Brazil’s far-right leader of a total of 11 crimes, including crimes against humanity, incitement to crime, and charlatanism, for his “obstinate” promotion of ineffective remedies such as the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

But perhaps the most serious allegation is that Bolsonaro’s shunning of offers from vaccine manufacturers during the first year of Brazil’s epidemic amounted to murder.

The report says: “In spite of all the vaccines that were on offer, the federal government opted not to buy them, a decision that went against all of the scientific studies which demonstrated their safety and effectiveness, and against the advice of all of the epidemiologists who declared on a daily basis that only vaccines would save lives.

“The decision not to acquire vaccines between the months of July 2020 and at least January 2021, which lacked any technical or scientific basis, and flew in the face of recommendations from international health authorities, ended up claiming the lives of thousands of Brazilians who would undoubtedly have made use of such vaccines,” it continued.

Needless to say the chances of the sitting president of Brazil going on trial are extremely remote. But the report could impact Bolsonaro’s already low approval rating, setting him up for defeat in next year’s presidential election.


Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso declared a 60 day state of emergency on Monday in an effort to crack down on drug trafficking. The declaration gives Lasso the leeway to deploy Ecuador’s military alongside police. Much of the crackdown will likely focus on Guayas province, which has seen a sharp rise in drug-related killings and other crimes. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Lasso in Quito on Tuesday on the first leg of a trip that will take him to Colombia later in the week and came away assured that the Ecuadorian leader “is committed to upholding” democratic values during the state of emergency. So that’s nice.


Finally, the US Treasury Department released its review of US sanctions policy on Monday to little fanfare, mostly because the review contained little of note. Instead of drawing any meaningful conclusions like, say, “we’re starving people for no reason,” the report offered some vague pablum about making sanctions “as effective as possible” in a world where it’s arguably easier than ever to find alternatives to the US dollar (cryptocurrencies, for example).

The Treasury Department’s press release lists five “key recommendations” to improve the sanctions system moving forward:

  1. Adoption of a structured policy framework that links sanctions to a clear policy objective.

  2. Multilateral coordination wherever possible.

  3. Calibration of sanctions to mitigate unintended economic, political, and humanitarian impact.

  4. Ensuring sanctions are easily understood, enforceable, and, where possible, reversible.

  5. Investment in modernizing Treasury’s sanctions technology, workforce, and infrastructure.

The parts of this that aren’t pablum are instead the same boilerplate language the US government has always used to describe its sanctions—we’re continually told, for example, that the US carefully calibrates its sanctions to mitigate unintended humanitarian impact. The humanitarian impact they always have must be intended, then, or else this sort of calibration must not work. There was an opening here for some genuine insight—the realization that linking sanctions to a clear (or even a fuzzy) policy objective is pointless because sanctions don’t work that way—but apparently nobody in the US government is prepared to acknowledge that basic and well-demonstrated fact. Apologies to the populations of Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, et al, but the beatings (starvation, deprivation of medicine, etc.) will continue until morale improves.