World roundup: October 6 2020

Stories from Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 5, 610: Heraclius (d. 641) becomes Byzantine Emperor after executing his predecessor, Phocas.

October 5, 1789: A group of women angry over high food prices and scarcity march from Paris to the royal residence at Versailles, attracting a crowd of supporters along the way. The “Women’s March on Versailles,” saw its goals morph along the way, from a simple demand for food to a broader call for the royal court to return to Paris, where it might be more immediately accountable to the public. Louis XVI eventually agreed to that demand, and the victory helped lend momentum to the budding revolutionary movement.

A “contemporary illustration” of the march (Gallica Digital Library via Wikimedia Commons)

October 6, 1973: The Yom Kippur War begins

October 6, 1981: Members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during “Military Day” parade celebrating the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. EIJ targeted Sadat over his diplomatic outreach to Israel after the war, culminating with the 1978 Camp David Accords.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for October 6:

  • 36,033,001 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (7,838,932 active, +311,613 since yesterday)

  • 1,054,036 reported fatalities (+5550 since yesterday)

A new paper from the Humane Society International identifies factory farming as perhaps the world’s key driver of future pandemics:

The document identifies five key “pandemic risks” created by factory farming that it says create a “petri dish” for pathogens to erupt, mutate and spread:

  • confining vast numbers of stressed animals indoors creates novel viral strains because their immune systems are weakened so they succumb to viruses easily

  • expanding farms into previously wild areas brings wild and domestic species together, allowing diseases to jump

  • concentrating animal farms in an area increases the risk of pathogens spreading

  • the global live animal trade, in which huge numbers of live animals are transported globally, allows viruses to travel

  • agricultural fairs and auctions and live animal markets where the public get close to species from different places, let viruses proliferate.

UN experts have previously said that industrial animal farming has caused most new infectious diseases in humans in the past decade – and risks starting new pandemics.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 4457 confirmed coronavirus cases (+46)

  • 209 reported fatalities (+2)

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a truck bomb in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab killed at least 18 people on Tuesday, wounding more than 75 others. Turkish forces control al-Bab alongside their rebel proxies, so it’s possible the Kurdish YPG militia could have been responsible. We probably shouldn’t rule out the Islamic State, either, but it’s likely Turkey will blame the Kurds regardless.

TURKEY

  • 327,557 confirmed cases (+1511)

  • 8553 reported fatalities (+55)

Don’t look now, but Turkey’s decision to immerse itself in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (more on that later) is creating exciting new tensions within NATO:

In crisis after crisis in recent years, Turkey’s relations with many of its NATO allies have frayed, but they’ve never fully collapsed. Turkey has purchased Russian air defense systems and angered Washington. Turkey has squared off with Greece and France in the Eastern Mediterranean, invaded northeastern Syria, and waded into the civil war in Libya. All that came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian turn in the wake of a 2016 coup attempt.

Now, many are wondering where the breaking point is—and how close it might be, especially with a potential U.S. administration under presidential candidate Joe Biden signaling a much tougher line on Turkey than the Trump administration’s coddling.

Turkey’s lurch into the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, including the use of Syrian mercenaries that serve as its proxy army, has put some powerful NATO members in the odd position of coordinating its message with Moscow, which has long sided with Armenia. (Many alliance members are on the other side of Turkey in ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya.) Analysts fear that the conflict could spiral into wider regional confrontations; both Turkey and Israel have a close security relationship with Azerbaijan, Russia has a defense pact with Armenia, and neighboring Iran is trying to play a role in mediating the conflict.

I’m still skeptical about the possibilities for regional escalation in the south Caucuses, except insofar as Turkey’s involvement has disrupted the situation, but there’s no question that this is another situation in which the positions of Turkey, on the one hand, and the rest (or at least much) of NATO, on the other, are seemingly irreconcilable. You can add it to a list that also includes Syria, Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, and Russian arms sales. At some point it seems that state of affairs would have to become untenable.

IRAQ

  • 387,121 confirmed cases (+4172)

  • 9531 reported fatalities (+67)

A group of Islamic State fighters reportedly attacked a security facility in Kirkuk on Monday evening, killing two Iraqi police officers and wounding five others. Elsewhere, a large group of Arbaeen pilgrims in Karbala clashed with Iraqi security forces on Tuesday when they attempted to make an anti-government demonstration amid the pilgrimage. Police and paramilitary groups responded violently and at least 50 people are believed to have been injured in the melee.

IRAN

  • 479,825 confirmed cases (+4151)

  • 27,419 reported fatalities (+227)

Iranian officials have partially shut down Tehran for a week in an effort to get a handle on the pandemic, which is once again spiking to new highs in both cases and deaths. Naturally the spike is generating new criticism for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his government.

A US district court last week awarded a bit over $1.4 billion to the family of Robert Levinson, a former FBI and DEA agent who disappeared from Iran’s Kish Island in 2007 while probably on assignment for the CIA. He’s probably dead but Iranian authorities have never offered any information as to his whereabouts and indeed the official Iranian story, improbable as it might be, is that they have no idea where he is. The Iranians aren’t going to pay this money but it could be seized from Iranian assets that have been frozen in the US since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis.

ASIA

GEORGIA

  • 9245 confirmed cases (+549)

  • 58 reported fatalities (+4)

Amid concerns about escalation involving Russia, Turkey, Iran, and other regional players, Georgia’s position with respect to the recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh has been somewhat lost. Eurasianet’s Giorgi Lomsadze reports that Tbilisi has, like Moscow and Tehran, made offers to mediate between Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders, but to no avail. As Georgia has borders with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, is home to large Armenian and Azerbaijani minority communities, and would find itself in the awkward position of sitting between Armenia and Russia should Moscow decide to intervene on Armenia’s behalf, Georgian officials have a powerful interest in seeing this flare-up settled as quickly as possible. But they don’t really have any means to bring the parties to the table.

ARMENIA

  • 53,083 confirmed cases (+406)

  • 990 reported fatalities (+6)

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan conducted an interview with AFP on Tuesday in which he, well, said a lot of things. For example, he identified Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan as the cause of what’s now been more than a week of fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Perhaps more provocatively, he put a little bit of public pressure on Moscow by saying that he was “confident” that Russia would intervene in the conflict on Armenia’s behalf if necessary. Pashinyan, who doesn’t really get along with Vladimir Putin (the feeling is mutual) and would rather not deepen Armenia’s dependence on Russia, hasn’t yet asked for help, but Russia would be obliged by treaty to give its support if he did.

Much less provocatively, however, Pashinyan also said that he’s prepared to negotiate “mutual concessions” over Nagorno-Karabakh with the Azerbaijani government. He understandably didn’t go into any specifics. But the contours have long been apparent of an agreement that would see at least some of the non-Armenian territory around Nagorno-Karabakh that was seized by Karabakh forces during the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War returned to Baku’s control in exchange for some kind of status change for the Karabakh region.

AZERBAIJAN

  • 40,931 confirmed cases (+143)

  • 600 reported fatalities (+2)

The fighting in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, which has now passed its tenth day, continues to take an escalating toll on civilian populations in the region. The Azerbaijani town of Tartar, for example, which sits on the “border” between the unrecognized Karabakh republic and the rest of Azerbaijan, has been evacuated, while the region of Lachin, which sits on the only road connecting Karabakh to Armenia and is therefore a conduit for military forces heading into Karabakh and civilians fleeing it, has been heavily targeted by Azerbaijani forces. And Amnesty International has warned of the use of Israeli-made cluster bombs by Azerbaijani forces shelling the city of Stepanakert, Karabakh’s de facto capital. There have likewise been reports of Karabakh forces using cluster weapons against Azerbaijani population centers. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan is party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans their use, but deliberately targeting civilians is a war crime regardless.

KYRGYZSTAN

  • 47,799 confirmed cases (+164)

  • 1066 reported fatalities (+0)

Overnight violence and protesting in Bishkek, which left the demonstrators in control of several government buildings by Tuesday morning, has led to some rapid-fire changes in Kyrgyzstan’s political situation. For one thing, electoral authorities abruptly decided to nullify the results of Sunday’s parliamentary election. That vote produced wins for two establishment parties, one closely tied to President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and another with the wealthy and politically powerful Matraimov family, but it was marred by pretty well-substantiated allegations of vote buying and other irregularities. A large number of parties failed to meet the seven percent threshold for winning seats, and it was those parties that organized Monday’s protests, which led to the overnight escapades during which at least one person was killed. There may also be a regional dynamic at work here:

Political analysts attributed the Kyrgyzstan crisis partly to the longstanding political, economic and ethnic cleavage between the country’s agrarian south and more developed north. Disruptions in the fragile north-south coexistence have been a chronic source of upheaval in the country.

Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia analyst and commentary contributor to the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Mr. Jeenbekov, who is from the south, was seen as having essentially broken that coexistence. The parliamentary election results gave 100 of the body’s 120 seats to representatives from the south aligned with him.

The critics from the north accused their southern adversaries of a corrupt vote and sent the entire political system off the rails, Mr. Dubnov said.

At some point during the day the second major development took place, which was the resignation of now-former Prime Minister Kubatbek Boronov. Parliament, meeting in a hotel since protesters were in control of Bishkek’s White House, replaced him with an “opposition politician” named Sadyr Japarov, but he reportedly had to flee the hotel when a group of protesters broke into the building. Jeenbekov, who is depicting the protests as an attempted “coup,” now insists he’s in control, but there are plenty of signs to indicate that the situation is far from resolved.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 39,486 confirmed cases (+64)

  • 1467 reported fatalities (+1)

Afghan and Taliban negotiators agreed Tuesday on a code of conduct for their ongoing peace talks in Doha. Or at least they may have—Afghan officials seemed to suggest there were still details that needed to be ironed out. While not exactly a major breakthrough, this does at least facilitate further negotiations, so it’s an important development.

CHINA

  • 85,482 confirmed cases (+12) on the mainland, 5133 confirmed cases (+8) in Hong Kong

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

A group of 39 countries, including the United States, read a joint statement at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday criticizing China’s treatment of minority groups and calling on Beijing to allow UN inspections of the human rights situation in Xinjiang. Like most things that happen at the UN General Assembly this statement is essentially meaningless, but it was amplified a bit by the results of a new survey from Pew Research that finds public disapproval of China reaching “historic highs” across 14 mostly Western countries, also including the US. According to the results, anti-China sentiment is strongest in Australia, Japan, and Sweden, in each of which over 80 percent of the public has an unfavorable view of Beijing.

Along those same lines, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in Tokyo on Tuesday with his counterparts from Australia, India, and Japan, to discuss coordinating their anti-China efforts. The other foreign ministers were a little more circumspect but Pompeo made no secret that they were there to talk about Beijing. The “Quad,” as this group is known, has gained prominence over the past year or two as the Indian government has moved to strengthen its outside alliances at a time when its bilateral relationship with China is weakening.

AFRICA

SUDAN

  • 13,653 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 836 reported fatalities (+0)

Protesters in eastern Sudan have reportedly lifted their blockade of Port Sudan. They’d surrounded the facility on Sunday to express anger over the recent peace deal between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudanese Revolutionary Front. That agreement was also signed by members of the Beni Amer people as representatives of eastern Sudan, but the Beja peoples who also live in eastern Sudan viewed that as a slight toward their community.

MOROCCO

  • 137,248 confirmed cases (+2553)

  • 2410 reported fatalities (+41)

It may be irrelevant at this point with the election looming and with Donald Trump spreading COVID-19 around the White House like candy, but there’s been a story circulating in Turkish media since last month that has the Trump administration offering to recognize Morocco’s disputed claim over Western Sahara if Rabat—you guessed it—agrees to normalize relations with Israel. It’s Turkish media so a grain of salt would be wise, but such an offer would certainly be in keeping with the various other inducements the administration has been offering to other Arab states—the UAE, Sudan—for the same purpose. It would also be in keeping with reports from earlier this year that had the Israeli government lobbying Trump to recognize Rabat’s Western Sahara claim, also with normalization in mind.

SENEGAL

  • 15,141 confirmed cases (+19)

  • 312 reported fatalities (+0)

An estimated three to five million pilgrims are expected to descend upon the Senegalese city of Touba this week for the Grand Magal pilgrimage, despite the pandemic and even though authorities have canceled the annual ceremony associated with it in an effort to convince people to stay away. The Grand Magal is the main annual event for the Mouride Sufi order, which was founded in the late 19th century by Senegalese religious leader Amadou Bamba. It’s meant to commemorate the period during which French colonial authorities exiled him to Gabon.

MALI

  • 3195 confirmed cases (+6)

  • 131 reported fatalities (+0)

The Economic Community of West African States agreed on Tuesday to lift the sanctions it imposed against Mali following the August military coup that removed former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta from office. The junta that ousted Keïta has now installed a partly civilian interim government, though questions linger as to whether that government has any real power.

A couple of rounds of prisoner releases by Malian authorities seems to have paid off on Tuesday, with reports that Islamist extremists in the northern part of the country have reciprocated by releasing opposition politician Soumaïla Cissé, who was kidnapped in March, as well as a French aid worker named Sophie Petronin, who had been kidnapped in late 2016. Neither the French nor Malian governments have confirmed their releases.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 1,237,504 confirmed cases (+11,615)

  • 21,663 reported fatalities (+188)

An anonymous US official told the Wall Street Journal on Monday that US and Russian negotiators had made progress on a deal to extend New START, which will otherwise expire in February. Details of their impromptu meeting in Helsinki are unclear, but in essence it looks like they found some common ground on a broad outline of what a future, post-New START arms control agreement might look like, which is a long way from actually having an agreement or even the framework of an agreement, but may be enough to get a New START renewal before the November election.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says that blood and urine samples taken from Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny show traces of a substance with “similar structural characteristics” to the Russian nerve agent Novichok. Navalny suddenly fell ill in August on a trip through Siberia and was subsequently airlifted to a hospital in Germany. He’s now recovered enough to record videos accusing Russian authorities of poisoning him, though he still has rehab ahead of him and may never fully recover. The use of Novichok doesn’t rule out the possibility of other suspects, but it does mean the Russian government should be considered the likeliest perpetrator.

FRANCE

  • 634,763 confirmed cases (+10,489)

  • 32,365 reported fatalities (+66)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday lambasted French President Emmanuel Macron’s big plan to combat Islamic extremism, or “separatism” as Macron is calling it, and particularly Macron’s comment that “Islam” is “in crisis.” It is unsurprising to see this criticism coming from Erdoğan, who finds a new reason to be angry at Macron pretty much every day. But it’s also unsurprising to see a prominent Muslim world leader take exception when the president of France takes it upon himself to speak authoritatively about the state of Islam around the world. Macron’s purpose in doing so was probably to appeal to right-wing voters ahead of what’s likely to be a rematch with Marine Le Pen in France’s 2022 presidential election, but if he had any intention of appealing to Muslims then he probably should’ve reconsidered his message, and his choice of messenger.

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

  • 7,722,746 confirmed cases (+43,660)

  • 215,822 reported fatalities (+790)

The US Joint Chiefs of Staff are the latest senior figures in the US government to encounter COVID-19. They’re all in self-quarantine following a positive test for Coast Guard Vice Commandant Charles Ray. It’s not clear how Ray was exposed, but it doesn’t appear that he was infected in the wave of virus cases that’s currently sweeping through the White House.

Finally, the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung warns that the “Abraham Accords” may be little more than a new excuse for the United States to send more arms to the Middle East. The potential sale of F-35s to the UAE is only the first part of the story—the second is the haul of materiel Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly after:

Netanyahu's wish list, unveiled on the day of the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House, is long: a dozen Boeing V-22 Osprey aircraft, another squadron of Lockheed Martin F-35s on top of the one already on order, early delivery of two Boeing KC-46 transport aircraft, replacement of Israel's Boeing Apache attack helicopters, and increased numbers of bunker buster bombs of a type that would be useful in an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

If the Trump administration accedes to Netanyahu's request, it will not be cheap. Given the expense of the proposed sales, fulfilling the order would require an increase in US military aid to Israel, which is already slated to reach as much as $38 billion per year from 2019 to 2028.

With all the other urgent needs we face, from dealing with pandemics and climate change to bringing the economy back from the brink of depression, is it really the time to be funneling billions in new arms assistance to the Middle East?

[a helpful reader points out that Hartung missed a decimal point there and it’s actually $3.8 billion per year]

The answer is “no,” especially insofar as all these new US weapons hitting the region could prompt Iran to invest more money into its military, which could in turn spark a regional arms race. That would be great news for US defense contractors and Iranian hardliners, but not really for anybody else.