World roundup: October 9-10 2021

Stories from Iraq, Pakistan, Austria, 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:


THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 8, 451: The Council of Chalcedon opens, with the aim of settling the Christological debates embroiling Christianity. The council repudiated the 449 Second Council of Ephesus, which concluded that Jesus had one nature that was both human and divine—the miaphysite position. Chalcedon took a dyophysite position, declaring that Jesus had two natures, one fully human and one fully divine, joined in a “hypostatic union.” This became the orthodox position on the nature of Christ, though it didn’t really settle the issue.

October 8, 1856: Chinese authorities storm a British-flagged ship, the Arrow, in Canton harbor on suspicion of piracy. What probably didn’t seem like a big deal at the time wound up kicking off the Second Opium War, which ended with China ceding additional territories to Britain’s colony at Hong Kong and parts of Outer Manchuria to Russia.

October 8, 1912: Montenegro declares war against the Ottoman Empire, beginning the First Balkan War. In a sign of how far the empire had fallen, its forces were both outmanned and outgunned by the Balkan League (Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia, backed by Russia), which won a decisive victory. The Treaty of London, signed on May 30, 1913, ratified Albania’s independence, with its borders to be determined by the “Great Powers” (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom). They did such a good job creating the new Albania that some 40 percent of the Albanian population in the Balkans was left out, causing problems that have lingered to the present day. The treaty also forced the Ottomans to cede the rest of their Balkan territory to the League and give up the island of Crete, which promptly formalized its annexation to Greece. Bulgaria emerged as the new dominant Balkan power, creating an imbalance of power that ultimately led to the Second Balkan War, pitting Greece and Serbia against Bulgaria.

October 9, 1740: Dutch colonial authorities and native sympathizers brutally suppress an uprising among ethnic Chinese citizens of Batavia (modern Jakarta). By the end of the massacre, on October 22, more than 10,000 people were dead—nearly all of them Chinese—and the city’s remaining Chinese residents were moved into a “Chinatown” outside the city that functioned more as a detention camp than a residential neighborhood.

October 9, 1967: Ernesto “Che” Guevara is executed by Bolivian authorities one day after being captured while attempting to foment a communist revolution.

October 10 (maybe), 732 (again maybe): The Battle of Tours

October 10, 1911: An uprising in the city of Wuchang (which is now a part of the city of Wuhan) led by the Tongmenghui movement leads to the Xinhai Revolution. It ended in February 1912 with the toppling of the Qing Dynasty and the formation of the Republic of China. This marked the end of thousands of years of imperial Chinese rule. Commemorated today in Taiwan as the National Day of the Republic of China.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Friday’s Israeli missile strike on the T4 airbase in Syria’s Homs province killed two foreign fighters of unknown nationality. Initial reports had six people wounded in the strike but no deaths.

Reuters has a new piece on the process of reintegrating the Syrian government into the Arab world, a decade after Bashar al-Assad found himself unfriended by his fellow Arab rulers due to the Syrian civil war. As the piece notes, new outreach to Assad, spearheaded by the United Arab Emirates and lately by Jordan as well, is being conducted amid some uncertainty with respect to US policy. The 2019 Caesar Act threatens US sanctions against anyone working with Assad’s government, but there’s a sense that the Biden administration isn’t as enthused about enforcing the act as the Trump administration had been. That opens up some space for Arab engagement with Assad. On the other hand, the Biden administration also shows no interest in suspending the Caesar Act, meaning it or a future US administration could punish engagement with Assad at some point in the future.

YEMEN

A car bombing killed at least six people and wounded seven others in Aden on Sunday. The targets seem to have been a couple of senior figures in the separatist Southern Transitional Council, both of whom survived, but it’s unclear who was responsible. The STC has plenty of foes, including other factions of southern Yemeni separatists, so the list of potential suspects is fairly long.

IRAQ

Iraqi voters headed to the polls on Sunday to elect a parliament. Well, a few of them did anyway. Results aren’t available yet but early indications are that turnout was extremely low, perhaps in the range of 25 percent. There were widespread calls for a boycott ahead of the election, calls that appear to have been answered favorably by frustrated younger Iraqis in particular. In this environment the parties that did well in Iraq’s 2018 vote—Muqtada al-Sadr’s Reform Alliance and the militia-affiliated Fatah party—are likely to retain their prominence in the new parliament. As usual the post-election period will involve considerable horse trading over who gets to control which ministries and who gets to serve as prime minister.

LEBANON

Lebanon’s two largest power plants ran out of fuel on Saturday, raising fears of an extended nationwide blackout. Those concerns were alleviated somewhat on Sunday when the Lebanese military supplied both plants with enough fuel that they should be able to remain in operation until a new fuel shipment can be offloaded and distributed. I say “alleviated somewhat” because if the plants ran out of fuel once that means it could happen again, and the Lebanese military’s ability to step in and serve as a stopgap is uncertain.

IRAN

The head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Mohammad Eslami, told state media on Sunday that Iran has produced over 120 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium, substantially more than the 84.3 kilograms the International Atomic Energy Agency said last month that Iran had produced. The 2015 nuclear deal barred Iran from enriching uranium past 3.67 percent, but since Donald Trump tore up that agreement in 2018 Iran has been stepping down its compliance with its obligations. Uranium at 20 percent enrichment is fairly close to the weapons grade level in terms of the amount of centrifuge time and effort needed to get from that level to 90+ percent enrichment. It’s also useful in research reactors, which aren’t meant for energy production but can be used in a variety of applications including the manufacture of medical isotopes.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In Qatar, US and Taliban officials held their first face to face talks this weekend since the latter retook control of Afghanistan. The full agenda for those negotiations is unclear and the outcome won’t be known for some time if ever, but the Taliban did emerge on Sunday trumpeting a US agreement to “provide humanitarian aid” to Afghanistan, whatever that may mean.

PAKISTAN

Deputy US Secretary of State visited Pakistan over the weekend, but not before she made some unusually blunt comments about the US-Pakistani relationship during a stop in India. Sherman told an audience in Mumbai that “we don’t see ourselves building a broad relationship with Pakistan,” which presumably didn’t go over very well in Islamabad as she was subsequently denied a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. There’s no doubt the bilateral relationship has collapsed in recent years as the US has embraced conflict with China (Pakistan’s main ally/patron) and a closer relationship with India, and because of Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban. But Khan seems to be both angry and concerned by the fact that US President Joe Biden has yet to even speak with him by phone, which suggests the relationship has hit rock bottom or is at least very close to doing so.

BANGLADESH

The United Nations and Bangladeshi government have agreed to work together to improve living conditions for Rohingya refugees who are now living on Bhasan Char island in the Bay of Bengal. Bangladeshi authorities established a refugee facility on Bhasan Char ostensibly to relieve overcrowding at packed mainland camps, but their real motive seems to have been more of an “out of sight, out of mind” consideration.

The thing is, conditions on Bhasan Char are so dire, between the nonexistent local economy, the prison camp vibes, and the fact that the island itself periodically sinks, that the Rohingya there are not really out of sight and in fact keep trying to escape. Even that may have been part of the master plan, in the sense that making the refugees’ lives miserable could motivate them to go back to Myanmar even though they conditions they fled there have if anything gotten worse. But most Rohingya have refused to move to the island, and if the UN can improve conditions there it might prompt more relocation from the mainland.

TAIWAN

The Chinese and Taiwanese governments had themselves a little exchange over the weekend to mark Taiwan’s national day (see above). It started with Chinese President Xi Jinping promising on Saturday to achieve “the complete reunification” of China—preferably peacefully but by other means if necessary. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen responded in her national day address on Sunday, saying among other things that “there should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure” from mainland China. This triggered a response from the Chinese Taiwan Affairs Office, which according to Al Jazeera accused Tsai of having “incited confrontation and distorted facts,” while saying that her inclination toward Taiwanese independence “closes the door to dialogue.”

None of this banter really means very much, but I feel like it’s been a long time since I got to use the Days of Our Lives video so here we go:

AFRICA

TUNISIA

An estimated 5000+ people demonstrated in Tunis on Sunday against President Kais Saied’s assumption of unchecked authority—or self-coup depending on your point of view. This was the largest anti-Saied protest since the president suspended parliament and sacked his cabinet under emergency powers back in July. The crowd size is a bit smaller than, but relatively comparable to, the ~8000 who demonstrated last weekend in support of Saied—though it’s vastly smaller than the 1.8 million Saied seems to believe turned out to back him. Observers of Tunisia’s political crisis have been trying to divine the level of popular support for Saied’s power grab based on the sizes of these sorts of public gatherings. They’re probably not a great barometer.

NIGERIA

Some 20 people, possibly more, were killed on Friday when bandits rolled through a market in northwestern Nigeria’s Sokoto state. Details are spotty so it’s unclear whether the bandits were there to kidnap people, loot the market, or just do some random killing.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Suspected Allied Democratic Forces fighters reportedly attacked two villages near the city of Beni in the eastern DRC late Friday, killing at least eight people in total and kidnapping several others. ADF fighters also reportedly attacked a third village on Sunday morning but were driven back by Congolese security forces in a clash that left one of the militants dead.

EUROPE

POLAND

An estimated 100,000+ Poles protested in Warsaw and more in other Polish towns and cities on Sunday in support of their country’s continued membership in the European Union. Thursday’s ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, which called the principle of EU legal primacy into question, raised concerns both inside and outside Poland that we could be headed for another EU departure, this time called (you can imagine me sighing heavily here) “Polexit.” Leaders of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, which has a euroskeptical orientation, have been at pains over the past few days to insist they have no intention of quitting the bloc. Sunday’s demonstrations were organized by Polish opposition parties.

CZECHIA

In what has to be considered a surprise given what pre-election polling suggested, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s ANO 2011 party lost this weekend’s parliamentary election. Polling had suggested that ANO would win the election, though Babiš’s ability to form a coalition was unclear given both his current coalition partner, the Czech Social Democratic Party, and the Czech Communist Party, on which he has relied for parliamentary support, looked like they would fail to clear the 5 percent threshold and would thus be out of the next parliament altogether. The polling did get that part right, but it underestimated support for the opposition Together alliance, which took 27.8 percent of the vote to ANO’s 27.1 percent. The “Pirates and Mayors” alliance, which had agreed to go into coalition with Together before the election, took 15.6 percent of the vote. Their coalition should hold 108 seats in the 200 seat Chamber of Deputies, a small but comfortable majority.

Babiš may still get first crack at forming a government. Czech President Miloš Zeman seems to be fond of him, and Zeman has said he would tap the leader of the largest single party to emerge from the election as PM. That’s technically still Babiš, since Together is an alliance of parties. But Babiš has no path to either a majority or minority government if the two alliances stick to their coalition plan. At any rate the process could be drawn out, particularly as Zeman was admitted to intensive care on Sunday for an unspecified medical ailment. The Czech president must oversee the government formation process, and if Zeman needs time to recover—or if he doesn’t recover—that will delay things.

AUSTRIA

In another surprise turn of events, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz abruptly resigned on Saturday amid a corruption scandal that’s threatening to wreck his People’s Party’s coalition with the Austrian Green Party. Werner Kogler, the leader of the Greens and Austrian vice-chancellor, revealed on Thursday that he was in consultation with Austrian opposition parties about possibly backing a no confidence resolution against Kurz. On Friday he offered Kurz a way out, suggesting that the Greens could remain in the coalition if the chancellor himself were to step aside. So he did, installing Alexander Schallenberg (previously Kurz’s foreign minister) in his place. The coalition will thus continue and Kurz will remain People’s Party leader and a member of parliament. It’s conceivable that if he’s ultimately cleared in the corruption case—as he insists he will be—he could return as chancellor.

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

Finally, Yahoo! News reported a couple of weeks ago on discussions that took place within the Central Intelligence Agency and other parts of the Trump administration about a potential operation to either kidnap or murder Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who at the time was being given refuge in Ecuador’s UK embassy. Since we’re celebratating journalists this year, at least according to the Nobel Committee, I thought it would be interesting to end tonight with a segment of a new piece from FAIR about the lengths to which Western media outlets have gone to bury that Assange story:

It would seem that covert plans for the state-sanctioned murder on British soil of an award-winning journalist should attract sustained, wall-to-wall media coverage.

The news, however, has been met by Western establishment media with ghoulish indifference—a damning indictment of an industry that feverishly condemns attacks on press freedom in Official Enemy states.

BBC News, one of the most-read news outlets in the world, appears to have covered the story just once—in the Somali-language section of the BBC website (Media Lens on Twitter, 9/30/21).

Neither the New York Times or Washington Post, two of the world’s leading corporate news organizations, have published any articles about Assange since July 2021.

To its credit, since the story first broke on September 26, the Guardian has reported twice on the CIA-led conspiracy to kill or kidnap Assange. But to offer perspective, during the week after Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny was reported to have been poisoned by the Russian government, the Guardian published 16 separate pieces on the issue, including video reports and opinion pieces.

Similarly, a Nexis search of British newspapers for the word “Navalny” brings up 288 results from August 20–25, 2020. The same search for “Assange” between September 26–October 1, 2021, brings up a meager 29 results—one of which, a notable exception, was a Patrick Cockburn piece in the Independent (10/1/21).