World roundup: September 16 2021

Stories from Yemen, Australia, Somalia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 15, 1821: The Captaincy-General of Guatemala—encompassing the modern states of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—declares its independence from Spain. The date is commemorated as independence day in all five of those countries.

September 15, 1894: The Imperial Japanese Army captures the city of Pyongyang from Qing Dynasty China in one of the first engagements of the First Sino-Japanese War. China opted to abandon Korea to the Japanese, and when the war ended with a Japanese victory the Korean peninsula came under Japan’s regional sphere of influence.

September 16, 1955: A group of senior military officers begins an uprising they call the “Revolución Libertadora” against Argentine President Juan Perón in the city of Córdoba, Argentina. The coup would end with Perón’s resignation on September 21 and the junta assuming power on September 23.

September 16, 1970: Black September begins

King Hussein of Jordan (center) meeting with Prime Minister Wasfi Tal (right) and Army Chief of Staff Habis Al-Majali (left) on the first day of the Black September conflict (Wikimedia Commons)

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

  • Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.

  • The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.

  • According to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), the annual Antarctic hole in the ozone layer is bigger this year for some reason. CAMS Director Vincent-Henri Peuch described this year’s hole, which covers an area larger than Antarctica, as “rather larger than usual” and “quite big and potentially also deep,” which all sounds really normal and unproblematic. Last year’s ozone hole was also unexpectedly large and deep, though scientists still think the ozone layer is continuing the recovery it began following the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which began a global process to end the use of ozone-depleting substances.

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen claimed late Thursday that its forces shot down four Houthi drones and a fifth projectile that had been heading for the Saudi city of Jazan. There’s been no comment from the Houthis.

Seasoned Joe Biden watchers may recall that, in his first major foreign policy speech as president, Biden announced an end to US support for “offensive” Saudi military operations in Yemen. Writing for Brookings, Annelle Sheline and Bruce Reidel reflect on what’s happened since that announcement. Spoiler alert: to borrow from a different Biden statement, nothing has fundamentally changed:

Unfortunately, Biden’s approach is fatally flawed. The president stated that he would “end U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen.” Yet the Saudi-led war on Yemen by definition, is an offensive operation. Saudi Arabia is bombing and blockading another country: Between March 2015 and July 2021, the Saudis conducted a minimum of 23,251 air raids, which killed or injured 18,616 civilians. The Houthis, known formally as Ansarallah, launch missiles in retaliation but if Saudi airstrikes ceased, the Houthis would have little reason to provoke their powerful neighbor. As long as the U.S. materially and rhetorically backs the Saudis’ war of choice, Biden’s assertion that the U.S. would end support for offensive operations is a lie.

The second crucial flaw in Biden’s approach is that he did not call for an immediate end to the Saudi blockade of Yemen. The blockade primarily blocks fuel from entering the Houthi-controlled Hodeida port; the Saudis also prevent the use of Sanaa International Airport. Blockades cannot be defensive: they are offensive operations, and therefore U.S. involvement should have ended following Biden’s declaration in February. The U.S. tacitly cooperated with the blockade by not challenging it, and the U.S. Navy occasionally announces it has intercepted smuggled weapons from Iran, suggesting a more active role than the administration admits. Congress should investigate.

Both the Saudi coalition as well as the Houthis use starvation as a tactic. Yet by not insisting the blockade cease, Biden not only contributed to the humanitarian catastrophe, he signaled that the blockade constitutes an appropriate condition for negotiation. While the diplomats continue to talk, the Saudis are actively starving the Yemenis of the fuel necessary to transport food and water.

TURKEY

The Biden administration on Thursday sanctioned five alleged al-Qaeda “facilitators” operating in Turkey. Three of the five are Turkish nationals and the other two, whom AFP characterized as “financial couriers,” are Egyptian.

LEBANON

A shipment of Iranian fuel arrived in Lebanon (via Syria) on Thursday, courtesy of Hezbollah. It may be the first of many Iranian fuel shipments to the economically devastated country, which counts an acute fuel shortage among its many other crises. That may depend, in part, on how the United States responds. Though Hezbollah leaders have claimed that their purchase of Iranian fuel has been arranged so as to skirt US sanctions (shipping it by sea to Syria and then bringing it into Lebanon on trucks is somehow supposed to help in this regard), it almost certainly does not. The US may decide to let it slide, given the desperate need and the precarious political situation in Beirut. On the other hand, it may take action to prevent Hezbollah from reaping the political benefits of alleviating the fuel shortage.

ASIA

ARMENIA

The Armenian government has filed suit against the Azerbaijani government at the International Court of Justice. The charges are a mix of old (claims of “racial discrimination” by Azerbaijan toward ethnic Armenians going back decades) and new (allegations that Azerbaijani authorities have abused Armenian prisoners of war and other captives since the end of last fall’s Nagorno-Karabakh war). Azerbaijani officials say they intend to file a counter-suit on similar grounds.

AFGHANISTAN

The New York Times says the fighting over Afghanistan has opened up a new front along Washington’s lobbyist-heavy K Street corridor:

A leading figure in the Afghan resistance has retained a Washington lobbyist to seek military and financial support in the United States for a fight against the Taliban, according to a lobbying contract and a representative of the resistance leader.

Ahmad Massoud, the leader of one of the most prominent groups of fighters seeking to oust the Taliban from power, signed the contract this week with Robert Stryk, who built a lobbying practice during the Trump administration working with clients that others on K Street were wary of representing.

The contract, which was filed with the Justice Department on Wednesday evening and indicates that the work will be pro bono, comes as an array of Afghan constituencies are seeking lobbying help as they jockey for recognition in Washington and the international community.

Before you ask, yes, the Taliban is reportedly trying to hire its own lobbyists. But how it’s going to do that, when any lobbyist that took it on as a client would likely be hit with massive US sanctions, is unclear.

INDONESIA

According to Reuters, the Indonesian government is in negotiations with the World Health Organization and several pharmaceutical companies about potentially becoming a vaccine “manufacturing hub.” These “hubs” are part of a WHO-conceived effort to increase global vaccine production capacity and to spread that capacity more widely, so that if one hub country’s domestic demand spikes (i.e., what’s happened in India, which is partially responsible for the drastic shortfall of vaccines across Africa), other hubs could step in to fill the void. The WHO is already trying to implement the program, with limited success thus far, in South Africa. Indonesia could theoretically be next in line. It’s well-positioned to serve as a manufacturing and distribution node not just for southeast Asia, but for much of the Islamic world.

PHILIPPINES

Another favorite to become the next Philippine president has dropped out of next year’s election. Sara Duterte-Carpio, mayor of Davao city and the daughter of term-limited incumbent Rodrigo Duterte, announced Thursday that she will run for reelection as mayor rather than seek her father’s gig. She regularly leads in Philippine opinion polls. Duterte’s protege, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, surprisingly announced last month that he also would not run for the presidency, so there’s something of a vacuum at the top of the ticket at the moment. Rodrigo Duterte has said he will run for the vice-presidency, possibly as a way to remain de facto president and skirt term-limit rules and definitely in order to maintain legal immunity from prosecution over his violent anti-drug campaign.

OCEANIA

AUSTRALIA

Reactions to the newly-announced AUKUS alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have been coming in waves, which seems a little out of sorts for a relatively simple military pact. Under the deal, Australia will procure eight nuclear-powered submarines, becoming the only country other than the UK to gain access to US nuclear submarine technology. One of AUKUS’s other shoes dropped on Thursday, when it was announced that the Australian government has agreed to allow the US military to rotate aircraft through northern Australia.

The trilateral arrangement is clearly another American-organized anti-China effort, and it drew a fairly predictable response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which denounced it as a threat to “regional peace” and warned vaguely that the three nations involved would only be “hurting their own interests.” Environmental activists are warning that the alliance could harm efforts to collaborate with China on climate change, but frankly the US has already done so many things to harm such efforts that it’s hard to see this being the proverbial final straw. It will likely improve US-Australian relations, which haven’t gotten off to a great start early in Biden’s term and still clearly aren’t all that good, considering that Biden forgot Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s name during the AUKUS unveiling on Wednesday.

By far the loudest howls of protest have come not from China but from France, whose Naval Group defense contractor has just lost a very large contract to supply Australia with new diesel-powered submarines. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian went so far as to call AUKUS a “stab in the back,” likening it to “what [Donald] Trump used to do.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to placate the French government rhetorically on Thursday, but given that this French tantrum is more about lost revenue than hurt feelings, I doubt there’s much Blinken’s words can do to calm them down.

AFRICA

GUINEA

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) members held an emergency meeting in Accra to discuss the recent coup in Guinea. They emerged with an agreement to blacklist Guinean junta members and their families and to demand a transition back to civilian rule within six months. The move imposes travel bans and asset freezes on Guinea’s coup leaders, who have been meeting with civilian politicians and other stakeholders this week with the aim of putting together some kind of transition roadmap.

NIGERIA

It would appear that a Nigerian airstrike in Yobe province on Wednesday killed at least nine civilians and wounded at least 23 others. After rejecting initial reports of civilian casualties, the Nigerian military now says it’s “investigating” them, while contending that the aircraft were attacking suspected Boko Haram (possibly Islamic State West Africa Province) fighters in the vicinity. The description of the incident offered by Nigerian officials is that one of their pilots noticed “suspicious movement consistent with Boko Haram terrorists behavior,” which sounds like he mistook a group of civilians for something else and opened fire.

ETHIOPIA

Human Rights Watch issued a new report on Thursday documenting violence inflicted on Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia’s Tigray region:

Between November 2020 and January 2021, belligerent Eritrean and Tigrayan forces alternatively occupied the Hitsats and Shimelba refugee camps that housed thousands of Eritrean refugees, and committed numerous abuses. Eritrean forces also targeted Tigrayans living in communities surrounding the camps. Fighting that broke out in mid-July in Mai Aini and Adi Harush, the two other functioning refugee camps, again left refugees in urgent need of protection and assistance.

“Eritrean refugees have been attacked both by the very forces they fled back home and by Tigrayan fighters,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The horrific killings, rapes, and looting against Eritrean refugees in Tigray are evident war crimes.”

Since January, Human Rights Watch has interviewed 28 Eritrean refugees: 23 former residents of Hitsats camp and 5 former residents of Shimelba camp, and 2 residents of the town of Hitsats who had witnessed the abuses by Eritrean forces and local Tigrayan militia. Human Rights Watch also interviewed aid workers and analyzed satellite imagery.

The UN’s refugee agency says that 7643 of the some 20,000 refugees who were in those camps before the Tigray war began are now missing.

SOMALIA

Somalia’s political crisis deepened on Thursday, when President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed announced that he was stripping Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble of his “executive powers…especially his powers to remove and to appoint officials” until after the next Somali election, whenever that might be. Mohamed and Roble, who have spent months not getting along with one another in the context of an overall political crisis that nearly turned violent earlier this year, renewed their hostilities earlier this month over control of Somalia’s National Intelligence Service Agency. Roble, who called Mohamed’s announcement “unlawful” and seems inclined to ignore it, has accused the president of attempting to undermine plans for a parliamentary election that is currently scheduled for November. The chances of that election actually happening in November are dwindling by the day.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

At least six people were reportedly killed in another attack by the Allied Democratic Forces militia in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province late Wednesday.

EUROPE

BULGARIA

With Bulgaria careening toward a third potentially inconclusive election in November, President Rumen Radev on Thursday retained retired general Stefan Yanev to head a new caretaker government in the interim. Yanev has been serving as caretaker PM since May. His mandate was supposed to expire with Bulgaria’s snap election in July, but that election failed to produce a government and at the rate things are going Yanev may be sticking around for a while.

AMERICAS

EL SALVADOR

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is reviewing a battery of proposed constitutional amendments drawn up by a team of lawyers led by his vice president, Félix Ulloa. Several of the proposed changes, like extending presidential term lengths, have people concerned that they will deepen Bukele’s populist authoritarian bent. On a related note, thousands of people demonstrated against Bukele in San Salvador on Wednesday, many apparently motivated by opposition to his decision to make bitcoin legal tender. The rollout of that policy has been marred in part by glitches related to El Salvador’s crypto wallet, Chivo, which keeps crashing. Some of the demonstrators vandalized bitcoin ATM machines in the capital, a statement that probably would have had greater effect if those machines were actually working.

HAITI

Late Wednesday, after the secretary-general of Haiti’s council of ministers, Rénald Lubérice, resigned while sharply criticizing Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s recent conduct, Henry deepened Haiti’s political crisis by firing Justice Minister Rockfeller Vincent. Henry had already fired prosecutor Bed-Ford Claude on Tuesday, after Claude took steps to charge Henry in the July assassination of former President Jovenal Moïse. He replaced Vincent with Interior Minister Liszt Quitel. Circumstantial evidence ties Henry to one of the prime suspects in the Moïse assassination, while tensions between him and Moïse loyalists in the government are clearly exacerbating the breakdown in order.

UNITED STATES

Finally, recent revelations about Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Mark Milley’s behavior during the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency have raised serious questions as to whether or not he was justified in acting independently of his civilian superiors. But at The Los Angeles Times, Andrew Bacevich argues that the real lesson that ought to be drawn from the Milley affair is that American procedures governing the potential use of nuclear weapons are fundamentally flawed:

Was Trump contemplating an attack on China? We don’t know; Trump himself denies it. Would any such attack have produced disastrous results, as Milley seems to have feared? Almost certainly. Yet while allowing that Milley’s intentions may have been honorable, his actions were categorically wrong and set a dangerous precedent.

But let’s be clear about where the problem lies: It’s with the existing U.S. system for controlling the use of nuclear weapons. That system placed Milley in a difficult predicament. Since the dawn of the nuclear era, Americans have entrusted presidents with the authority to initiate Armageddon on their own. Even though held in abeyance since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, that authority may well stand as the ultimate symbol of the power invested in the U.S. presidency.

The practice is also bizarre and dangerous in the extreme, as the meltdown that concluded the Trump presidency should remind us. And to suggest that Trump’s departure from office eliminates that danger overlooks the very real possibility that another Trump-like figure — or Trump himself — may win the White House again. Americans are not immune from conferring the presidency on figures who may not be models of stability and good sense.