World update: August 27 2020

Stories from Yemen, Nigeria, Belarus, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 26, 1071: The Battle of Manzikert

August 26, 1922: The Turkish army begins what’s called the “Great Offensive,” its final push to oust an occupying Greek army from Anatolia. The offensive was successful and brought the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, itself a theater of the larger Turkish War of Independence, to a victorious (from Turkey’s perspective) conclusion.

August 27, 1896: Shortly after 9 AM local time, British forces invade the Zanzibar Sultanate over a succession dispute. Around 40 minutes later the Anglo-Zanzibar War was over and Britain’s man was on the throne. This conflict, the shortest war in recorded history, marks the point at which Britain’s protectorate over Zanzibar really kicked into high gear and the sultanate—founded when Zanzibar and Oman split into separate kingdoms in 1856—ceased to be an independent political entity in any meaningful sense.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for August 27:

  • 24,614,495 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (6,694,669 active, +271,952 since yesterday)

  • 834,944 reported fatalities (+6032 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 2504 confirmed coronavirus cases (+64)

  • 100 reported fatalities (+2)

United Nations-brokered talks on writing a new Syrian constitution have resumed in Geneva. The negotiations, which are aimed at reaching a political settlement to the Syrian war via the constitution but are probably a long shot to succeed, were suspended earlier this week after several attendees tested positive for the coronavirus. “Swiss authorities” have apparently decided that it’s safe to start them up again.

YEMEN

  • 1933 confirmed cases (+3)

  • 562 reported fatalities (+2)

New fighting between the Houthis and Yemeni government forces in the port city of Hudaydah has left at least fight combatants dead, according to a “senior security official” interviewed by the AP. A wheat warehouse may have been damaged in the fighting, though it’s unclear. Yemen, with its millions of people in food insecurity, can ill afford new fighting at its largest seaport, let alone fighting that damages its food import and distribution infrastructure. Hudaydah is under a ceasefire that was negotiated last year that has more or less managed to hold, though the city still experiences occasional outbursts like this.

IRAQ

  • 219,435 confirmed cases (+3651)

  • 6740 reported fatalities (+72)

Three rockets hit Baghdad’s Green Zone early Friday, to no apparent effect and with no claim of responsibility.

LEBANON

  • 14,937 confirmed cases (+689)

  • 146 reported fatalities (+7)

At least two people were killed Thursday evening in a confrontation between Sunni and Shiʿa groups in the town of Khaldeh, south of Beirut. The apparent spark was a poster marking the Shiʿa Ashura observance, which begins Friday evening.

OMAN

  • 85,005 confirmed cases (+187)

  • 650 reported fatalities (+4)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concluded his jaunt around the Middle East on Thursday with a trip to Muscat to meet with Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said. It’s unclear whether or not he made an overt pitch for Oman to follow the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel, as he did in previous stop in Sudan and Bahrain, but if he did the answer was apparently “no” or at least “not now.” Given that Pompeo’s trip was largely devoted to trying to muscle another Arab country into opening ties with Israel, the fact that he seemingly went 0 for 3 in that regard suggests his trip was a failure, but I hope it doesn’t get him down.

Pompeo and Sultan Haitham (State Department photo via Flickr)

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 38,129 confirmed cases (+16)

  • 1401 reported fatalities (unchanged)

The Afghan government on Thursday set early September for the long-awaited start of intra-Afghan peace talks. Shortly afterward, the Taliban denied that any talks are scheduled as yet. The remarks from chairman of the “High Council for National Reconciliation” Abdullah Abdullah seemed to indicate that Kabul would be ready to start talks early next month, but as Afghan officials and the Taliban still haven’t completed their preliminary prisoner exchange it’s hard to see how they could or why they would begin negotiations anytime soon.

CHINA

  • 85,004 confirmed cases (+8) on the mainland, 4756 confirmed cases (+20) in Hong Kong

  • 4634 reported fatalities (unchanged) on the mainland, 81 reported fatalities (+3) in Hong Kong

The Chinese military conducted a medium-range missile drill in the South China Sea on Wednesday, the culmination of days of military exercises in that area as well as a pointed message to the United States, which regards the sea as international water and regularly sails its naval vessels through it to reinforce that position. The drill took place on the same day that the Trump administration sanctioned 24 Chinese firms and multiple individuals, mostly over Beijing’s expansive South China Sea claims and its program of building man-made islands in the region to advance those claims.

AFRICA

SUDAN

  • 13,045 confirmed cases (+71)

  • 823 reported fatalities (+4)

Fighting between the Beni Amer and Beja communities in eastern Sudan’s Kassala state has left at least three people dead since Wednesday. The spark was apparently the nomination of a Beni Amer leader as state governor. The Sudanese government is attempting to replace military provincial governors with civilian ones, but in the process it may be stoking some inter-communal hostilities.

MALI

  • 2730 confirmed cases (+13)

  • 126 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Mali’s new ruling junta released former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta from custody on Thursday, after which he returned to his home in Bamako. It’s unclear whether he’s under any sort of house arrest, or is it clear whether he intends to remain in Mali. His release is a concession from the junta to the Economic Community of West African States, a regional bloc that has been negotiating with junta leaders for a rapid transition back to civilian rule. Junta leaders seem intent on remaining in power for the near future and may view freeing Keïta as a way to show that they’re being reasonable without giving ground on their main issue.

NIGERIA

  • 53,317 confirmed cases (+296)

  • 1011 reported fatalities (+1)

At his Sahel Blog, Alex Thurston has another of his weekly updates on Boko Haram and its various splinter groups. These come out every Thursday and if this is a region in which you’re interested I recommend keeping up with them. One interesting item this week is a claim from a few days ago by Ansaru, an al-Qaeda linked group that splintered from Boko Haram in 2012 over disagreements about violence against civilians. It’s been mostly dormant since 2015 but recently has been claiming responsibility for attacks in northwestern and north-central Nigeria. Is there a resurgence at hand? The problem is that there’s little independent evidence that the group is responsible for these attacks, and in some cases, like the one Alex mentions, there’s no independent indication of an attack taking place at all.

Nigeria is a big place with a lot of conflicts, so it’s not out of the question that Ansaru could have carried out an attack that didn’t get on anyone’s radar, but it seems unlikely. What’s also interesting, though, is the increasing frequency and even sophistication seen in the spate of alleged “bandit” attacks in northwestern and north-central Nigeria of late, which has led some analysts to speculate that an organized group, perhaps an organized Islamist group, is lurking in the background. Ansaru could be that group. Sure enough, the Nigerian military earlier this month conducted airstrikes in Kaduna against what it called “an Ansaru Terrorist Sect-linked bandits group.” Possibly just a coincidence, I guess. One of the Islamic State’s region affiliates may also have expanded into banditry in that part of Nigeria as well.

ETHIOPIA

  • 46,407 confirmed cases (+1186)

  • 745 reported fatalities (+20)

The Trump administration has reportedly cut off some foreign aid to Ethiopia in an effort to force Addis Ababa to reach an agreement with the Sudanese and Egyptian governments concerning the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Humanitarian assistance is exempted but other programs are eligible for potential cuts. The Ethiopian government feels that the US is taking Egypt’s side in the GERD dispute, which it probably is because Donald Trump views Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as a kindred spirit, and the fact that the administration isn’t proposing similar cuts in aid to Egypt reinforces that impression. This is going to make it harder for Washington to assume the role of impartial mediator that it’s been trying to fill for several months now in an attempt to chalk up a foreign policy win heading into the November election.

CAMEROON

  • 19,142 confirmed cases (+169)

  • 411 reported fatalities (+1)

Islamic State West Africa Province fighters attacked a Cameroonian town on an island on Lake Chad late Tuesday, killing at least 14 people. Local leaders had apparently ordered residents to stop supplying ISWAP with food, which the group took as part of a coordinated military operation against them.

EUROPE

BELARUS

  • 71,165 confirmed cases (+191)

  • 662 reported fatalities (+5)

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his first public confirmation Thursday that his government will step in to protect his embattled Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, if needed. Putin says that he’s put together “a reserve police force” at Lukashenko’s request, but they’ve agreed not to deploy it unless things in Belarus get “out of control,” which apparently is not their assessment as yet. Belarus’s new opposition coordination council accused Putin of violating international law in establishing the force, an argument whose merits matter less than the fact that international law is unenforceable against Russia and therefore irrelevant.

GREECE

  • 9531 confirmed cases (+251)

  • 254 reported fatalities (+6)

The Greek parliament on Thursday ratified Athens’ new maritime border agreement with Egypt, a step that’s unlikely to ease ongoing tensions with Turkey over offshore drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean. Earlier in the day, the Turkish government extended the mission of its seismic survey ship, the Oruç Reis, which is currently looking for signs of offshore energy deposits in the waters around Cyprus. The Turks also say they’re planning to hold naval exercises northeast of Cyprus early next month. The Greek, Cypriot, French, and Italian militaries are currently conducting joint exercises in the region.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

  • 41,965 confirmed cases (unchanged)

  • 351 reported fatalities (unchanged)

An Iranian-flagged cargo ship called the Golsan that reportedly delivered supplies for an Iranian supermarket in Venezuela in June has now reportedly left Caracas carrying a load of alumina and is sailing east across the Atlantic even though it lists another Venezuelan port as its destination. It’s possible the alumina is bound for use in Iran’s missile program (aluminum can be used in making rocket fuel), but whatever its purpose the shipment indicates that the two countries are continuing to develop their bilateral commercial relationship despite the fact that they’re both under crippling US sanctions.

COLOMBIA

  • 582,022 confirmed cases (+9752)

  • 18,468 reported fatalities (+284)

Colombian President Iván Duque ordered Thursday that the US military advisory unit in Colombia may resume operations. A court had suspended the unit’s activities pending an investigation into whether its presence in Colombia constituted an illegal foreign military intervention, but a congressional committed has concluded that it does not. Duque is hoping to step up efforts to destroy coca crops and may restart the aerial spraying of glyphosate, which the Colombian government suspended in 2015 after the World Health Organization determined that the herbicide is “probably carcinogenic.” So that should be nice.

UNITED STATES

  • 6,046,634 confirmed cases (+46,286)

  • 184,796 reported fatalities (+1143)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield clarified on Thursday a CDC order from the previous day that said asymptomatic people should not be tested for the coronavirus even if they know they’ve been exposed to it. Well, he kind of clarified it. Redfield said the CDC’s recommendation is that testing “may be considered” in such cases. But apparently the agency’s website still says testing for asymptomatic people is not recommended, and given Redfield’s history as a Republican hack this still seems like an effort to fulfill Donald Trump’s mandate to do less testing in order to bring down US infection numbers and therefore make his administration look a bit less maliciously incompetent.

At Responsible Statecraft, Defense Priorities’ fellow Gil Barndollar argues that first term foreign policy of the newly renominated Donald Trump has been a bait and switch:

On a debate stage in South Carolina during the 2016 campaign, Trump attacked the invasion of Iraq and the president who ordered it — points that should have been obvious a full decade earlier but still qualified as sacrilege in the Republican Party of 2016.

The majority of senior GOP national security figures denounced Trump, even after he became their party’s nominee. Thanks at least in part to his foreign policy heresies, Trump defeated over a dozen other Republican candidates, broke both the Bush and Clinton dynasties, and won perhaps the most shocking presidential election in American history.

For advocates of foreign policy realism and restraint, November 8, 2016 was the high point. But both at home and abroad, Trump has since led and governed as a mostly conventional Republican, albeit with an extra dollop of incompetence and chaos. America First has become little more than a slogan and an attitude. With a few important exceptions, the reality of President Trump has not matched the rhetoric of candidate Trump.