World update: August 29-30 2020

Stories from Lebanon, Libya, Ecuador, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 28, 1189: In an effort to find himself a new city, titular King of Jerusalem Guy of Lusignan begins a siege of Acre. It took the armies of the Third Crusade, under Richard the Lionheart and Philip II of France, to finally conclude the siege and capture the city in July 1191.

August 28, 1521: Ottoman forces under Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent capture the then-Hungarian city of Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár to the Hungarians) and destroy most of it. The Ottomans rebuilt the city and made it the capital of the Sanjak of Smederevo, and within a short time it became the largest Ottoman city in Europe after Constantinople.

August 29, 1526: The Battle of Mohács

August 29, 1842: Britain and Qing China sign the Treaty of Nanking, ending the 1839-1842 First Opium War. China was obliged to pay reparations to Britain and Hong Kong became a British colony, which it remained until 1997. The treaty also ended China’s “Canton System,” which had forced all foreign trade to run through the port city of Guangzhou (Canton) and was the means by which the Chinese government controlled those foreign commercial interactions, and forced the Qing to accept unequal conditions on Chinese-British trade.

A 1846 painting of the treaty signing by British Captain John Platt (Wikimedia Commons)

August 30, 1363: The navies of two competing factions of the Red Turban rebels vying to replace the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty—one led by Zhu Yuanzhang and the other by Chen Youliang—begin a five week battle on Lake Poyang. When it was over, Chen Youliang was dead and Zhu Yuanzhang’s faction established itself as the main rebel group opposing the Yuan. Zhu and his forces eventually overthrew the Yuan and he took the throne as the Hongwu Emperor, the first ruler of the Ming Dynasty.

August 30, 1922: The Republican Turkish army defeats an occupying Greek force at the Battle of Dumlupınar in western Anatolia. In their victory the Turks destroyed the better part of an entire Greek corps and began driving the rest of the Greek army toward the western Anatolian coast. The Greek position was untenable and they withdrew completely from Anatolia in mid-September.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for August 30:

  • 25,378,371 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (6,826,937 active, +220,670 since yesterday)

  • 850,163 reported fatalities (+4182 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 2703 confirmed coronavirus cases (+75)

  • 109 reported fatalities (+3)

Bashar al-Assad has appointed a new cabinet under new Prime Minister Hussein Arnous. Assad appointed Arnous several days ago, though he’s been serving as PM in an interim capacity since June. Changing governments in Syria in 2020 is a little like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic after it had been sitting at the bottom of the ocean for a few years, but with public anger over the state of the Syrian economy growing this is a simple and nonviolent, if pointless, way for Assad to show that he’s Doing Something About It.

IRAQ

  • 231,177 confirmed cases (+3731)

  • 6959 reported fatalities (+68)

A rocket hit Baghdad’s Green Zone on Saturday, to no apparent effect. As usual there’s been no claim of responsibility.

The Wall Street Journal reported (it’s paywalled) Friday that the Trump administration is planning to reduce the US military presence in Iraq to roughly 3500 personnel, a reduction of about a third from the current 5200 US soldiers in the country. As Juan Cole writes, this is presumably meant as a way to let Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi show anti-US parties in Baghdad that he’s making progress toward the removal of all US forces from the country, while also letting Donald Trump tell voters that he’s getting the US out of Iraq. But it’s not a large enough troop reduction to make it look like Trump is being chased out of Iraq, and it doesn’t leave Kadhimi completely without US assistance against the Islamic State or Iranian-aligned militias.

LEBANON

  • 16,870 confirmed cases (+595)

  • 160 reported fatalities (+5)

According to the Lebanese government, the death toll from the explosion at Beirut port earlier this month now stands at 190, with 6500 injured and three people still missing.

While the physical damage the blast did to the seaport can be repaired, the damage it did to Lebanon’s already-broken political system could prove more difficult to fix. There has apparently been some movement on a new prime minister, with speculation focusing on current Lebanese ambassador to Germany Mustapha Adib. He won the endorsement of several former Lebanese PMs over the weekend, including Saad al-Hariri, who remains probably the most influential Sunni politician in Lebanon.

A new PM does nothing to address the deeper underlying problems with Lebanese politics. Toward that end, a number of disparate Lebanese protests groups signaled on Sunday that they’re joining forces in pursuit of a non-sectarian political system and unspecified “economic reform.” President Michel Aoun appeared on Sunday to endorse a non-sectarian political system, calling for “the proclamation of Lebanon as a secular state.” Admittedly that’s a little vague, but it comes in response to comments from French President Emmanuel Macron (who regards Lebanon as a French tributary and holds some leverage in terms of Beirut’s ability to access international aid and finance) calling for an end to the country’s confessional-based political system.

Those comments have even been tentatively welcomed by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose organization has thrived under the current system but said Sunday that he’s “open to any calm discussion for a new political contract.” Nasrallah also said that any reform has to have “agreement from all Lebanese factions,” which could be a high bar considering that the last thing on which all Lebanese factions truly agreed was that they wanted to go to war with each other. Nevertheless, as an organization that increasingly wants to define itself as a powerful political party rather than a militia or outsider movement, Hezbollah is unsurprisingly coming under an increasing level of public scrutiny and even anger over the role it’s played in Lebanon’s broader, failed political system. Nasrallah’s awareness of that hostility may be prodding him toward at least appearing open to change.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 114,020 confirmed cases (+555) in Israel, 22,204 confirmed cases (+536) in Palestine

  • 919 reported fatalities (+13) in Israel, 152 reported fatalities (+5) in Palestine

The Israeli military on Sunday (all together now) attacked Hamas targets in Gaza in response to persistent incendiary balloon launches from out of the enclave. After three weeks some people might come to the conclusion that bombing Gaza is never going to end those balloon launches and indeed may be provoking more of them, but frankly those people are feckless losers. The beatings will continue until morale improves.

A large crowd—estimates ranged from 20,000 to 37,000—turned out in Jerusalem on Saturday to renew their call for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation. This was the eleventh straight weekend for such protests, prompted by Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial and a haphazard response to the pandemic.

QATAR

  • 118,575 confirmed cases (+168)

  • 197 reported fatalities (+1)

The Qatari government announced a number of reforms on Sunday aimed at ending, or at least improving, the country’s punishing system governing the treatment of migrant workers. Included in this new round of changes is an increased minimum wage of 1000 Qatari riyals (about US$275), a requirement that employers either provide food and housing or give workers an 800 riyal per month stipend toward those costs, and the elimination of a rule that required workers looking to change jobs to get permission from their current employer. Qatari officials have been making limited steps toward reform for a couple of years now, but for the most part the conditions under which migrant workers live and work has remained exploitative. These steps could go a long way toward improving those conditions if they’re enforced. The minimum wage and stipend are still too low, but letting workers freely search for other jobs is a welcome change.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

  • 69,690 confirmed cases (+362)

  • 382 reported fatalities (+3)

Emirati President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced on Sunday that the UAE is officially ending its economic boycott of Israel as part of the diplomatic accord the two countries reached earlier this month. The move opens up potentially billions of dollars worth of bilateral commerce, though the two governments still have a lot of ground to cover in terms of negotiating trade and other agreements, as well as in establishing full diplomatic relations.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 38,162 confirmed cases (+19)

  • 1402 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani established a new “council for national reconciliation” on Saturday, under the leadership of former presidential rival-turned-chief negotiator Abdullah Abdullah. The council will have final say on whether to accept a peace deal negotiated between the Taliban and Kabul’s negotiating team, also headed by Abdullah.

The start of talks is still up in the air as the two sides have yet to complete their preliminary prisoner exchange. This new council may throw up another roadblock as its appointment shows that the Afghan negotiating team does not have the authority to make a final decision, authority that the Taliban has reportedly given to its own negotiating team. The composition of the reconciliation council may also prove to be problematic, as it includes a number of ex-warlords, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who fought against the Taliban (at least at times—Hekmatyar’s loyalties in particular have been very fluid) in the 1990s.

CHINA

  • 85,031 confirmed cases (+9) on the mainland, 4802 confirmed cases (+15) in Hong Kong

  • 4634 reported fatalities (unchanged) on the mainland, 88 reported fatalities (+2) in Hong Kong

A new survey of Hong Kong residents finds that almost 60 percent now oppose the new security law the Chinese government imposed on the region almost two months ago, while at the same time support is dropping for pro-democracy protesters. This apparent contradiction can probably be attributed to the security law itself, which has raised public anger even as it’s made protesting riskier and therefore less popular. Support for the goals of the protests has actually increased, while the idea of Hong Kong’s independence still remains very unpopular.

JAPAN

  • 67,264 confirmed cases (+841)

  • 1264 reported fatalities (+9)

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party will vote to choose a successor to outgoing Prime Minister Abe Shinzō sometime around September 15. Abe resigned on Friday, citing poor health, but seems intent on remaining in office until the party chooses a new leader. At least two candidates have already emerged and there are several other potential contenders, but Abe has chosen not to endorse anyone.

AFRICA

SUDAN

  • 13,189 confirmed cases (unchanged)

  • 823 reported fatalities (unchanged)

The Sudanese government and the country’s main rebel coalition, the Sudan Revolutionary Front, have reportedly agreed on a peace deal. If it holds up this could be a major step towards ending Sudan’s myriad internal conflicts, a goal of the current interim government in Khartoum. The SRF’s membership spans the country’s two biggest areas of unrest, Western Darfur and the southern state of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. However, a faction of the Darfur-based Sudan Liberation Army, under Abdul Wahid al-Nur, and a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, under Abdelaziz al-Hilu, have more or less pulled out of the SRF and are not party to this deal. So there’s still work to be done.

LIBYA

  • 13,423 confirmed cases (+465)

  • 232 reported fatalities (+1)

Libya’s Government of National Accord has accused warlord Khalifa Haftar of massing “hundreds” of mercenaries at a town south of the city of Sirte in preparation for a possible new offensive. This force allegedly includes fighters from Russia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The GNA and its rival government based in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk announced a ceasefire earlier this month, but Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” has rejected it and he may be feeling pressure to break the ceasefire to show that he’s not losing power to civilian leaders in Tobruk.

In Tripoli, meanwhile, the GNA is in some upheaval and has been since last Sunday, when a crowd of still unidentified gunmen fired their weapons in order to disperse a crowd gathered in the capital to protest living conditions, and apparently abducted several demonstrators. It seems pretty clear those gunmen were affiliated with Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, a powerful Misratan militia leader who has now been suspended amid what seems to be a power struggle between him, and possibly the Misratan militias in general, and the GNA under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The GNA imposed a 24 hour curfew after Sunday’s protests, though it hasn’t stopped protesters from gathering and they’ve been met with sometimes violent responses from interior ministry forces.

Sarraj on Sunday appointed a new defense minister and army chief in what looks like an attempt to shore up his authority. The new army chief, General Mohammad Ali al-Haddad, is a Misratan so he could particularly help pacify the militias. If this rift widens and pits the GNA against the powerful Misratans, probably the strongest military force in the country aside from maybe the LNA, then Sarraj may find himself in serious trouble and whatever minimal progress has been made toward peace in Libya would likely be dashed. The United Nations expressed concern over the power struggle on Sunday.

MALI

  • 2773 confirmed cases (+16)

  • 126 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Mali’s ruling junta was supposed to hold a meeting of civil society groups, political parties, and other interested actors on Saturday to discuss a transition back to civilian rule in the wake of its coup earlier this month. It canceled the meeting. That’s probably not a good sign. Nor is it a particularly good sign that the junta’s leaders didn’t invite the M5-RFP movement, an umbrella group of opposition politicians that had been leading protests against then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in the months leading up to the coup. It’s unclear whether the outcry over the slight again M5-RFP is the reason the junta wound up canceling the meeting, but that seems like a strong possibility. Some of the movement’s leaders have now started to speculate about the extent of the junta’s commitment to a transition, the first signs that maybe things aren’t entirely copacetic since Keïta’s ouster.

NIGERIA

  • 53,865 confirmed cases (+138)

  • 1013 reported fatalities (+2)

Boko Haram fighters reportedly killed two people and abducted two others when they attacked a farm outside the city of Maiduguri on Friday.

CHAD

  • 1012 confirmed cases (+4)

  • 77 reported fatalities (unchanged)

A clash between farmers and herders in southern Chad reportedly killed at least 10 people on Thursday. It would appear the farmers attacked the herders over a cow that may have strayed onto a farm in the area. Fighting between farming and herding communities is becoming a bigger problem across the Sahel and has reached epidemic levels in places like Mali and Nigeria, as climate change forces the two groups, which have always coexisted uneasily anyway, into closer proximity as they try to share a dwindling amount of arable land.

ETHIOPIA

  • 51,122 confirmed cases (+1468)

  • 793 reported fatalities (+23)

At least 11 more people have been killed over the past week in a new round of unrest in Ethiopia’s Oromo region, probably by state security forces although there’s no confirmation of that. The situation in Oromia continues to deteriorate, undermining Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s efforts to change Ethiopia’s political system and highlighting what’s been a marked shift toward a more authoritarian style of administration in recent months.

EUROPE

BELARUS

  • 71,687 confirmed cases (+164)

  • 676 reported fatalities (+5)

An estimated 100,000 or more people protested in Minsk on Sunday despite word from embattled President Alexander Lukashenko that a new protest this weekend would be met with a forceful security response. The security response appears to have been pretty restrained, as it turns out, with only a few scuffles though there were a fair number of arrests.

MONTENEGRO

  • 4790 confirmed cases (+63)

  • 98 reported fatalities (+5)

An early prediction from pollster CEMI puts Montenegro’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists just barely ahead of the opposition Future of Montenegro party in Sunday’s election, 34.2 to 33.7 percent. Whatever the outcome, at those levels the chance of an indecisive outcome leading to a hung parliament seems fairly strong, but we’ll have to see what the final results are before any determination can be made.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

  • 3,862,311 confirmed cases (+15,346)

  • 120,896 reported fatalities (+398)

Brazil’s environmental ministry has reversed course and now says it will continue its anti-deforestation efforts in the Amazon beyond Monday. Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said Friday that the ministry was out of money and would have to halt operations on Monday, but Vice President Hamilton Mourão said over the weekend that Salles spoke “hastily” and so I guess things are back on track? It’s hard to know, really. Mourão’s comments sound almost like an attempt to intimidate Salles into walking back his comments, but if there’s no money then there’s no money.

ECUADOR

  • 113,648 confirmed cases (+741)

  • 6555 reported fatalities (+18)

Finally, The Guardian reports that one of Ecuador’s indigenous communities is in crisis over the pandemic:

Despite living deep in the heartland of Ecuadorian rainforest, the indigenous Achuar tribal people have fallen victim to the pandemic. Over the last several weeks, Covid-19 has struck at the heart of the Achuar community in Ecuador, which is made up of 13,000 people living in 88 groups over 800,000 hectares (3,000 sq miles) along the Pastaza River basin. A further 15,000 Achuar are based in neighbouring Peru.

Eight Achuar people in Ecuador have died so far, including a four-month-old baby, and around 90% of the country’s Achuars are thought to have been infected to date.

Ecuador has been a hotspot of the virus in Latin America, with more than 110,000 cases reported and almost 6,500 deaths registered.

The Achuar people might have hoped to remain untouched, but that hope expired about three months ago, according to Tiyua Uyunkar, the president of the Achuar Nation. The initial outbreak started in communities “close to the road”, said Uyunkar, who has himself been ill and whose mother is now very unwell.