World update: July 9 2020

Stories from Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

July 8, 1497: A Portuguese armada sets sail under the command of Vasco da Gama bound for India. Da Gama’s completion of the route around Africa was the first direct European oceanic contact with India and stands alongside Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas, for better or worse, as one of the milestones of the Age of Exploration.

July 9, 1368: The Old Swiss Confederacy defeats an army led by Austrian Duke Leopold III at the Battle of Sempach (located in central Switzerland today). The outcome led to a loss of Habsburg authority in confederacy and is considered an important milestone in the consolidation of modern Switzerland.

July 9, 1816: The United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata declares independence from Spain. As most of those provinces went on to form Argentina, this is commemorated as Argentine Independence Day.

July 9, 1875: A group of ethnic Serb insurrectionists clashes with Ottoman authorities in Herzegovina, beginning the 1875-1877 Herzegovina Uprising. The relatively minor revolt eventually drew in Serbia and Montenegro, leading to the 1876-1878 Serbian-Ottoman War and the 1876-1878 Montenegin-Ottoman War. Those wars in turn drew in Russia and led to the 1877-1878 Russian-Ottoman War. If you’ve ever wondered how World War I could have happened, here’s a case study in European dysfunction. The whole shebang here is known as the “Great Eastern Crisis,” the “crisis” being that Russia seriously threatened to put the Ottoman Empire out of its misery and upset the balance of power in Europe. It ended with the Treaty of Berlin in July 1878, which rewrote the earlier Treaty of San Stefano (at British and French behest) to be a little less favorable to the Russians.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for July 9:

  • 12,378,854 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (4,639,858 active, +222,825 since yesterday)

  • 556,601 reported fatalities (+5404 since yesterday)

In today’s global news:

  • Oxfam is warning that disruptions caused by the pandemic, and the various responses to it, are causing widespread hunger that may wind killing more people than the virus itself. Unsurprisingly, the harshest effects are being felt in places where war (Afghanistan, Syria), destitution (Haiti, Venezuela), or both (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen) have already left millions of people in a state of food insecurity. The imperative is not to give up on fighting the pandemic but to build stronger and more equitable food systems that can eliminate hunger and respond effectively in a crisis.

  • A new paper in a journal called Scientific Reports estimates that by 2025 the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have reached a level the Earth hasn’t seen in around 15 million years. Great. First 70s fashion makes a comeback and now this. Anyway, I’m sure it will be fine. I mean, if no human has ever actually lived through what’s coming next, then maybe we’ll really enjoy it. Only one way to know for sure, right?

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 372 confirmed coronavirus cases (unchanged)

  • 14 reported fatalities (unchanged)

In an ominous development, the World Health Organization says Syria has experienced its first confirmed coronavirus infection in rebel-held Idlib province. Idlib is both packed with people, many displaced from other parts of Syria by the war, and has seen its medical facilities pulverized in combat, so it is potentially susceptible to a major and uncontrollable outbreak.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ executive council voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to “condemn” the Syrian government for using sarin and chlorine gas in an attack on the town of Ltamenah in March 2017. The OPCW gave Syria 90 days to fully declare its remaining chemical weapons stockpiles, something Damascus, which denies using chemical munitions in Ltamenah, says it did years ago. If the Syrian government fails to respond, the OPCW will…well, probably it will do nothing, since there’s not very much it can do aside from referring the case to the United Nations Security Council, where Syria will be shielded by Russia.

Speaking of food insecurity, it’s escalating in Syria and the recent imposition of US sanctions promises to exacerbate it even further. The Syrian government’s wheat reserves are depleted, production is down, sanctions are limiting imports, and the collapse of the Syrian pound has made it difficult for the government to buy up whatever wheat supply is available in order to distribute it to the neediest communities. This is another instance where Washington’s “humanitarian exemptions” are irrelevant. The Syrian government is technically able to import bread, but sanctions are going to cut it off from any financial mechanism by which it could conceivably purchase imports.

YEMEN

  • 1356 confirmed cases (+38)

  • 361 reported fatalities (+10)

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen says it destroyed two remote-controlled boats packed with explosives on the Red Sea on Thursday. The Houthis say these were “civilian boats,” which is a little weird but OK, and accused the coalition of violating the terms of the 2018 Stockholm Agreement. The 2018 Stockholm Agreement has been violated by both sides so many times since it was signed that it’s a bit silly to even mention it in this context. Meanwhile, the Iranian government is rejecting a US claim that its forces intercepted a shipment of Iranian weapons to the Houthis earlier this week. The Iranians say that the Trump administration is fabricating the claim in order to generate support for its move to extend the UN arms embargo against Iran.

TURKEY

  • 209,962 confirmed cases (+1024)

  • 5300 reported fatalities (+18)

Turkey’s Council of State administrative court is expected to issue a ruling on Friday to revert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque. There was little doubt the court would go this route, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is under some international pressure over this affair and it’s possible he’ll opt for a more symbolic reversion that satisfies his religious-nationalist base but doesn’t generate an abundance of international criticism. Then again, he may just go ahead full bore in turning the structure back into a mosque.

IRAN

  • 250,458 confirmed cases (+2079)

  • 12,305 reported fatalities (+221)

Iranian state media reported an “explosion” in Tehran early Friday. There’s no official indication where it took place or how severe it was, but at least one journalist is claiming there are reports it struck a missile facility connected with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps:

If that’s accurate then it seems apparent this is yet another in a recent string of attacks on military facilities inside Iran carried out by a country that I’m not saying is definitely Israel. Sari later tweeted a report of a “series” of explosions in several locations, all targeting missile facilities:

This is very much a developing story so there may be more solid information tomorrow.

According to unnamed “senior sources” inside the Iranian government, oilprice.com’s Simon Watkins says that the Iranians and the Chinese government have signed a massive 25 year agreement worth tens or possibly hundreds of billions of dollars to strengthen their economic and military relationship. I’m not yet sure how much to make of this, but if it is true then the implications, as outlined by Juan Cole, are pretty significant:

China will be able to buy Iranian petroleum and gas at an 18 percent discount, and will be able to pay for it with soft currencies it has accumulated. That will probably be another 12 percent discount, given that Iran will have difficulty unloading soft currencies at face value. Soft currencies are those of economically poorer countries and they fluctuate wildly in value, unlike hard currencies such as the the Euro, the US dollar, and the Japanese Yen. Currency traders don’t like soft currencies and will only typically buy them at a steep discount.

So, for China Iranian oil and gas has been marked down by nearly a third.

In return, China will invest $228 billion in Iran over 25 years, though a big chunk of that will be front-loaded in the first five years.

China will build loads of Chinese factories in Iran, in accordance with President Xi Jinping’s directive to Chinese firms to “go out,” i.e. to take advantage of cheap labor to set up factories abroad.

Beijing will also build infrastructure, including hydrocarbon infrastructure. But some of its projects will be green, such as a 560-mile electrified rail link between Tehran and the eastern holy city of Mashhad. China hopes to link its northwest to Central Asia and Europe through new high speed rail links, of which Iran will be a node.

Iranian officials are denying rumors that they’ll allow the Chinese military to use Iranian bases, a step that would violate Iran’s constitution and therefore seems unlikely. But closer military ties are part of the agreement.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 33,908 confirmed cases (+314)

  • 957 reported fatalities (+21)

The Afghan government is preparing to release more Taliban prisoners in an effort to kick start peace talks. However, in the wake of Kabul’s refusal to release some 600 prisoners deemed too dangerous, it’s unclear how the Taliban will respond. So far there’s no indication they’re prepared to open negotiations.

Controversy continues to abound over the alleged bounty program whereby Russian intelligence officers paid Taliban fighters to kill US and other coalition soldiers in Afghanistan. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the Pentagon is still trying to “get to the bottom of this bounty thing,” but pledged some kind of response if it’s verified. He might want to check with his boss about that. Meanwhile, Milley’s subordinate, US Central Command boss Frank McKenzie told reporters that he doesn’t think the bounty program, if it really existed, actually caused the Taliban to kill any more coalition forces than they would have otherwise. The bounties could have been intended for hardline Taliban fighters to entice them to attack coalition forces despite pressure from Taliban leadership not to undermine peace talks. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that anything like that happened, at least not on a significant scale.

For what it’s worth, the Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, calls the whole bounty story “a downright lie.” OK then.

INDIA

  • 794,842 confirmed cases (+25,790)

  • 21,623 reported fatalities (+479)

The Trump administration is, through a very roundabout mechanism, threatening to deport every student visa holder in the US. With colleges and universities planning to limit themselves to virtual classes this fall, the administration has decreed that student visa holders who don’t need to be on campus to attend courses in person must return home. The purpose seems to be to pressure those colleges and universities to fully reopen even if doing so isn’t safe, but potentially this could mean a million or so students will be leaving the US in the next few months. One country that would be heavily impacted by a mass deportation is India, which has a large number of students in US schools. The Indian government says it’s raised its concerns with the Trump administration.

CHINA

  • 83,581 confirmed cases (+9) on the mainland, 1366 confirmed cases (+42) in Hong Kong

  • 4634 reported fatalities (unchanged) on the mainland, 7 reported fatalities (unchanged) in Hong Kong

The Trump administration on Thursday levied new sanctions on a number of Chinese officials allegedly involved in Beijing’s campaign to suppress the Uyghurs. Among these officials was the Xinjiang region’s Communist Party boss, Chen Quanguo, who is the highest-ranking Chinese official ever subjected to US sanctions. The penalties include financial sanctions as well as visa restrictions, so these folks can forget about making a trip to Graceland anytime soon.

Georgia State University’s Dan Altman views China’s attempted (and maybe, though it remains to be seen, successful) land grab along the Indian border is indicative of the way territorial conquests are made nowadays:

Conquests have grown smaller over time, accepting lower rewards for lower risks. For the first time, starting around 1990, most land grabs began to work around defender’s military positions, seizing only undefended areas. Imagine a playing board where pieces can only move to empty spaces. Indeed, land grabs that work around defensive military positions result in even a single death only about one time in three. The bloodshed in Ladakh is, therefore, already worse than average for military operations similar to China’s. For example, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have each occupied features in the Spratly Islands since the 1970s, with only one major instance of fighting in 1988. Even Russia’s invasion of Crimea was largely bloodless. If Beijing hoped to advance without any loss of life, the history of modern conquest provided ample precedents for that.

Aiming small also sharply curbs the odds of external intervention. Modern conquest is largely a bilateral affair, even for countries with allies. It would be historically aberrant for the United States to intervene in the crisis on India’s behalf — or Pakistan on China’s — with any means beyond diplomacy, sanctions, arms shipments, or symbolic shows of force. Larger conquests, in contrast, make foreign intervention more likely because they threaten to diminish the power of the would-be intervener’s ally.

Just as the nature of China’s land grab is dismayingly ordinary, so too is the location. Asia has been the epicenter of modern conquest. Asia accounts for 38 percent of conquest attempts since 1945, almost double any other region. This figure rises to 57 percent if the Middle Eastern portion of the continent is included.

AFRICA

IVORY COAST

  • 11,750 confirmed cases (+246)

  • 79 reported fatalities (+1)

The sudden death of Ivorian Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, who was slated to run as the ruling Rally of Houphouëtists party’s presidential candidate in October, has unsurprisingly led to some speculation that incumbent Alassane Ouattara may reconsider his decision not to run for a third term. Ouattara has maintained that the adoption of a new Ivorian constitution in 2016 reset his term clock and allows him to run again, but he announced back in March that he would step aside in favor of a “new generation” of leaders. Now that his choice of successor is dead, though, maybe stepping aside looks less appealing.

CHAD

  • 873 confirmed cases (unchanged)

  • 74 reported fatalities (unchanged)

A landmine in the Lake Chad region killed at least eight Chadian soldiers on Wednesday. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province is believed to have been responsible.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 7846 confirmed cases (+414)

  • 189 reported fatalities (+7)

Protesters gathered in several cities across the DRC on Thursday to oppose the appointment of a man named Ronsard Malonda to head the Congolese electoral commission. At least three of them were reportedly killed in clashes with police. Malonda is an ally of former Congolese President Joseph Kabila, hence the opposition. His appointment has yet to be approved by current President Felix Tshisekedi, and many of the protesters were apparently Tshisekedi supporters. Tensions between Tshisekedi and his predecessor have been growing, but the reality is that Kabila holds most of the cards, since his Common Front for Congo alliance controls parliament.

One of multiple militant groups in the eastern DRC has announced plans to surrender. The Nduma Defense of Congo-Renouveau, which controls part of North Kivu province, says it has ousted its leader, Shimiray Guidon, allegedly over human rights abuses, and will disarm. The question is how much of the NDC-R has remained loyal to Guidon and whether this is going to lead to the full surrender of the group or a split in its membership. Elsewhere, the Lendu CODECO militia reportedly attacked a Hemu village in Ituri province on Wednesday and killed at least 25 people. The Lendu and Hemu have been locked in a longstanding inter-communal conflict.

EUROPE

CYPRUS

  • 1010 confirmed cases (+2)

  • 19 reported fatalities (unchanged)

The US military is planning to conduct training exercises with the Cypriot military for the first time, and as you might imagine this has gone over extremely well with the Turkish government. Ankara, which supports the breakaway Turkish republic in northern Cyprus, regards the internationally recognized Cypriot government as illegitimate and generally opposes anything that smacks of favoritism toward it at the expense of Cypriot Turks. Turkey also has designs on offshore oil and gas deposits in Cypriot waters, which it seems to feel are rightfully Turkey’s.

AMERICAS

BOLIVIA

  • 42,984 confirmed cases (+1439)

  • 1577 reported fatalities (+47)

Interim Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez has reportedly tested positive for COVID-19. She joins Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as the latest in a small but growing group of heads of state/government who have contracted the illness.

MEXICO

  • 275,003 confirmed cases (+6995)

  • 32,796 reported fatalities (+782)

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador visited the White House on Wednesday for a meeting that seems to have had no real purpose other than attempting to fluff Donald Trump’s image a bit.

Photographic proof (White House photo via Flickr)

A lot of people seem miffed that AMLO went through with this trip, which was ostensibly to mark the kick-off for the “NAFTA 2.0” US-Mexico Canada Agreement but produced nothing of substance, wondering why he would appear alongside a man who has been, shall we say, less than charitable in his treatment of Mexico and the Mexican people. But I’m having a hard time understanding why. AMLO can’t afford to assume that Trump is going to lose in November, and he’s presumably calculated that any damage this appearance did to his relationship with Democrats can be undone when the time comes. Meanwhile, polling shows substantial majority support in Mexico for AMLO’s decision to make the trip, and nothing embarrassing happened during his public appearance with Trump.

UNITED STATES

  • 3,219,999 confirmed cases (+61,067)

  • 135,822 reported fatalities (+960)

Finally, analyst Paul Pillar makes the case for the United States to make itself accountable to international institutions:

At the birth of the United States, America’s leaders acknowledged the importance of what the rest of the world thought about the American revolution. The opening lines of the Declaration of Independence state that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required what most of the remainder of the Declaration provided: a detailed account of the reasons for separating from Britain. Respect for the opinions of people abroad was a statement of confidence that the scrutiny of the world would show that Americans were living up to the principles they espoused.

Such respect is harder to find today. Related trends in American exceptionalism have been under way for some time, but the Trump administration has carried the lack of respect to an extreme. On matters related to human rights and international law, that extreme is illustrated by actions the administration has taken regarding two international organizations in particular.

Not to spoil the rest of the piece, but those two organizations are the International Criminal Court and the UN Human Rights Council. The US has never joined the former, and the Trump administration withdrew from the latter. Neither is perfect, but failing to participate in them only reinforces the sense that the US demands that the rest of the world comply with a set of rules to which it won’t subject itself.