World update: June 25 2020

Stories from Israel-Palestine, China, Malawi, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

June 24, 1230: Castilian forces besiege the city of Jaén (Jayyan), at the time an independent emirate. They were forced to lift the siege in September so that Castilian King Ferdinand III could claim the throne of León upon the death of his father, Alfonso IX. Jaén was absorbed into the Emirate of Granada and eventually taken by the Castilians in 1246.

June 24, 1812: Napoleon leads his Grande Armée into Russia. Despite capturing Moscow in September, this was easily Napoleon’s greatest military catastrophe. The Russian army simply stayed out of Napoleon’s way until he was forced to withdraw, at which point his army ran smack into a Russian winter for which the Grande Armée was evidently unprepared. Of roughly 685,000 men who entered Russia under Napoleon’s command in June, only about 80,000 made it out of Russia in December (Napoleon having already returned to France). The disaster was not the end of Napoleon’s empire, but it was a big step on the road toward its end.

June 24, 1948: Soviet authorities blockade West Berlin, setting off one of the most serious crises of the Cold War. Two days later, the US, UK, and others launched the Berlin Airlift to keep the city supplied, and the Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949.

June 25, 841: Charlemagne’s three surviving grandsons via Louis the Pious duke it out in the Battle of Fontenoy. On one side was Lothar I, fighting to keep Charlemagne’s kingdom united under his rule, and on the other his brothers Louis the German and Charles the Bald, who wanted to carve the kingdom up and each take their own piece. The “divisionists” won, which put them in the driver’s seat in the Carolingian civil war and eventually led to the Treaty of Verdun that divided the kingdom.

June 25, 1950: The Korean War begins with by most accounts a North Korean invasion of South Korea, although the Korean People’s Army claimed that South Korean forces invaded their territory first. There was already a North Korean-supported insurgency in South Korea, and conflicts at the Korean border had been going on almost since the Allies liberated and partitioned the peninsula in 1945. The war still hasn’t technically ended, but the fighting stopped in 1953 in a stalemate after two failed North Korean/Chinese invasions of South Korea sandwiched around one failed South Korean/US invasion of North Korea.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for June 25:

  • 9,702,189 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (3,956,235 active, +179,521 since yesterday)

  • 490,988 reported fatalities (+5178 since yesterday)

In today’s global news:

  • The German and French governments have kicked in some extra funding for the World Health Organization, in order to help account for the hole left when the Trump administration withdrew from the WHO earlier this year. Germany in particular has upped its annual contribution for this year to roughly 500 million euros in cash and equipment donations. France is kicking in an extra 50 million euros to the WHO as well as 90 million euros to a WHO research center in Lyon.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 242 confirmed coronavirus cases (+11)

  • 7 reported fatalities (unchanged)

The Russian government has withdrawn from a United Nations deconfliction agreement that is supposed to protect humanitarian institutions in Syria (hospitals in particular) by sharing their locations with all the various combatants. This seems unfortunate. The Russians have been claiming that rebel groups are abusing this system by getting the UN to designate military positions as humanitarian positions, which is its explanation for why they and the Syrian military seem to be constantly bombing healthcare facilities. They’re trying to force the UN to transmit information on medical facilities to the Syrian government directly.

YEMEN

  • 1076 confirmed cases (+61)

  • 288 reported fatalities (+14)

Yemeni government and southern separatist forces are reportedly continuing to battle one another in Abyan province despite a Saudi-negotiated ceasefire. At least 54 combatants have been killed over the past day, according to unnamed “Yemeni security officials” cited by the AP. Saudi forces have been deployed to Abyan’s provincial capital, Zinjibar, to mediate and monitor the ceasefire. They’re supposed to deploy more widely into the province in the coming days, but if the fighting doesn’t let up it’s unclear whether that will actually happen.

IRAQ

  • 39,139 confirmed cases (+2437)

  • 1437 reported fatalities (+107)

Iraqi police reportedly raided the Baghdad headquarters of the Iran-aligned Kataib Hezbollah militia overnight. They confiscated rockets and arrested three of the group’s senior leaders as well as several other militia members. Kataib Hezbollah is suspected of multiple rocket attacks on Iraqi military facilities housing US and other foreign soldiers. Its power as the strongest militia in Iraq and the primary recipient of Iranian aid has largely protected it from repercussions, but Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has pledged to put an end to those rocket attacks.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 22,400 confirmed cases (+356) in Israel, 1382 confirmed cases (+54) in Palestine

  • 309 reported fatalities (+1) in Israel, 3 reported fatalities (unchanged) in Palestine

If you’ve been wondering how the Trump administration intends to respond to Israel’s West Bank annexation plan—which is no small issue, since how the administration responds may actually affect the scope of the annexation—the answer is: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Administration officials are still consulting with the Israeli government and haven’t reached an internal consensus:

Among those favoring Netanyahu’s plan are Trump advisers such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, as well as Friedman, the U.S. ambassador, and a number of Republicans in Congress. They say annexation, in addition to pleasing Trump’s base, would make a peace deal easier because that step would blunt what they believe are unrealistic Palestinian expectations for a future state, according to officials familiar with the matter. They were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

But others in the administration and in Congress want to see no, or limited, White House recognition of potential annexation. They include Pentagon officials and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the architect of the Mideast peace plan, which has been roundly rejected by the Palestinians.

Those “unrealistic Palestinian expectations for a future state” include, apparently, the expectation that such a state might actually exist someday.

The likeliest outcome here is either a full endorsement or an endorsement of a partial initial annexation with a much larger one to follow. One critical factor may be how the administration views its chances of reelection in November. Joe Biden is no friend to the Palestinians but he’s a “two-state” dead ender who is likely to oppose a large annexation because it will undermine whatever zombified chance of achieving the fabled “two-state solution” still exists. If there’s a sense that Biden is going to win, it may push things in the direction of annexing as much of the West Bank as possible as quickly as possible.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

  • 46,563 confirmed cases (+430)

  • 308 reported fatalities (+1)

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli and UAE governments have reached agreement to pool their efforts to counter the pandemic. Emirati officials specified that the agreement involved private companies rather than a direct government-to-government arrangement. The UAE has been walking a tightrope with respect to Israel lately, expressing openness to closer ties while still insisting that it supports the Palestinian cause and opposes the aforementioned Israeli plan to annex parts of the West Bank.

IRAN

  • 215,096 confirmed cases (+2595)

  • 10,130 reported fatalities (+134)

There are reports of a major explosion late Thursday in Parchin, a major Iranian military complex east of Tehran where the Iranian government is alleged to have conducted past research into nuclear weapons technology. The Iranian military is claiming the explosion involved a gas tank near Parchin but was not in Parchin itself, though at this point any claims as to location or causation should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

The Trump administration sanctioned four Iranian companies in the metals sector on Thursday, along with one German-based and three UAE-based subsidiaries. Iran’s metals sector has already been hit hard by US sanctions, though comparatively less hard than the energy sector.

Speaking of the energy sector, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani unveiled on Thursday a plan to redirect a sizable portion of Iran’s oil exports to its Bandar-e Jask port on the Gulf of Oman. The goal is to eventually have the capacity to export one million barrels per day from Bandar-e Jask, though that’s largely superfluous given that Iran isn’t exporting anywhere near that much oil under its current US sanction load. The shift is meant more for national security purposes than anything else. One of Iran’s big standing threats if attacked is to close down the Strait of Hormuz, the bottleneck connecting the Gulf of Oman with the Persian Gulf. That threat is rendered somewhat hollow if closing the strait would impact Iranian oil exports as much as anybody else’s oil exports. By moving their export capacity out beyond Hormuz it makes it easier to envision the Iranians actually closing the strait if pushed far enough.

Bandar-e Jask’s location beyond the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz (Google Maps)

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 30,175 confirmed cases (+535)

  • 675 reported fatalities (+36)

Afghanistan’s coronavirus outbreak is apparently hitting hardest within the Afghan military:

The novel coronavirus is sweeping through Afghanistan's security forces, according to senior Afghan security officials from four provinces who report suspected infection rates of 60 to 90 percent among their units — reducing the number of forces available to conduct operations or take up duty at outposts.

Few have died, the officials say, but little to no testing capacity has forced many into weeks of isolation, leaving deployable forces stretched thin at a time when the country is under pressure from both increased Taliban violence and from the United States, where officials are eager for the government and militants to begin direct talks.

Remarkably, Afghan authorities have confirmed over 30,000 total cases of the virus despite having tested only around 65,000 people in a country whose population exceeds 37 million. It seems unlikely that fully half of the entire Afghan population has contracted the virus, but it’s virtually certain that there are vastly more cases than the authorities have been able to detect.

The US State Department issued its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report on Thursday. Of the countries in “Tier 3,” which allegedly have the worst human trafficking records and are thus vulnerable to US sanctions, most are unsurprising because they’re US adversaries (like China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela) and/or because they’re “Tier 3” regulars (like Eritrea, South Sudan, and Turkmenistan). The one genuine surprise in this year’s “Tier 3” is Afghanistan, which dropped to the bottom tier due to the government’s recruitment of child soldiers and the prevalence of “bacha bazi,” a practice in which regional warlords sexually enslave young boys. There’s not much question that Afghanistan belongs at the bottom of a list like this, but it is surprising that the US government put it there.

INDIA

  • 491,170 confirmed cases (+18,185)

  • 15,308 reported fatalities (+401)

New satellite imagery suggests that the Chinese military is continuing to build new defensive structures in Aksai Chin, near the Galwan Valley region where Indian and Chinese border forces had their fatal brawl last week. Indian officials say those structures are actually on the Indian side of the border, but China asserts that the entire Galwan Valley is on its side of the border. Regardless of which claim is correct, and given that the border is so poorly demarcated the notion that there’s a “correct” answer to this question may be misguided, the construction of the new facilities certainly doesn’t suggest that Chinese forces are trying to deescalate the situation.

MONGOLIA

  • 216 confirmed cases (+1)

  • No reported fatalities

The Mongolian People’s Party won a very comfortable victory in Wednesday’s parliamentary election, taking 62 of the 76 seats in Mongolia’s parliament to extend its time in power. Whatever risk the People’s Party may have faced due to a weak economy seems to have been counteracted by public approval over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

CHINA

  • 83,449 confirmed cases (+19) on the mainland, 1194 confirmed cases (+14) in Hong Kong

  • 4634 reported fatalities (unchanged) on the mainland, 7 reported fatalities (+1) in Hong Kong

A new poll commissioned by Reuters shows support for Hong Kong’s protest movement falling among Hong Kong residents. The survey shows 51 percent support for the demonstrations, still a majority but down from 58 percent in a Reuters poll conducted in March. Opposition to the protests is now 34 percent, up from 28 percent. Support has also declined for many of the protesters’ main demands, including a commission to investigate police brutality, universal suffrage, and the resignation of Hong Kong executive Carrie Lam. That said, 56 percent oppose Beijing’s plan to impose a new security law on the autonomous region, so this poll is not necessarily good news from China’s perspective.

George Washington University’s Sean Roberts recounts the role the Bush administration played in supporting the early stages of China’s campaign to suppress the Uyghurs:

The Uighurs, like the Tibetans, have long sought some form of self-determination in their homeland. During the 1990s, the Chinese government frequently repressed both populations in the name of combating “separatism”, an excuse for attacking minorities that was not palatable to the international community at the time. The 9/11 attacks and the advent of the global “war on terror” changed that equation for the Uighurs. China shifted its discourse about suppressing Uighur dissent in late 2001, claiming that it was combating an international terrorist threat linked to al-Qaida, a justification that was endorsed by the international community.

Initially, the Bush administration refuted this explanation of Uighur dissent in China, but its policy dramatically changed during the summer of 2002 when the US placed an unknown group of Uighur would-be militants in Afghanistan, called the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), on the US Terrorist Exclusion List. Subsequently, the US also assisted China in having the United Nations place ETIM on the all-important UN “consolidated list” of terrorist groups in September 2002. Most analysts at the time saw these actions as a quid pro quo with China in exchange for China’s acquiescence to the impending US invasion of Iraq.

JAPAN

  • 18,110 confirmed cases (+86)

  • 968 reported fatalities (+5)

Due in part to concerns about the overall price tag, the Japanese government has decided to scrap its plans to adopt the “Aegis Ashore” missile defense system. As its name indicates, “Aegis Ashore” basically takes the Aegis system that’s been developed for naval use and moves it to a land-based system. It apparently costs quite a lot of money—estimates put the operation and maintenance price tag at over $4 billion over 30 years—and Tokyo has run into other implementation issues including one over site selection. The Japanese government has already paid the US for part of the system, so now it needs to figure out how to either get its money back (unlikely) or use what it’s paid to purchase a different form of missile defense. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has suggested the Japanese military could change directions completely and develop an offensive anti-missile capability—though that raises constitutional issues given that Japan isn’t supposed to be fielding an offensive military.

AFRICA

SOMALIA

  • 2878 confirmed cases (+43)

  • 90 reported fatalities (unchanged)

A Nepalese commander in Somalia’s al-Shabab Islamist group, Ahsraf Azmi Abu Hamdan, was reportedly killed by Somali security forces in a recent operation in southern Somalia. It’s unclear when the operation took place.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 6411 confirmed cases (+198)

  • 142 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Congolese authorities have declared the Ebola outbreak in the eastern part of the country over, bringing an official end to the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak ever recorded. At least 2280 people died in the outbreak, which began back in August 2018. Its impact was exacerbated by its location in the restive eastern part of the DRC, where medical facilities are sparse and insurgent attacks and inter-communal acts of violence are frequent. It was almost declared over earlier this year, but new cases cropped up. It’s now been two full incubation cycles since a new case was last detected. The DRC is still handling a smaller outbreak in the northern part of the country, along with the coronavirus and the aforementioned violence.

MALAWI

  • 960 confirmed cases (+19)

  • 12 reported fatalities (+1)

Challenger Lazarus Chakwera appears to have won Tuesday’s presidential election, with the Malawi Broadcasting Company giving him 60 percent of the vote compared with incumbent Peter Mutharika’s 39 percent, with the votes from 25 of the country’s 28 districts counted. It would be all but impossible for Mutharika to make up that gap with the remaining outstanding votes.

EUROPE

KOSOVO

After Wednesday’s announcement of President Hashim Thaçi’s indictment by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office at The Hague, the Kosovan government has canceled its participation in what was supposed to be a summit with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in Washington this week. Kosovan Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti could have continued to the talks on his own, but he’s opted to return to Europe to deal with the indictment and its fallout.

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

  • 2,504,588 confirmed cases (+40,184)

  • 126,780 reported fatalities (+649)

Finally, on the anniversary of the official start of the Korean War, historian Owen Miller digs into the competing theories around the causes of that conflict:

What brought this cataclysm on the Korean people, coming almost immediately after four decades of brutal Japanese colonial rule? In the United States and South Korea, traditional interpretations of the war’s causes claimed that it was a product of Soviet expansionism and Moscow’s intent to “communize” Asia. The biggest challenge to this view came in the 1980s with the publication of Bruce Cumings’s book The Origins of the Korean War.

Cumings traced the roots of the conflict to Japanese colonial rule, partition in 1945, and the suppression of left-wing movements by the US occupation government in the southern zone. The US historian presented the war itself as both a civil war and a postcolonial revolutionary war, which had been diverted by US intervention into the form of an international conflict that has left Korea’s colonial legacy unresolved.

Since the opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990s, a newer wave of scholarship has once again emphasized the agency of the Soviet Union in enabling and supporting North Korea’s pursuit of unification through war. Thus, the historiographical debate appears to hinge on whether the war was primarily a civil war or an international conflict between competing blocs. In reality, it is impossible to disentangle these two sides of the conflict, so closely are they interwoven.