World update: September 10 2020

Stories from Egypt, Afghanistan, Greece, and more

I hope you’ve had a chance to read Daniel Bessner’s first piece for Foreign Exchanges. His columns will be appearing monthly and will cover a range of subjects from commentaries on current events to pieces that get into the intellectual underpinnings of US foreign policy. If you’re not already on our free email list, sign up today so you won’t miss them! And if you are already on the list, please consider subscribing! Your support will make it possible for me to keep Daniel around and to expand FX to add other voices on a range of topics. Subscribe this month and get 20% off your first year—that’s $4 per month or just $40 for an annual subscription:


THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 9, 1493: The Battle of Krbava Field results in an Ottoman victory over a Croatian army led by the Hungarian viceroy, or ban, of Croatia, Emerik Derenčin. The Croatian army was almost entirely wiped out and Derenčin was killed, and while the Ottomans didn’t seize any territory immediately they were able to slowly expand into southern Croatia after the battle.

September 9, 1855: The nearly year-long Siege of Sevastopol ends with a Russian withdrawal from the city. The siege is among the most famous in history and the centerpiece of the Crimean War—it’s pretty much the reason we call it the “Crimean War,” since most of the other fighting in that conflict took place elsewhere. The Allied capture of the city contributed heavily to Russia’s eventual defeat.

September 9, 1948: New premier Kim Il-sung declares the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Commemorated annually in North Korea as the “Day of the Foundation of the Republic.”

September 10, 1813: In one of the largest naval engagements in the War of 1812, a US fleet defeats a smaller British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie. This was a significant strategic victory, in that it gave the US control of the lake and enabled both the recapture of Detroit in late September and the US defeat of Tecumseh’s confederacy at the Battle of the Thames in early October. The victory also prompted US Commodore Oliver Perry’s famous message to General William Henry Harrison: “we have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Artist Thomas Birch’s 1814 painting Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie (Wikimedia Commons)

September 10, 1918: The Red Army captures Kazan from the White Army and allied militias during the Russian Civil War.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for September 10:

  • 28,317,677 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (7,071,740 active, +302,593 since yesterday)

  • 913,292 reported fatalities (+5992 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 3416 confirmed coronavirus cases (+65)

  • 147 reported fatalities (+4)

According to Syrian media, the country’s air defenses intercepted an Israeli missile strike targeting Aleppo early Friday. Typically initial reports overstate the extent of the air defenses’ success, which means we’ll probably have reports of damage and/or casualties from this attack in tomorrow’s update.

Unknown gunmen shot and killed a Syrian general late Wednesday in Daraa province, the second such killing since the Syrian government regained control of the province back in 2018. This is the latest in a long string of targeted killings of Syrian forces in that region (if you follow that Twitter thread you’ll see two more Syrian soldiers were killed in Daraa on Thursday). A number of former rebels who have entered negotiations with the Syrian government have also been killed. It seems pretty clear that there’s still a low-level insurgency going on in southern Syria, although whether it’s stubborn rebels, Islamic State, or some mix is unclear.

Al-Monitor’s Sultan al-Kanj reports on a somewhat similar wave of violence targeting Arab tribal leaders in the Deir Ezzor region. There’s a lot of speculation that the Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces militia is behind these killings, and the SDF has certainly had problems getting along with the powerful tribes in that region so this isn’t out of the question. But much of the speculation is apparently being generated by a group called “the Supreme Council of Syrian Tribes and Clans,” which is being hosted in Istanbul by the Turkish government—and we all know how the Turkish government feels about the SDF.

YEMEN

  • 2003 confirmed cases (+4)

  • 580 reported fatalities (+4)

In what’s becoming something of a daily occurrence, Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Thursday claimed to have attacked an “important target” in Saudi Arabia—this time in its capital city, Riyadh. This makes four times this week the Houthis have asserted a major attack against the kingdom. In this case, unlike the others, there may be some corroboration, as Saudi officials say their air defenses shot down a “number” of ballistic missiles and drones fired by the Houthis. They offered no indication that any Houthi weapons reached their intended target.

IRAQ

  • 278,418 confirmed cases (+4597)

  • 7814 reported fatalities (+82)

A rocket hit on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport on Thursday, to no apparent effect. That’s the second time rockets have been fired at the facility this week, probably by militia fighters sending a message about Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s efforts to bring them under tighter state control.

LEBANON

  • 22,437 confirmed cases (+560)

  • 219 reported fatalities (+7)

Hey, nothing to worry about, no big deal, but Beirut’s seaport is on fire. Yes, the same facility that was largely destroyed last month when an ignored stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded is now experiencing a large blaze at a tire warehouse. How nice for the people living in Beirut. At last report the fire had been mostly extinguished, but its smoke may be toxic and it apparently destroyed a large cache of food shipments—so when I said “nothing to worry about” up there, that wasn’t entirely true.

EGYPT

  • 100,557 confirmed cases (+154)

  • 5590 reported fatalities (+13)

The Arab Center’s Khalil al-Anani writes that the Egyptian government’s militarized approach to dealing with its Sinai insurgency is ignoring the region’s real problems:

Over the past decades, the North Sinai region has suffered from a number of political, economic, social, and development problems. Issues of marginalization, unemployment, poor governance, poverty and, most recently, repression and displacement have alienated the Bedouin and other residents of Sinai and increased their grievances. According to some reports, the Sinai region has one of Egypt’s highest unemployment rates, with less than 50 percent of its people employed. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, poverty in Sinai reached 38.4 percent in 2018. In addition, about 70 percent of Sinai’s population does not have access to water. These problems have been largely ignored by the central government in Cairo.

Furthermore, the Egyptian government has always perceived Sinai as a security threat and dealt with the Bedouin population with suspicion, treating them as second-class citizens. For decades, the Bedouin have been accused of collaborating with Israel, particularly after its occupation of Sinai in 1967, and hence, they are perceived as not trustworthy. In fact, most of the Bedouin do not hold Egyptian citizenship and have not been politically represented until recently. In addition, they are not allowed to join the army, the police, and military academies or to hold senior positions in the government. Securitizing the government’s problems with the Bedouin has turned Sinai into a security dilemma and a headache for all Egyptia administrations. Neither of the regimes of Hosni Mubarak or Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has tackled the root causes of this dilemma. In fact the opposite has been true: their harsh and brutal policies against the Bedouin and the residents of Sinai have alienated these populations. This has enabled militant groups to thrive, recruit followers, and expand their activities and influence all over the North Sinai region.

KUWAIT

  • 92,822 confirmed cases (+740)

  • 556 reported fatalities (+4)

According to the Kuwaiti government, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah is…fine. Just fine. Kuwaiti officials have been at some pains to keep letting everyone know that Sabah is just fine ever since his still somewhat mysterious surgery back in July. I have no reason to believe he’s not fine, to be clear, but it’s starting to seem like they’re protesting too much.

ASIA

AZERBAIJAN

  • 37,874 confirmed cases (+142)

  • 556 reported fatalities (+1)

According to Eurasianet, there’s a power struggle happening behind the scenes within Azerbaijan’s outwardly authoritarian regime:

The new campaign is the latest in a power struggle has pitted the man known as the country’s “grey cardinal” — former top presidential adviser Ramiz Mehdiyev — and his allies on the one hand, and the president’s in-laws and most of the rest of the government on the other.

That schism has festered under the surface for several years now, but it again burst into the open following the wedding of Mehdiyev’s granddaughter amid the coronavirus lockdown. Videos from the August 18 wedding were leaked and inspired a public smear campaign against Mehdiyev. The allegations against him went far beyond hosting a wedding in violation of social distancing rules, and included hindering government reforms and heading a Russian “fifth column” in Azerbaijan.

Mehdiyev has hit back with an array of counterattacks.

Mehdiyev is among a cadre of senior officials who served under former Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev and have retained their power under Heydar’s son and current President Ilham Aliyev. They’re being slowly maneuvered out of power by a faction surrounding Ilham’s wife/vice president/potential successor, Mehriban Aliyeva.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 38,572 confirmed cases (+28)

  • 1420 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Intra-Afghan peace talks will begin Saturday in Doha, according to the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the Qatari Foreign Ministry. The final obstacle to talks was cleared Thursday, when Kabul released the final six Taliban fighters it had in custody and put them on a flight to Qatar. They will be placed in house arrest there, satisfying both the Taliban’s desire that they be freed from Afghan custody and international demands that they not be simply turned loose to rejoin the war. Their status will be reevaluated at the end of November, at which time they could be allowed to return to Afghanistan or have their stay in sunny Doha extended.

INDIA

  • 4,559,725 confirmed cases (+96,760)

  • 76,304 reported fatalities (+1213)

The Indian and Chinese governments have reportedly agreed to “disengage” their border forced in the Ladakh-Aksai Chin region, following a meeting between Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi Thursday evening on the sidelines of a regional conference in Moscow. This is big if true, but it’s not the first time officials from Beijing and New Delhi have agreed to calm things down since their border guards started clashing with one another in that region back in June. So I think a bit of skepticism is probably warranted.

TAIWAN

  • 496 confirmed cases (+1)

  • 7 reported fatalities (unchanged)

According to Taiwanese authorities, Chinese military aircraft buzzed their airspace again on Thursday for the second day in a row. These incidents are apparently an effect of the large exercises the Chinese military is conducting southwest of Taiwan, which drew a rebuke from several Taiwanese defense officials on Thursday.

JAPAN

  • 73,221 confirmed cases (+495)

  • 1406 reported fatalities (+13)

New polling indicates that Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide is favored by a plurality of Japanese people in the race to succeed outgoing Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. Suga has 44 percent support in the survey, ahead of former Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru at 36 percent. Suga may be the most likely of Abe’s potential successors to call for a snap election if he wins next week’s Liberal Democratic Party leadership election, in order to shore up his position.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 20,939 confirmed cases (+477)

  • 339 reported fatalities (+15)

German and Italian authorities on Thursday stopped an oil tanker allegedly attempting to violate the international arms embargo on Libya. The ship, carrying a load of jet fuel, was apparently traveling from Sharjah, in the UAE, to Benghazi, presumably to deliver said fuel to Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army.”

Inside Benghazi, meanwhile, “scores” of people protested Thursday over poor living conditions. Tripoli has seen its share of protests by people fed up with living in a perpetual war zone, but such outbursts are still relatively rare in eastern Libya.

ALGERIA

  • 47,488 confirmed cases (+272)

  • 1591 reported fatalities (+10)

Algeria’s parliament on Thursday put its stamp of approval on a set of constitutional changes that were approved by the Algerian government last week in an apparent effort to appease the Hirak protest movement that shook up Algerian politics last year. The parliamentary vote was more or less a foregone conclusion, and the reforms will now go to a national referendum on November 1. Some Hirak leaders have already rejected the reforms as half measures, which could depress turnout for the referendum and delegitimize its outcome.

MALI

  • 2909 confirmed cases (+11)

  • 128 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Leaders of Mali’s ruling military junta met with members of the country’s civilian political opposition on Thursday for the start of a three day conference on a potential political transition. Junta leader Assimi Goita opened the conference by stressing the junta’s “willingness to participate in the establishment of the architecture of the transition,” which I’m pretty sure doesn’t actually mean anything but maybe that’s just me. The junta is increasingly at odds with opposition parties, as well as with the international community, over the term of such a transition. Opposition leaders and most international actors want a quick transition to civilian rule, taking at most a year, followed by steps to reform Mali’s political system. The junta wants to manage the reform, including a rewrite of the Malian constitution, and then transition, after a period of up to three years. As for the Malian people, who could (and probably should) have the deciding vote, it’s still hard to say which way they’re leaning.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 10,343 confirmed cases (+19)

  • 262 reported fatalities (+2)

Militants believed to be affiliated with the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces militia attacked two villages in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province late Tuesday, killing at least 53 people (UPDATE: now 58) and likely more than that.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 1,046,370 confirmed cases (+5363)

  • 18,263 reported fatalities (+128)

The European Council voted Thursday to extend European Union sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea for another six months. The measures target 175 persons and 44 entities linked to the annexation.

GERMANY

  • 258,107 confirmed cases (+1758)

  • 9419 reported fatalities (+9)

The Trump administration is looking to move the headquarters of both US European Command and US Africa Command out of their current homes in the German city of Stuttgart as part of its overall military drawdown in Germany. European Command is slated to move to Belgium, but the search continues for a suitable AFRICOM home, with the possibility of moving it back to the US. After considering the idea of moving AFRICOM’s headquarters to Africa, that idea has apparently been discarded for fears of further “militarizing” overall US policy toward Africa. Whatever the administration decides is likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars at a minimum, and is mostly motivated by the fact that Donald Trump doesn’t like Angela Merkel.

CYPRUS

  • 1517 confirmed cases (+3)

  • 22 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Potential EU sanctions against the Belarusian government over its actions surrounding last month’s disputed presidential election may be stuck in limbo because of the dispute between Cyprus (along with Greece and increasingly France and other Mediterranean states) and Turkey over control of offshore energy deposits in the eastern Mediterranean. The Cypriot government has yet to approve those Belarus sanctions, in an apparent bid to force the EU to sanction Turkey. The Greek government likewise seems to be holding out, presumably for the same reason. Sure enough, EU politicians in Brussels are now reportedly working on a package of sanctions against Turkey, even as EU foreign minister Josep Borrell is reportedly in talks with Turkish officials to try to come to some kind of accord. Turkish and Greek officials met Thursday at NATO HQ in Brussels to at least try to deescalate the situation militarily, if not politically.

GREECE

  • 12,452 confirmed cases (+372)

  • 297 reported fatalities (+4)

The New York Times reports on the dire situation now unfolding at what remains of the Greek refugee camp on the island of Lesbos:

The thousands of asylum seekers crammed into Europe’s largest refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos, had for years bridled at their squalid conditions and the endless delays in resolving their fates. Then came the coronavirus and its strict containment measures, which compounded their misery.

The combination proved explosive, pushing frustrations over a tipping point this week, when some camp residents burned down the Moria camp during a protest over their quarantine, a desperate act that has challenged Europe’s leaders once again to come up with a lasting solution to the migration crisis.

By Thursday afternoon, a third fire in two days had erupted at Moria, destroying what little was left untouched by arson attacks earlier in the week and stranding nearly 12,000 of its residents in the wild among tombstones in a nearby cemetery and on rural and coastal roads. One refugee in the late stages of pregnancy experienced abdominal pains on Wednesday night while sheltering on a road near the camp, and was rushed to a hospital to give birth.

European officials are making some efforts to step in and assist the refugees, with the French and German governments leading a push to have the Moria camp’s residents transferred to other EU member states. But for now it’s left to the Greek government to try to rehouse the migrants, while thousands remain stuck with no shelter.

UNITED KINGDOM

  • 358,138 confirmed cases (+2919)

  • 41,608 reported fatalities (+14)

The European Union is demanding that the UK abandon its plans to abrogate its Brexit withdrawal agreement, or…um, else. The “else” here is probably, although Brussels hasn’t outright said this, a threat that the EU will withdraw from negotiations on a post-Brexit UK-EU trade deal—negotiations that aren’t progressing anyway for a host of reasons.

I have to confess I’m having a hard time mustering up the same “OMG BREXIT” feeling that people were feeling last year, and I think the reason is that the 11th hour negotiation of a withdrawal agreement in that case, after so many ecstatic declarations that SURELY THERE CAN BE NO DEAL NOW and THIS IS IT TALKS ARE OFFICIALLY DEAD, made it clear that a lot of this blustery back and forth between London and Brussels is for show. Will there be a trade deal? Does it matter? However bleak things may look now, I expect that against all odds political leaders in both the EU and the UK will find a way to help each other’s elites make more money when all is said and done.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

  • 57,823 confirmed cases (+1072)

  • 460 reported fatalities (+8)

Would-be Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó held rallies in several cities on Thursday to honor Venezuelan health care workers who have died in the pandemic, to protest the conditions that contributed to their deaths, and also to show that he’s still The People’s Champion and that President Nicolás Maduro is on his last legs, politically speaking. The irony of holding a public gathering amid a pandemic to protest the deaths of people killed in the pandemic must have just escaped him. Anyway, the demonstrations went really, really well, with the Washington Post reporting that “several dozen” people showed up. The revolution lives on!

COLOMBIA

  • 694,664 confirmed cases (+7808)

  • 22,275 reported fatalities (+222)

At least nine people were killed in Bogotá and its Soacha suburb on Thursday, and hundreds injured, amid violent protests against police brutality. The demonstrators organized their march after video surfaced of police killing a man by repeatedly tasering him earlier this week. The victim, Javier Ordóñez, was arrested for drinking alcohol outdoors in violation of lockdown orders. Clearly summary execution was justified. The nine deaths are being investigated but obviously there’s at least a strong likelihood that some, if not all, were killed by police. And with the Colombian government preparing to reinforce Bogotá’s police with hundreds of soldiers and other police officers brought in from around the country, it seems like more violence may be forthcoming.

UNITED STATES

  • 6,588,163 confirmed cases (+38,811)

  • 196,328 reported fatalities (+1090)

I try not to cover domestic US news here because this isn’t that kind of newsletter, but I feel I’d be remiss in not at least mentioning the uncontrolled fires that are currently engulfing large parts of the western US, especially insofar as climate change has contributed to them, as it did to last summer’s wildfires in Australia. The images alone, as seen in this Al Jazeera photo essay, are almost apocalyptic in nature. Best wishes go out from FX to all who are living in that region and especially those who have been directly impacted by the fires.

Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Paul Pillar is not thrilled with the Trump administration’s recent decision to sanction the International Criminal Court:

The Trump administration’s antipathy toward international organizations and international law is not news, but one of its latest moves along this line is an especially extreme example of that antipathy. Escalating a campaign against the International Criminal Court that it began earlier this year, the administration has now individually sanctioned Fatou Bensouda, the court’s chief prosecutor, and Phakiso Mochochoko, who helped to establish the court and is currently the director of its Jurisdiction, Complementarity, and Cooperation Division.

By placing these two senior officials on the Treasury Department’s “specially designated nationals” list — blocking their assets and prohibiting U.S. persons from dealing with them — the administration is subjecting them to treatment designed for terrorists and drug traffickers. Or to put it differently, two of the international officials most responsible for holding war criminals to account are being treated as if they were war criminals themselves.