World update: September 3 2020

Stories from Afghanistan, Greece, Venezuela, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 2, 31 BCE (or thereabouts): Octavian’s forces decisively defeat the navy of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium. Actium effectively marked the end of the war between Octavian and Antony, as both Antony and Cleopatra subsequently retreated to Alexandria and eventually committed suicide after Octavian besieged the city. His rival gone, Octavian became the first emperor of Rome, taking the title Augustus to mark his new status.

The Battle of Actium (notice Cleopatra making a break for it) as depicted by 17th century Flemish painter Laureys a Castro (Wikimedia Commons)

September 2, 1192: The Third Crusade Ends

September 3, 301: The tiny nation of San Marino, the oldest republic in existence, is founded by Saint Marinus when, looking to escape Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, he builds a church atop Monte Titano, east of Florence, Italy.

September 3, 863: The Battle of Lalakaon

September 3, 1260: The Battle of Ayn Jalut

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for September 3:

  • 26,459,029 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (6,933,497 active, +288,229 since yesterday)

  • 872,523 reported fatalities (+5901 since yesterday)

In today’s global news:

  • A new study out of Iceland suggests that the immune system’s antibody response to SARS-CoV-2 lasts at least four months. With the caveat that this is just one study, the finding is good news both in terms of the potential for a vaccine to actually work and in terms of the potential for “herd immunity” to kick in at some point should the vaccine path ultimately not pan out the way we would all like. There has been some evidence to suggest that the antibody response to the pathogen was very short-lived, but this study was larger than previous ones and may therefore be more indicative. Even so, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of reinfection, as a percentage of people who contract COVID-19 don’t seem to develop antibodies at all and even in those who do there is a possibility that the virus, or a different strain, could reinfect them anyway.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 2973 confirmed coronavirus cases (+75)

  • 124 reported fatalities (+4)

Israel’s (alleged) overnight attack on the T4 airbase in Syria’s Homs province reportedly caused material damage but no casualties. The same cannot be said for two other apparent Israeli strikes in eastern Syria on Thursday. Those attacks killed at least 16 Iranian-aligned paramilitaries—seven in an attack near the city of Mayadin and nine in a separate attack near al-Bukamal on the Iraqi border.

LEBANON

  • 18,963 confirmed cases (+588)

  • 179 reported fatalities (+2)

Incredibly, the Lebanese military on Thursday said that it had recovered over four metric tons of ammonium nitrate near Beirut’s seaport, about a month after a much larger stockpile of that same material largely destroyed that facility. The discovery raises the uncomfortable possibility that there are other caches of the stuff sitting around Beirut just waiting to explode. Potentially even more incredibly, recovery workers near the seaport have apparently discovered some signs of life amid the wreckage of a building that was flattened in the blast, raising the possibility that a survivor could be found weeks after the disaster. Rescue workers are reportedly digging in that location but it’s still too soon to say what they’ll find.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 124,455 confirmed cases (+2991) in Israel, 24,471 confirmed cases (+596) in Palestine

  • 985 reported fatalities (+16) in Israel, 167 reported fatalities (+5) in Palestine

Say what you will, but Trump administration Middle East Viceroy Jared Kushner is bringing people together. Specifically, he’s bringing together Hamas and the Fatah party, whose leaders met via videoconference on Thursday to coordinate their response to the recent Israel-UAE diplomatic accord. As far as I know the meeting didn’t produce any shocking outcomes, but the mere fact that these two parties, which pretty much cannot abide one another, met at all is a bit remarkable.

ASIA

TAJIKISTAN

  • 8690 confirmed cases (+36)

  • 69 reported fatalities (unchanged)

The ruling People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan has nominated incumbent Emomali Rahmon as its candidate for October’s presidential…well, “election” I guess, for lack of a better term. This removes any lingering doubt surrounding the possibility that Rahmon was preparing to hand power to his son Rustam Emomali, though really those doubts went out the window days ago when the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Tajikistan also nominated Rahmon.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 38,288 confirmed cases (+45)

  • 1409 reported fatalities (unchanged)

The Afghan government has released all but seven of the 5000 people whose release was demanded by the Taliban as a precondition for peace talks. Those final seven have all apparently been singled out by foreign governments by Western governments as especially problematic and all appear to be former members of Afghan security forces who turned on their units and international forces in so-called “insider attacks.” The Taliban doesn’t seem to be talking and so it’s hard to gauge whether the refusal to let these final seven prisoners free is going to hamper the start of intra-Afghan peace talks, but the Afghan negotiating team that was scheduled to head to Doha this week to get ready for the start of negotiations has now reportedly postponed its departure. Apparently that team will bring these final seven prisoners with it to Doha. Whether that will be enough to get the Taliban to move forward is unclear.

This pre-negotiation prisoner release program was supposed to come with the stipulation that none of the freed Taliban fighters would return to combat, but it should come as no surprise that many of them have:

In an unreleased paper written for the Afghan Peace Dialogue Project at Queen’s University in Belfast, Norther Ireland, the Taliban experts Michael Semple and Felix Kuehn found that former Taliban prisoners were “participating in combat, being killed fighting, being taken prisoner and one case of an ex-prisoner being involved with revenge assassinations.”

A majority, 68 percent, of the 108 former Taliban prisoners profiled for the research “have already been re-integrated into the Taliban and have resumed active roles in the conflict, or are in Taliban groups intent on resuming fighting, or are occupying military or political positions which are fundamentally linked to the Taliban war effort,” Semple and Kuehn write.

PAKISTAN

  • 297,014 confirmed cases (+424)

  • 6328 reported fatalities (+10)

A roadside bomb killed at least three Pakistani soldiers on Thursday in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Pakistani Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said took place in the South Waziristan region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa though an official government statement about the incident said it took place in North Waziristan.

SRI LANKA

  • 311 confirmed cases (+10)

  • 12 reported fatalities (unchanged)

An oil tanker has caught fire near Sri Lanka while on its way from Qatar to the port of Paradeep in western India. The ship is carrying some 270,000 metric tons of crude and 1700 metric tons of diesel fuel so this is a potential environmental catastrophe in the making, though efforts are underway to contain any spill.

AFRICA

LIBYA

  • 15,773 confirmed cases (+617)

  • 254 reported fatalities (+4)

Libya’s Government of National Accord has unsuspended Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha after a hearing into his role in a violent attack on protesters in Tripoli last month. Bashagha’s relationship with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj has frayed, but as a powerful militia leader from the crucial city of Misrata he’s got a good deal of leverage over the GNA. The power structure in Tripoli is fragmented, as the GNA depends heavily on militias—especially Misratan militias—for military support and has very little capacity to defend itself. The various militias active in Tripoli and other parts of western Libya managed to unite under pressure from the “Libyan National Army” when that group was attacking Tripoli, but now that the LNA threat has dissipated so has that sense of unity. Compounding this internal discord may be the Turkish government, which is tight with Bashagha and may be pushing him to make a move against Sarraj, whose relationship with Ankara is cooler.

NIGERIA

  • 54,588 confirmed cases (+125)

  • 1048 reported fatalities (+21)

Alex Thurston’s weekly Boko Haram/Islamic State West Africa Province roundup is out, and it includes a link to a new Pentagon inspector general report that says the pandemic has impacted US counter-terrorism operations across Africa:

The coronavirus disease–2019 (COVID-19) pandemic spread across the African continent during the quarter. The United Nations reported that in the Sahel, COVID-19 added “a layer of complexity” to the security environment. In that region, violent extremist organizations (VEO) capitalized on the virus to undermine state government authority through “unrelenting” attacks on national and international forces. United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) reported that it did not observe any changes in extremist violence or VEO tactics as a result of the pandemic.

USAFRICOM adjusted its advising of partner forces in Africa to prevent the spread of the virus. In East Africa, USAFRICOM provided only remote advise-and-assist support to partner forces for most of the quarter. In North and West Africa, COVID-19 also led to reduced advisory activities, including advising by the U.S. Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB), elements of which began their deployment to West Africa earlier in the year.

USAID reported that several administrative hurdles, including additional layers of approval at the White House, restrictions on the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) for overseas projects, and inconsistent guidance on the branding and marking of assistance, slowed USAID’s COVID-19 programming in Africa.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 1,009,995 confirmed cases (+4995)

  • 17,528 reported fatalities (+114)

European Union officials began discussing a collective response for the apparent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but concluded that it was too soon to start talking about sanctions because there hasn’t yet been an investigation. Navalny fell seriously ill last month in Siberia and is now in a coma in a hospital in Germany, where doctors have concluded that he was dosed with the Russian nerve agent Novichok.

BULGARIA

  • 16,775 confirmed cases (+158)

  • 658 reported fatalities (+10)

After anti-government protests in Sofia turned violent overnight, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov on Thursday sacked his justice minister, Danail Kirilov, who helped write a proposed new constitution that has served as another source of anger for the demonstrators. These protesters want Borisov himself to resign along with the rest of his government, but Borisov’s GERB party seemed more defiant on Thursday after the overnight outburst.

GREECE

  • 10,998 confirmed cases (+241)

  • 278 reported fatalities (+5)

According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Greece and Turkey have agreed to hold “technical talks” in an effort to deescalate tensions over control of offshore energy deposits in the eastern Mediterranean. According to the Greek government, not really. The Greeks say they want Turkey to stop its current exploration mission as a precondition to negotiations. The Turks, unsurprisingly, would prefer to skip that part and just get to the negotiations. Which seems to be what Stoltenberg was proposing. Earlier in the day, Ankara announced that the Russian navy will conduct live-fire exercises later this month in the parts of the Mediterranean where the Turks have been exploring for energy. It’s weird that Turkey would make such an announcement on Russia’s behalf, and weirder still that the Russians seem to have had no comment on the matter, but in the context of Turkey’s ongoing efforts to use its relationship with Russia as a cudgel against its Western allies it does make a certain amount of sense.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

  • 4,046,150 confirmed cases (+44,728)

  • 124,729 reported fatalities (+830)

Brazil has climbed over four million coronavirus infections, but there are indications that its outbreak may be leveling off. Brazil’s daily new case count has declined, albeit slowly, since peaking in late July. That said, in a country as large as Brazil it’s hard to draw any overall conclusions, as the pandemic is declining in some parts of the country but still ramping up in others.

VENEZUELA

  • 49,877 confirmed cases (+994)

  • 402 reported fatalities (+4)

Don’t look now, but a new good cop routine from the Venezuelan government may be having its intended effect:

Moves this week by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to recast his authoritarian image are succeeding in what might be their principal aim: dividing the U.S.-backed opposition that has been the greatest threat to his leadership.

As Maduro pardons political prisoners and invites international observers to monitor legislative elections, opposition leader Juan Guaidó is confronting a rebellion from within his own ranks. The dissent is further threatening a rare period of unity for the country’s historically fractious opposition.

In recent days, three major opposition figures have broken with Guaidó, the National Assembly president recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader. The most significant rebel: Henrique Capriles, who ran for the presidency against Maduro in 2013 and also against the late Hugo Chávez, founder of Venezuela’s socialist state, in 2012. On Wednesday, Capriles surprised both Guaidó and U.S. officials by appearing to issue a direct challenge to Guaidó’s leadership.

JAMAICA

  • 2822 confirmed cases (+139)

  • 27 reported fatalities (+3)

Jamaican voters headed to the polls on Thursday for a parliamentary election that the conservative Jamaica Labour Party of Prime Minister Andrew Holness should win handily, if pre-election surveys are correct. Most polling has given the JLP a double digit lead over its main rival, the center-left People's National Party.

UNITED STATES

  • 6,335,244 confirmed cases (+44,507)

  • 191,058 reported fatalities (+1094)

A US federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program, which was exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013, was illegal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and possibly unconstitutional, though it didn’t go that far in its ruling. This should be something of a vindication for Snowden, though I expect the people who have been calling for his head on a platter for the past seven years will not see it that way.

Finally, the Trump administration’s decision to start sanctioning personnel at the International Criminal Court hasn’t gone over very well in Europe. Both the EU and the French government have already criticized the sanctions, with EU officials saying the bloc “stands firm against all attempts to undermine the international system of criminal justice by hindering the work of its core institutions.” That’s the kind of language usually reserved for rogue states, which come to think of it is how it’s being applied here.