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World roundup: August 10 2021
Stories from the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, and more
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Tonight’s roundup is going out a little early. We’re currently without power at Foreign Exchanges HQ so I’ve done the best I could to wrap this up and get it out before the battery on my computer runs out.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 9 (or so), 378: A Gothic army annihilates a larger Roman army at the Battle of Adrianople (modern Edirne). Some two-thirds of the Roman soldiers were killed, including Emperor Valens. The virtual eradication of an imperial army opened the door for the Goths to move into the empire for good and contributed to the eventual fall of the empire in the west.
August 9, 1945: The United States drops its second atomic bomb, this time on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, while the Soviet army invades Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Some 80,000 people are believed to have died of causes that can be linked to the bombing. The combination of the atomic bombings and the entry of the Soviets into the war against Japan convinced Japanese leaders to surrender, though it remains an open question whether they would have eventually done so without the US military irradiating two major Japanese cities.
August 10, 1920: The Ottoman Empire signs the Treaty of Sèvres, formally withdrawing from World War I and surrendering to the Allied Powers. The terms, which required the empire to give up not only all of its Arab territory but most of its Anatolian territory as well, were so lopsided that they quickly sparked the Turkish War of Independence. The new Republic of Turkey emerged victorious from that war, and the terms of the ensuing 1923 Treaty of Lausanne superseded Sèvres.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to The New Arab, at least two civilians were killed Tuesday in another round of air and artillery strikes by pro-government forces in northwestern Syria. One person was killed in Jabal al-Zawiyah, a strategically significant highland area in southern Idlib province, while the other was killed in western Aleppo province. Fighting also continues between pro-government forces and former (or maybe not so former anymore) rebel fighters in the city of Daraa in southern Syria. The Syrian military has been surrounding the Daraa al-Balad district for several weeks but hasn’t been able to enter the neighborhood. Casualty counts are hard to come by but there are reports that residents are running low on basic necessities.
The latest quarterly report from the Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve finds that the Islamic State is “well-entrenched” in rural parts of Syria and Iraq, though a recent security sweep by Syrian Democratic Forces personnel did hamper the group’s activities in Syria’s al-Hol displacement camp. Despite its safe havens, IS at this point is running a “low-level” insurgency, as the LIG puts it. Which means, as Musings on Iraq’s Joel Wing writes, either it’s incapable of mounting anything more robust than that or it’s marshaling for something bigger down the road. It’s impossible to know which.
According to Amwaj.media, the Iraqi government is organizing a regional peace conference scheduled for later this month. All the finest countries have been invited: Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, and also French President Emmanuel Macron for some reason. I think we can assume there will be some kind of US presence as well. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is taking the initiative both because it’s a good opportunity for self-aggrandizement ahead of October’s election and because Iraqi stability is inherently vulnerable to regional conflicts, particularly the Saudi-Iranian and Turkish-Emirati rivalries. It’s likely all the invitees will attend in some form, but what form remains an open question. Kadhimi is hoping for high-level attendance but countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia are likely to send foreign ministers at best.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Aditi Bawa and Ben Freeman of the Center for International Policy try to figure out why US think tanks have had little to say about the UAE’s influence-peddling efforts in Washington, as compared with the activities of other international meddlers. Their hypothesis will probably not surprise you:
As some of the biggest players in research and advocacy that inform decision making to key members of the U.S. government, think tanks are uniquely positioned to drive foreign policy discussions. Think tanks have also focused extraordinary attention on the illicit influence of other countries. Search for “Russian interference” on the websites of prominent think tanks like the Atlantic Council and you’ll discover dozens of articles, reports, and other excellent commentary by scholars about Russian meddling in American democracy. And, Chinese influence operations have been written about extensively across the ideological spectrum of think tanks.
Yet, despite the Barrack indictment asserting that a foreign dictatorship orchestrated a campaign that successfully influenced the president of the United States on major foreign policy issues, the most prominent foreign policy think tanks have been mum about the UAE’s role in this illicit influence operation. This follows the deafening silence from think tanks when the UAE was caught conspiring to make more than $3.5 million in illegal campaign contributions from 2016 to 2018 and when the UAE spent $2.5 million on a covert campaign to turn Congress against their Qatari rivals in 2017.
Why is meddling in U.S. politics by one authoritarian regime, the UAE, treated differently from meddling by authoritarian regimes like Russia and China? One possibility: money.
The Taliban captured their seventh and eighth provincial capitals on Tuesday, taking Farah city in western Afghanistan’s Farah province and Puli Khumri in northern Afghanistan’s Baghlan province. The latter sits fairly close to Kabul, by the way, though there’s no indication the Taliban are gearing up for a move on that city, at least not yet. Several other provincial capitals may be under imminent threat—Afghanistan’s defense ministry outlined a major air operation against Taliban fighters in and around several cities that are still nominally in government hands—but surrounded Balkh province and its capital, Mazar-i-Sharif, deserve particular attention. The Indian government undertook a special military flight into that city on Tuesday to close its consulate and evacuate Indian nationals.
To its credit, the Biden administration has not allowed the Taliban’s run of major successes to derail the US military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, hopefully because it recognizes that if the US stayed for another year or another 20 years it would only delay the inevitable. We’ll see whether that resolve holds out. In the meantime, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad warned the Taliban on Tuesday that if it takes power in Kabul by force whatever government it establishes will be isolated diplomatically.
It remains to be seen how potent Taliban leaders will regard that threat—it remains to be seen how potent it really is, frankly, given that the Russian and Chinese governments are already establishing what could be considered diplomatic relationships with the Taliban—but they’re clearly still trying to portray themselves as a legitimate governing alternative. Taliban officials have been issuing messages to fighters around the country calling on them not to damage infrastructure or harm civilians and Afghan security personnel unnecessarily. The message doesn’t appear to be getting through consistently though, if reports of Taliban fighters killing civilians and destroying homes and public buildings are to be believed.
Myanmar’s security forces and rebels are brutalizing medical workers, according to a new report by the human rights groups Insecurity Insight, Physicians for Human Rights, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Public Health and Human Rights. The report cites 252 cases in which security forces or resistance fighters have either attacked or threatened to attack health workers, resulting in at least 25 deaths and over 190 arrests and undermining efforts to battle COVID. Most of the violence can be attributed to the government.
Thai police used tear gas and rubber bullets to suppress another anti-government demonstration in Bangkok on Tuesday. That’s the second such outburst in the past four days. Protesters are demanding changes to the basically-military government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and are angry over perceived failures in responding to the pandemic.
The Chinese government on Tuesday recalled its Lithuanian ambassador and demanded that the Lithuanian government reciprocate, over the Baltic state’s growing diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Lithuanian and Taiwanese officials announced last month that the two countries would open mutual diplomatic offices—not embassies, but something along the lines of the don’t-call-it-an-embassy American Institute in Taiwan and its counterpart, the Taiwan Council for US Affairs. Beijing of course rejects any external diplomatic relations with Taiwan because it regards Taiwan as a Chinese province.
North Korea has apparently stopped taking South Korea’s calls, ignoring the military hotline the two nations only just reopened a couple of weeks ago. There seems to be little doubt that this is part of the angry response to new US-South Korean military drills that Kim Yo-jong has been previewing for the past few days. Pyongyang may be planning a bigger demonstration, like a new missile or even nuclear test, to show its irritation, but that remains to be seen.
In case anyone was still holding out hope that humanity might rise to the challenge laid out by Monday’s dire climate report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison helpfully made it clear on Tuesday that you should probably just forget about it. Morrison continues to refuse pressure to adopt a net-zero emissions target—Australia will get to it when it gets to it, apparently, which given Morisson’s love affair with coal isn’t going to be anytime soon. Australia is one of the world’s leading carbon emitters on both an overall and per capita basis, so if its government isn’t going to take the threat seriously then there’s little chance for the rest of the world.
At least seven people were killed and another 16 wounded when someone, possible Arab Janjaweed paramilitaries, attacked a village in Sudan’s South Darfur state. The identity of the attackers hasn’t been confirmed, nor is there any indication as to motive.
Greece is not the only Mediterranean country battling massive, drought-fueled wildfires at the moment. Cyprus and Turkey have been dealing with major fire outbreaks and so is Algeria. Wildfires across the northeastern part of Algeria have killed more than 42 people, according to Prime Minister Ayman Benabderrahmane, including at least 25 soldiers deployed to rescue civilians. Authorities seem to think that at least some of these fires were started intentionally and have arrested three alleged “arsonists,” but it’s hard to know what to make of those claims at this point.
According to the Nigerian army some 335 Boko Haram fighters have surrendered to security forces, among them a man described as the militant organization’s “chief bomb expert.” It’s unclear from the reporting how long these surrenders have been going on but there have been reports of Boko Haram members turning themselves in since the death of the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, back in May, rather than submit to the Islamic State’s West Africa Province.
According to a local doctor at least 12 people were killed and “about 50” more wounded earlier this month in an apparent attack on displaced persons in Ethiopia’s Afar region. Details are spotty but it sounds like fighters from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which has seized part of Afar in its recent offensive, attacked displaced persons in the town of Galicoma on August 5. TPLF officials are saying their forces were attacked in that area on August 5 and were defending themselves. Meanwhile, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a general call for volunteers to battle the TPLF on Tuesday, issuing a statement that in part read “now is the right time for all capable Ethiopians who are of age to join the Defense Forces, Special Forces and militias to show your patriotism.” This suggests two things: one, that Ethiopian security forces are in pretty bad shape in the wake of the TPLF’s gains, and two, that the war isn’t approaching any sort of endgame at the moment.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta spoke with Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble on Tuesday and the two men came away agreeing to “reset” their countries’ strained bilateral relations. The Somali government broke off ties with Kenya back in December over allegations of Kenyan interference in Somali affairs—specifically of cultivating direct relations with disaffected regional governments. The two countries have been slowly restoring relations in fits and starts over the past several weeks, and Kenya reopened its embassy in Mogadishu on Sunday.
The Latvian government on Tuesday declared a “state of emergency” due to an influx of migrants attempting to enter the country via Belarus. European Union countries bordering Belarus have been dealing with a much higher than usual number of people, many of them coming by plane from Iraq to Minsk, attempting to cross over from Belarus. They’ve responded by graciously welcoming those seeking a better life for themselves and their families into their countries…sorry, I started daydreaming for a minute. They’ve mostly responded by militarizing their borders (effectively what Latvia has done here) and accusing Alexander Lukashenko of “weaponizing” the migrants—which he may well be, but that doesn’t really justify dehumanizing the migrants themselves.
The Lithuanian parliament on Tuesday voted to authorize the construction of a fence across its border with Belarus, see above for the context. It also plans to offer migrants entering the country €300 to go home.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki sacked deputy PM Jarosław Gowin on Tuesday, potentially wrecking his ruling United Right coalition. Gowin’s Agreement party, one of the junior partners to Morawiecki’s Law and Justice party in that coalition, has been critical of a new government tax reform proposal, and that apparently didn’t sit well with the PM. Though United Right’s time may have passed (the party will reportedly decide tomorrow whether to withdraw formally from the coalition), the feeling seems to be that Morawiecki will be able to keep enough of Agreement’s legislators on side to maintain a governing majority.
The political situation is looking decidedly less stable in Bulgaria, where the “There Is Such a People” (ITN) party announced Tuesday that it’s been unable to muster enough parliamentary support to form a minority government. ITN’s failure should mean that the mandate to form a coalition passes to the second place finisher in July’s snap election, ex-Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party. But GERB has alienated other Bulgarian parties and barring some out-of-left-field national unity agreement or the like it will probably not be able to form a coalition and may not even try. President Rumen Radov could then pass the mandate to a third party at his discretion, but at this point the likeliest outcome would seem to be that lucky ducky Bulgarian voters will get to head to the polls for a third time this year in another snap election.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro put together an impromptu military parade through Brasilia on Tuesday. Although parades are nice, his intent was less to show residents a good time than to threaten the Brazilian Congress with, I guess, a potential military coup unless it votes to approve a constitutional change Bolsonaro favors—the implementation of paper ballots alongside electronic voting systems in some voting districts for next year’s presidential election. Bolsonaro’s concern about potential fraud has struck many observers as the preliminary moves in a plan to ignore the results of the election (which polling suggests he’s very likely to lose). In fairness, the Brazilian military says the parade had been planned well in advance. It’s just that nobody seems to have known about it before Monday.
The Nicaraguan government on Tuesday recalled its ambassadors from Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico. All four had already either pulled their ambassadors from Nicaragua over the recent spate of arrests of prominent opposition figures or, in Costa Rica’s case, suspended the appointment of a new ambassador.
Finally, if you missed Daniel Bessner’s latest Foreign Exchanges column yesterday, here’s a reminder to check it out:
Today, very few people believe the United States can make, or remake, the world in its image. This is perhaps the biggest ideological consequence of the manifold failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. The Progressive dream that has guided US foreign policy for a century—the idea that power and will can overcome history, tradition, and local politics—is now recognized by many within and outside the foreign policy establishment to be a chimera. As the Joe Biden administration commits itself to a strategy of hegemonic stabilization, it’s unlikely that we’ll witness any dramatic foreign interventions that aim to overthrow regimes and replace them with US-led “democracies.” There are just too many unknown unknowns to make this a viable approach to foreign policy.
But if Americans no longer consider their country the “indispensable nation”—capable, as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright affirmed in a 1998 interview, of “see[ing] further than other countries into the future”—what do we believe?
For those of us on the left, the answer is clear: we believe the United States should not govern the world and shouldn’t try; that spending an enormous amount on “defense” funnels money away from crucial social welfare programs; and that in the overwhelming majority of cases it is impossible—and immoral—for one nation to force another nation to adopt its own preferences. Again, there are too many unknown unknowns.