World roundup: July 27 2021
Stories from Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Tunisia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
July 26, 657 (give or take): The Battle of Siffin
July 26, 1847: A constitutional convention in the Commonwealth of Liberian adopts a declaration of independence and constitution establishing the Republic of Liberia as a sovereign nation. Annually commemorated as Liberian Independence Day.
July 26, 1945: Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek issue the Potsdam Declaration, laying out the terms under which they expected Japan to surrender lest it face “prompt and utter destruction.” The Japanese government’s decision to either reject or at best refuse to comment on the proposal (there’s some disagreement about how to translate their response) contributed to the US decision to use atomic bombs to destroy the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though we should not minimize America’s desire to show off its new toys as a motivating factor. After those bombings the Japanese government accepted Potsdam’s terms.
July 27, 1794: Challenged by Maximilien Robespierre to arrest all those he deemed “traitors” to the revolution, which could have included pretty much any or all of them (he didn’t specify), France’s National Convention decides it would just be easier to arrest Robespierre instead. In what is now known as the “Thermidorian Reaction” since it took place in the month of Thermidor on the revolutionary calendar, Robespierre and dozens of his associates were rounded up by a faction within the National Convention called—wait for it—the Thermidorians. A group of 22, including Robespierre himself, were executed the following day. The Thermidorians introduced a new constitution the following year that dissolved the Convention and established the five-member Directory as the main organ of the revolutionary government.
July 27, 1942: The month-long World War II campaign known as the First Battle of El Alamein ends in a tactical stalemate but a strategic victory for the Allies. Axis commander Erwin Rommel’s plan for a lighting sweep across Egypt from Alexandria to the Suez Canal was halted before it could even reach Alexandria, though the Allies were unable to drive Rommel out of western Egypt entirely. This set the stage for the Second Battle of El Alamein in late October, a decisive Allied victory that forced Rommel back into Libya and began the endgame of the North African phase of the war.
July 27, 1953: The Korean Armistice Agreement, signed by the United Nations Command, the North Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army at Panmunjom, halts fighting in the Korean War. The agreement set terms for a ceasefire, a prisoner exchange, and the fixing of what was supposed to be a temporary border and demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, with subsequent peace talks meant to finalize the details surrounding the end of the war. Those subsequent talks, at the 1954 Geneva Conference, failed, and the “temporary” armistice has remained the last word on the Korean War since its signing.
As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 195,941,297 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 4,192,357 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 3.93 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 51 for every 100 people.
In today’s global news:
The International Monetary Fund issued a new 2021 global economic forecast on Tuesday that maintained its earlier prediction of six percent global growth but warned that the “recovery” from the pandemic is getting more and more unequal. I put “recovery” in quotes because, as the IMF points out, many countries aren’t in recovery yet, mostly because they haven’t been able to acquire enough vaccine supplies. The Fund predicts that wealthy countries with adequate vaccine supplies will experience higher than previously expected growth, while poorer countries still struggling to obtain vaccines will do worse than previously expected. Go figure.
A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change has some great news for people who enjoy sweating a lot:
“Record-shattering” heatwaves, even worse than the one that recently hit north-west America, are set to become much more likely in future, according to research. The study is a stark new warning on the rapidly escalating risks the climate emergency poses to lives.
The shocking temperature extremes suffered in the Pacific north-west and in Australia 2019-2020 were “exactly what we are talking about”, said the scientists. But they said the world had yet to see anything close to the worst impacts possible, even under the global heating that had already happened.
The research found that highly populated regions in North America, Europe and China were where the record-shattering extremes are most likely to occur. One illustrative heatwave produced by the computer models used in the study showed some locations in mid-northern America having temperatures 18C higher than average.
Preparing for such unprecedented extremes was vital, said the scientists, because they could cause thousands of premature deaths, and measures taken to adapt to date had often been based only on previous heat records.
One Turkish soldier was killed on Monday when his patrol was attacked by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters in northern Iraq’s Hakurk region, according to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency.
The Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline is unimpressed with the Biden administration’s announcement of a US “withdrawal” (in name only) from Iraq and suggests that it reflects a disturbing trend in the “war on terror”:
Announcing a troop withdrawal when no troops are in fact to be withdrawn reinforces a broader alarming trend in the forever wars — finding ways to keep American soldiers perpetually deployed, despite the public’s desire for the United States to prioritize investment at home over violence abroad.
Even more concerning are the expanding budget and scope of Pentagon’s “127e” programs, created after 9/11 to provide “support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals engaged in supporting or facilitating authorized ongoing military operations by United States special operations forces to combat terrorism.”
These “exceptional” and highly secretive counterterror deployments operate with very little public, congressional or DOD oversight.
Israeli soldiers reportedly shot and killed a Palestinian man late Tuesday near the West Bank village of Beita. The circumstances are very unclear. Beita has been the scene of protests in recent weeks in opposition to the nearby Israeli settlement of Evyatar, but there’s no indication that any protests were going on at the time of the shooting. Beita’s deputy mayor alleged to AFP that the soldiers shot the man “in cold blood” as he was returning home from work. Israeli officials characterized the victim as “a Palestinian suspect” who “began advancing rapidly” toward a group of soldiers while carrying “a suspicious object identified as an iron bar.” Sounds very simple and believable.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch says that it’s already found evidence of Israeli war crimes stemming from May’s extended bombardment of Gaza:
Since late May, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person 30 Palestinians who witnessed Israeli attacks, were relatives of civilians killed, or were residents of areas targeted. Human Rights Watch also visited the site of four strikes, inspected remnants of munitions, and analyzed satellite imagery, video footage, and photographs taken following the attacks.
Human Rights Watch focused its investigation on three Israeli attacks that resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties and where there was no evident military target. Other Israeli attacks during the conflict were also likely unlawful.
At Foreign Policy, Chatham House’s Neil Quilliam and Sanam Vakil outline what they see as “the new normal” for Arab interstate relations in the Persian Gulf:
The once closely coordinated and tightly knit Saudi-Emirati relationship is fraying. A cascade of policy divergences has emerged between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi over the past year, and more acutely over the past weeks. The long list of differences includes attitudes toward the war in Yemen, the pace of reconciliation with Qatar after a three-and-a-half-year rift, normalization with Israel and the Abraham Accords, managing ties with Turkey, OPEC production quotas, Iran strategy, and cross-border trade.
The emerging dynamic between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is the new normal—and it applies not only to the two states but to all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The sooner outside countries understand the new transactional dynamic, the better they’ll be able to manage relations with the entire region.
The tight Saudi-Emirati relationship was something of an anomaly, built on the personal relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. What’s new is that the GCC’s interconnections are also broken, mostly by the Qatar diplomatic crisis, so there’s really nothing holding any of the six Arab Gulf states together apart from basic national interest.
According to Iranian state media, authorities have busted a “network of agents working for Israel” who have allegedly been stoking or were intending to stoke unrest amid ongoing protests that began in response to water shortages in Khuzestan province. The Iranian Intelligence Ministry says its agents have seized a weapons stockpile that was to have been used in their operations. Details are sparse and there’s a strong incentive for Iranian officials to blame the protests and related violence on some kind of foreign agents provocateur, so I’d take this with a grain of salt.
The Indian state of Assam has reportedly deployed some 4000 “commandos” to its border with the neighboring state of Mizoram, following a confrontation on Monday in which six Assamese police officers were killed. Officials in both states have been accusing the other of squatting on their territory, part of a border dispute that stretches back decades. Each is accusing the other side of provoking Monday’s clash.
Satellite imagery suggests that the Chinese military is building new silos for its intercontinental ballistic missile stockpile at a new site in Xinjiang large enough to hold dozens of them. About a month ago similar imagery showed another large silo field under construction in Gansu province. Obviously these discoveries will raise concerns that China is expanding its nuclear arsenal and to some extent that probably is what they reflect. But according to the Carnegie Endowment’s James Acton the large number of new silos is inconsistent with the estimated amount of available weapons grade material China has to construct new nuclear warheads, which puts an upper limit on how much China can expand its arsenal unless it starts manufacturing new plutonium fuel (activity that is very difficult to do covertly). Some of these new silos may be meant instead to serve as decoys, kept empty to confound any hypothetical enemy that might try to carry out a preemptive strike against China’s ICBM capabilities.
The North Korean and South Korean governments announced on Tuesday that they’re reopening several bilateral hotlines that Pyongyang had shut down last year amid reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are working to rebuild some kind of relationship. The two leaders have reportedly been exchanging letters since April, which marked the third anniversary of their 2018 summit, and agreed to restore the hotlines as an initial trust-building step. Further steps could involve collaborating on pandemic response efforts but are unlikely to include another summit, at least not anytime soon.
Quincy’s Jessica Lee argues that reopening the hotlines is a big deal, particularly inasmuch as it was announced on the anniversary of the armistice seemingly in a deliberate attempt to highlight how big a deal it is. If Moon and Kim are really committed to jump-starting inter-Korean diplomacy that can’t be seen as anything but positive—it’s certainly a much likelier path toward peace on the Korean peninsula than any direct North Korea-US talks would be at this juncture. But I’m not sure how excited to get about a very preliminary step that could be undone the next time Kim gets angry at something or, crucially, if the president South Korean voters elect next year is less interested in dialogue than Moon has been.
New Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa finally assumed office on Tuesday, more than two and a half months after her FAST party narrowly won April’s parliamentary election. Former PM Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi has been trying to overturn that election or at least stall any transfer of power, but he finally conceded on Monday.
Libyan security forces killed the leader of the Kaniyat militia, Mohamed al-Kani, while attempting to arrest him in Benghazi on Tuesday, along with an “associate” of his. Kani aligned his fighters with the “Libyan National Army” of warlord Khalifa Haftar during the civil war and he’d been sanctioned by the United States in connection with the discovery of mass graves near the western Libyan town of Tarhuna last year. The LNA and its allies used Tarhuna as a staging area for their offensive against Tripoli and Kani’s men are believed to have been responsible for many of the bodies found in those graves—quite a number of whom appear to have been taken captive and then summarily executed.
Tunisian President Kais Saied continued his unitary takeover of the country on Tuesday, imposing a month-long, 7 PM to 6 AM nationwide curfew and banning all gatherings of more than three people in public spaces. He’s also placed restrictions on the movement of people between towns and cities, with exceptions for basic needs and emergencies, and has canned Tunisia’s justice and defense ministers (though having already fired the prime minister Saied has left the entire cabinet inoperative anyway). The legality of these moves remains in question. Saied has justified his actions under Article 80 of the 2014 Tunisian constitution, which allows a president to assume emergency powers in times of, well, emergency. That’s legally pretty clear. What is substantially less clear is whether the situation in Tunisia—a very weak economy and consequently a pretty unhappy populace—really constitutes an “emergency.” As I noted yesterday this is a matter that should be resolved by Tunisia’s Constitutional Court, if only it had one. Amid years of political dysfunction Tunisian leaders have failed to agree on a slate of justices to fill the court. Oops.
There have been no reports of unrest as there were on Monday, when Saied’s supporters clashed with backers of the political opposition in Tunis, and there are signs that opposition leaders are trying to calm the situation. Former Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, for example, announced late Monday that he would surrender his authority rather than trying to resist his firing. And the Ennahda Party, perhaps the main pole of opposition to Saied’s recent moves, called on its supporters not to protest and has instead said it’s open to “dialogue” with the president, a substantial walking back of its initial insistence that Saied had carried out a “coup.” Similarly Tunisian unions and other civil society groups seem to be taking things slowly, and instead of outright opposing Saied they’re asking him to affirm that his assumption of sweeping emergency powers won’t last beyond a month.
Bandits reportedly attacked the town of Omuma in southeastern Nigeria’s Imo state on Monday, where they battled with police in a clash that left six of the attackers and one police chief dead. The identity of the attackers is unclear and “bandit” is basically the default term Nigerian authorities use when they don’t know who the offenders were. Given the area they may have been Biafran separatists, but they may also have been something more mundane.
The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has frozen a planned $875 million arms sale to the Nigerian government, including 12 Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, over human rights concerns. The deal was apparently concluded by the outgoing Trump administration and was relayed to Congress in January, prior to Joe Biden’s inauguration. Committee chair Robert Menendez and ranking member Jim Risch are asking the State Department to respond to questions about alleged corruption within the Nigerian military and about its efforts (or lack of effort as the case may be) to avoid civilian casualties as it deals with Nigeria’s myriad internal conflicts.
Somebody attacked a military outpost in the northern Cameroonian village of Zigue on Monday evening, killing at least five soldiers and one civilian. The identity of the attackers is unclear at this point, but it seems reasonable to conclude that they were Islamic State West Africa Province fighters, given that ISWAP carried out a similar attack in the same part of Cameroon just a couple of days ago.
Officials in Ethiopia’s Somali region say that a militia from the neighboring Afar region sacked the border town of Gedamaytu on Saturday and “massacred hundreds of civilians.” According to Reuters the United Nations has confirmed that some kind of battle did take place and in fact may still be taking place in Gedmaytu, but the casualty count still seems to be unconfirmed. The town is in an area that has been subject to a border dispute between Afari and Somali leaders. Elsewhere there are reports that some 3000 members of Ethiopia’s Qemant community have fled their homes in the Amhara region over the border into Sudan due to some sort of conflict with Ethiopian security forces. Details, as they frequently are when it comes to events in Ethiopia, are in short supply.
The UN’s refugee agency is warning that food and clean water supplies are about to run out in two camps for Eritrean refugees in the Tigray region. There are some 24,000 people in those camps, who have been cut off from regular humanitarian shipments by the war and reportedly subject to brutal treatment from both Eritrean soldiers and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The camps received a 30 day supply of humanitarian goods in late June but have been cut off from further shipments since then.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Congolese officials say that at least 22 combatants (seven soldiers and 15 militants) have been killed over three days of fighting between the Congolese military and Allied Democratic Forces fighters in Ituri province. They’re also claiming that some 150 people taken hostage by the ADF have been rescued.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky canned his top military commander, Ruslan Khomchak, on Tuesday, farming him out to a position on the national security council. Khomchak’s replacement is Valery Zaluzhny, who had been heading the Ukrainian military’s northern command. In announcing the move, Zelensky’s spokesperson cited “conflicts” between the armed forces and the defense ministry, with Khomchak apparently at the center of them.
Nicaraguan authorities on Tuesday arrested the leader of the opposition White and Blue National Unity alliance, José Antonio Peraza. He’s the 22nd prominent figure the Nicaraguan government has detained on treason allegations since early May. Most or all of them have reportedly been denied visitation and the conditions of their confinement are unknown.
The Biden administration is “pausing” its collaboration with Guatemalan Attorney General María Consuelo Porras’s office, after Porras sacked anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval late last week. This suspension includes aid from the US Agency for International Development US International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs agency, both of which have been providing training for Guatemalan prosecutors as well as material assistance.
Two people lobbed three Molotov cocktails at the Cuban embassy in Paris overnight, causing some damage but no casualties. French authorities say they’re investigating the attack and have added extra security around the embassy. Cuban officials blamed “campaigns by the US government” for inciting the violence.
The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it intends to nominate Mark Gitenstein, who served as ambassador to Romania under Barack Obama and more recently has served on the board of the Biden Foundation, as the new US ambassador to the European Union. Gitenstein’s relationship with Joe Biden apparently goes back a ways—he chaired Biden’s vice presidential transition team in 2008, for example.
Finally, in case you missed Kate Kizer’s latest Foreign Exchanges column yesterday, please check it out:
After four years with a mentally unstable crook in the White House, it’s easy to understand why so many, particularly in Washington’s foreign policy establishment, might find Biden’s narrative compelling, and even calming. It would seem especially appealing to progressive activists in the United States, who have been courageously organizing for decades to fight back against illiberal encroachment here at home.
But amidst intensifying global human rights and climate crises, we can’t continue to gaslight ourselves that slapping pro-democracy rhetoric on zero-sum economic, ideological, and military strategic competition will make anyone’s lives better, except those of the rich.
Rather than trying to make “American Exceptionalism for the 21st Century” happen, the president would be better off recognizing that the threat to democratic aspirations and human dignity around the world is not merely emanating from American “enemies” like China, Iran, or Cuba. It is also the United States' behavior on the international stage and its own policies—at home and abroad—that enable and exacerbate an international climate of impunity for the dozens of human rights abusing governments that the US refuses to hold accountable in the name of “security.”