Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: June 1 2021
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Mali, and more
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
We’re trying out a new format today with respect to COVID figures. I’ll start the roundup with the global figures courtesy of Worldometer but we will be doing away with country-level figures. I continue to have concerns about the reliability of those numbers but the bigger issue is I’m just not sure how useful they are without context that this newsletter cannot provide. So in lieu of pasting in the figures myself I will instead provide the link to Worldometer’s COVID page at the top of the roundup and those who are interested can check the data out for themselves.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
For those who are interested, here are some important anniversaries for the dates we missed while I was taking a break.
May 31, 1223: The Battle of the Kalka River
June 1, 1215: After a lengthy siege during which a substantial portion of its population is believed to have starved to death and after which many more were massacred (actual figures are hard to come by), the city of Zhongdu, known today as Beijing, surrenders to Genghis Khan’s invading Mongolian army. Zhongdu had been the capital of the Jin dynasty, which ruled northern China, and this was the second time in very short order that the Mongols had besieged it. The first siege (1213-1214) ended with a Jin capitulation in which they agreed to become Mongolian vassals. The Jin then moved their court to the city of Kaifeng for security reasons. Ironically, the Jin decision to move their court after that first siege was perceived by the Mongols as provocation and thus triggered the second siege. Because the Mongols turned their attentions west shortly after capturing Zhengdu, the Jin were able to survive at Kaifeng until it (and the dynasty as a whole) fell to the Mongols in 1233.
June 1, 1916: The Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I and at least by some measures the largest in history to that point, ends in a…well, it’s complicated. It’s so complicated that historians still aren’t completely in agreement as to whether the British Royal Navy Grand Fleet or the German High Seas Fleet won the battle. The Germans sank substantially more British ships and killed substantially more British personnel than vice versa, but these were losses that the British navy could sustain more easily than the Germans. The German government was able to claim victory in the immediate aftermath of the battle, but the British fleet maintained and arguably even increased its naval superiority for the remainder of the war, while keeping the High Seas Fleet largely out of the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore if there is a consensus it seems to be that the battle was a German tactical victory but a British strategic one. One thing that can be said with certainty is that Jutland was the last major naval battle that featured battleships—aircraft carriers displaced them as the primary combat ship for large naval powers.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for June 1, 2021:
171,916,673 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+447,201 since yesterday)
3,575,505 reported fatalities (+10,344 since yesterday)
According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 1.93 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 25 per every 100 people
In today’s global news:
The World Health Organization has approved a second Chinese-made COVID vaccine, manufactured by Sinovac Biotech, for emergency use, meaning among other things that it could be used to supply the WHO’s COVAX program. That could be a major boost to COVAX, which is struggling to obtain enough vaccine supplies to distribute to poorer nations—especially with India’s vaccine manufacturing capacity now exclusively devoted to domestic supplies for at least the rest of this year.
The OPEC+ group met on Tuesday and agreed to maintain its plan to continue ramping up global oil production through at least next month, up to a maximum of 1.2 million barrels per day over the drastically low production levels the group adopted last year at the height of the pandemic. The group did not come to any agreement on what to do beyond July. It appears that its two primary members, Russia and Saudi Arabia, are not in agreement about how quickly to increase production. Moscow wants a rapid escalation while the Saudis want to take things slowly as the COVID wave currently battering much of southern and southeastern Asia runs its course.
Syrian Democratic Forces fighters opened fire on a crowd of predominantly Arab protesters in the Syrian town of Manbij on Tuesday, killing at least eight people and wounding many more. Hundreds of people demonstrated in anger over the killing of another protester the previous day. Arab populations in Manbij and other parts of northeastern Syria have objected to living under the administration of the predominantly Kurdish SDF, but those protests do not usually generate this level of violence. Elsewhere, the Israeli military says it destroyed a Syrian military outpost in the occupied Golan on Tuesday. It framed the outpost as an attack on Israeli “sovereignty” even though the Golan is not, regardless of what Donald Trump and the Israeli government might want you to think, Israeli territory.
Defying the naysayers and overcoming the odds, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad managed to eke out a victory in last week’s election, winning himself a fourth term in office with a scant 95 percent of the vote. Officially turnout was north of 78 percent, a figure that…well, I’m going to drop the pretense here because there’s just no conceivable way that’s true unless they only counted turnout among members of the Assad family. The election wasn’t even held in parts of Syria not held by Assad’s government, and even if every single person who was able to vote turned out, which undoubtedly did not happen, 78 percent would have been an impossible figure to reach.
Human Rights Watch has issued a new report criticizing the Houthi administration in northern Yemen for blocking COVID vaccination efforts in areas it controls and for spreading “disinformation” about the pandemic. Houthi officials seem not to be reporting COVID cases or deaths and are refusing to allow the World Health Organization to oversee vaccine distribution. The WHO is refusing to deliver vaccines to northern Yemen under those conditions, under the suspicion (probably legitimate given past Houthi behavior with respect to humanitarian aid) that they’ll be sold to the highest bidder rather than distributed according to risk/need.
It’s starting to look like Benjamin Netanyahu may really be on his way out as Israeli prime minister, and therefore potentially on his way to the hoosegow depending on how his corruption trial plays out. Israeli media began reporting late last week that the will-they-won’t-they dance between far right Yamina Party boss Naftali Bennett and centrist (relatively speaking) Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid had suddenly moved from “won’t” back to “will.” US media followed suit shortly thereafter. Lapid and Bennett had been close to a coalition agreement several weeks ago before Netanyahu started raining hellfire down on Gaza, not that I’m necessarily suggesting one of those things is related to the other, but Bennett backed out, probably concerned about appearing to undermine Netanyahu in the middle of a shooting war.
That war is now over, and it would appear that Bennett, whose main concern is his own political future, has come back around to the idea of working with Lapid. I want to caution that everything I’m going to write now is premised on the idea that Lapid’s coalition will come together and oust Netanyahu, which is far from a done deal at the time I’m writing. Bennett’s participation in the coalition is necessary but not sufficient for its success, and there are so many moving parts that even in what looks like the endgame the whole effort could easily fall apart. Additionally, Netanyahu is still trying to undermine its formation, though his ability to do so is diminishing.
With that caveat out of the way, what are the main details about the emerging coalition? In return for his participation Bennett will lead the new government as Israeli prime minister for a set period (probably two years but that’s still up in the air), with Lapid as his deputy and foreign minister, before they swap roles for the rest of their term. The chances of this coalition surviving long enough for the swap to happen seem extraordinarily slim, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Given our focus with this newsletter and given the events of the past month, the main question I assume people will have here is, what would this new government mean for the Israel-Palestine conflict? The answer, at the risk of sounding like a cliche, is complicated. Or at least it’s not as simple as “good” or “bad.” In terms of the direct changeover from Netanyahu to Bennett, in isolation this means nothing good for the Palestinians. Bennett is further right than Netanyahu on an ideological level. His rise is akin to what’s been happening to the US Republican Party, which went over the past couple of decades from manipulating/exploiting the far right to being overtaken by it.
I’ve seen people suggest that Bennett’s worst impulses will be contained by the unwieldy “unity” coalition he will lead, which will almost certainly depend on the support of at least one Arab party in the Knesset. Lapid will likely insist on some kind of internal veto over major actions—in reality every party will have a veto, because the withdrawal of any of them will collapse the coalition—but the coalition couldn’t exist without Bennett and he knows that. He didn’t agree to come on board just to have his political impulses neutered by the collective. Moreover, leading a “unity” government isn’t really Bennett’s goal. He wants to replace Netanyahu as the central figure in Israel’s right-far right alliance. Step one in that process is, obviously, getting Netanyahu out of the way. Everything that happens after that will be about burnishing Bennett’s far right credentials, particularly to voters who now resent him for turning on Netanyahu. If the coalition tries to limit him, he can simply collapse it and drag the country into another election—an election from which he would hope to emerge as the PM in a more ideologically coherent and thus more stable government. That’s why I can’t see the coalition surviving long enough for Lapid to take over—Bennett really has no reason to let it.
So there’s nothing in this transition that suggests Israeli politics are heading in a more positive direction. But they are heading somewhere, and that alone is pretty important. The bottom line is that Israeli politics are broken. Netanyahu broke them. By constantly gaming the system to ensure his continuation as PM, even after having been indicted on those corruption charges, he bears primary responsibility for the fact that Israel has held four inconclusive snap elections in two years. Whatever else you want to say about Netanyahu, he is an obviously gifted politician, and he’s used that gift to hold Israeli politics in stasis in order to preserve his own power and, more recently, his own freedom from justice. Bennett may be more extreme ideologically, but is he talented enough to maintain that right-wing stasis? I have no idea. What I do know is that Israeli politics might finally see some change. Maybe that change will be for the worse—though realistically it’s hard to see how they could be much worse than they already are—but there is now at least a possibility of a change for the better, which didn’t exist with Netanyahu in charge.
It looks like the fifth round of talks in Vienna on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will not be the final round as had been previously suggested, but Iranian officials are stressing that they don’t believe the negotiations have hit an impasse. They have political reasons for saying so, given that Iran’s presidential election is just a couple of weeks away. It’s unclear why progress seems to have slowed but the parties may be getting bogged down in the minutiae of a full agreement. They may also be hesitating because of Iran’s ongoing struggles with the International Atomic Energy Agency. While Tehran and the IAEA did agree to extend their interim semi-relationship for another month, the IAEA’s recent comments make it clear that the agency isn’t pleased with the level of information it’s able to gather and still isn’t satisfied with Iran’s explanations around the discovery of enriched uranium at a couple of previously undeclared sites. That could be affecting the talks.
Speaking of the presidential election, over at his newsletter Séamus Malekafzali offers a rundown of the candidates who made it past the Guardian Council’s screening process. The upshot, as I mentioned previously, is that Ebrahim Raisi is pretty much guaranteed a victory, with the only real question being how low turnout will be. Though I suppose now that they’ve overtly rigged the election, it’s not that difficult to imagine Iranian officials also fudging the turnout numbers to make them less embarrassing.
Two bombings in Kabul on Tuesday evening killed at least ten people in total while wounding at least 12 more. Both incidents took place in a predominantly Hazara section of the Afghan capital, so while neither has yet been claimed it’s likely the Islamic State was responsible.
Responsible Statecraft’s Matthew Dearing looks at the militia threat the US military has helped create and is now leaving behind in Afghanistan:
Counterinsurgents assumed that if militias were under state control — through resource delivery, patronage, and embedding them in legal and moral norms of the state — they would behave well. But even though during the war nearly all militias in Afghanistan were under some form of state patronage, U.S. Special Forces oversight, or even graduates of human rights training, they were still predatory. The reality is that militias are as much a part of the community as they are an agent of the state. Whether those militias were guardians or gangsters over the civilian population depended more on the resiliency of the local community and whether militia patrons invested and relied upon existing local order as a controlling process over militia behavior. When local order was broken down, or ignored by state patrons, militias became gangsters, and further eroded trust between the state and society.
Two decades of counterinsurgency and centralized state building in Afghanistan shows that the answer to a better disciplined militia was not necessarily more state, but a better relationship between state and society. The latter is a process America rarely got right. Instead, unaccountable militias preyed on the civilian population, generated new levels of instability, and now, leaves Afghanistan with a big problem.
Pakistani authorities announced Tuesday that at least eight people were killed the previous day when unspecified militants attacked a security checkpoint outside the city of Quetta. Four Pakistani soldiers and four of the attackers were killed. In a second incident, the Baluch Liberation Army attacked a vehicle carrying Pakistani paramilitary forces near the city of Turbat, wounding at least two people. The Quetta attack has as yet gone unclaimed.
Protests against Myanmar’s ruling junta continued in several towns and cities on Tuesday amid reports of heavy fighting between rebels and government forces in eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state. The Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, one of numerous “People’s Defense Forces” that have popped up since February’s coup (which may also have ties to the much older Karenni Army rebel group), says its forces killed 80 Myanmar soldiers in clashes on Monday. There’s no confirmation of that claim but the fighting in Kayah has been severe enough to displace some 37,000 people, according to the United Nations.
The Malaysian government says that 16 Chinese warplanes “breached” Malaysian airspace around the island of Borneo on Monday, and its foreign ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador on Tuesday to lodge a complaint. Chinese officials insist the planes remained outside Malaysian airspace and complied with international law.
Amid demographic data showing the Chinese population aging and its growth rate declining, Chinese authorities have decided to replace their “two child” policy with a “three child” policy. Beijing is also promising an array of measures to make it easier to bear and raise children, but whether this will be enough to entice families to have more children is far from clear. Moving from a one to two child limit in 2016 clearly didn’t have the desired effect, though the challenging economics of child-rearing had a lot to do with that and so efforts to improve those circumstances could bear some fruit.
According to South Korean media, the North Korean Communist Party is creating a new job, “first secretary,” the occupier of which will serve as leader Kim Jong-un’s deputy and at least on paper the second most powerful figure in Pyongyang. It’s being speculated that politburo member Jo Yong-won has assumed the post, though that’s not confirmed as far as I know. The new first secretary will chair party meetings in Kim’s absence and could increase the prominence of the party within the North Korean government as Kim transitions away from a predominantly military-centric style of rule.
The Spanish High Court ruled on Tuesday that authorities cannot detain Brahim Ghali, the leader of the Polisario Front and president of the largely unrecognized “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic,” which seeks Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco. Ghali traveled to Spain in April to seek treatment for COVID and his presence there has opened a diplomatic rift between Rabat and Madrid. In its ruling, the court said that prosecutors had “not provided elements of evidence supporting the existence of reasons to believe [Ghali] is responsible of any crime.” The ruling is likely to anger Moroccan authorities. Tuesday’s hearing was only about whether Spanish authorities could arrest Ghali and in theory the ruling doesn’t end the case against him. But it looks like Ghali is going to avail himself of the opportunity to get out of Dodge, so to speak, and that would effectively bring the case to an end.
To the surprise of…well, probably nobody, really, the Malian junta has named coup leader and former vice president Assimi Goïta as Mali’s new interim president in the wake of last month’s self coup. Goïta led the junta that overthrew Mali’s civilian government last August and then led the junta again in overthrowing Mali’s interim, partially civilian government on May 24. Goïta will presumably lead Mali through whatever transition it makes back to some semblance of civilian governance, even if his self-coup is unlikely to win Mali a lot of friends either regionally or internationally. On that note, the African Union on Tuesday suspended Mali’s membership in response to the (second) coup. The Economic Community of West African States is threatening to sanction Mali as well though thus far it’s taken no action.
FX contributor Alex Thurston has a new piece at Lawfare on the life and times of probably-deceased Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau:
Shekau’s longevity and, on his own terms, his success communicate something about what makes Boko Haram—and even ISWAP—tick. His willingness to punish dissent with murder is a huge piece of the story, but it cannot be the only piece. “Removing the Tumor” and other sources tell of key moments when major field commanders with substantial followings of their own decided to remain loyal to Shekau. Another part of the story, then, is victory: Shekau earned loyalty first by rebuilding the movement at its ebb in 2009 and 2010, and then by achieving military feats that must have dazzled some of his subordinates. The culmination of this trajectory was the territorial conquests Boko Haram undertook, with Shekau as leader, in 2014 and 2015, which were only halted by the militaries of Chad and Niger. It was not until Boko Haram’s retreat that Shekau finally consented to pledge allegiance to another jihadist organization, the Islamic State, and it was not until desperate circumstances set in—“Removing the Tumor” describes a period of near-starvation sometime in 2015 and 2016—that Shekau lost a critical mass of support, enabling ISWAP to take the majority of the movement’s fighters in the divorce.
Alex and I spoke about Shekau and about the political situation in Mali for this week’s Foreign Exchanges podcast, which should be out tomorrow.
The Chadian government on Monday accused the Central African Republic’s military of attacking a border outpost in southern Chad the previous day, killing six Chadian soldiers. Central African officials say their forces were pursuing rebel fighters who crossed into Chad, which then sparked an exchange of fire with Chadian border guards. They’ve suggested the formation of a commission to investigate the incident. But resolving this situation may not be so simple. According to the Chadian government, only one of its soldiers was killed in the initial exchange of fire while the other five were first captured and then executed by Central African soldiers. That’s an extremely inflammatory allegation that, if true, would undercut the Central African narrative and could potentially spark a diplomatic rift. That in turn could draw in the French government, as Chad’s main international ally, and the Russian government, which has ties to the CAR.
Reports have emerged of another atrocity carried out by Eritrean soldiers in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. According to local residents and survivor accounts, a unit of Eritrean soldiers killed 19 civilians in a village near the ancient Abuna Yemata church on May 8. The massacre took place amid what The Guardian has called “a series of fierce clashes” between Eritrean forces and Tigray People’s Liberation Front fighters in the area. There have been multiple accounts of attacks on civilians since the Ethiopian government went to war against the TPLF in November, many of them carried out either by Eritrean soldiers or paramilitary forces from the neighboring Amhara region. The conflict has also created a humanitarian crisis in Tigray, with the World Food Program estimating that roughly 91 percent of the region’s population, or more than 5.2 million people, are in need of emergency food aid.
Unknown gunmen killed two people in a suburb of Kampala in an apparent assassination attempt on Minister of State for Works Katumba Wamala on Tuesday. Wamala was wounded in the attack while his daughter and his driver were both killed. Assassinations and attempted assassinations are not an uncommon occurrence in Kampala but in most cases authorities have had little luck in identifying the perpetrators.
Reuters is reporting that the European Union will blacklist Belarus’s national airline, Belavia, along with around a dozen Belarusian aviation officials, part of the bloc’s ongoing performance of outrage over the phony bomb threat incident at Minsk airport last month. More sanctions are apparently forthcoming. Several European airlines have already started avoiding Belarusian airspace but the EU may adopt a bloc-wide ban on flying over (or to) Belarus as well.
Joe Biden’s proposed global corporate minimum tax would apparently be pretty lucrative for the EU and for the UK. A new report from the EU Tax Observatory suggests that at a 15 percent rate, the “floor” in Biden’s proposal, the tax would bring the UK an extra €200 million/year in revenue from BP alone and would bring the EU an extra €50 billion total. And that’s the low end—the Biden administration has expressed a preference for a higher rate.
Tens of thousands of protesters turned out in over 200 Brazilian cities and towns on Saturday to express their feelings about President Jair Bolsonaro—most of which do not appear to have been particularly positive.
Bolsonaro’s mishandling of the pandemic is not doing much for his approval ratings, and he’s now under fire for volunteering, on short notice, to host the Copa America football tournament. Conmebol announced on Monday that it was moving the tournament from Argentina to Brazil because of COVID concerns, which is a little like moving your bike shop from the Maldives to Tuvalu because you’re worried about rising sea levels but I digress.
On the plus side, I guess, Bolsonaro does have something to brag about now, as it seems Brazil no longer has the worst per capita COVID death rate in the Americas. That dubious distinction now belongs to Peru, whose government figured out on Tuesday that it’s been undercounting its COVID deaths by almost two-thirds this whole time. Whoopsie! Peru’s new official death toll, which is probably still wrong as are Brazil’s and frankly everybody else’s official counts, now stands at a bit over 180,000, a far cry from the just under 70,000 authorities had tallied previously. That puts Peru’s per capita death rate at around 5000 per 1 million people, more than twice Brazil’s rate.
The US military is apparently monitoring two Iranian warships that may be headed to Venezuela for some unknown reason. Iran and Venezuela have developed closer commercial ties under pressure from US sanctions, but this would be the first clear suggestion of a military component to that alliance. One of the vessels began life as an oil tanker but has been converted to “serve as a platform for electronic warfare and special operations missions,” according to POLITICO.
Elsewhere, the Venezuelan military says it has rescued eight soldiers who were captured by the 10th Front militia in Venezuela’s Apure state back in April. It offered no details about the rescue operation. The 10th Front is made up of former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia fighters who have based themselves in Apure, but over the past few months the group has run afoul of Venezuelan authorities.
Two more anti-government protesters were shot and killed on Tuesday morning in the city of Cali. City officials say the unknown killers fled the scene on a motorcycle, the obvious suggestion being that the protesters were not killed by police. But even if the shooters weren’t police officers themselves, there have been numerous reports of police looking the other way as private citizens shoot at crowds of protesters. So they may at least have been police adjacent. At least 42 people have been killed since protests against Iván Duque’s government began in late April.
Finally, in case you missed it, please check out Daniel Bessner’s newest Foreign Exchanges column, on the lack of public input into US foreign policy:
A foundational political assumption with which most American citizens implicitly agree is that the public should inform policy. Though people may disagree as to the mechanism of public influence—should the public shape policy through direct plebiscite? mass demonstrations? Congress?—if asked, the majority of Americans would likely insist that a government that makes decisions without reference to its demos could hardly be considered a democratic government at all.
It’s a tragedy, then, that for seventy-five years US elites have done whatever they could to limit ordinary people’s ability to shape their government’s choices, especially when it comes to foreign policy.