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World roundup: May 25 2021
Stories from Iran, Pakistan, Mali, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
May 24, 1991: The military arm of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front enters the city of Asmara, securing (as it turns out) Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia and thus marking the end of the Eritrean War of Independence. May 24 is commemorated in Eritrea annually as Independence Day.
May 25, 1521: The Diet of Worms, an assembly called by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in response to the growing “Protestant” reform movement led by Martin Luther, culminates with the Edict of Worms. In that proclamation, Charles declared Luther “a notorious heretic” and promised that “those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.” A plan to arrest Luther, who had previously testified before the diet and was on his way home to Wittenburg, was thwarted by Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, who “kidnapped” Luther and stashed him in Wartburg Castle for his own safety. He remained there until the following March, writing and translating the New Testament into German while his reform movement became a schism and Protestantism began to separate from the Catholic Church.
May 25, 1946: The British Mandate of Transjordan gains independence as “The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan” with the crowning of Emir Abdullah I as king. May 25 is annually commemorated in Jordan as Independence Day.
May 25, 1981: Leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates sign the Gulf Cooperation Council charter in Abu Dhabi, formally marking the birth of that organization. The GCC was intended to streamline political and economic relations between the six Gulf Arab states, with the potential for tighter unification down the road. It has led to the creation of a Gulf customs union and a number of joint infrastructure projects, but big plans regarding monetary union and increased regional cohesion have been largely undermined by the Saudi-Qatari rivalry.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for May 25:
168,509,848 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+522,459 since yesterday)
3,499,150 reported fatalities (+12,069 since yesterday)
For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here
24,252 confirmed coronavirus cases (+65)
1745 reported fatalities (+5)
The Russian military has reportedly started stationing long-range nuclear-capable bombers at its Hmeimim airbase in Syria. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. This obviously expands Russia’s strike range and increases its force projection in the eastern Mediterranean, but more importantly it’s likely to create some nervousness in Washington and Brussels and nervousness is usually followed by a commitment to Do Something about the perceived threat. It’s likely that Western leaders will be pressuring the new Libyan government, assuming it survives, not to allow similar Russian basing in that country.
6670 confirmed cases (+8)
1311 reported fatalities (+1)
Somebody appears to be building a new airbase on Yemen’s Perim island, also known as Mayun island, which lies smack in the middle of the strategically important Bab-el-Mandeb strait, a geographic feature that bottlenecks maritime traffic in the southern Red Sea. And by “somebody” I mean the United Arab Emirates, though UAE officials won’t come out and acknowledge it openly. The UAE has tried to build an air facility on Mayun before and anonymous Yemeni officials have apparently told the AP that it is indeed the Emiratis who are building this facility.
The UAE dropped out of a direct combat role in the Yemeni war in 2019 but it has certainly not left Yemen alone. It’s still supporting southern Yemeni separatists and through them it’s more or less seized control of Socotra, another strategically located Yemeni island in the Arabian Sea. Emirati officials have reportedly been demanding that the Yemeni government sign a 20 year lease agreement for Mayun, perhaps in exchange for allowing the government and allied coalition forces to use the airbase to attack Houthi targets in northern Yemen. Long-term the Emiratis may view Mayun as a replacement for their Assab airbase in Eritrea, which they’ve begun dismantling. At the very least, Mayun is easier to defend than a mainland facility in the Horn of Africa.
1,176,980 confirmed cases (+4938)
16,241 reported fatalities (+27)
Iraqi security forces killed at least one person and wounded 12 more on Tuesday when they responded violently to new protests in Baghdad. The protesters were, somewhat ironically I suppose, expressing their anger over a string of murders involving prominent activists and protest organizers, probably carried out by Iraqi militias. The Iraqi government has promised to bring the murderers to justice but has so far done nothing and is unable to control or discipline the militias in any meaningful way.
839,389 confirmed cases (+28) in Israel, 306,334 confirmed cases (+557) in Palestine
6406 reported fatalities (+0) in Israel, 3480 reported fatalities (+10) in Palestine
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to the Middle East on Tuesday to participate in the traditional post-Gaza war performance of US diplomacy. To demonstrate the Biden administration’s superficial commitment to Doing Something about achieving an Israel-Palestine peace deal, Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who doesn’t want a peace deal, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose credibility with the Palestinian people is so low he couldn’t possibly negotiate one. Blinken promised increased US aid to the Palestinians, including Gaza reconstruction aid that he somehow seems to think the US can disburse without going through Gaza’s Hamas-run government, and he pledged to reopen a US consulate in Jerusalem to handle Palestinian consular affairs. The Trump administration merged the old consulate into its new Jerusalem embassy, drastically limiting the extent to which it could serve Palestinians.
Israeli officials welcomed Blinken to the region by killing a Palestinian man in an undercover police raid early Tuesday morning in Ramallah. Israeli police also escorted a group of settlers onto the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount complex for the third straight day, while Israeli authorities continued their mass arrest campaign, targeting Palestinians in the West Bank and in Israel proper who recently engaged in protests over the war in Gaza.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
559,291 confirmed cases (+1672)
1658 reported fatalities (+4)
The US sale of F-35 aircraft and advanced drones to the UAE may suddenly be in jeopardy, but not over any concerns about the Israeli military’s qualitative regional superiority. Rather, some recent indications of closer security ties between the UAE and China seem to be raising concerns in the US about the possibility that the Emiratis might share F-35 tech with Beijing. The extent of these closer ties aren’t clear but could go as far as the construction of a Chinese military base in the UAE, an eventuality that would almost certainly lead the US to cancel the sale.
212,038 confirmed cases (+817)
2284 reported fatalities (+10)
For the third day in a row the northern Omani city of Sohar was the scene of protests over high youth unemployment and government austerity measures (such as a recently adopted value-added tax). The protests also spread to a number of other northern Omani cities and towns. In contrast with Monday’s demonstrations, Omani security forces appeared to take a fairly soft touch with the protesters, even reportedly bringing them water (in a cup, as opposed to out of a cannon) at one point. Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq made a very public show of chairing a meeting on youth unemployment and announced new job creation initiatives.
2,855,396 confirmed cases (+11,873)
79,056 reported fatalities (+208)
Iran’s Guardian Council on Tuesday released its list of approved candidates for next month’s presidential election, and it included one whopping surprise. As expected, the council rejected the candidacies of most of those who filed to run, including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (now a two-time loser before the council who seems to keep filing to run in these elections more as a public show of defiance than out of any expectation that he’ll be allowed to run) and current Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri (too closely aligned with incumbent Hassan Rouhani to be allowed to run). Unexpectedly, it also rejected the candidacy of former parliament speaker Ali Larijani.
The council never articulates its reasons for rejecting a particular candidate, but it’s impossible to find anything on Larijani’s resume that would explain its decision. Even on an ideological basis, Larijani is a mainstream Iranian conservative, unlike the reformists and moderates the council has been blocking from politics for the past few years. It’s hard to view this decision as anything other than a shift from partially election rigging, meant to ensure that an “acceptable” candidate wins, to full election rigging, meant to ensure that one particular candidate wins: Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi. He’s gone from prohibitive favorite to near lock to win the election, given the list of candidates who have been cleared by the council.
222,139 confirmed cases (+157)
4400 reported fatalities (+6)
There are reports of a new border clash between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. The Armenian Ministry of Defense said Tuesday that one of its soldiers was killed in a “shootout” started by Azerbaijani forces along the border of Armenia’s Gegharkunik province. Azerbaijani officials are denying the claim and say instead that the Armenian soldier was killed in some sort of “accident.”
67,743 confirmed cases (+840)
2855 reported fatalities (+19)
AFP reports on the fighting between Afghan government forces and the Taliban in Laghman province:
Meanwhile, the US military’s Central Command says its withdrawal from Afghanistan “is at least 16 percent” completed and possibly as much as 25 percent.
905,852 confirmed cases (+2253)
20,400 reported fatalities (+92)
Speaking of said withdrawal, World Politics Review’s Arif Rafiq suggests that it’s not going to be as beneficial for Pakistani interests as some folks in Islamabad might think:
As U.S. troops begin what may be their final withdrawal from Afghanistan, no third country will be affected by their departure as much as Pakistan, which shares a long, porous border with Afghanistan, hosts much of the Taliban leadership as well as millions of Afghan refugees, and faces threats from Pakistani militants based there.
For Pakistan, America has been both a partner and a strategic competitor in Afghanistan. Notionally, the U.S. exit presents Islamabad with an opportunity to proactively shape Kabul’s political future in its favor. But in reality, a post-withdrawal Afghanistan without an internationally backed, intra-Afghan accord offers far greater risks than rewards for Pakistan. An emboldened Taliban and a potential civil war next-door would not only jeopardize Islamabad’s dreams for regional connectivity, but also pose a threat to its own domestic security.
The worst case scenario for Pakistan is an extended civil war across the border, but a Taliban takeover in Kabul might not be far behind. The Pakistani military and intelligence services supported the Taliban in its takeover in the 1990s and weren’t necessarily thrilled with outcome. Moreover, the old narrative under which the Afghan Taliban were a Pakistani client and were cool if not outright hostile toward the Pakistani Taliban doesn’t apply these days, if it ever really did, so an Afghan Taliban takeover could worsen Pakistan’s militancy problem. Pakistan’s ideal outcome is probably a new Afghan government that incorporates but is not dominated by the Afghan Taliban. But it’s unclear whether it has enough influence over the Taliban to convince its leadership to settle for less than a full takeover.
14,252 confirmed cases (+8)
514 reported fatalities (+0)
So it turns out that the thing that looked kind of like a coup in Mali yesterday was in fact a coup in Mali. After interim President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane were rounded up by the Malian military on Monday, nominal Vice President Assimi Goïta addressed the country on Tuesday to announced that he was taking power at the head of another military junta. Goïta led the coup last August that removed then-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta from power, and while I’ve seen this week’s events characterized as Goïta “retaking” control or the like, the truth is he never really relinquished it—his modest official position as “vice president” notwithstanding.
It seems that Ndaw and Ouane committed the offense of reorganizing Mali’s interim government without getting Goïta’s approval for their reshuffled cabinet (which sacked two of the senior members of August’s junta), and so they had to go. The military’s takeover, which meets even the strictest definition of a “self-coup,” has presumably set the transition to civilian rule back to some degree, though it’s unclear exactly how much. It’s also generated significant international outcry, from international organizations like the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and the United Nations as well as the French and US governments.
269,782 confirmed cases (+282)
4093 reported fatalities (+9)
According to Reuters, Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers made an overnight sweep through four displaced persons camps in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, arresting/abducting hundreds of people (at least 500 but possibly far more than that) in the process. Their purpose in doing so is unclear. The Eritrean government has denied the story and suggested it’s the product of “propaganda” by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Meanwhile, the Sudanese government claimed on Tuesday that the Ethiopian government has already started phase two of its project to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s reservoir. Ethiopian officials have suggested they might conduct phase two during the regional rainy season this summer, but if this claim is accurate they actually got underway earlier this month. The revelation—if that’s indeed what it is—could raise tensions with Sudan and Egypt, which are concerned about the impact filling the reservoir could have on water levels on the Blue Nile and Nile rivers.
14,632 confirmed cases (+0)
767 reported fatalities (+0)
Somali Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdirizak informed the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday that Somalia’s federal government and its various state governments have finally agreed “in principle” on holding a new general election. Plans to hold a direct parliamentary election last year collapsed due to disagreements about procedure, then plans to hold a more traditional indirect election also fell through. That in turn meant that February’s indirect presidential election couldn’t take place, and tension over President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s continuation in office almost sparked a new civil war last month. It’s not clear exactly what this agreement “in principle” includes and how many outstanding details remain to be settled. One lingering detail appears to be whether and how to organize the election in Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 and has functioned autonomously ever since, though its independence is not generally recognized.
5,017,795 confirmed cases (+7884)
119,194 reported fatalities (+393)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden will hold their first in person meeting in Geneva on June 16, at the end of a trip that will see Biden attending a G7 summit in the United Kingdom and a NATO summit in Brussels. Among the items on the agenda will likely be the situations in Belarus and Ukraine, as well as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Though mostly I’d expect them to glare at each other for a while before emerging to tell reporters what a nice meeting they had and how much they both want the US and Russia to get along with one another. It’s highly unlikely that anything substantive will emerge from the encounter.
387,818 confirmed cases (+840)
2791 reported fatalities (+11)
Belarusian journalist and activist Roman Protasevich was last seen being pulled off a Ryanair flight that Belarusian authorities had diverted to Minsk via what appears to have been a phony bomb threat. But a video of someone who appears to be Protesevich emerged late Monday in which he a) confessed his alleged crimes against the Belarusian state and b) looked very much like he’d had that confession beaten out of him. There have been several international calls for Protasevich’s release. Additionally, several European airlines have announced that they’re avoiding Belarusian airspace and Minsk’s airport, which could be a significant financial blow to Belarus if it lasts. It’s unlikely it will last, though. Ukrainian airspace is already off limits to most commercial flights due to security risks, and avoiding Belarusian airspace on top of that could be difficult for airlines running routes over eastern Europe.
33,947,189 confirmed cases (+22,738)
605,208 reported fatalities (+669)
Finally, over at the Fellow Travelers Blog, the Truman National Security Project’s Dan Mahanty and Allegra Harpootlian argue that it’s time for the United States to break its addiction to drone strikes:
Beginning under President George W. Bush, accelerated and widely expanded under President Obama, and then left unchecked with looser rules of engagement under President Trump, the use of so-called “targeted killing” against people the government suspects of association with terrorism has become policymakers’ favorite tool. Politicians on both sides of the aisle repeatedly characterize the use of armed drones, and the civilians killed, maimed, and terrorized by them, as a “necessary evil,” because as President Obama said, “to do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold.” They see drone strikes as the low-risk, high-reward way for America to show resolve in the midst of threats real and imaginary, while calming public apprehensions about “boots on the ground.”
As the habit of targeted killing has taken hold, policymakers have worked to conceal their dependence on it. They cloak the deadly policy in political language, obscuring its true character and garnishing it with legalistic euphemisms to evade scrutiny under international law. All to conceal the true depth of American involvement in wars that have been neither debated by the American public nor approved by Congress.
That America has clung to this bad habit makes sense from a psychological standpoint. According to Psychology Today, “one likely reason people are creatures of habit is that habits are efficient: People can perform useful behaviors without wasting time and energy deliberating about what to do.” Now that Congress has once again begun to expend energy deliberating about US security policy for the first time in a generation, however, it is vital that it addresses drone warfare. Now is the perfect time to break the destructive habit of keeping secrets, evading responsibility, and killing without accountability.