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World roundup: September 28 2021
Stories from Yemen, Nigeria, Haiti, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
September 27, 1669: The Siege of Candia ends
September 27, 1822: French orientalist Jean-François Champollion (d. 1832) publishes the first results of his translation of the Rosetta Stone, the first true breakthrough in the effort by European scholars to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Two years later he published Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens, which cemented his reputation as the “Father of Egyptology.”
September 28, 1538: The Battle of Preveza
September 28, 1961: A group of Syrian military officers carries out a coup that pulls Syria out of the United Arab Republic, the political union that Syria and Egypt had formed in 1958. In addition to ending the UAR, the coup kicked off about 18 months of political chaos in Syria that finally ended (well, sort of ended) with the March 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
There were a number of Syria-related stories percolating today:
A pair of bombings in the northern Syrian city of Jarabulus, which is controlled by Turkey and its proxies, killed at least two people and wounded 18 more on Tuesday. The bombings occurred in two different places so this was not a “double tap” attack. Given the location both the Kurdish YPG militia and Islamic State remnants could be considered suspects. Turkish officials will presumably blame the YPG.
Airstrikes targeted a militia base in the eastern Syrian city of Mayadin on Monday. I haven’t seen any mention of casualties. Given that nobody has taken responsibility for the strikes it’s probably safe to say it was an Israeli operation.
Royal Jordanian Airlines announced Tuesday that it will soon restore its direct route from Amman to Damascus, which was suspended a decade ago at the start of the Syrian civil war. How soon is unclear—the Jordanian government suggested October 3, but the airline says it still hasn’t gotten approvals yet so that date could be pushed back. Jordan and Syria held ministerial-level meetings this week about rebuilding political and economic ties, talks that have also resulted in the reopening (as of Wednesday) of the main commercial border crossing between the two countries. Both countries stand to make out economically here, but for Syria the implications go much deeper in terms of restoring its prewar position within the Arab world.
United Nations Syria envoy Geir Pedersen said Tuesday that he’s organizing a sixth meeting of the committee that is supposed to be drafting a new Syrian constitution, starting in mid-October. Although he seems bullish on the chances for something productive to emerge from this round of talks, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think it will go any better than the previous five rounds.
Fighting over Maʾrib city has claimed the lives of at least 130 combatants over the past two days, according to The Associated Press. I know this sounds like a broken record but most of the casualties have been on the Houthi side, owing to an intense bombing campaign by Saudi aircraft. Nevertheless it seems the Houthis are making progress, with AFP reporting that they are advancing on the city and may be in position to start demanding its surrender. Presumably they would prefer to take the city through negotiation to taking it by force, which would not only mean intense fighting but could result in a civilian bloodbath given the number of displaced Yemenis currently in Maʾrib.
The Houthis say they shot down a US ScanEagle reconnaissance drone over Maʾrib province on Monday. If true it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve downed one of those craft and may not be the last either. The US government, which as we all know isn’t supposed to be supporting “offensive” Saudi operations in Yemen anymore, almost certainly considers the defense of Maʾrib, including the attendant airstrikes, to be a “defensive” operation.
The Taliban announced on Tuesday that they will temporarily be adopting Afghanistan’s 1964 constitution—promulgated under then-King Mohammed Zahir Shah as part of his “modernization” program—albeit with a few alterations. Anything in that charter the Taliban deems to be in conflict with Islam will be excised, and while I haven’t seen any mention of specific aspects I would assume the part that allows women to vote won’t be making the cut. It’s unclear how long the modified 1964 constitution will be in effect and there’s no indication as yet how the Taliban intends to draw up is replacement.
The Pakistani military says its forces killed at least ten unspecified “militants” in an operation in the South Waziristan region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday. Given the location it seems likely these militants belonged to the Pakistani Taliban or a related group, but authorities didn’t go into detail.
North Korean state media is reporting that Tuesday morning’s missile test involved a new hypersonic device, probably a hypersonic glide vehicle along the lines of Russia’s Avangard system. State media is also naturally calling the test a smash success, but there is at least some reason to suspect it may not have gone entirely according to plan. Without more information about what actually happened and/or about the purpose of the test it’s hard to say.
Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party will choose its new party leader on Wednesday in a leadership vote that as far as I can tell has no clear favorite. Vaccine minister Kōno Tarō seems to be a popular choice with the Japanese public, for example, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much in an internal party election. Whoever wins should replace Suga Yoshihide as prime minister and then lead the party into a general election that must be held on or before November 28. Polling indicated the LDP is likely to win that election, especially once Suga and his dismal approval rating are removed from the equation.
Sudan’s General Intelligence Service says that five of its officers were killed and a sixth wounded in an operation targeting sites used by a suspected Islamic State-affiliated group in and around Khartoum. GIS personnel raided multiple locations and apparently things only devolved into a shootout in one of them. Authorities say they arrested 11 people in the operation.
Nigerian authorities are denying reports that police opened fire on a Shiʿa march through Abuja on Tuesday. The Islamic Movement in Nigeria, which is outlawed but is Nigeria’s largest Shiʿa organization, is claiming that police attacked the march and killed eight IMN members. Police insist they responded to the march because it was disrupting traffic and were then themselves attacked with Molotov cocktails and rocks. They say they were able to break up the demonstration, arresting 57 people in the process, without causing any casualties.
AFP, citing Nigerian “civilian and security sources,” is reporting that “scores” of people have been killed in clashes between the Islamic State’s West Africa Province affiliate and remnants of Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram group in the Lake Chad region. Local sources are claiming that a large group of Boko Haram fighters seized an island that had been held by ISWAP in an overnight raid, leaving an unknown number of fighters dead on both sides. Shekau’s death in battle with ISWAP fighters back in May dealt a heavy blow to Boko Haram, but diehards under former Shekau lieutenant Bakoura Buduma have refused to be absorbed into ISWAP and have apparently been holed up in Boko Haram strongholds on the Nigerien and Chadian portions of Lake Chad. Monday’s raid seems to have been an attempt to gain, or regain, a foothold on the Nigerian side of the border.
Whether Boko Haram can build on this reported success or even hang on to what it’s just taken remains to be seen, but the raid suggests that whatever is left of the group is more resilient than previously thought. And that suggests that the Lake Chad region might see an extended battle for dominance between the two groups.
While we’re talking about Lake Chad, the death toll from the Nigerian military’s apparently botched airstrike on Sunday now stands at 50 or more. Initial reports had at least 20 killed but a survivor of the strike has given the 50+ figure to Reuters while an anonymous local resident is saying they saw at least 60 bodies on the ground. The best explanation for the strike still seems to be that the victims were congregated in an area where the Nigerian military expected only to find Islamic State militants.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced on Tuesday that his government will hold a referendum on a new constitution in February. Details of the proposed new charter are unclear but Lukashenko talked about “redistributing the powers of the president, the parliament and the government and establishing a constitutional status for the All-Belarus People’s Assembly.” The first part is unsurprising, as Lukashenko has talked for months about possibly devolving some of his own powers to other parts of the government (not that he’s necessarily going to do that, mind you), but nobody except Lukashenko (maybe) seems to know what the “All-Belarus People’s Assembly” is or what it will do.
On October 5 (mark your calendars!), Romanian Prime Minister Florin Cîțu’s minority government will face a no confidence motion brought by the USR-Plus party, which was formerly part of his coalition. On the numbers, Romania’s three opposition parties (USR-Plus, the Social Democratic Party, and the Alliance for the Union of Romanians) control a majority of the Chamber of Deputies. They have very little in common other than a shared dislike of Cîțu, but that could be enough to win the no confidence vote. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis could theoretically reappoint Cîțu, who would then have to survive another confidence vote. He’d likely either try to bring USR-Plus back into the coalition or secure enough support to continue on at the head of a minority government. A snap election is possible, but some kind of government reorganization is probably more likely.
The Hungarian government on Monday cut a new 15 year deal to buy Russian natural gas, and triggered a diplomatic falling out with Ukraine in the process. The Hungarian-Russian deal stipulates the use of pipelines that bypass Ukraine, which means the Ukrainian government won’t be able to collect transit fees on the deal. Ukrainian officials are planning to lodge a protest over the contract with the European Union, which could in theory deem it non-compliant with EU regulations. That prompted the Hungarian government to summon Ukraine’s ambassador in Budapest on Tuesday to lodge a complaint, which in turn prompted the Ukrainian government to summon Hungary’s ambassador in Kyiv to lodge a complaint about the complaint. The Hungary-Ukraine relationship was already frayed over claims that the Ukrainian government is discriminating against its Hungarian minority.
The head of Germany’s Christian Social Union party, Markus Söder, has publicly congratulated the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, for winning Sunday’s federal election. This is a little awkward in that Armin Laschet, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union and Söder’s alliance partner, is currently trying to snatch the victory away from Scholz by negotiating a coalition led by the CDU/CSU. Laschet is insisting that the SPD’s narrow (25.7 percent to 24.1 percent) margin of victory can’t be taken as a clear mandate from the voters. There’s some evidence (Söder’s comments, for example) that Laschet is being blamed internally for the CDU/CSU’s dismal (by historic standards) result, and unless he somehow does manage to become chancellor he seems unlikely to retain a leadership role within his party.
After losing their big submarine contract with Australia due to the formation of the new AUKUS alliance earlier this month, France’s Naval Group defense contractor got some exciting news on Tuesday in the form of a new French arms deal with Greece. The agreement, worth at least €5 billion, will see Naval Group build three and possibly four new frigates for the Greek navy. It’s obviously not nearly as lucrative as the Australian deal would have been, but it does advance Emmanuel Macron’s plans for European military autonomy. I mean, sort of.
The latest round of negotiations between the Venezuelan government and its political opposition wrapped up in Mexico City on Monday with both sides heralding progress in resolving their many disputes. Neither party went into any detail.
Colombian authorities are claiming that a senior commander in the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN), Ogli Ángel Padilla Romero (AKA “Fabian”) died on Tuesday of injuries sustained in a government operation earlier this month in Chocó province.
Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry told the AP on Tuesday that he’s postponing Haiti’s next election, which had been scheduled to take place in November, until sometime next year. Henry is planning to hold a constitutional referendum first, no later than February, before proceeding to a general election after that. He’s likely to face opposition from those who want to see the election proceed in November as planned and who will accuse Henry of trying to extend his time in power. He’s also likely to face opposition from civil society groups who prefer a longer delay. Many activists and other civil society leaders, who regard Henry as a puppet installed by the United States in the wake of Jovenal Moïse’s assassination, are calling for a two year transitional government to stabilize the country before another election.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a shameless plea to check out Alex Aviña’s latest Foreign Exchanges piece on the history of the US Army’s Fort Huachuca base:
On paper, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe that ended the US-Mexico War largely created (when paired with the the 1853 Gadsden Purchase) the recognizable border between the two countries. In reality, though, the border—along with vast swaths of the Apachería in Arizona and New Mexico—remained under the control of the Chiricahua Apaches for decades after 1848. Having launched devastating raids deep into Mexico before the war, they continued their raiding activity after 1848, including raids and attacks on Anglo settlers who had moved into indigenous lands. After a decade of skirmishes and minor conflicts, the US military undertook the “Apache Wars,” also known as “America’s longest war,” lasting from the early 1860s through the late 1880s. As an oft-neglected theater of the US Civil War, this “three-cornered war” pitted competing Anglo settler colonial visions for what became the US West against Apache efforts to defend their autonomy and self-determination.
First built in 1877, Fort Huachuca represented one part of the Army’s counterinsurgent strategy against the Apaches: the building of an estimated 50 forts and camps in Arizona—along with reservations—that allowed for the rapid deployment of cavalry to locate and fight Apache warriors. This was a classic guerrilla war. “Fighting the Apache,” wrote the fort’s biographer, “was like fighting the wind.” In the final battles against Geronimo in 1885-1886, the fort served as the main headquarters for the last commander of the campaign, General Nelson Miles.
With extensive experience waging war against indigenous communities in Texas and the Great Plains, Miles bought a technological innovation into the Geronimo campaign (borrowed from British colonial efforts in Africa and India): the use of heliographs (mirrors) to signal messages across long distances between dispersed forts located on mountain tops that could locate and communicate the location of Apaches moving in the valleys below. These were the first “drones,” one of the first counterinsurgent technologies that attempted to resolve the issue that still beguiles “border enforcers” today: how to render the borderlands and border crossers as legible—or, in other words, how to translate surveillance into social control.