World update: August 13 2020
Stories from Lebanon, Ethiopia, Belarus, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 12, 1099: The Battle of Ascalon
August 12, 1121: The Battle of Didgori
August 12, 1687: The Battle of Mohács
August 13 (or thereabouts), 838: The Sack of Amorium
August 13, 1521: Spanish and allied forces under Hernán Cortés conquer Tenochtitlan and capture the Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc. It’s estimated that somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 people were killed during the two and a half month siege. Cuauhtémoc remained in place as a puppet ruler, but the Aztec Empire was over and Cortés eventually executed him in 1525.
August 13, 1898: In the Battle of Manila, a US army defeats the city’s Spanish defenders, ending the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. And by that I mean that the US and Spanish armies engaged in an extended mock battle in order to effect a prearranged handover of the city to the US and prevent it from falling into the hands of Philippine rebels. Yes, the whole thing was staged. US and Spanish officers worked out a surrender days earlier and met on August 10 to choreograph a final “battle” in order to keep the rebels from getting suspicious. Despite that, six US and 49 Spanish soldiers were killed in the engagement, when a Spanish unit opened fire on an approaching US line that had been unexpectedly joined by Philippine forces. With this context in mind, it probably comes as no great surprise that the Philippine-American War broke out only a few months later.
Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for August 13:
21,070,023 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (6,411,887 active, +272,487 since yesterday)
752,763 reported fatalities (+6357 since yesterday)
1432 confirmed coronavirus cases (+105)
55 reported fatalities (+2)
According to the United Nations, at least eight children have died of various ailments in Syria’s al-Hol displacement camp over the past week. Conditions in al-Hol, which mostly houses the wives and children of IS fighters, are dire. The camp is overcrowded and unstable due to tensions between the refugees/captives and their Syrian Democratic Forces guards, and the closing of the UN’s aid corridor into Iraq in January, at Russia’s behest, has drastically limited the amount of aid getting to the facility.
1847 confirmed cases (+6)
528 reported fatalities (unchanged)
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen says it shot down a drone and two ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis on Thursday toward Saudi Arabia.
According to Human Rights Watch, thousands of Ethiopian migrants in northern Yemen’s Saada province have been chased into Saudi Arabia by the Houthis, who allegedly killed many of them in the process. Saudi security forces also killed a number of the migrants as they approached the border, and have detained hundreds who have crossed into the kingdom.
164,277 confirmed cases (+3841)
5641 reported fatalities (+53)
Someone fired three rockets at the Balad air base north of Baghdad on Thursday, to no apparent effect. Presumably this was an Iranian-aligned militia though IS can’t be ruled out either.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government says it’s going to continue bombing northern Iraq whether the Iraqi government likes it or not, even after killing two senior Iranian border guards earlier this week. Iraqi officials complained to the Turkish ambassador about that strike but there’s really very little they can do about it.
7711 confirmed cases (+298)
92 reported fatalities (+3)
The Lebanese parliament voted Thursday to ratify the state of emergency that’s been in place since last week’s massive explosion at Beirut’s port, which killed more than 170 people and severely damaged the city’s infrastructure. The emergency declarations turns a great deal of power over to the Lebanese military, which under most other circumstances would probably be a red flag but here maybe not so much. The Lebanese military at least has a better reputation with the public than the country’s corrupt civilian leadership. That said, the military now has sweeping powers to censor media, jail protesters, and even try people via military tribunal rather than in civilian courts. Needless to say there’s a lot of potential here for abuse. A small number of protesters gathered at the parliament building in an apparent effort to block the vote, but they were easily contained by security forces.
89,822 confirmed cases (+1671) in Israel, 15,491 confirmed cases (+307) in Palestine
651 reported fatalities (+12) in Israel, 106 reported fatalities (+1) in Palestine
The Israeli military undertook new attacks against Hamas positions in Gaza overnight in response to additional “incendiary balloons” being launched out of the enclave. There were no reports of casualties. The Israeli government decided on Thursday to block fuel shipments entering Gaza, part of its “the beatings will continue” approach to ending the balloon launches. The fuel ban comes on top of Israel’s decisions earlier this week to close the main commercial entry point into Gaza and drastically restrict Gaza’s legal offshore fishing zone.
But there’s good news to report, unless you’re a Palestinian. In what’s being hailed as a landmark diplomatic development, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have negotiated—with US assistance—an agreement to establish diplomatic relations with one another. The UAE will become the third Arab state to recognize Israel, Jordan and Egypt being the others. The Emiratis and Israelis will also reportedly partner with the US in something the Trump administration is calling its “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East, which I’m assuming among other things will involve Countering The Iranian Menace and some vague hand-waving in the general direction of the Palestinian cause.
Coverage of this agreement has already blown well beyond proportion, inasmuch as Israel and the UAE were already de facto allied with one another anyway. They are of course both opposed to Iran, but increasingly they’re also pulling in the same direction when it comes to Turkey. The UAE and Turkey are on opposite sides on issues from the Qatar blockade to Libya to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the already cool Israeli-Turkish relationship looks like it’s heading toward a bigger rift over competition for offshore energy deposits in the eastern Mediterranean. The formal recognition of their alliance is not an insignificant development, but it’s not as though the contours of Middle Eastern geopolitics have suddenly been remade.
The winners here are obvious, as all three participants in negotiating this new arrangement stand to gain quite a bit from their success.
Two big winners (White House photo via Flickr)
Donald Trump will wave this deal around as his one genuine foreign policy achievement heading into the fall campaign, trumpeting his diplomatic acumen at getting two governments that already mostly agreed on everything to acknowledge that agreement. The UAE’s de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, gets to portray himself as a pioneering visionary in the Arab world and as a reasonable guy internationally, so please pay no attention to the repressive autocracy he’s running or to its human rights abuses at home and abroad. The Bahraini government has already hailed MBZ’s move and may follow suit in establishing relations with Israel soon. Other Arab nations may do likewise. And of course Benjamin Netanyahu comes out of this with a huge boost politically that may seriously undercut any challenges from his left even if it earns him a little short-term criticism from his right.
The reason Netanyahu might come in for some criticism here is that in order to secure the deal he reportedly agreed to give up his plans to annex a big chunk of the West Bank. However, there are a couple of reasons to be skeptical about this claim. For one thing, annexation was already proving to be politically impossible for Netanyahu, at least in the near term. According to his original schedule we should already be a month in to the annexation process, and instead nothing has happened. In that sense this was any easy trade for Netanyahu to make. For another thing, Netanyahu has already publicly insisted that he didn’t agree to give up annexation, only to delay it. Again, it had already been delayed, so there’s no real concession. There’s nothing in the UAE deal about building new settlements, so the worst case scenario here from an Israeli perspective is that a rapid annexation is off the table for now but the same slow-moving annexation Israel has been undertaking for the past few decades will continue rolling along inexorably. When it’s in Netanyahu’s political interest to resurrect annexation, he’ll likely do so.
There is also probably a net gain for the Middle East here. If my tone seems dismissive it’s because I’m reacting to hours of coverage about what an OMG INCREDIBLE HISTORIC ACHIEVEMENT this supposedly is when it’s not quite that big a deal. But it is still a big deal. I’m of the opinion that it’s good for governments to talk with one another, even two governments as odious as Israel’s and the UAE’s, so I don’t want to entirely dismiss the significance of that.
The loser here is also obvious: the Palestinians. The UAE has, to be blunt, sold out the Palestinian cause in exchange for prestige in Washington and security cooperation with Israel. That they’ve done so isn’t itself a huge blow to the cause—the UAE wasn’t an essential player in the Israel-Palestine dispute. What is a huge blow is the relative ease with which MBZ and the rest of the Emirati leadership dismissed the Palestinians, because the Palestinian cause just doesn’t really move most Arab leaders anymore. What will be a bigger blow is if the Emirati government doesn’t see much or any public outcry because of the deal. That will mean that the Palestinian cause doesn’t move a lot of Arabs in general anymore. It’s unlikely there will be much blowback for MBZ domestically, though if there is he can always disavow the deal and go back to the tacit but unacknowledged Israeli-Emirati alliance that already existed.
336,324 confirmed cases (+2625)
19,162 reported fatalities (+174)
The US military says that Iranian naval forces boarded and briefly occupied a Liberian-flagged oil tanker near the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday. They apparently released the vessel after five hours. It’s unclear why the Iranians boarded the ship or for that matter why they let it go later, though there is a theory about that (see below). There’s been no comment from Iran as yet.
2882 confirmed cases (+1)
11 reported fatalities (unchanged)
The International Crisis Group’s Alan Keenan is not optimistic about the state of Sri Lankan democracy after the Rajapaksa brothers’ big election victory last week:
Sri Lanka’s democracy has always been incomplete and deeply flawed. Tamils have been excluded from effective power-sharing and their collective identity undermined. Muslims’ economic and cultural security is at growing risk. But even as an ethnocracy, rather than a full democracy, important elements in Sri Lanka have resisted the full flowering of a Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic project. The island’s embattled pluralist traditions, and the occasional attempts to give institutional form to Sri Lanka’s multicultural and multi-religious demographic reality, however, are now so severely weakened as to be politically irrelevant. Under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency the state has abandoned any pretence of Sri Lanka as a multi-cultural nation. Even as the country suffered repeated periods of insurgency, brutal counter-insurgency and mass atrocity – culminating in the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians killed in the final stages of the war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009 – Sri Lanka retained genuine democratic energies and traditions of questioning and contesting the ruling powers. These traditions – and those who wish to maintain them – are now under intense pressure.
369 confirmed cases (+8)
6 reported fatalities (unchanged)
The Myanmar government has reportedly told the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections, a domestic election-monitoring group, that its services will not be required during the upcoming general election scheduled for November 8. This is troubling in that this election is seen as a critical one in terms of Myanmar’s ongoing transition out of military rule, and insofar as international election monitors are likely to stay away due to the pandemic. PACE says it was denied accreditation because it’s received foreign funding, though authorities haven’t confirmed that.
84,756 confirmed cases (+19) on the mainland, 4313 confirmed cases (+69) in Hong Kong
4634 reported fatalities (unchanged) on the mainland, 65 reported fatalities (+2) in Hong Kong
According to the South China Morning Post, the Chinese military is now under orders to avoid escalating any confrontations with US ships and aircraft in the Pacific. So that’s good, I guess. It seems like this is the sort of thing where if you have to put a policy in place you’re already kind of in a dangerous situation, but maybe that’s just me.
16,889 confirmed cases (+42)
107 reported fatalities (+2)
At least three people were killed on Thursday amid clashes between police and protesters angry over President Alassane Ouattara’s recent decision to stand for a third term in October’s election. Ouattara, who argues that the adoption of a new constitution in 2016 erased his previous two terms for purposes of term limits, wasn’t planning to run until the sudden death last month of his chosen successor and former prime minister, Amadou Gon Coulibaly. The ruling Rally for Republicans party, unprepared for a succession struggle on such short notice, quickly asked Ouattara to step in and run again.
48,116 confirmed cases (+373)
966 reported fatalities (+10)
Cattle rustlers attacked a village in Nigeria’s Niger state on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people. Armed gangs and possibly jihadists (though the latter remains the subject of speculation) are increasingly plaguing northwestern and north-central Nigeria with attacks of this kind.
26,204 confirmed cases (+1086)
479 reported fatalities (+16)
At least 17 people have reportedly been killed since the weekend in clashes between police and protesters in the Wolayta area of Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples region. The Wolayta are demanding their own unique ethnic region, as another SNNP community, the Sidama, has formed following a referendum last year. Ethiopian security forces arrested a number of Wolayta leaders over the weekend, sparking protests that have been met with heavy force. Some reports have the death toll as high as 34, with dozens more injured.
For some background on the SNNP region and on other Ethiopian political issues, like the ongoing tensions within the Oromo community and the brewing confrontation between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front over electoral matters, please check out the interview I conducted with the University of Florida’s Terje Østebø earlier today.
344 confirmed cases (unchanged)
10 reported fatalities (unchanged)
Mauritian officials say they’ve been able to pump nearly all of the remaining oil out of the Japanese tanker that ran aground off their coast last month. A bit over 1000 metric tons of fuel did spill into the ocean, but the ship was carrying around 4000 metric tons so this is a relatively successful outcome. The Mauritian government says it plans to pursue a financial claim against the vessel’s owner.
69,203 confirmed cases (+101)
599 reported fatalities (+4)
The Belarusian government has begun releasing the people its security forces have been arresting in the wake of President Alexander Lukashenko’s questionable landslide victory in Sunday’s presidential election. The released prisoners showed signs of abuse and apparently many claimed to have been abused, but authorities insist they were not abused. The release even came with something of an apology by the government for the arrests and the abuse that didn’t happen or was, I guess, just kind of an oopsie.
This is an interesting development. It’s obviously an attempt by Lukashenko to make nice with the people who have been protesting him and hopefully ratchet down tensions. But those kinds of moves can backfire if they’re not timed well, by giving the appearance not of a strong but humbled state seeking reconciliation but of a desperately weak state trying anything to get people to calm down. If protesters get the latter impression it could strengthen their resolve to oust Lukashenko. It’s unclear at this point how this gesture is going to be received.
REPUBLIC OF NORTH MACEDONIA
12,357 confirmed cases (+140)
532 reported fatalities (+2)
Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski tapped Prime Minister Zoran Zaev on Thursday to form the country’s next government. Zaev’s Social Democratic Union party won a slim victory in last month’s election, though it fell 15 seats shy of a majority in the 120 seat legislature. He has 20 days to put together a cabinet that can survive a parliamentary confidence vote, though presumably he’s already done most of the work to negotiate a coalition since the election.
209,365 confirmed cases (+2669)
30,388 reported fatalities (+17)
The French government is sending additional military forces to the eastern Mediterranean as tensions continue to escalate between Turkey and, well, pretty much everybody else in the region. The Turkish government has resumed energy exploration in disputed waters near a Greek island. It has similar disputes with Cyprus. Both of these situations have heaped more bad blood on to the already pretty ragged relationship between Turkey and the European Union. France and Turkey also find themselves supporting opposite sides in Libya, with the Turks backing the Government of National Accord and France supporting Khalifa Haftar while pretending that it doesn’t.
29,088 confirmed cases (unchanged)
247 reported fatalities (unchanged)
The United States on Thursday seized the cargo of four tankers wanted for carrying Iranian oil and fuel to Venezuela in defiance of sanctions. US prosecutors filed a civil forfeiture complaint over the cargo last month, and the Trump administration then, as the AP put it, “threatened ship owners, insurers and captains with sanction to force them to hand over their cargo.” According to Reuters, that brief Iranian tanker detainment I mentioned above may have been intended as “retaliation against the Greek owner of some of the vessels.”
5,415,666 confirmed cases (+55,364)
170,415 reported fatalities (+1284)
Finally, the Trump administration added to its sterling environmental record on Thursday, announcing that it’s relaxing Environmental Protection Agency restrictions on the release of methane by energy companies as part of the oil and gas extraction process. Sure, why not. The move should help smaller fracking operations reduce costs, and they’ll pass that savings on to you in the form of runaway climate change and the collapse of human civilization as we know it.