A funeral service in Idlib, Syria, on Monday for 10 fighters from Faylaq al-Sham, the Turkish-backed group targeted in the strikes.Credit...Mohammed Al-Rifai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A funeral service in Idlib, Syria, on Monday for 10 fighters from Faylaq al-Sham, the Turkish-backed group targeted in the strikes.Credit...Mohammed Al-Rifai/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The World This Week: October 25, 2020

Asia Pacific

Beijing and Taipei traded blame for a physical clash between their diplomats in the Pacific island nation of Fiji this month, an unusual flare-up as China intensifies efforts to assert its territorial claims over the island democracy of Taiwan. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry on Monday accused two Chinese Embassy officials of provoking an altercation that left a Taiwanese diplomat hospitalized with a concussion, as the pair tried to force their way into an Oct. 8 reception hosted by Taipei’s trade office in Fiji. The Chinese Embassy in Fiji countered with allegations that Taiwanese officials had acted provocatively toward its staff and injured one of them.

On Friday, Thailand lifted an emergency decree issued last week that banned public gatherings, a reversal that embattled Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said was a good-faith gesture aimed at defusing protests against his administration. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets every day since the decree was passed on Oct. 15, defying government orders and calling for Mr. Prayuth’s resignation. Police responded by arresting key organizers of the youth-led movement, which is seeking greater democracy, and used water cannons to disperse crowds on Friday, measures that further invigorated protesters.

The U.S. and India are expected to sign a key military agreement this week, bolstering cooperation in the Pacific and Indian oceans to counter an increasingly assertive China, Indian officials said. The satellite-intelligence pact will be completed during a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to New Delhi, Indian officials said, part of an annual gathering with their Indian counterparts next Tuesday.

Oceania

After a year-long investigation, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has arrested 44 men on suspicion of possessing and producing material related to child exploitation. Suspects were arrested in every Australian state on 350 charges; all male, the men reportedly shared images and videos online using a cloud storage platform. Hundreds of officers and specialists collaborated with each other across state- and territory-lines on the investigation. An AFP spokesperson said that 16 children had been “removed from harm” as a result.

The Marshall Islands has publicly condemned Chinese coercive action in the Pacific in the wake of an incident involving Chinese officials and a Taiwanese diplomat at an event celebrating Taiwan’s national day. The Marshall Islands is in the minority, among 4 island countries that retain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, in opposition to China’s efforts to persuade otherwise. Fiji, the host of the event earlier in October, is reportedly investigating the incident; the Chinese embassy issued a complaint on October 8, but nothing has been said about the Taiwanese diplomat (who was hospitalized following an altercation).

Europe

Rates of infection continue to rise across Europe in a second wave, where people, including in France, Italy, and Spain, are currently more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 than in the United States. However, death rates remain consistently lower than in March and April. The difference is most likely due to a combination of increased testing capacities and improved treatment.

Part of the blame for the rise in cases can be placed on European impatience to be rid of state-imposed restrictions and a weariness of social distancing guidelines – “pandemic fatigue.” After harsh lockdowns in several countries in the spring, most of Europe experienced a relatively normal summer, with borders open to travel.

EU efforts to address the resurgent pandemic remain limited to travel guidance and financial assistance; there is no united European approach to lockdown measures. Instead, each country is again imposing individual plans. There are curfews across Italy, England, and France, limits on drinking in the Czech Republic and Belgium, and stricter mask requirements in Greece and Switzerland.

Eastern Europe

Belarus opposition strikes have gained momentum after opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for a nationwide “walkout” on 13 October if President Alexander Lukashenko did not resign. She also demanded release of all political prisoners and an end to police brutality in Belarus. Many shops, cafes, restaurants and local businesses have closed in solidarity with the protesters. Though media is restricted currently in Belarus and the exact numbers for Monday’s strike are unclear, there were a reported 100,000 participants demonstrating on Sunday. Police arrested around 523 participants on Sunday.

Though a humanitarian ceasefire was issued on Sunday over the disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict is still in full-swing. Minutes after the ceasefire was issued, Azerbaijan accused Armenian fighters of violating the agreement and shelling nearby villages. Two other ceasefire agreements were violated earlier this month. Since the conflict began on 27 September, tens of thousands of residents have fled their homes and thousands of citizens on both sides have been killed.

North America

On Thursday, the second and final U.S. Presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden took place. Trump was much less bellicose than in the first debate. According to a POLITICO/Morning Consult[ii]poll, 54 percent of debate watchers believed Biden won compared to 39 percent for Trump. Only 8 percent of watchers had no opinion. Assuming the polls are correct, Trump squandered his last opportunity to significantly close the gap against Biden.

At least five people in Vice President Mike Pence’s staff have tested positive for COVID in the last few days. Of these five staffers include Chief of Staff Marc Short and the Vice President’s “body man,” meaning his job is to accompany Pence throughout the day. Pence has stated he will continue on the campaign trail.

COVID cases reached a record high [iv]amid a new wave of infections. There were 83,010 new cases on Friday. Hospital admission numbers are rising as well; 41,485 people were being treated in hospitals, the highest figure since the end of August.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sudan has become the most recent Arab state to announce it will officially recognize Israel as a state and the transitional junta government has agreed to begin normalizing relations with Israel. They join Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain in doing so. The United States has agreed to remove Sudan from its list of states that sanction terrorism, which means US sanctions will be lifted from the country. Sudan had been on this list since 1993.

As a precursor to the move, Sudan agreed to pay $335 million in compensation funds to US citizens who were victims of al-Qaeda attacks in Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen. The government of Sudan has agreed to this because the attacks in 1998 and 2000 were masterminded by Osama bin Laden, who had lived in Sudan in the 1990s until US pressure forced Sudan to expel him. Other al-Qaeda operatives involved in these attacks had been given a safe harbor in Sudan as well. Bin Laden’s house in Khartoum has remained largely empty since his departure from Sudan as potential tenants still fear the US may bomb it.  

While this has been viewed as a win for the Trump administration just over a week out from Election Day, major political parties in Sudan have rejected the deal. In a country facing food insecurity and economic stagnation, citizens in Sudan are not excited at the prospect of the Sudanese government paying hundreds of millions to compensate victims of horrible terrorist attacks when the average person in Sudan had nothing to do with them. President Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan from 1989-2019, allowed little public input on his decisions, especially those to harbor al-Qaeda operatives. He was removed in a coup in 2019 and incarcerated on corruption charges. Blood was spilled to remove him from office, and many within Sudan feel they have begun to right past wrongs and this payment is a case of the US disregarding those efforts.

Many prominent political parties in Sudan have rejected the junta government’s recognition of Israel. The first issue raised is that since the government of Sudan is a transitional military junta, prominent Sudanese politicians, such as Kamal Omar of the Popular Congress Party, claim the temporary government has no authority to authorize a deal of this magnitude. Another issue is the widely held viewpoint of many in Sudan (a majority Muslim country) that Israel is an occupying power and practicing religious discrimination, oppressing Palestinians. Protest chants have echoed across Khartoum in support of Palestine and in rejection of this deal. 

Many political parties in Sudan have warned they would pull support from the junta government if this deal were authorized. Those in Sudan who oppose the deal have formed a front called the “anti-normalization front”. As reported in the aforecited Al Jazeera article, Iran’s foreign ministry accused Sudan of paying “ransom” and closing its eyes to crimes against Palestine in exchange for getting off the state-sanctioned terrorist list of the United States. More to come on this story. This is one worth following. See you next week.

Middle East and North Africa

Russian warplanes struck a camp of Turkish-backed rebel fighters in northwestern Syria Monday, killing more than 50 in the mainly rebel-held city of Idlib. The target was a training base for an Islamist group called Faylaq al-Sham. The strike puts the ceasefire monitored by Russia and Turkey at severe risk and creates an extremely unstable environment, due to its proximity to the Turkish border. 

The Trump administration continues to impose sanctions against Iran. On Monday, economic sanctions were placed against Iran’s oil sector for providing financial support to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. This is the elite military unit that the United States has designated as a terrorist group. The relentless sanctions imposed against Iran is both heightening tensions between Washington and Tehran and will create a challenge for whoever is President of the United States after the election. 

Friday President Trump announced that Sudan-Israel relations were agreed upon. The two countries opened economic ties as a pathway toward normalized relations, and President Trump also removed Sudan from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, which also unblocked economic aid and investment. Sudan is the third Arab state to formally set aside hostilities with Israel.

Central Asia

A second try for smooth Kyrgyz elections may have to wait for some time. Initially, the latest date allowed for such a re-do was December 20th. This timeframe was expanded this week to as late as June 2021. The sitting parliament and interim president Sadyr Japarov have been busy. The parliament has amended the parliamentary system of Kyrgyzstan. It has lowered barriers of entry to smaller, non-status quo parties. These include the threshold necessary for party inclusion—lowered from 7% to 3%— and reducing election commission fees parties must pay by 80%. Japarov has stated he wishes to reduce the power of parliament, but is opposed by those of that body.

Food prices have risen starkly in Tajikistan. This rise follows the recent re-election of President Emomali Rahmon, which he won handily. The administration typically curbs the worst of these types of issues prior to elections to prevent demonstrations or upheaval, but with the election in the rearview mirror, the issue is likely to worsen. 

Wariness concerning Chinese investment and settlement in Central Asia is not new. However, Uzbekistan, typically more receptive to this activity, has grown more reticent in recent years. Uzbeks join Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in being “very concerned” about growing their countries’ debt to the PRC, Chinese people purchasing land in their countries, and the possibility of losing favor with Russia over involvement with the PRC.

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