Daily Memo: A Turkish Offensive, the US-China Tech War, the Irish Backstop

What's geopolitically important today.


Turkey takes the fight to northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Wednesday the start of a long-awaited major Turkish operation to take control of Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. Behind the scenes, Turkish officials have been trying to portray this as a peaceful, largely political operation, but Turkish TV networks have been broadcasting footage of airstrikes and/or artillery strikes on Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units positions in areas around Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Turkish media is also reporting a broad buildup of Turkish forces along the border. There are also unconfirmed reports that Syrian forces, with Russian and Iranian backing, are eyeing a move on Syrian Democratic Forces-held areas from the south. According to Kurdish media, Iran also held an unannounced drill near its border with Turkey. All this comes after the Trump administration announced the abrupt withdrawal of the small number of U.S. forces stationed in the area earlier this week following a phone call with Erdogan. The Kurdish SDF has claimed that it would have no choice but to abandon a network of jails holding captured Islamic State fighters as it moves forces into positions along the border. On Wednesday, Trump said it would be up to Turkey to take responsibility for the detainees. What’s left of the Islamic State is evidently trying to take advantage of the situation, reportedly activating sleeper cells to launch an attack in Raqqa, the Syrian city that just two years ago was serving as the Islamic State’s capital.

The U.S.-China tech war moves to Xinjiang. The U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that it would impose visa restrictions on Chinese officials connected to the mass detentions of ethnic Uighur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang. This comes a day after the U.S. Commerce Department added 28 Chinese entities allegedly connected to abuses in Xinjiang, including eight tech firms, to its “entities list,” which bans U.S. firms from selling to them without a special license. The common theme among the eight sanctioned firms makes clear that U.S. concern about Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang is peripheral to the issue. All are developing technologies the U.S. sees as posing national security risks, particularly artificial intelligence. And, for the moment, all source the vast majority of their microchips from U.S. firms. For more than a year, the U.S. has been seeking to leverage the Chinese tech sector’s dependence on U.S. semiconductors to target Chinese telecommunications firms like Huawei and ZTE. But while China has struggled to develop native sources of the sorts of microchips needed for these firms, it’s been having much greater success with AI chips. So, don’t expect the U.S. move to be crippling over the long term. Either way, China has pledged to retaliate, but the issue reportedly hasn’t diminished Chinese willingness to resume talks on reaching at least a limited trade deal covering other issues.

A concession on the Irish backstop? The European Union is reportedly preparing to propose a major concession in which it would allow Northern Ireland to leave the new so-called Irish “backstop,” which would effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market, after an unspecified number of years – if a majority of both unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland approves. Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is evidently doubtful that the proposed compromise would be enough to break the impasse, saying Wednesday that he thinks it will still be exceedingly difficult to secure an agreement by next week – and that Ireland is unwilling to pursue a deal at any cost. The Democratic Unionist Party, too, said London would not accept a time-limited backstop. This comes a day after a call between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, reportedly went about as poorly as one could expect.

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