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Watch List: Feb. 12, 2018

Catching up on North Korea, Syria and the Balkans

|February 12, 2018

The items listed below represent potential emerging issues that our analysts are tracking. These can be long term or short term, but will be updated daily. If an item on our Watch List becomes critical, we will email you a full analysis explaining its significance.

Each Saturday, we will follow up our daily Watch List for each week with our conclusions on these issues.

Korean Peninsula: We need to pay attention to the Korean Peninsula now that Kim Jong Un’s sister visited the South. Here’s what we know so far. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence insists that there is “no daylight” between South Korea and the United States on the next steps. China’s envoy to Washington met with U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend, advocating U.S-Chinese cooperation. South Korean media have painted a poor picture of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was reportedly told by South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he should stay out of South Korea’s internal affairs. South Korea continues to reach out to North Korea, with China backing its play, while the United States and Japan appear to be on the outside looking in. Meanwhile in Pyongyang, North Korean media have confirmed the dismissal of the top military general in charge of the General Political Bureau. It’s clear Japan is the biggest loser right now, and though we need to figure out where it can go from here, there’s not much to report on immediately. Let’s circle back on the North Korean general’s dismissal, though, to make sure we haven’t missed anything.

Syria: After an eventful weekend, we need updates on virtually everyone involved in Syria. Turkey still hasn’t taken Afrin, which we thought would be taken with ease. Do we need to re-evaluate? Israel is reportedly already sending air defense systems to the north. Have we seen any other deployments of personnel or equipment? Lebanon was recently the object of Israeli threats. How has the government in Beirut reacted to the recent attacks? The Islamic State is awfully quiet. Will the group do anything proactive, or is it content to let these countries squabble among themselves? Supposedly Russia, Iran and Turkey will attend an as-yet unscheduled summit. What is the state of their relations now?

Saudi Arabia: There’s evidence to suggest that Saudi Arabia is trying to stop exporting Wahhabism, its ultraconservative brand of Islam. Belgium, for example, moved to terminate Riyadh’s links to its largest mosque, to which Riyadh quickly acquiesced. Reuters suggests this is part of a broader Saudi initiative to end support for mosques and religious schools that spread radical ideas. There’s a political battle raging in Saudi Arabia, and this may well be an extension of that battle, so let’s get a better sense of the battle lines.

Norway: Norway has held high-level military meetings with Russia for the first time since 2013. Some media reports suggest Norway is simply nervous about Russian military activities near its border and wants a mechanism to communicate with Moscow. That may be the case. Still, it would behoove us to see if there is a faction in, say, NATO, that wants better relations with Russia.

Turkey: “Ties with the U.S. are at a very critical point. We will either fix these relations or they will break completely.” That’s quite the quote from Turkey’s foreign minister. Turkish officials have a penchant for hyperbole, but to be sure, U.S.-Turkey relations have been tense for years, mostly over the support for Syrian Kurds. Comments from U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis saying the U.S. knew Syrian Kurds were sending reinforcements to Afrin likely angers Turkey even more. Still, to break relations entirely would be as strange as it is severe, especially as the government in Ankara deals with Syria, Russia and Iran. We don’t need to analyze every statement every leader makes, but considering the gravity of the threat, we ought to find out how serious Turkey is.

Central Asia: The foreign minister of Uzbekistan met with the president of Iran to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Last week, a U.S. official said Washington could see China playing a constructive role as a partner for Afghanistan, according to the Asia Times. A report from China’s People’s Daily, meanwhile, notes that a U.S. airstrike on the Afghan border between China and Tajikistan seems to have targeted the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. Last, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan and Central Asia is reportedly visiting the region, something local media have said indicates renewed U.S. interest in Central Asia. All of these issues potentially impinge on Pakistan. We need to figure out what role China could play in Afghanistan and what the U.S. is up to in Central Asia. But the more immediate questions worth answering are: What is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement? Are the airstrikes in question notable? And what’s going on in Uzbekistan?

United Kingdom: British and Irish lawmakers are in Belfast amid speculation that top political parties in Northern Ireland may have reached a deal to restore the government there. Several iterations of talks have already failed, and London has raised the possibility of direct rule if Northern Ireland cannot form a government. In the current Brexit-charged climate, this would be another problem for Prime Minister Theresa May. It would be interesting to know what role, if any, Ireland plays in all this.

European Union: Employment in the European Union increased by 1.7 percent, according to the European Commission. Higher-than-expected job growth is generally welcome news, but we should find out where people are finding work. Is Southern Europe finally adding jobs?

The Balkans: Our coverage of the Balkans continues. Macedonia’s prime minister is in Turkey, reportedly meeting with business leaders to discuss all the partnerships in which they can engage. Considering Macedonia’s recent efforts to reconcile with Greece and thus enter EU institutions, the timing of the visit is more interesting than the visit itself. Serbia, meanwhile, said it would build new relations with the United States, in keeping with its efforts to play East vs. West. As with all meetings, let’s find out when the Macedonian prime minister’s meeting was scheduled. Does Turkey have ulterior motives for hosting him? As for Serbia, let’s determine if this is anything more than the usual back-and-forth with the U.S. If they are genuine, then what are the areas in which they could cooperate?

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