Get Full Access:
Save 44% Now
Trusted by over 50,000 readers

Watch List Findings: Feb. 10, 2018

Russian plane shot down in Syria, Brexit talks, Syrian deployments in Aleppo and Idlib

|February 12, 2018

What follows are the preliminary findings for issues identified in the daily Watch Lists this week. We are only sending findings that we regard as significant or potentially significant to keep this list manageable. We have findings for all the Watch List items. Should you be interested in findings not listed here, please contact us and we will email them to you.

To emphasize, you can contact us if there is an item not included here for which you’d like to see the findings.

Our goal, as always, is to focus on what matters and not on things that don’t.

Items from Feb. 5

Iran: New protests materialized in Iran on Feb. 1-2. Women protesting the wearing of the hijab organized the protests, most of which were small, according to reports. A few unreliable reports suggested they were more widespread and targeted the government and supreme leader. On Feb. 2, the government announced it had arrested 29 people in connection with the demonstrations. What’s most notable in all this is that on Feb. 4, a presidential adviser reportedly released a 2014 government research report that said almost 50 percent of Iranians think the government should stay out of the hijab issue. At this point, even the smallest issues in Iran seem to be fodder for political factions. What do we know about the size and nature of the latest protests? Why was the 2014 report released? And have we seen any reactions from the Revolutionary Guard to the developments we covered last week?

Russia, Syria: Syrian militants shot down a Russian Su-25 ground attack plane Feb. 3 over Idlib province. The pilot ejected and was killed. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly al-Qaida’s Syria branch, claimed responsibility. Has al-Qaida in Idlib demonstrated the ability in the past to bring down enemy aircraft? What implications, if any, does this have on Russia-Turkey relations?

  • Finding: Syrian rebels in and near Idlib province have demonstrated over the past several years the ability to shoot down enemy warplanes. But these planes have been primarily Syrian government aircraft. One was shot down in December 2017, another in August 2017 and two more in May 2016. The groups that claimed responsibility for these attacks include Ahrar al-Sham, which is affiliated with al-Qaida and a former Turkish ally, and other lesser known constituents of the Free Syrian Army, including Ahmad al-Abdo Forces. If the rebels responsible for the most recent downing are tied to Turkey, which seems likely since it happened in Idlib, Turkey may be able to convince Russia that it was an isolated event. If it happens again, however, Russia would respond more harshly.

Balkans: Large protests broke out across Greece over the Macedonia name issue. Meanwhile, Albania and Macedonia announced their intention to sign a defense cooperation agreement. And Serbia’s president said in an interview that a solution was needed on the Kosovo issue and that Serbians and Albanians both needed to compromise. The issue is not any one of these things; the issue is the sheer number of blips on the radar lately. Macedonia seems to be at the center of it. We should start by understanding Macedonia’s problems and perspective. The Albania-Serbia relationship is also becoming one of the most important bilateral relationships for us to watch.

United Kingdom: Brexit negotiations with the European Union restart in earnest on Feb. 5 in London. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government looks again like it is teetering; she’s caught on a tightrope between hard Brexiteers and soft Brexiteers. Watch for any leaks out of London. How precarious is May’s position? Is her government likely to fall, or is this just the sort of political drama we should expect around Brexit? What effect is this, or Germany’s political paralysis, having on the negotiations? What’s the deadline and benchmark for negotiations to reach their next phase?

  • Finding: May seems more confident during this round of talks. Last week, she visited Beijing, where British firms signed 9 billion pounds ($12.5 billion) in new deals with Chinese businesses, and Chinese President Xi Jinping assured Britain that the Chinese market would be open for business. This may give Britain more leeway in Brexit trade talks. In addition, Germany’s main parties have reached a deal to form a governing coalition, so Berlin’s political paralysis will no longer be an issue. Brexit negotiations should last until November 2018, and Britain will formally leave the bloc in March 2019, with the transition period lasting until the end of 2020.

Items from Feb. 6

U.S.: The echoes from the collapse of U.S. stock prices are being heard around the world. This isn’t completely surprising. At some point, a U.S. recession is inevitable. Rarely has the country gone this long without one. It’s just a matter of timing. So the most important thing to figure out is whether the events of Feb. 5 were a momentary correction or the start of something bigger. Either way, we need to figure out how it will affect places like Europe, Russia and China. After all, the United States is still the world’s engine of consumption, and problems there tend to spread elsewhere. Our next step should be to cast a wide net. Let’s identify vulnerable asset classes. Let’s examine European, Chinese and Russian exposure to a U.S. recession. Let’s break down U.S. economic data by region to see if some are suffering more than others and what, if any, political consequences the data has in store.

Syria: The Syrian government has deployed new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles in Aleppo and Idlib, according to a commander loyal to the government in Damascus. If this is true, it is clearly a defensive measure against the Turkish incursion into Afrin. The Syrian government has yet to respond to Turkey’s military forays, but there is no reason to suspect it never will. Is the report true? If so, what systems have the Syrians deployed?

  • Finding: No details are available on what exactly Syria deployed, but we know Damascus has short- and medium-range surface-to-air missiles that could be used against Turkey’s F-16s. There are also reports that the Syrian army, or allied paramilitary groups, has begun shelling Turkish positions in southern Aleppo province. Iranian news agency Fars, citing an Arab-language version of RT, reported that the Syrian army targeted and destroyed a Turkish convoy in southern Aleppo last week with artillery and missile units, leading Turkey to send a larger convoy to the area as reinforcement.

Uzbekistan: In Uzbekistan, special units that had been transferred to the National Security Service from the Interior Ministry are now reportedly being sent back to the Interior Ministry. Last week, the head of the NSS resigned. This has all the makings of a major reorganization. For now, this is just something to keep an eye on. Sooner or later, though, we need to figure out if this is the beginning of a power struggle or the aftermath of a power struggle already won.

  • Finding: There was a power struggle in Uzbekistan after the death of the country’s president, Islam Karimov, in 2016, though it’s unclear whether the recent events are related. After Karimov’s death, current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev had two main rivals: Rustam Azimov and Rustam Inoyatov. Both men held government positions, but Mirziyoyev has gradually managed to break free from both figures. In June, Azimov was fired from his position as deputy prime minister, and in late January, Inoyatov was removed as head of the NSS. Mirziyoyev has gained the support of the people and apparently has found a new ally in Moscow. Uzbekistan wants to strengthen ties with Russia and open the country to the world. Mirziyoyev, having eliminated his main opponents, now has the chance to control the direction in which the country will go. Thus it appears that the recent jostling in the NSS may be the aftermath of a power struggle already won. The gradual curtailing of the NSS and the removal of the president’s rivals from important positions will significantly increase the president’s freedom of action, especially regarding economic reforms.

China: For the 15th consecutive year, the Chinese government’s No. 1 document – the first policy document released by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council – is related to agricultural policy. This time it covers a “rural revitalization” program meant to once and for all improve the lives of those living in the countryside who have yet to benefit from China’s technological savvy, rapid urbanization and economic growth. Previous documents have tried and failed, but we still need to find out how this one differs from the others – if, in fact, it differs at all.

  • Finding: This year’s document does not differ from the main points laid out in China’s five-year plan that covers 2016-2020. Repeat themes include bridging the rural-urban gap, using more technology in agriculture, improving management and use of agriculture resources, improving infrastructure and increasing ideological indoctrination of the countryside. The plan calls for the construction of agriculture-based industrial parks, grain storage, construction of a refrigerated warehouse logistics system, improving the dairy industry and standardizing production. There is also an emphasis on shifting agricultural production to focus on quality over quantity with multiple standardization efforts. Improvements in medium- and long-term financing and professionalization and training of farmers are also priorities. While the plan identifies what changes are needed, there is little detail about how the initiatives will be carried out.

Items from Feb. 7

Iran, Turkey: A Turkish military outpost in Syria’s Idlib province was reportedly attacked, leaving one soldier dead and five injured. Some reports suggest Iranian-backed militias are responsible. Meanwhile, Syrian Kurds, whom the Turks oppose, are believed to have arrived in Afrin after reaching an agreement with the Syrian government, an Iranian ally. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has criticized Turkey publicly, calling it “unprincipled and fruitless.” We did not expect Iran and Turkey to clash directly in 2018. Should we reconsider? Before we do, we need to verify the above reports.

  • Finding: The report on reinforcements is verifiable, but those about Iranian participation are still suspect, though plausible. As early as Jan. 20, there were reports that Afrin was receiving reinforcements. Since then, a broad spectrum of news outlets has reported on evidence of reinforcements. On Feb. 4, the Syrian Military Council – part of the Syrian Democratic Forces – announced that it would send reinforcements to Afrin. The Pentagon responded by saying that if they were to do this, they would not be supported, and that operations in Afrin are a distraction from the fight against the Islamic State. We still expect Turkey to be able to take Afrin, but not as quickly as initially anticipated. Defenders will be dug in, and the Syrian government appears to be cooperating with Kurds, letting them traverse government-held territory from the northeast Kurdish positions to reach Afrin. Meanwhile, Russia seems to be pressuring Turkey to keep its air force on the ground. Several sources cite “Iranian-backed militias” as being responsible for the shelling of the Turkish outpost position; others cite “pro-regime forces.” The Turkish military has not specified which militia was responsible.

Afghanistan: The United States is reportedly moving troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the Islamic State has supposedly made inroads. Iran has accused the U.S. of all sorts of nefarious things in Afghanistan, and some Afghan officials have accused Iran and Pakistan of trying to destabilize the country. Let’s take a step back and map out a new picture of the Afghan battle space. Once we understand who controls what, we will have a better idea how big of a threat the Islamic State really is, and if the rhetoric is anything more than rhetoric.

  • Finding: The U.S. committed more troops to Afghanistan in 2017 and is currently drawing down troops from Iraq. However, the troops in Iraq do not appear to be moving to Afghanistan. What is being moved are air and reconnaissance assets (i.e., planes and drones). Planes require pilots and maintenance, but those are not traditionally thought of as additional troops.
    Last year, President Ashraf Ghani said there were 20 different terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. Many of these groups are affiliated with or operating under the umbrella of ISIS-K and the Taliban. ISIS-K is composed primarily of Islamic extremists originating from Pakistani groups. A few small splinter groups previously under the Taliban umbrella and a trickle of fighters from Syria also fight in its ranks. ISIS-K operates in Nangarhar province and can carry out isolated attacks in Kabul and Kunar province. The Taliban still occupy the most territory and have roughly 60,000 fighters, according to official 2017 estimates. The Taliban operate heavily in provinces along Afghanistan’s central-east and northeastern border with Pakistan. They also have a presence in southern provinces along the border with Pakistan and northwestern provinces that border Turkmenistan and Iran.

Items from Feb. 8

Russia: A foreign ministry official in Russia told RIA Novosti that Russia has reinforced its military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, but didn’t provide any specific details. According to the official, the move is a result of new threats emanating from Afghanistan, and positive relations between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were helping improve the security situation in Central Asia. What is Russia doing at these bases, and what is the threat from Afghanistan that the official referred to?

  • Finding: Details are limited beyond the news that Russia is strengthening its bases and training military forces in those bases. On Jan. 31, it held drills at a base in Kyrgyzstan aimed at destroying ground targets of a conventional enemy. Russia has several reasons to pay attention to this region, which is close to Afghanistan. With the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and infighting among the Taliban there, security risks posed to neighboring countries have increased. First, Russia continues to have a significant advantage militarily in Central Asia and uses this advantage to strengthen its positions in the region. Second, under the pretext of protecting countries from threats, Russia is pursuing its own interests. Now that the U.S. has plans to move air and reconnaissance assets from Iraq to Afghanistan, Russia cannot ignore the strengthening of the U.S. presence, especially along its buffer zone.

Iraq: According to al-Monitor news site, an Iraqi Kurdish delegation told Iranian officials in Tehran that the Kurdistan Regional Government had made a mistake by relying too heavily on Turkey and the United States, and that it would be “readjusting” its policies to be more in line with Iran and Iraq. The report says that Iran is highly concerned about security on the border with the KRG and wants the Iraqi Kurds’ help taming rising Kurdish unrest in the region. We need to take a harder look at what’s happening on the Kurdish portion of the Iraq-Iran border. Let’s also try to corroborate this report. What would it mean for the KRG to lean toward Iran, Iraq and even Russia? Can it even do that considering its dependence on Turkey?

  • Finding: Iraqi Kurdistan seems to be leaning closer to Iran right now. This is due to the security and economic pressure that Tehran and Baghdad have been able to exert over Iraqi Kurdistan, and the long-term risk that a rising Turkey poses to the region. Turkey wants Baghdad to hurry up and come to an agreement with Kirkuk so that Turkey can get back to exporting oil sourced from there. Iraq is unlikely to share this sense of urgency due to electoral gains that can come from exerting greater control over Kirkuk and concern that, should Turkey decide to move beyond Afrin, it may attempt to stake historical claims over Kirkuk. Iran is also concerned about the prospect of Turkish military operations in areas held by the Popular Mobilization Forces in Baghdad.
    Since Iran is believed to have supported Baghdad’s offensive, Baghdad is believed to have rewarded Iran in exchange by initiating a new oil deal with Iran that involves production from the same Kirkuk crude oil fields that Turkey wants. Tehran and Baghdad recently also announced initial plans for a Kirkuk-Kermanshah pipeline, which raises the question of replacing the current pipeline (used by Turkey) to export oil. Lastly, any move farther east of Afrin by Turkey would further align Iraqi Kurdish and Iranian interests.

Palestinian Territories: The situation remains unstable in the Palestinian territories. In an anomaly, Hamas has blamed the Palestinian Authority – not Israel – for Gaza’s current power crisis. Hamas may already be having second thoughts about relinquishing political control to Fatah, or this may simply be a new tactic for garnering local support. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, Israeli Army Radio reported that Israel has deployed three additional battalions to reinforce its security presence there. This may be a cautionary move, but even so it speaks to Israeli concern that the situation in the West Bank may be teetering on the edge.

  • Finding: Hamas does not seem to be second-guessing the power-sharing agreement being negotiated with Fatah. Rather, its comment reflects some sort of negotiating tactic. This is not the first time Hamas has blamed the Palestinian Authority for Gaza’s plight – the previous example was on Jan. 29. In response, Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah asked international donors to support projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and condemned the U.S. decision to label the leader of Hamas a terrorist. Furthermore, as of Jan. 24, Hamas’ national strategy calls for Palestinian unity and expedited efforts to achieve reconciliation. The PA plays a pivotal role in the supply of electricity to Gaza, which gets roughly two-thirds of its electricity from Israel. Electricity imported from Israel is paid for by the Fatah-ruled PA. The cost of the Israeli supply is deducted from the revenue that Israel collects on imported goods destined for the Palestinian territories and transfers to the PA. Last June, the PA asked Israel to reduce the power supply to Gaza. Then, in January, the PA negotiated with Israel an increase in electricity to Gaza to June 2017 levels and reinstated the collection of taxes on the Gaza Strip. As for relations with other countries, Hamas appears to be in good standing with both Egypt and Iran. Egypt just opened its border with Gaza for three days’ worth of passage despite Hamas not having yet turned over full civil control to the PA. As for Iran, there is growing evidence that its support for anti-Israel activities extends to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

North Korea: China’s Foreign Ministry indirectly criticized a recent North Korean military parade in which intercontinental ballistic missiles were displayed. Then North Korean media blasted Chinese media for interfering in Korean ties. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special envoy for Korean issues said the situation on the peninsula was undergoing “positive changes” after meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Moon also apparently agreed to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister soon. This is obviously something to watch, but what is China’s role in all this?

  • Finding: We know that China wants two things more than any other: One, the U.S. off the peninsula, and two, a peninsula that complies with Chinese wishes. We also know that China fears a nuclear North Korea less than it does a war that destabilizes northeastern China and ends up with U.S. forces on the Yalu River and the Korean Peninsula on a path toward a South-dominated reunification. For similar reasons, it also fears a chaotic regime collapse in Pyongyang more than a nuclear North Korea. Thus, even if the current detente is unlikely to lead to denuclearization and merely prolongs the status quo, China would have an interest in supporting it so long as it indeed can stall a conflict and/or widen the gap between the U.S. and South Korea.