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Watch List Findings: Jan. 6, 2018

Iranian protests under control, Hong Kong’s yearly protest, Pakistan’s ability to resist U.S. pressure

|January 5, 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 Jan. 2

Iran: Iranian state TV accused protesters of trying to take over police stations and military bases. Are there any hints that a militant organization is trying to exploit the instability? What should we be watching for that would suggest the government is under serious threat?

  • Finding: The Iranian government has said Saudi Arabia is stoking the protests, particularly through social media. It also said Iran’s own Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization, considered a terrorist group by the government, has supported the uprising. Though this group does support regime change, many of its members live in exile, and it has not been significantly active for over a decade. There are no indications that an organized militant group is trying to exploit Iran’s unrest. Iran’s regular police forces have handled security, and the regime is not under serious threat. We’ll know the police are losing their grip if Revolutionary Guard forces step in to assume primary responsibility for security. Other warning signs would be if protesters acquired arms, security forces defected or large media blackouts occurred.

North Korea, South Korea: Seoul and Pyongyang appear to be headed toward their first direct talks in two years after Kim Jong Un expressed a willingness to participate in the Winter Olympics in February. Can North Korea use this opening to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its major allies in the region? Have any allies expressed alarm about Seoul’s outreach?

Hong Kong: Pro-independence protesters held a mass march Jan. 1 that ended in scuffles with police. Were these routine, and are they expected to continue? Does the continued bubbling of discontent in Hong Kong threaten Chinese President Xi Jinping in any way?

  • Finding: New Year’s rallies against Beijing’s authority over Hong Kong are an annual event, but what separates this year’s episode is the movement against the “co-location” aspect of a planned high-speed rail line that will connect the mainland with Hong Kong and will enable the People’s Republic of China to enforce immigration law inside Hong Kong. The discontent does not, however, threaten the mainland’s continued rule over Hong Kong because the region’s business community, which is in charge of the political system, favors the high-speed rail line and enjoys the economic advantages of integration with the mainland. The protesters – mainly academics, students and human rights lawyers – do not represent a majority.

Pakistan, U.S.: U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to sever aid to Pakistan. In response, Pakistan is reportedly “reviewing” its ties with the U.S., threatening to cease all cooperation and making noise about cozying up to the Chinese and Russians. How easily can U.S. aid be replaced? Pakistan has been drifting from the U.S. for some time; what’s the strategic logic holding things together at this point?

  • Finding: U.S. aid to Pakistan has been declining since 2008, so Pakistan has been adjusting, and it has some means of resisting pressure from Washington. That said, Pakistan cannot afford for relations with the U.S. to deteriorate to the extent that it threatens Islamabad’s international dealings. Pakistan counts on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and India, and the Pakistani military relies on American military hardware. It can’t drift too far out of the U.S. orbit.

Items from Jan. 3

Myanmar: Fighting broke out between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar army in Mohnyin district, Kachin state. We need an update on what started the fighting, how long it’s been since the last round of fighting, and if the fighting is still going on. How have the Myanmar and Chinese governments responded? Is this a domestic issue or an uprising that would draw in China?

  • Finding: The fighting in Kachin state resumed in mid-December after a roughly six-month lull coinciding with Myanmar’s rainy season. This is the typical pattern of Myanmar’s many insurgencies, which take place in extremely rugged areas that become nearly impassable during the monsoon months. The Chinese government has not commented on this particular outbreak and is likely not pushing the Myanmar military to take part in this offensive, as it is not in the areas most concerning to the Chinese and may, in fact, undermine China’s overriding goals in northeastern Myanmar.

U.S., Thailand: There are reports that the U.S. will set up a military arms maintenance center in Thailand. The facility would help supply and repair U.S. armaments purchased by the Thai military. China, Russia and Ukraine have expressed interest in similar projects. What is the status of U.S.-Thai relations since Thailand’s 2014 coup? How do they compare to Thailand’s relationships with other countries? What strategic value does Thailand serve for the United States?

  • Finding: The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok denied the reports. Still, it’s a logical move for the U.S., which has seen its arms relationship with the Thais come under increasing competition from cheaper sources, particularly the Chinese and Russians. Thailand, a U.S. treaty ally, is not nearly as strategically valuable to the U.S. as it was during the Cold War and Vietnam War era, but the U.S. is still keen to maintain a strong foothold in the country to protect against Chinese assertiveness around the Strait of Malacca and in the broader Indian Ocean basin.

Turkey: The Turkish government said it plans to hire 43,000 military personnel, and it just placed arms procurement directly under the president as part of emergency measures. Turkey continues to build up its forces in Syria, recently deploying surface-to-air missiles. What is Turkey positioning itself for? How do these moves fit in with its military doctrine and strategy?

Items from Jan. 4

Saudi Arabia: The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen cut one of the Yemeni government forces’ main supply routes. How important is this route?

  • Finding: The Houthis have alternate routes and are reportedly continuing to receive supplies. This crisis has not yet reached a breaking point.

Russia: The Russian Ministry of Defense denied a report by Russian newspaper Kommersant that seven of its military aircraft were destroyed in Syria. The ministry did confirm, however, that one of its air bases was targeted in a mortar attack on Dec. 31. What do we know about the source of Kommersant’s report? If it wasn’t true, why would Kommersant report it? If it was true, why did the Defense Ministry deny it?

Pakistan: The Pakistani navy has successfully tested the Harbah, a surface-to-surface naval cruise missile. How worried should India be? What does the test tell us about Pakistan’s military intentions in the region?

  • Finding: The notable characteristic of the Harbah cruise missile is that it was indigenously produced. Still, nothing about its development is unexpected, and it doesn’t mark any serious advancement in Pakistan’s military capability. Pakistan’s navy did not disclose the range of the missile, but given that it was launched from a small fast attack craft, the missile itself must relatively small. Estimates of its range are between 75 and 90 miles (120-150 kilometers). Pakistan already has Babur cruise missiles, with a range of 280-435 miles. In 2017, Pakistan also successfully tested its nuclear-capable Abadeel surface-to-surface missile, which has a range of nearly 1,400 miles. India has not had much of a reaction to the Harbah test, but it was already developing a missile defense system in response to Pakistan’s existing missile arsenal.