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Watch List Findings: March 10, 2018

Italy’s next steps, Belt and Road financing, Turkish projects in Somalia

  • Last updated: March 9
  • Total word count: 2004 words

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 March 5

Italy: As most polls predicted, no party won enough seats in the Italian election to form a government, though the nationalist Five Star Movement party garnered more support than expected. Weeks and perhaps months of intrigue and horse trading will ensue as parties compete to form a coalition government. The result will be a government that is more hostile to the European Union than previous governments, though it is still impossible to say how far Italy will be able to push back against Brussels. What constraints will the new government face in changing Italy’s relationship with the EU? We are primarily concerned with how events in Italy will reverberate throughout Europe.

South Korea: Two recently appointed South Korean special envoys answerable directly to the South Korean president attended a dinner hosted by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang on March 5. This is the first time Kim has met with officials from South Korea, and it suggests the offer made during the Winter Olympics for some kind of reconciliation was genuine. The envoys will stay another day before heading home. Then they reportedly will fly to the United States to brief Washington on the situation and discuss the next steps.

Iran, Syria: A senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader said March 4 that it was time for Syrian President Bashar Assad to consider a “political solution to the crisis.” This is notable because Iran has been encouraging Assad to go on the offensive and has provided support to the regime on the ground. Our model says Russia does not want Assad to go on the offensive, but until now we haven’t seen many signs that Iran is willing to scale back. This could just be a cover, so we will need more than a statement to figure out if something has changed, but either way this is important.

  • Finding: Iran and Turkey seem to be in fairly active negotiations. Iran is content with Assad retaining most (but not all) of his territory so long as Iran still has a secure land supply route to Lebanon. Turkey won’t be thrilled with this, but it can’t realistically challenge Assad without setting off a large-scale general war, which Turkey isn’t ready for. Turkey would accept a compromise whereby Syria would let Turkey conquer Afrin if Ankara promised to keep its military there (for now). Iran encourages Assad’s offensive because it provides bargaining power in the negotiations.

Items from March 6

Syria: Pentagon officials said March 5 that the U.S.-backed offensive against the Islamic State in eastern Syria was on hold after the Syrian Democratic Forces withdrew from the fight to support the Syrian Kurds under attack in Afrin and other Syrian Kurdish positions on the Turkish border. IS has not gone away and still maintains control over areas in eastern Syria. Will IS seek to take advantage of this lull? More important, is there any way for us to determine how many SDF fighters have left the fight against IS to join the battle in Afrin or other parts of northern Syria? The Syrian Kurds may believe that the U.S. will give up on them and are therefore quitting the coalition against IS.

  • Finding: The Islamic State does not appear to be taking advantage of the lull. The main space of IS activity appears to be south of Deir el-Zour, near the Iraqi border, while activity in the east is minimal. On March 6, the SDF said it was redeploying 1,700 fighters to Afrin. Seven hundred have reportedly already arrived. A spokesman for the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, said there were about 10,000 fighters in Afrin before the Turkish invasion. This number corresponds to the 8,000-10,000 figure we’ve seen from Turkish and other sources.

Russia: Russia said it arrested five members of the Islamic State in Dagestan. Instability in the North Caucasus is a serious tripwire for Russian security, and IS establishing a presence there would certainly qualify as instability. Is Russia facing a serious Islamist challenge in this region?

  • Finding: The danger of such a challenge always exists in this region, but the threat is no more imminent now than it is any other time. Russia does have to be careful, though. Fighters fleeing Syria and Afghanistan could pop up in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moreover, the Caucasus are in turmoil, especially economically, which makes recruitment easier for extremists. Dagestan got a new chief late last year, which has created some uncertainty and probably played a part in the deterioration of the security situation.

Items from March 7

Turkey: The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, which spearheads government assistance to developing countries, said it will rebuild the Jowhar off-stream storage reservoir in Somalia, which is expected to improve irrigation for local farmers. Turkey’s ambassador to Somalia also said Ankara plans to undertake other development projects in Somalia before the end of the year. Turkey’s expansion is central to our forecast, and the Horn of Africa is a natural place for Turkey to expand. Let’s get the details of the projects in question. Let’s also bear in mind the greater competition in this region. Though Somalia itself may welcome foreign money, other interested parties may not.

  • Finding: Some of the projects are generic development projects like school and hospital construction. Others related to infrastructure and the military are more strategic. Turkish companies helped modernize Mogadishu’s airport and sea ports. Ankara’s latest development interests, particularly those related to port developments, lie in Kismayo and Gobweyn. In early February, Turkey extended for another year the deployment of some 3,000 troops located in the Gulf of Aden, Somalia and the Red Sea. Ankara also just supplied a company-size Somali army unit – recent graduates of Turkey’s new training base in Mogadishu – with small arms. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt are uneasy with Turkey’s growing presence. The U.S. also opposes defense-related activities because it contributes to the general increased militarization of the region.

Indonesia: Indonesia wants to reopen discussions over its 1997 treaty with Australia on disputed maritime boundaries. (The treaty was never ratified.) This comes after the government in Canberra finalized a long-stalled deal with East Timor that resolved similar issues. Indonesia’s suspicions of Australian intentions aside, these kinds of bilateral tensions have long hindered more robust defense cooperation between the two countries. (Also there is oil and gas at stake.) This may complicate efforts for the U.S. and its allies to incorporate Indonesia, which occupies a strategically invaluable geographic location at the southern end of the South China Sea and the nexus of the Indian and Pacific oceans, into the loose coalition intended to contain Chinese assertiveness. Let’s check the status of Australian-Indonesian relations.

China: The Chinese Finance Ministry has said the government will offer “diversified financing channels” for One Belt, One Road projects, of which there are more than 100 in nearly as many countries. We have our doubts about OBOR, and our doubts stem primarily from financing. What are the additional channels in question? Given the number of projects, we need to identify which ones have high strategic value for China and look at the funding status for those projects.

  • Finding: The new plans are short on details, though Beijing said it’s setting up an international OBOR financing center, and it recently began allowing foreign firms and governments to issue OBOR bonds on Chinese stock exchanges. It’s difficult to say whether these will be sufficient; OBOR is constantly evolving in scale, and the cost for China of any particular project is subject to change. For example, the series of high-speed rail links it is trying to build from Yunnan to the Malay Peninsula are strategically important, since they would ease Chinese dependence on export routes through potentially hostile waters in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. (They would also cultivate political influence in host countries.) But each link of this network – through Laos, Thailand and Malaysia – faces unique funding, political, security and commercial challenges. The line through Laos, a country with a gross domestic product half the size of Boise’s and little need for high-speed rail, will require construction of a staggering 167 bridges and 75 tunnels. China has no choice but to shoulder to bulk of the estimated $6 billion price tag. Meanwhile, China is trying to drive a harder bargain with Thailand over the connecting line, impeding progress. And it’s facing stiff competition from Japanese and European firms for the right to build the Malaysia-Singapore link.

Items from March 8

Philippines: A dozen low-level jihadist groups appear to be trying to coalesce under the banner of “ISIS Philippines.” The jihadist landscape in the Philippines has traditionally been too fragmented to pose a major threat to the region, but last year’s Marawi uprising after several groups merged under the leadership of the Maute group demonstrated the latent threat that jihadists in Mindanao can pose with enough funding and organization. Warnings from Philippine officials about another “Marawi-style” attack have been increasing lately, and the future of a landmark peace agreement with moderate separatist groups in Mindanao remains in doubt. Let’s try to determine the size of this so-called ISIS Philippines and see how it compares to the jihadists who took over Mindanao last year. That should help us gauge how much of a threat this is.

  • Finding: Jihadism in the Philippines will continue to simmer so long as a political solution with moderate separatist groups remains unimplemented and the Philippine military remains incapable of subjugating Mindanao by force.

Kazakhstan: The Kazakh parliament is considering a U.S. proposal to expand their bilateral agreement on the commercial rail transit of freight through Kazakhstan to Afghanistan via Uzbekistan. The U.S. would like to include the Kazakh ports of Kuryk and Aktau in the transit route. Supplies destined for the ports would depart from Azerbaijan and cross the Caspian. How does this fit into the United States’ South Asia strategy? Where do the Russians, Azerbaijanis and Uzbeks stand on the proposal? If Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan are not on board, then this goes nowhere.

  • Finding: The inclusion of the Kuryk and Aktau ports would enhance the United States’ logistics capability in Kazakhstan. At the moment, the U.S. also uses transport corridors controlled by Pakistan to supply Afghanistan. Bilateral ties between Washington and Islamabad are tense, and the two sides are in talks to smooth things over. Having the Kazakh transit option would remove some of Pakistan’s leverage in the negotiations. The U.S. has a well-established relationship with Azerbaijan that has been carefully cultivated over the years to help counter Russia. In exchange for access to the Caspian Sea, the U.S. can offer Azerbaijan support in the development of its energy industry and Southern Gas Corridor initiative to pipe gas to Europe. The U.S. also backs Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with its neighbor, Armenia. As for Uzbekistan, it spent the past year establishing railways and a regulatory framework to improve trade with Afghanistan. The U.S. has worked to improve business ties with Uzbekistan, and the transit route would help Uzbekistan meet its desire to play a more active role in the Afghan peace process.