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 email 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 May 11
Turkey: Three developments took place regarding Turkey and the United States following the U.S. announcement that it will arm the Syrian Kurds as the primary fighting force in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. First, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim had a brief meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in London in which differences were acknowledged and deemed resolvable. Separately, Washington has offered to increase the capabilities of the intelligence center in Ankara shared by the two countries to ease concerns regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Most significantly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still scheduled to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington next week. At this point, it seems like the Turks have accepted that they cannot force the Americans’ hand on the issue. We will be watching for any last-minute decisions to cancel Erdogan’s visit. If the visit takes place, we will watch for any indications that the Turks are unwilling to accept the U.S. decision to support the Syrian Kurds.
- Finding: Thus far, the response from Turkish officials, including Erdogan, to the Trump administration’s decision to arm the Syrian Kurds has been mild. The Turkish press has criticized the Turkish administration for its reaction, and the pressure on Ankara is mounting. At least two stories in the Turkish media this week have discussed the possibility that Erdogan’s trip to Washington will be canceled. For now, though, the official Turkish position is that Erdogan’s visit will go ahead. Also, a meeting took place on May 10 between a delegation led by the Turkish justice minister and officials from the U.S. Justice Department on Turkey’s calls to extradite the Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. These talks could also affect U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkey has accused Gulen of planning the failed 2016 coup.
Items from May 10
Russia: An article in Russian newspaper Vedomosti from May 5 reported that former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has suggested an economic plan that includes raising the retirement age and making it harder to get a pension. President Vladimir Putin asked Kudrin months ago to draft an economic strategy. The Moscow Times reported that Kudrin will submit his full plan to Putin for review this month. The State Duma’s deputy chairman, Sergei Neverov, has criticized these proposed measures. On April 21, Putin’s spokesman denied that Kudrin was being considered for the post of prime minister, according to Russia’s Tass news agency. Either we are getting a glimpse of how Putin intends to respond to the economic crisis, or he is setting up Kudrin for a big fall. In any case, Russia is signaling that it is preparing for austerity measures. We must keep a close eye on this plan and the reaction to it.
- Finding: See our Reality Check from May 12, “The Cost of Fixing Russia’s Economy.”
United States: On May 9, a Defense Department spokeswoman said the United States has decided to arm the Syrian Democratic Forces and tried to reassure Turkey that this would not affect the U.S.-Turkey partnership. Meanwhile, a White House official said the United States is considering sending an additional 5,000 troops to Afghanistan. This represents a potential challenge to Geopolitical Futures’ forecast that the United States will try to withdraw and not commit force to the Middle East. Thus, we need a better sense of what deployments are being considered, where they would be sent, and what effect they can have. Then, there is the question of U.S.-Turkey relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump are supposed to meet next week. That meeting will now be an indicator of Turkey’s reaction to these moves. Cancellation of the meeting could mean a real rift in U.S.-Turkey relations; strong political statements but no action would mean relations will continue as usual.
- Finding: See our Reality Check from May 11, “Tackling a Change in US Foreign Policy Head On.”
Items from May 9
Turkey: Turkey is opening a military base in Doha, Qatar, that will house 500-600 soldiers under a joint Qatari-Turkish command. Qatar, a Turkish ally, is expected to cover the costs of the deployment. This comes after Turkey opened a military base in Mogadishu, Somalia, roughly a month ago, at which 200 Turkish officers are stationed to train as many as 10,500 Somali soldiers to fight al-Shabab. These are not large numbers, and we expect Turkey to remain focused primarily on the conflict on its border that directly threatens it. However, we need to understand if Turkey is beginning to see new interests farther abroad and whether Turkey would have the capacity to support a larger-scale deployment.
- Finding: According to a Jane’s Defence Weekly report, 94 Turkish personnel are stationed at the Turkish military base in Qatar, although the plan remains to deploy up to 600. This deployment is small considering that, in late 2015, a Turkish spokesman said the base would house 3,000 Turkish soldiers. The facility, which formally opened in 2016, was approved in an agreement between the two countries in 2014 and was subsequently ratified by Turkey’s parliament in 2015.
Items from May 8
Iran-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia: Iran’s highest-ranking general warned that his country’s forces would strike at Saudi-backed terrorist bases in Pakistan. The warning comes after Iran’s foreign minister visited Pakistan’s capital. Separately, the Iranian defense minister threatened that if Saudi Arabia attacked Iran, nothing would be left in the kingdom except Mecca and Medina. We need to determine to what extent Iran sees a Saudi-Pakistani alignment as a real threat, and how far Iran would go to make good on its threats.
- Finding: Iran is concerned about Pakistan’s alignment with Saudi Arabia because the Saudis could use Pakistan to take action against Iran. Iran does not want to engage in a military conflict with Pakistan. If, however, rebels from Pakistan’s Balochistan province carry out another attack on Iranian security forces in southwestern Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, we can expect Tehran to conduct a cross-border operation. Such an operation by itself would not trigger a broader conflict between Iran and Pakistan, but it would force Pakistan to retaliate. We are examining the terrain and the correlation of forces on both sides to assess the extent to which an armed conflict can take place between the two countries.
North Korea: Kyodo News reported that a North Korean diplomat is meeting with former U.S. government officials in Europe. It said the diplomat was in Beijing last week. It is impossible to verify that claim at this time. These are informal talks that occur occasionally. The Korea Times said the meeting was taking place in Norway. The diplomat in question was supposed to be granted a visa to travel to New York in February, but major U.S. papers said those talks were abruptly canceled. According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, a U.S. State Department official said, “Track 2 [unofficial] meetings are routinely held on a variety of topics around the world and occur independent of U.S. government involvement.” The Korea Herald reported that the North Korean diplomat had talks with former U.S. government officials in November. Thus, such meetings are not new, but it is the first meeting during Donald Trump’s presidency. It would be hard to make the case that this meeting denotes a shift, especially considering the number of starts and stops in the U.S.-North Korean relationship. But in the context of Trump’s recent comments on North Korea, it deserves further examination, which should start by identifying the U.S. participants in the meeting.
- Finding: Choi Sun Hee, who heads the North America department of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, represented Pyongyang in these informal talks in Oslo. According to South Korean news agency Yonhap, the former U.S. officials at the meeting were former head of U.S. Pacific Command Adm. William Fallon, former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and former State Department special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control Robert J. Einhorn.
Venezuela: We are watching a number of developments in Venezuela. Opposition forces have scheduled protests for every day this week and refuse to participate in President Nicolas Maduro’s constitutional convention. The opposition is also reporting that junior military officers are not content with the current government. Trump spoke with Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski about how to handle the Venezuela issue, and U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster met with the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Julio Borges. Finally, Russian oil company Rosneft’s increased activity in Venezuela and Cuba has drawn U.S. attention. We need a better understanding of Rosneft’s operations in these countries. We also need to think about what the next phase of the Venezuelan crisis will look like and what will happen to the Maduro government.
- Finding: The violence in Venezuela will continue to climb. Maduro’s popular support is extremely low, but he remains in office thanks to the support of select military officers, government officials and state employees. He will resign only if he feels seriously threatened. Foreign governments have minimal to no interest in intervening. The military’s lower brass may pose a threat to the government’s ability to control the masses. Whoever takes power after Maduro will face extreme challenges and will need to produce results fast to remain in power. This will be very difficult to do.