Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 5 October 2016: investigation into downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 concludes plane was shot down by Russian SAM, Houthi rebels in Yemen name ‘prime minister’ and will establish new government of ‘national salvation’, United States confirms reports of new military air base in Agadez in central Niger

The weekly briefing, 5 October 2016: investigation into downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 concludes plane was shot down by Russian SAM, Houthi rebels in Yemen name ‘prime minister’ and will establish new government of ‘national salvation’, United States confirms reports of new military air base in Agadez in central Niger

by Erin Decker, Kirsten Winterman and Matthew Clarke

Briefing

Summary

Americas: US Congress rejects Obama’s veto of bill allowing families of victims of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabian government; popular vote rejects peace deal between Colombian government and FARC.

Europe: British prime minister announces she will trigger Article 50 of EU treaty before end of March 2017; investigation into downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 concludes plane was shot down by Russian SAM brought into Ukraine from Russia and fired from rebel-controlled territory.

Asia and Oceania: Filipino president announces that upcoming joint military exercise with United States will be last between two countries; Exercise Bersama Lima 16 begins in South China Sea.

Middle East and North Africa: Syrian government launches airstrikes on rebel-held parts of Aleppo following end of UN-brokered ceasefire; Houthi rebels in Yemen name ‘prime minister’ and will establish new government of ‘national salvation’ to rival internationally-backed government in the south.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Protest at religious festival in Oromia region of Ethiopia turns violent and results in deaths of 52 people; United States confirms reports of new military air base in Agadez in central Niger capable of deploying drones.

Americas

United States

On 28 September, the US Congress voted overwhelmingly to reject Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that will allow families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government. The president vetoed the bill on 23 September; however, the US Senate voted to approve the bill in a 97-1 vote, and the vote in the House was 348-77. The Justice for State Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) will allow lawsuits in US courts against foreign nationals if they are found to have played a role in terrorist acts that killed US citizens. The new measure will almost certainly have a negative impact on relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement in the 9/11 attacks, and had threatened to sell billions of dollars’ worth of assets in the United States if the bill was enacted into law. Additionally, some US officials are concerned that the law could create a precedent, exposing the US government to lawsuits for the actions of its own military personnel and diplomats in other countries.

Colombia

The Colombian government and the FARC rebel group signed a final peace agreement on 26 September, formally ending more than 50 years of conflict in which over 250,000 Colombians were killed. The deal was reached after four years of negotiations between the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, and the FARC leader, Timoleon Jiminez (known as ‘Timochenko’). However, the agreement needed to be ratified by a popular vote in order to come into force. In a surprising move, voters narrowly rejected the deal on 2 October. With votes in from more than 99% of polling stations, 50.2% of voters opposed the accord while 49.8% supported it. Former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe led the opposition to the peace deal, which he said treated FARC too leniently. The vote is a major setback in the peace process, and Santos has stated that there is no alternative plan for ending the war. Without an alternative route for the peace process, the popular rejection of the deal threatens the ceasefire and risks a resumption of violence.

Europe

United Kingdom

At the Conservative Party conference on 2 October, the British prime minister, Theresa May, announced that she will trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union before the end of March 2017. Article 50 allows a country to begin a two-year negotiation process to leave the EU; triggering it will be the first formal step towards the United Kingdom leaving the EU. May also announced she will put a Great Repeal Bill to Parliament that will remove the European Communities Act and enshrine all existing EU law into British law – allowing the United Kingdom to then abolish EU laws as it sees fit. The Great Repeal Bill will present a moral dilemma to many pro-EU MPs: whether to follow their principles and vote against the Bill, or follow the results of the referendum (both nationally and in their constituency). Although May’s announcements were designed to encourage stability in the markets, she failed to clarify Britain’s likely position in the EU single market or the legal status of EU migrants currently living in the United Kingdom.

Ukraine

A Dutch-led international investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine two years ago concluded on 28 September that the plane was shot down by a Russian Buk surface-to-air missile brought into the country from Russia and fired from rebel-controlled territory. It remains unclear who ordered the launcher to be brought into Ukraine and fired, but the investigators found that the missile system was returned to Russia on the night of the strike. Ahead of the release of the investigation’s findings, Russia said its radar data proved that no rocket was fired from within territory held by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Moscow has further denied that it provided the missile launcher to rebels in eastern Ukraine, and has claimed that the missile came from territory controlled by the Ukrainian government or from a Ukrainian fighter jet. The investigation’s findings could be compelling enough to be used in a criminal trial, which is likely once investigators determine in which court such a trial should take place. Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has announced that Canberra may seek a Lockerbie-style prosecution over the downing of the airliner. However, Russia is unlikely to cooperate with any criminal proceedings, as Moscow has stated that it believes the investigation is ‘biased and politically motivated’.

Asia and Oceania

Philippines

The Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, announced on 28 September that an upcoming joint military exercise with the United States would be the last between the two countries. This follows recent statements by Duterte saying that he wanted US special forces out of the southern Philippines. About 1,200 US military personnel have been in the region since 2002 to train and advise Filipino units fighting Abu Sayyaf. US forces have been helping Manila fight the Islamist militant group for the past 14 years. The programme, which was largely regarded as successful, was discontinued in 2015, but a small presence was maintained for logistics and technical support. Duterte’s sudden change of tone regarding the Philippine’s 65-year alliance with the United States appears to have come as a surprise to Washington and cast doubt on the alliance between the two countries. There are concerns that the complete US military withdrawal from the Philippines could lead to the resurgence of Abu Sayyaf in the south of the country.

South China Sea

Exercise Bersama Lima 16 has begun in the South China Sea, and is scheduled to run from 4 to 21 October. The military exercise is part of the Five Powers Defence Arrangement, and includes forces from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Kingdom. It is designed to improve the working relationships between member states, and will include war games. While an annual event, this year’s deployment to the South China Sea has been seen as an attempt to warn China over its increased involvement in the area, though this has been denied by the Australian government. China and its neighbours, including Malaysia, are competing over various island’s in the South China Sea, and the exercise will undoubtedly be seen by Beijing as a provocative move. While the exercise itself is unlikely to prompt a strong response from China, the continued close military relationship between these five countries – as well as the United States – continues to irk Beijing, and Exercise Bersama Lima 16 is a very obvious demonstration of that relationship.

Middle East and North Africa

Syria

The conflict in the divided city of Aleppo has intensified. The Syrian government and allied forces launched an offensive on the city the day after the UN brokered ceasefire ended on 19 September. Airstrikes have hit a number of civilian targets, including many of Aleppo’s remaining hospitals. The United Nations has warned that the healthcare system in eastern Aleppo has been ‘all but obliterated’. Reports suggest that 96 children have been killed in one week during the latest offensive. Russia has announced a continuation of its year-long campaign in the country and the United States has said it is suspending talks with Russia over Syria. The Syrian government and its allies are highly likely to continue their bombing campaign against the rebel held areas of Aleppo.

Yemen

Houthi rebels in Yemen named Abdel Aziz Saleh Habtour as their ‘prime minister’ on 2 October after announcing that they would establish a new government of ‘national salvation’ to rival the government of the internationally-backed president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in the south. The move was decided by the ‘supreme political council’, which was set up in July by Houthis and other forces allied to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. It is likely to further complicate the chances of a future political settlement in the country. The decision comes just two days after Houthi rebels sunk the HSV-2 Swift, a military catamaran under UAE command, in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Conflict between the rebels and forces loyal to Hadi may intensify in the coming weeks after the collapse of UN-brokered peace talks.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Ethiopia

At least 52 people died on 3 October after a protest at a religious festival in the Oromia region of Ethiopia turned violent. The country’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, blamed the deaths on ‘pre-planned mayhem’ that led to a stampede; however, conflicting reports suggest that the stampede took place after police attacked protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges. The protest came after several clashes in recent months in the Oromia and Amhara regions. The unrest was sparked in November 2015 by government plans to expand the boundaries of the capital, Addis Ababa, which led members of the Oromo ethnic group to believe that they would be displaced. Although the plan was abandoned, Oromia protests against political and economic marginalisation have continued and are likely to do so for some time.

Niger

The United States has confirmed reports of a new military air base in Agadez in central Niger that will be capable of deploying drones. It will be the second US military presence in the country, as the United States already shares an airbase with French forces involved in Operation Barkhane against Islamist militant groups. The new base will provide the United States with greater capabilities to conduct drone strikes against extremists in neighbouring Libya, Mali and Nigeria. It is a significant military construction effort by the United States in Africa. It will cost an estimated $50 million, and is expected to be completed in 2017.

Prepared by Erin Decker, Kirsten Winterman and Matthew Clarke.

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