Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 9 January 2018: Possible major environmental disaster in East China Sea, Russian supreme court upholds decision to bar opposition leader from presidential election, Syrian government forces intensify offensive on opposition-held Idlib

The weekly briefing, 9 January 2018: Possible major environmental disaster in East China Sea, Russian supreme court upholds decision to bar opposition leader from presidential election, Syrian government forces intensify offensive on opposition-held Idlib

by Kirsten Winterman, Raphaël Zaffran and Matthew Clarke

Briefing photo


Africa: UN announces investigation into peacekeepers’ deaths in DR Congo; Government of Equatorial Guinea accuses mercenaries of colluding with the Guinean opposition in failed coup.

Americas: US justice department and the FBI reportedly resume inquiry into Hilary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation; US treasury department announces sanctions against four Venezuelan officials over human rights abuses and corruption.

Asia-Pacific: North and South Korea due to meet for first talks between the two countries in two years; Possible major environmental disaster after Iranian oil tanker and Chinese freighter collide in East China Sea.

Europe and Central Asia: Embattled British prime minister completes cabinet reshuffle; Russian supreme court upholds decision to bar opposition leader Aleksei Navalny from running in presidential election in March.

Middle East and North Africa: Egypt’s national election commission announces that upcoming presidential election will take place on 26-28 March; Syrian government forces intensify offensive on opposition-held Idlib despite agreement to maintain area as de-escalation zone.


Democratic Republic of the Congo

On 5 January, the United Nations announced that it will be launching an investigation into an attack on UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 7 December 2017. Ugandan fighters from the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) killed 15 peacekeepers and wounded 43 other people in the attack on the town of Semulikion in North Kivu. The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, described the incident as ‘the worst attack on UN peacekeepers in recent history’. The investigation will examine the response to the attack as well as recommend ways to prevent violent incidents in the future. The UN team will be joined by two military officers from Tanzania, and will travel widely across the region. The ADF has been blamed for over 700 deaths since late 2014.

Equatorial Guinea 

The government of Equatorial Guinea has accused over 30 mercenaries of colluding with the Guinean opposition in a failed coup in December 2017. The statement by the country’s security minister, Nicolas Nchama, does not explicitly name opposition groups or foreign powers; however, it is understood that many of the fighters were from neighbouring Chad, Sudan and the Central African Republic. The coup attempt is believed to have occurred on the night of 27-28 December. A number of armed men were arrested at the Kye-Ossi border between Chad and Equatorial Guinea, and the Guinean authorities closed the border immediately afterwards. Earlier government statements had played down the incident. The president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has been in power since he ousted his uncle in a military coup in 1979. It is unlikely that the recent events at the Chad border will have any real affect on the status quo in Equatorial Guinea. 


United States

On 4 January, the US political newspaper The Hill reported that the US justice department and the FBI have resumed an inquiry into the Clinton Foundation according to several law enforcement officials. The FBI has reportedly been conducting the inquiry for several months, interrupting it in the lead up to the 2016 US presidential election. The inquiry is focussed on whether the foundation has engaged in so-called pay-to-play politics. The inquiry is looking into whether Hillary Clinton may have engaged in illegal activities or conflicts of interest in the form of policy favours in exchange for donations to the foundation while she was serving as the US secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. On 5 January, Clinton’s spokesperson referred to the inquiry as a ‘sham’. The Democrat congressman Adam Schiff has suggested that the White House pressured the justice department into opening the investigation. It is indeed possible that Jeff Sessions, the attorney general appointed by Donald Trump, resumed the investigation in order to distract attention from the FBI’s inquiry into the Trump campaign team’s alleged ties to Russia. In a repeat of one of his favourite tactics, it is likely that Trump will use news of the inquiry to attack Clinton and attempt to deflect public opinion from any improper or illegal dealings his campaign team had with Russian officials during the 2016 presidential election.


On 5 January, the US treasury department announced sanctions against four Venezuelan officials over human rights abuses and corruption. The targeted officials include Rodolfo Marco Torres, a retired army brigadier general who has served as the food minister and finance minister and is the newly-elected governor of Aragua state. The United States accuses Torres of abuse of power and food smuggling during his tenure as head of Venezuela’s distribution network during shortage-related riots. As a result of the sanctions, the four men’s US assets have been frozen and US companies are no longer permitted to conduct business with the individuals. Venezuela’s foreign ministry issued a defiant response to the developments. The United States now has sanctions imposed on 44 Venezuelan officials, including the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro. While the sanctions will increasingly isolate Venezuela’s political and military elite, the risk is that they will also result in worsening living conditions for ordinary Venezuelans.

The new US sanctions against Venezuelan officials will isolate the elite but risk worsening living conditions for ordinary citizensClick To Tweet


North Korea

North and South Korea will meet on 9 January for the first talks between the two countries in two years. The meeting will be held at the UN building in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, through which the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) line runs. Pyongyang had cut off all communication with the Seoul after South Korea pulled out of a joint economic development project at the Kaesong Industrial Complex following a North Korean missile launch in 2017. The new meeting is officially to discuss the North’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, though other issues are also expected to be discussed, including North Korea’s missile programme. South Korea and the United States see the North’s potential participation in the Winter Olympics as significant step forward in relations. While there is unlikely to be any direct improvement in regional security following the meeting, any diplomatic contact between the North and the South is positive, as de-escalation will only be possible through talks.

East China Sea

On 6 January, the Panama-register oil tanker the Sanchi, which was en-route from Iran to South Korea, collided with the Hong Kong-registered freighter CF Crystal, which was carrying grain from the United States to China. The incident occurred in the East China Sea, 160 miles off the coast of Shanghai. A passing fishing trawler rescued the Chinese crew of the CF Crystal, but the 29 Iranian and two Bangladeshi crew members of the Sanchi are still missing. The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate, an ultra-light crude oil that becomes highly volatile when exposed to air and water. The tanker has been burning since the collision, and concerns are increasing that it will explode and sink. Condensate and shipping fuel have already leaked into the ocean, but if the ships sinks, three times more liquid could end up in the ocean than during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Condensate is hard to detect and contain, and the microbes that usually break up oil are killed by the ultra-light crude. The result would be an environmental disaster and the imposition of a huge fishing exclusion zone around the spill.

Europe and Central Asia

United Kingdom

On 8 January, the embattled British prime minister, Theresa May, completed a reshuffle of her cabinet. However, many of the senior posts remained unchanged. In a sign of how weak the prime minister is, neither the chancellor, Philip Hammond, nor the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, were replaced and two ministers effectively resisted her attempts to move them: Jeremy Hunt persuaded her to keep him in charge of health, and indeed to expand his role to include social care, and Justine Greening resigned as education secretary rather than be moved to the Department for Work and Pensions. The Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, also resigned, but for health reasons. Rather than embolden the flagging prime minister as intended, this re-shuffle has simply resulted in a potential rebel — Greening, who backed Britain remaining in the EU — returning to the backbenches. The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, labelled the reshuffle a pointless public relations exercise.

The embattled British prime minister's ineffective cabinet reshuffle simply moves a potential rebel to the backbenchesClick To Tweet


On 6 January, the Russian supreme court announced that it would uphold the Central Election Commission’s 30 December 2017 decision to bar the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny from running in the country’s presidential election in March. The court’s decision came as the other candidates continued the formal campaigning that began on 18 December. Navalny has been ruled ineligible due to a previous — likely politically-motivated — fraud conviction. The opposition leader’s legal counsels have indicated that they will file a second appeal to the presidium of the supreme court and then possibly to the constitutional court and the European Court of Human Rights. Navalny has called upon his supporters to boycott the election. He will likely continue to attempt to organise protests across the country in the months leading up to the vote. Although it is highly likely that Vladimir Putin will secure a fourth six-year term in office, it is likely that the incumbent will still campaign aggressively in order to win by an indisputable margin, thereby undermining any potential rivals.

Middle East and North Africa


Egypt’s national election commission announced the dates of the country’s upcoming presidential election in a news conference on 8 January. The election is due to take place on 26-28 March, with the results being announced on 2 April. If there is no conclusive winner, a run-off election will take place on 24-26 April, with the final results announced on 1 May. Two candidates have currently confirmed their intention to run for office: Khalid Ali, an opposition leader and human rights lawyer, and Essam Heggy, a scientist. Ali gained prominence in January 2017 when he won a case that nullified the government’s unpopular transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. The incumbent, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has not yet confirmed that he will run for a second term, but is widely expected to do so. There is a two-term presidential limit under the Egyptian constitution, which al-Sisi has promised not to attempt to change. Al-Sisi’s main rival, former prime minister Ahmed Shafik, withdrew his intent to run on 7 January, claiming that his absence from the country meant he is no longer equipped to serve. Another potential candidate, Colonel Ahmed Konsowa, — was sentenced to six years in prison in December after he announced his plans to run for presidency.  


Syrian government forces have intensified their offensive on the largest remaining opposition area of Idlib with the support of Iran-backed militias and Russian airstrikes. At least 25 people were killed in a single explosion on 7 January outside the headquarters of the Islamist rebel faction Ajnad al-Qawqaz, with another 15 people killed in airstrikes elsewhere. The attacks came after the Syrian military announced that it had recaptured the town of Sinjar in south-eastern Idlib. The attacks have occurred despite a deal stuck between Russia, Turkey and Iran during the sixth round of the Astana talks in September 2017 to keep the area as a ‘de-escalation zone’. The plan called for the cessation of hostilities in key areas, including Idlib, and was due to last for six months. According to the United Nations, the fighting and airstrikes in Idlib have forced over 60,000 people to leave their home since early November. 

These weekly briefings are offered free of charge to non-profit organisations, journalists and concerned citizens. Governments and corporations using our political and security risk updates are asked to consider making a donation to Open Briefing.