Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 15 March 2018: UK announces modest retaliatory measures against Russia, Turkish forces surround YPG-controlled Afrin city in northern Syria, Palestinian prime minister targeted in roadside bomb attack

The weekly briefing, 15 March 2018: UK announces modest retaliatory measures against Russia, Turkish forces surround YPG-controlled Afrin city in northern Syria, Palestinian prime minister targeted in roadside bomb attack

by Matthew Clarke, Tim Newcomb and Chris Abbott

Briefing photo

Summary

Sub-Saharan Africa: Burkinabe authorities arrest serving and former soldiers in relation to recent deadly attacks in country’s capital; Sierra Leone makes history by being first country in the world to use blockchain technology to verify votes.

Americas: Donald Trump reportedly tells Israeli prime minister that he is demanding significant changes to Iran nuclear deal to remain in the pact; Colón paralysed by protests against plans to regenerate the Panamanian city.

Asia-Pacific: Leaked draft UN Security Council report alleges that two Singaporean companies violated the UN sanctions on luxury goods being shipped to North Korea; Bangladeshi airliner crash lands at international airport in Nepali capital.

Europe and Central Asia: British prime minister announces only modest measures in response to what she calls ‘the unlawful use of force by Russia on UK soil’; Tension continue between European Union and United States over potential trade war.

Middle East and North Africa: Turkey continues military operation in northern Syria despite rising civilian casualties and international concern; Palestinian prime minister targeted in roadside bomb attack during rare visit to Gaza Strip.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Burkina Faso

The Burkinabe authorities arrested eight people, including an ex-solider and two serving soldiers, on 7 March in relation to the recent deadly attacks in the country’s capital. On 2 March, Islamist militants launched a simultaneous armed attack on the French embassy and the national army headquarters in Ouagadougou. The attackers killed two gendarmes at the embassy and six soldiers at the army headquarters, and injured over 80 people in total. Eight gunmen were also killed. The attackers forced their way into the army headquarters using rifles, grenades and explosives, and one militant blew himself up inside the compound. Investigators suspect that the group had inside help, as the attackers specifically targeted a room in the army headquarters where leading army officials were supposed to be having a meeting. A Mali-based al Qaeda affiliate called Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) claimed responsibility for the attacks.  Al Qaeda affiliates have previously carried out attacks in Ouagadougou in reprisal for Burkina Faso’s participation in the regional fight against the militants and France is a target due to its ongoing military operations against al Qaeda in the region.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has made history by being the first country in the world to use blockchain technology to verify votes. Sierra Leone used specialised blockchain technology from the Swiss company Agora during the country’s presidential election on 7 March. Agora logged and verified each individual paper ballet digitally, minimising the possibility of corruption and giving voters unprecedented confidence in the process. The leading opposition candidate, Julius Maada Bio, led the vote with 43%, but did not met the 55% threshold to avoid a run-off election. The second round will be held on 27 March. Bio is a retired army officer who took part in the 1992 coup and led the 1996 coup. The incumbent president, Ernest Bai Koroma, has served his constitutionally-limited two five-year terms. If adopted elsewhere, blockchain technology could increase transparency and thus reduce the likelihood of post-election violence in highly contentious votes.

Americas

United States

The US president, Donald Trump, has reportedly told the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he is demanding significant changes to the Iran nuclear deal to remain in the pact. In January, Trump said that he would cancel sanctions waivers for Iran issued as part of the nuclear deal and withdraw from the pact negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, unless major changes were made by 12 May. The changes the White House is seeking include the indefinite extension of limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities and an intensified inspections regime. EU leaders have launched a diplomatic effort to save the agreement, though they have effectively ruled out any renegotiation of the pact itself. The 13 March removal of Rex Tillerson as US Secretary of State, who favoured remaining in the deal, could also complicate efforts to persuade Trump to remain in the agreement. The new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has criticised the deal in the past, though some sources have said his views on the issue may have evolved.

Panama

Panama’s second city, Colón, has been paralysed by a strike organised by the Broad Front for Colon (FAC). Protests against plans to regenerate the city have turned violent. Demonstrators are concerned that the plans are a backdoor way to gentrify the city and drive out poorer residents. They are calling for far-reaching solutions to issues with local services, including healthcare and schools. Residents have also complained about the slow pace of the regeneration works, which include the city’s sewage system and its water supply. During the unrest, at least five people, including four police officers, have been injured and 45 people were arrested. Some protesters burned tyres and rubbish on the streets, and a historic building in Colón’s old quarter was burned down. Reports of looting prompted the city’s mayor to implement a curfew for minors from 18:00 hrs local time.

Asia-Pacific

Singapore

A leaked draft of a UN Security Council report alleges that two Singaporean companies violated the UN sanctions on luxury goods being shipped to North Korea that have been in place since 2006. Transactions totalling more than $2 million have been recorded between 2011 and 2014, though the sanctions-busting is thought to have continued until July 2017. Two sister companies, OCN and T Specialist, are accused of supplying a range of luxury goods to North Korea, including wines and spirits. Singapore only completely banned trade with North Korea in November 2017. The draft UN report highlights the ease with which companies doing business with North Korea can find and exploit loopholes in financial systems, even those as sophisticated as Singapore’s. Despite the recent apparent easing of tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul and the possibility of talks between North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and the US president, Donald Trump, UN sanctions remain in place. However, the possibility that sanctions may one day be lifted may encourage even more unscrupulous companies to trade with North Korea.

Nepal

An aeroplane operated by US-Bangla, a Bangladeshi airline, crash landed at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, on 12 March. At least 49 of the 71 passengers and crew on board died in the crash. The cause remains unclear, though initial reports suggest that terrorism is not to blame. Nepal has a poor aviation safety record, and TIA is one of the world’s most dangerous airports; pilots are expected to quickly descend over the mountain at the end of the runway, before touching down and landing in a specific direction. The presumed cause of the crash is miscommunication between the pilot and air traffic control, though mechanical failure on board the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 has not been ruled out. The airport remains closed for all arrivals and departures as emergency services and investigators attend the site of the incident.

Europe and Central Asia

United Kingdom

On 13 March, the British prime minister, Theresa May, gave Russia 24 hours to explain how a Russian nerve agent was used in an assassination attempt on British soil. She said that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack on a former Russian military intelligence officer who acted as a double agent for the UK’s intelligence services during the 1990s and early 2000s. Sergei Skripaland his daughter were found unconscious in Salisbury last week, and remain in critical condition. A police officer who attended the pair also remains seriously ill. Experts at the UK’s Porton Down defence laboratory have identified the chemical used in the attack as belonging to the Soviet-era military-grade nerve agent grouping known as Novichok. After Vladimir Putin ignored May’s deadline for an explanation, the prime minister has concluded that the attack must represent ‘the unlawful use of force by Russia on UK soil’ and called it an ‘affront to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons’. Despite the strong words, she announced only modest retaliatory measures that will do little to deter Russia. These include expelling 23 Russian embassy staff who have been identified as undeclared intelligence officers and the suspension of all planned high-level contacts with the Russian Federation. In response, Russia’s foreign ministry announced that it will soon expel British diplomats from Russia. Further tit-for-tat measures can be expected.

British prime minister announces only modest retaliatory measures that will do little to deter Russia but will provoke tit-for-tat measures.Click To Tweet

European Union

Tension continue between the European Union and the United States over a potential trade war. On 8 March, the US president, Donald Trump, claimed that the United States was suffering from an unfair trade situation. He announced that from the 23 March, the United States would place tariffs on steel of 25% and on aluminium of 10%. The only exceptions currently planned are Canada and Mexico, if a deal is reached on NAFTA, though Trump hinted that Australia may also be exempt. The EU has claimed that the bloc should also be given an exception to the tariffs. The EU has said that they will stand up to bullies using protectionism as a weapon, and has warned the United States to expect retaliatory measures. Trump has said he may negotiate with Europe, if the EU drops tariffs that he claims are unfavourable to US farmers and manufacturers. It is likely that the United States is using the tariffs as a tool to force trade partners to renegotiate key agreements, but the risk is that counter- and counter-counter measures result in an escalating trade war that damages economies around the world.

Middle East and North Africa

Turkey

Turkey continues its military operation in Afrin in northern Syria despite rising civilian casualties and international concern. In January, Turkey launched an operation to oust Kurdish militias from Turkish border areas in Syria amid an ongoing conflict with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkish forces claim to have so far killed or captured over 3,000 Kurdish fighters in the operation. On 12 March, the Turkish Army surrounded Afrin, the main centre in the YPG-controlled enclave on the Turkish border. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has previously stated that once Afrin is taken, Ankara would expand its offensive to key border towns controlled by the YPG up to the Iraqi frontier. The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has said that Turkey’s concerns over security on its border do not justify the scale of its deployment in the Afrin area. The minister also said that he was concerned that the operation could relieve some of the pressure on remaining ISIS forces in Syria. Meanwhile, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on 14 March that the continuous Turkish shelling and airstrikes on Afrin has killed 10 civilians, including four children, and injured at least 34 others.

Turkey continues its military operation in Afrin in northern Syria despite rising civilian casualties and international concern.Click To Tweet

Palestine

The Palestinian prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, was targeted in a roadside bomb attack on 13 March during a rare visit to the Gaza Strip. Hamdallah was unharmed in the likely assassination attempt, though several of his bodyguards were wounded in the explosion. The Palestinian intelligence chief, Majid Faraj, was also in the convoy but was not injured. Although Hamas denied any involvement, the Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, is holding the organisation responsible for the attack. Hardline elements within Hamas, which de facto controls the Gaza Strip, are resisting attempts to reconcile the organisation with the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and form a unity government. However, Hamas has condemned the attack and blamed it on Israel or radical Islamists opposed to Hamas. Reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah have faltered after the former only handed over control of Gaza’s borders to the PA despite an October 2017 agreement to handover control of the whole territory. The attack on Hamdallah will likely further undermine progress towards a unity government.

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