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Turkey’s efforts to pursue independent policies to continue to exacerbate tensions with Western, non-Western actors – Turkey Special Analysis

This report was written by Sanjana Parashar (MENA Intelligence Manager) and Swathi Nagesh (Levant region specialist)

And reviewed by Darren Cohen (MENA Senior Intelligence Manager and Levant region specialist) and Oded Berkowitz (Deputy Chief Intelligence Officer)

Executive Summary

Tensions between Turkey and Western state actors have increased over recent years due to various geopolitical and security issues. Ankara’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy and the shift in its strategic alliances is the result of both developments in the domestic political sphere and the waning presence of leading Western actors in the region.

A significant area of contention is Ankara’s military interventionism. On October 8, the US condemned Turkey’s operations in Syria as posing “an extraordinary threat” to Washington’s national security. On October 5, Canada announced the suspension of arms exports to Turkey over Ankara’s reported military support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. On September 21, the EU sanctioned a Turkish firm for breaching the UN arms embargo on Libya

These developments highlight the clash between Turkey’s effort to bolster its regional influence and secure its independent interests on one hand and the interests of its traditional Western partners on the other.

Turkey and the US have particularly disputed the former’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which the latter contends threatens its advanced aerial capabilities. This decision reflects Ankara’s intent to overtly confront Washington and NATO by presenting its willingness to partner with Russia amid its broader efforts to bolster its regional authority.

Ankara’s efforts to gain accession to the EU over the past decades have suffered several setbacks over recent years as Brussels has condemned Turkey’s economic policies and alleged human rights violations. More recently, tensions have been elevated over Ankara’s deployment of research vessels to conduct oil and gas exploration activities in disputed areas of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea that are also claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

Furthermore, Turkey has been engaged in a diplomatic rift with France over perceived anti-Islam comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron. The dispute has added to a growing perception in the West that Turkey seeks to adopt a “neo-Ottoman” ideology and present itself as the “protector of Islam”.

While Ankara’s foreign policy decisions have primarily been driven by an effort to advance its independent geopolitical interests rather than ideological opposition to the West, these decisions will nonetheless serve to alienate the latter.

That said, Turkey’s economic interests are likely to override any other considerations and, therefore, Ankara will refrain from completely jeopardizing its ability to improve trade relations with Western countries as access to these markets is crucial to sustaining the Turkish economy.

Regardless, during episodes of elevated tensions between Turkey and Western-aligned states, the existing religious and nationalist zeal of segments of the local populace can potentially translate into a hostile atmosphere, including calls for boycotts of foreign goods, demonstrations, and aggressive rhetoric.

Western nationals conducting travel in Turkey are generally advised to maintain a low profile and exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of locales frequented by foreign nationals.

Assessments & Forecast

Turkey’s geopolitical shift is partly a product of developments within its domestic sphere, US’s waning presence in the region

Although the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2018 general elections with a clear majority, the government’s popularity has somewhat decreased over recent years, as evidenced by the AKP’s losses in the 2019 municipal elections in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. This is primarily due to the inability of the government to stabilize the economy, characterized by a significant devaluation of the Turkish lira since 2018. Furthermore, a broad crackdown on opposition actors and perceived dissidents has exacerbated existing anti-government sentiments of certain sections of the local populace. Against this backdrop, Ankara’s willingness to confront its Western allies is likely part of an effort to gain patriotic support for Turkey’s endeavors and project its regional dominance, which, in turn, is partly aimed at containing domestic criticism against the government.

Erdogan has also attempted to revive the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and use Islamic sentiments to consolidate power, particularly from conservative and Islamist-leaning members of the populace. This is evidenced by the July 10 announcement to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, designated a museum by Turkish secular leaders in 1935, into a mosque. Although the decision sparked condemnation by various international actors, Erdogan received support for the move from conservative Turks who make up part of his support base. The decision’s timing was thus partly an attempt to bolster Erdogan’s “strongman” persona while diverting the local populace’s attention away from Turkey’s deteriorating economic conditions, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s growing military interventionism can also be partially attributed to the US’s waning presence in the broader region. Turkey’s Operation “Peace Spring”, aimed at dislodging Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants from the area, was launched two days after the US’s October 7, 2019 announcement regarding the partial withdrawal of its troops from Syria. Turkey likely aimed to capitalize on this power vacuum to increase its influence within Syria and mitigate the Kurdish militant threat emanating from the country. Washington has also been largely uninvolved in Libya over recent years, which has allowed Turkey to become the main supporter of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and therefore become one of the primary international actors involved in the country. Overall, the lack of military presence by Western state actors in these countries over recent years has created a relative power vacuum that Ankara aims to fill as part of its aspirations to expand its regional influence.

Turkey’s regional interventionism largely motivated by the pursuit of independent foreign policy, rather than ideological hostility towards West

In recent years, Turkey has pursued a more independent foreign policy, distinct from its traditional Western allies, as illustrated by its military regional interventionism, the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, and Ankara’s activity in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea that has led to tensions with EU states. This approach has been perceived by Western actors to be destabilizing and contrary to the West’s interests. However, this is primarily, although not solely, an effort by Ankara to establish a more dominant role in the region, rather than being motivated by an ideological hostility to the West.

In Syria, Turkey’s efforts to mitigate what it perceives as the “Kurdish threat” to its national integrity have manifested in opposition to Washington’s interests. While Operation “Peace Spring” was launched primarily as an effort by Ankara to address the Kurdish militant threat, given the US’s alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of the YPG, it collided with Washington’s interests in the country. Tensions over this issue have persisted over the past year, as evidenced by a statement published by the US on October 8 indicating that Turkey’s operations in northern Syria directly undermine the former’s anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign and US’s national security. Therefore, while Turkey’s policy was not directly motivated by an anti-US agenda, it nonetheless contributed to the growing rift between the two counties.

Also in the Syrian context, Turkey backs the Syrian National Army (SNA) rebel alliance, which opposes the Damascus government, backed by both Iran and Russia, all of whom are adversaries of the US. However, the leaders of Iran, Turkey, and Russia have led the Astana Peace Process for Syria, which was originally launched in January 2017, and largely reflects an effort by Ankara, as well as Tehran and Moscow, to project itself as a regional power broker. It particularly underscores Turkey’s willingness to cooperate with its rivals in the Syrian sphere in order to cement itself in the political processes that determine Syria’s future and therefore maintain a strong influence in the country, which it considers essential to its security interests. However, as Turkey strengthens its strategic partnerships with Iran and Russia, and thus develops a greater alliance with the West’s foes, it partially reinforces its position as a non-Western-aligned state. This is also given the lack of involvement of the US in the Astana process, which showcases Ankara’s willingness to form interest-based alliances independent of its Western allies.

Turkey’s military backing for Azerbaijan amid its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has further served to alienate Western-aligned allies. Ankara’s support for Baku is partly driven by its shared ethnic and cultural ties as well as historical antipathy towards Armenia. NATO, however, has called for the restoration of peace between both sides in the region, while Western states, such as Canada, have actively condemned Turkey’s reported military support for Azerbaijan. Hence, Turkey’s role in this conflict as part of its independent foreign policy interests serves to supersede its obligations to this Western security alliance. That said, Turkey’s reported deployment of Syrian rebels to fight in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict and overall support for Baku is also a sensitive issue for Russia, due in part to the perceived threat of Islamist spillover regions along Russia’s southern borders and Moscow’s long-term cooperation with Armenia. This, therefore, showcases Ankara’s efforts to prioritize its own geopolitical interests, even if they partially undermine its alliances with either the West or with Russia.

These opposing interests between Ankara and Moscow were also witnessed in Libya, where Turkey provides military support for Libya’s GNA and Moscow supports the GNA’s rival, the Libyan National Army (LNA). Amid Turkey’s increasing military reinforcements for the GNA, both in the form of equipment as well as Syrian fighters, Russia increased its provision of military equipment to the LNA as well as its deployment of Russian private military company (PMC) personnel. This further reiterates Turkey’s willingness to pursue its own military interests, potentially at the expense of the interests of its allies, both Western and non-Western.

Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 reflective of efforts to confront the West, bolster its regional authority

Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which the US has stated “cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities”, is indicative of Ankara’s prioritization of its alliances with Moscow over its participation in the US’s F-35 program and its ties to NATO and the West. While Turkey insists that this does not clash with NATO assets or US F-35 aircraft, despite evidence to the contrary, pressure is growing in Washington to impose punitive measures on Turkey for its perceived transgressions. This was recently demonstrated by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s condemnation of the S-400 testing, which the chairman called on October 16 “a direct threat to the [US-made] F-35”, adding that “US law requires sanctions against countries that continue to deepen their defense relationship with Russia.”

The decision thus reflects Ankara’s willingness to overtly confront Washington and NATO by presenting its conviction to partner with Russia amid its broader efforts to bolster its regional authority. In this way, Turkey aims to demonstrate that it is not bound by Western alliances and interests, which may in future grant it leverage over the West during potential disputes. Moreover, the decision is also likely rooted in domestic politics. By demonstrating Turkey’s willingness to acquire weaponry from any partner of its choice, Erdogan seeks to affirm Ankara’s sovereign right to choose its military alliances, regardless of the West’s objections. This, in turn, allows Erdogan to bolster his “strongman” credentials to the domestic audience.

As illustrated by Turkey’s recent testing of the S-400 system, regardless of concerns voiced by the US and other NATO members, Ankara is determined to proceed with the preparation process and ensure the systems become operational. FORECAST: Elements within the US foreign affairs establishment will continue to pressure the administration to sanction Turkey. However, US President Donald Trump’s reluctance to take action, as illustrated by the absence of sanctions despite the Senate’s approval of such measures in December 2019, renders it unlikely that imminent measures will be imposed. US policy vis-a-vis Turkey may change, however, if the presidential election yields a change in administration. This is unlikely to happen in the immediate coming months as it will take time for any administration to review and formulate its foreign policy.

Turkey’s ambitions to become a regional energy hub, secure foreign investments has also increased tensions with Western actors

Turkey’s involvement in Libya highlights its efforts to secure its energy interests in the region and counterbalance Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, and Israel. Turkey signed a Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with Libya’s GNA on November 27, 2019 for this purpose. This includes the establishment of a maritime border between the parties and allows Turkey to stake a claim to oil drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, particularly in the vicinity of some Greek islands and the disputed waters south of Cyprus, which the Greek Cypriot administration claims is part of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The EU, particularly Italy, France, and Greece, as well as Egypt and Israel, have backed the Greek Cypriot government’s claim. Thus, although Turkey’s stance has elevated tensions with certain EU states and other regional stakeholders, Ankara’s determination to pursue its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea highlights its willingness to take a confrontational stance against certain EU members to achieve its energy objectives.

This determination to enhance its energy security has likely also been bolstered by the actions of other regional actors in this context. On September 22, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Jordan established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) to promote natural gas exports from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Turkey was not included in the forum. Ankara’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson has reportedly stated that Turkey will “resolutely” continue to “protect its rights” in the Eastern Mediterranean and that “no alliance of malice” will prevent this. Ankara likely perceives the establishment of the EMGF as a provocative action aimed at actively excluding Turkey, which has likely increased its efforts to conduct exploration missions in the East Mediterranean. FORECAST: As illustrated by Turkey’s recent extension of the “Oruc Reis” research vessel’s activities in disputed waters until November 14, regardless of whether such action prompts tensions with the EU and potential sanctions against it in the framework of Brussels’ targeted sanctions program against Turkey for its “unauthorized” drilling activities of “hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean”, Ankara will persist with its exploration activities.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia have relatively divergent interests in the Black Sea. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 allowed it to expand its de-facto coastline to over a thousand kilometers, enabling the country to carry out its energy exploration, in direct conflict with the interests of NATO countries and their allies, such as Ukraine, in the Black Sea. In this context, on August 20, President Erdogan announced the discovery of a “320 billion” cubic meters gas reserve in the Black Sea, constituting the largest gas reserve discovered in the area by Turkey. Energy production from this reserve is slated to begin in 2023. FORECAST: Ankara’s discovery of a gas reserve in the Black Sea in August and its growing readiness to invest additional resources to carry out its exploratory missions in the area may increase Moscow’s perception that Ankara is attempting to impose itself in the region and thus increases the potential for friction with Russia.

Overall, both of these developments constitute an effort by Turkey to acquire energy security and thus reduce its dependence on other states to import oil and gas, which is likely becoming increasingly costly as the lira has devalued significantly over recent years. The fact that Turkey’s operations in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea have the potential to cause friction with both the EU and Russia again demonstrates that Turkey’s activities are part of an overall effort to implement an independent policy, and while liable to alienate its geopolitical alliances, do not constitute an explicitly anti-Western strategy. However, as illustrated throughout this report, regardless of whether Turkey aims to antagonize its Western allies, the outcome is ultimately the same.

Political rapprochement with US’s adversaries motivated by geopolitical concerns, desire to present itself as ‘protectors of Islam’, likely to further alienate West

In Turkey’s partnership with Iran, Ankara likely aims to counter what it perceives to be a growing regional threat to its ideology and interests. The Erdogan-led government seeks to impose its version of state-level political Islam, by forming alliances with Iran, Qatar, and Muslim Brotherhood groups and affiliates throughout the region. This is with the aim of countering the growing alliance of states in the region that it perceives as countering its interests and ideology, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, all of whom are at least willing to collaborate with Israel and are largely acting in coordination with US interests. Thus, its increasing interventionism throughout the region can also be understood as an attempt to project Turkey as the “protectors of Islam” and has been perceived in the West as a form of “neo-Ottomanism” and an effort to invoke the spirit of the former Ottoman empire.

In this context, there has been a growing rapprochement between Iran and Turkey over recent years, in contrast with the ideological rivalry that initially emerged between the two states following the 2011 Arab Spring, with the parties largely on opposing sides in major conflict zones, such as Syria. The warming of their ties over recent years has manifested in political opposition to Saudi-aligned Gulf states and varying degrees of support for Qatar amid its rift with the former, both countries’ opposition to the “Abraham Accords” signed between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel, as well as Iran’s diplomatic support for Libya’s Turkey-backed GNA. A recent September 8 meeting between President Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wherein they committed to conducting joint counter-militancy operations is thus indicative of increasingly cordial relations between the two states. FORECAST: These ties are liable to increase the tension between the US and Turkey, given the former’s efforts to diplomatically isolate Iran, as part of its broader “maximum pressure” campaign.

The ongoing rift between French President Macron and Turkish President Erdogan pertaining to the former’s defense of the right to draw caricatures of religious figures is likely to increase the West’s perception of Turkey “neo-Ottoman” aspirations. These diplomatic tensions followed the beheading of a teacher in France for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his students and has generated a diplomatic fallout between Turkey and France, with Erdogan stating on October 24 that Macron should get “mental checks” and Macron on October 31 accusing Turkey of having a “bellicose attitude toward its NATO allies”, adding that Ankara has “imperial inclinations in the region”. The fact that this has also translated into anti-France protests throughout Turkey illustrates the impact of such diplomatic tensions and the potential for a hostile environment to emerge for Westerners operating in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the US has stated that it “strongly objects” to Erdogan’s hosting of the leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, in Turkey on August 22. The Turkish government announced that it “fully rejected” the US’s statement and accused Washington of “serving Israel’s interests”. Additional reports from August also indicate that Turkey is granting citizenship to Hamas operatives. Through this action, Turkey has signaled its willingness to legitimize the Palestinian militant group, as opposed to Washington’s categorization of the Gaza Strip-based group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).

Ankara’s actions are likely to be perceived by Western-aligned states as granting increased freedom of movement to Hamas and thus allowing them to carry out destabilizing activities in Israel. Similar to its relations with Iran, Turkey’s support for Hamas is unlikely to yield major economic or security benefits. Rather, it is indicative of an effort by Ankara to align with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and other Islamist groups and thus expand its sphere of influence throughout the region. Turkey also seeks to be a power broker and thus counteract recent ties between Gulf states and Israel, as evidenced by its hosting of talks between the two rival prominent Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, for reconciliation talks on September 22.

These relations constitute a further fault line in the current tensions between the US and its allies on one side and Turkey on the other. FORECAST: Turkey’s growing support for Hamas as well as its opposition to Arab states’ normalization with Jerusalem, despite the fact Ankara maintains relations with Israel, is liable to increase tensions between the US and Turkey as well as Israel and Turkey. Although Jerusalem and Ankara share strong economic ties, Erdogan’s growing support for Hamas and persistent condemnations of Israel has the potential to strain these relations. This is particularly the case in light of the fact that Jerusalem now has formal ties with other regional states that are rivals of Turkey, primarily the UAE, and may therefore opt to cooperate economically with these countries, at Ankara’s expense.

Turkey to ultimately refrain from completely alienating its NATO allies

FORECAST: Taken as a whole, while Turkey is pursuing a more independent foreign policy, it is unlikely to completely alienate its Western allies, particularly NATO members. This is because Turkey can leverage its strategic position as a member of NATO to deter any significant punitive measures. This alliance also allows Turkey to mitigate the risk of direct confrontations as it implements its military policies in Syria, Libya, and Armenia/Azerbaijan, as well as within the energy sector, as Turkey pursues its energy interests in direct conflict with certain EU member states, such as Greece. In turn, despite the disputes between NATO member states and Ankara, Turkey will continue to remain a strategic ally by hosting US and NATO military assets, such as the Incirlik Air Base.

Within the context of the energy dispute between Turkey and the EU in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, NATO also provides for peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms between its member states. This, therefore, allows NATO to mitigate the threat of direct confrontations between Turkey on one side and Greece and Cyprus on the other in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Hence, it is in the interest of NATO actors to continue to retain Turkey in the alliance as this would serve to manage emerging conflicts with EU members. This, in turn, provides Ankara with leeway in terms of its ability to pursue its energy policies without the threat of military confrontation with EU states.

Business continuity in Turkey for Western-linked entities unlikely to be significantly impacted, although potential punitive measures liable to elevate tensions

As previously mentioned, it is unlikely that under a President Trump administration, barring a breakdown in personal relations between the leaders, the White House will implement the Senate’s December 2019 approval of sanctions against Turkey. However, a Joe Biden-led presidency may seek to change course and punish states deemed to be acting in opposition to Washington’s core interests, for instance by operating Russian-made air defense systems.

In the event that the US imposes sanctions or tariffs, as in 2018, there is a high probability of further damage to the Turkish economy, as was witnessed following the implementation of such measures two years ago. This would lead to a further devaluation of the currency and render it more difficult for Turkish-based companies and Turkish state entities to remain competitive. FORECAST: Irrespective of who wins the US presidential election, as previously mentioned, any decision on sanctions or tariffs against Turkey is liable to take several months as the incoming administration formulates its foreign policy agenda. Regardless, Turkey’s actions may prompt other Western actors to consider punitive measures to pressure Ankara to alter its perceived destabilizing activities. This may, for instance, manifest in a ban on arms sales, as announced by Canada on October 5, which has the potential to undermine Turkey’s aforementioned defense strategy.

In the event that the US and/or the EU does impose sanctions or other punitive measures on Ankara, there is a potential for an increase in vocalized sentiment emanating from the government and domestic populace against the US, the West, or its perceived interests. This was illustrated by events in August 2018 amid the sanctions and tariffs imposed on Turkey by Washington, wherein a significant uptick in protests condemning the US was recorded in major cities in Turkey and President Erdogan reportedly called for a boycott of US electrical goods, while some Turkish citizens posted videos on social media of them physically attacking US-made products and currency.

Similarly, amid the aforementioned dispute over comments made by French President Macron regarding cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, reports from October 26 indicate that Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods. Both of these episodes illustrate the existing religious and nationalist zeal of segments of the local populace that can translate into a potentially hostile atmosphere, including boycotts of foreign goods, demonstrations, and aggressive rhetoric. As per the prior example involving the US, these tensions tend to subside relatively quickly without a significant impact on foreign businesses operating in Turkey. However, there is also the potential for temporary retaliatory measures imposed by foreign states such as sanctions and tariffs, as occurred in 2018, as well as increased bureaucratic challenges for nationals of perceived adversaries, which may hinder operations in the country.

However, ultimately, Turkey’s economic interests are likely to override any other considerations. This is illustrated by its willingness to cooperate economically with China, despite differences in ideology. According to the EU, Turkey’s main export markets are the EU, the UK, the US, and Israel. Thus, despite Erdogan’s geopolitical activities, economic trade with its Western counterparts remains crucial for the stabilization and growth of the Turkish economy. FORECAST: The Turkish government is unlikely to significantly jeopardize its ability to improve trade relations with Western countries as access to these markets is crucial to sustaining the Turkish economy. Turkey’s geopolitical expansionism is therefore unlikely to have a significant impact on Western economic interests over the coming months. Moreover, Turkey is unlikely to place restrictions on private Western citizens or enterprises from operating in the country, even in the event of a dispute between the states in which these entities are based.

Recommendations

Travel to Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir may continue while remaining cognizant of the latent threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

It is advised to avoid all travel to border areas with Syria and Iraq given the increased risk of militancy and spillover of armed conflict emanating from these countries.

Foreigners, particularly Westerners, conducting travel in Turkey are generally advised to maintain a low profile, and exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of locales frequented by foreign nationals. This is particularly the case in the event of elevated tensions between Turkey and Western or Western-affiliated states and entities.

Avoid any overt or critical statements of government, religious, or political institutions both in public spaces and online, including social media. It is also advised to be mindful of any social media posts made prior to travel that could be accessed publicly and could be viewed negatively during your visit. This is particularly the case during times of heightened political tensions involving Turkey in the international arena.

China’s national security law accused of eroding “one country, two systems” – Hong Kong Analysis

Executive Summary

China announced on May 21 that it would bypass the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) to pass the “Hong Kong national security law.”

The timing of the law is likely aimed at taking advantage of the distraction offered by the COVID-19 pandemic, limiting the resurgence of street protests.

The legislation will act as a base for increased curbs on freedom of speech, activism.

Increased control by Beijing on Hong Kong’s judicial affairs will worsen tensions between the US, China.

Civil unrest will increase in the near term, however, the implementation of restrictions will dampen anti-government activism over a longer period of time.

Travel to Hong Kong can continue while adhering to security precautions regarding civil unrest, crime, and protests.

Current Situation

China announced on May 21 that it would bypass the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) to pass the “Hong Kong national security law.” The legislation seeks to criminalize secessionist or subversive activity against Beijing, terrorism, and foreign interference in the city. The draft bill was presented to Beijing’s National People’s Congress (NPC) on May 22 and a vote is set for the end of the body’s two-sessions meeting on May 28.

Similar legislation was introduced in Hong Kong’s LegCo in 2003, known as Article 23, but was tabled after its introduction prompted hundreds of thousands of individuals to march in protest on July 1 of the same year. The date marks Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China in 1997. Small-scale commemorative events were held on this day prior to 2003, while events in the years that followed saw participation in the high thousands.

Assessments & Forecast

Introduction of national security law informed by failure to control 2019 protests, distraction offered by COVID-19 pandemic 

The legislation represents China’s most overt and assertive attempt to increase control over the special administrative region since its 1997 handover. As the NPC is largely symbolic, an overwhelming majority is expected and the law will take effect in the coming months, although an exact timeline for its implementation remains unclear. Regardless, the development will stoke prevailing anti-China sentiment in the city that fueled the anti-government protest campaign in the past year. This will be compounded by long-standing sensitivities among pan-democrats over contentious national security legislation, particularly Article 23, that would strengthen Beijing’s influence in the city if enacted.

The timing of the move is informed by multiple factors. The anti-government protest campaign that emerged in 2019 was accompanied by high levels of violence, with officials labeling certain incidents part of the resistance as “terrorism” and citing these as cause for stronger national security laws. Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and associated restrictions on mass gatherings have significantly impacted the protest campaign in recent months, with participation numbers sinking to the high dozens to low hundreds and the tempo of events decreasing. In this light, Beijing is likely using the global health crisis as a distraction and perceives the lull in protests as an opportunity to assert its control.

More broadly, the protest campaign and the authorities’ failure to placate anti-government activists highlighted obstacles to local governance that were likely to resurface after the pandemic abated. This was especially likely in the event that Article 23 was re-tabled in the LegCo, a possibility that officials have often hinted at, and given ongoing efforts by Beijing to attain control over the city’s affairs. Thus, the cognizance of these obstacles to city authorities’ governance likely contributed to Beijing’s decision to supersede the LegCo.

Further, the timing of the legislation can be attributed, in part, to the LegCo elections slated to be held in September. The pro-democracy camp’s significant win in the District Council polls in November 2019 spoke to the high levels of anti-China and anti-government sentiment, while a rebound in the campaign in recent weeks raised the potential for reigniting anti-government sentiment that could jeopardize the pro-establishment camp’s electoral prospects.

Legislation to provide grounds for severe curbs on protest activity, freedom of speech in near-to-medium term

There are a number of implications arising from the passage of the legislation in its current form later in the week. First, such a development will signal a clear change to Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy, given that residents of Hong Kong will now be on par with citizens of mainland China in the way they are treated for criticizing the ruling dispensation. This will feed into fears of diminished judicial independence and significantly increased curbs on speech and protest freedoms. Moreover, in light of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s statement that the local government will comply with the integration of the national security legislation, the passage of the draft bill will also indicate an increased willingness on the part of the Hong Kong government to cede issues such as criminal laws to Beijing. This opens the space for the secession of other powers that were earlier held by the local government.

In practical terms, the enforcement of the legislation will pave the way for the preemptive detention of protesters under allegedly vaguely defined security provisions, as well as their incarceration without trial for extended periods of time over the coming months. Moreover, the local government will retain the imperative to pick up anti-government activists for questioning and authorize their remand, if necessary, simply on the basis of their online activity or statements in other mediums. At the same time, Chinese security forces may also expand their monitoring activities within the city in the near-to-medium term, likely through liaison with the Hong Kong Police Force and surveillance units part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in the city. However, Beijing is not likely to increase its on-ground security presence through the mobilizing of additional PLA troops, given the empowerment of the HKPF should suffice in maintaining law and order and considering the negative signal such a move would send to the international community in terms of violating the 1997 agreement.

Developments will exacerbate US-China tensions, impact Hong Kong’s status as regional financial hub over long-term

Once the terms of the legislation begin to be enforced over the coming months, there is an increased risk of retaliatory action by Washington DC, either through the revocation of the special status accorded to the territory under US law or by the increasing of sanctions on Chinese entities and interests. It is also possible that US action will comprise a combination of these measures for maximum effect, more so given the government and Congress’ convergent opinions regarding strict actions against purported Chinese belligerence. The primary effect of this will be on the annual trade of goods and services between the US and Hong Kong, estimated to be worth approximately 67 billion USD, with Hong Kong likely to lose its preferential tariff rate of zero percent on US goods. Additionally, visa regimes for US businesses may also change, with investment patterns likely to be impacted as well. While countries like the UK may not have such a drastic reaction, their policy alignment with the US on certain trade matters, and Chinese counter-measures over perceptions of foreign interference in internal matters, will, over the next half-decade, make China a less attractive option for global business houses, should economic measures by both sides kick in.

With respect to the broader US-China relationship, the introduction of national security legislation will emerge as the latest sticking point impeding rapprochement on issues, such as the ongoing trade conflict and China’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS) and Taiwan Strait. This stands to precipitate a new round of tariffs and counter-measures by either side, with Washington likely to increase pressure on Beijing by advocating closer defense ties and further cooperation with Taiwan. Simultaneously, it will aim to oppose Chinese agendas on other fronts by backing opposition from Vietnam, Malaysia, and other claimants involved in territorial disputes with China in the SCS, and providing support for investigations into China’s alleged role in concealing the spread of COVID-19 in its territory, among others. Overall, the next two years will see increased friction between the two countries, with aspects like China’s increasing control on Hong Kong and generally growing isolationism across the world acting as fuel.

Civil unrest to peak in coming weeks, though national security legislation likely to cripple anti-government movement over extended period

Thousands of anti-government activists protested across Hong Kong Island on May 24 in reaction to the proposed law. Per reports, the protest saw similar methods to those seen in the 2019 campaign, including the lack of an organizer for the event itself and activists dispersing to other parts of the city to evade police action. This is a preliminary indication that protests over the legislation will increase in the near term off the back of heightened anti-China and anti-government sentiments, with elevated turnouts and a high risk of violent clashes.

Further, these tensions will bolster attendance at events on highly sensitive days, such as the annual June 4 vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the July 1 pro-democracy march. Further, June 9 and 12 mark two notable events in the 2019 campaign, with the former featuring protests involving at least one million individuals and the latter seeing a notable clash in Admiralty between protesters and police.

Radical sections of protesters may also look to target Chinese installations in the city, including the Hong Kong Liaison Office, during this period, with vandalism and attacks on police facilities also likely to see an uptick. However, as previously mentioned, the implementation of the national security law will cripple the anti-government movement to a great extent over the long term, with police officials likely to arrest notable activists and organizers prior to events being held. The wholesale imprisonment of anti-government protesters based on opinions espoused on fora like social media will also result in the curtailment of anti-government dissent.

Recommendations

Travel to Hong Kong can continue while adhering to security precautions regarding civil unrest, crime, and protests.

Those operating or residing in Hong Kong are advised to avoid nonessential travel near protests and further maintain heightened vigilance throughout the city due to the potential for continued demonstrations and unrest. This may include the use of teargas and rubber bullets by police, the hurling of incendiary objects such as petrol bombs, or the throwing of bricks and projectiles by protesters.

Avoid the vicinity of police stations, checkpoints, or other security installations as they remain susceptible to arson attacks or vandalism.

Maintain particular vigilance around government buildings on Hong Kong Island which are often used as protest sites, such as the LegCo Building, Central Government Complex, Hong Kong Police Headquarters, Hong Kong Liaison Office, and Chief Executive’s Office.

Avoid carrying any sensitive material either on electronic devices or clothing that puts forward controversial political opinions, particularly anti-Beijing stances, when crossing over by land due to heightened security checks.

MAX Security has strong on-ground capabilities for executive protection and facilitating business travel to Hong Kong. For contingency plans and on-ground operational support, contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434.

US Air Strike Kills IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani – Situation Analysis

US Confirms Killing IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani in Air Strikes Near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport on January 3

Please be Advised:

The US Department of Defense (DoD) released a statement announcing that the US military, on the orders of the US President, Donald Trump, had taken “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad” by killing Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)- Quds Force (QF) commander during airstrikes near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport during the early morning hours of January 3.

The statement announces that “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more”. The airstrikes aimed to deter future Iranian attacks against US assets in the region.

Iran’s national news agency have confirmed that the US airstrikes resulted in the death of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soliemani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU).

Iraq’s national news agency reported that the US airstrikes targeted the convoy of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis traveling near the Baghdad International Airport.

Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei released a eulogy on January 3 for Qassem Soleimani and declared a three-days of mourning in Iran. The statement announces that the killing of Soleimani is a “criminal act” and “will reinforce the motives of the resistance against the US and Israel”.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the US airstrikes “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation” and held the US responsible for “all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”

Prominent Iraq Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, released a statement during the morning hours of January 3 giving orders for “readiness” to the Shiite militias in Iraq, particularly the Mahdi Army, “to protect Iraq”.

Reports indicate that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has convened during the morning hours of January 3 to discuss the development.

US Embassy in Baghdad on January 3 issued an advisory urging US citizens to depart Iraq immediately due to “heightened tensions in Iraq and the region”. Consular services in the US Embassy in Baghdad have been suspended until further notice. However, the US Consulate in Erbil remains operational at the time of writing.

Iraqi President has reportedly condemned the US airstrikes and called US action as a “blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Developments Near the Baghdad International Airport and Green Zone:

Reports indicate that three rockets fired by unidentified perpetrators landed in the Baghdad International Airport cargo area during the overnight hours of January 2-3 that resulted in several civilian casualties and the destruction of two vehicles.

Reports indicate that US military personnel arrested Hadi al-Amiri the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as well as Qais Khazali, the founder and leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite paramilitary group that is a part of the Iran-backed PMU in Baghdad during the morning hours of January 3. Iraq’s national news agency reported that a senior member of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq has denied the arrest of Qais Khazali.

Picture material on social media indicate that Iraqis gathered at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square during the early morning hours of January 3 to celebrate the death of Soleimani.

At the time of writing, operations have resumed at the Baghdad International Airport following a temporary ceasure of operations during the morning of January 3 after the US airstrikes.

Reports indicate that US military personnel have bolstered security protocols in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and the Iraqi security officials have completely locked down the Green Zone following the US airstrikes.

Other Related Developments:

Iran’s state-sponsored news agency reported that the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, who is considered as a “guardian of US interests in Iran” has been summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on January 3 to strongly protest the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

Reports indicate that Israel has closed access to Hermon ski resort, located in the Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border, due to the risk of attack by Iran and its proxies. Additional reports indicate that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are on alert following the US airstrikes.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) official in the Gaza Strip reportedly released a statement calling the development a “great tragedy” and extended PIJ’s support to Iran.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon reportedly released a statement condemning the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and stated that “punishment of Soleimani’s killers is responsibility of all fighters”.

Reports indicate that foreign oil companies have commenced the evacuation of its employees holding a US citizenship via the Basra Airport following the advisory issued by the US Embassy in Baghdad that urges US nationals to depart the country immediately.

Iran has reportedly appointed Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as the next IRGC Quds force chief on January 3.

UK has reportedly increased security protocols at its military bases across the Middle East following the US airstrikes.

Reports quoting the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the US airstrikes in Iraq are a “reckless move” that will escalate tensions in the region.

Assessments & Forecast:

The development comes amid a marked increase in tensions in Iraq over the past two months following an uptick in attacks against US assets by Iran-backed forces in the country. Most recently, on December 31, hundreds of Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) members and supporters besieged and attempted to breach the US Embassy compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone to condemn US’s December 29 airstrikes that targeted five Kataib Hezbollah assets in Iraq. The continued risk posed to US-linked interests in Iraq is further evidenced by the statement issued by the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on January 2, that holds Iran and its backed proxies in Iraq responsible for perpetuating the attacks and warned that “attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing.” Given this context, the recent US airstrikes constitute a decisive action against Iran and its proxies to deter further such attacks against US interests in the region.

Furthermore, the US airstrikes constitutes a highly symbolic and notable development given the high-profile nature of the target, namely, IRGC-QF commander, Qassem Soleimani. This is given that Soleimani is considered to be highly influential within the Iraqi political and security dynamics, and is perceived to be responsible for the destabilizing activities carried out by Iran-linked elements in Iraq. Moreover, on April 18, 2019 the US designated the IRGC, including its extraterritorial wing, the QF as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Therefore, the killing of Soleimani in the US airstrikes is likely aimed to adversely impact the IRGC’s leadership structure and mitigate the threat that the group is perceived to pose to the region’s security and stability. Regardless, the killing of Soleimani is liable to have a significant impact on the morale of the IRGC and Iran-backed fighters operating regionwide.

However, the development is unlikely to significantly alter Iran’s policy within the regional setting, such as its support for proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Rather, as evidenced by the statement released by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the incident will likely prompt Iran and its proxies to increasingly target the interests of the US and its allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region. Furthermore, the statement issued by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr calls for “readiness” from Shiite militias in Iraq to “protect Iraq” indicating the fact that Iran and its proxies will seek to take revenge against the US, and its allies, over the coming days.

FORECAST: Over the short term, there remains a heightened potential for attacks perpetrated by Iran-backed elements based out of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. Such attacks may also be directed at critical infrastructures, such as oil facilities, and other strategic infrastructures affiliated with the US or its allies in the region, where relevant. Given precedent, attacks targeting Israel may likely manifest in the form of rocket attacks or localized ground attacks, such as placing of IEDs, from Syria, or less likely from Lebanon. Such instances are likely to be limited in scale, and are unlikely to trigger a large-scale escalation and a broad deterioration of the security situation in Israel in the short term. Cross-border hostilities along the Gaza Strip-Israel border may also increase over the coming days. This is bolstered by the statement released by the PIJ official calling the death of Soleimani in the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and affirming the militant group’s support for Iran.

FORECAST: Given precedent, there also remains a significant potential for Iran-perpetrated security incidents in the strategic waterways of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, especially near the Strait of Hormuz, which indicates a general risk of navigation through these waters over the coming days and weeks. A similar risk exists in the Red Sea, given that the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have been known to conduct attacks against foreign vessels in this area. Additionally, an uptick in cross-border hostilities into Saudi Arabia perpetrated by the Shiite group may be witnessed over the coming days, despite a significant downtick in such activity over the recent months. This may manifest in the form of missile, rocket or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launches towards military and civilian assets in Saudi Arabia.

FORECAST: In the longer term, over the coming weeks and months, the development is liable to further heighten tensions between the US and its allies, on the one side, and Iran and its proxies on the other, which will likely result in increasing hostile rhetoric towards the other party and potentially a more significant retaliation by Iran against US interests. Given that Iran-backed proxies, such as Hezbollah, are known to operate in Latin America, as well as other African, Asian and European countries, the risk for attacks by such elements against the interests of the US and its allies in the aforementioned regions cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations:

Travelers are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the current tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its Gulf allies on the other will likely lead to additional hostilities. For on-ground or intelligence assistance contact us at: [email protected] or +44 20-3540-043.

Foreigners, particularly US nationals, conducting travel in Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon are advised to maintain a low profile due to the increased potential for militant attacks while practicing extra vigilance near US and Western diplomatic missions and interests across the region.

Ensure that places of stay are equipped with sufficient perimeter security details, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals.

For those conducting essential operations in Baghdad, it is advised to restrict travel to the Green Zone and ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.

Those managing or operating vessels in the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz are advised to take necessary precautions, including reviewing security protocols and adhering to international instructions, in light of the potential for security incidents in the area.

El Paso Shooting – Domestic far-right shooters become primary militant threat as online communities act as hubs for radicalization, catalyzing attacks – USA Analysis

Written and Edited by Saad Lambe and Ollie Wiltshire

Executive Summary

Far-right online communities have increasingly shifted towards planning and calling for militant attacks, demonstrating the increased threat from such forums.

Calls for attacks against traditional far-right targets, including Jewish and Muslim communities, have seen a significant increase.

Corporations aligning with perceived left-wing political views are frequently discussed in a violent context.

Attendees at left-wing rallies, particularly those with right-wing counter-protests, face an increased threat of being identified online and targeted.

Far-right attacks from lone wolves will take place in the coming months as a result of the uptick in online activity.

Increase awareness of threats on social media through the use of threat monitoring services.

Current Situation

On August 3, a man entered a large supermarket in El Paso, Texas and opened fire on shoppers, killing 20 and wounding 26. The shooter posted a manifesto on 8chan, which described his opposition to the ‘Latino takeover’ of Texas. While he disavowed both the Democratic and Republican party, the manifesto included terms such as ‘fake news’ popularized during President Donald Trump’s campaign. Additionally, he stated that he was inspired by the Christchurch, NZ shooter and echoed talking points of the conspiracy theory ‘the great replacement’, naming it as the reason he targeted Hispanic and Latino people.

Following the shooting, 8chan’s hosting provider, Cloudflare, dropped the website as a client due to it being a convergence point for militants, which is expected to disrupt access to the website. With the presence of multiple competitors in the market, reports state that this incident is unlikely to have a long-term impact on the website.

A far-right militant entered a festival in Gilroy, CA on July 29 with a semi-automatic weapon and opened fire on attendees leading to the death of two people. The shooter was killed in a confrontation with the police having asked his social media followers to read a far-right extremist book before committing the attack.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Christopher Wray stated on July 23 in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that a significant percentage of domestic militant suspects arrested had been linked to white supremacy, additionally stating that over 100 domestic militant arrests had taken place from October 2018 to July 2019.

Portland, Oregon witnessed clashes on June 29 between members of the anti-fascist Antifa group and the far-right Proud Boys group, leading to several injuries. A member of the Proud Boys threatened to kill Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and a number of people on far-right forums rallied against what they perceived as ‘state-sanctioned violence’, calling for violence against people they identified as Antifa members.

On April 27, 2019, a gunman entered the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California and killed one person with a semi-automatic rifle and injured three others.  He attempted to live stream a video of the shooting to Facebook but failed. He yelled anti-semitic slurs while entering and posted an anti-semitic manifesto on the far-right online forum 8chan before carrying out the attack. He had previously committed arson at a mosque and was allegedly inspired by the Christchurch shooter.

A Coast Guard Lieutenant, Christopher Paul Hasson, was arrested in Maryland on February 15, 2019, in the USA with a large stockpile of weapons, intending to commit an attack on a scale he claimed was ‘rarely seen in this country’. He identified as a white nationalist and had been collecting weapons since 2017. He planned to attack members of the Democratic Party, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with television anchors from several high-profile networks perceived as ‘liberal’ and being biased against the right-wing community.

Notable far right incidents in 2019

Background

Far-right attacks in North America have increasingly involved a single perpetrator (lone-wolf), self-radicalized through online propaganda, involving ‘memes’ depicting migrants and people-of-color as invaders, posing a threat to the ‘white race’.

Individuals committing attacks and associated with far-right communities follow a path involving joking about attacks against certain target groups, which is usually applauded and reinforced by other members. They then begin stockpiling weapons, settling on a target, and researching the premises before executing the attack.

A large number of far-right militants were inspired by ideas espoused in Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto used to justify his 2011 attacks in Norway and have released similar documents before attacks. This was highlighted by the Christchurch attacker, who posted his manifesto online on 8chan.

Far-right online communities have been instrumental in the dissemination of propaganda intended to establish the white race as ‘inherently superior’, as well as to push propaganda such as the ‘Great Replacement Theory’, which portrays Muslims attempting to convert a ‘Christian West’ into an Islamic homeland by sustained high-levels of migration.

Several far-right communities engage in ‘doxxing’, a term used to describe identifying an anonymous user or person’s personal details, in an attempt to intimidate, harass, and threaten the victim. While previously restricted to users online, members have begun posting images of left-wing activists at counter-protests in an attempt to identify and potentially harass and attack them.

Glossary of Terms

Assessments & Forecast

Increased calls for militant attacks likely to heighten security threat against traditional far-right targets

There has been a notable increase in calls for attacks on traditional far-right targets, including Jewish and Muslim communities, on websites such as 8chan and Gab with a dominant far-right userbase, which have been used to post militant manifestos due to their relaxed content rules.

On far-right forums, calls for attacks are largely indirect and usually in response to events perceived as ‘anti right-wing’. Recruitment for potential militants begins by appealing to traditionally conservative issues including anti-immigrant sentiments and orthodox conceptions of the family, which later devolves into calls for forum users to join ‘state militias’ which have often been described as possessing a far-right leaning.

While Gab has occasionally enforced rules over direct threats, 8chan allows this content to be posted regardless of its nature. In this regard, 8chan is likely to grow as one of the primary modes of propaganda dissemination and calls to action for far-right extremists online. Such content will come in the form of ‘memes’ and short-form media, including images and gifs, allowing the ideology to easily embed itself within more palatable internet culture.

Posts from 8chan calling for violence

A common theme of conversation includes corporations perceived as aligning with left-wing issues, such as civil rights and diversity, along with social media and news corporations accused of bias against right-wing groups. These discussions largely take place in a violent setting, with accusations of being funded by secretive ‘anti-white’ groups. In this regard, this behavior demonstrates the increased threat faced by these companies from far-right individuals over their political views.

Calls against Jewish targets rely on a variety of anti-semitic tropes, attempting to instigate readers into stopping Jewish ‘influence’ in politics and socio-economic issues on the world stage. Certain key personalities, including George Soros, are frequently mentioned, implying a stronger focus towards committing violence against Jewish people in political, corporate, and community positions.

Muslim communities in the West are largely painted as ‘invaders’, using the great replacement theory which was mentioned by the Christchurch shooter. As such, calls for attacks specifically mention mosques and Muslim community centers in Western countries, designating them as potential targets.

In the Gilroy, CA shooting on July 29, the shooter posted on social media asking followers to read a far-right book, common in white-supremacist groups before committing the attack. This highlights an ongoing trend among militants, attempting to clarify their intentions for the attack, likely brought on by multiple ‘white-power’ movements with differing goals.

As seen in the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, many online calls will include references to ‘internet culture’ known as dog-whistle tactics, in which content is used to mean different things to the general public and the far-right audience. Given that a large number of ‘memes’ and culture-specific images have been created to evoke racist imagery within these communities, it is often used to subtly encourage violence towards groups. This is often termed as ‘redpilling’, a phrase used by online far-right communities to indicate the ‘conversion’ of a casual user into one who fits the profile of a traditional far-right user.

The recent wave of shootings served to highlight the trend of far-right incidents trickling down from casual hate-speech online to real-life violence. While the majority may not act based on hate-speech, the inherent nature of such closed-off communities attracts psychologically unstable individuals who are increasingly susceptible to these forms of propaganda.

Post about "red pilling" from far-right group on 8chan and Gab

Attempts to identify (dox) protesters and call for violence at left-wing rallies likely to grow, including dissemination of false information

With both left-wing and right-wing events predominantly being promoted and discussed online, there will likely continue to be an increase in discussions centered around what takes place at these rallies.

Far-right communities have included inflammatory content, especially false warnings about Antifa and other left-wing groups planning to commit attacks at right-wing rallies and calling for attendees to carry weapons to protect themselves which is likely to lead to further clashes at right-wing rallies going forward.

Some users on the social media website Reddit’s now restricted ‘The_Donald’ forum attempted to create a document containing personal details of individuals believed to be ‘anti-Trump’. This document featured generic information, including age and vague location, but in some cases, it featured details including ethnicity, sexual orientation, and home and business addresses. The details imply that members of the LGBT community and other minority groups are priority targets for these radical factions.

Most recently echoed in a Portland, OR rally by a far-right group called the Proud Boys, comments made on Gab included screenshots of individuals’ social media profiles who were perceived as left-wing activists, descriptions of their workplace, as well as photos of a rope meant to call for lynchings. Some allegedly left-wing members identified were unlikely t be members of Antifa, instead, such false-positives were likely targeting unaffiliated counter-protesters. This behavior reinforces the danger presented to civilians unconnected to both Antifa and other left-wing groups who may be misidentified through these actions and targeted for attacks.

Journalists have increasingly been targeted in recent years, especially those deemed as left-wing. Far-right users, in particular, believe in a larger conspiracy against right-wing groups among “mainstream” media. This was demonstrated in the case of the coast guard arrest, who planned to attack several left-wing commentators due to their perceived bias. Therefore, journalists are likely to continue being the target of online harassment, with the increased possibility of threats online devolving into physical violence.

Based on previous attacks, instances of violence directed towards ‘doxxed’ individuals may include pipe bombs, possibly containing TATP often employed by Islamic State (IS) members, with the wide availability of manufacturing instructions online.

Gab post attempting to Dox

Recommendations

Public, private, and third sector organizations are advised to increase their awareness of threats on social media through the use of threat monitoring services. Increased awareness of an organization’s political footprint and perceptions from fringe online groups can help uncover potential violent actors and plots before they occur.

Official Syrian news agency reports missile attack targeting military sites in Hama, Aleppo provinces during overnight hours of April 29-30 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

The official Syrian news agency reported that missiles targeted military sites in Aleppo and Hama provinces, during the overnight hours of April 29-30.

According to a pro-government media outlet, an arms depot belonging to the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) 47th Brigade in Hama Governorate was targeted. As for Aleppo Province, the exact target of the attack has yet to be specified. No official confirmation regarding the perpetrator of the strikes has been released at the time of writing.

Reports additionally indicate that the target was an underground bunker containing more than 100 long-range accurate missiles.

Moreover, reports indicate that missile attacks killed 26 pro-Syrian government fighters at Hama’s arms depot, many of whom Iranians. However, according to an IRGC-linked media, the reports regarding Iranian deaths as a result of the strikes are “baseless”.

According to reports quoting a US military source, the US-led coalition is not beyond the attack.

Assessments & Forecast

The incident comes amidst an uptick in Israeli strikes against Iranian-linked facilities across Syria over the past months. On April 9, Israel reportedly targeted Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Airbase with missiles, which resulted in the killing of seven Iranian troops. In addition, on February 10, Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft targeted 12 facilities, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military bases. Therefore, we assess that the overnight strikes were similarly carried out by Israel. Nonetheless, the incident is notable given its scale-and-scope, as the number of reported casualties is significantly higher than Israel’s usual attacks in Syria.

Such attacks, especially in light of the reported Iranian casualties as a result of the recent incident, highlight Israel’s persistent efforts to contain the growing Iranian influence across Syria, as well as its increased willingness to conduct large-scale assaults deep in Syria in order to achieve this goal. Moreover, the development follows multiple Iranian threats of attacks against Israel in the wake of the above mentioned Israeli strikes in Homs Province, which resulted in the killing of Iranian troops. The strikes are potentially an attempt by Israel to send a deterring message to Tehran, as well as that it will continue to operate in Syria, in spite of Iran’s threats. Furthermore, as underscored by the reports regarding the base containing more than 100 accurate missiles, the incident demonstrates Israel’s determination to target military installations containing weapons or systems considered to be jeopardizing Israel’s technological edge and national security.

FORECAST: Given the reports regarding a high number of Iranian casualties, Tehran will likely seek to carry out a significant act of retaliation against Israel. This may include the launching of armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) into Israeli territory and target a military base, in a similar fashion to the February 10  incident, during which an IAF helicopter intercepted an Iranian UAV in Israeli airspace. Additional response may include attempted attacks against Israeli and Jewish interests across the globe, potentially official or diplomatic facilities.  Additionally, albeit slightly less likely, attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) border patrols on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights may also be recorded. Should these materialize, they will likely involve shootings, IEDs, or the use of anti-tank missiles.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy. Restrict essential travel to areas west of the Old City while avoiding travel to the Old City itself due to the risk of mortar fire and threat of militancy.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, as minor hostilities between various groups can escalate into a broader conflict.

Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base targeted with guided missile strikes during early morning hours of April 9 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

Reports indicate that Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base was targeted with missile strikes during the early morning hours of April 9. According to Syrian pro-government sources, its Air Defense System intercepted five of the total eight guided missiles that were used.

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), at least 14 pro-government soldiers were killed, including an unspecified number of Iranian forces.

While Syrian state media initially described the incident as “American aggression”, Pentagon officials have reportedly denied any US involvement.

According to a Russian state news agency, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out the strikes from Lebanese airspace with two F-15 fighter jets.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have not issued any comment regarding the development.

Assessments & Forecast

The development comes amidst a marked increase of tensions between Syrian pro-government forces and Israel over the past months. This is highlighted by the February 10 launch of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Israel from Tiyas Military Air Base. While the IAF retaliated by conducting strikes against four pro-government bases in Syria, the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet with Syrian anti-aircraft fire during this action marked an achievement for the Syrian pro-government forces unprecedented in recent years. As these developments highlight the growing willingness of Iran and Syrian pro-government forces to challenge Israel, we assess that the aforementioned reports ascribing the current missile strike to the IDF are highly credible.

The operation follows the February statement by Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah, who praised the aforementioned downing of the F-16 fighter jet as “beginning of a new strategic era which puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory”. Thus, the targeting of Tiyas Military Air Base, which lies deep within Syrian territory, serves to reassert Israel’s deterrence and the countries’ adherence to its well-established policy of targeting any pro-government facilities which are liable to threaten Israel’s military and technological edge. More significantly, in light of Israeli concerns about the growing fortification of Iranian operational bases in Syria, the current missiles strikes demonstrate Israel’s increased resolve to target military installations used by Iranian forces.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry statement holding Israel responsible is unprecedented, and thus highly notable. While Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria over the past years, since September 2015, Israel and Russia have coordinated such strikes through a bilateral deconfliction mechanism in order to mitigate the risk of conflicts between their armed forces. While the maintenance of this channel was hitherto regarded as tacit Russian approval of IDF action in Syria, the current statement indicates Moscow renunciation of this policy. FORECAST: Such a development would reduce Russia’s ability to function as a diplomatic backchannel to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Iran. Furthermore, it decreases the likelihood that Russia will pressure Iran to desist from expanding its presence near the Syrian-Israeli border. As a result, Israel will likely consider more robust military measures in order to contain this threat. Thus, over the coming months, the IDF is liable to increase airstrikes against Syrian pro-government targets across Syria, including Iranian bases.

FORECAST: Moreover, while Iran and its proxy forces are likely not interested in a broad escalation of hostilities with Israel at this point, the fact that Russia openly named Israel as the perpetrator of the current missiles strikes may pressure them to conduct retaliatory measures. While we assess that any such action will likely remain localized, more sophisticated attacks, such as IED detonations or RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border cannot be entirely excluded. Should such a scenario materialize, both parties may be forced to react with increasing force to perceived transgressions of the other party in order to reassert their deterrence. Thus, while broad conflict between the parties remains unlikely to erupt over the coming months, a gradual increase of hostilities alongside the Syrian-Israeli border cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

Annual joint US-South Korea military exercises to begin on April 1; US, North Korea display commitment to upcoming bilateral talks – Korean Peninsula Analysis

Current Situation

On March 19, the US Department of Defense confirmed that the annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve joint military exercises with South Korea will begin on April 1 and last approximately one month. A spokesperson said that the exercises will be on a scale similar to previous exercises, and involve 23,700 US and 300,000 South Korean troops. There have been no announcements regarding the involvement of  US aircraft carriers. Last year’s exercises lasted two months and involved the nuclear supercarrier USS Carl Vinson. According to recent reports, South Korea is considering procuring Apache heavy-attack helicopters and anti-artillery surface-to-surface missiles, to be used in the event of a ground war.

The US and South Korean presidents are preparing for individual summits with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is planning to meet with Kim in late April, and US President Donald Trump has tentatively agreed to meet with Kim in May, although no details of the latter meeting have been confirmed, including the location. A South Korean envoy reported that Kim said he understands that joint exercises must continue, but that he expected them to be readjusted in the future if bilateral developments remain positive.

Background

Kim delivered a speech on New Year’s Day suggesting a restart in bilateral negotiations with South Korea and offered to send a delegation to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. South Korea accepted, and the two sides held a series of meetings leading up to and following the Olympics, resulting in the North Korean offer of bilateral talks with both South Korea and the US.

No sitting US president has ever agreed to meet with North Korean leadership; President Bill Clinton and President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang after leaving office.

North Korea has not held a nuclear weapon or missile test since November 28, 2017.

Annual joint US-South Korea military exercises to begin on April 1; US, North Korea display commitment to upcoming bilateral talks  - Korean Peninsula Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments

US, North Korea appear committed to talks, although deep distrust remains

The announcement of a U.S.-North Korea summit marks the first ever for a sitting US President, and is made more notable by Pyongyang’s stated willingness to discuss denuclearization. The main reason to doubt a North Korean commitment to denuclearization is the fact that it views its nuclear arsenal as the ultimate guarantee of regime survival. Other, more realistic objectives for the summit might be reaching an agreement on an indefinite ban of missile or nuclear testing in exchange for limits on US-South Korea exercises or a sanctions relief.

In the immediate term, a positive outcome is the North’s offer to temporarily suspend missile tests ahead of the talks, without presenting pre-conditions such as freezing military exercises or requesting sanctions relief. This suggests Kim’s willingness to begin negotiating in good faith, although similar strong starts have collapsed in the past.

The upcoming US-led exercises look to be an in-kind response to this good faith despite public claims to the contrary that the 2018 military exercises are on a similar scale to previous years. The decision to exclude aircraft carriers and halve the length of the drills demonstrates reciprocal flexibility following statements from Pyongyang showing increased tolerance for the exercises. Pyongyang’s stated tolerance and the drawdown of exercises by the US are signals that the desire for talks is, for the time being, sincere.

Despite this projected sincerity, the exercises are perceived as highly provocative by Pyongyang. By not delaying them entirely until talks, the US may be testing Pyongyang’s restraint, as the spring exercise season is normally notorious for North Korean weapons tests. The tenuous nature of the potential US-North Korean harmony is underscored by South Korea’s military tenders for equipment that has little use outside of war with the North.

Major areas of discussion include disarmament, sanctions, detentions

There is significant divergence in the expectations of such a process, as the US views denuclearization as the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, while North Korea views denuclearization as the complete withdrawal of US forces from the region. At present, neither side has shown willingness to satisfy the other’s demands on the issue. The US appears equally unwilling to ease sanctions in the short term, as the current belief in Washington is that economic pressure is one of the few things that brought North Korea to negotiations in the first place. Other areas may prove more easy to reconcile, including the transfer of foreign detainees out of North Korea prisons. The prisoners serve little strategic value for North Korea, and their release would constitute a strong showing of good faith ahead of more contentious issues.

The unprecedented meeting could have positive outcomes even if the primary goal of complete denuclearization of the peninsula is not achieved, including a more general de-escalation of tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. A more comprehensive solution is less likely, as it would be particularly difficult for an agreement to be reached based on a few days of talks, especially given the short preparation time for the Kim-Trump summit. It also remains possible that the lack of preparation, along with the remaining uncertainty over a neutral location for the meeting, might lead to abandoning or delaying the summit. Ultimately, whether or not agreements are made, just holding the summit at all would mark a significant breakthrough.

Recommendations

Travel to Seoul may continue at this time, while adhering to standard security protocols regarding protests, crime and the lingering risk of conflict with North Korea.

We advise against nonessential travel to Pyongyang and North Korea given the risk of detainment of foreign travelers.

During periods of armed escalation between North and South Korea, we advise against all nonessential travel to the vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Yeonpyeongdo Islands.

Talks between North and South Korea result in rare cooperation over Pyeongchang Olympics; detente unlikely to last long term – Korean Peninsula Analysis

Current Situation

On January 9, North Korea agreed to send a large delegation to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea, to be held between February 9-25. The agreement was reached during talks between officials at a face-to-face meeting along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries. The meeting was organized following North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day address, during which he expressed a desire to send athletes to the games and the need for bilateral relations without outside actors.

On January 4, the US and South Korea agreed to delay joint military exercises until the conclusion of the Olympics. South Korean President Moon Jae-in reportedly discussed the agreement directly with US President Donald Trump over the phone on the same day. In the lead-up to the talks, President Trump posted on social media that “talks are a good thing!”, and credited his approach of hardline sanctions as the impetus behind North Korea’s conciliation. President Moon thanked President Trump during a press conference following the border talks. He also stated that he would be open to talks with Kim Jong Un under certain unspecified preconditions. President Trump echoed the same willingness during an interview on January 6.

The North and South also agreed to hold further military talks during their initial meeting, although officials have stated that at least in the opening rounds of such future talks, the meetings would focus on logistical issues related to bringing a large North Korean delegation over the heavily militarized border. Reports indicate that the North Korean negotiator emphatically rejected a suggestion that they also engage with the US or discuss their weapons program.

North Korea has faced a number of sanctions regimes championed by the Trump administration as recently as December 22, in response to the November 29 test of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15.

Talks between North and South Korea result in rare cooperation over Pyeongchang Olympics; detente unlikely to last long term - Korean Peninsula Analysis | MAX Security
Assessments & Forecast

Decrease in tensions likely to persist until end of 2018 Olympics

The in-person talks of January 9 were the first to occur in over two years, and mark the first such occurrence during the administration of President Trump. In general, despite threats of violence by North Korean leadership largely going unfulfilled, diplomatic overtures from Pyongyang normally result in periodic lulls in tension and varying levels of progress in peninsular cooperation. Given the positive results of the initial meeting and the temporary fulfillment of the North Korean desire for a halt to US-led military drills, all sides appear to be sincere in their commitment to maintaining a drawdown until at least the close of the Olympics.
FORECAST: The developments of January 9 are likely to result a period of relative ease between North and South Korea until at least the closing ceremonies of the Olympics on February 25.

Significant concessions from either side unlikely in near term, North Korea on course to attain nuclear-capable ICBM by end of 2018

Both countries have varying goals that are essentially at odds with one another’s, and as such, there remains a low likelihood that the current thaw will see Pyongyang abandoning their nuclear ambitions. Despite the initial overtures by Kim Jong Un, he emphasized his commitment to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a deterrent in the same speech where he offered to resume bilateral talks, and there are no indications of any substantive consideration of alterations to this plan as a result of the ongoing talks.
FORECAST: Given North Korea’s continued commitment to their nuclear program, previous assessments regarding their completion of a nuclear ICBM by the end of 2018 remain unchanged.

While there have been no tests following the November 29 Hwasong-15 launch, this may have more to due with technical considerations. Now that North Korea has a viable launch mechanism, the focus has turned to creating a working reentry vehicle and navigation system. The need to meet these milestones has likely created a delay between tests, and North Korea may be taking advantage of the lull in order to present itself as a more stable partner. Moreover, the motivation for participating in the Olympics may be an attempt to gain acceptance as a presumed nuclear state and normalize their possession of a nuclear arsenal on the world stage.

Similarly, the US-South Korean commitment to halt joint exercises does not cover the annual Foal Eagle or Key Resolve exercises slated to take place in April, and there have been no indications that the schedule will be altered in any way. This suggests that despite positive steps from all sides, red lines nonetheless remain that are likely to be crossed in upcoming months.

North Korean emphasis on bilateral talks unlikely to exclude US from reconciliation process

Kim Jong Un referred to the harmful influence of the US at least 13 times in his speech and emphasized the explicit need for bilateral relations at least another four times. By all accounts, North Korea is likely attempting to use bilateral relations as a way to minimize the role of the US in any eventual substantive talks outside of Olympic preparations, and their rejection of the US during the January 9 talks further reflects this desire. However, the likelihood of exclusive, bilateral peace talks between South Korea and North Korea at the expense of US involvement remains unlikely. South Korea depends on US military commitments for protection from North Korea, and would not be liable to abandon such a partnership, especially considering the North’s nuclear capabilities.

That said, bilateral talks over the coming days and weeks are likely to exclude the US, although as previously mentioned, do not appear to cover substantive reconciliation or demilitarization. Such bilateral talks on issues of economic and cultural cooperation have historically excluded the US, however, have had no impact on the South’s insistence on the inclusion of Washington for more strategic issues. As such, North Korea may be laying the groundwork for an excuse to resume nuclear tests, blaming any increase in tensions on South Korea’s unwillingness to be more flexible on the US presence in their country.

Recommendations

Travel to Seoul may continue at this time, while adhering to standard security protocols regarding protests, crime and the lingering risk of conflict with North Korea.

We continue to advise against nonessential travel to Pyongyang and North Korea given the risk of detainment of foreign travelers.

Those planning on traveling to South Korea for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are advised to contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary-based consultation and contingency planning

How countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt cutting ties with Qatar is likely to influence the region – Middle East & N. Africa Analysis

Current Situation

During the morning hours of June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE announced the cutting of all diplomatic ties with Qatar.  The Hadi-led government in Yemen, as well as Libya’s anti-Islamist House of Representatives (HoR) similarly announced the severing of diplomatic ties with Qatar on the same day. The first four countries issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Qatari diplomats to evacuate their respective nations, while similarly issuing an ultimatum to all other Qatari citizens to leave within two weeks. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE announced that they had closed their airspace for Qatari aircrafts, and that all flights by airliners from these countries to Qatar were suspended. Qatari naval vessels will also not be allowed to use the countries’ seaports to anchor, while land travel between Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be limited to non-Qatari nationals only.

Additional measures implemented against Qatar include the expelling of the country from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and its anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition in Syria. These measures were implemented based on accusations that Qatar is “supporting and financing extremist groups” across the region, as well as encouraging sectarianism and subversive elements operating in the abovementioned countries. Meanwhile, Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that the accusations are “absolute fabrications” and “proves that there are premeditated intentions to cause damage to Qatar”.

How countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt cutting ties with Qatar is likely to influence the region - Middle East & N. Africa Analysis | MAX Security
Map of countries affected by travel restrictions on Qataris

Assessments & Forecast

Severing ties may hurt Qatar economically, push its policy towards more pro-Iranian approach; limited impact on regional conflicts

While the new development is unlikely to have any effect on Qatar’s and any of the other impacted countries’ security conditions in the short term, we assess that this measure may lead to multiple local and regional ramifications over the coming months. For instance, approximately 90 percent of Qatar’s imports of food products are transferred through land from Saudi Arabia. Thus, in light of the border closure between the two countries, Doha will likely be forced to divert a large amount of resources in developing its maritime trade, including in the form of improving its seaport infrastructure, as now its imports via sea are liable to be enhanced significantly. Moreover, given the high-profile nature of the event, there remains a possibility that the turn of events will impact global markets, and particularly the oil sector, as it may be perceived as a source of instability across this oil-rich region.

These new developments may also impact expatriates, including Westerners operating in Qatar and the GCC, particularly given the suspension of flights between the GCC countries and Qatar and the closure of the land border with Saudi Arabia. In light of the likely increase in logistical difficulties in traveling between Qatar and the above-mentioned countries, exacted upon expatriates by the measures, it is likely to damage Qatar’s national economy. Though the impact on GCC residents seeking to enter Qatar is yet to be determined, it cannot be ruled out that Qatar will implement punitive measures and ban GCC citizens and residents from entering the country.

The partial isolation of Qatar may affect several conflicts and political rivalries across the region. With regards to Iran, Doha is liable to improve its bilateral relations and economic ties with Tehran, as now Qatar would be compelled to compensate for its political and economic setback. Moreover, in Yemen, in the short-term, Qatar’s absence from the Saudi-led coalition may slightly reduce the latter’s on-the-ground capabilities in fighting against the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis. However, given Qatar’s already limited role in the coalition, as well as the aforementioned arms deal with the US, in the medium to long-term the Saudi-led coalitions is unlikely to be significantly impacted by Qatar’s absence from the coalition.

In Syria, in light of the already heightened internal divisions between rebel factions, it remains possible that this new development will further exacerbate tensions between rebel groups supported by Qatar on one side, and factions backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Should the event indeed lead to an economic recession in Qatar, their supported factions on-the ground would suffer from a shortage of resources, thus forcing them to disband or merge into other factions. With this in mind, should scenarios eventually materialize, it would potentially tip the scale towards the pro-government forces in the Syrian conflict.

In Libya, the development may constitute a boost to the HoR and its allied Libyan National Army (LNA), given their conflict with the pro-Islamist General National Congress (GNC) and its affiliated militias, which are partially supported by Qatar. That said, Qatar’s direct involvement in this conflict has significantly waned in recent years, particularly since the March 2016 arrival of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to the designated capital of Tripoli, and therefore any implications on the conflict will remain limited.

Cutting ties with Qatar likely linked to global, regional developments involving Iran, new US administration

Today’s development comes amidst years of tensions between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt on one side, and Qatar on the other, surrounding multiple issues, chiefly the latter’s alleged direct involvement in the internal affairs of countries throughout the region. This is particularly relevant to Qatar’s long-standing support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked political elements across the Middle East and North Africa, as the countries in this Saudi-led alliance view the Islamist organization is a subversive element and a threat to their respective governments. Additional contentious issue include Qatar’s overall positive relations with Iran, as opposed to that of the other Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), with the exception of Oman, which remain strong adversaries of Tehran. This is highlighted by numerous past economic agreements between Tehran and Doha in recent years, such as the agreement from February 2014 to create a joint free trade and economic zones between the two countries. A further issue that contributed to the strained relations with Qatar throughout the years is the cooperation of the Qatari-based news outlet al-Jazeera, which had been accused by the aforementioned countries of attempting to undermine their, as well as their regional allies’, governments.

That said, despite these strained relations, Qatar and the other GCC countries’ relations can be characterized over the past several years by intermittent escalation and rapprochement between the sides. For instance, on December 9, 2014, Qatar agreed as part of a GCC summit, to establish a regional police force in order to improve coordination regarding drug trafficking, money laundering, and cybercrime, as well as announced its “full support to al-Sisi-led government in Egypt”. This followed Saudi officials’ March 9, 2014 threats to impose sanctions against Qatar, including in the form of sea blockade, in light of Doha’s persistent support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked elements across the region. However, the complete cutting of diplomatic relations between the aforementioned Saudi-aligned countries is highly notable given its wide scale and scope, as it includes significant restrictions on Qatar and its citizens.

We assess that this escalation is linked to global and regional geo-political developments, largely with regards to Iran and the new Donald Trump administration in the US. With this in mind, in recent years, under the Obama administration, relations between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side, and Washington on the other, were oftentimes strained due to the US’ perceived efforts to approach Tehran, which was likely viewed by Riyadh as coming at its expense. In light of the aforementioned normal relations between Qatar and Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries were likely felt compelled to prevent Qatar from approaching the Islamic Republic too much, as this would have significantly undermined their sense of security and regional interest.

Since President Trump’s inauguration, Washington increased its anti-Iranian rhetoric, while at the same time strengthened its ties with Saudi Arabia. This is highlighted by the May 15 UAE-US defense agreement, as well as the 350 Billion USD agreement between Riyadh and Washington involving an arms deal, and Saudi investments in the US. Thus, there remains a potential that the recent visit of President Trump to Saudi Arabia in late May, as well as the US’ growing support for Saudi Arabia and its allies, motivated the Kingdom to implement these measures, as part of the shared interest with the US in tackling Iran and its allies’ influence throughout the region. With this in mind, given Saudi Arabia’s decreasing need for Qatar’s cooperation on security and political support amidst the ongoing rivalry with Shiite Iran, it is likely that Saudi Arabia assessed that it is no longer obligated to maintain positive bilateral relations with Qatar, prompting this development.

The development comes amidst a diminishing political influence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood organization across the Middle East and North Africa over the past two years. In this context, it remains possible that Saudi Arabia no longer felt compelled to maintain good relations with Qatar, following the reduction of the threat stemming from the Muslim Brotherhood, as opposed to previous Saudi attempts to pressure Qatar to abandon their support for the Islamist organization in return for the improvement of relations with the other GCC countries.

Recommendations

Travel to Qatar may continue as normal while adhering to cultural norms and avoiding making any statements critical of the Qatari Emir and government officials, despite the aforementioned new restrictions. That being said, those operating in Qatar over the coming days and weeks are advised to stock up on food and basic products, due to the possibility that these will be in shortage due to the declared measures. Those operating throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Qatar are advised to remain cognizant of developments and potential effects on travel and business continuity given the current lack of full information regarding the various restrictions that will be in effect. This is particularly relevant for the possibility of unexpected border closures between the relevant countries over the coming days and weeks.

 

This report was written by:
Asaf Day – MAX Security’s Senior Intelligence Manager, Middle East & North Africa