International roundup: “Operation Olive Branch”

International roundup: “Operation Olive Branch”

In and around the Middle East: Turkey invades northern Syria to confront Kurdish YPG militia

Turkey has commenced an invasion of northern Syria, targeting the Kurdish-controlled city/district of Afrin in what it has dubbed “Operation Olive Branch.” The invasion follows several days of Turkish artillery strikes on Afrin, capped off by Saturday’s air campaign which hit more than 150 targets and killed at least nine people.

Afrin, home to an estimated 600,000 civilians and bordered by Turkey to the north and west, is currently controlled by the Syrian Kurd People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, the main military force of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is allied with the United States and has played a key role in the battle against the Islamic State, capturing the IS capital of Raqqa.

Because Afrin is completely bordered by hostile forces (Turkish-controlled Free Syrian Army rebels to the South and East, and the Syrian government to the South), the SDF will have a difficult time aiding the roughly 10,000 YPG fighters. The YPG has shelled across the border into Turkey in response and announced it will hold both Ankara (Turkey) and Moscow accountable for the massacres it expects to be committed against it.

Turkey has apparently gotten the tentative blessing of Russia, who controls the air-space above Afrin and, until recently, kept a contingent of Russian soldiers in the airport at the center of Afrin. Following visits by the Turkish Army Chief of Staff and Chief of Intelligence to Moscow on Thursday, Russia pulled these troops from the area. Still, Russia has expressed serious concerns over the military operation and could choose to intervene and stop Turkey.

Quick analysis:

Russia’s acquiescence here, and subsequent mild protest, is likely strategic. Turkey’s invasion of Afrin will likely further strain US-Turkey relations (see below). The US and Turkey are the two largest members of NATO, a military alliance that’s famously loathed by Russian president Vladimir Putin. Russia may view Turkey’s move as an opportunity to weaken the NATO alliance.

Turkey’s primary objective in the Syrian Civil War has been to target the YPG, which it believes has links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group that has been battling Turkey for decades. The conflict has killed more than 40,000 people and cost Turkey hundreds of billions of dollars, according to Al Jazeera. While both Turkey and the US consider the PKK to be a terrorist group, the US has backed the claims of both the YPG and the Syrian Democratic forces that they do not support the PKK.

Sunday’s invasion is not Turkey’s first operation in the region. An August 2016 military operation by Turkey, Operation Euphrates Shield, targeted Kurdish expansion west of the Euphrates River.

So far, the operation appears limited in scope. Syria has complained about Turkey’s violation of Syrian sovereignty and threatened to strike back if Turkey continues to advance east through Afrin toward the town of Manbij. Iran, predominantly Shia, has also announced its opposition to Operation Olive Branch, fearing moves by the Sunni Turks whom it sees as regional rivals for power in the Middle East.

The incursion may also further strain the fast-deteriorating relationship between the US and Turkey. The US has financially and militarily supported Kurdish groups, primarily the SDF, in the fight against the Islamic State. In fact, the recent US announcement of plans to form a border-security force of about 30,000 primarily Kurdish patrollers likely hastened Turkey’s decision to invade – as we reported last week, Turkish President Erdoğan vowed to “drown” the force “before it is born.”

Elsewhere in and around the Middle East:

The US has decided to withhold $65 million of a $125 million aid payment to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to aid the Palestinians.

  • The decision follows widespread anger from the Palestinian community after President Trump decided to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The Palestinians have seen this as a rejection of the peace process and a two-state solution to the conflict and have refused to engage with Israel or the US in any further peace talks, prompting the US to threaten, and now to actually withhold, aid.
  • Palestinian leaders met last Monday, voting to suspend recognition of Israel and cease security cooperation following the embassy moves.

UNICEF released a report on Tuesday detailing the impact of Yemen’s civil war on the country’s children.

  • Per the report, more than 5,000 children have been killed or wounded while another 400,000 are dealing with malnutrition and starvation.
  • Faced with the growing humanitarian disaster in Yemen, Germany has decided to stop selling weapons to anyone participating in the war, including Saudi Arabia, a major buyer of German military equipment.

Africa: Cape Town, a city of four million, will run out of water in 90 days

The South African coastal city of Cape Town will be the first major city in the world to run out of water – projections have the city going dry in less than 90 days.

  • Faced with a historic three-year drought, the city of nearly four million people is looking at an April 22 water shut-off date, based on reservoir levels and daily consumption. The city will be forced to shut off the water supply for everything but essential services. Once this happens, residents will have to travel to one of 200 municipal water points set up throughout the city to collect a maximum of 6.6 gallons of water per day.

Elsewhere in Africa:

Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power following November’s military coup against long-time President Robert Mugabe, is making moves to bring Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth of Nations, an organization headed by the United Kingdom and mostly comprised of countries that were former territories of the British Empire. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth back in 2002 for human rights abuses. After the Commonwealth refused to lift the suspension, Mugabe withdrew from the group in 2003.

  • In addition, Mnangagwa announced plans to hold elections in five months, inviting observers from the Commonwealth, the European Union and the United Nations to monitor the elections.
  • Zimbabwe is also deliberating the establishment of a special tribunal to determine monetary compensation for white commercial farmers who have seen their lands confiscated by the government.
  • All of these steps are geared toward improving Zimbabwe’s relations with the West and unlocking sources of international financial assistance to help the country back on its feet after decades of financial mismanagement.
    • In particular, Mnangagwa’s government appears to be keen on repairing its badly damaged relationship with the United Kingdom, with Mnangagwa calling the UK’s Brexit an opportunity for Zimbabwe to fill the void left by the EU.

South Africa’s long-time president Jacob Zuma is under pressure to step down by his African National Congress (ANC) Party, per the country’s eNCA TV news channel.

  • Zuma, who has been president since 2009, is currently set to see his second term as president end in 2019. However, a series of corruption allegations and a stagnant economy has led to calls for Zuma’s removal and the ANC’s new leader (and probably successor to Zuma), Cyril Ramaphosa, has pledged to root out corruption from the government.

A Saudi Arabian Islamic preacher was killed in the African country of Guinea while attempting to spread the ultra-conservative Salafi branch of Sunni Islam to remote hunting communities in the region.

  • The leader of a group of hunters believed to be responsible for the killing was found stabbed to death, apparently killed in revenge for the preacher’s slaying.

South America: Hyperinflation grips Venezuala

The situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate as hyperinflation takes hold of the country’s currency, the bolivar. Bloomberg’s Café Con Leche Index, which tracks the price of a cup of coffee in the capital of Caracas, has reported a price increase from 1,100 bolivars to 45,000 bolivars over the last 12 months, an increase of 3,991 percent

  • Per Venezuela’s black market rate for US dollars, tracked on websites like, a US dollar costs 211,337 bolivars as of January 21, a plunge of 43% over the last month. The monthly minimum wage when converted into dollars is worth less than $4.
  • This hyperinflation, coupled with food shortages during Christmas, has led to a wave of looting throughout the country.
  • The economic situation in the oil-rich nation has driven many Venezuelans to seek refuge outside of the country, with approximately 1.1 million leaving the country for places like the United States, Brazil and Colombia, the latest country being the home to more than 550,000 Venezuelan refugees.

Asia: Collision in East China Sea leads to unprecedented gas spill

Two weeks ago, an Iranian tanker carrying a full cargo of natural gas condensate collided with a Chinese freighter carrying grain in the East China Sea. The collision sparked a fire on the Iranian tank, the Sanchi, which burned for more than a week and killed all 32 crew members. 

  • The condensate, a byproduct of natural gas extraction, is found as a gas underground but condenses into a liquid as it is pumped up to the surface. It is made of smaller, simpler molecules than standard crude oil, which makes it much lighter.
  • The exact impact of the spill on the environment is unknown because a spill like this is unprecedented. The best-case scenario, according to Alexis C. Madrigal at The Atlantic, is that “the fuel will come to the surface in a slick that is massive but thousandths-of-millimeters thin,” after which it will simply evaporate into the air. The worst-case scenario? An “invisible, subsurface toxic plume that is spreading outward from the site,” according to Richard Steiner, an environmental consultant.

Elsewhere in Asia:

In an interview last Wednesday, US President Donald Trump called out Russia over its failure to implement sanctions against North Korea.

  • What he said: “Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea. What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.”
  • While both Russia and China signed on to the latest round of sanctions, there have been at least three occasions since the sanctions went into effect when Russian oil tankers supplied fuel to North Korea, violating the sanctions. North Korea relies on imported oil to keep its economy and military (including its nuclear program) functioning.

Speaking of North Korea, both North and South Korea agreed to march together under a “unified Korea” flag during the opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and to field a joint women’s ice hockey team. This will be the first time the two countries have competed together on a joint team during the Olympics.

Russia, still dealing with the fallout of running a massive, state-sponsored doping program for its athletes that saw it get banned from the upcoming Winter Olympics, does not appear to have fully dealt with its drug problem. An indoor track and field championship in Siberia last week saw as many as 36 athletes suddenly withdraw from the competition following the arrival of drug testers. Most of the athletes used the excuse of feeling ill. Russia’s track and field federation claims it has launched an investigation.

China has built the world’s largest air purifier, a 100-meter (328 feet) high tower in the northern city of Xian.

  • Preliminary data appears to suggest that the tower is working and improving air quality around an area of 3.86 miles surrounding the tower.
  • The tower works through a system of green houses built around its base that suck up polluted air and heat it using solar energy. The hot air then rises through the tower, going through multiple layers of filters before exiting the tower clean.
  • The researchers responsible for designing and building the tower hope to build the full-scale version of the tower, which is projected to be 500 meters (1,640 feet) high, in other cities.

Two anti-polio workers, a mother and daughter team, were killed by gunmen in Pakistan on Thursday. The attack took place following the launch of an anti-polio campaign earlier in the week that has seen hundreds of polio teams working to vaccinate Pakistani children against the disease.

  • Polio has been eradicated from most of the world – Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria are the only nations still harboring the disease.
  • Pakistan’s Taliban, which has de-facto control over parts of the country along the Afghan border, has actively worked against the anti-polio campaigns launched in the area over fears that the vaccinations are a Western plot to sterilize their children. Adding fuel to these rumors is the documented fact that the US Central Intelligence Agency used a bogus Hepatitis B vaccination project to help track down Osama bin Laden.

Europe: The EU looks to eliminate plastics

In response to the devastating impact that plastics have had on the environment and the world’s oceans, the European Union is planning to clamp down on the use of a variety of single-use plastics like coffee cups, lids, cutlery, and takeaway packaging. The plan, which aims to make all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030, will employ a number of strategies to discourage plastic packaging use:

  • A tax levy on single-use plastics
  • Funds for researching better plastic designs and improving their recyclability
  • An obligation for EU member states to monitor their marine waste
  • Easier access to public tap water to reduce the demand for bottled water
  • Clearer labelling for plastic packaging with recycling
  • A ban on microplastics in cosmetic and personal care products

25 million tons of plastic waste are generated in Europe each year but less than 30 percent of it is actually recycled. China has recently banned the import of recyclable plastic waste from foreign countries, which was a major factor in the EU’s decision to develop its new plastics plan.

North America: US announces new defense policy

US Defense Secretary James Mattis announced the most significant changes to the United States’ defense policies since September 11, 2001 ushered in the Global War on Terror. The shift from terrorism to countering the moves of “great powers” like China and Russia, outlined in the new National Defense Strategy published by the Department of Defense, reflects a new global reality in which the US and Russia have reignited the Cold War, fighting each other through proxy conflicts in the Middle East and seeking to undermine each other. Meanwhile, China’s dramatic economic and military rise has set them up as the only realistic challenger to the US’s superpower status.

Elsewhere in North America:

Following the passage of the GOP’s tax bill, Apple has announced its intention to pay $38 billion in taxes to bring back money it holds overseas.

  • The tax bill significantly cut corporate payments, giving Apple an opportunity to bring back its $250 billion in overseas cash and pay a reduced tax penalty.
  • The move may also have been driven in part by aggressive moves by the European Union to clamp down on what it considers tax-evasion.

header imager: marco verch / flickr

Trump jumps into immigration negotiation after the government shutdown ends.

Trump jumps into immigration negotiation after the government shutdown ends.

Democrats appear to be winning the public blame game after the government shut down.

Democrats appear to be winning the public blame game after the government shut down.