Following two bombings in Istanbul that killed dozens of people over the weekend, Turkey has struck back at the group which claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Kurdish Freedom Hawks, a breakaway faction of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) released a statement claiming responsibility, yet also saying that the Turkish people were not the target of the bombs. Nevertheless, Turkey struck back hard yesterday with airstrikes against 12 PKK targets in northern Iraq and the arrest of over 200 members of Kurdish political parties on Sunday and Monday. The state-run Anadolu news service reported there were 235 arrests in 11 cities across Turkey.
Saturday’s bombings outside of a soccer stadium in Istanbul claimed the lives of 44 people and wounded over 150 others. 39 of the victims were police officers. The bombings have, predictably, raised anger and a nationalistic fervor in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will surely use the attack as a reason to push a bill expanding his powers through the parliament. If passed, the act will introduce an executive presidency similar to that of the United States to Turkey. Erdogan and his supporters claim it will help make the government more efficient, while his opponents are concerned it could potentially lead to Turkey becoming a one-party state.
Expressing concern about Erdogan’s strengthening power now might be a case of too little, too late. He already holds near-dictatorial powers and is shifting Turkey towards an authoritarian state since the attempted coup in July. The government and civil services have been purged of real and perceived anti-Erdogan sentiment. Free media is precariously close to extinction or, at the very least, intimidated into submission. When all is said and done, Erdogan will have reshaped Turkish politics and society into something few observers believed would ever be possible. With the new shape of Turkey will come the striking reality that there is no one left to stop Erdogan from doing whatever he wishes.
The end of the year is fast approaching. In many respects 2016 has been a year for the ages. A failed coup attempt in Turkey, Russia’s expanding involvement in Syria, ISIS lashing out abroad as its territory in Syria and Iraq contracts, the death of Fidel Castro, Brexit and the resurgent populist fervor across the West. And last, but certainly not least, the historic 2016 US presidential election. Some of these events were anticipated, while others came out of nowhere and broadsided us. The crises, conflicts, and other events of 2016 will set the foundation for the challenges ahead in 2017.
For December, 2016 my plan is to look at some of those challenges and give readers a broad idea of what lies ahead on the horizon. I also want to devote some attention to defense issues. Specifically, how President-elect Trump’s promises to rebuild the US military could pan out. I will also touch on Russia’s ongoing efforts to modernize its armed forces, and the declining numbers and capabilities of Britain’s Royal Navy.
Current hot spots will also be discussed and updated: Aleppo and Mosul, a tale of two cities enduring unimaginable horrors. Kashmir, the flaring up of tension there has sparked concerns of a larger Indo-Pakistani conflict. Post-Castro Cuba, a look at what the future will hold for the island nation in the wake of Castro’s death.
A New Phase in the Turkish Purge
The Turkish government had dismissed another 10,000 civil servants and shut down 15 media outlets over suspected links with Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric who has been blamed by Ankara for being behind the failed coup in July. Since the coup attempt, over 100,000 government employees have been fired or suspended and 37,000 arrested. This latest batch of dismissed employees learned of their fates when two executive decrees were published on Saturday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long defended the continued crackdown, citing it as essential to removing Gulen influence from the state government. Opposition parties view the purges quite differently, with one even calling it a coup in itself. Turkey’s Western allies are concerned that Erdogan is using the failed coup as justification to remove eradicate dissent.
Immediately following the failed coup, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency and used it as a blanket to go after Gulen supporters and Kurdish militants, citing both as major threats. The state of emergency has been extended until January, 2017 and could be pushed out even beyond that, as Erdogan has hinted that authorities will need even more time to contend with the alleged threats.
Advance Into Mosul Underway
The battle for Mosul is entering its third week and finally showing signs of significant progress. Today, Iraqi units broke through ISIS defenses in the eastern suburbs of the city and fighting has expanded into the city limits for the first time. Iraqi army Counter Terrorism Service troops are now fighting in the Karama district. The offensive to liberate Mosul started on 17 October and has progressed slowly since then. Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi government forces have taken on the lion’s share of the effort to retake Mosul with US airstrikes supporting them. On Saturday, pro-Iranian militias joined the effort, attempting to cut off the transportation network between Mosul and Raqqa. ISIS has been attempting to slow the coalition offensive down with mortars, sniper fire, car bombs and scorched earth, as well as more conventional defensive tactics. The question now appears to be not ‘will Mosul be liberated?’ but ‘How long will the effort take and how many heavy will the casualties be?’
The ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia in Syria was not expected to be permanent. But it was expected to last longer than four or five days. Right now, the ceasefire is edging precariously close to breaking. Fighting has broken out east of Damascus. Rebel factions claim government forces are driving into their territory around Jobar. The Syrian government accuse the rebels of trying to push west into the capital city from Jobar and that this activity is what prompted the response. Both sides claim that the actions of the other is a violation of the ceasefire agreement. Jobar is not the only area where hostilities have erupted since the cease-fire took effect. SANA, the Syrian state media claims there were over 20 violations in Aleppo alone, including rebel rocket fire that damaged a church in the government held section of the city.
Meanwhile, in Aleppo relief workers are awaiting a large delivery of UN aid from Turkey. The delivery has crossed the border and is expected to arrive in the besieged area of east Aleppo sometime today. The aid has been sitting in Turkey since the beginning of the week and has not moved until now because of disagreements between the opposing sides in Syria and concerns about the safety of the route between the border and Aleppo. A number of NGOs are also waiting to deliver foodstuffs, medical supplies and other desperately needed materials to Aleppo. The terms of the ceasefire call for humanitarian access to the area, but unless the warring parties can guarantee safe passage, little aid is expected to arrive in the besieged areas in and around Aleppo.
Honorable Mention: Libya and Brazil
- Venezuela– Venezuela is staring directly at the largest political, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe in its history. Instead of fixing the issue, the government of Nicolas Maduro is doubling down on the policies that has brought his nation to the edge of the abyss.
- Iraq– Government forces are preparing to launch an offensive aimed at liberating Mosul from IS control. While this is happening, Iraqi Defense Minister Kahled al-Obeidi was removed from power amid allegations of corruption. And then there is the matter of the 100,000 Iran-backed fighters currently inside of Iraq and what the future holds for them.
- Yemen– The conflict between Iranian-supported Houthi rebels and a coalition of Gulf nations drags on without an end in sight. The US and Saudi Arabia have unveiled a plan to resume talks to bring an end to the fighting. The number of civilian casualties has been horrifically high. Saudi airstrikes in August have resulted in a particularly high number of casualties, but the Houthis are just as much to blame. On 26 August the Houthis claimed to have launched a missile that successfully struck a Saudi Aramco oil facility.
- Baltic States/Eastern Europe– An area relatively quiet for at moment, but there is a large amount of nervous tension just below the surface. The Baltic States are concerned that they are next on Putin’s list once he finishes with Ukraine. Many in Poland and Romania feel the same.
- Turkey– Erdogan’s actions and behavior post-coup attempt indicate that paranoia and vindictiveness are driving him, at least in the short term. Turkey’s warming relations with Russia and moves against Kurdish rebels on the other side of the border with Syria hint at a very different Turkey emerging in the future.
- Ukraine– Following a period of relative inactivity, Ukraine became a flashpoint once more in August. Russian accusations of alleged Ukrainian efforts to provoke a conflict, border incidents, the resupply of pro-Russian forces in the Donbas region, large Russian military exercises in and around the Black Sea have combined to put Ukraine on edge. Putin has a plan set in motion and many Ukrainians are worried it includes Russian tanks rolling into Kiev.
- Strait of Hormuz/Persian Gulf– Iran has gone back to its old ways and begun aggressively shadowing US Navy ships in the region. Twice in the past week US warships have been forced to fire warning shots at Iranian vessels that have come too close. The influx of money that Iran is experiencing, coupled with its warming relations with Russia appear to be emboldening Tehran to exert its status as a regional power.
- North Korea– North Korea is at it again too. Another test firing of a ballistic missile as US-ROK military exercises get underway. North Korea’s latest test comes as a protest against the exercises as well as the future deployment of THAAD batteries to the Republic of Korea. There are rumors of a underground nuclear test set for some point in the near future as well. If it weren’t for the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons, it would be ranked at #4 or #5. As it stands though, the unstable nation-state does possess nuclear weapons and needs to be watched carefully.
- South China Sea/Westpac– Following last month’s legal decision in The Hague, China continues to fortify its position over maritime claims. Beijing claims that the decision contains no bearing on its rights and claims in the South China Sea. Construction on Fiery Cross Reef has continued and even been ramped up. Satellite photographs plainly show that preparations are military in nature. Joint Chinese-Russian naval exercises are also scheduled to take place in the SCS in September. With the G20 summit coming to China next month, the South China Sea will be a topic of discussion and a flashpoint for the foreseeable future. In the East China Sea, the Senkaku Islands dispute is deteriorating relations between China and Japan.
- Syria-There is no disputing that Syria is the hottest flashpoint in the world right now. The Syrian War is no longer purely a civil war between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its opponents. Regional and world powers are both directly and indirectly involved in the fighting. Russia and the US both have military forces on the ground. There are a host of competing mini-conflicts going on in this war. Russia vs ISIS, Russia vs Pro-West opposition groups, the US vs ISIS, Assad vs everyone but Russia and Iran, and now Turkey vs ISIS and the Kurdish rebels. Syria is a veritable powder keg at the moment. If it explodes, it will take the entire region and perhaps more down with it.