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Turkey Races the Clock as Its Ground Forces Enter Syria

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

Featured Image: (DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images) A Turkish military vehicle participates in a joint patrol with the United States in northeastern Syria on Sept. 24 that had been aimed at easing tensions between Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. troops from the area this week, clearing the way for a Turkish incursion.


The Big Picture

Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria is adding to tensions between Washington and Ankara. How the important U.S.-Turkey relationship evolves will depend heavily on how Ankara manages concerns over its operations in Syria.

See The Syrian Civil War

See The Gate: Standoff Against Daesh


Turkish ground forces, part of its military incursion dubbed Operation Peace Spring, rolled across the border into northeastern Syria on Oct. 9 in an offensive for which the first few days will be key. The Turks may have almost all the military advantages in this fight, but they can’t afford for their push to get bogged down, so they will attempt to seize their objectives quickly.

So far, it appears that Turkey’s initial aim is to split the territory held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near the Turkish-Syrian border by driving down the middle to seize key roads linking the western and eastern parts of northeastern Syria. If successful, Turkey could further isolate the SDF holdings in the north and pave the way for additional assaults.

Situation in Syria 11 OctoberThe operation is focused on the territory between the border towns of Tal Abyad in the west and Ras al-Ayn in the east. The Turkish spearheads are attempting to advance around the two towns, which are about 110 kilometers (68 miles) apart, and then drive down to the M4 highway about 30-35 kilometers away that runs on a parallel course to the border. Aside from Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, both of which have a population of about 200,000, this territory is relatively sparsely populated and flat. The terrain and the dearth of major urban centers will significantly facilitate the Turkish advance, unlike the situation its military faced during its operations in Afrin and northern Aleppo.

The Turkish offensive relies heavily on Syrian rebel proxies of the so-called Syrian National Army, which consists of units of disparate combat effectiveness and discipline. Components from the Turkish army consisting of mechanized infantry, armor, engineers and special operations forces stiffen these Syrian units. Large numbers of artillery and significant air support abet these ground forces. Against this powerful force, the SDF’s roughly 40,000 fighters consist predominantly of light infantry forces with little in the way of heavy equipment, artillery or armored vehicles. Their lack of heavy weaponry will make it difficult for the SDF to stand up against the heavily equipped Turkish offensive in the flat terrain, driving them to focus their defense on the villages and small towns within this zone. This strategy puts SDF troops at risk of being surrounded and cut off by the mobile Turkish units, something that is already apparent in the way the Turks have attempted to surround Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.

The Syrian Democratic Forces’ military disadvantages increase the likelihood it could seek an accommodation with Russia or the Syrian government in return for additional support.

Disadvantaged by the local geography and inadequately equipped, the SDF will be hard-pressed to hold back the Turkish offensive. This disadvantage adds to the likelihood the SDF could seek an accommodation with Russia and even the Syrian government in return for additional support. Even an influx of anti-tank guided missiles from the Syrian government could do much to inflict considerable casualties on the Turks and their Syrian rebel allies. The Syrian government, however, recognizing that the SDF is in trouble, will press hard for significant concessions in return for any support, likely including the demand that the SDF hand over key energy fields in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

As the SDF attempts to buy time and shore up external assistance, the Turks will be attempting to move their offensive as quickly as possible to minimize the international backlash that is already evident against it. In these early days of its move into Syria, Turkey’s most effective ally will be speed.


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Battle for the Throne: Indonesia Votes

As the ballots trickle in from the most complicated single-day election in history, Indonesia catches its breath and prepares for a tumultuous start to the second term of President Joko Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi. Though the election was held on April 17th, the Indonesian Election Committee (KPU) is still counting ballots from remote areas of the archipelago and will not announce the official result until May 22nd. In the meantime, the Indonesian Association for Public Opinion, a group of eight reputable pollsters, conducted a “quick count” that predicts Jokowi and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, will be victorious over ex-General Prabowo Subianto with a margin of 55.71% to 44.29% respectively. Though Jokowi encouraged the population to remain calm and await the official results, Prabowo dismissed the quick count and claimed victory. He eventually accepted defeat but blamed election fraud for his loss in an indication the battle may be just beginning.

Indonesia holds elections every five years, but this one was especially large and complicated. The KPU claimed the largest voter turnout in Indonesian history with 192,828,520 voters, approximately 80% of the electorate. Female voters were a majority, and 40% overall were millennials. This was also the first election in Indonesian history to combine the presidential election with the election for the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). The MPR consists of two houses, the People’s Representative Council (DPR), and the Regional Representative Council (DPD) with a colossal 711 seats up for grabs between them (575 and 136 respectively). According to the KPU, the complexity and intensity of the electoral process and the long travel distances between polling sites contributed to the deaths of 456 of its members. Indonesians take their democracy very seriously indeed.

Party vs. Interest

In a reversal from the 2014 election, Jokowi’s 2019 success is due largely to the Islamic “Green Factor”, i.e. the support of the National Awakening Party (PKB), the United Development Party (PPP), Golkar, and his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Jokowi’s controversial nomination of influential Islamic politician Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate attracted the support of Islamist parties, but the move came with great risks. Ma’ruf’s age (he’s 76) and history of political flip-flopping are concerns. In addition, while Ma’ruf was a renowned part of the 212 Movement to bring down then-candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in his bid for Jakarta Governor, the movement was cited for intolerance. The risks of nominating Ma’ruf were borne out by the negative response of pollsters after his selection, even in Ma’ruf’s own province of West Java.

Green Factor in Indonesia's Election
The Green Factor: In the 2019 election, Islamic parties came out in support of Jokowi. Many also supported the religiously charged “212 Movement” to oust popular Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Photo Credit: https://jakartaglobe.id/context/peaceful-election-suggests-exaggerated-fears-of-a-country-split-in-two

Ma’ruf’s issues aside, there is real concern about the appeal of Islamic parties in Indonesian politics. Though Islamic parties play an influential role in Indonesian politics, none has ever won the presidency, perhaps because their political interests tend to be more pronounced than their political ideology. There is a perception they sway with the political winds and as a result, they have difficulties developing a firm political base. In most cases, prominent Islamic leaders lead the Islamic parties. Changes in leadership cause friction and leave internal divisions that can result in abandonment of their main political goals. PPP for example, fully supported Prabowo’s coalition on an ideological basis in 2014. In January 2019, after a long internal battle, the party pledged its support to Jokowi instead. This decision had less to do with PPP’s philosophy and more to do with its evaluation of Jokowi’s likelihood of winning the election.

Jokowi’s Future Challenges

During the campaign Jokowi ran on his record as President, claiming to have lowered the percentage of Indonesians living in poverty to 9.84% – and the unemployment rate to 5.3%. Though these are complex issues, it is obvious Indonesia became economically stable during that time. The country enjoys a 5% economic growth rate and became a G-20 member state. Despite the excellent results, Jokowi knows his task is not complete and will face three primary challenges in his second term.

In the previous five years, Indonesia’s economy grew at a respectable rate between 4.88% and 5.00% but fell short of Jokowi’s stated 7% goal. Furthermore, Chinese investment and Jokowi’s ambitious effort to physically connect Indonesia’s 17,000 islands fueled most of the growth the country did achieve. Not only is this type of investment unsustainable, it benefits a tiny percentage – less than 1% – of new middle-class Indonesians. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in Indonesia is still large. Jokowi needs to continue to boost economic growth and invest more in young Indonesians, especially in the area of education. This will help Indonesia’s future development and prevent a reliance on Chinese or other foreign workers at the expense of young Indonesians.

Despite a strong commitment to building infrastructure, Jokowi needs to invest more in security. This includes not only fighting terrorism, but quelling unrest after official announcement of the election results. The potential for violence is serious. In 2018, Indonesia arrested 396 people linked to ISIS, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) on terrorism charges and Prabowo received massive support from many fundamentalist groups. They have proven capable of mobilizing popular unrest in the past, bringing down Ahok, the popular Jakarta mayor, over allegations of anti-Islamic sentiment. Jokowi must preserve the harmony and image of Indonesia’s secular Muslims amidst threats of intolerance and attacks in the name of religion. Though there are no longer strong terrorist organizations in Indonesia, the country remains a place for massive recruitment by various radical organizations and their capacity for violent persists.

Apart from the Islamic “Green Factor” votes, Jokowi’s second term success will depend heavily on women and the poor. He must keep his campaign promises to issue welfare cards for education, basic needs, and vocational training programs. He needs to provide more opportunities for women, especially for the many mothers whose children disappeared during the Semanggi battle in 1998, a shameful event that is becoming a public cause. Finally, Jokowi needs to fulfill his promise of greater governmental transparency and a better system of checks and balances by bringing justice to those that have been wrongly imprisoned by corrupt officials.  

All these challenges and more will occupy Jokowi as he takes charge of a new and unfamiliar coalition next month. His ability to leverage the “Green Factor” in order to win the 2019 presidential election will not make it easy to appease his new supporter base and maintain his coalition. He must keep the promises he made while campaigning even when they run counter to the impulses of his new allies. The relationship between Jokowi and the Islamists adds a new dynamic to Indonesian politics, and in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the Battle for the Throne is just the beginning of the war.


Viana GearyMefi Ruthviana Geary, PhD, has a scholarly interest in Countering Violent Extremism and deradicalization of terrorists. Her expertise is in Southeast Asian foreign policy analysis and open source intelligence (OSINT).

Strategic Heights

On the 21st of March 2019, with a characteristic lack of warning, the President of the United States stunned allies and adversaries alike by announcing — on Twitter — the United States should “fully recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.” The surprise move reversed 52 years of US policy toward the contested area and prompted emergency meetings in capitals across the globe. Within minutes, a storm of diplomatic protests from around the world reiterated support for a 1981 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR 497) that specifically rejects an Israeli move to annex the Golan.

Not surprisingly, Syria vowed to retake its strategic terrain by “all means available”, a proclamation vigorously supported by Syria’s traditional backers, Russia and Iran. They were not alone, however. Even America’s allies rejected the move, citing principles of customary international law and warning the President it could decrease stability in the Middle East and have ripple effects elsewhere. As the President tweeted, the Golan Heights is strategically important and its annexation will have strategic consequences.

Trump Golan Tweet
President Trump forecasted his move to recognize Israeli rule in the strategic Golan Heights.

Strategic History

The topography and hydrology of the Golan has divided empires, fixed boundaries, and concentrated warfare since Biblical times. When one considers its history, it is easy to understand the Golan’s intense strategic importance to the security and stability of the greater Middle East. Shaped like a bowl surrounding the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights provides a significant percentage of Israel’s fresh water. The terrain feature rises rapidly east from the Sea of Galilee to a ridge that towers 1000 feet over the Transjordanian Plateau and provides a commanding view across southern Syria to the ancient Damascus-Amman Road. Whoever holds the Golan Heights commands all north-south movement in a significant part of the Middle East.

The first Jewish communities settled in the Golan in the 6th Century BCE but later fell under Seleucid rule after the partition of Alexander the Great’s empire in the 3rd Century BCE. The Jews regained their independence after a revolt only to be conquered and crushed by the Roman 10th Legion under Vespasian in the winter of 66 A.D.. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the area changed hands in step with the ebb and flow of fortunes in Constantinople. First the Byzantines, then the Ottomans ruled the Golan until their defeat in the First World War placed the area under the British Mandate. The British ceded it to France a year later and Syria inherited it at the end of the Mandate in 1944.

The British decision to cede the Golan Heights to France left Palestine without a defensible northeastern frontier. When Israel declared independence a few years later, it found itself in a vulnerable position with a modern Arab army in a strong position to threaten Israel’s main source of water. The Six-Day War in 1967 provided the opportunity for Tel Aviv to address the vulnerability by seizing the Golan. At the time, the United States joined the world in calling for an Israeli withdrawal, a policy every President since has supported. When Israel attempted to annex the area in 1981, the Reagan administration went even farther, joining the UN in declaring the move “null and void and without international legal effect.”

Golan Proclamation
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, March 25, 2019. Source credit: REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

Elsewhere Matters

President Trump’s move to recognize Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights is a historically significant break from the policies of every US President since Lyndon Johnson. Though there will be immediate impacts on the stability of the Middle East, international law and the overlapping interests of regional stakeholders will cause ripple effects on US interests in unexpected places.

When Russia employed ‘hybrid warfare’ to invade and annex Crimea in early 2014, the US response was fairly robust and focused. Aside from a frenzy of bilateral military exercises in the Baltic states and Poland, US messaging on the legality of Russia’s move battered Moscow with principles of international law. The United States specifically cited Article 2 of the UN Charter which prohibits the use of force in territorial disputes. More importantly, perhaps, the White House invoked the principle that states have an obligation ‘not to recognize as legal’ the acquisition or occupation of territory resulting from aggression or the threat or use of force. The Obama Administration argued at the time that Crimea was taken by force and therefore the United States had an obligation to reject its annexation by Russia.

Recognition of Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights effectively abandons this legal principle as a basis for US foreign policy, putting the US position at risk in Crimea and damaging other, longer-term US interests. The occupation of Northern Cyprus for example, seized by Turkey in 1974, is still not recognized internationally. President Trump’s capitulation on the Golan may give Turkey a sense that now is a good time to push for annexation of Northern Cyprus. Timing aside, such a move could threaten peace with Greece and destabilize NATO. Further afield, the principle of non-recognition protected the Baltic states for 51 years and guaranteed support for their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Already nervous about Russian territorial ambitions, Baltic leaders are concerned abandonment of the principle now could encourage Russian ambitions in ways detrimental to numerous NATO member states. One can imagine similar issues arising in the South China Sea and the Senkakus, and perhaps even provoking sovereignty questions in US territories conquered during World War II or the Spanish-American War.

Some argue changing the status of the Golan Heights will not significantly affect the situation on the ground. However, the political narrative will have global consequences as states with territorial disputes rush to take advantage of America’s recent flexibility with international law. As the most powerful nation in the world, the United States is the principal benefactor of an international system that affords states a privileged position on questions of sovereignty. Eroding the legal principles that underpin those positions weakens our foreign policy. Doing so in pursuit of short-term gains is the exact opposite of principled action and certainly not the height of strategic thinking.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC