Stratfor’s Global Intelligence: Week of Jan. 25, 2016

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BISHKEK (TCA) — The Times of Central Asia presents to its readers Stratfor’s Global Intelligence, a weekly review of the most important events that happened in the world — from Europe to Middle East to Russia to Central Asia to Afghanistan to China and the Americas.

The Week That Was

Despite a series of diplomatic contacts between Russia and the United States, little seems to have budged over the past week. As we suspected, the rumored secret deal developing between Washington and Moscow to move along Ukraine peace negotiations failed to make it past Kiev. The shaky but resolute Ukrainian government is sticking to its guns in demanding a familiar set of concessions from Russia, including the withdrawal of foreign troops and control of the border, before it considers constitutional changes to recognize autonomy in the east. There is no sign of compromise on this front.

Our attention then turned to Turkey, where U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland paid a visit to Istanbul on Jan. 22 after Nuland toured Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria. Part of her discussions involved organizing a larger NATO presence in the Black Sea, a topic that would naturally entail Turkey’s cooperation as a NATO member and as gatekeeper to the sea. At the same time, Poland is bargaining with its NATO allies to try and expand and solidify NATO’s presence on Europe’s eastern flank with Russia. This has to be worrying for Moscow, considering that it has no choice now but to make deeper slashes to its budget. This time even the defense budget will not be spared.

But Moscow no longer has a strong working relationship with Ankara that it can use to undermine Washington’s web of allies. Turkey is already deeply unnerved by growing Russian support for Kurdish militant factions in northern Syria. And adding to those concerns this week, Russian military personnel were seen working on an airfield in Qamishli, al-Hasaka province in the far northeastern part of Syria along the Turkish border. This is close to where the United States is also extending a runway at an airstrip to facilitate its support for the Syrian Defense Forces, confirmed by satellite imagery we received this week. We are still watching to see if the United States can try to mediate an understanding between Russia and Turkey on the battlefield, but there is still work to do between Turkey and the United States to coordinate the fight against Islamic State. Washington is trying to strike a careful balance in working with Kurdish forces at the same time it coordinates with Turkey. The more Turkey feels threatened by both U.S. and Russian support to Kurdish forces in its periphery, the more motivated it will be to deepen its own involvement in northern Syria to prevent a more cohesive Kurdish threat from forming. Given the inherent complications in this plan, it will take time for the pieces to fall in place.

The domino effect from the migrant crisis is picking up in Europe as both Germany and Austria are reinforcing border controls and reducing the number of asylum applications they will accept. This means more migrants will get bottled up along the Balkan route, where Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia will once again enhance their border controls. As that route gets squeezed, Greece will come under a lot more pressure and more migrants will try alternate routes through Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. As those countries take unilateral action to close their borders, attention will again turn to the central Mediterranean route from Libya. Even as European powers like Italy, France and the United Kingdom are preparing themselves for an intervention in Libya to try and stabilize the country and limit this flow, the deep splits in the tribal and militia landscape ensure much more volatility ahead.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s anti-corruption purge is gaining serious steam and so far he appears capable of managing the backlash. Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is investigating former Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta commander Government Ekpemupolo, better known as Tompolo. After a Lagos court issued an arrest warrant for Tompolo, militants attacked several pumping stations and pipelines in Delta state, forcing two domestic refineries to go offline. But Buhari is not backing down from the investigation. While the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta was a force that could take a significant amount of oil offline between 2005 and 2010, the group has fractured and Tompolo does not have extensive pull beyond the area around Warri. Indeed, other groups have rejected Tompolo and have not stood in solidarity with him.

The build-up to confrontation in Venezuela continues. Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly has predictably rejected Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s emergency economic decree. The decree would enable him to centralize control over the economy, including the central bank, and effectively paralyze the National Assembly. Anecdotes of the airport security dogs allegedly trained to sniff out U.S. dollars and national guard confiscating them at the airport, using the excuse that travelers failed to comply with restrictions on how much they can carry, only speak to the extent to which Venezuela’s currency crisis has worsened. The Maduro government intends to now bypass the National Assembly and take his decree to the supreme court, where it will likely be approved. The National Assembly can then try to pass a referendum to unseat Maduro, but then again, the supreme court will shoot it down. At that point, Venezuela’s divided but increasingly frustrated opposition will be left with little choice but to take to the streets.

Full Articles

Imagery Supports Claims of U.S. Military Activity in Syria  

As Syria’s rebel coalition expands its fight against the Islamic State, so too does it appear that the United States is expanding its support of the rebels. Low-resolution satellite imagery taken Dec. 28 shows construction underway to extend the runway at an airfield in Rmeilan, al-Hasaka province, which would prepare the site to accommodate larger aircraft. (Similar images captured over the course of the last few weeks had been obscured by cloud cover, making it difficult to discern more recent ground activity.) Rumors of the U.S. arrival at Rmeilan originally surfaced in early January; the images confirm that at least some of those rumors are true.

In Libya, the West Heeds the Call of Intervention

Though the fight against the Islamic State has many theaters, the front line of the conflict was drawn years ago in Syria and Iraq, devoid as they were of governments that could effectively control the whole of their respective territories. But as the Islamic State loses ground in Syria and Iraq, the group has found a home in a country arguably as bereft of central authority and that may be the object of international military intervention in the coming weeks. That country is Libya, which is now home to as many as 5,000 militants loyal to the Islamic State.

Argentina’s New President Lays the Groundwork for a Better Economy  

After only a month in power, Argentina’s new government has already taken significant steps to address the country’s economic problems. Since December, Argentine President Mauricio Macri has managed to remove export taxes for agricultural products, slow the printing of pesos, abolish most currency controls and take steps to remove subsidies on electricity, food and natural gas. Though a stagnant energy sector at home and economic downturns abroad will limit just how much the new president can do to turn things around, the future of Argentina’s economy looks far brighter than it has in years.

Algeria: A Desert Nation Fighting to Maintain Water Supplies

Algeria’s inherent lack of water resources, growing urban population, environmental changes and dwindling government funds to spend on water management paint a bleak picture for the country’s ability to increase supplies enough to meet demand. However, public-private partnerships will help secure water supplies in the future.

How Russia Will Struggle to Keep Its Shipbuilders Afloat

Ships, shipbuilding and access to the sea define Russia and the influence it can exert. Since the 17th century, Russia’s shipyard industry has been in a perpetual state of flux as the country seeks access to water outlets through military conquest. The country’s ability to secure and modernize warm water ports has been regularly disrupted by domestic and international conflict, often resulting in the destruction and degradation of the shipyard industry as a whole. Military conflicts and a slew of economic problems have hampered Russia’s most recent efforts to modernize its military and civil shipyards. Moscow will do its best to selectively fund and develop key ports along its strategic water bodies. But it will not be easy.

Mexican Security: The True Casualty of Low Oil Prices

Mexico has long had a privileged position in Latin America. Its proximity to the United States — the largest consumer economy in the world — has contributed to the growth of a robust domestic manufacturing industry, which has become the bedrock of the Mexican economy. Manufacturing has made Mexico the third-largest U.S. trading partner and has propelled its economy to the rank of second largest in Latin America. Still, as in all oil-producing countries, the drop in global oil prices will hurt the country’s financial position, possibly jeopardizing its security reforms. But overall, the country will manage the price drop relatively well.

How German Politics Will Change Europe

As the European Union continues to fracture, debates in Germany could change Berlin’s domestic and foreign policies, reshaping the entire Continent in the process. A group of conservative politicians is questioning German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ability to address the immigration crisis, the second rebellion against her leadership in less than a year. Regardless of whether Merkel keeps her job, German conservatives are and will continue to be concerned about the rise of anti-establishment and anti-immigration groups in the country and their increasing influence over mainstream parties. If Germany takes a more isolationist stance on EU issues, Europe will only further fragment.

The Week Ahead

In Egypt, Jan. 25 will be commemorated by the state and pro-government supporters as Police Day, and by leftists and Islamists alike as the anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Only the Muslim Brotherhood is officially calling for anti-government protests, but the government is doubling down and has arrested dozens of facebook page administrators in recent weeks for producing protest-related invitations and content. In addition, the Ministry of Religious Endowments issued a ruling in a sermon on Jan. 8 accusing any demonstrations as acts of terrorism against the homeland, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in December that protests will “ruin the country” and “destroy the people.” Nonetheless, hundreds of mainly pro-Islamist supporters can be expected to protest against perceived corruption in the Egyptian regime, albeit not in an organized fashion, as known mobilizers of both Islamist and activist camps remain in prison.

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Jan. 29. The meeting happens after weeks of Italian criticism of the European Commission’s alleged obsession with austerity measures, Germany’s leadership of the European Union and the bloc’s erratic reaction to the refugee crisis. Renzi will probably ask for Merkel’s support in his push to win Brussels’ approval of Italy’s budget for 2016, which introduces extra public spending and new tax cuts. Renzi will probably also ask for a greater EU effort in the redistribution of asylum seekers across the continent. But Merkel is facing a political rebellion at home, which reduces her room for maneuver.

French President Francois Hollande travels to India on Jan. 24 for a three-day visit to serve as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chief guest at the annual Republic Day parade. The visit, which highlights the importance of French-Indian bilateral relations, will focus on a host of issues. On defense, the two leaders are expected to advance negotiations on the long-pending $9 billion deal for India to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from France, part of Modi’s $150 billion campaign to modernize the Indian military. Already, French firm DCNS is collaborating with Indian firm Mazagon Dock Ltd. to build Scorpene-class submarines in Mumbai.

On energy, the pair will discuss a plan for French nuclear company AREVA to build six nuclear reactors in western India, though price remains a sticking point, and also advance the 120-nation solar alliance project spearheaded by India during the recent climate change conference in Paris. India plans to invest $30 million to set up the alliance’s headquarters. Additionally, the two will discuss French involvement in Indian “smart cities,” with France having extended a $2 billion line of credit in support of these projects. Finally on security, French soldiers will be marching in the parade alongside their Indian counterparts, the first time any foreign soldiers will have done so, underscoring the importance of bilateral security ties.