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CWA # 173, 19 October 2019

The World this Week
Turkey's Syrian Offensive, Spain's Catalonia Crisis, a new Brexit Deal and an increasing divide in Hong Kong

  GP Team

This edition of TWTW focusses on the following four issues: Turkey's decision to halt to its offensive in Syria, the return of violence in Spain over Catalonia, a new Brexit deal from Boris Johnson and an increasing divide amongst the protesters in Hong Kong

Nidhi Dalal, Rashmi Ramesh, Sourina Bej and Harini Madhusudhan

International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP), NIAS

 

Turkey's Offensive in Syria

What happened?

This week, Turkey agreed to halt its offensive for five days in northern Syria, following the meeting between the US Vice President Mike Pence and President Erdogan. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters would pull back from the 20-mile' safe zone'. 

Erdogan will meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin next week. This is important after the Russian troops were invited by the SDF to defend against the Turkish forces. The SDF, in a reversal, has also requested the Syrian forces to help them. 

What is the background?

Turkey has launched an offensive against the Kurds dominated region in Syria. The latter was an essential link in the SDF-led coalition forces and an important ally of the US in their war against the ISIS. They are spread across Iraq, Syria and Turkey. 

Recently, Trump made a sudden announcement to pull out the US troops from Syria. Immediately Turkey has launched an offensive across the Turkey-Syria border, targeting the Kurdish forces in Syria. Fighter jets and tanks were used to bombard in the name operations against terrorists. Turkey's objective is to create a safe zone along the Syrian border.

Turkey has been facing Kurd separatism within its territory for long. There were a series of terrorist attacks by the Kurd separatists in the cities of Ankara and Istanbul. Turkey believes that the Kurds within its territory have cross-border linkages with Syria. Turkey has nearly 17 provinces with 20 million Kurdish inhabitants. Turkey also aims to create a 'safe zone' in the region so as to concentrate Kurdish opposition in the least amount of territory, and mostly out of its sovereign boundaries. 

Europe and the US have condemned the offensive launched by the US.

What does this mean?

Turkey's offensive is likely to destabilize the region and negate the successes against the ISIS during recent years. According to reports, the ISIS fighters who were kept in captive escaped, due to Turkey's bombing. The ISIS could bounce back.

Second, Russia will become the biggest benefactor of Turkey's offensive. With the US pulling out, it provides a space for Moscow to shape the region to suit its interests. However, it would not be a comfortable balance for Russia; it has to work with both Syria and Turkey, and in the process also achieve its objectives.

Third, Trump's sudden pullout is bound to impinge on the US credibility in the region. The US could have phased out its withdrawal with a definite time table. 

Finally, the Kurdish question in the region is likely to return and gain greater salience. With their presence across three countries – Turkey, Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish question is likely to pose a bigger challenge to this region.

 

Spain: The trouble in Catalonia

What happened?

Following a Court verdict on the separatists, Catalonia has been witnessing widespread violence during this week. Protest marches in support of Catalonia's independence have turned violent, leading to clashes. There were massive clashes and stone-pelting at Plaça Urquinaona, forcing the police to fire rubber bullets, shell teargas and use water cannons. 

Though the Catalan President and the Parliament support the cause, they condemned the violence and urged the protestors to restrain from vandalism. 

What is the background?

The call for independence in Catalonia within Spain has been brewing during recent years. They claim an independent history, language and culture that is distinct from the Spanish. There have been sporadic protests on the taxation system, especially the distribution of financial resources, where Catalonia is "made" to pay for the development of more impoverished regions of Spain. 

There have been annual rallies reinforcing the cause of independence in Barcelona. 2017 was a tipping point when the Catalan Parliament passed a resolution for independence. 

The present round of violence is related to detentions made during 2017 protests. Nine separatist leaders who were arrested then, have been sentenced to prison by the Spanish Supreme Court. 

What does it mean?

The Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has stated that, though Spain provides the right to dissent and express differing perspectives, violence is unacceptable. The priority for the government now is to maintain its territorial integrity and put an end to the violence. There are indications that the government would activate Article 155 of the Constitution that would allow it to take direct control of Catalonia by suspending the regional government. 

In the wake of upcoming elections, the right-wing opposition is pressurizing the government for more stringent actions against separatism. There have been incidents of right-wing supporters clashing with the pro-independence Catalans in Barcelona. 

There are similarities between the two movements in Catalonia and Hong Kong relating to techniques, slogans, the use of social media, and the airport blockade. Will the Catalonian dissent be able to sustain like the Hong Kong protests, or will it bite the dust, as it did in 2017? 

 

The New Brexit Deal: Will Boris Johnson meet the same fate as Theresa May?

What happened? 

After weeks of negotiations between the European Union and the British government, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has struck a new deal detailing the nature of the UK's relationship with the EU after its scheduled departure from the bloc on 31 October. The British members of Parliament are expected to vote on the proposals of the new deal in a special parliamentary session on 19 October giving Johnson the last opportunity to pass a deal before the Brexit deadline or walk Britain out of the bloc without a deal. 

What is the background?

The new Brexit deal followed two significant events. First, before the EU-UK summit on 17 October, Johnson met the Irish leader Leo Varadhkar to gain his consensus on an exclusive deal with Northern Ireland and the backstop agreement. Secondly, as the Parliament resumed session this week, the mandatory Queen's speech at the beginning set the tone by putting the Brexit deal on the top of the priority list for the parliamentarians. Criticized for being a Tory driven agenda, the speech and the convention to look up to the Royal family created a favourable ground for Johnson to negotiate with the EU for a deal. 

The new Brexit deal significantly removes the Irish border bottlenecks. The EU and the Irish government wants to ensure that the border remains open and unobstructed, in line with the 1998 Good Friday peace settlement. As post-Brexit customs and tariffs come into effect between the UK and the EU, Northern Ireland would act as a border check for goods entering EU member Ireland. Northern Ireland would not only remain in the single market of the EU but also within the customs of the UK. Additionally, the backstop agreement will be further removed paving the way for Ireland to remain within the EU economic structure.  

What does it mean?

The impact of the new Brexit deal for UK and Northern Ireland are several. 

First, very little distinguishes Johnson's new deal from that of his predecessor Theresa May. Most of the exit agreement is the same as May to what Boris Johnson is proposing. The terms on the financial settlement, treatment of EU citizens in the UK and the British citizens in the EU remains the same. This has invited sharp criticism again from the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. What differs substantially is the economic status of Northern Ireland post-Brexit and, specifically, how to manage the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be managed. 

Second, with the changed status of Northern Ireland, the position of Johnson's current Conservative-led government with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been complicated. The ten votes in the House of Commons that is needed to pass legislation by Johnson comes from the support of the DUP. If DUP adamantly remains opposed to the new deal then passing the new deal in the special parliamentary session will fail. Despite being a pro-Brexit party, DUP has historically opposed to any attempt by the UK to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK. The new Brexit deal does just that. 

Third, the deal aimed to remove the backstop. The EU initially proposed a Northern Ireland-only backstop in February 2018 that was rejected by May and offered the UK-wide backstop as an alternative. This was in turn rejected by pro-Brexit members of Parliament three times, including Johnson himself. However, the new deal seems to go back to the EU's initial offers and mirrors a Northern Ireland only backstop with few adjusts like keeping Northern Ireland with the UK economic framework to appease the DUP. At the DUP conference in 2018, Johnson was adamant in saying no British prime minister could ever accept a customs and administrative borders in the Irish Sea. The new deal a year later seems to do the opposite. 

Last, in all the stages of Brexit negotiations, the focus has been on the withdrawal and not on the importance of a free trade agreement. The long term economic impact of the withdrawal has been less discussed. The government's long-term economic analysis in November 2018 identifies a potential scenario akin to Johnson's as costing the UK 6.7% of its GDP by 2034. This would be one of the major deterrents and topic of discussion in the parliamentary debate. 

Will the new Brexit deal pass the floor test in the Parliament? The struggles of convincing an orthodox DUP remains and if the deal is rejected, the attention will turn to whether Johnson will ask the EU for a Brexit delay. The Benn Act blocks Britain leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October but Johnson and the EU remain fixed on exiting on 31 October date, deal or no deal.

 

Hong Kong Violence: A divide within

What happened? 

A homemade bomb was detonated for the first time during the months of protests. There are clear indications of an escalation of the rift between the protesters and the police at the street level. Suryanto Chin-chiu, a superintendent of the Hong Kong police's explosives disposal unit, said at a news conference, that the device was hidden in a bush and was triggered using a mobile phone near Mong Kok district of Kowloon. 

A group of moderates have been voicing out that the violent turn of events may jeopardize the support to the pro-democracy movement, both at home and overseas. The pro-democracy legislators repeatedly hackled Carrie Lam for two consecutive days, after which the Legislative Council meeting was adjourned. Lam's policy speech at the Council, her chance at winning back the hearts of the people after four months of protests, became a point of criticism. For the detractors, it is offering little as a substantive political solution. 

What is the background?

The protests in Hong Kong have entered the fourth month, and there seems to be no end in sight for a solution or an end to it. There is a clear divide within in using violence as a means. There is fear among the moderates that the government in Hong Kong may use the violence as an excuse to postpone the local elections that are scheduled in November. 

At the Legislative Council meeting, Carrie Lam focused on the economic aspects. She promised increased housing and land supply; un-attractive offer in a city that has the least affordable property markets. When it came to political concessions and the demands by the protesters, she said, progress can be made only when the protests end. Both Cam and Beijing have held that Hong Kong's freedoms are being protected and have dismissed the demands of the protesters.

What does it mean?

The first sign of frustrations among the protesters, against their own and visibility of the divide among the protesters, is a sign that the protests are entering an important phase. Several reports and surveys show that youngsters who are willing to fight on the streets and willing to face the bullets at the frontline do not have their family support. The protesters seem to have disagreements on the level of violence that needs to be used. The protests could fall apart, If Beijing and Lam were to wait it out a few more weeks. 

However, the failure of Carrie Lam's government to grab the attention of their citizens during the speech at the Legislative Council is an indication that none of them knows what to do at this point. 

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