World War 5
Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido seems, unfortunately, poised to jump into the headlines as East Asia's next flashpoint for Great Power confrontation. When North Korea fired a missile over Japan last month, it was this northern island that the rocket passed over. Buried deep in the New York Times account of the incident is the fact that in addition to the routine annual US-South Korean military exercises then underway along the DMZ, "The United States has also been conducting joint exercises with Japanese forces for the past two weeks." And specifically (the Times didn't note) on Hokkaido. The Diplomat informs us that the exercises were dubbed Northern Viper and involved Japan Self-Defense Forces troops and US Marines operating out of Misawa Air Base, the northernmost US base in Japan, just across Tsugaru Strait from Hokkaido on the northern tip of Honshu. The USMC boasts that the exercises were unprecedented, marking the first joint US-Japanese maneuvers on Hokkaido.
Days after again vowing that Ankara will not tolerate a Kurdish state in Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has deployed additional artillery and tanks along the border, signaling an imminent offensive to take the Kurdish-held contested enclave of Afrin. This could be the start of a wider Turkish offensive—reportedly to be dubbed "Euphrates Sword"—to reduce or expunge the Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava and establish a Turkish "buffer zone" in Syria north. Ominously, China's Xinhua news agency reports that Russia has meanwhile mobilized troops to Afrin, to back up the Kurdish militia that controls the enclave, the People's Protection Units (YPG). The independent Kurdish wesbite Rudaw also reports that Russian "military observers" have been deployed to Afrin and neighboring al-Shahba to "maintain security"—raising the threat of direct Russo-Turkish military confrontation.
Russia announced that it is preparing to deploy troops to police the borders of planned "de-escalation zones" in Syria after finalizing an agreement with Turkey and Iran. The word came from Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentyev following the latest round of ongoing talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana. (Reuters, July 4) We've noted that the so-called "de-escalation zones" or "safe zones" could become kill zones, where Russia and Assad will be able to bomb with (even greater) impunity—as they will officially not be "safe" for ISIS, and Moscow and Damascus have long used the propaganda trick of conflating all rebel forces with ISIS. Now, with the US also sending ground troops to join the forces fighting ISIS, American and Russian soliders could find themselves in close proximity, with greater of odds of ending up shooting at each other—potentially leading to unparalleled catastrophe.
Fierce clashes broke out between Syrian rebel factions and Kurdish fighters in Aleppo province this week, as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continue to battle ISIS in Raqqa. Fighting erupted in Derat Ezza in the western Aleppo countryside on June 13, after Kurdish fighters attempted to take a rebel base in the area, opposition media reported. The assault was thwarted after the rebels regained the positions with support from Turkish artillery. At least 32 fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and other rebel groups were reported killed in the clashes, as well as dozens of Kurdish militants. (The New Arab, June 14)
This week's unnerving incident in which US jets intercepted two Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska leaves us wondering how to read events. Russia sent the two "nuclear-capable" bombers to within 100 miles of Kodiak Island April 17, prompting the US to scramble two F-22 stealth fighter jets from Elmendorf Air Force Base. The US and Russian craft were side-by-side for a full 12 minutes, until they crossed out of the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). (The Telegraph, April 18) This came as ExxonMobil was seeking a waiver from US sanctions against Russia to move ahead with its Black Sea venture with Rosneft. The decision rested with the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), while Secretary of State (and ex-Exxon CEO) Rex Tillerson is officially recusing himself from any matters involving the company for two years. Still, it is counterintuitive (at least) that OFAC turned down the waiver April 21. (NYT, April 21; Fox Business, April 19)
An apparent chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun, Idlib governorate, left at least 80 dead April 4. After a bombing of the town, medics reported a "bloodless massacre," saying that they were treating people with symptoms including fainting, vomiting and foaming at the mouth. The hospital where gas-attack victims were being treated was itself bombed in the immediate aftermath, "bringing down rubble on top of medics as they worked," according to AFP. The opposition-run Health Department in Idlib has provided a list of the names of some 70 dead, with more still being identified. Some of the victims were brought across the border to Turkey for treatment, where several died. Turkish authorities say autopsies revealed evidence of exposure to sarin. The UN Security Council immediately called emergency talks on the attack. On April 4, US warships in the Mediterranean launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air-base outside Homs, from where the Khan Shaykhun attack is said to have been launched. This constituted the first US attack on an Assad regime target throughout the course of the war (not counting last year's accident, immediately apologized for). (CNN, CNN, Jurist, BBC News, NYT, NPR)
Well, this is some very telling—and deeply disturbing—timing. Let's review what has happened in the one day since Mike Flynn resigned as National Security Advisor over his pre-election phone calls with the Russian ambassador. Trump, having heretofore been completely acquiescing in Putin's illegal annexation of Crimea, now tweets: "Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?" On the very day of Flynn's resignation, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said: "President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to deescalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea." (Russia's Foreign Ministry quickly responded, no dice: "Crimea is part of the Russian Federation.") Also that fateful day, the Pentagon said that multiple Russian military aircraft buzzed a US Navy destroyer in the flashpoint Black Sea, in "unsafe and unprofessional" maneuvers. This is said to have happened last week, but it is notable that it is only reported now. Russia of course denies it. (RFE/RL)
President Trump said Jan. 25 that he "will absolutely do safe zones in Syria" for those displaced by violence, and a leaked draft of his impending executive order apparently directs the State Department and Pentagon to present a plan to him within 90 days. But this was presented in explicitly xenophobic terms—not humanitarian. In making the announcement, he dissed Europe's leaders for taking in Syrian refugees. Trump said that Germany and other European countries made a "tremendous mistake by allowing these millions of people... I don't want that to happen here." (LAT, Reuters)