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inFOCUS Quarterly

Fall 2015

Twenty-Five Years Since the First Gulf War


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Turkey Downs Russian Jet Near Syrian Border

A Turkish F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 with an air-to-air missiles on Tuesday near the Syrian border with Turkey. Turkish officials claimed the plane had violated the country's airspace, but the Russian government has disputed the claim, strongly condemning Syria's northern neighbor.

Ankara released a statement saying the the an unidentified aircraft flew over the town of Yaylidag, in southeastern Hatay Province, a small part of Turkish territory protruding into into Syria. Turkey contends it's actions were "in line with the military rules of engagement" and that the "plane was warned 10 times in the space of five minutes before it was shot down." Officials also released a map tracking the flight path of the Russian jet over Turkey.

The Russian jet in flames after being hit by an air-to-air missile. (Photo: EPA)

Both pilots in the Russian plane ejected before their fighter jet hit the ground. However, local rebels in the area shot and killed both men, according to reports from a Turkmen militia in the area, which posted a video online of one of the airman's body. Meanwhile, there are also unconfirmed reports of a Russian helicopter dispatched to rescue the pilots also being shot down with a TOW anti-tank missile, commonly supplied by the U.S.

Russian leaders have reacted angrily to Turkey's actions, but have also appeared somewhat uncoordinated in their public response. President Vladimir Putin described the incident as, "a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists," with Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov saying he will cancel a visit to Istanbul scheduled for next week. The Russian government also issued a statement advising its citizens not to holiday in Turkey, but claimed it was due to unnamed terrorist threats.

When asked about the situation at a press conference in Washington, President Obama said that Turkey has a right to defend its territory. He admitted that he did not have all the facts about the shoot down, but urge de-escalation on both sides. Ultimately, the President lamented that such confrontation highlighted the need for a political solution to the conflict.

At the request of Turkish officials, Western officials are expected to hold a NATO meeting to discuss the recent developments. The defense alliance warned Russia last month that its operations violated Turkish airspace after multiple overflights of the same area. But as long Russia strikes non-ISIS rebels fighting the Asad regime, tension will likely continue.

By Michael Johnson  |  November 24, 2015 at 1:35 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Palestinian Terrorists Kill Five in Israel

Palestinian terrorism targeting Israelis entered its third month this week with a series of attacks that took the lives of five people on Thursday. The death toll marked the bloodiest day since unrest began on September 14th.

The first attack occurred midday at a makeshift prayer room near Ben Zvi street in Tel Aviv, killing two Israelis. One of the victims, Aharon Yesiab, was a rabbi from the area, while the identity of the other victim, 20, has not been released. According to The Times of Israel, police suspect a 36-year-old Palestinian man stabbed the worshipers as their service began. Authorities have not released the name of the man who held a permit to work at a nearby restaurant, but the IDF subsequently raided his Hebron home.

Hours later a Palestinian man shot and killed three people, including a young American student, close to the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut in Etzion. The 24-year-old man, later identified as Mohammed Abdel Basset al-Kharoub, then rammed his car into another vehicle nearby before security personnel arrested him.

Israeli authorities stand guard at the scene of a Palestinian terror attack on Thursday in the West Bank. (Photo: Tomer Applebaum)

Thursday's violence, and the shooting of a father and son last Friday, has raised the Israeli death toll from Palestinian terror to 17 since October 1st, according to officials. Many of the attacks either took place around Hebron or had perpetrators originating from the West Bank city, thus becoming a flashpoint for rioting and other forms of unrest. Haaretz reported that 40% of the 500 arrests that Israeli forces made in the West Bank in the last two months have come from the area. The close proximity of IDF troops protecting settlements to Arabs has promoted greater friction between Israeli and Palestinian populations, but also provided easy opportunities for attackers to target Jews.

Another analyst quoted in the New York Times points to Hebron's more conservative culture, saying the city poses a threat to the region's stability more than any other place in the West Bank. Hamas has already made deep inroads politically into the area too, through their social media apparatus and organization of terror cells. Besides facilitating attacks against Jews from the city, the group has also challenged President Abbas's Palestinian Authority for influence over day-to-day security.

By Michael Johnson  |  November 19, 2015 at 3:36 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Kurdish Fighters Recapture Sinjar

Kurdish fighters made a successful push to recapture Sinjar this week, freeing the Iraqi city from Islamic State. The Yazidi minority living in the area hope that the advance of Peshmerga forces will finally conclude Islamic State's reign of terror, which has costs thousands of lives over the past 15 months.

With the backing of coalition airstrikes, 7,500 Kurdish troops, including elements of the PKK, and Yazidi militias began a two-day battle for the city on Wednesday. According to local reporters embedded with the Peshmerga, they quickly overwhelmed the approximately 600 IS fighters inside the town.

A Kurdish soldier looks at a building damaged during fighting in Sinjar. (Photo: AP)

Pockets of resistance remained on Friday, even after Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish autonomous region in Northern Iraq, declared victory. IS fighters left behind traps and roadside bombs as they left the city, while extensive shelling and airstrikes have also turned parts of the town to rubble.

After Islamic State's advance on the city in August 2014, up to 200,000 Iraqis left fearing for their lives, including up to 50,000 people, mostly Yazidis, who rushed up Sinjar Mountain. Surrounded by IS, and without food, water, or proper shelter, the U.S. government intervened, concerned over the potential for genocide. Coalition airstrikes and an exit route cleared by Kurdish fighters helped those trapped leave the mountain, but the town below remained under IS control.

Ultimately, the effects of 15 months of Islamic State atrocities has wreaked havoc on the Yazidis, destroying and displacing communities that date back hundreds of years. Sinjar's liberation comes after Islamic State committed what U.S. Holocaust Museum scholars called genocide against the minority population. Over 3,000 Yazidi women have been captured by the group and are used as sex slaves, abused, or imprisoned. Human Rights Watch estimates that the terror group committed targeted killings of 3,000 to 5,000 non-combatants who were members of religious minorities. Other human rights organizations continue to investigate reports of mass graves in the area.

By Michael Johnson  |  November 13, 2015 at 11:56 am  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

German Bank Fined For Iran Sanctions Violations

American financial regulators announced on Wednesday they had reached a settlement with Deutsche Bank worth $258 million for violating U.S. sanctions between 1999 and 2006. The penalty comes as Congress considers new measures that could allow the victims of terrorism to earn compensation from such fines.

Germany's largest bank processed 27,200 transactions worth $10.9 billion using "non-transparent methods and practices" to hide or remove information about the countries involved in the money transfers, U.S. officials said. The method allowed customers, including Iran, Syria, Libya and Sudan, to subsequently avoid scrutiny from officials at the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). An investigation showed the practice was widespread and not unique to a specific department. One bank manager described it as a "lucrative" business.

Deutsch Bank headquarters in Germany. (Photo: AFP) (Photo: Sylvan Lane).

According to the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS), Deutsche Bank also agreed to fire six employees and appoint an independent monitor to oversee certain operations. Some of the employees responsible for the deception already left the company. NYDFS will receive $200 million, with $58 million going to the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Other major European banks have recently faced similar penalties for processing business transactions on behalf of blacklisted governments. Last month, French firm Credit Agricole agreed to pay $787 million to regulators for violating sanctions by illicitly transferring $32 billion through its New York branch between 2003 and 2008. In 2014, BNP Paribas pled guilty in court and agreed to pay a $9 billion fine for violating the Trading with the Enemy Act and other statutes when it engaged with embargoed countries, including Iran. Commerzbank, Credit Suisse, HSBC, Barclays, and Standard Chartered have all paid fines over the past few years in response to similar allegations, while investigations into Societe Generale and UniCredit remain ongoing.

Also on Wednesday, a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee held hearings on how Congress could ensure compensation for the victims of terrorism, specifically Iranian and Palestinian facilitated attacks. Attorneys and victims' advocates testified that legislators should enact laws that would earmark funds from sanctions violation fees to those affected by terrorism. Other options include attaching a rider that would automatically be added to future settlements with firms that evade sanctions on regimes that sponsor terrorism. Iran owes $45 billion to the victims of terrorism and their family plaintiffs from court-awarded damages in 86 cases. But with the release of some frozen assets enshrined in the recent Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Americans affected by officially sanctioned violence still wonder how they will ever be compensated for their pain and losses.

By Michael Johnson  |  November 5, 2015 at 3:12 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

German Defense Minister Meets Kurdish Leaders

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen met with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani on Tuesday, during her second official visit to Northern Iraq. While in Erbil, the Defense Minister promised continued humanitarian and military support for the war against Islamic State.

At a news conference, Leyen praised the head of the largely autonomous Kurdish region saying that, "In one year, the trust between two sides has grown dramatically." The German government has been a strong backer of the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters with the Defense Minister wanting to "hear exactly what is still needed" to support local allies.

Defense Minister Leyen visiting Peshmerga fighters. (Photo DPA)

So far 95 German soldiers deployed to Iraq have helped to train over 4,700 Peshmerga since 2014. Berlin also supplied 1,800 tons of weapons including 20,000 assault rifles and approximately 1,000 anti-tank missiles, with total aid worth $143 million. The Kurds also hope to receive 2,000 masks and 3,000 uniforms for their fighters.

For their part, the Germans hope that an investment in Kurdish fighters will push back Islamic State territory and return contested areas to more stable governance. In doing so, Peshmerga advances would partly alleviate the tide of refugees fleeing the region into Europe, many of whom seek asylum in Germany. The Defense Minister also meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, urging unity among the country's different religious and political factions as an "important factor in the fight against IS" and to alleviate conflict in the region.

With a high level German visit to Iraqi-Kurdistan, and close military ties with the U.S. exemplified during a recent joint ground operation against a Islamic State detention facility, the Kurds have demonstrated themselves to be one of the most reliable Western allies in the region.

By Michael Johnson  |  October 28, 2015 at 3:37 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Emboldened Syrian President Visits Moscow

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad made an unannounced trip to Moscow on Tuesday, visiting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders discussed the Kremlin's military intervention in Syria amid their alliance's growing momentum against rebel forces and ISIS.

The Presidents held three rounds of talks during Asad's short tour of the Kremlin, including an "intimate" discussion on a common vision and values, according analysts on Syrian state TV. While a spokesperson for President Putin declined to comment on any specific outcome of the meeting, the two leaders reiterated their position that the Russian military operations were legal, and aimed solely at terrorists elements and maintaining Syria's territorial integrity.

President Asad will likely benefit more from the meeting than Russia's leader, exhibiting newfound confidence and added legitimacy in his first public trip abroad since the civil war started in 2011. The visit shows Asad's importance, but also suggests that Moscow may have become a more important patron than the Ayatollahs in Tehran. The Kremlin indicated it would back the Syrian president's participation in any political discussion of a long-off political transition, strengthening his diplomatic hand over rebels and the West calling for such an agreement to include his removal from power.

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday in Moscow. (Photo: AP)

Back in Syria, Moscow has deployed approximately 50 jets and helicopters in Latakia, Syria protected by a contingent of Russian marines. The force has flown over 700 missions against 690 targets this month. Russian military trainers are also advising the Syrian military on troop deployments, helping the regime to shift the inertia of battle in their favor over recent weeks. With assistance from Russian air cover, Syrian ground forces have advanced in areas not held by the government in over a year. Troops have recaptured communities southwest of Aleppo, while the surge of fighting prompted an estimated 35,000 people to flee the area, according to aid agencies.

While Russia's immediate goal is to win militarily in Syria and prop up a regional ally, leaders in Moscow are also playing the long game. Their intervention has enhanced their regional dominance to the detriment of U.S. interests, as both powers vie for influence. In line with such goals, Putin has meet with other Middle East leaders in the past few months including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. All three have been traditional allies for the U.S., however, they are showing an increased willingness to engage with a regime that is sanctioned by the Washington amid America's perceived weakness in the region.

By Michael Johnson  |  October 21, 2015 at 1:59 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Kosovo and Serbia Sign New Accord

With help from EU moderators, Serbian and Kosovar negotiators have reached a new agreement to help de-escalate tensions between the two Balkan states. Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and its northern neighbor hope further political and trade normalization could eventually lead to closer ties with the EU.

The new agreement covers a variety of topics including energy and telecommunications. Kosovo, previously a southern province of Serbia, will receive its own telephone country code. The decision implies some level of sovereignty for the breakaway republic, although nothing close to the independence Kosovo wanted recognized. In exchange, ethnic Serb enclaves in northern Kosovo will be given greater legal autonomy and will be able to receive funding directly from Belgrade.

Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic with EU foreign policy head Federica Mogherini (Photo: Council of the EU)

"Today's outcome represents landmark achievements..." said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, whose office facilitated the negotiations. However, talks had been stalled for almost a year in 2014 amid domestic political infighting on both sides.

As part of the Brussels Agreement signed in 2013, both parties formalized outlines for devolution of power from Serbia to Kosovo, without Belgrade's acceptance of Kosovar independence. Last year, as Serbia began accession talks with the EU, negotiation of specific chapters was delayed at the behest of Germany and others due to the slow pace of reconciliation.

Meanwhile, in another step to further the reconciliation process, Kosovo's parliament approved the establishment of a special court earlier this month to investigate war crimes from conflicts in the 1990s. Officials hope the inquiry into alleged unlawful killings and abductions by the Kosovo Liberation Army, a paramilitary force turned political party, is an indication of the Kosovo's improving rule of law.

By Michael Johnson  |  August 27, 2015 at 9:14 am  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

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