Monthly Risk Spotlight: September

On Call International’s Monthly Risk Spotlight highlights events of heightened importance in assessing risk to travel and operations abroad.

Asia Pacific

Hong Kong: Protests in Hong Kong Show No Sign of Abating: Will China Intervene?

The twelve weeks of protests in Hong Kong are starting to have a significant impact on both business and travel to the Special Administrative region. The current protests began in June to oppose the amendments to a bill that would have allowed the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to the mainland justice system. Since then, despite the suspension of the bill, the protests have grown in size and scope, morphing into a demand for greater democratic rights and constitutional reform. The response of the authorities has been aggressive – at times, police have used high-handed measures further fueling discontent. With both sides unwilling to compromise, actions such as ‘siege’ of the airport and instances of violence are raising investor and business concerns – especially because of the interlinkages between the mainland and Hong Kong city’s financial markets, and in turn, to their link to the global system.

Violent clashes between the protestors and the city police, with the police responding with tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds, have become a common feature of the protests. The protestors have resorted to a variety of actions including blockading police headquarters for 15 hours (June 21), storming the Legislative Council building (July 1), and defacing China’s liaison office in Hong Kong (July 21). On August 12, protestors gathered at the Hong Kong Airport, flooding the terminal buildings leading to flight delays and cancellations. There were also sporadic clashes between the police and demonstrators outside the airport.

The evolved demand of the protestors now makes it difficult for the impasse to be breached. Although the extradition bill that started the protests has since been suspended, the demands of the protestors have evolved to include more extensive democratic rights including Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation, the full withdrawal of the bill, and universal suffrage. The protestors have added other big and small issues along the way – such as opposition to police brutality and demand for the release of those arrested. The protest movement has proved to be nimble and inventive, making innovative use of encrypted social media and using means of disruption meant to inflict maximum inconvenience and garner international attention. Reactions from mainland China have also hardened as the protests have progressed to convey demands that raise existential questions for Beijing.

There have been several concerns raised about a repeat of the Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong, especially as China has massed armed personal carriers and paramilitary anti-terrorist police near Hong Kong’s border. However, President Xi has to weigh the risks – political, diplomatic, and economic – of sending in forces and getting directly involved in Hong Kong. Such an intervention would mean a complete end of the special status of the city, a move not even supported by the staunch pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong and has the potential to increase the support to the protest movement further, triggering a larger pro-independence insurgency that is not likely to end well for anyone. The economy could enter a recession with plummeting stock prices, the flight of mobile capital, and decisions by companies to relocate. Mainland China and Hong Kong markets have deep interdependencies. In the past 30 years, the city’s stock markets have raised around $1 trillion for Chinese state-owned enterprises as well as tech firms. Moreover, it could provide armor to President Trump to deepen the trade war and evoke sanctions from other countries.

However, a further increase in protests could question both the Chinese concept of territorial integrity and the perceived state control. At this point, China is likely to practice ‘psychological warfare’ by creating a specter of intervention without actively intervening and restricting itself to re-enforcing Hong Kong’s struggling police. However, if pushed to the brink, a partial or complete intervention cannot be ruled out,  but it is still the last resort for China. Even without an intervention, tensions and unrest are likely to continue at least in the short term, with trials of protestors, elections, etc. triggering further widespread unrest.

Middle East and North Africa

Syria: The Battle for Idlib Intensifies Pitting Turkey Against Russian Backed Pro-Government Forces

Amidst escalating tensions between all sides in the Idlib province of Syria, President Erdogan is
visiting Moscow in an attempt to bridge the deepening divide in Syria. In the past few weeks, the ‘Greater Idlib’ offensive launched by Russian-backed Damascus forces in April 2019 entered dangerous territory, massing troops north of the strategic Khan Sheikhoon town. This action threatens to cut off the M5 highway, potentially encircling the rebel-held areas and the Turkish outpost at Morek. Along with an increase in aerial bombardments, ground forces are reportedly preparing to over-run rebel-held territories in the buffer zone on the Turkish border.

In September 2018, Iran, Russia, and Turkey agreed on a demilitarization deal (Sochi deal) which had three key elements:

  • Implementation of a demilitarized zone within the rebel-held areas in ‘Greater Idlib’ province of northern Hama, southern Idlib, and northeastern Latakia provinces.
  • Dissolution of the Al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s (HTS) that is running the Syrian Salvation government and withdrawal of all Islamic rebel groups from the demilitarized zone. Also, removal of all heavy weapons was included in the deal.
  • Establishment of the Turkish military observation posts on the rebel side and those belonging to Russia and Iran on the government side. It also included open and unrestricted access to highways M4 and M5 that connect crucial areas, such as Aleppo to Damascus.

However, the offensive launched in April 2019 saw the end of the agreement with both sides blaming the other of violations in the backdrop of heavy firing and shelling on the deconfliction line. It consisted of Syrian and Russian forces undertaking an extended air campaign against the rebel group supported on the ground by the Syrian Arab army. Since then, severe offensive and counteroffensive operations have resulted in several deaths, injuries, and further displacement in the area.

Since the early days of August 2019, the offensive has seen significant advances by the Syrian forces. On August 19, opposition fighters withdrew from Khan Sheikhoun, a key town in Syria’s Idlib province and a stronghold of HTS. Later in the week, Syrian forces reclaimed a cluster of towns lost early in the eight-year war, driving out the last rebel forces from the Hama countryside. The Syrian army is now allegedly preparing to continue their advance towards Maaret al Noman, which along with Khan Sheikhoun, is located on the critical M5 highway and is the key to controlling the rebel-held areas.

These developments have increased tensions with Turkey, who supports some rebel groups in the region, raising concerns in the international community of a broader conflict in the region. On August 19, a Syrian government airstrike targeted a rebel vehicle leading a Turkish military convoy down the main highway to their observation post in Morek. According to Turkey’s Defense Minister, this attack was a breach of the Sochi agreement in 2018. Furthermore, on August 22, Syrian jets reportedly opened harassing fire near Morek. The observation post in Morek is one of the 12 set up by the Turkish army along the frontline between the government forces and HTS and other rebels groups last year. Additionally, if the government forces have succeeded in overtaking the area around Khan Sheikhoun, then they can encircle a rebel-held area to the south, including the Turkish observation post in Morek. Idlib offensive also has the potential to increase Turkey’s burden of Syrian refugees.

Europe and the Central Independent States

Russia: Moscow’s Summer of Discontent Continues

Putin’s Russia is witnessing a summer of protests that are the largest since 2012 and have spurred the authorities into strict action. The protests that started at the end of July after several opposition candidates were barred from contesting local elections have now become a response to the wider political repression of the opposition camp. The reactions of the authorities have ranged from detaining opposition leaders, mass arrests, and to alleging foreign influence, and have further fueled the discontent. While their impact has been significant, it is difficult to say whether they will be able to dent the political status-quo and President Putin’s complete grip on power. However, with President Putin’s declining legitimacy, an increase in the momentum of the protests, at least in the run-up to local elections on September 8, is likely.

The protests, which have now lasted for five weeks, have expanded into a broader critique of political repression. Though a viable political opposition to Putin in Russia still seems unlikely, these protests have weakened the façade of ‘absolute’ control by the Russian state. In addition to the detention of leading opposition figures, more than 2,000 people have been detained, according to monitoring group OVD-Info. The Investigative Committee has opened a criminal case of money laundering against opposition leader Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund. The Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, has ordered a special commission to probe foreign meddling in Russian elections. The Moscow city government has organized two last-minute street carnivals to divert the attention of people from the protests.

However, these measures, the protests and public backlash seem to have made a significant impact. In early summer, Russian authorities withdrew criminal charges against a prominent investigative reporter. On August 13, a Moscow city court canceled a decision by the election commission to bar the opposition candidate, Sergei Mitrokhin, from contesting in Moscow’s city council vote. Further, on August 23, the government released the opposition leader, Navalny, after he spent a month in jail for an unsanctioned protest.

At this stage, it is hard to gauge what the logical conclusion of the protests will be. After the massive turnout on August 10, the opposition has called for a more significant protest on August 31; however, a fight back from the Kremlin is now visible. Post-August 10, continued protests have seen individual protestors holding signs in Moscow to avoid arrest for participating in an unsanctioned gathering. Putin has made it clear that the right to assembly has to be within reasonable limits and this has been used by the police to make widespread arrests. There have also been attempts to neutralize the activities of main opposition leaders. However, a backlash against Putin has been building in the last two years as the Russian economy suffers from low oil prices and international sanctions and is unlikely to abate. In the short term, protests are likely to continue, however, it may be too early to spell the end of Putin’s Russia.

Americas

Recent Mass Shootings in the U.S. Prompt Travel Warnings

After the recent incidents of gun violence (El Paso and Dayton) in the United States, Amnesty International, along with other countries, issued a travel advisory to its citizens against traveling to the USA. Japan, Uruguay, and Venezuela issued advisories stating that the increasing gun violence in the U.S. is a safety concern. The Japanese Consulate labeled the U.S. as a ‘gun society’ – thereby highlighting the urgency of the Japanese citizens to stay alert, especially after the Dayton shooting. Underscoring the severity of the reputational risks that the mass shootings have had on the United States, other countries such as Germany, Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand also issued similar warnings against traveling to the U.S. in the recent years.

In a few cases, such as Venezuela and Uruguay, the issued travel alerts could be considered ‘politically motivated’ as U.S. President Trump has been at the forefront in protesting against the election of Venezuelan President, Maduro. Amidst such political disagreements, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry has urged its citizens to “take extreme precautions or postpone their travels in the face of the proliferation of acts of violence and hate crimes.” Going a step further, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry alluded to El Paso and Dayton incidents and put the entire blame on the Trump Administration for encouraging xenophobia. On the other hand, Uruguay issued warnings to its citizens and advised them not to take their children to parks and to avoid crowded places. The July 2016 Dallas incident involving retaliatory shooting of police officers (after police shootings against black men) prompted the Bahamas to warn its citizens, particularly young men, to travel cautiously in American cities. Amnesty International also stated that one could be targeted in the U.S. based on the person’s gender, race, sexual orientation and ethnic background.

The gun violence in the U.S. has not escaped international notice and there has been an impact on tourism in the short term. For instance, Orlando’s tourism took at least three months to recover after the nightclub shooting in 2016. Also, it took at least a year for Las Vegas tourism rates to pick up after the mass shooting at a 2017 music festival. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel warnings pertaining to terrorism do not deter tourists in the long term – however, such mass shootings do have the potential to decrease tourism in the short term.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Nigeria: Hotbed of Unrest and Violence?

There has been a series of violent attacks against Christians in Nigeria in the last few months.  At least 280 Christians were killed by the Fulani militants between February and April.  Notably, religion is not the only driver of attacks – other ethnic, political and territorial factors have exacerbated the current security situation and contributed to escalating violence. In a brutal campaign in Nigeria, Boko Haram, a militant group, aggregated around 6,000 militants who have attacked schools and villages and have abducted hundreds of people. In July 2019, violent clashes broke out between the security forces and a Shiite Muslim group known as the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) – with more than 3,000 followers with weapons gathering in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. The country is inflicted with violence from several quarters – the community-based clashes, the religion-based conflicts, and the clashes between security forces and protestors.

With increasing violence and falling social indices, the dissent of the citizens against the government is also on the rise. About two months back, Omoyele Sowore, an activist, news organization founder, and former presidential candidate, called for a revolution called the ‘Revolution Now.’ This was meant to protest against the administration’s dismal record on human rights. The other issues that Sowore highlighted were the elections in which President Buhari won the second term, and the increasing corruption and governance failure. However, before executing the nationwide protest in August 2019, he was arrested on the grounds of threatening public safety. Despite Sowore’s arrest, the people carried on with the planned protests on August 5 amid heavy security arrangements. According to local media reports, police have also exercised extreme high-handedness against journalists, including teargassing them directly in the eyes and dragging them on the floor.

The deteriorating security situation and increasing dissent against the government only indicate that the government has failed to deliver its promises of empowerment of 12-million rice farmers, revolutionizing rice farming, alleviation of militancy, and providing electricity. In addition, the government’s attempts of negotiating with the herdsmen and other extremists have not been received favorably by the Nigerian people. There have also been many incidents of security agencies inflicting violent control methods on the citizens of Nigeria, which have left the latter with hardly any choice but to take the situation into their own hands. The Revolution Now has been an outcome of this dissent against the government and security agencies.

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