The World Today for March 26, 2018

NEED TO KNOW

TURKEY

Operation Standoff

Two months after Turkey launched a ground offensive against Kurdish strongholds in northern Syria, it claimed victory over Afrin, a western province that had been squarely under Kurdish control.

But as Turkey continues to flex its muscles in Syria, pushing across the Kurdish corridor along its border to eliminate fighters it deems terrorists, it runs the risk of engaging US troops entrenched with Kurdish fighters – and threatens to shatter its already fragile relationship with America.

A laundry list of issues divides Washington and Ankara even as the two governments provide crucial crutches to one another in the region, Foreign Policy says.

While American officials condemn Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s power grab after 2016’s failed coup attempt against him, Turkey blames the United States for sparking unrest in the first place by housing the spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, suspected of orchestrating the mutiny. On Friday, Turkey began rounding up some 150 alleged followers of the cleric in a fresh crackdown, Reuters reported, while on Sunday Erdogan said Turkey had begun operations in Iraq’s Sinjar region, which was previously occupied by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the agency said.

That makes for a tricky situation. Turkey’s military and economic power provides the US with a strategic foothold in the region between the Middle East and Europe. Alienating Ankara could mean driving it into the arms of Tehran or Moscow. Moreover, Turkey relies on the US, as a NATO ally, to prop it up against Russian and Iranian jockeying in the region.

Turkish and American involvement in the Syrian civil war, however, is threatening this delicate balancing act.

The US has thrown its weight behind a motley crew of rebel forces, including the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia. During the zenith of Islamic State’s prominence in Syria, the YPG proved to be one of the most effective fighting forces against the jihadists, Al Jazeera reported.

Equipped with American weaponry and backed by American drone strikes, the YPG largely drove Islamic State out of Syria’s north, and Kurdish political forces attempted to bring peoples of the liberated regions together under an autonomous, Kurdish-led state, Vox reported.

But Turkey sees Syrian Kurdish forces as an offshoot of the outlawed PKK, which has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984, Middle East Eye writes. Ankara launched a ground offensive, Operation Olive Branch, in January to quash the Kurdish separatist movement once and for all, a move largely condemned by Western powers.

Now that Afrin has fallen, Turkey has pledged to push its forces east across the corridor to Manbij – where American troops are stationed.

Before his departure, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had attempted to forge a deal on Manbij, which Ankara claims it wants to return to residents, many of whom have fled to camps in Turkey, Al-Monitor reported.

The US has dismissed the offensive – and says no deal has been reached – as Manbij is crucial in its fight against Islamic State.

Now the US is left with a difficult choice, Middle East Eye writes: Betray the Kurds and prompt a withdrawal from Syria that could leave a power vacuum, or risk sparring with a fellow NATO ally.

WANT TO KNOW

SPAIN

Freedom Fighters and Criminals

Exiled former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, wanted in Spain on charges of sparking rebellion, was apprehended by German authorities Sunday, sparking protests in Catalonia and drawing Berlin into a European Union territorial dispute, the New York Times reported.

Puigdemont was arrested by highway patrol in Germany on his way from Finland back to Belgium, where his lawyer later said he was planning to deliver himself to Belgian authorities. Just days before, Spain had reactivated a European warrant for Puigdemont’s and other leaders’ arrests in connection with the Catalan secessionist movement.

Massive protests broke out in Catalonia when the news came through, with as many as 55,000 in Barcelona taking to the streets chanting “Freedom for the political prisoners,” the BBC reported.

Puigdemont’s arrest only added to the tensions that have embroiled the country since Madrid declared October’s independence referendum illegal – on Friday, the latest candidate jockeying to replace Puigdemont, Jordi Turull, was arrested on similar charges as his would-be predecessor.

Puigdemont will appear in German court today to establish his identity and determine if the slate of charges facing him in Spain have German equivalents that warrant extradition, adding yet another layer to what’s becoming a pan-European judicial quagmire – other Catalan separatist leaders have fanned out across Europe to avoid prosecution in Spain.

SAUDI ARABIA

Productive Purchases

Saudi Arabia claimed to have intercepted seven missiles launched into its territory by Houthi rebels fighting Saudi-backed forces in neighboring Yemen.

If confirmed, the alleged strike would be the rebels’ boldest attack on Saudi Arabia since the kingdom began bombing Houthi targets in Yemen three years ago, the New York Times reported. The Saudi Air Force shot the incoming projectiles down with Patriot missiles supplied by the US – even as President Donald Trump urges Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to buy more American weapons.

A Saudi military spokesman said three of the missiles were directed at Riyadh and the others were fired toward the southwest cities of Khamis Mushait, Najran and Jazan near the Yemen border.

The Houthis, who are supported by Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran, have previously fired missiles into Saudi Arabia several times. Washington and Riyadh accuse Tehran of violating a United Nations arms embargo to supply the rebels, while Amnesty International has accused Saudi Arabia of strikes on civilian targets that could amount to war crimes.

RUSSIA

A Deadly Blaze

A deadly blaze at a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo has killed 64 people in one of the deadliest fires the nation has seen since the break up of the Soviet Union, Reuters reported.

Though Russian emergency services say that the fire, which began Sunday afternoon, has been extinguished, first responders are still having difficulties reaching the compound’s top floors because the building’s roof collapsed. Over a dozen people are still unaccounted for.

Russian television footage showed those caught in the blaze trying to break through emergency exits and jumping out of windows to escape. Witnesses recount that the building’s fire alarms failed to sound off, even as smoke engulfed the top floor of the shopping center where a children’s ice-rink, playground and a movie theater are located, the Guardian reported, citing Russian news agencies.

Authorities have taken four individuals into custody for questioning, including outlet owners, though it remains unclear what exactly started the blaze.

DISCOVERIES

Robo-Dog

In a telling story of the effects of digitization, even scarecrows are now losing their jobs to robots.

Japanese manufacturers have developed a menacing robotic “wolf” to protect their crops from other wild animals, Newsweek reported.

The aptly named “Super Monster Wolf” stands about 20 inches tall and comes equipped with red LED eyes, fake fur, a nightmarish rubber mask and a spine-chilling howl.

The robot is solar powered and capable of patrolling more than a half mile of farmland. It uses motion sensors to detect animal movement and can emit 18 different sounds, such as gunshots and human voices.

After a trial run in the rice and chestnut fields of Japan’s Chiba prefecture, the robot proved to be effective in deterring wild boars and deer. It’s expected to hit the market in late September – with a price tag of about $4,850 at recent exchange rates.

Some speculate that grazing beasts might eventually become accustomed to the robotic menace, but manufacturers say there’s little chance of that happening.

Click here to see the terror of the farmlands.

CLARIFICATION: In Friday’s NEED TO KNOW section, we failed to mention in our “Bombs on the Beach” item that Mexican authorities had ruled out terrorists and criminal gangs as suspects in last month’s ferry blast in Playa del Carmen. We apologize for the oversight.

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