May 20 - 27
This Week: Hezbollah bets on peace talks, North Korea steals a boat, and bombings in Niger.
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for May 20 − 27!
Note: This week’s dispatch is a bit short because it’s a holiday.
The Lebanese group Hezbollah has made good on its earlier promises to become more involved in the Syrian civil war, supporting the Syrian Army’s recent assault on Qusayr, a rebel-held city used for transporting supplies. After several days of fighting, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah declared the group’s full commitment to the fight to save the Assad regime in Syria. The group’s increased involvement in the civil war is spreading the conflict into Lebanon; minor street battles have raged all week in the north of that country, and a pair of rockets that hit Beirut were blamed on Syrian rebels.
Hezbollah relies on Iran for weapons, money, and supplies. The Assad regime in Syria has been the main conduit for Iranian support; if Assad falls, Hezbollah’s access to its patron will be severely curtailed. The peace talks, on the other hand, offer a better outcome, since any peace agreement will wind up preserving at least some of the current regime’s power. How much power Assad retains depends on how strong his hand is at the negotiating table - in other words, how much territory he still holds. If Hezbollah can help Assad take back parts of the country before negotiations begin, they may be able to preserve their current support network. In that case, Hezbollah’s support for the regime will pay dividends for the group, both by maintaining its current resource pipeline and by buying favor with both the Assad regime and the Syrian military.
The US has hesitated to arm the rebels because of the extremist groups among them. The fear is that weapons could wind up in the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated groups, or worse yet, a rebel victory could provide a safe-haven for extremists. That’s a possibility. On the other hand, if the Assad regime survives, Hezbollah, a group that the US has declared a terrorist organization which does Iran’s dirty work, might get a huge boost in its operational capabilities, as well as a vast new territory to operate from.
The Chinese press revealed on May 19 that a Chinese fishing vessel was seized by North Korea on May 5. The Chinese report said North Korean authorities had asked for $98,000 in ransom. A day after the seizure was made public, the boat was returned; the owner said he did not pay the ransom. On May 22, North Korean Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae made a visit to China, the highest-ranking North Korean official to do so since Kim Jong-Un came to power in 2011. The meeting was apparently not a social call: China repeatedly emphasized its desire for a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula and apparently instructed the DPRK to resume multilateral talks with South Korea and the west.
The fishing boat incident is bizarre: the piddly amount of ransom demanded and the huge likelihood of blowback from the Chinese indicates it was a rogue DRPK naval group, not an officially sanctioned action. China’s handled these seizures before with relative quiet, but the Kim regime’s stock in China is pretty low right now. The North Koreans have enshrined nuclear weapons in their constitution – it is literally against DPRK law to end its nuclear program − so denuclearization talks aren’t likely to be productive. China’s made it clear, though, that the last couple months’ rhetoric and instability are not to its liking, and forcing the North back to the table would be a huge embarrassment for the regime, even if the talks don’t go anywhere. My guess is China is also banking on what happens if the regime falls: nuclear weapons make what’s already a bunch of messy scenarios much, much worse.
On Tuesday, suicide bombers struck a military base and a French-owned uranium mine in the northern part of Niger. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, an islamist group which had been fighting in Mali, claimed responsibility. A day later, Mokthar Belmokhtar, a militant whose group attacked an Algerian gas refinery in January, also claimed responsibility.
This is the first major terrorist attack in Niger. The targets and the groups responsible leave little doubt this is spillover from Mali (itself spillover from Libya, as a Nigerien official pointed out). The attack in Algeria, the campaign in Mali, several attacks in Libya, and now the attacks in Niger show the geographic range of the groups. The militant groups are not particularly capable - a French force of a couple thousand was capable of routing them from Mali. Unfortunately, the African militaries intended to replace the French aren’t terribly capable either. Even in the two attacks in Niger, the Nigerien army apparently required reinforcement by French special forces to repel the militants. This doesn’t bode well for France’s attempts to withdraw from the region, nor the territorial integrity of the countries affected.
Thanks for reading, and my best for the week ahead!