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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief

China

  • WSJ opinion editor thinks that Hong Kong authorities may be provoking protesters into violating overly restrictive rules on where they can demonstrate today, as possible “pretext for a crackdown.” The op-ed is good—pasted below.

Afghanistan

  • A suicide bomber killed at least 63 people in a crowded wedding hall in a Shia section of Kabul. The Taliban denied responsibility, and the fact that it targeted Shias made it sound more like an IS attack. IS, of course, cares less about optics and civilian casualties than the Taliban right now, so it won’t bother them that many of the dead were women and children.

Sudan

  • Sudan’s main opposition coalition and its ruling military council finally signed a formal power-sharing agreement that lays out plans for a transition to a civilian-led government. The deal includes the same terms and timeline we heard when it was still just preliminary: the sovereign council will include five members picked by the military, five picked by the opposition, and one agreed upon by both sides. And a military leader will run the joint council for the first 21 months; then a civilian one will lead for the next 18 months. The deal also includes one term that wasn’t finalized in the initial deal: it calls for an independent investigation into the violent crackdown on protests in Khartoum.
  • However, women—who were well represented (perhaps even overrepresented vs. their share of the population) in the protests that led to both Pres. Al Bashir’s ouster and this new deal—feel left out. They want 40-50% representation in government, as opposed to the current rate of ~30%, and want at least one woman on the council (which doesn’t look likely).

Iraq

  • Iraq is now requiring U.S. military officials to ask for their approval before flying in Iraqi airspace—even if doing so during operations against IS. I don’t think Iraq has the same problem as Afghanistan and Pakistan of government officials alerting terrorists to imminent operations against them—or at least not to the same degree—but this will still substantially slow down U.S. coalition response times.

Yemen

  • The Houthis claimed a ten-drone attack on the Saudi Shaybah oilfield, which is one of the most distant drone strikes they’ve made to date (it’s over 1,000 miles from Houthi territory). Saudi confirmed a fire at Shaybah, and the Energy Minister said it was the result of a drone strike.

U.S.

  • Defense News had a good article on the strategic attraction of Greenland to the U.S.—even though it’s now clear that Greenland isn’t for sale, and Pres. Trump’s question that started this whole discussion was probably just a case of thinking out loud. Pasted below.

Other News

  • Police violently cracked down on Zimbabweans peacefully protesting their still-dire economic situation, under the logic that the protests were illegal, since a court had ruled against them. Both sides of that—the fact that the economy is still bad enough to warrant protests, and the violent crackdown on demonstrators—show that things haven’t gotten much better under Pres. Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson “the Crocodile” Mnangawa.
  • RFE/RL says the Kremlin is basically just ignoring all the bad news happening in Russia lately—from the nuclear missile accident, to deadly wildfires, to weekly protests (and crackdowns) in Moscow. Pres. Putin’s spokesman told the AP that Putin hasn’t commented on the protests because he doesn’t think they’re significant enough to deserve comment; Putin instead went on a submersible field trip to visit a submarine that sank during the Great Patriotic War.

Hong Kong Authorities Seem to Want an Ugly Sunday (WSJ)

Police make it impossible to hold a protest that is both lawful and large. Is it a pretext for a crackdown?

This will be the 11th weekend of protests, and the pro-democracy activists want Saturday’s demonstration to be peaceful and nonviolent. But Hong Kong police appear to be setting the stage for chaos and confrontation. Will it serve as a pretense for a crackdown?

Hong Kong’s Basic Law guarantees “freedom of association, of assembly, of procession, and of demonstration,” but those rights aren’t absolute. Among other limitations, authorities can restrict assemblies deemed to jeopardize public order. Organizers must provide the government advance notice of any protest, and the police can impose conditions or refuse to allow it to proceed.

The police on Thursday approved a Sunday protest at Victoria Park. But they denied a permit for a 2.3-mile march to Chater Road in Hong Kong’s Central district. An appeals panel, whose members are appointed by the Beijing-backed chief executive, upheld the denial Friday night—a decision that puts all who participate in Sunday’s protest at greater risk of arrest and police violence.

The problem is that Victoria Park can accommodate only 100,000 or so people, according to police estimates. But the Civil Human Rights Front, which is organizing the demonstration, anticipates a far larger turnout. When the front organized a June 9 protest, more than one million participated, and a follow-up march a week later drew more than two million.

Protesters who spill outside Victoria Park will cross a legal gulf. At the very least, they’d be vulnerable to charges of unauthorized assembly. If three or more engage in “disorderly, intimidating, insulting or provocative” conduct that inspires reasonable fear, they can be charged with unlawful assembly. Penalties for both offenses range from fines to five years in prison. And if protesters escalate an unlawful assembly by threatening or committing violence or property damage, they could face 10 years behind bars for rioting.

Property damage under the law can be as minimal as ripping up a poster. For moving traffic barriers, some protesters have been accused of “threatening personal injury” against the police. And a participant could be accused of “violence” for batting away a cop’s hand while being pepper-sprayed, says Randy Shek, a barrister who has represented more than 50 protesters. Moreover, participants don’t personally have to commit vandalism, violence or a threat to be charged with rioting; it’s enough if they supported or encouraged the riot.

Since early June, the police have arrested more than 700 people in connection with the demonstrations. The authorities have taken an increasingly broad view of what constitutes participation in an unlawful assembly or riot, says Chris Ng, another lawyer representing protesters. A few days ago in the Tin Shui Wai district, officers arrested several people wearing plain clothes—not the black outfits, hard hats and masks that are the de facto protest uniform—including a 15-year-old girl. Most were out on bail within a few hours, and a conviction would be difficult to secure, but there’s little accountability when police make unjustified arrests, Mr. Ng said. He explained that the police “have largely increased the risk of attending a march or a public assembly, even if you are a bystander.” That creates a “chilling effect on normal citizens and protesters.”

The police have refused to authorize other protests this summer. But Sunday’s demonstration may prove a turning point. The government has failed to meet any of the protesters’ demands, so some have resorted to disorderly conduct and vandalism of official property. On Tuesday, as protesters occupied and shut down the Hong Kong International Airport, some crossed another boundary when they violently detained two men they suspected of being government infiltrators. Protesters have since apologized, but the incident damaged the movement’s peaceful reputation. Sunday’s protest is an attempt to restore it.

“By emphasizing peacefulness and nonviolence, we hope that the focus can be back on our legitimate 5 demands, [and] that all the people including elderly, disabled, even children can join us,” Bonnie Leung Wing-man of the Civil Human Rights Front, told me in a WhatsApp message. “With large turnout, we can show to the world that this campaign is still supported by many Hongkongers and will impose pressure to HK government and Beijing.”

But police have now made it impossible to hold an assembly that is both large and authorized. They may be seeking to deprive the protest movement of momentum by heightening the legal risk and intimidating Hong Kongers into staying home. Or perhaps their intent is to use the lack of a permit as an excuse for mass arrests or police violence.

“Preventing people from participating in a peaceful march will only make Hong Kong people more angry,” Mr. Ng said. “Those protesters will still take to the streets to do what they do. They are depriving Hong Kong people’s right for peaceful demonstration.”

Greenland’s not for sale, but it is strategically important (Defense News)

The internet was abuzz Thursday evening following a report by the Wall Street Journal that President Donald Trump has expressed interest in buying Greenland. By Friday, it had become clear Greenland has no interest in selling, but jokes about penguins, polar bears and climate change kept flying.

But while the idea seemed custom built for the Twitter mockery cycle, the U.S. does have vital national security interests in Greenland, a semi-autonomous part of Denmark — and the region is attracting attention from competitor China as well.

Under a self-rule act passed in 2009, Greenland has control over its domestic infrastructure or economic policy issues, but Denmark maintains veto power on security issues. Even if Denmark was interested in selling Greenland — and it appears they are not — it is likely the government in Nuuk could block it.

However, the U.S. doesn’t really need all of Greenland for strategic reasons, because of the basing agreements it already has, including one of the U.S. military’s most important strategic tracking systems.

Located on the northwestern coast of Greenland, Thule Air Base is the U.S. military’s northernmost base and the only installation north of the Arctic Circle. It is home to the 12th Space Warning Squadron, a cadre of Air Force officers and enlisted personnel that provide 24/7 missile warning and space surveillance using a massive AN/FPS-132 radar.

Thule’s position on the globe and its radar’s 240 degrees of coverage — which projects over the Arctic Ocean and Russia’s northern coast — make it an ideal location to track intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellites in low-Earth orbit, including polar orbit satellites.

Besides being a critical site for missile defense and space situational awareness, Thule hosts the Defense Department’s northernmost deep-water seaport and airfield. Those assets would come into play in any sort of military conflict in the arctic, giving the Pentagon forward- basing options if needed.

It’s not just America who acknowledges the strategic importance of Greenland, either. Look no further than China, which has repeatedly attempted to gain infrastructure on the island.

In 2016, a Chinese company attempted to buy a former U.S. military base in Greenland, and the government in Denmark stepped in, vetoing the deal. At the time, Danish officials were quoted anonymously in the press, saying they had resisted the deal as a favor to its longtime American ally.

Then in 2018, a Chinese government-owned firm was announced as a likely winner for a contract to build a new airport. The 3.6 billion Danish krone (U.S. $560 million) contract would have given China major economic power over the local government, and decision makers in both Washington and Copenhagen worried it could lead to the U.S. being pushed out of Thule – or give Beijing a ready-made airport that could accommodate Chinese military planes in case of a conflict.

Eventually Copenhagen and Nuuk reached an agreement, with generous financial support from Denmark’s coffers, to pick a different contractor. But it is likely that China will continue to push for entry into Greenland, underlining its strategic importance once again.