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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief

China & Hong Kong

  • 135,000 protesters in Hong Kong linked hands to create a giant human chain and call for direct elections. Their inspiration was The Baltic Way: a demonstration 30 years ago (to the day) in which two million Baltic citizens joined hands to protest against the Soviet Union’s rule.
  • Demonstrations continue this weekend: protesters holding an anti-government rally, and planning a separate event aimed at blocking access to the airport.
  • War On The Rocks published an informative “primer on China’s People’s Armed Police,” who could be deployed in Hong Kong if / when China intervenes. Pasted below.
  • China released Simon Cheng, the UK consular worker who was detained after traveling to Shenzhen 15 days ago. 15 days is the standard detention time for the vague category of non-criminal offense he was accused of committing, so his release now isn’t a big surprise.
  • China announced new 5% and 10% retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion of U.S. goods (coffee, whiskey, soybeans, seafood, crude oil), to go into effect September 1—the same day Pres. Trump’s latest tariff escalation on China takes effect.

Afghanistan

  • Abdul Salam Zaeef, a senior Taliban official, corroborated Western media reports that the U.S.-Taliban deal will be signed in the next few days.
  • In typical Taliban fashion, the imminence of a deal with the U.S. didn’t stop it from attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan: it claimed responsibility for a car bomb targeting U.S. and NATO troops near Bagram in Parwan (there were no casualties).

Venezuela

  • Tarek William Saab, Venezuela’s public prosecutor and a key Maduro ally, whined that sanctions on Maduro and his cronies are making negotiations impossible: “It is a shot in the foot of any negotiation because how can you negotiate with a gun pointed at your head?”
  • There’s been a flood of Venezuelan refugees into Ecuador, ahead of new rules that will require Venezuelans crossing into Ecuador to obtain a visa, starting August 26th. Chile and Peru have similar rules—and saw similar floods of Venezuelans coming in before they took effect.

Libya

  • Bloomberg had a good brief on the status of the Turkish/French/Emirati/Egyptian proxy war in Libya—pasted below.

Iran & Iraq

  • U.S. officials confirmed that Israel was, indeed, behind the airstrikes on a PMF weapons depots in Iraq—just as the Iranian-linked PMF had alleged. That makes it the first known (or probable) Israeli airstrike in Iraq since 1981.
  • Analysts say Israel’s involvement could destabilize the delicate balance of power in Iraq, which has tried to stay neutral amidst Iran’s regional turmoil: if Iraqis start to see Israel as an enemy, they could prop up hardline, pro-Iran factions that want to boot U.S. troops from the country—and region.

DRC

  • The WHO reported cases of Ebola in two new areas of North and South Kivu, and warned of a high risk that the virus will spread further. This outbreak has now killed 1,965 people, though efforts to contain it are proving effective in some areas.
  • On the other side of the country, 8,500 refugees are returning from Angola to the Kasais, where security has improved since they fled in 2017.

DPRK

  • Japan’s coastguard detected a ballistic missile launch from North Korea, and warned ships to stay away from possible debris.

Amazon

  • Pres. Trump tweeted that he’d offered Brazilian Pres. Bolsonaro help fighting the Amazon fires during a phone call they shared yesterday. Critics say that offer will just embolden Bolsonaro, whose policies they blame for setting the economic and environmental conditions that led to the fires.

Other News

  • Ukraine’s Secret Service is investigating how employees of a nuclear power plant were able to link computers on the plant’s internal network to the internet and mine cryptocurrency. They worry the gateway opened to send blockchain data out could also have let hackers in.

THE RE-CONQUERORS OF HONG KONG? A PRIMER ON CHINA’S PEOPLE’S ARMED POLICE (War On The Rocks)

As Hong Kong’s summer of discontent wears on, all eyes are on Beijing’s next moves. On Aug. 12, a state council spokesman warned that the protests were showing “signs of terrorism” and “must be resolutely combated according to law, with no hesitation or mercy.” Videos of Chinese troops parading and conducting anti-riot exercises across the border in Shenzhen have also circulated online, underscoring Beijing’s seriousness and raising the specter of a military intervention. While some observers have speculated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could take the lead, it is more likely that China would deploy the PLA’s paramilitary cousin, the People’s Armed Police. Unlike the more combat-oriented PLA, the People’s Armed Police focuses on social stability missions. Escalation to a 1989 Tiananmen Square-like crackdown is unlikely, but Beijing will still have to carefully weigh the risks of international condemnation or an inadvertent use of force by the People’s Armed Police. Those risks create a high bar for an intervention, even if it is led by paramilitary troops.

A Modernizing Paramilitary Force

The Chinese Communist Party has maintained a paramilitary outfit since the 1920s, but the modern People’s Armed Police took shape under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. In its early years, the force was in a poor state of readiness and modernization. When the Tiananmen crisis erupted in 1989, it was incapable of responding and active PLA troops had to be deployed. Moreover, both Deng and his successor, Jiang Zemin, used the People’s Armed Police as a repository for ex-PLA units and personnel. Deng transferred PLA “economic construction” and law enforcement units such as gold miners and border guards to the People’s Armed Police in the 1980s, while 14 PLA divisions entered the People’s Armed Police ranks a decade later to become mobile contingency units. These transfers contributed to the modernization and streamlining of the PLA, but they also meant that the paramilitary forces were bloated and poorly focused.

The experience of Tiananmen and the rise of local protests across China in the 1990s and 2000s, however, put pressure on the Chinese Communist Party to field a more capable force. This problem was illuminated tragically by the March 2008 protests in Lhasa, Tibet that led to rioting. Over a two-week period, local police and People’s Armed Police units lost control of the situation, restored order through the use of deadly force, and had to be augmented by PLA troops for transportation and other support. The experience in Lhasa indicated that additional changes were necessary, but they were slow in coming.

On Jan. 1, 2018, as part of a major restructuring of the Chinese armed forces carried out under Xi Jinping, the People’s Armed Police was placed under the sole command of the Central Military Commission. Previously, the People’s Armed Police had been under a “dual leadership” system in which it reported both to the commission and to the state council’s Ministry of Public Security. The force itself also underwent significant structural reform. Most visibly, the China Coast Guard was assigned to the People’s Armed Police, and its former economic production and law enforcement units were transferred to civilian ministries or local governments.

The force’s mobile capabilities, which can be deployed to areas beyond where they are stationed, have proliferated. Mobile rapid-response units are found in all the provinces and major cities. For example, Beijing has four, while Xinjiang has five. These units are part of larger Internal Security Force “contingents” roughly the size of a small army corps. While most provinces only have one contingent, Xinjiang has two as well as a newly formed counter-terrorist unit, the Mountain Eagle Commandos, which reflects the fears of Uighur unrest in China’s far west.  Furthermore, in 2018, two large “mobile contingents,” one based in multiple provinces in northern China and one based in the south, were created, replacing the 14 former PLA divisions. These “mobile contingents” also command counter-terrorist, helicopter, and transportation/engineering units.

The increasing mobile capabilities of the People’s Armed Police have been buoyed by more advanced weapons and equipment, such as Z-11WB multi-role light utility helicopters, armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and special operations detachments. They are also supported by a budget that has grown every year. After recent reforms, the force’s total strength is unknown but may be somewhere around 1 million — half of the size of the PLA.

Bringing in the People’s Armed Police 

While Beijing could elect to deploy PLA forces into Hong Kong, sending in the People’s Armed Police would make more sense: The core mission of the People’s Armed Police centers on domestic stability (another mission is assisting the PLA by maintaining order and guarding key facilities in wartime). Internal security forces have been mobilized on numerous occasions since the 1990s, including in several widely reported incidents in Guangdong province, across the border from Hong Kong. For instance, in 2011 People’s Armed Police units were deployed to respond to a crisis in the village of Wukan, where residents had revolted against the local government due to rampant corruption. (That crisis was resolved only after higher-level officials brokered a deal between the parties.) In addition to conflict-prone areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet, the People’s Armed Police also has a strong presence in and around Beijing, where they can respond to a threat to the capital. Thus, while they would be operating in a new environment, People’s Armed Police units from Guangdong or other parts of the country may have the requisite training and skills to handle widespread civil disturbances in Hong Kong.

By contrast, the PLA is more externally focused. Despite the PLA’s role in the 1989 Tiananmen protests, growing People’s Armed Police capabilities have allowed the PLA to shift more of its attention to regional warfighting and deterrence missions. This combat focus has influenced how PLA units are organized, trained, and equipped, with a strong focus on advanced weapons that have little applicability in domestic unrest situations, and combat-realistic training tied to specific scenarios such as an amphibious assault on Taiwan. PLA ground forces do have some experience dealing with hostile crowds, especially in U.N. peacekeeping missions in places like Mali and South Sudan, but this expertise is more the exception than the rule.

To be sure, the PLA does maintain a Hong Kong garrison of roughly 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers that might also be mobilized to respond. Aside from its limited numbers, a downside is that sending in active duty troops could create a more provocative escalation than sending in the “law enforcement” personnel of the People’s Armed Police. As Dean Cheng noted during protests in 2014, Beijing would be wary of images of “tanks…rolling through downtown Hong Kong,” and fearing a repeat of the Tiananmen crisis, would likely use “alternative means to quell civil disobedience.” The People’s Armed Police, which has specialized training and practical experience in non-lethal riot control, would be an ideal go-to force. Use of the People’s Armed Police would thus operate in a similar way to China’s use of lightly-armed Coast Guard and maritime militia forces to enforce sovereignty claims — both are ways to control escalation.

Centralizing Command

Nevertheless, the People’s Armed Police’s mixed track record raises questions about whether deadly force can be averted in Hong Kong. While violence was avoided in cases like Wukan, in other cases units have been involved in deadly incidents, including the 2008 Tibet clash mentioned earlier. Another case took place in December 2005, when local party officials called on the People’s Armed Police to deal with a riot in Shanwei (also located in Guangdong), resulting in the death of 20 civilian protesters. Such incidents have not only marred China’s international image, but have also raised questions about training and professionalism.

Concerns about the widespread use of force in Hong Kong by the People’s Armed Police, however, are overblown. When lethal force has been used in the past, it’s often been the result of overzealous local officials who lose sight of the big-picture implications of killing civilians. However, this is irrelevant to Hong Kong, since the special administrative region does not have resident People’s Armed Police units. Any such units would have to be sent from the mainland and would likely be centrally managed from the force’s headquarters in Beijing, with Xi and other top elites paying close attention to the situation. (Even in mainland China, Xi has recently restricted the ability of local governments to call on People’s Armed Police units, which reflects the need to more carefully manage incidents.)

Even in chaotic circumstances, it is likely that the People’s Armed Police would follow strict rules of engagement. Any intervention would be closely watched by Hong Kong and international media, and the use of lethal force in any case other than self-defense could result in widespread blame focused on Beijing. This would seriously undermine China’s current narrative, putting the onus for the crisis on radical protesters. Yet another reason to avoid lethal force is that the crisis in Hong Kong, unlike what transpired in 1989, does not pose an existential threat to the regime. Pro-democracy protests have not spread to the mainland, let alone to Beijing, although evidence that the crisis is expanding beyond Hong Kong could be a rationale for intervention.

Risking an Incident

Using the People’s Armed Police to clamp down on Hong Kong protesters would, however, incur some risks for Beijing. One is that depending on the circumstances, deploying the People’s Armed Police could be construed as a major escalation of tensions, even if the decision is justifiable as a law enforcement action. The People’s Armed Police, after all, is a constituent part of China’s armed forces (alongside active and reserve PLA units and the militia), and its personnel use equipment and wear uniforms that can be hard to distinguish from their PLA counterparts. Such a move would gain widespread attention and condemnation, and make the task of reincorporating Hong Kong into the mainland more complicated over the long term. An intervention would also reduce whatever little support for reunification remains in Taiwan and could set the stage for Democratic Progressive Party leader Tsai Ing-wen to win re-election in January 2020.

Another risk is that, while an intervention would be tightly stage-managed by Beijing, there is no guarantee that deaths and serious injuries to protesters would be avoided. Isolated incidents are most likely to occur when the men and women of the People’s Armed Police feel cornered and fear for their own safety. It is worth noting that even the highly trained Hong Kong Police have drawn guns in recent days. Even a single incident could overshadow evidence of professionalism and restraint by the People’s Armed Police. With these risks in mind, a Chinese intervention would probably be the last resort after all other options — relying on local authorities, waging public and clandestine media campaigns from Beijing, and saber-rattling from across the border — have been exhausted.

When the Sun Sets in Libya, Two U.S. Allies Get Down to War (Bloomberg)

On July 26, Libya’s internationally-recognized government announced a brazen air raid on a hangar housing drones deployed in support of rival commander Khalifa Haftar. A day later, his forces said they retaliated with strikes on a military base that sent fireballs into the night sky.

Neither side officially acknowledged the worst-kept secret of the North African state’s civil war: as the opponents face a stalemate on the ground, their backers in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are engaged in an aerial campaign that’s seen them target each other’s unmanned planes in a bid to determine Libya’s future in their favor.

The Tripoli government’s attack on the airfield in Jufra was carried out by Bayraktar aircraft owned and operated by Turkey, according to two Western diplomats and a Libyan official, who all spoke on condition of anonymity. The U.A.E. struck back with Chinese-made Wing Loong drones, according to the two diplomats and an Arab official, targeting Bayraktars located in the coastal city of Misrata. Airstrikes have also destroyed three Ukrainian cargo planes supplying both sides.

Regional and European powers have competed for influence in the oil-rich country for years, but Haftar’s offensive to capture the capital in April sparked an escalation in foreign intervention that has prolonged and deepened the conflict, sidelining United Nations efforts to seek a negotiated peace.

“The fact that these local actors can turn to outside factions is a disincentive for them to come to the table,” said Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They’ve got a stream of weapons” to tap.

The U.S. indicated tentative support for Haftar, who’s based in the eastern city of Benghazi, once his assault was underway and France has quietly supported both sides. But for the most part, Washington, with more pressing priorities elsewhere in the world, has watched as some of its most important Middle East allies battle for dominance in an OPEC state with Africa’s largest oil reserves.

Libya has been under a Security Council arms embargo since 2011, when NATO-backed rebels overthrew Muammar Qaddafi and the country became fractured by infighting, creating a security vacuum that allowed jihadists and people smugglers to flourish.

But the sanctions are among the world’s least enforced. The European Union’s Operation Sophia, originally intended to intercept human trafficking across the Mediterranean and later extended to include the weapons ban, has little chance of intercepting arms shipments.

Turkey’s Agenda

Oded Berkowitz, an Israeli security analyst, said in an interview he’d verified through open source images the deployment in Libya of Russian-made Pantsir surface-to-air missile systems and several types of armored vehicle manufactured by Turkey and the U.A.E.

Ankara’s involvement in the war is partly fueled by commercial interests. It wants to eventually resume work on Libyan construction contracts worth about $18 billion and bolster its strategic clout in the Mediterranean amid a rush to claim offshore oil and gas fields, Turkish officials said in interviews last month.

But Turkey, ruled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK party, also has a political agenda. It backs governments and groups across the Middle East that are anathema to Egypt and the U.A.E., both of which have set out to quash political Islam.

Irksome Allies

Three Turkish government officials as well as executives at Bayraktar, the drone-maker, refused to comment on allegations of arms shipments to Libya. However, Erdogan in June confirmed, without elaborating, that his administration was providing equipment to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based government.

The U.A.E. government didn’t respond to requests for comment. But in July, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said his country supported an end to the hostilities and a return to a political process, Al-Arabiya reported.

In Cairo and Abu Dhabi, Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army are seen as reliable if irksome allies in the fight against Islamists.

The 75-year-old former Qaddafi-era general is seen as a hardheaded commander who seldom listens to advice he dislikes. Yet from his eastern stronghold he helped secure Libya’s frontier with Egypt after routing jihadists who’d overrun several cities and carried out cross-border attacks.

While Haftar controls Libya’s preeminent military force, many supporters foresaw he’d struggle to take Tripoli. Egypt, France, and the U.S. tried to dissuade him, according to diplomats with direct knowledge of events. He ordered the advance anyway while UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was in Libya to prepare for a national reconciliation conference.

An adviser to Haftar, who holds sway over most of Libya’s oil fields, said the general decided to go ahead with the offensive because he didn’t believe Sarraj’s Tripoli government would honor a power-sharing agreement they’d been negotiating.

Taking Tripoli would place him in a better position to control the country’s financial levers, especially the central bank and the National Oil Corp., which Haftar admits has sole jurisdiction over the export of crude, Libya’s economic lifeline.

Alarming Prospect

As his forces remain bogged down at the capital’s gates, with rising casualties and little else to show for the offensive, Haftar may even find his grasp over the east weakening — an alarming prospect for his allies, and the U.S.

Washington wants “the LNA at maximum humiliated but not destroyed, because the reality is they want some form of military actor to have a monopoly on violence or some form of control over the eastern region,” said Emad Badi, a non-resident fellow with the Middle East Institute.

Haftar’s biggest setback came in late June. He’d built a forward operations base at Gharyan, 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Tripoli, which was thought to be impregnable. Forces loyal to Sarraj, backed by Turkey’s drones, blitzed the city in a day. The LNA responded by threatening to target the Turkish planes. It also rounded up a number of the country’s citizens living in Libya’s east, only to release them after Ankara signaled reprisals.

French Team

The LNA left behind a trove of weapons at Gharyan underlining the extent to which the war has become a regional conflict. Photographs released by the Tripoli government showed U.A.E-made Yabhon surveillance drones, Chinese guided-missiles, and American Javelin anti-tank systems abandoned by French operatives.

Sarraj’s government disputed claims by Paris that the Javelin missiles were inoperable and belonged to a French counter-terrorism team, arguing they showed France’s military support for Haftar.

The rising death toll — the conflict has killed more than a thousand people — and stalemate has raised pressure on Haftar. The UN negotiated a temporary truce over this month’s Muslim Eid al-Adha holidays, and a grouping of countries that includes the U.S. called for a more lasting ceasefire and talks. The U.A.E. signed on.

Peace Plans

Egypt has also endorsed a ceasefire, but along lines more favorable to its allies in the east. Arab and Western diplomats directly involved in the talks say international backers on both sides want to end the conflict as it becomes clear no side can easily win.

“A lot of military observers, including in countries that were biased on this side or the other side, came to the conclusion that this is something that is not going to be conclusive in any way,” the UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, said in an interview. “We wasted four months on Libyans believing they can win tomorrow, but now they are more realistic.”