Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Southeast European Security: Trends to Watch in 2016, by Ioannis Michaletos

Originally appeared in 1st January 2016

The emerging security trends for 2016 in the greater region indicate the continuation, and even worsening of some situations present in 2015 and previous years. There will also be new trends, and institutional tactical reactions, meant to counter the threats through experience gained in the past year.

Libya: Crisis Continuation covered the disintegrating security situation in Libya, and the threat of ISIS penetration there, in an extensive study back in March 2015. As we predicted then, the situation has since worsened.

Libya has become a sort of typical failed state. Dozens of factions are vying for power, while at the same time the Islamic State is making inroads in places like Sirte and Dernah. Oil production has effectively collapsed, while corrupt officials are removing capital from the country on a massive scale.

Illegal migration is a perennial issue and Libya has been used as a launching pad for an outflow towards Europe for years now- and especially since the death of Moammar Gaddafi created sudden lawlessness and a power vacuum that was readily exploited by human traffickers.

Expect this to grow even more, as local population will seek capital, while Boko Haram and the various Sahel and Maghreb Islamist guerilla groups continue to drive out thousands of civilians. Potential turbulence in Africa could also exacerbate migration, such as civil strife in Burundi, and the impact of low oil prices on Nigeria’s ability to fund social services.

Finally, the Islamic State (which has recently filmed its own ‘Islamic police’ riding around Libyan streets in the usual Toyota trucks) will make its move and establish a “second front” in the Mediterranean. As we have noted, this move has been in preparation for some time. If the terror group succeeds in establishing any kind of presence in Indonesia (as Australian security officials have recently warned), the North Caucasus or Central Asia, the proliferation of fronts will become a real headache for security services worldwide.

A Further Migration Wave- and Preparations for Long-Term Derivative Industries

The huge refugee and migrant flow that is essentially a re-allocation of Middle Easterners and other non-Europeans into the EU is gathering pace, even as countries are trying to put a brake on it.

With the European bloc slowly getting into motion, more EU police arriving in Greece, and a robust migration policy in Skopje, expect creative new by-routes to be developed.

Some new arrivals may attempt to travel overland from Greece through Bulgaria or Albania, and the short crossing from the latter to Italy (by speedboat, as in the 1990s) could even be revived. Refugees might even try to travel from Middle Eastern shores directly to the EU via cargo ships or private vessels.

Another creative maritime route could see migrants travel from Turkey to the Black Sea shores of Bulgaria (and even Romania and Ukraine), which would require new smuggling networks to form in those places. We have already seen isolated cases of migrants traveling to Norway via a Russian Arctic border crossing, so it seems clear that despite EU efforts, desperate people will continue to exploit weaknesses in ‘Fortress Europe.’

Migration policy will actually be the litmus test for EU unity and Brussels’ resolve. Libya does not have a unified government to talk to, thus solutions of a solid nature are not expected there. And, even if the Syrian war ends in the upcoming year, that country will take years to rebuild, making life abroad seem advantageous for most people.

Amidst the continuing crisis, expect NGOs to become bolder regarding their ‘right’ to a permanent presence. This is already the case in economically-deprived Greece, a country with unemployment, where hundreds of well-paid jobs offered by international NGOs are now being regularly advertised; and with contract durations of one, two and even three years, this phenomenon clearly shows that the immigrant flow will grow and is of a long-term nature.

Generally speaking, what we are witnessing is the ‘NGO-ization’ of the local economies of certain islands, such as Lesvos. Islands, which depend on tourism and some agriculture, have been hit hard by unpopular tax increases and face the challenge of isolation from the mainland. The big island currently boasts 150 NGOs with more than 1,500 permanent and ad hoc staff, compared to a total local population of merely 90,00 people.

Expect this to grow even more, especially as ‘bad press’ in the outside world keeps tourists from coming to the otherwise quite popular Eastern Aegean islands afflicted by the migration phenomenon. As in 2015, the foreigners you will see there this year will include far more NGO types, conflict journalists and EU specialists than ever before.

Thessaloniki is another major NGO hub, for migrant issues and many other ones too. Greece’s second-largest city has also witnessed a boom in “Syrian tourism,” since Syrian passport holders officially comprised the fifth-largest hotel occupancy by nationality in the city over the past year. However, the powerful NGO Solidarity Now, -financed by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, is reportedly aiming to provide funds for subsidizing housing rental for the Syrians. Local hotel owners surely will not like this, as they will lose profits.

A final aspect that certain EU politicians will relate to migration policy is the provisional plan to give Turkish citizens visa-free travel by October. The debate surrounding this issue will almost certainly include concerns about domestic Turkish issues, as well as security concerns and the relative likelihood that Erdogan would grant passports to potentially large numbers of non-Turks (i.e., Chinese Uyghurs and other ‘ethnic kin’) to build his own power projection goals in Europe.

More Terrorist Attacks and Plots Likely in 2016

Islamic State has obviously made significant inroads in the Western countries, as the attacks in France and the US have highlighted, along with numerous disrupted plots elsewhere. Expect more to come as hardened fighters find a way to return to Europe from the Middle Eastern battlefields, armed with experience, new modus operandi and fanaticism.

New attacks are only a matter of time and as recent history has shown, will primarily be against “soft targets.” We expect that Islamic State will respond to its gradual territorial losses in Syria and Iraq by infiltrating civilian populations, and calling on its supporters abroad to perform acts of ‘revenge’ against the Russian and Western coalitions fighting the group.

In the Balkans Bosnia (where several further arrests recently happened) is in particular danger, while a threat remains in currently fractious Kosovo. Certain areas of Istanbul have been known to shelter ISIS members and, with government forces expected to continue targeting the Kurds in Southeast Turkey, relatively less energy will be spent on confronting Islamic fighters- fighters which the government had anyway been supporting for years.

The Turkish Economy’s Potential Decline, and Implications for the Black Market

Speaking of Turkey and its government, few have mention the extent to which the continuance of a strong economy benefited the AKP, coming to power as it did following a period of hyperinflation and corruption. Election results since, that have been portrayed as an endorsement of Erdogan’s social and religious platform, may actually have more to do with satisfaction at the unprecedented continuous growth of a Western-styled consumption economy until relatively recently.

However, Turkey has managed over the past few years to blow up its relations with all of its neighbors and key trade partners, including Russia, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The “green funds” from Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been decreasing rapidly as the price of hydrocarbons worldwide stays low. The Saudis especially have their own major concerns to deal with (Yemen, dynastic domestic brinkmanship, social welfare costs, and El Sisi’s regime in Egypt, amongst other). Israel has recently made signs that it will resume relations with Turkey, but this cannot replace the losses suffered by the break with Russia. Renewed ties with Israel would also be controversial among Turkish Islamists still angered by memories of the 2010 Mavi Marmaris incident.

While it remains unclear how long the Turkey-Russia cold war will last, we can expect the impact on Turkish agriculture, tourism and other business to be extensive, due to losing the Russian market. Social tensions that have successfully been kept under control during a period of economic growth will come out in the year ahead. Perceptions of instability will also damage Turkey’s tourism industry, and the providers are adjusting (indeed, some Turkish resorts working with travel agencies in Skopje have recently communicated that they will not be offering the usual generous resort packages this summer).

Regarding other exports, Balkan economies are mostly stagnant and too small to strengthen Turkish exports, while the appreciation of the US dollar and the Fed’s interest rates hike makes the future more difficult for Turkey’s economy, as it exports mainly in euros and imports mainly in dollars.

It is uncertain to what extent the black market associated with Islamic State and refugee smuggling will be affected. Turkish farmers in the border areas that had turned to more lucrative, war-related contraband may not be happy to go back to their traditional livelihoods. Damage to informal economic relationships that also were feeding local political control and even intelligence activities, will fuel the need to find different budgetary sources to cover the gaps.

While the state will be happy to take the billions of euros of refugee-related aid from the EU, any true crackdown on migrant smuggling is bound to make the business more violent and lucrative, as those wishing to pass through Turkey will have to pay a much higher price per head. Confronting this threat could open a ‘fourth front’ for the Turkish security apparatus, in addition to fighting the Kurdish PKK, monitoring Russian activity and preventing Islamic State operatives from carrying out domestic attacks. The cumulative result is that Turkey will be more insular and inward-looking in 2016.

Change in Priorities for the Turkish Navy and the Anatolian Curse

The standoff between Ankara and Moscow will make the former review its order of battle in the Black Sea, which anyway is far less covered than it should be, especially when having to deal with a resurgent Russian Navy.

Expect changes that could include a new concentration of the Turkish Navy on Black Sea bases and in monitoring the Bosporus Straits. Of course, the more traffic in the latter increases the chances of accident in a bottleneck already congested with commercial shipping.

Russia’s main naval bases and ports in the Black Sea are at Sevastopol, Kacha, Utes, Novorossiysk, Feodosia, Otradnoe and Yalta. We should also not forget that since November 2014, Russia has enjoyed a bilateral military cooperation deal with Georgia’s breakaway republic, Abkhazia. The latter’s small naval forces are based at the western Black Sea ports of Sukhumi, Ochamchira and Pitsunda.

On the southern side of the sea, Turkey’s main naval bases are fewer and less dispersed, at Bartın, Samsun, Trabzon and Erdemir. Turkey is not used to looking to its northern seas as an area of threat but the current impasse with Russia will cause military planners to turn their attention there, at least for assessment purposes.

This could then lead to a changed balance of powers in the Aegean, with Greece perhaps even enjoying an advantage in that theater. This will in fact become a particularly ‘European’ theater, considering the new deployment of Frontex personnel in the Greek islands and waters.

This means that any provocations or confrontations with Turkey will be instantly known to Brussels and EU member states. Creating a situation with such conditions was the thinking behind Defense Minister Kammenos’ comments in May, that Greece should host a new NATO base in the eastern Aegean. The Frontex deployment will perhaps work even better, since Turkey is not an EU member and cannot claim any right to participate, though it might try in the case of a NATO base on its flank.

Indeed, the disastrous Turkish foreign policy of the last five years has come back to haunt it, in the same way that such cases have damaged the strength of previous powers controlling Anatolia. The strategic subcontinent has always been the subject of great interest from neighboring and outside powers.

In Anatolia, the capacity for use of force (rather than actual use of force) on any border is what sustains the perceived strength of any government controlling it. But any creation of enemies, or breakdown of order on multiple fronts simultaneously, has historically been a recipe for trouble. Turkey is now in one of those historical periods marked by simultaneous vulnerabilities on several Anatolian fronts, and this could increase the potential for its leaders to act erratically or out of paranoia.

The Chinese Are Coming

The introduction of the Chinese Yuan into the IMF’s reserves (at the substantial amount of 11%), along with the gradual increase of European and Chinese investments and trade, will bring about an expansion of the Chinese banking system in the EU.

Most likely the entry point will be the Balkans where already Chinese entities have been settled for years and forging ties in Serbia, Romania, Albania, Greece and Turkey. Business loans in Yuan will become a possibility in 2016.

It is true that the Chinese perceive the Balkans less as a series of states than as a unified energy and transport corridor. But they also have security concerns. As the US and Japan continue to pressure China militarily in its own backyard, look for China to develop more bilateral military deals in Southeast Europe in return.

The expansion of Islamic State eastward is also going to increase Chinese terrorism fears, with the Uyghur Turks particularly of interest. However great its technological capacities might be, Chinese HUMINT capacities in the region are at a very low level. Whether or not the Chinese decide to expend more resources in this direction will be determined by their business investment interests and security concerns.

Political Drama in Balkan Countries and Likely Results of International Involvement

Leaving aside the special case of Turkey, Greece and most Balkan states all have, for economic, political or social reasons, tendencies toward periodic political upheaval. Premature elections, changes in government and turbulent early elections can be safely predicted.

In 2016, expect an increasingly strong presence (politically, diplomatically, and through media and NGO proxies) of Western countries in influencing such regional dramas. The insistence on a criminal court in Kosovo was one foreign-sponsored endeavor of 2015 leading to persistent internal divisions, and the debate over NATO membership in Montenegro has already caused recent protests. These are far from the only countries where Western interests are involved.

However, these powers generally fail to understand local realities, regarding events through their own lenses. This can cause distortions and lead to wrong assessments. For example, Russia’s intervention in Syria and the migrant crisis are two potent, big-picture factors that will cause paranoid, disproportionate policy reactions and failed implementation in 2016: it will be remembered as the year in which the concept of ‘hard soft power’ was put to the ultimate test, and failed.

We expect that manifestations of this approach will fail to comprehensively ‘obtain the desired result’ in certain cases. This could lead to more extreme incidents, such as proxy attacks and even assassinations of political leaders, causing widespread public anger and destabilization.

The Return of HUMINT

The counter-terrorism challenges of today include the surveillance of previously unknown terrorism suspects, and the general need to constantly assess the upheaval all across the MENA region. These exigencies will undoubtedly provide the impetus for the re-introduction of long-range HUMINT operations by most intelligence service providers.

The geographic dispersal of the major issues, such as the migrant routes and war zones, means that coverage is needed at all points in a rapidly-changing environment. This trend is most likely in the Middle East and the Mediterranean- and especially North Africa, where HUMINT is completely lacking in terms of surveillance of jihadist groups.

Also, the fact that Europe has taken in over one million migrants, whose identities are hardly known, is both a gold mine for technology firms and a challenge for intelligence services lacking capacity and communications with partners that could make proper verifications, considering the current state of the Middle East and North Africa.

All information available to supports the conclusion that, since the migrant crisis began in spring 2015, countries all along the route have failed to either collect accurate and detailed data about migrants passing through, or to communicate it properly with other European countries (which can also be criticized for making little effort to obtain the relevant information).

The topical and geographic nature of this challenge also lends itself to a network based approach, which will be handled, increasingly discreetly, through ‘grassroots’ social media networks, ‘independent’ NGOs and other entities with dedicated, HUMINT coverage across the nodes.

The return of HUMINT will also be abetted by the current state of alarm over SIGINT vulnerabilities, including the emerging challenge of the need to differentiate identical SIGINT source data for hostile activities purposes. Above all, there are even cases of self-inflicted damage to internal processes at the highest levels of technology (for example, the recent debacle of an alleged NSA backdoor in Juniper Networks hardware, that puts the most sensitive US government agencies at risk).

Further, in the Balkan theater, historically marked by political upheaval and infighting, HUMINT will become a particularly important focus. It is a ‘rebuilding year’ for several of the big players, who have seen their existing networks compromised or uprooted completely in the past year due to failed actions. However, the general decline in professionalism witnessed over the past five to 10 years means that new, up-and-coming networks will exhibit more clownishness than covert mastery in today’s ‘golden age’ of renewed Cold War espionage.

Nevertheless, regardless of their capabilities and orientation, expect big players to make major efforts to outwit one another in the field, with considerable collateral damage likely and, quite possibly, spectacular public failures in 2016.