Saturday, May 13, 2017

N Korea Test-Fires Missile, Challenging New Leader In South, U.S. And Turkey On Collision Course In Syria

North Korea test launches ballistic missile, Seoul confirms

North Korea on Sunday test-launched a ballistic missile that flew about 700 kilometers (435 miles), South Korea’s military said, a possible response to the election four days ago of a new South Korean president and as US, Japanese and European militaries gather for war games in the Pacific.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed the early morning launch but had few other details, including what type of ballistic missile was fired. A statement said that the missile was fired from near Kusong City, in North Phyongan province, and that the South Korean and US militaries are analyzing the details.

Outsiders will be especially interested in what kind of projectile was fired. While North Korea regularly tests shorter-range missiles, it is also working to master the technology needed to field nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the US mainland.

Whatever the type of missile, the launch forces the new South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in, to put dealing with Pyongyang, at least for now, above the domestic economic agenda he'd made a priority during his early days in office.

Moon, a liberal who favors a softer approach to the North than his conservative predecessors, called an emergency national security meeting Sunday, but he didn't immediately make any statement on the launch.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missile flew about 800 kilometers (500 miles) from a launch site on North Korea's western coast for about 30 minutes and landed in the Sea of Japan, but not inside Japan's exclusive economic zone. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters Sunday that the launch, which is banned by the United Nations, is "absolutely unacceptable" and that Japan will respond resolutely.

America’s relationship with Turkey has entered a period of deep crisis. At the heart of the matter is continued U.S. support for Syrian Kurds fighting the Islamic State. The partnership between the United States and a coalition of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Arab militias, currently known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began more than two years ago under President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump’s administration continues to back the 50,000-strong SDF as the most capable anti-Islamic State force in northern Syria. The SDF are now closing in on Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State’s self-described caliphate, and Trump has approved a plan to provide arms directly to the YPG for the final push. Yet Turkey sees the SDF as mortal enemies due to the YPG’s affiliation with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization which has fought a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for three decades. These clashing interests have put Washington and Ankara on a collision course just as the U.S.-led campaign to crush the caliphate enters its culminating phase.

Turkey’s concerns about the YPG are understandable and widely appreciated. What is less well known is the fact that it was Turkey’s own actions, in particular a set of decisions made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that stymied joint U.S.-Turkey efforts to identify an alternative anti-Islamic State force. This pushed the United States and the YPG closer together and eventually created the SDF. And, with Raqqa in their sights, the Trump administration is unlikely to abandon them now.

Erdogan has warned that Turkey will continue to strike the YPG unless the United States abandons its partnership with them, even as Turkey has thrown its support behind a Russian proposal to create “de-escalation zones” to freeze the conflict elsewhere in Syria. One Erdogan advisor even hinted that U.S. forces could be struck if they continue to back the Syrian Kurds. If Turkey follows through with these threats, it could trigger a Turkey-Kurd border war that derails the Raqqa campaign, undermining a core national security interest of the United States. And, if a military mistake by Turkey results in the death of U.S. forces, it could bring Washington and Ankara — two NATO allies — into direct conflict.

When Erdogan travels to Washington next week, American support for the Syrian Kurds will be the top issue he raises with Trump. Erdogan is likely to urge Trump to cancel his decision to arm the YPG and look for other alternatives to take Raqqa — moves Trump is unlikely to take. Does that mean the two NATO allies are fated for an irreparable breach? No. But it does mean that, between now and then, the administration needs to develop a comprehensive plan to ease tensions, before it is too late. The campaign to defeat the Islamic State and the future of the U.S.-Turkey alliance hang in the balance.

Christians are leaving the Middle East in record numbers, driven out by terrorism by the Islamic State and laws in countries the U.S. considers allies. By 2025, Christians are expected to comprise a mere 3 percent of the population in the Middle East, whereas they represented 13.6 percent a century ago.
A series of suicide bomb attacks on Palm Sunday during church services last month in Egypt, which killed at least 45 people, was just the latest in a pattern of violence against Christians in the area, according to The Wall Street Journal in an article published Friday. The exodus is raising alarm the region will become a haven for radical groups.
Islam remains the primary religion in the Middle East, with rival sects often clashing, giving way to fears the violent trend will continue. And, laws in some countries discriminate against Christians, denying them the right to government jobs or even to rebuild churches.

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