Cameroon Part Two: Ending the Anglophone crisis

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The two sides fighting in the Anglophone region are entrenched and unwilling to back down. The international community is showing a greater interest in the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon and may actually make a difference.

In the previous blog the Anglophone crisis was introduced and identified as one that is primarily a constitutional one driven by political factors that also have an impact on other concerns the country faces. In this blog, we look at what impact the international community can have in resolving the crisis and what steps the warring parties can take to begin a dialogue.

A major factor benefiting resolution is leverage from outside actors. This is more effective when a party to a conflict has something to lose instead of simply facing moral outrage abroad (leaders worry more about the political situation at home). A promising source of leverage comes from the United States, which has effectively bankrolled and trained Cameroon’s armed forces in their war on Boko Haram. Cameroon’s problems with corruption and questionable elections were overlooked but the US is less inclined to overlook the military’s role in suppressing dissent in the Anglophone region. It is also disinclined to provide training for soldiers that may have been involved in human rights abuses and as a consequence has scaled back its investment. Pressure is also being brought on the government by a coalition of human rights groups, whom have made a submission to the UN Human Rights Council and will be heard in September. Closer to home, the movement of refugees into Nigeria affects Cameroon’s reputation regionally and globally and has focused international attention on the Anglophone crisis. Where previously the likes of the US, UK, Germany, the EU and the UN did not look too far behind the image of a peaceful multi-party democracy, they have slowly become more aware of the problems beneath the image. Quiet French diplomacy didn’t help resolve the situation, multi-lateral diplomacy might: the imprisonment of the opposition leader Maurice Kamto and his supporters in January of 2019 drew attention, as did the arrival of the situation in Cameroon at the doors of the UN Security Council in May. All of this affects aid, of which the EU is the biggest donor. Put bluntly, the government faces significant economic costs as a consequence of the Anglophone crisis on top of the damage to its international reputation.

While the international community and human rights groups have been explicit in their calls for the government to bring the Anglophone crisis to an end they have also censured the separatist armed groups. Criticism of the political leaders and members of the Anglophone movement is more muted as they and their followers have been politically suppressed and incarcerated. According to an International Crisis Group report (cited below) there are differing opinions on issues such as the utility of violence, political solutions (independence/autonomy/ confederation), the use of school strikes, and there are a myriad of political organisations, some linked to armed groups. There is also disagreement on finding solutions to the conflict other than armed struggle as hardliners insist on fighting on and there are small semi-criminal actors reliant on a war economy. A major problem affecting the stance of Anglophone actors is the imprisonment of its leaders in 2017. It is difficult to argue for a conciliatory approach to resolving the conflict when leaders are locked up and the government blocks any attempts at political assembly that might explore ways out of the conflict other than violence. Crucially, local Anglophone actors are seeking solutions to the conflict. Anglophone religious leaders have actively sought to hold an Anglophone General Conference and Women’s groups including the South West and North West Women’s Task Force have emerged. The Women’s groups have not been seen as a threat by the government and have been left alone, although the government has sought to prevent the Anglophone General Conference being held. Western embassies have expressed their support for both women’s groups and the conference. One thing that is certain is the people living in the Anglophone region desperately want the violence and destruction of property to stop.

International actors have less of an influence on the Anglophone side to the conflict. Setting aside their suspicion of the UK (seen as a former colonial power) and France (seen as allied to the government) the relationship between the Anglophones and the international community in general is limited. Human rights organisations have engaged with them and brought attention to their plight but individual countries and multi-national organisations such as the EU and the African Union in particular have been seen as slow to act as the crisis unfolded. This may be remedied to a degree by the more recent international support, which has included aid to the Anglophone region and a more vocal calling to account of the government for its actions there. One of the biggest obstacles to the search for a dialogue is the internal divisions within the Anglophone movement and the consequential lack of unity in approach to the crisis. The government has actually hindered any attempt at an integrated approach from the start through its suppression of protestors and political actors. There are many differing opinions within the movement on what the political solution to the conflict would be and they are not going to be resolved without an internal dialogue. Without this it is nigh on impossible for the first stage of a peace process to be reached: constructive communication between the warring parties. This does not require a grand event with pomp and dignitaries, more a subtle movement of people quietly going about the business of making peace. The fact that both sides have agreed to mediation by the Swiss is a promising sign but it helps if the negotiators arrive having established their stance beforehand.

The Anglophone crisis is a constitutional one that relates directly to how the government manages the political space within Cameroon. Failure to deal with this also impacts on other divisions within the country, notably ethnic and religious divides that have the potential to result in political violence. The resolution of conflict in the Anglophone region, which is inherently political, requires a constitutional solution that will also mitigate ethnic and political tensions over succession once the incumbent President leaves power. The present state of affairs in the political sphere is more likely to exacerbate tensions than mitigate or prevent them. As regards the Anglophone crisis, this has barely reached the point where the adversaries are talking, never mind capable of taking constructive action, but they clearly must do so. Conciliatory measures by both sides are needed to build confidence. The government must cease the political suppression of the Anglophone movement and release political prisoners not involved in violence. This will allow the Anglophone movement to hold its Anglophone General Conference and resolve internal tensions, including that over separatism and federalism. The Anglophone movement would be required to abandon its ‘Ghost Towns’ strategy and school boycotts and commit to the holding of the Anglophone General Conference, at home or abroad. The international community, should actively promote the exploration of a constitutional solution to the Anglophone crisis that will demonstrably improve the political situation in Cameroon as a whole. They should also offer good offices and support for the peace process as it emerges. Socio-economic and political support for the government would be linked directly to political reform.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/central-africa/cameroon/272-crise-anglophone-au-cameroun-comment-arriver-aux-pourparlers

https://peacelab.blog/2019/06/conflict-in-cameroon-eu-and-african-partners-should-not-count-on-france

https://theconversation.com/what-it-would-take-to-break-the-impasse-in-cameroons-deadly-crisis-122134

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-45723211

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/RC-8-2019-0245_EN.html

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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Cameroon Part One: The Anglophone crisis

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In Cameroon, a civil war between an Anglophone region and the Francophone central government shows no sign of abating. In the first of a two-part blog we look at the origins of the conflict and the general situation in Cameroon.

Cameroon’s descent into civil war followed a pattern that is all too familiar.  At the heart of the dispute was language: The Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon are English speaking whereas the majority of the country speaks French. In October 2016 strikes and protests began over the appointment of French-speaking Judges, which were seen as threatening the common law system in the Northwest and Southwest regions. This dovetailed with a general feeling of marginalisation amongst Anglophones. The government responded harshly and in November 2017 teachers joined the strikes. Hundreds of protestors were arrested and the government cracked down further after the lawyers refused to talk until activists were released. The Ambazonia Governing Council was formed and in September 2017 formally declared war on the Cameroonian government. Since then a civil war has raged between armed groups and the Cameroonian armed forces. The political aims of the rebels have shifted from recognition and federalism towards outright independence. The civil war has centred on the self-declared ‘Ambazonia’ region and can roughly be described as a classic insurgency in which the government forces hold territory but are vulnerable to ambush. In 2019 the violence has drifted into Francophone areas.

The impact on the Northwest and Southwest regions, which border Nigeria, has been brutal with thousands killed and up to 100,000 people displaced. Thirty thousand of these fled to neighbouring Nigeria. Both sides have been called to account by human rights groups: the government for its heavy-handed and indiscriminate approach that has seen civilians killed and villages put to the torch; the rebels for their ‘Ghost Town’ strategy and the long-term closure of schools, which are sometimes burned down. Claims and counter-claims abound over the responsibility for kidnappings, village burnings and killings. The emergence of armed groups and the separatist stance of the self-declared Ambazonia Governing Council came about as a consequence of the government’s suppression of political dissent. The escalation in the violence since that time is the responsibility of both sides.

The Anglophone crisis is rooted in a dispute over language as the law and education systems are different to that in the majority French-speaking Cameroon and the minority population speak English. The campaign by lawyers and teachers was linked to that for greater civil and political rights. The government was accused of filling key posts with people trained in the French traditions, thus marginalising the English speaking minority. The Anglophone minority are proud of their traditions and had described the government’s approach as ‘forced assimilation’. For its part, the government is committed to centralised governance and allows governance at the local level provided that it doesn’t conflict with national law. The main political opposition to the dominant Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement is based in the Anglophone region and human rights groups state that political opposition has been suppressed. The reason for the very distinct differences between the Anglophone region and French-speaking Cameroon is European dominance of the region which began with the Portuguese in 1520. The area was first colonised by Germany in 1884 but taken over by the British and French in 1916 and then split between the two in 1919. This created the English speaking Northern and Southern Cameroons and French Cameroon. The latter became independent in 1960 and after a referendum the Northern Cameroons joined Nigeria and the Southern Cameroons joined the Republic of Cameroon. It has not been the happiest of unions but the deterioration into a civil war is a situation that is utterly out of proportion to the dispute that fuels it. This is a conflict that is driven by identity and competing approaches to civil society and politics and not by ethnic differences that abound in other conflicts.

Cameroon is also involved in a war with Boko Haram, a deadly spill over from the insurgency centred on Nigeria’s Borno state. According to the Defence Ministry it has resulted in the deaths of over 2,500 people in Cameroon between 2014 and 2017. It is arguably more of a threat than the Anglophone crisis and Boko Haram’s violence towards civilians has been particularly brutal. Cameroon has reportedly been successful in its multifaceted approach to Boko Haram, which combines counterinsurgency, military operations with Nigeria and the construction of a ‘rehabilitation centre’. The government is heavily dependent on support from the United States in its war on the insurgents and there has been a clear reduction in the terror groups’ activity within Cameroon. This has little impact on the Anglophone crisis, except for diversion of resources northwards.

The civil war is not the only threat to peace in Cameroon but it is the most damaging. There are two further concerns to note, both of which relate to who holds power in the country. The first is an ethnic divide that is reported to have become more prominent since the 2018 elections, which were won by the incumbent President, Paul Biya. He is currently the longest serving leader in Africa. A Bulu-Beti axis currently dominates politics, while the Bamilieke elite dominate the economy and manufacturing. President Biya (of the Bulu-Beti) incarcerated his closest challenger, Maurice Kamto (of the Bamilieke), after he was declared winner of the disputed 2018 election. The second concern is religious: the Muslim minority in the north have backed Biya but will not support a future President from the Bulu-Beti axis or the Bamilieke. They are reported to want one of their own to take the Presidency after Biya. The common thread that connects all the ethnic and religious divisions and ambitions over power with the political violence of the civil war is the question of what happens when the aging Biya eventually leaves power. The conflict in the Anglophone region has laid bare a constitutional crisis within Cameroonian politics that requires resolution less further crises await in the future.

From the above, it can be seen that the origins of the conflict in the Anglophone region are political as opposed to being related to ethnicity or religion. To be more precise, it is a manifestation of a constitutional crisis in which a centralised and inflexible government was unable to respond effectively to socio-political problems and resorted to political suppression. This provided the catalyst for the emergence of armed groups and a self-declared Ambazonia Governing Council that seeks separation from Cameroon. Since then there has been a serious escalation in violence by both sides with severe consequences for the population of the afflicted areas. The international response to the crisis has been sluggish and this is almost certainly due to Cameroon being of little strategic interest to outside powers and the maintenance of a facade of multiparty democracy. This has changed as a result of the Anglophone crisis, which has drawn interest from human rights groups over the impact of the violence on the population in the affected areas and raised questions over how the country is governed. In the next blog we look at what international actors can do to help resolve the crisis and what steps the warring parties can take to begin a dialogue.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://africanarguments.org/2019/08/13/cameroon-crisis-three-deepening-divides/

https://www.dw.com/en/a-new-surge-of-people-fleeing-cameroons-anglophone-regions/a-50186298

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/cameroon-language-french-english-military-africa-ambazonia-a8770396.html

https://jamestown.org/program/boko-harams-backyard-ongoing-battle-cameroon/

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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Syria: The bombardment of Idlib

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The government’s offensive into Idlib has resulted in serious fighting and a humanitarian crisis as Assad’s forces enter the last remaining opposition stronghold.

In 2018 the government offensives that finished off the opposition in Southern Syria led many commentators to conclude that the next target for the regime was the North-western Idlib governorate. This is currently held by a mix of rebel groups but is dominated by the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) who emerged as the strongest after a period of opposition infighting. Despite the warnings of the UN and humanitarian agencies of the potential consequences of a government assault on Idlib the expected offensive failed to materialise. This was partly due to the Sochi agreement that put in place de-escalation zones between the two sides but was dependent on Turkey reining in the likes of HTS (an undertaking obviously prone to disaster). The long delayed offensive began towards the end of April this year. It also affects parts of the Hama and Aleppo governorates.

It is not clear at this time what exactly the plans of the regime are. The ‘Dawn of Idlib’ offensive has begun near the southernmost tip of the opposition territory, leaving movement northwards for both fighters and civilians (evacuation corridors have also been set up). This allows those willing to risk moving into government territory a way out but encourages escape northward and is similar to an approach applied elsewhere, whereby fighters and civilians had the unenviable option of surrender or be bussed out to other opposition territory. The difference in the current offensive is that approximately half of the estimated three million people in Idlib are refugees from previous battles and there is nowhere left in Syria to be bussed to. The battles for the towns and villages in the area represent a last stand for the fighters there and the terrain is rough and mountainous, hence the grindingly slow pace of ‘Dawn of Idlib’, which has seen three ceasefires and a number of opposition counterattacks. Despite this, the government and its allies are clearly winning what is predicted to be a long and drawn out series of battles. Assad’s aim may be limited to regaining control of vital highways, to capturing the city of Idlib (the last under opposition control) or to taking control of the entire province once and for all, driving out those unwilling to submit to his rule. In truth, only Assad and his inner circle know. The aim may actually be to achieve all three and the last would reflect what has gone before with only those willing to submit to his rule left in the country and everyone else as refugees.

The fighting on the ground has been accompanied by artillery and airstrikes on civilian areas that have utilised banned munitions that include cluster bombs, incendiary devices and barrel bombs. Many of the airstrikes are on positions away from the frontlines. The UN estimates that at least 37 schools and 26 healthcare facilities have been damaged or destroyed in the last two months alone, including two in government held areas. An estimated 230,000 people have also fled the area. Of the families displaced by the violence, over half are reported to have children under five or a breastfeeding child. As has been the case in previous battles and offensives, the villages and towns under assault have become unliveable and while the regime cannot be held responsible for all of the damage, its use of indiscriminate weapons are causing a significantly disproportionate amount of it. There have been allegations that airstrikes have deliberately targeted hospital facilities, the GPS coordinates of which are made known to prevent their accidental targeting. It is common knowledge that the use of artillery and airstrikes carries with it the certainty that civilians will be killed and the outcome of every recent major battle for a city has been its destruction, regardless of who has been assaulting it. Examples include Aleppo and Raqqa in Syria, Mosul in Iraq and Sirte in Libya. If any point is to be made, it is not simply that the government and its allies are killing a disproportionate amount of civilians but that they are doing so deliberately and indiscriminately. Moreover, the composition of the similarly brutal fighters that it is combating is in no small part due to the regime having sent them to North-western Syria in the first place.

The above summary of the current situation is not simply intended as a criticism of an openly cruel regime. This would be far too simple given that it has tortured and killed its opponents by the thousands and has unequivocally stated that ‘it is Assad or we burn the country’. Nor should we let it off the hook by acknowledging that what is left of the opposition is dominated by groups such as HTS (an internationally designated terrorist organisation) or others that are flooded with foreign fighters. The humanitarian consequences mirror that of previous occasions in Syria and abroad, becoming an obscene repetition of what has gone before. It is clear that no one is going stop this hell and it does not appear possible that anyone actually can (not excepting that one side could give up, which is not going to happen). The UN has been left calling for both sides to exercise restraint and the UN Security Council is gridlocked as one of its permanent members (Russia) is actively involved in the conflict as an ally of Assad. Intervention may in fact make the situation even worse by prolonging the outcome and increasing the casualties and damage to infrastructure. The best that can be done for now is to mitigate the consequences through humanitarian efforts and putting additional pressure on the combatants to refrain from indiscriminate or deliberate violence against civilians through pressure on their backers. It is also time for the dominance of Russia, Iran and Turkey in negotiations to end as the talks in Astana and Sochi have supplanted the UN-led process as opposed to supplementing it.  The UN’s process had been dominated by a Western agenda that had a predetermined outcome and failed to include the regime and its supporters. It was thus flawed but its replacement by Astana-Sochi merely put the strategic interests of Russia, Iran and Turkey to the fore. Conflict resolution and peacemaking should not be about the strategic interests of outsiders (whoever they may be) but about those of the people directly affected by the conflict. There is still much that can happen in Syria and the outcomes are currently being decided by might and self-interest, to the detriment of all.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/russia-syria-assault-idlib-leaves-500-civilians-dead-190707063546686.html

https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/idlib-crisis-thousands-pregnant-women-and-babies-risk-they-flee-deadly

https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/06/1041001

https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/06/1040791

https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/03/russia/syria-flurry-prohibited-weapons-attacks

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

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Libya: Haftar’s big gamble

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Beginning on the 4th April this year, the conflict in Libya has undergone the most serious escalation since the outbreak of the second civil war in 2014 as its strongest warlord, Khalifa Haftar, began his assault on Tripoli, the internationally recognised capital. The launching of ‘Operation Flood of Dignity’ by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) was met with the mobilisation of Government of National Accord (GNA) forces backing the Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj. An UN-sponsored ‘national dialogue’ conference had been due to take place on the 14th April but has been postponed. The UN Secretary-General had arrived in the capital on the 4th April to prepare for the conference, which the Tobruk based House of Representatives (HoR), the LNA’s political masters, would have joined from a position of strength: Field Marshal Haftar’s forces control the oil fields in the east and have taken a swathe of territory in the south with relative ease. To the surprise of many, he appears to have chosen to pursue a final military solution over diplomacy and a canny, if opportunist, anti-Islamist political stance that has promised to deliver security and stability. This is likely to prove a grave error that delivers neither promise and has torpedoed peacemaking in the near future.

The international response to Haftar’s escalation has been largely negative, even from his allies and supporters. Foreign forces and diplomats have been quickly withdrawn in anticipation that the situation may worsen. Nor is the battle going to plan as initial successes that can be attributed to the suddenness of the offensive have been followed by a sustained counterattack. Haftar’s LNA and Sarraj’s UN-backed GNA are currently punching it out but they are not what can be described as coherent armies when in fact both of them consist of loosely allied militias. Nor are they the only forces active in Libya: the National Salvation Government, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and ISIS are still present (amongst others). In the south, tribesmen and militias hold sway independently (A notable example being the Tuareg). Field Marshal Haftar himself is nominally subject to the HoR, which has promised elections should the LNA actually take Tripoli. Less the observer forget, while the LNA and GNA are holding the most territory, have their own airpower, and each has strong international support also, other actors also have a major influence. The two big hitters are conspicuously vulnerable to fracture due to their dependence on militias and tribes, which are truly loyal only to themselves and will only work under the auspices of either of the LNA and GNA as long as it benefits them and their people. The politics of Libya are hideously complex, and in the wake of the first Libyan civil war the influence of the militias on a political spectrum that included liberals, nationalists and Islamists undermined attempts to form a representative Libyan government.

Whatever the reasons for the assault on Tripoli, whether it is a genuine attempt to take the capital or a half-baked attempt to influence the UN conference, the outcome is that the conference has been postponed and the conflict has re-escalated. A battle for Tripoli is an entirely different prospect to that of advancing across southern Libya and leaves the LNA exposed in the areas it currently holds. In an alarming development ISIS attacked the central town of Fuqaha on April 9th. The UN has consistently held the position that only a political solution will end the current conflict, although its impartiality is undermined to some degree by its backing of the Tripoli based GNA.  As is usually the case, both the GNA and LNA have influential foreign backers (the GNA’s include Qatar, Turkey and Italy, the LNA’s include Egypt, the UAE and France), some providing military equipment that includes warplanes, others financial, and the all-important political support that can paralyse the UN Security Council. The degree of their commitment to either side is variable, with some of the LNA’s backers aghast at the new developments. The combination of politics dominated by the gun, the influence of myriad tribes and militias, foreign support for the rival sides and a politics divided along liberal, nationalist and Islamist lines is a combustible brew that feeds the violence. The space for dialogue has narrowed but it is still there and needs to encompass more than the interests of the two rival governments. Previous success at the local level has occurred due to the involvement of local elders and notables, whom have earned their legitimacy through their involvement in civil society in the long term, although the circumstances on the ground and external support were also contributing factors. To break the impasse in Libya, and enable effective mediation and negotiation, a multi-level approach is needed that creates the space for dialogue to take place. The UN and the international community have a critical influence on the creation of this space but this is dependent on the situation on the ground and the major actors in the conflict being willing to talk and compromise. As it stands, the prospects for peace have been critically undermined.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://theconversation.com/libya-conflict-boils-down-to-the-man-driving-the-war-khalifa-haftar-115192

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/libya-gna-forces-announce-counteroffensive-defend-tripoli-190407121535177.html

https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2019/04/13/khalifa-haftar-libyas-strongest-warlord-makes-a-push-for-tripoli

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/931

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/933

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Kashmir: An old conflict flares up again

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The conflict between India and Pakistan over the northern state of Kashmir has been going on since independence from the British and the partition of India in 1947. There have been three major bouts of fighting over the region and another between India and China. The latter has faded into the background, but the conflict over the areas held by India and Pakistan has lasted for over seventy years and there is no prospect of a resolution anytime soon. This is before we consider an insurgency against Indian rule within Indian-administered Kashmir, which began in 1989, but is divided over whether Kashmir should be independent or part of Pakistan. According to India, the insurgency has Pakistan’s fingerprints all over it, and most of the insurgents are reportedly Pakistani and Afghan in origin, but more recently, Kashmiri separatists have emerged as a result of India’s handling of their part of the territory. On the 14th of February a suicide bomber killed at least forty Indian troops in Pulwama district of Indian-administered Kashmir. It was the deadliest attack there and the worst in India for over a decade. The bomber was Kashmiri but the attack was claimed by Jaish-e-Muhammed (JEM), an Islamist group based in Pakistan that has alleged links to the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

The Pulwama attack triggered an air raid into Pakistani territory that targeted an alleged JEM base, in turn prompting a Pakistani air raid and subsequent air battle in which two Indian jets were shot down. One of the pilots was captured but in a show of goodwill was quickly released. Despite this, fighting resumed across the line of control (LOC) in Kashmir on the 1st of March. This is the most serious escalation since the ‘Kargil war’ in 1999, which involved air and ground forces after Pakistan sent troops over the LOC, and brought to a halt after an intervention by President Clinton pressured Pakistan to withdraw. Yet, not even during the Kargil escalation did India send its planes into undisputed Pakistani territory.

There is one other difference between 1999 and today. Then, both countries had tested nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Today, they both have the ability to engage in an all-out nuclear war. This is unlikely to happen, but the potential is chilling. It is tempting to compare their nuclear rivalry to that of the United States and the Soviet Union, or their regional rivalry to that of Saudi Arabia and Iran, but in truth, it is unlike either. The rivalry between the two superpowers was ideological and political, that between India and Pakistan is political and religious. Saudi Arabia and Iran have a religious rivalry that is a malign influence on the relations between them and on the politics of the Middle East, but neither possesses nuclear weapons. Crucially, only India and Pakistan share a land border and have a history of actually fighting each other. While all three rivalries have been bitterly contested, that between India and Pakistan has been violent from the outset and has permeated their history as modern states. It is for this reason that a localised insurgency and bi-state rivalry is one of the most dangerous on earth.

While the nuclear war is a spectre that looms over the current crisis the worst impact is likely to be in Indian administered-Kashmir and across the LOC. Pakistan is commonly understood to be backing the insurgency, which India has cracked down on harshly, including after the Pulwama attack when separatist and religious leaders were rounded up and extra paramilitaries sent in. The insurgency now involves more Kashmiri’s and is morphing from an Islamist one that arguably has Islamabad’s fingerprints all over it to a separatist one that is a reaction to heavy-handed Indian rule and human rights abuses. Islamist violence within India by groups based in Pakistan has consistently infuriated India, and understandably so, but a Kashmiri revolt is another matter altogether and is potentially more damaging. This is a far cry from the time of partition, when the Maharaga of the Princely state of Jammu and Kashmir sought protection from India after Pakistan sent troops into Kashmir. The leaders of India and Pakistan are playing a dangerous game in the style of their predecessors, and while air battles between nuclear armed states are attention grabbing, and posturing to their respective audiences a given, their actions over the Kashmir dispute are escalating a conflict that is costing Kashmir dear.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10537286

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1399992/A-brief-history-of-the-Kashmir-conflict.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/02/kashmir-india-pakistan-stand-off-war-border

https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/02/28/india-and-pakistan-should-stop-playing-with-fire

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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Venezuela: A Crisis Escalates

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In the lists of conflicts to watch in 2019 the usual suspects make an entry: Syria, Afghanistan and potential conflicts between the United States and China, or Iran. Some are ongoing conflicts that have caused great harm, while others are possible catastrophes that might happen. One of the potential conflicts discussed is Venezuela, a country that has collapsed economically and is undergoing a political crisis that has now escalated. The risk of a further escalation to armed conflict is very real. Some violent dissent has already taken place and has been brutally suppressed.

A small number of Venezuelans in exile have called for military intervention and leading hawks in the Trump administration have not ruled it out. Some of the country’s neighbours are furious at President Maduro’s government due to a flood of refugees fleeing impoverishment and food shortages. As it stands, the military continues to back a failing President, whose re-election in 2018 was dubious at best and followed a questionable one in 2013. In January of this year a new contender emerged from Venezuela’s fractious opposition: Juan Guaidó, the Chairman of the National Assembly of Venezuela. Mr Guaidó has declared himself as the interim President and called for new elections. This is at a time of ongoing protests over the plight of the country and its people.

Mr Maduro’s Presidency has been extremely harmful to Venezuela. He inherited the Presidency from his socialist mentor, Hugo Chavez, and since then has run the country into the ground. His years in power have seen him consolidate that power, curb political opposition and comprehensively wreck Venezuela’s economy, driving over three million people abroad as those that are left face the prospect of starvation. It is little wonder that people are on the streets, or that contenders such as Mr Guaidó are reduced to street politics. The problems besetting Venezuela are not new and had come to a head in 2014 but Mr Maduro has battled on, putting cronies in positions of power and taking care of the Generals. He has also blamed outside influences, including the United States, for Venezuela’s woes, the clarion call of many a failed government or regime. In fact, and not forgetting limited economic sanctions by the United States, the sources of Venezuela’s troubles are primarily domestic. Clearly, Maduro should go.

The crisis in Venezuela is one that is economic as well as political. There is the reliance on oil as the primary export and this makes the economy dependent on fluctuations in oil prices. This is exacerbated by loans undertaken in anticipation of future oil sales, a common problem when state-building and large oil reserves go together. The economy has been propped up by loans from China and Russia, while significant oil exports go to the United States. A decline in oil prices has effectively crippled the economy, while the social reforms championed by Hugo Chafez have drained the coffers, making everyone poorer in the long run.

Yet, as a crisis drives the country to the brink of armed conflict, the geopolitical divide of Maduro’s friends and enemies looms large on the horizon with competing narratives that we have heard before and are well worn. On his side are countries that include Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Cuba and Bolivia. Opposed are the United States, Canada, Australia and most South American governments. The EU has called for more elections although some members, such as the United Kingdom, have backed Mr Guaidó (a break in protocol as the UK recognises countries, not governments). The division is actually in the interests of no one, particularly the people most likely to suffer as a consequence: Venezuelans. There has been the expected sabre-rattling from the United States and Russia, the latter flying in two Tupolev bombers to make a point, while Washington’s hawks have hinted at ‘consequences’. For either to become involved militarily in Venezuela would be foolhardy and counterproductive. Their characteristic bluster is unhelpful. Foreign governments would do well to follow the policy that the British themselves failed to follow: recognise countries, not governments. Ultimately, Venezuelans should choose their leader. The current crisis has occurred because the incumbent leader has ignored the established rules in the country for electing its leader and changed the structure of governance to ensure that he remains in power, despite a catastrophic economic and social collapse.

An exit is not difficult, the opposition has said that Maduro can leave and there is only hubris to justify his staying in place. It is one thing to berate the likes of the United States and EU, or choose to be in an alternative political order alongside the likes of Russia and China, but rejecting regional cooperation by announcing the intent to leave the Organisation of American States is another. Nor can one claim to have won an election when the opposition is banned from participating as this amounts to rubber stamping the result before the election is held. Should Maduro leave then Mr Guaidó becomes an interim President only and it is down to him to ensure that elections are held. It is then down to the newly elected President and their government to set about making economic reforms and accept the aid that will put Venezuela on its feet.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/02/venezuela-juan-guaido-interim-president-political-trouble-outside-interference

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-47053701

https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/10-conflicts-watch-2019

https://www.cfr.org/blog/top-conflicts-watch-2019-venezuela

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

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Syria: Endgame Nigh?

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Politicians in the West and leaders in the Middle East appear to have come to terms with the dominance of President Assad in Syria. Not only has the Assad regime survived a war that at one point saw it losing control of the majority of the major cities and rebel encroachment into Damascus, but support for the moderates within the opposition has dissipated, leaving them with few allies of any note. All that remains of the western supported opposition is a handful of groups in Idlib province and those attached to the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The dominant forces in Idlib province are Islamists and jihadists and the Kurds hold sway over much of northern Syria except for the north-west, where there is a mixed Turkish and Syrian rebel control. ISIS retains a sliver of territory in the east, sandwiched between government and SDF forces. There are many reasons for Assad’s survival, but the most critical has been the backing of friends such as Hezbollah, Iran and Russia with few qualms about military intervention. Support for the revolutionaries came in the form of words and a smattering of radios and small-arms, unless they showed enough organisation and commitment to Islamism to warrant support from Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia. The military might of the West was only deployed when ISIS emerged as a major actor and a threat to the Kurds of Syria and Iraq. Assad’s dominance in the government controlled areas is unquestioned as long as he retains the support of his allies but flashpoints still remain in what has become an internationalised war.

The matter of Idlib province remains unresolved. With the exception of SDF-held Raqqa, Idlib is the only major city outside of government control. Fighting continues there between Hayat Tahrir al Aham (HTS) and other rebel groups, with HTS spending more time fighting other rebel groups, including the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), than it does the regime in its efforts to control all of the region. During the latter part of 2018 there was a series of assassinations of rebel leaders. The province is also subject to attack from government and allied forces, with an offensive in 2018 put on hold after an agreement between Turkey and Syria. An important part of this was that Turkey would help deal with the al-Qaeda linked HTS through its backing of the coalition of rebel groups that form the NLF. A government offensive that many, including this writer, expected to take place in 2018 remains a dangerous possibility.

The other major territory outside of government control is that controlled by the Kurds and the SDF. The threatened withdrawal of US forces has resulted in much debate over the US role in the Middle East and the impact on Kurdish allies and the ISIS foe. This is despite the fact that no US withdrawal has actually begun or is actually certain to take place in the near future. Kurdish gains in the war, earned alongside opposition allies, came only after they came close to losing all their territory to ISIS and the Syrian Kurds had quickly ceased their military opposition to the Assad regime early in the war. More damaging to Kurdish interests has been the loss of Afrin and the threat to Manbij by Turkey and opposition groups linked to them. It is of little surprise that they are seeking support from the government as the greater threat to the Syrian Kurds is not the government but Turkey and its Islamist allies. This is linked to Ankara’s ongoing and underreported battle with the PKK in eastern Turkey as Ankara does not distinguish between the separatist PKK in Turkey and PYD in Syria, seeing both Kurdish groups as one and the same. Nor should the strained relationship between the Kurdish and Arab members of the SDF alliance be discounted. They allied under US auspices as a counter to ISIS, which has been comprehensively crushed, and attention will turn to who rules the predominantly Arab areas controlled by the SDF.

The above are the two major flashpoints that represent a risk of conflict escalation as the government does not control all of Syria yet and the future of Idlib province and the Syrian Kurds is of interest to both the governments in Ankara and Damascus, whom hold a mutual distain. There is also a third problem that may arise in the future should the Assad regime retain control and fail to reform and that is the reliance on former opposition fighters in the Sunni areas of Syria. Prior to 2011 there was at least a shared idea of what it was to be Syrian but the sectarian differences that have emerged as a consequence of the war and the propaganda and actions of the participants involved in it have meant that the differences in ethnicity, class and religion are more sharply drawn. This can be overcome, but only as part of a wider approach to rebuilding the nation of Syria.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://www.france24.com/en/20190104-syria-bashar-al-assad-diplomacy-uae-russia-iran-arab-league-saudi-arabia

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2019/01/05/assads-long-road-to-international-rehabilitation/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.9435babc96d8

https://www.acleddata.com/2018/12/21/radical-relations-hayat-tahrir-al-sham-and-syrias-many-islamist-groups/

https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/article223970380.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/28/syrian-kurdish-militia-manbij-turkey

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

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The Ukraine: Between War and Peace

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The conflict in Ukraine began in 2014 and affects an estimated 4.4 million people, with the UN recording over 10,000 deaths. Of these 2,530 were civilians and another 9,000 civilians were injured. According to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, thirty-seven civilians have been killed this year so far and another 163 injured. While the conflict is generally seen as ‘frozen’ due to the lack of major assaults or campaigns by either side, the civilian deaths indicate otherwise: the conflict may be ‘paused’ and out of the headlines, but the consequences continue as displaced civilians from the conflict number over 2.5 million and the OSCE continues to report ceasefire violations along the frontline between Ukrainian forces and the separatists. Between the 17th and 30th of September monitors reported almost 9,000 ceasefire violations, a reduction of 10,000 on the previous two-week reporting period. The ‘contact’ line between government forces and the separatists cuts through the south-eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and the separatist controlled area is generally referred to as the ‘Donbass’. In a throwback to Cold-War conflicts, the 500 km contact line is riddled with mines.

Despite reports of deliveries of ‘defensive weapons’ by the United States, prisoner exchanges and the ceasefire agreed at the Minsk II talks, the fighting in south-eastern Ukraine is continuing with sporadic exchanges of fire and no end in sight. The separatists of the Donbass remain entrenched in an enclave that is dependent on Russian support, while the government is unable to defeat them and continues to have its own problems with corruption that date back to before the Maiden protests. It has had its credit cut off by both the EU and the IMF and is unpopular amongst the electorate. While this blog maintains that the origins of the conflict lay in internal division over whether the Ukraine leant to the west, with membership of the EU and NATO, or to the east with Russia, the hand of the Kremlin was blatantly present in the fostering and support of the separatists in the east and the annexation of Crimea. The latter has been treated as a fait-accompli, of which little can be done except for strong international protest and sanctions. An unspoken yet consistent rule of international relations is that the US and Russia never confront each other directly on the battlefield, preferring to support proxies and supply weapons to client states. While this has the undeniable benefit of preventing a cataclysmic major war, it also allows for such actions as the annexation  of Crimea, or to call it as it was, the occupation of sovereign national territory by another government. This broke another all-too frequently broken rule in international relations: international borders are deemed to be inviolable.

There is also the matter of trust, a commodity in business and politics that when abused is quickly lost. Largely forgotten in the case of Ukraine is the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which guaranteed the territorial integrity and independence of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. This allowed them to give up former Soviet nuclear weapons on their territory and was signed by the Russian Federation and the UK and US. The agreement was a boon for nuclear non-proliferation but its violation sent a signal to any countries considering disarmament in the future that guarantees of territorial integrity cannot be taken at face value.

Such concerns may be lost on the victims of a conflict that was utterly avoidable and is currently deadlocked. While future escalation cannot be ruled out, a major military campaign by the government carries the hazard of harming a population it considers to be Ukrainian and the separatists are more concerned with holding the line and state-building. The latter are also heavily dependent on the reluctant support of the Kremlin to survive, as even with the government’s problems in raising troops its forces are stronger than those of the rebels. The way forward is in dialogue and pursuing the fruits of Minsk II further, while tackling the wider geo-political situation that has enabled the conflict in Ukraine in the first place. For progress to be made a lot has to give, the government of Ukraine needs serious reform and the separatists have to relinquish their pseudo-nationhood, both of which are big asks. The political solution to Ukraine’s tragedy also lays in the badly damaged relationship between Russia and the US and EU, to which Ukraine has fallen victim spectacularly (see earlier blogs for more on this). This is an even bigger ask that requires competent and pragmatic statecraft towards scaling back a confrontation that affects Eastern Europe in general and has raised tensions to a level not seen since the 1990s.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/03/1003891

https://www.osce.org/ukrainecrisis

https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/10/13/an-end-to-the-war-in-eastern-ukraine-looks-as-far-away-as-ever

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ukraine._Memorandum_on_Security_Assurances

http://www.transconflict.com/2018/08/is-a-ukrainian-peace-agreement-possible-088/

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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Syria: Danger Ahead

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To say that 2018 has been a good year for the Assad regime and its allies would be a major understatement, for outside of the areas held by the Kurdish dominated SDF and pockets of areas held by a diminished ISIS, the only remaining area of active opposition to the regime is rebel-held Idlib province. The reverse is true for the divided and myriad groups of the opposition, whom have been hammered into submission in southern Syria and Eastern Ghouta, with those unwilling to submit to Syrian government control bussed of to Idlib province. A concern of analysts and commentators of the Syrian War has been the impending government assault on Idlib province, which has loomed as a potential disaster ever since the regime and its allies began to reassert control over Syria. This has been prevented only by the campaigns to defeat the rebels elsewhere and take control of all of the country’s major cities. There is only one city outside of the SDF and Kurdish controlled areas remaining outside of regime control: Idlib. There is also little doubt as to what is going to happen next: a crushing assault on Idlib province.

There are two major concerns regarding the upcoming offensive, the first is the humanitarian impact, the second the danger of further escalation.

There are estimated to be some three million people in Idlib province, where there is also between 20,000-50,000 rebel fighters (estimates of rebels fighters are notoriously difficult), some of which are jihadist (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din), others that are backed by Turkey (the National Liberation Front), and many more foreign fighters, including those of the Turkistan Islamic Party. There has been infighting between them, with assassinations taking place, and it should be noted that treating them as a unified ‘opposition’, or attempting to reduce them to categories of ‘moderate’, ‘Islamist’, and ‘jihadist’ does not convey the complexity of the differences and relationships between the rebel groups. As has been the case throughout the war, the rebels are divided, while the regime and its allies work as a unified whole. This has allowed the regime and its allies to defeat individual rebel groups that control a given area or town and move on to the next. Whatever their stripe, the rebels within Idlib province include those that are hard-line jihadists or have refused to surrender elsewhere and opted to relocate to the area, knowing that there was a possibility of facing another offensive.  A particularly disturbing development has been in the propaganda war that has accompanied the fighting, where the Assad regime and its Russian allies have disseminated allegations that the West plans to stage fake chemical attacks to discredit the regime. This is not only before an offensive that the regime and its allies have denied is being planned, but also a clumsy effort to deflect any blame from the regime should chemical weapons be deployed. The three million civilians in the area are faced with a crushing conventional assault similar to those that have taken place elsewhere in an effort to crush any resistance from hardened rebel fighters, with the denials for chemical weapons use already in place before their use, and nowhere for people to flee to. A summit between Russia, Iran and Turkey that took place this week has failed to alleviate concerns over the impending offensive into what is the last of four ‘de-escalation zones’, the others already having fallen to the regime. The chances of intervention on behalf of the population are slim, the US-backed Southern Front, once deemed as ‘moderate’ and eligible for western support, was left to the mercies of the regime and its allies earlier this year. A significant number of the rebels in Idlib province are jihadists that evince absolutely no support from the West, whose concerns are over the civilians about to be caught up in the fighting.

The second concern is that of a wider escalation of the conflict, one that has been a concern for years due to the complexity of the Syrian War and the foreign alliances and rivalries that are involved. The potential for the conflict to expand beyond Syria’s borders and become a regional or international conflagration has always been high, yet this has not happened and has seen regional and international powers deploy and support military forces within Syria. A brutal and shameful truth of the Syrian War thus far has been that a significant number of combatants fighting there are not Syrian and are guided by their own interests and values, while Syria has been destroyed as a consequence. As regards Idlib province, Turkey has observation posts there, backs many of the rebels, and Ankara is fiercely opposed to the Assad regime. It is also bitterly opposed to the Syrian Kurds and occupies swathes of northern Syria. Turkish political cooperation with Russia and Iran may well lead to a pragmatic withdrawal of any forces in Idlib but this is far from guaranteed and will leave the question of Turkish occupation of northern Syria unresolved. There is also the problem of the potential use of chemical weapons by the regime during its offensive. The regime has always denied any previous use of chemical weapons, despite damning evidence to the contrary. Previous alleged use by the regime very nearly led to direct western intervention and a Russian brokered agreement to remove the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal, US airstrikes, and then joint military action by the US, France and the UK. The western powers have generally, and controversially, refrained from direct military action against the Assad regime, with the exception of punishing alleged chemical weapons use. This has set a precedent should it occur in the future, although any action will be restricted to punishment and not removal of the regime, which most reluctantly accept is winning the war.

The dangers of an improbable wider escalation will be lost on the people who may be about to be hammered by a crushing and brutal offensive to seize control of Idlib province, the last remaining rebel-held territory. A humanitarian disaster looms, and there appears to be little that will stop it.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-45401474

https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/08/1018002

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/08/turkey-warns-russia-idlib-attack-create-lake-of-blood

https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/middle-east/russia-and-syria-launch-at-least-a-dozen-air-strikes-in-idlib-1.3623059

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

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Syria: The 2018 Daraa Offensive

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If there was ever any doubt about the dominance of the Assad regime and its allies in the Syrian War the current offensive against opposition forces in the southern region of the Daraa governorate demonstrates the brutal truth that the government is winning its war. As hundreds of thousands of people flee towards the Jordanian border a pattern common to the offensives launched this year is being continued: the application of overwhelming force that compels rebels to acquiesce to piecemeal negotiated surrenders. The only thing that will stop it is outside intervention and there are no indications that this is coming. As has often been the case in Syria’s war, effective direct intervention only takes place if it serves the interests of the intervener.

The fall of Daraa to the regime will be another heavy blow to its opponents and also mean the demise of the Southern Front, an alliance of rebel groups allegedly backed by Jordan and the US and other gulf allies. It has been seen as the last hope for the ‘moderate’ opposition and had launched its own offensive against the government in 2017. Should the regime succeed in taking Daraa the opposition will lose the symbolic ‘cradle of the revolution’, where the protests against the Assad regime began after security forces arrested, tortured and killed young boys after they scrawled anti-regime graffiti. The current offensive is not done, but is likely to succeed, and has been subject to pauses while the rebel groups negotiate their surrender. Failure to do so results in continued bombardment until an agreement is reached and in the past these have meant a choice between forced relocation to Idlib province in the north or risking an offer to give up heavy weapons and stay when a vengeful government takes control.

Despite concerns that a government offensive in the south would trigger an intervention by the US, Jordan or Israel, this has not happened. We cannot know what is happening behind the scenes in the murky and secretive world of diplomacy but we can observe events on the ground. Key concerns for Israel and Jordan are their own security, for Israel it is the presence of Iranian proxies in the region, for Jordan the weight of refugees fleeing the fighting and the security of its border. It is highly likely that Israel has been given guarantees, brokered by Russia, that forces linked to Iran will not remain in the region, which will be garrisoned in the future by the Syrian Arab Army or local defence forces. Jordan is already host to over 1.3 million Syrians and despite strict border controls faces an influx from the estimated 250-330,000 refugees that are fleeing the current fighting. Unless Jordan is given support in providing aid to its refugee population, which also includes Palestinians from earlier crises, then the border will remain closed. The global and regional powers have an opportunity to step up and ensure that such support is provided and that it continues. This won’t resolve the issue of the violence in Syria, but it will mitigate the consequences of the fighting and provide much needed support for Jordan. Many words have been written about the consequences of Syria’s war and what should be done about it, but providing support to refugees is a moral necessity and doesn’t involve taking a side or deploying one’s own military.

The concerns of Israel and Jordan aside, the Daraa offensive will rumble on and is likely to be another success for the government and its allies in a war in which the cold realism of strategic necessity has become the norm. Securing the south will have the same tragic consequences as elsewhere, the airstrikes have been ramped up, hospitals and civilians are being hit, as is the case in every aerial bombardment, and pauses take place only to allow for the piecemeal surrender of rebel groups. The regime doesn’t control the south yet, but it almost certain that it will unless there is an intervention on behalf of the rebels, which regional strategic concerns will ultimately prevent as no one wants to be dragged into the quagmire of a wider war.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-44723087

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/24/youre-on-your-own-us-tells-syrian-rebels-as-assad-goes-on-offensive

http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/why-jordan-worried-about-assads-daraa-offensive-971045248

https://reliefweb.int/report/jordan/syrian-refugees-jordan-protection-overview-january-2018

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

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