Syria: Danger Ahead

tutankhamen-1662814

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Syria: The 2018 Daraa Offensive

tutankhamen-1662814

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

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yemen: The Battle for Hudaydah

tutankhamen-1662814

The multi-faceted conflict in Yemen has thus far cost over ten thousand lives and left 75% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance. It has roots in the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ but fighting did not begin until 2014 when Houthi rebels seized control of the western part of the country, including the capital, Sanaa. In 2015 Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states, backed by the US, UK, and France, began airstrikes against the Houthis. While both Al-Qaeda and the ISIS have a presence in the country and there have been splits in the rival sides the conflict is dominated by the war between the rebel Houthis and the Yemeni government.

On the 12th June the Saudi-led coalition began their offensive on the city of Hudaydah (also known as Hodeidah), a strategically important port controlled by the Houthis and one through which food and humanitarian aid reaches a population on the brink of starvation. The offensive to take the city has been paused while the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, attempts to mediate between the warring parties and broker a deal whereby the UN takes control of the port. Should the talks be successful the Houthis will lose control of one of their two most important strategic assets (the other being the capital, Sanaa) but avoid a major battle for the city. Should the talks fail, then the coalition, which includes the forces of the UAE and Yemen, will resume its offensive and there will be a battle for a city of 600,000 people and the crippling of a crucial route for an estimated 80% of supplies into Yemen. The stakes are high and the pause is short, due to last into early July. Humanitarian organisations have been unanimously unequivocal about the consequences of the port being shut down by fighting, stating that it will lead to the displacement of city’s population and tip the impoverished people of Yemen into starvation.

Strategic considerations will be high amongst the concerns of the protagonists. The Saudis allege that the port is a transit route for Iranian supplied weapons, including the missiles that the Houthis fire into Saudi Arabia, while the Houthis and Iran vehemently deny this, claiming that the missiles are from captured government stocks. The port is a key asset either way, and controlling it means controlling a substantial proportion of the flow of goods and aid entering Yemen. There are also reasons for the sides to avoid a protracted battle for Hudaydah and the UN is offering them both a way out. A battle for the city would be destructive for both sides as while the airpower of the coalition would prove decisive Houthi forces are currently in control and would be able to exact a cost in any ground assault. In the wider political context, the coalition has been under pressure from its western backers due to discontent in the West over the use of western supplied weapons in its campaign. These concerns, however, will come secondary to strategic considerations as the support is unlikely to be cut off and without concrete action from western governments the only limit on the use of coalition airpower is words of protest and warring parties tend not to listen to criticism. As accurate as the weapons used may be, the outcome of every recent battle for a city in the Middle East between government forces backed by airpower against insurgents has been the destruction of the city.

As it stands, the talks over the future of Hudaydah have stalled, reportedly due to the Houthis wishing to retain a presence in the port while the UN controls it and the government insisting that all their forces be withdrawn. The pause in the coalition offensive is temporary and it will not become a ceasefire without an agreement being reached that will definitively stop an offensive that could break the military deadlock between the two sides and change the course of the conflict. The consequences of the continuation of the offensive are predicted to be dire for both the city and the country.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-44466574

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/29/un-talks-help-stall-saudi-led-assault-on-strategic-yemen-port

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/yemen-hodeidah-latest-saudi-arabia-uae-coalition-airstrikes-houthis-a8421651.html

https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/06/1012032

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The 2018 Global Peace Index: Implications for Conflict Resolution

tutankhamen-1662814

The 2018 Global Peace Index (GPI) is a useful tool for identifying which countries and regions are having the most negative impact on the overall global state of peace, particularly when the trends are considered over time.

The output from the GPI has to be considered carefully as a higher score for a country that is consistently performing well indicates reason for concern, it may still be more peaceful than one that has improved but has consistently performed poorly. A case in point is Spain, which recorded the fourth largest deterioration in peace (a change of 0.127) and dropped 10 places overall to 30th in the GPI rankings. This was mainly due to the political crisis over Catalonia, the government’s response and the polarisation of political attitudes in Spain. There had also been an increase in terrorist attacks in 2017. In contrast, Iraq recorded the third largest improvement in peacefulness (a change of –0.094), rising one place to 130th as a result of the defeat of ISIS and a stronger judiciary. While Spain’s troubles were a major upheaval for the country and may have serious ramifications in the future, they are far from the problems that Iraq faces. There is also the matter of Iraq having made significant gains in peacefulness yet being rewarded with only a small rise in position on the index, indicative of the wide gulf between countries that are peaceful and those that are not. Iraq has been in the bottom five performing countries since the 2013 GPI and remains there in the 2018 GPI.

There are significant differences between the top five and bottom five performing countries in the 2018 GPI. The top five are Iceland, New Zealand, Austria, Portugal and Denmark, while the bottom five are Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria. That the latter five have been war torn in the long run goes a long way to explaining their positions in the index. The eight key pillars of positive peace (well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption, and equitable distribution of resources) are nigh on impossible to achieve in environments of intense and prolonged conflict. In the 2017 GPI the top performing countries were Iceland, New Zealand, Portugal, Austria, and Denmark, while the bottom five were Yemen, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria (Yemen was the sixth worse performing in the 2017 GPI and is highly likely to return to the bottom five in the 2019 GPI). The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was the worst performing in both the 2017 and 2018 GPIs, while Europe was the highest performing in both GPIs. While two countries out of these ten fall outside of these two regions, the remaining eight are split between four high performing European and four low performing MENA countries. That war is bad for a country’s people and its economy is obvious to the point of banality, and the shallowest comparison of Europe and the MENA would quickly reveal a difference between them. The importance of the GPI conclusions is that they are data driven and based on a comprehensive and repeatable analysis that demonstrates the case through analysis that has depth and detail. We can see where countries and regions are getting it right and how they are doing so. The short answer is the eight pillars of peace.

This returns us to repeating an observation made previously that when tackling intractable and/or protracted conflicts the aim should be the attainment of positive peace alongside that of achieving a negative peace. The latter is an improvement to be sure, because absence of violence and the threat of violence is a step up from armed conflict in any situation, yet for a peace process to be genuinely sustainable the elements of positive peace need to be built in. Countries where an armed conflict has recently ended are notoriously vulnerable to re-escalation when promises such as power-sharing and representation are hard to live up to and a transition has to made from a conflict economy to a national one. The eight pillars are not a mere wish list from which to handpick a useful pillar or two to underpin peace agreements, they are an essential bare minimum by which a society can thrive and competing interests be balanced. Stopping the violence will be at the top of the list of priorities for mediators to any armed conflict, but as the violence is reduced and then ended the institutions that underpin an effective civil society need to be built up. This is particularly applicable to intrastate conflicts, such as those in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Peace_Index

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/global-peace-index-2018

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/599

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Singapore Summit: The Spectacle Has You

tutankhamen-1662814

It would be hard to miss the fact that there has been a summit in Singapore this week between US and North Korean leaders. The meeting of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un was an event heavy on spectacle and short on substance but historic nonetheless.

Historic, simply because this was the first time that the leaders of the two countries have sat down together to resolve the longstanding dispute between North Korea and the US with major ramifications for the Korean peninsula. High on the list was denuclearisation, a goal that Washington and Pyongyang view differently: for the US it means North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons, for North Korea it means the withdrawal of nuclear weapons and their threat of use from the peninsula entirely. The summit had built on a rapprochement between North and South Korea, who are technically still at war, and a major charm offensive by the regime of Kim Jong Un. It also came after an exchange of threats and insults between Trump and Kim, a misunderstanding of the meaning of the ‘Libya model’, the cancellation of the talks, then a period of engagement and optimism as the talks were put back on.

While both leaders have subsequently announced that the talks were a major success, the outcome was what many had expected. There is not much that can be achieved in a day in international diplomacy, even if there has been some groundwork beforehand, and what we got was a vague account of discussions and the signing of a joint declaration of a commitment to complete denuclearisation, both of which were short on detail. It represents a start to a more lengthy process that will also need to involve South Korea. The contents of the private conversation between the two leaders remains largely unsaid, so it is not possible for us to know what deals, if any, were made, which gives the two men a significant amount of leeway in making grand claims in the future.

There are criticisms of course, and while President Trump may dismiss critics in characteristic style as ‘naysayers’, they are valid concerns. The first is that the leader of a Orwellian regime par excellence has been given equal footing with the President of the United States, which whatever people feel about Trump, is arguably the world’s most important liberal democracy. North Korea’s human rights record is abysmal to say the least, and human rights were unlikely to have been high on the summit agenda. By putting Kim in such a high profile meeting with Trump that could have been undertaken by subordinates risks legitimising a brutal regime notorious for its gulags. A second is that we have been here before in the yo-yoing of US-North Korea relations, with previous commitments to denuclearise broken and dreams of peace on the Korean peninsula left in tatters. The regime in the north actually did the opposite of what was agreed and developed the ability to launch long-range nuclear missiles, making it a genuine nuclear power. President Trump has also demonstrated distain for the agreements that have preceded his summit and had arrived while the fallout from the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal continues. Good diplomacy involves building on what has been done before, not simply discarding or dismissing it out of hand and relying on leverage to create a new deal from the wreckage.

From the summit itself we have only really gained in terms of spectacle, with the world watching on the leaders got to grandstand and the gains remain to be seen. The goal of denuclearisation remains distant but the summit itself must be acknowledged as a potential stepping stone as part of a longer process. Where this will lead us is uncertain and requires statesmanship, commitment and the cooperation of a regime that acts with impunity at home and has been described as the world’s worst offender of human rights. Much will depend on how much the North is willing to give up its weapons and what the US has to offer that will address the regime’s economic problems. A recent announcement by the Trump administration that there will be no sanctions relief without a complete denuclearisation by the Kim regime indicates that the tough talking approach characteristic of Trump’s presidency will continue.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-44451587

https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/07/asia/kim-jong-un-bio-myth-fact-intl/index.html

https://globalnews.ca/news/4270347/trump-kim-singapore-summit-worth-it/

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/988

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The 2018 Global Peace Index: An Overview

tutankhamen-1662814

The Global Peace Index (GPI) is released annually and provides a ranking of 163 independent states and territories, covering 99.7% of the world’s population based on 23 quantitative and qualitative indicators. The key concept behind the GPI is the idea of the ‘positive peace’, one which underpins peace studies as a whole and has a strong influence on conflict resolution. Positive peace is better understood in relation to ‘negative peace’ where there is an ‘absence of violence or the fear of violence’, which can be achieved through non-peaceful means. Positive peace ‘is the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and maintain peaceful societies’. The GPI measures a country’s negative peace, thus the lower score, the better the ranking in the index.

Overall, the global level of peace has deteriorated by 0.27% over the last year with 92 countries deteriorating and 71 improving. This is consistent with a trend over the last decade of tensions, crises and conflicts that have contributed towards a decline of peacefulness that has been gradual and sustained. Over a ten year period battle deaths have increased by 264% and the global economic impact of violence in 2017 was equivalent to 12.4% of global GDP. This has increased by 16% since 2012 and the aftermath of the Arab uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and the start of the Syrian War. The MENA remains as the world’s least peaceful region, while Europe, which underwent a decline in peacefulness, remains the most peaceful.

While there are 23 indicators, these are grouped into three domains of peacefulness: ongoing domestic and international conflict, societal safety and security, and militarisation, giving a complete picture of a given country’s peacefulness in terms of its internal affairs and those with other states. One criticism that has been levelled at the GPI is that it allows for ‘freeloaders’ in global security, who will achieve low scores due to their non-interventionism while others are carrying the weight and have higher scores. Another is that there is no contextualisation behind the scores and a build up of a country’s military in response to problems in neighbouring countries would incur a score penalty similar to that of a build up in order to project power.  A third is that there are no indicators that relate specifically to violence towards women and children, a category that it would benefit the GPI to include. As regards the first two criticisms, the GPI is driven by impartial data that reflects an ongoing state of affairs and the choices that a given country makes regarding such things as its level of military involvement in world affairs, the percentage of its GDP devoted to its military, purchase and ownership of heavy weapons and so on. While the nuance behind this may be lost, the outcome of the analysis is the state of world affairs in relation to positive peace based on comparable data and an indication over time as to whether a given country is becoming more peaceful and stable or is becoming less peaceful and secure.

The UN Security Council countries, who wield the most clout in global politics, are a point of interest, particularly France, the UK and the US, as they are functioning liberal-democracies and thus have high levels of political participation and personal freedom. GPI scores, however, include such criteria as internal political problems, terrorist events, arms sales, the number of heavy weapons owned, and involvement in wars abroad. One indicator, nuclear and heavy weapons capabilities, is automatically graded at the highest (5) if a country possesses nuclear weapons. In terms of overall positions in the GPI, with 2017 positions in brackets for comparison, the positions of the big five are: the UK 57th (41st), France 61st (51st), China 112th (116th), the US 121st (114th) and Russia 154th (151st).

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/global-peace-index-2018

https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Global-Peace-Index-2018-Snapshot.pdf

https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Global-Peace-Index-2018-2.pdf

For last year’s blog on the 2017 GPI:

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/599

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Opinion on Syria

tutankhamen-1662814

Bashar al-Assad is on a high. He is winning on the ground and his regime is more secure than at any time since the protests of 2011. The enemies of the Syrian government have been falling like dominos and those that don’t want to surrender have been carted off to Idlib province in the north. Damascus and its suburbs have been taken back from the opposition, and whatever their stripe, be they moderate, Islamist or jihadist, they have all fallen. The importance of securing the capital cannot be understated as it means that the opposition can no longer threaten the centre of the government’s power. Assad has gone as far to say that the war will be won within a year, an announcement that he has made previously and got wrong. It is not unusual for leaders to promise imminent victory in wartime, but they are more often wrong than right, and in this instance, the leader is wrong. A more accurate assessment is that he is currently winning the battle against the rebel groups but is yet to actually win back control of Syria.

So why be so negative? Not for a lack of want for the war to end, or because of which side is winning, but because of the situation on the ground and because winning the war is about more than defeating a fractured and fratricidal opposition. The Syrian War stopped being a straight fight between the government and the moderate opposition when the jihadists began to assert their dominance and also became one in which Syria’s neighbours and the international powers took an interest in the outcome. The best example is Turkey, which has invaded the north and taken control of the Kurdish town of Afrin, is opposed to the Assad regime and is able to provide support for the opposition in Idlib should the regime make its predicted move northwards. Turkey is not the only country that has a vested interest in the outcome of what has become an internationalised conflict, a shortened list of which includes Iran, Russia, Israel, Iraq and the United States. While foreign governments wax lyrical about the plight of the Syria people and the need for peace, they have their own ideas about what that peace will look like.

Another problem is the reliance on foreign militias to bolster the Syrian Arab Army, which Syrian’s are reluctant to join, whether because they don’t want to fight for the regime or because they don’t want to find themselves up against Islamist or jihadist fighters. This makes the government dependent on the support of its allies but also promotes sectarianism, bolstering resistance when the people fighting have their families behind them. If the foreign Shiite militias stay there is a risk that the various opposition groups will regroup away from the cities, if they go the government forces will be left undermanned and overstretched. The strategy of the regime has been one of siege and surrender, crushing any opposition, and co-opting willing rebels to join local defence forces, while dragging of malcontents to its notorious prisons. This is a strategy reliant on power and impunity, not one that provides for reconciliation, which is essential in the long run for bringing the war between the government and opposition to an end.

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Afghanistan: The Forever War

tutankhamen-1662814

The war in Afghanistan is lumbering on with no end in sight despite decades of fighting. It is commonly treated as having begun in 2001 when Operation Enduring Freedom was begun in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The United States had demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, to the surprise of none, refused. It is doubtful that the US ever expected the Taliban to accede to their demand in the first place and the opening shots of the global war on terror quickly followed. It proved to be a disaster for the Taliban, who had occupied the majority of the country and had established a fundamentalist state, and a catastrophe for Afghans, who died in their thousands. If one looks back further, to 1979 and the Soviet invasion in support of its client state, there is an almost continuous period of violence interrupted only by a brief period of peace following Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the beginning of a civil war between warlords in 1992 that continued until 1996. The Taliban were formed in 1994 by Mohammed Omar, a religious student and mujahedeen, who had looked upon the practices of the warlords with the distain. The Taliban’s conquest of 90 percent of Afghanistan came at a high price and allegedly relied on support from Pakistan and Al-Qaeda. It was also brutal, civilians were regularly massacred, including the killing of over 4000 civilians after the battle for Mazar i Sharif, partly in revenge for the earlier execution of 3000 Taliban fighters in 1997.

The Taliban were fundamentalists of the highest order, practicing their own form of Sunni Islam and applying a strict interpretation of sharia law. Prior to the US-led invasion of 2001 they had put the ethnically diverse Northern Alliance on the back foot and controlled most of Afghanistan. This was quickly reversed and a new Afghan government formed, but the Taliban began an insurgency that has continued to today. In terms of their goals of dismantling Al-Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power, the US and NATO were successful, but the Taliban were not defeated.

In the present day, the Taliban have taken control of swathes of Afghanistan and have begun their spring offensive, and both Al-Qaeda and ISIS have a presence in Afghanistan. Despite the US hitting them with heavy airstrikes the Taliban and the terror groups have been able to continue their insurgency and hit Kabul with bombs multiple times. Without the US the Afghan military struggles to contain the insurgents, while the Taliban’s fundamentalism and disregard for civilians alienates them from Afghans. They are also primarily Pashtun, setting them apart from the other ethnicities in Afghanistan, the Hazara’s, Tajik’s, and Uzbek’s, who remember all too well their treatment at the hands of the Taliban during their period of rule. When the Taliban is successful in taking a city, such as Kunduz, the overwhelming firepower of the US comes into play: rural insurgency is one thing, presenting a fixed target in a city is another. The new Taliban has a problem that dates back to its 1990 emergence: it achieves control only by force, has no political legitimacy, and Afghan’s are terrified of them. The same could be said for Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

The current Afghan government has offered to negotiate but the Taliban has not taken them up on this. Nor are they the only fundamentalist group, and while Al-Qaeda and ISIS continue with their bombings, including at a Mosque in Khost and the killing of nine journalists in Kabul, the Trump administration is unlikely to draw back on the use of airstrikes. For their part, the Afghan security forces are struggling and appear less capable of fighting the insurgents than ever, leaving the government heavily dependent on the US to survive. The current situation is a stalemate that will not be broken in the near future.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/01/the-us-and-afghanistan-cant-win-the-war-cant-stop-it-cant-leave

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2018-01-03/why-taliban-isnt-winning-afghanistan

https://edition.cnn.com/2018/05/06/middleeast/khost-afghanistan-blast-mosque-intl/index.html

https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/what-explains-afghanistans-early-2018-surge-in-violence/

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

North Korea: To Deal or not to Deal?

tutankhamen-1662814

The situation on the Korean peninsula has returned to the headlines with the cancellation of talks between North and South Korea and a threat from Pyongyang to withdraw from the forthcoming talks between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. Pyongyang withdrew from this week’s talks due to a joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea, a regular fixture in the South’s calendar, and has threatened to withdraw from the summit in Singapore on June 12th due to denuclearisation being presented as a precondition. The best chance yet seen for North Korea to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons and pursue a peace treaty with the South is at risk of being thrown away.

There has been talk of the ‘Libya model’, which saw Muammar Gaddafi give up Libya’s nuclear program. This was a rare improvement in Gaddafi’s poor relationship with the West and was effectively a rehabilitation that saw an isolated country’s international relations improve and sanctions lifted. It involved independent inspection and verification, the ‘model’ to which the United States National Security Advisor, John Bolton, referred to in a recent interview. Pyongyang and Bolton’s own boss saw this in an entirely different light, with the regime of Kim Jong Un and the President equating the Libya model with Gaddafi’s toppling and bloody demise. That this kind of misunderstanding can occur at the highest level of politics and within the Trump administration is something that gives alarm and pause for thought. What should be made clear is that Bolton was referring explicitly to unfettered and open inspections of nuclear facilities and to equate this with regime change undermines the prospects of a deal being reached. Pyongyang sees nuclear weapons as a guarantee of security, assuming that possessing them prevents its own demise and has rejected an inspection program before, seeing the demise of Gaddafi as a harbinger of the fate of those who give up on the nuclear deterrent. They have rightly taken Trump’s comments as a threat.

The history of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and international efforts to stop it is one of peaks and troughs with commitments to non-proliferation and suspensions of nuclear weapons development being followed by nuclear tests and ballistic missile development. There is one major difference between North Korea’s nuclear program and that of Libya’s, namely that Libya had a nascent program that it gave up long before a bomb was a viable prospect whereas North Korea’s has produced nuclear bombs that work and the technology and expertise to go with it. Gaddafi bargained away next to nothing, Kim Jong Un actually has the bomb. There is also the matter of the two Koreas never having declared peace, with the border between the two countries an armistice line from a devastating war in which the United States dropped more munitions on North Korea than it did on either Japan or Germany in the Second World War. Bitterness towards the United States is real and it is not difficult for Pyongyang to portray the United States in a bad light, even before the state propaganda kicks in.

It is very likely that the recent attempts at rapprochement by Pyongyang relate to more to conditions within North Korea than to outside pressure from the United States. Looking back to last year, the North’s nuclear ambitions were clear to all and backed up with the characteristic bluster of the Pyongyang regime. While nuclear weapons continued to be tested, Pyongyang appeared to be focused on ballistic missiles, firing them over Japan and Hawaii in a demonstration of the effectiveness of its potential delivery systems for nuclear warheads. This caused alarm in South Korea, Japan and the United States and raised tensions between North Korea and the United States to new heights. President Trump responded with his own characteristic bluster, citing that his red button was bigger than that of Kim’s. This is unhelpful, and arguments that President Trump’s combative approach may work by accident are not reassuring in the slightest as the stakes are too high for this. While success in the talks between the United States and North Korea would be a commendable and worthy outcome, they would be building on efforts that stretch back years and involve many parties, with an influential China being but one. There is a strong argument that Pyongyang’s nuclear testing site is now unusable due to it collapsing as a result of the testing. Shutting it down allows Pyongyang to appear to make concessions while effectively trading nothing. North Korea is also undergoing an economic crisis that will only be resolved though the lifting of sanctions and provision of aid that its population desperately needs. The question is as to whether Pyongyang sees its nuclear weapons as a guarantee of its own survival or as something to be traded for a guarantee of its security and a means to alleviate the suffering of North Koreans. Threatening the regime and assuming a predetermined outcome to talks does little to ensure the end goal of denuclearisation.

There are some things that denuclearisation will not resolve, principally North Korea’s economic woes and an awful human rights record. Nor will it stop the country being a state that is ruled by a regime dominated by a family that has god-like status and ruthlessly culls any threat to its existence. This should not be forgotten amid the spectacle of the Trump-Kim dialogue or the potential of denuclearisation and better relations between the two Korea’s. These are important as they reduce the threat of a war on the Korean peninsula and would be a boon to international relations in the region and represent the removal of potential harm to North Korean’s. It does not ensure their human rights or change their current woes.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/north-korea-suspends-talks-with-south-over-us-military-drills-casts-doubt-on-trump

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2018/05/16/whats-this-libya-model-north-korea-is-so-angry-about/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b68828e63f2f

https://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/29/world/asia/north-korea-nuclear-timeline—fast-facts/index.html

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Israel and Iran: A Dangerous War in Syria

tutankhamen-1662814

The long regional rivalry between Israel and Iran has undergone a dramatic escalation and has seen Israel directly target Iranian facilities in Syria, raising the possibility of an undeclared war becoming an intra-state one. The history of the relations between the two countries is a febrile one, not helped by the fact that the United States is a close Israeli ally and arch-critic of Iran. For their part, Iranian leaders have consistently referred to the United States as the ‘Great Satan’. This should rightly be seen as dangerous for Israel and Iran both, and while there is potential for things to escalate further, both countries have enough to lose to prevent them from engaging in an all-out war. It doesn’t stop them from adding to the complexity and carnage of the war in Syria.

The revival of government fortunes in Syria has been heavily dependent on support from Iran and Russia, allowing them to take control of the cities that had been lost to the opposition. It is Iran that has raised foreign militias, deployed the Quds Force (the special forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) and supported Hezbollah, a Lebanese political/military organisation. Without Iranian support the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had been on the back foot, having been too small to fight the insurgency and losing defectors to the opposition ranks. Iran has been bitterly opposed to the state of Israel and its United States backers since the Iranian revolution of 1979, to the point of its more hard-line leaders denying that Israel even has the right to exist. Relations between the United States and Iran have been dismal since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, which swapped a US-backed dictator for a fundamentalist theocracy. Hezbollah was formed with Iranian backing in the 1980s with the specific goal of fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and became a major social, political and military actor, fighting a war with Israel in 2008. They remain bitterly opposed to Israel and while seen as Iranian proxies in the Israel versus Iran regional rivalry are independent actors capable of pursuing their own agenda and have considerable strength in Lebanon, with a military capability rivalling that of the Lebanese Army.

The presence of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria is of serious concern to Israel. The geo-political rivalry between Israel and Iran is arguably as intense as that between Iran and Saudi Arabia, although Israel’s position is based on the security dilemma of survival as opposed to expanding its influence regionally. Israeli reaction to anything deemed a threat is to respond punitively and disproportionately and it is an understatement to say that the movement of Iranian and Hezbollah military supplies in Syria is seen as a threat. Above all, there is concern over Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles, which have been targeted in undeclared airstrikes on arms dumps and it did not stretch the imagination or risk making a false assumption for the most sober of commentators to point the finger of blame firmly in the direction of Israel. This undeclared war took a major turn in 2018 and thus far has been relatively one sided, even if the rhetoric has not.

The alleged incursion of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace in February led to Israeli airstrikes, the downing of an Israeli aircraft and crippling damage to Syria’s air defences as a consequence. In April, while the United States, United Kingdom and France prevaricated over acting over allegations of government chemical weapons use, Israel struck the T4 airbase in Syria. Then an alleged firing of rockets by Iranian forces into the Israeli occupied Golan Heights triggered a major aerial assault on Iranian military targets across Syria in May. While Iranian targets have been struck previously, alongside any Syrian facilities or forces that got in the way, these events were part of a trend in which the aim of preventing arms reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon has been accompanied by the aim of reducing Iran’s military footprint in Syria. Israel has remained neutral as regards the outcome of Syria’s war, having a historical enmity with the Assad regime but also caring little for the opposition either, striking Syria’s air defences only due to the threat that they pose to Israeli aircraft.

A further escalation to direct warfare between Israel and Iran is one that would benefit neither, leaving their rivalry to be pursued within the confines of Syria’s complex war. While Iran’s military footprint in Syria has been damaged it is still functioning and it is unlikely to want to risk its gains in Syria and Iraq while it is able to support its proxies such as Hezbollah. For its part, Israel will settle for keeping Iranian forces at a distance and destroying the arms bound for Hezbollah, which it reasonably assumes are as likely to be fired at Israel as they are at the Syrian opposition. Yet, both are at risk of overreaching and triggering an intra-state war. Iran has arguably made great gains from the wars in Syria and Iraq, expanding its influence at great cost in material and manpower, but drawing the ire of both Israel and Saudi Arabia in doing so. This leaves it overstretched and overcommitted, a mistake all too common in international relations. Israel, with enough problems of its own domestically, assumes that it can continue to act with impunity over Syria and pursue a one-sided military exchange that affects Iran’s goals in Syria and damages Iranian military assets. This may work in the short term and may indeed be a long term strategy of the application of force to persuade Iran to reduce its footprint in Syria and stop its supplies to Hezbollah. It is not guaranteed to work in the long term and may provoke an escalation in response, whether it is Iranian entrenchment in Syria and further support for Hezbollah, or a change in strategy to counter Israel’s aerial supremacy.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

http://www.latimes.com/world/middleeast/la-fg-israel-iran-20180211-story.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-43019682

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/10/israel-iran-conflict-is-no-surprise-but-implications-are-unclear

http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/israel-iran-war-unlikely%E2%80%94-now-25739

https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/community/2018/05/08/iran-israel-tensions-unlikely-to-evolve-into-conventional-warfare

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment