The Sahel: The crisis in the central Sahel

In the previous blog the crises in the Sahel were introduced. This blog addresses one of these: the central Sahel crisis affecting Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. A rebellion in northern Mali, which began in 2012, was the beginning of a wider crisis and despite a strong military response, the crisis has changed and grown worse over time.   

The central Sahel crisis is an example of how a conflict situation changes and grows over a short period of time, despite military intervention and conflict resolution measures. The 2012 rebellion in northern Mali by Tuareg nationalists and jihadist allies was followed by a series of events, which included: a nationalist-jihadist split, the ouster of the Malian government in a military coup, condemnation of the coup by regional and international actors, a commitment by the Malian military to return Mali to civilian rule, a realignment by Tuareg nationalists with the government, foreign intervention, the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission, and the signing of a peace deal between nationalists and the government (jihadists were not included). There was a lot going on and this cursory description only covers the period between the 16th of January 2012 and 18th June 2013.

Prior to 2012, there had been four Tuareg rebellions in the desert north of Mali since independence from France in 1960. The Tuareg claim they have been excluded from power by black African governments based in the more densely populated south. Jihadist groups had been prevalent in neighbouring Algeria for decades, becoming Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) amongst others, and the overthrow of Gaddafi and subsequent civil war had released heavy weapons into circulation. The government’s authority and reach were weak in the wide expanse of the north and the mix of Tuareg separatism and jihadist militancy was a potent mix (reflected in Ansar Dine, a predominantly Tuareg jihadist group). We should not forget socio-economic issues and food scarcity in the north, but the political situation meant that the real shock was not that there was a rebellion but said rebellion’s (temporary) success.

Fast forward to 2020 and 2021, and the situation is very different. The events of 2012 and 2013 were dramatic enough, but instead of being contained in northern Mali they have spread into southern Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The impact is being felt further afield: Mali’s neighbours on the West African coast are eying the conflagration nervously. There has also been a proliferation of jihadist groups, some of whom have merged. Farmers and pastoralists are in conflict, a factor prevalent throughout the Sahel, and linked to an increasing scarcity of fertile land. The Tuareg opposition to the government in Mali continues and there are more groups (their agreement was quick to break down). There are also armed militias, some of which were formed at the behest of the Malian and Burkinabè governments as self-defence groups, but which engage in inter-ethnic violence. On top of this are the criminal networks, with two major people smuggling routes crossing Mali, and drug and cigarette smuggling and other lucrative ventures. When a bombing happens, or a military installation is attacked it is likely to be a jihadist group. When a village, town or convoy is attacked, or humanitarian relief stolen, it is not so clear who is responsible.

The consequences are dire. There were 4122 fatalities linked to extremism in the central Sahel during 2020 alone, representing an increase of 57 percent on the previous year. Across the three countries over 2.1 million people have been displaced, and 4000 schools and 150 medical centres have been forced to close due to insecurity. This has also affected humanitarian responses in a region beset by food insecurity and suffering from land degradation related to climate change. A recent example of the sudden and brutal violence which takes place was an attack on a village in northern Burkina Faso, during which over 160 people were killed, and homes and a market were burned to the ground. While jihadists are suspected it is not known who the attackers were. The increase in fatalities in the country has been severe. There were less than 200 killings in 2018 but in 2019 there were almost 2,000.  

The security response to the crisis has also undergone change. In 2012-2013, Malian forces were backed by foreign intervention in the form of the UN authorised intervention by the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), France (Operation Serval), and with logistics support from other countries. They were successful in retaking northern Mali and AFISMA was replaced by the United Nations Mission to Mali (MINUSMA). This is now the largest UN peacekeeping deployment, with over 13000 military personnel alone and a total complement of over 18,000. It is also the most dangerous, its troops having sustained 158 deaths and 426 serious injuries by the end of March 2021 (UN figures).

MINUSMA is there as a peacekeeping operation and is focused on security and stabilisation in Mali. French led involvement is another matter. With the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, the Sahel will also have the largest Western deployment in the world. France’s Operation Barkhane is at the forefront of this and dominates the Sahel G5 force, comprised of forces from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The European Union has deployed training missions to Niger and Mali and a European task force (special forces) has been deployed to support French operations in Mali (Operation Takuba). The US has also been active in the region, building an airbase in Niger, and the African Union has considered sending a force. While the Western forces are a focus of attention, the combination of Western and African troops, and the multinational contributors to the UN mission in Mali, means that the forces on the ground are a complex mix of actors working under different masters.

The presence of the Western military missions has proved controversial and much of the criticism has been towards France, as the lead country and former colonial power (MINUSMA less so as it is a UN mission). Prior to a summit in Pau, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, hinted that without support from the G5 France would consider withdrawing its troops. As summed up by the Economist: ‘The French would not be thanked for staying, but nor would they for packing up’. In a scenario not unfamiliar to students of Western interventions, France is fighting alongside government forces that are accused of having killed more civilians than the jihadists, backed the training of armed militias that have proved to be dangerous, the violence has increased, and Paris has had to turn a blind eye to governance problems. Military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, and Chad in 2021, are but two recent examples of problems with government legitimacy in the region. There have been popular protests in all three countries.   

There have been calls for a more multifaceted response in the central Sahel, particularly concerning the question of governance. To be fair to France and the EU, strengthening governance is part of the stabilisation strategy, which has since been revised, but there has been an emphasis on defeating jihadists and providing security at the expense of governmental reform. The Sahelian elites have allegedly proved more interested in maintaining their own power and influence, have utterly failed to deal with corruption, and are unable to maintain control over large areas of their countries. This leaves their citizens vulnerable to armed groups, jihadists, and criminals. When they have shown an interest in talking to jihadists their Western supporters have balked. As the International Crisis Group puts it, military operations should be at the service of a stabilisation strategy but since the Pau summit there has been a doubling down on the military approach. A report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel argues for a people centred approach and identifies areas for improvement. They also set targets by which improvement can be measured. Much of this is directed as the central Sahel governments. A recent letter from a group of African intellectuals called for the African Union to act more decisively in the region, coordinate the many interventions that are taking place, and act to improve governance and support dialogue. In its conclusion to a conflict assessment of the tri-border region, the Catholic Relief Services noted that Sahelians needed to rebuild the tattered social contract between the people and the state, and that peacebuilding should be the mandate and responsibility of ordinary people. In its recommendations the report also noted the need to link foreign peace actors with Sahelian knowledge. None of these rejects security measures but they do put the emphasis on political reform and African ownership of the crisis.

The international response to the crisis has in fact been more general than it is in given credit for and has had three aspects: security, development, and diplomacy. We have already seen the complexity of the security aspect, but this applies to the development and diplomacy aspects as well. As of the end of 2020 there were twenty envoys to the Sahel, including from the UN, AU, US, and many European states. There are also many forums. While the challenges facing the central Sahel are complex, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has noted that without agreement on concrete goals and a path to progress between Sahelian countries and their international partners, it does not matter how many soldiers and diplomats are involved. Having too many diplomats and forums is counterproductive and distracting. It remains to be seen if the Sahel Alliance (launched 2017, related to development) and Coalition for the Sahel (launched 2020, related to diplomacy) facilitate a more effective response.

Given the number of international actors involved and their commitment to resolving the security crisis in the central Sahel, it is not unreasonable to ask why it has gotten worse instead of better. One thing that most are agreed on is that the current strategy is heavily focused on counterterrorism and is not working. Another is that the international responses are complicated, overlap, and require consolidation. A third is that addressing governance issues is crucial. This will not remove the complex challenges facing the region, but it will make them easier to deal with.

There appears to be a common understanding on what the root causes of the crisis are and what needs to be done to resolve it but getting from one to the other is no straightforward task. The jihadists are generally treated as a symptom rather than a root cause and are seen as exploiting differences between groups, economic problems, and mistrust of the government for their own ends. They remain a key concern for the foreign governments and are a genuine problem, even when their ability to alienate people once they take power in an area and the lack of appeal of their interpretation of Islam to the Sahelian population is considered. The real root causes predate 2012 and include socio-economic issues, demographic change towards a younger population, political marginalisation, food insecurity, and the impact of climate change. The lack of security in the tri-state area is a major contributing factor, enabling all manner of non-state armed groups to exploit the population and inhibiting development and aid. That effective governance needs to return to the area is obvious, hence the focus on security, but there is more to this than combatting the jihadist groups.  

The next blog with look at how effective governance can be brought to the tri-border region. Regaining the confidence of the people and projecting authority through consent are a part of this but the measures taken would be implemented over the long-term, require the combination of international, regional, and local knowledge and resources, and work in conjunction with aid and development.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include the Economist and BBC News. The International Crisis Group report concerning the Sahel stabilisation strategy can be accessed at: The report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel can be accessed at: The letter from African intellectuals is available at: The report from the CRS can be accessed at: The CSIS brief can be accessed at: Information for MINUSMA was obtained from the UN’s MINUSMA page. Fatalities information is from the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies: , the Guardian: , and the BBC:

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The Sahel: Large scope, complex situations, and interlinked challenges

Since 2012 a complex conflict has spread from Mali into Burkina Faso and Niger. This is part of a wider crisis affecting the Sahelian nations, with armed conflict, climate change, governance issues, and demographic change amongst a multitude of problems in a region beset by state fragility. Organized violence is only one part of a large and complex picture, and it is getting worse.

I could start at a number of points when attempting to explain the crisis in the Sahel. The central Sahel crisis, involving a tri-state region encompassing parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is first to mind. The crisis in the Lake Chad basin is a close second. Both have drawn in multinational alliances from across the Sahel region to deal with insurgencies. If I were to focus solely on Mali, where the central Sahel crisis originated, I would be describing a complex scenario of jihadist groups, armed militias, farmer-pastoralist conflict, and foreign intervention. Another starting point might be the recent events in Chad, where rebels have entered the north from Libya, the country’s leader has been killed in the fighting and his son has taken over (triggering popular unrest). This has brought French support under the spotlight and might result in the withdrawal of Chadian troops from a joint mission in Mali.

When reference is made to the ‘Sahel crisis’ it tends to be concerned with the conflagration in the tri-state region and/or the Lake Chad basin. The recent events in Chad have the potential to produce another crisis: the swathes of northern desert border unstable Libya, to the east is Darfur, to the south an unstable Central African Republic, and to the west is northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin. There is an incredible amount going on, much of it interconnected, and I haven’t mentioned climate change yet.

The above is a broad sweep which misses a great deal out. This blog acts as an introduction the ‘Sahel crisis’ as it affects countries understood to be Sahelian. It is unlikely that I will be able to convey the full scope of the issues facing these countries, but the reader will have a basic grasp. I intend to keep the Sahel as a theme for the remainder of this year (and possibly the next). The reason for this is the same reason that I haven’t addressed the Sahel crisis in this blog so far: it is so big and complicated that it requires multiple blogs to do so. It is also poorly defined. I will introduce the subject using three points, treating conflict in the Sahel as big, complex, and interlinked.

Speaking geographically, the Sahel is a distinct semi-arid band stretching across northern Africa from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Eritrea in the east and is a transition zone between the deserts of the north and sub-Saharan Africa. Some countries, such as Algeria and Nigeria, have fringes in the north and south within the Sahel, others such as Chad and Mali straddle it, with deserts to the north and a savanna in the south. It is a huge space, and while few countries are almost entirely within the region, changes within the Sahel affect the areas around it and cross borders in a reciprocal fashion. The ‘Sahel crisis’ means different things according to where you sit and what your interest is, but in terms of armed conflict, its origins and root causes, cross-border linkages, responses, and attempts at conflict resolution, the geographical scope is unprecedented.

For those interested in the relationship between climate change and armed conflict the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, fighting in the Lake Chad basin, and earlier rebellions in Mali and Chad have all centred on a region clearly affected in a negative manner by climate change. I should stress that I am not advocating a causal link between climate change and conflict, but I am treating it as a significant factor amongst others, with governance issues near the top of the list.

From the perspective of terrorism and insurgency, the connections of al-Qaeda and ISIS linked groups in Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Mali, is of the same interest as those in Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. The two clusters are separate, with different armed groups and governments, but similar in that a governance crisis in one country (Mali/Nigeria) has contributed to the emergence of Islamist groups, which has been exploited by the global extremist organisations, and also drawn in its neighbours. Other armed groups, sometimes ethnically linked militias, sometimes government backed, control areas where governmental authority is lacking. If we were to look at communal conflict such as that between farmers and pastoralists, then we are looking at a problem which includes all these countries and would also take us farther afield.

What happens elsewhere can also have an impact: the Algerian civil war, instability in Libya, and conflict in Sudan have all had spill-over effects outside of their borders. The first point is that however we look at it, the ‘Sahel crisis’ is big, and there are more than the examples I have given to consider.

I should add that I have drawn a misleading picture by aggregating distinct crises into a whole covering much of Africa north of the equator. I might get away with this If I was looking at the impact of climate change, but organised violence is more specific geographically and occurs over a shorter timescale. If we were to limit ourselves to Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, the scope would still be large. We are better served by disaggregating the bigger picture into smaller ones, while recognizing that there are common factors and linkages, which are transnational and international. This not only makes analysis more specific but also aids conflict resolution as local solutions are more achievable than grandiose international ones. We should forget about the ‘Sahel crisis’ and start thinking about ‘Sahel crises’.

None of the examples I have given above is necessarily a root cause of conflict and we would need to consider them in the context of socio-economic and political factors. The second point is that the crises in the Sahel are hideously complex. While organised violence is taking place in areas under stress due to climate change, terrorism and insurgency represent an immediate threat, and farmers and pastoralists are in conflict, this is all taking place in the context of something else. The list is long: governance problems, state fragility, food insecurity, displacement, and a booming population, are examples. The complexity of the crises are as daunting as the geographical scope.

The aspect that hits the headlines the most is the violence, and this is frequently when jihadists or an ethnic militia have attacked a military installation or committed an atrocity. To be clear, while there are several jihadist groups, which I define here as seeking Islamist goals through violent ends, there are also inter-ethnic conflicts, farmer-pastoralist conflicts, and opposition to governments, and these are more often than not intertwined. In Mali and Burkina Faso in particular, the governments have encouraged the formation of local militias for self-defence where security is sparse, but they are prone to attacking civilians and members of other groups. The violence of the militias is inter-ethnic and brutal. To this can be added the human rights abuses of the security forces, who have killed more people than anyone else. Even when limited to violent actors, the complexity is unmistakeable.

The complexities of the Sahel crises prevent us from defining it as one conflict or even a given conflict category. We will take Mali as an example. The 2012 insurgency was led by Tuareg nationalists allied with jihadist groups, who would start fighting with each other once they had taken the north. The Tuareg declared independence and the Malian military, unhappy at the handling of the crisis, overthrew the government. Neither were recognised as legitimate, and Mali was subjected to sanctions until a commitment was made to reinstate civilian rule. The Tuareg, meanwhile, lost out to the jihadists, who implemented sharia law. The UN authorised intervention by the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) and the Malian government also requested French intervention. They were successful in reclaiming the north of Mali, the French withdrew, the Tuareg signed a peace deal, and AFISMA was replaced by a United Nations mission (MINUSMA). Tuareg separatism predates the 2012 rebellion, ethnic conflict between pastoralists and farmers is linked to scarcity, and jihadists have their own agenda but exploit existing divisions.

My third point is identifiable above and requires less explanation. Despite my intention to disaggregate a wider picture into manageable pieces there are obvious linkages, which cross borders and are regional and international in scope. The largest is the effect of climate change on the Sahel, where temperatures are rising, which affects the viability of the land for agriculture. The conflicts between farmers and pastoralists cross borders and, more often than not, they are ethnically based, producing a proliferation of armed groups small and large. The presence of jihadist groups draws in Western militaries, making a local conflict part of the terror wars, obscuring local causes, and effectively burying any chance of negotiation. A rebellion in northern Mali has transformed to instability on the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, and it is no exaggeration to say that the neighbouring coastal countries are eyeing this nervously. Not surprisingly, this all results in people being on the move, hence internal displacement is severe, and migration is high, crossing borders, and reaching the EU via dangerous migration routes. Meanwhile, smuggling, the drug trade, and other lucrative activities continue, often controlled by the jihadists, armed groups, or corrupt officials.

This description of a trinity of size, complexity, and linkages across borders is incomplete but hopefully conveys the immensity of the task involved in understanding the crises in the Sahel and some of the challenges facing conflict resolution. There are three things missing above that are going to form the subject matter of future blogs: the humanitarian consequences (the most important of all), the responses to the crises (military and otherwise), and the successes and failures of attempts at conflict resolution and what can be done in the future. This is better served by focusing on a given crisis (for example, the central Sahel crisis), a country (such as Chad), or an aspect (climate change or armed groups in Mali). The next blog with look at the central Sahel crisis involving Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include BBC News, the Economist, the Conversation,andthe Guardian.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Mozambique: The Cabo Delgado Insurgency Internationalizes

In a dramatic and deadly development, insurgents in Cabo Delgado have attacked Palma in northern Mozambique, causing a mass evacuation from the town. It is the most publicised attack yet and has comes about shortly after the US designated the insurgents as a terrorist group. The dynamics of the conflict may have changed and foreign intervention could prove to be critical in preventing it worsening. It could also fuel the insurgency.

In a previous blog posted in January the Ansar al-Sunna insurgency in Cabo Delgado was discussed but the situation has changed substantially since then with two events occurring that may alter the course of the conflict. The first was the designation of the insurgents as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the deployment of a special forces training team. The second was the Ansar al-Sunna attack on Palma. This blog can be read separately or in conjunction with the previous blog, which goes into more detail on the origins of the conflict and the government’s response. Here we are focused on the potential impact of recent changes and what this means in the context of conflict resolution. We start with the attack on Palma, which began on the 24th of March.

Mozambique’s rainy season had come to an end and this meant that an increase in violence was expected. The coastal town of Palma was already isolated due to insurgent activity and its population, estimated at 111,000, included 43,600 people already displaced by fighting. When it came, the attack was well organised and came from three directions and a frantic evacuation effort began to evacuate residents and foreign workers. Those that were unable to get out by helicopter or boat either tried to run or joined a convoy escaping the town, which was subsequently ambushed. Eyewitness accounts tell a lurid tale of beheadings, the targeting of civil servants and of much of Palma being put to the torch. The French oil and gas company Total had announced the full resumption of its operations barely hours before the attack began and has since announced its withdrawal. As of the 30th March ACLED has reported 2689 fatalities since the insurgency began and Reliefweb reports over 670,000 people have been displaced. The insurgents control Mocímboa da Praia, having occupied it late in 2020, and had threatened the provincial capital, Pemba.

It is the most serious attack this year and it has drawn an unprecedented amount of media attention. This means that more people are talking about it than before, but they are running through the same arguments as before. The difference between the assault on Palma and other brutalities that have marked the insurgency is that it involved foreign workers and an undetermined number have been killed. The government had targeted the media previously in order to control reporting on the conflict. It had recently proposed a draconian new media law that would ban foreign broadcast media and expelled the founder of Zitamar News from the country. The restrictions were undoubtably aimed at hiding the scale of the problem and what the security forces were doing, but this had already failed: the media were reporting, human rights organisations were documenting insurgent atrocities and abuses by the security forces, and academics were asking questions. The picture that emerged was one of a violent Salafi-jihadist insurgency, one which was gaining strength, ambushing the security forces, and robbing, burning and beheading almost at will. The government reacted clumsily and employed private military contractors but has not been able to provide security for the people in the affected areas and its forces have also been accused of human rights abuses.

There has been a long running debate over the involvement of ISIS in the insurgency, which has local origins and regional influences, but regardless of whether ISIS are involved in influencing or organising the insurgents it is unmistakable that they are Salafi-Jihadists and ISIS has claimed them as an affiliate. How deep this actually runs is another matter, but the appearances of the ubiquitous black flags, multiple cases of beheadings, and the surge in capability since the middle of 2019 indicates that if it isn’t ISIS then it’s a Mozambican version not dissimilar to the real thing. Little is known of the group’s inner workings or demands as they are generally secretive and uncommunicative but when the pronouncements do come, they call for Islamic teaching and rejection of the government. The tactics used and the increase in capability indicate foreign training, which may have come about through links with other organisations in Africa.

The United States is convinced, naming Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ)* as an ISIS franchise, designating it as an overseas Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and a Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDTG). The US is the only state to designate the insurgents as part of ISIS, which is a boon to a Mozambican leadership that had claimed they were ISIS prior to the escalation and patchy claims by ISIS of responsibility for attacks. This conveniently deflects responsibility from the government, which according to critics, had neglected the region, failed to listen to reports from local Islamic leaders of an emerging militant sect, treated the 2017 attacks as banditry, and then oversaw a confused military response riven with human rights abuses.

The rampage through Palma and the FTO designation by the US are two developments that may affect the course of the conflict in Mozambique’s north. To be clear, the Mozambican government has responsibility for the security of its citizens, the question is not whether it should but how, and it should be given the support it needs to restore order. There are caveats to this and top of the list is that coercive element of the response needs to be open and accountable and target the insurgents only. The government has been resistant to foreign intervention in the form of ‘boots on the ground’ but it has utilised private military contractors (Dyck Advisory Services (DAG) helicopters were involved in the Palma rescue) and accepted training support from South Africa. Portugal and the US have also sent training teams (or special forces). The training is crucial and reform of how the Police and Army work needs dealing with, but this will take time to have an effect and will be a reformation of how they are organised.

The SDTG designation by the US risks changing the context and dynamics of the conflict as from the perspective of the US, the insurgents are IS-Mozambique and they have added Mozambique to the Partnership for Regional East African Terrorism. This hints at an increased involvement and rolls the insurgency into the narrative of the terror wars, risking an escalation and a misreading of the roots of the conflict. The arrival of the US comes alongside the Portuguese deployment and a promise to lobby for Mozambique within the EU, the British have noted a ‘strategic concern’, and the French navy has been active in the area. While no one doubts the need for the need for action, or the counter-insurgency capabilities available to the US, foreign interventions in local wars have a tendency to escalate them and turn local grievances into an unambiguous affiliation to the ‘Islamic State’, as was the case in the Sahel and Nigeria. The insurgency in Cabo Delgado is firmly rooted in the conditions there and its recruits are Mozambican for the most part. It is linked to ISIS but is not definitively a part of it. This can change. For example, the presence of Western soldiers, however small the number, gives fuel to the cause and attracts foreign fighters. The STDG designation has another impact as it runs the risk of inhibiting the humanitarian response and the US should endeavour to reassure humanitarian organisations that they will not run foul of sanctions during their operations.

Which brings us to what else can be done aside from attempting to defeat the insurgency through military force.  The coercive approach is clearly going to be at the forefront of the government response, but an effective strategy also needs to incorporate conciliation and reform. Part of this is gaining the trust of a population that has been neglected, does not trust the elite at all, and has been infiltrated by radicals espousing Salafi-jihadism. This took time and is hard to unravel, even with the insurgents delegitimizing themselves through their own brutality. To be fair, the government appears to have seen the merit in this, it has done little, but this is a start. Conciliation is directed at the insurgents and their supporters and offers a way out of the group. The government appeared to be leaning towards this when it made an offer of amnesty to militants, but this has not been taken up. Such measures are controversial as they can mean that people with blood on their hands are not brought to account, but they have been applied to other conflict situations. Nothing has been heard yet of three fighters who surrendered and said that their communities would not accept them back because of their crimes. Amnesty is not the only measure and can be partial, conditional, or even part of a wider disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration program. There are inevitable and fully justifiable questions over justice and accountability, but they have the advantage of removing fighters from the insurgent ranks, saving lives in the future.

Reform, which is directed at the population at large, is a long-term mission that requires significant investment and any future assistance from organisations such as the European Union (EU) and South African Development Community (SADC) will be conditional on it. Any gains made through coercive measures will also be undermined if socio-economic issues are not addressed. To take economic marginalisation as an example, a population in which the young have few opportunities, are poorer in contrast to other regions, and experiences corruption, is one where the young are downtrodden and the elders have lost their authority. This is open to exploitation to radicals offering status and money and receiving a wage and being able to send money back to one’s family is a strong motivator to join a group (which may not have become violent yet). We should note that this is not a predetermined trajectory: not everyone responds to socio-economic grievances by being radicalised as there are other ways to respond (including doing nothing). The point is that there are enough that do to cause a problem. As a measure, reform is targeting the conditions from which the minority that are violent emerge, but it also has the much wider benefit of improving the lives of the population at large.

This is one example of a wider program of reform that is required in order to counter the insurgency, prevent further escalation, and stop a re-emergence in future years. The size of the task cannot be underestimated, or the complexity of the coercive approach that targets the insurgents directly. It will also take time to take effect. The government has made a start with its Northern Integrated Development Agency (ADIN), but this has made little progress since its inception and has a wide brief, including the reconstruction of areas pillaged and destroyed by the insurgents. One hurdle the government faces is gaining peoples trust and this will require investment and results, people will want to see that their lives will be measurably better. If, and when, the natural gas and oil is exploited, they will want to see tangible benefits in their lives in the form of jobs and infrastructure, instead of the money flowing to the elite and abroad.

The two organisations that should be at the forefront of a collective response to the situation in Cabo Delgado are the African Union (AU) and SADC, but they have generally been absent. The AU has a lot on its plate elsewhere and limited resources, but it does have an authority to speak for Africans in a way that the UN and EU does not. As a rule, the AU gives primacy to regional organisations such as the SADC, although it does have a Peace and Security Council and has authorised peace support missions in the past. Thus far, it has barely acted at all. The sixteen member SADC is due to hold a special meeting on the situation in Cabo Delgado but has also been lacklustre in its response. The Palma attack has drawn its attention as the insurgency is increasingly seen as a regional problem as opposed to a local issue that everyone had hoped would simply go away. When the SADC does meet, its members may want to treat the recent Amnesty International report as required reading. Two things near the top of the agenda would be the logistics of dealing with the consequences of the insurgency (and the response thus far) and the porous Tanzanian border, which allows refugees to escape the fighting but also allows the movement of fighters and the idealogues who helped to fuel radicalism in the first place. There has been some coordination between Tanzania and Mozambique, who seem to recognise that the problem is one that transcends borders and affects them both.

The Cabo Delgado insurgency is at a critical point in its trajectory and, shocking as it may seem, it has the potential to worsen as opposed to getting better. It is not the first Islamist insurgency to emerge in sub-Saharan Africa, happen close to a lucrative oil or gas development project, attract the attention of an actor such as the United States, or the first to have its roots in local socio-economic and political grievances that are then exploited. Having all four together does not mean a predetermined path to further escalation but the risks are there, and the Cabo Delgado insurgency has escalated quickly, tipping over from terrorism within two years of the first attack in 2017. The government needs to acknowledge that it needs help. The AU and SADC need to be at the forefront of this.

*This is also the name of a Somalian group and Ansar al-Sunna (Supporters of the Tradition), as used here and by Human Rights Watch, is the sect that emerged in Mozambique and preceded the insurgency. Locals refer to the group as ‘al-Shabaab’ (youth). This is unrelated to the Somalian organisation of the same name. The US also named the group’s leader as Abu Yasir Hassan (a Tanzanian), although he may be an influential member of the Ansar al-Sunna leadership only.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (#ACLED) provides data for the Cabo Ligado Mozambique Conflict Observatory. This is updated weekly and can be accessed at: . This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include Zitamar News, Club of Mozambique, The Daily Maverick, All Africa, DW, BBC News, and The Guardian. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International articles and reports were also used. The January blog can be accessed at:

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Afghanistan: The US-Taliban peace deal and the intra-Afghan talks

The intra-Afghan peace talks have resumed in Doha against a background of increased violence. The US-Taliban deal that paved the way for the intra-Afghan talks is under review by the Biden administration. They are unlikely to conclude that the conditions for a withdrawal of foreign forces have been met.

President Biden will soon face a decision reading United States involvement in Afghanistan that will also impact on the international force currently in the country. In February 2020 negotiations between the US and the Taliban led to the signing of a peace deal, which resulted in a reduction of US forces and a commitment to a conditional complete withdrawal on the 1st of May 2021. One of the conditions for this was that intra-Afghan talks would be underway. Not withdrawing means the US and the coalition remain mired in a cycle of violence and the continuation of the ‘forever war’, withdrawal leaves the country without a political settlement and the US open to accusation of abandonment. The most likely scenario is that withdrawal is pushed back as no credible assessment of the Taliban’s commitment to the peace deal would conclude that the criteria are being met. An influential report by the Afghanistan Study Group advises that the withdrawal be delayed.

The advice being given to the President is thorough, although options other than postponement of withdrawal are given short shrift- arguments for the recommittal of forces, withdrawal, and a complete washing of hands are briefly covered. The rationale for extending the withdrawal date is that the counterterrorism mission should remain, the Afghan government needs to deal with elite-level corruption, and as the intra-Afghan negotiations started late the US can extend, buying time through an agreement with the Taliban, and continuing to provide civil and military financial support. This will result in criticism at home for not following through on the Trump administration’s commitment to exit from foreign wars and from the Taliban who clearly want the US to leave. The government of Afghanistan will be wary of losing US support.

If we set aside the US counterterrorism mission and domestic concerns in US politics and concentrate on what the people of Afghanistan want, it tends to be what the US and other countries in the region also want: the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan but with the caveat that a peace deal be concluded.  Few want to see the Taliban take control or for a civil war to begin between opposing interests outside of the Taliban. When asked what they want, the people of the country lean towards a US withdrawal, but only after a peace deal is reached. In a 2020 survey 80% stated that they thought the conflict would only be resolved by a political solution. Generally, they see the intervention by the US and its allies as having been harmful and there are those in the US who agree with them.

The big question that looms over the decision is what the Taliban will do in the absence of foreign support for the government and its forces. The group is far from transparent, and while we can speculate as to their intentions, we can never be certain.  As one experienced analyst noted, the Taliban’s founding leader had been dead for two years and no one outside of the leadership knew. If we are to judge the Taliban by what they do as opposed to what they say, then the evidence for the Taliban seeking a political solution in which power is shared is lacking. The Biden administration’s review of the peace deal is unlikely to conclude that there has been Taliban compliance with its pledges in relation to the deal. Nor are they likely to have much faith in the Taliban’s claim to have more progressive attitude towards the rights of women. The group’s opacity makes their intentions hard to assess and internal divisions might make commitments to women’s rights transitory at best. Thus far, what talking there has been, has been with other countries in the region, and there has been a shocking increase in the level of violence, which includes assassinations of people who are rivals or critical of the Taliban, or simply doing their jobs (including journalists, judges, and politicians). In the areas that they control women are facing tighter restrictions.

While it is conceivable that the Taliban are trying to put themselves in the best possible position should a deal with the government be reached, the fact that they are not living up to a deal with the US that was in their favour is unmistakable. Despite being in a position where they control an estimated 52% of Afghanistan, foreign forces want to leave, and the government wants to talk, there has been no reduction in violence due to attacks on Afghan forces and civilians. That there is no clear mechanism for monitoring compliance is a problem that is resolved in part by one side to the deal being demonstrably in violation of it. A pragmatic course of action would have been to cut the deal with the US (of which the government had little say) and then sit tight in the territory under Taliban control while the intra-Afghan talks take place and foreign forces withdraw. The Taliban clearly did not bother to read the script, if they even cared about it in the first place.

As to the intra-Afghan talks, the people of Afghanistan have a lot to be unhappy about. Their government had little input into the US-Taliban deal, agreements were made about prisoners, deadlines were set for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces, and the whole thing looked very much in the Taliban’s favour. By arranging for the talks in Qatar the Taliban has already been granted a de facto recognition. While there are criticisms to be made of their leaders, the progress made in rebuilding the country’s civil society has come alongside a great cost in life and limb and Afghans have serious questions about the intentions of an insurgent group whose time in governance saw women marginalised and sports stadiums turned into scenes for executions. The US-Taliban deal looked much like an exit strategy. Very much so.

The progress of the talks has been turgid, it took six months longer than expected for the intra-Afghan talks to get going, another three months to deal with procedures and protocol and then a break before the talks began again. All the while, the violence was escalating. While the timescale set by the US in which a peace agreement can be reached was unrealistic, one can be forgiven for being underwhelmed. To add insult to injury, the talking that the Taliban has done has been with other countries in the region, not the Afghan government. Now a Biden administration review hangs over the process. To call it a disappointment is an understatement. The 1st of May deadline for complete withdrawal was a problem from the off as it was far too short a time to allow for effective negotiations between the government and the Taliban and it also gave little time to withdraw the troops, most of whom would have to be withdrawn beforehand to allow for a complete withdrawal by the date set. We should note that peace talks are not like conducting business and as such are usually imperfect: a bad peace deal is better than no deal.

From a US perspective, two factors push the decision in the direction of withdrawal. The first is that despite trillions of dollars in investment and military aid, the political elite in Afghanistan is fractured and riven with corruption and the Taliban is in control of swathes of southern Afghanistan. The second, is that the mission in Afghanistan shifted to an advisory role years ago and the US presence is a training and support mission with a counterterrorism element and airpower. If we drop US interests and focus solely on Afghan needs, there is little further difference that a training and support mission can make to fighting the insurgency without increasing the number of troops and changing back to a frontline mission. As to concerns about human rights, the government does not exercise control outside of the urban centres, where more traditional means of authority hold sway, particularly in the mountainous areas that are self-sufficient and resist central control. The longstanding issue of elite-level corruption that permeates through Afghan politics undermines the government and its allies both. As to the counterterrorism mission that dominates US thinking, there is no consensus as to whether it is working or actually makes things worse. It is more a strategic interest for the US than a need for the people of Afghanistan.

The US approach to Afghanistan is about far more than military operations and it is here that the Afghanistan Study Group has much of value to say. The US has significant leverage outside of the military. One of these is diplomacy, and it is notable that of all the countries in the region, only Pakistan has an interest in a strong Taliban, while the likes of India, Iran, Russia, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan do not. These are far from insignificant actors, whose interests in a stable and prosperous Afghanistan are arguably greater than those of the US. Another is supporting facilitation, mediation, and negotiation efforts towards reaching a political solution. There has been a considerable amount of diplomatic activity in this regard, one example being a five-nation facilitation group (comprised of Germany, Indonesia, Norway, Qatar, and Uzbekistan) that supports the Doha talks. These do not have a mediator and there have been calls for an international mediator to be assigned to the intra-Afghan talks, preferably one appointed by the UN. The position of the US special envoy for Afghanistan, currently Zalmay Khalilzad, should be maintained and empowered. Finally, non-military support, including financial incentives for compliance can be tied to building towards a post-agreement Afghan state. The Afghanistan Study Group report recommends these measures in conjunction with a continued military presence in Afghanistan while the conditions for a political settlement improve. They can also be applied in the event of a withdrawal and would be more effective without a military footprint. There is a strong argument that the presence of foreign forces makes the insurgency more violent and benefits the insurgents. Their removal undermines the insurgent argument that they are fighting against foreign invaders.

The deal between the US and the Taliban failed to please everyone and any future deal between the government and the Taliban will also divide opinion. It is not possible to make everyone happy and there is no such thing as a peace deal that will be accepted by all. The best that can be aimed for is one that is accepted by the key parties, avoids spoilers, and protects life. As things stand, this is a long way off and the Presidential decision regarding the withdrawal of US forces, which will effectively determine what happens with other foreign forces, will also divide opinion. It will be determined by US interests and an assessment as to whether it will help the peace process or cripple it.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include the BBC, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera, the Fair Observer and news media in Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan and the intra-Afghan talks are discussed in depth in the following sources: The United States Institute for Peace at, the Council for Foreign Relations at, and the International Crisis Group at For some viewpoints of Afghan’s on the peace process see: The Afghanistan Study Group Final Report can be accessed at the USIP website cited above.

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Syria: The beleaguered Syrian Constitutional Committee meets again

The Syrian Constitutional Committee is the UN’s primary means of keeping the Syrian government and opposition talking but remains stalled after five rounds of talks. The problems of the SCC are many and the search for a political solution to the conflict in Syria is an uphill task. Despite the many criticisms and setbacks, the SCC should continue as it is currently the only viable intra-Syrian forum and its benefits might only be seen in the long-term.

It can be argued that the history of mediation and negotiation in the Syria conflict is as convoluted and interlocked as the fighting itself. The Arab League intervened unsuccessfully during the 2011 uprising and there has been two distinct international processes in the form of UN-led talks, primarily held in Geneva, and that of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, primarily held in Nur-Sultan (previously known as Astana). There have also been bilateral talks between various actors, international conferences such as the Friends of Syria, opposition conferences, negotiations leading to the lifting of sieges of towns held by opposing sides, and so on. Mediation and negotiation have taken place within Syria and at the regional and international levels, usually dominated by the interests of third parties, and hobbled by the fact that while many profess to wanting peace, they also want it on their own terms. One outcome of talks at the international level is the Syrian Constitutional Committee, which has been slow to get off the ground and after five rounds is gridlocked.

The SCC consists of 150 members acting as a ‘large body’ and a smaller 45 member ‘small body. The large body is split evenly between 50 government nominated delegates, 50 opposition delegates nominated by the Syrian Negotiations Commission, and 50 members of civil society nominated by the UN. The small body is split evenly with 15 members from each of the three groups and prepares and drafts constitutional proposals for the large body to discuss and adopt. The SCC talks are understood to be intra-Syrian talks and are co-chaired by a government and an opposition representative.

The idea of a drafting a new Syrian constitution is specified in UN Security Resolution 2254 of 2015, which drew on the earlier Geneva and Vienna communiques. It is seen again as one of the four ‘baskets’ from the fourth and fifth Geneva talks in 2017. During the Syrian National Congress of 2018 in Sochi the formation of a committee to write a new constitution was introduced as part of a twelve-point plan. In October of 2018 objections from Damascus over the choosing of civil society actors led to the UN Special Envoy to Syria (then Staffan de Mistura) accusing Damascus of obstructing the formation of the constitutional committee and in November de Mistura set a deadline of December for the government and the opposition to reach an agreement on the formation of the constitutional committee. This remained unresolved at the Astana talks in November. It was not until July of 2019 that the current Special Envoy, Geir Otto Pederson, was able announce progress in forming the committee and its actual formation on the 18th of September. In all, there has been five rounds of talks, with little produced beyond discussing the ‘basic principles’ of a future Syrian constitution.

Much of the blame for the failure of the constitutional talks to progress beyond basic principles has been laid at the door of the Assad regime. Its intransigence is a problem that has been present since the uprising of 2011 and is for two reasons. The first, evident during the uprising and early attempts by the Arab league and UN, is that the regime had no intention of relinquishing an iota of control. The second, coming to the fore once the regime had survived and begun to take back control of the cities, is that the regime believes itself to be secure and that it can also win the war. Its incentive for attending talks is that it wishes to regain complete control over Syria and seeks to achieve an opposition surrender via negotiation. There is also the matter of Assad’s government being nudged into attending talks by their Russian backers. The regime has much experience in negotiating surrenders once its opponents have been hammered into the ground. The establishment of four de-escalation zones proved to be a means for the government and its allies to eliminate the opposition piecemeal, leaving a zone centred on Idlib province in the north. The defeated opposition were given a stark choice: remain under government and Russian supervision or be bussed to the northern de-escalation zone. A general understanding in conflict resolution is that for the parties to a conflict to reach the point where they will negotiate, they need to have reached a realisation whereby a military victory is unachievable, but a political solution is. This has never been the case for the government side and critics who argue that the government has no genuine interest in negotiating a new constitution point to the fact that with presidential elections due in 2021, the regime simply needs to stall the constitutional talks until then.

A further problem is the division amongst the opposition over the constitutional committee. This does not count as a surprise in any sense as the complexity of the opposition to the Assad regime dates back far before the constitutional committee was conceived. There are four Syrian groupings vying for territory in Syria: the government, the Kurds, ISIS, and an opposition that encompasses a spectrum of shifting groups and alliances ranging from moderate, through Islamist, to Jihadist. This is the simplest description that can be made of the actors at the national level and excludes regional actors such as Turkey and Iran, and global actors such as Russia and the United States. While ISIS and the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) can be discounted in terms of participation in the constitutional committee, and the underrepresentation of the Kurds (divided within themselves and in conflict with Turkey and some opposition groups) noted, the differences within what we understand as ‘the opposition’ are stark. While some see the SCC as a critical turning point towards achieving a political solution, others have criticised the qualifications of the participants and see it as futile. The opposition membership of the SCC itself are a mixture of delegates from different ‘platforms’ and it can be argued that the opposition members are a constitutional committee in themselves.

The Syrian Negotiations Commission is clearly committed to the SCC but there has been criticism from human rights groups and activists that if the SCC were successful it would prevent a transition of power, allow war criminals to evade justice, and the regime to fulfil its military objectives. One argument is that is that the declaration of a transitional body for Syria should precede the establishment of a constitutional committee as the current situation means that UN Resolution 2254 would be bypassed, along with its requirement for the creation of a political process leading to an elected governing body and a new constitution. Despite the enthusiasm of the UN Secretary General and Pederson for the SCC, it is a far cry from the political transition called for in the early days of the war and has little prospect of resulting in Assad relinquishing power or human rights violations being addressed. It is also the case that while the SCC draws on the major components of the opposition and includes the Syrian Negotiations Committee, the High Negotiations Committee, Moscow Platform and National Coordination Committees, these are backed, respectively, by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, meaning that there is a heavy foreign influence on what should be intra-Syrian talks. It is not much of a stretch to say that the international influence on a purportedly Syrian-led constitutional committee is not far removed from that seen in Syria itself.

Given all the above, why would there be an argument to continue with a process some see as illegitimate and a dead end? This would have to go beyond ‘because this is all that we have’, as the likelihood of any agreement being reached before the presidential elections put Assad back in power for another seven years is low and means that any benefits might not be seen before 2028.

Firstly, we must consider that the existence of the SCC means that Syrians are in a room talking about the future of Syria, however limited the scope of their discussions or the current prospects for an agreement. The only people who should have the ultimate say about the future governance of Syria are Syrians themselves, not the interested parties that contribute to the conflict and have their own desired outcomes. Secondly, support from amongst the opposition for the SCC is strong, despite the divisions and the objections of critics and they should be allowed to continue talking but with the voices of critics heard. Thirdly, the situation in Syria is not stable and may change. While the regime believes itself to be secure it is dependent on foreign support, reliant on the cooperation of opposition groups reconciled to the regime to govern some parts of the country, cannot advance in Idlib due to Turkish involvement and where HTS holds sway, must accept de facto Kurdish self-governance, and still has an ISIS presence in the east. The assumption that the Assad regime has won its war or that it is a permanent fixture is flawed. Any change in its situation may affect its stance in talks and abandoning the slither of hope that is provided by the current forum could also mean abandoning unanticipated gains in the future. This relates to a fourth argument, which is that peace processes crystalise into a visible termination of armed conflict only after they reach their end. There are successes and failures along the way and the outcome may simply shift the conflict from the military to the political, but the violence does end. Having the warring parties in the same room or forum is major step towards this.

This said, the voices of the critics should be heard and arguments that the current focus of the SCC leaves an unaccountable government in charge and offers little prospect of reform addressed. A major flaw in the early UN-led process was that it assumed from beginning that Assad would go, deciding the outcome of the talks before they took place and leaving the regime with little to talk about. For now, it looks like Assad is in fact staying where he is and the regime remains in place, with the discussion of constitution taking place instead of talks on political transition and effectively replacing them. The assumption has been reversed. This does not mean that the talks should not continue, far from it, but it does mean that the remit of what the UN-led process is looking at needs to widen. The Geneva talks presented three more ‘baskets’ alongside that of drafting a new constitution. Two of these were free and fair elections and the creation of a non-sectarian government, drawing on resolution 2254, which called for a political process and a transitional government. What were once seen as credible solutions now seem ambitious to the point of absurdity but as noted above, circumstances change, and the future is unknown.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The above is part of ongoing research on mediation and negotiation in Syria and draws on a working paper to be published on the CARIS website. This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include The Syrian Observer, The Arab Weekly, and Al-Monitor. The formation of the SCC and critiques were sourced from Syria Direct,  North Press Agency and the UN

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Mozambique: The Cabo Delgado insurgency

An insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado increased in its ferocity during 2020. When the violence began in 2017 the government treated the situation as one of Salafi-Jihadist revolt and blamed foreign influences. This missed the root causes of socio-economic marginalization entirely and has left the government facing a classic insurgency that requires a multifaceted response beyond the security option pursued thus far.

The government of Mozambique would be expected to understand insurgency better than many others. Since independence from Portugal there has been a bitter civil war from 1977 to 1992 between FRELIMO and RENAMO and a return to fighting in 2013, with peace deals signed in 2014 and 2019. The insurgency that emerged from Cabo Delgado was different when taken at face value. Mozambique is majority Christian but with a significant Muslim minority, but in the northern region of Cabo Delgado this is reversed with 58% of the population being Muslim. There, a militant Islamic sect called Ansar al-Sunna had emerged and began to challenge the established Muslim authorities, drawing in the young and known by locals as al-Shabaab, but having no links with the Somali group of the same name. When some of the militants turned to violence the government treated it as a case of Salafi-Jihadist terrorism and responded in force and later also reached the conclusion that ISIS was also operating in the country. The focus on Islamic fundamentalism shifts attention from more local grievances about socio-economic marginalisation, lack of opportunity and an abject loss of trust in the local elites and the government. There is no consensus amongst analysts on the claims that ISIS is active in Mozambique or that the insurgents are an affiliate, but in 2020 the insurgents began to adopt a strategy of taking but not holding towns.

Gaining an understanding of the group responsible for the insurgency is difficult as it is particularly secretive and has avoided public pronouncements characteristic of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The names ascribed to the group point to a distinct group that is focused on tradition and is young and local in its origin. Locals are reported to have distinguished between the militants of Ansar al-Sunna (supporters of the tradition) with a long presence and al-Shabaab (youth) that appeared more recently. One thing that is clear is that it is distinctly Mozambican in its origins and set up, although it does have foreign links and fighters and had brought in trainers from abroad. The little communication there has been asserted the rejection of state education and taxation and advocates the implementation of Sharia law. The most accurate description of the insurgency would be as coming from a situation in which local grievances about socio-economic marginalisation, lack of opportunity and an abject loss of trust in the local elites and the government have been exploited by a Salafist-Jihadist movement.  

The Mozambican security forces have struggled to deal with the insurgency and have sought help from private military contractors, first the Russian Wagner Group and then Dyck Advisory Services. The numbers of PMCs involved has been small, with the Wagner Group deploying approximately 200 before their withdrawal and Dyck Advisory Services providing helicopter support. Special forces from the South African National Defence Force and the South African arms manufacturer Paramount Group are reported to be assisting the Mozambican military. Recently, Tanzania has begun cooperation with Mozambique and a request for assistance has been sent to the European Union. Portugal is to become involved in training and logistics and has pledged to use its presidency of the European Union to push through EU assistance.

There are five issues that have affected the ability of the government’s counter-insurgency efforts. The first, and most damning, is the clumsy response of the police and armed forces when initially responding to the outbreak of violence. This includes attacks on civilians and indiscriminate arrests, with the full facts hard to come by due to the second issue, which is a clampdown on reporting and investigation by journalists and human rights organisations (in turn, not helped by the insurgent tactic of cutting communications). A third problem was the focus on two other security matters in the form of suspected piracy off the Mozambican coast and a RENAMO insurgency elsewhere in the country. Both these situations drew the attention of the government away from a deteriorating situation in Cabo Delgado where local civil society was warning of increasingly influential fundamentalists gaining ground in the region. This was due to a fourth issue, which is widespread grievance over inequality, widespread poverty and corruption that provided the antecedents for the insurgency in the first place. A fifth is the competing approaches and rivalry between the Mozambican military and the national police to the point of them launching separate air assaults. Local militias are adding to the complexity of the counterinsurgency efforts and there have been friendly fire incidents.  

Despite the secrecy and inconsistency of the insurgents and the attempts by the government to keep its counterinsurgency efforts under the radar of accountability, a picture has emerged of a major upheaval and an increase in insurgent capability and activity in 2020. The beginning of the insurgency can be pinpointed as the 5th October 2017 when three police stations in Mocímboa da Praia were attacked by insurgents, triggering a series of arrests and skirmishes. By the 13th December 2020 ACLED had recorded 698 organized violence events, 2441 fatalities, and 1237 deaths as a result of civilian targeting. While the insurgents have been responsible for a significant number of attacks on civilians as part of their strategy the security forces have also been accused of causing civilian deaths. Over 560,000 people are estimated to have been displaced. It has also brought the violence close to an international gas project, which promises to be the largest in Africa and could provide a hitherto unseen prosperity to Mozambique if the government managed it properly. As it stands, the riches from offshore gas exploration are more fuel for the fire of the insurgency as ordinary Mozambicans are unlikely to trust the elite to share the benefits.

The government has made two critical mistakes that are common, almost ubiquitous, when dealing with organised violence. The first is ignoring the warning signs that a situation is developing in the first place, including when civil society actors are warning of an increasingly militant sect that is gaining followers. The second is a counterterrorism dominated response to the problem that involves mass arrests and hits the general population as hard as it does the militants but fails to look at the root causes, or adherents in the situation. In this case it involved documented human rights violations by the security forces that go all the way up to killing non-combatants. The response is both heavy handed and inadequate – force is being applied that affects the general population, yet it is not focused and has not proven capable of slowing down an insurgency that is gaining in strength.

That the military approach has thus far not worked is clear, although the government is working on increasing the resources available to it by cooperating with neighbouring countries, including recent coordination with Tanzania, and freeing up the military through an agreement with RENAMO. There are also signs that they are working towards addressing the marginalisation of the population in Cabo Delgado and have approached the EU regarding this. They have also abandoned the idea that the insurgency is the work of foreigners and that the end goal to implement an Islamic state in the north. They are right to tackle violence head on, as it is their responsibility to ensure the security of the general population of Cabo Delgado, but this coercive element of the response needs to be open and accountable and target the insurgents only. This means that the open harassment of journalists and other critics of the government’s approach needs to stop. A government at war with the people it is trying to protect is one that is providing recruits to the insurgent cause. We should note that the security forces also need to be working together under an overall strategy and not as competing factions. The other two prongs of a joined-up strategy are conciliation and reform, the first gives those not involved in killing a way out, the second deals with root causes and is directed towards the general population. The insurgents have a limited support base but are tolerated by a population that sees the local elites as self-serving, exploitative, and corrupt, and the government itself as no better. For this to change requires an investment in the reform of civil governance and its visible accountability to the people.

The problems that the government faced prior to October 2017 are different to those that they face now as they now have an insurgency to resolve on top of dealing with the local issues that provided the fuel for the insurgency in the first place. This is difficult but not impossible, although the approach needs to change from one of oppression to one that combines coercion, conciliation, and reform. The established Muslim authorities have been battling Ansar al-Sunna for the hearts and minds of the young in Cabo Delgado. Their task will become easier if the government refrains from conduct that undermines their authority.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (#ACLED) hosts the Cabo Ligado: Mozambique Conflict Observatory. This is updated weekly and can be accessed at: . This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include Zitamar News, Club of Mozambique and The Conversation.

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Ukraine: Fighting On

In Ukraine the bitter conflict between the government and separatists in the east of the country grinds on. The means by which the fighting can stop has been agreed in 2015 but the two sides seem incapable of maintaining a ceasefire beyond the length of a day. They have a common understanding of the importance of elections but seem incapable of disengaging their forces and creating the conditions where voting can take place.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has remained relatively static since the last major battle for the town of Avdiivka in 2017. To all intents and purposes it is treated as one that is frozen but while the frontlines don’t move there are multiple ceasefire violations every week and  civilians remain displaced and at risk. The casualties continue to mount up, but at a slow pace. This is a situation where the conflict has become normalized and in which the warring parties appear to be incapable of ending a grinding slog. The fight for the Donbass is a bitter one with differences between the sides dating back long before the beginning of fighting in 2014.

There has been no shortage of ceasefire agreements but they have a track record of being broken quickly and the only real measure of their success is in the reduction of violence as opposed to their ending it. This said, there has been a significant improvement since the signing of a ceasefire agreement on the 27th July 2020. According to ACLED (via Reliefweb) in the three months that preceded it there were 3046 ceasefire violations, in the three months that followed there were 542 ceasefire violations. In the Ukrainian context this counts as a major success. It was the eighth ceasefire agreement since the beginning of 2018. We do not know if this is the beginning of a change in which the number of conflict events (registered as ceasefire violations) gradually whittles down to zero or it is a temporary dip followed by a return to a higher number of events. As it stands, the fighting continues, talks take place, ceasefires are agreed and then broken, but the conflict stays at a relatively low level of intensity. Talks take place through the Normandy Format and the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG).

The Normandy Format was set up on the 6th June 2014 and includes representatives of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, occasionally joined by representatives from Belarus, Italy and the United Kingdom. The TCG was also created and consists of representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE maintains a monitoring mission that reports daily. Extensive TRG talks in 2014 led to the signing of the Minsk Protocol by representatives from the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine and the two separatist regions, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). This failed to stop the fighting at the time and was followed by a follow up memorandum and the 2015 Minsk II agreement, under the auspices of the Normandy Format. The result of extensive negotiations, the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II are comprehensive, covering conditions for ceasefires, the banning of offensive operations, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry, pardon and amnesty for actions in the separatist region, monitoring by the OSCE, release of prisoners of war, the restoration of the Russia-Ukraine border, and constitutional reform in Ukraine. In 2019 there were prisoner exchanges and an agreement was signed at a Paris summit to follow the ‘Steinmeier formula’. This envisaged the holding of elections in the DPR and LPR under the supervision of the OSCE, to be followed by their reintegration into Ukraine. The various agreements set out a path to peace between Ukraine and the separatist oblasts but despite the reduction in fighting, both sides remain entrenched and the benefits thus far are that the frontlines are stabilized and the casualty rate has been significantly reduced.

The core incompatibility that separates the government and the separatists is the future governance of the regions that are currently controlled by the separatists. The solution to this would appear to be included in the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II: the holding of local elections that are monitored by the OSCE. They also include the provision that there be a temporary decentralisation of power while the elections take place. This would appear to be simple, except neither party is really willing to countenance a scenario where the other actually wins the elections. A 2019 survey reported in The Conversation produced results that indicated a majority of 55% of people living in the LPR and DPR wanted the separatist areas to be part of Ukraine, there were strong personal linkages across the frontline, and an absence of a clear cut identity (in terms identifying as Russian or Ukrainian). The 55% were split over the issue of autonomy within Ukraine but 45% favoured being part of the Russian Federation. While this is the outcome of a survey it indicates problems for both the government and the separatists. A key argument of the separatists and their supporters in the Kremlin is that the Donbas is ethnically closer to Russia and that they would favour being part of it. A free and fair election monitored by the OSCE could result in a win for the government and would be a disaster for the separatists and the Kremlin. From the government’s perspective the recovery of a territory that has a significant minority whom would actually prefer to be in Russia and identify as ethnically Russian is a problem also. This would not be a return to the status quo before 2014 but to a divided society living in an autonomous region. The current President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected in part due to the electorate’s wish to bring the conflict in the east to an end but this does not mean they will accept concessions that could mean autonomy for the DPR and LPR. This scenario assumes that the voting would go the government’s way and that it would actually be from elections that were held in a legitimate manner. Neither are guaranteed.

The problem of an unfavourable outcome from elections (recognised as legitimate or not) is only one problem that besets attempts to transform the conflict to a condition where the disputes are addressed through political competition. The status of Crimea and the wider geopolitical environment are also major spoilers. 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 repairing the badly damaged relationship between Russia and the West, an even bigger ask that requires competent and pragmatic statecraft towards scaling back an unnecessary confrontation that affects Eastern Europe in general and has raised tensions to an unacceptable level. For now, the focus needs to be squarely on ending the violence in eastern Ukraine.

The way forward continues to be dialogue through the Normandy Format and the TCG as this is the path to a compromise solution has already been set out in Minsk II. The emphasis should be on the local interests over the international interests that contributed to the escalation of the conflict in 2014. Two obstacles to this are the willingness of the interested parties to put the question of who governs the separatist areas to a free and fair vote and for there to be trust in the process. There is also the far from trivial matter of selling this to their constituents. The only people that should decide who represents the population in the separatist areas is the people who live there or have been displaced. A key aspect of this is that both sides realise that this is not the end of the matter and that there will be future votes: winning elections is only a temporary gain and the losers need to be able to contest them again at regular intervals. One positive observation of Minsk II is that its signatories appear to have a solid grasp of the important of elections. They have proved incapable of actually implementing a ceasefire though, which was scheduled for the 15th February 2015.

Work also needs to be done on the normalization of politics after the fighting actually ends. Again, Minsk II has provisions for demilitarization to take place but it only gets the participants to the stage where their differences are being handled through political means. It does not provide a framework that ensures that disputes do not mean a return to violence. There is mention of ‘constitutional reform’ and ‘decentralisation’ but no real plan as to how this is achieved or conflict resolution mechanisms. The most proven method for this is the democratic process, which ensures representation, but this also requires trust in the political system and between the protagonists. In effect, this means more talking and the development of a political system that is participatory and reflexive.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Cameroon: Time for UN action over the Anglophone crisis

The murder of schoolchildren during an attack in the city of Kumba has brought widespread condemnation and put a renewed spotlight on the fighting in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The warring parties have failed to resolve their differences and atrocities have been committed by both sides in the course of the conflict. There are calls for the UN to be involved. They are overdue and the situation needs to be addressed at the level of the Secretary General.

On the 24th of October there was what has been described as a new low in Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis when seven children were killed and many more injured by gunmen in an attack on a school in the city of Kumba. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which has been condemned by the government, separatist leaders and human rights organisations. It has put a renewed spotlight on a conflict between the government and armed groups riven by human rights violations that include massacres, the destruction of villages, sexual violence and torture. A dispute over law and teaching that escalated in 2016 led to the declaration of independence by Ambazonia Governing Council in 2017 and fighting between the government and separatists. This underwent a major escalation in 2019 and has led to an estimated death toll of over 3000 and the displacement of over 600,000 people. A unique characteristic of the conflict has been the deliberate closure of schools by the separatists, removing 800,000 children from education.

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. This is due to the colonial history of the region that saw the Southern Cameroons and Cameroon joined together in a botched withdrawal by the British and French. It left Cameroon with different law and education systems in the English and French speaking areas. 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 2016 dispute 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 as the campaign by lawyers and teachers was linked to that for greater civil and political rights. The government responded harshly and arrested hundreds of protestors and would later arrest the leaders of the separatist movement. A notable characteristic of the Anglophone crisis is that its main incompatibility is constitutional, meaning that amongst the potential solutions was the reform of how the regions were governed. The deterioration into armed conflict was a situation that was utterly out of proportion to the dispute that fuelled it and separatist demands moved from autonomy to independence.  

International action has been limited given the scale of the crisis. The EU and the US have condemned the violence but have taken little other direct action (advocating within the EU and US not withstanding). The US has been pushing for sanctions while France supports the government. The most influential regional power is Nigeria, who absorbed the Northern Cameroons during decolonisation but is partnered with Cameroon in their battle against Boko Harem. The African Union has discussed the crisis in a closed meeting at a summit but has otherwise steered clear. For its part, the UN seems to be waiting for the AU to act, which has yet to happen in any substantive form. We should note that Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya, is able to count on support in the region and that the AU is fundamentally resistant to changes arising from territorial and governance disputes.  

The Cameroonian government in Yaoundé has generally sought to avoid outside involvement in the crisis with the exception of Swiss mediators from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and has sought to deal with the crisis internally and on its own terms. An attempt by the Swiss in 2019 failed to stop the fighting due to mistrust from within the separatist movement but they have been mandated by the government to try again. An experienced diplomat and mediator, Günther Bächler, has been working with the parties and the church in Cameroon during 2020. A national dialogue in 2019 also had little impact on ending the fighting but in 2020 there has been secret talks between government representatives and separatists from the diaspora in Ghana and then jailed separatist  leaders in the neutral territory of the Episcopal Centre of Mvolyé. Despite the willingness of the sides to talk major fighting has continued and there have been many instances of atrocities similar to the one that took place in Kumba. For the government the war is a classic insurgency and for the separatists it is a guerrilla war. For everyone else it is brutal and frequently atrocious.

Whilst the warring parties are willing to talk there is little of note coming out of it and they are deadlocked over the conditions for a cessation of military activities. The momentum for a peaceful solution is driven by civil society, including the Catholic Church and women’s groups in the Anglophone regions, and on the 27th October some 35 groups issued an open letter calling for a ceasefire and UN peace talks. This coincides with a call from separatist leaders for the UN to mediate. The Cameroonian opposition has been critical of both the government and the separatists, noting that separatist violence allowed Biya to deal with international pressure to find a solution. They also say that the Biya regime is corrupt and needs to go. Maurice Kamto, an  opposition leader, languishes in prison following a disputed election that some say he actually won. A major difficulty in the talks is the divisions within both the government and the separatists.

Inside the government there is the expected jockeying for influence, particularly given that the question of Bika’s succession is wide open but this has found its way into the peace process, with the Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, and Secretary General of the Presidency, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, at odds.There is more widespread division in terms of attitudes to dealing with the separatist insurgency and the government has shown itself unable to agree on what has actually been discussed or agreed in talks with the secessionists. As far as coming up with a joined up approach to the crisis goes, it’s a shambles. Given that there is the added possibility of a forthcoming succession crisis with factions and interests split along ethnic lines and a war with Boko Haram that is responsible for over 2,500 deaths between 2014 and 2017, the government does in fact have a lot on its plate (see the previous blogs on this). This is not, however, a valid reason not to deal with a disaster in the Anglophone regions that the Biya government contributed to by its own mishandling of the situation, or its failure to prevent war crimes by its own forces.

For their part, the separatists lack central control and there are differing opinions on issues such as the utility of violence, political solutions (independence/autonomy /confederation) and the use of school strikes. There are a myriad of political organisations, some linked to armed groups and disagreement on finding solutions to the conflict other than armed struggle. Hardliners insist on fighting on and there are small semi-criminal actors reliant on a war economy. This makes it difficult to refer to the separatists as a movement, even as a decentralised one. While there are two major Ambazonian interim governments (referred to as IG Sisiku and IG Sako, after their leaders) they act as umbrella groups for other factions and there are also unaffiliated militias on the ground alongside what are described as ‘Fake Amba’ allegedly in the pay of the government. The recent peace talks have mostly been with the IG Sisiku, whose leader is imprisoned in Cameroon. These talks have been condemned by the IG Sako, whose leader is based in the US. Much of the debate takes place in the diaspora. In turn, the IG Sisiku was critical of the 2019 Swiss mediation attempt which the IG Sako took part in. This prevented a unified separatist presence for talks with the government and effectively derailed the attempt altogether. The government has generally favoured talking to separatist leaders from IG Sisiku whom are incarcerated in Cameroon’s jails, meaning the exclusion of the  IG Sako leaders in the diaspora. Despite the divisions, one separatist leader, Ayaba Cho Lucas, has claimed that the factions are working together. One notable concession by the separatists has been to drop the call for the army to withdraw from the Anglophone regions and to return to their barracks instead, allowing the police and gendarmerie to take over.

The government stance is to push forward with decentralisation agreed at a 2019 Grand National Dialogue alongside a firm military response. The parliament approved a bill granting special status but secessionists have rejected this as having emerged out of a dialogue dominated by the ruling CPDM party, which some of the opposition had walked out of. Whilst the government is pushing reform the population of the Anglophone region didn’t turn out to vote in the February elections. The separatists have indicated preferences that talks should take place outside of Cameroon, involve all separatists and not just those handpicked by the government, and should involve a trusted international actor. The government is divided on the matter, with some members advocating entrusting negotiations to a third party outside of Cameroon. The IG Sisiku has called for the demilitarisation of the Anglophone regions, prisoner releases and an amnesty for leaders in the diaspora. Separatists and the government are deadlocked over the deployment of the military with the former saying there will be no ceasefire unless the army returns to barracks. It isn’t clear exactly how much operational control the IGs have over their affiliated groups.

There has been significant pressure for the UN to become involved in the resolution of the conflict. One separatist IG has called for it, the opposition believes that the UN should be involved and the signatories of #EndAnglophoneCrisis are a who’s who of civil society groups and international campaign groups. These include the women’s groups working in the Anglophone regions. While it is the case that the government and the separatists have engaged in talks there has yet to be a substantive outcome and there is substantial evidence that the forces of both sides have committed war crimes. Their interests have been supplanted by the call of civil society and peace activists for an immediate general ceasefire and referral of the dispute to the UN in the form of the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, the UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. An additional argument is that the dispute be taken before the UN Security Council and be addressed directly by the appointment of a Special Envoy by the UN Secretary General (which could be a dual appointment with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue). This would push forward the move to a negotiated settlement through raising international censure of the situation, enabling the formation of a resolution regarding funding streams for the combatants and providing the independent mediator that both parties say they desire with the support of the Secretary General. The Anglophone crisis remains one that is constitutional in nature and is resolvable through political means.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

In 2019 there were two blogs regarding the Anglophone crisis that provide more background to the conflict and can be accessed at: and  

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Nagorno-Karabakh: A severe escalation of an unresolved conflict in the Caucasus

The unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has escalated into heavy fighting involving artillery, tanks, aircraft and drones. The prospects for an immediate solution are slim but the international community needs to focus on achieving a ceasefire and returning the search for a resolution of the conflict to the OSCE Minsk Group.

On the 27th September fighting erupted between the militaries of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting is the most serious escalation of the conflict since 2016, but there is a chain of violent events and minor escalations stretching back to the 1994 ceasefire that ended the war over the region. In conflict resolution terms it is a conflict whose resolution has been postponed with any solutions left for later. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is essentially one that is intractable and effectively frozen while mediation and negotiation goes on in the search for an actual resolution. As it stands, the conflict is one in which a ceasefire has held despite relatively minor skirmishes but with an unresolved incompatibility festering away in the background. Such situations are prone to major escalation and this eventually happened at the end of September and has resulted in heavy fighting leading to hundreds of casualties and the reported displacement of half of the area’s population.

The conflict is one based on territory and identity and is located within the geography of post-Soviet space. In the simplest terms, Nagorno-Karabakh is a region within Azerbaijan that is majority-Armenian and the population seeks to be part of Armenia. The Soviet government had established Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region and put a stop to any dissent over the region until the break-up of the Soviet Union. The regional legislature then passed a resolution to join Armenia and declared independence in 1991, leading to a major conflict that was brought to a ceasefire in 1994 under Russian mediation. Under international law Nagorno-Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan although in reality it is an autonomous region occupied by Armenian forces (other parts of Azerbaijan are also occupied). Clashes in July have escalated to the serious fighting that has seen Azerbaijan reoccupy some of this territory. Two significant factors in this appear to be a change in the military balance and political discontent in Azerbaijan over financial support related to Covid-19.

Regional support for the conflicting parties is mixed. Russia and Iran have both declared their neutrality in the matter, although Russia may lean slightly to Armenia and Iran to Azerbaijan. Neither of them stands to gain anything substantial from diplomatic and military support for either side and both of them have called for the fighting to stop. The security of oil and gas flows is a major factor in their consideration of the stability of the region. In contrast, Turkey is openly supportive of Azerbaijan and is reported to have sent Syrian fighters. There are also Turkish fighter jets in the country, purportedly there after military exercises. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been bellicose over Turkish intervention and it should surprise no one that it has been outright condemned by Armenia. Russia, the United States and the EU have all called for the fighting to stop in the hope that the parties will revert back to the status quo: de facto autonomy in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian occupation of neighbouring parts of Azerbaijan to be brought to the negotiating table. In the current scenario, Azerbaijan appears intent on reversing or diminishing the Armenian military victories of the 1990s war and in relative terms is stronger than it was back then. Turkish support may tip the balance in their favour but there is a great difference between invasion by a force seen as liberators and one by a force seen as occupiers. Observers are right to be worried: the war in the 1990s resulted in at least 30,000 casualties and the movement of ethnic Armenians and Azeris in their hundreds of thousands. Both sides accused the other of human rights violations then and are doing so now. As things stand, the Azeris have more to gain and the Armenians have more to lose. This does not bode well for resolution.

Mediation of the dispute has been taking place since the 1994 ceasefire but the situation has remained deadlocked. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group is co-chaired by France, Russia and the US but they have been accused by Azerbaijan of being pro-Armenian. At the time of writing a shaky ceasefire mediated by Russia is in place but both sides have accused the other of violating it. Prior to the escalation, the Azeri leadership in Baku and their Armenian counterparts in Yerevan had lost faith in negotiation and an indication of the intractability of the incompatibility between them is the lack of progress in talks stretching out over 26 years. This is in a situation where US and Russian rivalry is absent and the general international consensus is that things stay as they are while negotiations take place. From the perspective of Yerevan and Stepanakert (the capital of the autonomous region) this is a denial of the wish of the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to join Armenia. From the perspective of Baku, it rewards an Armenian military occupation of Azeri territory. Postponing the resolution of the conflict in 1994 was the only credible solution at the time as neither party was ready to talk but had had enough of the fighting. To not have an alternative 26 years later indicates ill-will on the part of the protagonists and a lack of commitment by the international community towards resolving the issue. A 1993 UN resolution advising countries not to supply weapons that could escalate the conflict was allowed to lapse in 2003 and both have their suppliers. By way of example, Russia supplied both.

The conflict is at danger of more serious escalation than has already taken place due to the aforementioned Turkish support for Azerbaijan and a defensive agreement between Russia and Armenia in the event that the fighting enters Armenia proper. As to whether Armenia would actually ask for help or receive it is another matter. Russia and Turkey also find themselves supporting opposing parties in Syria and Libya, meaning that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh could potentially become another theatre of a regional rivalry between them. Despite this, the more likely scenario is that a grinding conflict takes place in and around Nagorno-Karabakh as Baku attempts to solidify its gains and put an end to the autonomous region once and for all. When at least one side believes that it has the advantage and can achieve a victory the chances of a negotiated solution are slim.

Sooner or later there will be a need to return to negotiations and it is better for this if the three OSCE Minsk Group members maintain neutrality but contest aggression by the protagonists. When this happens the intractability of the conflict should be recognised and attempts made to move on from the point where conflict resolution has failed. This may entail working with both parties separately, having them explore individually what is a red line in talks and what is open for discussion. In doing so, they can return to the negotiations having explored their options and perhaps having achieved a shift in priorities of their own accord. It is unlikely that either will accept arbitration or leaving control of the disputed area to others but in the future shared control may become a realistic option and there may also be potential for horse-trading in relation to territorial control. This is unthinkable now and will probably remain so for the immediate future but in the long term, postponing the search for a solution will prove counterproductive.    

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Belarus Part Three: Prospects for mediation

The outright political repression in Belarus shows no sign of abating and the protestors don’t appear likely to give up. Due to the intransigence of the Belarusian and Russian leaderships there seems to be little scope for mediating the crisis. Despite this, the offer of mediation from the OSCE and UN should always be on the table and the EU should be firm and decisive about its actions in response to major human rights violations.

As the Belarusian political crisis rumbles on protests ranging from the small to huge continue and state repression ramps up. Students protesting at the Minsk State University were arrested on the campus while mass demonstrations in the tens of thousands in Minsk have seen arrests, threats and beatings, media suppression and forced departure from the country. There is only one leading figure from the Opposition Committee that hasn’t been locked up or had to leave the country. This sorry state of affairs where peaceful protests and dissent are brutally suppressed is to the surprise of no one, least of all the people of Belarus. In 2017 protests had also resulted in a crackdown. The protestors had a very good idea of what they were getting into when they began protesting and went ahead and did it anyway.

Protests aren’t exactly unique to Belarus. 2019 was a year of protests: in Chile they began over the raising of Santiago metro prices, in Iran the trigger was petrol prices, and the protests in France were a general movement for economic justice. In Hong Kong protests broke out over an extradition bill that was withdrawn and protests in Sudan brought about the demise of the country’s leader, Omar al-Bashir. 2020 hasn’t been a whole lot better either. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic keeping people at home, the United States has been best by the Black Lives Matter protests, which have also taken place in the United Kingdom. Russia has not been spared either; protests in the eastern region of Khabarovsk began in July after Moscow ordered its governor’s arrest.  As to whether any of these countries have covered themselves in glory in how they handled their respective protests is open to debate. The point is that protests are a normal part of any government that is accountable to its people. They are rare in Belarus for reasons that have been self-evident since Belarusians decided that they hadn’t re-elected Alexander Lukashenko as President on August the 9th of this year. They were probably fully aware that they hadn’t elected him the previous four times either but had kept quiet because they live in a dictatorship and it was to be expected. We should note that the protests in Belarus have been overwhelmingly peaceful and will no doubt continue in this vein: in the face of absolute power nonviolence exposes the illegitimacy of the powerful and their claim to authority is lost.

Neighbouring states are worried and not only because of the violations of human rights that are going on across the country. The EU and member states, the US, UK, Canada and others have already condemned the violence. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have imposed travel bans on Lukashenko and 29 other Belarusian officials. The EU is openly talking of sanctions and doesn’t recognise the results of the 2020 election. In Russia, or more accurately, the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin is probably aghast at developments: Lukashenko has been a difficult ally but he is an ally nonetheless and there is concern that his demise could pull Belarus out of its union with Russia and threaten Putin’s presidency as well. The EU approach is cautious and they have not offered to mediate, clearly wary of providing ammunition for Lukashenko’s lurid claims of foreign influence on Belarusian politics. Nor do they want to provide an excuse for a Russian intervention. The approach from the Kremlin has been to support Lukashenko and dominate the media in both Russia and Belarus (note that we can’t rule out Lukashenko being dumped if he continues to be a problem). If this sounds like a dangerous confrontation along a dividing line between the EU/NATO and a Russian sphere of influence then that is because it is (see the previous blog for why this shouldn’t matter but might).

The question here is who exactly does mediate, given that the protestors are very clear that they want Lukashenko to step down and the security forces are busy brutalising them? It is not a great start and gets worse given that the Opposition Committee is calling for the end of political repression and that the perpetrators are brought to account for their actions. Trusting in a Kremlin that openly backs Lukashenko is too much of an ask, trusting in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as an arbitrator effectively means Russia (or the Kremlin, still too much of an ask) and the basic fact that Belarus and Russia are supposedly in a Union State means that the bigger brother will claim the right to arbitrate (Russia again, so the Kremlin again). The natural affinity between Russians and Belarusians that we talked about in part two suddenly doesn’t seem so great after all. We are left with a dictatorship backed by an autocracy, which is where we began in the first place. If the Kremlin lumbers in on the situation too heavily then the Eastern Partnership with the EU looks a little brighter and, perversely, Lukashenko comes out of it a little better for resisting Moscow’s encroachment into Belarusian affairs all along. So, where to go now?

There are other places to go for mediation, not to mention election monitoring and addressing violations of human rights. One is the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and another is the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The OSCE is already involved to a degree, having tried to monitor the 2020 elections it has offered to mediate, but has called for fresh elections. Further impetus can be added by triggering the ‘Moscow mechanism’ to investigate allegations of serious human rights violations (this requires 10 member states, so is not inconceivable). In order to involve the UNHRC a resolution has to be passed which tasks the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to become involved (Lotte Leicht, HRW). An open letter from civil society organisations to convene a special session on human rights violations before, during and after the elections has already been published. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, from exile in Lithuania, has addressed the UN Security Council via video-link and called for it to stop the repression in Belarus.

This is all weighty stuff, which unfortunately has little impact on Mr Lukashenko and has repeatedly failed to trouble the Kremlin as well. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has openly spoken of the failure of the OSCE to monitor the 2020 elections in Belarus, effectively shunting the blame from Lukashenko to the OSCE, which he described as in crisis and in need of reform. He also stated that Moscow and Minsk will suppress attempts to destabilise Belarus via multilateral platforms and promised a response to those who would seek to tear Belarus away from Russia. There was also condemnation of foreign countries that support the opposition and the Presidential election was deemed valid. The ‘initiative’ by Lukashenko to carry out constitutional reform was promising and the political process could become a useful platform for national dialogue. The message was quite clear: stop interfering in Belarus and leave Lukashenko to sort the situation out. This is hardly a promising start, more a conclusion. Nor is it a negotiating tactic, this is probably where Putin stands on the matter.

Despite this, the OSCE and UN should still offer to mediate and press on with investigating major human rights violations. The EU may have to tread carefully so as not to escalate the situation in Belarus further but it should also be sending clear and unequivocal messages to the leaderships in Minsk and Moscow that there will not be any normalisation of relations with either Belarus or Russia while the human rights of Belarusians are being trampled underfoot. They should also be sending a loud and clear message that the EU has no interest in Belarus except to guarantee the fundamental human rights of its citizens and that Belarus isn’t a piece in a geo-political game but a sovereign country. The EU may not be mediating but there is no reason for it not to talk directly to Minsk and Moscow. This is diplomacy, and so more akin to negotiation rather than mediation, but lines of communication should be kept open and the consequences of the Belarusian crisis spelt out. This also applies to member states and other countries. As for the protestors and political opposition within Belarus, they may be in it for the long haul and are clearly up against it, but they have changed the political situation more than they realise. The façade has cracked and the truth that was known but unspoken is finally getting its voice.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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