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 In Hong Kong protests broke out over an extradition bill that was withdrawn and protests in Sudan brought about the demise of the country’s leader, Omar al-Bashir. 2020 hasn’t been a whole lot better either.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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Belarus Part Two: The biggest threat is at home

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In the Republic of Belarus protestors calling for legitimate elections have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands in face of government repression. The outcome may also have implications for the EU and Russia, with Russia having the most influence over events. Despite geo-political concerns, the greatest danger to Belarus is its own government.

Belarus has been beset by the most serious protests since it became independent in 1990. They are also the most serious during the 26 year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. The division within Belarus is very clear:  protestors waving red and white flags are calling for Mr Lukashenko to step down, but he has made it abundantly clear that he will not do so. There has been a brutal crackdown on the protestors and opposition figures. People have been dragged from streets to be brutalised in police cells and most who dared to stand against Lukashenko in the 2020 election have been forced abroad.  Some have disappeared altogether. This has not stopped the protests and the de facto opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has continued to call for fresh elections from abroad. How this will turn out in the long run is difficult to say as outside powers have as much interest in the outcome as the Belarusians do.

Authoritarian rule is not the only shadow cast over Belarus. There is also the question of its location in Europe where it is sandwiched between a crisis-riven EU and NATO and a revitalised Russia. The most apt description of this is of a clash between Western values and Kremlin self-interest (Nigel Gould-Davies, IISS) whereby the EU promotes democracy and will back a peaceful transition, while for the Kremlin the unrest in Belarus would remove an ally and possibly have direct repercussions for Vladimir Putin’s presidency in Russia. While the EU will restrict itself to sanctions and moral support, Mr Putin has not ruled out a direct intervention into Belarus. It is not in his interests to actually do this but it is clear that of the EU/NATO and the Kremlin it is the latter that has by far the biggest influence on what happens within Belarus. The trouble is, there are serious tensions and differences between the West and Russia and Belarus is sat close to the centre of it. The last time this flared up was in Ukraine and nobody wants to see that again, although many worry about it.

There is no reason other than the strategic jockeying for power and advantage of geo-politics that countries should not decide for themselves who they do and don’t deal with, or why they should end up as buffers between opposing powers, but the pointless battle for influence goes on. Unfortunately Belarus is a part of this, whether the people of the country like it or not. Fortunately, it may not matter, because as many a pundit will tell you, Belarus is not Ukraine and their circumstances are very different. Firstly, Belarusian politics is not the fractured mess that was characteristic of Ukraine, with one foot in the EU and the other in Russia’s political and economic sphere of influence. Secondly, the current dissent is specifically related to the internal situation in Belarus and the question of Belarus’s place in Europe barely gets a mention.

With regard to the EU/NATO and Russia, Mr Lukashenko is notorious for playing of one bloc against the other, but little has been heard from the opposition. Whilst Mr Lukashenko is conjuring enemies from every possible direction (including his supporters in Russia) and the Kremlin has ratcheted up its propaganda machine against Belarusian dissenters and the West, the dissent in Belarus has avoided geopolitics altogether. The weighty matter of where Belarus fits into Europe is a question for the future but there is a strong chance that the focus will be on nation building in a strongly independent Belarus. Moreover, should there actually be a drift towards the orbit of either the EU/NATO or Russia no one is going to be surprised if the drift is eastwards. There is a natural affinity between Belarus and Russia that virtually guarantees that relations would be cordial and any move by the Kremlin to secure Belarus would in fact be counterproductive. If the West really means what it says about the self-determination of peoples then it should have no brook with this. Mr Putin has made much of the similarities between the people of Belarus and those of Russia, but there is some truth behind the words. An independent and democratic Belarus is unlikely to be hostile to Russia if it is left alone to decide its future. To be succinct, Putin does not need to win over Belarus, but he can lose it altogether if he chooses the harder path.

With regard to Belarusian politics, it is probably more diverse than it appears, but the nature of the government stifles any open debate. The limited political organisation there is in Belarus is currently focused on internal matters, specifically the three aims of the ending of political repression, the freeing of political prisoners and the holding of free and fair elections. Political activity in Belarus is so constrained that opposition figures have formed a unified Opposition Committee to campaign for these aims. Aside from this, there are no manifestos circulating, no competition between political parties, simply a call for political freedom and an end to political repression. Ms Tikhanovskaya has declared that she has no intention to serve as President and would step down to allow elections to take place.

The biggest problem for the future is that Mr Lukashenko does not want to let go of power and despite his fractious relationship with Vladimir Putin is able to count on Putin’s support for now. Mr Putin has made it clear that he has security forces ready to aid Lukashenko and there have been reports of covert FSB flights from Russia. Meanwhile, Russian state media has openly talked of the need for intervention, while the Kremlin is increasing its control of the Belarusian media. This is driven by two concerns, one is that a Belarus free of Lukashenko would drift towards the EU/NATO; the other is the more immediate problem of protests taking place in Russia itself. Lukashenko and Putin have taken different paths to maintaining power, and it can be argued that Putin has the support and respect of a significant number of the Russian people. This is not forgetting that there has been significant manipulation and backroom manoeuvring to allow this to happen and those who fall foul of Putin have a tendency to be poisoned (In Belarus they disappear). A similarity is that both seek to maintain power, to the extent that both have envisaged themselves at the head of a union between Belarus and Russia. How the Kremlin reads the situation in Belarus and how it acts on this will have a strong influence on the outcome of the Belarusian political crisis but it more likely to be decided by the Lukashenko regime’s ability to survive in the face of mass dissent. As it stands, it faces its biggest threat since Lukashenko took power in 1994.

In part three we’ll look at the potential for mediation.  

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Belarus Part One: Mass protests and political repression

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In the Republic of Belarus the government has been shaken by mass protests against the President after a clearly flawed election gave him eighty percent of the vote. The response has been a heavy handed repression of peaceful protestors with the leaders of the opposition either locked up or forced abroad.

President Lukashenko of Belarus has been in power since he won an election in 1994 and has ensured that he won every election since, while a largely compliant population has shrugged of the pretence of elections and simply made the most of it. There have been protests before that had little impact and aside from such dissent, which has been peaceful for the large part, there has been scant political change in a country where there was little doubt about who was in charge and who would be in charge in the future. Belarus would hold elections but Lukashenko would be the one who won them.

In Belarus the state opts for a looming presence and a simple tap on the shoulder has the weight of a hammer behind it. An unspoken understanding is that the agents of the state will do as they will and the people will grudgingly toe the line and accept whatever action is taken against them with little protest. The 2020 elections will be remembered as a time when the mask of the benevolent dictatorial state slipped and the tap on the shoulder was replaced by the baton and brutal beatings and assaults in police detention. The message that has been sent by Mr Lukashenko is loud and clear: there is to be no regime change and the protests directed at him are a threat the national security of the country.

The dissent, which includes mass protests and strikes in Belarusian factories, is the largest that has taken place in the 26 years of Lukashenko’s rule and the response has come directly from the strongman rule book. It has been made clear that it is not in any way his fault that the people are unhappy. Some alleged Russian mercenaries were deported, NATO was reported to be massing near the western border, the EU and the West in general had a hand in events and so on. There appeared to be so many threats to Belarus that surely what was needed was a show of strength in which the President took to flying over protestors and calling them rats and then emerging from a helicopter toting an assault rifle. Meanwhile, the police were dragging protestors and passers-by alike from the street and taken them away to be brutalised. Opposition leaders were threatened (again) and factory workers were told that they had better get back to work if they wanted to keep their jobs. The thankless task of Belarusian journalists has been made more difficult and most foreign journalists have lost their accreditation and will be forced to leave the country. None of this is hidden and some of the victims have been paraded on state TV. In the face of legitimate and peaceful protests, the government has opted for more general bullying and intimidation that is normally applied directly to opposition leaders. By stamping down on journalists they hope to hide what they are doing from the outside world but in the new world of social media this will not be possible.

One may ask, exactly what is the opposition threat, one that the state sees as so serious that it has to be comprehensively crushed? When the 2020 election was held on the 9th of August, the opposition was represented by three women, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, of which Tikhanovskaya was the leader. They are the wives and campaign manager of three presidential candidates barred from running. Their campaign was a direct response to the crushing of earlier protests and the intimidation of the opposition leaders. Both Tikhanovskaya’s husband and Kolesnikova’s employer were jailed during the campaign and Tsepkalo’s husband had left the country with their children. The intimidation that had propelled the three women into action soon turned its spotlight on them, and Ms Tikhanovskaya’s fate demonstrates this: forced to recant on state television she has left the country with her children. For now, she has chosen not to reveal exactly happened to her behind closed doors and has continued to focus on the opposition campaign’s message from neighbouring Lithuania. The opposition Coordination Council in Belarus seeks the ending of political repression and the perpetrators brought to account, the freeing of all political prisoners, and the annulment of the 9th August elections and the holding of free and fair elections. Whilst Mr Lukashenko is pointing the finger of blame for the unrest in many directions, the simple truth is that the origins of the current crisis lay in the repression of political dissent and the solution thus far has been more of it. The difference between the current crisis and protests in the past is that the people of Belarus have finally cracked and are refusing to put up with the pretence any more. They have known all along that that they have been repressed politically but have suffered this in silence and accepted the façade in exchange for stability and being left alone.

It is clear that Mr Lukashenko has lost any trace of legitimacy amongst the people in the current crisis and is resorting to a brutal crackdown in order to prolong his 26 year rule over Belarus. As is the case with many such leaders, the elite in the country are in place because he allowed them to be there and they are expected to toe the party line. Those who disagree and fall out of favour are fully aware of the potential consequences. The President has control of the Belarusian KGB, the police and the military, and the support of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. For now, the EU has said it will not mediate in the crisis, believing it to be an independent Belarusian matter, and is wary of making the situation worse by providing ammunition to back some of Mr Lukashenko’s accusations against it. We will look at the influence of the EU and Russia on the developments in Belarus in part two.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Violence in the east and a flawed transition of power

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In the DR Congo violence at the hands of the ADF has increased and peacekeepers are being challenged by protestors angry at the alleged ineffectiveness of the UN in keeping them safe. There is also a risk of wider political strife after a flawed transition of power. The UN mission is scheduled to withdraw by 2022. As things stand, this would be a dangerous mistake.

Keeping the peace in the DR Congo is one of the most difficult tasks the UN faces. Attacks by armed groups are a constant threat that is constantly changing and some have proven capable of large operations. In 2012 one such group, M23, captured the eastern city of Goma. The result was the creation of a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) and the demise of M23 but the damage was already done. The current major threat is the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which is neither democratic nor Congolese, originating instead from Uganda it arrived in the DR Congo in the mid-1990s. A major offensive by the Congolese military (FARDC) began at the end of October 2019 and it is supported by MONUSCO, the UN mission to the DR Congo. A series of massacres attributed to the ADF has led to protests against the UN for failing to protect civilians in the Beni region of North Kivu province where the violence is hindering the battle against an outbreak of Ebola.

There is some caution in attributing the wave of violence in the Beni area solely to the ADF, which is one of the larger groups and is reported to have over a thousand fighters. There are many smaller groups that are alleged to have links with the ADF and community leaders have also been called into question. Historically the leaders of Uganda and Zaire/DR Congo have had a contradictory approach to the ADF, launching major offensives, leaving it alone to act as a buffer against the other, and actually supporting it. Foreign governments have accused the DR Congo of harbouring militants, who in turn has said that neighbouring countries of have attempted to destabilise the DR Congo. There have also been questions raised over jihadist influence within the ADF and related support and also its transnational nature. There are in fact elements of both and the most promising description of what is a very secretive organisation is that it has multiple influences but cooperates pragmatically and discreetly, and maintains short-term partnerships. The ADF reacts badly to being challenged and it shifted its tactics toward massacres against civilians in 2013, which have increased in the wake of the current government offensive. How much of this is by the ADF or at the hands of smaller allied groups is open to question. The situation in the eastern DR Congo is known to be extremely complex and the ADF are but one part of this.

The troubles in the Beni region are part of a wider problem of distrust of the government, which is seen as corrupt and repressive, and the FARDC, which has been accused of human rights violations and sometimes being in league with the armed groups it is supposed to be countering. The local population also has a mistrust of regionally sourced peacekeepers, seen by them as potentially biased. This distrust extends to MONUSCU, which is working alongside a compromised Congolese military and has previously faced accusations of its own, including when over 600 troops were withdrawn in 2017 because of allegations of sexual abuse. This was an ignoble outcome for a force that has in fact had a positive impact by providing some security over none and whose under-resourced troops have suffered casualties whilst actively combating rebel groups. Nor are the anti-UN protests a new development, although these are rooted in a discontent at the perceived failure of MONUSCO to protect civilians. That there has been a failure is undeniable, but the blame cannot be put at the door of a mission that is under-resourced in relation to the task that it faces and is tarred by its association with the forces of the government who have faced accusations of war crimes and major human rights violations.

There is also trouble at the top that mocks the idea of the DR Congo as a democracy. The current President, Félix Tshisekedi, took over last year from the long-serving Joseph Kabila,  whom had been reluctant to give up power. This was after Mr Tshisekedi was declared the winner of an election in which he is reported to have won only 19% of the vote. The actual winner, with around 60% of the vote, was Martin Fayulu. He was cast aside as a result of a power sharing deal between Tshisekedi and Kabila. As a result, both hold power due to a secret deal, having lost an election rife with voter intimidation. The new President has said that he will deal with corruption and improve the country, yet the chances of this are low, as he is dependent on his predecessor (whom controls the parliament) and is in power only as a result of a secret deal (which is corrupt in itself). Olivia Acland, writing in The Economist (The World in 2020), has predicted that riots will erupt in the cities during 2020. The troubles in the east may well become part of wider disorder throughout the entire country. A horrifying example of where this could lead is the Kasai crisis that began in 2016 and exploded into inter-communal violence involving government forces, their rivals and militias with the consequences been borne by the civilian population. A critical aspect of preventing conflict from spreading across the country was that there be a democratically elected successor to Mr Kabila but the actual outcome was merely a fudge to keep the powerful in power. The 2003 Global and All-Inclusive Agreement and a commitment to an effective political transition to genuine representation arose from the carnage of the Second Congo War. Clearly, there has been no such transition, a fact underlined by Mr Tshisekedi’s recent idea to dissolve the National Assembly.

The danger is that the DR Congo is actually on the brink of wider disorder not less and a government that cannot resolve the problems in the east will struggle to deal with further discontent brought on by a failure of political transition. The violence in the east is far from being solely the governments fault and regional cooperation is needed instead of rivalry. A recent solution proposed by Mr Tshisekedi was to invite foreign powers in to deal with the armed groups. The UN was rightly critical and said that MONUSCO would have no involvement in this. Such an approach is more likely to escalate the violence and could potentially result in another major war. A more effective approach would be for all countries to end use of armed groups as proxies and for external support for them to end. This would be accompanied by action at the global level to cut of the profits to armed groups made through exploiting natural resources that are valuable to the global economy. There is a strong case to argue that the people of the conflict affected regions want the armed groups that plague their lives out and the government in, despite its many faults. This is down to sheer desperation, reflected by the protests against the UN mission, itself an indication that the people want MONUSCO to provide more support instead of withdrawal by 2022. An extension of the UN’s largest mission and one that has lasted over twenty years is in itself a big ask. The UN says that two-thirds of the DR Congo is stable, it wants the government to take more responsibility, and the mission is expensive. However, withdrawal at a time when the violence in the east is escalating, there is a risk of wider political violence, and the political transition has not taken place risks throwing away any gains made and putting the population at greater risk.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://theconversation.com/is-the-democratic-republic-of-congo-ready-for-peacekeepers-to-leave-by-2022-127729

DR Congo army launches ‘large-scale operations’ against militias in Beni territory

https://www.dw.com/en/congo-protesters-storm-un-base-in-beni/a-51407396

https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2019/01/adf-jihadist-group-drc

https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2020/1/29/congo-beni-adf-allied-democratic-forces-ebola-un?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=social

https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/central-africa/democratic-republic-congo/b150-averting-proxy-wars-eastern-dr-congo-and-great-lakes

See also, the earlier blogs on the DRC at http://www.turnerconflict.com

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Armed Conflict in 2020: Expect more of the same

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As the world enters a new year the conflict map of the world looks much the same as it did throughout 2019. Despite sometimes promising news from peace talks and occasional prisoner swaps or releases, most of the armed conflicts have ground on. In 2020 there may well be an increase in violence overall and the places hardest hit by violence will continue to suffer the brunt of the consequences.

2020 had barely begun before there was a spectacular and unwelcome development in Iraq when the US assassinated a senior Iranian General, provoking a volley of missiles at US bases in Iraq. That Iran and the US are in conflict should surprise no one, for despite all the fears and punditry around a potential direct conflict between the US and Iran, they have been fighting each other for over a decade through proxies in both Syria and Iraq. To say that this rivalry is at its most dangerous since the Iranian revolution of 1979 would not be an overstatement. This is the kind of spectacular rivalry, one which involves a hegemon or major power, which troubles leaders worried about inter-state wars that rarely break out. Meanwhile, most of the violence is of the intra-state or trans-state kind and involves rebels fighting government forces, with the armed forces of a state or its proxies fighting for either side, or militias carving out a piece of territory or controlling a resource. Sometimes the militias and armed groups build up strength and launch raids across a border and other times there will be multiple actors within a given conflict zone. Insurgents and militias tend to ignore borders and nation-states don’t always set a good example either.

This links to a trend that has contributed to major conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen as regional rivalries continue to impact on intra-state conflicts that have been internationalized from the off. In Libya, the internationally recognised Tripoli government is backed by Turkey and Qatar, while Egypt and the UAE back the rival LNA led by General Haftar. They have also brought in foreign fighters to aid their causes. Syria’s war underwent two major escalations, the first when Turkey launched an incursion into Kurdish north-east Syria and the Syrian government and its allies launched an offensive into the rebel bastion of Idlib province where the jihadist HTS dominate. Turkey’s interest in Syria is with supporting the remaining rebels, countering the Kurds (everywhere) and the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The presence of Hezbollah and Iranian forces in Syria has added to the sectarianism of the Syrian War and ensured a steady flow of Israeli airstrikes. Yemen continues to be a victim of the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, although Iran has always denied supporting the rebel Houthis. Despite some significant progress, such as the deal reached over the port city of Hodeida and a resolution of a violent split within the anti-Houthi forces, Yemen remains vulnerable to external events affecting Saudi Arabia and/or Iran. The presence of the latter usually draws the attention of the US, providers of logistical support for the Saudi-led coalition. This barely scratches the surface of what are very complex conflicts in which the domestic actors were more than capable of descending into fighting but the involvement of external actors has exacerbated the violence and ensured that each conflict has been prolonged.

In 2019 there was a 36% increase in incidents of armed conflict in Africa (according to ACLED). Armed Violence continues to afflict the countries of the Sahel. Here a potent mix of rebellions, environmental stresses and Islamist or jihadist insurgency has caused a severe escalation of conflict in Burkina Faso, adding to existing problems in Chad, Niger and Mali. The combined forces of the G5 Sahel, France and the UN have struggled to respond. As we enter 2020 there are regular attacks by insurgents. Somalia, backed by the AU and UN, continues to struggle against the militants of Al-Shabaab and Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram continues. There has also been ethnic strife in South Sudan and Ethiopia and clashes in the Central African Republic, despite positive developments in all three countries. In Cameroon the Anglophone crisis continues and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an alphabet soup of militias operates in the east, the government has launched an offensive against the Ugandan based Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Add problems in Chad, insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai region and Mozambique, and the aforementioned fighting in Libya and the severity of armed conflict across Africa becomes clear. Africa as a whole is one of the CARIS areas of focus and will continue to be so in 2020.

There are also other conflicts that require mention. In Ukraine, the civil war between the government and Russian backed separatists in the east remains static, although there have been prisoner swaps and negotiations. Myanmar still contends with multiple insurgencies, having had its international reputation trashed due to its appalling treatment of the Rohingya. According to national media talks with rebels are ongoing. Finally, the deadliest conflict for civilians was in Afghanistan, where the US and Afghan forces are locked in combat with the Taliban. The government of Afghanistan and the Taliban are both eager for the US to leave, which is not beyond the realms of possibility provided that the Taliban would stop killing Americans.

There has been no shortage of efforts at conflict mitigation and resolution in all areas of conflict and this will continue to be the case throughout 2020. Intra-state and trans-state conflicts last longer than interstate conflicts and they are also much more complex, providing unique challenges for the UN, regional organisations such as the AU and OSCE, and aid groups. The links below all carry the message that the impact of armed conflict will increase. This also means that there will be more opportunities for conflict resolution.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/10-conflicts-watch-2020

http://www.transconflict.com/2020/01/2020-will-be-more-turbulent-than-2019-unless/

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/conflict-still-africa-s-biggest-challenge-2020

https://issafrica.org/iss-today/conflict-is-still-africas-biggest-challenge-in-2020?utm_source=BenchmarkEmail&utm_campaign=ISS_Today&utm_medium=email

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

 

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Syria: Turkey’s new offensive against the Kurds

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A new frontline has opened up in the Syrian War that has already had tragic consequences for the Kurds of Syria and risks a revival of the threat from ISIS. A halt in the fighting is dependent on the withdrawal of the Kurds from a buffer zone.  

One question that loomed large within the complexity of the Syrian War was the future of the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a large swathe of eastern Syria taken from ISIS. While the government and its allies crushed the myriad rebel groups of the opposition in the south and Damascus, the Kurdish-administered area was left to its own devices. With the government focused on the rebel groups in Idlib province the status of ‘Rojava’ seemed secure in the short term. The Kurdish led SDF ran the east and the United States provided a check on Turkish designs on northern Syria. Within the space of barely two weeks there has been a dramatic change and it is Russia that polices the north-east and the Syrian Arab Army has moved into the area.

It began with an announcement by President Trump that the United States would be pulling its forces out of border area. The SDF rushed reinforcements to Kurdish towns and cities and Turkey launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’, quickly taking territory from the Kurds. The US sent its forces over the border to Iraq, leaving stone-throwing Kurds in their wake. Left without allies, the SDF made a deal with the Syrian government to allow the Syrian Arab Army into the area as a counter to the Turkish advance. Soon there were reports of ISIS attacks and in one instance hundreds of ISIS family members escaped detention. President Trump then announced economic sanctions against Turkey and a US delegation led by the Vice-President travelled to Ankara and secured a ceasefire that would allow the Kurds to retreat. This was followed by talks between Erdogan and Russia’s President Putin, which resulted in permanent ceasefire, provided the Kurds withdrew their forces within a specified period. The border region, once patrolled jointly by Turkey and the US, would now be patrolled by Turkey and Russia. Then there was an announcement that the US would be returning to ensure that oil fields would not fall back into the hands of ISIS.  Further afield, in Idlib province, the US showed what it was actually capable off and put an end to the ISIS leader, Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi.

One thing is clear: more Syrians have died or were injured or displaced from their homes and there are horrors and accusations that we have seen before. The media campaigns are also familiar, as both Ankara and the Kurds have highly effective media organisations that are able to broadcast the wrongs of the other. There is plenty to go round, and almost of it was carried out by the stronger side as Turkish forces and their Syrian allies advanced in to what the Kurds call Rojava. There are two conflicts happening here, meshed into one. The first is the conflict in Turkey between the government and the Kurds that fired up again in 2015. The administration of Turkey’s President Erdogan does not distinguish between the Turkish PKK and the Syrian YPG and has openly called the Kurdish-administered region of Syria that borders Turkey a threat. The second is the rivalries internal to Syria itself where relations between Kurds and Arabs deteriorated during the violence of the war. The proxies at the front of the Turkish advance are fighters from the Syrian National Army and they have a vested interest in President Erdogan’s vision of a border area cleared of Kurds. The thirty kilometre zone is about more than just security, for there are plans to relocate Syrian refugees into it.

The previous fortnight has been the time of the strongmen. Erdogan got to launch his incursion into Syria and took a major step towards a border zone free of Kurds. Syria’s President Assad was able to cut a deal with the Kurds and promptly moved troops from the Syrian Arab Army into Kurdish cities. Russia’s President Putin managed to make permanent a ceasefire agreed by the US with Turkey and deployed Russian troops to jointly patrol the border. Despite the death of their leader, the remnants of ISIS have also been given a boon due to the instability caused by the Turkish incursion and there are serious concerns over the security of camps where ISIS fighters are detained. For their part, the Kurds have done what they have done many times before and made the most of a bad lot. As for the US, there is little to be had from this debacle and both sides of the political divide are aghast at what is seen as a betrayal of Kurdish allies that led the SDF to victory over ISIS. While the Trump administration managed to arrange a ceasefire, this constituted an acceptance of the occupation of north-east Syria, one that the removal of US forces made inevitable. Despite the bluster over the impact of economic sanctions on Erdogan’s thinking the ceasefire was made permanent due to events on the ground as the regime, Russia and the Kurds adapted to the absence of the US. The Europeans could do little, having little influence in the first place, and their condemnation of Turkish actions led only to a threat by Erdogan to send the refugees currently in Turkey westwards.

What happens next is hard to predict as despite the quick gains of the Turkish advance and the promised withdrawal of the Kurds from the border area the arrival of the forces of the regime has meant that further advances risk open conflict with the Syrian Arab Army. This would not benefit either Assad or Erdogan and Putin appears to want to keep the two apart. Nor does anyone know how much the Kurds of the SDF will concede to the regime. Their advance to Raqqa resulted in them holding non-Kurdish territory, the sands of which they have now been pushed into. If Erdogan carries out his plan of dumping Syrian refugees into Rojava it will not only be at the expense of the Kurds, whom have fled east and south, but may also mean sending the Syrian National Army proxies into the buffer zone. This may be a step too far for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which will see this in the context of Turkish involvement in Idlib province. Here a ceasefire was brought into being provided that Turkey brought some degree of control to opposition forces in the area. This backfired spectacularly when rebel infighting resulted in the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham dominating the region and the government began an offensive this year.

Syria’s borders have meant little since the outbreak of the war and the Turkish offensive is further evidence of this. The Syrian War began with an uprising that led to fighting between rebels and the government, with much of the blame to be laid at the doors of the Assad regime. There is also much that happened later that is the responsibility of outsiders, with the jihadists of ISIS being the prime example. The Turkish incursion, like that of 2018 into Afrin, has more to do with Ankara’s war with the PKK in Turkey than with the complex conflict that has taken place in Syria. Ankara sees Rojava as a terrorist haven and President Erdogan has been explicit in his intentions to resolve this through force. Since 2015 the Kurds in Turkey have been hammered by a major military offensive that has led to at least 4551 deaths as of the 2nd August 2019, according to International Crisis Group. Erdogan may believe that the creation of a buffer zone in a neighbouring country will deal with a perceived threat from the YPG. He is very likely to be catastrophically wrong. In the meantime, the Kurds have been killed or forced from their homes. It did not need to happen and it could have been prevented from happening but, as is often the case, the strongmen won out.

For more information regarding this blog see:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-49973218

https://www.crisisgroup.org/content/turkeys-pkk-conflict-visual-explainer

https://www.cfr.org/interactive/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-between-turkey-and-armed-kurdish-groups

https://thearabweekly.com/wary-isis-resurgence-esper-trying-mitigate-us-withdrawal-fallout

https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrian-forces-reach-safe-zone-area-near-turkey-border

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

 

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Cameroon Part Two: Ending the Anglophone crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information regarding this blog see:

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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Cameroon Part One: The Anglophone crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information regarding this blog see:

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

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

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

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

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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Syria: The bombardment of Idlib

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

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

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

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

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

For more information regarding this blog see:

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

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Libya: Haftar’s big gamble

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

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

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

For more information regarding this blog see:

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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