North Korea: To Deal or not to Deal?

tutankhamen-1662814

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

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

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

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

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

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

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

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

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

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Israel and Iran: A Dangerous War in Syria

tutankhamen-1662814

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

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

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

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

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

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kachin: Myanmar’s Forgotten War Escalates

tutankhamen-1662814

In the northern Myanmar state of Kachin the war between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has re-escalated as government forces have struck KIA bases in force. The military and the KIA resumed hostilities in 2011, breaking a ceasefire that had briefly interrupted a conflict that has been ongoing since 1961.

The conflict between the Kachin rebels and the government is part of a wider scenario of conflict within Myanmar that are ethno-political in origin, in that the primary identification of the warring parties is ethnic and there are political demands for autonomy or independence. These are generally understood as lasting since independence from the British in 1948, making the conflict in Myanmar the world’s longest running intra-state conflict. To some degree this is misleading as there was considerable protest at British colonial rule before this date and during the Second World War groups arose against both the British and Japanese while the country was devastated, a frontline in the wider war between the allies and the Japanese that is underrepresented in the literature of Second World War history. While the short lived Japanese empire was forced out through defeat, the British chose to leave as part of a wider process of decolonisation. The democratic state that succeeded them lasted until a military coup in 1962, leaving the leadership of the country dominated by the majority Buddhist nationalists at the expense of moderates and escalating tensions with minorities in a country that is diverse and multi-ethnic. Insurgencies have raged ever since.

There have been inevitable comparisons with the situation in Rakhine State, where the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’s Rakhine State has drawn international condemnation, but little concrete action. These are largely due to allegations of war crimes, including rape and murder, by the military in Kachin and because it is another instance where a religious minority is under assault. The Rohingya are Muslim, the Kachin, Christian, while the majority of Burmese are ethnically Bamar and Buddhist. This would, of course, be a simple caricature that merely pitted one religion against another and would be inherently misleading. The differences due to ethnicity and religion, which are inextricably linked, stem from the dominance of conservative Theravada Buddhists in the government after independence and then military rule, which fuelled the secessionism of minority groups and has dominated politics in Myanmar ever since. There was promise that under the new democracy that has replaced military rule that peace agreements between the government and myriad insurgents would bring about a reduction in tensions and take Myanmar into a bright new future under civilian leadership. It has become increasingly obvious that this is not the case, the military still wields considerable power and the war against the Rohingya may be an indicator of what is to come. When pressed about allegations of war crimes in Kachin the government resorts to outright denial, much in the manner that it has done about the plight of the Rohingya and despite the considerable evidence of major human rights violations.

Combating the KIA has been a very different task to that of the outright persecution of the hapless Rohingya and has meant the use of heavy weaponry and airpower against an organisation that is established in Kachin and holds territory. The UN has raised concerns about civilians caught in the crossfire and human rights abuses, in particular those by the Myanmar military. The UN has also called for both sides to respect human rights and ensure the safety of civilians, whom are being displaced in their thousands. The current government offensive is a marked escalation of the intermittent killings and sporadic violence that has been the norm in recent years. Where this will lead in the long run should be a major concern as there already tens of thousands of internally displaced people as a result of previous fighting and the offensive against the KIO is causing severe damage to what may be the only bulwark between government forces and civilians.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.bangkokpost.com/news/asean/1454250/thousands-flee-new-kachin-conflict

http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/09/first-they-came-for-the-rohingya-myanmar-genocide-war-human-rights/

https://www.nst.com.my/world/2018/01/322045/myanmar-army-overruns-kachin-rebel-camps-fighting-escalates

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-43933332

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/04/myanmar-violence-thousands-flee-renewed-fighting-kachin-state-180429065131313.html

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Conflict Resolution and the Syrian War

tutankhamen-1662814

The Syrian War has lasted for over seven years, from the initial protests against the regime to the internationalised conflict today. It has resulted in the deaths of an estimated half a million people, injured and displacing millions more, devastated the country’s infrastructure and is rumbling on with no end in sight. Human rights organisations have documented serious human rights violations throughout the conflict, with the volume of reports collated by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch alone staggering in scope and condemning in its catalogue of brutality. There has also been significant change in the number and nature of the actors involved and how they envisage the governance of a future Syrian nation-state. The current situation is a far cry from that of 2011, when protests began against the regime but not calling for its end, only to be put down so brutally that a rebellion began. The conflict has proved to be complex and dynamic, defying predictions about its outcome (i.e. Assad will lose) and may well defy current and future predictions (i.e. Assad will win). Within this the important principle that the future governance of Syria should be decided by the people of Syria, and the people of Syria alone, has been forgotten. This simple guiding criterion becomes all the more important when we consider the catastrophe that has befallen them.

This week, this blogs parent website has released a working paper and a report on the Syrian War, representing its primary research output for 2017. This is part of an ongoing research program that will continue with the establishment of an online research centre dedicated to finding an end to the violence through mediation and negotiation. The Syrian War has been described as one that is both complex and intractable and attempts at mediating an end to the conflict have proved unsuccessful. While the current prospects for a mediated solution are low, this does not mean that we should give up on mediation and negotiation, for to do so would leave the future of Syria to be decided by force, an end that would be catastrophic for the people of the country whoever won. In the meantime, while the government is currently winning on the battlefield, this does not mean it has won, or will do so in the future. There is also the possibility that the war will escalate further, with a potential future battle in Idlib province a prospect that is haunting analysts and has resulted in the early release of the report on Syria.

For conflict resolution, it is not the question of which of the sides fighting in Syria wins that is important, or what we want as a preferable outcome, but the ending of violence in Syria in order to stop the killing and to allow the search for a sustainable peace based on representative civil society to begin. It follows that within this process there will be accountability for the human rights violations that have taken place and continue today. This is no small task and it is one that seems impossible, yet people at the local level have managed to mediate and negotiate under dangerous conditions. The search for a negotiated solution has been hampered at the highest level by the assumption of predetermined outcomes, divisions between the UN Security Council powers, and a lack of leverage for mediators, among other issues. The conflict itself is also a major challenge, there has been nothing like it before and fighting in Syria now has little to do with what Syrians want and more to do with what outsiders want. To tackle the conflict factors inhibiting attempts at mediation and negotiation, which are distinct from negotiations made under duress, requires a comprehensive approach working at the national, regional, and global levels. It also requires all the actors with an influence on events and willing to talk to be allowed to do so, as to omit them leaves them with no other course except the continuation of violence.

The conflict factors are many, and there currently five distinct incompatibilities that are present in the conflict and which overlap with each other. These are: (1) the government versus the opposition, and their respective allies at the national, regional and global levels of analysis; (2) intra-opposition rivalries; (3) Israel versus Hezbollah/Iran; (4) Turkey versus the Kurds; and, (5) the ‘terror wars’ against ISIS. Such incompatibilities are not static and will change over time, but were present as of the close of 2017. These incompatibilities, of which the core one between the government and opposition is the most pervasive, ensure that the conflict is present at all levels of analysis and has become internationalised, with foreign actors at the regional and global levels contributing to the violence.

This author contends that despite the current ascendency of the Syrian government on the battlefield in Syria the war is far from over and the only way in which it will be brought to an end is through impartial and effective mediation and negotiation aimed at deescalating the conflict at all levels and addressing the incompatibilities present in the conflict. The prospects of this are low at this time but this is no reason not to work towards enabling dialogue between actors through open-ended talks chaired by the UN and backed by all the permanent UN Security Council members. This starts at the highest level, with ending the violence a priority and accountability to follow, as without accountability for war crimes by all sides there cannot be a sustained peace without re-escalation.

While we wait for this to happen, the violence continues, unabated and brutal, with potential escalations looming on the horizon.

For an outline of the incompatibilities in the Syrian War see:

https://turnerconflict.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/caris-working-paper-18-01-rcct-theory-and-the-syrian-war.pdf

For an analysis of the prospects for mediation and negotiation and recommendations for the future see:

https://turnerconflict.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/caris-report-on-the-syrian-war-2018.pdf

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Civil War in Yemen: Deadlocked

tutankhamen-1662814

Civil strife and armed conflict in Yemen, along with humanitarian crises, is not new and has been ongoing in one form or another since 1960. While it is tempting to view the origins of the current civil war through the prism of the ill-fated ‘Arab Spring’ or it’s perpetuation as part of the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran these are only factors within a larger picture.

The area now known as Yemen is the result of unification between North and South Yemen in 1990, both formerly ruled by Great Britain. Civil wars took place in both countries, and, after unification, a brief civil war in 1994 after the south attempted to secede. In the 2000’s a Houthi insurgency began and Al-Qaeda established a foothold in the east of the country. A revolution in 2011, backed by the Houthi leadership, was followed by a period of minor clashes between Houthi and Sunni tribes. The current civil war began in 2015 after Houthi forces took the capital city of Sana’a, dissolved the parliament and forced the President to flee. Since 2011 the government has faced challenges from Shia Houthi’s, southern separatists opposed to the Yemeni unification, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and latterly, ISIS. All the conflicts in post-colonial Yemen have been subject to foreign interference and intervention, with the latest being that by the Saudi-led coalition in 2015. The presence of the jihadist groups has meant that the United States has also deployed substantial resources in Yemen.

The current conflict, which is now entering its fourth year, has pitted the Saudi-led coalition in support of the government of President Hadi against the Iranian-backed Houthi’s and despite blockade and aerial bombardment by the coalition, has failed to defeat the Houthi insurgents. The Hadi government is all but nominal, depending on Sunni tribes for support and military action, while the Houthi’s have a significant military capability due to their capture of military hardware, including missiles that it fires at Saudi Arabia, and support from Iran. The Saudi-led intervention is controversial as its naval blockade and airstrikes have contributed to a worsening humanitarian crisis and the devastation of infrastructure and civilian lives, bringing criticism of the coalition and the western suppliers of its military hardware.

The prospects for conflict resolution appear to remain low. The former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had thrown in his lot with the Houthi’s, was assassinated shortly after he split from the Houthi’s and proposed dialogue with the coalition. Far from being cowed by the coalition assault, the Houthi’s have also increased their missile strikes against Saudi Arabia, targeting Riyadh. While this may be an attempt to force the Saudi’s to the negotiating table, it also provides the Saudi’s with a pretext to escalate their airstrikes and justify their continuing air assault. Balanced against this is the potential for political pressure on the governments of the United Kingdom, United States and France over the supply of arms to Saudi Arabia and other coalition countries which may result in pressure on Saudi Arabia to reign in its war. There are also rumours of secret talks in neutral Oman, which both sides have denied. These may be linked to a boost in diplomatic activity following the appointment of a new UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, who faces an uphill task and is an advocate of bringing both civilians and the military to the negotiating table. It is not implausible that the two sides will. The Houthi’s, who stand out as the most unified of actors within Yemen, have said that they will enter into peace talks if the Saudi-led aerial assault ends. For their part, the Saudi’s do not want to see the war prolonged and are facing international opprobrium because of their involvement in it. Negotiating a peace treaty is, of course, another matter, with obstacles such as a highly developed war economy and the long term political strife to be overcome, and still leaving the jihadist presence to be resolved.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/houthis-attack-saudi-arabia-riyadh-180329111527303.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/01/11/heres-what-2018-may-have-in-store-for-yemen/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.2138ad06f009

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/26/yemen-war-fourth-year-human-cost-disease

http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/who-martin-griffiths-yemens-new-un-envoy-1120969214

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/707

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/715

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Democratic Republic of the Congo: On the Brink of Collapse?

tutankhamen-1662814

The overall political situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had improved since the Congo wars but violence persisted in regions such as North and South Kivu, a new conflict emerged in southern Kasai province and recent communal tensions in the Ituri province that borders Uganda have driven thousands across the border. While the country has been in a state of comparative peace, central control remains weak and the DRC is reliant on the current UN mission, without which the situation could be far worse. Given this, the recent hubris of the DRC government in snubbing an aid conference aimed at alleviating the DRC’s humanitarian crisis has come as a shock. They also envisage the departure of UN peacekeepers by 2020.

While the government has been heavily criticised for its failure to hold promised elections and the President has remained in power way past his term of office the problems at are besetting a country that is the size of Western Europe and has a population close to 80 million, the problems in the DRC are not solely political. The country is resource rich in gold and other valuable metals that the world needs for modern phones and batteries and this brings with it competition for resources. As with many other countries replete with natural resources the benefits are not reaped by the people and are a source of corruption and warlordism. There are also ethnic tensions that frequently explode into brutal violence, sometimes akin to ethnic cleansing, that are taking place in a power vacuum. In the volatile east, where provinces such as North and South Kivu are larger than neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi, it is a hotchpotch of militias that hold sway and who are accountable to no one. These militias are generally ethnically based but spend more time wrecking the lives of other ethnicities than providing the security they promise to their own. The government, where it does maintain power, isn’t trusted and resorts to repression to put down dissent: mass graves are being found in the rebellious region of Kasai Central in the wake of last year’s violence. There are also foreign influences, notably from Rwanda due to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, an external trigger to the two Congo wars. The DRC is massive, ethnically complex, has an army unfit for purpose, inadequate infrastructure and has never had a democratically elected president. The current incumbent inherited power from his father, who had been assassinated, and who had himself seized power from a despot. Worse still, the army stands accused of systematic human rights violations alongside the myriad militias that dominate parts of the country.

Distrust of the government extends to the UN, whose MONUSCO peacekeepers work alongside the DRC army in the fractious eastern part of the country and has adopted a more muscular approach akin to peacemaking in order to deal with the stronger militias. It is the largest peacekeeping operation in the world and without it the situation would arguably be even worse than it is now. This makes the wish of the DRC government for the UN forces to leave in the near future all the more troubling, as it could reasonably be argued that they are propping up a state that is about to collapse into another brutal war. The problems underpinning the DRC’s violence are many and complex, but ineffectual and repressive governance is only making things worse. The violence in the DRC did not end with the 2003 Global and All-Inclusive Agreement and commitment to an effective political transition to genuine representation but it was an improvement on what has been called ‘Africa’s Word War’.  As it stands, the refusal of the incumbent President, Joseph Kabila, to give up power and the repression of legitimate political opposition risks a slide back to civil war. The alleged corruption of the government and the undermining of the credibility of the UN for being associated with it affect the willingness of foreign governments and donors to provide the support the country needs. They already have a tough job fighting their corner to get the investment and donations needed for what is a thankless task. The leadership in Kinshasa have just made this even harder.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/13/drc-democratic-republic-congo-snubs-aid-conference-says-crisis-exaggerated

http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-congo-crisis-20180412-story.html

http://www.dw.com/en/un-warns-situation-in-dr-congo-reaching-breaking-point/a-42808193

https://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21737021-president-joseph-kabila-seventh-year-five-year-term-he-struggling-hold

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

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Ukraine: Between War and Peace

tutankhamen-1662814

Europe’s unnecessary conflict in the Ukraine continues to rumble on and despite recent prisoner exchanges and the talk of deploying peacekeepers there is a very real danger that there may be a serious escalation in the near future. The Minsk II Agreement stands out as the only serious attempt to bring the conflict to a close and this has failed to bring about a genuine and sustained ceasefire along the contact lines between the forces of the government and the separatists in the south-east. It is also part of a wider picture of tense confrontation between Russia and NATO, seen in the diplomatic fallout from the poisoning of a former KGB double agent in the UK and the redeployment of NATO forces into Eastern Europe to counter Russian military build-ups.

The conflict will soon enter its fifth year and continues to have humanitarian consequences for an estimated 4.4 million people, having resulted in the deaths of 2,530 civilians and injured 9,000 more according to the UN. The total casualties, military and civilian, are estimated at over 10,000 people. The government of the Ukraine has struggled to deal with a Russian-backed insurgency and has resorted to independently raised militia’s to shore up its manpower. A blunt truth of the conflict is that the separatists in the east would have been unable to organise and maintain their insurgency without the backing of the Kremlin, which denies involvement, while supporting the rebels with manpower and weapons. This blog has long argued that the conflict in Ukraine stems from a geo-political rivalry between the Kremlin and the West, which dovetailed with political unrest in Ukraine itself. While it is true that there were serious concerns over the internal politics of Ukraine, including corruption and division over joining the EU and a distinct Russian orientation in the east, none of this meant that civil war was a pre-determined outcome. The mess since 2014, which has included the accidental shooting down of a Malaysian airliner and the annexation of the Crimea, was avoidable and has left the separatists entrenched in the east and holding territory they have no intention of giving up.

There are reasons to be concerned over future escalation. The heavy weapons that were supposed to be withdrawn under Minsk II are still in use and the fighting along a frozen frontline incurs daily casualties and continues to impact on the civilians attempting to live there. The United States has begun to deliver ‘defensive weapons’, which will bolster the Ukrainian forces and there are indications that Kiev has become tired of the Minsk II process and will abandon attempts at resolution. The government in Kiev, mired by allegations of corruption, has had its credit cut off by both the EU and the IMF and is unpopular amongst the electorate. For its part, the Kremlin’s relationship with the West is at the lowest point for decades, as diplomats have been expelled in tit for tat exchanges, and the EU has extended its sanctions against Russia in March. These sanctions were originally imposed after the Crimea annexation and the Kremlin’s support for the separatists in the east.

All this points to a danger of the crisis in the Ukraine escalating again, as was seen in Avdiika in 2017, and the ending of the stand-off across a frozen frontline, but in a way that will benefit no one. While there has been talk of deploying peacekeepers this is unlikely as it would require the agreement of both sides at a time when the wider geo-political situation has again deteriorated. This is crucial, as the separatists are dependent on Russia for support and recognition, and pressure on the Kremlin amounts to pressure on the rebels. While the West and Russia struggle to talk, the separatists remain intransigent, and the government is seeing little benefit from talking no one should be surprised if the situation deteriorates.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.vox.com/2018/2/8/16992194/ukraine-russia-conflict-putin-eu

https://consortiumnews.com/2018/01/21/a-coming-russia-ukraine-war/

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

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-eu/eu-extends-russia-sanctions-over-ukraine-crisis-idUSKCN1GO0YL

http://tass.com/world/989646

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Rohingya: Don’t Go Back

tutankhamen-1662814

This week we return to one of the recurring themes in this blog: the Rohingya crisis in southern Asia. The cause of the crisis is a matter of debate, some say is its ethnic cleansing, others that it is genocide, but either description amounts to a major violation of human rights that has taken place in plain sight and has been documented by human rights organisations. As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya languish in Bangladesh, refugees from their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the only solution offered thus far is for them to voluntarily return to home. This is a mistake that cannot be allowed to happen as by doing so the international community would cease being witnesses to ethnic cleansing and risk becoming participants in a genocide that some argue is already taking place.

It does not take long to find the reasons why a return to Rakhine State would be a mistake as things currently stand, although I will limit myself to just three observations here. The first is febrile political atmosphere to which the Rohingya would return. The Rohingya are not recognised as citizens of Myanmar in the first place, or it should be said, as ‘Rohingya’. There are also severe restrictions on movement, affecting access to education, healthcare and employment.  Prior to the events of 2017 the relations between the Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine were dismal, with inter-communal violence taking place, and nationalist monks whipping up anti-Rohingya sentiments. The second is the condition of the internally displaced Rohingya in Myanmar, many of whom are victims of a previous bout of violence in 2012. They live in camps that have been described by Human Rights Watch as ‘open-air prisons’ and are dependent on aid to survive. In an ominous development, the government has said that they are to be shut and the people within them relocated, with no explanation as to where. The third is that there has been no discernible change in the government’s stance towards the crisis. On the one hand they claim that they are carrying out ‘clearance operations’ against ‘terrorists’, on the other they claim that the Rohingya are doing it to themselves. Setting aside the fact that the resort to denial is the first defence of authoritarian governments and that both defences are decidedly limp, the mass movement of Rohingya and their evidence-backed testimonies demonstrate that a manmade catastrophe has taken place. To summarise, firstly the Rohingya had few rights even before the 2017 crackdown, secondly there are serious concerns for those currently in Mynamar, and thirdly, the government hasn’t even recognised what has taken place.

The nominally civilian government in Myanmar denies that there has been any wrongdoing by the military and says it is ready to take the refugees back. It also steadfastly refuses independent access to the epicentre of the violence that has taken place and arrests journalists willing to challenge its narrative that it is fighting an insurgency. It is true that there were attacks on the military, but its response cannot be couched in terms of counterinsurgency. What has actually taken place is systemic and organised killing, torture, rape, displacement and the destruction of villages. There is no indication that this has stopped and the refugees continue to cross the border. While the rightful place for the Rohingya is to be back in their homes the sad truth is that the homes may not be there anymore and the country they would be returning to doesn’t recognise them as citizens. As it stands, they cannot go back.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-41566561

https://www.cfr.org/blog/pope-visits-myanmar-questions-ask-about-any-rohingya-return-deal

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/15/world/asia/rohingya-myanmar-bangladesh.html

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/795

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Syria: A Negotiated Surrender in Eastern Ghouta

tutankhamen-1662814

There is little that should be taken for granted in the Syrian War but one thing that is abundantly clear is that the government offensive into Eastern Ghouta has produced what is in military terms a rout of the rebels there. The fighting is far from done but the future of Eastern Ghouta as government held territory is rapidly becoming a near certainty. The regime in Damascus and its supporters will call this liberation, while the opposition groups and their supporters will call it a brutal conquest. The civilians who call the towns and villages of the region home have been faced with the choice of evacuation or to risk life under the Assad regime. What this actually means is a choice between evacuation to Idlib province in the north (particularly the case for rebel fighters and their families) or life under the auspices of a regime at war that has a track record of intimidation, arbitrary detention and torture of its opponents. If one manages not to fall foul of the regime life may improve in comparison to being in a warzone, but the consequences of any dissent have been seen since the 2011 protests. This is before we consider the settling of scores that quickly follows military victories during wartime.

We should be clear that in wartime no one comes away with clean hands and the repeated condemnation of the Assad regime by human rights organisations has been accompanied by criticism of its opponents. By way of example, the actions of Free Syrian Army units in the Turkish occupied Afrin region have made the mainstream press in the West, much to the disappointment of their leaders who have consistently sought the support of the West through the years. This has also extended to criticism of the United States over its loosening of its own rules during airstrikes on ISIS in Raqqa. That the criticism of the Assad regime sounds louder is due to its actions during the 2011 protests and its prosecution of its war since then. The offensive into Eastern Ghouta has come at a severe cost due to an alleged policy of siege and bombardment that makes life in the area unbearable and has targeted medical facilities and civilians using weapons that have been banned due to their indiscriminate nature.

That the negotiations involving the regime and its Russian ally, opposition groups and the UN have resulted in evacuation deals and the promise of Russian police in the areas taken from the rebels by the government is at face value better than no deal at all. It will alleviate suffering and prevents the prospect of a bloody last stand by the rebels in a battle they have already lost. Whether the regime and its Russian allies will stand by this is another matter as the ceasefires agreed during the offensive have been generally ignored. The stark truth is that the government is close to an outright military victory in its offensive as two rebel groups, Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar-a-Sham, have made evacuation agreements, leaving only Jaish al-Islam remaining. As part of the evacuation agreements prisoners have been released by the rebel groups. In reality the evacuations are forced displacements and their final destination is one that few would envy: the major opposition territory of Idlib province where a former Al-Qaeda affiliate dominates. This effectively means moving from one warzone to another and is consistent with the argument that the Assad regime is gradually moving its opponents into one zone that is currently dominated by jihadist opponents. This will justify its own counterterrorist narrative and the area is already under assault. It is also entirely possible that the plans of President Erdogan in Turkey envisage Idlib, which neighbours the Afrin region that Ankara now controls, as a destination for Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

Analysts expect a major escalation of the offensive into Idlib to occur in the near future but the Assad regime may well concentrate on securing southern Damascus first, where both the opposition and ISIS have some control. This is a very different prospect to the offensive into Eastern Ghouta and may turn out to be another major battle in war that has proved to be unpredictable and brutal. Yet, our focus needs to move to Idlib and the search for alternatives to a battle that may eclipse anything that has come before. The Syrian War is far from over and it is not inconceivable that things may actually get worse.

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Syrian War: 2011-2018

tutankhamen-1662814

It is unclear when the 2011 protests in Syria transitioned to rebellion and then civil war but there is a general consensus that the war in Syria has now lasted for over seven gruelling years and shows no signs of stopping. It is undeniably complex, an observation shared by every analyst, journalist or commentator on a prolonged and avoidable tragedy that has seen a nation torn apart and its people maimed and killed. It is also notoriously intractable, having become increasingly sectarian in nature and bearing little relation to the government versus opposition rivalry that was the defining characteristic of the conflict in the beginning.

The responsibility for the descent into armed conflict lies firmly at the feet of the Assad regime, which failed to respond to calls for change when the momentum of the Arab Spring reached Syria. Back then, and despite years of autocratic rule, protestors were calling for a better quality of life and for the government to listen to their concerns. They hadn’t called for an end to the Assad regime, but they were questioning the ruling bargain of giving up the freedom of choosing their leaders for security and prosperity. Before long, the regime was offering cosmetic change while calling anyone who challenged it a ‘terrorist’ and meeting dissent with bullets and tanks. The response was so brutal that some of its own military defected and joined the emerging opposition: the mask had slipped, and a regime that was torturing people in the privacy of its prisons now moved to killing them on the streets.

It did not take long for a militarised opposition to develop but it was not what the protestors would have envisaged. While the West prevaricated and assumed that the regime would simply give up, friends in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia sent money and weapons, but only to their favoured clients. There was no unified military opposition, only a multitude of groups that for a time acted under the banner of the Free Syrian Army but quickly became divided into secularists, various degrees of Islamism, and jihadists. It did not take long for them to fight each other, or for foreigners to join them, but they also began to put the regime on the back foot, and before long the people who supported the government were terrified. This meant that the regime had to leave the Syrian Kurds to their own devices and rely on its Iranian friends to provide support. And they did, propping up the Syrian Arab Army, organising local defence forces, and bringing in their own elite forces and foreign Shia militias. The Lebanese Hezbollah also helped out and Russia was there to back up the regime in the UN Security Council against the Western bloc who criticised Assad but stayed out of it, even when the regime used chemical weapons against its own people (they said they would give them up and not do it again). Israel was also busy, launching airstrikes at Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria while not announcing that they had done so.

It didn’t seem like things could get worse, but they did. Jihadists from Iraq entered Syria and after some fighting amongst themselves took control of a swathe of territory across Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate. Then the West did become involved, with the United States and its allies helping the Kurds in Syria and Iraq to stem the tide. Now the regime really did have some bona fide terrorists to worry about but left much of the task of fighting them to others, while it continued to struggle against a still divided opposition that wanted the regime gone but had differing views on how a future Syria should be governed. So Russia came in firmly on the regime’s side and set about helping them bomb their opponents to smithereens, and to take back the cities from the opposition (who were still fighting each other). Meanwhile, the United States had got the Kurds to join with some friendly opposition groups in taking out ISIS and liberating their self-declared capital of Raqqa, wrecking it in the process. As the endgame for caliphate approached, the regime joined in and took back a large amount of territory. Turkey also joined in, allegedly to fight ISIS, but really because Ankara didn’t want the Syrian Kurds to have a contiguous border with Turkey due to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict re-escalating in Turkey. Sometime during all this the regime used chemical weapons again and the United States fired off cruise missiles at an airbase as punishment (the regime said that someone else had done it to make them look like the bad guys). By this year, the regime had regained enough strength and support to enable it to start tackling the remaining areas held by the opposition in Idlib province and Eastern Ghouta. In a further troubling development Ankara has launched a major operation into the Kurdish held Afrin region, supporting opposition forces as it does so. For its part, Israel launched a series of airstrikes against Syrian air defences after one of its planes was shot down coming back from a raid against Iranian targets. The United States continues to maintain a military presence in Syria and has fought limited battles with pro-Assad forces.

Much has been left out, but this short history points us towards what the Syrian War has become over time: a conflict driven by foreign interests above all else. Had the regime and the opposition been left to themselves they would still have got in a mess, but nowhere near the disaster that has befallen Syria. There is currently no end in sight to what has become a free for all on Syrian soil and is estimated to have killed over half a million people, injured and displaced millions more and smashed the country’s infrastructure outside of the areas that stayed in government hands from the beginning. To be sure, there have been attempts at finding a negotiated solution, but these have all collapsed due to predetermined outcomes that reflect the interests that suit pro-Assad or anti-Assad camps, both domestic and foreign. The only people who should decide on the future governance of Syria are the citizens of the country, should they ever actually get to choose instead of having the warring parties decide for them. We should not give up on finding a solution to the Syrian War, because a mediated one is far preferable to the further carnage in years to come and all wars do reach an end. Complexity and intractability does not mean that we can’t look for a way out, however unlikely it may seem, as failing to do so means to abandon Syria and its people to their fate. One starting point is to stop assuming what a mediated outcome will be before we even start talking, another is to start detaching foreign interests from the hosting of peace negotiations. The former prevents there being a predetermined outcome that one side will automatically reject, the latter will prevent powerful participants in the conflict forcing a solution on others that is more akin to surrender, which they will also reject. Syria is entering an eighth year of hell on earth, we should not give in and assume there will be a ninth.

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment