The Civil War in Yemen: Deadlocked

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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

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

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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.

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The Ukraine: Between War and Peace

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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.

 

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The Rohingya: Don’t Go Back

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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.

 

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Syria: A Negotiated Surrender in Eastern Ghouta

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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.

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The Syrian War: 2011-2018

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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.

 

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Escalation in Syria: Turkey and Israel

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The war in Syria has long been recognised as being internationalised, with actors at the national, regional and global levels having an interest in the outcome and contributing directly to the ongoing violence. Last week we looked at the government offensives, which relate to the central incompatibility over the governance of Syria and what the nature of this should be. This week we look at two of the supplementary incompatibilities, which relate to the interests of two of the regional actors in the war, both of whom are Syria’s neighbours: Turkey and Israel. Their involvement in Syria demonstrates that the relationships between Syria and neighbouring states is dynamic as while their actions are undoubtedly adding to the violence their respective governments are also reacting to developments regarding other actors fighting in Syria.

The first incompatibility is between Turkey and the Kurds. Turkey has recently launched an offensive into the Afrin region of Syria, which is currently held and administered by the Kurds. While Ankara is opposed to the Assad regime, hosts Syrian refugees and actively supports the Syrian opposition its reasons for its current incursion relates specifically to Kurdish success in carving out a Kurdish administered region in northern Syria and the declaration by the United States that it would set up a border security force using the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Ankara does not want a contiguous Kurdish area formed along Turkey’s southern border as it sees the Kurdish YPG/YPJ militias as a threat and doesn’t distinguish between the YPG/YPJ in Syria and the PKK separatists in Turkey. A spill-over from the fighting in Syria was the re-escalation of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Turkey’s south-east, a bitter conflict that had raged since 1978 and fired up again in 2015. According to the International Crisis Group, this has resulted in the deaths of over three thousand people, including the state security forces, PKK militants and civilians. This is a major conflict that is currently overshadowed by the events in Syria. The Afrin incursion is both tragic and unnecessary as one of Syria’s more stable areas is now under assault and its people are being killed due to the perceived threat of the Syrian Kurds to Turkey in the eyes of the leadership in Ankara when in fact they are not. In a bizarre twist that is adding more violence to an already complex Syrian War, Damascus has sent its own troops into the area in support of their Kurdish rivals, bringing them into contact with Turkish forces. The increasingly authoritarian Turkish leader, President Erdogan, has promised to push further into Kurdish held territory in Syria (known to the Kurds as Rojava) where United States forces are based in support of the Kurds, who were the backbone of the SDF alliance that were instrumental in the defeat of ISIS in 2017. The US has currently stood aside in a battle between two of its allies.

The second incompatibility is between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran. Israel’s air attack in February on targets in Syria was an escalation of its existing campaign over Syria that until recently it was conducting with little public announcement. In a sequence of events that unfolded rapidly an Iranian drone was shot down over Israel and Israel responded by striking the base from where it was deployed during which an Israeli jet was shot down and Israel then targeted Syrian air defence systems. Iran explicitly denies any knowledge of the drone that triggered the exchange. While this may seem an excessive response to the violation of Israeli airspace by a single (unarmed) drone (which admittedly could have been armed) it is in keeping with the Israeli response to anything determined a threat, namely the application of disproportionate and immediate force. While Israel has a seriously adversarial relationship with Syria, in particular concerning Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, it is more concerned with the presence of Hezbollah, Iranian forces and Iranian backed militias that are currently supporting the Assad regime and have been instrumental to its ground campaigns. Hezbollah in particular are deemed by Israel as a direct threat, a justifiable concern as Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy that emerged from Lebanon’s brutal civil war and as a counter to an Israeli occupation of Lebanon. While Hezbollah is currently focused on battling the Syrian opposition, incurring serious casualties in the process, its raison d’être is its war with Israel, in which it lobs rockets into Israel from Lebanon. For its part, in the past Iran has denied that Israel even has the right to exist, so relations there are sour at best. At the bare minimum, Israel sees anything linked to Hezbollah as a legitimate target, and this includes arms dumps in Syria. The reason for the air assault on Syrian air defences is brutally simple: it prevents Israel operating in Syrian airspace with their usual impunity.

From a historical perspective both Turkey and Israel have had adversarial relationships with the Assad regime but their actions in Syria relate more to other actors in the Syrian War. This can be understood in the context of the ‘security dilemma’, which affects all states within the international system of states. While this may explain the reasons behind their interventions it does not follow that it legitimises them, even taking into account arguments that both are acting in self-defence, albeit pre-emptively. They are not alone in treating Syria’s borders and airspace as virtually meaningless or in supporting or opposing other actors in the conflict. The assault on Afrin is clearly the most serious escalation as it involves a ground offensive that is putting civilians in the firing line and is being carried out with the aim of adding to the territory of Turkish allied groups that neighbour Afrin and separate it from the rest of Rojava to the east.  As part of the bigger picture, the Turkish and Israeli actions demonstrate that Syria’s devastating war is far from being over and action is needed at all levels to de-escalate the violence. Thus far the contribution of foreign actors has mainly been to escalate and sustain the conflict for their own ends with little in the way of compromise to be seen.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-42704542

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/23/world-leaders-brutal-attack-kurdish-afrin-turkish-army

https://www.voanews.com/a/israel-air-strike/4248772.html

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

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Escalation in Syria: The Government Offensives

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In recent weeks the Syria War has undergone developments that have kept it firmly in the international news. The most recent is the brutal escalation of the government assault on Eastern Ghouta, which has resulted in the UN Security Council calling for a ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid. Prior to this the government had also begun its military offensive against the opposition area of Idlib Province in the north-west. Two additional developments have been the Turkish incursion into Afrin, a Kurdish held territory in northern Syria, and a series of airstrikes on Syrian air defences by Israel after one of its jets was shot down after striking Iranian targets within Syria. This week we look at the Syrian government offensives.

The Assad regime is currently focused on one goal and this is the elimination of any remaining opposition as quickly as possible while it has a military ascendency over an opposition that is disparate and divided. The latter is comprised of a spectrum of armed groups that include moderates, Islamists and jihadists, the bare minimum by which the opposition can be understood. The Syrian government presents these, not surprisingly, as ‘terrorists’, which it has done consistently since the protests of 2011 that it put down so brutally that some of its own military defected and joined an emerging uprising. While the situation in Syria in early 2018 is very different from that of 2011 the central incompatibility of the Syrian War remains: the future governance of Syria and who should be in charge. Where there has been change is in the nature of that future government. In 2011 there had been a call for a more representative state but this has changed to one where the moderates in the opposition want a representative state without Assad are opposed to the Islamists and jihadists who have a more religious bent towards governance. It is one reason why opposition groups are battling each other while they confront the regime and Western governments are reluctant to provide blanket support for the opposition against the regime. While the moderates have limited backing from the Western powers in the UN Security Council these same powers have no interest in backing Islamist groups and abhor the jihadists. If Syrians outside of the Kurdish areas actually had a choice in the matter of who governs them, which they most certainly do not, then they would be faced with choosing between a secular and dictatorial regime, a weakened and reduced secular moderate opposition, and Islamists who want to implement sharia law and envisage an Islamic Syrian state. It is not much of a choice.

The endgame pursued by the Assad regime is currently being seen in the battles for Eastern Ghouta and Idlib Province where punishing air and artillery assaults were escalated in preparation for ground assaults. Eastern Ghouta is a target as part of it is in Damascus and government forces have been trying to take this back for years. The presence of opposition groups in Damascus ensures that the battle will continue as governments are loathe to negotiate with rebels while their capital is under threat or part of it occupied. The Assad regime cannot claim to be in control of Syria while rebels are able to hold parts of the capital and lob rockets in the government held areas. Nor can it countenance the existence of an area such as that of Idlib Province, which is effectively an opposition stronghold. This is despite the fact that some of the fighters in Idlib are there as a result of previous deals whereby besieged populations were exchanged in deals between the government and opposition groups. It is notable that Eastern Ghouta and Idlib Province are both areas that were designated as ‘de-escalation zones’ after conferences in the Kazakhstan capital Astana led by Russia, Turkey and Iran. The current situation clearly marks this out as a failure and the three lead countries in this mediation exercise are all heavily involved in the fighting in Syria.

When the current offensives by the Assad regime are seen in the context of attempting to close out the war with the opposition while it has military dominance the reasons for its refusal to heed calls for ceasefires by the UN and humanitarian organisations becomes clear. Prior to intervention by Iran and Russia government forces had struggled against the uprising and the government had lost a significant amount of territory. Much of this has been taken back while a significant portion is held by the Syrian Kurds who are more amenable to Assad’s rule provided he grants them autonomy (they are also backed by the United States). The government is balancing the risk of international opprobrium and intervention with the consequences of not pushing forward and reclaiming territory. Given that it has the protection of its Russian ally in the UN Security Council and has military support from its allies it sees the risk of intervention against it as low. This is not guaranteed to be the case in the future but the government is more likely to base its decision making on the fact that it is winning as opposed to potential outcomes such as a major intervention against it that is unlikely to happen.

None of the above guarantees that the Assad regime will have quick victories, or that it won’t face a protracted insurgency outside of the larger cities in the future (the latter is in fact very likely). What is likely to happen in the immediate future is that the punishing assaults on Eastern Ghouta and Idlib Province will continue at the expense of civilian lives and infrastructure while the outside world prevaricates and restricts itself to limited intervention at most.

Next week: Turkey and Israel in Syria.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/02/syrian-forces-seize-new-ground-in-rebel-held-eastern-ghouta

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/air-raids-rebel-held-idlib-province-intensified-180205083401687.html

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-idlib/russia-steps-up-air-raids-on-syrias-idlib-province-after-jet-shot-down-idUKKBN1FP00C

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/03/what-is-putins-endgame-in-syria/

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

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Libya Part Five: International Implications

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Libya has been adversely affected by conflict since 2011. This began with the first civil war that was ended by the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, in which the rebels were aided by NATO intervention. A period of factional fighting then followed, during which there was an attempt to set up a democratically elected government that failed due to the competing strains of nationalism and Islamism and existence of a plethora of armed groups. The period of conflict since 2011 has undeniably been a tragedy for the citizens of Libya, with consequential loss of life and devastation of infrastructure. One example of this is the city of Sirte that has been heavily damaged due to fighting in 2011 and later in 2016 when ISIS was expelled. Here, we look at three major international impacts as a result of the ongoing Libyan Civil War.

The first is a refugee crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of migrants transit through Libya and make the dangerous attempt to cross the Mediterranean in order to reach Europe. The porous nature of Libya’s borders and lack of stability within the country has been a boon for human traffickers exploiting desperate refugees from troubles further south. This dovetails with the exodus that has occurred as a result of the Syrian War, creating a refugee crisis as people seek sanctuary in Europe, a challenge that the EU has struggled to deal with. While the EU has lofty goals concerning the right to asylum these have proved difficult to maintain in the face of the sheer numbers of migrants and how and where their needs should be met. Alongside this is the problem of determining between refugees, who are escaping violence and persecution, and economic migrants seeking a better way of life. The outcome is that the EU has struggled to cope with the influx and there has been a tilt towards nationalist politics in some of its member states.

The second is the impact on the top tier of international politics in the form of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Russia and China chose not to block a resolution to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, thus allowing for intervention by a US-led Coalition in order to protect the breakaway city of Benghazi from punishment by the regime of Gaddafi. The coalition then went on to become a de-facto air support for the rebels against the regime and ensured its collapse. The subsequent civil war would impact on later decisions concerning Syria, notably the refusal of Russia and China to allow UN intervention in support of the rebels in Syria. Having seen Libya collapse into infighting there was also little appetite for tacking the Assad regime. There was also an impact on the willingness of the UK and US to intervene in Syria, with the UK Government defeated in a vote proposing intervention, in turn effectively torpedoing the willingness of the Obama administration to intervene unilaterally and allowing a ‘red line’ over the use of chemical weapons to be crossed. We cannot be sure what the outcome of intervention against the Assad regime would have been but we can observe the influence of events in Libya on decision making concerning Syria.

The third international impact is the consolidation of Jihadist groups, including ISIS, within Libya. This has a corresponding direct impact on Libya itself as the presence of the Jihadists also means that Libya becomes another frontline in the terror wars, bringing in external forces that would otherwise be focusing their attention elsewhere. Two examples of this are retaliation by Egypt for Jihadist attacks in Egypt by Libyan based Jihadists and the targeting of ISIS by the US, both of which rely on the use of airstrikes. The presence of Jihadist groups in Libya is due to the lack of stability and security caused by successive years of factional fighting and will prove to be a major obstacle to achieving a general peace across the country should the opposing governments and their factions reach a compromise and work towards building a representative Libyan state with corresponding national institutions and a functioning infrastructure. As it stands, the presence of jihadist groups guarantees that external actors, not exclusively the US and Egypt, will engage in a ‘whack a mole’ approach of targeting groups within Libya that have an international jihadist agenda. For their part, the warring Libyan factions are unlikely to be seriously concerned if a US air strike obliterates a jihadist base in the Libyan Desert.

This concludes the five part focus on Libya.

Next week: Escalation in Syria.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2017/06/01/does-the-road-to-stability-in-libya-pass-through-cairo/

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/374

https://wordpress.com/post/turnerconflict.com/590

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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Libya Part Four: Mediation and Negotiation

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From a general viewpoint attempts to bring peace in Libya through mediation and negotiation have proved unsuccessful and the three governments that have emerged from years of factional fighting and civil war have chosen military force as their primary means of gaining territory, support and the consolidation of their power. We have looked at the progression of violence, from uprising and civil war, through factional violence, the beginning of the second civil war in 2014 and its continuation into 2018. Throughout this, the problems of the breakdown of centralised rule, the competing strains of Liberal, Centrist and Islamist factions in Libyan politics, and the influence of the armed groups on politics have marred attempts at reaching a national solution to the crisis. The lack of a functioning and representative government and the inability of politicians to provide a political sphere free of the law of the gun mean that the key problems of dealing with unemployment, the economy and the provision of stability and security cannot be addressed. Libya poses a major challenge for mediators not simply because of the three competing governments but because they also draw their support from a myriad of smaller but highly influential actors who have their own aims and objectives in a country where the rival governments are unable to provide security and prosperity.

We should acknowledge that where there have been successes they have occurred at the local level and have been pragmatic compromises to ensure local security and prosperity. These have involved local elders and notables with legitimacy earned from their involvement in civil society and experience of politics, mediation, and negotiation at the local level. This does not exclude the involvement of national and international actors and has been undertaken in the context of a wider attempt at reducing the impact of violence and with the support of national and foreign actors. The strategic importance of a given area is also important, with the oil rich regions being less amenable to de-escalation through mediation and negotiation. One example is the ‘Social Dialogue’ in the Nafusa Mountains between Tripoli and the Tunisian border, where local civil society actors were willing to engage in dialogue as the forces fighting in the area were reaching the point of exhaustion. They did so with UN observers present, thus giving grassroots backing to the UN-led political process. While this demonstrates the importance of traditional leaders in achieving a cessation of violence at the local level it was also dependent on the military situation and the involvement of the UN, indicating that resolution at the local level is not solely dependent on the influence of the local actors but the circumstances on the ground and external support.

The UN has been heavily involved in seeking a political solution to the violence in Libya but has met severe obstacles from the off. The special envoy to Libya in 2011, Abdelelah al-Khatib, found himself undermined by the UN’s referral of Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and UN Security Council authorisation of a no-fly zone that clearly indicated the UN was not an impartial actor and envisaged a Libya without Gaddafi. The existence of rival mediation tracks, including those of the AU and Arab League also undermined further attempts at mediation as they had their own underlying agendas. With the war over, the United Nations Support Mission for Libya (UNSMIL) was established on the 16th September 2011 to support the transition process and facilitate the establishment of a new government. UNSMIL coordinates the work of all UN agencies in Libya and is a political mission only, having no military involvement and does not provide peacekeepers. This ‘light footprint’ of support towards achieving a political solution without coercive intervention is indicative of the difficulties the ongoing violence presents in terms of seeking a solution. There had been an assumption that the introduction of democratically elected leaders would bring about legitimacy for an internationally recognised government, but this reckoned without dealing with the underlying political, social and economic problems that the previous regimes totalitarian rule had papered over and the proliferation of armed factions as a result of the First Libyan Civil War. Even with UN backing and support for the establishment of representative governance the naked truth that Libya’s new political establishment was severely divided and vulnerable to the whims of individual ambition. Moreover, it didn’t represent the people but the factions claiming to represent them and was unable to unite the armed groups into a national army or control them and stop them being used to establish strongholds or influence politics directly.

The UN continues to attempt a mediated solution between the combating factions and has been integral to the setting up of political institutions in Libya and has engaged in a peace process that has, at least, brought warring factions to the table. In December 2015 the Libyan Political Agreement was signed after protracted negotiations and sought to form a unity government, the Presidential Council (PC) but this has not achieved its goal of uniting opposing factions and the confrontation between the House of Representatives (HoR) and the General National Congress (GNC) continues and there has been further divisions between those who support the LPA and those who don’t. The conflict is currently deadlocked and the PC is yet to assert its authority. The LPA thus far has failed to provide the traction needed for a political solution and negotiations are hampered by the manoeuvring of the protagonists who are still seeking to improve their position militarily. The complexity of the actors involved in the conflict also hinders the search for a political solution as, while the HoR and GNC are seen as the primary protagonists this hides the fact that they are dependent on other actors in the conflict for political and military support. This has a major impact on the attempts of the UN to mediate a political solution.

Next week: International implications.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/doug-noll/another-international-med_b_872106.html

http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/16/the-problem-with-libyas-peace-talks/

https://unsmil.unmissions.org/

http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/negotiating-peace-in-libya

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

 

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