Cowboy Hats Do Not Make Magic: South Sudan’s Endless War and Suffering

south-sudan-war-905x603

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

After decades of the struggle for independence (and infighting that began back in 1955), we thought that finally the South Sudanese earned what they had fought for so hard. It was a big day, for all of us—back in 2011. The world celebrated a new member of the United Nations family, and we felt it was the beginning of new era for this troubled place and its diverse populations. However, things did not work as expected.

Instead of engaging in nation-building and offering its fellow citizens the long-awaited safety and quality of life (for which the country has plenty of natural resources), the South Sudanese politicians drew their newly born country into a civil war, chaos, political fracturing, and immense human suffering. According to Andrew Green’s article in the World Politics Review,

“At least 100,000 people living in areas of northeast South Sudan that have sustained the most fighting are currently experiencing a famine, and more than 1 million more are on the brink. By July, 5.5 million people—nearly half of the country’s population—could face severe food insecurity, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification.”

What is troubling is that the tragedy of South Sudan is somewhat forgotten; it is overshadowed by other (supposedly “bigger”) crises in Africa and the Middle East. Moreover, as the fighting and mass killings and human suffering ensue, the world leaders and many donors turn the blind eye towards the youngest state on the face of the earth. In short, the independence of South Sudan came at an overwhelming price—the price that not many countries and organisations want to share nowadays, under various excuses. And this is at the time when it needs this help urgently. Writes the International Crisis Group in its recent briefing on South Sudan:

“There are no simple solutions in South Sudan, and moves toward genuine peace require compromises both among South Sudanese and between international actors and the government. Given the multiplicity of factions, peace is more likely to be a local affair, in which progress in some areas may occur at the same time as stagnation in others. There is little appetite beyond South Sudan’s immediate neighbours to support local dialogue, however, whether to promote peace, reconciliation or humanitarian access.”

That is a very bad news for South Sudanese people. But not only for them. It is also very bad news for international community, as it means that we do not want to recognize our own mistakes and even worse, shy away from taking responsibility to clear up the mess we have encouraged and helped creating. The bitter truth of this story is that instead of turning into a symbol of how fairly the global governance acts in terms of self-determination and sovereignty, South Sudan has effectively turned into the worst case of state failure. We should have anticipated this coming. Any political and political economy analysis of the new country at the time would have determined that it was ready for independence but not for sovereignty, and would have flagged the developments there as alarming and deserving continuous assistance and care.

A black cowboy hat (even if it is the gift from the American president) cannot replace political institutions. And that is what South Sudan lacked at the time and still badly is in need of building. Without institutions this young nation stands no chance of ceasing the “endless war” and suffering, and moving towards well-being and prosperity as anyone else does. To contain and then gradually end South Sudan’s civil war, the country’s political leaders at central and regional levels should engage in a more inclusive political process and create more representative transitional governance arrangements and bodies. This requires a certain degree of political maturity, something that South Sudan’s actors severely lack… and the international community does not seem to rush with the helping hand.

*                             *                             *

Check out the piece in World Politics Review, Will Uganda’s Open-Door Refugee Policy Survive South Sudan’s Endless War? Yet another evidence of how things are bad in South Sudan and how difficulties mount even for those who stand to help, like neighbouring Uganda:

“The bigger problem here is that South Sudan is breaking up more and more,” says Alan Boswell, an independent analyst. “With each passing moment, a solution gets harder and harder. To get back to where we were in 2011 is impossible,” he added, referring to the year the country declared its independence from Sudan. “Just trying to get back to a place where you can even have some sort of outreach and political dialogue is extremely challenging.”

Advertisements

Somalia: A Critical Juncture or Yet Another Missed Opportunity?

refugees-somalia

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

Conferences and statements vs. harsh reality

This week, we witnessed two subsequent (and potentially very important) events pertaining to the grim humanitarian situation and the stabilization efforts in Somalia (under “we” I mean those who are interested in this sort of issues; otherwise they went unnoticed by the world that was occupied with the outcome of presidential elections in France and South Korea, and of course the US-Russia discussions, which went smoothly as predicted and “coincided” with quite theatrical dismissal of the FBI Director James Comey, who also happened to investigate the alleged Russian meddling in the US elections last year; Sergei Lavrov’s “Was he fired? You are kidding me” being a masterpiece—just to name a few).

First, on Monday 8 May, Somalia’s National Security Council endorsed a political agreement on National Security Architecture reached between the Federal Government (FGS) and Federal Member States (FMSs) the last month. A couple of days later, on Thursday 11 May a high-profile conference on Somalia was held in London, with participation of the representatives of the United Nations, African Union, European Union, the League of Arab States and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, among the others, and all in all more than forty nations.

The London conference participants adopted a New Partnership for Somalia that “sets out how Somalia and the international community will work together to meet Somalia’s most pressing political, security and economic needs and aspirations, as set out in the National Development Plan.” In turn, a seventeen-page Security Pact outlined the mechanisms in support of the Somalia’s national security architecture and security sector reforms.

That is all fine. Documents are well written—structured, logical, with deadlines, roles and responsibilities, and so forth being all in place. Statements are appealing and impressive. Arguments sound convincing. And still there is a feeling that we have seen it all before and it is not as easy and simple as presented therein… give us a bit more money, a bit more troops and modern weaponry, a bit of this and that… and we will do marvels.

First of all, it is not merely “a bit”—the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an additional $900 million to allow aid agencies to tackle the severe drought facing the country, thus taking his total appeal to $1.5 billion. Do you hear me? One. And half. Billion. US dollars. And it is only humanitarian part of the story. One can only guess how much the military part will cost (to the taxpayers across the globe, including those in Somalia—given there are left any).

And also, I do appreciate the encouragement given to those in distress, but when the document starts with the phrase “After decades of civil war and state collapse, Somalia is making rapid progress towards peace, stability and prosperity” I become alerted. What are you talking about? Is it the same Somalia we mean here? At the same very conference, where the UN has pointed that six million Somalis (more than half the country’s population) were in acute need of assistance, with as many as 275 thousand malnourished children being at risk of starvation? And militants controlling vast territories of the country? “Rapid progress”… Really?

_96019626_somalia_pa

Window of Opportunity

And still, the recent developments in and around Somalia (including the events of this week) may signal of a window of opportunity. Tiny one, but it is real. Can the Somalis and their international backers use this chance?

Thousands of decisions big and small related to particular set of issues are taken every minute across the globe. Mostly they are driven by individual and group considerations of institutional actors and may or may not match. However there are moments in time, which we call critical junctures when certain decisions coincide by sheer luck (for good or bad) to create synergic effects, those which go much beyond the cumulative outcome, may last longer, and moreover, have a potential to turn the course of developments irreversibly. It seems that such a moment has matured in respect to stabilization in Somalia.

Currently there are three political domains, closely related, which determine the present state and the future of Somali and the Somalis. They dominate any discourse about this trouble country, and it seems that the solutions to them have to be correlated too. One of them is famine (yes-yes, do not be fooled—it is not a malnutrition or environmental issue but inherently political problem) which has taken a scale of humanitarian disaster and demands immediate and well orchestrated action. Another is security related, and concerns primarily the fight against militant Islamists, notably al-Shabaab (and al-Qaeda, by extension) and infighting between various political opponents in their contestation of power. And the last but by no means the least is the quality of governance, its ability to perform key functions assigned to any state in serving its citizens.

Diverse factors driving the decision making of multiple local, regional and international actors involved directly or indirectly in each and all three domains in Somalia have driven us to a white wall with very simple and straightforward message on it: “Somali Ownership Needed.”

What does it mean? Humanitarian crisis (famine and cholera in first hand) demand an urgent and concerted effort. The fight against Islamist Militants needs a long-lasting solution beyond AMISOM. These two cry out loud for domestic ownership—without it nothing sustainable is going to happen, ever. And seems that with new President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed taking office in February domestic political dialogue has taken a new, promising turn (which actually resulted in the security sector related political agreements, with significant element of the distribution of command and control over the army and police—thus power—between the FGS and FMSs).

Digging deeper

To me, this is the moment. Not frequently developments in various parts of a complex system, and decisions made in each of them, connect in such a complementary manner. Whether this opportunity will translate into “right kind of” action and bring about change—remains to be seen. There are questions. Many questions, understandably enough.

Take one of them. Military component of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) comprises a contingent of regular troops from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya deployed in six sectors covering south and central Somalia. They maintain the deployment of about 22,000 troops; add to them the Somali National Army of approx. 20,000 military personnel and you get more than forty-thousand-strong trained military force. To compare, al-Shabaab has an estimated 7,000-9,000 fighters. On the top of it, the allied forces are better equipped (although Somali President, in his bid to lift the arms embargo, complains that his army has the same weaponry as militants) and supposedly has a better access to intelligence and knowledge of modern warfare. So the question begs here: How it comes that the allied forces cannot defeat a group that is inferior to them by any measure of military capacity?

One answer is that the war against militant Islamists (and this has proven true with regards to many guerrilla groups and insurgents over decades, from Latin America to East and Central Asia) is political and ideological and as such it cannot be won by military means alone. There have been numerous Somali state failures over time, from inability to protect to inefficient and unequal delivery of basic services to citizens. This, firstly, created a fertile ground for militant groups to emerge, and secondly, allows them to flourish as they take advantage of the government weaknesses and hold control over vast territories (which effectively means that they “protect” and deliver services) and generate support (or at the very least earn the loyalty of local people) and are seen as legitimate representatives of the State.

To win hearts and minds of Somalis, and thus their allegiance to the legitimate state, the government has to demonstrate that it is ready, able, and willing (in the wording of full corporate offer) to perform its role effectively and efficiently. Can it?

Let’s have a quick test. If there are two domains that would serve as indicator these are provision of public security and delivery of public services. These are fundamental functions of any state, be it sultanistic regime or liberal democracy.

AMISOM

Public security

When it comes to public security, there are two sides of the coin: one is the law and order across the land (outcome); while the other is how it is maintained (process). They are equally important. I would even say that how is more important for society in terms of citizens’ trust, credibility of government and political processes, and sustainability of direct results than what. Dictators are much more effective in establishing order than democracies. We do not accept that. The way the societal problems (even organised crime) are handled matters to us. Rings the bell? Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte of the Philippines (as the freshest name on this otherwise long list)?

And in Somalia we have problems in both what and how of security, public order and law enforcement. Results do not need further elaboration—it suffices to see how al-Shabaab has been evolving while the government descending to the level of para-military forces, to comprehend the direction of the entire Somali affair.

What security

— According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies most recent update, al-Shabaab has now surpassed Boko Haram as Africa’s most deadly militant Islamist group. Fatalities inflicted by them have increasing by a third in the course of one year—from 3,046 in 2015 to 4,281 in 2016.

— Large areas of Somalia are still in the hands of al-Shabaab. The group continues perpetrating terrorist attacks in Mogadishu. Among most notable were two attacks in June and one in December 2016, and two explosions in January this year. Each of those attacks left dozens killed and many more wounded, but as ever with terrorist attacks—created mayhem and sent a chilling message.

alshabaab_somalia_control_bbc-nov2016

— Morale is low. There are defections on both sides. Some al-Shabaab leaders have surrendered in line with the government’s amnesty provisions; at the same time the Somali National Army soldiers keep defecting to the militants’ camp (it is said that the reason being non-payment or delay with paying wages).

How security

According to Human Rights Watch report covering the events of 2016, the violence and maltreatment of civilians is rampant and it is not only al-Shabaab but all the sides, including the government forces, are complicit in abuses and crimes:

— Abuses by Government include mass security sweeps by national intelligence agency with no legal mandate to arrest or detain; arbitrary detention and recruitment of children by security forces; military court in Mogadishu trying cases that are not legally within its jurisdiction and in proceedings falling short of international fair trial standards;

— There is inter-clan and inter-regional fighting ongoing, primarily linked to tensions around the creation of new federal states. It has resulted in civilians’ deaths and injury and the destruction of property;

— Al-Shabaab kept committing targeted killings, beheadings, and executions, particularly of those accused of spying and collaborating with the government. The armed group continues to administer arbitrary justice, forcibly recruits children, and severely restricts basic rights in areas under its control;

— Reports persist of indiscriminate killings of civilians by AMISOM and other foreign forces, including during operations against al-Shabaab and airstrikes.

Public services

There are two facts that hardly would surprise anyone. Not because they are insignificant; to the contrary, both are appalling. It is because both problems are well known for quite a long period of time, and thus far they have either been ignored or not addressed properly.

One is about Somali’s poor human development record. According to UNDP survey data, 8.3 percent of Somalis lived in near poverty and another 63.6 percent – in severe poverty already in 2006. And we can go much deeper in time–it has been unfolding in front of our eyes for decades. Only “correct” statements and short-lived aid in response. The country was not even ranked in the last Human Development Report 2016.

Another fact about Somalia that does not surprise anymore—it is consistently ranked as the most corrupt country in the world. In the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index it scored no higher than 8-10 points (out of 100) for many years, and appears at the very bottom of the global ranking. As the global watchdog notes, “public sector corruption is so much more than missing money; it is about people’s lives.” It has direct bearing on the situation with delivery of public goods, distribution and redistribution of assistance, and in particular the international aid, in Somalia. The recent report by the TI’s Humanitarian Aid Integrity Programme points to the following:

— Corruption practices are perceived to be routinized in their application towards humanitarian aid across Somalia, primarily through well-established patronage networks which involve a redistribution of resources;

— Legislative and policy vacuum has allowed the government and local authority representatives create ad hoc rules and regulations to manipulate resources for their own gain. All forms of aid are affected by this environment;

— The extent of perceived corruption is reflected in the findings of 2015 study, where 87 percent of respondents viewed corruption as the single biggest impediment to receiving assistance, above insecurity and violence.

Resilience

With such a record the Somali political system hardly can pass the test. It is obvious that, in order to accomplish a quite ambitious task outlined in the documents produced and signed in Mogadishu and London in the last couple of months the country and its regional and international supporters have to consider addressing the root causes of present, long- and deep-seated problems. Otherwise, I am afraid even this tiny chance will be missed.

One thing should drive our analysis and planning: when it comes to humanitarian crisis in Somalia it is less a result of the drought and more a result of the country’s weakened resilient capabilities. In the environment of continuing infighting, lawlessness and lack of legitimate power, systemic corruption and poor public services (healthcare and education in first hand), high unemployment (especially among the youth), and human rights abuses at the hands of all the warring parties—Somali’s ability to respond and creatively adapt to the challenges posed by the rapidly changing environment has significantly decreased. It is pretty much compatible to the condition of a person with weak immune system. That is why famine, cholera, violence have taken over the land. In contrast, the adversary (as any terrorist group in fact) is highly mobile and adaptive. According to reports, the AMISOM Force Chief of Plans Salifu Yakubu has recently noted that al-Shabaab has been weakened but still has the capacity to attack, because it “remains resilient” and has resorted to asymmetric warfare. Exactly.

More weapons, more food and medicine are needed to address the most urgent manifestations of the problem; while to resolve the problem itself there must be a locally-owned long-term programme aimed at institutional (political, social, economic) root causes of it. Without restoring its resilience, the Somali state would not be able to cope with daunting problems and will further disintegrate and fall even deeper into chaos and suffering. No money in the world can buy the nation’s resilience. It must be built, from within. And this is where the international assistance must be directed.

*                 *                 *

Nobody is in Charge in Libya

d7c4254892ba4a3ab6100f9f8d728b3b_18

by Mohamed Eljarh | The Cipher Brief

The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Mohamed Eljarh, former political consultant to the Libyan Mission to the European Union, to discuss the ongoing conflict in Libya, the current terrorist threat in the country, and prospects for peace.

The Cipher Brief: What is the current state of political affairs in Libya?

Mohamed Eljarh: It has been more than 16 months since the signing of the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in the Moroccan city of Skhirat and more than 12 months since the arrival of the UN-backed Presidential Council headed by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj in the capital of Tripoli.  However, Libya remains a deeply divided and polarized country – one that lacks any representative or fully legitimate government – and it has witnessed various camps compete for legitimacy and control of key state institutions, such as the Central Bank of Libya (CBL), the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Libyan Investment Authority (LIA). In addition, an ongoing armed struggle is taking place in various parts of the country. [The conflict] is linked to the ongoing political struggle for control of resources and state institutions.

Within Libya, there are three centers of political power: the UN-backed Presidential Council based in Tripoli, the State Council (formerly known as the General National Congress), which is also based in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives based in Tobrouk. The failure of these three institutions to implement the Libyan Political Agreement has resulted in significant deterioration in living conditions and a precarious security situation where the risk of a full-fledged civil war and reemergence of violent Jihadist groups, such as ISIS, is real.

Additionally, these institutions and competing governments failed to unify key state institutions that were divided back in 2014 when certain Islamist and revolutionary factions in control of the capital Tripoli refused to recognize the June 2014 national election results and the subsequent move of the newly elected House of Representatives to the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk where it has been sitting ever since. Today, Libya has two central banks, two national oil corporations and three competing managements of the Libya’s sovereign fund, the Libyan Investment Authority.

As a result of these failures and the ongoing conflict, a growing number of Libyans, as many as 40 percent, are now living under the poverty line. The poverty issue in Libya is exacerbated by the ongoing conflict and deteriorating economic and financial situation plagued by widespread corruption and poor governance. Three different governments are printing and spending their own cash and allocating their own budgets.

The value of the Libyan dinar has dropped significantly from a rate of 1.32 Libyan dinars to 1 U.S. dollar to as low as 10 Libyan dinars for 1 U.S. dollar in recent weeks. Additionally, there is a major cash liquidity crisis and shortages in fuel, medicine, cooking gas, and basic goods supplies with significant hikes in prices throughout the country.

TCB: Last year, ISIS was kicked out of the coastal city of Sirte by Libyan forces, but there are reports that ISIS may establishing a base in southern Libya. Does the group still maintain a presence in the country?

ME: Political instability, poverty and conflict are key contributing factors to the emergence and rise of jihadist groups. Although ISIS was defeated militarily in Libya and does not control any towns or cities in the country, the environments and factors that gave rise ISIS still exist today, and if not dealt with urgently and properly, will give rise again to ISIS or a much worse Jihadist phenomena.

Currently, there is violent escalation between Libyan National Army forces under the command of General Khalifa Haftar on one side and forces loyal to the authorities in Tripoli and Misrata on the other. There is no doubt but that ISIS and other al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups will aim to regroup, strengthen their presence, and potentially expand their control over territory in the southern region.

Local forces in the southern region of Fezzan have already spotted an increase in jihadist activities. There is a real threat that jihadist groups will form deep-rooted connections and networks with criminal gangs in southern Libya. [These gangs] are involved in human and drug trafficking and smuggling activities [that] would provide jihadist groups with a generous source of income to fund their activities and regrouping efforts and would have dangerous consequences not only for Libya, but the entire Sahel and North Africa regions, and of course Europe.

r_wikimedia_commons_-_libya

TCB: Has Russia become involved in Libya in any capacity? If so, how?  Should the U.S. play a role in Libya, either militarily or by helping to broker a peace deal? If so, to what extent? 

ME: Instability in Libya and the legitimacy crisis have created a vacuum in Libya that since 2014 has been filled by jihadist groups such as ISIS or Ansar al-Sharia. But it is not just Jihadist groups that are filling the vacuum in a chaotic Libya. Regional players such as Egypt, Turkey, UAE, and Qatar have been backing opposing sides in the Libyan conflict.

Last year, Russia started to weigh its options in Libya.  It seems that Libya is now part of Moscow’s expansionist ambitions in the region. Initially, Russia seemed to favor the Eastern Libyan Commander Khalifa Haftar, as the Russians treated his wounded soldiers, have him medical supplies, and provided private contractors to help with war related activities. However, recently, Russia started to reach out to all Libyan stakeholders and has been working to push forward the peace process and the Libyan Political Agreement. Regionally, Russia is coordinating efforts with Algeria, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

It is clear that Russia is neither keen nor capable of getting involved militarily in Libya. Hence, political and diplomatic involvement is the best option available for Moscow. However, it is important to keep in mind that Libya is important to Russia for obvious economic reasons. Libya is also important to Russia because it is very important to Europe. For Moscow, Libya is another battlefield where [Putin] could twist Europe’s arm.

Russia is getting more involved in Libya while everyone waits to see the Trump Administration’s strategy towards Libya. On April 20, President Trump said, “I do not see a (U.S.) role in Libya” during a joint news conference, moments after Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni called the U.S. role in the country “critical.” This confirms fears of many EU leaders that the U.S. might be heading for disengagement in Libya.

However, Trump’s position on Libya could easily flip, as it did in Syria. But it is important for the Trump Administration to have the right strategy in Libya and not just a reactionary, ad-hoc figure-it-out-as-you go approach.

There are two key issues that any strategy towards Libya has to deal with. First, the legitimacy crisis that led to the current constitutional and legal vacuum. Second, there is the issue of political participation of all Libyan factions in producing a legitimate and representative government. The UN-led peace process was meant to solve the legitimacy issue through the dialogue and consensus process, but has failed.

TCB: Where do you see the situation headed in the short term?

ME: It is very likely that the current status quo will continue throughout 2017. It is important to point out that the term of the LPA and the UN-backed government of national accord ends on December 17, 2017. The president of the House of Representatives has already called for the Higher National Elections Commission to prepare for general presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2018. Given that negotiations based peace process did not yield the anticipated results, a democratic, free and fair elections could be the best way to solve the legitimacy and participation issues highlighted above.

What the United States, Europe and the international community at large can do is to put in place mechanisms and guarantees to support the election processes and ensure they are transparent and fair. Most importantly, the international community, through the UN Security Council, must ensure that elections results are respected and protected.

Additionally, Libya would require two key agreements that need to happen simultaneously:  first, a Libyan Economic Agreement that deals with the management and distribution of Libya’s wealth and ensures equitable and efficient management and distribution of oil revenues between Libyans; and, second, a Libyan Security Agreement that deals with the issue of disarming militias, collection weapons, and the rebuilding of Libyan Armed Forces under civilian oversight and authority, as well as the protection of borders, vital sites, and installations.

TCB: What do you make of the recent meeting between Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar in the UAE earlier this week.

ME: The meeting in Abu Dhabi and the joint communique issued by Prime Minister Serraj and General Khalifa Haftar is a major breakthrough and a significant step in the right direction. However, there are still many details to be worked out. Additionally, there are enough spoilers in Libya that could ensure the meeting does not result in any real progress on the ground. Some Islamist factions that are loyal to the Libyan Grand Mufti in Tripoli, Jufrah and the city of Derna are likely to reject the meeting and its outcomes. Within the city of Misrata some hardline factions have forcefully closed down the city’s democratically elected municipal council and the city is extremely polarized and divided. The hardliners within the city of Misrata are likely to reject the meeting and its outcome. Most importantly, the meeting must be followed by other steps that widen the participation and support base for the new agreement and the upcoming elections.

The key obstacle facing Libya today is the legitimacy crisis that resulted in institutional and legal vacuum. One way out of this conundrum would be holding parliamentary and presidential elections after speeding up the constitution drafting committee and agreeing a constitution for the country. This will ensure the end of the current institutional divide and restore some confidence in governance and the economy. However, any democratic elections will require guarantees from the international community that the electoral process would be free and fair and that the election results are respected.

***

This piece was originally published on The Cipher Brief

Can Hamas Afford the Cost of Ending Gaza’s Isolation?

palestine_rally_05032016_1

Palestinian students and supporters of Hamas during a rally ahead of Student Council elections at Bir Zeit University, West Bank, Palestine, April 26, 2016 (Image credit: Majid Mohammed/AP).

by  | World Politics Review

EDITOR’S COMMENT: Observers are watching closely as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. President Donald Trump today at the White House, where the two leaders will discuss prospects for a possible peace agreement. A potential Palestinian-Israeli deal hinges in part on a push for Palestinian unity; Abbas, who leads the Fatah party that governs the West Bank, has recently increased financial pressure on Hamas, the militant group and political party that controls the Gaza Strip, in a bid to soften its hard-line against Israel. Earlier this week, Hamas issued a new charter that moderates its stance on Israelis and Jews, accepts 1967 borders, cuts ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and seeks to develop stronger ties with Egypt.

These were some of the moves Khaled Hroub outlined last May, as he assessed ways for Hamas to end its ever-growing isolation. According to U.N. reports, Gaza will become “uninhabitable” by 2020—a spiraling humanitarian emergency that only a shift in Hamas’ political positioning could alleviate. “The group’s strategy to defend itself was largely based on strengthening its military while immersing itself in the lives of Gaza’s 2 million residents, making any effort to extract it from power without inflicting unbearable cost on Gaza’s population virtually impossible,” Hroub wrote. “This of course has had great repercussions for Gazans, as some in the outside world have come to view Hamas and Gaza as almost synonymous.” With a new set of principles aimed to improve its international image and promote reconciliation, is Hamas ready to cede ground?

“The real question is whether Hamas can make a concerted push for national reconciliation, which could be the least-costly way out of today’s deadlock.”

Read the full article.

America’s War-Fighting Footprint in Africa

Sustainment Training Djibouti

                                               US Marine exercise in Djibouti, January 2017                                           Image credit: US Marine corps

Secret U.S. Military Documents Reveal a Constellation of American Military Bases Across That Continent

by Nick Turse

General Thomas Waldhauser sounded a little uneasy.  “I would just say, they are on the ground.  They are trying to influence the action,” commented the chief of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) at a Pentagon press briefing in March, when asked about Russian military personnel operating in North Africa.  “We watch what they do with great concern.”

And Russians aren’t the only foreigners on Waldhauser’s mind.  He’s also wary of a Chinese “military base” being built not far from Camp Lemonnier, a large U.S. facility in the tiny, sun-blasted nation of Djibouti.  “They’ve never had an overseas base, and we’ve never had a base of… a peer competitor as close as this one happens to be,” he said.  “There are some very significant… operational security concerns.”

At that press conference, Waldhauser mentioned still another base, an American one exposed by the Washington Post last October in an article titled, “U.S. has secretly expanded its global network of drone bases to North Africa.”  Five months later, the AFRICOM commander still sounded aggrieved.  “The Washington Post story that said ‘flying from a secret base in Tunisia.’  It’s not a secret base and it’s not our base… We have no intention of establishing a base there.”

Waldhauser’s insistence that the U.S. had no base in Tunisia relied on a technicality, since that foreign airfield clearly functions as an American outpost. For years, AFRICOM has peddled the fiction that Djibouti is the site of its only “base” in Africa. “We continue to maintain one forward operating site on the continent, Camp Lemonnier,” reads the command’s 2017 posture statement.  Spokespeople for the command regularly maintain that any other U.S. outposts are few and transitory — “expeditionary” in military parlance.

While the U.S. maintains a vast empire of military installations around the world, with huge — and hard to miss — complexes throughout Europe and Asia, bases in Africa have been far better hidden.  And if you listened only to AFRICOM officials, you might even assume that the U.S. military’s footprint in Africa will soon be eclipsed by that of the Chinese or the Russians.

Highly classified internal AFRICOM files offer a radically different picture.  A set of previously secret documents, obtained by TomDispatch via the Freedom of Information Act, offers clear evidence of a remarkable, far-ranging, and expanding network of outposts strung across the continent.  In official plans for operations in 2015 that were drafted and issued the year before, Africa Command lists 36 U.S. outposts scattered across 24 African countries.  These include low-profile locations — from Kenya to South Sudan to a shadowy Libyan airfield — that have never previously been mentioned in published reports.  Today, according to an AFRICOM spokesperson, the number of these sites has actually swelled to 46, including “15 enduring locations.”  The newly disclosed numbers and redacted documents contradict more than a decade’s worth of dissembling by U.S. Africa Command and shed new light on a constellation of bases integral to expanding U.S. military operations on the African continent and in the Middle East.


A map of U.S. military bases — forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations — across the African continent in 2014 from declassified AFRICOM planning documents (Nick Turse/TomDispatch).

A Constellation of Bases

AFRICOM failed to respond to repeated requests for further information about the 46 bases, outposts, and staging areas currently dotting the continent.  Nonetheless, the newly disclosed 2015 plans offer unique insights into the wide-ranging network of outposts, a constellation of bases that already provided the U.S. military with unprecedented continental reach.

Those documents divide U.S. bases into three categories: forward operating sites (FOSes), cooperative security locations (CSLs), and contingency locations (CLs).  “In total, [the fiscal year 20]15 proposed posture will be 2 FOSes, 10 CSLs, and 22 CLs” state the documents.  By spring 2015, the number of CSLs had already increased to 11, according to then-AFRICOM chief General David Rodriguez, in order to allow U.S. crisis-response forces to reach potential hot spots in West Africa.  An appendix to the plan, also obtained by TomDispatch, actually lists 23 CLs, not 22.  Another appendix mentions one additional contingency location.

These outposts — of which forward operating sites are the most permanent and contingency locations the least so — form the backbone of U.S. military operations on the continent and have been expanding at a rapid rate, particularly since the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.  The plans also indicate that the U.S. military regularly juggles locations, shuttering sites and opening others, while upgrading contingency locations to cooperative security locations in response to changing conditions like, according to the documents, “increased threats emanating from the East, North-West, and Central regions” of the continent.

AFRICOM’s 2017 posture statement notes, for example, a recent round of changes to the command’s inventory of posts.  The document explains that the U.S. military “closed five contingency locations and designated seven new contingency locations on the continent due to shifting requirements and identified gaps in our ability to counter threats and support ongoing operations.”  Today, according to AFRICOM spokesman Chuck Prichard, the total number of sites has jumped from the 36 cited in the 2015 plans to 46 — a network now consisting of two forward operating sites, 13 cooperative security locations, and 31 contingency locations.

us-marines-boarding

US marines boarding MV-22

Location, Location, Location

AFRICOM’s sprawling network of bases is crucial to its continent-wide strategy of training the militaries of African proxies and allies and conducting a multi-front campaign aimed at combating a disparate and spreading collection of terror groups.  The command’s major areas of effort involve: a shadow war against the militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia (a long-term campaign, ratcheting up in the Trump era, with no end in sight); attempts to contain the endless fallout from the 2011 U.S. and allied military intervention that ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the neutralizing of “violent extremist organizations” across northwest Africa, the lands of the Sahel and Maghreb (a long-term effort with no end in sight); the degradation of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin nations of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad (a long-term effort — to the tune of $156 million last year alone in support of regional proxies there — with no end in sight); countering piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (a long-term effort with no end in sight), and winding down the wildly expensive effort to eliminate Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa (both live on, despite a long-term U.S. effort).

The U.S. military’s multiplying outposts are also likely to prove vital to the Trump administration’s expanding wars in the Middle East.  African bases have long been essential, for instance, to Washington’s ongoing shadow war in Yemen, which has seen a significant increase in drone strikes under the Trump administration.  They have also been integral to operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, where a substantial (and deadly) uptick in U.S. airpower (and civilian casualties) has been evident in recent months.

In 2015, AFRICOM spokesman Anthony Falvo noted that the command’s “strategic posture and presence are premised on the concept of a tailored, flexible, light footprint that leverages and supports the posture and presence of partners and is supported by expeditionary infrastructure.” The declassified secret documents explicitly state that America’s network of African bases is neither insignificant nor provisional.  “USAFRICOM’s posture requires a network of enduring and non-enduring locations across the continent,” say the 2015 plans.  “A developed network of FOSes, CSLs, and non-enduring CLs in key countries… is necessary to support the command’s operations and engagements.”

According to the files, AFRICOM’s two forward operating sites are Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier and a base on the United Kingdom’s Ascension Island off the west coast of Africa.  Described as “enduring locations” with a sustained troop presence and “U.S.-owned real property,” they serve as hubs for staging missions across the continent and for supplying the growing network of outposts there.

Lemonnier, the crown jewel of America’s African bases, has expanded from 88 acres to about 600 acres since 2002, and in those years, the number of personnel there has increased exponentially as well. “Camp Lemonnier serves as a hub for multiple operations and security cooperation activities,” reads AFRICOM’s 2017 posture statement.  “This base is essential to U.S. efforts in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.”  Indeed, the formerly secret documents note that the base supports “U.S operations in Somalia CT [counterterrorism], Yemen CT, Gulf of Aden (counter-piracy), and a wide range of Security Assistance activities and programs throughout the region.”

In 2015, when he announced the increase in cooperative security locations, then-AFRICOM chief David Rodriguez mentioned Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon as staging areas for the command’s rapid reaction forces.  Last June, outgoing U.S. Army Africa commander Major General Darryl Williams drew attention to a CSL in Uganda and one being set up in Botswana, adding, “We have very austere, lean, lily pads, if you will, all over Africa now.”

CSL Entebbe in Uganda has, for example, long been an important air base for American forces in Africa, serving as a hub for surveillance aircraft.  It also proved integral to Operation Oaken Steel, the July 2016 rapid deployment of troops to the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, as that failed state (and failed U.S. nation-building effort) sank into yet more violence.

Libreville, Gabon, is listed in the documents as a “proposed CSL,” but was actually used in 2014 and 2015 as a key base for Operation Echo Casemate, the joint U.S.-French-African military response to unrest in the Central African Republic.

AFRICOM’s 2015 plan also lists cooperative security locations in Accra, Ghana; Gaborone, Botswana; Dakar, Senegal; Douala, Cameroon; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; and Mombasa, Kenya.  While officially defined by the military as temporary locales capable of being scaled up for larger operations, any of these CSLs in Africa “may also function as a major logistics hub,” according to the documents.

33300011144_6e3d800a2f_o

More than 40 African Chiefs of Defence or their representatives participated in the first ever CHoD conference hosted by U.S. Africa Command, April 19-20, 2017, in Stuttgart, GE. Countering VEOs and peace support operations were the central topics for discussion. (Photos by Brenda Law and Staff Sgt. Grady Jones, U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs/Released)

Contingency Plans 

The formerly secret AFRICOM files note that the command has designated five contingency locations as “semi-permanent,” 13 as “temporary,” and four as “initial.”  These include a number of sites that have never previously been disclosed, including outposts in several countries that were actually at war when the documents were created.  Listed among the CLs, for instance, is one in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, already in the midst of an ongoing civil war in 2014; one in Bangui, the capital of the periodically unstable Central African Republic; and another in Al-Wigh, a Saharan airfield in southern Libya located near that country’s borders with Niger, Chad, and Algeria.

Officially classified as “non-enduring” locations, CLs are nonetheless among the most integral sites for U.S. operations on the continent.  Today, according to AFRICOM’s Prichard, the 31 contingency locations provide “access to support partners, counter threats, and protect U.S. interests in East, North, and West Africa.”

AFRICOM did not provide the specific locations of the current crop of CLs, stating only that they “strive to increase access in crucial areas.” The 2015 plans, however, provide ample detail on the areas that were most important to the command at that time.  One such site is Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Kenya, also mentioned in a 2013 internal Pentagon study on secret drone operations in Somalia and Yemen.  At least two manned surveillance aircraft were based there at the time.

Chabelley Airfield in Djibouti is also mentioned in AFRICOM’s 2015 plan.  Once a spartan French Foreign Legion post, it has undergone substantial expansion in recent years as U.S. drone operations in that country were moved from Camp Lemonnier to this more remote location.  It soon became a regional hub for unmanned aircraft not just for Africa but also for the Middle East.  By the beginning of October 2015, for example, drones flown from Chabelley had already logged more than 24,000 hours of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions and were also, according to the Air Force, “responsible for the neutralization of 69 enemy fighters, including five high-valued individuals” in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

AFRICOM’s inventory of CLs also includes sites in Nzara, South Sudan; Arlit, Niger; both Bamako and Gao, Mali; Kasenyi, Uganda; Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles; Monrovia, Liberia; Ouassa and Nema, Mauritania; Faya Largeau, Chad; Bujumbura, Burundi; Lakipia, the site of a Kenyan Air Force base; and another Kenyan airfield at Wajir that was upgraded and expanded by the U.S. Navy earlier in this decade, as well as an outpost in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, that was reportedly shuttered in 2015 after nearly five years of operation.

A longtime contingency location in Niamey, the capital of Niger, has seen marked growth in recent years as has a more remote location, a Nigerien military base at Agadez, listed among the “proposed” CSLs in the AFRICOM documents.  The U.S. is, in fact, pouring $100 million into building up the base, according to a 2016 investigation by the Intercept.  N’Djamena, Chad, the site of yet another “proposed CSL,” has actually been used by the U.S. military for years.  Troops and a drone were dispatched there in 2014 to aid in operations against Boko Haram and “base camp facilities” were constructed there, too.

The list of proposed CLs also includes sites in Berbera, a town in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, and in Mogadishu, the capital of neighboring Somalia (another locale used by American troops for years), as well as the towns of Baidoa and Bosaso.  These or other outposts are likely to play increasingly important roles as the Trump administration ramps up its military activities in Somalia, the long-failed state that saw 18 U.S. personnel killed in the disastrous “Black Hawk Down” mission of 1993.   Last month, for instance, President Trump relaxed rules aimed at preventing civilian casualties when the U.S. conducts drone strikes and commando raids in that country and so laid the foundation for a future escalation of the war against al-Shabaab there.  This month, AFRICOM confirmed that dozens of soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, a storied light infantry unit, would be deployed to that same country in order to train local forces to, as a spokesperson put it, “better fight” al-Shabaab.

Many other sites previously identified as U.S. outposts or staging areas are not listed in AFRICOM’s 2015 plans, such as bases in Djema, Sam Ouandja, and Obo in the Central African Republic that were revealed, in recent years, by the Washington Post.  Also missing is a newer drone base in Garoua, Cameroon, not to mention that Tunisian air base where the U.S. has been flying drones, according to AFRICOM’s Waldhauser, for quite some time.”

Some bases may have been shuttered, while others may not yet have been put in service when the documents were produced.  Ultimately, the reasons that these and many other previously identified bases are not included in the redacted secret files are unclear due to AFRICOM’s refusal to offer comment, clarification, or additional information on the locations of its bases.

Base Desires

“Just as the U.S. pursues strategic interests in Africa, international competitors, including China and Russia, are doing the same,” laments AFRICOM in its 2017 posture statement. “We continue to see international competitors engage with African partners in a manner contrary to the international norms of transparency.”

Since it was established as an independent command in 2008, however, AFRICOM itself has been anything but transparent about its activities on the continent.  The command’s physical footprint may, in fact, have been its most jealously guarded secret.  Today, thanks to AFRICOM’s own internal documents, that secret is out and with AFRICOM’s admission that it currently maintains “15 enduring locations,” the long-peddled fiction of a combatant command with just one base in its area of operations has been laid to rest.

“Because of the size of Africa, because of the time and space and the distances, when it comes to special crisis-response-type activities, we need access in various places on the continent,” said AFRICOM chief Waldhauser during his March press conference.  These “various places” have also been integral to escalating American shadow wars, including a full-scale air campaign against the Islamic State in Libya, dubbed Operation Odyssey Lightning, which ended late last year, and ongoing intelligence-gathering missions and a continued U.S. troop presence in that country; drone assassinations and increased troop deployments in Somalia to counter al-Shabaab; and increasing engagement in a proxy war against Boko Haram militants in the Lake Chad region of Central Africa.  For these and many more barely noticed U.S. military missions, America’s sprawling, ever-expanding network of bases provides the crucial infrastructure for cross-continental combat by U.S. and allied forces, a low-profile support system for war-making in Africa and beyond.

Without its wide-ranging constellation of bases, it would be nearly impossible for the U.S. to carry out ceaseless low-profile military activities across the continent.  As a result, AFRICOM continues to prefer shadows to sunlight.  While the command provided figures on the total number of U.S. military bases, outposts, and staging areas in Africa, its spokespeople failed to respond to repeated requests to provide locations for any of the 46 current sites.  While the whereabouts of the new outposts may still be secret, there’s little doubt as to the trajectory of America’s African footprint, which has increased by 10 locations — a 28% jump — in just over two years.

America’s “enduring” African bases “give the United States options in the event of crisis and enable partner capacity building,” according to AFRICOM’s Chuck Prichard.  They have also played a vital role in conflicts from Yemen to Iraq, Nigeria to Somalia.  With the Trump administration escalating its wars in Africa and the Middle East, and the potential for more crises — from catastrophic famines to spreading wars — on the horizon, there’s every reason to believe the U.S. military’s footprint on the continent will continue to evolve, expand, and enlarge in the years ahead, outpost by outpost and base by base.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch, a fellow at the Nation Institute, and a contributing writer for the Intercept. His latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, was a finalist for the 2016 Investigative Reporters and Editors Book Award.  His website is NickTurse.com.

This article was first published at TomDispatch

It’s Much Bigger Than Afghanistan: U.S. Strategy for a Transformed Region

afg-war-n-poppy

by Barnett Rubin | War on the Rocks

“It is time to recognize that the United States might be able to maintain an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan or stabilize the country, but not both. A permanent military presence will always motivate one or more neighbors to pressure the United States to leave by supporting insurgents — and forestalling stabilization. Currently, Pakistan, Iran and Russia — which together control access to all usable routes to landlocked Afghanistan — are trying to exert such pressure. Precipitous withdrawal without a settlement, of course, could lead to even more violence.”

Read more

Doubling Down on America’s Misadventure in Yemen

by Perry Cammack and Richard Sokolsky | War on the Rocks

yemen-sanaa-rally-khaled abdullah-reuters

                                                 Rally of the Houthi supporters in Sanaa, Yemen                                                    Image credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

“U.S. policy toward Yemen has failed catastrophically. …  Allured by the prospect of scoring a huge win against Iran and global jihadists and showing there was a new sheriff in town, the Trump administration … is driving U.S. policy into a deeper ditch. By catering to the Saudis in Yemen, the United States has empowered AQAP, strengthened Iranian influence in Yemen, undermined Saudi security, brought Yemen closer to the brink of collapse, and visited more death, destruction, and displacement on the Yemeni population.”

Read more

Chemical Attack in Syria: Events, Implications, Lessons

idlib-chemical attack

A poison hazard danger sign in Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib province, Syria on 5 April, 2017.         Image credit: Ogun Duru / Anadolu Agency

Reflections on the week past

by Elbay Alibayov

There has been a lot of outrage and condemnation of the use of poisonous (supposedly nerve) gas during the bombardment of the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. Deservedly so: The stockpiling and use of chemical weapons is banned in Syria (since 2013, when the government signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and subsequently started handing over its chemical stocks) and an appropriate action must be taken against those responsible.

This is all clear. What is not clear is who is responsible for what has happened. In spite of wild speculations that evoked the waves of emotional talk exacerbated by the shocking imagery of suffocated children there is not much evidence at this point—neither of the kind and source of the chemical weapons used, nor of those who used it (deliberately or not) in Khan Sheikhoun. And I guess this is rather irrelevant question in the game of geopolitics played in front of our eyes. Whatever happened and whoever did it, the events of this one week have changed the positioning of parties to the Syrian war, at least for the time being. And that is the only thing that matters in this game.

Action—Reaction—Counteraction

Action. Things took off immediately after the airstrike on Tuesday, 4 April by the Syrian Army resulted in the gas poisoning and numerous deaths and injuries among civilians. The media deriving their stories (quite uncritically) from the third (and vaguely defined) sources and the politicians relying on those reports were quick to declare the “crime against the humanity” (which undoubtedly the use of chemical weapons is) and as by default pointed their finger at the regime of Bashar al-Assad as a culprit.  The next day Nikki Riley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations was all around with the pictures of victims and emotional speeches at the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Interestingly, her claim seemed to target Russia more than Assad’s regime: “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

Reaction. President Trump reacted sharply. In his first response (at a news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Wednesday 5 April) he stated that Assad had “crossed many, many lines”. It did not take him long to move from statements to action: on Thursday, 6 April the U.S. President authorized the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield Shayrat “in retaliation after a chemical attack against civilians”.

Counteraction. Russia’s response followed immediately. President Putin called the U.S. strikes a violation of international law.  In a statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Russia suspended the Memorandum of Understanding on Prevention of Flight Safety Incidents with the U.S. aimed at avoiding collisions in the Syrian airspace and has called on the UN Security Council to hold (yet another)  emergency meeting “to discuss the latest developments.”

Whose move is next? What is it going to be about? Whatever it is, at this stage of the game the short combination described above already have scored good points for some, opened opportunities for others, while altering more promising horizons for those who thought to be in more advantageous position before the recent developments.

Implications

The chemical weapon attack in Khan Sheikhoun has had instant implications on a number of important dimensions of the Syrian war. It immediately reversed the tolerance towards Assad as remaining in power and called again for his unconditional removal. Second, it undermined the negotiation process between the regime and the opposition—both the Russians and Turks-facilitated in Astana and the UN-led Geneva talks.

Next, it put in confrontation the Americans and the Russians (given that they rejected each other’s narratives about who was responsible, and later on strongly disagreed about the response) and thus risks undermining their (not an easy otherwise) cooperation in fighting the Islamist militants (both al-Qaeda and ISIL) in Syria and in the region. And altogether it incredibly complicated the course of the war in Syria, which seemed moving towards some sort of settlement.

Of course, there shall be an international independent commission. But it will take time. And its findings may not necessarily be conclusive. The complexity of the Syrian war and its potential to directly influence a broad array of regional and international security issues do not allow for taking much time however. The events in Syria and around are unfolding at high pace, and with this dynamics and the implications of each and every move on multiple directions there is an imperative to clarify certain and very important issues right away.

If not addressed right away, those issues (whatever important they deem at the point of occurrence) lose their significance being displaced or overshadowed by a new wave of events in Syria or elsewhere in the region and across the world. We live in incredibly event-intensive times, after all. So it well may be that next week will see Americans and Russians renegotiating their positions with calm pragmatism they customarily exhibit, while others waiting for their turn to make adjustments. The chemical attack in Idlib (sadly so) would become the fact of history, as did many other no less brutal and outrageous acts of this war.

Scenarios

Okay, one would enquire, if this is the case then what is a point in establishing the responsibility for using the chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. I would argue that there is a point. Because whatever happens in Syria is not necessarily about Bashar al-Assad, whatever the official rhetoric by the politicians from all sides. Interestingly, this concerns not only external actors but even the domestic opposition groups.

The endgame going on in Syria looks beyond Assad—it is about who is going to control which and how much territory in Syria once the war ends. (As for the regime change… it is more about stability and regional interests as seen by influential external players than about human rights and democratic aspirations of local activists. Example? Well, is there anyone thinking that the regime of al-Sisi in Egypt is any better than the rule of Mubarak seen from this point of view?) Therefore, it makes sense understanding what is going on behind the scene.

One way to find out the culprit(s) is to understand who is interested in such a situation and who benefits from it. And if you look at how things stand from this perspective, you face a paradox: It appears that the Assad regime is the least interested party, among all the internal and external, state and non-state actors taking part in the war, directly or through proxies. All have some unsettled issues, big and small. All but Assad (at least prior to this week).

Things were going perfectly well for Assad and his aides recently, both in terms of military and territorial gains (from the Islamist militants and the rebels alike) and with regards to political positioning (as vis-à-vis the opposition so internationally). Why on earth would Assad “score an auto-goal” (to borrow from Elijah J Magnier) which may reverse the final outcome of the entire game at the time when he is firmly moving towards the win anyways? What is the necessity of using particularly chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun? Was it so strategically important, if not imperative to use? There are a lot of questions to be answered. Just few possible scenarios of what has happened.

Assad. One cannot dismiss any option unless it is proven unjustified. Therefore, the possibility of the Syrian army conducting the chemical attack remains on the table (with all the doubts I raised above). However, all the possible explanations to Assad’s motivation offered thus far sound naïve and even more, desperate to find at least something that sounds convincingly reasonable: “Why did Assad use nerve gas in Idlib? It’s impossible to know. Maybe it was a signal to an increasingly aggressive Israel that he still had chemical weapons, or maybe it was a warning to Russia that he wasn’t a pawn to be traded in a grand bargain with Trump. But most likely, it was a reaction to the free hand he was seemingly given when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said a few days earlier during a visit to Turkey that Assad’s future ‘will be decided by the Syrian people’ — meaning that the United States no longer demanded his departure.”

Coincidence (or good/bad luck for players, depending on their positioning). As always in this life, there is a possibility that this was a sheer coincidence—this is the explanation that Russians are promoting (that the “regular” airstrike by Syrian Army has by accident, randomly hit the militants’ chemical weapons storage while bombing the militants’ general munition warehouse, also used for supplies to Iraq). With little success though, if to judge by the other sides’ rejection of this narrative. Moreover, Tillerson went as far as to suggesting to reporters on Thursday that, “Either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent.” Tough an accusation.

Third parties. I am not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but this time around the timing, the selection of subject and even victims (more than twenty children among the overall reported seventy-four people killed), and the immediate and unequivocal reaction—all point to a possibility of well-thought out, in advance planned and timely executed plot.

Lessons

Whoever stands behind it (we may never learn for sure), one lesson to learn is that this war has tied up in one knot so many interests of too diverse actors that ending it is not going to be an easy task, if at all possible.

I recently argued in one discussion that we may have to redefine the notions of “victory” and “the end of war” when it comes to Syria (and perhaps some other places, such as Libya) so that to be realistic of what we as international community (considering that there is still a common interest to qualify as “the community” with regards to this war) actually can and aim at achieving. A year ago, I wrote about Syrian war warning that it was becoming a “perfect war” with no control over it and hence, no peace in sight. A lot of things have changed since, but only tactically.  Strategic interests of major players in this geopolitical game remain unchanged. The attack in Khan Sheikhoun was just another reminder.

That is why it does not come as surprise that experienced politicians saw a window of opportunity for them to re-engage and to attempt at changing, if not reversing, the power balance in Syria (which was shaping towards favouring Russia, Iran and its proxies, and Turkey to certain degree). What else would you read from a statement made by the EU President Tusk made via Twitter: “U.S. strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the U.S. to end brutality in Syria”?

One of commentators this week has concluded his article by drawing the following lesson from the alleged gas attack of Khan Sheikhoun, claiming that “In general … what happened in Syria on Tuesday is a reminder that those at greatest risk of chemical weapons attacks are those whose government wishes to make an example of them.” I would dare suggesting that the scope of usual suspects to be extended in this case as to read that those at greatest risk of chemical (and any other brutal) attacks are those whom the domestic and external players alike wish to make an example in their game. And that means each one of us.

***

Ukraine and the Game of Geopolitical Go

NIT_Cover_Photo_Maksymenko_crop_V3-freedomhouse

Image Credit: Sasha Maksymenko

by Elbay Alibayov

Political skills are frequently compared to chess-playing. However, it is the game of Go that comes closest to the art and craft of geopolitics. Go is a territorial game, where objective is to control more territory than the opponent. And the playground is big enough to allow performing poorly (or failing) in some areas but still winning the game by doing better on the board as a whole. Ukraine is the case in point.

Another milestone

Three years ago, on 18 March 2014, the self-proclaimed independent Republic of Crimea signed an accession agreement with Russia that resulted in forming new constituent entities within the Russian Federation. The agreement was signed two days after the citizens of Ukraine’s then Autonomous Republic of Crimea and city of Sevastopol voted to join the Russian Federation at the independence referendum (which was not recognized by the Ukrainian authorities). The move was (and still is) regarded in Russia as an historic act of “reunification”, while it was met with an outcry on the West and in the neighbouring countries, and was largely branded as the final act in “Russian annexation” of the Crimean peninsula (further to military occupation in February that created the conditions for the referendum).

For those observers who are familiar with historic background of the Russo-Ukrainian relations and their geopolitical context, it did not come as surprise though: the issue of Crimea (and especially the port of Sevastopol) and subsequent eastern Ukraine separatism are just another milestones on a long route of settling the relations between Russia and Ukraine in contemporary, post Soviet, history. Which itself is just a small section of a millennium long common history, with its numerous zigzags, highs and lows, infightings, controversies and moments of common pride (it is enough to remind that the Russian and Ukrainian statehood has started from Kievan Rus’ of 9-13th centuries; while Crimea becoming firmly part of the Russian Empire after the 1783 annexation and then changing hands in the course of the 20th century).

Sevastopol and national security

The irony of Russian geography is that, in spite of having a vast territory stretching from East Europe to the Far East, Russia is comparable to a land-locked country in terms of useful naval access to the world’s main theatres of action. That is why Crimean peninsula scores high in Russia’s national security strategy, and she cannot afford losing it. It is obvious that Crimea’s annexation was only an issue of time. The work in this direction started early in the post-Soviet times—already in the 1990s some Russian nationalist politicians were declared persona non grata, for meddling into Ukrainian internal affairs (under the pretext of protecting the interests of ethnic Russian or “Russian speaking” population).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine were negotiating the division of fleet and military and naval bases inherited by the newly independent states. From 1997 Russia was leasing the military bases of Sevastopol port from Ukraine, as per Partition Treaty. For quite some time, the sides were using their bargaining chips (gas supply and transit from Russia vs. Sevastopol bases of Ukraine) within tolerable margins.

Things became complicated once the United States and the European Union backed pro-democracy opposition groups started challenging the established status quo. Even worse for Russia, once coming to power after the so-called “orange revolution” of 2004-05, they began openly threatening to discontinue the leasing (which was due to expire in 2017). The situation temporarily normalized when the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was installed in Kiev. The agreement was immediately renewed and extended for another twenty-five-year period until 2042 (known as the Kharkiv Accords).

However, the Euromaidan protests of the opposition forces in 2014 saw Yanukovych ousted, and that was a signal for the Russian military that the time has come for action. Russia simply could not allow this happening. Honestly speaking, no one (at least among actual or those aspiring to be great powers) would.

ukraine_russian-as-native_map-2001

Crimea: a done deal

So where is Crimea now? The answer is simple and clear: Crimea is gone; forget it. It has quickly passed a grey zone (limbo, if you wish) of “no return—no further transformation” and has comfortably integrated into the Russian state. And it seems that, over time, everyone has accepted this stand of affairs.

No return means that there is no chance Crimea will be part of Ukraine ever again, given its strategic, even existential, importance to Russia: Crimean peninsula is the only place that hosts its Black Sea Fleet—one of very few outposts from where Russia can defend its southern borders and geopolitical interests in the region, as well as project its strategic offensive capabilities globally. Moreover, since the annexation Russia has deployed additional forces to strengthen its surface and sub-surface combatants and amphibious primary based in Sevastopol, Karantinnaya and Streletskaya Bays, as well as naval aviation and air defence located in nearby bases along with naval infantry.

On the other hand, there was a smallish chance that Crimea would be formally recognized as an independent state by other states and the UN any time soon. That meant no transformation into a fully fledged sovereign state; and declaring independence while being de jure part of Ukraine and de facto Russia’s satellite did not seem a feasible option, either. The only transformation from the grey zone practically justifiable (and the one that Russia did not hesitate undertaking) was integration—that is, Crimea becoming formally the part of Russian Federation. Therefore, for Russia (and by extension for all others) Crimea can be considered (at the very least, for the visible future) as fait accompli.

Eastern Ukraine: a prize no one dares to win

Eastern Ukraine, particularly people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk of the Donbass region (acronym for Donetsk [Coal] Basin), is following suit. The circumstances of Donbass are different from those of Crimea, but the destination is the same—into the grey zone where it becomes a low intensity irritant and a bargaining chip. The principal difference being that the Donbass entities are going to stay there at least in the immediate to medium term, if not indefinitely. There are reasons for that.

First comes the superiority of objectives. For Russia, the Donbass uprising has served as a supplement, to distract attention from Crimea and allow settling the primary issue (i.e., everyone to accept Crimea’s secession and integration, or annexation, even though without overwhelming formal recognition internationally) while creating a buffer zone and a constant irritant in Ukraine that will make the neighbor’s government vulnerable and more dependent on Kremlin, to extent necessary for keeping it on a safe distance from the meaningful, full-blown Euro-Atlantic integration.

Moreover, there is a principal difference between Crimea and Donbass in terms of conflict dynamics and political economy. The former was taken in a clinically performed operation and today is firmly controlled by Kremlin and does not seem to create any problems neither within its federal entity borders nor to its neighbours (I even read the reports in Russian media about how much Crimean Tatars, who initially were opposed to secession from Ukraine, come to “appreciate their newly obtained liberty”). For anyone raising their voice of concern (it still occasionally happens nowadays), the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has an immediate response pointing to Kosovo. Legalists may debate the nuances of course, but it hardly would affect the real situation on the ground.

This is not the case with Donbass and its two self-declared entities—Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Political economy of the conflict here includes numerous non-state actors, ranging from separatist groups to anti-Russian paramilitary battalions with diverse ideologies and allegiance, and various gangs who proliferate from the chaos and lawlessness and thus are interested in sustaining the present situation rather than ending the war. They have seized control of many industrial sites and are engaged in all sorts of illicit production and smuggling activities as within the region so across the borders.

ukraine_independence-square_reuters

According to reports, separatists have seized control of steel mills, coal mines and other enterprises, and up until recent were trading with the government controlled territory.  In turn, paramilitary battalions (such as Azov, Aidar, Tornado), as revealed in international investigations, ignore the rule of law and “have been involved in widespread abuses, including abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.” Paradoxically, such groups may be of lesser headache in a low intensity conflict and lack of state control than in post-conflict situations when they play a destabilizing role and undermine the rehabilitation and state-building attempts of central authorities.

Next, Donbass is not of existential importance to Russia. Given the outdated infrastructure, degraded condition of coal mines and steel mills of the region (all demanding quite urgent and considerable investment with doubtful prospects of competitiveness), it does not represent such a great economic value to Ukraine either. The cost of physical rehabilitation is estimated in tens of billions dollars; who is going to pay for that?

To sum up, today neither Russia nor Ukraine has an appetite for fully embracing the Donbass, for it will come at prohibitive economic, social and political cost. The intricacy of Ukraine’s position is well summed in one of recent articles: “The good news is that Ukraine is prepared for all-out war with Russia; it is also prepared for and could cope with aid cutoffs from Washington and the end of sanctions. The bad news is that Kiev is thoroughly unprepared for the one scenario that could destroy Ukraine at little cost to Putin: Russia’s return of the Donbass.”

Power the aim, people not in equation

For the time being the strategic positioning of sides to the conflict over control of territories in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been temporarily settled. “Temporarily” here may mean without meaningful change for decades to come, however. It appears that such a solution serves the interests of all state and non-state actors involved, directly or indirectly.

This is true for the status of Crimea, but becomes increasingly so with regards to Donbass and the implementation of Minsk II agreement that ought to bring peace to the troubled region. Two years after its signing, some analysts observe that “as the Minsk 2 process is now merely a self-sustaining diplomatic fiction, it has consequently become pointless; but it has also become indispensable. The present status quo and ‘neither war nor peace’ scenario is benefiting everybody, including the international community, as it justifies its lack of deeper involvement.”

“Benefits everybody”… well perhaps it is fair to say that it serves all but the ordinary citizens. And they are those who are paying the ultimate cost of the conflict. According to UN Human Rights Commissioner’s data, about ten thousand people have been killed (including two thousand civilians) and close to twenty-three-and-half thousand injured since the mid-April 2014. And it does not count the displacement, loss of jobs and hard earned property, the minimalist services and quality of life, insecurity of daily life and uncertain future, etc.

But hey… let me put it straight: people (whether human lives or their well-being) are never taken into geopolitical calculus by group actors, independently of what they claim in their public statements. Just look around… Whether we like it or not, the rule established by humankind since the dawn of civilization is that in political game, including the geopolitical game of Go, anything else but power can be sacrificed.

***

The roles of the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel in Syria: moving towards the end of the war

The war in Syria is at its critical junction point, where decisions taken by various state and non-state actors upon the choices available to them at this point of time have a capacity of deciding the fate of the conflict, this way or another. An excellent break down of interests, perceptions and choices presented by a seasoned political risk analyst Elijah J Magnier: “Syria looks both close to and far from the end of the war. There are still both military (against ISIS and al-Qaeda) and political battles (constitution, cease-fire, reconstruction) to be fought. Nevertheless, despite the US and Turkish occupation of Syrian territory which Damascus will have to face one day, there are clear signs that the war in Syria is on track towards its ending.”

Elijah J M | ايليا ج مغناير

The two superpowers have agreed to finish off ISIS in Syria

Al-Qaeda in Syria has lost the support of the people and the countries of the region

Hezbollah fears an Israeli-US-Saudi Arabia war but the facts speak otherwise

Published here:  v

Elijah J. Magnier – @EjmAlrai

The US and Russia have agreed to put an end to the “Islamic State” (ISIS/Daesh) as a priority in Syria, unifying the goal without necessarily agreeing on uniting efforts and coordinating the ground attack. Nevertheless, this beginning will lead the way towards the end of the war in Syria and pave the way to removing essential obstacles (that means all jihadists) on the peace process road.

The US in Syria and the difficult choices:

The United States has pushed hundreds of its special forces and elite troops into the north – east of Syria to maintain a military presence…

View original post 3,386 more words