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

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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.

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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.”

Doubling Down on America’s Misadventure in Yemen

by Perry Cammack and Richard Sokolsky | War on the Rocks

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                                                 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.”

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Ukraine and the Game of Geopolitical Go

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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The Politics of Separatism and Violent Conflict

“Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” – William Morris

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A Southern Sudanese voter casts her ballot in Juba on January 9, 2011 on the first day of independence referendum expected to lead to the creation of the world’s 193rd UN member state (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty images)

By Elbay Alibayov

Wars, not much peace

Have you noticed that we live in the age of continuous violent conflict fought simultaneously under various banners in different places? Virtually there is no a single day when we do not hear news about small, big, short or long wars (mostly about attacks and casualties, much rear so about successful peace deals). And this trend has been in making for quite a long time; modern time globalisation and technology advances made information about them readily available but also made the wars more intense and devastating, and rapidly escalating.

These are staggering facts, but in the course of past two centuries (from 1816) more than three hundred civil wars have been fought across the globe. Consider now that vast majority of them take months and years, and some last for decades (and this does not mean that the conflict is settled once and for all)—and you will realise that the humanity has not lived in even a short peace period for at least two hundred years.

Separatism as political manifestation

More than one-fifth of civil wars have been conflicts related to or originating from separatist demands. It does not come as surprise though—the very process of state creation and nation building over centuries, which left many cultural groups and nations stateless or residing as minority on the territories controlled by other groups, made it unavoidable. Political processes of the 20th century–especially the collapse of empires, redrawing borders and creating new states after two World Wars, decolonisation, dismantling of communist system and the end of Cold War–have both created conditions for tensions between various groups within newly formed states and boosted the nationalist and separatist ideas and movements.

The results of most of those state creation and recreation experiments are irreversible, for various reasons ranging from the resistance (or resilience) of internal political structures to regional and global security considerations and international law provisions and practices (which are not unambiguous, in turn). Therefore separatism is here to stay, and each generation of those groups seeking autonomy will take up their fight, as has been the case all along. If so, it makes sense taking a close look at separatism—to understand why it results in violent conflicts and what could be done to prevent it from turning into civil wars, and what could be done to end those wars once they occur.

Separatist conflict is about power and thus is inherently political but not necessarily violent. Better we understand the interplay between its agents and their ideas, underlying institutions and structures, and appreciate the role of externalities and contingencies at given point in time–higher the chances to prevent it from turning violent or to end the war once it occurred.

First, separatism is an inherently political movement. Politically organised distinct cultural groups (for example, ethnic, racial, religious, tribal) advocate and act upon their claims for greater autonomy or independence from the state on which territory they reside in compact, as a minority. Material incentives play small, if any, role in this kind of contest: that is why greed and grievances of political economy analysis fall short of explaining the drivers of separatist conflict.

Second, separatism means conflict, but not necessarily violent. There are many separatist groups which pursue their goals of greater autonomy by peaceful means. And there are many states which engage in talks and concessions to meet those demands, instead of resorting to repressions outright. A lot depends on political culture and tradition of a given country and a combination of various contexts at a given time. And finally there are also various external actors which, in pursuit of their own agendas, may calm down or fuel the violent conflict.

[*On a related but separate note: the end of hostilities and eventual secession does not immediately or necessarily mean peace and prosperity for newly established states. From one civil war they may move into another war–this time within their borders and driven by another political struggle, separatist or otherwise. Think of South Sudan.]

Basics of separatism

All the above, backed by recent literature and evidence on the ground bring us to conclusion that separatism-inspired or driven civil wars shall be understood, studied and dealt with in terms of political science, by employing such categories as institutions, contexts, structures, agents, ideas, and contingency. Below is a summary of basics on contemporary separatist conflict, as informed by evidence:

  • There are different types of separatist groups and movements (or agents)
  • There are different kinds of separatist demands (or ideas)
  • There are different local contexts (or institutions and structures)
  • There are different exogenous factors (or externalities)
  • There are numerous points in time when individual decisions randomly coincide to produce unpredictable outcomes (or contingency ).

This post is first in a series where I will look at each of these statements separately.

1. Different types of separatist groups and movements (or agents)

Most of research conducted on separatism use the most complete database operated by Minorities at Risk (MAR) project of the University of Maryland. According to generally accepted definitions, there are six ethnopolitical groups identified in terms of their potential relevance to separatism. Under relevance it is meant that those groups have a potential for seeking autonomy, due to their historical past or current conditions.

As of 2006, there were estimated 283 such ethnopolitical groups across the globe:

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Ethnonationalists are regionally concentrated peoples with a history of organized political autonomy with their own state, traditional ruler, or regional government, who have supported political movements for autonomy at some time since 1945.

Examples include: Kashmiris in India; Jews in Argentina; Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey; Turk Cypriots; Tatars in Russia; Zanzibaris in Tanzania; Scotts and Northern Ireland Catholics in the UK; Sardinians in Italy; Basques in Spain.

Indigenous groups are conquered descendants of earlier inhabitants of a region who live mainly in conformity with traditional social, economic, and cultural customs that are sharply distinct from those of dominant groups.

Examples include: Rohingya in Myanmar; Mayas in Mexico; Berbers in Morocco; Chechens in Russia; Nuba in Sudan; Native Americans in the US and First Nations in Canada; Maori in New Zealand.

National minorities are segments of a trans-state people with a history of organised political autonomy whose kindred control an adjacent state, but who now constitute a minority in the state in which they reside.

Examples include: Biharis in Bangladesh; Azerbaijanis in Iran; Crimean Russians; Catalans in Spain; Serbs and Croats in Bosnia; Baluchis in Pakistan.

Religious sects are communal groups that differ from others principally in their religious beliefs and related cultural practices, and whose political status and activities are centered on the defense of their beliefs.

Examples include: Ahmadis in Pakistan; Copts in Egypt; Shi’a in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Communal contenders are culturally distinct peoples, tribes, or clans in heterogeneous societies who hold or seek a share in state power. Disadvantaged communal contenders are subject to some degree of political, economic, or cultural discrimination but lack offsetting advantages. Advantaged communal contenders are those with political advantages over other groups in their society. Dominant communal contenders are those with a preponderance of both political and economic power.

Examples include: Hazaras in Afghanistan; Druze in Lebanon; Zulus in South Africa; Hutus in Burundi; Ashanti in Ghana.

Ethnoclasses are ethnically or culturally distinct peoples, usually descended from slaves or immigrants, most of whom occupy a distinct social and economic stratum or niche.

Examples include: Sri Lankan Tamilis; Roma in Romania, Hungary, Serbia; Tutsis in Congo (DRC); Hispanics in the US; Turks in Germany; Koreans in Japan; Chinese in Vietnam and Thailand.

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Each of these groups has its own identity and shared history, present-day circumstances, and ideas about their future as political entity. I will explore them in the next piece.