Farewell to Arms? Seen Nowhere on the Horizon

Saudi special security forces show their

Saudi special security forces show their skills during a military parade at a base near Mount Arafat, southeast of the holy city of Mecca, on November 22, 2009  (Image credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

We are all defence and military this week. An arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth up to US$110 billion, followed by the Pentagon’s US$639 billion budget proposal for FY2018 (“dead on arrival” because apparently it was not big enough). And to complete it all, the NATO summit in Brussels.

All three security levels (country, regional, and global) are covered. An array of topics claimed to be targeted (from national defence interests to global threats like terrorism, to job creation) or flagged by independent observers as issues of concern (like civilian casualties and human rights). And this way or another, it is all about military spending; or, to be precise, about military spending (militarization) under the pretext of ensuring state and human security (eventually at the expense of other government expenditure). This is not a topic to be taken lightly—in the world of “limited resources and unlimited needs” we have to make (supposedly, rational) choices. Do we?

How much justified is, for example, US$1.69 trillion (which happens to constitute no less than 2.2 percent of global GDP) in military spending in 2016 alone? And this is at the time when according to Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), the same year the total number of deaths from violent conflicts across the world equalled to 103,330; of them 87,018 lives were lost in state-based violence; 9,034 in non-state violence, and 6,278 in one-sided violence. Add to this tens of millions of forcibly displaced people (both internally and refugees), those who are exposed to starvation and infectious deceases due to violence—and you quite get an idea of the scale of the problem. But to make sense of it, we first have to reflect on some basic questions.

MIL1-ARMS_1950-2016

How should we think about relationship between militarization and security, stability? How important is it to maintain high military spending (which includes items from procurement of arms and equipment to wages, training and social benefits to research and development)? How justified is it to cut public funding from non-defence areas in order to build up further militarization? And finally, does organized violence (whether state-based and non-state-based armed conflicts or one-sided violence) persist because governments don’t spend enough on security or the use of armed force is driven by other (social, economic, political, ideological, psychological) factors and cannot be contained by ever increasing military budgets? Or is it the arms production and trade (both formal and trafficking) that itself contributes to fuelling many conflicts?

There is no single or simple way to answer those questions. Especially considering that universal rules (like the one by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature that there has been an extraordinary but little-recognized, millennia-long, worldwide reduction in all forms of violence) are difficult to establish, and they may not necessarily work in all regions and at all times (especially nowadays, when the pace of developments and changes, and thus volatility are uber-high).

There are also different forms of conflict and therefore the relation between each form and external factors (like military spending) may vary greatly. Moreover, the forms are also changing. Take for example state-based armed conflicts—that is, armed contests over power and/or territory where one of sides is the government. The established classification recognizes four forms of state-based conflict (called wars if they cause more than one thousand battle-deaths a year): inter-state conflicts (between states); extra-state conflicts (between a state and an armed group outside the state’s own territory); intra-state conflicts (between a government and a non-state group); and internationalized intra-state conflicts (when the government, or an armed group opposing it, receives military support from one or more foreign states). Well, how are we going to categorize the wars in Iraq and Syria? For the majority of states involved, both wars fall under more than one sub-category, and each sub-category in turn is subject to a different set of driving forces, contexts and circumstances.

Another challenge (as ever) is causality. We first look at the correspondence, and if there is any, then at the casual direction in relations between (extensive) military spending and security. What I am interested in here is, whether it is true that more military spending by governments leads to sustained improvements in both state and human security (where human security is not only saving lives from war, genocide, displacement, epidemics and famine, but means freedom from violence and from the fear of violence, with direct and indirect implications on fundamental freedoms and basic human rights). To answer this question one has to undertake a full-blown research based on empirical evidence, and perhaps employing a sophisticated computation and modelling (to cover a broad range of variables over extended periods of time). However, it is possible to make sense of developments without this heavy armoury, simply viewing them in right context.

MIL2-Conflicts-MENA

Take for example, the controversial arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia signed this week. Let’s look first at the trend. In the last decade, the region’s governments have significantly increased their military spending, and weapons purchase in particular. In 2012-2016 their share among global importers of major weapons equalled to 29 percent, compared to (no small otherwise) 17 percent in 2007-2011. Out of top five arms importers in 2012-2016, three were from the Middle East and North Africa: Saudi Arabia with 8.2 percent, United Arab Emirates with 4.6 percent, and Algeria with 3.7 percent of global imports, respectively.

Note that this happens at the time when oil prices have dropped drastically and the global trend is leaning towards reliance on renewables and clean energy. The Gulf states being heavily dependent on commodity exports, find themselves in a dare financial situation. Never mind, they say. But the facts tell a different story: “Saudi Arabia faces an imminent economic crisis. … Riyadh cannot sustainably rely on oil as its principle source of national income. Over the last 18 months, the Kingdom has used 17% of its Public Investment Fund (PIF) to cover the government’s operating costs. If this trend persists, Riyadh will completely deplete the PIF by 2024.”

The true burden of military spending on the economy becomes apparent when we see it as a share of a country’s GDP: in 2016, in the Middle East it was at staggering 6.0 percent (compared to 2.0 percent in Africa, 1.6 percent in Europe, 1.3 percent in Americas, 1.8 percent in Asia). As mentioned above, this money is not spent out of some surplus magically appearing in the government coffers; it is spent at the expense/instead of something else. And this “something else” happens to be human, social and economic development. As pointed out by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in its 2016 yearbook, a comparison of trends in spending on the military, health and education since 1995 shows that whereas the majority of countries have increased health and education spending while reducing military spending, the trend in the Middle East has gone in the opposite direction. There is no better indication of where the governments’ priorities are.

MIL3-Death-MENA

Of course, there is also a game in play. Bluff is always present in politics, whether at local or global level. Saudi Arabia is in acute need of cash. The regime knows that they cannot afford large military spending. Actually, they have decreased the military expenditure last year, and as a result are not in the top third position of spenders, giving up this “honourable place” in the rankings to Russians. But they are also aware that others know that too, and are watching them closely. So the deal so ambitious is (at least in part) to throw dust in someone’s (say, arch-rival Iran—which happens to be on ascending line thanks to Nuclear Deal-incited release of sanctions—or would-be partners in emerging Muslim countries of East Asia) eyes. The deal is not binding and can stay stalled for years (until each letter of offer and acceptance (LOA) it is comprised of is signed and paid for thus making it to the contract), but will send a signal to anyone around that Saudis are in no short supply of money, resolve, ambition and support to this matter.

Whether the others buy this bluff is another story, but the point is made—and with such a skillful showman as Mr Trump in game, it is performed quite theatrically to impress everyone, at home and abroad. (As a side note, such a show with inflated package price serves the US administration’s goals too—to demonstrate to the voters at home their power and influence, to claim more jobs and benefits to economy etc; Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, director of the DSCA was quick to announce: “When completed, it will be the largest single arms deal in American history.”  What an accomplishment!)

Still, this does not change the overall intent of the affair. And just to be clear on that point: the rulers of Saudi Arabia will make sure to purchase big part of the arms package, especially considering that first, it is a political commitment before the strategic partner (who is so kind to take sides in the ages-long Sunni-Shi’a power contest); second, the delivery under contracts may take long years thus allowing some flexibility with regards to payments; and also, Saudi rulers want to build the military production capabilities at home by 2030, so part of contracts would work to this end.

That is all good, but the question is who will pay for this. Well, I have an answer: I assume this would be the young generation of Saudi Arabia (who are already frustrated by worsening life standards, unemployment and various barriers in social life) and of other countries in the region (who are either equally robbed by their governments of public investment in their future or are unlucky to be born in the neighbouring countries which serve as playground to use those weapons purchased). Whether they like it or not.

MIL4-GPI-MENA

Where is it all heading? Marc Lynch has nailed it in his recent article that, emboldened by such deals (and the Washington’s backing) the region’s regimes will find it easier “to sustain their crackdown on civil society and political dissent” when faced with difficulties and popular resistance to meet the militarization commitments, “but such repression will exacerbate the governance failures and political grievances which lay the ground for another round of instability. By almost every indicator—economic, political, security or social—the Arab regimes upon which Trump is doubling down are more unstable now than they appeared to be in the years leading up to the 2011 uprisings.”

So in response to the question posed in the opening part of this piece, it would be fair to say that militarization (through extensive military spending, among others) makes the Middle East governments more vulnerable and the entire region increasingly unstable—it encourages violent conflicts and contributes to their escalation instead of containing them. It is counterproductive, whether in immediate or long term. And I am sure we will arrive at similar conclusion when analyzing other regions. Think of Africa (military spending across the continent has increased by almost half in the past ten years). Think of South Asia (with the top importer of major weapons, India and no less ambitious Pakistan). Think… how much good could have been done instead.

*                  *                  *

Advertisements

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.

***

Global Security: Governance and Benevolence

munsecconf2017-msc-mueller

Munich Security Conference 2017, 17-19 Feb 2017 (Image credit: MSC/Mueller)

Reflections on the week passed

by Elbay Alibayov

I was following the Munich Security Conference this week. There was a bit of everything, which is perhaps only natural. My initial impressions (not an analysis or a detailed account of the event):

A lot of open discussions, good judgement and right, if not uneasy, messages (particularly coming from European representatives; I liked the address by EU’s foreign affairs chief Mogherini and Angela Merkel’s confident leadership, especially in the face of rather cautious, if not modest presentation by the US team).

Some narrow agenda driven stances and accusations (for example, an orchestrated attack of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran as the only source of security problem in the Middle East; it is no doubt, but only part of the problem, the rest being contributed by themselves). It is time to recognise that there is not going to be peace, order and prosperity in the Middle East unless the region’s most influential actors learn to cooperate in spite of differences and disagreements on particular issues.

Some eyebrow raising events (like the formal meeting, at the sidelines of the conference, of two delegations from Iraq led respectively by PM al-Abadi and Kurdistan’s president Barzani) and inconsistencies (like both the Afghanistan’s President Ghani and Pakistan’s Defence Minister Asif rightfully claiming that their countries are at the forefront of fighting global terrorism, while on the same very day Pakistani military conducting border shelling and, according to local sources, crossing the border under the pretext of destroying the terrorist base in Nangarhar).

Some awakening calls on new global threats (namely, the warning of bio-terrorism by Bill Gates) and some disappointing news (like the admission by Thomas de Maiziere that there is no meaningful cooperation between European security organisations and the UN counter-terrorism body).

Whether this will translate into constructive and well thought out and coordinated action remains to be seen. One thing was clear is that the way international affairs are conducted has changed. Perhaps this was most explicitly stated by the Russian FM Lavrov in his call to embrace a new world order. Otherwise, the spirit of changed international affairs was expressed in the title of the security report published prior to the Conference: “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order.”

It seems that everyone agrees that we are living in a sort of “ante” era of global governance—in between the “post” (as represented by the system established after World War II and amended after the end of Cold-War) and before the new system is established and functional. What this new global governance system will look like nobody knows yet; it only takes shape (also through various tests undertaken here and there by global and regional actors) but as an objective process moves forward, whether some like it or not.

There is also one thought that does not leave me for many years, since the early 1990s when I first saw the face of human suffering in real life, not through the TV screen (shockingly, these were hundreds thousands of refugees and displaced people in my country, among them my relatives, forced from their places of residence by the Nagorno Karabagh conflict). After that, living and working in Bosnia (from Srebrenica to Sarajevo), in Kabul and Baghdad… it does not leave me alone… Isn’t this all suffering enough? What sort of moral impetus do we need to be humans?

Something is wrong with us as humankind. We may be (and are most of the time) benevolent as individuals but lack Humanity as organised groups. As groups, we easily humiliate, torture, kill. We feel little empathy for other’s sufferings. We fail to see the loss of a single life as tragedy. And when it happens en masse, it is only statistics and labels to us that matters. This is something that has not changed through the millenia of human history…

In the words of Hitchens, we have “downgraded” people to the level of “problems” (thanks to Shadi Hamid for sharing through Twitter this brilliant essay, A Valediction for Edward Said, written by Christopher Hitchens back in 2003). He wrote it about Palestinians, but his observation holds true to many other people: “People may lose a war or a struggle or be badly led or poorly advised, but they must not be humiliated or treated as alien or less than human.” No global security or development agenda will be working and delivering peace and prosperity unless we understand this.