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


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.”

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


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.

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. Magnier

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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Myanmar: Building Peace and Democracy Brick by Brick

In this commentary on Myanmar’s recent progress toward establishing democratic governance and ending decades-long civil war, I will try to look beyond the known facts into the background of Burmese politics that frames, directs and conditions the course of developments, but is also continuously influenced by them. That is why this environment is neither static nor monolithic or heterogeneous. I will pick up some pieces of this dynamic puzzle to better understand what is happening in Myanmar and, more importantly, why it happens as it does.

Leaders pose for a photo after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw

(Front row L-R) Myanmar’s Military Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Speaker of the Upper House of Parliament Mahn Win Khaing Than, Vice President Henry Van Thio, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Htin Kyaw, Vice President Myint Swe and former vice president Sai Mauk Kham pose for a photo with ethnic leaders after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, Myanmar August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Another milestone

In the course of four days, from 31 August to 4 September 2016, the government and military of Myanmar held a peace conference with rebel groups over the country’s future political and administrative set-up. The conference in the capital Nay Pyi Taw was the first broad based, inclusive of (almost) all stakeholders event dedicated to this issue in nearly seventy years, since gaining the independence in 1948.

The importance of this event is difficult to overestimate. It was the largest and most representative forum bringing together government officials, members of parliament, political party representatives, military officers, and representatives of ethnic armed groups in decades. Its significance is twofold, given that it demonstrated the legitimacy and credibility of the first democratically elected government and set the course toward the implementation of the negotiated peace that shall result in a new, federal political and administrative organisation of the Burmese State. It was not perfect (what is in political realm?), for it did not live up to (rather elevated) expectations of achieving tangible outcomes except for demonstrating commitment, formally launching the process, and offering all the sides an opportunity to share their opinion. But that is already a firm step forward, in a manner that appears to be characteristic of political processes in Myanmar—testing ground and moving from one milestone to the next as conditions allow.

The conditions are ripe for making the move to another milestone toward peace and democracy in Myanmar, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building a momentum, to be ready by this point in time.

This kind of decision making based on ecological rationality (that is when inferences are made through exploiting the structure of information and the environment to arrive at adaptively useful outcomes) shows itself in many instances in Myanmar, including the timing of holding the conference. Many external observes grew impatient over the prolonged negotiations and the delay with holding this landmark event; they missed the point, I am afraid. The conditions must be ripe for making the move toward another milestone, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building momentum, to be ready by this point in time:

— The military have made another step on their ‘roadmap’, by allowing the democratically elected government to take public office; in so doing they retained their power and control of certain decision-making domains (such as defence, police and border control where they continue appointing the ministers and their deputies).

— The government is fresh and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi commands respect internally and internationally and enjoys credibility with majority of population; thus hopes and willingness to cooperate are high for the time being (this is not going to be always like that, because there will be unavoidable delays and failures in addressing the mounting problems that will eventually lead to certain frustration and disillusionment).

— The rebels are exhausted and they realise that they have achieved maximum of what they could have secured through the armed conflict. It is not a secret to either side that violence leads to more violence which only aggravates the situation but does not bring any result in and by itself. Since the signing of National Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015 all but three rebel groups in the north have put the arms down.

— This explains why all the rebel groups (even those who did not sign the agreement) agreed to its text last year. And in fact accepting the peace agreement is being kept firmly by the government and military, as a precondition for participating in the follow-up peace- and state-building process. On the other hand, the negotiation process was long enough (it took four years) for all the parties to hold internal consultations and to weigh all the pros and cons. In turn, the military’s powerful commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy signing the agreement in person had demonstrated their commitment.

— And finally, the process has got high level of attention and support from the international community. At the moment it is at its pick, which means strong political backing but also availability of financial and technical aid which are much needed to revitalise the economy and to address Myanmar’s numerous social problems (this should be taken with caution though, first, because of ever important to Myanmar strategic goal of balancing its relations with China, and second, recalling the waste in supply and spending when the country first opened for the external assistance in 2011, after the sanctions imposed back in the 1990’s). The fact that the agreement signing ceremony last year was attended by ambassadors of forty-five countries, the UN and World Bank in presence and co-signed by six international witnesses (among them the most important politically and economically neighbours China and India, along with Japan, Thailand, UN and the European Union) already speaks for itself. This year, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the conference, while the former SG Kofi Annan will head a commission for examining the situation with Rohingya Muslims and offering recommendations.

Recognizing the complexity of Burmese society

Any society represents a complex system due to broad variety of societal groups which constitute it and the diversity of their interests and intra-group and inter-group interactions (as stakeholders in an array of issues). Complex systems, as a rule, are characterised by the interaction of their components and therefore the resulting ‘emergent’ properties of the system as a whole cannot be derived from generalized quality of its components but reflect the properties of those numerous and multidimensional interactions between its constituent parts. Those interactions, in turn, tend to constantly change in their dynamics, directions, forms and magnitude. That is why it is so difficult to categorize any society, even when assessed against the criteria of one given category (for example, using political rights and civil liberties for judging the degree of democratic freedom).

Now imagine how complex is society where one-third of population is comprised of ethnic minorities. Moreover, there are more than a hundred of those minorities living together in these territories literally for ages. Add seven decades of most recent violent confrontation between them and the government led by military junta (of ethnic majority)—a civil war resulting in further erosion of social fabric and deeply running mistrust, physical destruction, economic backwardness, poverty, massive scale human rights abuses, hundreds of thousands of refugees abroad and displaced people in-country, and more than one hundred thousand of fighters belonging to a dozen-and-half of armed rebel groups spread across the land (which are linked to each other but do not form a single cohesive entity, thus may act independently).

There cannot be democracy without equality and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that can guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations. 

There are two processes running simultaneously in Myanmar, since its independence day. One is the process of political transformation (presumably toward democratic governance, but in a localised fashion). Another is civil war between the ethnic majority and minorities. In the shadows of it is taking place another localised violent conflict, driven by religious divides. These processes are intertwined, although may vary independently, and what happens is that only a solution (or rather, a set of solutions) that addresses core issues at the heart of them has a chance to be effective and sustainable. It is impossible to meaningfully achieve one goal without attaining the other: there cannot be a democracy without equality and fundamental human rights and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that can guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations.

Understanding the local contexts and institutions

This is a sketchy present-day portrait of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, set within the country’s unique contextual features and underlying institutions. Take just some of them, most prominent ones, and you will see the random events, individuals and groups as parts and parcels of political processes occurring in their natural environment.

The country has a long history of statehood—existed as an independent kingdom, at times strongly centralised, for centuries (since the mid of 11th century until British colonization in the end of 19th century). Therefore, sense of nationalism and pride of own history and traditions, in each ethnic group and nation-wide, runs very deep. Perhaps this is one reason that in spite of violent infighting, almost all the rebel ethnicity centred groups do not seek to secede but strive to have equal rights and autonomy thorough building a federal state within the present borders. They take pride of the fact that Burma did not join the Commonwealth because they ‘refused to accept the British sovereign as head of state’.

On the other hand, the colonial rule not only disrupted the continuity of sovereign rule but also exacerbated and exposed the country’s major social vulnerability by stressing its inter-communal ethnicity based differences. This was recognised at the time of gaining the independence, and political equality was reflected in an agreement of domestic forces. Unfortunately this agreement was not implemented, thus effectively leading to armed conflict between the ruling majority and ethnic minorities.

Religion (Buddhism) has been one of distinctive building blocks of identity in Burma over the course of its long history, and has greatly influenced the individual, group, and inter-community behaviour and relations. However, group identity is not a permanent ‘solid enduring fact’ but rather a ‘situational construct’ which, first, has many layers and, second, evolves as part of the advancement strategy in response to changing circumstances (for example, by changing the hierarchy of its ingredient parts/layers). Therefore the Buddhist identity has not always played a dominant or unifying role in inter-communal relations, especially in the framework of the civil war unfolding.

In addition to ethnic diversity, there is a religious minority of Muslim population living in compact pockets; they are seen as aliens and discriminated against by nationalist Buddhists, at times brutally. In the western state of Rakhine, about hundred and twenty thousand Rohingya Muslims are living in displacement camps after being driven from their communities four years ago (it is also indicative that no one represented them at the peace conference).

Economic inequality has been another driver of the conflict, since the minorities live in most remote and underdeveloped areas but also have been neglected by the central government for long. Decades of civil war have devastated the country’s resources and destroyed its economy’s productive infrastructure while creating the opportunities for illicit economic activities, especially drug related, thus contributing to the conflict’s sustainability.

The revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of community aspirations and a workable mechanism for their relationships.

The change from within

Myanmar has demonstrated that by following its own path it slowly by surely progresses toward the end goal. The goal itself is broadly defined; it is shaped and reshaped along the journey, with multiple intermediary milestones determining the pace, the direction and the current and possible future settlement formats. Its smooth transition from military rule to democratically elected government (even though with the power and special position of military constitutionally guaranteed) took too long in the eyes of many observers, but what is important is that it worked out and already started delivering its first results. Another process, of ending the civil war, has too, entered its maturity phase after many attempts, iterations, and prolonged negotiations.

It well may be that, after decades of dominating mostly grim news Myanmar is about presenting to the world a lesson on how internal differences could be overcome. Whatever comes in the end (both in terms of governance and peace), is going to be a Burmese product, a local model that may not (and most probably because of that won’t) fit into Western or any other models of democratic government and peacemaking or work as a model for replication elsewhere.

I am convinced that the Burmese (and similar) experiences of dealing with their problems deserve to be closely studied and learnt from. I see the success factors of this approach in its domestically-driven energy and localised solutions, built with recognition of political culture, traditions and institutions, with adjustments made to local contexts and, through this interaction, influencing those contexts to allow the change occurring and taking root. The revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of its various communities’ needs and aspirations and a workable mechanism to accommodate them together through diverse and respectful relationships.

The country makes cautious steps in progression and there is a long way to go. But one thing is clear today is that they do it their own way in Myanmar, and even if it does not match everyone’s expectations or standards abroad, it may work well for their people. And that’s what matters in the end.

About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. He has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Azerbaijan. Being posted in the field (such as office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international projects and missions, he has designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives, and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.


A Potential Game Changer in Syrian ‘Perfect War’

‘When some systems are struck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. …  And ironically, the so-called chaotic systems, those experiencing a brand of variations called chaos, can be stabilised by adding randomness to them. … The magic is that such a change of regime from chaos to order did not take place by removing chaos, but by adding random, completely random but low intensity shocks.’ — Nasim Nicolas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2014)

Looking Beyond the Events:

  • There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all have one thing in common—they are driven by political power and influence.
  • These wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, which no one can control and with no end in sight.
  • Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts, and implement sets of limited tasks to effectively address them, in order to progress toward the ultimate goal over time.

Syrian citizens prepare to evacuate from Daraya. Photo: Local Council of Daraya City via AP

There are many wars fought in Syria today, with different agendas and actors involved, but all of them are about political power and influence. Today, Syria is a battleground for a number of wars. Each war has it its own contexts, underlying conflict drivers, prize at stake, and actors involved both directly and covertly. They are fought by a large group of local, regional, national, and transnational actors. Many are involved in more than one war and the aims they pursue (and alliances they make) in each war are different. Therefore the phrase Syrian War refers to conglomerate of wars closely related to and reinforcing each other (note: and not the ‘Syria’s war’ as sometimes referred to by observers—it is not, if ever has been, solely Syria’s internal conflict due to many external interests and interventions before and after the violent conflict erupted).

Conditionally, we can distinguish between two groups of wars by their aim: one is fought directly in the Syrian power contest and another group comprises various proxy wars which are about strategic positioning in Syria and in the region (among others, through the favourable to them outcome of the former group of wars).

Three wars are fought for direct power control in Syria. The difference is that two of them are internal Syrian political struggle by violent means, while the latter is the fight against an (originally) alien element.

One is a civil war. It started from the violent confrontation between the opposition-turned rebels and the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, back in 2011. Opposition, in turn, is not united and various rebel groups pursue their own agendas, driven by different ideologies and are supported by different set of external backers (who, in their turn, happen to be rivals in one proxy war but allies or neutrals in others). Both the government and the diverse opposition, however, share one feature—the resolve. The government does not intend to give up the power while the opposition wants to take it all, does not want to share it with Assad (the most recent proposal by opposition is yet another proof).

This winner-takes-all, zero sum game has a number of implications. More protracted it is, more resources it demands, more atrocities are committed, and fewer chances are left for its ultimate resolution. And under the resolution I mean not only a negotiated peace deal but also the post-war governance, stabilization, reconciliation, and rebuilding the country’s devastated physical and social infrastructure.

Another war is the one initiated by militant Islamist groups which took advantage of power vacuum and mess created by the civil war, to occupy territories in pursuit of their own goals. The goal of ISIL is to establish a self-ruled caliphate on Syrian soil. The goal of al-Qaeda, its affiliates, and other jihadist militants is to grab as much as possible of power, in order to control the Syrian state in the future. Originally they were alien to Syrian political context, but in the course of five-and-half years managed to become part of it, through military campaign and skilfully manoeuvring and taking advantage of uncompromising stands.

Initially in the shadow of these two but growing prominent over time and creating yet another set of proxy wars associated with it is the war of Syrian Kurds. The Kurds, too, aim at reshaping the power balance in Syria in their own favour—getting at least a recognised autonomous region, if not an independent state. By establishing de facto the territory of Rojava under their control in the north, they advanced their cause but further complicated the issues for external actors working to end the war (in firsthand the complication between two NATO members, Turkey and the US).

Proxy wars derive from those three wars and thus, are diverse and intricate on their own while also overlapping, confusing and conflicting with each other.  Take just a few examples: regime of Assad is supported by Russia and Iran, while the opposition is backed by the US and Saudi Arabia with other Persian Gulf Arab countries. On the other hand the US, Turkey, Russia and Iran fight against ISIL. Saudi Arabia also backs non-ISIL Islamist groups which in turn support Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It appears that Saudi Arabia and Turkey also are backing jihadist groups that fight to bring Assad down. The US strongly backs the Kurdish forces, but Turkey, with support of opposition groups backed by the Turkish Armed Forces, has drawn its troops to the north to counter them under premise of fighting ISIL, but actually seizing over twenty villages from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a coalition consisting of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and allied opposition groups) south of Jarabulus. And the list goes on and on, with these and many other smaller players entering the game.

The wars become increasingly integrated and evolve toward becoming one single multifaceted violent conflict, with no end in sight. The Syrian wars have one thing in common—all are about power and influence in Syria and for some, broader, in the Middle East region. Because of multiple overlaps, the wars which started with a distinct aim became increasingly integrated over time, thus developing toward single, rounded, all-encompassing ‘Perfect War’.

The wars overlap in their drivers, incentives, and aims. They also wars overlap geographically, with a number of epicentres (such as Aleppo) attracting interests of all parties. They overlap in terms of actors involved in each war (or dimension of it), who keep adapting to fast changing circumstances on the ground, at times pursuing their goals by multiple tactical means, switching sides, merging their campaigns with those actors whom they have seemingly irreconcilable differences at strategic level—and thus contributing to increased intertwining and integration of wars and actors.

The integration of wars is driven mostly through the moves of the actors on the ground. Broad variety of them, from government forces to various governments sponsored militia and paramilitaries, to mercenaries and terrorists are involved on almost all sides. Some of them fight in different fronts even within one war, while others are involved in multiple war endeavours. The uncompromising stand of both indigenous sides to the civil war (Syrian government and opposition) only strengthens the hand of those who want to proliferate from this situation (terrorist organisations such as ISIL and ever more, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham/former Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda), by offering them an opportunity to dig deeper into political process at the expense of Syrian moderate opposition groups.

Syrian opposition movement has not been homogeneous from the outset. However, certain categorisation of them, in terms of ideologies and the means they employed was still possible. Today, and for quite some time already it is very difficult to distinguish between ‘moderate’ rebels and ‘extremists’ as the former are increasingly radicalised and, in desperation, many of them join forces with jihadist groups.

On the other hand, Islamist militants and terrorists gradually become part of the civil war, mix with rebels and thus pose a risk of highjacking the (whatever violent) Syrian internal political contest. This enormously complicates the otherwise ‘wicked problem’ faced by the original parties to the conflict (and those external actors interested in the outcome), as in terms of fighting the war (for example targeting the localities for air strikes) so with regards to agreeing a deal and power sharing in the future political set-up.

The result of this integration is that, by compensating each other’s limitations, the Syrian wars evolve into one self-sustaining conflict—the Perfect War—that is fought for its own sake, is self-sufficient in terms of attracting resources and satisfying its needs, and can last permanently. Some of these currently semi-integrated wars already show indications of being fought for the sake of the fight itself—they became an end in itself for their participants who either don’t have any clear ideological agenda and affiliation or are simply benefitting from the war economically, politically, ideologically, and even psychologically.

Solution to this conundrum is only one—to abandon the idea of achieving a comprehensive peace in one move and instead decompose the problem into small parts and develop and implement a series of limited tasks to address them. The situation in Syria is out of control. There is no such power in the world—individual or collective—that controls or can control it. Before the full integration of Syrian wars happens (and everything indicates that situation evolves exactly in this direction) a fundamentally new approach to finding solution must be employed. One such approach is breaking down the overall task (of ending the conflict and putting the country on the route of stabilization) into smaller tasks that can be managed flexibly and adaptively and can produce results.

In complex environments and systems a failure (whatever small) in one element may unintentionally trigger a chain of uncontrollable failures of large magnitude all around the system and thus lead to disastrous outcomes. This is especially characteristic of systems with interactive, tightly correlated dimensions and elements. The Syrian war definitely belongs to such systems, and we have seen numerous implications of one seemingly small failure complicating and paralysing the entire progress toward resolution.

The general rule is that if there is high uncertainty, many alternatives, and small information available (and thus, high risk) the decision making shall be simple and tactical. For that, an overarching objective shall be broken down into small manageable tasks and sub-tasks adapted to environment and the structure of information and dynamics it offers, and then act upon them carrying out multiple moves, simultaneously and/or subsequently, in various places and directions with an achievable goal set for each. Another condition is that the tasks shall be decoupled (although well coordinated) to extent possible so that to isolate their failures from affecting other tasks. This is where Less becomes More, in terms of the outcome.

Decoupling of processes and system elements has long been recognised as powerful risk management technique. In business, especially when corporations endeavour in a new, risky market  or set a new business line they establish affiliate companies to protect the mother company from damages (financial and image related) from the new project’s failure.

Interestingly enough, this approach is already being undertaken in the Syrian war framework. Take, for example, the attempts of US and Russia to establish a ceasefire in Aleppo, to allow delivering humanitarian aid (in spite of principal differences in stands with regard to the future of Assad). Or consider the recent deal between the Syrian government and the rebels, on surrendering the Damascus suburb Daraya (note: not the surrender of rebels who along with other civilian population were evacuated with weapons, but the locality or whatever ruins remain of it)—an example that small-scale, localised tasks are manageable. Another possible limited task (conditional on the success of ceasefire attempt) is to share the US intelligence in order to enable Russian forces to target Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—something that certain narrow-thinking observers failed to comprehend and appreciate as a demonstration of flexibility and adaptation to circumstances.

The adversaries have been ahead of the game in terms of decoupling, though. Their recent manoeuvring with rebranding Jabhat al-Nusra into Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (thus pretending to dissociate from al-Qaeda) and a subsequent ‘defection’ of a fraction from the former, to create their own group—all clearly demonstrate that. The algorithm is simple. Jabhat al-Nusra decouples from al-Qaeda to undertake a new project, to portray itself as and to become solely Syrian actor in order to partner with rebels and eventually influence the political opposition movement. This is a new business, that is why it formally announces the change of name (although does not claim that it cuts ties with the mother organisation thus decouples, dissociates from its global branding while creating new image, localised and tailored to the limited task). But that’s not all. There is more to do for al-Qaeda in Syria, for example attracting other jihadist groups and taking them under own umbrella or continue fighting foreigners, the role left vacant after demolishing the Khorassan group by the US airstrikes. Therefore, another decoupling move follows—this time, creation of a fraction under premise of deflection from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. This new group most probably will deal with Nusra’s traditional business but formally won’t be linked to it, in order not to harm the mainstream activity.

Redefining the strategies and tactics. The goal of establishing a lasting peace in Syria and setting the country and its political system on the route of stabilisation can be achieved by redefining the engagement strategy. Large scale military campaigns can be accepted as only one of a means to an end: pulling out ISIL form occupied territories and decapitating radical militant groups are necessary but not sufficient for achieving the ultimate goal. Neither are high-level (presumably representative and all-inclusive) peace talks with (unrealistic as of this day) agenda of installing new or transitional central government. The daily job of progressing toward the desirable end-state in Syria is through numerous, random, tactical interventions aimed at searching for, understanding, and strengthening the existing opportunities for peace and strengthening local resilient capacity. The way to stabilisation in Syrian lies through those seemingly low-intensity positive shocks that have a potential to end the chaos.


About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.

(IIb/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In complex situations, an opportunity often avails itself in totally unexpected places, directions and forms that are not possible to discover or predict by logical computation (whatever artificial intelligence or big data employed), historic cases and experiences or trend extrapolation; this is where professional intuition of managers grounded in talent and years of experience shall drive the decision-making by using decision-making methods that use clues, heuristics and other tools of cognition. More formalised those methods are, more adept are managers at all levels in applying them higher are chances the organisation will be successful in navigating through surprises of unpredictability and attain its goals even under constraints of limited knowledge and time.


Photo: BBC

In this post I am presenting innovative features of decision making process and methods the Iraqi 3D Strategy’s employs, in order to flexibly navigate the local change agents and other partners toward building lasting peace and sustainable democratic institutions in Iraq.

Part II(b): Decision-making Methods

Strategy Review and Adjustment framework

As discussed in Part II(a), Strategy Review and Adjustment (SRA) is an iterative framework consisting of regularly conducted evaluations. It is a time and effort consuming exercise to be conducted by well-prepared managers. However, as practice has shown in various settings, the benefits of the process outweigh the invested resources. It is also highly recommended to formalise the process and its decision-making instruments from the outset of the Strategy implementation, with written guidance and resource materials provided.

The principal role of the review participants (decision-makers) is to make judgments and choices to bridge the gap between the ideas expressed in Theory of Change (TOC) and planning documents (PD) and reality, and to eventually choose the course of strategic action with highest potential for producing impacts. From assessment of recent developments to action point, each review comprises three blocks with their own management questions and decision making points, to allow arriving at optimal solution. Evaluations occurring at any point greatly influence what will happen in the next stage. A flowchart of generic SRA for the Strategy is represented in Figure 2; below I will describe each block’s decision making and illustrate it through a set of charts.

First block: Initial recommendation

Discussions of first block shall result in an initial recommendation. It is done through five steps: (a) Taking stock (What?); (b) Assessment (Why?); (c) Choice (What is next?); (d) Recommendation to implement (How?); (e) Monitoring arrangement (How we will know?). This is also a critical decision-making point. Figure 5 shows basic elements and flowchart of this block.


There are five option categories with regards to any level, dimension or component of the Strategy being reviewed: (a) Continue as it is; (b) Adjust and go; (c) Hold on; (d) Drop altogether/Terminate; (e) Replace.  The latter option requires a new (or being held in reserve) course of action, with justification.

Second block: Testing

From this point there follows the next block of testing or, if deemed unnecessary, then the recommendation goes to the last block of seeking approval prior to implementation (justification for skipping the testing shall be provided then, along with the recommendation). Testing is an important and highly recommended for those choices which propose a considerable change in TOC, a totally new direction or set of activities (or of local change agents involved). There are essentially three groups of available methods which reviewers will use to test the recommended action, conditionally named as: (a) formal experimental methods (randomised experiments and quasi-experimental designs); (b) formal discursive methods (surveys, interviews, panels, and focus group discussions); and (c) informal methods (such as desk tests, simulations, role plays and thought experiments). Second block’s flowchart is represented in Figure 6 below.


The outcome of testing is one of three conclusions: (a) Affirmative (confirmed, may go); (b) Negative (hypothesis didn’t prove, no go); (c) Undecided (no clear result). Respectively, first conclusion brings the review process into last step of approval and related communication with ultimate decision-makers. Second and third conclusions return the process back to either considering second-best from the options short-listed or redesign it to be better fit for purpose. The new (renewed) recommended option then goes into testing, and so on until the review participants come up with recommendable solution. This is second critical decision-making point in the review process.

Third block: Approval

At this stage, the job of review panel members is to (a) document and communicate their decision through formal channels; (b) make presentations and address questions and concerns raised, in order to convince the Strategy’s stakeholders in (primarily) political advantages and validity of expected impacts, as well as financial, administrative/logistical, and knowledge-specific technical feasibility of the recommended TOC/PD adjustments and the course of action; and (c) get eventual approval, funding (additional, if needed), and commence the implementation.

This seemingly simple process most probably itself will be iterative and even chaotic, and its outcome may depend on a number of external factors not necessarily directly related to the quality and desirability of the recommended adjustments and measures. The outcome here comes along three choices: (a) Affirmative (proceed to implementation immediately upon the agreed plan, which might be slightly or significantly different from the one proposed but consensus between stakeholders and Strategy top managers has been reached); (b) Affirmative but delayed (do not proceed immediately, until further notice or prior agreed date); (c) Negative (adjustments rejected, reasons communicated and accepted by all parties).

The former two outcomes are rather straightforward and resembling the features of somewhat linear decision-making business process. Exception is situations when the delayed choice (for whatever reason) may become outdated and irrelevant over time—which is the case in many situations, especially in international strategies and programmes with high political sensitivity. In turn, in case of a negative outcome the review either goes back to square one or continues the implementation as before (without dramatic changes) until next review. Thus, the third and final critical decision of the Strategy review is made at this point and effectively concludes it.

SRA decision-making toolkit

The Strategy’s operational environment requires management at all levels to be aware of different decision techniques that have been proved successful in complex settings. Some of these methods are better suited to tactical level or to emergency situations under constraints; others work well in solving ‘large world’ problems. What is important: to ensure that guidance on these methods is readily available (including training), that all managers can effectively use them, and that the methods are sufficiently formalised to be employed Strategy-wise.

In the framework of the Iraqi 3D Strategy’s TOC/PD review process, each step employs a number of task-specific (sometimes the same) analytical tools and decision models—some of them are well-known (such as SWOT, PESTLE, Diagnostic trees, Force Field analysis, simplified SCBA, etc.) and broadly practiced and some are rather novel to international development programming (although widely practiced in business and, especially those dealing with urgent decision-making, in security sector).

In this section, I will briefly discuss some of that set of decision-making tools which I think are highly relevant to the Iraqi 3D Strategy (and any other international strategy/programme working in post-conflict, volatile environments) and shall be formally introduced into management’s decision-making, along with traditional methods. I will illustrate them within the TOC review framework, as relevant to the subject of this series of posts.

Multi-criteria decision models

Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) method

Multiple Criteria Decision Models (MCDM) are widely used in business and in public sector, for they can be flexibly adapted to decision makers’ objectives and preferences and help to keep the judgment objectives clear.  I will illustrate this model on the example of Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP), one of techniques to tackle complex problems of choice and prioritisation. What makes this method well suited to the Strategy’s approach are the following: (a) evaluation doesn’t require exhaustive historical statistical data but makes comparative judgments for multiple choices; (b) allows managers to examine ‘what-if’ scenarios and alter their own initial decision by reassigning the weight given to criteria (or factors, depending on the case considered); and (c) gives the team enough flexibility to choose and modify evaluation criteria, depending on situation (i.e. decision-makers may opt to replace one or more criteria of their metrics based on experience gained, and so arrive at better decision).

Decision scenario: The goal of the Strategy’s review team is to select the most reliable civil society partner to lead/coordinate a citizen platform partnering with provincial governorate of Wasit in participatory budgeting initiative sponsored by the Strategy.

As agreed by the team, the factors to be considered are: experience (in similar activities plus reputation); capacity (membership in terms of numbers and skills); inclusiveness (of members–gender, youth, minority); and outreach (localities and their representative populations covered). Figure 7 gives a graphic representation of decision model’s core elements.


Upon completing a series of steps when judgements are scored and weighed, review participants will arrive at decision which is based on scores earned by each candidate against all the (weighed) criteria. What is interesting is that the team will weigh the criteria as they think relevant to local circumstances and thus the same candidates would score differently in another province (say, in Babil) with different context and thus requirements. Matrix in Figure 8 represents the final decision based on a composite weight of all choices against all criteria for this illustrative case.


Decision trees

Probabilistic decision tree

This kind of decision tree illustrates the probabilities of alternative choices and is a proven method for choosing the most feasible course of action, when there is enough data (for computation) to support the decision-making process. I will demonstrate it on the following illustrative case.

Decision scenario: The Strategy’s managers/review team in Diyala province considers working on local economic development initiative, to assist the provincial authorities and their public-private partnership (PPP) platform supporting youth entrepreneurship and small business. The Strategy’s decision-makers have to decide whether to help setting technology business incubator (TBI) or craftsmanship workshop-incubator (PBI).

The decision is taken in the face of uncertainty about (a) whether competition will be undermining the start-ups (the rival products of foreign producers will be imported and imitation will be rapid thus reducing the profitability of pioneers); and (b) whether the local and regional customer markets will be booming or in recession for the initial period of five years.

However, having enough data it is possible to calculate economic and social returns under all of possible outcomes: ROC (return on the investment made by the PPP which is a social enterprise with matched public-private funding); Social effects (wellbeing of the community); Economic effect (jobs, public revenue).

The decision tree for this illustrative case is represented in Figure 9.


Analogy-based models

Advance knowledge as reference

Analogy-based models evaluate the decision object (whether initiatives, projects or strategic directions) by comparing them to known (well-documented) historical precedents of the same class. In development practice, typically managers are using case studies of ‘good practice’ projects in order to learn from them and try make a projection of some successful past experiences elsewhere (with certain, at times significant, conditionality attached due to diverging local circumstances and contexts) to their initiative under consideration.

As discussed in part one of this series, although informative this method alone is not sufficient (mostly due to limits of replicability), especially in such politically complex environments as Iraq today, where developments may take any turn and any point in time thus forcing the managers keep exploring, learning from local developments and adapting to them constantly.

Recognition-primed method

There is another method of this class, which may prove very useful, especially when managers lack information about the context. This is known as recognition-primed method which works under constraint of limited information and thus relies on the decision-makers’ professional experience and intuition. Research findings over decades of observing real-life situations where this method is used (mostly in critical situations, emergency—by military and generally security, fire brigades; but also increasingly by civil agencies and businesses working in environments of high uncertainty and facing decision choices that do not fit into business-as-usual toolbox) prove that this method shall be among formal decision making tools of Strategy management. Conceptual flowchart of this method is represented in Figure 10.


Heuristic decision models

Heuristics are decision-making methods (simply put, rules of thumb) used to solve problems that traditional methods of logic and probability fail to handle. In management practice they have proven to work very well in uncertain settings and are relying on a minimum of time, knowledge, and computation to make choices adaptive to operational environment. In addition to these advantages, these methods are applicable at both strategic and operational levels of decision making. All this qualities make heuristics methods an excellent addition to the Strategy’s decision-making toolkit.

There are various methods (and various designs for some of them) in the class of heuristics driven decision models. Two of them are highly recommended for the Strategy. One is known as categorisation-by-elimination (CBE).

How CBE works? First, a manager/decision-maker or a management’s TOC/PD review team defines a full set of possible choices to be considered. Next, they establish cues (criteria, features, factors) most relevant to the choice decision on a given problem and rank them in terms of their importance. Third, they start evaluating the choices against cues, one at a time, starting with the most prominent cue. There is only one exit per cue, meaning only two choices: yes or no (either choice meets the requirement or it does not). If there is only one candidate choice meeting the criterion at this stage, then the search is stopped and the decision is to go with it as a recommended option. If there are more than one choices meeting the cue requirements, then the set is evaluated against the next cue, and so forth until there is one at a certain stage which is recommended. If all cues are exhausted or no choice meets the cue requirements (meaning that no single choice evolved as winner) then either choice is selected randomly from the remaining sub-set or new cues are added into the search. This means that last cue has two exits, to ensure that a decision will be made in the end.

Another decision tool which is used at individual and group level (especially in emergency situations but increasingly within broader set of settings) and is very effective in complex situations is fast-and-frugal tree (FFT). Its difference from CBE is that this method assesses one object against a set of cues organised by importance. Again, there is only one exit condition from any cue. Therefore it is more suited to situations where there are no alternatives and decision has to be made about that particular object.

FFT Decision scenario: The Strategy’s program in Anbar province supports the Government’s ex-fighter (militia) reintegration programme. At the first stage of the programme, assistance is provided to address the most immediate needs of ex-combatants. Cash payments were opted for at the initiation of programme by the implementing partners, as most effective albeit temporary instrument. However, the Strategy’s Early Warning and Response System (using survey findings) and field monitoring reports indicate that this approach is not as effective as planned and in fact even counterproductive. Therefore the decision shall be taken by Anbar team’s review panel, whether to terminate the assistance in this form or to continue. This illustrative case of decision making using FFT is presented in Figure 11.


What is distinct about this method, when compared to traditional decision trees, is that: (a) it gives a firm decision (that is why called deterministic method) and not a comparative probability between choices; and (2) it allows for reiteration, creativity and alteration (for example, considering the same set of cues arranged in different order according to their significance—thus offering two decision perspectives to compare).


To be continued. Next post II(c): Management Modalities and Operational Environment.

Previous parts of Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Emergency Strategy for Iraq posted on PolicyLabs:

Part I: The Strategy’s Foundations

Part II(a): Decision-making Model and Process

About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.



(IIa/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In part II of this series I will be presenting the principles and innovative features of the Iraqi 3D Emergency Assistance Strategy’s decision-making model. Given the scope, this part is divided into three posts. First post discusses the Strategy’s decision-making model and process and related monitoring system that feeds into it. In the next post I will present a set of initially recommended decision-making methods and decision rules applicable to both well-ordered, regular situations and those where decisions must be taken urgently and under constraints. In the final post I will discuss the Strategy’s (decentralised) management modalities, related operational environment typology, and some implementation design features, such as modularity.

VIDEO: Top Iraqi Cleric’s Followers Continue Protest inside Green Zone

VIDEO: Top Iraqi Cleric’s Followers Continue Protest inside Green Zone

Part II(a): Decision-making Model and Process

Implementation principle

The problem of Iraq is inherently political and it cannot be resolved by any of diplomatic, advisory, military, financial or capacity building assistance alone. All these are necessary delivery channels but at the heart of it is political activity—guided by proper and ongoing political and political economy (including conflict political economy) analyses, delivered right on the site by senior and middle level team leaders, politically knowledgeable and skilful managers, who have practical experience of dealing with such situations on the ground. They will lead the teams of subject-matter experts brought together (on temporary and permanent basis) to deliver technical (military, civil) assistance relevant to specific locality or level of interaction within the Iraqi context. The Strategy therefore attempts at putting emphasis right—political change (as per Strategy’s Theory of Change) supported by all the means listed above (made available through bringing ‘three Ds’ coherently under one umbrella). This would make the implementation relevant and demand-driven, limit the waste of time and resources, avoid further confusion, and open opportunities for lasting solutions.

Knowledge-intensive work environment

Usually, the international assistance strategies and programmes are developed to fit into the existing data—that is, initially data is collected and processed, analyses conducted, country support strategies devised (whether by international, multilateral or bilateral, national agencies) and very detailed designs produced, including the (set-in-a-stone) monitoring and evaluation indicators, etc. With fast-changing volatile world, this approach does not hold anymore (even in peaceful and well-ordered environments, as we can witness with the failure of many policy programmes in liberal democracies, let alone in conflict and post-conflict situations), as the programmes so frequently fail to address the realities on the ground due to the outdated information and the rigid structures which do not allow revisiting strategies and programme documents. Instead, this Strategy’s approach is to generate data through own activities, compare and match it with secondary source reliable (to extent possible) information, to analyse it and use for anticipating, predicting the developments and adjusting to them in a timely manner.

Therefore, experimentation and continuous learning and sharing the knowledge—will be central feature of the Strategy’s work culture, at all levels. This includes sharing and, even more importantly, discussing information and new knowledge and making use of them within the Strategy’s implementation framework (vertically, horizontally) but also with the Strategy’s international and domestic partners. This will be achieved through flexible decision-making methods incentivising and encouraging this approach and through distribution of tasks across various levels and localities.

Recursive model of decision-making

Model process

To be successful, strategies and programmes in complex environments shall repeatedly test and adapt their assumptions in immediate response to new information and learning, thus managing by discovery and continuous refinement in pursuit of most effective path towards sustainable results. This requires that the Strategy adopts a flexible model of decision-making process—one that employs various decision-making methods (both computation- and intuition-based), iterative discussions and consensus-driven solutions.

Fig 2_Recursive_Process_DM

The Strategy’s decision making process model is presented in Figure 2. It is based on a premise that the Strategy and its components/programs shall change over time in response to developments and new knowledge about what is working and what is not. It is directed to problem-solving in real time and employs a recursive method comprising four elements: situation awareness, decision, action, and the feedback loop.  Whenever possible, testing the decision taken prior to implementation is also recommended. This may include simple (or simplified but still effectively useful versions of sophisticated) methods some of which I will briefly discuss in the next post. Theory of change (TOC), pillar and component objectives, operational plans, targets and delivery methods—all are subject to constant review and adjustment during the Strategy’s lifetime.

Review procedure at each round

Typically, the Strategy review process is organised on a regular (e.g. quarterly) basis. However, the implementation teams may decide to review TOC or any other planning document at any time and as frequently as deem necessary. Another feature of the review process is that it is decentralised and much authority is given to task forces and field teams, while the role of the Strategy’s senior management is to guide (rather ‘nudge’) and coordinate the process and eventually approve the justified and agreed upon changes suggested by teams, and ensure that it is done in consistent manner across the implementation localities, levels of interaction, and fields of intervention (broadly and conditionally as military/ political-military/ diplomatic/ political/ technical and more narrowly by policy domains/ societal sectors/ platforms etc).


Each Strategy review round consists of four steps, as presented in Figure 3. After each round of review the task/field teams submit the completed documentation to the designated unit or member of senior management in charge. This includes the revised planning documents and justification for the change/adjustment proposed. Submissions are assessed and feedback provided, with eventual decision taken upon mutual agreement. Reviews of the Strategy’s overarching TOC and planning documents (PD) are conducted on a regular basis with involvement of all field/task leaders.

Monitoring and assessment

Monitoring system

It is acknowledged by practitioners that traditional monitoring approaches and tools alone are not enough to track changes in volatile, politically sensitive environments. Moreover, in highly sensitive and locality-specific political situation of Iraq (which is characteristic to many conflict and post-conflict countries) it is difficult to predict the outcome from the outset and therefore to establish quantifiable indicators. Rigidly set monitoring and assessment methods tend to produce predefined uncompromising indicators which may turn misleading and counterproductive in terms of informing the decision-making, as the developments keep unfolding (frequent-times, in unpredictable way).

Also, it is very important to set the target of monitoring correctly—for strategies and programmes with political change at the centre of TOC, the right monitoring target is local agents of change and, more generally, political and social actors. Working with them directly or through various avenues offered or supported by the Strategy (such as platforms, coalitions, alliances etc.) the implementers will keep their finger on the country’s and its each locality’s political pulse, and gauge the change respectively. This is the kind of monitoring that feeds directly into decision making and enables timely adjustments. There are various methods available to do so, which are ‘soft’ but more useful for that purpose (one of my favourites is Outcome Mapping technique).

The monitoring approach suggested for the Iraqi Strategy is suited to complex and politically-charged context and also instrumental to recursive, adaptive decision-making process it employs. It aims at monitoring and gauging changes in external social and political environment—both influenced by the Strategy interventions and those developing independently (the combination of and correct disaggregation between the two is imperative for analysis and action). This requires a combination of traditional (mostly inward-oriented) monitoring of deliverables (number of meetings, events, people trained) and their immediate outputs (initiatives introduced/direct results obtained) with outward monitoring of the Strategy’s multiple structured contexts and actors (resulting from quantitative and qualitative/discursive methods of data collection, and comprising a combination of figures, indicators, indexes and, above all, narratives).

Early warning tool

To support the regular revisions and adjustments within decision-making process the Strategy will employ a simplified early warning system. The Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) set by the Strategy management is a tool whose primary objective is to timely inform decision-making on political developments, trends, and potential threats. It uses the systematic collection, processing and analysis of information (quantitative or qualitative) about political developments (not limited to conflict situations) and offers recommendations on available response options and related resources. The organisational and conceptual principle underlining the Strategy (the one bringing together diplomacy, development, defence) offers an unrivalled opportunity to compare, integrate, synthesise and make use of various sources of intelligence. The EWRS will work on continuous basis, issuing regular reports and warnings (when appropriate), with one cycle feeding into the next, and so forth. Figure 3 illustrates the stages within a single cycle. It will be managed from the Strategy’s headquarters, by political unit or situation centre.


Real-time information collection and dissemination

Another important feature of the Strategy’s monitoring system and early warning tool is that it makes information readily available in real time to all the implementation teams, from central unit to localities, so that managers could be aware of (often-time unexpected and especially at early stages of the implementation, violent risk related) events and developments across Iraq and take appropriate immediate decisions and measures. This information could be from local (field) teams, central political unit, or reliable secondary sources and may take various forms and delivery channels (emails, text messages, Intranet).

Initially published on LinkedIn. To be continued. Next post II(b): Decision-making Methods.

The first part of Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Emergency Strategy for Iraq posted on PolicyLabs: The Strategy’s Foundations

About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.


(I/III) Diplomacy, Development, Defence in Action: 3D Stabilisation Strategy for Iraq

In this series of posts I present a conceptual outline of a Strategy for emergency peacebuilding assistance to Iraq. I will only briefly describe the approach suggested for the proposed Strategy’s design and management modalities and illustrate these through charts and examples.

The aim is at introducing a model and generating an interest among development professionals and a discussion on the concept and design approaches, and on how to bring this initiative forward so that it informs and contributes to the implementation of international interventions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region’s other conflict-torn countries. Ideally, a think tank or an international development consultancy would take lead in championing the idea and setting a network of practitioners who would then work together to share knowledge (through a dedicated website or even through social media platforms; LinkedIn is one option).

The Strategy outline will be presented in three posts. The first post sets forth the Strategy’s foundations (problem statement, initial theory of change, and anticipated challenges). In the next post I will briefly describe the Strategy’s key features, such as implementation design principles and modalities, analysis and decision making methods (focusing on innovative elements that make difference, are in line with the Strategy’s general approach and well suited to the task in hand). In the last part I will present the Strategy’s initial design—its pillars and components, with brief description of initial objectives under each element and suggested activities.


Part I: The Strategy’s Foundations

Problem statement

The Iraqi state is facing two existential threats. One is posed by militant Islamists (in first hand ISIL, but not limited to it)—this is the front where conventional war for territorial integrity, to regain the occupied territories, is currently fought. This threat is intense (qualifying as strategic surprise) and has devastating physical effects but is rather short-lived (meaning that eventually it will be eliminated militarily in a visible perspective).

Another threat is posed by internal political processes, where the polity is divided along ethno-sectarian lines, on the one hand, and between rent-seeking elites and ordinary citizens, on the other (which fuels mistrust and makes political agreements difficult and feeds into violence, not the least because of creating power vacuum exploited by extremists). As a result, the government struggles to reform and remains ineffective, falls short of addressing the mounting needs of citizens thus increasingly lacking legitimacy and credibility needed to unify the country’s diverse populations. This is a long-lasting problem deeply rooted in political tradition and also recent history.

The two threats are closely related, although have different but overlapping contexts and influencing factors and stakeholders. Central to both—and that is what makes them intertwined—is power struggle. [For detailed analysis see Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change Part I: Political institutions, Politics, Governance; Part II: Economic institutions, Financial stability; Part III: State security, Human security; Part IV: Choices, Alternatives, Scenarios.]

Theory of Change

At the heart of the Strategy’s Theory of Change is political power. Power shapes the institutions (rules of the game) and the political agents’ behaviours, but is itself continuously influenced and framed by their strategic and tactical actions and on-going settlements.

The initial working hypothesis (development scenario) is that the change in power balance in Iraq in favour of setting peace, stability and conditions for sustainable growth will occur through a number of structures of power (patterned social arrangements) rather than as a result of direct power struggle  (zero-sum political game) between individual agents or groups of agents (political players). Those include political, social, economic, geographical, and ideological structures. Institutional changes shall happen both at central (national) level but even more so at the local level—they must be localised, tailored to circumstances of each area/locality.

Iraq_3D_Strategy_Fig 1_Theory_of_Change

It is a highly unpredictable, complex process whereby change may occur as a result of concerted efforts in one or many structures, simultaneously or subsequently (may be reversed at some point or may occur in some structures but not in others)—which will largely depend on where the efforts are directed and how the process of change unfolds. And the dynamics of change may be different depending on the locality. One of success factors will be inclusive character, discourse and consensus based change agreed upon and implemented between and by Iraq’s diverse collective agents (as contrasted to coercive power change).

At the heart of the Strategy’s Theory of Change is political power. Power shapes the institutions and the political agents’ behaviours, but is itself continuously influenced and framed by their strategic and tactical actions and on-going settlements.


The present and future situations pose a number of challenges (risks) to the Strategy implementers (local individual and collective agents, partnerships, platforms, coalitions as well as international donors/agencies). They derive from complex nature of political crisis in Iraq. The multifaceted problem to be addressed by the Strategy belongs to the class of ‘wicked’ problems—those which are ill-formulated, poorly informed, have many stakeholders and decision makers with divergent and conflicting values and interests, and where the outcomes are thoroughly confusing.

One challenge to the Strategy is uncertainty—it concerns both the outcome sought and the path to be taken and methods to be employed for its attainment. In spite of across-the-globe experiences in peace and state-building in post-conflict environments over decades, we still don’t have enough advance knowledge on how to achieve the desired outcomes in any given context. One explanation is that every locality is somewhat distinct, has its own contexts and circumstances: in the framework of the Strategy this means also provincial level politics in Iraq. Existing ‘best/good practices’ can only inform of the lessons learned but hardly can guide the actual Strategy implementation.

Another challenge is that there is no agreement among the Iraqi political elites—on the nature of problems faced or about future vision and the strategy to achieve it. This comes from multiplicity of individual and collective agents (both local and foreign—actors, supporters and influencers) involved in power struggle at all levels and in every locality and reinforced by old and new grievances, mistrust and conspiracy. On the other hand, there is an alien but already localised group of players under the militant Islam banner (including al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and most prominently ISIL—which are influential in ideological structures and possess military capacity to conduct terrorist attacks on massive scale and intensity but also engage in conventional warfare, occupying and controlling territories) which has become already a part of political game.

And finally, there is a lack of institutional (legislation, rules, practices, formal and informal norms), organisational (processes and procedures in government bodies, political parties, NGOs, formal and informal groups, movements) and individual (skills, abilities, experience) capacity to undertake the task in hand effectively and efficiently. This particularly concerns the community level political actors (both individual and collective, such as provincial authorities) and civil society (both organisationally and in terms of member capabilities). Capacities necessary for the changes sought to happen are also unequally distributed—between the centres (Baghdad and Erbil) and peripheries (provincial centres, towns, communities), on the one hand, and between the peripheries, on the other hand. The Iraqi political agents do not have enough experience in democratic processes—something that is not possible to build quickly or through formal training alone, but requires painstakingly practising and learning by doing (albeit with external technical assistance, political brokerage and advice, information resources and knowledge transfer).

Responses to contextual challenges

Key innovative features of the Strategy devised to address the complexity of the problem addressed in Iraq can be summed as follows. The Strategy:

  • Focuses on political power and related political settlements and institutional changes. In so doing, it relies on and nurtures local change agents (reform champions, drivers of change) by empowering, helping create enabling environment for them to pursue reforms and generate local solutions, resources and broad-based public support, and building their capacity.
  • Is sensitive to local context (understood not only country-wise, national, but also as grassroots level, regional, provincial, community) and political dynamics. This implies partnership and on-going consultations with local actors at all levels, rather than supply-driven assistance.
  • Comprises three dimensions of intervention, to attain its goal—diplomatic, developmental, and military (thus utilising 3D—Diplomacy, Development, Defence approach). This makes sense from a number of positions, such as: to reflect and adequately respond to multifaceted nature of the problem dealt with; to ensure maximum effectiveness by bringing various dimensions of security under one umbrella; and to engage with stakeholders in concerted manner.
  • Has a flexible structure (built to extent possible on modularity of components and subject to continuous review and readjustments at all levels) and delivery methods (through the iterative process of experimentation and learning)—to enable timely adaptation and thus relevance to the rapidly evolving local contexts.
  • Employs a decentralised decision-making style (more authority and responsibility to task teams and middle level management) and flexible mix of methods (combining traditional quantitative and qualitative analysis with formalised heuristic, intuitive methods) to better respond to unpredictable and fast changing situations under constraints of time and knowledge.

More in detail these features will be discussed in Part II (forthcoming).

About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based natural resource management and local economic development initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international organisation; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of reform strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military situation awareness groups, political coordination boards at all levels.