Syrian Ceasefire Dissolved

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

Syrian man holding child in Aleppo

The national ceasefire brokered between the US and Russia aiming to pause hostilities between major players in Syria lasted only seven days before falling apart. The Syrian Armed Forces General Command formally declared that “the US-Russian ceasefire deal started sin
ce September 12th is over” on September 19th which was followed by government jets bombing targets in and around Aleppo. Fraught with hesitation and both sides throwing blame from the start, the ceasefire crumbling apart throws any possible diplomatic solution into greater obscurity. Most importantly, the relationship between the US and Russia has taken a serious step backwards as both scramble to reassess and posture in the aftermath of the symbolically significant failure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama

Unfortunately small scale violations that may have been manageable were overshadowed by two major incidents, first the accidental US bombing of Syrian government forces on September 17th in Deir-el-Zour, and the September 19th strike on a UN aid convoy that killed the director of the Syrian Red Crescent. The convoy that was hit was on the very same path that the ceasefire was trying to protect in order to provide much needed assistance to civilians under siege in hard to reach areas in Aleppo province. Russia and Syria denied participating in the strike, though Russia simultaneously claimed that the convoy was “escorted by terrorists.”  Russia’s definition of terrorist groups was a significant concern that remained unchallenged upon the signing of the deal.

If the ceasefire had been successful, the Americans and Russians  had plans to coordinate on a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to counter extremist groups which would have heralded a great step in resolving the crisis via the two major powers working together against a common foe. Russia’s targeting of what the US designates as ‘moderate rebel groups’ is likely to resume which will further drive a wedge between the two nations. The ceasefire had excluded attacks on ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which has recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham following its formal split with Al-Qaeda, which means these jihadi groups will gain the most in the fallout of the agreement.

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Rebel fighter with a Bashar Al-Assad mask amidst rubble

Following the breakdown of the ceasefire attacks from Russia and the Syrian government escalated, causing a US intelligence official to remark the bombing campaign was one of the deadliest since the inception of the Syrian Civil War more than five years ago. State Department Spokesperson John Kirby announced that the US is “suspending its participation in bilateral channels with Russia that were established to sustain the cessation of hostilities” while also reiterating blame for the September 19th strike on Russia and the Syrian regime. Earlier that day, President Vladimir Putin stated the US was creating “a threat to strategic stability” in Syria and ended cooperation on a deal with the US on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium.

Approximately 430,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian Civil War as of mid-September, according to the watchdog group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The worsening of relations and evaporation of talks between the US and Russia in September stands to be one of the greatest setbacks in the war in 2016. It may be some time until US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov, or their successors, can formally broker another deal with any tangible impact on the situation on the ground. In the meantime, the US and Russia will act independently with at times overlapping and at times conflicting agendas.

At the very least, the US and Russia should aspire to coordinate attacks against their shared enemies in ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham while working towards alternatives in terms of other rebel groups.  ISIS is losing its war in Iraq to the point that the possibility of retaking Mosul, their capital in Iraq, is now more feasible than ever. If the focus on ISIS is decreased within Syria, that will undoubtedly complicate the offensive in northeastern Iraq and push back the day when over a million people may be freed from the oppressive grip of ISIS in Mosul. For both the sake of Iraq and Syria, American-Russian cooperation is pivotal, if not absolutely necessary.

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Venezuela is Collapsing

Shoppers waiting in line at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela

Shoppers waiting in line at a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela

Venezuela, the fifth most populated country in South America, is in the midst of a severe economic collapse. Over the past two years, hyperinflation has devastated the economy while the government’s attempts at currency manipulated have only added to the problem. The official government rate today trades around 10 bolivars for a dollar, but in reality the exchange is closer to 100 to one. Initially in January and affirmed in April, the IMF predicted the currency could collapse completely by the end of 2016 according to its World Economic Outlook, noting the inflation rate could more than double from its current rate of over 275% to as high as 720%. Earlier this month, President Nicolas Maduro declared a 60-day state of emergency.

President Nicolas Maduro

President Nicolas Maduro

The government is shuttering offices and services five days a week to save money and schools are now closed on Fridays. Limits have been placed on the usage of water and electricity, when and if they are available at all, and food shortages can be seen by the empty grocery stores being replaced by a pop up black market economy. Furthermore, the rate of violent crime has skyrocketed as the nation’s capital, Caracas, posted the highest murder rate outside of an active war zone in 2015. Over 330 police were murdered last year in Venezuela according to independent groups, and they purport armed gangs and drug cartels are expanding their operations ruthlessly and rapidly.

Multinational companies have also been hit severely by the crisis, and nearly all have taken action to cut losses. Companies that have already deconsolidated their holdings in Venezuela include Proctor & Gamble, Ford, and PepsiCo. General Mills and Clorox have exited the country, Coca Cola has shut down production due to a shortage of sugar, and dozens more companies are debating whether to renege on their investments and leave or try to stick through the downturn. Tourism in the beautiful country has also been devastated as airliners slash operations and limit flights. American Airlines has cut their number of flights per week from 48 to 10, both Delta and United have drastically reduced the number of flights, and Lufthansa has indefinitely suspended its Venezuelan service altogether. The business reputation of the country has all but vanished for the time being.

Real vs. estimated inflation in Venezuela

Real vs. estimated inflation in Venezuela

How did Venezuela fall into this crisis? Hugo Chavez led the country for over a decade heralded as one of the world’s strongest socialist states, depending heavily on the country’s vast oil industry. Corruption was relatively overlooked because abundant oil money sustained the system and the country’s GDP was consistently high among South American countries. The over reliance on oil completely undercut the possibility of a balanced economy during Chavez’s presidency, which was also marred by potential human rights violations and the stymieing of any political opposition. Real cracks in the system became even more apparent in the early 2010s as government expenditures continued to rise while actual revenues fell due to the drop in oil prices.

Following Chavez’s death in 2013, his successor, Nicolas Maduro, has attempted to continue Chavez’s state-heavy policies and entrenched socialism, however with oil funds drying up and persistent corruption, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. Opposition politicians won big in the elections against Maduro’s camp in December and ever since have contested his power amid the collapsing economic and political structures. Social, political, and security indicators have all worsened with the continued consolidation of state power, and Maduro today stands on a fragile precipice.

Even if oil prices rise as expected, the amount of revenue needed to dampen the crisis seems unobtainable without drastic political changes. Government employees have actually personally benefited in the short term from the hyperinflation because they can utilize the official exchange rate unlike ordinary citizens. Maduro may be ousted sooner than later as his crumbling government continues to flounder, polls suggest nearly 70% of Venezuelans want him to step down this year and talks of a referendum occur often. Hard times are ahead for Venezuelans and the situation will get even tougher before it begins to turn around.

 

 

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Guinea Debriefing – 2015

Market in the capital of Guinea, Conakry

Market in the capital of Guinea, Conakry

Historically much of western Africa south of the Sahara was broadly referred to as “Guinea” until colonization divided the region throughout the late 19th century. After centuries of rule by various African empires, perhaps most notably the Songhai, the French colonized Guinea in the 1890s. Guinea officially changed its name from French Guinea in 1958 when it gained independence after over half a century under French control. After breaking ties with France, Guinea was led by Ahmed Sekou Toure and his sole PDG party between 1960 and 1984. Toure pursued African socialism and pan-Africanism, initially siding strongly with the Soviet Union, but later courting the US during the Cold War as well. From 1984 until 2008 the country was helmed by military leader Lansana Conte, who like Toure, strongly suppressed political opposition. Guinea, like much of postcolonial Africa, faced tremendous economic obstacles and political strife throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Waterfall in Kindia, Guinea

Waterfall in Kindia, Guinea

Today, Guinea has a population of about 11 million, and its capital and largest city Conakry contains about 1.8 million citizens. About half of Guineans (4.7 million) are from the Fulani ethnic group, followed by the Mandinka (28%) Soussou (10%) and other smaller groups. The Fulani are the largest nomadic group in the world, and follow a code of behavior known as pulaaku that values altruism, patience, self-control, and hard work. Approximately 85% of the country is Sunni Muslim, followed by 8% Christians and 7% of indigenous religion adherents. Many Muslims and Christians in Guinea adopt or incorporate elements of local indigenous religion into their beliefs. Guinea retains French as its official language, and the local languages of Maninka and Fula are prevalently spoken.

In terms of education Guinea is one of the most illiterate in the world, as only 41% of adults can read and write. Primary school is mandatory for six years but the law is not enforced so many children, especially females, work or marry early. Polygamy is officially prohibited but according to UNICEF, more than half of Guinean females are in polygamous marriages, including nearly 30% of girls between the ages of 15 and 19. Guinea has a female genital mutilation rate of 97%, second in the world only to Somalia at 98%. Malnutrition is widespread in Guinea, and over two million Guinean children suffer from chronic malnutrition or anemia (lack of healthy red blood cells). In the 1990s, Guinea took in almost 300,000 refugees from the civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone which has had profound effects on the country to this day.

In 2010 while under the control of an interim military junta, 157 anti-junta protesters were massacred by state security forces in a football stadium. The incident led to international sanctions and widespread condemnation. Later that year opposition politician Alpha Conde was elected president in the first free elections in Guinea though there were calls of fraud and voting irregularities. Conde and his Rally of the Guinean People party maintained power when he was reelected for a second five year term in 2015. Political strife has continued intermittently, and in July 2013 nearly 100 were killed in clashes between the country’s two largest ethnic groups. Conde, a former professor, is a member of the Malinke ethnic group, and has focused on security reform and reform in the key mining industry.

Guineans in support of President Alpha Conde

Guineans in support of President Alpha Conde

Guinea was one of the worst hit by the 2014-2015 West Africa Ebola Virus, third to only Liberia and Sierra Leone. Over 2,800 were killed by the disease in Guinea before the World Health Organization declared the country free of Ebola in late 2015. Between the lack of health infrastructure, poorly developed economy, and intermittent political unrest Guinea has a myriad of challenges looking forward. Unfortunately, these are challenges shared by much of sub-saharan west Africa, and the outlook on regional assistance is bleak. The international community should support local sentiments and goals while assisting the west African nation. Investment in infrastructure, local businesses, and health initiatives will help stabilize and provide opportunity for the people of Guinea.

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Mali Debriefing – 2015

Tuareg Nomad outside Timbuktu Mosque

Tuareg Nomad outside a mosque in Timbuktu

Mali is a landlocked country in central west Africa that has a population of over 19 million, about 10% or around 2 million of which live in the capital city Bamako. Due to its history under French colonial rule, French is the official language, but approximately 80% of Malians can communicate in the most prevalent local language of Bambara. Over 60% of the country still lives in rural areas, and 5-10% pursue a traditional nomadic lifestyle. Malians represent many different ethnic groups, the most prominent of which are the Mande (50%), followed by Fula (17%), Voltaic (12%), Tuareg and Moor (10%) and Songhai. Mali is one of the hottest countries in the world, as more than half the country is primarily Sahara desert, though the three regions in the northeast (the states of Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao) hold only 10% of the population. Mali is 90% Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni Muslim, while about 5% identify as Christians and another 5% ascribe to indigenous African religions.

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Map showing the regions of Mali including the claimed state of Azawad

Mali has a considerable amount of natural resources including gold and uranium, but simultaneously is one of the least developed and poorest nations in the world. Over 80% of Malians are involved in the local agriculture industry, and the country’s biggest trade partner is France. Perhaps the most significant reason why so many Malians are stuck in a cycle of poverty is because of the failures of its education system. Malian primary school enrollment is low at 61% (ages 7-13) but secondary school enrollment (ages 13-18) drops even more to only 15% despite school being compulsory until age 16. The literacy rate is estimated between 27-46% and both enrollment and literacy rates are alarmingly worse for girls and women.

The Malian government is becoming more pro-Western over time, though it has retained an ambivalent relationship with France especially in terms of newer security threats. Since 2012, unrest in the north has persisted between various Islamist groups, Tuareg rebel militants, and the Malian government backed by the French and other international organizations. The November Radisson Blu hotel attack by terrorist group Al-Mourabitoun in conjunction with the region’s Al-Qaeda affiliate underscored the fragility of the west African country in particular.

Mali2

Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita

Mali celebrated its independence from France in 1960, but did not hold its first democratic elections until 1992. Amadou Toure served as president from 2002 until 2012 and made significant progress in public health initiatives including efforts against Guinea Worm, AIDS, and polio during his tenure. From the mid-late 2000’s, there were numerous brief ceasefires between the government and Tuareg rebels interspersed with periodic clashes and violence. Toure was criticized especially in the later years of his presidency for this failure to stem increasing unrest in the country’s northeast which led to a military coup and his resignation in 2012. After the military coup the country transitioned back to democracy in 2013 which has since led by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (commonly referred to as IBK). IBK’s party seeks to promote a secular, social democracy, and is a member of the Socialist International organization.

  • 2011: Rebellion reignites after Libyan Civil War due to Tuareg militants returning  to northern Mali
  • March – April 2012 Tuareg rebels effectively control north half of Mali including Timbuktu, Kidal, Gao. Rebels self-declare independent state of Azawad
  • March 2012: African Union suspends Mali’s membership following military coup
  • Late 2012: UN and African Union back West African regional grouping ECOWAS in military expedition against rebels/various Islamists in north
  • January – April 2013: Mali asks for and receives French military help. French rapidly defeat rebels and retake key cities.  
  • 2013-present: Sporadic clashes and incidents
  • April 2015: Upsurge in fighting via clashes with UN peacekeepers
  • November 2015: Islamists storm Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel, taking 170 hostages and killing 20 civilians

The unrest in the northeast has strengthened calls for a stronger security state while diverting attention to basic economic development and job creation. Security assistance offered by the French military, UN peacekeepers and resources, and the African Union have been critical in rolling back successes from rebels and jihadists, though their involvement has come with its own issues as well. On the ground, many Malians are distrustful of the French in particular, seeing their return to the country as a reminder of European influence and colonial control they have tried to move away from. A balance between counterterrorism and anti-rebel activities must be struck with initiatives to develop the country from the ground up. If development is ignored at the expense of short term gains against extremists, then the region will continue to harbor anti-government sentiments.

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Putin’s Foray into Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad

Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria on September 30th signalled arguably one of the most significant change of events in the Syrian Civil War since its inception. Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is answering the necessary charge in order to act “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.” While Putin more recently reaffirmed that Russia has no intention of deploying ground forces in Syria, the air campaign by conservative estimates is expected to last a minimum of one year. Above all, the aggressive move has firmly embedded Russia’s commitment to Assad’s Syria and opened the door for further Russian diplomatic leverage in the conflict and wider region.

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s control over the country has been reduced to only 20-30% of the country’s area, accounting for around 60% of the population. At least 220,000 have been killed in the conflict since 2011, though the most active watchdog group, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), has put the figure at between 250,000 and 340,000 as of October 15th. Assad has welcomed the Russians with open arms, and made his first visit outside the country since the war began to coordinate the effort with Putin in Moscow. Iran’s invitation to the negotiating table over Syria has also strengthened Assad’s bid to stay in power while also strengthening Russia’s role.

The lion’s share of the Russian air raids have been focused in the northwest of Syria, rather than the northeast where ISIS strongholds are concentrated. SOHR said Russian airstrikes have killed 370 individuals: 52 from ISIS, 191 rebel fighters from other groups, and 127 civilians. There has been significant controversy over Russia’s thus-far preference in targeting opposition rebels groups closer to the West rather than extremist groups like ISIS. The US has both warned and criticized Russia’s actions in Syria, but has relatively done little that would sway Putin from changing course.

In addition, Iran is now sending thousands of troops to Syria to bolster the new regime offensive, dropping pretenses for a more overt participation. Backed by the Russian air raids, Syrian government units, Lebanese Hezbollah armed fighters and Iranian forces targeted rebel positions around Aleppo and Homs. Iran has also been active in fighting alongside Iraqi army forces and irregular Shiite militias in Syria’s neighbor to the east. Reports indicate recent key gains have been made in Iraq, as ISIS may soon be fully ousted from the north-central city of Baiji, site of the country’s largest oil refinery. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has welcomed Russia in the fight against ISIS, and several strikes have already struck inside Iraqi territory.

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Map of Syrian control prior to Russian air strikes

Coordination between Russia and the US in the Syrian airspace remains tense especially as any incident would further escalate the situation to neither’s benefit. Obama and the US’ credibility has taken a hit while hesitating over how to more fully respond to the dramatic geopolitical shift. Russian statesman Iliyas Umakhanov remarked, “[The US] is going to have to recognize that Islamic State is the real threat that has been countered only by the Syrian regular army commanded by President Bashar al-Assad.” Secretary of State Kerry expressed concern that the Russian involvement will only further the regional crisis, and US officials on several occasions have requested restraint from Russia to no avail.

Whatever the military outcome will be, the increased Russian involvement has added a huge obstacle to any effort at a political Syria without Assad. Western countries that previously claimed “Assad must go,” including the US, will find this position less and less feasible over time as the alternatives flounder. Over the last four years the effort to find, support, or build a moderate opposition have fallen far short, and these new changes will only make those options tougher to pursue.

Furthermore, Russia is flexing it’s muscle in Syria not just for Assad or the country itself, but to also project influence and power in a tumultuous time. Rather than pulling back from chaos or biding time, Russia is trying to paint itself as a savior by entering into a new conflict. While the US and West have rightfully questioned Putin’s true goals in the Middle East, their commitment and grasp on the region are also coming under greater scrutiny. Russia will be fighting in Syria for the foreseeable future and has launched a strong bid to be the primary shot caller in the crisis. Further hesitation from the West in responding will solidify that bid, for better or for worse.

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What the FARC?

The Colombia and FARC-EP peace talks in Havana, Cuba

The Colombia and FARC-EP peace talks in Havana, Cuba

Very few conflicts last over half a century. Thankfully, one such conflict may be nearing its end after 51 years of protracted violence and national strife.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began in 1954 as a militant group with an ideology of peasant Marxism-Leninism. In the 1980s during a period of increased power, they rebranded as FARC-EP, adding “ejército del pueblo” or “Army of the People” to their title. FARC has been referred to as “Latin America’s last major revolutionary group” and have been critical to the persistent violence in Colombia. The militants profit most through the illegal drug trade, which amounts to allegedly $500-600 million per year, and at one point they were thought to provide 50% of the world’s supply of cocaine. The group has also been associated with illegal mining, extortion, kidnappings, and instituting informal taxes in areas of control.

Flag of the FARC-EP

Flag of the FARC-EP

More than 220,000 have been killed in the internal Colombian conflict, and over 80% of the victims were civilians, according to a government sponsored report. The majority of violence and the overwhelming majority of victims are located in the countryside. Targeted assassinations, massacres, and hostage taking became a routine part of the political conflict for decades. Right-wing paramilitary groups created to counter FARC and independent criminal gangs have added to the violence while fighting rebels and pursuing their own agendas. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre asserts that Colombia has over 6 million internally displaced persons, second only to Syria. In 2005, Human Rights Watch stated that approximately 20-30% of FARC militants were recruited child soldiers.

FARC was among the initial organizations to be designated as a terrorist group when the United States first created its classification system in 1997. FARC is also listed as a terrorist organization by Colombia, Canada, New Zealand, and the European Union, but not by any other South American countries. In recent years, FARC has renounced kidnapping for ransom, released the last of its prisoners of war, and has participated in talks with the Colombian government to resolve the armed conflict once and for all. A separate, smaller Marxist revolutionary group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has undertaken similar activities to FARC in parallel is also undergoing peace talks with the Colombian government.  

The most recent and thus far successful peace talks were initiated between the government and FARC rebels in 2012, focusing on six key points.

  1. Land reform
  2. Political inclusion
  3. Drug trafficking
  4. Victim rights / transitional justice
  5. Disarmament of rebels
  6. Implementation of the peace deal

All but the last two steps have thus far made significant progress as part of the ongoing talks in Havana, Cuba. A final document signing has been slated for the 23rd of March next year, and experts have been largely optimistic. FARC has vowed to leave their weapons in exchange for amnesty for low level fighters. Critics of the deal, including former president Álvaro Uribe, argue that the government is not doing enough to prosecute militants and their integration into Colombia’s political society will produce a negative backlash. Nonetheless, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC’s leader, Timochenko, have forged ahead in hopes of finally achieving a lasting peace. Timochenko has affirmed, “We are willing to take responsibility for our actions during the period of resistance.”

Cocaine seized by Colombian officials from FARC rebels

Cocaine seized by Colombian officials from FARC rebels

FARC has announced that once the final peace agreement is inked, it will lay down its weapons within 60 days. The format used in the peace plan, called the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, adopts elements from previous frameworks implemented in Yugoslavia and South Africa. Militants will be subject to prison sentences that can range from 5 years to 20 years depending on their level of cooperation. According to a briefing released by the International Crisis Group, “More than three years of confidential and public talks have built a shared sense that the transition is possible. … leveraging these gains and strengths is the most promising way forward.”

The transitional process has made significant process that should be hailed as a grand success because, if nothing else, of the achieved cessation of hostilities. FARC’s willingness to accept responsibility and the government’s stated commitment to due process should both be held to a high standard and monitored. Even after a peace deal is struck, there will still be much work to be done, including the removal of thousands of landmines throughout the country and the detention of FARC leaders. The legacy of the Colombian conflict will live on for years to come, but at least there is a greater opportunity for positive reconciliation that has been missing for over five decades.

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Japan’s Fistfights and Foreign Wars

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigning for defense policy changes

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigning for defense policy changes

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been an unabashed advocate for changes in Japan’s defense policy, seeking the goal for his country what he calls “proactive pacifism.” Increased regional tensions, most notably with China, and internal political posturing have fueled the fire for a more outwardly minded Japanese military. A key change is underway with the ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution of 1947, which states:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.  

The above renunciation of war has been in effect for over 70 years, and Abe proclaimed that within the framework of Article 9 Japan has the right to collective self-defense, which includes engagement in the defense of an ally. Controversial legislation that is set to pass resulted in a physical scuffle on the floor of the National Diet, Japan’s parliament, but has failed to reverse the inevitable. The new set of bills are expressed in a way that allow for the government justify the use of combat action abroad for the first time since World War II. Abe states that it will give Japan a more “normal” position militarily, while his detractors have voiced fears of being co-opted into American combat intervention overseas. While the Prime Minister and his coalition have the votes on their side, some opinion polls say only 30% of Japanese surveyed support the change and large public protests have dogged the proceedings.

A physical scuffle broke out on the floor of the Japanese Parliament

A physical scuffle broke out on the floor of the Japanese Parliament

Due to the restrictions of the constitution and Article 9, Japan has for decades relied heavily on its alliance with the US for defense while becoming very accustomed to the American military presence. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are expressly prohibited from conducting combat missions, and according to recent statistics they amount to one-sixth the size of North Korea’s armed forces and approximately a tenth the size of China’s.

Japan’s defense budget increased in 2013 for the first time in 11 years, and has increased every year since in a reversal of trend that has gained both significant traction and provoked worried criticism. Additionally, beginning in 2013 Abe was instrumental in the successful adoption of a five-year plan to procure new military hardware and capabilities, including drones and amphibious assault vehicles. While still paling in comparison to the defense budgets of China or the United States, the move has drawn ire from the former yet welcome from the latter.

China has openly and harshly criticized Japan’s new laws, with the official Xinhua news agency arguing,Japan‘s military stance has potentially become more dangerous as its hawkish and historical revisionist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now holds an active war button following the country’s parliament in the early hours of Saturday enacting laws that could usher Japan into war again for the first time in 70 years.” On the other hand, many US and UK officials applauded the move towards more international assistance and a greater Japanese role in global peacekeeping operations.

Japanese and American armed forces in joint exercises

Japanese and American armed forces in joint exercises

So far unfettered by a critical China, Abe’s moves away from strict pacifism will test the regional relationship further over time. Japan will likely use the changes as a bargaining chip on the strategic table, especially regarding the South China Sea, Senkaku Islands, and perhaps even North Korea. The US now has a unique opportunity to scale back its forces to let Japan reassert its own military future, but it should also seek to resolve conflict with both Japan and China on the diplomatic table simultaneously.

Ambiguity in the new military laws will be a testing point of contention domestically for Japan, and any foreign military action will almost assuredly come with more protests and demonstrations. Japanese defense policy is set to change in a way that will usher in a new chapter for Japanese relations abroad, and it must navigate carefully if it wishes to achieve new regional and global goals.

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Testing the Waters of the Senkaku Islands

Japanese plane flying by Uotsuri-shima, the largest of the Senkaku Islands

Japanese plane flying by Uotsuri-shima, the largest of the disputed islands

Referred to as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, a small cluster of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea have been a serious source of contention in the region since the 1970s. The historical claims to this area that encompasses only seven square kilometers date back to the 14th century according to the Chinese claim, and the late 19th century via Japanese incorporation and later administration. Taiwan also lays claim to the island group and refers to them as the Diaoyutai Islands, though their stake has been less incisive. Located southwest of the Ryukyu Island chain of Japan, northeast of Taiwan, and southeast of China, the islands are important today because of nearby oil reserves, busy shipping lanes, and regional power projection. Outright control of the islands would signal a key strategic loss for the opposing side, and thus there have been many incursions both directly and indirectly to test the waters.

Map of the Senkaku/Diayotu

Map of the Senkaku/Diayotu

The debate over the islands is most importantly reflective of the greater battle for regional influence between China and Japan. In 2010, a Chinese fishing vessel’s skipper was detained by Japanese Coast Guard officials prompting a diplomatic crisis. After initially refusing to set the skipper free, China ceased exportation of rare earth minerals to Japan and Japan capitulated by releasing the sailor. The fiery incident was short-lived, but the escalated tensions persisted in the aftermath.

In 2012 the Japanese government further asserted its control over the islands via purchasing and nationalizing three of the islands from their private Japanese owner for over $16 million dollars. In response Beijing released a scathing criticism denouncing the move and reiterating their own claim. That year also saw a wave of official proclamations from high ranking officials on both sides noting the importance of how the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands were integral to the sovereignty of their countries.

The Japanese in 2012 and Chinese in 2014 both launched websites purporting their respective justifications for the reasoning behind their claims. According to the magazine The Diplomat, in early 2015 both countries were quietly posturing around the islands in a sign of military buildup, which included the construction of a new Chinese base that could potentially be used for greater military readiness. An official from the US Naval Institute concluded after analyzing the situation that China may perform a “short, sharp war” against Japan to snatch the islands quickly. Furthermore, nationalist rhetoric surrounding the claims has increased the stakes and brought greater attention in East Asia to the sparring factions.

Japanese protestors

President Obama in 2014 clarified the US stance supported the Japanese claim, declaring that the Senkakus are covered by the US-Japanese bilateral security treaty. While Japan has de facto administered the islands for decades, the Chinese claim contains more historical justification behind it. In a way the controversy is similar to how Beijing politically approaches Taiwan: it would undermine their authority to recognize anything other than the stance they have held on to for so long. Likewise, Japan sees the islands as a symbolic possession that they would be devastated to lose. Regardless of the justification behind the ownership or control of the islands, their significance comes because they are at the crux of Japanese and Chinese foreign policy goals. 

Chinese protestors

In the time of a geopolitically rising China, the controversies over such islands as the Senkaku and similar areas, such as the Spratly Islands, are microcosms of how relations between China and its neighbors will play out. If China continues to become more aggressive, as it has in the past few years in response to Japanese saber-rattling and the positioning of resources around key shipping lanes, both its neighbors and the world at large should take note. As was seen by the Russian action in Crimea, there are definite benefits and consequences to flexing strength near strategic points. It should come as no surprise that the Senkaku Islands will continue to play a unique role in the South China Sea.

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Updates from Iraq and Syria: Turkey Stepping Up Involvement Abroad

Woman mourning at the mass funeral of bombing victims in Suruc, Turkey

Woman mourning at the mass funeral of bombing victims in Suruc, Turkey

After the May ISIS siege on Ramadi that captured the regional capital of Iraq’s largest province,  US defense secretary Ash Carter blamed a “lack of will” within the Iraqi military for the significant loss. Among the soldiers who retreated from Ramadi, there was significant frustration and disillusionment with the Iraqi military leadership which prompted questions of whether the city was sold out to ISIS. Since the fall of Ramadi, more local Sunni fighters and Shia militias have joined the fight, the latter in dramatically increased numbers.

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Map of Kurdish YPG and ISIS controlled territory

More than 55,000 left Ramadi upon the ISIS takeover according to the UN Population Fund, the majority of which came to Baghdad, 75 miles to the east of the Anbar capital. In response to the loss, Iranian Quds Force leader Major General Qassem Soleimani stated, “Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran.” Soleimani went on to criticize the US as well as the governments of Iraq and Syria for the recent gains by ISIS.

Analysts of the conflicts have noted recent developments have significantly changed the long term options for both Iraq and Syria. Thomas Ricks of Foreign Policy reiterated that the Obama administration’s goal to eradicate ISIS is unachievable because, “you cannot destroy a movement.” Ricks went on to point out the logistical and military drawbacks that have plagued the military response to ISIS and proclaimed, “If our strategy is containment, we should admit it; and the president must be prepared to explain to the American people the risks involved.” While Ricks argues containment would foster a sanctuary comparable to Bin Laden’s Afghanistan prior to 9/11, his colleague Stephen M. Walt defends containment as the best possible option when coupled with working with regional actors like Saudi, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran. Anthony Cordesman of CSIS expands on the latter, noting “Just as it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without a Syria strategy, it is impossible to have an Iraq strategy without an Iran strategy.”

The largest recent development in the fight against ISIS involves the increasing role of Turkey in combating the radical jihadist group along its border. An agreement between the US in Turkey has spurred perhaps the greatest increase in Turkish involvement since the inception of the conflict. The goal of the new coordination is to create a “ISIS-free zone” within Syria on the Turkish border from which more moderate groups may operate and refugee Syrians may find safety. Turkey’s increased vigilance against ISIS comes after 32 were killed in a suicide bombing attack in the Turkish border town of Suruc. Turkey has additionally allowed US aircraft to utilize Turkish air force bases to stage strikes for the first time. Additional details are being worked out between the Turks and Americans in an ongoing strategic dialogue.

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Turkish airbases near borders of Syria and Iraq

The dark side of the increased Turkish military activity is that it has reignited their conflict with the Kurds, as a two year cease-fire agreement is already deteriorating between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Many have questioned Turkey’s newfound motivation to combating ISIS as a cover for renewing their offensive against Kurdish militant groups. Turkey has long been accused of not taking on the ISIS threat as directly as it should, but its evolving position will show in due course the regional power’s objectives. Kurdish-led fighting units known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria have made stunning gains against ISIS near their headquarters in Raqqa, recapturing the critical Liwa 93 base and more recently together with Syrian government units they overtook significant areas in and around the city of Hassakeh. There are significant differences between the PKK and YPG, though it is clear more Turkish involvement will make Kurds across both countries a little uneasy.

Thus, the balancing act the US has been playing between the Turks and Kurds in the fight against ISIS is going to become ever more complicated. US and its NATO allies, including Turkey, need to prioritize the campaign against ISIS over the Turkish feud with Kurdish militant groups. Many Kurdish units have achieved great successes against ISIS, and if Turkey is to focus too much on escalating the tensions with them then the only beneficiary would be ISIS and other extremist groups. Now more than ever, the involvement of neighboring regional actors will play a larger role in the fate of Iraq and Syria.

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Mr. President, Here’s How You Prevent A Coup D’état

Protestors in Burundi following the coup attempt

Protestors in Burundi following the coup attempt

By William Akoto

Major General Godefroid Niyombareh, a high-ranking general in the Burundian army led a failed coup attempt against president Pierre Nkurunziza this past week.  Things came to a head after protests over the constitutional court’s decision to allow President Nkurunziza to seek a third term in office. The constitution allows only two terms but the president argued that his first term did not count because he was not elected but appointed by parliament. Thus, the court rule technically establishes his current term as his first, but Burundians weren’t buying it. Memories of the civil war, which killed 300,000 people and displaced millions, are still fresh in the minds of many, so when recent protests became violent, over 50,000 fled to neighboring countries. And who can blame them? Better to get out while you still can. President Nkurunziza scrambled to calm nerves, even promising that elections will be held in a free and fair atmosphere with no intimidation. Didn’t work.

Major General Godefroid Niyombare

President Pierre Nkurunziza

It wasn’t long before some sections of society began looking to the army to intervene. Usually, it is at this point that things start getting dicey. As the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya taught us, the president’s rule may be bad, but life under the army could be far worse. Once the army takes over, getting them to hand over power becomes an issue, usually requiring foreign intervention and months of negotiations. Coups also often come with curfews, roadblocks and general disruptions to businesses which could dampen GDP growth, plunging the country into a cycle of economic and business crises that are totally avoidable. Fragile developing countries like Burundi can ill-afford such disruptions and President Nkurunziza knows this. So when the leaders of the East African community called a meeting in Tanzania to address the developing crisis, Nkurunziza was all too willing to attend. And that is where he erred because the coup plans kicked into gear almost immediately after his plane took off.

Nkurunziza is not the first president to have a coup attempt made against him while he was out of the country. In December 2014, Yahaya Jammeh, Gambia’s long time strong man saw a similar attempt made against him while he was away in France. Like the Burundi attempt, that failed when forces loyal to the president rallied and fended off the poorly planned coup attempt. Other leaders were not so lucky. Deposed presidents are often thrown in jail or summarily executed. The lucky ones barely escape with their lives and have years in exile to look forward to. It is therefore not only in the interest of the incumbent but also that of the entire country for such coups to be effectively prevented. However, academics and other analysts who have examined the problem have yet to come up with a fail-safe way to insure a regime against coups. As events in Burundi have demonstrated, there are two general guidelines that incumbents should religiously stick to.

Map of Burundi in relation to Africa

Map of Burundi in relation to Africa

Firstly, the president should generally avoid significant travel outside the country when his hold on power is tenuous. This is especially the case when there are protestors on the streets. The protests could be about anything – the economy, high inflation, unemployment or some other grievance. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the signaling effect that these protests have. They show that at least a section of the public is unhappy with the status quo and wish to see it change. That is all that potential coup makers need to embolden them to put their plans into action. Leaders should instead attempt to address such issues before they arise.

Coup makers need to displace the president either by capturing him or incapacitating him in some way. To do this, they need to get past the presidential guard.  This is where the president travelling outside the country does them a huge favor because it takes both the president and a large chunk of the presidential guard out of the equation. Once this happens, taking over the presidency becomes significantly easier. Many would rather live than risk death fighting the coup makers, especially when it appears the coup is on the verge of success.

Which brings us to the second point. While the coup is underway, propaganda is king. He who controls the media controls the narrative and that is critical because once the coup attempt is launched, fear spreads and rumors abound. It’s difficult to ascertain which forces are loyal to whom, who is winning or who is in charge. This is where the media is key – and not just any media but state radio and TV. State radio and TV are often seen as the mouthpiece of the government, so control of that mouthpiece is an important symbolic indication of who is in charge. Coup makers can use propaganda on state media to demoralize loyalist forces, exaggerate the extent of their control or coerce support from the general public. The objective is to strike fear into the hearts of loyalist forces and possibly convince them that resistance is futile. So the president should ensure that security is beefed up around key symbolic state institutions such as the presidential palace and state TV and radio when things get tenuous.
Its not much but with any luck, these could help thwart any coup attempts that may be made and ensure that the president can hold on to power and prevent the negative consequences of coups.

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