Monthly Archives: December 2013

Iraq at Year’s End

Iraq Sunni anti-government rally in May

Iraq Sunni anti-government protesters in May

It has become clear that 2013 will be the deadliest year Iraq has experienced since 2008. Looking ahead, 2013 will likely be looked at in retrospect in one of two ways. Optimistically, if violence were to subside after 2013, then this year may be viewed as a late spike in conflict before a return to relatively lower levels of violence. On the other hand, the more likely outcome will show that 2013 is a shift from the relatively lower levels of violence experienced in 2008-2012 that will only continue to worsen in the foreseeable future. We all hope for the former, but should expect the latter.

The most recent developments include the US sending 75 Hellfire missiles and dozens of unarmed reconnaissance drones  to help counter the growing power of al-Qaida affiliate groups. This is the first significant public boost in security aid since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with President Obama in early November. However, the assistance is expected to have a relatively minor effect in turning the tide against extremists, especially compared to the effects armed drones or the requested Apache attack helicopters could have.

The recon and intelligence support that the US has and will continue to provide to Iraq is critical to both countries’ long term interests in combating terrorism. Providing attack helicopters or more advanced weaponry which have been blocked by Congress is a much thornier issue that has yet to be resolved. Pressuring Maliki and the Iraqi government to act more inclusively towards the Sunni populace in the country is important for the future functionality of the state. The war against extremism cannot be won by the US alone, and it cannot be won by drones alone either.

The sectarian element of the open war in Iraq is perhaps the most significant issue that needs to be addressed moving forward. On Christmas, several attacks targeting Christians that killed dozens proved yet again that a small minority of Sunni extremists wish to deepen the ethnic and religious divides that make up the country. It will be much harder to change the minds of those who are committed to radical ideology in comparison to empowering the populace to stand together against them, though the latter is by no means a straightforward task. The average Iraqi knows of the devastation that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) al-Qaida affiliate can inflict on the country, but in areas where ISIL has a strong presence turning to the government is incredibly risky.

Thus, in looking to the future of Iraq there are two key elements that need to be advanced hand in hand. The government and international community needs to support and assist the Iraqi populace in standing up to and opposing terrorism and sectarian violence of all forms. Secondly, the West and Baghdad need to identify and subvert extremist resources as effectively as possible with the limited resources that are made available to them. Both of these are lofty and generalized goals in response to an incredibly complex crisis, but escalating the conflict via overwhelming military force will produce unintended consequences, and ignoring the problem will only make it worse. The situation in Iraq can improve, but it cannot be done overnight.

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Syria at an Impasse

Syria3For more background information on the Syrian Civil War check out this post, or read my latest piece on Syria

The Syrian Civil War is approaching its 33rd month, over 126,000 have now been killed in the conflict thus far, and neither side is gaining significant ground. Experts predicting the imminent collapse of the Assad regime or a routing of the opposition are few and far between as it appears increasingly unlikely that either side will be able to secure outright victory through military means alone in the foreseeable future. 

The two key dates on the horizon are January 22nd, 2014, the proposed date for the Geneva II peace talks, and mid-2014, the expected date of destruction for all Syrian chemical weapons. The expectations attached to both suggest that the status quo of continual fighting is unfortunately not likely to change.

The Geneva II talks hopes to bring together the opposition and regime with American and Russian diplomats to initiate discussion with the primary goal of ending the violence and setting the groundwork for a transitional Syria.

The negotiations at Geneva are the best chance for a breakthrough in the conflict since little is changing on the battlefield. However, there have already been significant issues that make the Geneva prospects look less than promising. The talks have been pushed back multiple times, and while the regime says Assad stepping down is out of the question, the opposition has reiterated time and time again a Syria without Assad is their top demand moving forward.

While both Assad and the Syrian National Coalition have skeptically agreed to attend the Geneva II talks, unless they can set aside the leadership issue it is tough to imagine anything productive may be accomplished at all. Small steps towards reducing violence, such as the safe passage of refugees and the protection of civilians should take precedence over future political settlements in the negotiations.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission to remove all chemical weapons from Syria is on track thus far, having destroyed all the means of production. However they have set a goal of mid-2014 to eliminate all weapons which implies that even the international powers who signed on to their mission don’t expect the conflict to end for at least another half a year.

While strategic towns and supply lines continue to exchange hands back and forth between the regime and the opposition, neither side is making serious progress against the other. Instead the war is spilling over further into Lebanon and the death toll continues to rise. Recently, the lack of medical care has become so disastrous cases of polio have reemerged after the disease was eradicated from Syria more than ten years prior.

All this proves that the political settlement should take a backseat to basic humanitarian concerns. At this point, even if Assad were to suddenly disappear from the scene and the regime were to immediately collapse, the result would be further jockeying for power among the opposition groups. On one hand, Assad should recognize that he will never preside over a stable Syria again and change his tactics accordingly to consider a future without him at the top. On the other, the opposition should realize that their efforts thus far at trying to defeat Assad outright have fallen short. If they cannot present themselves as a legitimate opposition and minimize the extremist factions also countering the regime, their alternative Syria isn’t assuredly better than one with Assad.

The US, Russia, and Syrian actors involved should focus Geneva II on the critical needs of civilians first. Reducing the fighting is paramount, and advantageous to the rebels especially. A basic framework, excluding contentious issues like Assad’s role, should be sought, because focusing too much on the deeper political future of Syria could derail the discussion completely. If the opposition really is serious about a Syria without Assad, they should begin preparing for it constructively outside of the battlefield.

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Why is Spain Afraid of Scotland?

Scotland will hold an official referendum for independence from the UK on September 18th, 2014

Scotland will hold an official referendum for independence from the UK on September 18th, 2014

The title of this article may sound like the start of a bad joke, but secessionist movements are very serious, involve huge political ramifications, and in many cases (the Kurds, Kosovo, and South Ossetia, to name a few) have resulted in armed conflict. While it is rather unlikely that the Royal Scots Army is going to invade the beaches of Barcelona, Spain and especially Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy aren’t too keen on the idea of new countries breaking off from old ones.

In a recent statement to the European Union, Rajoy diplomatically noted that if any state were to secede from an existing member state of the European Union, they would have to apply from the outside in order to rejoin the EU, reiterating the official EU stance. For any new country to be admitted to the EU, a unanimous vote from all 28 member states for approval is required. Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scotland National Party (SNP) which has spearheaded the Scottish independence movement, implied that Scotland would seek to join the EU “from within” in contrast with Rajoy’s statement.

Scotland still has a considerable amount of time before its official vote for independence will be held on September 18th, 2014, but why is this prospect stirring concern for Spain already?

Countries like Spain, Russia, and China have all had significant issues with their own secessionist movements (Catalonia, Chechnya, and Tibet, respectively), and consequently get nervous anytime a new country seeks to officially become a UN member state against their own political interests. Whether it be for preserving political stability, the economic benefits at stake, or just maintaining state legitimacy, the aforementioned countries are hesitant to allow others to join the prestigious ‘country’ club because they fear losing a chunk of their territory to a new state as well.  

Over a million people in Catalonia demonstrated for independence in 2012, and the movement remains strong, but so does the opposition. A proposed referendum asking for a vote on Catalan independence was shot down by Prime Minister Rajoy earlier in September. The Spanish government has strongly opposed the secession, in part because of economic dependence on the region but also because Catalonia breaking away could also empower smaller secessionist movements (like the Basque) to seek an even greater level of autonomy.

It is still uncertain whether the Scottish independence vote will actually pass in the first place, and the implications for Scotland and the UK will require a lot of ironing out before Salmond’s proposed independence date of March 2016 ever becomes reality. Nonetheless, the political and symbolic outcome of the Scottish referendum will definitely have an effect on the future of Catalonia, the European Union, and secessionist ambitions abroad. If Scotland does gain its independence, one thing you can definitely count on is that bagpipes will be involved.

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