Boko Haram Fighting for their Last Territorial Stronghold

Nigerian Defense Forces celebrate after a victory over Boko Haram in Gwoza

Nigerian Defense Forces celebrate after a victory over Boko Haram in Gwoza

Following a series of strategic victories over recent months, the Nigerian military announced it has initiated an offensive against Boko Haram’s last conventional holdouts within the Sambisa Forest. The area has been recognized as the militant group’s headquarters since the recapturing of the town of Gwoza in March. Alongside the armies of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, and backed by fighter jets and irregular volunteers and mercenaries, the coalition effort has successfully won back much of the area previously held by the radical Islamist group. These victories have come after months of setbacks brought about due to rampant corruption, lack of resources, and disorganization on the part of the Nigerian government.

Boko Haram, which can be translated to “western education is forbidden,” has waged a radical Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria for over five and a half years. The group has claimed responsibility for the 2014 Chibok kidnappings of over 200 schoolgirls, and the conflict has sparked a regional humanitarian crisis.

Map of attacks carried out by Boko Haram throughout Nigeria

Map of attacks carried out by Boko Haram throughout Nigeria

As recently as January, Boko Haram militants were able to besiege the town of Baga and massacre civilians indiscriminately as estimates of the death toll ranged from several hundred to over 2,000. In such instances, the minimal military presence crumbled instantly and tens of thousands were displaced. As a result, over a dozen villages or towns like Baga were completely destroyed and wiped off the map altogether.

The group transformed from a rogue radical group of militants to a serious military threat when it captured the town of Gwoza around August of last year, sparking a territorial rampage across the northeast of Nigeria. At the peak of their control, Boko Haram controlled over 14 districts and frequently unleashed terrorist attacks in cities across the country. Now thanks to the concerted regional military effort, their ability to exert authority has dwindled and the extremist group’s conventional forces are arguably on their last legs.

Estimates put the number of deaths as a result of the insurgency within Nigeria at over 15,000 in the past three years alone. Last month, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau’s declaration of allegiance to ISIS was accepted by the militant group based in Iraq and Syria. Boko Haram previously had indirect ties with al-Qaeda affiliate in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but the declaration of loyalty to ISIS reflects a distancing from al-Qaeda. ISIS and al-Qaeda have been at odds since their official split over a year ago.

Unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, Boko Haram has been reduced to a fraction of their former power in a short amount of time thanks to regional powers banding together. Unfortunately, they will likely still be able to operate in a dangerous capacity even if they are to lose the Sambisa Forest and their conventional control. Nonetheless, forcing Boko Haram out of such areas can initiate the process of reestablishing local and government control to limit the resurgence of the group and further terrorist attacks.

Muhammadu Buhari, newly elected president of Nigeria

Muhammadu Buhari, newly elected president of Nigeria

Also important to note, Muhammadu Buhari succeeded Goodluck Jonathan as president of Nigeria on March 28th, pledging to spare no effort in countering the Islamist threat. A former military strongman, General Buhari defeated Jonathan in the first instance of a sitting president losing an election in Nigeria. Buhari proclaimed his commitment to democracy for the country, yet he has been frequently criticized for his poor human rights record. Himself a Muslim from the north of Nigeria, Buhari takes up the leadership reins during a critically contentious moment for Africa’s most populous country.

In all certainty Boko Haram will not disappear after a significant military defeat. Eliminating the control of extremist groups is only the first step in a return to normalcy. The brutal wake that Boko Haram has left as they have lost towns and territory will likely share many similarities to victories won over affiliate groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It is critical to address the circumstances that allow such groups to operate and resolve them even after military goals are achieved.

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How Tikrit has Changed the War

Iraqi troops and allied militia in preparation for recapturing Tikrit

Iraqi troops and allied militia in preparation for recapturing Tikrit

Tikrit will be remembered as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein and forever associated with the legacy of the Iraq War for many, thanks to nearly a decade of conflict. Nonetheless, the recent US-led airstrikes against ISIS in the city reveal a pivotal shift in the current offensive against the jihadi radical group. This is because for the first time, American forces are bombing a target with the implicit knowledge that it will directly benefit the success of the Iranian-led militias and Iraqi government troops on the ground. In other words, the United States and Iran are indirectly coordinating together against ISIS in Tikrit.

Map of current situation in Iraq, Tikrit is within the blue circle northwest of Baghdad

Map of current situation in Iraq, Tikrit is within the blue circle northwest of Baghdad

The city of Tikrit is located not only at a crossroads between the capital of Iraq, Baghdad, and Mosul, the center of ISIS in Iraq, but it’s also at the crux of the anti-ISIS offensive. An initial American unwillingness to work with forces under Iranian command or their supported Shiite militias, coupled with a rhetoric from those forces on the ground declaring no US air support was needed, has led to an incredibly interesting scenario. Despite those actions, the US and Iran have just found themselves as odd bedfellows in an increasingly complex fight against a common foe. With the Kurds and Shia militias facing a similarly tenuous alliance in fighting the extremists around Kirkuk in the north, it looks as if the “enemy of my enemy” objective has overcome the mistrust between the vying factions to lead the charge against ISIS.

Commanding officer of the US operation Lieutenant General James Terry stated the strikes, “will further enable Iraqi forces under Iraqi command to maneuver and defeat ISIL in the vicinity of Tikrit.” The mention of Iraqi command obscures the well-established fact that especially in Tikrit the ground effort has been directed by senior Iranian military leaders. The US has avoided coordination any military actions, directly or indirectly, with Iran up until this point, but as Iranian support becomes increasingly pivotal the relationship has been impossible to ignore.

Qassem Soleimani, the highest ranking Iranian commander in Iraq

Qassem Soleimani, the highest ranking Iranian commander in Iraq

Iraq, whose military forces have been plagued by ineffectiveness and a lack of direction, have been largely enveloped by the other powers in play. Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force has played a divisive role in leading strategy within Iraq against ISIS. Likewise, the Kurds have been able to consolidate power in the north and have been slowly pushing towards Mosul, the critical city that is firmly entrenched within radical control. What is guaranteed is that Mosul will not fall from the hands of ISIS without a consolidated and comprehensive assault that is not feasible to take place for some time, though when it does, hopefully the lines between the various factions will be more clear.

Retaking Tikrit is one step, albeit a significant one, in the fight against ISIS. What remains to be seen is how Iran, Iraq, the US, the Kurds, and the other elements at play will cooperate or conflict in moving forward against them.

 

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Deconstructing the Donbass

Man standing next to a crater in Debaltseve, Ukraine

Man standing next to a crater in Debaltseve, Ukraine

It has been nearly a year since Russia forcibly annexed Crimea, and yet tensions remain extremely high in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbass region. Since fighting began in April 2014 between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army, more than 5,500 have been killed and nearly a million people have been displaced. On February 12th of this year, a Franco-German proposed ceasefire known as Minsk II was reached between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Despite the recent detente, the fragility of the agreement and the future of the provinces remains uncertain.

Map of Ukraine with the Donbass region highlighted

Map of Ukraine with the Donbass region highlighted

In September 2014 the Minsk Protocol (or Minsk I) attempted to broker a ceasefire between the Ukrainian army and separatist units, but it failed to properly quell the conflict and soon after effectively broke down. A heavy rebel offensive in January of this year resulted in the separatists gaining control of the highly symbolic Donetsk airport, prompting the need for a renewed halt to the fighting. Minsk II called for an immediate and full bilateral ceasefire, the withdrawal of all heavy weapons, the release of hostages, and allowing the restatement of Ukrainian government control. It also calls for constitutional reform in Ukraine with the adoption of a new constitution by the end of the year. Although Minsk II has thus far slowed fighting, the battle for the city of Debaltseve left approximately 500 civilians killed after the institution of the ceasefire. The strategic city of Mariupol similarly falls under a gray area within the agreement, and sporadic fighting has persisted on a small scale in pockets throughout the Donbass.

Russia has repeatedly denied its direct involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but it is clear the Kremlin is more connected than they are letting on. Separatists have been confirmed as coming from Russia, but Putin refers to such combatants as ‘volunteers’. The true extent of Russian material support and their level of military engagement has been shrouded in uncertainty due to Russian interference, though it is clear a weakened Ukraine is beneficial to Russia’s regional aims. Amnesty International has cited growing war crimes and rising Russian involvement as destabilizing to the situation.

Pro-Russian rebels atop tank in Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian rebels atop tank in Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine

Outside of the Donbass, Russia has greatly increased its military capacity in Crimea and the Black Sea, moving mobile ballistic missile systems to the Crimean peninsula and expanding its surface ship and signals intelligence ship deployments. General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme commander in Europe remarked, “What we’ve seen is easy to describe as the militarization of Crimea … Crimea has become very much a power projection platform.” In response, NATO nations have stepped up their presence in the Black Sea region and have been conducting joint military exercises. While tensions seem to be growing, the actions are largely posturing and not necessarily indicative of impending conflict.

Further recent revelations have shown just how far Putin may be willing to go to get his way in the region. Putin admitted that he ordered the Russian defense ministry to deploy elite units to Crimea “under the cover of strengthening the protection of our military facilities,” and he was preparing to arm the nation’s nuclear weapons.

The Minsk II agreement came at a surprise to many, and if it can successfully be carried out it would mark the first significant step towards ending the crisis. While the West has hesitated at escalating the conflict by militarily backing Ukraine more directly, it should further pursue the diplomatic route so long as military conflict remains at a minimum. Future internal political questions will remain for Ukraine ahead as it considers federalization and decentralization, which should also be monitored with respect to the will of the Ukrainian people, especially the 5.2 million living in the zone of conflict.

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Demystifying Yemen’s Conflict

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at  a Houthi demonstration in 2014

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at a Houthi demonstration in 2014

The conflict in Yemen today is incredibly complex and multifaceted, even by the regional standards of the Middle East. The poorest country in the Middle East with a population of 26 million, Yemen has unfortunately found itself at the crossroads of key local and international threats. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the oldest and most dangerous franchise of Al Qaida is alive and well while in many other countries the organization has relatively declined. Furthermore, the Houthi capture and consolidation of power in the capital Sanaa pushing out Hadi loyalists and the growing southern secessionist movement are both pulling the country in separate directions. Add to that external actors including, but not limited to, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States, and you get the basics of current situation in Yemen.

Map of control, late January 2014

Map of control, late January 2015

Yemen as we know it today was formed by the unification of two separate states in 1990, though internal friction has persisted intermittently since the merger. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of North Yemen from 1978 until 1990, continued as President of Yemen after being accepted via agreement with the South. Nonetheless, South Yemen attempted to secede in 1994, causing a brief civil war that was quashed by the north. Saleh retained power until he was overthrown in 2012 and replaced by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Grievances continued until renewed demonstrations for independence began in 2007 led by the Southern Movement. The southern secessionists have intermittently clashed with security forces and recently have gained more traction due in part to instability in the rest of the country and the success of the Houthis.

The Houthi movement, a Zaidi Shia opposition group stemming from the northern areas of Yemen took control of the capital city from government forces in late 2014. On January 22nd, 2015, President Hadi yielded to Houthi demands and resigned. Composing 35%-40% of the country, the Houthis are if nothing else pragmatic, vowing to work with rival groups and international actors including the United States. Important to note, the Houthis have a unique connection with their Shia counterparts in Iran, receiving significant media backing and alleged arms support. It is also worth pointing out that the Zaidi Shiites, also known as Fivers, differ in belief from the majority of Shiites (Twelvers) in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Both Shia branches are distinct from Sunni Islam, from which AQAP ascribes to a bastardized version of known as Salafi Jihadism.

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

AQAP, also known as Ansar al Sharia within Yemen, has been linked to a number of high profile international terrorist incidents including the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in which 17 Americans were killed, the failed “Underwear Bomber” attack in 2009, and the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper shooting of 2015 in which 12 were killed. The group has been the target of one of the longest and most intensive US drone campaigns, behind the drone strike campaign in the AfPak tribal regions. Though both the Houthi and Hadi factions oppose the terrorist group, they’ve been able to launch frequent attacks on Yemeni security forces, notably seizing military bases. It is evident that AQAP has thrived in the unstable environment of Yemen and will continue to persist.

The manner in which the Houthis assumed power has prompted the Gulf Cooperation Council to declare their action as a coup, further underscoring regional obstacles in the road ahead. Soon after, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the takeover in a resolution and called for the Houthis to immediately relinquish control, but the Houthis thus far have remained defiant. If military action is undertaken by GCC or outside forces, the situation will almost certainly devolve into even further chaos. Right now, the future of Yemen rests primarily on the new Houthi leadership in Sanaa and de facto President Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. The Hadi political leadership and their supporters still maintain a significant amount of influence, though any and all negotiations with the new Houthi group in charge are guaranteed to come with tensions and the threat of further violence. AQAP will continue to be a threat regardless of who is in power, and secessionist sentiments will multiply if southerners are excluded or marginalized from the political process.  Ideally, any ruling authority would represent the interests of Hadi and Houthi elements, though the balance within any shared agreement will undoubtedly be questioned. Attempting to facilitate a peaceful political transition to a new government is in the best interests of the region, international community, and Yemeni people, yet to say it is a difficult objective would be an understatement.

 

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Mexico’s Missing 43

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On September 26th, 2014, forty-three students of the rural Ayotzinapa teacher’s college went missing after a deadly altercation with local police in the city of Iguala, Mexico. The students had commandeered several buses in the southwestern state of Guerrero to demonstrate against government educational reforms in hiring and funding. Reportedly under orders from the then-Mayor of Iguala, Jose Luis Abarca, municipal police halted the buses and opened fire on the passengers, killing three of the students and three pedestrians. Over a dozen students fled the scene, while the ‘Ayotzinapa 43’ were loaded into police vehicles before being handed over to the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) crime syndicate. The most widely accepted theory of what happened next is that the students were summarily executed, then their bodies burned in a remote dump in the state of Guerrero, which is corroborated by gang member confessions and an expert report by an Argentine forensics team confirming bone remains belonged to one of the missing 43.  Additionally, an investigation released by the Mexican magazine Proceso with assistance from the Investigative Reporting Program of UC Berkeley has argued that Federal Police were directly complicit in the attacks. The atrocity sparked nationwide anti-government protests highlighting the rampant corruption within the Mexican political system. Furthermore, the event serves as a blatant example of just how incredibly deep drug cartels have infiltrated, and now control elements of Mexican law enforcement and political officials.

Anti-government protests in Mexico City

Zocalo Square, Mexico City rally for the missing students

The missing 43 young men were all members of a ‘Normalista’ school, a college that prepares students for rural teaching with a curriculum intertwined with a history of activist politics and leftist social justice. While violent incidents have occurred in the past, nothing on this scale has occurred since the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in which between 30 and 300 people were killed by military and police. Americas Director of Human Rights Watch Jose Miguel Vivanco stated, “These are the worst atrocities we’ve seen in Mexico in years, but they are hardly isolated incidents. Instead, these killings and forced disappearances reflect a much broader pattern of abuse and are largely the consequence of the longstanding failure of Mexican authorities to address the problem.” In fact, during the search for the bodies, many other mass graves were discovered, though the fate of the remainder of the Ayotzinapa 43 may never be ascertained.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto did not respond to the event for eleven days, and even then he did not meet with the parents of the missing students for thirty-three days, opting to call families to the capital for a meeting rather than traveling to the site in the state of Guerrero. The disrespectful delay reflects the hesitancy of the Mexican government’s willingness to take on the fundamental problems of corruption and counter the reach of the drug cartels. Outside of Mexico, the fate of the students and questionable governmental response drew limited media attention that quickly dissipated, while within the country continuous large-scale demonstrations, riots, demonstrations and calls for President Nieto’s resignation persist. More recently, authorities arrested the Mayor of Iguala Jose Luis Abarca and his wife Maria de los Angeles Pineda, who has known familial drug cartel connections, in Mexico City after they had fled the fallout of the incident. In total, over 80 people have been arrested, the majority of whom are local police or members of the Guerreros Unidos organization.

Demonstrators in Mexico City protesting against the 'Narco Police'

Demonstrators in Mexico City protesting against the ‘Narco Police’

Criminal investigations are pending against Abarca and Pineda, with uncertain implications for their political allies and the law enforcement structure of the region. Already there has been an alarming amount of maneuvering within the Mexican government to avoid blame and place it elsewhere, but it is obvious that the entire apparatus needs improvement in accountability. Unfortunately, mass killings by drug cartels in Mexico have become all too commonplace, though the barbarity and boldness of this latest tragic incident reveals just how severe parts of the country are controlled by the reach of the drug cartels. It is clear the  level of collaboration between criminal organizations and the Mexican political system has reached  new and unprecedented levels, and because the former is so embedded in the latter, it will take an incredible amount of effort to revert this trend via comprehensive governmental reform.

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Mission Creeping and the Ideological Battle against ISIS

ISIS, also called Daesh, militants in Iraq

ISIS, also called Daesh, militants in Iraq propaganda video

After President Obama nearly doubled the number of military advisors to Iraq (from 1,600 to 3,100) in early November, White House official Denis McDonough asserted that the move does not amount to “mission creep.” However, this action epitomizes mission creep and has set the standard for further US involvement. Furthermore, it seems the stage has been set for everything short of direct military engagement. The new US forces entering Iraq will be operating beyond the established bases in Baghdad and Erbil to train nine Iraqi brigades and three Peshmerga (Kurdish) brigades. The Government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have requested the additional assistance which will supplemental coalition airstrikes against ISIS. Participating countries in the airstrikes and military training has expanded to include the US, UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark the Netherlands and France via air intervention, while Germany, Italy, Norway Spain, and Turkey have committed trainers. Gulf nations intervening only in Syria include Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

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While previously it has been restated time and time again that there will be no boots on the ground, the definition of what constitutes boots on the ground has shifted over time. Furthermore top military commander General Martin Dempsey commented that he would “certainly consider” sending  a modest number of US combat troops for operations such as the retaking of Mosul. It is important to note a series of recent minor victories against ISIS such as the attacks west of Ramadi carried out by Iraqi forces and strikes earlier in the month that injured ISIS leader al Baghdadi. However, justifying ramping up military involvement beyond the scope of assistance would only further exacerbate the long term conflict as the war against ISIS in Iraq cannot be won from the outside.

A consequence of the perpetual direct military commitment in the region is that it will continue to provide fodder for anti-Western rhetoric. This is a prerequisite trade-off of intervention that has garnered little attention, yet it is crucial in influencing the thoughts and attitudes of many sympathetic to ISIS or caught between competing interests. Alarmingly, ISIS is indoctrinating children to glorify terrorism and resent the outside world, which will seed future hatred and perpetuate extremism based on misrepresented principles. Much of the attraction to ISIS comes from impoverished and marginalized young adults abroad, and constructive alternatives have failed to stem the flow of adherents. Both inside and outside the Muslim world, there must be further action taken on an ideological level to counter the ISIS narrative. Accurate information on ISIS,their atrocities, and their effects must be promoted in lieu of ignorance or apathy.

ISIS recruits allegedly as young as 10 in Syria

ISIS recruits allegedly as young as 10 in Syria

On the other hand, the imposition of ISIS-interpreted Sharia has not come without its own problems, as seen by internal rifts within the quasi-state. The ever changing and hypocritical regulations within ISIS on their perverted interpretations of Islam are frequently at odds within their leadership. ISIS has recently decided to relax its policies towards incoming foreign fighters, hoping to continue attracting high numbers of militants despite controversy within the organization on who should and shouldn’t be allowed in. Medical care in ISIS administered areas has brought about numerous conflicts undermining the ability of doctors under their control.These all point to the group’s need to constantly adapt to their shifting circumstances. If these confusions can be exploited, it would do all the more to undermine the radical message of the extremists.

The need to constantly counter ISIS on all levels, through highlighting their religious illegitimacy, to their unequal and arbitrary mistreatment of civilians, to their ideological extremes, will be ever present for the foreseeable future. Mission creeping will deepen the conflict without a surefire endgame, while fighting the ISIS ideology can invoke systematic opposition.

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Hong Kong’s Defiant Youth

Student rally at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

For more than a week, tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists have engaged in civil disobedience to call for constitutional reform in the special administrative region of Hong Kong.The demonstrators, primarily students and other well-educated youth, are sounding off against creeping Beijing control and have called for the head of government in Hong Kong, Chief Executive CY Leung, to resign. Through the occupation demonstrations beginning in late September, protestors forced the shutdown of many businesses and government institutions. The latest round of demonstrations have seen diminished numbers, but the implications of the standoff are tremendous. The masses of students taking a stand for democratic reform have highlighted a younger generation at odds with the central government in Beijing. The conflict is reflective of Hong Kong’s unique and often strained relationship with the People’s Republic of China (hereafter China), as well as the tension within the country and its political systems.

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Clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators

A regional economic powerhouse home to over 7 million people, Hong Kong was previously a British colony for most of the 20th century. Hong Kong was officially restored to Chinese control in 1997 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration established in the 1980s. The agreement allows for Hong Kong to operate under a high degree of autonomy, retaining its own domestic affairs and giving an exception to pursue free-market capitalism in contrast to mainland China’s single-party socialism. Beijing maintains the authority and responsibility of managing defense and foreign affairs. The other Special Administrative Region of Macau, a former Portuguese colony that was returned to China in 1999, shares a similar relationship with Beijing. This policy referred to as ‘one country, two systems’ is set to remain in force for Hong Kong until 2047, and Macau until 2049.

The current confrontation was sparked by the passage of a recent law that eliminated civil nominations for the post of Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Per the new rule, the next leader of Hong Kong may be voted through universal democratic process, but only from a list of candidates selected and vetted by Beijing. In response, Occupy Central along with the student-led Hong Kong Federation of Students and the Scholarism student activist group, vowed mass action to counter the decision. After days of peaceful protest, pro-government groups staged counter-protests. Before negotiations were set to begin, student leaders called off talks with the government due to violence carried out against peaceful demonstrators by pro-government individuals in Mong Kok. Police announced that several of the arrested attackers have links to Triad gang syndicates, and pro-democracy activists have accused the government of paying thugs to provoke fear. After the cancelled talks, the protests have continued with lower numbers though group leaders have voiced their commitment to persist.

Protestor holding sign denouncing Chief Executive CY Leung

Protestor holding sign denouncing Chief Executive CY Leung

The key crux of the ongoing debate is to what extent will Beijing allow Hong Kong to govern itself and decide its future within the ‘one country, two system’ model. At present, the system is designed so that the people of Hong Kong will only be able to choose between pro-regime loyalists. Revealing this facade of universal democracy is an accomplishment in itself for the pro-democracy camp, but in order to actually revamp the process they must win concessions from Beijing, which is unlikely. What will come next will likely be talks that ultimately deflate the waning energy of the protests for a less than ideal compromise.

The most important takeaway from the wave of civil disobedience can be found in its composition. The young and the educated of Hong Kong have overwhelmingly shown their contempt for Beijing’s interference in their front yard. This level of activism is likely to continue to play a part in the ongoing political story of Hong Kong regardless of the outcome of today’s movement.

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Civilians Key for Fight Against Islamic State

Yazidi Woman and Child resting after fleeing from IS

Yazidi Woman and Children resting after fleeing from IS

Over the course of the last several months, the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or alternatively as ISIS) has rebranded themselves as the Islamic State (IS) and established an informal caliphate across large swaths of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The Islamic State has swiftly asserted control over the residents of the cities it has captured, driving out hundreds of thousands of refugees in the process. IS has specifically targeted non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim minority groups including Yazidi, Christian, Shabak, and Turkomen peoples in what Amnesty international has described as ethnic cleansing. Militants from IS have staged mass executions, coerced conversions to Islam under the penalty of death, and have forced women and young girls into sexual slavery. These deplorable acts persist unabated in areas under IS control as the extremist jihadists continue to seize territory and threaten to further destabilize the region.

Man about to be executed by Islamic State militant

Man about to be executed by Islamic State militant

The Islamic State is embroiled in direct fighting with Syrian government forces, anti-Assad rebel groups, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Shiite militias, and Iraqi government forces. Kurdish and Iraqi forces, in tandem with US airstrikes, achieved a key strategic victory when the Mosul Dam was retaken on August 17th. The US has carried out over 150 airstrikes since the initial attacks in early August, and President Obama has noted that it will likely be an extended campaign as part of the offensive to degrade and destroy IS. As a result of US involvement, a representative of the Islamic State executed American journalists James Foley in a highly publicized event. Steven Sotloff, an American-Israeli journalist, was beheaded days later. Anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric has been a staple of the Islamic State, hoping to incite additional extremists to join their cause. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has warned that the jihadist group could reach Europe in a month if left unchecked in the Middle East, and the number of foreign fighters joining the IS ranks is staggering.

The severity of the threat the Islamic State poses is only now being recognized. What has not been appropriately addressed in the discourse is the appalling and inhumane treatment of minority groups and women under the banner of the Islamic State. The UN on September 1st approved an investigation into human rights abuses by the Islamic State on an ‘unimaginable scale’ but it is likely to reveal what is already being heard from individual accounts, but largely ignored.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State

The Yazidis are a mostly Kurdish ethno-religious minority who follow elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, and have lived in northern Iraq for centuries. The Shabak people are a separate ethnoreligious group who have a distinct language, culture, and religion. Along with Iraqi Christians, Turkomen, and smaller minority groups, they have been persecuted relentlessly by Islamic State militants. In some cases they are offered the choice of paying a monthly ‘jizya’ tax or the option to flee, but in many other cases these people are killed en masse. Women and girls captured through jihad have been sold as sex slaves and repeatedly raped, justified under a perverted interpretation of Islam. The barbarity has been widely documented from refugee reports, but has received little attention as it is impossible to ascertain the extent of the crimes. These minorities and civilians are critical to the future of the region, as they will ultimately determine who to support, complicity or explicitly, through the long road ahead. IS would not be as powerful as they are today if not for the exploitation of the grievances of marginalized Sunnis and other groups, and it will not be easy to win them back.

In President Obama’s speech on September 10th, he repeated the goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State. France has recently announced its intention to join in striking IS targets. The focus on eliminating the jihadist group ignores a common mistake that has plagued Western involvement abroad for far too long. The airstrikes that helped free some 20,000 Yazidis from Mount Sinjar saved countless lives, and such actions on humanitarian grounds must continue to protect civilians. Working with regional and international partners is a necessity, but any boots on the ground risk worsening grievances. The idea that foreign powers can ‘systematically’ eliminate IS is shortsighted. The goal should not be to defeat an abstract enemy that will always exist in some form, but rather to enable the locals to reject the extremists that continue to thrive on discontent and conflict. The US and other powers must think forward to what will happen as soon as the air campaigns cease and what will emerge afterwards. It is necessary to retake what IS has captured, but it is impossible to do so without creating new enemies in the process. The US should not stand idly by, but it should reevaluate what it realistically hopes to achieve. Taking back cities without a plan on how they will be administered in the wake of IS demise only serves to create another vacuum of power. Thus all the parties involved in fighting the Islamic State need to win back the trust of the citizenry that has been left in this devastating situation. Providing stability, security, and a real alternative to the Islamic State–for minority groups, marginalized Sunnis, and all other civilians– should be paramount over any long term military objectives.

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West Africa: Ebola in Town

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Aid workers preparing to treat Ebola victims, Guinea, West Africa

The international reaction to this year’s Ebola outbreak followed a similar pattern to previous deadly transmittable diseases. Initially downplaying or ignoring the problem eventually shifts into media overreaction and fear for the worst. The international community has been slow in such instances to take notice unless the death count reaches an alarmingly high number, or, more commonly, the chance that it could spread abroad and affect anyone becomes a possibility. Another typical pitfall is that the disease is viewed as a singularity, rather than a cause of a combination of other factors. Lack of education and awareness; an inadequate response from institutions; poor access to medical and basic services; all clash to create an environment where the spread of a virus can happen quickly. Above all, the reaction to an outbreak usually seeks to address the potential effects close to home while glossing over the broader issue.

 

Map of areas most affected by Ebola

Map of areas most affected by Ebola

What is Ebola? Ebola is an infectious disease with an 80-90% mortality rate first documented in 1976. The current iteration has killed over a thousand and infected twice as many, the vast majority of cases recorded in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, though several cases have also been reported in Nigeria. It is thought to be spread through the consumption of carrier fruit bats and other bushmeat and at present has no known cure or treatment. The two American missionaries who contracted the virus in West Africa attracted significant media attention upon being quarantined in US medical facilities in Atlanta. The disease is not easily transmitted under monitored conditions, but it is can be contagious upon contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids.

The outbreak occurring at present is not the first, but it is the largest and deadliest Ebola outbreak on record. Comparatively, Ebola is miniscule in fatalities and scope, but as it kills more directly than other diseases and because a lack of information on treatment has persisted the outbreak has stirred many fears. Because of passengers feared to carry the disease abroad, border points have been closed in Liberia and flights have been limited in West Africa. Furthermore, “if it recedes, it does not mean it is not present. You will see more outbreaks. It will be recurrent,” declares Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS. The greater problem is not containing the newest outbreak, which will be eventually accomplished, but rather addressing the issue at its source so that we are better equipped to handle the next virus outbreak, Ebola or otherwise.

Market worker selling bushmeat

Market worker selling bushmeat

Misunderstanding of the disease has resulted in worsening the problem. In Liberia, young men with clubs attacked a medical facility allowing 17 to escape. Superstition, government mistrust, cultural practices, and a lack of education have underlined and encouraged the transmission of Ebola. Many West Africans disbelieve the virus exists and will likely continue consuming bushmeat, thus increasing the chances of greater transmission. Addressing the roots of the cause such as the extremely low socioeconomic conditions that allow for such a disease to spread is the best long-term solution to preventing such problems in the first place.

Reacting to Ebola and other deadly transmittable diseases only if there is a chance it will affect one’s home country only further serves to isolate much needed attention and aid. On one hand ignoring a virus like Ebola will definitely worsen the problem, but treating it like an apocalyptic disaster before getting all the facts can be just as deleterious. Both domestically and internationally, people should familiarize themselves with the problem itself, but also the wider issues at hand. Treating Ebola in a vacuum and ignoring the socioeconomic, cultural, and political antecedents that allow for the setting for Ebola to spread is shortsighted. A comprehensive effort to assist both those affected and those under threat of infection should be undertaken, and a long-term approach to educating West Africans and dispelling myths on disease should help counter the obstacles that have slowed aid thus far.

 

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North Korea: Predicting the Unpredictable (Part II of II)

North Korean soldier commemorating the 100 year anniversary of Kim il-Song's birth, 2012

North Korean soldier commemorating the 100 year anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birth, 2012

(Part I on the background of North Korea can be found here)

North Korea, (the DPRK) is willing to reject modern globalization and completely separate itself off from the rest of the world in most aspects of society. As a result, the truth on the ground in North Korea is one of, if not the most, difficult to come across in the world for any sovereign state today. The saber-rattling and constant propaganda within the DPRK isolates their people and their government from the outside world to an alarming degree so predicting the next course of action that North Korea will take may seem like a fruitless endeavor. There is no simple and straightforward way to resolve the humanitarian crisis that has plagued the north half of the Korean Peninsula since the end of World War II. Nonetheless, a better understanding of recent North Korea history coupled with continued engagement, diplomacy, and patience can serve to unravel the options in how best to approach the Hermit Kingdom.

The Six-Party Talks involving North Korea, South Korea, US, Japan, China, and Russia that began in 2003 have fallen far short of their goals of stopping or even slowing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea walked out of the negotiations in 2009 and has refused to return to the table unless the talks begin without preconditions, which is unacceptable to the other participants. North Korea previously made gestures toward denuclearization, but each time soon after reverted to moves showing they were clearly continuing to advance their programs covertly or overtly. In total there have been three confirmed nuclear tests conducted in the DPRK (2006, 2007, and 2013), and estimates on their stockpile of nuclear weapons vary, though most reports cite between several to two dozen. Critical to remember is that separate from the amount of nuclear material and warheads available is the ballistics systems, which North Korea consistently has invested in improving.

North Korean field laborers

North Korean field laborers

Though virtually no aid has been given to the DPRK from the United States since the former walked out of denuclearization negotiations in 2009, between 1995 and 2008 the US gave North Korea over $1.3 billion in foreign assistance; over 50% in food aid, and about 40% in energy assistance. Since 2009, nearly all other countries with the exception of China have given minimal aid. The DPRK continues to suffer devastating levels of widespread malnutrition and food shortages, but even when aid was high the unequal distribution failed to adequately address the problems. The fact that Kim Jong-un and his predecessors have ignored the economic infrastructure and treated the well-being of the common citizen as second rate is clear. However, the balance between turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis, and outright exacerbating the problems are unclear.

Though perhaps the least impactful on policy directly, sports and cultural exchanges have opened interesting windows into North Korea and Kim Jong-un. When Dennis Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters visited North Korea for a trip which included a game with national players, it drummed up considerable discussion and no shortage of controversy. The strange relationship between North Korean leaders’ love for American basketball and western consumerism (Kim Jong-il reportedly was the largest buyer of Hennessy) underlines a kind of hypocrisy in dealing with the outside world. While only very few are exposed to foreign culture, if that double standard of political opposition, but indirect adoration can be highlighted then perhaps changing North Korean’s perspectives on their situation could be possible. While Dennis Rodman may have accomplished little more than inflating Kim Jong-un’s ego, other individuals like Rob Springs with Global Resource Services, who has devoted time and resources to humanitarian causes within the DPRK have been able to make more positive, though very limited, change outside of elite circles.

Official DPRK state news announcing the rediscovery of a unicorn lair

Official DPRK state news announcing the rediscovery of a unicorn lair

Attempting to normalize relations or interact within North Korea without care can have the consequences of legitimizing the leadership and ignoring or setting aside the wider problems the country faces on a daily basis. The limited projects and NGOs from the West that are allowed to engage with North Koreans directly, such as the GRS and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology should be further explored, while being aware of the opportunity for the government to manipulate such positive exchanges.

Dealing with North Korea directly, either via economic/military pressure and intimidation, or through incentives and aid, has thus far proven unsuccessful in making lasting large-scale progress. Despite that, the US, South Korea, and West should continue to monitor and track the military threats and nuclear ambitions of North Korea, while also keeping relevant avenues of dialogue open if the DPRK will return to negotiations. Part of the reason the DPRK has found relative success by its own right in shaking its fist at the outside world is because it has done so often spontaneously. Small scale aid and projects through private groups have been able to achieve limited goals, and working to help North Korean citizens directly could help chip away at decades of mistrust.

Approaching the DPRK from not just a macro level, but also through smaller initiatives opens up more possibilities for the people of North Korea to interact with the outside world. The Kim Jong-un regime is firmly in control, though hopefully in time there are real alternatives available for the North Korean people to make their own decisions.

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