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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.

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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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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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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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Why You Should Care About the Kurds (Part II of II)

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

Kurdish Militia Members in Syria

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

Why should anyone care about the Kurds? The Kurdish role in the Middle East could drastically change the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, Turkey’s bid to the European Union and the future stability of Iraq. Most importantly for Americans, the Kurds could be a significant force in the long term war against al-Qaeda.

In Turkey, the recent reforms initiated by the government to solidify the peace with the Kurds and address their grievances fell short. Despite all the other obstacles and realities in play concerning Turkey’s accession to the European Union, a revived Kurdish insurgency would spell disaster for Turkey’s PR image. For both the Kurds and Turkey, leaving the negotiating table for the battlefield is a no-win situation.

Just across the border in Syria, Kurds are not getting the attention or credit they deserve for fighting al-Qaeda’s affiliates. The Kurds are not as concerned with who’s in charge of the Syrian government as the Free Syrian Army, so they have less of an incentive to partner with Islamic extremist groups when the going gets tough. Regardless of the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, the Kurds will be in a much more consolidated position to gain significant regional autonomy or seek full independence. With more independent authority, the Kurds would have more of an incentive to drive away violent extremism from the region altogether.

The relationship between the government in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has continually been tenuous especially concerning oil revenues. Nonetheless, Iraq deteriorating into another sectarian civil war is a scenario that neither wishes to face, and the two may be forced to collaborate against Islamic extremists for the sake of stability.

The Kurds are the only major group in the region that both fought against Saddam Hussein in 2003 and  al-Qaeda in the Syrian Civil War . Although at the surface they seem like the perfect US ally in the region, it’s a very complicated relationship due to American ties with the Baghdad and Ankara. However, the United States may find more incentives in working more closely with the Kurds as Kurdish relations with their host neighbors change.

The Kurds of today are making modest political gains in Turkey, consolidating territory in northern Syria, and making bold moves towards oil autonomy in Iraq. The Kurds of tomorrow could force Turkey to concede further recognition, establish legitimate autonomy or control in parts of Syria and hold more sway in the oil and political affairs of Iraq. US policymakers should seriously consider closer ties with the Kurds while constructively working with both Baghdad and Ankara. The Kurds could definitely use an ally in the US, and the US has a chance to make a new friend in an emerging Kurdistan.

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Syrian Civil War 101

Syria2For more recent articles with updated information on the Syrian Civil War, check out this post or my latest piece on Syria.

Who is fighting?

While it began as a native opposition against its government foreign fighters have come all over the world to fight for both sides in growing numbers and regional and international powers also became involved both directly and indirectly. Today, it is no longer simply one side against the other as within the opposition there are factional battles and internal conflicts.

Bashar al-Assad is a Ba’athist politically and religiously a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam. Fighting on his side is the regular Syrian Armed Forces and the less formal pro-regime militia Shabiha. Christians, Alawites and other minority groups have primarily sided with the Syrian state over fears they would be targeted by Islamic militants or be marginalized by the opposition.

The Kurds are arguably the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. Kurdish groups officially fight under the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in either Popular Protection Units (YPG) or smaller Kurdish militias. They seek further autonomy and possibly independence within Syria and have strong ties to the Kurdish Autonomous region in northern Iraq.

The opposition groups are under the very wide and very loosely organized banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). There are numerous militias and smaller groups with a wide range of political and religious affiliations but when discussed in the media, the FSA typically refers to moderate anti-Assad Sunni groups who wish to see Assad deposed.

Controversially regarded as the most effective rebel groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, both Islamic militant al-Qaida affiliates. They have successfully recruited foreign fighters from dozens of countries around the region and the world and seek to establish a new Syrian state under Islamic law.

The United States and other Western powers have sought to support the rebels but increasingly found it difficult because of the influx of hard-line extremists. Other Sunni majority countries such as Saudi Arabia have provided funds and support to a wider variety of rebel groups.

Iran and Hezbollah (the Lebanese paramilitary group) have directly and indirectly supported the Assad regime. Hezbollah has sent their own fighters to the battle lines and there is evidence to suggest that Iran has done the same. Russia indirectly supports the Assad regime because of their longstanding alliance and the strategic importance of the only Russian port directly on the Mediterranean Sea, which is located in Latakia.

What about chemical weapons?

A UN report confirmed that the sarin nerve agent (gas) was used in an attack on the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on August 21 where over a thousand were killed. While the report does not explicitly assign blame, the substantial evidence and analysis in the report all but condemns Assad and the Armed Forces in name. Russia still maintains that they hold evidence pointing to the rebels as the perpetrators, but outside of Assad and his allies few else believe this after the extensive UN report and investigation. President Obama in August of 2012 stated that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line”, but recent diplomatic efforts successfully sidestepped a proposed military intervention.

When did it start?

The commonly accepted start date for the Syrian conflict  is March 15th, 2011 when youth organized “Day of Rage” popular demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive government sparked additional protests similar to other “Arab Spring” countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The Syrian Armed Forces first used deadly force against protesters on March 18th, where five were killed in Daraa.

The conflict escalated to being called a civil war in June/July of 2012, when Herve Ladsous, the first senior UN official declared the conflict a civil war in response to Assad’s use of attack helicopters against opposition forces. The Red Cross declared the conflict as a civil war about a month later in July.

Where is the fighting taking place?

The fighting has split up the country heavily upon sectarian and ethnic lines.

Pro-Assad territory is mainly in the Alawite heavy western coastal provinces centered around Latakia, Tartus and Hama but also in the southwest by Damascus. Regime forces have made up ground recently in the south and in the major cities.

The Kurdish groups near the Turkish border and the northeast have recently been making overtures towards establishing an independent or autonomous Kurdish region in the northern areas of Raqqa and Hassakeh Provinces and pockets in all directions north of Aleppo.

Opposition groups including FSA and ISIL and al-Nusra have a strong presence in Aleppo Province and the eastern areas sans the Kurdish areas to the far north. The majority of the fighting is in the suburbs of Damascus and Homs between rebels and regime forces, though the opposition has been gaining in the north near the Alawite region.

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Major changes in the above photo since August 22 include the rebel takeover of Azaz in the northwest and increased clashes in Hassakeh in the northeast.

Why are they fighting?

Assad and his allies have since the beginning claimed that they were fighting against foreign terrorists and foreign agents seeking to subvert the legitimate authority of the state. While at the onset of the war this was patently false, as the war has continued foreign fighters have played more and more of a crucial role.

ISIL and al-Nusra wish to create an Islamic state governed under Sharia law. Recently al-Nusra and many other groups rejected authority of the newly selected FSA leadership because of their goal of a democratic state.

The Kurdish groups as mentioned earlier seek regional autonomy or their own independent state.

The FSA and associated moderate rebel groups want Assad out of power and a new democratic, secular, civil government to take his place. Having Assad out of power is perhaps the most important factor that the rebels will not let up on while Assad refuses to step down.

Perhaps the most destabilizing force of all is the infighting that has intermittently occurred between opposition groups. ISIL and al-Nusra have fought Kurdish militias, FSA groups and against each other at one point or another. A unified opposition has become less feasible as the fighting has worn on due to the complexity of the groups involved. The result has been a war that at least from the situation on the battle lines seems to have no end in sight.

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The New War in Iraq

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For a more recent update on the situation in Iraq and additional information on ISIL check out this post.

Even before the last US troops left in December 2011, American interest in Iraq was fading sharply. The political turmoil in Egypt, the Syrian Civil War and the wider Arab Spring events have all overshadowed a growing terrorist insurgency within Iraq. It is all too common to see 30 people killed a day by car bombs and targeted shootings, and with a death toll of over 1,000 July 2013 was the deadliest since the tail end of the 2006-2008 civil war according to the UN. The recent surge of violence and the increasingly coordinated nature of such attacks has prompted the Iraqi Interior Ministry to declare the country has entered into an “open war“. Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has acknowledged the severity of the situation and he has recently called for security assistance in response to the growing sectarian crisis. Security forces are unable to effectively curb the increasing threat from extremists and recent events have further deepened the conflict.

The siege that freed hundreds of prisoners on July 22nd, including al-Qaida senior leaders, from the infamous Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons has further highlighted the fact that the perpetrators, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has consolidated and redoubled their efforts against the Iraqi State. ISIL is an al-Qaida affiliate which has claimed the lion’s share of responsibility for the coordinated bombings and killings that frequently target security forces and Iraqi Shi’a across the country. ISIL is also active in Syria and together with al-Nusra, another al-Qaida linked Islamist militant group, they have been growing in their fight against Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, they have been cited as more effective in fighting the army in comparison to more moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army due to their more extensive past military experience in the region.

The effects of the Syrian War coupled with the instability in Iraq have not often been analyzed as a singular problem, but perhaps that perspective should be more seriously considered as such. The Syrian Civil War surpassed the scope of the Libyan Civil War in number of people killed months ago but Iraq is an even larger and arguably more divisive state than even Syria. Additionally, the unique situation in Syria has attracted more international jihadists and militants than perhaps any conflict before, from Iran and Hezbollah to North Africa and the Caucasus.

If the extremists were to be shut out of a future political stake in Syria, then what is to stop them from either carrying out a similar insurgency in Syria or intensifying their campaign against the Shi’a-led government state in Iraq? How many more attacks can the mainstream Iraqi Shi’a community withstand before more militants rise up to take action into their own hands?

At this rate, Iraq is slowly approaching another sectarian war that could be bloodier, more devastating to the region and much more difficult to end than the last.

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