Political bodies in Libya near agreement; militias remain umoved

Libya’s rival governments have reached a “consensus” on the main elements of a political agreement, a UN special envoy has told reporters.

Bernardino Leon said in Skhirat, Morocco, on Sunday that the two sides were able to “overcome their differences” on major outstanding issues, increasing the likelihood of signing a long-awaited agreement to form a unity government this month.

Leon said it was the first time “that we have the possibility to make it and to have this agreement with all the parties, all the key parties in Libya onboard,” adding that both sides have made compromises. Al Jazeera

While this is a positive step, the reality is that none of the major armed groups in Libya have endorsed this deal, and most have rejected it outright. While this may create a political basis for moving forward in the event that the disparate militias are somehow neutralized and/or unified, it’s not nearly as significant as it sounds.

These militia leaders have had a taste of power and the likelihood of them giving that up to disarm or take orders from politicians is slim. Some of them may agree to work with the unity government, but barring some drastic change in the situation on the ground, they can and will reserve the right to act of their own volition where they see fit.

What we have is an agreement between two “governments” that are not able to enforce their rule — “governments” in quotations because the ability to enforce its rule is a necessary element of any government.

Without a professionalized military, a unity government represents a potential tool for achieving peace, but sadly the challenges Libya faces remain virtually unchanged.

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Overview: Conflict in Yemen

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In 2011-2012, Yemen was one of the few Arab Spring countries to undergo a political transition with minimal violence. President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down after ruling the country since it was unified in 1990. Saleh’s government had been considered one of the most corrupt in the world.

 Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi assumed the presidency in early 2012 after winning an election as the only candidate. The transfer of power was organized mainly by Saudi Arabia, which was eager to maintain its influence in Yemeni politics. The Houthis, who make up about 40% of Yemen’s population, never accepted the deal and launched a rebellion that has since overtaken the capital San’aa and much of the country.

A long history of conflict

In the 16th century, an Ottoman official wrote:

“We have seen no foundry like Yemen for our soldiers. Each time we have sent an expeditionary force there, it has melted away like salt dissolved in water.”

When the Ottomans invaded Yemen in the 1500s, they experienced constant set-backs as their forces were gradually defeated and driven out by local warlords. They returned in force in the mid-1800s, but continued to suffer attacks from Yemeni tribes. The Ottomans didn’t achieve a stable occupation until they reached a deal to give independence to Zaidi tribes in the northern highlands. Holding Yemen while fighting these tribes was always  losing battle. This was a lesson that would be learned later by Britain, and is being learned now by Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The tribes that repeatedly drove out the Ottomans were from a Shia sect called Zaidiyya. They have been alternately dealing with and fighting against foreign powers in Yemen for centuries. During the Ottoman occupation in the 16th century, a Zaidi Imam reported a divine dream of war against their occupiers, and soon the Ottomans were driven out of all but one city.

The Houthis

Today, Zaidis make up between 30-40% of Yemen’s population. Since 2004, a group of Zaidis known as the Houthis have been fighting against the Yemeni government. The group is named for Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, and they are currently led by his brother. While Saleh accused the Houthis of trying to bring down the government, the Houthis contended that they were only defending themselves from government attacks.

 An insurgency

In September of 2014, Houthi rebels began a takeover of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. As the insurgency progressed, Hadi’s government attempted to negotiate a new constitution. The proposed constitution would have given some autonomy to the Houthis by splitting the country into separate federal regions, but it would also have prevented the Houthis from forming their own political party. The Houthis rejected the proposal and kidnapped a high-ranking member of the government in January 2015.

By February, President Hadi and his government had fled from Sana’a. The Houthis have set up a new constitution and government. The new government faces internal opposition, especially in the south, and it has not yet been recognized internationally.

Sana'a

Sana’a

 

President Hadi

As the Houthis overtook his government, President Hadi fled to Aden, a coastal city in the south. When he resigned, it was suggested that officials in the south of Yemen would seek independence from Sana’a. Yemen had historically been divided between North and South, only having unified in 1990

From Aden, Hadi gave a speech in February, reclaiming the Presidency and condemning the Houthis.

Civil war

The current civil war is mainly between Houthi forces loyal to Saleh and the southern separatists loyal to Hadi. The Houthis have extended control from their territories in the north all the way to Aden in the south.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (ISIS) have also carried out attacks, and AQAP controls some sparsely-populated areas in the east. This is particularly significant because countering AQAP has been a key U.S. interest in Yemen for years.

The civil war has provoked military involvement by Saudi Arabia because Hadi represents Saudi (and U.S.) interests in Yemen. The Saudis have been conducting airstrikes to slow the Houthi advance, and several other Arab League countries have joined them. The United States has provided indirect support, helping with aerial refuelling. The campaign was declared over on April 21, but airstrikes have continued.

Most recently, the Yemeni ambassador to the U.N. has called for intervention by ground troops to reverse Houthi gains in the south.

Humanitarian disaster

The conflict has created a dire situation for millions of Yemeni civilians. Estimates suggest 100,000 have been displaced, and that 13 million lack access to drinking water. The Saudis have pledged aid through the United Nations, but several aid agencies have considered rejecting the aid because they feel it would help justify the campaign.

Proxy war? Sectarian conflict?

The conflict in Yemen has been characterized by some as a sectarian conflict — a conflict between two sects of a religion — between Sunni and Shia. Houthis are a part of the sizable Shia minority in Yemen, but the majority of Yemenis are Sunni. However, the conflict between the Houthis and the former government has clear regional and ethnic characterists and calling it sectarian conflict is incomplete and even misleading.

Others describe the conflict as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since the U.S. began to withdraw from the region, with Obama winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia have begun jockeying for dominance. At the same time, this reinforces the idea of sectarian conflict because Iran — which supports the Houthis — is Shia, and Saudi Arabia — which supports Hadi — is Sunni.

The governments Hadi has been a vessel for Saudi influence. Before the U.S. and Saudi Arabia organized Saleh’s stepping down, his government also represented U.S. and Saudi interests. But although Iran has had dealings with the Houthis, most analysts downplay Iran’s influence and emphasize that the Houthis are acting autonomously — they don’t take orders from Iran.

Conclusion

This is only a brief overview of the key events and players in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The ideological and political questions raised by the events of the last few years call for a deeper analysis. The wider geopolitical significance of developments in the country add another layer of complexity. As has been the case throughout history, the interests of more powerful players are being exerted in Yemen, yet Yemenis have not as whole been passive witnesses. From the Arab Spring protests that erupted in 2011 and set off this most recent chain of events, to the Houthi offensive that rolled over the major provinces in the north and south, Yemeni groups have played major roles over the past four years. With the potential for an international intervention with ground troops on the horizon, Yemen’s future is more uncertain than ever.

U.S. sanctions on Russia: Firing on a sinking ship

Amid insistence that U.S. sanction on Russia have had only a minor effect, some have pointed to evidence to the contrary. Particularly, Russia’s currency is in poor shape and capital has lately flowed out of the country to a worrying extent.

However, as Peter Baker and Andrew E. Kramer point out in a recent NYT article:

Russia’s economic downturn predated any action by the United States or Europe and, to some extent, predated the Ukraine crisis. Specialists said the volatility surrounding Ukraine has clearly aggravated Russia’s economic problems by sapping international confidence, punishing its credit standing and increasing investor wariness, but it is not clear how much of that stems specifically from the sanctions.

There are two distinct points here. First, the Russian economy was in trouble before Ukraine began dominating the international news cycle. Second, the events in Ukraine wreaked havoc on Russia’s credit and investment before the sanctions were put in place.

What the sanctions have mostly done is added to the uncertainty about Russia’s economy that is causing credit agencies and investors to lose confidence. Further, the possibility of future sanctions that may have a greater effect piles on further uncertainty. In this sense, it is not the direct economic effects of the sanctions that is most concerning for Moscow, but their indirect psychological effects.

With the White House claiming the sanctions are having a “significant impact”, one might wonder if Washington knowingly planned to free ride on Russia’s existing economic concerns. Like a navy gunner belatedly firing on sinking ship, Washington can exacerbate Russia’s situation while claiming responsibility for the problems as a whole.

Again, this is not to trivialize the sanctions’ overall effects (direct and indirect effects taken together). The symbolic significance of these two rounds of sanctions is major, as it makes real the possibility of stronger measures in the future. It is this fear of the unknown that Russia must now contend with, while the U.S. has barely begun to spend its ammunition.

Yes, the West’s sanctions against Russia are largely symbolic measures

Russian soldiers

I’ve seen a few articles giving serious thought to recent sanctions against Russia. These have been touted by American politicians as significant concrete measures to impose a cost on Putin’s regime for its recent actions in Ukraine. However, the measures have been relatively modest, and have not seemed to match the rhetoric of Western politicians.

One of the more absurd instances was Canada’s highly-publicized sanctions against unnamed individuals and businesses in Russia. The mismatch between the rhetoric and the concrete actions is considerable.

US oil companies have actually increased investments in Russia since sanctions were first announced. The most recent round likely dampened the moods of some elites who are close with Moscow, but their effect on decision making at the Kremlin is likely less pronounced that Western leaders have claimed.

Nonetheless, reports of currency devaluation and capital outflow should not be dismissed. While the sanctions are not devastating in the same fashion as other US-led sanctions regimes, they have had an appreciable effect on Russia’s economy.

Why have the sanctions been so toothless?

Part of the reason is Europe’s dependence on imported Russian energy. Russia supplies Europe (especially Germany) with natural gas that is much cheaper than they can get elsewhere. If the EU joins the US in placing major sanctions on Russia, then they will be encouraging Moscow to respond with economic warfare of its own. Doing so would certainly be damaging to Russia, since their economy is largely based on these energy exports, but Merkel clearly has no appetite for testing Russian resolve. In other words, meaningful EU sanctions against Russia could cause an escalation that might send both Europe and Russia into hard economic times.

The US is no stranger to using sanctions, often to great effect. One problem is this: they already have a huge sanctions regime against Iran. Russia is cooperating with the sanctions against Iran. If the US starts putting serious sanctions on Russia, Russia may be able to undo what the past 10-15 years of sanctions have been working toward. Right now Iran is out in the cold, and the US is offering to let it back in if it puts the brakes on its nuclear program. If the US sends Russia out into the cold too, then Iran suddenly has Russia and its former-Soviet allies to trade with, and the sanctions lose their teeth.

Aside from these factors, there is the (remote) possibility of escalation into actual warfare, and the extensive involvement of American oil companies in Russia’s energy sector. Something I had not considered, which Friedman mentions, is the possibility of destabilizing a nuclear-armed country. The prospect of Putin’s regime being toppled from within is unlikely almost beyond consideration (he is extremely popular and runs a well-honed security apparatus). However, the potential consequences compel consideration even of unlikely possibilities that may only manifest in the medium- or long-term.

Whatever the appropriate weighting of each reason may be, what is clear is that the EU nations in particularly are decidedly unenthusiastic about imposing real costs on Putin’s regime. Meanwhile, in their rhetoric, US and other Western leaders continue to mythologize their sanctions regimes to absurd, almost comical, degrees.

For further reading, Fred Kaplan discusses the most recent round of US sanctions. George Friedman has an article at Stratfor.

 

The enemy of my enemy: U.S. considers backing Syrian Islamic Liberation Front

Rebel fighters from the secular Free Syrian Army

Rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army

As the secular Free Syrian Army becomes increasingly marginalized, the U.S. State Department is considering supporting the larger Syrian Islamic Front in the conflict against the Assad regime.

Apparently unphased by the ideological gap between American foreign policy and the Islamist values of the Front, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Monday, “We wouldn’t rule out the possibility of meeting with the Islamic Front.”

Immediately, the parallels to American support for the mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are hard to miss. In that conflict, U.S. money funded Islamist fighters who sought to drive the Soviets out of the country. Many commentators have pointed out that by doing so they likely supported the rise of al Qaeda. Now, in order to remove from power a Russian ally that U.S. officials have been betting against, the State Department may be prepared to align itself with a faction of fighters who seek to establish an Islamic government in post-Assad Syria.

If U.S. officials were to go through with offering support, it seems unlikely that they could have as much influence as they would like. Syria’s rebel factions are not perfectly divided between secularists, Islamists and al Qaeda supporters. There are secularists in the Islamist factions, and vice versa.

By offering even modest optimism about working with the Front, the State Department reveals some degree of desperation on the issue of removing Assad from power. Although it has declared itself a moderate movement, the Islamic Front has little stake in furthering U.S. interests, and aside from wanting Assad removed, the two have little common cause. Any optimism over the “moderate” label should be tempered by our lack of reliable information about rebel groups. The real ideological composition of the group is less than clear in light of some of its leaders’ comments.

From Foreign Policy:

Some of the comments from the Islamic Front’s top leaders support the contention that the group’s ideology comes dangerously close to that of al Qaeda though the front is not aligned with the terrorist network. Zahran Alloush, the Islamic Front’s military chief, has demonized Syria’s Alawite minority and called for them to be cleansed from Damascus. As he put it in a recent video: “The jihadists will wash the filth of the rafida [a slur used to describe Shia] from Greater Syria, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it.”

Needless to say, this is not suggestive of a promising working relationship.

Obama seeks justification for an attack on Syria as Navy warships wait off coast

USS Ramage

Signalling from the Obama administration that it plans military action against Syria have become more and more overt. Following reports of chemical weapons attacks on civilians by the Assad regime, Obama ordered several American warships off the coast of Syria.

U.S. officials seeem convinced that the chemical weapons attacks on civilians have come from the Assad regime, although no claim of direct evidence has been made.

From The Washington Free Beacon:

Pentagon officials said the naval power includes the guided missile destroyers USS Ramage, USS Mahan, USS Gravely, and USS Barry. At least one missile-firing submarine is also said to be in the region. Britain also reportedly has dispatched a missile-firing submarine to waters near Syria.

Now Obama has ordered documents giving legal justification for military action in Syria. CBS News broke the story:

President Barack Obama called his national security team together Saturday to talk about the next move in Syria. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper led off the three-hour White House meeting with detailed analysis of the evidence about the chemical weapons attack, the disposition of victims and what the administration now believes is a near air-tight circumstantial case that the Syrian regime was behind it.

Obama ordered a declassified report be prepared for public release before any military strike commences. That report, top advisers tell CBS News, is due to be released in a day or two.

There was no debate at the Saturday meeting that a military response is necessary. Obama ordered up legal justifications for a military strike, should he order one, outside of the United Nations Security Council. That process is well underway, and particular emphasis is being placed on alleged violations of the Geneva Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention.

It has been evident for some time that some military action is planned, but what form it will take is still up in the air. The Navy could strike chemical weapons facilities with cruise missiles. We may eventually see an air campaign similar to the US-led NATO action in Libya, possibly including coordination with rebel forces.

Here’s an article speculating on how a U.S. attack might proceed.

U.N. inspectors are in Syria gathering evidence, but while they should be able to determine whether a chemical weapons attack occurred,  it is unlikely that they will be able to determine who launched the attack. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has claimed that the Obama administration will be releasing evidence that the chemical attacks were orchestrated by the Assad regime. From The Guardian:

Kerry said that regardless of the outcome of the UN weapons inspections, the US had already concluded that Syria had used chemical weapons. “Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass,” he said. “What is before us today is real. And it is compelling.”

Chemical weapons could have been used only by Assad’s forces, which had custody over the country’s arsenal, Kerry said. He added that failure to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors for five days, and the regime’s decision to shell the affected neighbourhoods, “destroying evidence”, indicated an attempt to conceal the truth.

“That is not the behaviour of a government that has nothing to hide,” he said. “That is not the behaviour of a regime eager to prove to the world that it had not used chemical weapons.