Liguasan Marsh Clashes Expose the Latent Threat from ISIS in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared Martial Law in Mindanao until the end of 2018 amid the continued threat posed by IS-linked groups (Image Source: PCOO)

Shortly before dawn on 10 June, government airstrikes pounded militant hideouts in towns dotted around the edge of Liguasan Marsh. This sprawling wetland – straddling two provinces in the remote interior of the Philippines’ conflict-wracked southern island of Mindanao – has become just the latest front in the battle against the Islamic State (IS) in Southeast Asia, after militants allied to the notorious jihadi group laid siege to the city of Marawi – located 120km further north – for five months last year.

The initial aerial attack by government forces in Liguasan Marsh was followed by a ground offensive lasting several days, which resulted in the death of at least 26 militants but prompted 15,000 residents to flee their homes. The deceased militants belonged to the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – an IS-aligned group which has clashed repeatedly with the military since the turn of the year.

Meanwhile the radical Maute group – chief architects of the Marawi siege – have also risen their head in Mindanao in recent weeks after several months of inactivity. On 17 June, the Mautes – commanded by IS’ new leader in the Philippines, Abu Dar – clashed with government troops in the Lanao del Sur town of Tubaran, leaving five militants dead and 11,700 people from 2,200 families displaced. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner said around 30 Maute fighters were able to flee the area unharmed.

More than a year since the uprising in Marawi, does the intensified violence witnessed in June indicate that IS-linked groups – considerably depleted after the siege – are rebounding in western Mindanao?

While the Mautes were dealt a near-knockout blow after sustaining vast losses in Marawi, only a small cohort of BIFF members participated in the siege. The BIFF fighters who did not travel to Marawi have now picked up the IS mantle. Thought to number several-hundred jihadis, the BIFF remain embedded in small pockets of rural territory across three provinces in western Mindanao: Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. The group is split into at least three sub-factions, with Esmael Abdulmalik serving as its main figurehead and de-facto leader. Since Marawi, the BIFF have regularly clashed with the security forces, launched a wave of IED attacks and rampaged through civilian towns.

Encounters between the BIFF and the military have increased in both scale and intensity. On 11 March, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) reported it had killed 44 militants and wounded 26 during three days of intense clashes in Datu Saudi town. Fighting again erupted in mid-April, before June’s latest military onslaught targeted the group in Liguasan Marsh. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the BIFF have proven unexpectedly resilient, well-resourced and difficult to dislodge. The group have hit back by ambushing soldiers using IEDs. Bomb blasts have also targeted civilians, with an explosion outside a bar in Tacurong causing 14 casualties on New Year’s Eve. More recently, the BIFF bombed a cathedral in Koronadal city in late-April and detonated a device outside a school in Midsayap in May.

IS-linked militants laid siege to Marawi city for five months from May-October 2017. The conflict left more than 1,000 people dead, most of whom were militants (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The AFP have reported seeing foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia fighting alongside the BIFF, providing a possible explanation for their confounding level of strength. It is thought that a number of these non-Filipino combatants managed to escape from Marawi during the siege and linked-up with the BIFF, while others are rumoured to have entered Mindanao later by crossing porous sea borders. Senior army commander Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana says the AFP is verifying reports that Indonesians and Singaporeans were among those killed recently at Liguasan Marsh, while Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has previously warned of the illicit entry of terrorists from neighbouring countries. The AFP has vowed to keep a ‘tight watch’ along Mindanao’s heavily-indented coast but policing it round-the-clock is a monumental challenge, and inevitably some are able to slip through the net undetected. Some of these new recruits are battle-hardened and trained in bomb-making skills acquired abroad.

As the BIFF has proceeded with its campaign of terror, the Maute group – destroyed as a hierarchical and organized fighting force in Marawi – has been slowly rebuilding beneath the surface. The clashes that erupted in Tubaran in June were the first involving the group since the early months of the year, when sporadic gun battles with government soldiers erupted in the towns of Masui, Pagayawan and Pantar. The latest violence indicates the Mautes are still very much alive under new leader Abu Dar.

Reports of Maute recruitment in Lanao del Sur province have emerged, with the army claiming the terrorists are using cash, gold and jewellery looted from Marawi to lure impoverished young men into their ranks in villages surrounding the ruins of the now-destroyed Islamic city on the shores of Lake Lanao. In February, the AFP’s Col. Romeo Brawner estimated the Mautes had replenished their ranks with around 200 fighters from Lanao del Sur and said the group ‘had not abandoned their objective to create a caliphate’. The military’s commanding general Rolando Bautista recently warned another Marawi-style urban siege was becoming a ‘big possibility’. Police have also arrested Maute members and sympathizers further afield in central and northern areas of the country, while Manila’s police director Oscar Albayalde has placed officers on ‘full alert’ for potential Maute attacks in the capital.

Alarmist rhetoric aside, on the surface the threat from radical Islamists appears to have reduced since the Marawi siege ended. A military crackdown facilitated by Martial Law has kept up the pressure on the jihadists, while a long-delayed peace process with the region’s larger and more moderate Muslim rebel groups is inching towards a conclusion. The Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is set to be passed next month, paving the way for the creation of a new autonomously-governed region for Muslim majority areas in Mindanao. It is hoped the landmark deal will forge a lasting peace between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – which has already laid down its arms – while at the same time reducing grievances among the Muslim population and tackling the core long-term drivers of terrorist recruitment in western Mindanao, which have sustained more radical groups for decades.

Since the Marawi siege ended, Philippine troops have been battling the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and remnants of the Maute group in Mindanao (Image Source: PIA)

Yet the current generation of extremist groups present in the region – spearheaded by the IS-aligned BIFF and the rapidly-regrouping Maute remnants – appear unlikely to give up their fight. If the peace process fails to live up to its promise of bringing greater autonomy and development, there is a danger these elements may be able to garner enough support to once again revive Mindanao’s six-decade Islamist separatist struggle – but this time entwined with the warped ideology of transnational jihad and the brutal tactics which have become the trademark of IS’ global brand. Just last month, senior BIFF spokesperson Abu Misri Mama warned the group does not recognize the BBL-led peace process and chillingly said ‘‘we are not in favour of autonomy…the BIFF will continue to fight for independence; the island will not see peace even after this BBL is passed’’. President Rodrigo Duterte has also voiced fears of such a scenario, warning earlier this year of ‘‘war in Mindanao’’ if the peace process collapses.

For as long as their flame still burns, the IS-linked jihadists of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Mautes will represent the greatest barrier to a lasting peace in the Philippines’ troubled south.

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The Long Road to Justice for Sri Lanka’s Civil War Victims

During the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, around 80,000 civilians became trapped between Tamil Tiger rebels and advancing government troops (Image Source: trokilinochchi)

More than eight years after government forces crushed the northern Tamil Tiger separatists in the bloody final battle of Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war, victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by both sides still await a semblance of justice. On a visit to the island nation last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, lamented the government’s failure to establish a hybrid court to try those accused of committing war crimes. De Greiff warned Sri Lanka over its slow progress, stating the delay in investigating alleged abuses ‘‘raises many questions about the determination of the government to undertake a comprehensive transitional justice program’’.

The worst of the alleged abuses took place during the last few weeks of the conflict in May 2009, when government troops cornered the remaining rebels in a thin slice of territory along Sri Lanka’s northeast coastline. The UN and human rights groups have accused the government of extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and indiscriminately shelling civilian ‘no-fire zones’. Meanwhile, the Tamil Tigers have been accused of launching suicide bombings, recruiting child soldiers and using civilians as human shields during the final battle.

It is estimated that in the dying months of the conflict, anywhere between 7,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed. In addition, tens-of-thousands of Sri Lankans – mostly from the Tamil ethnic minority – have disappeared without trace. With progress toward establishing a war crimes tribunal stalling almost a decade after the bloodshed ended, this report reflects on Sri Lanka’s post-war politics and looks at the political controversy surrounding efforts to put war criminals on trial.

The conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers – formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – began in 1983, after rebels fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the northeast killed 13 soldiers in an ambush. Ethnic tensions had long been simmering between the Hindu Tamil minority and the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, since Sri Lanka’s independence from 150 years of British rule in 1948. The LTTE initially carried out a guerrilla campaign consisting of suicide bomb attacks and ambushes targeting security personnel, before a full-scale civil war erupted in the mid-1990s. The two sides eventually signed a ceasefire mediated by Norway in 2002, before violence once again flared in the mid-2000s as the LTTE regained swathes of territory in its strongholds.

After the election of authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, the military took the fight to the rebels with renewed vigour. In January 2008, the government formally withdrew from the ceasefire and launched an all-out offensive designed to bring an end to the conflict. Over the next eighteen months, government forces re-took most of the rebel-held territory in the northeast, including the strategically-important town of Kilinochchi, which had served as the LTTE’s headquarters for more than a decade. On 19 May 2009, President Rajapaksa declared the country ‘‘liberated’’ from terrorism, as the remnants of the LTTE laid down their arms after their long-time leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed in a shoot-out with government troops.

The final weeks of the conflict were among its most bloody. More then 80,000 fleeing civilians became trapped in a small pocket of territory between rapidly advancing soldiers and retreating LTTE rebels. Alleged war crimes were committed by both sides. International human rights groups accused government forces of shelling civilians in areas which had been demarcated as ‘safe zones’, as well as carrying-out extra-judicial killings of captured Tamil fighters. The LTTE were accused of forcibly recruiting children in an attempt to bolster its rapidly-dwindling ranks, as well as launching suicide attacks in civilian areas and using fleeing civilians as human shields, even reportedly firing in front of crowds to prevent trapped people from leaving the combat zone. Media outlets – notably Channel 4 News in the UK – obtained video footage purporting to show the aftermath of hospitals being shelled, as well as unarmed Tamil fighters being blindfolded and executed by government troops at point-blank range. The footage prompted international outcry and condemnation.

The Sri Lankan government at the time – led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa – denied all allegations of abuse, labelling the unverified video footage as ‘‘fabricated’’ and an outside attempt to destabilize the country. Rajapaksa’s administration rejected all calls for an international inquiry, despite calls by the UN for Sri Lanka to set-up a hybrid court with the involvement of foreign judges.

Hopes for a formal investigation into war crimes were raised in January 2015 following the surprise election victory of Maithripala Sirisena. President Sirisena was elected on a reform ticket pledging to curb the powers of the presidency, fight corruption and protect freedom of speech, marking a clear break from the increasingly-authoritarian strongman-type regime led by Rajapaksa.

President Sirisena’s government has implemented reforms since assuming power in 2015, but a UN-backed war crimes tribunal is yet to be established (Image Source: Russian Government)

Under Sirisena, a degree of progress has indeed been made. The government has initiated public consultations on issues related to the conflict, and last year set-up an ‘Office for Missing Persons’ to trace more than 20,000 people who disappeared during the conflict and its aftermath. Among the missing are activists, journalists and critics of the government along with thousands of former LTTE rebels, family members and Tamil rights campaigners. The government has now acknowledged the problem and announced that family members of missing persons will be issued with certificates, but as yet little progress has been made in finding out the truth of what happened to the disappeared.

Some observers contend that many of the missing Tamils have been abducted by military and intelligence officers, and have either been killed or may still be being held in state-run detention centres. Some evidence has emerged to support this theory, with campaign groups such as Freedom from Torture and the International Truth and Justice Project presenting harrowing witness accounts and first-hand testimonies detailing detention and torture in military camps. Whilst these accounts are unverified, they have been supported by a number of legal and medical experts.

In the year after his election victory, President Sirisena spoke at the UN General Assembly of the importance of confronting his country’s past, pledging to ‘‘follow a process of truth-seeking, justice, reparation and non-recurrence’’. He appeared to back-up these words with action in September 2015, after tentatively agreeing to the terms of a UN Security Council resolution to establish a hybrid court – made up of both Sri Lankan and international judges – to put on trial those suspected of committing war crimes during the Tamil conflict. The move was praised by most member states.

Yet progress in establishing such a tribunal has been slow, and Sirisena appears to have backtracked on some of his early promises. A reconciliation consultation committee appointed by Sri Lanka’s government recommended earlier this year that ‘‘international participation in the court should be phased-out’’ once the ‘‘required expertise and capacity has been built-up’’ among locally-appointed judges. The tribunal has still not come to fruition, and Sri Lanka received a two-year extension in March this year to fulfil its commitment to the UN resolution, further delaying the process.

Last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, warned the government in Colombo that further delays in making good on their promise to establish a war crimes tribunal involves significant risks. After a two-week visit to Sri Lanka, he said ‘‘no-one should be under the impression that waiting is a costless alternative’’, adding that the ‘‘failure to achieve progress in fully addressing issues’’ related to the civil war ‘‘constitutes a denial of justice’’.

The longer it takes to establish the truth and secure justice for what happened in the final weeks of the conflict back in May 2009, the frustration of victims and tensions between Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese communities will inevitably rise. Many Tamils still hold grievances and perceive repression at the hands of the state – particularly at the hands of the military – who retain a dominant presence in the northeast of the country. These suspicions will surely continue to fester for as long as relatives of the deceased and the disappeared sense a continued lack of accountability for abuses committed by state actors during the war, and an absence of justice for its thousands of civilian victims.

President Sirisena’s government has undoubtedly made progress through the introduction of limited reforms, yet accusations of human rights abuses and impunity for state actors continue to be made. It is time for the tougher and more controversial issues related to the final stages of conflict to be tackled – including confronting allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes on both sides – if reconciliation is to be achieved and Sri Lanka is to finally move on from a dark chapter in its history.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Philippines Communist Insurgency: Rhetoric Heats Up as Peace Negotiations Remain Stalled

President Duterte vowed when elected to pursue peace talks with the CPP-NPA, aimed at ending one of the world’s longest-running communist insurgencies (Image Source: PCOO)

This feature was first published on Asian Correspondent.

When Rodrigo Duterte was elected as president of the Philippines in May 2016, hopes were raised for a negotiated end to one of Asia’s longest-running Maoist insurgencies. On the campaign trail Duterte had vowed, if elected, to enter into ‘inclusive talks’ with rebels from the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the once-outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Peace talks did indeed begin in Norway last August, and got off to a positive start with both sides declaring separate ceasefires and agreeing to further rounds of dialogue, which took place in Oslo in October and Rome in January. At the turn of the year, it appeared steady progress was being made.

Yet the peace process crashed to an abrupt halt in early February after a series of armed clashes led both parties to declare their separate ceasefires at an end. Talks were briefly revived in the Netherlands in April, before a fifth round of dialogue scheduled for May was cancelled by Duterte. Since the collapse of the peace process earlier this year, violence has spiralled and deadly attacks have become a frequent occurrence. September saw several high-profile incidents, with NPA rebels killing four government troops in an ambush in Nueva Vizcaya at the start of the month, whilst on 20 September, nine Maoist rebels were slain in a clash with the Philippine army in Carranglan.

After several attempts to restart negotiations failed, rhetoric on both sides has become increasingly heated in recent months. In August, President Duterte declared ‘war’ against the Maoists, stating ‘Let’s stop talking, start fighting’, before describing peace negotiations as a ‘waste of time’. The CPP responded by labelling Duterte’s administration as a ‘semi-colonial, anti-peasant regime’, whilst claiming ‘the people have no other recourse but to tread the path of militant struggle and collective action’. Amid the escalating war-of-words and with negotiations still stalled, this report examines the reasons why the peace talks faltered and assesses the prospects of future dialogue.

The history of the modern communist movement in the Philippines dates back to 1968 and the founding of the CPP by a former student activist, Jose Maria Sison, who still leads the organization from self-exile in the Netherlands. The party’s armed wing, the NPA, was established a year later with the aim of overthrowing the central government in Manila through a sustained campaign of armed resistance, referred to by the CPP-NPA as a ‘protracted people’s war’. The movement is rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology and seeks to establish a political system led by the working classes, which would redistribute land to the poor and expel US influence from the Philippines.

The NPA reached the height of its powers in the early-1980s during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when it attracted widespread public support and had more than 25,000 members. In the democratic era, the movement has declined in strength but still retains an operational presence in most provinces across the country, and now has around 4,800 active members. Clashes between NPA rebels and Philippine troops continue to occur sporadically as the insurgency approaches its sixth decade, despite repeated military crackdowns. The NPA remains especially strong in poorer rural areas where it enjoys widespread support and exercises de-facto control through the collection of ‘revolutionary taxes’; payments which Manila describes as extortion.

Peace negotiations have taken place intermittently in past decades between the National Democratic Front (NDF) – a political grouping which represents the CPP-NPA in formal talks – and successive governments led by Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino, yet to no avail. The election of Duterte last year signalled renewed hope for peace, and the first round of talks with the NDF in August 2016 produced a landmark result: the declaration of ceasefires by both sides. The commitment held and the parties convened again in Oslo two months later, before a third meeting in Rome this January. Yet at the beginning of February, months of careful diplomacy unravelled in a matter of days, whilst efforts to rekindle negotiations in the following months made little progress. Both sides blamed each other as clashes resumed between the army and rebels, leaving many wondering: why did the talks falter, and how did the ceasefire collapse so quickly?

Since the breakdown of peace negotiations earlier this year, NPA attacks against government troops have occurred more frequently (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

The trigger for the collapse was a result of the peace process reaching a major sticking-point over the release of political prisoners. As the dialogue moved forward, the CPP-NPA had made it clear that the release of imprisoned members was a pre-condition for the continuation of talks, whereas President Duterte maintained he would not release more prisoners until a formal joint ceasefire agreement had been signed. Tensions surrounding the issue were already boiling over before the NPA lifted its unilateral ceasefire on 1 February. Duterte followed-suit two days later after a series of NPA attacks on Philippine troops, immediately terminating the government’s ceasefire and accusing the ‘terrorist’ rebels of ‘wanting another fifty years of war’.

Whilst unsatisfied demands for a prisoner amnesty served as the trigger for the breakdown of talks earlier this year, there are several more deeply-rooted factors which contributed to the failure of dialogue and restrict the chances of ending the insurgency should talks resume.

First, the factional nature of the NPA – with armed units present in almost every province across the Philippines – and a lack of centralized operational leadership, makes it difficult for the largely symbolic figureheads of the CPP and NDF, responsible for negotiating with the government, to control the activities of their fighters. Whilst a ceasefire is imposed from above, realities on the ground make it easy for violent clashes to occur in a local context. This often leads to further attacks and retaliatory violence, dealing a hammer blow to peace talks at the national level.

Second, a lack of trust exists between both sides. This makes progress difficult to sustain as firmly opposed positions have been reinforced over five decades of conflict. For example, as soon as the talks collapsed in February, both the government and CPP-NPA quickly reverted from making careful diplomatic overtures and returned to using divisive language describing each other as the ‘enemy’. As the months have passed, heated rhetoric has replaced the co-operative tones voiced last year, indicating the fragility of progressive dialogue and the difficulty of reversing long-held suspicions.

President Duterte came to power in 2016 promising to negotiate an end to the Philippines’ long-running internal conflicts, yet conditions appear only to have deteriorated. The government is now firefighting on multiple fronts: the army is still battling ISIS-aligned militants in Marawi, whilst at the same time Congress is trying to finalize a long-awaited peace deal with Moro separatist groups. And now, a resurgent communist insurgency is threatening to inflict further bloodshed.

The only way of resolving the conflict without a peace accord being signed is to tackle the root causes of the insurgency, which would undermine recruitment and support for the NPA through improving the livelihoods of the Philippines’ rural poor. This approach alone however would take decades, and without an accompanying peace deal, may not end the violence in its entirety.

To prevent further internal strife, the government and the NPA have a strong imperative to return to the path of negotiation. Duterte is unpredictable, so his declaration that the peace process with the NPA is over does not necessarily signal the end of the road. If there is a lull in rebel attacks and conditions are deemed right, talks may be restarted in the near future.

After five decades of armed resistance, the cycle of conflict will be difficult to break; yet the revival of the peace process represents the only viable path forward. Unless momentum is regained soon, the Philippines’ long-running Maoist insurgency may prove intractable for another generation.

Balochistan: Seven Decades of Insurgency in Pakistan’s Restive South

The proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, linking Xinjiang to Gwadar Port, has raised tensions over development in Balochistan (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Next year will signal 70 years since the beginning of a fierce separatist insurgency fought in Pakistan’s troubled southern province of Balochistan. Over much of the last seven decades the conflict has rumbled on at a relatively low intensity, punctuated by five distinct periods of heightened violence. The current flare-up – which ignited in the mid-2000s – has proved by far the most enduring. And amid rising tensions in recent years, it appears there is no end in sight to Pakistan’s longest – yet most under-reported – war.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province and stretches from the country’s interior to its remote southwestern region, where it borders neighbouring Afghanistan and Iran. The province is a vast territory rich in resources including gold, copper and natural gas, yet remains Pakistan’s most underdeveloped and impoverished province. A sizeable proportion of its 12 million residents hold grievances regarding a perceived lack of political rights and accuse the central government of resource exploitation – concerns which underlie the seven-decade separatist movement and continue to drive the struggle for independence today.

The insurgency began less than a year after Pakistan’s independence from colonial rule in August 1947, when in March 1948 Pakistan dispatched troops to annex the southwestern area which was then known as Kalat. The territory’s ruler, Ahmed Yar Khan, later signed an accession treaty formalizing the incorporation of Kalat into the newly-founded nation-state of Pakistan. Yet many in the region strongly opposed the move, and the first of the Baloch nationalist rebellions was born.

The 1948 uprising was soon put down by security forces, but further armed campaigns erupted in 1958, 1962 and 1973, each lasting no-longer than four years before the army were able to regain a semblance of control. The fifth insurgency began in the mid-2000s and has been the most enduring. The violence was triggered as a consequence of several factors: as a result of opposition to the regime of General Pervez Musharraf; as a reaction to the 2006 killing of a key Baloch leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, by the Pakistani army; and in response to a crackdown launched by security forces.

Ten years on, the fifth Baloch insurgency has still not abated as clashes continue between the military and an array of armed separatist groups, including the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Republican Army (BRA) and the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF).

In the last decade, the Pakistani authorities have been accused of committing widespread human rights violations, including presiding over unlawful detentions, extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances. Criticism from international observers has been particularly fierce, with Human Rights Watch stating in a 2011 report that ‘‘the surge in unlawful killings of suspected militants and opposition figures in Balochistan has taken the brutality in the province to an unprecedented level.’’

The most controversial aspect of the war in Balochistan concerns the fate of the thousands of Baloch fighters and opposition activists who have disappeared in the last few decades. In December 2016, the BBC reported that almost 1,000 dead bodies of political activists and suspected separatists had been found dumped across the province since 2011. Human rights groups say the evidence points towards large-scale abductions and extra-judicial killings, citing relatives’ claims that many of the victims had previously been detained by Pakistan’s security forces before disappearing.

The government and military have repeatedly denied all accusations of complicity with regard to kidnappings and extra-judicial murder, instead blaming the deaths on organized crime and clashes between various militant groups active in the region. However, media silence on the issue within Pakistan, along with the high level of risk making the province a virtual no-go zone for journalists, has made substantive corroboration or verification of these claims almost impossible, further raising suspicions among many in the international community.

Quetta, Balochistan. The resource-rich province is home to 12 million residents in Pakistan’s southwest, bordering Iran and Afghanistan. (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Amid the lack of coverage, the government is keen to put across its point of view, labelling most of the Baloch nationalist groups as ‘terrorist organizations’ and highlighting their continued attacks on not just security forces, but also against civilians. For example, in an April 2015 incident the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) reportedly killed 20 labourers working on a road near the city of Turbat. The past few months have witnessed further attacks by Baloch nationalists against construction workers, who are often regarded as legitimate targets by the insurgents given local opposition to state-led development projects in the province.

Ongoing construction projects related to the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have caused particular concern, further enflaming tensions over development in the region. China has invested $46bn in the project, which aims to connect the western Chinese province of Xinjiang with the strategically-important deep-water port of Gwadar, located on southern Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coastline. Pipeline projects routed through the province have also heightened tensions, with separatists accusing the government of prioritizing large-scale, foreign-backed infrastructure and resource-based projects which bring few direct benefits to residents in the southwest.

In this sense, the conflict and its drivers are largely a tale of competing narratives: whilst the separatists claim the government ignores their long-standing grievances related to poverty and underdevelopment, the government argues that insurgent activity is holding the province back and restricting economic growth.

All previous peace-making efforts – which can be described as limited at best – have achieved little. The provincial government is weak and has failed to adequately mediate between politicians in Islamabad, the military and the numerous Baloch separatist groups. A proposed government amnesty programme has also failed to gain traction as violence has continued on both sides.

Unless the central government makes a concerted attempt to initiate meaningful dialogue involving all stakeholders, allows greater media access and demonstrates a willingness to discuss the core grievances of the Baloch population, the prospects for a lasting ceasefire remain slim. The longer the current status-quo continues, the conflict will remain intractable and existing divisions will be further entrenched. Seven decades on from the first uprising against the Pakistani state in Balochistan, the hope for a peaceful resolution looks as far away as ever.

This article was first published on Eurasia Review.

Is Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency over?

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced in December that Boko Haram’s last remaining stronghold had been captured by the military (Image source: Chatham House)

In the final days of 2016, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the army had captured Boko Haram’s last stronghold in the remote Sambisa forest in the northeast of the country. President Buhari said the successful operation marked the ‘‘final crushing’’ of Boko Haram, bringing an end to the brutal seven-year insurgency which has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million.

The apparent defeat of Boko Haram follows a year in which the group appeared to be in turmoil after a dispute between two of its dominant figures. In August, long-time militant leader Abukakar Shekau claimed to still be in command, despite an earlier statement by IS – to whom Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2014 – that he had been replaced as leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The dispute was the strongest indication yet of a more widespread split within the terrorist organization, which had already been significantly weakened by a Nigerian military offensive over the past 18 months.

For some time, the long-running Islamist insurgency – which began in 2009 – has looked to be in a state of gradual decline: militants have been forced to retreat into their rural heartlands after being pushed back from the urban areas they once controlled by a regional coalition of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

However, the group have seemingly been on the cusp of defeat on several occasions in the past, yet each time have fought back – proving themselves to be more resilient than expected. This article looks back at the key developments and crucial moments over the last seven years of the insurgency, before asking how Boko Haram was able to emerge to control large swathes of Nigeria in the first place, and how it can be prevented from doing so again.

Since its emergence as a military force in 2009, Boko Haram has forged a reputation as a particularly brutal terrorist group, pressing its objectives through a wave of killings, bombings, and abductions across Nigeria. It gained widespread international media coverage in April 2014, after the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their boarding school in the town of Chibok. This thrust the situation into the global spotlight, prompting widespread outrage and strong condemnation from Western governments. Since pledging allegiance to IS later the same year, the Boko Haram conflict has often been simplified and presented within the overall narrative of global Islamic terrorism; however in reality, the background to the militancy is complex, with many factors being responsible for the rise of Boko Haram and its sustained campaign against the Nigerian state.

Boko Haram was formed in 2002 by Muslim Cleric Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf set up a religious complex consisting of a mosque and Islamic school with the aim of opposing Western-style education. The group set up its headquarters in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, and became known by the local population as Boko Haram – which loosely translates from the local Hausa language as ‘Western education is forbidden’.

Based on its radical interpretation of Islam, Boko Haram’s aims quickly moved beyond just education and morphed into a wider, longer-term political objective: to overthrow the Nigerian government and establish an Islamic Caliphate.

In July 2009, Boko Haram shifted its focus to full-scale militant insurgency, launching a campaign of violence in Borno state, killing hundreds of people in attacks on marketplaces, police stations and government buildings. The response from the Nigerian military was immediate: security forces launched a sustained assault, seizing the group’s headquarters and killing its leader along with many of its fighters. At this point, Boko Haram appeared to be decimated; yet its fighters were soon able to re-group under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau.

Under the leadership of Shekau, recruitment soared and Boko Haram gained a reputation for committing acts of horrific brutality, launching a campaign of high-profile attacks throughout Nigeria. In August 2011, Boko Haram extended its reach to the capital, killing 23 people in a suicide bombing at the UN headquarters in Abuja. In January 2012, more than 100 civilians were killed in a single day of co-ordinated bombings and shootings in the town of Kano.

As the violence escalated, the government struggled to maintain control, leading former president Goodluck Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in May 2013, in the three northern provinces of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Troops were deployed to the region to combat the growing militant threat, leading to Boko Haram fighters being pushed out of their urban base Maiduguri, retreating to the dense Sambisa forest and the Mandara Mountains close to the border with Cameroon.

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A coalition of West African states have undertaken a sustained military offensive against Boko Haram since January 2015 (Image Source:VOA)

However, the insurgency proved difficult to put-down, and attacks by Boko Haram continued. Militants once again emerged from their rural hideouts to launch attacks on towns and villages – looting property, carrying out mass killings, abducting women and girls, and conscripting men and boys into their army. In April 2014, the group launched its most notorious attack, kidnapping more than 200 girls from a boarding school in Chibok. Some of the girls have recently been released, but the whereabouts of many others remains unknown.

By the end of 2014 the group had pledged its allegiance to IS, and rebranded itself as IS’ West Africa Province. Despite this development, the Nigerian military continued to push back the jihadists. In recent years, many Boko Haram fighters have been killed and large quantities of weapons have been seized, leaving the group seemingly on the edge of extinction once more. Yet given its past resilience, Boko Haram’s demise is far from certain; and to avoid it rising up once again, a key question must be answered: how was Boko Haram able to emerge as a group powerful and resourceful enough to wage a sustained seven-year insurgency, which wrought havoc across large swathes of territory and threatened the Nigerian state?

A large part of the answer lies in its ideological pull to those who may be sympathetic to its core values: an extreme form of Islam based on Sharia Law, the desired creation of a caliphate, vehement opposition to the West, and the concept of waging war against the Nigerian state.

However, an often-overlooked, but ever-present set of underlying, inter-related factors was vital in driving recruitment and sustaining Boko Haram in the area of northern Nigeria in which it first sprung-up: poverty, underdevelopment and economic marginalization.

This same set of conditions has been a common feature in the emergence of many other groups which have fought against the State throughout recent history. This story is particularly relevant to many other countries in Africa – particularly those with vast natural resources such as oil and minerals – where economic growth has gone hand-in-hand with growing inequality. In this sense, Nigeria can be understood to be suffering from the ‘resource curse’ – a situation in which oil wealth encourages corrupt governance, resulting in vast inequalities between regions and social groups, leading to an increased risk of poverty-induced conflict. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy, yet it is also one of the continent’s most unequal societies: in the north, 72% of the population live in poverty, compared to just 27% in the south.

Some may contend that a combination of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness have created a strong sense of resentment amongst the northeast’s generation of disenchanted young men, making the area fertile ground for jihadist groups such as Boko Haram. This wide pool of potential recruits, along with the manipulation of religion by Boko Haram as a vehicle for mobilization, is a key reason as to why the insurgency was able to be sustained for so long.

At present, however, the group finally looks on the verge of defeat – with no major strongholds left and splits in its leadership, Boko Haram appears to no-longer have an effective command structure. Its remaining fighters are likely to splinter into smaller factions, with little capacity to operate beyond remote areas or pose a large-scale threat as they once did. However, despite successes in driving back the militants, the authorities should be wary: if the underlying conditions remain unchanged, the militancy is likely to lie dormant beneath the surface, only to re-emerge once more. A military strategy alone therefore cannot remove the threat entirely. To ensure peace prevails in the coming years, a long-term strategy is needed: one which also addresses the economic and social conditions which have sustained seven-years of insurgency.

Counting the human cost of Syria’s destruction

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11 million Syrians have been displaced by the war: 4.8 million have fled the country, whilst another 6.1 million are internally displaced. (Source: Flickr, Jordi Bernabeu Farrus)

Now deep into its sixth year, Syria’s increasingly complex and intractable civil war continues to dominate headlines around the world. After more than half-a-decade of extensive international media coverage, the narrative of the conflict presented to Western audiences is becoming increasingly familiar, with major news outlets focusing predominantly on the fight against Islamic State and the growing role of international actors – the US and Russia – in the conflict.

Whilst this wider geo-strategic context and the global fight against terrorism are certainly important angles from which to report the Syrian civil war, there is a danger that news coverage will become increasingly sanitized and dehumanized as the conflict drags on and as ‘compassion fatigue’ begins to set in amongst audiences. It is therefore vital to ensure that the increased media spotlight on the high politics of diplomacy, military strategy and superpower rivalry does not come at the expense of highlighting the everyday suffering of the millions of Syrians caught in the middle.

This article will seek to explore the direct human impacts of the complex geopolitical drama which has unfolded across the previous six-and-a-half years at the heart of the Middle East, and will endeavour to consider the likely long-term physical and psychological impacts on what remains of Syria’s decimated population once the war comes to an end.

First however, in order to more-fully understand and comprehend the scale of human suffering in Syria, it is necessary to briefly review the major developments since the outbreak of the conflict and outline the key actors involved in the on-going violence.

The conflict began in 2011, after security forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad launched a brutal crackdown on demonstrators taking part in pro-democracy protests which had erupted across the country, forming part of the wider ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. By the end of the year, the country had descended into full-scale civil war as rebels formed the Free Syrian Army to lead the fight against government troops. Over the coming years, the violence dramatically escalated and the situation became increasingly complex, as opposition groups splintered into factions and foreign fighters poured into the country to join Jihadist groups such as Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.

As the conflict progressed it began to develop pronounced sectarian undertones, sewing division between elements of the Shia and Sunni population. This sparked the involvement of regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have each backed rebel groups aligned with their interests. The conflict has also drawn in world powers such as Russia and a multi-country coalition led by the United States. Russia has been a firm supporter of president Assad’s government and has launched airstrikes against opposition groups, whilst the US and its allies have predominantly targeted IS through an air campaign launched in late-2014, providing support to Kurdish militias and more moderate rebels whilst remaining firmly opposed to the Assad regime. The UN has accused almost all parties of war crimes and the killing of civilians over the course of the conflict, whilst all peace efforts and attempts to secure a meaningful ceasefire have failed.

With no end in sight, Syria is now the battleground for what has become a large-scale ‘proxy war’ with much at stake for regional and world powers – including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and the United States – who have all invested significant resources to influence the conflict according to their interests.

However, amidst the chaos and confusion of Syria’s seemingly never-ending destruction, many international observers seem to have overlooked the group which has by far the most at stake and the most to lose in this conflict: the Syrian people.

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Estimates suggest that 470,000 people have been killed during the Syrian civil war. (Source: Flickr, Freedom House)

After 68 – and counting – consecutive months of fighting since the March 2011 crackdown on protestors sparked a tidal wave of bloodshed, the war has resulted in human suffering and a humanitarian crisis on a scale which is almost incomprehensible. In total, a staggering 470,000 people have been killed over the past six-years of conflict, according to a recent report released by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR). Of these deaths, approximately 400,000 were as a direct result of violence, whilst another 70,000 have perished as an indirect result of the war due to the lack of medical treatment, food, water and sanitation. This statistic reflects how the war has created a deadly, almost inhospitable environment within which starvation is rife and disease can spread easily, constituting disastrous secondary effects of the conflict which negatively impact the health and well-being of the population. The death toll in the SCPR report is significantly higher than the 250,000 quoted by the United Nations, which stopped collecting statistics in 2014 as a result of the difficulty in obtaining accurate information from inside the country. The latest figures indicate that almost 12% of Syria’s population has been killed or injured since the conflict began, with an estimated 1.5 million people having been wounded.

The conflict has also sparked the world’s worst refugee crisis since WWII as a result of massive population displacement across the country. In total, around 11 million Syrians – half of the country’s pre-war population –  have been forced to flee their homes. Around 4.8 million have fled across the border into neighbouring countries, whilst 6.1 million people have been internally displaced and 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. Syria’s immediate neighbours have taken the largest share of the burden. According to Mercy Corps, 2.7 million refugees have entered Turkey, whilst Lebanon has taken in more than 1 million and Jordan has taken in around 650,000. Even war-torn Iraq is host to an estimated 225,000 Syrian refugees.

Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp serves as a particularly notorious example of the scale of the problem, now effectively constituting a medium-sized city which provides a semi-permanent home to more than 80,000 Syrians. The camp is beset by difficulties: there is a shortage of clean water and food supplies are scarce, whilst sanitation in the crowded settlement is inadequate for such a large number of people, facilitating the spread of contagious diseases such as cholera and polio.

In addition to those still in the region, more than a million Syrians have attempted the dangerous journey to mainland Europe, taking the difficult decision to leave behind livelihoods and family members. Many have faced uncertainties and endured months of hardship living outdoors as the land routes into Europe through the Balkans have gradually been closed, whilst thousands more have attempted the dangerous journey by boat across the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece.

For those who have been unable to leave or have decided to remain in Syria, the impacts of the war on their lives has been severe: families have been torn apart, towns and cities have been flattened, homes have been destroyed and livelihoods have disappeared as the economy has collapsed. Those injured have found it increasingly difficult to seek help, with the World Bank noting that more than 50% of hospitals across Syria have been either completely or partially destroyed, whilst thousands of doctors and nurses have been killed or have fled the country. In a particularly worrying development, hospitals appear to have been deliberately targeted in the northern city of Aleppo, which has experienced repeated bombardment from pro-regime forces. The SCPR report also found that at least 45% of Syria’s children are no longer attending school, which it said would have a ‘’dramatic impact’’ on the country’s future as generations were being lost. The number of children missing out on their education constitutes a disaster for the youth of a country which could once boast of having amongst the highest literacy rates in the Middle East. For the children growing-up in war-torn Syria, future prospects in terms of health are also fading rapidly, evidenced by a dramatic fall in average life expectancy from 70.5 years before the war, to just 55.4 years in 2015.

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Syria once had one of the highest literacy rates in the Middle East, yet now less than 45% of children attend school. (Source: Flickr, Jordi Bernabeu Farrus)

It must not be forgotten that as well as having to contend with poverty and deprivation, those who remain in Syria continue to face the fear of violence on a daily basis. Amnesty International’s 2015-2016 Country Report on Syria summarizes the multiple threats faced by Syria’s civilian population, and details horrific human rights abuses which have been carried out by multiple actors in the conflict. The report’s introduction states that government forces and non-state armed groups have ‘’committed war crimes, other violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights abuses with impunity’’ across the duration of the armed conflict, whilst US-led coalition and Russian airstrikes have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians.

The report goes into further detail, providing specific examples and outlining the main types of violence perpetrated against civilians by a range of actors on the ground. It says that government forces have carried out ‘’indiscriminate attacks that directly targeted civilians, including bombardment of civilian residential areas and medical facilities with artillery, mortars, barrel bombs and…chemical agents, unlawfully killing civilians.’’ Regime forces were also accused of ‘’enforcing lengthy sieges, trapping civilians and depriving them of food, medical care and other necessities’’, whilst the government’s security forces are blamed for the arbitrary arrest of thousands of ‘’peaceful activists, human rights defenders, media and humanitarian workers’’, with detainees often subjected to systematic torture and ill-treatment at the hands of their captors.

In addition, the report accuses numerous rebel and jihadist groups, particularly Islamic State, of carrying-out ‘’direct attacks on civilians and indiscriminate attacks including suicide bombings…and alleged chemical attacks’’, whilst perpetrating numerous unlawful killings of non-combatants.

The report did not accuse international actors of intentionally seeking to inflict harm upon the civilian population, but noted – as has widely been reported in the media and by observers on the ground – that scores of civilians have been killed in airstrikes carried out by both Russian warplanes and US-led coalition forces.

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Much of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed, leaving millions homeless and without access to adequate supplies of food, water and medical equipment. (Source: Flickr, Freedom House)

Overall, the scale of death and human suffering inflicted upon the Syrian population since hostilities began in 2011 is impossible to fully comprehend, in spite of the shocking nature of statistics documenting the number of those killed and injured. It is clear that over the course of the conflict, civilians have borne the brunt of violence: they have been attacked purposefully and indiscriminately by almost all armed groups operating on the ground, and are subjected to the additional fear of being killed in airstrikes carried out by international forces.

When the tragedy that is the Syrian civil war does eventually come to an end, it will leave behind a population both physically and psychologically scarred, with the effects reverberating across generations. The fighting will end at some point in the future and the Syrian people will begin to rebuild their country, as international actors re-focus their attention elsewhere in line with readjusted priorities and interests. The spotlight of the international media will also fade away, and for audiences in the West the Syrian war will likely become a distant memory – however as the world’s eyes look elsewhere, the very real experiences of suffering and the imprint of the war will remain in the minds of the Syrian people for decades to come.

Northern Mali gripped by chronic instability

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Tuareg rebels have been fighting for independence in northern Mali since January 2012 (Source: Wikipedia/Magharebia)

Mali appears to be in a state of perpetual instability: a string of recent high-profile terrorist attacks has added to a picture of nationwide de-stabilization, amid continued fighting between numerous armed groups in the West African country’s fractured northern region.  After a period of relative calm since last November’s attack on a hotel in Bamako which left 20 dead, renewed violence has broken out: in July, Tuareg fighters attacked an army base in Nampala, leaving 17 soldiers dead and 35 wounded. As a result, Mali’s lawmakers have now extended the state of emergency for an additional eight months, reflecting the worsening security situation in a country which has been plagued by conflict from multiple sources across the past five years.

Mali’s current wave of violence began in January 2012, when several insurgent groups launched a sustained campaign against the Malian government directed towards achieving independence or greater autonomy for the north, in an area known as Azawad. In March of that year, President Amadou Tourmani Toure was removed from office in a military coup, launched as a result of his poor handling of the ensuing crisis. In the power vacuum that followed, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – a group fighting to forge an independent homeland for the Tuareg people – took control of large swathes of Northern Mali.

This event became known as the ‘Tuareg Rebellion’, which was fuelled by an influx of weapons to the Sahel region following the ousting of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime left Libya to descend into a state of chaos and lawlessness; prompting many ethnic Tuareg’s living in the North African country to return home to the Sahel, becoming involved in the insurgency in Mali and other conflicts across West Africa.

The success of the Tuareg rebels however was short-lived: their rebellion was hijacked and their territorial gains were soon wiped-out by a collection of more extreme Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). By the end of 2012, Islamist groups had taken-over large portions of territory encompassing more than 50% of Mali’s land area, imposing strict sharia law in areas under their control.

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After an uprising in 2012, Tuareg and Islamist rebel groups seized large swathes of territory in northern Mali (Source: Wikipedia/Orionist)

By January 2013 the situation had spiralled out of control, and Mali’s government asked for external assistance to re-take the north from the rebels. On 11th January the French military began operations against the Islamists, whilst on 23rd April the UN established the United Nations Multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), deploying 12,000 peacekeeping troops to Mali’s troubled northern region. In support of these engagements, the US established a drone based in Niger to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to France and its partners in fighting extremism. African Union (AU) Forces from the neighbouring states of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger also played a role in combating the militants, fearing the spread of instability across borders and into the surrounding region.

By the end of 2013 the situation had stabilized: Mali had a new President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita; whilst the government had regained the majority of Islamist-held territory, facilitated through the support of its international partners. In June 2013 a preliminary peace deal was signed between the government and Tuareg rebels; however many Islamist groups were not included and some of the original signatories later pulled-out of the agreement. The next two years saw the continuation of sporadic violence until a more meaningful ceasefire was signed between the major parties in Algeria in February 2015.

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12,000 UN peacekeepers are based in Mali as part of MINUSMA, at the request of Mali’s government (Source: Wikipedia/Marie-Lan Nguyen)

An initial hope that the deal would signal an end to the conflict proved to be unfulfilled. Fighting is still ongoing despite the continued presence of French troops and UN forces, whilst the number of terrorist attacks increased dramatically throughout 2015. In March, a gunman representing militant group Al-Mourabitoun killed five people in a gun attack on a restaurant in Bamako, whilst six MINUSMA soldiers were killed by members of AQIM in a roadside ambush near Goundam in July. In August, gunmen attacked a residential building housing UN sub-contractors resulting in the deaths of ten people, whilst in October six civilians were killed in a rocket attack on a UN convoy on-route to the northern city of Gao.

However, the most dramatic attack occurred in November 2015 when militants from AQIM and al-Mourabitoun attacked the Raddison Blu hotel in Bamako, in a well-coordinated gun assault. The militants took 120 hostages and killed 14 foreigners along with six Malians, before the siege could be brought to an end by security forces. The attack claimed international headlines, and for the first time focused global attention on Mali’s worsening predicament.

The Bamako hotel attack led many western policy-makers and media analysts to frame the instability in Mali in the context of the wider global picture of Islamic terrorism, linking the situation to the ideology of groups such as ISIS in Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Others were keen to frame the situation in the national context in the form of a simplistic North-South divide, between the secular government in Bamako and Islamist militants fighting for an independent state in the north. In reality however, the roots of violence in Mali are far more complex, with a history of grievances and conflict stretching back over many years.

Firstly, there are no clear ‘sides’ which can be distinguished, as the various inter-locking conflicts consist of multiple actors with opposing, contrasting and contradictory aims. For example, over the last four years the MNLA umbrella grouping which originally led the 2012 insurgency has splintered into numerous groups and militias, including Ansar Dine and a number of smaller Islamist groups. In addition, AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun have grown in prominence and capability, whilst the Malian government is allied with external forces from France, the UN and several AU countries in combatting an increasingly diverse array of opponents. As a result, the Malian conflict can be described as multi-faceted with no clear narrative: it is more a collection of separate integrated conflicts which feed into an overall climate of instability, resulting in the de-stabilization of the country and the fracturing of society.

Secondly, a history of economic underdevelopment goes a long way towards explaining the repeated patterns of violence which have plagued the region. For many ordinary people in the north, sympathy for rebel groups is fuelled by more basic and instinctive considerations than adherence to an ideology of independence or Islamism. A high youth unemployment rate, along with lack of access to vital services such as education and healthcare, has culminated in widespread discontent with the central government in Bamako. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that 1.5 million people in Mali are threatened by food insecurity, whilst 150,000 have been made refugees and another 90,000 internally displaced by the conflict. Discontent has also been heightened by the government’s failure to address corruption; leading many Malian’s to grow tired of the country’s poor governance and unequal society. Many across the north feel that the region has been neglected by the Bamako elite, culminating in a strong sense of frustration and resentment which fuels jihadist recruitment.

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The conflict has resulted in 150,000 refugees, along with 90,000 internally displaced (Source: Wikipedia/EU ECHO)

Thirdly, climate-induced environmental stresses are an exacerbating factor, adding to the multiple political and economic drivers of an already-complex conflict. In recent decades drought has become more frequent, whilst average rainfall in northern Mali has dropped by 30% since 1998 according to a study by the US Strategic Studies Institute. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNAO) estimates that more than 270,000 people here face starvation, with more than 660,000 children in need of food aid in order to survive. Looking further into the future, the Sahara desert is predicted to expand southward at a rate of 48km per year. This could force nomadic herding communities to migrate into lands historically occupied by other groups, fuelling resource-based tensions and resulting in an increased frequency of inter-communal conflicts in the Sahel region.

Such a dire scenario fits in with long-held predictions from researchers that climate change has the potential to worsen conflict in the world’s poorest regions, leading groups to take up arms to fight over increasingly scarce resources. In the already-complicated conflict landscape of northern Mali, there is a clear potential for environmental stresses to exacerbate poverty, fuelling grievances and providing further motivation for deprived individuals to join rebel groups in a region which has long been neglected and has few economic opportunities.

Overall, the conflict in Mali cannot be defined through any simple narrative: it is not a clearly-demarcated battle between north and south; and neither does it fit squarely into the wider global picture of ISIS-inspired Islamist extremism. Instead, the conflict in Mali is complex: it has numerous causes and drivers, and is typified by multiple actors fighting for territory, resources and ideology in an under-developed region which offers few alternatives or opportunities. Therefore there is no simple solution: whilst substantial diplomatic engagements and co-ordinated multi-state military operations may have the effect of temporarily lessening conflict and creating a momentary illusion of stability, the repetitive cycles of deprivation and conflict will only be ended once the underlying issues are tackled over the long-term.

Lebanon struggles to escape Middle East turmoil

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Lebanon has been without a President since May 2014, and is increasingly under strain from the conflict in neighbouring Syria. (Image Source: Wikipedia, craigfinlay)

Amidst the chaos of its surrounding region, Lebanon has been an anchor of relative stability in the Middle East over the past few years. However, recent developments suggest the upheaval is finally beginning to take its toll on a state which is showing increasing signs of fragility under the strain of overwhelming internal and external pressures. The devastating civil war in neighbouring Syria has worsened the existing political deadlock in Lebanon, which has left the country of 4.5 million people without a President for more than two years. More worrying than the lack of an elected government figurehead, is that the political vacuum is leading to economic stagnation, and contributing to a rise in sectarian tensions 26 years after the end of Lebanon’s own civil war.

The current political situation has been steadily worsening since President Suleiman’s term in office came to an end in May 2014. Since then, political paralysis has gripped the country as Lebanon’s power-brokers have failed to reach consensus or find a way forward. In a nation of more than 18 predominant religious groups, it may come as little surprise that a collective agreement has been difficult to reach. The political system put in place in Lebanon after the end of the civil war is based on the principle of power-sharing, and dictates that the President must be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, whilst the Parliament Speaker must be Shia.

Sectarian divisions have played a prominent role in the political stagnation, with the parliament being unable to elect a president – despite attempting to do so on more than 40 occasions – primarily due to resistance from Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanese politics. To fill the void, Prime Minister Tammam Salam has operated as the country’s de-facto leader for the last two years, taking up the role of ‘Acting President’ whilst the current situation remains unresolved. Over that period, Lebanon’s infrastructure and public services have rapidly deteriorated, with the government unable to provide basic services such as refuge collection for 6 months up until March this year. Economic activity has also suffered greatly: exports have decreased, whilst national debt and the government deficit have risen sharply, with the situation unlikely to improve as long as there remains no new national election on the horizon.

The current crisis is not just a result of divisions within the current legislature, but also a product of Lebanon’s complex historical domestic politics and the wider regional context. For decades, Lebanon has been viewed as the site of a ‘proxy war’ between two regional powerhouses: Saudi Arabia (which along with the other Gulf States, has been a supporter of Lebanon’s Sunni political movement); and Iran (a supporter of Hezbollah and the wider Shia population). Whilst this divide has long been a feature of Lebanon’s domestic politics, tensions were heightened significantly after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a bomb attack in the capital, Beirut, which has repeatedly been blamed on Hezbollah.

Hariri’s death led to mass street demonstrations across Lebanon which became known as the ‘Cedar Revolution’. The protests resulted in the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory, and the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. In the immediate aftermath, Lebanon’s political parties effectively split into two competing camps: the 8th March Coalition, which is largely Shia and pro-Iranian; and the 14th March Coalition, which is predominantly Sunni and has the support of Saudi Arabia. The upheaval after Hariri’s death retains a lasting legacy today, visible in the partial polarization of Lebanese society and the division which still characterizes its domestic politics.

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Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut on 14th February 2005 – his death had a lasting impact on the country’s politics. (Image Source: Wikipedia, st1ke)

The ongoing five-year-old civil war in neighbouring Syria has further complicated the situation. Hezbollah – which can be labelled as both a political party and militant organization, and is also designated as a terrorist group by the United States – has become deeply involved in the conflict, supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More than 1,200 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict, including their commander Mustafa Badreddine who was killed in an explosion in Damascus earlier this year. Hezbollah’s involvement, along with Russian air support for the Assad regime, may have helped push the threat from ISIS further away from Lebanon’s border; however there have also been negative consequences in the form of retaliatory terrorist attacks on Lebanon’s soil. The deadliest atrocity came on 12th November 2015, when ISIS launched a double suicide bomb attack in Beirut, killing 43 civilians and injuring more than 200 people.

Lebanon is also struggling to cope with the unprecedented number of refugees crossing its borders. In addition to 500,000 Palestinian refugees, an additional 1.6 million refugees from Syria have streamed across the border over the last five years, fleeing the violence of ISIS and numerous other militant groups. The overwhelming number of new arrivals – which now make-up more than 1/3 of Lebanon’s total population – has put significant strain on Lebanon’s crippling infrastructure, whilst adding to the existing problems of high unemployment, poverty and limited service provision. Amidst division in Europe over how to handle the refugee crisis, Lebanon, along with Jordan, is struggling under the burden of accommodating the highest per-capita concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.

In light of the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years – particularly in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Egypt – Lebanon has served as an example of stability and relative peace. Despite the recent strain from unprecedented internal and external pressures, Lebanon is still remarkably managing to hold itself together as a functioning sovereign state, amidst nations which appear to be splintering into pieces. However, facing the pressures of an expanded population and sectarian divisions whilst still experiencing continuing political deadlock, the country may not be able to cope for much longer. The United Nations Security Council recently expressed concerns over the ‘’security, economic, social and humanitarian challenges’’ facing Lebanon, and called on all Lebanese political leaders to put ‘’stability and national interests ahead of partisan politics.’’ If the political impasse can soon be ended and a new President put in place to unite the country, there remains a chance for Lebanon to avoid the large-scale violence which has engulfed its neighbours, and continue to serve as an example of stability and pluralism at the heart of the Middle East.

DRC: political instability threatens to re-ignite Africa’s deadliest war

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More than 6 million people have been killed in the DRC’s long-running conflict, with the most intense period of fighting taking place from 1998-2003. (Image Source: MONUSCO)

Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has experienced decades of almost continuous conflict. Africa’s largest country, with a burgeoning population of more than 79 million people, has arguably been the site of the deadliest war in the post-WW2 era: a brutal conflict which has taken place beyond the view of the western news media; remaining far from the eyes of western publics and politicians. Despite more than 6 million civilians killed and millions more displaced, the neglect of the DRC’s devastation has been striking: there have been few front-page headlines, and even fewer calls for intervention in a country deemed strategically unimportant to western powers.

Since the most deadly period of the conflict ended with a peace agreement in 2003, low-intensity violence has continued in the East of the country largely un-noticed by the outside world, barring a few brief moments of heightened publicity such as the ‘Kony 2012’ social media campaign, and after the 2013 military defeat of the notorious M23 rebel group. At present, the risk of escalation and a return to full-scale conflict is higher than at any time in recent memory, as the country is fast becoming engulfed in political instability.

The renewed fears of violence come amid concerns that President Joseph Kabila, who has won two previous elections and been in office since 2001, is attempting to cling to power despite a two-term constitutional limit on the length of time a president can serve. In May, opposition leader Moise Katumbi was charged with plotting a coup against the incumbent regime, just hours after he declared his intention to run as a candidate in November’s presidential election.

The situation is creating an increasingly hostile political environment within the country, with critics accusing President Kabila of seeking to delay the vote in an attempt to remain in power whilst the constitution is amended. National Assembly member Olivier Kamitatu Etsu has accessed Kabila of ‘’deliberately sabotaging the electoral process’’. However the President has consistently denied this, with the DRC’s Ambassador to the United States, Francois Balumuene, stating that Kabila remains committed to holding free and fair elections. In May, the country’s highest court ruled that Kabila should stay in power until elections are held, and the government has claimed that the poll is simply being delayed whilst logistical issues are resolved and the electoral register is updated. The division amongst the political elite is already causing tensions amongst the general population, leading to fears of renewed violence based on political affiliation. There were reports of clashes between police and Katumbi supporters at several of his rallies earlier this year, with tear gas being fired on at least one occasion.

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President Joseph Kabila has been accused of seeking to change the country’s constitution, which would prevent him from seeking a third term in power. (Image Source: MONUSCO)

The current political environment is especially concerning when considering the DRC’s continuing violence and perpetual climate of instability. An estimated 70 armed groups are believed to be currently active in the East of the country, despite the presence of 19,000 UN peacekeepers. In particular, the stronger armed groups such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) continue to terrorize civilians and retain control of rural areas characterized by weak state presence. Millions of civilians have been forced to flee the violence: the UN estimates that there are currently 2.7 million people internally displaced, along with another 450,000 refugees who now reside in neighbouring countries.

The violence in the East of the country is worsening, as armed groups increase in number 13 years on from the end of the ‘Second Congo War’ which lasted from 1998-2003. During the main stage of the conflict, Congolese government forces backed by troops from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe fought rebels supported by Uganda and Rwanda. Five million people were killed during this period alone, until a peace deal was signed in 2003 and a transitional government ushered in. Despite these developments, the war-ravaged country has been plagued by frail governance, weak institutional presence, pervasive corruption and widespread absence of the rule of law. The government did achieve a notable success in 2013, when the largest rebel group M23 was defeated and removed from a key provincial capital, Goma. However, the many remaining rebel groups have splintered further, leading to a more complex situation and a climate of lawlessness in which ordinary civilians have been subjected to rape, sexual violence, extreme poverty and horrific human rights violations.

In hindsight, 2003 offered only a brief flicker of hope for a country reeling from decades of war. The Democratic Republic of Congo has since descended into further chaos: it has resisted all internal and external efforts to set it on a path towards peace, and has become an increasingly complex web of inter-related and over-lapping local conflicts. Remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) persist in some parts of the country, whilst Bakata separatists operate in Katanga province; numerous other rebel groups are active in Maniema and Nyunzu. The extensive number of armed groups adds to an increasingly complex and volatile picture of a country which even after billions of dollars in development aid and the largest UN peacekeeping mission in history, remains incapable of providing even the most basic requirement for citizens of a functioning sovereign state: security. A combination of impunity and continuing economic stagnation, have led to the emergence of yet more armed groups, making the DRC an increasingly fragmented and ungovernable space.

Whilst western attention has remained almost exclusively focused on the civil war in Syria – where over 250,000 civilians have been killed during five years of devastation – the victims of the DRC’s long-running conflict have been comparably neglected when considering the scope of the violence: decades of upheaval with more than 6 million people killed, and hundreds-of-thousands more raped, tortured and maimed. In addition, the DRC remains one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked at 176 on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). Since the war officially ended in 2003, starvation and disease have claimed millions more lives, whilst living standards and health provision have plummeted in many communities still trapped in cycles of violence.

Some analysts contend that the conflict in the DRC is ‘too complicated’ to be taken-up by mainstream news organizations and presented to western audiences, with a distinct lack of the simple ‘good vs evil’ narrative which is often prevalent in western news reporting. For example, in the DRC there is no single ‘aggressor’ to whom blame can be predominantly assigned, such as was the case with Gaddafi in Libya or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. However, given the sheer scale of violence in the DRC, there must also be alternative underlying factors which account for the distinct lack of media coverage: for example, sub-Saharan Africa is viewed as being of little strategic importance to the west, whilst stereotypical assumptions of Africa as a space of uncivilized barbarism remain prevalent in many dominant discourses, leading to the complex roots of diverse conflicts across an entire continent being downplayed and under-examined.

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The UN estimates that there are 2.7 million people currently displaced in the DRC, in addition to 450,000 refugees who now reside beyond its borders (Image Source: Julien Harneis)

This continued media invisibility is especially concerning given the most recent developments in the DRC. Firstly, presidential candidate Moise Katumbi was sentenced in June to 3 years in prison on charges which the opposition contends were fabricated and politically-motivated. Secondly, despite renewed calls for dialogue between political parties to ensure a peaceful electoral process, President Kabila has refused to say if he will step-down (as is constitutionally required), and is yet to confirm that the general election will go ahead as scheduled in November.

The main concern amongst observers is that if the current political instability worsens, the complex web of local conflicts in the DRC could be set to rapidly intensify, leading to violence on a nationwide scale in the event of an election-related crisis. This worst-case scenario has not yet materialized and may still be avoided; however if a wave of political violence does spread across the country, Africa’s deadliest civil war could re-emerge to inflict mass suffering on civilians, whose predicament will again remain largely invisible to an outside world focused on developments elsewhere.

Nagorno-Karabakh: diplomacy stalls as decades-old conflict threatens to re-emerge

The fragile 22-year ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh was shattered at the beginning of April, as four days of intense fighting resulted in dozens of deaths on both sides. The recent clashes have led to a renewed fear that a conflict which has lay dormant at the crossroads of Europe and Asia for two decades, could be about to re-emerge.

The outbreak of violence has heightened existing tensions, which had been steadily worsening over the last few years. Attempts at negotiation have repeatedly failed, leaving peace talks virtually non-existent and the region in a state of uncertainty and fear.

In the most recent wave of violence, Azerbaijan said 16 servicemen were killed, whilst the Karabakh authorities said 20 of their troops had died, along with several civilian casualties. A new ceasefire was announced on 5th April, which has so-far held firm. However, the situation on the ground remains fragile; and given the region’s complex history, a lasting solution appears to be a distant prospect.

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The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been under the control of Armenian forces since the war ended with a truce in 1994 – (Image Source: Wikipedia)

The mountainous, land-locked region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of an unresolved territorial dispute between Azerbaijan (in which it is located) and its ethnic Armenian majority, supported by neighbouring Armenia. The conflict has its roots in the 19th Century when the area was part of the Russian Empire, and during which time there was fierce competition between Christian Armenian and Muslim Turkic influences in the region. The two groups lived alongside each other in relative peace until the end of World War One and the Bolshevik Revolution, when the Soviets established Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region of Azerbaijan, but with an ethnic Armenian majority population.

Tensions increased gradually over the decades, eventually spilling over into large-scale violence following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, which resulted in Armenia and Azerbaijan becoming independent states. An all-out war ensued from 1992-1994, with fierce fighting over the territory leaving 30,000 people dead, and resulting in ethnic Armenians gaining control of the region. They also pushed into surrounding areas, occupying swathes of Azeri territory and effectively creating a ‘buffer zone’ linking the breakaway province to Armenia. During the war, more than 600,000 ethnic Azeris fled from Karabakh, whilst more than 300,000 ethnic Armenians who previously resided in Azerbaijan were displaced, and many have been unable to return home.

After a Russian-brokered truce was signed in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh was left as an enclave under Armenian control, but within the internationally-recognized sovereign state of Azerbaijan. Although Armenia has never officially recognized the region’s independence, it has naturally become its main financial and military backer. In the 22 years since the conflict ended, both sides have had soldiers killed in sporadic violations of the ceasefire. However until this year’s clashes – the most deadly since 1994 – a stalemate has largely prevailed, with both sides unwilling to compromise. The Azeri’s resent the loss of land viewed as ‘rightfully theirs’, whilst the ethnic Armenians continue to state their right to self-determination.

The truce left an inherently unstable and unsustainable situation on the ground: a ceasefire line which stretched across Azeri territory, with no international peacekeepers deployed to monitor the situation. These problems are further exacerbated by the memories of a traumatic war, which left the population mentally-scarred and fostered a legacy of hatred and animosity. In this toxic atmosphere, tensions have steadily increased beneath the surface, whilst the international community has lost interest – pre-occupied with conflicts elsewhere which are viewed as more strategically-important.

In recent years, Azerbaijan has used its Caspian Sea oil wealth to spend billions of dollars on advanced weaponry. At the same time, Armenia has strengthened its defence alliance with Moscow and bolstered its own military capacity. As a result of these developments, the ‘line of contact’ between the two sides has become one of outer Europe’s most heavily militarized zones, further increasing tensions and acting as a visible reminder that conflict could break-out at any moment.

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The war in Nagorno-Karabakh lasted from 1992-1994, leaving an estimated 30,000 killed and 900,000 displaced across Azerbaijan and Armenia (Image Source: Nicholas Babaian)

After the April skirmishes, Azerbaijan’s defence minister Zakir Hasanov said his troops were prepared to target the breakaway region’s capital, Stepanakert, if separatist forces continued to shell settlements. In response, the Karabakh authorities promised a ‘crushing response’ in the face of aggression. There is now a considerable prospect that more frequent low-intensity fighting could derail the already fragile peace process. The danger of escalation has been further heightened by militaristic propaganda, which has maintained the level of threat perception and hugely influenced public opinion over the last two decades.

In particular, the recent surge in violence has distracted the populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan from domestic issues and economic woes, contributing to a resurgence of nationalism in both countries. This has led to fears that emotions are again running high as past memories are being evoked, creating a mood for revenge in an already tense environment.

The wider geopolitical context also provides cause for concern. Some analysts believe there is potential for this largely regional dispute to escalate into a ‘proxy war’ between Russia and Turkey, whose relations have severely deteriorated since Turkey shot-down a Russian warplane over northern Syria in November 2015, after an accusation of violating Turkish airspace. Given the current animosity between these two large powers, their potentially opposing positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute are of significant concern. Russia has defence treaty obligations to Armenia, and would be required to defend it if attacked. Turkey has traditionally supported Azerbaijan and has recently issued a number of strong statements, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stating that Turkey will ‘’stand shoulder to shoulder with Azerbaijan’’, and will continue its support until ‘’all its lands are liberated’’.

Given the rapidly deteriorating scenario, there has been increased international pressure for renewed peace talks. However, previous attempts have proven remarkably difficult; which is unsurprising considering that Armenia and Azerbaijan have severely strained bi-lateral relations, with no formal diplomatic links. The latest attempt at peace negotiations, mediated by the Minsk Group, and initiated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), have seen little progress. The peace talks are stuck at their foundations, and remain limited to the basic objectives of avoiding all-out war and keeping the process alive. For years, momentum has been non-existent as both sides have remained far apart, unable to agree on either a basic agenda or timescale.

As clashes continue with greater severity and the region becomes more heavily militarized, a return to full-scale conflict edges dangerously closer. The risk of escalation is especially heightened in the absence of meaningful peace negotiations, which to be successful would require the involvement of all parties and significant compromise. The tragic fatalities from the clashes earlier this year serve as a reminder that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is far from dead, and highlight the enormous human consequences that would accompany a return to conflict. Despite the complexity of the situation and difficulties to be overcome, it is surely in the interests of all sides to begin a process of meaningful negotiations and seek an end to further bloodshed.