Mozambique: The Cabo Delgado insurgency

An insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado increased in its ferocity during 2020. When the violence began in 2017 the government treated the situation as one of Salafi-Jihadist revolt and blamed foreign influences. This missed the root causes of socio-economic marginalization entirely and has left the government facing a classic insurgency that requires a multifaceted response beyond the security option pursued thus far.

The government of Mozambique would be expected to understand insurgency better than many others. Since independence from Portugal there has been a bitter civil war from 1977 to 1992 between FRELIMO and RENAMO and a return to fighting in 2013, with peace deals signed in 2014 and 2019. The insurgency that emerged from Cabo Delgado was different when taken at face value. Mozambique is majority Christian but with a significant Muslim minority, but in the northern region of Cabo Delgado this is reversed with 58% of the population being Muslim. There, a militant Islamic sect called Ansar al-Sunna had emerged and began to challenge the established Muslim authorities, drawing in the young and known by locals as al-Shabaab, but having no links with the Somali group of the same name. When some of the militants turned to violence the government treated it as a case of Salafi-Jihadist terrorism and responded in force and later also reached the conclusion that ISIS was also operating in the country. The focus on Islamic fundamentalism shifts attention from more local grievances about socio-economic marginalisation, lack of opportunity and an abject loss of trust in the local elites and the government. There is no consensus amongst analysts on the claims that ISIS is active in Mozambique or that the insurgents are an affiliate, but in 2020 the insurgents began to adopt a strategy of taking but not holding towns.

Gaining an understanding of the group responsible for the insurgency is difficult as it is particularly secretive and has avoided public pronouncements characteristic of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The names ascribed to the group point to a distinct group that is focused on tradition and is young and local in its origin. Locals are reported to have distinguished between the militants of Ansar al-Sunna (supporters of the tradition) with a long presence and al-Shabaab (youth) that appeared more recently. One thing that is clear is that it is distinctly Mozambican in its origins and set up, although it does have foreign links and fighters and had brought in trainers from abroad. The little communication there has been asserted the rejection of state education and taxation and advocates the implementation of Sharia law. The most accurate description of the insurgency would be as coming from a situation in which local grievances about socio-economic marginalisation, lack of opportunity and an abject loss of trust in the local elites and the government have been exploited by a Salafist-Jihadist movement.  

The Mozambican security forces have struggled to deal with the insurgency and have sought help from private military contractors, first the Russian Wagner Group and then Dyck Advisory Services. The numbers of PMCs involved has been small, with the Wagner Group deploying approximately 200 before their withdrawal and Dyck Advisory Services providing helicopter support. Special forces from the South African National Defence Force and the South African arms manufacturer Paramount Group are reported to be assisting the Mozambican military. Recently, Tanzania has begun cooperation with Mozambique and a request for assistance has been sent to the European Union. Portugal is to become involved in training and logistics and has pledged to use its presidency of the European Union to push through EU assistance.

There are five issues that have affected the ability of the government’s counter-insurgency efforts. The first, and most damning, is the clumsy response of the police and armed forces when initially responding to the outbreak of violence. This includes attacks on civilians and indiscriminate arrests, with the full facts hard to come by due to the second issue, which is a clampdown on reporting and investigation by journalists and human rights organisations (in turn, not helped by the insurgent tactic of cutting communications). A third problem was the focus on two other security matters in the form of suspected piracy off the Mozambican coast and a RENAMO insurgency elsewhere in the country. Both these situations drew the attention of the government away from a deteriorating situation in Cabo Delgado where local civil society was warning of increasingly influential fundamentalists gaining ground in the region. This was due to a fourth issue, which is widespread grievance over inequality, widespread poverty and corruption that provided the antecedents for the insurgency in the first place. A fifth is the competing approaches and rivalry between the Mozambican military and the national police to the point of them launching separate air assaults. Local militias are adding to the complexity of the counterinsurgency efforts and there have been friendly fire incidents.  

Despite the secrecy and inconsistency of the insurgents and the attempts by the government to keep its counterinsurgency efforts under the radar of accountability, a picture has emerged of a major upheaval and an increase in insurgent capability and activity in 2020. The beginning of the insurgency can be pinpointed as the 5th October 2017 when three police stations in Mocímboa da Praia were attacked by insurgents, triggering a series of arrests and skirmishes. By the 13th December 2020 ACLED had recorded 698 organized violence events, 2441 fatalities, and 1237 deaths as a result of civilian targeting. While the insurgents have been responsible for a significant number of attacks on civilians as part of their strategy the security forces have also been accused of causing civilian deaths. Over 560,000 people are estimated to have been displaced. It has also brought the violence close to an international gas project, which promises to be the largest in Africa and could provide a hitherto unseen prosperity to Mozambique if the government managed it properly. As it stands, the riches from offshore gas exploration are more fuel for the fire of the insurgency as ordinary Mozambicans are unlikely to trust the elite to share the benefits.

The government has made two critical mistakes that are common, almost ubiquitous, when dealing with organised violence. The first is ignoring the warning signs that a situation is developing in the first place, including when civil society actors are warning of an increasingly militant sect that is gaining followers. The second is a counterterrorism dominated response to the problem that involves mass arrests and hits the general population as hard as it does the militants but fails to look at the root causes, or adherents in the situation. In this case it involved documented human rights violations by the security forces that go all the way up to killing non-combatants. The response is both heavy handed and inadequate – force is being applied that affects the general population, yet it is not focused and has not proven capable of slowing down an insurgency that is gaining in strength.

That the military approach has thus far not worked is clear, although the government is working on increasing the resources available to it by cooperating with neighbouring countries, including recent coordination with Tanzania, and freeing up the military through an agreement with RENAMO. There are also signs that they are working towards addressing the marginalisation of the population in Cabo Delgado and have approached the EU regarding this. They have also abandoned the idea that the insurgency is the work of foreigners and that the end goal to implement an Islamic state in the north. They are right to tackle violence head on, as it is their responsibility to ensure the security of the general population of Cabo Delgado, but this coercive element of the response needs to be open and accountable and target the insurgents only. This means that the open harassment of journalists and other critics of the government’s approach needs to stop. A government at war with the people it is trying to protect is one that is providing recruits to the insurgent cause. We should note that the security forces also need to be working together under an overall strategy and not as competing factions. The other two prongs of a joined-up strategy are conciliation and reform, the first gives those not involved in killing a way out, the second deals with root causes and is directed towards the general population. The insurgents have a limited support base but are tolerated by a population that sees the local elites as self-serving, exploitative, and corrupt, and the government itself as no better. For this to change requires an investment in the reform of civil governance and its visible accountability to the people.

The problems that the government faced prior to October 2017 are different to those that they face now as they now have an insurgency to resolve on top of dealing with the local issues that provided the fuel for the insurgency in the first place. This is difficult but not impossible, although the approach needs to change from one of oppression to one that combines coercion, conciliation, and reform. The established Muslim authorities have been battling Ansar al-Sunna for the hearts and minds of the young in Cabo Delgado. Their task will become easier if the government refrains from conduct that undermines their authority.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (#ACLED) hosts the Cabo Ligado: Mozambique Conflict Observatory. This is updated weekly and can be accessed at: . This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include Zitamar News, Club of Mozambique and The Conversation.

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Ukraine: Fighting On

In Ukraine the bitter conflict between the government and separatists in the east of the country grinds on. The means by which the fighting can stop has been agreed in 2015 but the two sides seem incapable of maintaining a ceasefire beyond the length of a day. They have a common understanding of the importance of elections but seem incapable of disengaging their forces and creating the conditions where voting can take place.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has remained relatively static since the last major battle for the town of Avdiivka in 2017. To all intents and purposes it is treated as one that is frozen but while the frontlines don’t move there are multiple ceasefire violations every week and  civilians remain displaced and at risk. The casualties continue to mount up, but at a slow pace. This is a situation where the conflict has become normalized and in which the warring parties appear to be incapable of ending a grinding slog. The fight for the Donbass is a bitter one with differences between the sides dating back long before the beginning of fighting in 2014.

There has been no shortage of ceasefire agreements but they have a track record of being broken quickly and the only real measure of their success is in the reduction of violence as opposed to their ending it. This said, there has been a significant improvement since the signing of a ceasefire agreement on the 27th July 2020. According to ACLED (via Reliefweb) in the three months that preceded it there were 3046 ceasefire violations, in the three months that followed there were 542 ceasefire violations. In the Ukrainian context this counts as a major success. It was the eighth ceasefire agreement since the beginning of 2018. We do not know if this is the beginning of a change in which the number of conflict events (registered as ceasefire violations) gradually whittles down to zero or it is a temporary dip followed by a return to a higher number of events. As it stands, the fighting continues, talks take place, ceasefires are agreed and then broken, but the conflict stays at a relatively low level of intensity. Talks take place through the Normandy Format and the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG).

The Normandy Format was set up on the 6th June 2014 and includes representatives of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, occasionally joined by representatives from Belarus, Italy and the United Kingdom. The TCG was also created and consists of representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE maintains a monitoring mission that reports daily. Extensive TRG talks in 2014 led to the signing of the Minsk Protocol by representatives from the OSCE, Russia, Ukraine and the two separatist regions, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). This failed to stop the fighting at the time and was followed by a follow up memorandum and the 2015 Minsk II agreement, under the auspices of the Normandy Format. The result of extensive negotiations, the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II are comprehensive, covering conditions for ceasefires, the banning of offensive operations, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry, pardon and amnesty for actions in the separatist region, monitoring by the OSCE, release of prisoners of war, the restoration of the Russia-Ukraine border, and constitutional reform in Ukraine. In 2019 there were prisoner exchanges and an agreement was signed at a Paris summit to follow the ‘Steinmeier formula’. This envisaged the holding of elections in the DPR and LPR under the supervision of the OSCE, to be followed by their reintegration into Ukraine. The various agreements set out a path to peace between Ukraine and the separatist oblasts but despite the reduction in fighting, both sides remain entrenched and the benefits thus far are that the frontlines are stabilized and the casualty rate has been significantly reduced.

The core incompatibility that separates the government and the separatists is the future governance of the regions that are currently controlled by the separatists. The solution to this would appear to be included in the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II: the holding of local elections that are monitored by the OSCE. They also include the provision that there be a temporary decentralisation of power while the elections take place. This would appear to be simple, except neither party is really willing to countenance a scenario where the other actually wins the elections. A 2019 survey reported in The Conversation produced results that indicated a majority of 55% of people living in the LPR and DPR wanted the separatist areas to be part of Ukraine, there were strong personal linkages across the frontline, and an absence of a clear cut identity (in terms identifying as Russian or Ukrainian). The 55% were split over the issue of autonomy within Ukraine but 45% favoured being part of the Russian Federation. While this is the outcome of a survey it indicates problems for both the government and the separatists. A key argument of the separatists and their supporters in the Kremlin is that the Donbas is ethnically closer to Russia and that they would favour being part of it. A free and fair election monitored by the OSCE could result in a win for the government and would be a disaster for the separatists and the Kremlin. From the government’s perspective the recovery of a territory that has a significant minority whom would actually prefer to be in Russia and identify as ethnically Russian is a problem also. This would not be a return to the status quo before 2014 but to a divided society living in an autonomous region. The current President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected in part due to the electorate’s wish to bring the conflict in the east to an end but this does not mean they will accept concessions that could mean autonomy for the DPR and LPR. This scenario assumes that the voting would go the government’s way and that it would actually be from elections that were held in a legitimate manner. Neither are guaranteed.

The problem of an unfavourable outcome from elections (recognised as legitimate or not) is only one problem that besets attempts to transform the conflict to a condition where the disputes are addressed through political competition. The status of Crimea and the wider geopolitical environment are also major spoilers. For progress to be made a lot has to give: the government of Ukraine needs serious reform and the separatists have to relinquish their pseudo-nationhood, both of which are big asks. The political solution to Ukraine’s tragedy also lays in repairing the badly damaged relationship between Russia and the West, an even bigger ask that requires competent and pragmatic statecraft towards scaling back an unnecessary confrontation that affects Eastern Europe in general and has raised tensions to an unacceptable level. For now, the focus needs to be squarely on ending the violence in eastern Ukraine.

The way forward continues to be dialogue through the Normandy Format and the TCG as this is the path to a compromise solution has already been set out in Minsk II. The emphasis should be on the local interests over the international interests that contributed to the escalation of the conflict in 2014. Two obstacles to this are the willingness of the interested parties to put the question of who governs the separatist areas to a free and fair vote and for there to be trust in the process. There is also the far from trivial matter of selling this to their constituents. The only people that should decide who represents the population in the separatist areas is the people who live there or have been displaced. A key aspect of this is that both sides realise that this is not the end of the matter and that there will be future votes: winning elections is only a temporary gain and the losers need to be able to contest them again at regular intervals. One positive observation of Minsk II is that its signatories appear to have a solid grasp of the important of elections. They have proved incapable of actually implementing a ceasefire though, which was scheduled for the 15th February 2015.

Work also needs to be done on the normalization of politics after the fighting actually ends. Again, Minsk II has provisions for demilitarization to take place but it only gets the participants to the stage where their differences are being handled through political means. It does not provide a framework that ensures that disputes do not mean a return to violence. There is mention of ‘constitutional reform’ and ‘decentralisation’ but no real plan as to how this is achieved or conflict resolution mechanisms. The most proven method for this is the democratic process, which ensures representation, but this also requires trust in the political system and between the protagonists. In effect, this means more talking and the development of a political system that is participatory and reflexive.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Cameroon: Time for UN action over the Anglophone crisis

The murder of schoolchildren during an attack in the city of Kumba has brought widespread condemnation and put a renewed spotlight on the fighting in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The warring parties have failed to resolve their differences and atrocities have been committed by both sides in the course of the conflict. There are calls for the UN to be involved. They are overdue and the situation needs to be addressed at the level of the Secretary General.

On the 24th of October there was what has been described as a new low in Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis when seven children were killed and many more injured by gunmen in an attack on a school in the city of Kumba. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which has been condemned by the government, separatist leaders and human rights organisations. It has put a renewed spotlight on a conflict between the government and armed groups riven by human rights violations that include massacres, the destruction of villages, sexual violence and torture. A dispute over law and teaching that escalated in 2016 led to the declaration of independence by Ambazonia Governing Council in 2017 and fighting between the government and separatists. This underwent a major escalation in 2019 and has led to an estimated death toll of over 3000 and the displacement of over 600,000 people. A unique characteristic of the conflict has been the deliberate closure of schools by the separatists, removing 800,000 children from education.

At the heart of the dispute was language: The Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon are English speaking whereas the majority of the country speaks French. This is due to the colonial history of the region that saw the Southern Cameroons and Cameroon joined together in a botched withdrawal by the British and French. It left Cameroon with different law and education systems in the English and French speaking areas. The government was accused of filling key posts with people trained in the French traditions, thus marginalising the English speaking minority. The Anglophone minority are proud of their traditions and had described the government’s approach as ‘forced assimilation’. For its part, the government is committed to centralised governance and allows governance at the local level provided that it doesn’t conflict with national law. The 2016 dispute began over the appointment of French-speaking Judges, which were seen as threatening the common law system in the Northwest and Southwest regions. This dovetailed with a general feeling of marginalisation amongst Anglophones as the campaign by lawyers and teachers was linked to that for greater civil and political rights. The government responded harshly and arrested hundreds of protestors and would later arrest the leaders of the separatist movement. A notable characteristic of the Anglophone crisis is that its main incompatibility is constitutional, meaning that amongst the potential solutions was the reform of how the regions were governed. The deterioration into armed conflict was a situation that was utterly out of proportion to the dispute that fuelled it and separatist demands moved from autonomy to independence.  

International action has been limited given the scale of the crisis. The EU and the US have condemned the violence but have taken little other direct action (advocating within the EU and US not withstanding). The US has been pushing for sanctions while France supports the government. The most influential regional power is Nigeria, who absorbed the Northern Cameroons during decolonisation but is partnered with Cameroon in their battle against Boko Harem. The African Union has discussed the crisis in a closed meeting at a summit but has otherwise steered clear. For its part, the UN seems to be waiting for the AU to act, which has yet to happen in any substantive form. We should note that Cameroon’s President, Paul Biya, is able to count on support in the region and that the AU is fundamentally resistant to changes arising from territorial and governance disputes.  

The Cameroonian government in Yaoundé has generally sought to avoid outside involvement in the crisis with the exception of Swiss mediators from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and has sought to deal with the crisis internally and on its own terms. An attempt by the Swiss in 2019 failed to stop the fighting due to mistrust from within the separatist movement but they have been mandated by the government to try again. An experienced diplomat and mediator, Günther Bächler, has been working with the parties and the church in Cameroon during 2020. A national dialogue in 2019 also had little impact on ending the fighting but in 2020 there has been secret talks between government representatives and separatists from the diaspora in Ghana and then jailed separatist  leaders in the neutral territory of the Episcopal Centre of Mvolyé. Despite the willingness of the sides to talk major fighting has continued and there have been many instances of atrocities similar to the one that took place in Kumba. For the government the war is a classic insurgency and for the separatists it is a guerrilla war. For everyone else it is brutal and frequently atrocious.

Whilst the warring parties are willing to talk there is little of note coming out of it and they are deadlocked over the conditions for a cessation of military activities. The momentum for a peaceful solution is driven by civil society, including the Catholic Church and women’s groups in the Anglophone regions, and on the 27th October some 35 groups issued an open letter calling for a ceasefire and UN peace talks. This coincides with a call from separatist leaders for the UN to mediate. The Cameroonian opposition has been critical of both the government and the separatists, noting that separatist violence allowed Biya to deal with international pressure to find a solution. They also say that the Biya regime is corrupt and needs to go. Maurice Kamto, an  opposition leader, languishes in prison following a disputed election that some say he actually won. A major difficulty in the talks is the divisions within both the government and the separatists.

Inside the government there is the expected jockeying for influence, particularly given that the question of Bika’s succession is wide open but this has found its way into the peace process, with the Prime Minister, Joseph Dion Ngute, and Secretary General of the Presidency, Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh, at odds.There is more widespread division in terms of attitudes to dealing with the separatist insurgency and the government has shown itself unable to agree on what has actually been discussed or agreed in talks with the secessionists. As far as coming up with a joined up approach to the crisis goes, it’s a shambles. Given that there is the added possibility of a forthcoming succession crisis with factions and interests split along ethnic lines and a war with Boko Haram that is responsible for over 2,500 deaths between 2014 and 2017, the government does in fact have a lot on its plate (see the previous blogs on this). This is not, however, a valid reason not to deal with a disaster in the Anglophone regions that the Biya government contributed to by its own mishandling of the situation, or its failure to prevent war crimes by its own forces.

For their part, the separatists lack central control and there are differing opinions on issues such as the utility of violence, political solutions (independence/autonomy /confederation) and the use of school strikes. There are a myriad of political organisations, some linked to armed groups and disagreement on finding solutions to the conflict other than armed struggle. Hardliners insist on fighting on and there are small semi-criminal actors reliant on a war economy. This makes it difficult to refer to the separatists as a movement, even as a decentralised one. While there are two major Ambazonian interim governments (referred to as IG Sisiku and IG Sako, after their leaders) they act as umbrella groups for other factions and there are also unaffiliated militias on the ground alongside what are described as ‘Fake Amba’ allegedly in the pay of the government. The recent peace talks have mostly been with the IG Sisiku, whose leader is imprisoned in Cameroon. These talks have been condemned by the IG Sako, whose leader is based in the US. Much of the debate takes place in the diaspora. In turn, the IG Sisiku was critical of the 2019 Swiss mediation attempt which the IG Sako took part in. This prevented a unified separatist presence for talks with the government and effectively derailed the attempt altogether. The government has generally favoured talking to separatist leaders from IG Sisiku whom are incarcerated in Cameroon’s jails, meaning the exclusion of the  IG Sako leaders in the diaspora. Despite the divisions, one separatist leader, Ayaba Cho Lucas, has claimed that the factions are working together. One notable concession by the separatists has been to drop the call for the army to withdraw from the Anglophone regions and to return to their barracks instead, allowing the police and gendarmerie to take over.

The government stance is to push forward with decentralisation agreed at a 2019 Grand National Dialogue alongside a firm military response. The parliament approved a bill granting special status but secessionists have rejected this as having emerged out of a dialogue dominated by the ruling CPDM party, which some of the opposition had walked out of. Whilst the government is pushing reform the population of the Anglophone region didn’t turn out to vote in the February elections. The separatists have indicated preferences that talks should take place outside of Cameroon, involve all separatists and not just those handpicked by the government, and should involve a trusted international actor. The government is divided on the matter, with some members advocating entrusting negotiations to a third party outside of Cameroon. The IG Sisiku has called for the demilitarisation of the Anglophone regions, prisoner releases and an amnesty for leaders in the diaspora. Separatists and the government are deadlocked over the deployment of the military with the former saying there will be no ceasefire unless the army returns to barracks. It isn’t clear exactly how much operational control the IGs have over their affiliated groups.

There has been significant pressure for the UN to become involved in the resolution of the conflict. One separatist IG has called for it, the opposition believes that the UN should be involved and the signatories of #EndAnglophoneCrisis are a who’s who of civil society groups and international campaign groups. These include the women’s groups working in the Anglophone regions. While it is the case that the government and the separatists have engaged in talks there has yet to be a substantive outcome and there is substantial evidence that the forces of both sides have committed war crimes. Their interests have been supplanted by the call of civil society and peace activists for an immediate general ceasefire and referral of the dispute to the UN in the form of the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, the UN Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. An additional argument is that the dispute be taken before the UN Security Council and be addressed directly by the appointment of a Special Envoy by the UN Secretary General (which could be a dual appointment with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue). This would push forward the move to a negotiated settlement through raising international censure of the situation, enabling the formation of a resolution regarding funding streams for the combatants and providing the independent mediator that both parties say they desire with the support of the Secretary General. The Anglophone crisis remains one that is constitutional in nature and is resolvable through political means.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

In 2019 there were two blogs regarding the Anglophone crisis that provide more background to the conflict and can be accessed at: and  

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Nagorno-Karabakh: A severe escalation of an unresolved conflict in the Caucasus

The unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has escalated into heavy fighting involving artillery, tanks, aircraft and drones. The prospects for an immediate solution are slim but the international community needs to focus on achieving a ceasefire and returning the search for a resolution of the conflict to the OSCE Minsk Group.

On the 27th September fighting erupted between the militaries of Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting is the most serious escalation of the conflict since 2016, but there is a chain of violent events and minor escalations stretching back to the 1994 ceasefire that ended the war over the region. In conflict resolution terms it is a conflict whose resolution has been postponed with any solutions left for later. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is essentially one that is intractable and effectively frozen while mediation and negotiation goes on in the search for an actual resolution. As it stands, the conflict is one in which a ceasefire has held despite relatively minor skirmishes but with an unresolved incompatibility festering away in the background. Such situations are prone to major escalation and this eventually happened at the end of September and has resulted in heavy fighting leading to hundreds of casualties and the reported displacement of half of the area’s population.

The conflict is one based on territory and identity and is located within the geography of post-Soviet space. In the simplest terms, Nagorno-Karabakh is a region within Azerbaijan that is majority-Armenian and the population seeks to be part of Armenia. The Soviet government had established Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region and put a stop to any dissent over the region until the break-up of the Soviet Union. The regional legislature then passed a resolution to join Armenia and declared independence in 1991, leading to a major conflict that was brought to a ceasefire in 1994 under Russian mediation. Under international law Nagorno-Karabakh is a part of Azerbaijan although in reality it is an autonomous region occupied by Armenian forces (other parts of Azerbaijan are also occupied). Clashes in July have escalated to the serious fighting that has seen Azerbaijan reoccupy some of this territory. Two significant factors in this appear to be a change in the military balance and political discontent in Azerbaijan over financial support related to Covid-19.

Regional support for the conflicting parties is mixed. Russia and Iran have both declared their neutrality in the matter, although Russia may lean slightly to Armenia and Iran to Azerbaijan. Neither of them stands to gain anything substantial from diplomatic and military support for either side and both of them have called for the fighting to stop. The security of oil and gas flows is a major factor in their consideration of the stability of the region. In contrast, Turkey is openly supportive of Azerbaijan and is reported to have sent Syrian fighters. There are also Turkish fighter jets in the country, purportedly there after military exercises. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been bellicose over Turkish intervention and it should surprise no one that it has been outright condemned by Armenia. Russia, the United States and the EU have all called for the fighting to stop in the hope that the parties will revert back to the status quo: de facto autonomy in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian occupation of neighbouring parts of Azerbaijan to be brought to the negotiating table. In the current scenario, Azerbaijan appears intent on reversing or diminishing the Armenian military victories of the 1990s war and in relative terms is stronger than it was back then. Turkish support may tip the balance in their favour but there is a great difference between invasion by a force seen as liberators and one by a force seen as occupiers. Observers are right to be worried: the war in the 1990s resulted in at least 30,000 casualties and the movement of ethnic Armenians and Azeris in their hundreds of thousands. Both sides accused the other of human rights violations then and are doing so now. As things stand, the Azeris have more to gain and the Armenians have more to lose. This does not bode well for resolution.

Mediation of the dispute has been taking place since the 1994 ceasefire but the situation has remained deadlocked. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group is co-chaired by France, Russia and the US but they have been accused by Azerbaijan of being pro-Armenian. At the time of writing a shaky ceasefire mediated by Russia is in place but both sides have accused the other of violating it. Prior to the escalation, the Azeri leadership in Baku and their Armenian counterparts in Yerevan had lost faith in negotiation and an indication of the intractability of the incompatibility between them is the lack of progress in talks stretching out over 26 years. This is in a situation where US and Russian rivalry is absent and the general international consensus is that things stay as they are while negotiations take place. From the perspective of Yerevan and Stepanakert (the capital of the autonomous region) this is a denial of the wish of the ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to join Armenia. From the perspective of Baku, it rewards an Armenian military occupation of Azeri territory. Postponing the resolution of the conflict in 1994 was the only credible solution at the time as neither party was ready to talk but had had enough of the fighting. To not have an alternative 26 years later indicates ill-will on the part of the protagonists and a lack of commitment by the international community towards resolving the issue. A 1993 UN resolution advising countries not to supply weapons that could escalate the conflict was allowed to lapse in 2003 and both have their suppliers. By way of example, Russia supplied both.

The conflict is at danger of more serious escalation than has already taken place due to the aforementioned Turkish support for Azerbaijan and a defensive agreement between Russia and Armenia in the event that the fighting enters Armenia proper. As to whether Armenia would actually ask for help or receive it is another matter. Russia and Turkey also find themselves supporting opposing parties in Syria and Libya, meaning that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh could potentially become another theatre of a regional rivalry between them. Despite this, the more likely scenario is that a grinding conflict takes place in and around Nagorno-Karabakh as Baku attempts to solidify its gains and put an end to the autonomous region once and for all. When at least one side believes that it has the advantage and can achieve a victory the chances of a negotiated solution are slim.

Sooner or later there will be a need to return to negotiations and it is better for this if the three OSCE Minsk Group members maintain neutrality but contest aggression by the protagonists. When this happens the intractability of the conflict should be recognised and attempts made to move on from the point where conflict resolution has failed. This may entail working with both parties separately, having them explore individually what is a red line in talks and what is open for discussion. In doing so, they can return to the negotiations having explored their options and perhaps having achieved a shift in priorities of their own accord. It is unlikely that either will accept arbitration or leaving control of the disputed area to others but in the future shared control may become a realistic option and there may also be potential for horse-trading in relation to territorial control. This is unthinkable now and will probably remain so for the immediate future but in the long term, postponing the search for a solution will prove counterproductive.    

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Belarus Part Three: Prospects for mediation

The outright political repression in Belarus shows no sign of abating and the protestors don’t appear likely to give up. Due to the intransigence of the Belarusian and Russian leaderships there seems to be little scope for mediating the crisis. Despite this, the offer of mediation from the OSCE and UN should always be on the table and the EU should be firm and decisive about its actions in response to major human rights violations.

As the Belarusian political crisis rumbles on protests ranging from the small to huge continue and state repression ramps up. Students protesting at the Minsk State University were arrested on the campus while mass demonstrations in the tens of thousands in Minsk have seen arrests, threats and beatings, media suppression and forced departure from the country. There is only one leading figure from the Opposition Committee that hasn’t been locked up or had to leave the country. This sorry state of affairs where peaceful protests and dissent are brutally suppressed is to the surprise of no one, least of all the people of Belarus. In 2017 protests had also resulted in a crackdown. The protestors had a very good idea of what they were getting into when they began protesting and went ahead and did it anyway.

Protests aren’t exactly unique to Belarus. 2019 was a year of protests: in Chile they began over the raising of Santiago metro prices, in Iran the trigger was petrol prices, and the protests in France were a general movement for economic justice. In Hong Kong protests broke out over an extradition bill that was withdrawn and protests in Sudan brought about the demise of the country’s leader, Omar al-Bashir. 2020 hasn’t been a whole lot better either. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic keeping people at home, the United States has been best by the Black Lives Matter protests, which have also taken place in the United Kingdom. Russia has not been spared either; protests in the eastern region of Khabarovsk began in July after Moscow ordered its governor’s arrest.  As to whether any of these countries have covered themselves in glory in how they handled their respective protests is open to debate. The point is that protests are a normal part of any government that is accountable to its people. They are rare in Belarus for reasons that have been self-evident since Belarusians decided that they hadn’t re-elected Alexander Lukashenko as President on August the 9th of this year. They were probably fully aware that they hadn’t elected him the previous four times either but had kept quiet because they live in a dictatorship and it was to be expected. We should note that the protests in Belarus have been overwhelmingly peaceful and will no doubt continue in this vein: in the face of absolute power nonviolence exposes the illegitimacy of the powerful and their claim to authority is lost.

Neighbouring states are worried and not only because of the violations of human rights that are going on across the country. The EU and member states, the US, UK, Canada and others have already condemned the violence. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have imposed travel bans on Lukashenko and 29 other Belarusian officials. The EU is openly talking of sanctions and doesn’t recognise the results of the 2020 election. In Russia, or more accurately, the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin is probably aghast at developments: Lukashenko has been a difficult ally but he is an ally nonetheless and there is concern that his demise could pull Belarus out of its union with Russia and threaten Putin’s presidency as well. The EU approach is cautious and they have not offered to mediate, clearly wary of providing ammunition for Lukashenko’s lurid claims of foreign influence on Belarusian politics. Nor do they want to provide an excuse for a Russian intervention. The approach from the Kremlin has been to support Lukashenko and dominate the media in both Russia and Belarus (note that we can’t rule out Lukashenko being dumped if he continues to be a problem). If this sounds like a dangerous confrontation along a dividing line between the EU/NATO and a Russian sphere of influence then that is because it is (see the previous blog for why this shouldn’t matter but might).

The question here is who exactly does mediate, given that the protestors are very clear that they want Lukashenko to step down and the security forces are busy brutalising them? It is not a great start and gets worse given that the Opposition Committee is calling for the end of political repression and that the perpetrators are brought to account for their actions. Trusting in a Kremlin that openly backs Lukashenko is too much of an ask, trusting in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as an arbitrator effectively means Russia (or the Kremlin, still too much of an ask) and the basic fact that Belarus and Russia are supposedly in a Union State means that the bigger brother will claim the right to arbitrate (Russia again, so the Kremlin again). The natural affinity between Russians and Belarusians that we talked about in part two suddenly doesn’t seem so great after all. We are left with a dictatorship backed by an autocracy, which is where we began in the first place. If the Kremlin lumbers in on the situation too heavily then the Eastern Partnership with the EU looks a little brighter and, perversely, Lukashenko comes out of it a little better for resisting Moscow’s encroachment into Belarusian affairs all along. So, where to go now?

There are other places to go for mediation, not to mention election monitoring and addressing violations of human rights. One is the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and another is the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The OSCE is already involved to a degree, having tried to monitor the 2020 elections it has offered to mediate, but has called for fresh elections. Further impetus can be added by triggering the ‘Moscow mechanism’ to investigate allegations of serious human rights violations (this requires 10 member states, so is not inconceivable). In order to involve the UNHRC a resolution has to be passed which tasks the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to become involved (Lotte Leicht, HRW). An open letter from civil society organisations to convene a special session on human rights violations before, during and after the elections has already been published. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, from exile in Lithuania, has addressed the UN Security Council via video-link and called for it to stop the repression in Belarus.

This is all weighty stuff, which unfortunately has little impact on Mr Lukashenko and has repeatedly failed to trouble the Kremlin as well. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has openly spoken of the failure of the OSCE to monitor the 2020 elections in Belarus, effectively shunting the blame from Lukashenko to the OSCE, which he described as in crisis and in need of reform. He also stated that Moscow and Minsk will suppress attempts to destabilise Belarus via multilateral platforms and promised a response to those who would seek to tear Belarus away from Russia. There was also condemnation of foreign countries that support the opposition and the Presidential election was deemed valid. The ‘initiative’ by Lukashenko to carry out constitutional reform was promising and the political process could become a useful platform for national dialogue. The message was quite clear: stop interfering in Belarus and leave Lukashenko to sort the situation out. This is hardly a promising start, more a conclusion. Nor is it a negotiating tactic, this is probably where Putin stands on the matter.

Despite this, the OSCE and UN should still offer to mediate and press on with investigating major human rights violations. The EU may have to tread carefully so as not to escalate the situation in Belarus further but it should also be sending clear and unequivocal messages to the leaderships in Minsk and Moscow that there will not be any normalisation of relations with either Belarus or Russia while the human rights of Belarusians are being trampled underfoot. They should also be sending a loud and clear message that the EU has no interest in Belarus except to guarantee the fundamental human rights of its citizens and that Belarus isn’t a piece in a geo-political game but a sovereign country. The EU may not be mediating but there is no reason for it not to talk directly to Minsk and Moscow. This is diplomacy, and so more akin to negotiation rather than mediation, but lines of communication should be kept open and the consequences of the Belarusian crisis spelt out. This also applies to member states and other countries. As for the protestors and political opposition within Belarus, they may be in it for the long haul and are clearly up against it, but they have changed the political situation more than they realise. The façade has cracked and the truth that was known but unspoken is finally getting its voice.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Belarus Part Two: The biggest threat is at home

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In the Republic of Belarus protestors calling for legitimate elections have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands in face of government repression. The outcome may also have implications for the EU and Russia, with Russia having the most influence over events. Despite geo-political concerns, the greatest danger to Belarus is its own government.

Belarus has been beset by the most serious protests since it became independent in 1990. They are also the most serious during the 26 year rule of President Alexander Lukashenko. The division within Belarus is very clear:  protestors waving red and white flags are calling for Mr Lukashenko to step down, but he has made it abundantly clear that he will not do so. There has been a brutal crackdown on the protestors and opposition figures. People have been dragged from streets to be brutalised in police cells and most who dared to stand against Lukashenko in the 2020 election have been forced abroad.  Some have disappeared altogether. This has not stopped the protests and the de facto opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has continued to call for fresh elections from abroad. How this will turn out in the long run is difficult to say as outside powers have as much interest in the outcome as the Belarusians do.

Authoritarian rule is not the only shadow cast over Belarus. There is also the question of its location in Europe where it is sandwiched between a crisis-riven EU and NATO and a revitalised Russia. The most apt description of this is of a clash between Western values and Kremlin self-interest (Nigel Gould-Davies, IISS) whereby the EU promotes democracy and will back a peaceful transition, while for the Kremlin the unrest in Belarus would remove an ally and possibly have direct repercussions for Vladimir Putin’s presidency in Russia. While the EU will restrict itself to sanctions and moral support, Mr Putin has not ruled out a direct intervention into Belarus. It is not in his interests to actually do this but it is clear that of the EU/NATO and the Kremlin it is the latter that has by far the biggest influence on what happens within Belarus. The trouble is, there are serious tensions and differences between the West and Russia and Belarus is sat close to the centre of it. The last time this flared up was in Ukraine and nobody wants to see that again, although many worry about it.

There is no reason other than the strategic jockeying for power and advantage of geo-politics that countries should not decide for themselves who they do and don’t deal with, or why they should end up as buffers between opposing powers, but the pointless battle for influence goes on. Unfortunately Belarus is a part of this, whether the people of the country like it or not. Fortunately, it may not matter, because as many a pundit will tell you, Belarus is not Ukraine and their circumstances are very different. Firstly, Belarusian politics is not the fractured mess that was characteristic of Ukraine, with one foot in the EU and the other in Russia’s political and economic sphere of influence. Secondly, the current dissent is specifically related to the internal situation in Belarus and the question of Belarus’s place in Europe barely gets a mention.

With regard to the EU/NATO and Russia, Mr Lukashenko is notorious for playing of one bloc against the other, but little has been heard from the opposition. Whilst Mr Lukashenko is conjuring enemies from every possible direction (including his supporters in Russia) and the Kremlin has ratcheted up its propaganda machine against Belarusian dissenters and the West, the dissent in Belarus has avoided geopolitics altogether. The weighty matter of where Belarus fits into Europe is a question for the future but there is a strong chance that the focus will be on nation building in a strongly independent Belarus. Moreover, should there actually be a drift towards the orbit of either the EU/NATO or Russia no one is going to be surprised if the drift is eastwards. There is a natural affinity between Belarus and Russia that virtually guarantees that relations would be cordial and any move by the Kremlin to secure Belarus would in fact be counterproductive. If the West really means what it says about the self-determination of peoples then it should have no brook with this. Mr Putin has made much of the similarities between the people of Belarus and those of Russia, but there is some truth behind the words. An independent and democratic Belarus is unlikely to be hostile to Russia if it is left alone to decide its future. To be succinct, Putin does not need to win over Belarus, but he can lose it altogether if he chooses the harder path.

With regard to Belarusian politics, it is probably more diverse than it appears, but the nature of the government stifles any open debate. The limited political organisation there is in Belarus is currently focused on internal matters, specifically the three aims of the ending of political repression, the freeing of political prisoners and the holding of free and fair elections. Political activity in Belarus is so constrained that opposition figures have formed a unified Opposition Committee to campaign for these aims. Aside from this, there are no manifestos circulating, no competition between political parties, simply a call for political freedom and an end to political repression. Ms Tikhanovskaya has declared that she has no intention to serve as President and would step down to allow elections to take place.

The biggest problem for the future is that Mr Lukashenko does not want to let go of power and despite his fractious relationship with Vladimir Putin is able to count on Putin’s support for now. Mr Putin has made it clear that he has security forces ready to aid Lukashenko and there have been reports of covert FSB flights from Russia. Meanwhile, Russian state media has openly talked of the need for intervention, while the Kremlin is increasing its control of the Belarusian media. This is driven by two concerns, one is that a Belarus free of Lukashenko would drift towards the EU/NATO; the other is the more immediate problem of protests taking place in Russia itself. Lukashenko and Putin have taken different paths to maintaining power, and it can be argued that Putin has the support and respect of a significant number of the Russian people. This is not forgetting that there has been significant manipulation and backroom manoeuvring to allow this to happen and those who fall foul of Putin have a tendency to be poisoned (In Belarus they disappear). A similarity is that both seek to maintain power, to the extent that both have envisaged themselves at the head of a union between Belarus and Russia. How the Kremlin reads the situation in Belarus and how it acts on this will have a strong influence on the outcome of the Belarusian political crisis but it more likely to be decided by the Lukashenko regime’s ability to survive in the face of mass dissent. As it stands, it faces its biggest threat since Lukashenko took power in 1994.

In part three we’ll look at the potential for mediation.  

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Belarus Part One: Mass protests and political repression


In the Republic of Belarus the government has been shaken by mass protests against the President after a clearly flawed election gave him eighty percent of the vote. The response has been a heavy handed repression of peaceful protestors with the leaders of the opposition either locked up or forced abroad.

President Lukashenko of Belarus has been in power since he won an election in 1994 and has ensured that he won every election since, while a largely compliant population has shrugged of the pretence of elections and simply made the most of it. There have been protests before that had little impact and aside from such dissent, which has been peaceful for the large part, there has been scant political change in a country where there was little doubt about who was in charge and who would be in charge in the future. Belarus would hold elections but Lukashenko would be the one who won them.

In Belarus the state opts for a looming presence and a simple tap on the shoulder has the weight of a hammer behind it. An unspoken understanding is that the agents of the state will do as they will and the people will grudgingly toe the line and accept whatever action is taken against them with little protest. The 2020 elections will be remembered as a time when the mask of the benevolent dictatorial state slipped and the tap on the shoulder was replaced by the baton and brutal beatings and assaults in police detention. The message that has been sent by Mr Lukashenko is loud and clear: there is to be no regime change and the protests directed at him are a threat the national security of the country.

The dissent, which includes mass protests and strikes in Belarusian factories, is the largest that has taken place in the 26 years of Lukashenko’s rule and the response has come directly from the strongman rule book. It has been made clear that it is not in any way his fault that the people are unhappy. Some alleged Russian mercenaries were deported, NATO was reported to be massing near the western border, the EU and the West in general had a hand in events and so on. There appeared to be so many threats to Belarus that surely what was needed was a show of strength in which the President took to flying over protestors and calling them rats and then emerging from a helicopter toting an assault rifle. Meanwhile, the police were dragging protestors and passers-by alike from the street and taken them away to be brutalised. Opposition leaders were threatened (again) and factory workers were told that they had better get back to work if they wanted to keep their jobs. The thankless task of Belarusian journalists has been made more difficult and most foreign journalists have lost their accreditation and will be forced to leave the country. None of this is hidden and some of the victims have been paraded on state TV. In the face of legitimate and peaceful protests, the government has opted for more general bullying and intimidation that is normally applied directly to opposition leaders. By stamping down on journalists they hope to hide what they are doing from the outside world but in the new world of social media this will not be possible.

One may ask, exactly what is the opposition threat, one that the state sees as so serious that it has to be comprehensively crushed? When the 2020 election was held on the 9th of August, the opposition was represented by three women, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, of which Tikhanovskaya was the leader. They are the wives and campaign manager of three presidential candidates barred from running. Their campaign was a direct response to the crushing of earlier protests and the intimidation of the opposition leaders. Both Tikhanovskaya’s husband and Kolesnikova’s employer were jailed during the campaign and Tsepkalo’s husband had left the country with their children. The intimidation that had propelled the three women into action soon turned its spotlight on them, and Ms Tikhanovskaya’s fate demonstrates this: forced to recant on state television she has left the country with her children. For now, she has chosen not to reveal exactly happened to her behind closed doors and has continued to focus on the opposition campaign’s message from neighbouring Lithuania. The opposition Coordination Council in Belarus seeks the ending of political repression and the perpetrators brought to account, the freeing of all political prisoners, and the annulment of the 9th August elections and the holding of free and fair elections. Whilst Mr Lukashenko is pointing the finger of blame for the unrest in many directions, the simple truth is that the origins of the current crisis lay in the repression of political dissent and the solution thus far has been more of it. The difference between the current crisis and protests in the past is that the people of Belarus have finally cracked and are refusing to put up with the pretence any more. They have known all along that that they have been repressed politically but have suffered this in silence and accepted the façade in exchange for stability and being left alone.

It is clear that Mr Lukashenko has lost any trace of legitimacy amongst the people in the current crisis and is resorting to a brutal crackdown in order to prolong his 26 year rule over Belarus. As is the case with many such leaders, the elite in the country are in place because he allowed them to be there and they are expected to toe the party line. Those who disagree and fall out of favour are fully aware of the potential consequences. The President has control of the Belarusian KGB, the police and the military, and the support of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. For now, the EU has said it will not mediate in the crisis, believing it to be an independent Belarusian matter, and is wary of making the situation worse by providing ammunition to back some of Mr Lukashenko’s accusations against it. We will look at the influence of the EU and Russia on the developments in Belarus in part two.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Violence in the east and a flawed transition of power


In the DR Congo violence at the hands of the ADF has increased and peacekeepers are being challenged by protestors angry at the alleged ineffectiveness of the UN in keeping them safe. There is also a risk of wider political strife after a flawed transition of power. The UN mission is scheduled to withdraw by 2022. As things stand, this would be a dangerous mistake.

Keeping the peace in the DR Congo is one of the most difficult tasks the UN faces. Attacks by armed groups are a constant threat that is constantly changing and some have proven capable of large operations. In 2012 one such group, M23, captured the eastern city of Goma. The result was the creation of a Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) and the demise of M23 but the damage was already done. The current major threat is the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which is neither democratic nor Congolese, originating instead from Uganda it arrived in the DR Congo in the mid-1990s. A major offensive by the Congolese military (FARDC) began at the end of October 2019 and it is supported by MONUSCO, the UN mission to the DR Congo. A series of massacres attributed to the ADF has led to protests against the UN for failing to protect civilians in the Beni region of North Kivu province where the violence is hindering the battle against an outbreak of Ebola.

There is some caution in attributing the wave of violence in the Beni area solely to the ADF, which is one of the larger groups and is reported to have over a thousand fighters. There are many smaller groups that are alleged to have links with the ADF and community leaders have also been called into question. Historically the leaders of Uganda and Zaire/DR Congo have had a contradictory approach to the ADF, launching major offensives, leaving it alone to act as a buffer against the other, and actually supporting it. Foreign governments have accused the DR Congo of harbouring militants, who in turn has said that neighbouring countries of have attempted to destabilise the DR Congo. There have also been questions raised over jihadist influence within the ADF and related support and also its transnational nature. There are in fact elements of both and the most promising description of what is a very secretive organisation is that it has multiple influences but cooperates pragmatically and discreetly, and maintains short-term partnerships. The ADF reacts badly to being challenged and it shifted its tactics toward massacres against civilians in 2013, which have increased in the wake of the current government offensive. How much of this is by the ADF or at the hands of smaller allied groups is open to question. The situation in the eastern DR Congo is known to be extremely complex and the ADF are but one part of this.

The troubles in the Beni region are part of a wider problem of distrust of the government, which is seen as corrupt and repressive, and the FARDC, which has been accused of human rights violations and sometimes being in league with the armed groups it is supposed to be countering. The local population also has a mistrust of regionally sourced peacekeepers, seen by them as potentially biased. This distrust extends to MONUSCU, which is working alongside a compromised Congolese military and has previously faced accusations of its own, including when over 600 troops were withdrawn in 2017 because of allegations of sexual abuse. This was an ignoble outcome for a force that has in fact had a positive impact by providing some security over none and whose under-resourced troops have suffered casualties whilst actively combating rebel groups. Nor are the anti-UN protests a new development, although these are rooted in a discontent at the perceived failure of MONUSCO to protect civilians. That there has been a failure is undeniable, but the blame cannot be put at the door of a mission that is under-resourced in relation to the task that it faces and is tarred by its association with the forces of the government who have faced accusations of war crimes and major human rights violations.

There is also trouble at the top that mocks the idea of the DR Congo as a democracy. The current President, Félix Tshisekedi, took over last year from the long-serving Joseph Kabila,  whom had been reluctant to give up power. This was after Mr Tshisekedi was declared the winner of an election in which he is reported to have won only 19% of the vote. The actual winner, with around 60% of the vote, was Martin Fayulu. He was cast aside as a result of a power sharing deal between Tshisekedi and Kabila. As a result, both hold power due to a secret deal, having lost an election rife with voter intimidation. The new President has said that he will deal with corruption and improve the country, yet the chances of this are low, as he is dependent on his predecessor (whom controls the parliament) and is in power only as a result of a secret deal (which is corrupt in itself). Olivia Acland, writing in The Economist (The World in 2020), has predicted that riots will erupt in the cities during 2020. The troubles in the east may well become part of wider disorder throughout the entire country. A horrifying example of where this could lead is the Kasai crisis that began in 2016 and exploded into inter-communal violence involving government forces, their rivals and militias with the consequences been borne by the civilian population. A critical aspect of preventing conflict from spreading across the country was that there be a democratically elected successor to Mr Kabila but the actual outcome was merely a fudge to keep the powerful in power. The 2003 Global and All-Inclusive Agreement and a commitment to an effective political transition to genuine representation arose from the carnage of the Second Congo War. Clearly, there has been no such transition, a fact underlined by Mr Tshisekedi’s recent idea to dissolve the National Assembly.

The danger is that the DR Congo is actually on the brink of wider disorder not less and a government that cannot resolve the problems in the east will struggle to deal with further discontent brought on by a failure of political transition. The violence in the east is far from being solely the governments fault and regional cooperation is needed instead of rivalry. A recent solution proposed by Mr Tshisekedi was to invite foreign powers in to deal with the armed groups. The UN was rightly critical and said that MONUSCO would have no involvement in this. Such an approach is more likely to escalate the violence and could potentially result in another major war. A more effective approach would be for all countries to end use of armed groups as proxies and for external support for them to end. This would be accompanied by action at the global level to cut of the profits to armed groups made through exploiting natural resources that are valuable to the global economy. There is a strong case to argue that the people of the conflict affected regions want the armed groups that plague their lives out and the government in, despite its many faults. This is down to sheer desperation, reflected by the protests against the UN mission, itself an indication that the people want MONUSCO to provide more support instead of withdrawal by 2022. An extension of the UN’s largest mission and one that has lasted over twenty years is in itself a big ask. The UN says that two-thirds of the DR Congo is stable, it wants the government to take more responsibility, and the mission is expensive. However, withdrawal at a time when the violence in the east is escalating, there is a risk of wider political violence, and the political transition has not taken place risks throwing away any gains made and putting the population at greater risk.

For more information regarding this blog see:

DR Congo army launches ‘large-scale operations’ against militias in Beni territory

See also, the earlier blogs on the DRC at

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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Armed Conflict in 2020: Expect more of the same


As the world enters a new year the conflict map of the world looks much the same as it did throughout 2019. Despite sometimes promising news from peace talks and occasional prisoner swaps or releases, most of the armed conflicts have ground on. In 2020 there may well be an increase in violence overall and the places hardest hit by violence will continue to suffer the brunt of the consequences.

2020 had barely begun before there was a spectacular and unwelcome development in Iraq when the US assassinated a senior Iranian General, provoking a volley of missiles at US bases in Iraq. That Iran and the US are in conflict should surprise no one, for despite all the fears and punditry around a potential direct conflict between the US and Iran, they have been fighting each other for over a decade through proxies in both Syria and Iraq. To say that this rivalry is at its most dangerous since the Iranian revolution of 1979 would not be an overstatement. This is the kind of spectacular rivalry, one which involves a hegemon or major power, which troubles leaders worried about inter-state wars that rarely break out. Meanwhile, most of the violence is of the intra-state or trans-state kind and involves rebels fighting government forces, with the armed forces of a state or its proxies fighting for either side, or militias carving out a piece of territory or controlling a resource. Sometimes the militias and armed groups build up strength and launch raids across a border and other times there will be multiple actors within a given conflict zone. Insurgents and militias tend to ignore borders and nation-states don’t always set a good example either.

This links to a trend that has contributed to major conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen as regional rivalries continue to impact on intra-state conflicts that have been internationalized from the off. In Libya, the internationally recognised Tripoli government is backed by Turkey and Qatar, while Egypt and the UAE back the rival LNA led by General Haftar. They have also brought in foreign fighters to aid their causes. Syria’s war underwent two major escalations, the first when Turkey launched an incursion into Kurdish north-east Syria and the Syrian government and its allies launched an offensive into the rebel bastion of Idlib province where the jihadist HTS dominate. Turkey’s interest in Syria is with supporting the remaining rebels, countering the Kurds (everywhere) and the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The presence of Hezbollah and Iranian forces in Syria has added to the sectarianism of the Syrian War and ensured a steady flow of Israeli airstrikes. Yemen continues to be a victim of the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, although Iran has always denied supporting the rebel Houthis. Despite some significant progress, such as the deal reached over the port city of Hodeida and a resolution of a violent split within the anti-Houthi forces, Yemen remains vulnerable to external events affecting Saudi Arabia and/or Iran. The presence of the latter usually draws the attention of the US, providers of logistical support for the Saudi-led coalition. This barely scratches the surface of what are very complex conflicts in which the domestic actors were more than capable of descending into fighting but the involvement of external actors has exacerbated the violence and ensured that each conflict has been prolonged.

In 2019 there was a 36% increase in incidents of armed conflict in Africa (according to ACLED). Armed Violence continues to afflict the countries of the Sahel. Here a potent mix of rebellions, environmental stresses and Islamist or jihadist insurgency has caused a severe escalation of conflict in Burkina Faso, adding to existing problems in Chad, Niger and Mali. The combined forces of the G5 Sahel, France and the UN have struggled to respond. As we enter 2020 there are regular attacks by insurgents. Somalia, backed by the AU and UN, continues to struggle against the militants of Al-Shabaab and Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram continues. There has also been ethnic strife in South Sudan and Ethiopia and clashes in the Central African Republic, despite positive developments in all three countries. In Cameroon the Anglophone crisis continues and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an alphabet soup of militias operates in the east, the government has launched an offensive against the Ugandan based Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Add problems in Chad, insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai region and Mozambique, and the aforementioned fighting in Libya and the severity of armed conflict across Africa becomes clear. Africa as a whole is one of the CARIS areas of focus and will continue to be so in 2020.

There are also other conflicts that require mention. In Ukraine, the civil war between the government and Russian backed separatists in the east remains static, although there have been prisoner swaps and negotiations. Myanmar still contends with multiple insurgencies, having had its international reputation trashed due to its appalling treatment of the Rohingya. According to national media talks with rebels are ongoing. Finally, the deadliest conflict for civilians was in Afghanistan, where the US and Afghan forces are locked in combat with the Taliban. The government of Afghanistan and the Taliban are both eager for the US to leave, which is not beyond the realms of possibility provided that the Taliban would stop killing Americans.

There has been no shortage of efforts at conflict mitigation and resolution in all areas of conflict and this will continue to be the case throughout 2020. Intra-state and trans-state conflicts last longer than interstate conflicts and they are also much more complex, providing unique challenges for the UN, regional organisations such as the AU and OSCE, and aid groups. The links below all carry the message that the impact of armed conflict will increase. This also means that there will be more opportunities for conflict resolution.

For more information regarding this blog see:

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.


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Syria: Turkey’s new offensive against the Kurds


A new frontline has opened up in the Syrian War that has already had tragic consequences for the Kurds of Syria and risks a revival of the threat from ISIS. A halt in the fighting is dependent on the withdrawal of the Kurds from a buffer zone.  

One question that loomed large within the complexity of the Syrian War was the future of the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a large swathe of eastern Syria taken from ISIS. While the government and its allies crushed the myriad rebel groups of the opposition in the south and Damascus, the Kurdish-administered area was left to its own devices. With the government focused on the rebel groups in Idlib province the status of ‘Rojava’ seemed secure in the short term. The Kurdish led SDF ran the east and the United States provided a check on Turkish designs on northern Syria. Within the space of barely two weeks there has been a dramatic change and it is Russia that polices the north-east and the Syrian Arab Army has moved into the area.

It began with an announcement by President Trump that the United States would be pulling its forces out of border area. The SDF rushed reinforcements to Kurdish towns and cities and Turkey launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’, quickly taking territory from the Kurds. The US sent its forces over the border to Iraq, leaving stone-throwing Kurds in their wake. Left without allies, the SDF made a deal with the Syrian government to allow the Syrian Arab Army into the area as a counter to the Turkish advance. Soon there were reports of ISIS attacks and in one instance hundreds of ISIS family members escaped detention. President Trump then announced economic sanctions against Turkey and a US delegation led by the Vice-President travelled to Ankara and secured a ceasefire that would allow the Kurds to retreat. This was followed by talks between Erdogan and Russia’s President Putin, which resulted in permanent ceasefire, provided the Kurds withdrew their forces within a specified period. The border region, once patrolled jointly by Turkey and the US, would now be patrolled by Turkey and Russia. Then there was an announcement that the US would be returning to ensure that oil fields would not fall back into the hands of ISIS.  Further afield, in Idlib province, the US showed what it was actually capable off and put an end to the ISIS leader, Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi.

One thing is clear: more Syrians have died or were injured or displaced from their homes and there are horrors and accusations that we have seen before. The media campaigns are also familiar, as both Ankara and the Kurds have highly effective media organisations that are able to broadcast the wrongs of the other. There is plenty to go round, and almost of it was carried out by the stronger side as Turkish forces and their Syrian allies advanced in to what the Kurds call Rojava. There are two conflicts happening here, meshed into one. The first is the conflict in Turkey between the government and the Kurds that fired up again in 2015. The administration of Turkey’s President Erdogan does not distinguish between the Turkish PKK and the Syrian YPG and has openly called the Kurdish-administered region of Syria that borders Turkey a threat. The second is the rivalries internal to Syria itself where relations between Kurds and Arabs deteriorated during the violence of the war. The proxies at the front of the Turkish advance are fighters from the Syrian National Army and they have a vested interest in President Erdogan’s vision of a border area cleared of Kurds. The thirty kilometre zone is about more than just security, for there are plans to relocate Syrian refugees into it.

The previous fortnight has been the time of the strongmen. Erdogan got to launch his incursion into Syria and took a major step towards a border zone free of Kurds. Syria’s President Assad was able to cut a deal with the Kurds and promptly moved troops from the Syrian Arab Army into Kurdish cities. Russia’s President Putin managed to make permanent a ceasefire agreed by the US with Turkey and deployed Russian troops to jointly patrol the border. Despite the death of their leader, the remnants of ISIS have also been given a boon due to the instability caused by the Turkish incursion and there are serious concerns over the security of camps where ISIS fighters are detained. For their part, the Kurds have done what they have done many times before and made the most of a bad lot. As for the US, there is little to be had from this debacle and both sides of the political divide are aghast at what is seen as a betrayal of Kurdish allies that led the SDF to victory over ISIS. While the Trump administration managed to arrange a ceasefire, this constituted an acceptance of the occupation of north-east Syria, one that the removal of US forces made inevitable. Despite the bluster over the impact of economic sanctions on Erdogan’s thinking the ceasefire was made permanent due to events on the ground as the regime, Russia and the Kurds adapted to the absence of the US. The Europeans could do little, having little influence in the first place, and their condemnation of Turkish actions led only to a threat by Erdogan to send the refugees currently in Turkey westwards.

What happens next is hard to predict as despite the quick gains of the Turkish advance and the promised withdrawal of the Kurds from the border area the arrival of the forces of the regime has meant that further advances risk open conflict with the Syrian Arab Army. This would not benefit either Assad or Erdogan and Putin appears to want to keep the two apart. Nor does anyone know how much the Kurds of the SDF will concede to the regime. Their advance to Raqqa resulted in them holding non-Kurdish territory, the sands of which they have now been pushed into. If Erdogan carries out his plan of dumping Syrian refugees into Rojava it will not only be at the expense of the Kurds, whom have fled east and south, but may also mean sending the Syrian National Army proxies into the buffer zone. This may be a step too far for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which will see this in the context of Turkish involvement in Idlib province. Here a ceasefire was brought into being provided that Turkey brought some degree of control to opposition forces in the area. This backfired spectacularly when rebel infighting resulted in the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham dominating the region and the government began an offensive this year.

Syria’s borders have meant little since the outbreak of the war and the Turkish offensive is further evidence of this. The Syrian War began with an uprising that led to fighting between rebels and the government, with much of the blame to be laid at the doors of the Assad regime. There is also much that happened later that is the responsibility of outsiders, with the jihadists of ISIS being the prime example. The Turkish incursion, like that of 2018 into Afrin, has more to do with Ankara’s war with the PKK in Turkey than with the complex conflict that has taken place in Syria. Ankara sees Rojava as a terrorist haven and President Erdogan has been explicit in his intentions to resolve this through force. Since 2015 the Kurds in Turkey have been hammered by a major military offensive that has led to at least 4551 deaths as of the 2nd August 2019, according to International Crisis Group. Erdogan may believe that the creation of a buffer zone in a neighbouring country will deal with a perceived threat from the YPG. He is very likely to be catastrophically wrong. In the meantime, the Kurds have been killed or forced from their homes. It did not need to happen and it could have been prevented from happening but, as is often the case, the strongmen won out.

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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.



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