CrisisWatch 2018 February Trends & March Alerts
CrisisWatch 2018 February Trends & March Alerts
Commentary 3 minutes

CrisisWatch 2018 February Trends & March Alerts

The latest edition of Crisis Group's monthly conflict tracker highlights dangers of escalating conflict in Bangladesh, Cameroon and Syria. CrisisWatch also notes deteriorated situations in Tanzania, Guinea, Maldives and Venezuela, among others.

February saw a twofold deterioration in the Syrian conflict – the Assad regime stepped up its brutal bombardment of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, and regional and global powers increased their direct interventions in Syria, raising the risk of worse fighting in coming weeks. Elsewhere political polarisation between governments and opposition movements was rife. In Bangladesh, the conviction of opposition leader Khaleda Zia sparked protests, which could worsen if she is barred from participating in elections, while in the Maldives the government launched a crackdown on the judiciary and declared a state of emergency. In Venezuela, formal talks between the government and the opposition broke down, deepening the political impasse. In Guinea, alleged electoral fraud in local elections sparked opposition-led protests and violent clashes with security forces, while in Tanzania the killing of two opposition politicians highlighted shrinking political space. In Cameroon, deadly clashes between security forces and Anglophone separatists continued and could well worsen around senatorial elections planned for 25 March.

In February, the conflict in Syria grew yet more abysmal. First, the regime unleashed a horrifying bombardment on Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel-held area near Damascus, reportedly killing hundreds. Rebels also shelled parts of the capital under regime control, causing more deaths. With the UN’s and Russia’s efforts to organise ceasefires having scant effect and regime forces launching a ground offensive, the suffering is likely to continue. Second, outside actors – regional and global adversaries sucked into the conflict – directly confronted each other, significantly raising the risk of more damaging fighting among Syrian and non-Syrian forces in coming weeks. In the north west, Turkey pursued its fight against affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Afrin district; fighting there will likely intensify if it pushes closer toward the city itself. In the east, a strike by U.S. forces against pro-regime forces, killing scores of Russian mercenaries, could augur worse clashes along the Euphrates. Elsewhere, Israeli jets bombed Iranian targets in response to growing tensions on Syria’s southern border. As we have argued, to prevent a new phase in Syria’s war involving Israel, Russia should act as broker to bolster the de-escalation agreement that keeps Iran-backed forces away from Syria’s 1974 armistice line with Israel.

In Bangladesh, tensions between the ruling Awami League and main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) increased as BNP leader Khaleda Zia was found guilty of corruption charges and sentenced to five years in jail, prompting protests across the country. There are fears that the confrontation could worsen if Zia’s petition for bail is rejected and she is barred from contesting elections later this year. As we note in a new report, Bangladesh’s earlier political polarisation helped create conditions for a jihadist resurgence. Another violent election cycle, resulting from the Awami League’s marginalisation of the BNP – including Zia’s conviction in February – would again benefit the jihadist fringe. Rather than cracking down on political rivals, the government should be building political consensus on how to tackle Bangladesh’s security threats.

In the Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen defied the country’s Supreme Court after it overturned the prison sentence of exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed and ordered the release of other jailed opposition leaders, saying their trials had been “politically motivated”. The government arrested two Supreme Court judges and declared a state of emergency, which the UN’s human rights chief condemned as an “all-out assault on democracy”.

In Cameroon’s Southwest and Northwest regions, clashes between Anglophone separatists and security forces and attacks by both sides left at least 28 dead, including security forces, armed separatists and civilians. The confrontation, which started as protests by Anglophone teachers and lawyers, is rapidly morphing into an armed insurgency. In this fraught atmosphere, senatorial elections planned for 25 March could spark more violence. A direct dialogue between the government and Anglophone community leaders is critical to calm the crisis, particularly ahead of October presidential polls.

Local elections in Guinea, the first since 2005, triggered violence after the opposition accused President Condé and the ruling party of manipulating the vote. Anger over the polls and intensifying strike action led to clashes between opposition supporters and strikers on one side and security forces on the other that left at least ten people dead. In Tanzania, the killing of two opposition politicians marked a deterioration in a climate of rising political repression.

Formal talks aimed at ending the standoff between Venezuela’s government and opposition broke down on 7 February following the government’s unilateral announcement in January that it would hold early presidential elections in April. The Lima Group of fourteen nations that has been pushing for a solution to the Venezuela crisis expressed its “firm rejection” of the election plan, saying that the election would lack legitimacy and credibility without adequate guarantees.

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