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CrisisWatch 2018 January Trends & February Alerts
CrisisWatch 2018 January Trends & February Alerts
Better Early than Sorry: How the EU Can Use its Early Warning Capacities to their Full Potential
Better Early than Sorry: How the EU Can Use its Early Warning Capacities to their Full Potential
Commentary

CrisisWatch 2018 January Trends & February Alerts

The latest edition of Crisis Group's monthly conflict tracker highlights dangers of new conflict in Somaliland, Afghanistan and Syria. CrisisWatch also notes that February's winter Olympics on the Korean Peninsula represent a chance for peace against a great background risk of war.

January saw violence rise in Afghanistan, likely to continue in February as conflict parties compete to gain the upper hand ahead of spring offensives. Clashes look set to escalate in north-west Syria, with the regime ramping up its push against rebels and Turkey launching an assault on Kurdish-held Afrin. In Yemen, southern separatists fought government forces, their erstwhile allies, to take control of Aden city in the south. In West Africa, both Mali and Niger experienced a rise in jihadist violence, in Nigeria deadly attacks between herders and farmers spiralled, and Equatorial Guinea said it had thwarted an attempted coup. In the Horn of Africa, Somaliland troops clashed with neighbouring Puntland’s forces and both sides looked to be preparing for more hostilities. In Colombia, peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army were suspended following a spate of guerrilla attacks. The Venezuelan government’s announcement of early elections sparked a crisis of confidence in talks with the opposition. Meanwhile, peace talks between North and South Korea provide an opportunity for de-escalation, however the threat of war on the peninsula is higher now than at any time in recent history.

With peace talks stalled, Afghanistan experienced a rise in deadly attacks by all armed actors, at a tempo and intensity that could persist as conflict parties try to gain the upper hand ahead of spring offensives. The Afghan National Security Forces claimed to have killed about 2,000 Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) fighters since late December, while attacks by the Taliban and the IS-KP have left scores dead. In one incident in Kabul claimed by the Taliban, a bomb in an ambulance killed more than 100. Recognising that Afghanistan risks facing escalating violence in 2018, Crisis Group has stressed that diplomatic channels should be preserved and a political settlement pursued.

In Syria’s north west, Turkey’s air and land offensive against Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” (YPG) in Afrin, and regime advances against rebels in Hama and Idlib provinces, marked a severe escalation and paved the way for worse fighting in February. As we warned, Turkey’s offensive among a hostile population and in difficult territory could easily become a prolonged fight against a gritty insurgency, further strain its alliance with the YPG’s main backer, the U.S., and provoke Kurdish attacks at home. A deal would serve both sides better. In Yemen’s port city of Aden, southern separatists – nominally allied with the government in its fight against Huthi rebels – routed government forces from much of the city; dozens died in the fighting.

Suspected jihadist gunmen and suicide bombers in Mali upped deadly attacks against the military and French Barkhane forces, especially in Ménaka region in the east. In neighbouring Niger, Boko Haram militants increased attacks against the army in the south east, killing at least ten soldiers. To confront these rural insurgencies in the Sahel, in tandem with military efforts, authorities and foreign partners should promote local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives and, where possible, try to engage militant leaders. Nigeria’s expanding conflict between herding and farming communities spiralled in January with at least 200 killed across five states. Also in West Africa, Equatorial Guinea said it had foiled a coup attempt; 39 mercenaries were arrested in southern Cameroon.

Tensions between Somaliland and Puntland state in Somalia turned violent when on 8 January Somaliland troops seized the town of Tukaraq in the disputed Sool region, pushing out Puntland forces. With fighters exchanging fire on 28 January and both sides reportedly mobilising more manpower, February could see further hostilities.

In Colombia, amid a climate of mistrust at the negotiating table and a general atmosphere of public scepticism and apathy, peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group were suspended on 29 January following a spate of guerrilla attacks. In Venezuela, the government’s announcement that it will hold early elections “before 30 April”, in defiance of ongoing talks with the opposition, sparked a crisis of confidence in the talks, greatly reducing the prospects of a viable agreement to resolve the political standoff.

In Kosovo, the murder of moderate Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic in Mitrovica on 16 January triggered shock and condemnation within Kosovo and by the U.S., EU and others in the international community, who called for all sides to remain calm, exercise restraint and avoid dangerous rhetoric.

North and South Korea conducted multiple rounds of peace talks in January and agreed to conduct several joint activities in the coming months. This came after Seoul responded positively to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s offer of immediate and unconditional talks with South Korea in his annual New Year’s address. As Crisis Group reports state, the thaw in relations offers an opportunity to dial down tensions and reduce the immediate risk of conflict through some form of de-escalatory deal between the U.S. and North Korea. Nevertheless, the threat of catastrophic war on the peninsula is higher now than at any time in recent history, and escalation could quickly resume after the Olympics.

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Contributors

Director of Research & Special Adviser on Gender
iarradon
Research Manager
BranczikAmelia
Senior Research Analyst
neddalby
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Better Early than Sorry: How the EU Can Use its Early Warning Capacities to their Full Potential

Originally published in Peace Lab

The European Union has put instruments and tools in place to improve its early warning mechanisms. Member states must now work with EU institutions to make them more effective. One concrete step that Germany could take is to push the new EU leadership to regularly put countries ‘at risk’ on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council.

The European Union has always been stronger at reacting to crises than predicting or preventing them. On too many occasions the EU was lacking strategic foresight to anticipate major developments that impacted its internal and external policies. The widespread protests and their repercussions during the Arab Spring or Russia’s annexation of Crimea were as much a surprise to most European leaders and EU institutions as to other international actors, leaving them with no better options than to scramble for crisis management solutions since it was too late for preventive measures that might have had lower costs and better outcomes.   

The EU’s Early Warning System ensures higher awareness of structural risks

Aware of these shortcomings, the EU has invested more resources in its early warning and early response capacities. The European External Action Service (EEAS) has put in place its own Early Warning System in 2014. In the EU’s own words, this system is a “tool for EU decision-makers to manage risk factors and prioritize resources accordingly.” The Division in charge of the Integrated Approach for Security and Peace (ISP) within the EEAS leads this process. Every year it works with other EU institutions to identify a number of countries ‘at risk’ with a time horizon of four years. The analysis is based on a wide range of quantitative and qualitative information from internal and external sources. This includes a Global Conflict Risk Index elaborated by the EU’s Joint Research Center which evaluates quantitative indicators in social, economic, security, political, geographical and environmental dimensions. This is complemented by intelligence-based analysis from the EU’s Single Intelligence Analysis Capacity as well as qualitative input from an EU staff review and expert country analysis. The resulting list of countries ‘at risk’ is presented to the EU member states’ ambassadors in the Political and Security Committee, before EU institutions undertake a comprehensive conflict analysis and develop concrete objectives for early action. 

This Early Warning System, in combination with flexible financial tools, especially the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), and better intra-institutional coordination allows the EU to be more aware of structural risks of conflict around the world and have mechanisms and tools at hand to respond before the outbreak of a crisis.

When strategic national interests are at stake, it becomes more difficult for member states to agree on a joint analysis, let alone joint action.

While this is all well and good in theory, the practice can sometimes pose challenges to this system, especially when it has to face (geo-) political realities. When EU member states have different views on the analysis of the countries ‘at risk’ or on preventive measures, this comes to the forefront. Even though they do not decide on the final list of countries identified by the Early Warning System, their buy-in is critical to ensure effective early action. When strategic national interests are at stake, it becomes more difficult for member states to agree on a joint analysis, let alone joint action. A member state that has important (or sensitive) relations with a country on the list can have an interest in blocking political or diplomatic action at the European level. It suffices to look at the Libyan example – not an early warning country, but a telling case – to see how diverging views and strategies among member states can paralyze the EU’s abilities to prevent the escalation of a crisis.

To ensure that the information gained from the EU’s Early Warning System is translated into policy despite diverging views and interests, EU member states, including Germany, can push for collective action in three areas:  

Fostering joint analysis among the EU and member states

Firstly, a regular involvement of member states in the Early Warning System and follow-up work is important. While diverging approaches to the list of countries ‘at risk’ are understandable – there is not always an obvious solution to fend off a crisis and there are limits to EU influence – it is all the more important to have a mechanism for reconciling competing views and identifying the best path forward. Both the EU and several member states have already taken steps in this direction. The EU for instance involves member state embassies in the conflict analysis they undertake in-country. Germany and the Netherlands, which both have their own national early warning systems, initiated a European Early Warning Forum that allows European governments to engage with EU institutions twice a year on the list of countries ‘at risk’.

However, there is room for more regular informal exchanges to ensure the buy-in from member states throughout the process. EU institutions should find additional ways to take member state views and inputs into account, and all 28 national governments need to actively use these opportunities to share information and ideas. Germany could work on both ends of this process, by engaging with the EU to explore creative ways to involve member states and by encouraging the latter to contribute their analysis and expertise.

Bringing early warning countries onto the political agenda

Drawing and maintaining the attention of politicians and high-level policy makers to countries that appear ‘calm’ remains a challenge.

Secondly, even with an early warning list at hand, the focus ultimately tends to remain on managing ongoing crises, with a particular emphasis on member states’ strategic interests. Drawing and maintaining the attention of politicians and high-level policy makers to countries that appear ‘calm’ remains a challenge.

An important step could therefore be a clear commitment by the incoming High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, to pay specific attention to the countries identified by the Early Warning System and to rally member states behind common preventive action. Germany should incentivize this by proposing to add one of those countries as an agenda item to the Foreign Affairs Council, where ongoing crises usually dominate the debate among European foreign ministers. Germany can also host informal high-level discussions on early warning countries in Brussels to foster debates around preventive action.

Preserving important early action tools

Finally, during the upcoming negotiations for the new EU budget for 2021-2027, member states and EU institutions should make sure that the achievements that have been made over the past years will be preserved, specifically when it comes to flexible funding of rapid reaction and long-term preventive approaches. The proposed Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) would channel the EU’s specialized funding instruments, such as the IcSP, into one single tool. Even though the NDICI proposal foresees specific pillars for Stability and Peace as well as Rapid Response, ongoing negotiations between the EU, member states and the European Parliament could result in an over-emphasis of short-term crisis management support at the expense of long-term preventive and peace-building action.

As these budget negotiations will most likely be finalized under the German Council Presidency in the second half of 2020, Germany will have an important role in fending off attempts to cut or dilute budget commitments in this field.

All this shows that the full potential of the EU’s Early Warning System, while an important tool for increasing Europe’s awareness and joint understanding of conflict risks, is not yet being fully utilized. A higher level of political support by both EU institutions and member states might help the EU use it to better effect and become more effective in its early response to brewing crises. In recent years, Europe has seen and felt the impact of deadly conflicts around the world, several of them right at its doorstep. It should therefore be in the strategic and humanitarian interest of all member states to prevent further escalation or outbreak of violence and resulting shocks to regional stability. Member states have given the EU a clear mandate to increase awareness of conflict risks. Now that instruments and tools have been put in place, member states should work with EU institutions to make them more effective.