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IRAQ. Bashiqa. Peshmerga mourn their comrade, a tank driver, after he was killed by an ISIS sniper. 7 November, 2016. Jerome Sessini/Magnum Photos

Watch List 2017

Crisis Group’s Watch List 2017 includes the Lake Chad basin, Libya, Myanmar, Nagorno-Karabakh, Sahel, Somalia, Syria, Turkey, Venezuela and Yemen. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.

Global Overview

Whether unprecedented or not, the challenges currently facing our global security are immense and cause for considerable alarm. It is difficult to think of a time in recent history when there has been such a confluence of destabilising factors – local, regional and global – hindering collective capacity to better manage violence. These overlapping risks, unchecked, could coalesce into a major crisis – indeed we are currently experiencing a spike in global conflict violence – without the safety net of solid structures to deal with it.

When Crisis Group was founded, its premise was that bringing field-based expert analysis to the attention of (principally) Western policymakers could effect positive change in both preventing and ending situations of deadly conflict. Much of that premise still holds, but for us, as for others, it is no longer sufficient: the West can no longer be viewed either as homogenous or an oasis of tranquility. Increasingly, too, its self-projected image as an unalloyed force for good is becoming exposed. Greater efforts are needed, and urgently, both to understand better the growing dangers of conflict seeping from one arena to another; and to engage a broader array of actors with the capacity to effect positive change.

This document seeks to do two things. First, it aims to highlight those conflicts which Crisis Group believes threaten to worsen significantly unless remedial action is taken. Inevitably perhaps, the countries selected represent a partial snapshot. For that reason we place them explicitly in their regional contexts. But even so, strong arguments can be made for the inclusion of others: examples include Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the South China Sea and Democratic Republic of Congo. A case could be made, too, for the Western Balkans, perhaps, or Central Asian states. That we could provide a rival, equally valid list is itself cause for concern.

For each conflict, we seek to indicate the contours of possible policy responses based on ground-up analysis. In putting forward tentative prescriptions, our principal target is the European Union (EU), its institutions and member states, whether working directly or in conjunction with others. An underlying premise of this report is our belief that the EU has the potential – indeed faces an imperative – to bring to bear all the tools at its disposal fully to do its bit, in concert with others, to preserve the threatened field of conflict prevention.

Second, the list can be read as one document. Percolating through it are the range of interlinked dangers and stresses that makes this era so perilous. Essentially, these can be distilled down to three. First, an increasing fusion of the domestic with the international. Second, a sense of crisis overload. And third, growing uncertainty about hitherto assumed structures and institutions to collectively manage danger.

This increasing fusion of local and global is reflected further in heightened nationalism and ideological dogmatism.

All ten conflicts possess international dimensions, in many instances overwhelmingly so. In such crowded landscapes – with a multitude of actors and equally broad range of motivations – navigating a route to peace becomes immeasurably more difficult. The growing prevalence of non-state armed groups and in some instances their propensity to fracture, together with the blending of licit and illicit economies, churns yet more this complex terrain.

This increasing fusion of local and global is reflected further in heightened nationalism and ideological dogmatism, with – as things stand – the triumph of policies designed to cater to short-term tactical imperatives as much if not more than preserving or ensuring long-term stability. This can be seen in burgeoning intolerance to the mass movement of people, as actions are taken to stem or push back the flow without trying adequately to address the reasons why such movement is underway on such an unprecedented scale.

It can be witnessed in the resort to muscular security responses that can neither fully contain the threat nor address its underlying causes. And it is manifested in some actors resorting too readily to the rallying cry of ­counter-terrorism, with its playbook of repressive measures and eschewing the very inclusivity invariably essential to sustained peace. In the balance between soft and hard power, the latter currently is dominant.

All this, of course, is playing out against – and in part driven by – a growing diffusion of power globally. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, but the uncertainties such a shift throws up are cause for concern. Further, the stresses to which Europe is currently exposed; the revival of geopolitics; and uncertainty about the future direction of the trans-Atlantic alliance and the underlying commitment to the UN of its traditional power-brokers, represent significant challenges to hitherto durable assumptions about the role of international institutions and law, and the web of alliances built up in the past 70 years.

So far so gloomy (and without touching on climate change or demographic trends). But this report also, we believe, contains within it ideas which might contribute to a needed course correction. In essence, it constitutes a call to learn old lessons amid these new dynamics.

What, in particular, might this mean for the EU? We posit two broad obser­vations, outlined in more detail in the following pages. They sit on top of an underlying imperative to ensure that through their actions the EU and its member states do not contribute to generating further harm. In many instances where room for positive change is currently heavily circumscribed, avoiding worse constitutes progress.

First, we seek to identify what Europe’s leverage is with regards to specific conflicts and regions. Often it is indirect, but no less important for that. Frequently, too, we suggest it will involve maximising opportunities presented by dialogues with other regional organisations to develop an understanding of shared interests and a division of responsibilities in their pursuit. In this regard, as in all others, speaking with as unified a voice as possible is imperative: dissonance can be exploited. Providing maximum support to the new UN Secretary-General in his efforts to revive that organisation’s work in conflict prevention must also be a priority.

Europe has the opportunity to make a significant contribution toward a more stable and peaceful future.

Second, in virtually every crisis we cite, a better balance is required between the desire for quick impact and the need to put in place sustainable solutions. The two need not be at odds with each other – we should reject the notion that it is a binary choice. But it will require Europe to speak out more clearly in defence of core values – in deed, not simply rhetoric; to make clear that its humanitarian and development assistance is for those most in need, not solely for the pursuit of political ends; to nudge conflict parties toward pursuing peace through inclusive dialogue, not simply force; and to prioritise the pursuit of better models of governance, the absence of which is at the root of so many of today’s conflicts.

To some these may appear as thin reeds on which to float notions of charting a more positive course. But in the current atmosphere of uncertainty, through articulating clear, principled and strategic goals and how, tactically, it will seek to work toward them in conjunction with others, Europe has the opportunity to make a significant contribution toward a more stable and peaceful future.

Africa

The threat of jihadist and other violent non-state groups, particularly in the Sahel, Lake Chad basin and Somalia, will remain top of Africa’s security agenda. The absence or slow return of government administration to “liberated” areas and other neglected hinterlands, and the weak and slow response to the fallout from these conflicts, such as displacement and social tensions, may allow militants to regroup. That Nigeria faces, in addition to this challenge, the resurgence of Niger Delta militancy puts extra strain on a country pivotal to Africa’s stability. It is particularly important that African governments respond in ways that avoid deepening the problem or aggravating other sources of fragility through heavy-handed counter-insurgency tactics, stigmatising communities or worsening tensions between political leaders and military hierarchies.

African powers recently negotiated a peaceful transition in Gambia, but leadership issues will continue to be a destabilising factor. Unclear succession mechanisms for aging autocrats (Zimbabwe and Angola) and the refusal of leaders to exit as scheduled despite risks of urban protest (such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo) or, worse, renewed insurgency (Burundi) look set to remain part of the landscape. Contested and fraught electoral processes (Kenya) alongside authoritarian drift (Uganda) drive the continued closure of democratic space, as power too often remains overly centralised and politics zero-sum. But citizens, particularly young people, with strong democratic aspirations but who in places are reeling under pressures of economic slowdown (Ethiopia) and continued rising unemployment, will continue to push back or launch anti-government protests often through social media (Sudan).

Stronger coordination between Africa’s regional bodies and their international partners in response to conflict would be welcome, though it is becoming more difficult. While the impact of a new UN Secretary-General and U.S. administration remains uncertain, the leverage of the UN and other traditional partners is growing weaker. Political dynamics are also becoming considerably more complex, regionalised (as in South Sudan) and multipolar as other actors (China, Gulf states and Turkey) increasingly seek to influence Africa’s geopolitics.

In this context, 2017 provides a critical opportunity for reshaping European Union (EU)-Africa relations. The EU is currently identifying its strategic interests in Africa and discussing the future of the Cotonou Agreement after 2020, including the European Development Fund and the Africa Peace Facility, as well as its financing for development worldwide. Meanwhile, the African Union (AU) is beginning to take steps toward financial self-sufficiency and has embarked on a wholesale reform of the Union that will open it up to further scrutiny and reveal the extent of member states’ commitment to the body. The fifth ­EU-Africa summit scheduled for November 2017 in Côte d’Ivoire offers a platform to continue discussing priorities and cooperation between the two continents, in particular on migration and youth. But whether the EU and Africa are able to agree on mutual priorities and commit to renewed cooperation depends on the extent to which the two sides are willing to listen and engage outside their respective narratives.

The EU’s deals with some states to curb people-smuggling are problematic and may have limited impact if not focused on the drivers of migration: repression, war, poverty, the youth bulge and poor governance. The EU needs to better balance its attempts to thwart migration northwards with its important work in promoting good governance, democratisation and rule of law. Crucially, it needs to better understand the collusion between state officials and institutions, local power brokers and smugglers.

The EU has an important role to play in addressing the humanitarian fallout from conflict in sub-Saharan Africa.

The EU has an important role to play in addressing the humanitarian fallout from conflict in sub-Saharan Africa, which hosts 29 per cent of the world’s displaced. It should work closely with the AU to reduce the destabilising impact of refugees on countries and regions too weak to absorb them; this needs to involve greater efforts on the part of Europe at burden sharing. Refugee flight within Africa has serious security ramifications for countries and regions under extreme pressure, particularly Kenya (notably due to the Dadaab camps), the Great Lakes region, the Lake Chad basin, northern Uganda and Sudan’s Darfur and Two Areas, as well as the wider Horn of Africa as it receives refugees from Yemen.

Lake Chad Basin: Controlling the Cost of Counter-insurgency

In the Lake Chad basin, the Boko Haram insurgency has hugely exacerbated pre-existing violence and underdevelopment. Despite recent military setbacks the jihadist group remains a significant regional threat, recruiting members and attacking civilians and security forces in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and has brought in its wake a humanitarian catastrophe. Failure to bring security, other basic public goods and visible socio-economic dividends to affected areas risks derailing recent progress. That would have severe consequences for the security and long-term stability of the four countries bordering the lake.

Divided, but still deadly

Boko Haram faces strong pushback due to falling societal support, the mobilisation of vigilante units and pressure from relatively well-coordinated regional security forces. This pressure has precipitated a wave of surrenders, mainly by women and children, and exacerbated internal tensions leading to a rift between two factions. One remains loyal to the group’s erstwhile overall leader, Abubakar Shekau, and is mostly present to the south of Lake Chad and along the ­Nigeria-Cameroon border. The second claims allegiance to Abu Musa al-Barnawi (Habib Yusuf), is based in the north of Nigeria’s Borno state along the border with Niger and mostly operates on the lake.

Map of Lake Chad basin. International Crisis Group
Boko Haram, though torn, remains a significant threat.

But Boko Haram, though torn, remains a significant threat. In the region’s border areas and the swampy, heavily vegetated and inaccessible Lake Chad it has found ideal areas to seek refuge, resupply and regroup. Over the last three months the dry season has allowed fighters to move more freely, which may explain the recent small increase in attacks. The spike may also be intended to prove, in response to military pressure, that the movement is far from down and out. Nigeria and Cameroon launched a joint military operation in late 2016, but there are signs that Shekau and his core units had dispersed beforehand. They are now regrouping and have increased suicide bomber attacks (deploying a notable number of female assailants) against soft targets, including in the city of Maiduguri in northern Nigeria.

The faction led by Barnawi is less active. It seems to be trying to rebuild connections with the local population and is focusing on military targets. However, it appears to be suffering significant losses as members surrender to national security forces.

Al-Qaeda’s release of a statement on the Boko Haram conflict in January 2017 – the first in a long time – suggests that it may be trying to use the current rift within Boko Haram to regain influence in the area. But its traction on the ground remains unclear.

A deepening humanitarian emergency

The severe humanitarian fallout is getting worse. Across the region, over 10 million people are in need of assistance and about 2.3 million are displaced, of which an overwhelming majority are women and girls. Food insecurity has increased significantly over the last twelve months due to displacement; over a third of the 1.5 million displaced children suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Aid workers are only now gaining a clearer sense of the deeper damage to agriculture and trade.

Despite a steady increase in international assistance, the response remains under-funded, lacks gender-sensitive assistance and is still hampered by insecurity. In 2016, donors provided only 53 per cent of the $739 million needed that year. That the cost of the response plan for 2017 has risen to $1.5 billion reflects the deteriorating situation. While more funding is only part of the solution, donors do need to finance adequately the 2017 plan as part of efforts to halt a further worsening of the crisis.

The cost of a militarised approach

Lake Chad countries and their international partners need to be aware that the social and economic costs of continued military operations carry risks for the region’s political future and security. They should balance gains made by the region’s armies against the displacement caused by their operations and the negative impact on livelihoods, including on cross-border trade. This is exacerbated by a military ban on trade in some local goods, for fear Boko Haram could tax it, which is only slowly being lifted.

If the negative impact on livelihoods is not mitigated quickly, it could increase resentment against authorities, make it harder for displaced people to return home (if farmers miss the upcoming sowing season they could become more dependent on humanitarian aid) and possibly make people more susceptible to recruitment by Boko Haram or violent criminal groups. The militarisation of much of the area previously under Boko Haram’s influence risks generating a cycle of alienation and exclusion.

Peeling away Boko Haram

Many fighters, both male and female, have surrendered or been captured in recent months, although evidence suggests very few of the hard core are among them. It is vital to encourage this trend to peel away the outer circle of Boko Haram support, increase intelligence gathering through debriefing defectors and exploit the movement’s declining social legitimacy. To do so, it is necessary to deal with captives quickly and decently, according to their role in the organisation and in strict compliance with international human rights standards. Quick and fair processing could significantly lighten the burden on prisons and justice systems in all four countries.

The European Union (EU) and its international partners should assist in encouraging more Boko Haram members to surrender by ensuring the Lake Chad countries deal appropriately with captured suspects, including by avoiding keeping them in lengthy pre-trial detention and taking into account gender-specific needs. They should also support the four countries to differentiate between hardliners and others, establish community restorative justice programs where appropriate and start to build acceptable penitentiary services.

Planning for the aftermath

While Boko Haram continues to pose a security threat, the temptation is to allow military tactical demands to dominate thinking. This would be a mistake as only by paying early attention to the economic and social consequences of the violence can national and international actors prevent Boko Haram from regrouping or stop a similar group emerging. To deal with the consequences of displacement, the EU and member states should encourage countries of the region to ensure civilians handle much of the response, invest more in creating livelihoods, establish quick-impact youth employment projects and stimulate the longer-term recovery of agriculture and trade.

The EU should support better coordination between the military and civilian branches of the state, particularly problematic in Nigeria, including through its program “Strengthening the management and governance of migration and return and long-term resettlement in Nigeria”. Re-establishing markets and securing cross-border trade routes should be a priority of the EU’s Lake Chad Inclusive Economic and Social Recovery Programme (RESILAC).

In partnership with civil society, the EU and its member states should strengthen programs to tackle gender stereotypes and raise awareness about women’s roles including in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction. They should develop and support programs to increase women’s recruitment in local police forces and deploy them in camps for the internally displaced as soon as possible.

The EU should also be cognisant of the longer-term risks of over-reliance on vigilante committees; member states supporting security efforts should press regional governments to formulate plans for winding them down as and when the Boko Haram threat recedes.

The Sahel: Mali’s Crumbling Peace Process and the Spreading Jihadist Threat

Despite significant international sweat, the Sahel remains on a trajectory toward greater violence and widening instability. Jihadists, armed groups and entrenched criminal networks – sometimes linked to national and local authorities – continue to expand and threaten the stability of already weak states. Across the region, citizens remain deeply disenchanted with their governments. International actors must review their current strategies, which tackle the symptoms of the Sahel’s problems without addressing their underlying cause: central governments’ long-term neglect of their states. In particular, they should act urgently to prevent the collapse of the peace process in Mali – a genuine danger this year that would have serious implications for security across the Sahel.

Widening cracks in Mali’s peace process

At the heart of the Sahel’s instability is Mali’s long-running crisis. It is spilling over into Burkina Faso and spreading to fragile Niger and more stable Senegal. Twenty months since the government and armed groups signed the Algeria-brokered Bamako peace agreement in June 2015, implementation is faltering and the deal’s collapse is a real possibility. Despite publicly claiming to support the process, Malian parties lack confidence in a deal that was signed under international pressure and has serious shortcomings. It does little to tackle the violent war economy in which prominent businessmen rely on small private armies to protect trafficking routes. It also fails to restore a viable balance of power between northern communities and leaders who compete for resources, influence and territory.

Map of Sahel. International Crisis Group

The recent fracturing of the main rebel coalition, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), has seen the creation of new community-based armed groups, such as the Mouvement pour le Salut de l’Azawad and the Congrès pour la Justice dans l’Azawad, and may further aggravate insecurity. More worryingly, the appointment of interim local authorities and the launch of mixed patrols comprising army soldiers and former rebels in the north have failed to demonstrate much positive impact at the local level.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine and al-Mourabitoun, remain active. Having been chased out of major towns, rather than trying to hold urban areas they are striking provincial and district centres from rural bases. Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the bombing on 18 January that killed 61 personnel of the mixed unit in Gao region.

At the same time, insecurity is rising in areas long neglected by the state such as central Mali, which is not included in the northern Mali peace process. Jihadists and other violent non-state groups are filling the security vacuum as the army retreats and local authorities and the central government abandon immense rural areas. Bamako still has no effective response to the jihadists’ strategy of threatening or killing local authorities or civil society members that stand against them. In addition, the rise of a new group, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and the possible influx from Libya of defeated Islamic State (IS) fighters are further sources of concern.

Jihad sans frontières

Despite international military intervention including by UN peacekeepers, jihadists are making inroads into other Sahelian countries. In late 2016, jihadist fighters based in central and northern Mali launched attacks in western Niger and northern Burkina Faso, underscoring the region’s vulnerability and the serious risks of overlapping conflicts across the greater Sahel. On 6 February, the G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) met in Bamako to announce the creation of a regional force to tackle terrorism and transnational crime. It remains to be seen how effective this ambitious project will prove.

Mali’s neighbours are right to point out that Bamako is responsible for failing to prevent radical groups using its territory. However, they should also pay closer attention to their own internal dynamics. These include years of state neglect and poor political representation of certain communities – especially nomadic Fulanis in the region of Djibo in Burkina Faso and Tillabery in Niger. Chronic resource limitations hobble Sahelian states’ ability to respond effectively: Niger’s state revenue, for example, is €1.7 billion, about as much as France invested in stadiums to host the 2016 European football competition.

In 2016, Burkina Faso suffered eight attacks originating in Mali and it remains the most vulnerable of Mali’s neighbours. The ousting of former President Blaise Compaoré in 2014 left the security apparatus in disarray. National authorities have been slow to rebuild the intelligence system and they lack a defence strategy to help security forces adjust to rapidly evolving threats. Despite recurring attacks, military posts in the country’s northern Sahel region remain poorly protected. With limited resources the government will struggle to meet demands for significant social development, which partly drove the October 2014 uprising, and, at the same time, increase spending to revamp the security forces. Should Burkina be tempted to use the social welfare budget to plug security holes, it could face new protests.

Reviving the Malian peace process

International forces have been slow to adjust to changing ground realities and for now there is little appetite in Bamako or the region for a major course correction. However, further deterioration – such as jihadist groups expanding westwards into Ségou region in the centre – would require a response. The European Union (EU) and its member states should anticipate this and encourage Malian parties and the Algeria-led mediation team to meet again before the process loses all credibility. New talks would offer all parties an opportunity to express their concerns about the implementation of the Bamako agreement and reenergise it. They should agree on additional appendices that include a new timetable and mechanisms to ensure that each party respects its commitments. To limit the risk of further armed group fragmentation, discussions should also focus on ways to bring splinter groups into the process. This could mostly be done by integrating them into one of the existing coalitions, the CMA or Platform.

To avoid the further spread of violence in Mali, the EU and its member states should encourage and support central government and local authorities to mediate local conflicts. They should also assist local authorities, through training and direct support, to provide public services and ensure the equitable sharing of natural resources. Such peacebuilding support should not be framed as preventing or countering “violent extremism” (P/CVE) as these concepts lack clarity, mask the complex dynamics of jihadist recruitment and risk stigmatising communities that receive such assistance.

Vital too is the need for a shift in international development strategies. The focus should be as much on helping the state provide services to the population, including justice and security, as on economic projects or infrastructure. The EU and member states should pay particular attention to assisting the state’s local-level redeployment through programs that support public services. They should encourage and assist the government to improve its draft “Plan for Central Mali” and make it a useful tool to coordinate government efforts.

They should also ensure that the EU’s capacity-building mission, EUCAP Mali, closely collaborates with authorities at both central and regional levels to make Mopti region in the centre a pilot site to test policies aimed at improving local security, and specifically reforming the local police. Lessons drawn from here could be applied in northern Mali and other Sahelian regions.

Halting jihadists’ cross-border spread

The EU and its member states should pay more attention to Burkina Faso, which faces a real threat from armed groups. In particular, member states with a military presence in Mali should deploy forces near its border with Burkina Faso, and provide the Burkinabè security forces with helicopters so that they can conduct aerial surveillance of the long shared border. Although the link between underdevelopment and radicalisation is complex and indirect, increasing aid in health, education and professional training particularly in areas affected by attacks, could potentially improve relations between state authorities and communities and therefore undercut an important grievance that extremist groups often exploit.

Somalia: New Leadership, Persistent Problems

Somalia finally has a new leadership but faces a slew of longstanding problems, moving forward. The country’s course in the next year will depend in particular on how the new Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) handles the fallout from a fraudulent and fractious electoral process and the country’s multiple security threats. If left unaddressed, these challenges combined with others such as illicit foreign funding of politicians, divisions over the country’s regional and international relations and persistent clashes driven by clan-based interests will create opportunities for armed actors – including Al-Shabaab and an emerging Islamic State (IS) – to continue to operate and expand.

The day after divisive elections

The FGS and federal member states have come through a delayed, chaotic and divisive election process to select a new president and two houses of parliament. Newly elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo secured unprecedented cross-clan support but expectations are high and a backlash against him is probable unless he moves quickly to fulfil his pledge to rebuild the security forces and state institutions, tackle corruption and unify the country. Furthermore, Farmajo’s intention to reshape Somalia’s foreign policy could prove unsettling for the country and the region. He won partly thanks to his campaign image as a staunch nationalist, opposed to foreign meddling, but he will need to move cautiously to manage tricky regional politics and ease the anxieties of powerful neighbours. In turn, the African Union (AU) and other partners need to be aware of the destabilising potential of the perceived resurgent Somali nationalism embodied in Farmajo and should encourage discreet diplomacy between Somalia and its neighbours to promote dialogue and accommodation.

The indirect election process made positive steps toward improving representation at clan-based level and could pave the way for direct elections. But the absence of transparency and accountability among electoral bodies undermined the polls’ legitimacy and increased the chances that the results will be contested. There are credible allegations of foreign states (mostly in the Gulf) supporting their favoured candidates financially. Gender balance in the new parliament will improve but the proportion of women will still fall short of the 30 per cent quota.

Conflicts between and within federal member states

President Farmajo will have to navigate Somalia’s dysfunctional politics, including its contentious federalism project. The lack of agreed policies or framework to tackle disputes among federal member states or between them and central government makes his work particularly tricky. The most intractable of the conflicts between federal states remains that between the Galmudug Interim Administration (GIA) and Puntland over the city of Galkayo which straddles their common border. Clashes in November and December 2016 saw hundreds killed and thousands displaced. Tensions subsided following a ceasefire agreement in late December, but the violence highlights the ferocity of competition between clans for territorial control.

Disputes within federal states also hamper efforts to rebuild the country. On 10 January, local Galmudug state parliamentarians passed a no-confidence motion against GIA President Abdikarim Guled, which he rejected on the grounds that it fell short of the required two-thirds threshold and was passed while parliament was closed. The GIA also faces resistance from the Sufi-aligned, anti-Al-Shabaab militia, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama (ASWJ), which continues to control Galmudug state capital, Dhusamareeb.

In Somaliland, which does not recognise the FGS’s authority, elections planned for March 2017 have been pushed back until October due to drought. Since clan tensions have risen significantly there, the process could be more violent than in the past.

Al-Shabaab adapts as Islamic State looks for a foothold

Al-Shabaab remains resilient and continues to launch strikes against civilian and military targets across Somalia, especially in Mogadishu’s heavily guarded centre. Though weakened, it has adapted and become versatile in using both urban and rural guerrilla tactics. Effective counter-insurgency will require concerted action by both military and civilian actors. While U.S. airstrikes and ground operations have degraded the group’s military strength and eliminated high-profile figures, they do not constitute a long-term solution.

Al-Shabaab still holds territory in the south and centre but discontent is rife among the population, especially in the Juba valley, where the group’s coercive collection of zakat tax has angered residents. In Middle Shabelle and Hiraan regions in the centre, local clan militias have mobilised and had some success in disrupting Al-Shabaab’s operations. Deep fragmentation among Somali clans makes them incapable of an organised large-scale revolt. Some could ally against Al-Shabaab but they would have to use great care as arming clans hastily and indiscriminately would risk more instability.

The emergence of IS after one of Al-Shabaab’s spiritual leaders pledged allegiance to the group in October 2015 is a further potentially serious threat to stability. Despite attempts by both Al-Shabaab and government troops to isolate pro-IS factions in the south and centre, IS briefly seized control of Qandala on Puntland’s Gulf of Aden coastline in the north in October 2016. The Puntland administration claims to have flushed IS from the town, but militants reportedly still control its peripheries. While IS has so far failed to break Al-Shabaab’s partnership with al-Qaeda, the local faction will try to exploit Al-Shabaab’s internal weaknesses to gain influence in the coming months.

Cracks in the security forces play into Al-Shabaab’s hands

The Somali National Army (SNA) is undermined by infighting over control of checkpoints (where soldiers can extort money) which has given Al-Shabaab opportunities to retake territory, most recently in Buulo Gaduud in the south west and War-Sheekh in the south east on 7 January. A wave of SNA defections to Al-Shabaab, lured by the group’s money and reassured by its pledge not to kill defectors, has buoyed the jihadists’ numbers and morale.

Unless the Somali leadership gives priority to reforming its security forces, external initiatives to help on this front will fail.

Unless the Somali leadership gives priority to reforming its security forces, external initiatives to help on this front will fail. Present rates of corruption – in Transparency International’s 2016 ranking corruption was perceived to be worse in Somalia than in any other country – not only call into question the leadership’s priorities but also fuel insecurity. Military reform need not be expensive, but troops must be committed: motivated groups like ASWJ have shown that with limited external support, Al-Shabaab can be defeated.

The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has had some significant successes against Al-Shabaab but is still struggling to fight a non-conventional war for which it is ill-suited and inadequately resourced. The SNA’s and FGS’s failure to secure and govern areas liberated by AMISOM has sapped peacekeepers’ morale and led some troop contributing countries to plan to leave the mission in the next two years. A hasty withdrawal would be disastrous, but AMISOM must plan to progressively hand over responsibility for security to effective Somali forces.

Refocusing support on state administrations and clan-level reconciliation

To help stabilise Somali politics and reduce violence, the European Union (EU) and its member states should continue to encourage the federal government to prioritise a bottom-up, national reconciliation process and to seek lasting political settlements with and between federal member states. In tandem, federal states, supported by the FGS, should launch grassroots efforts to reconcile clans and make local governance more inclusive. The EU and its member states should accompany this process by shifting the focus of their support from the federal government to state administrations to boost their role in intra- and inter-clan reconciliation and help reinforce local security forces.

If sub-national governance remains weak and dysfunctional and clans at loggerheads, there will likely be more conflict for Al-Shabaab to exploit. Donors – including the EU and its member states in part through the EU Training Mission (EUTM Somalia) – should adopt a strategy of decentralising their counter-insurgency support, currently focused overwhelmingly on Mogadishu, by increasing investment in federal states’ security forces and coordination structures.

The EU, having recently reduced its funding for AMISOM by 20 per cent, should maintain the current level while assisting the AU to secure additional funding from other donors. It should also agree with the AU and AMISOM on a new, more feasible force structure, help them work toward greater cooperation with state security forces, and plan a credible exit schedule.

Asia

The security agendas of China, Japan, South and North Korea, India and Pakistan, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states, are in flux. Driven by a complex, shifting matrix of priorities and relationships, and increasingly dominated by nationalist forces, these countries find themselves in a rapidly evolving strategic environment. Traditional alliances are uncertain and overt or tacitly accepted rules of engagement are breaking down. Friction and disagreements in the South China Sea, on the Korean Peninsula, between China and Japan, and Pakistan and India could escalate dangerously in the absence of dispute resolution mechanisms and effective talks, in a regional security architecture that is losing legitimacy.

Across South and South East Asia, trends point to the ascendancy of ethno-nationalist majoritarianism, ill-advised or counterproductive government strategies to deal with grievances, and a related growth of radicalisation. These risk creating the conditions for, inter alia, an unravelling of democratic transitions in Myanmar and Sri Lanka and renewed militant attacks and violence; the opening of space for returning Islamic State (IS) fighters or the space for new forms of radicalisation caused by this return and the related changed dynamic between local jihadists and global jihadist groups in the Philippines and Bangladesh; and the strengthening of a jihadist nexus between groups and individuals in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Afghanistan faces a constellation of challenges that encourage the spread of insurgency, criminal violence and the IS franchise: flawed power-sharing arrangements, resistance to reform from entrenched patronage networks, a collapsing economy, growing political fragmentation along ethnic, tribal and regional lines, and the armed forces’ inability to fill security gaps left by the 2014 international military drawdown. The drive to repatriate Afghan refugees – both by neighbours, particularly Pakistan, and European countries – adds unwelcome stress to this fragility. Coordinated efforts to bring peace and stability need to include a comprehensive approach to an escalating humanitarian crisis.

Democratic space is narrowing across the board as authorities shun the politics of inclusion.

Democratic space is narrowing across the board as authorities shun the politics of inclusion. Governments – particularly those facing elections in the next twelve-to-eighteen months, including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Cambodia and Pakistan – are increasingly turning to a selective reading of national security legislation to suppress political competition, dissent and independent opinion. The lack of effective, legitimate or united opposition further erodes the accountability of those in authority. In Thailand, even when elections are held under the new constitution, rules are being instituted to limit popular representation for a generation, while prospects for peace in the south are dim even amid fears of IS-style radicalisation.

Beyond trade, Europe’s interests and motivations in Asia have not always been clear. In light of current uncertainties, this needs to change. The EU and its member states should now prioritise being a part of strategic discussions in Asia, particularly with Beijing and Canberra. Overall, the European Union (EU) will need to tread a fine line between ensuring its economic and security interests in the region are upheld, while also adhering to the soft power and values at the core of the European project. In concrete terms this could include quiet diplomacy to reinforce the importance of human rights; supporting peace and transition efforts; engaging with ASEAN to shore up that body’s legitimacy; and exploring how it might contribute to dialling down tensions on the Korean peninsula. This will help build European legitimacy, reinforce its predictability, and ultimately strengthen Asian stability.

Myanmar: Diverting Rakhine State’s Alarming Trajectory

Key conflict concerns in Myanmar remain Rakhine state and the peace process with ethnic armed groups. This note focuses on the former.

The 9 October attacks on the security forces have rendered an already volatile situation in northern Rakhine state that much more fraught. The government’s heavy-handed security response has led to widespread reports of serious abuses and a shutdown in humanitarian access. Some 69,000 Rohingya Muslims have recently sought refuge in Bangladesh. The risk of further attacks by the al-Yaqin armed group remains significant, and based on the military’s previous behaviour would likely trigger a further escalation in the security response – with human rights and political ramifications. In central Rakhine state, more than 120,000 Muslims – mostly Rohingya – remain segregated in displacement camps following an outbreak of intercommunal violence in 2012. Several hundred thousand more who remain in their villages are reliant on humanitarian assistance due to government restrictions on their basic freedoms, including movement.

These developments risk intensifying longstanding negative trends in Rakhine state. Marginalisation of the Rohingya minority, oppressive state security and al-Yaqin’s incipient – but surprisingly sophisticated – armed response threaten to dominate the international narrative on Myanmar. Alongside this, the state’s majority Rakhine Buddhist population, itself a minority at the national level, is acutely concerned about being sidelined, facing discrimination by the state and economic and political marginalisation. Failure by the authorities, and Aung San Suu Kyi personally, to take control of the crisis by developing and implementing an overarching political and development strategy, could result in the situation spiralling further out of control. The consequences would be unpredictable, including for other complex transition processes in the country, and generate ever increasing international opprobrium.

Map of Myanmar. International Crisis Group. Based on UN map no. 4168 Rev.3 (June 2012)

The government’s response: limitations and risks

So far, the government has not set out any overarching political strategy for addressing either the underlying problems in Rakhine state as a whole, or the recent related violence in northern Rakhine. Rather, it has appointed two commissions to look into them both. The first, headed by former UN ­Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was appointed before the 9 October attacks, with a mandate to advise on possible solutions to the root causes of the situation in Rakhine state. The second, headed by Vice President-1 Myint Swe, was established to look at the attacks themselves, the security response, and ways to prevent further violence.

The second commission released a preliminary report in early January, essentially denying most allegations of abuse; its final report has been delayed indefinitely after a damning UN report released on 3 February found evidence of grave and widespread abuses that it says may amount to crimes against humanity. Suu Kyi was reportedly shocked by these claims and has undertaken to investigate them – but has assigned this task to the already-discredited vice president-1 commission. (The Myanmar military and police have also recently announced separate internal inquiries into these allegations.) Meanwhile, the Annan Commission is due to issue interim recommendations in March, before its final report in August. These recommendations will focus on steps that the government can take in the immediate future that could have a meaningful and timely impact on the underlying situation of Muslims in Rakhine state.

Suu Kyi is under pressure to investigate credibly the evidence of grave human rights abuses, and to move quickly on implementing the Annan Commission’s recommendations – both to address current volatility, and to give a clear signal of the government’s political will to tackle the underlying problems. The possibility, in the absence of clear signs of movement, that Annan might reconsider his involvement in the commission, will provide additional impetus to the government. However, the government’s political space for manoeuvre in Rakhine state, and hence prospects for real progress, will depend partly on events outside its control: in particular, any further attacks by al-Yaqin, the popular pressures for and discipline of the military’s security response, and an even more febrile political environment.

Addressing underlying problems in Rakhine state

The Muslim population in Rakhine state numbers more than a million people, the vast majority of whom have long been denied citizenship and basic rights. Myanmar has two choices. The government can continue to allow this population to live in limbo – abused, marginalised and with no hope for the future. This would perpetuate policy failures of the last decades, which have directly led to the current crisis and represent an ongoing security and political threat. Alternatively, the government can use the inflection point that this crisis offers to change track and give this population a place in the life of the country as citizens with access to rights, social services and economic opportunities.

To that end, the government must ensure that its announced ending of the security operation on 15 February translates into a cessation of abuses. To find long-term solutions for Rakhine state, it will need to think beyond individual recommendations, and craft a comprehensive political strategy that integrates citizenship and rights for the Muslim population with development initiatives including health and education, improved policing and security. Alongside this, steps are needed to reassure the Buddhist Rakhine population that their concerns will be taken into account. This will not be an easy needle to thread, and the government should not wait for the final August 2017 recommendations from the Annan Commission to begin developing such an approach.

Following such a path would encounter considerable political obstacles given strong anti-Rohingya sentiments in Rakhine state and across Myanmar. Assuming the government is willing and able to overcome these, the challenge will be to define a strategy that can be progressively implemented. Any such solution will require the cooperation of the security forces, police and government officials, including teachers and medical staff.

The role of the EU and its member states

The European Union (EU) is one of the largest providers of humanitarian and development assistance to Myanmar. The EU and its member states should use this leverage to push the government and military, at the highest level and through all available channels, to end abuses in northern Rakhine, allow unfettered access for humanitarian agencies and the media, and ensure a credible investigation, with appropriate international involvement and support, into the evidence of grave human rights abuses committed by the security forces.

They should also encourage Suu Kyi and her government to develop a detailed political response to the current crisis and underlying issues, including through the newly-appointed national security adviser. This political response will need to be coordinated with the military to ensure a coherent approach less focused on hard-edged security. The EU has taken a lead in Western military-to-military ties, and should use this to influence the commander-in-chief on this issue, alongside diplomatic engagement with him.

The EU and its member states should urge the government to prioritise the timely implementation of the Annan Commission’s interim recommendations when they are released in March, and encourage the government to incorporate these into its broader plan; they should also offer to provide technical support to assist in this. They should further encourage the government to take greater ownership of the humanitarian and development response in Rakhine state. This is vital to ensure that the international humanitarian and development community is not held hostage to intercommunal or state-society tensions or seen as an intrusive outside actor, as has been the case in the past.

Finally, they should encourage Suu Kyi to visit Rakhine state and personally outline the government’s approach, which the international aid and donor community can then support. A clear government plan could provide the trigger for provision of the significant technical and funding resources that will be needed over several years to improve conditions in Rakhine for all communities.

Europe and Central Asia

Significant challenges beset Europe. The European Union (EU) – grappling with Brexit, the stability of the Euro, the migrant/refugee crisis, terror attacks, and the rise of nationalism and/or extremism – is seeing its powers of attraction weaken. These forces have created strong pressures for policymakers to compromise on core European values. Russia – reestablishing itself as a player with global aspirations – has violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine and Georgia and pushed against sovereign choices of other states. President Trump’s criticism of NATO as obsolete further stokes a sense that core European institutions are in doubt, and a sense of insecurity on a scale not experienced on the continent since the Cold War, further exacerbated by mounting risks to existing arms control agreements.

The most imminent challenges lie in the peripheries. As EU members and NATO allies, the Baltic states are secure but fears of Russian subversion and cyber threats run high. The Western Balkans are witnessing a resurgence of crises; and Russian interests are pressing hard against EU accession aspirations.

In the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, conflict is affecting five of the six EU partner countries. Taken together, these conflicts – some protracted – have claimed thousands of casualties, displaced several million, and produced six breakaway territories. Two situations present particular concern: increasing risks of an escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine. Moscow plays an important role in the formal conflict settlement process in all, even as its strong political, military and economic backing of most of the breakaway entities – some of which it has recognised – allows it to pressure the affected countries. Amid speculation about the direction of U.S.-Russia relations, and questions about how the EU can maintain its influence, uncertainty in these regions is heightened.

The EU’s commitment to a value-based relationship should not be overshadowed by concerns over the management of refugee flows.

Turkey, meanwhile, faces major challenges: Islamic State (IS), spillover from Syria, hosting nearly three million refugees, the PKK conflict, and increasingly heavy-handed governance. Traditionally anchored in the Western institutional system (primarily through NATO), Turkey may find itself pulled in conflicting directions in light of its increased cooperation with Moscow, the new regional fault lines opened by the Syria crisis, the Council of Europe questioning Ankara’s commitments to that institution’s values, and the lack of momentum in EU accession talks. Keeping the relationship with Ankara on an even keel is important for Europe’s long-term interests and security, while Turkey’s stability is vital not least given the strategic role it plays in the Syria crisis. Equally, the EU’s commitment to a value-based relationship should not be overshadowed by concerns over the management of refugee flows.

Central Asia’s states struggle with stalled transitions, notably the failure to provide just, accountable governance and to approach inter-ethnic issues even-handedly, while succession issues continue to bring risks of instability. Radicalisation is also a challenge in the region – at least two thousand Central Asians are known to have joined the ranks of IS or other jihadists in Syria – alongside security risks stemming from the porous Afghan border.

The EU has placed stability and reform at the core of its European Neighbourhood Policy, its policies toward the Western Balkans and also its strategy for Central Asia, employing different instruments for each. Despite internal distractions, and precisely because of increasing external uncertainties, it should make good on its commitments. Alongside this, a renewed focus on Europe’s traditional strengths – upholding multilateralism and its substantive commitment to European values – will serve the continent well.

Nagorno-Karabakh: Risks of a New Escalation

A flare-up up of hostilities in April 2016 left no doubt that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, located between Russia, Turkey and Iran and at the heart of the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, is a dangerous tinderbox. Armenian and Azerbaijani forces clashed in the most extensive confrontation since the end of the 1992-1994 war. Up to 200 people lost their lives; Azerbaijan seized two small pieces of territory, changing the status quo on the ground for the first time since the 1994 ceasefire; and the public mood hardened on both sides. The episode re-galvanised efforts, led by the OSCE Minsk Group, to resolve the conflict peacefully, but amid higher stakes: a stalled process now carries the risk of fighting breaking out on a deadlier scale.

Spiralling tensions and deadlocked negotiations

Though April 2016 was a wake-up call, the risks of escalation have been high for some time. Since 2006, both sides have built up their military capacities. In 2015, Azerbaijan spent $3 billion on its military, more than Armenia’s entire national budget. It has purchased hardware including attack helicopters, fighter planes, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-tank artillery systems. Armenia has similarly increased its defence spending, and though its 2015 total of $447 million was far below Baku’s, Moscow is said to have given Yerevan heavy discounts on armaments.

The frequency and intensity of security incidents at the Line of Contact (LoC) has increased. From sniper deployment in 2012 and special diversionary groups in 2013, starting in 2014 Armenia and Azerbaijan began exchanging heavier mortar fire, and in 2015 deployed tanks. Regular exchanges of fire also take place along the Armenia-Azerbaijan international border. Dozens of military casualties are reported every year along the increasingly weaponised front line. Meanwhile, talks have dragged on without real traction or confidence in their ability to deliver a settlement.

After April 2016, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group – Russia, the U.S. and France – stepped up diplomatic efforts. The resulting summits between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents reconfirmed their commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully. They agreed both to finalise an OSCE investigative mechanism to establish responsibility for ceasefire violations and expand the office of the Personal Representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office. These measures sought to reduce risks of further violence and instil a modicum of confidence. But both sides harbour deep distrust reinforced by repeat failures in the peace process and recurrent escalations along the LoC and even, in December, the international border. Yerevan says it cannot negotiate under duress or if Baku uses force; Baku suspects that Yerevan is not engaging in earnest and fears negotiations will cement the status quo.

Since mid-2016, progress has stalled, with no movement on the agreed confidence and security building measures and thus little progress in broader negotiations about the substantive issues in the settlement process. These include, most prominently, the return under Baku’s control of territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh controlled by ethnic Armenian forces; the future status of Nagorno-Karabakh (and the way it will be determined); return of displaced persons; and security guarantees. First formulated as the Madrid Principles in 2007, these issues, their iterations and sequencing, remain at the core of the ongoing confidential negotiations.

Impossible concessions?

A settlement based on mutual compromise is the only option for sustainable peace while upholding territorial integrity and self-determination. This would also benefit a region where closed borders between Armenia, and Azerbaijan and Turkey hinder connectivity and development. So why have concessions been so difficult?

Since Armenia’s and Azerbaijan’s independence, their national identities have developed in response to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. The first generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis who have no direct experience of each other is coming of age, shaped by hostile rhetoric. Following the April 2016 clashes, youth spontaneously marched in Baku to celebrate their army’s success. In Yerevan, speculation about possible concessions provoked Karabakh war veterans to storm and occupy a police station, killing two officers; the events sparked off demonstrations against unaccountable governance and economic stagnation, showing how the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute can catalyse broader public anger.

Moreover, there have been few attempts to bridge the disconnect between the peace talks and the rhetoric of leaders that fuels pro-war public sentiment. Both leaderships have failed to explain what peace could realistically look like, the benefits it would bring, and what concessions are needed.

The regional dimension

Russia, Turkey and Iran could all potentially become embroiled in an escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia and Turkey have military commitments to Yerevan and Baku, respectively, while Russia has supplied arms to both. Moscow now has an informal lead role in the Minsk Group and brokered the April 2016 ceasefire, but there are limits to its leverage over both sides. It is also not clear if Moscow views it as in its interests to see the conflict entirely resolved. The U.S. and France, as the other Minsk Group co-chairs, support Moscow’s lead in negotiations and are unlikely to suggest more themselves. The new U.S. administration has not signalled an appetite for greater engagement, while the upcoming French presidential elections augur a period of distraction in Paris.

The EU’s support to the Minsk Group through HR/VP Mogherini and the EU special representative has been strong but has had limited impact. As the EU places stability at the core of its European Neighbourhood Policy, more engagement is needed along with political pressure against the use of force and for the compromise needed to find a settlement. The political dialogue around the “new agreements” between Brussels and Yerevan and Baku give an opportunity to stress these messages.

Possible escalation scenarios

Without movement on the diplomatic front, the risk of new hostilities in 2017 is high; this would likely lead to civilian casualties and significant displacement and have the potential to escalate beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. After April 2016, the situation on the ground has seen intensified movement of heavy combat vehicles into the conflict zone and use of kamikaze drones as well as deployment of more troops. Both sides have ballistic missiles that could reach deep into the other’s territory; both showed new lethal weapons at military parades in 2016 and spoke about imminent plans for additional procurement. The recent flare-up at the international border demonstrated their readiness to engage in direct confrontation.

Baku and Yerevan are aware they would face strong regional pressure to rein in an escalation: their neighbours have no interest in a resumption of hostilities that could potentially provoke a war with regional implications. But both sides may also believe hostilities will play in their favour. Baku portrays last April as proof that it can change the status quo on the ground in its favour; it may be tempted to reach for more if it loses faith in the diplomatic process. Yerevan may be determined to demonstrate that April’s setback was a blip rather than the start of a trend.

A role for the EU

The EU needs to keep an active focus on the risks of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In addition to supporting the OSCE mechanisms, it should use bilateral channels with Azerbaijan and Armenia, and political processes linked to new agreements with both countries, to emphasise the need to avoid escalation and pursue a settlement by peaceful means.

The EU should push the two capitals to proceed with implementation of the mid-2016 agreements reached under the auspices of the Minsk Group, and publicly commit to a full-fledged settlement process.

The EU is well placed to support a broad public debate in both Azerbaijan and Armenia about the benefits of peace, such as economic development, trade and potential opening of borders, and should also look for ways to promote such a discussion within Nagorno-Karabakh.

The PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations

The relationship between EU and Turkey is in flux, while Turkey – amid shifting strategic fault lines in the region – faces multiple challenges: Islamic State (IS) attacks, the pressures of hosting three million Syrian refugees, a deteriorating economy, and domestic upheaval exacerbated by the failed coup attempt and increasing social and political polarisation, all feature alongside a dramatic intensification of conflict between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Reflective of deep-seated animosities, the increasingly febrile domestic scene, and spillover from fighting in Syria, the renewed PKK conflict has killed some 2,500 and displaced up to 300,000 since July 2015. Bringing the violence under control and back on the path of a sustainable settlement will be crucial to restoring stability. In this fraught environment, the EU – whose relations with Ankara have suffered amid mutual feelings of disappointment and betrayal – has options to refine and better coordinate its strategy toward Turkey, with a view both to helping calm the conflict in the south east, and halting strategic drift in relations.

A worsening conflict

Alongside fatalities and displacement, intense fighting between the security forces and the PKK between December 2015 and June 2016 led to the destruction of some towns and districts in Turkey’s south east. In the last few months, PKK militants have increased improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in big cities around the country. Fighting in the south east, which subsided with the onset of winter, is expected to pick up in the spring.

Ankara’s crackdown against the Kurdish political movement has intensified. Twelve MPs from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) including the party’s co-chairs, more than 60 elected co-mayors and thousands of party members and supporters are under arrest for broadly-defined charges of support to or membership of a terrorist organisation or making terrorist propaganda. More than 150 journalists have been arrested on the basis of the anti-terror law, some for alleged links with the PKK.

In northern Syria, Ankara’s Euphrates Shield military operation aims, among other goals, to block gains by PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), in particular PKK/YPG ambitions of creating a contiguous corridor of Kurdish territory along the Turkey-Syria border. Ankara has threatened to push into YPG-held Manbij, which would lead to armed confrontation between the Turkish military and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

All these dynamics have severely reduced the chances of a return to peace talks between the government and the PKK – even as this remains the only way to a lasting solution. In the short term, the focus needs to be on preventing further escalation of violence, de-escalation in the south east, and laying the groundwork for a new political process.

An approach for the EU to mitigate the conflict

Against this backdrop, growing anti-Western rhetoric and mounting mistrust between Turkey and the EU are narrowing avenues for cooperation, including for the EU to play a meaningful role in helping Turkey find a sustainable path out of the PKK conflict. Yet these twin imperatives – improving relations and an end to the conflict – form part of a mutually reinforcing loop, one unlikely without the other. At the same time, in the context of the Syria crisis the EU urgently needs to better integrate its Syria, Turkey and Russia policies. In this context the EU, in addition to supporting a political solution to the PKK conflict, should focus on measures aimed at dialling down tensions between it and Ankara. This means delivering on its commitments, for example on visa liberalisation, as soon as feasible, while maintaining a principled stance on international human rights norms.

EU institutions and member states should continue to support civil initiatives in favour of a political solution to the PKK conflict.

EU institutions and member states should continue to support civil initiatives in favour of a political solution to the PKK conflict. European support for local media and civil society platforms conducting independent/impartial reporting on the Kurdish issue is also important if these organisations are to be able to continue to function.

Human rights violations and the stifling of freedom of expression on Kurdish demands such as for decentralisation and mother tongue education must inevitably be addressed in any lasting peaceful settlement. However, European support for such reforms is often decried by the Turkish political leadership and nationalist circles as support to the PKK. These criticisms, alongside seeking to balance out other strategic interests with Ankara (such as on refugee/migration issues, counter-terrorism, investment and trade), have rendered EU member states increasingly reluctant to raise such issues. However, recent legal measures taken by the Turkish government following the Council of Europe Venice Commission’s opinion on emergency decree laws, which calls for stronger human rights protections, shows there are ways to positively influence human rights through existing international mechanisms to which Ankara is a party.

Overcoming the impasse on anti-terror laws

Now that accession talks have stalled, visa liberalisation is the most enticing prospect Brussels has to offer to help re-energise the relationship. However, it hinges primarily on Turkey amending its anti-terror legislation. The EU sees this as a key element in finding a long-term solution to the Kurdish issue, but would also like to see the reform of legislation which is draconian and also qualifies more Turkish citizens to receive asylum in EU states – Germany alone received over 5,000 applications from Turks in 2016, four fifths of them of Kurdish origin. Ankara has claimed the legislation is a proportionate response to the threat faced. Despite the publicly reported standoff, Turkey is, according to officials, considering adjustments to current anti-terror laws in line with EU requirements in the spring. Once the EU’s conditions are met, Brussels should move to grant visa liberalisation quickly.

EU institutions and capitals need to better explain that the expected reforms to anti-terror laws will not hamper legitimate measures to restore public order and combat terrorism, but are meant to help Turkey abide by its own commitments on fundamental rights and freedoms. To address the widespread agitation within Turkey over perceived European interference in domestic anti-terror legislation, they need to make it clear to the Turkish public how it is that the anti-terror laws in their current form allow Turkish citizens to qualify as ­asylum-seekers in Europe.

EU member states should also communicate more explicitly their position on the PKK – which the EU lists as a terror organisation –both to the Turkish public and to Ankara. This will help overcome a widespread perception in Turkey that EU states harbour PKK activists and permit financial flows to the organisation. EU states should publicise measures they currently take against the PKK but about which the Turkish public remain largely unaware – for example Germany’s current investigation of around 4,000 names allegedly linked to the PKK for a range of alleged offences, and the UK’s effective curbing of funding channels to the PKK through its UK-based affiliates.

Making the refugee deal work

Ensuring the March 2016 refugee deal remains in place and functions well will also be vital to stabilising relations, complemented by strengthening recognition of the refugee burden Turkey is bearing in large part in Europe’s stead. As controversial as the refugee deal is, its unravelling would be a disaster. As well as damaging EU-Turkey relations and undermining the EU’s internal cohesion, it would – most importantly – create additional insecurity for the refugee community. While the flow of EU funding for Syrian refugees has reduced negative rhetoric coming out of Ankara, the perception that EU countries prioritise stemming the flow of refugees from Turkey has undoubtedly given Ankara a sense of leverage over European counterparts.

EU member states need to continue to support refugee integration in Turkey’s labour market and education system.

EU member states need to continue to support refugee integration in Turkey’s labour market and education system, also focusing on social cohesion by supporting NGOs working at the local/community level to foster social dialogue and defuse tensions between host and refugee communities. This should be in addition to the ongoing imperative to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk through resettlement as a clear demonstration of a greater commitment to equitable burden-sharing.

Latin America and Caribbean

Latin America faces old dilemmas and stark new challenges at a time when protracted economic slowdown, imperilling the status of newly established middle classes, has fostered public discontent and intensified political polarisation.

Public preferences have shifted away from the left-leaning governments that dominated the region from 2002, toward centre-right administrations. But the weakness of newly-elected governments in Argentina and Peru, the entrenchment of a militarised chavista regime in Venezuela, and the ­elite-driven impeachment of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, point to major difficulties in achieving peaceful and democratic handovers of power.

Venezuela is Latin America’s most urgent crisis, combining hyperinflation, public impoverishment, scarcity of basic goods and a political standoff that to date defies resolution. Divisions in the Organization of American States, the suspension of Venezuela from Mercosur, and the continued support for President Maduro’s government from traditional allies (Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and various Caribbean states) have fragmented and undermined regional cohesion at a time when the risk of a humanitarian emergency in that country is heightening.

In contrast, support from the region and further afield for the Colombian peace process is unanimous. But peace in Colombia’s far-flung regions faces challenges from multiple armed spoilers, including criminal groups, jostling to control the country’s valuable and expanding coca crop. In Bogotá, opposition to the peace accord’s wide-ranging reforms at a time of fiscal retrenchment is set to loom large over elections in 2018.

Epidemic violence is responsible for an increasing share of Central American migration north.

The fear of multiple armed groups substituting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is rooted in the experience of post-conflict Central America. In that region’s Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as in Mexico, drug trafficking and extortion represent major revenue streams for gangs and cartels diversifying and seizing control over ­micro-territories. Epidemic violence is responsible for an increasing share of Central American migration north; in one Mexican state alone, Veracruz, the number of people disappeared is likely much higher than official estimates of 2,750. Prospects of a development-driven, long-term approach to reducing violent crime and forced displacement have dimmed as the new U.S. administration appears set to push through a defensive policy of border fortification, economic protectionism and, potentially, mass deportations. The EU-Community of Latin American and Caribbean (CELAC) summit this year should consider how commitments to promote migrants’ rights in its previous action plan can now be met.

Crime and violence remain core concerns for much of the region, requiring responses that avoid excessive militarisation, and instead focus, as Guatemala has sought to do, on strengthening judicial prosecution and police investigation. High-level corruption, the transnational reach of which has been demonstrated by the recent Petrobras, Panama Papers and Odebrecht scandals, needs to be addressed as a priority. Strong regional organisations and support and partnership from the U.S. are nevertheless both absent, and the risk is high of nationalism and populism propagating through Mexico and Latin America.

Venezuela: A Regional Solution to the Political Standoff

The dismantling of Venezuelan democracy, together with the country’s acute social, economic and humanitarian crisis, represents South America’s biggest challenge for regional institutions and the wider international community in 2017. The failure, thus far, to achieve a peaceful, democratic solution to Venezuela’s political conflict risks provoking severe civil unrest and possible divisions in the armed forces, with uncertain consequences. Venezuela’s neighbours – especially Colombia, only now emerging from decades of guerrilla war – have good reason to fear possible spillover in the form of mass emigration and the proliferation of non-state armed groups on their borders, as well as uncontrolled epidemics as Venezuela’s health services break down.

A political standoff

The presidency of Nicolás Maduro, an elected civilian whose cabinet is nevertheless packed with military officers, has entered its final two years amid widespread unpopularity. By using its control of the judiciary and the electoral authority (CNE) to block a presidential recall referendum in 2016, the administration has ensured that there is no constitutional means of removing it from power ahead of presidential elections scheduled for December 2018. Ruling by decree, Maduro has stripped the opposition-led National Assembly of its powers and threatened to close it down. Parliament has responded by declaring that Maduro has “abandoned” the presidency in constitutional terms by failing to fulfil his duties.

The appointment in early January of Aragua state governor (and former Interior Minister) Tareck el Aissami as vice-president is perhaps the clearest sign that hardliners now have the upper hand within the government. Charged by Maduro with heading a so-called “Anti-Coup Command”, Aissami immediately deployed the national intelligence service, SEBIN, to pursue and arrest opposition politicians, picking up six of them in the first week alone. He has also hinted at banning opposition parties. In short, the new vice president’s interest in a negotiated transition appears slim.

Talks which began at the end of October between the government and the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, brokered by the Vatican and a team from the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), quickly broke down, and there seems little prospect of reviving them in the short term. For the MUD the talks proved costly in terms of popular support and exacerbated deep divisions within the alliance over the way forward: one very vocal wing favours mass direct action while others advocate dialogue or the electoral route.

The government, having lost its electoral base (Maduro’s popularity stands at around 10 per cent, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) around 25 per cent), shows little interest in appealing to voters, perhaps in the belief it can bypass them at least in the short term. Elections for state governors due in December 2016 were postponed on a promise to hold them in mid-2017, but the CNE has yet to set a date. Political parties have been ordered to renew their registration, in a complex process which may be used as a pretext for further delay and/or to proscribe some parties.

Economic and humanitarian meltdown

Venezuela’s economy shrank considerably in 2016 – some estimates suggest by as much as 18 per cent – with annual inflation running at several hundred per cent and real wages shrinking fast. Imports have collapsed from over $60 billion in 2012 to under $18 billion in 2016, which combined with the slump in domestic production means acute shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods. About a fifth of the population eats only one meal a day. Malnutrition and preventable diseases have risen sharply, and the health service is close to collapse.

In mid-2016 shortages, particularly of food, led to rioting and looting in a number of cities. The government responded by replacing a large part of the retail food distribution network with Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAPs), using both the military and political organisations affiliated to the PSUV. The private sector is now legally obliged to sell 50 per cent of its production to the government for distribution through this network. The scheme appears to have reduced looting, not because it has satisfied demand (the CLAPs are plagued by corruption and inefficiency) but because it reduced the number and length of queues, a frequent trigger for riots. The scheme also enables the government to use food as a political weapon, favouring its supporters and the politically docile.

Getting out of the mess: the elements for long-term stability

The broad contours of a lasting solution will require negotiations between the government and opposition, facilitated by external actors, and will probably involve a transitional phase with a degree of power-sharing and economic reforms, leading to free and fair presidential elections under international supervision. High-profile civilian and military leaders, probably including the president, will need to be offered credible guarantees regarding their physical and financial well-being should they lose these elections, possibly including offers of exile. Such an arrangement would offer the best hope of restoring democracy and also stability. To avoid talks for talks’ sake, these negotiations will need to quickly establish a clear calendar for the way forward.

Toward this end, the European Union (EU) should work with regional governments to encourage the application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, especially its procedures for taking “diplomatic initiatives, including good offices, to foster the restoration of democracy” where this has broken down. They should reserve as a last resort sanctions such as the suspension of Venezuela’s membership of the Organization of American States (OAS).

In forging regional and international cooperation, particular attention should be paid to securing the support of Caribbean nations currently receiving subsidised Venezuelan energy. They will need to be reassured that they will be offered international financial assistance to make up for any loss of access to cheap oil that may accompany a transition in Caracas. In particular Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally, plays an important role in shoring up the Maduro government through the provision of intelligence and other advisory services, and could potentially contribute to a solution. Economically reliant on dwindling shipments of cheap Venezuelan oil, Havana is unlikely to support a political transition unless its interests are protected. Looking north, meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the new U.S. administration will be willing to continue its predecessor’s approach to working in a multilateral fashion.

The transition process is likely to be protracted, and donors need to identify creative means of alleviating the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans

The transition process is likely to be protracted, and donors need to identify creative means of alleviating the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans, both in terms of hunger and lack of medical supplies and facilities. EU member states are among the largest contributors to the UN’s humanitarian and specialist agencies, and should encourage them to scale up their response to the crisis commensurate with its severity, and explore with partners ways of overcoming government resistance to outside aid.

The presidential elections scheduled for December 2018 will be crucial, and it will be important to apply early and sustained pressure for the government to relax its current ban on professional observation missions. If the EU is unable to obtain permission for its own observers it should seek to work with those from credible regional organisations, in particular the OAS.

Middle East and North Africa

If 2016 was bad for the Middle East and North Africa, 2017 promises little better. Policymakers will be hard-pressed to bring peace to the region, but through their choices they could make matters worse. The priority should be: do no (further) harm.

The wars in Syria and Yemen look set to continue, further amplifying humanitarian catastrophes, sucking in neighbours and pumping oxygen to jihadists. The fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq is proceeding, but slowly, and is aggravating other conflicts, including between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliates. Amid U.S. hesitation, Russia has asserted itself as a Syrian dealmaker, though the prospects for sustained peace remain elusive with the potential of worse to come if basic governance issues are not adequately addressed. Although the nuclear deal is clearly a net positive, and should be protected from efforts to undermine it, Iran’s increasing assertiveness across the region has raised tensions that could also end up jeopardising the accord.

In North Africa, the conflict in Libya is escalating as the UN-led effort to create a unity government has yet to bear fruit. Egypt looks increasingly shaky, Algeria faces an uncertain succession on top of an economic crisis, and Tunisia is struggling to keep its unity government afloat amid multiple internal and external threats.

Overall, wars in the Middle East increasingly intersect, inflamed by a sectarian discourse reflecting a dangerous power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. All this against a backdrop of uncertainty surrounding the U.S.’s posture toward the region and the rapidly receding (and already distant) prospects of progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks toward a two-state solution.

While the European Union (EU) and its member states have critical interests in the region, they have largely been bystanders in the shadow of more powerful actors. Yet Europe cannot afford to be passive nor to undermine unified approaches to the region’s conflicts, as happened in Yemen. This means it will need to work with peace processes, whether the UN’s in Yemen or Moscow’s putative efforts with regards to Syria. It also necessitates encouraging Saudi Arabia and Iran to find a way to coexist and agree on principles of conduct in the region.

The EU should continue to play (and build on) its leading role in responding to the region’s burgeoning and likely longstanding humanitarian crises.

Of paramount importance will be working to maximise the continent’s soft power. The EU should continue to play (and build on) its leading role in responding to the region’s burgeoning and likely longstanding humanitarian crises, in Syria offering reconstruction aid conditionally and only as part of a credible, inclusive political process leading to a settlement. It should also adopt more principled approaches to arms sales in the region and speak out more clearly on the importance of upholding international law. Economic collapse is a pressing concern in Egypt and Libya: preventing financial collapse and its attendant risks – of resurgent jihadist violence and increased migrant flows – must be priorities, while in Egypt refraining from unconditional support to an increasingly repressive government.

Libya: Amid Political Limbo, Time to Rescue the Economy

The Libyan conflict will most likely continue without a decisive political and military settlement in 2017. Various political actors contest the legitimacy of the Government of National Accord, but a lack of consensus – among Libyans, neighbouring states and international stakeholders – on what should replace it suggests it will remain in place even as its effectiveness deteriorates and its opponents consolidate their positions. In this state of suspended animation, the European Union (EU) and its member states should make it their top priority to help stabilise Libya’s economic situation. The country’s financial collapse would cripple its few functioning and critically important institutions, precipitate a humanitarian crisis, fuel the war economy, complicate efforts to tackle migrant and refugee flows and, more broadly, further hinder international attempts to put the country on a more stable political footing.

Stalemate, but for how long?

The interim government created by the Libyan Political Agreement on 17 December 2015 has had limited success in imposing its authority since its arrival in Tripoli in April 2016 and is unlikely to survive in its current form. But what will replace it? And how?

A best-case scenario would see its composition, organisation and responsibilities renegotiated – and Prime Minister Fayez Serraj and other core Presidency Council members replaced – to meet the approval of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, whose endorsement is required to implement the agreement in both letter and spirit. This is not a silver bullet; it would need to be accompanied by a bottom-up process based on local governance where possible, with the aim of linking the urgent need to rebuild the central state with the reality of diffuse local power. At the very least, stabilising the centre offers opportunities to build institutional capacity and improve service delivery until solutions to thornier issues, such as demobilising militias and restructuring the security sector, can be found.

The worst-case scenario is that forces under General Khalifa Haftar, bolstered by recent military successes in Benghazi, the Gulf of Sirte “oil crescent” and southern Libya, make good on his pledge to try to retake Tripoli. This would lead them into a major military confrontation with Tripoli-based Islamist militias and forces from Misrata that have been fighting the Islamic State.

The more likely scenario is that Libya remains in limbo. This is because Haftar’s forces are unlikely to advance significantly toward Tripoli, even with Egyptian, Emirati and perhaps Russian backing, as they lack sufficient support in western Libya. At the same time, in the absence of concerted international pressure on Libyan factions to negotiate a new political deal, a breakthrough is unlikely. The question then becomes how to stop the economic situation from deteriorating further until an opportunity for a political breakthrough arises.

Map of Libya. International Crisis Group

The oil must flow

Whatever its ideological and geopolitical dimensions, the conflict is largely about control of hydrocarbon resources and access to state funds. According to the National Oil Corporation (NOC), oil sector closures have cumulatively cost over $100 billion in lost revenues from oil exports since 2013, resulting, according to the Central Bank of Libya, in a fiscal deficit of 56 per cent of GDP for both 2015 and 2016. The Bank’s foreign-currency reserves are estimated to have fallen below $40 billion, compared to $75 billion in March 2015. Oil production has increased since September 2016 – when Haftar-aligned forces seized most oil facilities in the Gulf of Sirte – from around 250,000 barrels per day (b/d) to 700,000 (still far below the 1.8 million b/d of 2010). Even if production reaches 1 million b/d by the end of March 2017, as the NOC projects, the economic outlook remains bleak. With crude oil prices at $50 a barrel, production increases will not cover expected government expenditure of around $40 billion in 2017. Libya could be bankrupt by the end of the year.

Even before then, without careful economic stewardship and proactive government measures, the economy is likely to worsen and hardships increase for a population mainly dependent on government salaries. The liquidity crisis (with banks unable to dispense much cash) could worsen, the dinar could come under further pressure, and basic services such as electricity could face severe constraints due to poor management and cash-flow problems.

Political factors make the outlook even grimmer. Rifts and rival claims for control of the NOC, Central Bank and Libyan Investment Authority (LIA, the sovereign wealth fund, with over $60 billion of assets) could limit the activities of these key institutions, constraining public spending. Moreover, the Central Bank appears unwilling to authorise transfers to the government because the latter lacks parliamentary recognition. The government’s consequent inability to access and use state funds could undermine the loyalty of security forces, whose salaries it pays, and stimulate the illegal economy, including trafficking of migrants and subsidised goods.

Focus on the economy (and security forces)

Europe has two strategic priorities in Libya: ensuring that the country is not a source of regional instability and finding a partner able to reduce the migrant flow. For both objectives, a political settlement is key. It may seem elusive now but will be far more difficult to accomplish in a collapsing economy, as warlordism and zero-sum calculations intensify. Such deterioration would not only increase the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa but also see the number of Libyans trying to cross the Mediterranean continue to rise, a trend that started in 2016.

Economic troubles are negatively affecting the security forces, including those tasked with countering illegal migration. Some units are suspected of taking bribes to look the other way or even becoming party to the people-smuggling. This in part enabled over 160,000 migrants to cross the Mediterranean from Libya in 2016 – a record high, alongside a record number of deaths. Seeking agreements from the government on migration control, as the EU and its member states are doing, is a fool’s errand as long as it has no effective control over the security forces (even leaving aside human rights concerns). The government will not be able to exercise that control without a peace settlement based on a political process accompanied by a security track that involves key military actors and addresses disputes on security forces’ structure and chain of command.

The EU and its member states should [...] channel their energy toward addressing the economy.

While the EU and its member states should not walk away from the overarching goal of a comprehensive solution to the conflict, they should at the same time, and urgently, channel their energy toward addressing the economy. In particular, they should intensify efforts to broker an agreement on the disbursement of the 2017 budget between the government, House of Representatives and Central Bank. To resolve the internal rifts within the Central Bank and NOC, they should urge Prime Minister Serraj to promote talks between the rival chains of command in these institutions, as he did in 2016.

The EU and its member states should continue to make clear that they will not tolerate oil sales or related contracts outside official channels and ensure, through more careful vetting and improved monitoring, that Libyan security forces participating in EU anti-migration efforts are not involved in, or profiting from, people-smuggling or maritime trade of subsidised fuels. They should also ensure that any greater reliance on Libyan authorities for anti-migration measures does not result in migrants being denied the protection to which they are entitled under both international and European law.

Syria: The Promise of Worse to Come and How to Avoid It

The fall of eastern Aleppo to regime and allied forces is a potentially pivotal moment in the Syrian war. Employing familiar tools–including massive collective punishment of the civilian population and reliance on foreign militiamen–the capture of Aleppo removed a uniquely valuable card from the opposition’s hand. It also dealt a staggering blow to non-jihadist factions, which had dominated the city’s rebel-held neighbourhoods and whose defeat has long been a priority for Damascus. Having achieved such a significant gain at manageable cost, the regime will be tempted to push on with additional offensives employing a similar playbook. If Damascus and its allies do so against other well-populated opposition strongholds – such as Eastern Ghouta, the western Aleppo countryside, and parts of Idlib province – casualty and displacement levels will soar. Under this scenario, options for a meaningful settlement or negotiated de-escalation will constrict further. Preventing it calls for a clear understanding of what points of leverage exist to influence the decision-making of the regime and its allies.

The regime’s limitations

Even as it notched up a coveted win in Aleppo, the regime’s limitations and vulnerabilities remain on full display. Regime forces defending the city of Palmyra proved no match for a December attack by the Islamic State (IS), which quickly seized the city for a second time – less than nine months after Damascus and its allies had hailed its recapture as a signature achievement. The lesson was clear: while the regime, Russia and Iran are capable of employing sufficient violence and resources to gain ground against opposition forces on top-priority fronts, these campaigns leave them vulnerable to attacks elsewhere.

The regime seeks to eventually retake all Syrian territory, and Bashar al-Assad has depicted victory in Aleppo as a springboard for further offensives against rebel strongholds. Yet, he cannot dictate priorities on his own; taking and holding additional ground in the north west would require significant help from Iran-backed militias, and even that support might prove insufficient if not accompanied by Russian airpower. Much is in the hands of Tehran and Moscow, who each have their own agendas in Syria.

Iran and Russia’s differing agendas

While Iran has tended to share the regime’s enthusiasm for targeting remaining opposition territory in western Syria – the most strategically valuable swath of the country – Russia’s priorities are more ambiguous. It has often appeared more concerned than its allies about overstretch of pro-regime forces – a significant risk that will increase if they attempt to advance into Idlib. The dominant rebel factions controlling Idlib (Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Sham), though riven by divisions, are likely to prove more capable than their Aleppo counterparts. Moscow’s manoeuvring in the immediate aftermath of the Aleppo victory suggests it is in no rush to test the waters in Idlib, choosing to focus on an expanded diplomatic track with Turkey rather than additional military offensives. It seems to want a political process amenable to its interests and preserving (and eventually rebuilding) regime structures; it may be less concerned about the regime restoring its authority over all of Syria, especially if this would mean further regime exhaustion and fragmentation. Moscow has also signalled more openness to a decentralised post-conflict Syria than is currently evident in Tehran or Damascus.

Russia and Turkey: Prospects for a ceasefire?

Russian-Turkish engagement produced a ceasefire agreement in late December which has lowered violence in parts of the country – in particular the north west – but which appears unsustainable. As in previous “Cessations of Hostilities” negotiated by Moscow and Washington, prospects are limited by the fact that key players on each side – the regime and Iran on one hand, and Fatah al-Sham and a smattering of other opposition hardliners on the other – appear to view adherence to the ceasefire as detrimental to their own interests. The fact that Fatah al-Sham is expressly excluded from the ceasefire, and that its forces in some areas fight alongside rebels who have joined the truce, leaves room for manoeuvre for those on either side who want to continue military operations. Regime and Iran-backed forces have done just that against opposition-held pockets outside Damascus. Here they have arguably benefitted from the decline in rebel activity immediately resulting from the ceasefire, while virtually guaranteeing that the truce (and whatever constraints it imposes on regime ambitions) will be short-lived. And as long as pro-regime offensives against opposition forces elsewhere continue, Turkey’s willingness and capacity to restrain its rebel allies in the north will erode. Indeed, a pair of rebel attacks on regime forces in Lattakia and Hama provinces on 9 February, launched following an uptick in regime airstrikes in central and northern Syria, suggests that what remains of the ceasefire is crumbling.

The same dynamic limits the prospects of talks between regime and opposition delegations, including those that took place in Astana in late January – another product of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement – and scheduled for Geneva in late February. Even if Moscow and Ankara are serious about using talks to reinforce the ceasefire and pave the way for a meaningful political track, their means of achieving either are limited. There is no indication that Russia on its own has the will and capacity to deliver sustained ceasefire compliance from Damascus, much less meaningful political concessions. Forcing the regime’s hand would likely require Iranian help, which is unlikely so long as Tehran prefers to focus on pursuing battlefield gains in areas it deems critical to its interests. Uncertainty regarding the new U.S. administration’s stance on Syria further muddies the waters; actors on both sides of the conflict are keen to create favourable facts on the ground while U.S. engagement is minimal, but are unlikely to make fundamental shifts until they have a sense of Washington’s intent.

The regime, as witnessed with Palmyra, lacks the capacity to reliably hold much of the territory currently outside its control once it has seized it (let alone stabilise or govern those areas). Yet it can achieve gains in the short run as long as Iran-backed militias and Russia are willing to provide the necessary manpower and air support. The result could be a harrowing continuation of civilian casualties and displacement. This may also render non-jihadist portions of the opposition politically irrelevant, and remove any prospect of their asserting the upper hand over jihadist rivals. That, in turn, would reduce whatever opportunity remains for a meaningful settlement or negotiated de-escalation. It would shift the main conflict to an eroded regime’s counter-insurgency campaign against well-entrenched jihadists, backed by foreign firepower and reliant on collective punishment.

Map of Syria. International Crisis Group

Limiting further catastrophe

Preventing that grim scenario should take priority. Though the European Union (EU) and its member states have played only marginal roles in the conflict’s military and political dynamics, their potential to help fund stabilisation and reconstruction provides leverage – all the more so because the regime’s backers are unlikely to be willing or able to do so. They should employ this to discourage the belligerents’ maximalist objectives and incentivise compromise within the pro-regime camp. Toward that end, they should reaffirm, and unite behind, the credo no reconstruction without credible transition, clarifying that they will provide reconstruction funding only within the context of a political settlement which has buy-in from the conflict’s regional players and a critical mass of the non-jihadist opposition.

European governments eager to minimise the displacement and radicalisation resulting from the conflict must resist the allure of wishful thinking.

European governments eager to minimise the displacement and radicalisation resulting from the conflict must resist the allure of wishful thinking. Bashar al-Assad will not negotiate his own departure, Moscow and Tehran have shown no willingness to push him toward the door, and current momentum suggests neither of those realities will change in the foreseeable future. However, accepting that the pro-regime camp has the upper hand, and providing reconstruction funding in absence of a credible settlement, does not offer plausible means of addressing Europe’s primary concerns. Due to the regime’s weaknesses, and the depth and breadth of animosity toward it, a robust insurgency is likely to continue. The regime would combat it with the same collective punishment tactics and militias it has employed throughout the conflict, fuelling additional displacement and radicalisation. The regime would also resist meaningful reform, encouraged by its military victories and the fact that it won’t be able to rule huge chunks of the country and population except through threat of overwhelming brutality.

Europe by itself cannot address these problems solely by applying conditionality to reconstruction funding, as the regime’s will and capacity to evade commitments far exceeds Europe’s will and capacity to enforce them. Instead, funding for reconstruction in government-controlled areas would likely be diverted toward the regime’s war effort. This, in turn, would further erode Western credibility, and provide dangerous incentives to authoritarians embroiled in conflicts elsewhere.

 Escaping Syria’s vicious cycles requires a settlement agreed among and facilitated by the conflict’s main external players – Iran, Russia, Turkey and the U.S. – and tolerable to a critical mass of Syrian combatants on both sides. It must take into account not only the current battlefield power balance, but also Syria’s geopolitical and demographic realities; otherwise the remaining insurgency may prove uncontainable. The EU and member states should make clear that reconstruction funding will await such a settlement, and is contingent upon its continued implementation. In the meantime, European diplomacy can further explore potential components of such a settlement, including decentralisation allowing local governance in areas currently outside regime control.

Yemen: A Humanitarian Catastrophe; A Failing State

Yemen’s war has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters; between 70 and 80 per cent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and over half of its 26 million people face food insecurity. Localised fighting escalated into full blown war in March 2015 when a Saudi Arabia-led coalition intervened on behalf of the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against an alliance of Huthi militias and fighters aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The conflict has fragmented a weak state, destroyed the country’s meagre infrastructure and opened vast opportunities for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) to grow and seize territory.

Continued fighting, especially the Saudi-led coalition’s attempt to capture the Red Sea port of Hodeida (northern Yemen’s economic lifeline), stifling blockades and unilateral moves such as the relocation of the Central Bank from Sanaa to Aden will deepen intra-Yemeni divisions and increase the risk of famine. The conflict is likely to continue to expand into the region with growing refugee flows, violence by AQAP and IS outside Yemen and more attacks by Huthi/Saleh forces inside Saudi Arabia. Continued fighting will further fuel tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, also a contributory factor in other conflicts in the region. International efforts to press the two sides to a ceasefire have been woefully inadequate. Insufficient media attention hasn’t helped either.

Incoherent international approaches

The approach that the U.S. and UK, in particular, have taken in Yemen has been muddled. They have supported UN efforts to end the conflict, but at the same time continued to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia despite evidence that it has repeatedly violated the laws of war. In April 2015, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2216, a one-sided document that essentially called for the Huthi/Saleh alliance to surrender and which the Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition have used repeatedly to obstruct efforts to achieve peace.

In August 2016, a fresh initiative by then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to revive the peace process proved too little too late. Nonetheless, while it exposed the Obama administration’s inability to bring along Saudi Arabia, it did present a more balanced solution. Current UN-led diplomatic efforts are complicated by uncertainties surrounding the position of the new Trump administration. It appears to favour more aggressive military action against AQAP and possibly against the Huthis, whom it seems to view as an Iranian proxy, to the detriment of prioritising a negotiated settlement. Further, after three rounds of peace talks and multiple failed ceasefires, the UN has lost credibility with all sides, especially the Huthi/Saleh bloc, which sees UN mediation efforts as biased toward Saudi Arabia.

The EU’s peace-making potential

Enter the European Union (EU). The EU – through its delegation to Yemen and in coordination with Brussels – is well qualified to help rebuild the credibility of UN-sponsored talks and prod the sides toward a ceasefire and settlement. Throughout the conflict, it has been a consistent advocate of a ceasefire and political solution under UN auspices, a position that has not been compromised by active participation or partisan support in the war. The EU’s neutrality, despite the UK’s and France’s bilateral positions in support of the Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign, has allowed it to maintain credibility and contacts with the principal belligerents, including the Huthis. The EU delegation to Yemen has done much to encourage the Huthis to engage with the UN peace process. The delegation and Ms Mogherini, among other EU actors, have consistently called attention to parties’ dangerous unilateral moves, condemned war crimes and supplied technical support to UN ceasefire monitoring committees.

In 2017, the EU with its member states should build on these efforts by focusing on two priorities: 1) securing a durable ceasefire and political settlement to end the war; 2) mitigating the burgeoning humanitarian crisis.

Ending the war will require a two-pronged approach: first, securing a UN-backed ceasefire and agreement that will end Saudi Arabia’s military intervention by addressing its security concerns and allowing it to make a face-saving exit; and second, launching inclusive UN-sponsored intra-Yemeni negotiations to chart the country’s political future. To achieve a ceasefire, the EU, leveraging its credibility with the Huthis and Saleh’s party, and in coordination with the UK and France, both of which may have Saudi Arabia’s ear because they support it militarily, should encourage backchannel talks between the antagonists to lay the foundations for a UN-backed deal.

In addition, the UK, as penholder, and France should push for a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, both inside Yemen and along the Yemeni-Saudi border, and outlining parameters of a compromise solution consistent with the UN roadmap and requiring concessions from both sides. They should also limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia expressly and only for defence (including defence of Saudi territory from cross-border attacks by Huthi-Saleh forces) and condition sales of arms for offensive purposes on Riyadh’s express support for an immediate ceasefire.

To promote a durable settlement, the EU and its member states should champion broadly inclusive intra-Yemeni negotiations that address unresolved issues, especially decentralisation and the status of the south. They could work toward these talks through track II initiatives and sustained diplomatic engagement with actors beyond the Hadi government and the Huthi/Saleh bloc, including the Sunni Islamist party Islah, southern separatists, tribal groupings, Salafi groups and civil society organisations including women’s groups.

Increasing humanitarian relief and upholding international law

The EU and its member states should continue efforts to mitigate the war’s humanitarian toll and prevent further deterioration. Specifically, they should urgently discourage, both privately and publicly, the Saudi-led coalition’s attempts to capture Hodeida, a move that would likely worsen the humanitarian crisis and set back prospects for a negotiated settlement. More generally, they should call on the Saudi-led coalition to relax the air and sea blockade on Huthi/Saleh-controlled areas (including by allowing civilian flights in and out of Sanaa, the capital), and call on the Huthis to ease the blockade of Taiz. In each case, they should encourage the blockading side to facilitate the free movement of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and civilians. They should also encourage the Yemeni antagonists to reach a compromise that allows basic Central Bank functioning throughout the country, including especially the payment of public-sector salaries and enabling importers to secure letters of credit for essential foodstuffs.

The EU and its member states should speak with one voice in consistently and explicitly condemning violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides.

Finally, the EU and its member states should speak with one voice in consistently and explicitly condemning violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all sides. They should bring to bear concerted diplomatic pressure and, where relevant, threaten to suspend all weapons sales. The EU could go further by advocating for an independent inquiry into alleged violations on the grounds that not holding perpetrators accountable breeds impunity, a recipe for further conflict. Yet given internal rifts within the UN Human Rights Council on this issue, including among EU member states, the EU will have more impact at this stage by focusing on promoting a ceasefire. Ultimately, however, a lasting settlement will need to include a mechanism for addressing transitional justice and accountability.

A demonstrator prays with her hand on a policeman's shield in front of a barricade in Independence Square, Kiev, February 2016. MAGNUM/Larry Towell
Special Report 2 / Global

Seizing the Moment: From Early Warning to Early Action

Wars can be prevented or mitigated by early, clear and well-designed political and diplomatic engagement. Yet policymakers are increasingly stretched by a myriad of global crises. Refocusing on knowledge, relationships, frameworks, strategic communication and pathways to peace is crucial to limiting and resolving the world’s current upsurge in deadly conflict.

Executive Summary

After a period of relative calm, an upsurge of crises is testing the international system, pitting major powers and regional players against one another and highlighting the weaknesses of preventive diplomacy. Governments and international organisations were taken by surprise by the Arab uprisings in 2011 and slow to react to crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) in the years that followed. Global and regional rivalries have weakened diplomacy over Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Policymakers, stretched by the symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism, struggle to focus on conflict prevention. 

Yet, preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. The Iranian nuclear deal, progress toward peace in Colombia and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015 have been reminders of what intensive international engagement can deliver. If politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex “framework diplomacy” with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.

This report, drawing on Crisis Group’s field-centred analysis and policy recommendations from the past five years, sets out a broad strategic framework for preventive diplomacy. Its primary focus is on conflicts, like those in Ukraine and Syria, which directly involve outside powers. While classical inter-state conflicts remain rare, internationalised civil wars are a leading source of regional and global frictions. Building frameworks to address both the internal and external tensions that shape them is likely to be a recurrent challenge for big powers, regional players and multilateral organisations in the years ahead. 

The first half of this report focuses on the internal drivers of recent and current crises. It argues that while it is exceedingly hard to identify specific triggers of future conflicts, it is possible to identify likely threats to peace and work out how they may play out if left unaddressed. It emphasises the need to understand the political dimensions of conflicts and, especially, the leaders and elites whose choices for or against violence are pivotal. Grasping how such leaders make these decisions is essential for effective early warning, but it must be buttressed by much broader political analysis covering, inter alia, the dynamics of ruling parties, opposition groups and civil society, not just at the national but at all levels of society. 

Building anticipatory relations with all these actors constitutes a bedrock for effective early action by outside partners, once a crisis looks set to break. It is important, too, to grasp the politics and strategies of militaries and internal security forces in cases such as Egypt, or of non-state armed groups in chaotic environments like Libya. The report also highlights the sources of many conflicts in countries’ marginalised peripheral regions. Local rebellions in Yemen, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan and CAR, to name a few, have expanded unexpectedly and exponentially, causing widespread violence and overthrowing a number of governments. 

A focus on the internal players in countries at risk must be complemented by efforts to engage and balance the interests of external actors, while recognising that the distinction between “internal” and “external” actors is moot in many crises. In the Middle East and Central and West Africa, conflicts frequently flow across borders, and regional powers simultaneously fuel conflicts and position themselves as peacemakers. Ethnic groups such as the Kurds in the Middle East straddle multiple countries, while organised criminal networks and transnational extremist groups are not restricted to individual states. This means that experts engaged in early warning and early action must treat regional and wider international factors as integral to their conflict analysis and development of appropriate policy.

The report goes on to look more closely at the varieties of “framework diplomacy” that can facilitate the requisite engagement. In many crises it is necessary to look beyond established multilateral frameworks – important though these can be – and pull together case-specific groupings of states and institutions to manage a problem, or at least minimise frictions. Sometimes neither formal nor ad hoc inter-governmental arrangements will be suitable: back-channel diplomacy led by local “insider mediators”, specialised international NGOs or other actors may be the best initial way to handle looming tensions.

The remainder of the report reviews the means available for directly engaging in conflicts as they escalate or in anticipation of their outbreak. It emphasises the need for inclusive approaches to political dialogue, meaning not only outreach to civil society, women’s groups and other constructive forces, but also marginalised minorities and armed groups – including some highly controversial actors such as Islamist extremists. In addition to mediation and other diplomatic options such as deploying high-level envoys, tools include a range of coercive measures and incentives for peace. Coercive tools include diplomatic “naming and shaming”, threats of international legal action in response to atrocities and the use of sanctions. All have significant limitations and can worsen rather than alleviate crises if not well coordinated and aligned to a broader political strategy.

This report, drawing on Crisis Group’s field-centred analysis and policy recommendations from the past five years, sets out a broad strategic framework for preventive diplomacy.

At least equal caution should be applied to the use of force. As the Arab intervention in Yemen has underlined, like many interventions before it, military action can prove costly and counterproductive. This caution also applies to deployments of military peace operations, which have become a standard part of international crisis management (especially in Africa) and increasingly tend toward more robust forms of peace enforcement. While such missions can and do save lives, they can also become entangled in local conflicts, get bogged down in situations from which they have no exit strategy and become overly aligned with governments that do not always enjoy much popular support.

Whatever direct or indirect means of engagement states use, they should set explicit and limited political goals and communicate these clearly to other actors (including their opponents) to avoid violence spiralling beyond control. While coercion may have a role to play in management of a specific crisis, it should be balanced with clear incentives for leaders, elites and their supporters to follow paths away from violence. These may include aid for post-crisis demobilisation, governance reforms and reconstruction. 

More strategically, the best peace incentives that outsiders may be able to offer are ideas and advice to actors in a crisis on how to structure mutually-beneficial arrangements to share power and resources. In Libya, for example, the interest all sides ultimately have in a functioning energy sector could be a point of consensus even while political disputes create friction.

No one group of analysts and forecasters is consistently right in its early warnings (Crisis Group included), and no early action strategy is foolproof. Tackling conflicts as they emerge and develop is an inherently chancy business, and governments and international organisations that engage in it inevitably risk failure. Nevertheless, early, strategic, well-designed engagement predicated on the discipline of close analysis, development of anticipatory relationships and framework diplomacy may help prevent conflict or limit its escalation. To the extent that their resources permit, governments, regional bodies and international organisations should invest in four key areas:

  • Knowledge and relationships. Policymakers, working directly or through others, should develop the closest possible knowledge of troubled countries’ political systems and cultivate channels for frank discussions with leaders, elites, security forces and civil society over the risks of crisis. “Early warning” should, in sum, rest not only on economic and other indicators of danger (although these are useful), but also on in-depth political links with crucial actors.
     
  • Framework diplomacy. Given the dangers of international and regional tensions exacerbating a crisis, policymakers should make early and concerted efforts to bring international players to the table to assess their interests, hear their analyses and develop common positions on how to act. This can take place in formal multilateral settings or ad hoc, but it is essential to choose mechanisms that enable real bargaining, resulting in frameworks for handling a conflict, rather than formal exchanges or public recriminations. 
     
  • Strategic planning and communication. It is easy for policymakers to stumble into crises without a clear grasp of what they aim to achieve. The constant need to make statements, launch initiatives and satisfy calls for action makes strategic thinking and planning difficult. It is crucial that governments and international organisations invest in laying out clear overall goals for engaging in crises and communicate these clearly both to the players involved in a conflict and other international actors with interests at stake. 
     
  • Creating pathways to peace. The ultimate goal of all this relationship-building, framework diplomacy and strategic planning is not simply to guide early action, but to signal to the parties at the centre of a conflict that they can take paths to peace rather than wade into violence. Outside actors can rarely compel leaders and factions on the brink of conflict to step back. But if they are able to engage in well-informed political and diplomatic work and sketch out ideas for lasting peaceful solutions to a conflict, they may persuade their interlocutors to pause before escalating – and perhaps follow an alternative political route that avoids, or at least limits, all-out violence.

Brussels, 22 June 2016

I. Introduction

Five years ago, the Arab uprisings exposed the weaknesses of existing models of early warning and early action in response to political crises. While many analysts were aware of the political, social and economic factors that led to the uprisings in early 2011, few if any foresaw the wave of disorder that spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Governments and international organisations resorted to a variety of policy tools – ranging from offers of mediation to economic sanctions and threats of international prosecution – that frequently failed to alter the calculations of embattled political elites. In many cases, their efforts backfired badly.

While the United Nations (UN) Security Council mandated military action in Libya to protect civilians in March 2011, the uprising against Muammar Qadhafi resulted in a fractured state that slid into chaos while outside powers focused elsewhere. In Yemen, an initially successful UN mediation ran out of steam, paving the way for the Saudi-led intervention in 2015. Arguments over these crises also fuelled geopolitical confrontations, variously involving the West, Russia, China, and Arab and African powers, that have severely complicated later attempts at conflict management. Doubts about international crisis response have since been compounded, as conflicts have escalated from South Sudan to eastern Ukraine. In some cases, such as Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), analysts and officials saw crises escalate but did not react promptly or decisively. In others, as in Ukraine, the pace of events appeared to take outside actors by surprise.

By 2014, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) has calculated, there were some 40 conflicts worldwide, eleven involving over 1,000 battle deaths a year: “the highest number of conflicts since 1999”.[fn]Therése Pettersson and Peter Wallensteen, “Armed Conflicts, 1946-2014”, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 52 (4), p. 536. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), with a different methodology, contends that conflicts worldwide have in fact declined since 2010, but there has been a “steady increase in lethality” (which levelled off overall in 2015, despite increased deaths in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen) and a long-term rise in conflict-related displacement. Anastasia Voronkova, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Voronkova (ed.), Armed Conflict Survey 2016 (IISS, 2016), p. 5.Hide Footnote  Many governments and international organisations focus on managing the fallout from these conflicts. Donors have had to repurpose funds to handle the record numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). International coalitions are trying to contain and rollback violent Islamist extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa with a mix of military aid to both state and non-state actors, covert operations and airstrikes. These measures crowd out discussion of long-term conflict prevention and resolution.

This is short-sighted. As UN officials have recently emphasised, the key to stemming the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East is not only to increase funding to aid agencies, but also to resolve the conflicts there. Crisis Group has argued that vital to countering the influence of groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda is to ratchet down regional confrontations, in particular the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran; redouble efforts to contain (if not immediately resolve) the conflicts these groups exploit; and work toward local solutions based on the inclusion, rather than alienation of vulnerable communities. Panels convened by the UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have underscored the need to focus on politics and diplomacy in addressing conflicts.[fn]“One Humanity: Shared Responsibility; Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit”, UN document A/70/709, 2 February 2016, pp. 6-12. Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016. “Our Shared Responsibility”, Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, (UN) A/70/95 – S/2015/446, 17 June 2015; “Back to Diplomacy”, Final Report and Recommendations of the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project, OSCE, 3 December 2015.Hide Footnote

The strategic case for effective early warning tools and early action mechanisms to avert potential conflicts, or at least stop them from escalating and spreading into broader confrontations, seems clear enough.

Even if governments pay lip service to such notions, many have resorted to covert or overt military actions to manage crises: examples range from Russia in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen to Uganda and Sudan in South Sudan. While the bulk of current conflicts are intra-state wars, at least a third are internationalised – with foreign forces from one or more other countries in the fight – exacerbating regional and wider international tensions and rendering conflict resolution significantly more complex.[fn]Pettersson and Wallensteen, op. cit., p. 537. A recent summary of the political economy of armed conflicts underlines that most “do not fit neatly” into the categories of intra- and inter-state wars, due to the complex nature of their violence and divisions. Achim Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violent Conflict”, in Armed Conflict Survey, op. cit., p. 20.Hide Footnote  This report thus pays most attention to internationalised intra-state conflicts, but also draws lessons from other flashpoints, like the South China Sea.

The strategic case for effective early warning tools and early action mechanisms to avert potential conflicts, or at least stop them from escalating and spreading into broader confrontations, seems clear enough. Yet, there is a daunting mix of obstacles to effective early international response. These range from understanding the implications of political frictions in peripheral areas of weak states, such as Mali, to the diplomatic challenges of forging international frameworks to handle cases like Syria. Few if any of these challenges are unprecedented – for examples of the problems of volatile peripheral areas, one can go back to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a century ago – but addressing them requires sharp political insight, judgment and action that still often elude policymakers.

In parallel with the deterioration of particular conflicts, the norms that have underpinned much post-Cold War thinking on conflict prevention and resolution are in flux. Russia, China and other non-Western powers argue that NATO abused the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) during the Libyan crisis in 2011. Even if political pluralism and representative government still offer the best hope of stability in most countries, the difficulties of democratisation are obvious. Conflict prevention specialists are now as likely to emphasise the dangers associated with elections in fragile states as their advantages. The post-Cold War trend toward strengthening international justice, symbolised by the International Criminal Court, is also encountering increasing pushback. Yet, the last quarter century’s ideals still have some purchase. In Africa in particular, the African Union (AU) and sub-regional bodies repeatedly, if inconsistently, cite human security, prevention of mass atrocities and defence of legitimate governments to justify interventions.[fn]See, for example, Crisis Group Africa Report N°234, Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III): West Africa, 14 April 2016, p. 9.Hide Footnote  Rather than rising or declining linearly, these norms ebb and flow on a case-by-case basis.

This report maps out how governments and multilateral organisations can best respond to looming crises in this uneasy international environment. It begins by asking how relevant existing thinking about early warning and early action is today. It then explores recent lessons about drivers of conflict, including elite decision-making, localised violence and regional political factors. Finally, it turns to the diplomatic tools, coercive measures and incentives typically available to policymakers trying to address crises and the strategic and diplomatic frameworks needed to put these tools to use. It is necessary to be realistic about the chances of halting fast-moving crises, but effective and rapid action is often possible.

II. Early Warning and Early Action: In Search of Political Strategies

“Early warning” and “early action” are phrases open to multiple definitions. This report concentrates on early warnings of violent conflict and strategies of early action that external actors may take to address those risks. There is a perennial debate about what “early” means: should it include long-range indicators of instability and long-term actions, such as economic assistance, that may alleviate them? While acknowledging the value of long-term warnings, this paper takes a narrower view and focuses on medium- and short-term warnings and responses to political dynamics that have a clear potential to lead to violence. This encompasses imminent threats and risks that may require some years to come to fruition. The precise timeline is less important than the presence of signs that leaders, political factions or other armed groups are taking steps that could ultimately lead to conflict.

This focus on looming conflicts requires three qualifications. The first is that poli­tical analysis should identify not only threats, but also actors who favour peace and unexpected opportunities for settling disputes. As noted in Section III below, officials and analysts should build relationships with political figures, civil society members and others who can promote non-violent solutions to a crisis.

The second qualification is that, while this report largely discusses emerging and escalating crises, it is essential to keep watch for unexpected developments in active and ongoing conflicts. Events such as the rise of IS in Syria in 2014 or the upsurge of violence in Ukraine in early 2015 can fundamentally transform the dynamics of an existing war. The detailed political and security analysis promoted below can and must continue even after a conflict explodes.

Thirdly, it is necessary to ask who is best-placed to conduct this analysis and direct early action. This report does not focus on the early warning and early action mech­anisms of any one government or international organisation. The lessons and advice it offers are designed to apply to a wide range of governments and other bodies concerned with international security; generic references to “outsiders” and “policymakers” are deliberately non-specific.

As Section IV emphasises, who does early warning and early action is increasingly complicated and contentious. When Crisis Group launched in the mid-1990s, the U.S., its allies and the UN appeared to dominate the field. Today, a diverse array of often mutually mistrustful states, organisations and non-governmental groups are engaged. The exact mix of relevant players differs from case to case. Complex “framework diplomacy” – painstaking efforts to establish case-specific diplomatic mechanisms for analysing, managing and mediating conflicts – is frequently required to bring them together, or at least limit friction. By taking a broad view of who can deal with crises and how, this paper points to some principles for such cooperation.

A. What Can “Early Warning” Do?

A focus on political actors and analysis is in line with earlier studies that argued early engagement in crises must rest on an understanding of political dynamics. The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict concluded in 1997 that “mass violence invariably results from the deliberately violent response of determined leaders and their groups to a wide range of social, economic and political conditions that … usually do not independently spawn violence”.[fn]“Preventing Deadly Conflict”, Carnegie Corporation of New York, December 1997, p. 29.Hide Footnote  Although political scientists and forecasters search for statistically verifiable causes of conflict, such as economic factors, many are giving more weight to leaders and political factors as creators of violence.[fn]See Michael C. Horowitz, Allan C. Stam and Cali M. Ellis, Why Leaders Fight (Cambridge, 2015).Hide Footnote  Whereas researchers once claimed that ethnic cleavages were an innate cause of conflicts, analysts now emphasise that leaders’ deliberate use of ethnically-loaded rhetoric plays a crucial part in dividing and radicalising communities.[fn]Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violent Conflict”, op. cit., p. 22; Crisis Group Africa Report N°235, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, 20 May 2016, pp. 5-7.Hide Footnote  Recent work on climate change and environmental degradation, for example, indicates that these “only trigger violence if the social and political context of a country are particularly disadvantageous”.[fn]Gerald Schneider, Nils Petter Gleditsch and Sabine C. Carey, “Exploring the Past, Anticipating the Future: A Symposium”, International Studies Review, vol. 12 (1), 2010, p. 5.Hide Footnote

This basic assumption about the importance of political factors has long underpinned policy thinking on early crisis response, with a focus on developing strategies to shape crucial elites’ decision-making. If diplomats or international officials want to engage in a country on the verge of conflict, they need not only to develop a sense of its underlying problems, but also to have a working knowledge of the interests and political calculations of the leaders, parties and factions involved.

Experts on early warning are often rightly wary of quantifying these issues: “the exact degree to which elites are in harmony or conflict, to which opposition movements have popular support, or to which the ruler is supported by neighbouring or foreign states, is not always easy to pin down”.[fn]Jack A. Goldstone, “Using Quantitative and Qualitative Models to Forecast Instability”, United States Institute of Peace, 1 March 2008, p. 6.Hide Footnote  It is arguably even harder to anticipate the precise trains of events that lead to specific acts of violence. Some potential flashpoints, such as divisive elections or the death of an authoritarian leader, may have a high chance of engendering instability. Nonetheless, “long term trends (‘causes’) are often clear enough, but not the proximate causes, or triggers…. What precipitates a conflict may be a sudden, unforeseen event: an accident, misreading or miscalculation, or a temperamental leader’s flash of hubris”.[fn]Joost Hiltermann, “Chemical Wonders”, London Review of Books vol. 38 (3), 4 February 2016, p. 3. Hiltermann is Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director.Hide Footnote

We can, however, still identify and assess the political factors that make a crisis more or less likely and explore how that crisis might play out. Through detailed information gathering and analysis, it is possible to show how the policies and strategies of leaders and other power-brokers are liable to raise tensions, destabilise societies and initiate conflicts. It is feasible to foresee the political dividing lines that might emerge at trigger moments in the future. In some cases, this information also allows observers to estimate how the ensuing confrontations could unfold, if often only roughly, offering a spectrum of possible developments. A review of Crisis Group reports demonstrates the potential of such analysis to flag looming risks, even if it cannot identify precise triggers.

A good example of a medium-term warning comes from Crisis Group’s work on Iraq. In August 2013, it published a report highlighting sectarian tensions and that “Prime Minister al-Maliki has implemented a divide-and-conquer strategy that has neutered any credible Sunni Arab leadership”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°144, Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State, 14 August 2013, p. i.Hide Footnote  The report warned that many Sunni Iraqis now felt that their “only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms”. While noting the increased activism of the “newly minted” IS, it did not foresee the speed and scale of the group’s offensive in northern Iraq the following year. But in identifying the poisonous effects of Maliki’s political strategy, its impact on Sunni opinion and the probability of armed conflict, it did diagnose many of the drivers of the 2014 crisis. At a time when the U.S. was keen to put the Iraq war behind it, and its allies had disengaged, however, the warning went largely unheeded.

Crisis Group similarly laid out well in advance the dynamics that led to the recent crisis in Burundi, highlighting President Nkurunziza’s strategy of centralising as much power in his hands as possible. Crisis Group insisted in 2012 that the country was “regressing” toward a “one party system characterised by the end of dialogue between the opposition and the ruling party, the government’s authoritarian drift and the resumption of political violence”. Nonetheless, international actors with a stake in Burundi’s stability largely attempted to work with the government rather than confront it: the EU increased aid, while the UN cut back its political presence, even as warning signs grew stronger.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°192, Burundi: Bye-Bye Arusha, 25 October 2012, p. i. Thierry Vircoulon, “Burundi: How to Deconstruct Peace”, International Peace Institute Global Observatory, 24 November 2015. Vircoulon was then Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group was, for example, one of the first to recognise how the growing power of the Huthis in Yemen could upset the country’s fragile peace.

These two cases show how focusing on the strategies and behaviour of leaders can help identify impending crises, even if those strategies and behaviours are informed by deeper contextual factors. Where conflicts intensify, analysts may also be able to identify how short-term political developments may create instability and potentially reshape dynamics. Crisis Group was, for example, one of the first to recognise how the growing power of the Huthis in Yemen could upset the country’s fragile peace. The group did not initially appear to be a major spoiler, but military success turned it into a significant and ambitious political force in 2013-2014. In February 2014, a Crisis Group Conflict Alert raised the possibility it would try to take the capital, Sanaa.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014; and “Yemen: Conflict Alert”, 26 February 2014.Hide Footnote  Yet, many outsiders, keen to see Yemen as a success story, focused on UN-led efforts to consolidate a new political settlement and played down the threat until the Huthis did indeed enter Sanaa that September.

Elsewhere, early warnings have more successfully led to early action. In late 2014, Crisis Group was among organisations that emphasised signs Nigeria’s 2015 presidential elections could lead to large-scale violence. Signals included increasing low-level sectarian attacks and local politicians arming followers in anticipation of worse to come. Crisis Group advocated a high-level international push to persuade President Goodluck Jonathan and his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, to renounce violence. Following intensive personal diplomacy by luminaries such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, coupled with pressure by domestic powerbrokers, Jonathan accepted his eventual defeat gracefully. Research in the Niger Delta, a centre of his support, suggests that local leaders had been ready for violence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 220, Nigeria’s Dangerous 2015 Elections: Limiting the Violence, 21 November 2014; and 231, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (III): Revisiting the Niger Delta, 29 September 2015, p. 14.Hide Footnote

Analysts with a good grasp of the political dynamics can also make credible (if inher­ently probabilistic) assessments of how events will unfold. In late 2011, for example, Crisis Group assessed the increasingly chaotic security picture in Syria and identified factors that have since come to characterise the conflict, including the prevalence of “sectarian retribution and criminal activity” and the mounting risks of “foreign intrusion”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°31, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics, 24 November 2011, pp. 5-6.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group certainly does not always foresee future developments accurately: it did no better than others in forecasting the 2011 Arab uprisings and gave no advance alert of South Sudan’s collapse or the Ukrainian crisis.[fn]Like governments and other actors, Crisis Group’s analysis is affected by resource constraints: it did not have staff in Ukraine in 2013 (this has since been remedied).Hide Footnote  At best, analysts work with partial information and have to make judgment calls about which risks are most pressing. If policymakers are sometimes inclined to discount warning signs, there is a parallel danger of “over warning”, of perceiving every fresh political twist as a harbinger of inevitable conflict.Nonetheless, good analysis-based early warning can identify not only the underlying risks of future conflicts, but also (i) how political actors are exacerbating the dangers of a crisis through their medium-term strategies; (ii) how shorter-term tactical developments may accelerate tensions; and (iii) what possible paths a conflict could take if not controlled. The goal of early action is then to determine how to persuade or push actors to pursue alternative courses that avert or minimise violence, or, where the internationalisation of a conflict is a risk, at least contain it.

B. The Complexities of Early Action

Early action “tools” fall into three broad categories: (i) facilitative (high-level diplomacy, mediation and confidence-building measures); (ii) coercive (diplomatic penalties, sanctions, threats of international justice and, ultimately, use of force); and (iii) incentives (such as financial aid, security guarantees and institutional support for new power- and resource-sharing arrangements). While it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of specific tools, they can only rarely be utilised in isolation from each other.

It remains true, as argued in a 2000 essay on early action, that “preventive diplomacy will usually require ‘mixed strategies’ combining coercive elements capable of posing a credible deterrent, and inducements and other reassurances that provide positive incentives for cooperation”. Optimally, such strategies should include a concept of a peaceful end-state to a crisis that all major players can buy into. “In even the most terrible of civil wars, for some there is always a threat more terrifying than the war itself”, noted a former UN official, namely, “the wrong peace”.[fn]Bruce W. Jentleson, Opportunities Missed, Opportunities Seized: Preventive Diplomacy in the Post-Cold War World (Carnegie, New York, 2000), p. 13. Tom Hill, “Fear of the Peace: Why Assad is Not the Main Obstacle to a Deal on Syria”, The Daily Telegraph, 3 October 2015.Hide Footnote  Parties to a conflict may ignore both coercion and incentives if they believe they will lose fundamentally from a final political settlement. This long-term view must be factored into early action where possible, even if there is inevitably always a short-term focus on averting an immediate crisis.

This is all hard. Devising and applying “mixed strategies” to manage emerging or ongoing crises typically involves bringing together not only the tools available to a single government or international organisation, but also pooling the influence and resources of multiple actors, who often have very different short- and long-term perspectives. Even where concerned international actors have roughly similar strategic goals, it can be hard to match up their strategies. In 2015, for example, Crisis Group warned that the Security Council risked undermining regional peace-making in South Sudan by threatening sanctions on six generals who actually favoured a settlement (two were sanctioned, duly creating resentment).[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “South Sudan: No Sanctions Without Strategy”, 29 June 2015. This case underlines the advantage of close political analysis. The Council targeted the generals largely due to their positions; Crisis Group argued they were comparatively moderate due to their views.Hide Footnote

More daunting still, it is sometimes necessary to coordinate strategies with actors with deeply opposed views, as in recent efforts involving regional powers, Russia and the West in Syria. In such cases, it is impossible to distinguish neatly between mediators and parties to the conflict and strategic competitors and diplomatic collaborators. As Crisis Group President Jean-Marie Guéhenno has argued, such situations demand a “multi-layered” response with wider international, regional, national and local diplomatic efforts continuing in parallel.[fn]“The World’s Fragmenting Conflicts”, Crisis Group “Future of Conflict series, 26 October 2015.Hide Footnote

III. Identifying Dangerous Political Dynamics

If diplomats, analysts and international officials want to recognise warning signs of political dynamics that are liable to lead to violence, what should they look for? It is necessary to nod to the cliché that all politics is local, and no two crises play out precisely the same way. Nevertheless, Crisis Group reports highlight four recurrent sets of warning signs: (i) evidence that leaders and elites are adopting political strategies conducive to conflict, or signs of breakdowns in the bargains that hold leaders and elites together; (ii) evidence of discontent or political radicalisation among militaries and security forces; (iii) violence in “peripheral” areas with potentially broader implications; and (iv) signals that outside actors are engaging in an “internal” conflict, or spillover effects from such a conflict. This section concludes with thoughts on how policymakers can use knowledge of such warning signs to build “anticipatory relationships” and take very early preventive action.

A. Leaders and Elites

Some observers argue that there is an “end of leadership” globally, as transnational communications and organisations gain influence at the expense of national figures. Where a leader such as Nigeria’s President Jonathan is willing to release his grip on power, however, underlying political and social tensions can be eased, while a recalcitrant chief can have the reverse effect. As Crisis Group observed in 2011, the initial protests in Syria, having created an “unprecedented sense of awareness, solidarity and responsibility among large segments of the population”, had the potential to engender peaceful change, but President Bashar al-Assad guaranteed wider violence by whipping up the fears of his base, especially in the Alawite community, and signalling his intention to “go down fighting”.[fn]Moisés Naim, The End of Power (New York, 2014). Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°31, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics, 24 November 2011, p. 3.
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It is essential to understand not only individual leaders but also the political currents around them. As Guéhenno has argued, “political leaders have lost some of their capacity to control outcomes, and multiple actors, from the bottom up, need to be influenced”. This involves understanding the political organisations, factions and elites that underpin any leader, as well as the strength and strategies of opposition groups and the wider constellation of local leaders, armed groups and other secondary players who might exploit a crisis.[fn]Guéhenno, “The World’s Fragmenting Conflicts”, op. cit. Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violence”, op. cit., pp. 23-26.Hide Footnote

As Guéhenno has argued, “political leaders have lost some of their capacity to control outcomes, and multiple actors, from the bottom up, need to be influenced”

The need to understand such secondary political actors was made clear in South Sudan in 2013. For much of that year, there were signs of an “unravelling” of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which had papered over serious internal divisions on gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. Civilian and military factions now jockeyed for control of the party, creating discontent in the army and threatening President Salva Kiir's grip on power. While symptoms of this struggle became increasingly public, UN and Western diplomats focused on working with Kiir. They arguably missed opportunities to engage with a wider range of actors and were caught badly off-guard when the country collapsed into war that December. A host of armed groups and ethnic militias joined in, fighting grew exponentially, and “communal mobilisation and spiralling violence quickly led to appalling levels of brutality against civilians, including deliberate killings inside churches and hospitals”.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°217, South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name, 10 April 2014, pp. 3-5, p. i.Hide Footnote

Egypt has also highlighted the importance of tracking opposition and other interest group dynamics. From their 2012 election, President Mohamed Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party had a confrontational relationship with the bureaucracy, which went “on an informal strike”. He and his foes adopted polarising policies, culminating in emergence of the Tamarod opposition movement, supported by a mix of “activists, political parties and establishment figures” and later businessmen and religious leaders.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Briefing N°35, Marching in Circles: Egypt’s Dangerous Second Transition, 7 August 2013, p. 3, fn. 6 (interview, senior National Salvation Front member, Cairo, 9 June 2013); p. 4.Hide Footnote  The security services and military manipulated these groups and exploited Morsi’s intransigence to legitimise his overthrow.

In more propitious circumstances, civil society and economic interest groups can act as restraints on violence. The National Dialogue Quartet (a coalition of civil society groups with a strong popular base) helped to avert a similar breakdown in Tunisia in 2014. “In a region where civil-society groups often face repression and are marginalised”, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director noted, “the Tunisian example shows the value of having actors outside formal politics play a role in moments of crisis”.[fn]Issandr el Amrani, “Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example”, Crisis Group, 10 October 2015.Hide Footnote  In West Africa, Guinea has avoided the full-scale wars that affected many neighbours in part thanks to the role of civil society groups as “powerful balancing mechanisms” against violence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°178, Guinea: Putting the Transition Back on Track, 23 September 2011, p. 29.Hide Footnote

Where there is high political polarisation and few domestic constraints on violence, leaders can easily initiate civil conflict by design or accident.

“Civil society” is, of course, an amorphous phrase that covers very different types of entities with variable levels of leverage in different societies. These are most likely to have a positive effect when and where they have a solid popular base, and key poli­tical factions have some willingness to compromise. In Tunisia, the Quartet was able to sustain peace in part because the Islamist government chose to relinquish power voluntarily, due both to its leaders’ greater inclination toward compromise and their fear of suffering Morsi’s fate. Where political factions are intent on violence, civil society may only be able to mitigate the resulting conflict. National Christian and Muslim leaders have, for example, called for peace throughout the CAR crisis but could not stop the deterioration in 2013. Some lower-level religious figures actually incited sectarian violence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°96, Central African Republic: Better Late Than Never, 2 December 2013, p. 4.Hide Footnote

This brief cross-section of cases shows that the best way to predict how crises may evolve is to have a clear picture of the politicians and factions at the centre of decision-making and that political drivers of violence must be analysed from a range of angles. First, it is necessary to recognise when a leader is willing to address threats to his/her rule through long- or short-term strategies of polarisation and radicalisation. It can be helpful to focus on inflection points in political processes, such as elections or the date of a constitutionally-set term limit, which are likely to be polarising moments. Of course, analysts should not concentrate solely on such risky moments lest they miss other tensions and flashpoints.[fn]On “inflection points”, see Richard Gowan, Bruce D. Jones, Sara Batmanglich and Andrew Hart, “Back to Basics: The UN and Crisis Diplomacy in an Age of Strategic Uncertainty”, NYU Center on International Cooperation, pp. 12-15. In 2012, for example, Crisis Group warned that violence around Libya’s first post-war election risked “undermining an already fragile transition”. It was relatively successful but arguably lulled many outsiders into a false security sense, so they did not track the ensuing deterioration closely enough. Crisis Group Alert, “Libya’s Elections under Threat”, 3 July 2012. President Jonathan’s concession in Nigeria’s 2015 election may have averted serious violence in the Niger Delta, but that region remains tense. Nnamdi Obasi, “Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, But Other Troubles Surge”, Crisis Group, 30 May 2016.Hide Footnote Secondly, it is important to understand the coalition of political actors that support – or aim to undermine – a leader in his/her party, such as Kiir’s opponents in the SPLM. Thirdly, how opposition forces and civil society may fuel, defuse or mitigate a political crisis must be assessed. Where there is high political polarisation and few domestic constraints on violence, leaders can easily initiate civil conflict by design or accident. Conversely, they may take advantage of conflict abroad to strengthen their position at home, as Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have done in Ukraine.

B. The Security Sector and the Military

Egypt also highlights the need to monitor national security forces and militaries as sources of instability. A strong army’s capacity to threaten constitutional government is obvious. Yet, it is also necessary to recognise the dangers associated with security forces that have lost status and self-confidence (post-2011 revolutionary Tunisia), lack cohesion to ward off internal and external enemies (Iraq, 2014), are not rooted as an established institution (Libya) or are linked to only part of society (Syria). While outsiders often invest heavily in training and equipping militaries and security forces, their political dynamics tend to be poorly understood.

It is not enough to ask to what degree civilians formally control the military and security structures. In many states, relations between uniformed and civilian authorities are a matter of constant manoeuvre. In the run-up to the 2012 coup that combined disastrously with secessionist violence in the north to push Mali to the brink of collapse, Bamako was “buzzing with accusations of dangerous liaisons between political and military elites and major drug and hostage traffickers and rumours of plots by junior officers angry about the way the president pampered senior officers”. In Tunisia, tensions are growing between the army, Internal Security Forces (ISF), poli­tical parties and the public. ISF “isolation” from the public is a potential source of fresh political friction. There is evidence of breakdowns in the ISF chain of command and “emergence of mutually exclusive clans” in units that limit their ability to fight dangerous Islamist extremists.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°189, Mali: Avoiding Escalation, 18 July 2012, p. 18; Middle East and North Africa Report N°161, Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia, 23 July 2015, pp. 15-16.Hide Footnote

Outsiders concerned by such security dynamics need to assess (i) whether nation­al security forces have the political cohesion to threaten a government in their own right; (ii) whether their divisions could lead to in-fighting or create security vacuums; and (iii) if, where states face external threats or internal disorder, security forces have the capacity to provide an adequate defence and the discipline and professionalism to maintain public trust.

Troubling examples include the “shambolic” nature of Nigerian law enforcement in areas Boko Haram threatens and the Kabul government’s use of the “cheap and dangerous” Afghan Local Police. The Pakistan army’s “poorly conceived counter-insurgency strategies, heavy-handed methods and failure to restore responsive and accountable civil administration and policing” complicate efforts to oust Islamist extremists from tribal areas, creating or exacerbating more problems than they resolve. Elsewhere, security forces may act as forces for restraint in volatile situations: there are indications Venezuela’s military has played a positive if opaque role in lowering tensions after potentially explosive 2015 elections.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, Africa N°s 216, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014, p. 32; 237, Nigeria: The Challenge of Military Reform, 6 June 2016; Asia N°s 268, The Future of the Afghan Local Police, 4 June 2015, p. i; 242, Pakistan: Countering Militancy in PATA, 15 January 2013, p. i; and Latin America Briefing N°34, The End of Hegemony: What Next for Venezuela?, 21 December 2015, p. 7.Hide Footnote

The difficulties of assessing the intentions and capacities of formal military and security forces are often compounded by the proliferation of militias and informal armed groups with uncertain affiliations. In the wake of the Minsk II agreement to halt fighting in Ukraine in February 2015, for example, Crisis Group warned that both Moscow and Kyiv needed to be ready for a “mass collapse of discipline” among the militias that had sprung up in the east (including such oddities as “an Orthodox Christian unit, now in schism”). In the event, Russia has kept a firm grip over these groups, but it is sometimes necessary to treat irregular and semi-regular armed groups as serious political actors, not marginalise them. Crisis Group has thus criticised the UN-led political process for not including “a concerted effort to bring [Libya’s] security actors together in support of [a national] government”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°235, Eastern Ukraine: A Dangerous Winter, 18 December 2014, p. 13. Testimony by Claudia Gazzini, Crisis Group senior analyst, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on “Libya: The Path Forward”, p. 4.Hide Footnote  While outsiders may be tempted to write off “warlords”, it remains necessary to assess – and potentially engage – them as real political actors.

C. Peripheral Conflicts

Studies of armed groups can link to another, often-overlooked challenge to weak states: disruptive political dynamics and trends in violence in peripheral regions, where central authorities have poor relations or little control or oversight.[fn]“Peripheral” refers here not only to geographically remote regions (though in many cases, such as northern CAR, volatile areas are far removed from national power centres), but also to those that are marginalised politically and/or economically, or cut off from state institutions. A more detailed study would also look at the emergence of “peripheral” areas within cities, where services and rule of law are absent. Crisis Group recently chronicled Mexico’s efforts to address social and economic alienation in Ciudad Juaréz as part of its campaign against drug cartels. Latin America Report N°54, Back from the Brink: Saving Ciudad Juaréz, 25 February 2015. Robert Muggah, “Visualizing Urban Fragility”, UN University Centre for Policy Research Blog, 10 February 2016.Hide Footnote  Outside observers sometimes assume that widespread disorder in outlying regions is either insignificant or normal.[fn]National elites can easily fall into the same trap. Addressing the Syrian regime’s instability in 2011, Crisis Group experts Peter Harling and Robert Malley noted that “today’s ruling elite has forgotten its roots. It has inherited power rather than fought for it, grown up in Damascus, mingled with and mimicked the ways of the urban upper class and led a process of economic liberalization that has benefited large cities at the provinces’ expense. The state abandoned vast areas of the nation, increasingly handling them through corrupt and arrogant security forces”. “How the Syrian Regime is Ensuring its Demise”, The Washington Post, 1 July 2011.Hide Footnote  This happened at the start of the CAR crisis, when the Seleka rebel group that overthrew the government in 2013 was initially dismissed as a “heterogeneous consortium of malcontents” from the perennially unstable north east.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°203, Central African Republic: The Priorities of the Transition, 11 June 2013, p. 6.Hide Footnote  Yet, it morphed into a serious threat, as it seized territory, realised it could overthrow the government and became more radical.

Similar threats have emerged in the peripheries of other weak states with highly destabilising results: recent major crises have often been tied to regions where minority groups feel cut off from, or threatened by, national political dynamics, such as the Tuaregs in northern Mali, ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Huthis in northern Yemen. In 2015, Nepal’s gradual recovery from civil war was severely set back when its ruling parties rushed through a constitutional statute that alienated minorities, including those in the southern plains, where mass protests contributed to a five-month blockade on goods entering from India.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°276, Nepal’s Divisive New Constitution: An Existential Crisis, 4 April 2016.Hide Footnote  Even where there is no immediate trigger, disputes over ethnic issues, language rights or religion in peripheral regions can combine with economic grievances to create fertile conditions for political tensions and violence.[fn]For a further case study by Crisis Group of a little-known region facing this mix of problems, see Europe Briefing N°63, Georgia: The Javakheti Region’s Integration Challenges, 23 May 2011.Hide Footnote

Watching how authorities handle a specific area’s problems can illuminate dangers affecting the state as a whole. Crisis Group recently explored heavy-handed army tactics in Arsal, a Lebanese border town host to many Syrian refugees, as a case-study of a much wider “self-reinforcing loop in which the measures the government takes to compensate for its shortcomings make matters worse”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°46, Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town, 23 February 2016, pp. 2-3. For other recent examples of analysis of peripheral towns and regions see Africa Reports N°s 198, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (i): War in South Kordofan, 14 February 2013; 204, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (ii): War in Blue Nile, 18 June 2013; and 209, Sudan: Preserving Peace in the East, 26 November 2013.Hide Footnote

It is often hard for diplomats and international officials in capitals (or further afield) to get a clear picture of developments in peripheral regions. If violence is widespread, they may be banned from travelling, leaving them reliant on other sources, such as humanitarian workers who resent being turned into “spies with food”. Central governments are often happier to relay “news” that is not always reliable: in Russia, “a powerful propaganda machine promotes the ‘success story’ of today’s Chechnya”, despite its continued “intimidation, humiliation and violence”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°236, Chechnya: The Inner Abroad, 30 June 2015, pp. i-ii.Hide Footnote  Observers should look past such misinformation to ask how direct security threats may emerge from peripheral regions and how arguments over ways to engage these regions may feed back into central political tensions in capitals.[fn]Not all conflicts emerge in peripheral regions. Disorder in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Kyiv’s Maidan can be equally or more threatening. Politically and culturally symbolic sites are potential flashpoints: the Holy Esplanade in Jerusalem (the Temple Mount and Noble Sanctuary to Jews and Muslims respectively) has become “a microcosm of the Israeli Palestinian-conflict. It sees repeated violent upsurges that never decisively end, only fade; as a final status issue it is in a stalemated peace process [and] its disposition remains unclear”.[8] Crisis Group Middle East Report N°159, The Status of the Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, 30 June 2015, p. i.Hide Footnote

D. External Drivers of Conflict

A focus on national leaders, political factions, security politics and peripheral conflicts can give outside observers a clearer understanding of the chains of events that may destabilise a government or create conditions for violence. But, as noted above, it is also necessary to evaluate how these internal factors are tied to external political pressures and outside actors’ interests, and how international actors may assess each other’s engagement. One country’s peripheral conflict may be another’s bid for security or influence: there is evidence that the emergence of Seleka as a threat in CAR was at least abetted by neighbouring Chad. Moscow used ethnic Russian concerns in Ukraine to legitimise its incursions in 2014. Saudi Arabia interpreted the Huthis’ rise in Yemen as proof of Iranian meddling in its backyard, though it may have overestimated Tehran’s original involvement and pushed the Huthis closer to its regional rival by intervening.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, Central African Republic: The Priorities, op. cit., p. 8; Middle East N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016, pp. 10-12.Hide Footnote

Strains within security forces and between uniformed and civilian leaders in a fragile country may also be exacerbated by external threats. In 2014, Crisis Group tied growing rifts in the security apparatus to broader anxiety arising from Tunisia’s insecure neighbourhood: “an increase in violence along the Algerian border; the chaotic situation in Libya; the advance of radical Islamism in the Middle East – all made all the more acute by an alarmist anti-terrorist discourse”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°41, Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation, 21 October 2014, p. 1.Hide Footnote  It added that arms and drugs traffickers had become increasingly active along the borders. Transnational criminal networks frequently exacerbate instability in other vulnerable regions. Crisis Group’s Latin American experts, for example, regularly balance political analyses with research on parallel dynamics in the drug trade.[fn]Just as analyses of the Libyan and Ukrainian conflicts must pay attention to the outlooks and capacities of armed groups, it is necessary to see how shifting balances of power inside criminal networks affect their trajectories. “The capture of … local drugs lords has shaken once powerful organisations”, Crisis Group observed regarding Central American trafficking, “allowing a new generation of sometimes more violent leaders to emerge”. Latin America Report N°52, Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border, 4 June 2014, p. i.Hide Footnote

The activities of cross-border political movements, bound together by ethnicity, faith or strategic calculations, can also easily result in spillover conflicts. This pattern is all too familiar from past Balkans cases and is currently a matter of urgency in the Middle East, where the rise of Syria’s Kurds has contributed to Turkey’s repressive approach toward its own Kurdish population.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°49, Steps Toward Stabilising Syria’s Northern Border, 8 April 2016.Hide Footnote

However, policymakers now tend to prioritise two facets of the internationalisation of conflict: the spread of violent jihadist groups, primarily al-Qaeda and IS, in many troubled states in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia; and regional and wider international powers’ roles in proxy wars, including in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. Given the prominence of these trends in diplomatic discourse, it is worth testing their importance.

There is no doubt that jihadist groups have played a brutal part in recent conflicts in the Arab world, in addition to instigating and inspiring terrorist acts globally. Yet “jihadists’ growing prominence over the past few years is more a product of instability than its primary driver”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., p. 8.Hide Footnote  The Iraqi government’s prolonged marginalisation of Sunnis, noted above, fuelled the rise of IS, which then benefitted from President Assad’s vicious, radicalising response to the Syrian uprising. In Mali, Libya and Yemen, IS, al-Qaeda or other extremist movements have taken advantage of existing instability to seize territory.

The activities of cross-border political movements, bound together by ethnicity, faith or strategic calculations, can also easily result in spillover conflicts.

It would be foolish to argue these groups are not a serious threat in many regions. Their presence vastly complicates efforts to end conflicts, given the increasing military potency of some of them and that their aspirations and ideology are hard to envisage as part of a political settlement; in any case, few show much interest in peace processes.[fn]But Crisis Group believes it is as necessary to understand the political goals of jihadists as of other actors, since “what they want, particularly related to the state system, their openness to sharing power and tolerance toward other sects or religious groups, bears on policy” (ibid, p. 29).Hide Footnote  Overall, though, these groups prey on existing crises and wars more than they start new ones. There are risks Western policymakers will see Syria, Libya, Yemen and the rest of the Muslim world solely through the prism of a renewed “war on terror” (or “countering violent extremism”), targeting jihadist movements but not addressing other, deeper stresses. Applying a counter-terrorism lens to such cases risks stigmatising members of disadvantaged communities as potential extremists, reducing the chance to solve their underlying grievances.

Equally, there is nothing new about outside powers engaging in proxy warfare, subversion and direct intervention in long-suffering states such as Yemen. As Stephen John Stedman underlined on the basis of a monumental study of civil wars in 2001, the greatest threats to peace agreements are “spoilers – factions or leaders who oppose the peace agreement and use violence to undermine it – and neighbouring states that oppose the peace agreement and assist the spoilers”.[fn]“Implementing Peace Agreements in Civil Wars: Lessons and Recommendations for Policymakers”, International Peace Academy, May 2001, p. 2; Stedman, Donald Rothchild and Elizabeth M. Cousens (eds.), Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements (Boulder, 2002).Hide Footnote

Nonetheless, the tense international politics that surround many of today’s conflicts – and that so many powers have overt or covert military roles in other states’ wars – fundamentally complicates efforts to analyse and respond to existing and looming crises. In South Sudan, Uganda’s decision to send troops to back President Kiir in the 2013 crisis, coupled with Sudan’s support to his foes, threatened to turn the conflict into a proxy war. In eastern Ukraine, the supposed leaders of the separatist groups know they are “expendable” and that “all major political and military decisions are taken in Moscow, and their implementation is overseen by Russian officials on the ground”.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°223, Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts, 29 January 2015; Europe and Central Asia Briefing N°79, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, 5 February 2016, p. 7.Hide Footnote

The Libyan conflict has been fuelled by arms supplies and other forms of military aid from countries including Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates; in some cases this is motivated by security concerns, in others by “ideology and regional rifts, notably over what role Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood will play in Libya and whether they will use its wealth to support like-minded movements elsewhere”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°157, Libya: Getting Geneva Right, 26 February 2015, p. 11.Hide Footnote  The regional animosities and great power tensions that have grown up around the Syrian civil war are even more complex and destructive, if it is possible to quantify such things.

This report considers how governments and international organisations may be able to manage such complicated tensions around future conflicts. Yet, the divisions that have sprung up around these cases are not simply the product of chance or bad policy. They represent deeper shifts in the international context for early warning/early action. Much thinking on these issues dates from the first ten to fifteen post-Cold War years, when Western analysts presumed (sometimes optimistically) that the U.S. and its allies could line up sufficient states behind specific conflict management and resolution strategies if only they tried. While Washington retains far more power to play a guiding role in managing conflicts than any other state, the geopolitical context is shifting: lining up political actors for early action is becoming more difficult, a dilemma considered in greater depth below.

E. Beyond Analysis: Anticipatory Relationships and Actions

The preceding pages have laid out a series of issues that should interest analysts and policymakers looking for signs of looming crises. These include: (i) evidence of leaders promoting political polarisation or radicalising their bases, and signs of political elites and parties breaking up and/or interest groups mobilising against leaders; (ii) political discontent and divisions among security forces and military actors; (iii) emerging threats from violent groups in peripheral regions of weak states; and (iv) signs of external actors fuelling conflicts through military engagement, supplying weapons or political and diplomatic means.

Policymakers and analysts need to combine tracking these issues with other indicators, such as economic trends, to strengthen their understanding of potential risks. They should also use knowledge of developments in countries at risk as the basis for early, direct, low-key political action; useful analysis should identify not only how key players are behaving, but also chances to nudge them away from dangerous stra­tegies. Diplomats and international officials can build on early warning by creating a network of “anticipatory relationships” with relevant actors.[fn]“Back to Basics”, op. cit., p. 4.Hide Footnote

Optimally, this should include channels for frank communication with leaders on choices and strategies. Persuading presidents like Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza or the DRC’s Joseph Kabila to respect term limits should be a long-term project, not a hasty gamble: “There comes a point when leaders are so entrenched that there seems little point in challenging their right to hold office. Calling it early is therefore vital to avoid a position where all the options look bad”.[fn]Richard Moncrieff (Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director), “The reluctance of Joseph Kabila to cede power could push Congo to the brink”, The Guardian, 2 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Outsiders who build close ties with authoritarian leaders can, however, become over-entangled with them. As an ex-UN official put it, “we pick or create a leader who is capable of dealing with the international community, but forget to engage with the rest of the society and political sphere”.[fn]Crisis Group communication, 10 May 2016. Richard Gowan, “The Peacekeeping Quagmire”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 16 (2), pp. 39-46. There is, of course, a parallel danger of choosing “good” rebels and opposition figures who prove to be misleading partners, as in the U.S. administration’s collaboration with Iraqi exile politician Ahmad Chalabi prior to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. See Loveday Morris and Brian Murphy, “Ahmed Chalabi, Iraqi Exile Who Helped Spur U.S. Invasion, Dies of Heart Attack”The Washington Post, 3 November 2015.Hide Footnote  Diplomats should aim to reach beyond the relatively narrow range of officials, contacts and polite society in a capital to include more opposition figures, security officials and representatives of marginalised communities. As noted, international actors’ lack of insight into South Sudan’s politics in 2013 meant they struggled to engage with its breakdown. It may be possible to cultivate potential “insider mediators” (figures from civil society or official circles in a country at risk who may be able to guide crisis talks better than outsiders) or work via international NGOs with more leeway to engage key opposition actors and non-state armed groups than formal diplomats.[fn]Simon Mason and Oliver Wils, “Insider Mediators: Their Key Role in Informal Peace Processes”, Berghof Foundation for Peace Support, 2009.Hide Footnote

Building anticipatory relationships may go hand in hand with “anticipatory actions”: steps to resolve structural dangers in troubled societies, such as misuse of justice, before they fuel worse trouble. Crisis Group recently highlighted that Bangladesh’s “dysfunctional criminal justice system” has potential to fuel wider conflict by “provoking violent counter responses, benefitting violent party wings and extremist groups alike”. It argued that donors should tie some aid to government efforts to improve this. Western countries often prioritise institutional reforms and capacity-building, as these may offer a path to lasting stability, or at least give fragile states “the tools to deal constructively with the violent potential of future conflicts”. However, it is important to recognise the stakes many actors have in stymying reforms and potential political repercussions. In Bangladesh as elsewhere, “years of partisan recruitment, promotions and postings have polarised… institutions to the point that officials no longer conceal their allegiances”.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°277, Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice in Bangladesh, 11 April 2016, p. i. Sophie-Charlotte Brune, Anne Kovacs, Anaïs Reding and Maryse Penny, “Crisis and Conflict Prevention Strategies: An International Comparison”, RAND, 2015, p. 4.Hide Footnote

In some cases, outsiders may be better advised to focus on supporting civil society groups and other unofficial actors who may help constrain violence, but doing so requires considerable time, and may meet high-level political opposition. Given the mixed chances of success of such preventive actions, it is necessary to consider the tools that external actors can bring to bear on crises as they escalate.

IV. Dilemmas of Early Action

Successful early action consists of steps – including efforts to facilitate a political process, coerce key actors or create incentives for peace – that may open paths to a sustainable settlement of a crisis. A sustainable settlement may range from tweaking the status quo in an unstable country to make it acceptable to all sides, through steps such as limited political reforms, to a large-scale rebalancing of power, including constitutional changes and leadership transitions. Where conflicts are internationalised, territorial compromises and/or the creation of new regional security arrangements may be necessary, albeit difficult steps.

Outsiders must tread carefully when pursuing these goals. All early action involves engaging in fluid political environments. There is a high chance of political friction, with misunderstandings and miscalculations derailing plans. No form of crisis response is neutral. Domestic actors will always perceive outsiders as biased. In some cases they will still welcome engagement as a means to secure their own goals, resolve complex policy issues or minimise violence; in others, they may decide to misuse such help, for example by extending political talks indefinitely.

Understanding domestic political actors’ intentions and interests, which as argued, is at the centre of early warning, is thus also crucial to effective early action. Pathways outsiders want to help devise to avoid or curtail violence must be based on appreciation of what local factors will accept. In country-focused Crisis Group reports in the first third of 2016, 61 per cent of recommendations were aimed at governments or domestic political actors. External actors often appear unable to do more than encourage contacts to behave responsibly. When it comes to complex steps needed to unravel many crises – reducing political influence over institutions, for example, or reining in security services – even the best-placed outsider usually lacks the insights or contacts to do more than nudge national leaders to act.

There are also constraints on external actors in most cases. Policymakers who consider engaging in an escalating conflict assess whether it is in their own interests to expend the resources and take the risks. Internal political issues and competing bureaucratic priorities may militate against acting, even when good policy options are available. This report does not reflect at length on these problems, but it is essential to keep in mind that even when decision-makers want to launch early action to end a crisis abroad, they do not have infinite resources.

In the current context of internationalised conflicts, policymakers face a further layer of dilemmas: how to balance, align or corral other international actors to follow a more-or-less coherent strategy. The trend toward states acting as both combatants and peacemakers (Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Russia and the U.S. in Syria) has been noted but is only one facet of the growing complexity of conflict management. There is a broader diffusion of conflict prevention and peacemaking responsibilities, with new powers, ambitious regional organisations and non-governmental actors taking roles that might once have been filled by the U.S., its allies or the UN. New actors may vary as markedly in strength and style as China and Chad.

China often appears tentative in crises outside its immediate Asia-Pacific area, even if it has been increasingly prominent in Afghan affairs since NATO drew down its main force there in 2014. By contrast, Chad has tried to downplay its internal weaknesses and develop regional leverage in Africa by “pursuing a strategy of military diplomacy, hoping to lead the fight against terrorism in the region”, including operations in Mali and CAR and the fight against Boko Haram.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°244, China’s Central Asia Problem, 27 February 2013, p. i; Africa Report N°233, Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, 30 March 2016, p. i.Hide Footnote

Regional and sub-regional organisations have, meanwhile, increasingly attempted to take primary responsibility for conflict issues in their own areas. The best known examples are in Europe and Africa, but others include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, in Colombia, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). These actors often enjoy clear advantages of legitimacy and local contacts, but internal political divisions and capacity gaps can hold them back. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), for instance, is candid about “the lack of coordination and cooperation between [its] different departments and slow implementation of decisions”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III), op. cit., p. 23.Hide Footnote

In the current context of internationalised conflicts, policymakers face a further layer of dilemmas: how to balance, align or corral other international actors to follow a more-or-less coherent strategy.

Multiple local, regional and other international actors often pile into efforts to resolve new crises and create frictions between themselves. ECOWAS “believes the AU disregards it and tends to take over its role at the first opportunity”. It is not hard to find AU officials equally critical of African sub-regional bodies or convinced the UN treats them with disdain; UN officials grumble that the AU sometimes overreaches.[fn]Ibid, p. 22. On sub-regional organisations’ weaknesses, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°181, Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (I): Central Africa, 7 November 2011.Hide Footnote  The tensions are almost endless and perhaps inevitable.

“Framework diplomacy” is thus an essential element of handling any crisis: working out which international actors should (i) set strategies; (ii) handle direct contacts with key political actors; and (iii) manage information exchange and other practicalities.[fn]“Framework diplomacy” is taken from Jack F. Matlock, Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray – And How to Return to Reality (New Haven, 2010), pp. 31-56, referring to U.S.-USSR negotiations over the global framework to end the Cold War.Hide Footnote  Since the Cold War, diplomats have created multiple frameworks for individual conflicts with mixed results, including the Contact Group for Bosnia and later Kosovo, the Quartet for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and multiple “friends groups” at the UN.[fn]See Teresa Whitfield, Friends Indeed? The United Nations, Groups of Friends, and the Resolution of Conflict (USIP Press, 2007).Hide Footnote  Recent cases include successful, low-key cooperation by Cuba, Chile, Norway and Venezuela to assist Colombia’s peace talks (see below) and the higher-profile, larger and troubled International Syria Support Group (ISSG) Russia and the U.S. formed under UN auspices in 2015.

The South Sudan case shows the complexity of framework diplomacy. After the country’s collapse, regional leaders – including some of those overtly and covertly fuelling the conflict – initially attempted to mediate a solution under the Inter-Gov­ernmental Development Authority (IGAD). After more than a year of failure, the AU, China, Britain, Norway, the U.S. and others joined an “IGAD-PLUS” format as a “bridge between an ‘African solution’ approach and concerted high-level, wider international engagement” that forged a peace deal in August 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°228, South Sudan: Keeping Faith with the IGAD Peace Process, 27 July 2015.Hide Footnote

IGAD-PLUS’s complexity is not unique. In an attempt to resolve the long-running insurgency on Mindanao in the southern Philippines in 2009, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UK formed a “hybrid” International Contact Group with four international NGOs. In the view of one of the latter, this was useful, as “states provide a level of diplomatic leverage that NGOs do not have”, but NGOs “provide specific expertise in conflict transformation, which embassies do not necessarily have”.[fn]Kristian Herbolzheimer and Emma Leslie, “Innovation in Mediation Support: The International Contact Group in Mindanao”, Conciliation Resources, 2013, p. 3.Hide Footnote  The group helped midwife a peace deal in 2012 that has since faltered.

Framework diplomacy can extend to mandating parallel mediators and, in a few, generally difficult, cases such as Syria or Darfur, deploying joint mediation teams and peace operations. Transaction costs are high, but the alternative is often fragmentation of international efforts, as in Libya in 2011, where the AU insisted on mediation, while NATO and the Arab League engaged in military action.[fn]Alischa Kügel, “Three’s a Crowd? Inter-organizational Cooperation in Conflict Mediation”, Global Peace Operation Review, 19 November 2015. Emily O’Brien and Andrew Sinclair, “The Libyan War: A Diplomatic History, February-August 2011”, NYU Center on International Cooperation, 2011, p. 14.Hide Footnote

Multiple local, regional and other international actors often pile into efforts to re-solve new crises and create frictions between themselves.

Concrete interests and trade-offs lie beneath disputes about which international actors should “own” a peace process. Policymakers must balance their approach to one crisis with their stakes in others. European officials cannot help viewing the Middle East through the prism of the refugee issue; the U.S. seeks to complement implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal with efforts to contain Iran’s strategy of “forward defence” in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; Iranian policymakers try to reconcile implementation of the nuclear deal with fears that the U.S. seeks regime change. Efforts to resolve Burundi’s crisis are complicated by the fact that its troops play significant roles in Somalia and CAR.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°166, Iran After the Nuclear Deal, 15 December 2015, p. 20; Statement, “Burundi: Time for Tough Messages”, 24 February 2016.Hide Footnote

Once again, these difficulties are not new. The “herding cats” problem in conflict management has persisted since the end of the Cold War; many mediation difficulties in cases such as Burundi echo 1990s Balkans dilemmas.[fn]See Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela A. Aall (eds.), Herding Cats: Multiparty Mediation in a Complex World, United States Institute of Peace, 1999.Hide Footnote  A sub-set of today’s crises, however, presents especially acute coordination challenges: those that pit the U.S., Russia and China directly or indirectly against one another.

Escalation risks and obstacles to framework diplomacy are especially great in cases such as Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Even if China has often been “tentative” outside its immediate sphere, its “foreign policy decision-making and implementation skew toward stridency” when its core interests are at stake. A similar logic has guided Moscow in recent years and can still gain traction in Washington.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°267, Stirring up the South China Sea (III): A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm, 7 May 2015, p. ii; Europe Report N°231, Ukraine: Running out of Time, 14 May 2014, pp. 18-20.Hide Footnote  Cooperation over a serious crisis is not impossible for the main powers, as the P5+1 (E3+3) process with Iran demonstrated, but it often relies on fissiparous negotiating mechanisms, such as the ISSG and the “Normandy format” for Ukraine.[fn]The P5+1 were the five permanent Security Council members (China, France, Russia, the UK and U.S.) and Germany; E3+3 refers to the same states in a Europe/non-Europe configuration.Hide Footnote  In many cases, leader-to-leader contacts are necessary, which can leave regional allies alienated, risking new tensions: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran have all pushed back against U.S.-Russian efforts to find an accommodation over Syria.Under these circumstances, framing strategies for early action in looming crises typically involves acting on at least three levels: (i) preparing a response to the immediate circumstances; (ii) assessing and addressing regional political dynamics; and (iii) where necessary, engaging with international powers. Understanding and balancing the external actors’ competing priorities is difficult and time-consuming. A key dimension of any early action strategy should be rapid, multi-level diplomacy to bring on board as many actors as possible. This also involves understanding which policy tools may affect a crisis.

A. Facilitation

Facilitative tools make the most straightforward contribution to creating short-term pathways to avoid violence, if they have political credibility. These include (i) deployment of senior officials for leader-to-leader talks; (ii) mediation; and (iii) confidence-building, including military or civilian monitoring missions. Governments and international organisations have invested heavily in mediation in recent years, often setting up special units to assist high-level envoys.[fn]Multilateral examples include the UN Mediation Support Unit, EU Mediation Support Team and Commonwealth Good Offices Section.Hide Footnote  Even so, “the institutional capacity to provide effective support has not caught up with the collective aspiration to offer it”. Senior envoys “resist the idea of support outside their trusted staff, grounded in the confidence that they have been engaged for their lifetime experience and authority, and no further expertise or training is required”.[fn]Teresa Whitfield (senior adviser to Crisis Group’s president), “Support Mechanisms; Multilateral, Multi-Level and Mushrooming”, Global Peace Operations Review, 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote

While this confidence is not always justified, senior figures remain in demand as crisis managers. Crisis Group frequently notes that outsiders’ best entry-point for dealing with a crisis is leader-to-leader contacts, as shown by the contributions of envoys such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in persuading Nigeria’s President Jonathan to avoid post-electoral violence in 2015. It is now the norm in many African crises for serving or ex-senior politicians to mediate rapidly developing conflicts. South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki has had an extensive post-presidential career in cases such as Côte d’Ivoire and the Sudans.[fn]See African officials’ comments on the uses of high-level mediators in Nora Gordon, “Meet the Envoys”, Global Peace Operations Review, 7 December 2015.Hide Footnote  Nor is this solely an African phenomenon: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have been essential interlocutors with President Putin; Kerry bases much of his Syria strategy on ties with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Senior political engagement is often tricky to initiate and maintain. Even when willing to engage, top politicians are busy. A good mediator does not mean a particular crisis is actually amenable to resolution or containment: Kofi Annan ended violence in Kenya in 2008 but had little leverage as UN envoy in Syria in 2012. Overreliance on very senior figures can hamper the work of middle- and lower-level officials on details of a political process. Crucial time was lost when IGAD’s leaders took responsibility on South Sudan: “Without them, no one was empowered to advance the process, and often little was done for weeks, and the parties were left to refocus on the war rather than the peace process”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: Keeping Faith, op. cit., p. 16.Hide Footnote

Alternatives to big-name mediators include quiet diplomacy and using NGOs, such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and Crisis Management Initiative, or local civil society groups to undertake back-channel talks. The value of discreet discussions has been clear in the peace process between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While not an early action example, it emerged from a year of secret contacts Cuba, Venezuela and Norway facilitated. That process also confirmed the importance of senior leaders: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez helped enable it via confidential contacts with both sides that required a high degree of secrecy.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°45, Colombia: Peace at Last?, 25 September 2012, pp. 1, 16. The conflict, dating back to FARC’s formation in the early 1960s, is one of the world’s oldest.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group often advocates such quiet diplomacy and that there should be no taboo on talking to non-state armed groups, despite the difficulty: “Opportunities to open discreet lines of communication to at least try to define whether groups have demands that could be used as the basis for talks and can be moved away from those that are irreconcilable are usually worth pursuing”. Opportunities have been missed to engage leaders in such groups, including in Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria and Soma­lia, in ways that might have offered hope of reducing violence.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., pp. 45-48.Hide Footnote

A major challenge is often to move as quickly as possible from initial contacts to creation of a framework and recognised process for discussing and defusing tensions. Inclusivity is a recurrent stumbling block: in the rush to set up a mediation process to avert escalation, it is easy to exclude essential participants. Inclusivity is open to interpretation and is often used as shorthand for involving civil society and women in peace processes. As a recent UN report highlighted, this is frequently more a matter of rhetoric than reality: “A study of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 revealed that only nine per cent of negotiators were women”. There is evidence that such exclusion reduces chances of sustainable settlement. Minority groups in peripheral regions are also frequently excluded, such as the “progressively marginalised” Rohingya in Rakhine State, who have become targets of serial violence during Myanmar’s transition to democracy.[fn]Radhika Coomaraswamy et al., “Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace: A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325”, UN Women, 2015, p. 14. On the importance of civil society inclusion to sustainable settlements, see Desirée Nilson, “Anchoring the Peace: Civil Society Actors in Peace Accords and Durable Peace”, International Interactions vol. 38 (2), 2012, pp. 243-266. Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013; and 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote

Yemen shows the danger of getting inclusion wrong. In 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Western powers and the UN stopped immediate violence by setting up a transitional political process, “protecting traditional power centres to prevent war”. This alienated factions in both north and south, including the Huthi movement, which later “thrived by presenting itself as an uncorrupted outsider”. By contrast, pro-government and opposition groups in Mali have made positive efforts to reinforce their political agreements with lower-level pacts “involving local actors and strengthening their trust in a peace otherwise externally imposed”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016, pp. 2; Africa Briefing N°115, Mali: Peace From Below? 14 December 2015, p. i.Hide Footnote

There are also risks of processes becoming ends in themselves and of conflict parties deliberately stringing out talks as cover for political games or violence. In eastern Ukraine, “the Minsk process [risks] becoming a substitute for a settlement”, as Russia follows a deliberate strategy of making “parties concentrate more on the process than the settlement”. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been criticised as “low-intensity management of the conflict masquerading as the only path to a solution”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing N°79, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, 5 February 2016, p. 1; Middle East Report N°122, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Palestinians and the End of the Peace Process, 7 May 2012, p. 29.Hide Footnote  In situations where great power interests are at stake, it is difficult to push back. In other circumstances, it may be possible to hustle talks forward by setting timelines and parameters for bargains: though the South Sudan peace process dragged on for nearly two years, regional leaders, the U.S. and China finally strong-armed President Kiir into a peace deal in August 2015.

Alternatively, mediators may try to disaggregate difficult political questions and persuade actors to address specific problems in isolation. This can include focusing on particular economic issues: Crisis Group has argued, for example, that to stop the energy sector falling apart, Libyan factions should hold focused talks on economic governance in parallel with broader political reconciliation efforts. Where no political progress on any level seems likely, it may still be possible to keep open humanitarian talks to minimise suffering or technical military talks to avoid accidents. Crisis Group has highlighted a need for China and neighbours to have functioning capital-to-capital hotlines to handle South China Sea incidents.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°165, The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth, 3 December 2015; Report, Stirring Up The South China Sea (III), op. cit., noting that hotlines are “important but insufficient” tools for handling potential crises (p. 29).Hide Footnote

Confidence in political processes can also be built by measures such as international observer missions to monitor factions’ behaviour in parallel with talks. In Ukraine, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission has gradually expanded overview of frontline areas; while its position is fragile, it has helped consolidate a reduction in hostilities. Crisis Group has often argued for similar arrangements, such as increased monitoring of the Sudan-South Sudan border in 2014 to address passage of armed groups.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts, op. cit., pp. 23-24.Hide Footnote  While such presences may help sustain trust, they can easily be marginalised by radical actors: the light UN supervision mission deployed to Syria in support of the Annan peace plan was a courageous effort with little impact.

B. Coercion

The slow progress of many mediations has also led some governments to favour more coercive responses to crises. These may first include relatively limited diplomatic penalties, such as the AU’s threats to suspend members which have had coups, but they have a mixed track record at best. There is minimal evidence repeated resolutions and condemnations from the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly have influenced Syria’s government since 2011. In some cases, key local players have little knowledge of or respect for the far-off gestures. In others, they do not believe the outrage matters. Crisis Group noted on the CAR crisis that “international organisations always condemn unconstitutional changes of government in Africa, but very rarely try to restore constitutional order by force”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Central African Republic: The Priorities, op. cit., p. 16, fn. 109.Hide Footnote

This does not mean human rights diplomacy is valueless. In Syria, for example, a UN Commission of Inquiry has gathered much evidence on the use of violence and torture that has challenged false narratives. The Human Rights Council has helped maintain pressure on Sri Lanka to address abuses committed during the war against the Tamil Tigers. Quantitative studies suggest “naming and shaming” helps limit atrocities; nonetheless, statements of concern still often go unheard.[fn]See the Commission’s report “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic”, UN document A/HRC/31/CRP.1, 3 February 2016. Jacqueline H.R. De Merritt, “International Organizations and Government Killings: Does Naming and Shaming Save Lives?” International Interactions, vol. 38 (1), 2012, pp. 1-25.Hide Footnote

More stringent forms of coercion include threats of international prosecution of leaders involved in crises and sanctions. The former’s impact is controversial. The International Criminal Court (ICC) appears to have deterred some elites from human rights abuses; other threats of prosecution have been counterproductive. Prospect of prosecution may cause a leader to become more radical. Security Council referral of Libya to the ICC in 2011 left Qadhafi “boxed in”, more willing to fight. In other cases, the evidence is mixed: Crisis Group found that senior Kenyans the ICC accused of crimes relating to the 2007 elections used the cases to “shore up their ethnic bases” before 2013 polls (ironically uniting 2007 foes against the ICC), but also that ICC attention may have helped avert new violence. A wide-ranging study concluded that “the effects of justice mechanisms on the outlook of armed groups or criminal regimes is not likely to hasten an end to atrocities except on rare and unpredictable occasions”, and “states should avoid the use of international justice as an instrumental tool to affect the dynamics of conflict”.[fn]For links to recent and ongoing quantitative studies, see Kevin Burke, “The Deterrent Effect of the International Criminal Court”, Citizens for Global Solutions Blog, 2 March 2015. Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Hillary Clinton, ‘Smart Power’ and a Dictator’s Fall”, The New York Times, 27 February 2016. Crisis Group Africa Report N°197, Kenya’s 2013 Elections, 17 January 2013, p. 2; Briefing N°94, Kenya After the Elections, 15 May 2013. Anthony Dworkin, “International Justice and the Prevention of Atrocity”, European Council on Foreign Relations, October 2014, p. 44.Hide Footnote

Polarisation over the ICC, especially in Africa, complicates framework diplomacy. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir (indicted in 2009 for Darfur) is particularly effective at “mobilising Arab, Islamic and African countries against the court by pitching it as a Western instrument of regime change”. The U.S. and its European allies had prolonged differences over whether to invoke the ICC over Syria, as Washington feared it would hurt diplomacy with Moscow; Russia and China vetoed a French Security Council resolution on this in 2014.[fn]Fouad Hikmat, “Hard Road to Peace After ICC Indicts Bashir”, The East African, 4 March 2009. Ian Black, “Russia and China Veto UN Move to Refer Syria to the International Criminal Court”, The Guardian, 22 May 2014.Hide Footnote

At the least, policy makers should carefully calculate the likely impact of any call for international justice in a crisis. The Security Council referred Libya to the ICC a day after the Human Rights Council instituted a Commission of Inquiry.[fn]Human Rights Council Resolution S-15/1, 25 February 2011. On Security Council-ICC relations, see Eran Sthoeger, “International Courts and Tribunals”, in Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M. Ma­lone and Bruno Stagno Ugarte (eds.), The UN Security Council in the 21st Century (Boulder, 2015), pp. 517-521.Hide Footnote  The latter was arguably a wiser decision and would have been more effective without the former: it sent a message to Qadhafi that he could face legal action one day, but lacked the chilling effect of invoking the ICC. It is impossible to say how Qadhafi would have acted if the Security Council had held back, but the Human Rights Council’s more subtle message was lost.[fn]See also the “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry into Libya”, 8 March 2012 (UN document A/HRC/19/68).Hide Footnote  In some cases, the best way to promote accountability is through special national or hybrid national/international justice mechanisms. Crisis Group has praised the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CIGIC) for empowering citizens and tackling corruption.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°56, Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, 29 January 2016. Though supported by the UN, CIGIC follows Guatemalan law and works closely with domestic prosecutors.Hide Footnote Yet, developing such mechanisms takes time and requires consent from local power brokers that may be unavailable in a fast-moving crisis.

The value of sanctions, both targeted against individuals and entire sanctions regimes, is also often contentious, as are cuts in aid. Sanctions and economic penalties have helped bring some conflicts to a decisive conclusion – as in the EU’s economic isolation of Côte d’Ivoire, 2010-2011 – and appear to have shaped, in combination with many other factors, recent calculations in Iran and Myanmar. Crisis Group has underlined the need to maintain sanctions pressure on Russia over Ukraine. Elsewhere, economic tools have been less effective, especially in changing the short-term thinking of leaders. Denied some EU economic aid in 2015, Burundi simply took cash from elsewhere in its budget.[fn]Crisis Group Briefings N°s 79, Russia and the Separatists, op. cit., p. 2; N°111, Burundi: Peace Sacrificed?, 29 May 2015, p. 3.Hide Footnote

A study found that 22 UN targeted sanctions regimes led to an increase in corruption and criminality in 69 per cent of cases and strengthening of authoritarian rule in 54 per cent, while only 22 per cent could be broadly classed as successful.[fn]Thomas Biersteker et al., “The Effectiveness of United Nations Targeted Sanctions”, The Targeted Sanctions Consortium, November 2013, p. 17. See also Sue Eckert, “The Role of Sanctions”, in The UN Security Council, op. cit., pp. 413-439.Hide Footnote  Crisis Group typically emphasises that sanctions are only worthwhile policy tools if embedded in a wider political strategy, have a clear purpose, enjoy sufficient multilateral support to be effective and are tied to clear conditions for their lifting.

The risk of applying sanctions without strong political messaging on goals beca­me clear in tense periods of the Iran nuclear negotiations. Crisis Group warned:

Critical differences exist between how policymakers in Washington and Brussels on the one hand and Tehran on the other view and interpret the sanctions regime. … the West views it as an instrument of coercive diplomacy, primarily designed to pressure Tehran into curtailing its nuclear activities … Iran sees it, and indeed the nuclear issue as a whole, as a thinly disguised pretext to undermine the regime.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°138, Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions, 25 February 2013, p. 39.Hide Footnote

While the Iranian leadership has not completely shaken off its suspicions of Western intentions, improved communication over the aims of sanctions after 2013 helped make a deal feasible.

In sum, threats of international justice and sanctions may nudge political actors away from escalation but must be tied to a path back from violence.[fn]A partial exception in the sanctions field are arms embargoes, which may limit the deadliness of a war but are porous.Hide Footnote  They should be used sparingly and pointedly.

It is less clear whether military force can be applied in a controlled fashion. Crisis Group does not object in principle to use of force. It has advocated that the U.S. retain its forces and even conduct further military activities in Afghanistan as part of a broader strategy of balancing and engaging with the Taliban in recent years. However, it has also raised concerns about many recent efforts to resolve escalating conflicts by military means in the absence of an overarching political strategy. It warned in 2011 in Libya that “Western calls for military intervention of one kind or another are perilous and potentially counterproductive”. After NATO’s air campaign began, it argued for a ceasefire and search for political settlement, because Qadhafi’s fall could be followed by “a potentially prolonged vacuum that could have grave political and security implications for Libya’s neighbours as well as aggravate an already serious humanitarian crisis”. Recently, it said the Saudi-led operation in Yemen “did more to terrorise civilians than to harm the Huthis”.[fn]Crisis Group Impact Note, “Pushing for a U-Turn in Afghanistan”, 2015; Media Releases, “A Ceasefire and Negotiations the Right Way to Resolve the Libya Crisis”, 10 March 2011 and “Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving Toward Legitimate Government”, 13 May 2011; and Middle East Report N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016, p. 4.Hide Footnote

The arguments against military interventions are as old as thought about warfare: once underway, initially limited campaigns tend to take on their own logic, strategic goals change, and violence can breed resistance that can itself escalate dangerously. Crisis Group thus often urges actors that insist on military action to limit its duration (as in calls for a Libyan ceasefire) and link it to political goals that targets can understand. In Yemen, for example, it urged the Saudis to “communicate specific security requirements” to help end their campaign.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, op. cit., p. iv.Hide Footnote

It is also necessary to consider the political implications of covert operations and support to proxy groups, common tools for big powers in recent crises. The U.S. and its allies have given covert support to Syrian rebels and Kurdish groups in Iraq. This is sometimes seen as a limited option, involving few or no (declared) boots on the ground and relatively inexpensive. Yet, it has unintended effects, such as empowering Kurds against the state, exacerbating Baghdad’s challenge to restore a national order and “giving the Kurds not only greater military capability, but also diplomatic cover”. Supposedly trustworthy militias can collaborate with more radical forces. Outside actors may not view such actions as limited: Russia reacted to U.S. and Arab covert support in Syria with its own direct intervention in 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°158, Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict, 12 May 2015, p. 25. “Coalition members see arming the Kurds as a quick security fix, divorced from broader political considerations”, ibid. Jeremy Shapiro (ex-U.S. official), “Obama’s Syria Failure is a Perfect Case Study in How Bad Foreign Policy is Made”, Vox World, 16 March 2016.Hide Footnote  Even when using covert means, governments must recall the political goals they are meant to serve and the diplomatic messages they send.

Military deployments can make immediate and medium-term contributions to peace in many situations, but it is necessary to be realistic about their limits.

Similar considerations apply to another form of military action not always classed as “coercive”: deployment of multilateral peace operations and stabilisation missions. Mandating these is common in post-Cold War conflict resolution. Over 100,000 troops and police are under UN command worldwide, with entities such as the AU, EU and NATO heavily involved. UN officials warn against deploying troops where there is “no peace to keep”, but there is a trend in the Security Council and elsewhere to do just that.[fn]See the data gathered at www.peaceoperationsreview.org. John Karlsrud, “The UN at War: The Consequences of Peace-Enforcement Mandates for the UN Peacekeeping Operations in the CAR, the DRC and Mali”, Third World Quarterly, vol.36 (1), pp. 40-54.Hide Footnote  The AU and African sub-regional bodies have pushed for early deployments to stabilise countries in crisis, including Mali and CAR. There is evidence that deploying peacekeepers leads to significant reduction in violence, but it has risks: African troops have come dangerously close, particularly in CAR, to being a conflict party. The risks are also high for peacekeepers in such cases: the UN has lost over 60 to insurgent attacks in Mali since 2013.[fn]See on statistical evidence in favour of peace operations, Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman and Megan Shannon, “United Nations Peacekeeping and Civilian Protection in War”, American Journal of Political Science, vol. 57 (4), pp. 875-891; on risks, Somini Sengupta and Alan Cowell, “Chad, Amid Criticism, Will Pull Troops from Force in Central Africa”, The New York Times, 3 April 2014; on UN Mali casualties, Olga Abilova and Arthur Boutellis, “UN Peace Operations in Violent and Asymmetric Threat Environments”, International Peace Institute, March 2016.Hide Footnote

The long-term presence of peacekeepers can freeze political divisions rather than provide a framework for their resolution. The UN’s DRC mission has faced significant implementation challenges: “political agreements, military operations and attempts at reconstruction have all come up against the same problem … there is a lack of political will to implement agreements and organise indispensable reforms”. Crisis Group has emphasised that “peacekeeping is a tool, not a strategy”, and CAR requires far broader support. Operations often settle into a cycle of “haphazard crisis responses, contingent decisions, and unintended consequences” (otherwise known as dealing with “one damn thing after another”) and can lose strategic direction. In some cases, international forces end up cooperating with governments that lack popular support or target their own citizens.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°91, Eastern Congo: Why Stabilisation Failed, 4 October 2012, p. 13; Africa Report N°219, The Central African Crisis: From Predation to Stabilisation, 17 June 2014. Richard Gowan, “The Security Council and Peacekeeping”, in The Security Council, op. cit., p. 752. For Darfur, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire cases, see Colum Lynch “See No Evil, Speak No Evil: U.N. Covers Up for Sudan’s Bad Behavior in Darfur”, Foreign Policy (online), 21 November 2014; and Giulia Piccolino and John Karlsrud, “Withering Consent, but Mutual Dependency: UN Peace Operations and African Assertiveness”, Conflict Security And Development vol. 11(4), pp. 467-472. Recurrent revelations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers exacerbate the problem. Marco Odello and Rósín Burke, “Between Immunity and Impunity: Peacekeeping and Sexual Abuses and Violence”, The International Journal of Human Rights, vol. 20(6), 2016, pp. 839-853.Hide Footnote  Military deployments can make immediate and medium-term contributions to peace in many situations, but it is necessary to be realistic about their limits.

C. Incentives

If facilitation is complicated and coercive strategies can backfire, can outsiders respond to looming crises by offering political actors incentives to avoid or limit violence? These can take many forms, including proposals to win over leaders under pressure. The initially successful 2011 political transition plan for Yemen specifically protected President Ali Abdullah Saleh from domestic prosecution. In Darfur, Crisis Group suggested the Security Council could suspend ICC pursuit of President Bashir if Sudan adhered to its promises to end violence and promote reform in the region.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°125, Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition, 3 July 2012, p. 1; Africa Report N°152, Sudan: Justice, Peace and the ICC, 17 July 2009. Saleh faced a simultaneous sanctions threat; the UN referred transitional justice questions to the Yemeni national dialogue conference, rather than endorsing a blanket amnesty (Crisis Group communication with UN official, 4 May 2016).Hide Footnote  More broadly, incentives fall into three categories: (i) offers of specific assistance to implement political agreements to avoid violence; (ii) greater economic and political assistance to reduce short- and medium-term risks and tensions; and (iii) efforts to help factions come to long-term agreements on the division of resources or political responsibilities to lower their interests in violence.

Help for implementation of political agreements to avoid or end violence can range from specific proposals to back new political mechanisms to broader efforts to support processes such as disarmament, security sector reform or local forms of transitional justice. In many mediations, such structures are agreed on for political reasons without reference to costs. The South Sudan peace deal, which, as noted, involved a convoluted high-level process, demanded “more than twenty new institutions, [including] the cantonment of tens of thousands of fighters and … other costly provisions”. China helped resolve one obstacle by offering electrical generators for cantonments, but donors are wary of such projects, as hard to evaluate and frequently open to corruption and waste. The head of the UN Peacebuilding Support Office has complained, “in 2013, … support to legitimate politics, security, and justice systems represented only 16 per cent (or $6.8 billion) of the $42 billion in gross development assistance for 31 conflict-affected countries”.[fn]Casie Copeland, “South Sudan’s Peace Needs More than Tents and Generators”, Crisis Group In Pursuit of Peace Blog, 23 February 2016. Oscar Fernandez Taranco, “A New Deal or a New Global Partnership for Conflict-Affected States?”, Africa in Focus, 30 March 2016.Hide Footnote

In South Sudan and other cases, donors need to overcome qualms and support post-conflict mechanisms to help solidify peace agreements (while assessing which mechanisms are truly useful and which may be marginal). Nonetheless, as in other cases of capacity building, it is necessary to recognise that these are inherently political, not solely technical processes. Efforts to disarm or reform corrupt militaries should take into account factions and patronage networks that have grown up inside them and who loses from reform. In cases like Ukraine, though “the inter-penetration of the corrupt political class and super-rich oligarchy is the main obstacle to reform”, it is necessary to offer financial aid to keep the state afloat.[fn]Andrew Wilson, “Survival of the Richest: How Oligarchs Block Reform in Ukraine”, European Council on Foreign Relations, April 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote

Such economic assistance may at times seem to do little more than buy time and make limited contributions to lasting resolutions. However, outsiders may be able to play a positive, if less direct, role by helping antagonistic leaders and factions identify long-term mechanisms for distributing resources. This is an important element of creating a path away from conflict: if actors agree on possible economic bargains, they may chart political ways forward together.

Resolving Crisis In the Middle East: An Iranian Perspective

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Crisis Group, as noted, has for example advocated a push for national consensus on economic governance in Libya, which relies entirely on energy sales, and “the institutions that manage production, sale and export of oil and gas and the wealth they generate … remain the bedrock of what is left of the state and a key to its control”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Prize, op. cit., p. 1.Hide Footnote  As a result, much of that war is driven by contests for physical and political control over these assets and institutions. At the same time, a sustainable unity government “is a prerequisite to tackling the complex issues around security and management of the hydrocarbon economy”. It is potentially a point of leverage for outsiders that framing political discussions in terms of protecting and sharing economic gains may persuade divided parties to compromise.

Crisis Group has applied similar logic, in different circumstances, to the South China Sea, where competition for underwater energy reserves may lead to clashes. A mechanism is needed to reduce immediate risk of unintended confrontation, while collaborative efforts are explored to exploit the resources. Economic planning may help China and its neighbours envisage a compromise to share control.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°275, Stirring up the South China Sea (IV): Oil in Troubled Waters, 26 January 2016.Hide Footnote

While early action inevitably centres on short-term issues, policymakers trying to avert conflict should start thinking about long-term end-states they can help local actors imagine and achieve. If this sounds hubristic, one must keep in mind that leaders and their followers may refuse assistance if they believe they will end up in a “wrong peace”, ie, a situation in which their fundamental security and interests will be compromised. Sketching realistic terms for a “good peace” (a situation in which all sides feel secure with the outcome) may help reframe leaders’ risk analyses and calculations, though this may take a long time.

In 2006, Crisis Group proposed “delayed limited enrichment” to resolve tensions over Iran’s nuclear program that could include “a several-year delay in … [Iran’s] enrichment program, major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a highly intrusive inspections regime”. That early Crisis Group concept, unpopular with both sides at the time, proved, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently acknowledged, to be a major contribution to the deal concluded in 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°51, Iran: Is There a Way out of the Nuclear Impasse?, 23 February 2006, p. i. “Resolving Crisis in the Middle East: an Iranian Perspective”, Australia National University, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote

D. Bringing Policy Tools Together

None of the tools available for early action are perfect or even consistently useful. There is a tendency for policymakers to adopt what organisational theorists call the “garbage can” theory of response to crisis: throwing whatever policy tools they have to hand at it and hoping that something will work. This is particularly pernicious where, in the absence of effective framework diplomacy, multiple states and organisations are simultaneously bidding to manage a looming crisis. Different agencies and bureaucracies in powerful states such as the U.S. or diffuse bodies such as the UN often follow confused or internally contradictory policies, despite repeated calls for more integrated approaches. Looking at American policy towards Kurdish groups in Syria, Iraq and Turkey for example, Crisis Group has argued that the U.S. should “unify and clarify its messaging, which has not been understood by many actors in the field, in part because it has not been consistent”.[fn]Michael Lipson, “A ‘Garbage Can’ Model of UN Peacekeeping”, Global Governance, vol. 13 (1), 2007, pp. 79-97. Crisis Group Briefing, Steps Toward Stabilising, 0p. cit., p. 9.Hide Footnote

Even if many calls for greater coherence in crisis response have gone unheeded, it is worth repeating their basic message. Governments and international organisations are likely to perform better in a crisis if they establish clear central planning and oversight functions early to guide overall strategy and can also communicate their strategic goals clearly and explicitly to allies and opponents. In every organisation there are reasons why these tasks are difficult, but in an era when crisis management requires so much framework diplomacy to establish even minimal levels of cooperation, individual players must be clear over their own goals.

V. Conclusion

Though this report has laid out a framework for approaching early warning and early action in an increasingly complex international environment, it must be recognised that all forms of diplomatic engagement are risky and have unpredictable results. It is easy to be pessimistic, but letting conflicts escalate is often risker than addressing them early. Strategic, well-designed engagement predicated on the discipline of close analysis, development of anticipatory relationships and construction of framework diplomacy may all help prevent or limit conflict. As Crisis Group President Guéhenno has noted, “we should approach our responsibilities with humility and set clear limits to our agenda. We must be modest, but we must not be defeatist”.[fn]Jean-Marie Guéhenno, The Fog of Peace: a Memoir of International Peacekeeping in the 21st Century (Washington, 2015), p. 317.Hide Footnote  To the extent resources permit, governments and regional and wider international organisations should thus invest in four key areas:

  • Knowledge and relationships. In addition to economic, demographic and other indicators, policymakers, working directly or through others, should develop the closest possible knowledge of troubled countries’ political systems and those actors who could play essential roles in shaping the outcomes of future crises. Approaches include (i) cultivating channels for frank discussions with leaders and elites; (ii) close monitoring of shifts in political alignments; (iii) deepening contacts with militaries and security services to understand their political positions; and (iv) tracking tensions in volatile peripheral areas.
     
  • Framework diplomacy. Both in anticipation of and in the immediate run-up to potential crises, policymakers should place early emphasis on constructing diplomatic frameworks and mechanisms among regional and wider powers to discuss policy options and reduce tensions. The faster frameworks can be constructed, whether under the aegis of international organisations or ad hoc, and the more robust the discussions they permit, the more likely they can provide a platform for resolving or at least managing an otherwise divisive crisis.
     
  • Strategic planning and communication. Where powers or organisations choose to engage directly in a crisis, they must define their goals early and clarify them to both domestic and external players rapidly and explicitly. This is especially true when overt or covert military options are in play.
     
  • Creating pathways to peace. While decision-makers can use a wide range of tools to try to resolve a crisis, these should be paired with ideas and proposals for a mutually-beneficial peace agreement that can offer a long-term horizon for antagonists to aim at. Outsiders can use back channels, second-track diplomacy and other means to define peace parameters. To do this, however, they need the mix of analysis and relationships required in the first place for effective early warning; indeed, it is hard to know how a conflict can be avoided or halted without a thorough sense of how it begins. Effective preventive diplomacy begins with getting deep inside the dynamic of a conflict – a process that involves grinding analytical work, political risk-taking and uncertain success, and yet can, if done right, create a basis for avoiding unnecessary crises.

Brussels, 22 June 2016