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Watch List 2017 – Third Update
Watch List 2017 – Third Update
Watch List 2017 – Second Update
Watch List 2017 – Second Update
Rohingya refugees wade after crossing the Naf river from Myanmar into Bangladesh in Whaikhyang, on 9 October 2017. AFP/Fred Dufour
EU Watch List 9 / Global

Watch List 2017 – Third Update

Crisis Group’s third update to our Watch List 2017 includes entries on the Northern Triangle of Central America, the Democratic Republic of Congo, post-ISIS Iraq, Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, and Turkey’s refugee challenge. 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.

Undocumented Migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America

Flows of undocumented migrants from Central America, through Mexico and toward the U.S. have given rise to a humanitarian emergency, albeit one that at present is largely treated by Washington as a national security menace and a justification for tougher border control. Originally driven by economic hardship, this northbound migration owes its intensity and longevity to multiple causes that make controlling or reducing it extremely hard. Mass victimisation of vulnerable migrants in transit has become the norm and could well be aggravated by Washington’s growing anti-immigration agenda. In this context, the European Union (EU) should adapt its current strategies in Central America to promote a more comprehensive approach to the protection of migrants.

Humanitarian impact

The flow of migrants from the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – to the U.S. has become as much a flight from life-endangering violence as a search for economic opportunity. Surveys of migrants and refugees carried out by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Mexico showed 39.2 per cent cite attacks or threats to themselves or their families, extortion or forced recruitment into gangs as the main reasons for their flight.

Once on their journey north, undocumented migrants must chart a perilous path between the dual threats of law enforcement and criminal groups. Crisis Group’s 2016 report (Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration, 28 July 2016) describes how toughened law enforcement has diverted undocumented migration into more costly, circuitous and dangerous channels, where criminal gangs and corrupt officials benefit from policies that lead desperate people to pay increasing sums to avoid detention.

Undocumented migrants [in the Northern Triangle] are exposed to kidnappings, human trafficking, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, robbery and extortion.

In the process, undocumented migrants are exposed to kidnappings, human trafficking, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, robbery and extortion. The most egregious cases include the 2010 and 2011 San Fernando massacres, in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, in which 265 migrants, most of them Central American, were killed by the Zetas drug trafficking cartel. Stuck in a legal limbo, migrants are doubly victimised: fearful of authorities, they are highly unlikely to report the crimes they suffer or gain access to medical care should they need it.

MSF has described undocumented migrants’ plight as “comparable to the conditions in conflict zones”. Two thirds of migrants reported being victims of violence during their transit toward the U.S.; nearly one third of women surveyed said they had been sexually abused during the journey. Among the migrants exposed to these risks are some of the most vulnerable groups in Central American society. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that asylum requests by unaccompanied NTCA minors in Mexico increased 416 per cent from 2013 to 2016.

U.S. policies

Fear of undocumented migration to the U.S. increasingly dominates political debate in that country. Although former President Obama stepped up border controls and continued a vigorous deportation policy – returning over five million people in total – his administration also welcomed legal migrants, acknowledged the humanitarian crisis posed by unaccompanied children arriving from Central America, and extended support to refugees around the world. President Trump, by contrast, was elected in part on a platform of clamping down on immigration, and some of his most influential supporters have made clear that their continued backing depends on implementation of stringent restrictive measures.

Undocumented entry into the U.S. already had become more difficult. 100,000 undocumented migrants made it into the U.S in 2016, compared to over 600,000 in 2006, according to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report.

Deepening Mexican collaboration with U.S. efforts to staunch the flow of Central Americans accounts for much of this reduction, and is likely to persist as Mexico strives to mitigate bilateral frictions with the Trump administration. In response to the 2014 crisis presented by migrant children arriving at the U.S. border, Mexican authorities boosted checkpoints, detentions and deportations of Northern Triangle nationals on its southern border with Guatemala. Mexico now deports more Central Americans than the U.S. (see graph).

Mexican Secretariat of Government http://politicamigratoria.gob.mx/es_mx/SEGOB/Boletines_Estadisticos and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) https://www.ice.gov/statistics

None of this has lessened the Trump administration’s determination to curb recent arrivals from Mexico and the Northern Triangle. The Temporary Protected Status (TPS) – which benefits some 200,000 migrants who came to the U.S. following hurricane Mitch in Honduras in 1998 and an earthquake in El Salvador in 2001 – is at risk of termination in 2018.

Likewise, on 5 September, President Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created by the Obama administration to defer deportation and provide work permits to 800,000 undocumented migrants who entered the U.S. as minors. President Trump suggested that Congress should use the six-month wind-down period before the DACA work permits expire to create a legislative framework for the program. But, under pressure from some of the administration’s staunchest supporters, the White House has made clear that it will only support such legislation if Congress also enacts tough new immigration measures. How the legislative process will play out is not yet clear.

Although overall deportations by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) are reported to have fallen slightly – they reached 211,068 as of 9 September 2017, three weeks before the end of the fiscal year, as compared to 240,255 in FY 2016 – arrests of undocumented migrants have risen by 43 per cent since Trump took office, as compared to the same period the year before. Most strikingly, the number of migrants without a criminal record being detained has increased threefold since 2016.

Mexican and Central American responses

An increase in deportations – driven by arrests of undocumented migrants and expiry of the TPS and DACA – would place further strains on troubled social conditions in the Northern Triangle. Although the region has relatively robust legal frameworks to protect refugees, with Mexico at the forefront of international refugee and migrant protection efforts, they frequently are unable to provide what they preach.

For instance, asylum in Mexico can be a prolonged process. Out of 8,788 requests, only 5,954 were resolved in 2016, 3,076 of which were granted. Asylum-seekers must file requests within 30 days of crossing the border, and are kept in detention if arrested before applying. Many give up because of the detention centers’ cramped and insalubrious conditions, or because they have no right to work while their requests are being considered.

Overall, the NTCA countries are not adequately equipped to receive new deportees. El Salvador’s preparations to receive them are almost entirely restricted to the monitoring of suspected gang activities. The National Assembly’s security commission has agreed on measures to track returnees accused of being street-gang members: over 500 suspected gang members have been sent back so far in 2017 to El Salvador, where high rates of violent crime and reported cases of extrajudicial execution of gang members complicate prospects of a return to peaceful civilian life.

Capacities to provide legal counsel, shelter, social reintegration or even transportation for returnees across the Northern Triangle are scant. Proposed legislation in Guatemala to strengthen the state’s readiness to protect migrants has stalled because of that country’s political crisis. In Honduras, the number of departing refugees and arriving deportees is the highest in the NTCA, but its government is concentrating on the president’s re-election campaign and on activating its own protocols against deported gang members.

Recommendations to the European Union and its member states

The more U.S. concerns about security and the economic effects of mass migration continue to drive a restrictive immigration policy, the more important it will be – from both a humanitarian and regional stability perspective – for the U.S. and its partners to help generate economic opportunities, better governance and broader social protection south of the U.S. border. That was the logic behind the “Alliance for Prosperity”, which the Obama administration established jointly with the NTCA governments and pursuant to which some $1.3 billion have been allocated to Central America in the 2017 and 2018 federal budgets. Today, that logic is at risk. A June 2017 high-level summit in Miami on prosperity and security in the NTCA, heralded a far stronger emphasis on security issues at the expense of recognition of the humanitarian emergency related to undocumented migration.

While the European Union (EU)’s role is limited due to the U.S.’s overwhelming influence in the region, it nonetheless could strengthen humanitarian responses and press for a more informed, integral approach to the protection of migrants, especially women and children. Migration forms a significant part of the EU’s cooperation with Latin America. The 2015 EU-CELAC Action Plan as well as the 2014-2020 Multiannual Indicative Regional Programme for Latin America include migration management and the protection of migrant rights as action points. So far, the EU’s initiatives in this field have focused on Latin America as a whole. However, the evolving migration dynamics in the NTCA call for a more targeted response. The EU should adapt its priorities in Central America and promote migration policies that focus on the protection and integration of migrants.

The EU should support Mexican and Northern Triangle authorities in their efforts to strengthen oversight of security agencies and state institutions working on migrant issues.

The EU should support Mexican and Northern Triangle authorities in their efforts to strengthen oversight of security agencies and state institutions working on migrant issues. Technical assistance and capacity-building support for the under-resourced Central American consulates situated on the migrant route through Mexico would help ensure better protection for those in transit. The initiative MIgration EU eXpertise (MIEUX), a peer-to-peer experts’ facility that supports partner countries to better manage migration through tailor-made assistance, can be a useful platform and starting point for the exchange of expertise and best practices.

The EU could also boost technical support to expand refugee processing of NTCA nationals in neighbouring countries (mainly Belize and Costa Rica), particularly minors, and ensure regional governments and NGOs provide adequate shelter to those awaiting decisions. Financial and logistical support to neighbouring countries such as Panama and Costa Rica, as well as to other Latin American countries that agree to take a share of refugees, would help cushion the impact of increasingly forbidding U.S. immigration policies.

All in all, the EU should continue to pursue an approach to Central America grounded in supporting community violence prevention, institutional reform and poverty alleviation. Perhaps most urgently, it should assist the three Northern Triangle countries in developing new programs to help them reintegrate deportees, including through initiatives to help them access health care, training, employment and psychosocial support when necessary.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): A Dangerous Stalemate

Political uncertainty and instability in the DRC are growing as the one-sided implementation of the 31 December 2016 (Saint Sylvester) agreement has deepened the gulf between a newly invigorated regime and a weakened opposition and civil society. The Electoral Commission (CENI) still has not published a new calendar for polls promised by the end of the year, although, speaking at the UN General Assembly on 23 September, President Joseph Kabila indicated it was imminent. Recent comments by the CENI president indicate that the elections would not be organised before 2019. In this context of political uncertainty, opposition and civil society are renewing efforts to bring people out onto the streets; whether they can do so is unclear, as is whether they could control any protests that do occur. The grave socio-economic crisis, harsh repression by security forces and lack of confidence in political elites make for a potentially explosive cocktail of resentment and frustration. Beyond urban centres, violence is escalating in many provinces, adding to concerns for regional stability.

An increasingly confident regime that lacks a clear strategy

Few, if any, of the 31 December agreement’s signatories sincerely believed in the agreement’s stipulation that elections would be held by the end of 2017. The government has since controlled implementation of that deal and interpreted its provisions to suit its agenda of delay. Meanwhile, domestic pressure to stick to the timeline has diminished, in particular following the February death of Etienne Tshisekedi, the charismatic opposition leader, and in March, after the Catholic Church withdrew from its direct mediation role.

For its part, Kabila’s government has engaged in a two-pronged strategy: violent repression and closure of political space at home on the one hand, intensive regional diplomacy to defuse U.S. and European Union (EU) pressure on the other. The latter track appears to have been particularly successful. African and especially Southern African powers now largely accept the government’s interpretation of the agreement (notably its unilateral choice of prime minister). While they have been more critical behind closed doors and acknowledge that the political manoeuvring and delay tactics increase the risk of violence, their public positioning has given the regime vital breathing space.

A weakened opposition focused on Kabila leaving power

Faced with the regime’s hijacking of the 31 December agreement, opposition and civil society are trying to regain the initiative. In July, Felix Tshisekedi, president of the main opposition coalition, the Rassemblement, suggested a six-month transition if the vote were not held in December, but without Kabila (whose constitutional mandate expired in 2016) retaining the presidency. In August, representatives of civil society platforms (including the youth protest movements Lucha and Filimbi as well as the “Debout Congolais” recently launched by Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo) adopted a manifesto with a similar proposal. Moïse Katumbi, a prominent opponent in exile, added his name to this manifesto in September. It calls for non-violent actions to pressure the government, reminding the population of its duty, enshrined in Article 64, to defend the constitution against anyone seeking to exercise power by violating its provisions. It hopes such actions will force President Kabila out, with a national conference held afterwards to designate a transitional mechanism.

This approach has scant chance of success. The opposition, weakened by the exile and imprisonment of several of its leaders, is riven by distrust among its factions and lacks internal cohesion. Struggling to organise street demonstrations, or control them when they do take place, its leaders appear for now to be resting their hopes on greater international (particularly Western) engagement. But the opposition faces a paradox: international actors are unlikely to take a more robust position in the absence of a credible domestic dynamic.

Worrying security developments

Meanwhile, several provinces – including the Kasais, Tanganyika, North and South Kivu – are experiencing violent conflict, fuelled by both local tensions and the national political stalemate. Playing the role of pompier-pyromane, the government thus far has contained the fighting while people close to the regime have simultaneously stoked unrest and used it to justify election delays. But this dangerous strategy has increased tensions with several neighbours, notably Angola, which hosts thousands of refugees from the troubled Kasai region. As one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises, with 3.8 million internally displaced and more than 600.000 refugees, humanitarian support remains under-funded despite some EU and member states contributions, and the recent additional amounts announced this year.

A recent small rebound in copper prices has allowed the government to promise better and more regular salaries as well as to ease currency depreciation pressures. But economic fundamentals remain poor. With families squeezed by rising prices and growing petty corruption, popular discontent is rising along with prospects for urban unrest.

International actors need to step up support for the 31 December agreement

The EU, UN, the African Union (AU), relevant sub-regional organisations and the Chinese, French, Russian and UK governments, together with the DRC government, met on 19 September on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York. The chair’s summary of that meeting reaffirmed broad support for the Saint Sylvester agreement, despite the inevitability that its electoral timetable will now slip. This is welcome news insofar as the agreement’s core principle – the need to hold elections without amending the constitution – deserves strong support in the face of the regime’s attempts to kill it with a thousand cuts.

The EU should [...] denounce attempts by the DRC government to further delay the polls.

But international actors need to turn this support into concrete action that pressures the government and electoral commission to move forward with election preparations. While the EU should offer technical electoral support, as envisaged at the New York meeting, it should denounce attempts by the DRC government to further delay the polls (including through publishing unnecessarily long timetables). It also should condemn, of course, any attempt by Kabila to change the constitution’s presidential two-term limit. International reaction to the soon-to-be-announced electoral calendar will be an initial test – if the timetable stretches too far into the future, as recent communications from the CENI indicate it may, the EU, in concert with other relevant international actors, should make this clear, stressing that elections could be held sooner and offering technical support to reach that goal while actively criticising delay tactics. Alongside this, EU and member states should continue work that supports Congolese civil society and internal voices calling for democracy and constitutionalism.

Effective pressure on President Kabila to move toward elections and stick to term limits requires better international cooperation. Western powers – notably the EU and its member states – should reach out to African leaders to hear their concerns and try to iron out differences. At present, African powers tend to acquiesce in Kabila’s interpretation of the agreement and refrain from criticising (at least publicly) his efforts to remain in power, while the West has adopted a more critical stance. Disagreement thus far has revolved around how best to push Kinshasa toward elections. African leaders are hostile to Western sanctions on DRC leaders put in place over the last fifteen months. While those sanctions may have had some impact in 2016 in deterring violence and helping forge the December agreement, they increasingly have diminishing returns as Kabila’s regime uses them to portray pressure on it as a form of Western imperialism. They ought not be reinforced while efforts are made to align international views.

Post-ISIS Iraq: A Gathering Storm

With the military defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) drawing near, Iraq faces dramatic new challenges. On 16 October, Iraqi federal forces marched onto Kirkuk, helped by a deal with one of the Kurdish parties, and retook the city and Kirkuk’s oil fields. The action was prompted by a referendum on Kurdish independence staged by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on 25 September within its territory and in areas disputed with Baghdad. The “yes” vote was overwhelming, and thus held out the threat of eventual secession. In its aftermath, the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi saw the need to reassert Iraqi sovereignty over the disputed territories, including Kirkuk, ahead of (still unscheduled) legislative elections next year. This is because of an intra-Shiite competition that has been unfolding in Baghdad, involving military and political factions with longstanding ties to Iran that were empowered by the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish-Arab standoff and the intra-Shiite rivalry intersect and reinforce each other.

The involvement of a plethora of armed groups in the fight against ISIS [...] has created a hyper-militarised environment that further undermines Iraq’s already weak legal framework.

The involvement of a plethora of armed groups in the fight against ISIS, alongside state agencies that respond to different chains of command, has created a hyper-militarised environment that further undermines Iraq’s already weak legal framework. Political actors jockeying for power in the post-ISIS environment may be tempted to exploit this fragmentation and to expand their leverage by pushing toward further escalation. To prevent a collapse of Iraq’s post-2003 political system, substantial reforms are required. The EU can play a key role in such an effort. While the anti-ISIS campaign operated primarily on the military level and was largely conducted in the framework of the U.S.-led coalition, the next steps involve areas where the EU has strong expertise and capacities, namely reconstruction and security sector reform.

A messy governing and security framework

Despite its military achievements, the anti-ISIS campaign has had the unintended effect of arming and training security forces that operate outside formal institutions in both Iraq and the Kurdistan region. Western countries’ largely unconditional military support and lack of a common and clear political roadmap for the post-ISIS period have not helped. The control that various militarised groups exercise over parts of the country challenges Baghdad’s authority and sovereignty. Without conditionality, reconstruction aid to ravaged areas may be hijacked by the militias that control them, further entrenching their rule, with adverse effects for the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and governance.

Baghdad-Erbil: From standstill to standoff to violence

The Kurdish independence referendum raised the Kurds’ expectations of statehood while severely damaging relations between Erbil and Baghdad. It led Baghdad to shift from a lukewarm-cooperative to an openly confrontational approach as a way to show resolve in defending Iraq’s territorial integrity. Abadi felt he could move to regain control of the disputed territories because he realised he had the support of both Iran and Turkey (an ally of the KRG until the referendum), as well as the U.S. All three were angered by Barzani’s rejection of their repeated requests that he agree to delay the referendum. The challenge now will be to return to political talks about the future of the disputed territories; settling the internal-boundary question will be critical to bringing long-term stability to these troubled areas.

A blocked political system

Political tensions and institutional weakness will remain endemic as long as Iraq fails to reduce corruption and refresh a leadership that has ruled since 2003. To shore up declining popular support, leaders engage in confrontational rhetoric and strategies, exacerbating ethnic and sectarian tension and inviting external interference. This stands as the largest obstacle to addressing outstanding issues, such as the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad, the Sunnis’ crisis of representation, and the broken trust in Iraq’s legal framework, institutions and formal politics. In particular among young Iraqis, this adds to the urge to either join armed groups or leave the country altogether. (See Crisis Group MENA Report N°169, Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s “Generation 2000”, 8 August 2016)

An EU role in reshaping the post-ISIS period

At its June 2017 Foreign Affairs Council the EU reiterated its commitment to support Iraq during the post-ISIS period. Beyond responding to the immediate humanitarian crisis, the EU should seek to tailor this support in ways that help address the underlying causes of the current political malaise, notably the corruption and dysfunction of the Baghdad government, the corruption and succession quarrel within the Kurdistan regional government, the crisis of Sunni representation, and the Baghdad-Erbil standoff. Through its upcoming EU Strategy for engagement with Iraq and subsequent action, the EU should pursue:

Humanitarian and reconstruction aid as part of a political strategy: EU assistance should be guided by the overarching political goal to transform a militia-dominated environment into more effective governance by state institutions. To this end, aid and reconstruction should aim to break local communities’ security and financial dependence on the various militia leaderships that emerged from the anti-ISIS campaign. Local governance institutions linked to and funded by the central state or the Kurdistan regional government should be partners of first choice. Strengthening those institutions may also make it possible to integrate local armed factions (of Sunnis as well as minority groups) into the local police and other security forces, thus breaking Shiite militias’ monopoly over security, which has fuelled resentment and could reignite support for jihadists who are currently lying low. In the disputed territories, EU reconstruction assistance could be conditioned upon acceptance by both Erbil and Baghdad of a renewed UN-led process (see below) to resolve the questions of these territories’ status and the sharing of revenues generated from the oil extracted there. The way forward should include a return to a shared security mechanism between Erbil’s peshmerga ministry and Baghdad’s defence ministry in the most sensitive areas.

Reorganisation of the security sector: In the post-ISIS phase, the EU should assist Iraq and the Kurdistan region in integrating chains of command and bringing the range of formal and informal armed groups under the purview of the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga ministry. Through its new Advisory Mission for security sector reform (EUAM), the EU can contribute its member states’ extensive experience in this field to enhance efforts by other international actors (NATO, UNDP) to help the federal government and Kurdistan Regional Government reorganise their respective security forces. In particular, the duties and purview of various security bodies (Counter-terrorism Forces, Iraqi Army, National Police, Kurdish peshmerga forces and Kurdish Asayesh security police), as well as the status of new outfits such as the Shiite militias, need to be defined.

Leadership regeneration: Post-ISIS stabilisation also hinges on a renewal of the political leadership in Baghdad and Erbil by committing both capitals to free, fair and timely elections. Thanks to its established network in civil society organisations, the EU can encourage the participation of new political actors by engaging in leadership training for members of informal, non-violent protest movements, who have challenged the political elite in the recent past, and identify new youth-led civil society groups and volunteer organisations – even if they have emerged under the umbrella of, or enjoy ties to, the Shiite militias – and facilitate their integration into local governance institutions and established political parties.

Iraq’s Territorial Integrity. The EU should use its diplomatic and economic weight to help revive negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil over the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) question. Settling the endemic instability in these areas is crucial to both sides regardless of the ultimate disposition of Kurdistan. Talks should be led by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) based on its important but still unused 2009 study and proposals on that subject. To this end it should work to refocus UNAMI’s mandate (through a Security Council resolution). This is also an issue that Turkey, a support of the earlier UNAMI effort, has found of great interest and would almost certainly wish to engage Erbil on.

Rohingya Crisis: A Major Threat to Myanmar Transition and Regional Stability

Since Crisis Group’s warning in its February Watch List, Rakhine state’s “alarming trajectory” has deteriorated further. The views of most people in Myanmar and those of much of the international community on the crisis are diametrically opposed. Domestically, the situation is seen to stem from terrorist attacks and a legitimate security response to them; internationally, the focus is on the disproportionate military response to those attacks involving serious abuses characterised as possible crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Myanmar’s political direction in relation to the crisis has now been set and is very unlikely to be altered. Views domestically and internationally are hardening in different directions, with huge implications for domestic politics and Myanmar’s standing in the world.

At the open session of the UN Security Council on 28 September, there was consensus among many members on four points: (1) ending the military operation and vigilante attacks on Rohingya; (2) giving unfettered humanitarian access to northern Rakhine state to UN agencies and their INGO partners; (3) ensuring a safe, voluntary and sustainable return of refugees from Bangladesh to their original places of origin in Myanmar; and (4) addressing the underlying problems through implementation as soon as possible of the recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission, in particular the need to expedite the citizenship verification process and to ensure that those granted citizenship are able to enjoy associated rights.

Failure to address the immediate humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state [...] has aggravated the crisis and triggered the departure of tens of thousands more Rohingya to Bangladesh, who have been arriving in re-cent days.

Failure to address the immediate humanitarian crisis in Rakhine state – through concerted efforts to end attacks and protect civilians as well as urgent humanitarian assistance to Rohingya communities still in Myanmar who are already on the move – has aggravated the crisis and triggered the departure of tens of thousands more Rohingya to Bangladesh, who have been arriving in recent days. Only the UN has the capacity to quickly deliver assistance at the required scale, and in a way that will reassure the international community that needs of all communities are being met. The main reason for this second wave of departures must also be clear: it is not a lack of food or humanitarian assistance per se, but rather restrictions and insecurity that deprive people of their normal means of survival, whether farming, fishing, foraging or trading.

Likewise, failure to make significant progress on voluntary refugee returns under UN High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR) auspices, and begin to address the root causes of the crisis through implementation of the Annan commission recommendations, will leave a huge population in Bangladesh of some 700,000 people who have fled over the last year. This group of traumatised people with no hope for the future could easily be taken advantage of by militants and transnational jihadist groups for their own ends, which could create deep instability in Myanmar and the wider region. Some may attempt to cross the Andaman Sea by boat to Malaysia once the monsoon recedes in the next month or so, facilitated by people-smuggling networks, risking a repeat of the maritime migration crisis of 2015.

Myanmar’s actions are already aggravating the terrorist threat. On 3 September, a senior leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen called for attacks on Myanmar and its leaders in response to the treatment of the Rohingya. On 13 September, al-Qaeda appealed to its members to support the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) militancy and warned that Myanmar would face “punishment” for its “crimes”. Although ARSA issued a statement the following day stating that it had no links with “any transnational terrorist group” and “did not welcome the involvement of such groups in the conflict”, the risk of other groups manipulating the situation is significant, as is the possibility of terrorist attacks elsewhere in Myanmar from outside the country, whether directed or inspired by transnational jihadist groups. Tellingly in this regard, an Egyptian militant group named Hasm claimed responsibility for a blast at the Myanmar embassy in Cairo on 30 September.

The [Rohingya crisis] represents a grave threat to Myanmar’s transition.

Furthermore, the crisis represents a grave threat to Myanmar’s transition. It has unleashed a wave of strong nationalist sentiment and greatly amplified and reinforced bigoted views. There is extremely strong support in the country for Suu Kyi’s position and the military’s approach. The risk is that once such narrow nationalist sentiments take hold, unopposed by the democratically-elected government, they will constrain future government responses to the crisis and set the country once again on a path to international pariah status. This will make it much more difficult for Myanmar to forge an inclusive national identity, essential for such an ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse country. And it would hinder progress on the peace process, whose success requires national consensus on granting greater political authority and economic resources to minority communities and areas. Anti-Western sentiment, currently running high, also could be entrenched.

Suu Kyi does not have the authority under the constitution to order the military to take a different approach, but through the president has the power to convene military leaders. However, her most powerful tool is her undisputed position as the person in the country enjoying the greatest political and moral authority. This gives her the power to sway public opinion, and considerable ability to influence the security forces; her speech to the nation on 12 October contained some positive signals in this regard. Efforts to shift the domestic narrative may come at a cost to both her political support and relations with the military. However, the risk of the military attempting to take complete power, or launch a coup, is very low; the military spent more than twenty years preparing the current constitutional arrangement and putting it in place, and from their perspective the transition has been much more successful than they might have expected. They would see a return to military rule as a failure of their generational project, to be avoided at all costs.

Recommendations for the EU and its member states

Immediate priorities remain those articulated by a number of members in the 28 September Security Council briefing: ending state and vigilante violence and village destruction; unfettered humanitarian access for the UN and INGOs; ensuring voluntary return of refugees to places of origin in line with international law; and timely implementation of the Annan commission’s recommendations. To work toward these priorities, and in light of the 16 October EU’s Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Continue to support strong Security Council scrutiny and action.
     
  • Continue to support strong, principled multilateral and bilateral engagement with Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders in order to chart a way out of the crisis.
     
  • Support efforts to ensure accountability for rights violations in northern Rakhine state.
     
  • Encourage Suu Kyi to speak to the nation and make full use of her position to shift the national narrative in a more constructive direction.

A return to previous forms of bilateral and EU sanctions on Myanmar in the form of travel bans and asset freezes may not be helpful in achieving concrete progress, and risks constraining future policy options as well as sending unintended signals to investors that could impact on the economy, to the detriment of ordinary Myanmar people.

Turkey’s Growing Refugee Challenge – Rising Social Tensions

Recent events have brought tensions between the European Union (EU) and Turkey to a head. Ankara is embittered over the stalled accession process and what it perceives as the EU’s inadequate support for Turkey’s fight against terrorism. The EU and its member states voice heightened criticism of Turkey’s human rights track record, increasingly unaccountable institutions and lack of respect for the rule of law; President Erdoğan’s pre-referendum rhetoric caused particular harm to relations with Germany and the Netherlands. In the absence of substantive accession talks, the March 2016 refugee deal now represents the main venue for dialogue and the most significant strategic thread holding the two sides together. Although Ankara complains that EU’s €3 billion pledge to support Turkey’s response to the refugee influx has been conditional and that only €883 million so far has been disbursed, and while EU representatives find the Turkish bureaucracy ill-prepared for developing projects, both sides value continued cooperation in this area.

At first glance, Turkey has handled the refugee influx remarkably smoothly. The backlash caused by Turkey’s absorption of some 3.2 million Syrians, who arrived incrementally since 2011, has been far less serious than anticipated and refugee flows to the EU have substantially diminished. But the Syrian refugee issue in Turkey is far from being settled. In particular, social resentment and hostility toward Syrians has risen, notably in suburban districts of Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, which have high refugee concentrations.

Violence affecting refugees and asylum seekers – which, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees grew markedly in 2017 – is most prevalent in neighbourhoods offering cheap housing and low-skilled jobs: these have drawn large numbers of Syrian refugees, in turn raising housing costs and depriving host communities of job opportunities. Risks of violent outbursts are further exacerbated where ethnic differences overlap with economic tensions. This is the case in particular of Kurdish host communities, some of whose members already feel politically marginalised, resent that public institutions such as hospitals and municipalities offer Arabic translation services and are angry that the central authorities are seeking to accommodate Syrian parents’ desire for Arabic language courses in schools even as their own longstanding demands regarding the Kurdish language remain unaddressed. They also find their low-skilled informal sector jobs threatened by the influx of Syrian refugees. (The informal economy, where competition between host and refugee communities tends to take place, constitutes on average 34 per cent of the economy according to Turkish and World Bank statistics).

More broadly, interaction between refugees and host communities remains extremely limited, especially among women. Syrians and Turkish citizens living in large urban areas are particularly prone to misunderstanding and conflict, lacking the affinity that tends to exist in border provinces. Turkey’s generosity toward Syrians – for example providing them with free health care and easier access to university entrance – at times gives rise to beliefs that are strongly held but inaccurate, such as that Syrians can enter university without taking an examination, or that monthly aid channelled to Syrians in need is covered by citizen taxes; these in turn inevitably fuel resentment and anger.

Ankara also faces enormous problems in seeking to integrate roughly 1 million school-aged Syrian children into its already strained education system.

Ankara also faces enormous problems in seeking to integrate roughly 1 million school-aged Syrian children into its already strained education system. The challenge is not only to ensure Syrian children can enrol but also to cope with host communities’ anger at the overburdening of the local school system. (According to a recent report by Education Reform Initiative, around 77,000 additional classrooms, and 70,000 new teachers are required to meet the needs of local and Syrian refugee communities). This situation is all the more serious following the government’s decision to both phase out the temporary education centres (TECs) which essentially provided a parallel Arabic-language school system for Syrians and to shut down NGO-run schools for Syrians. Integrating Syrian children into Turkish public schools is the correct policy approach in the long run, but for now it generates tensions given insufficient infrastructure and teacher capacity. Funded by the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the World Bank, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Development Bank (KfW) in particular have been working closely with Turkish authorities to build new schools and train teachers to support the transition away from the temporary education centres, but implementation has been lagging. Some schools place Syrian children into separate classrooms, thereby defeating the purpose of integrating Syrians into Turkish public schools.

As 2019 local and presidential elections loom, and with the Syrian presence increasingly unpopular, opposition parties might well resort to an exclusionary discourse, calling on the state to send refugees back home. Such a political dynamic inevitably would further exacerbate tensions and fuel instability. Because the government often faults the EU for the presence of Syrians in such large number and for not doing enough to ease Turkey’s burden, rising tensions between Syrians and host communities also potentially could harm broader Turkey-EU relations. This in turn would call into question the value of the refugee deal. Both Turkish authorities and the EU should take steps to minimise this risk.

For Turkey, a key is to adopt an inclusive approach, paying special attention to those segments of society most affected by the presence of Syrian refugees. The EU and its member states also have an important role to play in facilitating the integration of Syrian refugees. In planning further disbursements and considering possible additional allocations through the EU’s Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the EU Regional Trust Fund in response to the Syrian Crisis or Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, they should:

  • Develop a roadmap for gradually shifting from humanitarian aid to local-level development, especially geared at strengthening already-existing public service capacities. The focus should be on encouraging Syrians to achieve sustainable livelihoods, although any effort along these lines should not come at the expense of humanitarian assistance, particularly to vulnerable groups.
     
  • Continue to support expanding vocational training opportunities to enable both Syrian refugees and host communities to acquire skills that match labour market needs and to foster greater social cohesion, particularly in big city neighbourhoods that have been rife with tension.
     
  • Expand opportunities for Syrians to learn Turkish as a foreign language. Some 70 per cent of Syrians in the country are believed not to speak Turkish; the resulting lack of interaction with host communities provides fertile ground for negative sentiments to grow.
     
  • As part of the ongoing effort to integrate Syrian school-aged children into Turkish public schools, support the employment of Syrians currently teaching at TECs as “intercultural mediators” in public schools to help refugee children who have trouble keeping up and fitting in.
     
  • Continue to channel resources toward bolstering school infrastructure and teaching capacities. This is key to facilitate the transition away from TECs while addressing related host community grievances.
     
  • Work with Turkish authorities to more effectively dispel myths about how EU funding is channelled and convey that resources and aid are not exclusively channelled to Syrians.
     
  • Consider offering support for service provision in languages other than Turkish in municipalities and public institutions that service large groups of residents with a different mother tongue. For example, this policy could be applied to localities where the number of such residents exceeds a certain percentage. This is a highly sensitive issue in Turkey, but could be addressed practically, for instance by employing a sufficient number of translators.
     
  • Ensure that field-based, EU-funded NGOs and their community centres focus on ways to encourage positive interaction between Syrian and host community groups of diverse backgrounds.

Tensions, already high, could rise further still, especially if Syrian refugees’ return prospects do not rise. With Turkish citizens’ youth unemployment having reached 20 per cent, and with relatively low economic growth rates predicted for next year, social pressures are likely to increase and, with them, the risk of inter-communal confrontation. Moreover, as Syrians learn Turkish, develop more settled communities and grow more acutely aware of their relative lack of opportunity, they could become increasingly frustrated and alienated; more may also fall prey to criminal networks. That approximately 40 per cent of school-aged Syrians currently are not enrolled in school and that up to 30 per cent of Syrian adults in Turkey are illiterate raises the spectre of the emergence of a parallel society facing long-term marginalisation.

A demonstrator clashes with riot security forces while rallying against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's Government in Caracas, Venezuela, on 23 June 2017. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Watch List 2017 – Second Update

Crisis Group’s second update to our Watch List 2017 includes entries on Nigeria, Qatar, Thailand and Venezuela. These early-warning publications identify conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.

Nigeria: Growing Insecurity on Multiple Fronts

Nigeria is facing a time of uncertainty and peril. President Muhammadu Buhari’s failing health – he has spent more than 110 days battling an undisclosed illness in the UK – is prompting intense manoeuvring regarding who will run for president in 2019, particularly among loyalists and others seeking to preserve Northern rule. The eight-year-old insurgency by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram persists. An older problem, Biafra separatist agitation in the South East, is provoking dangerous domino effects in the north and Niger Delta, while deadly clashes between herders and farmers are escalating across the central belt and spreading southward. Defence chief, General Abayomi Olonishakin’s recent comment that the military is battling at least fourteen challenges across the country underscores the widespread insecurity. House of Representatives speaker, Yakubu Dogara, said Nigeria ‘‘is effectively permanently in a state of emergency’’. For the European Union (EU), which is already largely engaged in the Niger Delta and the North East, this means that it should also watch closely political, social and security developments in other regions in Nigeria, and work with other international actors to push for much needed reforms that will address these challenges.

President Buhari’s Health Crisis

The president’s health has deteriorated significantly, particularly since February 2017; government secrecy about his condition has only fuelled diverse speculation. Most observers doubt he can effectively complete his first term, scheduled to end in 2019. As constitutionally mandated, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is filling in, but several important government decisions and appointments are stalled, awaiting the president’s attention.

More troubling, some of Buhari’s Northern and Muslim loyalists are ill-disposed toward Osinbajo, from the South West and Christian. They fear that in 2019 Osinbajo might run for and win the presidency, as former President Goodluck Jonathan did following President Umaru Yar’adua’s death in 2010. That would violate an informal understanding to rotate the two-term presidency between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south, which has been in place since the return to multi-party democracy in 1999 as a way to address Nigeria’s delicate ethnic-religious balance. The agreement itself is in dispute, however, and those who argue it is unconstitutional, non-binding and divisive will encourage Osinbajo to run. The South East, where complaints of political marginalisation increasingly are stoking Biafra separatism, also is likely to make a stronger claim to the presidency. The influential Northern Elders Forum has declared that a Northerner must complete Buhari’s second term, signalling a serious north-south power struggle in 2019.

Adding to these, army chief General Tukur Buratai’s warning in May that troops should steer clear of politicians approaching them for ‘‘undisclosed political reasons’’ raises fears of military intervention.

To renew confidence and further reduce north-south suspicions, as well as ensure stable federal governance, the EU, along with member states most closely engaged with Nigeria, should:

  • Encourage transparency about the president’s health as a matter of public accountability to dispel rumours of a Northern conspiracy to keep him in power even if incapacitated.
     
  • Send strong private or public messages to both military and regional political leaders, against unconstitutional actions, particularly military intervention.
     
  • Press all parties to abide by constitutional provisions, particularly to achieve a smooth transition if Buhari is unable to continue in office.

The Stubborn Boko Haram Insurgency

President Buhari’s December 2016 declaration that the army had conquered Boko Haram’s last stronghold raised hopes the conflict was ending. But, seven months on, the insurgency remains very much alive. Fighters continue to attack civilians and military targets with new ferocity. June’s casualty rate – more than 80 – topped those for earlier months of the year. In April, there were indications that Boko Haram was establishing new forest camps in Borno and Taraba states, and setting up new cells in Kaduna, Kogi and Niger states. There are also indications that the military, which has units deployed in 28 of the 36 states, is overstretched and unable to provide troops with sufficient resources. Some exhausted troops are complaining of not being rotated. The rainy season could further hamper operations, enabling Boko Haram to regroup and rearm.

The conflict’s humanitarian fallout is worsening: about 4.5 million people lack sufficient food.

The conflict’s humanitarian fallout is worsening: about 4.5 million people lack sufficient food. On 8 June, the government launched a new food intervention plan for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Maiduguri, but it remains impossible to reach many of the needy. Despite the February Oslo donor pledging conference, UN officials reported the US$1.05 billion Nigeria humanitarian response plan was only 37.8 per cent funded as of 7 July 2017. Insecurity is also constraining aid efforts, as Boko Haram carried out 97 suicide and vehicle borne attacks between March and June 2017 according to Nigerian military authorities. The Borno state government’s shelving of its earlier plan to close all IDP camps by 29 May underscored that large areas of the state are still unsafe. If aid efforts are not stepped up, expanded and sustained, Borno state in particular could slide deeper into humanitarian crisis.

The EU most recently announced a €143 million support package for early recovery and reconstruction, bringing its total support in Borno state alone to €224.5 million for 2017. Delivering this package requires safe access, but many humanitarian aid agencies complain that convoys are not effectively secured, exposing them to ambushes and abductions. To help improve confidence and guarantee safer space, the EU should:

  • Prod the government to intensify military and other security efforts to ensure safer humanitarian access.
     
  • Prioritise humanitarian assistance with operational presence, fast-track food assistance and cash-based transfers wherever feasible.

Biafra Agitation Sparking Dangerous Domino Effects

Deepening separatist agitation in the Igbo-dominated South East, spurred by perceived political and economic marginalisation, is producing dangerous ripple effects. A successful sit-at-home action called by agitators on 30 May – the 50th anniversary of the declaration of an independent Biafra – provoked sixteen northern youth groups to demand a week later that Igbos leave the north by 1 October. This in turn prompted a call by a coalition of eight Niger Delta militant youth groups for all Northerners leave the delta by the same date. Although northern state governors disavowed the declarations while Acting President Osinbajo consulted with both northern and south-eastern leaders to defuse tensions, the youth groups have not withdrawn their demands. Should they seek to enforce them, or should mobs take matters into their own hands, there could be violence and large-scale population displacements.

Militants in the Niger Delta have not launched any major attacks on oil installations since the federal government engaged the region’s ethnic and political leaders last November, pledging to revive infrastructure projects, clean up the polluted Ogoni environment and allow local communities to set up modular refineries. Yet the region’s situation remains fragile. Attacks against Igbos or other southerners in the north might lead some delta militants to target oil companies, either to pressure the federal and northern state governments to stop anti-Igbo violence, or to cover criminal activities.

The EU, especially its delegation in Abuja, and its member states should encourage the government to continue consultations with regional leaders and other stakeholders. In particular, it should:

  • Encourage the government to strengthen measures to protect citizens, working with the military, police but also community leaders and associations.
     
  • Engage with leaders of relevant south-eastern, northern and Niger Delta youth groups, and organise forums with the goal of halting inflammatory rhetoric, withdrawing quit orders and publicly denouncing violence.
     
  • Urge the National Assembly (federal parliament), presently divided over the 2014 National Conference Report and its recommendations, to commence deliberations on suggested federal reforms that could help prevent conflicts and curb separatist agitation. 

The Herder-Farmer Tinderbox

Violent conflict between largely Muslim Fulani herders and ethnically diverse farmers in predominantly Christian areas has taken on tribal, religious and regional dimensions. Clashes across the central belt and spreading southward, are killing some 2,500 people a year. The conflict is now so deadly that many Nigerians fear it could become as dangerous as the Boko Haram insurgency. Escalating internally, the conflict could also spread regionally: herders might seek to draw fighters from their kin in other West and Central African countries, as some Fulani leaders have warned. This in turn could undermine a fragile region already struggling to defeat the Boko Haram insurgents.

In the absence of a strong federal response, states have been devising their own policies, including bans on open grazing that are vehemently opposed by herders and cattle dealers. Because state governments do not control the police and other security agencies, community vigilantes might be mobilised to enforce these bans, which could spark violence, particularly in Benue and Taraba states. In the short term, the EU should:

  • Urge state governments to exercise caution in considering – or enforcing – these new laws, and urge cattle herders’ and dealers’ associations wishing to protest to use lawful channels.
     
  • Press the federal government and its security agencies to strengthen measures to detect and pre-empt potential unrest among both community vigilantes as well as herders and cattle dealers, particularly in Benue and Taraba states.

In the longer term, EU member states should support, through funding, capacity building and technical aid, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture’s proposed National Ranching Development Plan, which seeks to promote cattle breeding only in ranches, as a permanent solution to herder-farmer friction.

Pressuring Qatar: What Happens in the Gulf Doesn’t Stay in the Gulf

In early June, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and the Maldives broke diplomatic relations with Qatar and moved to isolate it. More than a month later, the rift shows no sign of abating. Tension among a number of these states – especially the main protagonists, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – is not new, but with the Middle East polarised, conflicts persisting around the region and the Gulf states themselves projecting their power, their dispute risks making an already bad situation worse. The threat of direct violence in the Gulf itself may be low, but with the U.S. unable to mediate an end to the dispute, the EU and its member states, particularly France, should also lend their efforts to defusing the situation lest it metastasise into subsidiary venues and proxy fights.

Exactly what precipitated the move is unclear. Doha was given no warning. In conversation with Crisis Group, Saudi and Emirati officials cited no specific catalyst but rather spoke about an accumulation of frustration and unkept pledges. Two issues apparently vexed them in particular. First, some officials alleged that Qatar had cosied up to Iran, though Qatar’s policies largely fall within the stated Arab consensus of confronting Tehran’s proxies, maintaining economic ties, and planning to negotiate at some future point when the Arab hand has been strengthened. Second, and more importantly, officials accused Doha of backing “extremists”, by which they mean a range of both jihadist and political Islamist groups and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which their governments tend to see on a continuum with groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). Despite Doha’s commitments since 2014 to change its policies, an Emirati official said, “they say one thing and do something else”, leading Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to take a stronger stance.

As for timing, it hardly appeared a coincidence that the Saudi move occurred on the heels of a successful visit to Riyadh by U.S. President Donald Trump. This almost certainly emboldened the royal family, particularly then Deputy Crown Prince (now Crown Prince) Mohamad Bin Salman, who is determined to break with what he views as a tradition of Saudi passivity and assert the kingdom’s regional leadership.

If the ferocity of the Saudi-led campaign against Qatar is unprecedented, its complaints are longstanding. Tension across their mutual border grew in the late 1990s, when Doha began to use its financial wherewithal to extend its regional political clout. It pursued an iconoclastic and at times seemingly contradictory foreign policy, at the centre of which was mediation of conflicts; strong ties with the U.S., whose important military base it hosted; sponsorship of a powerful, often combative pan-regional media instrument (Al Jazeera); as well as patronage of groups with an Islamist bent, notably the Muslim Brotherhood but also, later, some in the salafi-jihadist orbit. For Doha, this policy was a mix of what it considered sound political principles, ally cultivation and an assertion of independence. For Riyadh and some other Gulf capitals, this amounted to a leadership challenge and, in some cases, a potential threat to their established domestic order.

The human and economic impact on Qatar and its citizens aside, perpetuation of the crisis risks diverting Gulf Cooperation Council countries from other pressing needs.

With the 2011 Arab uprisings, intra-Gulf competition intensified as Doha on the one hand and Riyadh as well as Abu Dhabi on the other lined up on opposite sides of the regional divide pitting the Muslim Brotherhood against established regimes. The various capitals tried to shape the emerging order to their advantage. Qatar doubled down on its support for Hamas and the Brotherhood even as it continued to cultivate a partnership with the U.S.; Saudi Arabia and the UAE pushed in the direction of restoring the former order, nowhere more so than in Egypt.

If the immediate causes of the rift are not clear, the potential consequences are. The human and economic impact on Qatar and its citizens aside, perpetuation of the crisis risks diverting Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries from other pressing needs – whether domestic or regional. Moreover, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE having extended their reach into other conflict theatres – including in particular Libya and the Horn of Africa, regions of particular interest to the EU – what happens today in the Gulf is not likely to stay there:

  • The U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign is run from Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase, which has been exempt from severe restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies on the rest of the country. A long-running crisis could have unintended consequences, however, and divert attention from the fight against ISIS.
     
  • In Syria, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia both have cultivated influence among the opposition, Doha has tended to fund harder-line groups (though they were not alone in doing so, nor was it ever easy to tell exactly who was funding whom). Competition among opposition backers was contained, though never eradicated, once the U.S. started coordinating weapons flows and established operations rooms. But should Riyadh and Doha discontinue cooperation and prioritise the fight against each other, the campaign could be weakened and internecine fights among rebels aggravated.
     
  • Libya remains fractured. Qatar, along with Turkey, supports Brotherhood-aligned groups and Islamist militias that control Tripoli and the west, whereas the UAE and Egypt devote even greater resources to backing and arming forces in Libya’s east loyal to General Haftar. For the moment, Qatar seems to have diminished its support, but should it find itself pressed as the standoff drags on, the proxy war between Doha and Abu Dhabi could intensify.
     
  • Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have made substantial investments in the Horn of Africa – military, economic and political. The neutral stance on the conflict adopted by Ethiopia and Somalia (though not its federal state governments, notably Somaliland) has been received coldly in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi; the UAE withdrawing its support from Somalia as a result would be a blow to its weak, cash-strapped government. Conversely Eritrea and Djibouti by contrast have lined up with Saudi Arabia and UAE, which prompted Qatar to withdraw its 400-plus ceasefire monitoring contingent from Doumeira, the disputed Red Sea island. The Gulf interest in the Horn has the potential to promote stability there, but, especially if their Gulf backers push their partners in the Horn to take positions that prove unpopular with local groups, it could have the opposite effect.

At this writing, the main protagonists appear unwilling to budge. Saudi Arabia and its allies have presented a list of demands almost impossible for Qatar to accept –which Doha dutifully rejected. The EU and its member states potentially could play a role in de-escalating the situation. Under normal circumstances, the U.S. would step in strongly, all the more so at a time when it wishes to consolidate its partnership with the GCC against Iran. But these are not normal circumstances, and there is discord as well as confusion in the U.S. administration. President Trump has tweeted his support for Riyadh even as the secretaries of state and of defence counselled restraint and de-escalation. Secretary Tillerson’s round of diplomacy notwithstanding, Washington’s muddled and internally contradictory responses have left everyone unclear about its capacity or willingness to resolve this dispute.

The EU and its member states by contrast have issued relatively consistent and constructive statements. Should U.S. mediation fail, they, and especially France under President Macron’s leadership, given the country’s traditionally strong relations with both Riyadh and Doha, could seek to play a more active part. They should be modest about their capacity to do so, particularly as long as the U.S. position is unclear, since that lack of clarity will encourage the antagonists to maintain their current positions. But once the parties begin to tire of their standoff and look for a way out, Europe could mount its own mediation effort.

Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability

The occurrence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-linked or inspired violence in Jakarta, Mindanao, and Puchong, near Kuala Lumpur, has raised fears of a new era of transnational jihadist terrorism in South East Asia. To date, ISIS has used Thailand as a transit point rather than a target; indeed, there is no known case of a Thai citizen joining the group. But the persistence of a Malay-Muslim separatist insurgency in the kingdom’s southernmost provinces, where roughly 7,000 people have been killed since 2004, is a source of concern among some Western governments, Thai officials, local people and even some within the militant movement. Repeated, if poorly substantiated reports of ISIS activity in Thailand, from foreign fighters transiting through Bangkok to allegations of Malaysian ISIS members buying small arms in southern Thailand, have prompted questions about the insurgency’s susceptibility to radicalisation along transnational jihadist lines. Yet even absent intervention by foreign jihadists, the insurgency’s own dynamics could lead to greater violence.

Thus far, the separatist insurgency has had little in common with jihadism. Rooted in the country’s nearly two million Malay Muslims, who constitute a majority in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, its aspirations are nationalist in nature: liberation of Patani, the homeland they consider to have been colonised by Thailand, and defence of Patani-Malay identity against so-called Siamification. Moreover, the insurgency draws support from traditionalist Islamic leaders, upholders of a syncretic, Sufi-inflected Islam who oppose the rigid views propagated by jihadists. Even the relatively small Salafi minority rejects ISIS’s brutal tactics and apocalyptic vision; some among them claim that ISIS is a product of Western machinations. For Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani Melayu (BRN, Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front), the main Malay-Muslim militant group, in other words, association with transnational jihadists would risk cutting them off from their base while triggering greater isolation. It could also internationalise efforts to defeat them.

Dangers of an Intractable Conflict

Yet perpetuation of the conflict risks altering its trajectory which, in turn, threatens to change the nature of the insurgency. In principle, this could potentially open opportunities for foreign jihadists, who have proven adept at exploiting other protracted conflicts. That remains for now a theoretical threat: little evidence thus far suggests jihadist penetration in Southern Thailand. As noted, neither the insurgency nor the broader Malay Muslim community has shown any inclination toward jihadism.

Without progress in peace talks or an inclusive dialogue, insurgents might resort to more dramatic acts of violence.

Without progress in peace talks or an inclusive dialogue, insurgents might resort to more dramatic acts of violence however. They already have shown they can stage attacks outside the deep south, as they did in August 2016 when they conducted a series of coordinated, small-scale bombings in seven resort areas, wounding European tourists among others. Militant groups also might splinter, with rival factions competing to demonstrate their capabilities to potential supporters and the government. In turn, increased violence or attacks against civilians – particularly outside the conflict zone – could fuel an anti-Islamic backlash and stimulate Buddhist nationalism, creating tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout the country. A prolonged conflict means more young Malay Muslims will have grown up in a polarised society and experienced traumatic events. This could split a more pragmatic elder generation from a more militant younger one.

Stalled dialogue

The surest way to reduce these risks would be to bring the insurgency to an end – a task at present both daunting and long-term. The ruling, military-led National Council for Peace and Order, which seized power in a May 2014 coup, is engaged in a dialogue with MARA Patani (Majlis Syura Patani, Patani Consultative Council), an umbrella group of five militant organisations whose leaders are in exile. But many perceive the dialogue, facilitated by Malaysia, essentially as a public-relations exercise through which Bangkok intends to signal its willingness to peacefully resolve the conflict without making any concessions. Likewise, there are doubts that MARA can control most fighters: although the BRN has the top three slots in MARA Patani’s leadership, BRN’s information department insists these members have been suspended and do not speak for the organisation.

After a year-and-a-half, the MARA process remains stuck. In April 2016, the Thai government balked at signing a Terms of Reference agreement to govern talks, which remain unofficial. At the time, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha argued that MARA lacked the necessary status to act as the government’s counterpart. After a hiatus, the two sides resumed their meetings in August and, in February 2017, they agreed in principle to establish “safety zones”, district-level compacts in which neither side would target civilians. They also agreed to form inclusive committees to investigate violent incidents, although details still need to be worked out and they have yet to announce a district for pilot implementation.

For its part, BRN insists on impartial international mediation and third-party observers as conditions for formal talks with Bangkok. In a 10 April 2017 statement, BRN’s information department reiterated these prerequisites and noted that negotiating parties themselves should design the process, a jab at Malaysia’s role as facilitator. Demonstrating that they exercised control over fighters, the BRN implemented an unannounced lull in attacks from 8 to 17 April, a period preceded and followed by waves of coordinated attacks across several districts.

In late June 2017, a senior Thai official said that the government might re-examine the issue of the identity of its counterpart, a rare public sign of high-level deliberation and possible flexibility. Although this could suggest willingness to consider BRN’s conditions – including the sensitive question of Malaysia’s role and that of any internationalisation – which it previously had rejected outright, it could also constitute another delaying tactic.

The National Council for Peace and Order apparently still clings to the conviction that the conflict can be resolved through attrition, enemy surrenders and economic development, without any fundamental change in state/society relations in the deep south. The military, whose entire ethos is based on the image of national unity and whose senior officers tend to view enhanced local power as a first step toward partition, is loath to contemplate autonomy or political decentralisation. Since taking power, it has suppressed once-lively public debate about decentralisation models, such as proposals for elected governors or sub-regional assemblies.

Options for the European Union

In this context, one of the international community’s longer-term goals should be to encourage Bangkok to accept some degree of political decentralisation as fully compatible with preservation of national unity. For the European Union (EU) and those EU member states that are engaged in the country such as Germany, in particular, an important objective would be to encourage the government to establish a more inclusive dialogue and to support it, when possible, through capacity building for both parties. Admittedly, their influence with the National Council for Peace and Order is limited. After the 2014 coup, the EU suspended official visits to and from Thailand, as well as negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement and the Partnership Cooperation Agreement, pending a return to elected government. Restrictions on popular representation, codified in the new constitution and laws, mean that even a general election, now scheduled for 2018, might not satisfy the EU’s requirement of functioning democratic institutions. Moreover, Bangkok is not yet prepared to countenance an EU role.

[The] EU and member states should urge the Thai government to restore civil liberties and freedom of expression to allow more open discussion and debate.

That aside, relations with Bangkok are not hostile; Thailand and the EU held a Senior Officials Meeting 9 June 2017 in Brussels, the first since 2012. When conditions permit, the EU should be well placed to support a peace process, given perceptions in Thailand of its impartiality. In the meantime, the EU and member states should continue encouraging the parties to deal with each other constructively. This could include sharing experiences in sub-national conflict resolution and political power devolution or offering training on matters such as negotiations, communication and conflict management.

In the near term, the EU and member states should urge the Thai government to restore civil liberties and freedom of expression to allow more open discussion and debate. Among other benefits, such steps would facilitate a public conversation within Malay Muslim communities that, in turn, might diminish risks of radicalisation. Already, the EU backs civil-society organisations’ endeavours to promote community and youth engagement in peace building. This ought to continue.

Venezuela: “Zero hour”

Venezuela approaches a key moment in its protracted political crisis

Venezuela approaches a key moment in its protracted political crisis: the government is preparing to replace the country’s ailing democracy with a full-fledged dictatorship by means of an all-powerful constituent assembly, due to be elected on 30 July under rules that effectively exclude the opposition. Nearly 100 people have died in over three months of street demonstrations across the country, many of them shot dead by police, national guard or civilian gunmen. Beginning a week before polling day, the army will be deployed on the streets to guard against any disruption. There is a grave danger of violence on a scale so far unseen, and a fresh wave of emigration is probably imminent. The accelerating breakdown of health services and other vital infrastructure, growing hunger and shortages of basic goods, along with surging rates of violent crime, pose an evident threat not only to Venezuelans but to neighbouring countries and the international community generally.

Democracy Dismantled

In December 2015, the opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance won a two-thirds majority in the single-chamber National Assembly, but the government has used its control of the Supreme Court to block every move by parliament since then. When the opposition responded by attempting to trigger a recall referendum against President Maduro, this too was blocked, using the courts and the government-controlled electoral authority (CNE). Elections for state governors, due in December 2016, were suspended. Some opposition leaders have been banned from holding office and/or banned from leaving the country. Others have had their passports annulled and some have been imprisoned. In late March, the Supreme Court attempted to transfer to itself all the assembly’s powers, causing the once loyal attorney general, Luisa Ortega, to declare that constitutional rule had been interrupted and the Organization of American States (OAS) to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter, devised to deal with the breakdown of democracy in a member state.

The opposition alliance launched a campaign of mass demonstrations to demand the restoration of democracy, but the response from the government has been violent. In addition to the deaths, thousands have been injured and thousands more arrested; security forces and civilian gunmen have invaded private residences, destroying and stealing property and carrying out warrantless detentions. Hundreds have been subjected to trial by military courts, and the legal aid organisation Foro Penal puts the number of political prisoners at around 400. On 1 May, Maduro announced he was convening an assembly to rewrite the constitution. The assembly, to be elected on 30 July, will be supra-constitutional and there is no time limit on its authority. Government leaders have said it will be empowered to close down parliament, stripping members of their parliamentary immunity, and “turn upside down” the attorney general’s office, which has declined to prosecute peaceful demonstrators and charged senior military figures with human rights abuses.

With millions of illegal weapons in private hands, arming urban guerrillas might not be difficult.

Around two fifths of constituent assembly members will be elected by “sectors” (including trade union members and “communes”) largely controlled by the government. The remainder will be elected by municipality, under a system that vastly over-represents the rural areas where the government is strongest. The MUD is boycotting the election, which it says the president has no right to convene without a prior referendum. Polls suggest only around 20 per cent of the electorate intend to vote. Fringe elements in the opposition (collectively referred to as La Resistencia), frustrated with the MUD’s non-violent approach, talk in private of armed resistance. With millions of illegal weapons in private hands, arming urban guerrillas might not be difficult. Nor is the MUD itself united: while some parties support a negotiated transition, others are opposed. Despite abundant evidence of discontent in military ranks (including dozens of arrested officers), there has so far been no split in the armed forces. The officer corps would nonetheless be faced with a dilemma if the army were called on to restore public order. Such a move would inevitably bring much higher casualty figures and some would be reluctant to obey.

A ray of light came on 16 July with a massive turnout for a “consultation” of voters ordered by the National Assembly. Over seven million voted to reject the constituent assembly, call on the armed forces to obey the constitution, not the government, and mandate parliament to appoint a new Supreme Court and electoral authority and form a government of national unity. While the government sought to downplay the event, it strengthened demands both internal and external for a last-minute u-turn.

Growing Hunger

Economists project that by the end of 2017 the Venezuelan economy will have shrunk by around 30 per cent in three years. Manufacturing industries are producing at 20-30 per cent of capacity and the main farmers’ federation says only about a quarter of the normal acreage will be planted, due to lack of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, as well as agricultural equipment. Outbreaks of mass looting in many cities have badly hit wholesale and retail food outlets, while imports of food have slumped. The government’s failure to provide enough emergency rations through its CLAP (Local Provision and Production Committee) system of food parcels has led to protests in many poorer areas. Studies show half the population living in extreme poverty. Rare official figures show an alarming increase in infant and maternal mortality. Child malnutrition rose by over 11 per cent from 2015-2016 and nutritionists are beginning to predict famine if trends continue. Shortages of essential medicines continue at critical levels and hospital infrastructure is collapsing. A shortage of vaccines has contributed to outbreaks of formerly eradicated diseases such as diphtheria, while farmers warn that livestock too is vulnerable to epidemics due to the lack of veterinary vaccines.

In the medium term there is a possibility that the Venezuelan government might collapse under the burden of an unpayable foreign debt and domestic ungovernability, although without necessarily triggering a restoration of democracy. While most analysts believe Caracas can make this year’s debt service payments, it faces a severe challenge in October/November, when around US$3.5 billion come due.

Responding to the Emergency

The OAS has so far failed to reach consensus on how to approach the crisis. A handful of mostly Caribbean states, beholden to Caracas for cheap energy supplies and other benefits, have blocked what they call an excessively “interventionist” approach. Without a split in the government (and in particular the military), the constituent assembly plan appears unstoppable, and further violence is likely; the 8 July release into house arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López notwithstanding, the government’s attitude does not appear to have changed.

Still, concerned governments nonetheless should prepare a negotiating structure for when conditions change. In this context, the European Union (EU) should back a proposal by a large group of OAS members, including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Peru and Colombia, to form a “contact group” comprising four or five governments agreed on by both sides to the conflict; its goal would be to promote negotiations aimed at averting more violence and restoring democracy. This group probably would have to be created outside the formal framework of the OAS. The EU and EU member states with close ties to the region (in particular to the Caribbean) should use their influence to widen support for this proposal, especially among OAS countries close to the Maduro government.

In addition, the EU, with regional governments in the lead, should develop a concerted response and attempt to bring Russia and China on board insofar as they have greater leverage over Caracas and hold large quantities of Venezuelan debt. Involvement by either or both of these countries in a plan to avert violence and promote genuine negotiations would have a major positive impact. On 16 July, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos reportedly sought Cuban government support for a regional plan to resolve the crisis. As Venezuela’s closest ally, Cuba is in a unique position to influence the outcome, and Santos’ initiative should be supported by the EU and member states.

The EU should make plain that free and fair elections and the restoration of constitutional rule are essential pre-requisites for normal relations.

As an immediate response, the EU and the wider international community should assist front-line states in dealing with the humanitarian and security consequences of the crisis. Colombia, with its delicate post-conflict situation, is highly vulnerable to refugee flows, possible border clashes if the Caracas government seeks an external distraction, and increased activity of non-state armed groups. Although the Venezuelan government has consistently rejected humanitarian aid, some NGOs have been permitted to provide small-scale humanitarian assistance on condition it is not publicised. The EU should seek ways to facilitate this process even as it continues to press publicly for aid to be allowed in.

The EU should make plain that free and fair elections and the restoration of constitutional rule are essential pre-requisites for normal relations as well as for emergency financial support. The EU and member states also should be prepared to offer advice and technical assistance to a transitional government, should one be set up. There is no quick fix for the multi-layered crisis Venezuela is facing. But inaction is no longer an option.