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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.
Hide Footnote

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


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

A Syrian woman and refugee children on a street in Şanlıurfa, Turkey, June 2018. CRISISGROUP
Report 253 / Europe & Central Asia

Mitigating Risks for Syrian Refugee Youth in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa

Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, half of whom are under eighteen. Despite European aid, tensions are rising as the country strains to accommodate the influx. The answer is smarter integration policies aimed particularly at meeting the needs of vulnerable youth.

What’s new? A generation of young Syrians in Turkey is not receiving the support it needs to integrate successfully into Turkish society. Exposure to discrimination and exploitation, unaddressed psycho-social trauma, and lagging support for skill acquisition and job training further increase this group’s vulnerability.

Why does it matter? The lack of support makes the substantial Syrian refugee youth population susceptible to exploitation by criminals and militant groups. Left unaddressed, this exploitation can feed tension and heighten insecurity for both Syrian refugees and Turkish citizens.

What should be done? Better policies can help ensure that young Syrian refugees become productive members of society, be it in Turkey or (one day) in Syria. Ankara and outside donors should redouble efforts to keep refugee youth in school, treat their traumas, help them build durable livelihoods and protect them from predatory elements.

Executive Summary

Turkey has taken important steps toward integrating more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. But the youth population – which represents at least half of that number – presents special challenges that have received insufficient attention. Syrian youth displaced to Turkey face enormous difficulties. Too many are not in school. Most are coping with anger, trauma and loss. Vast numbers are or will be in need of jobs. These factors increase young Syrian refugees’ susceptibility to exploitation by criminal networks and militant groups that view them as potential recruits. Young women and girls are at additional risk of being forced into exploitative marriages and sex work. Because the numbers of Syrian youth are so large, failure to meet the needs of this population today could feed tensions for years to come. Along with its international partners, Turkey should adopt measures to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable youth, enhance their future prospects and promote their integration into the communities where they live.

Şanlıurfa, the province in south-eastern Turkey with the longest border with Syria, presents a graphic illustration. Even before the influx of Syrians, this socially conservative, ethnically diverse province of two million faced high levels of poverty, wide educational gaps and severe underemployment. Now with over 450,000 Syrians, most of them young and traumatised, Şanlıurfa is grappling ever more with insufficient jobs, inadequate school capacity, early marriages and public administration deficiencies, as well as an increase in crime. Inter-communal strains are emerging in Şanlıurfa that could lead to clashes and presage similar tensions elsewhere.

The Turkish government and its international partners can lay the ground-work for a more secure future for Şanlıurfa, and Turkey as a whole, by taking steps now to better protect and integrate young Syrian refugees. Such steps would address the underlying factors that feed young Syrians’ vulnerability as well as more direct threats to them and their Turkish citizen hosts.

Priority attention should focus on broadening registration of refugees; in-creasing school enrolment through to graduation and beyond; raising awareness among (and offering resources to) those at risk of exploitative marriage; and improving access to sustainable livelihoods through training programs, voluntary relocation to areas with labour shortages, and targeted grants to support agricultural initiatives and cooperatives. In addition, Ankara could strengthen its fight against illicit networks that exploit Syrian youth and threaten Turkish citizens through more robust anti-bribery measures at borders, enhanced mechanisms for preventing jihadist and other militant indoctrination, and better access to law enforcement and safe haven for victims. Donors should also take care, as always, to ensure that their support is aligned with Turkey-wide and local development strategies.

Istanbul/Brussels, 11 February 2019

A Syrian refugee family sits on the ground in the streets of Şanlıurfa. CRISISGROUP

I. Introduction

Turkey hosts the highest number of refugees from Syria’s war, having since 2011 registered more than 3.6 million under a status it calls “temporary protection”.[fn]Temporary protection status grants access to free health care, public education and welfare benefits, on the same terms as for Turkish citizens, as well as the right to apply for work permits. Depending on need, Syrians under temporary protection have access to additional benefits supported by EU aid, such as vocational training and monthly cash stipends to buy staples.Hide Footnote As Crisis Group has highlighted elsewhere, social tensions are rising as Syrians, most of whom do not speak Turkish, strain the already burdened capacity of Turkey’s schools and labour market.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°248, Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, 29 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group Europe Report N°248, Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, 29 January 2018.Hide Footnote

Many Syrians among the first refugee waves travelled onward to Europe, but today that door is closed. In March 2016, Turkey and the EU struck a bargain by which Ankara pledged to stanch the westward refugee flow in exchange for funding to support Syrians in Turkey. Thus far, Brussels has disbursed over €2 billion and contracted the entire €3 billion of the first tranche through the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey. Under the second tranche of €3 billion, €1.2 billion has been committed to date.[fn]€400 million has been contracted with the Ministry of National Education.Hide Footnote The aid has helped meet the refugees’ emergency needs and given a particular boost to health and education programs. But the needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey – and particularly those of the young population – are already outstripping the resources that have been allocated to meet them.[fn]Throughout this report, the term “youth” refers to the 15-24 age bracket. “School-aged” refers to ages 6-18, and “juvenile” to 12-18.Hide Footnote

Moreover, the needs of young Syrian refugees will continue to grow. Approximately 50 per cent of all Syrians in Turkey are under the age of eighteen, and Syrian refugee birth rates are high.[fn]Figures from the Directorate General of Migration Management, as of December 2018.Hide Footnote According to an October 2018 Atlantic Council study, citing Turkish foreign ministry figures from August, some 345,000 Syrians have been born in Turkey since 2011.[fn]Laura Batalla and Juliette Tolay, “Toward Long-Term Solidarity with Syrian Refugees? Turkey’s Policy Response and Challenges”, Atlantic Council, 20 September 2018.Hide Footnote Turkish authorities project that by 2028 there will be around five million Syrians in Turkey, most of them under eighteen.[fn]This projection takes into consideration the birth rate, and does not factor in returns or inflows. “Syrian refugees in Turkey to exceed 5 million in 2028”, Hürriyet Daily News, 24 August 2018.Hide Footnote Though the border is now closed, refugee numbers could grow again if the September 2018 deal between Ankara and Moscow that forestalled an expected Syrian government offensive in Idlib unravels, and even more Syrians flee. To be sure, some Syrians will return home. According to the Interior Ministry, as of 31 December 2018, 294,480 Syrians have already done so.[fn]“294 bin 480 Suriyeli ülkesine döndü” [“294,480 Syrians returned to their countries”], Anadolu Ajansı, 5 January 2019. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ office says it can confirm the return of around 37,000 Syrians in 2018. “250,000 Syrian refugees could return home next year: UNHCR”, Reuters, 11 December 2018. Turkish municipalities offer relocation support to those willing to voluntarily return. An observer whom Crisis Group interviewed complained of unregulated returns, such that some youth who were provided with relocation support ended up joining armed militants in Syria. Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, January 2019.Hide Footnote But the government knows that this relative trickle is likely not a harbinger of mass returns. Most Syrians – if they wish to return at all – say they will not go back until the war is over, Bashar al-Assad is gone and reconstruction is well under way.[fn]“Suriyeliler Barometresi: Suriyelilerle Uyum İçinde Yaşamın Çerçevesi” [“Syrian Barometer: A Framework for Achieving Social Cohesion with Syrians in Turkey”], Istanbul Bilgi University Publications, April 2018. Hide Footnote Ankara is right to anticipate that vast numbers of Syrians will be in Turkey for the long term.

As Turkey and its partners consider how to help young Syrian refugees succeed and integrate into Turkish society, there is much to learn from the challenges faced by Syrian refugee youth in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa province. Şanlıurfa, which lies between the large cities of Gaziantep to the west and Diyarbakır to the east, has the longest border with Syria of any Turkish province. As of December 2018, there were 453,083 Syrians registered in Şanlıurfa, out of a total native population of slightly over two million.[fn]This figure, based on Migration Directorate data, may or may not be accurate, for reasons described in section III.A below. Around 10 per cent of Syrians are estimated to be unregistered. Moreover, some Syrians registered in Şanlıurfa have moved to other provinces. Thus the true number of Syrians in Şanlıurfa may be higher or lower than the number registered.Hide Footnote The province is largely rural, socially conservative and ethnically diverse.[fn]Census data does not record ethnicity, but local academics estimate that 60 per cent of Şanlıurfa’s inhabitants are Kurdish, 30 per cent Arab and 10 per cent Turkmen or Turkish. The rural population, which constitutes 45 per cent of the total (as of 2017), is organised around Kurdish and Arab kinship networks (aşiret), of which there are around 70. Figures available on the Şanlıurfa Metropolitan Municipality’s website.Hide Footnote At first, Şanlıurfa was relatively hospitable toward Syrians, particularly toward the 20-25 per cent who came from locales directly across the border in 2014 when Kurdish militants battled the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Many of these arrivals had Turkish citizen relatives who could help with bureaucratic hurdles, housing and jobs.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, academics, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote Others came from further away: Raqqa, Deir al-Zour and Aleppo. By 2016, Şanlıurfa’s already weak economy and its social fabric was showing worrying new strains.[fn]According to Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) data, unemployment in Şanlıurfa was around 16 per cent in 2017, and around 20 per cent among youth aged between 15-24. GDP per capita figures are taken from the Central Anatolia Development Agency report; Şanlıurfa production figures come from the March 2018 report of the Turkish Chamber of Mechanical Engineers. Other socio-economic indicators are also low: taking into account only its two million Turkish citizens, the province ranks near the bottom in education levels, average income and female literacy. TÜİK data for 2016 and 2017 is available here. Crisis Group interview, academic, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote

This report examines those strains, their causes and ideas about how they might be addressed, with an emphasis on refugee youth, looking at both their impact on Turkey and the risks they face there. It is based on interviews conducted by Crisis Group during the period April 2018-February 2019 in border provinces of Turkey, as well as Ankara and Istanbul, with Turkish state officials from the Ministries of Education, Interior, and Family, Labour and Social Policy, from other institutions working on the integration of Syrian refugees and from the religious directorate (Diyanet); Turkish local politicians and neighbourhood heads; lawyers; Syrian and Turkish school teachers; Syrian refugee women and men, including students, parents, journalists, businesspeople and NGO practitioners; Syrian and Turkish smugglers; Islamic aid organisation and international NGO workers; and EU and other donor representatives.

It also builds on previous Crisis Group reporting, which examined the demographic and political consequences for Turkey of the Syrian refugee influx and offered recommendations for how to defuse the sometimes violent tensions that are emerging between Syrian refugees and native residents in Turkey’s major cities.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, op. cit.Hide Footnote

II. Risks Facing Syrian Refugee Youth in Şanlıurfa

With Turkey now home to more than 1.8 million Syrian refugees aged eighteen or younger, the Syrian refugee youth bulge has led to persistent worries among native Turkish citizens about a “lost generation” prone to crime, susceptible to recruitment by jihadists and other militants and disruptive of social norms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials and citizens, border provinces, April and June 2018; and Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote Government officials and government-aligned media outlets, anxious to reassure the citizenry about the Syrians’ presence, downplay these concerns. They are right to counter alarmism. But real risks exist. Most immediately, the threats are to Syrian youth themselves, who are highly vulnerable to criminal networks’ predation, need protection from efforts to mobilise them to join the fight in Syria and/or indoctrinate them with violent ideologies or sectarian hatred, and are at heightened risk of sexual exploitation. Left unaddressed, today’s risks to Syrian youth will become tomorrow’s problems not just for them, but for the people among whom the young refugees live.

Crisis Group’s field research strongly suggests that Syrian youth in Şanlıurfa are being targeted for exploitation by criminal networks and require better support and protection to prevent and ameliorate this problem.

The importance of meeting these challenges appears in stark relief in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa province. Stretched along the Turkey-Syria border, the province’s refugee population is disproportionately young: almost half are under the age of fourteen and another quarter are between fifteen and 24 years old.[fn]Roughly 30 per cent (some 130,000) of Syrians in the province are under five years old, 28 per cent (some 120,000) are between six and fourteen, and roughly 26 per cent (some 120,000) are between fifteen and 24. Crisis Group estimates using Turkish government data, corroborated by sources in Şanlıurfa, including the Education Ministry’s local branch. Crisis Group interviews, Şanlıurfa, June 2018. The province’s overall population is also trending young: in 2017, Şanlıurfa had the youngest median age, 19.6, and the highest birth rate (4.29 per 1,000 women, excluding Syrians) in Turkey. TÜİK data.Hide Footnote And too few of these young people are receiving the support they need to overcome the risks they are facing.

A. Crime and Criminal Networks

Crisis Group’s field research strongly suggests that Syrian youth in Şanlıurfa are being targeted for exploitation by criminal networks and require better support and protection to prevent and ameliorate this problem.

Though statistics paint a murky picture, crime rates appear to have increased dramatically in Şanlıurfa since the refugee influx, with officials reporting a four-fold rise in convictions (from 577 to 2,463) between 2010 and 2016.[fn]TÜİK prison conviction figures (2009-2016). It is unclear from the data how many of the sex-linked crimes are related to assaults as opposed to sex work.Hide Footnote Official figures for juveniles arrested for crimes in southern and eastern Turkey more than doubled in the last decade, and provinces with more refugees per capita saw higher increases.[fn]A quantitative analysis conducted by an external Crisis Group consultant (using TÜİK and Migration Directorate data) found that the difference between the juvenile crime rates in “refugee-dense” and “refugee-scarce” provinces increased by about 20.8 per cent when comparing the three-year period before the refugee influx (2008-2011) to the first two years of large-scale arrivals (2012-2013). When restricted to juvenile males, this rate increase stood at 23 per cent, rising further to 32 per cent for drug-related crime. It is important to register certain caveats about this analysis: first, it is difficult to judge how many of these arrests were of young Syrians as opposed to Turkish citizens or juveniles of other nationalities. Official crime tallies often describe perpetrators as “nationality unknown” – leaving open the possibility that the person arrested is of Turkish, Syrian or another third origin. Secondly, data about Syrian youth and crime are murky because difficulties abound in tracking and investigating Syrian youth. Many are unregistered, and thus have no name or address on record. Moreover, few police speak Arabic, hampering investigation of crimes in which Syrians are suspects and/or victims. Crisis Group interviews, lawyers and state officials, Şanlıurfa, June 2018. For details of the study, see Appendix B.Hide Footnote That convictions and arrests would increase over this period is not necessarily surprising – the addition of a large number of people to a community is likely to bring an increase in crime under many conditions – and there are no reliable figures for how much of the increases are specifically attributable to Syrians.[fn]In October 2018 the Interior Ministry announced that in the first nine months of 2018, Syrians perpetrated only 1.46 per cent of the crimes committed in the country. This number represented a drop from 1.53 per cent in the first nine months of 2017. “Suriyelilerin karıştığı suç oranı yüzde 1,46'ya düştü” [“Crimes committed by Syrians dropped to 1.46 per cent”], Anadolu Ajansı, 22 October 2018.Hide Footnote But the magnitude of the apparent crime spike is nevertheless striking, and signals the presence of growing risks for Syrian youth vulnerable to exploitation by illicit networks.

Crisis Group’s fieldwork suggests that criminal networks target Syrian youth in particular for smuggling, sexual exploitation and drug running. Some challenges are particularly acute among the province’s large population of refugees living in camps.

1. A triple threat: smuggling, sexual exploitation and drugs

One of the primary drivers of criminal activity in Şanlıurfa is the province’s 911km border with Syria, which makes it a hub for illicit trade. In June 2015, the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) seized the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, the main crossing point between Şanlıurfa and Syria’s Raqqa governorate. The YPG is the Syrian manifestation of the Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK), which Turkey, the U.S. and the EU have designated a terrorist organisation. Turkey subsequently closed the official crossing and tightened its control over the border along Şanlıurfa’s southern edge. Still, according to police data, the province was among the top three for smuggling of weapons, ammunition, fuel oil and cigarettes in 2016.[fn]“Emniyet Genel Müdürlüğü, Türkiye’nin detaylı suç haritasını çıkardı” [“The directorate general of security published a detailed mapping of crimes in Turkey”], Habertürk, 21 November 2017.Hide Footnote

Turkey has since made substantial progress in securing the length of its Syrian border and cracked down on smuggling networks, but illegal crossings continue to take place, including to and from Şanlıurfa, with fixers using ladders to clamber over the wall or bribing border guards.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, individuals involved in border smuggling, Şanlıurfa, June 2018. Turkey built a wall, new border police stations and observation towers, and it also installed 360-degree thermal cameras and lighting systems. "Suriye sınırı ‘akıllı’ sistemle daha güvenli” [“Syria border more secure with ‘smart’ system”], Hürriyet, 5 January 2019; “Turkey finishes construction of 764km security wall on Syria border”, Daily Sabah, 9 June 2018. These measures have increased the difficulty of crossing, and authorities are also apprehending more of those trying to cross. According to a database privately shared with Crisis Group, in 2018 alone, the Turkish armed forces apprehended at least 224,358 individuals trying to illegally cross from Syria into Turkey (database based on Turkish Armed Forces’ daily reports compiled by Omar Kadkoy, research associate at the Economic Policy Foundation of Turkey). There are also reports of border guards shooting at people trying to illegally cross into Turkey. “Turkey/Syria: Border Guards Shoot, Block Fleeing Syrians”, Human Rights Watch, 3 February 2018. (Note also that Turkey allows Syrian refugees to pay short visits to Syria – and then return to Turkey – during religious holidays. Refugees who go back to Syria at other times lose their temporary protection status and cannot re-cross the border. Turkey permits only sanctioned aid workers, along with those affiliated with the militias it supports, to cross back and forth regularly.)Hide Footnote One Syrian working with border officials told Crisis Group that the new security measures mostly mean that the price one needs to pay fixers and guards has increased.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, facilitators of cross-border activity, Hatay, April 2018 and Şanlıurfa, June 2018. Since September 2017, Turkish media has reported five operations resulting in the arrest of nearly 100 customs officials and businesspeople on charges of offering or accepting bribes at the gates. “Beton duvarlar Suriye sınırındaki kaçak geçişi önleyemedi; yeni yöntem merdiven!” [“Concrete walls were not able to stop illegal crossings at Syria border: the new method is using ladders!”], T24, 5 August 2017. But sources in Şanlıurfa confirm that the bribes continue: the price of crossing is between $1,500 and $2,000.Hide Footnote

Young Syrian refugees who are unregistered with the Turkish authorities are particularly attractive recruits for Syrian and Turkish smuggling rings. Being native Arabic speakers, and sometimes having knowledge of the terrain, helps them operate on the Syrian side of the border. Being unregistered makes it harder for the authorities to trace them on the Turkish side. Criminal networks accordingly will promise them up to $200 per day to transport goods and people illegally across the border.[fn]Crisis Group field research, border provinces, April-June 2018. “Türkiye’de insan kaçakçılığı Suriyelilerin elinde” [“Human trafficking in Turkey is in the hands of Syrians”], EnSonHaber, 1 November 2017. “Syrian migrant children in Turkey quit schools for smuggling”, Hürriyet Daily News, 7 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Criminal networks also target Syrian youth in Şanlıurfa for sexual exploitation, with young women and girls especially at risk.

Theft rings also make use of Syrian juveniles, since it is easier for them to fit through narrow windows, their fingerprints are less likely to be on record and they have already lost so much that they are less deterred by the risk of being apprehended, said one criminal lawyer in Şanlıurfa.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote Those under eighteen also receive lower sentences.

Criminal networks also target Syrian youth in Şanlıurfa for sexual exploitation, with young women and girls especially at risk. According to locals and Syrian NGO field workers, these networks coerce and pressure Syrian young women who have few other ways of generating income into sex work. This widespread exploitation is especially acute among adolescent girls (and widows) and is often organised by mafia-like groups, which take a cut of earnings.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Syrian NGO workers in Şanlıurfa who have witnessed such incidents during their work, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote One local manager at a youth centre suggested that widows are “seen as most exploitable because they are desperate and have no one to protect them”.[fn]The cost of sexual services can be as low as 20 Turkish lira (about $3.50), according to locals. Crisis Group interviews, Şanlıurfa, June 2018. “Urfa has always been a province ridden with socio-economic problems. Now with a new demographic added, many of those problems which nobody wanted to talk about (such as men taking more than one wife, ethnic tensions or drug use) have been brought to light.” Crisis Group interview, youth centre manager, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote Many of the young Syrian widows’ husbands had settled them in Turkey for safety, before themselves going back to Syria to fight. These women can be quite young, due to the widespread practice of early marriage (discussed below), and many have lost their parents as well as their husbands, rendering them particularly vulnerable.

Finally, drug networks, which usually consist of Syrian and Turkish gangs that join forces, prey on Syrian youth both by hooking them on drugs and recruiting them into narcotics trafficking. During its field research Crisis Group came across accounts of young Syrian boys with few prospects, no jobs and unaddressed traumas slipping into the gravity of drug mafias. “They need to let go somehow. Since alcohol is expensive and forbidden by their religion, they prefer drugs, mostly synthetic, cheap ones”, a psycho-social support officer working for an NGO observed.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote Such narcotics normally do not cost more than 15-20 Turkish lira ($3-4) per dose. Officials confirm that drug abuse among Syrian and local youth in Şanlıurfa has spiked in recent years.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials, border provinces, April and June 2018. “Their bad guys and Turkey’s bad guys found each other and joined forces”, said a former translator who aided border guards in Reyhanlı. Crisis Group interview, Reyhanlı, April 2018.Hide Footnote The state is aware of these problems.[fn]A local state representative in Şanlıurfa said the leading problem in the province is drugs. Crisis Group interview, Şanlıurfa, April 2018. In a press statement on 8 February 2018, Bülent Yücetürk, then a public prosecutor working in the area of juvenile crime in Ankara said, “Syrian and Afghan children constitute an important pool for drug traffickers. They are high in numbers and do this type of work for much less pay. The work that Turks do for 500 lira [some $90], a Syrian would do for 100 lira [some $19], and an Afghan would do for 50 lira [some $9]. These children veer into this path because they do not know what they are doing or how they could be punished. … It is impossible to find Syrian or Afghan children again after we let them free. When an investigation is launched, they leave the city and move elsewhere. This makes it impossible … to impose a penal sanction”. “Cumhuriyet Savcısı Yücetürk: Uyuşturucu satıcıları Suriyeli ve Afgan çocukları kullanıyor” [“Public Prosecutor Yücetürk: Drug traffickers are using Syrian and Afghan children”], Anadolu Ajansı, 8 February 2018.Hide Footnote Hard security measures include deporting Syrian youth (and sometimes their families) who are identified as committing crimes. Preventive policies to protect Syrian youth from getting lured into crime are lagging, however.

2. Criminal exploitation in the camps

Syrian youth (both female and male) in the province’s three remaining refugee camps – Ceylanpınar, Harran and Suruç – are especially vulnerable to criminal exploitation. As of December 2018, Şanlıurfa had the largest camp population of any Turkish province, at 44,352.[fn]The vast majority of the country’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees live outside camps. Including Şanlıurfa, the total number in camps is 143,452. Figures published by the Migration Directorate, as of 25 October 2018.Hide Footnote Human trafficking and sexual exploitation are the biggest concerns. There are widespread accounts of camp authorities acting as brokers for local men in Şanlıurfa to “hire” for sex Syrian women staying in the camps.

The scale of the problem is difficult to quantify given the absence of records, but officials whom Crisis Group talked to acknowledged that it exists. A local official of the Migration Directorate said the agency dismissed two camp officials in Şanlıurfa in April 2018 due to allegations that they had been working with prostitution rings.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Migration Directorate official, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote Lawyers from Şanlıurfa’s bar association who provide pro bono services to those who cannot pay – including Syrian refugees – criticise authorities for barring them from camps. “When we are allowed to enter, they only let us speak to people they select before. They don’t show us the problematic aspects”, one experienced attorney said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lawyer, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote

One element of the response to criminal targeting of Syrian youth and other refugees in Şanlıurfa might therefore be to shut down the camps – and, indeed, authorities are already moving in that direction – while also cracking down on illicit activities inside them. In March 2018 the Migration Directorate began offering cash incentives (in the form of a few months’ rent) to those camp residents who wish to move to cities. “People can’t stay there forever. We are working on a formula to allow the most vulnerable to stay in camps [since they would be completely lost in the cities], and support others who wish to voluntarily move into cities”, a Turkish official explained.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Şanlıurfa, May and June 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Jihadist and Other Militant Groups

Jihadist militancy among Syrian refugee youth in Şanlıurfa presents a complicated challenge, just as it does with Syrians and non-Syrians elsewhere in Turkey. Many Syrians in Şanlıurfa originally hail from Raqqa or Syria’s eastern provinces, all of which ISIS controlled for several years over the course of Syria’s war. Some fled ISIS and its violence, while others remained under the group’s control and fled when Syrian Kurdish fighters captured their hometowns. Some Şanlıurfa residents suspect that Syrians who lived under ISIS rule may harbour sympathies for the group and its thinking.

The problem of jihadist militancy is larger than ISIS, whose reputation is complicated but mostly negative among Syrians.

Crisis Group met no Syrians who voiced sympathy for ISIS, though interviewees may not have felt comfortable expressing such views. Interior Ministry representatives said they encounter very few Syrian nationals (compared to Turkish or other nationals) in the course of their operations against ISIS cells, however.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Syrians in border provinces, April-June 2018 and Turkish officials, Ankara, May and September 2018. Turkey began cracking down on ISIS cells in 2015, when the group began conducting terrorist attacks on Turkish soil. Between then and 2017 some 80 terrorist attacks in the country (including no-casualty cross-border rocket attacks and high-casualty suicide bombings) were attributed to ISIS. These attacks killed more than 200 people. According to open-source tracking by Crisis Group, in 2018, Turkish security forces briefly detained 379 and arrested 248 individuals for suspected links to ISIS.Hide Footnote In some instances, refugees in Sanliurfa and elsewhere have helped Turkish authorities identify ISIS operatives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Gaziantep, April 2018; and Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote

Yet the problem of jihadist militancy is larger than ISIS, whose reputation is complicated but mostly negative among Syrians. Other armed groups in Syria’s war that are more closely aligned with the Syrian opposition cause and its resistance to the Syrian regime have also espoused versions of jihadist militancy or promoted sectarian intolerance and violence. In Şanlıurfa and other Turkish border provinces, a number of Syrians whom Crisis Group interviewed indicated sympathy with Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), believing that the group is fighting for a legitimate cause in Syria.[fn]HTS is the most recent iteration of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate. A renamed Jabhat al-Nusra joined with several smaller armed groups to form HTS in January 2017. HTS remains explicitly committed to armed “jihad” against the Syrian regime and the imposition of Islamic rule (as the group understands it), but it has also taken steps to distance itself from al-Qaeda and transnational militancy.Hide Footnote Şanlıurfa’s social character and its refugees’ geographic origins make it unique. At the same time, Şanlıurfa’s Syrians are also part of a community of refugees across Turkey who are grappling with the damaging effects of war, and some of whom sympathise with or have embraced militancy.

Prior to 2016, Syrian militants seemed to have a free hand in districts of Şanlıurfa and other border provinces, from which they would travel back and forth into Syria. Today, locals say they see no armed militants on the streets (though small arms may be concealed). Still, in border provinces other than Şanlıurfa that neighbour opposition-held parts of Syria, residents say local authorities continue to be lenient with non-ISIS operatives. In Şanlıurfa, Crisis Group interlocutors expressed confidence that Turkish authorities were diligently targeting ISIS, but did not think that the state should also crack down on HTS-linked networks. Indeed, at the time, HTS-linked networks were largely free to operate.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote

In Urfa and elsewhere in Turkey, some individuals with organisational, ideological or personal ties to Syrian armed groups maintain networks (often broadly referred to as “extensions” in interviews) and run charities which provide logistical support and recruit for armed groups in Syria. Since 2017, Turkey has mandated that only state bodies can provide formal education. Registered NGOs sanctioned by the state can provide non-formal education. Some unregistered civil society groups also do so, under the radar. Independent groups offer Quran courses, and other forms of training ranging from lessons in “good morals” to athletics for Syrian children and youth.[fn]If they are registered, Quran courses are subject to inspection by the religious authority (Diyanet) and NGOs (foundations, associations) by the Interior Ministry. Many courses are not registered, however, and simply gather in rented houses. Diyanet personnel who are assigned to inspect Syrian Quran courses say they do not understand what is being taught because, while they know the Quran by heart, they cannot necessarily follow daily spoken Arabic, let alone the Syrian dialect. Because centres set up by illicit organisations rarely register, they are not formally inspected, but rather followed by intelligence personnel.Hide Footnote Most of these activities are innocent, particularly in Şanlıurfa, a conservative province with a tradition of peaceful religious gatherings. Some organisations, however, use Quranic education and morals instruction as cover to propagate jihadist ideology or recruit fighters. The state has consistently shut down courses it deems ISIS-linked, when it has managed to identify them.[fn]As recently as 5 February 2019, 22 people were detained in Istanbul for organising gatherings and courses propagating ISIS, recruiting, arranging logistics and travel to Syria, collecting funds for ISIS. “İstanbul’da DEAŞ operasyonu: 22 gözaltı” [“ISIS operation in Istanbul: 22 detained”], Hürriyet, 5 February 2019. Many news reports have also told of religious training centres in Şanlıurfa that were recruiting members and providing logistics for ISIS. One such centre in January 2016 was reportedly caught while preparing a young man with psychological problems to carry out a suicide attack in Raqqa. “Şanlıurfa’da IŞİD’li canlı bomba yakalandı” [“ISIS-linked suicide bomber caught in Şanlıurfa”], T24, 13 January 2016.Hide Footnote Educational programs linked to other armed groups have received less scrutiny.

Crisis Group on the Ground Nigar Göksel, Project Director for Turkey, and Berkay Mandıracı, Analyst for Turkey, in front of the governor's office in Şanlıurfa. CRISISGROUP

To be sure, enforcement has ticked up of late. For example, on 13 January 2019 security forces conducted the first crackdown against “civilian” HTS cells in Turkey, briefly detaining thirteen people in Adana, Istanbul and Ankara, one was the director of an Islamist charity in Adana that was allegedly providing money, spare parts, clothing and food to HTS militants in Syria. But it remains to be seen whether enforcement will meaningfully curtail civil activities linked to armed groups in Syria that put Syrian youth at risk.[fn]Cases like the HTS crackdown may lead other groups to go deeper underground, according to locals. Still, some, such as those affiliated with Ahrar al-Sham, part of the Turkish-backed Syrian rebel front, continue to operate openly.Hide Footnote

For the time being, the civilian activities linked with Syrian armed groups continue in Şanlıurfa and other parts of Turkey. These include religious courses run by charities with ties to militants. Staff of civil society organisations and school teachers in the formal state system told Crisis Group that such courses aim to “keep the passion for another Syria alive” among young Syrians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Istanbul, May 2018; Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote Syrian parents who send their children to these courses say they do so to ensure that youth maintain a Syrian identity and continue to hone their Arabic language skills. Some are unaware of more ideological instruction.

Yet the line between support for the Syrian opposition cause and promotion of militant ideologies may sometimes be unclear. The same Crisis Group interviewees said these courses often highlight the importance of armed struggle to bring down the Assad regime and replace it with one that strictly enforces Islamic law in Syria. Field workers in Şanlıurfa and elsewhere told Crisis Group that some centres that gather Syrian children and youth for extracurricular learning propagate hatred of “communist Kurds” and heterodox Muslim sects such as Alawites and Shia.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hatay and Şanluırfa, April 2018.Hide Footnote

In Şanlıurfa, where the drug problem has swelled, militant groups are also said to prey upon youth who have been involved in crime and drug use. They run “rehabilitation” programs that take in these young men and, under the guise of “curing” them, indoctrinate them with militant ideologies.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Şanlıurfa, April and June 2018.Hide Footnote

Militant indoctrination and recruitment of Syrian refugee youth present a long-term danger to Turkey’s security and social cohesion. Many Syrian youths’ personal histories of trauma could make them susceptible to hostility toward groups that they are told are the cause of their loss and displacement. Though many of these organisations do not have an explicitly anti-Turkish message, the intolerance and militancy they propagate may undermine their young pupils’ chances of effective integration in diverse, multi-ethnic settings, whether in Turkey or Syria.[fn]A Syrian aid worker operating in the territories of Syria controlled by Turkey and its allies justified the inflammation among Syrian youth in Turkey of hostility toward Alawites and Kurds by saying that the Assad regime and YPG are inciting their children and youth against supporters of the Sunni opposition. “If we do not do the same”, he said, “we will be giving Syria away to them for good”. Kurdish Syrians in Şanlıurfa and Turkish citizen Alawites in Hatay told Crisis Group they often feel the need to conceal their roots when interacting with Syrians who support the opposition rebels.Hide Footnote Moreover, some who embrace these messages could turn against Ankara if Turkey changes its policies in Syria. Syrians sympathetic to HTS in other Turkish border areas told Crisis Group that Turkey could arouse their antipathy if its government reconciles with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or distances Turkey from Syria’s opposition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Hatay, April 2018; Şanlıurfa, June 2018. Most precisely, one Syrian involved with the Syrian opposition in Hatay said, “If Erdoğan shakes Assad’s hand … Turkey will become a legitimate target”. Crisis Group interview, Reyhanlı, April 2018.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interviews, Hatay, April 2018; Şanlıurfa, June 2018. Most precisely, one Syrian involved with the Syrian opposition in Hatay said, “If Erdoğan shakes Assad’s hand … Turkey will become a legitimate target”. Crisis Group interview, Reyhanlı, April 2018.Hide Footnote

C. Exploitative Marriages

When they arrived in Turkey, often destitute and without immediate prospects, many Syrian families saw advantages to marrying their young daughters to Turkish men, even if the latter were already married. The Syrians saw these marriages, performed by an imam but not sanctioned by the state (and thus called imam nikahı unions), as offering their daughters status, protection and material well-being. Yet such unions have often proved detrimental to the emotional health of young Syrian women, while failing to provide the financial and even legal security many families sought. Such transactional intermarriages have also opened fissures in the dislocated communities where young women live. 

Syrian families who arrange for their daughters to marry “feed one fewer mouth”, and, in some cases, also receive bride wealth of up to 15,000 lira (about $2,700).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, border provinces, April and June 2018.Hide Footnote By 2015, some 30,000 Syrian women and girls in Şanlıurfa had married Turkish men in this fashion.[fn]Mithat Arman Karasu, “Integration Problem of the Syrian Asylum Seekers Living in the City of Şanlıurfa”, Journal of the Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences (Süleyman Demirel University), vol. 21, no. 3 (2016), pp. 995-1014.Hide Footnote Syrian women and girls who fall victim to this practice face long-term repercussions. If not complemented by a registered civil union, imam nikahı unions do not grant women the same rights they would have in a legal marriage in the event of separation. Usually underage, Syrian girls and women in these marriages are more vulnerable to maltreatment and abuse. Crisis Group was told that men often will register children born of imam nikahı unions under their legal wife’s name, so that the child does not appear to be illegitimate – and thus cut off the mother’s parental rights.

Moreover, polygamous imam nikahı unions are socially disruptive and cause tension between Syrians and Turkish citizens. Polygamy was once common in Şanlıurfa, as in other rural areas of south-eastern Turkey. Ankara banned the practice countrywide in 1926, and though it persisted, it fell off greatly in subsequent decades due in part to campaigns advocating state-sanctioned unions. (In Syria, it is legal for a man to have up to four wives.) Its return has caused schisms and anger.[fn]Under Article 230 of the Turkish penal code, polygamy is a criminal offence. Fighting it therefore serves not only to protect Syrian women and girls, but also to enforce the law in Turkey.Hide Footnote Turkish citizen women blame young Syrian women and girls for such marriages, as well as for a reported rise in prostitution. They often view both as threats to their husbands’ fidelity and their families’ integrity.[fn]Crisis Group interview, prominent academic in Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote

III. What Makes Youth Vulnerable

A number of factors increase the vulnerability of Syrian youth in Şanlıurfa and elsewhere to the exploitation described above. Some are not formally registered with the Turkish government, which precludes access to services, and can make them invisible to security services (a plus in the eyes of criminal networks that seek to recruit them). Large numbers of older school-aged Syrians, particularly, are not in school. Refugee youth as a whole receive insufficient psycho-social support. Of course, poverty underlies and compounds other vulnerabilities, closing off options for youth and their families. Moreover, in an environment such as Şanlıurfa’s, where many households are under severe economic strain, competition for jobs and livelihoods with newly arrived refugees increases the risk of social tension.

Being unregistered not only deprives Syrian youth of access to basic services and aid, but it also makes it more difficult for security services and state agencies to protect them from exploitation by militant or criminal groups.

The linkages between trauma, poverty and political violence are hotly debated in the academic and policy literature.[fn]See, for example, “Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment”, UN Development Program, 2017; Kamaldeep Bhui, Nasir Warfa and Edgar Jones, “Is Violent Radicaliation Associated with Poverty, Migration, Poor Self-Reported Health and Mental Disorders?”, Public Library of Science One, 5 March 2014; and Barbara Sude, David Stebbins and Sarah Weilant, “Lessening the Risk of Refugee Radicalization: Lessons for the Middle East from Past Crises”, RAND Corporation, 2015.Hide Footnote Certainly, the vast majority of traumatised and poor people do not embrace militancy, and different factors matter in different cultures and societies. What does seem clear is that in the case of Syrian refugees in Turkey, jihadist and militant groups regard refugee youth as a pool of potential recruits, or at least sympathisers. They believe they can gain the youth’s loyalty in part due to refugees’ poverty, trauma and accessibility (which is facilitated by youth not attending school), which they may well perceive as rendering the youth more vulnerable. In most cases, their efforts will fail, but the targeting itself, as discussed above, threatens youth and communities.

A. An Incomplete Register

An unknown number of Syrians are not registered for “temporary protection” status or are registered in a locality different from where they reside.[fn]In the heat of war, registration at the border was inevitably chaotic and incomplete, based largely on the refugees’ oral statements about their origins. Some Syrians entered illegally and never registered. Others registered but then moved to towns in western Turkey or onward to Europe without obtaining the requisite documents. Still others have since returned to Syria, without removing their names from Migration Directorate records. Crisis Group interviews, Syrians in Gaziantep, Hatay, Şanlıurfa and Kilis, April and June 2018.Hide Footnote Being unregistered not only deprives Syrian youth of access to basic services and aid, but it also makes it more difficult for security services and state agencies to protect them from exploitation by militant or criminal groups. These groups, in turn, are more likely to use an unregistered Syrian for illegal activities (including cross-border smuggling, for instance) since it will be more difficult for security forces to trace someone without legal status and records.

A mid-2017 poll suggested that there were approximately 300,000-400,000 unregistered Syrians in Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, op. cit., p.1. Some 150,000 additional Syrians have registered in the last three years – when the border to Syria was more or less sealed – showing the impact of bureaucratic delays but also the positive result of efforts to encourage Syrians to sign up to gain eligibility for aid and access to services.Hide Footnote Ongoing efforts to improve registration through an EU-supported “verification exercise” have likely reduced this number.[fn]The Facility for Refugees in Turkey: Helpful Support, but Improvements Needed to Deliver More Value for Money”, European Court of Auditors, Special Report N°27, n.d.Hide Footnote

Authorities admit that they are having a particularly hard time reaching youth between 15-24. “Syrians usually get registered when they need schooling, medical care or aid. If a young Syrian is working in the informal sector and doesn’t need to access such services, they can continue to live off the radar”, a Turkish official commented.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, October 2018.Hide Footnote To address this problem, the Migration Directorate has ramped up the capacity of its registration branches (there are four in Şanlıurfa). Many Syrians in Şanlıurfa, however, complain about insulting attitudes of civil servants and slow processing. Bureaucratic bottleneck also still appears to be a problem.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish officials and Syrians, border provinces, April and June 2018.Hide Footnote The presence of unregistered Syrians adds to locals’ sense of insecurity.[fn]“I am especially concerned about those who walk around unregistered”, a Turkish Islamic aid NGO worker in Şanlıurfa said, representing a broader sentiment among locals. Crisis Group interview, Şanlıurfa, April 2018.Hide Footnote

B. School-related Challenges

Syrian children are more vulnerable to exploitation if they do not attend school (either state-run or Arabic-teaching temporary education centres) or have bad experiences there.[fn]See, for instance, “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism”, Radicalisation Awareness Network, 2018; “Prevention of Violent Radicalisation in Schools and Educational Institutions”, Finnish National Agency for Education, February 2018.; “Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalisation That Lead to Terrorism: Ideas, Recommendations and Good Practices from the OSCE Region”, OSCE, 28 September 2017.Hide Footnote Those not in school tend not to learn Turkish or other basic skills, are more likely to be recruited into criminal networks, work under precarious conditions in the informal market or marry into exploitative arrangements. Some also assess them to be more prone to enlistment in Syrian armed groups.[fn]Ibid; Crisis Group field observations and interviews, border provinces, April, May and June 2018.Hide Footnote They may loiter in streets or parks, feeding local tension. The school experience, however, can also be a source of frustration or marginalisation if children are not protected from bullying or cannot catch up with the curriculum, especially following the at times abrupt closure of Arabic-teaching temporary education centres.[fn]Crisis Group field observations and interviews, border provinces, April and June 2018. E. Ebru Özbey, “Turkey’s Fight against Youth Radicalisation: Small Steps on A Long Path”, EuroMesco Policy Brief, 10 January 2018.Hide Footnote

The capacity of Turkey’s school system remains inadequate to the challenges created by the refugee influx. In places with high concentrations of Syrian refugees, public schools are overstretched in terms of both physical space and human resources. With 600,000 Turkish citizens and 150,000 Syrians of school age, Şanlıurfa alone needs an additional 4,000 classrooms (some 200 schools) and roughly 5,000 more teachers to meet existing demand. The Ministry of Education, along with international donors, including the Qatar Foundation, Kuwaiti individuals, the German government and the EU, are investing in school construction in Şanlıurfa. By the end of 2019, the ministry plans to have built 150-170 schools, and EU money is financing construction of another 22.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Education Ministry official, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote But this new capacity will fall short of needs, even as the school-age population continues to rise.

Dropout rates are another problem, especially among older students. Primary school enrolment for Syrians in Turkey today stands at a laudable 96.3 per cent. But this figure drops significantly to about 57.1 per cent at the lower secondary (middle school) and 24.6 per cent at the upper secondary level (high school).[fn]Ministry of Education figures as of 15 October 2018.Hide Footnote Provincial-level enrolment data is not publicly available, but an official from the local branch of the Ministry of Education in Şanlıurfa told Crisis Group that as many as 80,000 school-aged Syrians out of a total of 150,000 were not attending school in the province. Most of those were adolescents who dropped out after primary school.[fn]Of the 150,000 Syrian school-age children there, around 70,000 attend a school facility, 40,000 temporary education centres and 30,000 public schools. Around 20 per cent of the total Syrian school-aged population not attending school in Turkey (some 400,00 nationwide) lives in Şanlıurfa. Crisis Group interviews, Education Ministry official, Şanlıurfa, June 2018; UNICEF representative, Ankara, September 2018. Ministry of National Education figures as of 15 October 2018.Hide Footnote

Older school-aged Syrians drop out because of both economic and social pressures. Often, families pressure boys and girls to work to supplement the family income.[fn]In a nationwide study of 7,591 Syrians aged 12-17, 33 per cent of male and 10 per cent of female respondents said they were working; 45 per cent of males and 47 per cent of females said they were going to school; and 20 per cent of males and 32 per cent of females said they were “unemployed”. Meanwhile, 10 per cent of female and 1 per cent of male respondents in the same age group said they were “married”. Data collected in mid-2017 for Istanbul Bilgi University’s study, “Syrian Barometer: A Framework for Achieving Social Coherence with Syrians”, shared by Prof. Dr Murat Erdoğan and analysed by Crisis Group consultant.Hide Footnote In Şanlıurfa, sons working off the books in the fields or in small businesses can usually bring 200 to 300 Turkish lira ($36-55) per month home to their parents. An international organisation representative said, “After primary school, many Syrian families want their children to work and prefer sending them to Quran courses. They usually don’t expect more from keeping their children in education facilities”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote

Girls also face pressure to marry early. Sometimes early marriage takes the form of imam nikahı unions, as described above. In all cases, it is closely tied to dropping out of school. But marriage of underage girls is also an ingrained cultural practice for many Syrians as well as for Turkish citizens in Şanlıurfa.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote

Some NGOs have paid cash to Syrian families to make up for the monthly income they lose when they send their children to school instead of having them work. But resource constraints render such efforts unsustainable: when the NGO funding runs out, families feel compelled to take their children out of school again.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NGO representatives, Şanlıurfa, June 2018. Two mostly EU-funded programs have successfully boosted primary school enrolment.Hide Footnote

Yet another challenge is the school experience itself, which may leave Syrians attending feeling ostracised. Many Syrians whom Crisis Group talked to in Şanlıurfa complained of discrimination by their peers or teachers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Syrian students and parents in Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote In some cases, local children appear to be parroting negative rhetoric about Syrians heard at home and in family settings. Some teachers label their Syrian pupils as “ill-behaved”, reinforcing prejudices in their classmates’ minds. Syrian parents said they felt reluctant to report such incidents to school directors or the local branch of the Education Ministry, fearing reprisal.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Syrian parents in Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote The ministry’s province-level representatives said they try to defuse such tensions when they hear of them, sending their staff to schools where mistreatment is reported.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Education Ministry official, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote In the last year, however, they had identified only one such incident in the province, indicating a gap between refugee and official accounts. While in some cases well-informed directors and teachers take their own measures to calm tensions, usually such incidents go unresolved, magnifying the alienation some Syrian students feel in school.

Neither Turkish authorities nor international donors have moved quickly enough to reach Syrian youth in need of psycho-social support.

Compounding this problem may be the new policy, since 2016, of integrating Syrians into Turkish public schools, phasing out the Arabic-language temporary education centres it established early in the refugee crisis.[fn]For detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Report, Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, op cit. Temporary education centres were established by the Turkish government in the early years of the refugee influx with the assumption that Syrians who would soon return should not be deprived of school education. They teach an adapted Syrian curriculum in Arabic and offer up to fifteen hours of Turkish language training. With Syrians’ return prospects diminishing, the government decided in 2016 to phase out these centres in three years to prevent a parallel education system from emerging and help Syrians integrate into the Turkish public school system.Hide Footnote Though, as explained in Crisis Group’s January 2018 report, it is the right approach in the long run to prevent a parallel education system from emerging and to foster integration, the transition away from Arabic schooling commenced without necessary preparation. Many youngsters, particularly teenagers, some of whom had been learning in Arabic for years in Turkey, were frustrated by the challenges of adapting to the new Turkish curriculum. In some places, the hasty switch made young Syrians unwilling to go to school.[fn]Ibid.; Crisis Group interviews, Syrian parents and youth, Şanlıurfa, April and June 2018.Hide Footnote

C. Inadequate Psycho-social Support

Another weakness in meeting Syrians’ needs is the inadequacy of psycho-social support for youngsters in and out of school. Most young Syrians lived through gruesome war experiences in their childhood or early teenage years. Many have endured bombing and witnessed brutal deaths, including of relatives. Children born in camps are constantly exposed to stories of suffering, sorrow, bloodshed and loss that magnify the trauma of living in a closed environment. In tent camps (as opposed to container camps), sexual abuse perpetrated by children against other children is also widespread.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Şanlıurfa, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Neither Turkish authorities nor international donors have moved quickly enough to reach Syrian youth in need of psycho-social support.[fn]In August 2017, the EU began funding a project called SIHHAT that would set up 178 health clinics for Syrians across the country. The project aims to establish ten community mental health centres and is scheduled to run through the end of 2019. Some vocational training to help Turkish teachers better identify and deal with Syrian students with psychological problems exists (UNICEF launched a course in September 2017 for 65,000 teachers), but such courses can impart only superficial knowledge and cannot account for situations where the classroom environment itself is a source of trauma. Crisis Group observations, Şanlıurfa, April-June 2018; interviews, international organisation representatives, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote In Şanlıurfa, young Syrians can get psycho-social support from counsellors in Turkish public schools and counselling research centres tied to the Ministry of Education, as well as state hospitals and branches of the Ministry for Family, Labour and Social Policy. Some NGO-run community centres also have psychologists on site or can refer Syrians to state institutions. State services in this area, however, are usually poorly staffed in terms of both numbers and qualifications. “Currently, there are 2,000 students for one counsellor, whereas according to international standards it should be 250 for one”, said a counsellor working in a Şanlıurfa camp.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Şanlıurfa, June 2018.Hide Footnote There are few Arabic speakers, meaning that most counsellors cannot communicate well with Syrians enrolled in schools or their parents.

Left unaddressed, “these traumas can be a main source of swelling frustration with the host country”, said a psycho-social support officer working for an international NGO in Istanbul.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Istanbul, October 2018.Hide Footnote Trauma can also make it difficult for Syrians aged 12-24 in particular to stay in school or hold down jobs, forcing them into illicit or exploitative work and life situations.

D. Poverty

Nearly 50 per cent of Syrians in Turkey live under the poverty line.[fn]Support to Public Institutions in the Turkey Refugee and Resilience Response Plan (3RP) 2017-2018, 16 July 2018. Based on international poverty line calculation standards ($1.90 a day per person). Hide Footnote Around 20 per cent of Syrian households have no working members.[fn]3RP Livelihoods and Employment Data Analysis, “2017 Progress and Way Forward for 2018-2019”.Hide Footnote For their daily bread, these households rely solely on cash and in-kind support from international donors or the state’s social assistance mechanism.[fn]The European Social Safety Net (ESSN), the world’s largest humanitarian cash program (according to value and total number of beneficiaries), is funded by the EU’s Refugee Facility for Turkey and has around 1.5 million Syrian beneficiaries who receive a monthly allowance of 120 Turkish lira (roughly $22) through a debit card commonly referred to as a “Kızılay card.”Hide Footnote An estimated 65 per cent of Syrian households rely on work in the informal economy.[fn]3RP Livelihoods and Employment Data Analysis, “2017 Progress and Way Forward for 2018-2019.”Hide Footnote As of December 2018, only around 65,000 Syrians held work permits allowing them to get paid legally.[fn]This figure includes those who established legal businesses in Turkey, but excludes seasonal agricultural workers, who are exempt from the work permit requirement. Only around half of the Syrians holding permits were registered under temporary protection, the other half were non-refugee Syrians holding legal residence in Turkey. 3RP Livelihoods and Employment Data Analysis, “2017 Progress and Way Forward for 2018-2019”; “Süleyman Soylu: Bu güne kadar 76 bin 443 Suriyeliye vatandaşlık verdik” [“Süleyman Soylu: So far we have granted citizenship to 76,443 Syrians”], T24, 7 January 2019.Hide Footnote

The poverty of Syrian refugees feeds tension with local communities, which are also struggling. With unemployment a longstanding problem, local Şanlıurfa men complained of losing their jobs to Syrians who were willing to work for less pay.[fn]A World Bank study estimated that every ten Syrian refugees who take jobs for lower wages displace six local workers. Three of every six displaced locals can find other jobs in the formal sector, but the other three remain unemployed. Ximena V. Del Carpio and Mathis Wagner, “The Impact of Syrian Refugees on the Turkish Labor Market”, World Bank Group, August 2015.Hide Footnote Indeed, according to surveys, the chief grievances against Syrians in Turkey are job competition and security concerns.[fn]A survey of Turkish citizens toward the end of 2017 found that 67.4 per cent believe Syrians are driving higher crime rates, while 58.1 per cent think Syrians are behind an increase in terrorist attacks in the country. The same survey found that 71.4 per cent believe Syrians are taking jobs away from Turkish citizens. Emre Erdoğan and Pınar Uyan Semerci, “Attitudes Toward Syrians in Turkey, 2017”, Istanbul Bilgi University, February 2018. In three separate online surveys conducted by the World Food Programme between July 2017 and January 2018, more than two in five Turkish citizens perceived that crime had risen in their neighbourhoods because of Syrians. World Food Programme, “Social Cohesion in Turkey: Refugee and Host Community Online Survey, Rounds 1-2-3”, July 2018.Hide Footnote While these problems are not specific to youth, their impact on youth is undeniable and lasting.

Addressing poverty is particularly difficult at a time of economic slowdown in the country.[fn]“The World Bank has estimated that even assuming economic growth of over 4 per cent for the next few years, the net job creation of formal firms is now down to zero, meaning that the economy is currently destroying as many jobs as it creates”. 3RP Livelihoods and Employment Data Analysis, “2017 Progress and Way Forward for 2018-2019.”Hide Footnote Around one million Turkish citizens enter the labour force each year.[fn]“İş gücüne katılım oranı 10 yılda 5,8 puan arttı” [“The workforce participation rate increased by 5.8 points in 10 years”], Bloomberg HT, 28 March 2017.Hide Footnote Add around two million working-age (15-65) Syrians and it becomes hard to see how the country can create enough jobs. In Şanlıurfa, the challenge is more daunting still. But to reduce the risks faced by refugee youth and the communities in which they live, refugee families should be helped out of poverty.

Moreover, short-term fixes cannot be the answer. Turkish officials are rightly concerned about what they call the refugees’ “dependency” on humanitarian aid. “What will we do after all this funding for humanitarian aid comes to an end?”, one high-level official commented. “With the current economic outlook we could potentially cater to the needs of the most vulnerable 250,000, but definitely not all [currently around 1.5 million international aid] beneficiaries”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote International donors and Turkish authorities have yet to agree on an exit strategy from the EU-funded program offering cash payments to Syrians. “If we do not prepare for exit, with less funding down the line, we will probably have to choose between the very and very, very vulnerable in the end”, a UN official said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote Solving the problem of poverty for refugees in Şanlıurfa requires attention to the problem of poverty in the province as a whole, in ways that are sustainable for all of its residents.

IV. Measures to Protect At-risk Youth

More work is needed to address the risks faced by vulnerable Syrian refugees in Şanlıurfa and elsewhere in Turkey. Along with international partners, Turkey should strengthen measures aimed at long-term integration and support, encouraging Syrians to register for temporary protection status, enrol those Syrian youths who are not in school, help young women and girls steer clear of exploitative marriages, care for those coping with anger, trauma and loss, and create opportunities to those in need of jobs. Security measures that will curb the manoeuvring space of dangerous actors geared at exploiting youth vulnerability are equally important.

All this requires support from international donors as well as coordination among state agencies involved in making social policies, schools, organisations running extracurricular facilities, psychologists and religious authorities, as well as international organisations, all of whom should more directly work toward the goal of mitigating vulnerabilities through integration.

A. Complete the Register

With estimates suggesting that a significant number of Syrians remain unregistered, it is critical that Turkish authorities pour additional effort into achieving full registration. There are a number of steps that it might take in order to make its efforts more effective.

First, the Migration Directorate needs to better train its staff in language and cultural mores, so that Syrians’ first contact with state authority is less frustrating and thus less likely to deter further contact. This step will help keep records accurately updated.[fn]Syrians whom Crisis Group interviewed generally complained of negative attitudes toward them on Migration Directorate officials’ part. Crisis Group interviews, border provinces, April and June 2018.Hide Footnote Another way to build Syrians’ trust in institutions and help overcome the language barrier at local registration offices would be to hire Syrians (such as those who have become Turkish citizens). Hiring Syrians would also help generate durable employment for refugees in the public sector, even if only for a few.

Finally, NGOs with strong local presence and local branches of ministries should carry out more targeted outreach activities by collaborating with neighbourhood heads (muhtars) who are usually informed of the registration status of Syrians living in their localities. Once identified, NGOs and ministry officials should inform Syrians of the benefits of registering. Allowing those who relocated mostly for employment reasons (even if in the informal sector) to re-register in their new place of residence would also help to this end.[fn]Once a Syrian registers in one province, he/she can only move to another after obtaining a permit from the provincial migration directorate. Getting a permit usually takes a long time. Hence many Syrians move to another province without obtaining this document and are then not allowed to re-register in their new place of residence.Hide Footnote

Syrian refugee children in Şanlıurfa. CRISISGROUP

B. Counter Illicit Networks, Indoctrination, and Exploitation of Women and Girls

1. Illicit networks

In order to crack down on smuggling networks that exploit Syrian youth, Ankara should make it harder for them to manipulate gaps in border security. One way to do this is by strengthening anti-bribery measures. Authorities can better identify smugglers and bribe takers by conducting interviews with people who are caught trying to cross illegally and engaging in more frequent random inspections of border officials. A corruption complaint and reward mechanism could also help. With support from EU countries, Turkey has already invested in efforts to ramp up its border security.[fn]Under the Facility for Refugees in Turkey, the EU provided €80 million in support of Turkey’s migration management, ranging from support to capacity-building to rescue boats. Under the EU’s Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA), Turkey received since 2007 around €300 million in the area of improving border management and around €200 million in the area of managing migration. Equipment supplied in the framework of IPA aims at supporting the surveillance capacity of Turkish authorities to improve border management and security for civilian purposes. The EU does not supply any military or lethal equipment to Turkey. Crisis Group email correspondence, EU official in Brussels, February 2019.Hide Footnote Cooperation in this direction should continue.

2. Indoctrination

Key to countering attempts to indoctrinate young refugees will be identifying “training” centres where jihadist or other militant groups aim to win recruits or to incite sectarian hatred and violence. The state should either give Turkish religious directorate staff in charge of inspecting registered facilities proper Arabic training or hire other Turkish citizen inspectors who already speak the Syrian dialect of Arabic. Another option would be to hire new inspectors from among qualified and vetted Syrians. To create an alternative for Syrian families that wish to provide their children with religious instruction, the Diyanet should offer incentives to Turkish foundations it supervises to extend their Quran courses and other religious training to include Syrian youth and support these foundations in hiring Arabic-speaking teachers.[fn]There are numerous state-run and private foundation courses taught by Turkish citizens certified by the Diyanet. Any graduate of an imam hatip school – a government-run secondary school that trains Muslim clerics – is qualified to teach these courses. The teachers usually do not speak Arabic, however, at least not the Syrian dialect.Hide Footnote

Young widows are often socially isolated and more susceptible to abuse, and camp officials or local authorities should combine rights sensitisation with other types of programming, to ensure that the message will reach women already facing exploitation.

As Turkey’s religious authority, the Diyanet also needs to pay more attention to training staff that can properly inspect centres of religious teaching that Syrian youth attend. Clerics can play an important role in dispelling misconceptions that Islamic precepts advocate violence. They need to be trained, however, to effectively reach at-risk youth. Where possible, state institutions should hire Syrian imams, counsellors and social workers who can more quickly form close, trusting relationships with young refugees.

3. Exploitation and coercion of women and girls

The range of coercive situations Syrian women can face, from exploitative marriage to survival sex and predation by criminal networks, makes it essential that young women and their parents be informed of potential risks and also their rights and recourse. The Turkish authorities should work to educate parents who contemplate early and/or transactional marriages for their daughters as a form of protection or survival, and make them aware of the precarious legal status that a non-state union will entail, for both their daughters and potential children. Special attention should be paid to widows. Young widows are often socially isolated and more susceptible to abuse, and camp officials or local authorities should combine rights sensitisation with other types of programming, to ensure that the message will reach women already facing exploitation.

Demand exists for this information, but resources are scarce. “When we organise information sessions here on their rights, Syrian women are usually very interested. But with limited resources we can only reach a handful”, a lawyer working for Şanlıurfa’s bar association said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lawyer, Şanlıurfa, June 2018. Between January and June 2016, the UNHCR distributed over 100,000 leaflets (in Arabic, Turkish and English) about early and forced marriage, as well as domestic violence, to partner offices and local stakeholders in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir, Gaziantep, Malatya, Osmaniye, Kilis, Kahramanmaras, Hatay, Adana, Şanlıurfa, Adıyaman and Mardin. “UNHCR Operational Update January – June 2016.”Hide Footnote

To deter abuse of women and girls who remain in camps, the state should recruit women police and camp officials and allow lawyers unrestricted access to the camps. Both within and outside of camps, recruiting more women security personnel will also improve the reliability of mechanisms for reporting abuse, insofar as the mostly male composition of police at present discourages women from so doing. The government should ensure that female translators are also available.

To support women who need immediate help, authorities should increase the capacity – both in terms of human resources and space – of the shelters for women in Şanlıurfa and wherever there is need. The state’s protective social services, such as women’s shelters run by the local branches of Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy, and local NGOs need to be resourced to expand both qualified staff and space. International donors could contribute more to funding long-term efforts in this direction.

Funding alone may have limited impact, however, unless there is an uptick in political will on Ankara decision-makers’ part. “This issue requires state authorities to explicitly acknowledge the problem and politicians to show clear political will to address it, which is currently lacking”, a representative of an international organisation lamented.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote

The government should also ensure public accountability for those found guilty of abuse and exploitation, whether they be civil servants, camp officials or brokers of underage marriages. It is especially important that prison sentences for abuse by security officials be publicised, to counter the sense of impunity and create a deterrent effect. Authorities should establish a hotline for victims to report sexual advances or exploitation by civil servants.

C. Enrol Students and Deter Dropouts

The demographic reality of a growing refugee youth population requires a plan for continuous investment to build and staff schools over the long term.[fn]Around 700,000 of Şanlıurfa’s two million Turkish citizens are between the ages of six and fifteen. “Türkiye’nin en genç ili hangisi?” [“Which is Turkey’s youngest province?”], Timetürk, 16 February 2016.Hide Footnote Turkey must also do better at addressing the high secondary-school dropout rate. As Crisis Group has argued before, the government should hire more Syrian teachers at Turkish public schools as “intercultural mediators” or support teachers to facilitate the transition from Arabic to Turkish language instruction.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, op. cit., p. 19.Hide Footnote In locations where public schools are few or short-staffed, the government should keep temporary education centres open until the public schools have the space and the teachers to absorb school-aged Syrians, to lower the risk of them dropping out.

To prevent early and exploitative marriages, which often lead to girls leaving school, school administrators could organise information sessions within schools targeting parents and their daughters.

Local branches of the Education Ministry should monitor school administrators to ensure they hold teachers accountable for discrimination against Syrians at public schools. Specific measures should include zero tolerance of discriminatory behaviour, enforcement of sanctions and creation of a ministry-run hotline staffed by Syrian teachers to field complaints.[fn]UNICEF has an SMS-based complaint system for Syrian temporary education centre teachers that could be used as a model. Crisis Group interview, UNICEF representative, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote Turkish teachers and counsellors should be trained to encourage cohesion between Syrian and Turkish children and to engage Syrian as well as Turkish parents. Other refugee-receiving countries, such as Lebanon, have used schools as platforms for “parent engagement groups”, which could help foster intercommunal ties and prevent classroom tensions.[fn]In other places, culture nights have given parents from different backgrounds opportunities to interact. A “parent twinning” project, undertaken by the Ministry of Education and supported by NGOs, could help orient Syrian families. Those who are more educated could be matched with less educated parents. This project could help keep children in schools and soothe tensions when they arise.Hide Footnote

NGOs with strong local outreach, in collaboration with state institutions, could select role models from among around 20,000 Syrian university students in Turkey and employ them to help raise awareness of future prospects among adolescents and parents, giving them a better idea about what Syrians can achieve in Turkey if they finish school.[fn]NGOs could distribute information sheets to prospective role models in university seminars. They should select a group of students (diversified by ethnic background and Syrian hometown) to serve in this capacity.Hide Footnote

Families and girls need both information about early marriages and incentives to avoid them. To prevent early and exploitative marriages, which often lead to girls leaving school, school administrators could organise information sessions within schools targeting parents and their daughters. But unless families have less economic incentive to marry off daughters early, such consciousness-raising will likely have little impact. Families also need to feel that education for their daughters, including through the university level, brings with it more opportunity and advantage (and can be an alternative to early marriage, legal or otherwise). The stipend already available since May 2017 for Syrian families that send their daughters to attend school through 12th grade (40-60 Turkish lira, or $7-11 per month) should be increased, and extended to university-level education.

D. Offer Adequate Psycho-social Support

Addressing the psycho-social needs of Syrian youth is key both to foster long-term integration and prevent hostile actors from exploiting this vulnerability. Some psycho-social support can be offered through schools. The Education Ministry must hire more counsellors at schools with large numbers of Syrian pupils. Employing Syrian temporary education centre teachers as “assistant counsellors” at schools (ideally one man and one woman) could strengthen these services.[fn]Additional training in counselling could be offered before these teachers assume duty. Three specialties are particularly relevant for dealing with Syrian youth in Turkey: rape, substance abuse and trauma counselling. Effective counselling can prevent youth from falling vulnerable to the risks discussed in this report. See “UNHCR’s Engagement with Displaced Youth”; and Mehmet A. Karaman and Richard J. Ricard, “Meeting the Mental Health Needs of Syrian Refugees in Turkey”, The Professional Counselor, vol. 6, no. 4 (2016).Hide Footnote In the short run, the government could train those Arabic speakers who have learned Turkish to translate for Turkish counsellors. NGO-run community centres, usually funded by Western donors, also offer counselling services. Since they receive project funding, the safety net they offer can only be temporary. At present, these NGOs are helping fill the state’s service gap, but the number of Syrians reached is still considerably below demand.

Reaching youth who are out of school is more difficult but possibly even more important given the added risks that they face as dropouts. The local branches of the Education and Family, Labour and Social Policy Ministries have limited budgets and personnel. More investment is needed in neighbourhood-level outreach, for instance, increasing the number and improving the qualifications of mobile teams of social workers. Training Syrians (possibly those who have become Turkish citizens) could help bridge the language gap. International funding could also help, but eventually, the government should allocate adequate funds to each local branch of the relevant ministries, as well as to municipalities, by counting the number of Syrians each is tasked with serving.[fn]Similarly, the state should channel funds proportionate to the number of Syrians hosted to local Health Ministry branches, as well as the social assistance and solidarity foundations under district governorates that are tasked with distributing social assistance to the needy. As the Turkish government is cutting public spending, the EU could offer to support these budgets for a set period.Hide Footnote

Representatives of international organisations, as well as NGO workers, note that gathering Syrian and local youth in informal social settings can be more helpful than structured counselling sessions. Sports and arts, as well as peer-to-peer support groups, are activities that could help not only Syrians, but also other local youth.[fn]There are examples of such activities run by international organisations and the Ministry of Youth and Sports, but the number of individuals reached so far is low.Hide Footnote One way to encourage these activities is to support state and NGO-run youth community centres to scale up Turkish language courses, accelerated learning programs, literacy and numeracy training, or community-building activities.[fn]UNICEF in Turkey is investing effort in designing and running such programs.Hide Footnote These programs usually target school-aged Syrians, leaving out those older than eighteen. To ensure that vulnerable Syrians who are no longer school-aged also benefit, such programs should incorporate those up to age 25. Given that the state falls short of meeting demand, Ankara should be more forthcoming in enabling NGOs to work in this area. NGO representatives whom Crisis Group interviewed in Şanlıurfa and Istanbul complained of the lack of support from state authorities.[fn]“In those few cases where state authorities identified problems and worked in close cooperation with NGOs/INGOs to address those, the results were much more positive”. Crisis Group interview, international NGO representative, Istanbul, October 2018. For detailed discussion, see Crisis Group Report, Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, op. cit., pp. 20-21.Hide Footnote

E. Help Refugees Make a Living

Global and local experience provides some ideas on how to begin to improve livelihoods for Syrian refugees and Şanlıurfa as a whole. First, and as already noted, sustainability is critical. To enable Syrians to generate durable incomes, Crisis Group in the past advocated for a transition from humanitarian aid to sustainable livelihoods, a process that is now beginning.[fn]European officials are considering the allocation of roughly two thirds of the second €3 billion tranche to development-related funding, with only one third allocated to humanitarian support. Crisis Group interview, European official, Istanbul, February 2019. Also see Crisis Group Report, Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, op. cit.Hide Footnote Turkish institutions and international organisations have been working to enhance Syrians’ employability and labour market integration, albeit with limited results to date.[fn]The Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy is taking steps to ease the work permit process. In early 2018, it reduced the permit fee for Syrians from 615.2 Turkish lira (about $112) to 228.9 lira (about $42). It also established one-stop permit shops offering services in Arabic and Turkish in five locations in 2017-2018. As Crisis Group has noted previously, international donors are now working to design vocational training programs aimed at better matching skills taught with market needs. See Crisis Group Report, Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, op. cit., pp. 15-18.Hide Footnote The shift should be gradual, and particularly so in Şanlıurfa, where a significant number of Syrians receive aid and around 20 per cent of Turkish citizens aged 15-24 are jobless.[fn]As of December 2018, in Şanlıurfa 149,163 Syrians (around 33 per cent of the total registered in the province) received aid under the ESSN. Beneficiary figures for Şanlıurfa shared with Crisis Group by a World Food Programme representative via email on 11 January 2018; employment figures from TÜİK. On paper, Syrians have access to the same vocational training programs that Turkish citizens do.Hide Footnote Transfer of management responsibility for these programs (even if EU countries continue to fund them) to Turkish state institutions is one way to make them more sustainable.

Turkey’s Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Policy has helpfully sought to match employers in one province searching for workers with Syrians in another province looking for jobs, subsidising the voluntary relocation of families, and paying their social security contributions for a certain period.[fn]At present, the Ministry of Labour offers subsidies for up to eighteen months. Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, January 2019.Hide Footnote If successful, such initiatives should be expanded with donor support.

Over the next two years, the UN plans to direct aid beneficiaries to agencies that can help them find jobs. It can do even more: the UN says 22.6 per cent of aid beneficiaries in Turkey are “close enough to the labour market that they could be transitioned gradually toward self-reliance through employment”.[fn]World Food Programme presentation at the ESSN Future workshop, 20 June 2018, cited in 3RP Livelihoods and Employment Data Analysis, “2017 Progress and Way Forward for 2018-2019.”Hide Footnote The UN could use aid payments as an incentive for these people, for example by offering continued assistance only to those who enrol in Turkish language courses or vocational training, excepting the especially vulnerable like the sick, disabled or elderly.[fn]Crisis Group advocated for this step in Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, op. cit.Hide Footnote Job training in two areas – skilled trades and agriculture – could be particularly beneficial for young manual labourers and unemployed dropouts. Training can both help youth find formal employment and empower them to demand better conditions from employers in the informal economy.

To supply this training, the state could scale up apprenticeship programs, particularly for Syrians under eighteen, including those who dropped out after primary school or never attended school in Turkey. Today, around 15,000 Syrians benefit from such programs nationwide. Syrians under temporary protection who either hold a basic Turkish language certificate or prove that they can read and write in Turkish are eligible.[fn]An apprentice earns one third of the minimum wage, equivalent to 480 Turkish lira in 2018, or $87, per month. The employer pays 33 per cent of that amount, and the state makes up the rest (320 lira, or $58, per month), plus social security contributions, for three to four years. At the end the apprentice receives an accreditation certificate.Hide Footnote Each apprentice gets 480 lira (about $87) monthly, of which the employer is responsible for 160 Turkish lira (about $29). The rest is subsidised by the state for a maximum of four years. More international funding would allow the state to offer more subsidies. In Şanlıurfa, the state could expand apprenticeships in trades such as shoemaking, furniture or textiles.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and observations, Şanlıurfa, April and June 2018.Hide Footnote

Scaling up support for small agribusiness likewise could benefit the economy and help Syrians become more self-reliant.

Agriculture also bears considerable potential, given Turkey’s labour shortage in this sector and the rural origins and farming skills of many of Şanlıurfa’s Syrians.[fn]Despite Turkey’s steadily growing population, its area of cultivated agricultural land is shrinking and young people are leaving farm work. According to TÜİK data, in 2018, 5.7 million people worked in agriculture, a number down from some 10 million in 1994.Hide Footnote Şanlıurfa is Turkey’s third largest province by area under cultivation.[fn]As of 2017, the province’s cultivated land totalled 1,107,114 hectares, valued at 6.9 billion Turkish lira (roughly $1.25 billion). See the Ministry of Agriculture booklet (in English) on agricultural production in Şanlıurfa, February 2018.Hide Footnote It also is home to about 11 per cent of Turkey’s irrigable land.[fn]As of 2017, 390,000 hectares of land are irrigated. Ibid.Hide Footnote “We need more investments in agriculture. We have been pushing for this for a long time, but international donors supporting refugees have been reluctant to support projects in the field of agriculture, maybe because they look at funding more from an immediate than a long-term benefit perspective”, said a UN agency representative.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, UN agency consultant, October 2018.Hide Footnote

Scaling up support for small agribusiness likewise could benefit the economy and help Syrians become more self-reliant. Syrians could learn how to operate greenhouses, cultivate crops or manage livestock. Both the UNHCR and the Food and Agriculture Organisation offer such agricultural training programs to Syrians and vulnerable Turkish citizens.[fn]Some 500 people in five cities took training courses in fruit and vegetable production, using micro-gardens or greenhouses. Other training areas include livestock care and herd management, irrigation management, farm management and food hygiene. “Syrian refugees, host communities acquire work skills in agriculture”, Food and Agriculture Organisation press release, 17 August 2017.Hide Footnote Thus far, however, the number of subsidies that would enable graduates to start their own farming operations has remained very low. An approach combining training with small grants to establish agricultural enterprises would help.[fn]The government is also undertaking land consolidation (parcelling and selling state-owned land to individuals), including in Şanlıurfa. Officials admit, however, that they often face resistance from the big clans that control swaths of the province’s land. Crisis Group interview, Turkish official, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote So would offering special subsidies to joint Turkish-Syrian agricultural ventures.

Ensuring women’s self-sufficiency also would be important in addressing the problem of exploitative marriage. Additional projects to establish women’s cooperatives in which Syrian and Turkish women could jointly produce and sell such items as handicrafts could help.[fn]The International Labour Organisation supervised establishment of a women’s cooperative in 2018. “Turkey’s First Women’s Cooperative Consisting of Both Syrian and Host Community Women is Established”, ILO, 21 February 2018.Hide Footnote To the extent feasible, livelihood schemes can also be designed and targeted to victims of abuse, including women, so they are not compelled to return to abusive homes and have alternatives to exploitation.

Alongside offering training programs, it also would be important to tap the know-how of skilled and educated Syrians who can establish enterprises, create jobs and serve as role models. A UN agency consultant said:

Rather than constant focus on the most vulnerable we also need to support those people who have advanced skills, are educated and could become multipliers. There are at least 125 university-trained agronomists in Şanlıurfa that we identified. Most of them are unemployed or they work in unskilled jobs. Capitalising on their knowledge and skills should also be in the focus of our work in the area of agricultural livelihoods.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, UN agency consultant, October 2018.Hide Footnote

Finally, in helping Syrian refugees make a living, the state and its international partners should not forget the many Turkish citizens in Şanlıurfa who are also disadvantaged. UN agencies and NGOs should design and implement training programs in coordination with relevant central and local institutions, particularly those tied to labour authorities. All relevant actors should ensure that refugee assistance is aligned with broader development strategies and labour market needs assessments. To foster social cohesion, new investments into job training and apprenticeship programs should be geared toward qualified Turkish citizens. Otherwise, assistance risks exacerbating tensions between and within communities.

V. Conclusion

By taking in over 3.6 million Syrians, Ankara has shouldered a large burden. At a time of slowing economic growth, Turkey now wrestles with often contradictory demands from Turkish citizens, the EU and other stakeholders. Often lost in the shuffle are the pressing needs of the war-weary refugees themselves. But failure to address those needs can undermine the security of not only the refugees, but the communities in which they live.

Particularly vulnerable are Syrian youth, who contend with discrimination and bullying at school, unaddressed traumas, exploitative marriages, lack of durable income, local authorities’ hostility and precarious future prospects. Greater focus is needed to reduce the risk that dangerous elements will entice them into lives of criminality or militancy, or otherwise limit their chances of successful integration, all with repercussions for Turkey and Turkish citizens. This need is all the more pressing in refugee-dense provinces on the border with Syria where economic opportunities are dim, such as Şanlıurfa. Besides taking measures that foster integration, it is important to fight crime and enhance border security. Mitigation of related risks will help Ankara forestall new social rifts and lessen the backlash as Turkish citizens come to realise that the Syrians who stay in Turkey will be woven into the country’s social fabric.

International donors will need to think beyond the second €3 billion tranche to be allocated as part of the EU’s refugee integration support for Turkey and adopt a longer-term outlook. Investing in young Syrians’ skills and education will help build their resilience to exploitation by illicit actors, close social schisms and promote Turkey’s economic development. It will also help build the capacity of a new generation of Syrians who, when the time is right, can contribute to their home country’s future.

Istanbul/Brussels, 11 February 2019

Appendix A: Map of Turkey


Appendix B: Juvenile Delinquency in “Refugee-dense” and “Refugee-scarce” Provinces

Total Number of Juvenile Delinquents (2008-2017) Source: Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK)
Total Number of Juvenile Delinquents in Şanlıurfa (2008-2017) Source: Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK)
Source: Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK)


*The selection of the time periods and provinces for the analysis follows Semih Tumen, “The Economic Impact of Syrian Refugees on Host Countries: Quasi-Experimental Evidence from Turkey”, American Economic Review, vol. 106, no. 5 (2016). The analysis took as its reference point fourteen “refugee-dense” eastern and southern provinces (those in which Syrians compose more than 2 percent of the population in 2012-2013) and fifteen “refugee-scarce” east-ern and southern provinces (those with less than 2 percent Syrian population in 2012-2013). The “refugee-dense” provinces were: Şırnak, Şanlıurfa, Adıyaman, Adana, Batman, Diyarbakır, Gaziantep, Hatay, Kahramanmaraş, Kilis, Mardin, Mersin, Osmaniye and Siirt. The “refugee-scarce” provinces were: Ağrı, Ar-dahan, Bayburt, Bingöl, Bitlis, Elazığ, Erzincan, Erzurum, Hakkari, Iğdır, Kars, Malatya, Muş, Tunceli and Van. This statistical analysis also incorporated prov-ince characteristics such as population, education levels, sex ratio and urban-rural ratio.

**These numbers have a degree of statistical uncertainty. But the results for male juveniles are statistically significant while, drug-related crime results are close to statistical significance. However, when the refugee population increase is factored in the difference between juvenile crime rates in refugee-dense and refugee-scarce provinces becomes statistically uncertain.