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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.
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It is essential to understand not only individual leaders but also the political currents around them. As Guéhenno has argued, “political leaders have lost some of their capacity to control outcomes, and multiple actors, from the bottom up, need to be influenced”. This involves understanding the political organisations, factions and elites that underpin any leader, as well as the strength and strategies of opposition groups and the wider constellation of local leaders, armed groups and other secondary players who might exploit a crisis.[fn]Guéhenno, “The World’s Fragmenting Conflicts”, op. cit. Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violence”, op. cit., pp. 23-26.Hide Footnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Security Sector and the Military

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

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

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

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

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

C. Peripheral Conflicts

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

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

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

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

D. External Drivers of Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E. Beyond Analysis: Anticipatory Relationships and Actions

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Dilemmas of Early Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. Facilitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Coercion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. Incentives

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

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

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

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

Resolving Crisis In the Middle East: An Iranian Perspective

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

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

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

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

D. Bringing Policy Tools Together

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

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

V. Conclusion

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

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

Brussels, 22 June 2016

A Shiite Muslim cleric recites a prayer as members of Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation units) paramilitary force surround the coffin of their comrade Kazem Mohsen during his funeral procession. Haidar HAMDANI / AFP

Iraq: Evading the Gathering Storm

Should U.S.-Iranian tensions escalate to a shooting war, Iraq would likely be the first battleground. Washington and Tehran should stop trying to drag Baghdad into their fight. The Iraqi government should redouble its efforts to remain neutral and safeguard the country’s post-ISIS recovery.

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What’s new? In June, several rockets landed near U.S. installations in Iraq, and in July-August, explosions shook weapons storage facilities and a convoy of Iraqi paramilitary groups tied to Iran. These incidents helped push U.S.-Iranian tensions to the edge of confrontation, underscoring the danger of the situation in Iraq and the Gulf.

Why does it matter? While the U.S. and Iran have so far avoided clashing directly, they are pushing the Iraqi government to take sides. Iraqi leaders are working hard to maintain the country’s neutrality. But growing external pressures and internal polarisation threaten the government’s survival.

What should be done? The U.S. and Iran should refrain from drawing Iraq into their rivalry, as doing so would undermine the tenuous stability Iraq has achieved in the immediate post-ISIS era. With the aid of international actors, Iraq should persevere in its diplomatic and domestic political efforts to remain neutral.

I. Overview

The rockets that fell close to U.S. assets in Iraq in mid-June and the explosions that struck the assets of Iraqi paramilitary groups with ties to Iran in July and August are ominous signals. They are clear warnings of how badly escalation between the U.S. and Iran could destabilise Iraq and the region as a whole. Even short of hostilities, Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran could wind up placing as much stress – and inflicting as much harm – on its nominal ally Iraq as it does on its enemy Iran. For Iraq, the timing hardly could be worse. It is still recovering from the havoc wreaked by the Islamic State (ISIS) and the costly battle to defeat the jihadists; its institutions and security forces remain brittle; and its government, elected a little over a year ago, hangs on to a slim, precarious parliamentary majority. Washington and Tehran should keep Baghdad out of their confrontation: the costs to both of renewed instability in Iraq would exceed any benefits to either. Attempts to compel the Iraqi government to choose sides would likely fail and lead to chaos instead.

The Iraqi leadership is working hard to insulate the country from regional turmoil. It is stepping up diplomatic engagement with Iran, the U.S. and its immediate neighbours, as well as shoring up domestic consensus behind the objective of remaining neutral. These efforts are important but may be insufficient to protect Iraq from the spiralling U.S.-Iranian rivalry. If relations between the U.S. and Iran continue to deteriorate, let alone if the two countries come to blows, the struggle is likely to deepen political polarisation between Iraqis supporting and opposing Iran. Even under current conditions, internal tensions may precipitate a descent into political disarray.

Both the U.S. and Iran are likely to lose from a feud in Iraq. Contrary to the Trump administration’s expectations, its “maximum pressure” campaign is not countering Iran’s extensive influence in Iraq, which Tehran exercises in myriad ways. As part of its pressure, Washington would like Iraq to cut back its purchases of natural gas and electricity from Iran and forge closer links to U.S.-allied Arab states. But these U.S.-directed efforts are likely to lead Iran to intensify its own pressure on Baghdad, seeking to impede the Iraqi government’s efforts to strengthen its institutions, diversify its energy supply and broaden its foreign relations. Should tensions between Washington and Tehran continue to grow, U.S. personnel in Iraq could become more vulnerable to attack by pro-Iranian militias. A resulting security vacuum could enable an ISIS comeback.

Tehran, too, should have an interest in shielding Iraq from its standoff with Washington. Stability in its neighbour carries both economic and security benefits: it allows Iran to blunt the impact of U.S. sanctions by preserving ties to the Iraqi economy, and it lessens risks of an ISIS resurgence that inevitably would threaten Iran.

Others, too, can help immunise Iraq from harm, beginning with the Iraqi government itself. Steps it could take include making clear to the Trump administration which U.S. expectations it is in a position to satisfy and which it is not; bolstering efforts to bring the Iran-linked paramilitary groups under central government control; and intensifying outreach to regional states – notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan – to counterbalance Iran’s role without exacerbating risks of armed confrontation on Iraqi soil. For its part, Europe, which has an important stake in consolidating the achievements of the anti-ISIS campaign and avoiding more turbulence in the area, should work with Baghdad in seeking to de-escalate U.S.-Iranian tensions and preventing them from dragging Iraq, and the wider region, into a dangerous spiral.

II. From Escalation to Indirect Confrontation

U.S.-Iranian relations have been in a state of crisis for roughly four decades. But the Trump administration’s May 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JPCOA) and its November 2018 reimposition of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran have opened what could be one of the most perilous chapters yet. In mid-2019, following Washington’s decision in May to ratchet up sanctions, a cascading series of incidents have raised the prospect of a shooting war that could engulf the Middle East.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°205, Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment, 1 August 2019.Hide Footnote

For reasons of geography and history, Iraq finds itself squarely in the path of the gathering storm.

For reasons of geography and history, Iraq finds itself squarely in the path of the gathering storm. In the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, and the subsequent battle against ISIS, it is the Middle Eastern country with the largest U.S. embassy and the highest number of U.S. troops (over 5,000).[fn]On the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, see “Pentagon official assures Iraqis of limited US military role”, Associated Press, 12 February 2019. U.S. troops have been stationed at several bases in Iraq, notably Ain al-Asad in Anbar, Qayyara in Ninewa, Altun Kupri in Kirkuk, Balad in Salah al-Din and Camp Victory and Camp Taji near Baghdad, since Mosul fell to ISIS in 2014. They are also posted at bases in Atrush, Harir, Halabja and near Sinjar in the Kurdish region. See Omar Sattar, “Draft law to pull foreign troops out of Iraq inching towards Parliament”, Al-Monitor, 29 January 2019.Hide Footnote Iran, for its part, has used the post-2003 vacuum to invest heavily in Iraq’s political system, economy and security apparatus. During the four-year struggle to defeat ISIS (2014-2018), the two neighbours became intertwined to an unprecedented degree. Iran’s allied Iraqi Shiite militias formed the core of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation), the amalgam of paramilitary forces (also encompassing Shiite and non-Shiite fighters without direct ties to Iran) that answered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s call to fight ISIS.[fn]See Popular Mobilisation Law (Law 40), 26 November 2016. An Iraqi analyst close to the Hashd described its evolution: “Factions with ties to the Iranians already existed in Iraq before the [June 2014] fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Members of these factions are now lawmakers in parliament”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 May 2019.Hide Footnote But Iran also cultivated political ties well outside the ranks of its Shiite Islamist allies, exploiting internal Kurdish and Sunni divisions.[fn]For instance, it was an Iranian official who brokered deals between Shiite groups aligned with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Kurdistan Democratic Party about the budget and the Hashd’s presence in the disputed territories. See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°199, After Iraqi Kurdistan’s Thwarted Independence Bid, 27 March 2019, chapter III.Hide Footnote And cross-border trade between Iraq and Iran flourished.[fn]Iraqi imports from Iran make up 14 per cent of the country’s total imports. In 2017, Iran completed a gas pipeline project in Diyala. See “Iran’s gas imports to Iraq to reach 50 mcd”, Financial Tribune, 11 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The defeat of ISIS, and the inauguration of President Donald Trump, have ended what had been a tacit U.S.-Iranian détente in Iraq and ushered in a period of escalating rivalry.

In the aftermath of the May 2018 Iraqi parliamentary elections, this rivalry roiled Baghdad’s already factious politics, with Washington and Tehran each trying to exert influence through its preferred actors. Their tug of war over government formation lasted thirteen months and produced a list of broadly acceptable, but inherently weak office holders lacking strong support even within the political parties to which they belong. The list included Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi and President Barham Salih, two respected but somewhat isolated politicians who took up their posts in October.[fn]Crisis Group Report, After Iraqi Kurdistan’s Thwarted Independence Bid, op. cit., chapter III.Hide Footnote The posts of interior, defence and justice ministers remained unfilled for another eight months, in large part as a result of continued Iranian-U.S. sparring.[fn]See “Iraqi parliament votes in defense, interior, justice ministers”, Reuters, 24 June 2019. See also Maria Fantappie and Ali Vaez, “Don’t Let Iraq Fall Victim to Iraq-U.S. Rivalry”, Foreign Policy, 30 April 2019; and Ali Vaez, “The Risks of Maximising Pressure on Iran”, Crisis Group Commentary, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Today, with most senior officials sitting outside the largest parliamentary blocs, the government remains vulnerable to a no-confidence vote among the deputies.

A key factor keeping the Abdul-Mahdi government wobbly is U.S. policy toward Iran. The moment Washington reactivated some of the previously suspended sanctions on Iran in November 2018, it called on the Iraqi government to cease payments to Tehran for natural gas and electricity and to diversify its energy imports, including through contracts with U.S. companies.[fn]U.S. sanctions do not expressly prohibit Iraq from importing electricity and gas from Iran, but they do so in effect, because they prevent Iraq from paying for these imports in U.S. dollars, the only currency Baghdad has been able to use thus far. Iraq imports around 1,400 megawatts of electricity from Iran, as well as 28 million cubic metres (988 million cubic feet) of natural gas for power stations. Together, these imports supply about a third of the country’s power. According to the electricity minister, Iraq needs three years to make itself independent of Iranian imports. The ministry is now focused on improving Iraq’s power generation capacity and electrical grid through contracts with U.S. and European companies. It is also exploring energy imports from Jordan, Turkey and Egypt. See “Q&A: Electricity Minister Luay al-Khateeb”, Iraq Oil Report, 15 January 2019. See also “U.S. pushes Iraq to wean itself off Iranian energy”, The Wall Street Journal, 23 November 2018; and “Trump pushes Iraq to stop buying energy from Iran”, The New York Times, 11 February 2019.Hide Footnote Baghdad asked Washington for time to pursue alternatives, fearing Iranian retaliation as well as electricity shortages.[fn]See “Iraq seeks exemption from U.S. sanctions on Iraq”, Reuters, 11 December 2018.Hide Footnote The Trump administration responded by issuing temporary waivers, the first one for 45 days. It then renewed the waivers for 90 days in December 2018 and March 2019, and for 120 days the following June. The respite has allowed Baghdad to continue importing gas and electricity from Iran, but the U.S. has continued to press Baghdad on other files, such as the energy infrastructure contracts it wants Iraq to sign with U.S. companies.[fn]See “Iraq receives new U.S. waiver for energy imports”, Iraq Oil Report, 14 June 2019.Hide Footnote A U.S. official in Baghdad explained:

Our sanctions are on Iran and not on Iraq. We expect the government to develop infrastructure that will allow energy imports from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, just as it has developed [similar infrastructure] with Iran in Diyala [province]. The government knows it has to take these steps, because it fears we won’t renew the waivers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 19 January 2019.Hide Footnote

Another U.S. demand is that the Abdul-Mahdi government rein in the Iran-linked militias among the Hashd.[fn]A senior U.S. official said: “We want our strategic partnership with the Iraqi government to translate into strategic outcomes. The government has to be quicker in signing contracts and reining in militias. If they cannot even deliver on this, how can they call us allies?” Crisis Group interview, Washington, 18 July 2019.Hide Footnote Since the defeat of ISIS, the Hashd have assumed quasi-state dimensions in several areas formerly under the jihadists’ rule and inserted themselves into national politics as well. No unit has disarmed. In 2016, the government formally integrated the Hashd into the security forces, but it has yet to assert effective control over more than a few of them.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°188, Iraq’s Paramilitary Groups: The Challenge of Rebuilding a Functioning State, 20 July 2018.Hide Footnote

In response to Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign, and its complementary demands upon Baghdad, Tehran stirred up anti-American sentiment in the Iraqi parliament. On 19 January, lawmakers close to Iran presented a bill (still under review) calling, among other things, for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.[fn]In November 2008, three years before the U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq, Washington and Baghdad signed a Strategic Framework Agreement, stating their intent to cooperate in defence and security matters (Section III). In June-August 2014, after ISIS took over large areas of Iraqi territory and threatened Baghdad and Erbil, Washington sent troops to Iraq as an emergency measure, operating under the Agreement’s terms. Following a 2015 UN Security Council request to UN member states to fight ISIS, the U.S. and 78 other countries sent additional troops in advisory and training roles as part of the International Coalition to Combat ISIS. The legal status of U.S. troops remains a bone of contention, as Iraqi lawmakers claim that their combat activities exceed the Agreement’s terms limiting them to an advisory role. See Sattar, “Draft law to pull foreign troops out of Iraq inching towards Parliament”, op. cit.Hide Footnote They demanded as well that the prime minister report on the number of U.S. troops and assets present on Iraqi soil.[fn]A proponent of the draft law from the Fatah bloc said, “We are not against the presence of foreign trainers and advisers in the country, but why are they placing their forces in border areas between Iraq and Syria? Trump and American troops, which are circulating freely on Iraqi soil, are not respecting Iraqi sovereignty”. Crisis Group interview, Basra, 30 May 2019. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a former national security adviser, said, “Iran has soft power in Iraq that the U.S. lacks. They can use their influence in parliament to withdraw confidence from the government. The draft law on the foreign military presence in Iraq is a way to twist the U.S.’s arm and apply ‘limited pressure’ on the U.S.”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 29 January 2019. In the words of a Fatah bloc lawmaker, “We are still waiting for the government to report to parliament on the number of foreign troops present in Iraq and the location of their bases”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 29 May 2019.Hide Footnote These deputies belong to the Fatah bloc, which came in second in the 2018 elections, and counts several Hashd commanders among its members.

Testy rhetorical exchanges ensued. In a televised interview, President Donald Trump stated that U.S. soldiers would need to stay in Iraq “to watch Iran”.[fn]“Trump wants the U.S. military in Iraq ‘to watch Iran’”, Reuters, 3 February 2019. Trump’s remarks contradicted messaging from other U.S. officials, who have emphasised that U.S. troops are in Iraq solely to support the government in defeating ISIS.Hide Footnote Two months later, on 7 April, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, called on Iraqi leaders to make sure that the U.S. military leaves “as soon as possible”.[fn]“Khamenei asks Baghdad to make sure U.S. military leaves Iraq ‘as soon as possible’”, Radio Farda, 7 April 2019.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, a procession of senior U.S. and Iranian officials came to Iraq to press their respective cases, including Trump himself in an unannounced visit in December 2018 and, four months later, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran.[fn]“Remarks by President Trump to Troops at Al Asad Air Base”, White House Briefing, 26 December 2018; and “Iran’s Rouhani in Iraq for historic visit to offset U.S. sanctions”, Washington Post, 11 March 2019. Unlike Trump, who left the country without meeting Iraqi leaders, Rouhani met a number of politicians during his three-day visit. He was also received by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest religious authority for most Shiites. Other relevant visits include those by U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo in January and May 2019, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif, in the same months.Hide Footnote

It is highly doubtful that Israel would hit Iraqi targets without at least securing Washington’s acquiescence, given the considerable U.S. presence and stakes there.

Since early May, competition has morphed into indirect confrontation. On 8 May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iraqi officials of U.S. retaliation in case of an attack on U.S. assets, and a week later, the State Department withdrew non-emergency personnel from the embassy in Baghdad claiming impending security threats.[fn]See “U.S. orders ‘non-emergency’ government employees to leave Iraq”, Washington Post, 15 May 2019.Hide Footnote In June, a series of rockets landed close to U.S. installations in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.[fn]Incidents included a rocket landing near the U.S. embassy in Baghdad (19 May); a rocket landing near Camp Taji, a base north of Baghdad hosting U.S. military personnel (17 June); and one projectile striking close to the headquarters of U.S. and other oil firms in Basra, and another near an Iraqi facility hosting U.S. military advisers in Mosul (both on 19 June).Hide Footnote These attacks remain unclaimed and caused no fatalities, but they briefly raised the spectre of all-out military confrontation.[fn]The U.S. did not accuse Iran of having sponsored the June attacks, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned rocket attacks on 19 May in a series of incidents he blamed on Iran and its surrogates. U.S. State Department, “Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to Press”, Washington, 13 June 2019.Hide Footnote Simultaneous incidents in the Gulf brought tensions to a peak.[fn]On 17 June, Pompeo accused Iran of two attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman (14 June) and a string of earlier ones, including a drone attack on oil installations in Saudi Arabia (14 May). The following day, Iran threatened to downgrade its JPCOA commitments. See Crisis Group, “Iran Briefing Note #1”, 20 June 2019; and “Iran Briefing Note #2”, 27 June 2019. Moreover, on 27 June, U.S. officials concluded that the 14 May drone attack on Saudi Arabian oil installations originated from Iraq despite being claimed by Yemen’s Huthi movement. The Iraqi prime minister denied these allegations. See “U.S.: Saudi pipeline attacks originated in Iraq”, The Wall Street Journal, 28 June 2019.Hide Footnote On 20 June, Iran shot down a U.S. drone over the Strait of Hormuz that, Tehran claimed, had entered Iranian airspace. Trump prepared a retaliatory strike on Iran before calling it off at the last minute.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Averting the Middle East’s 1914 Moment, op. cit.Hide Footnote

These incidents and Iranian breaches of the JPCOA in July were followed by four separate explosions at weapons storage facilities and a raid on a convoy belonging to the Hashd in July and August. Media speculation, indirectly confirmed by Israeli government officials, attributed the explosions to Israeli bombing, which Hashd leaders accused the U.S. of enabling.[fn]The incidents included airstrikes on Hashd weapons depots at Amerli base in Salah al-Din province (19 July) and Camp Ashraf in Diyala province (28 July), as well as explosions at a weapons storage facility in Baghdad (12 August) at Balad military base, north of Baghdad (19 August) and a raid on their assets on the Iraq-Syria border (25 August). In July, Arab media claimed that Israel had twice struck Iran-linked targets in Iraq. While U.S. officials denied involvement and Israel made no official claim of responsibility, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted on 22 August that Israel might have been involved in the attacks, while two unnamed U.S. officials claimed that Israel was behind the attacks. See “Israel expands its targets against Iran in Iraq, Syria”, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 30 July 2019; “Netanyahu hints at Israeli involvement in Iraq blasts”, Reuters, 22 August 2019; and “Israeli airstrike hits weapons depot in Iraq”, The New York Times, 22 August 2019. According to an Israeli official, Netanyahu considers a confrontation with Iran to be a distinct possibility and thinks that Iran is preparing for one. Such an imminent clash would make it imperative for Israel to destroy shipments of precision-guided missiles in Syria and Iraq. Crisis Group telephone interview, 31 July 2019.Hide Footnote While the U.S. denied involvement in the attacks on the Hashd weapons depots, it did not denounce them. It is highly doubtful that Israel would hit Iraqi targets without at least securing Washington’s acquiescence, given the considerable U.S. presence and stakes there.[fn]A U.S. official said, “If you are Israel and you see your enemy [Iran] transferring missiles across Iraq and Syria you would want to prevent that. It’s a natural national security concern”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, 18 July 2019. A senior Iraqi diplomat said, “Previous U.S. administration warned Israel that striking in Iraq would inflame the Gulf. This administration seems very casual about it”. Crisis Group interview, Geneva, 19 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Washington has certainly doubled down on its pressure campaign in other ways. The U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted the Iraqi paramilitary group Harakat al-Nujaba because of its links to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It also sanctioned individual Hashd leaders suspected of having ties to Iran or committing acts of violence against Christians and other religious minorities.[fn]See U.S. Treasury Department, “Treasury sanctions persons associated with serious human rights abuse and corrupt actions”, press release, 18 July 2019. Among the targeted individuals are Shabak and Christian commanders of Hashd units suspected of ties to Iran and human rights violations against their co-religionists. A senior Iraqi official said, “Lobbies on behalf of religious minorities are particularly active in Washington in showing that Baghdad is doing nothing to protect them and they have the ear of the [U.S.] vice president to pressure the U.S. administration to take punitive action. But sanctions against Hashd commanders risk strengthening these leaders’ local legitimacy, especially if they have defended their co-religionists against ISIS, and will reinforce their reliance on Iran”. Crisis Group telephone interview, 25 July 2019.Hide Footnote Iraqi officials said the Trump administration, in private conversations, also threatened to withhold financial, economic and military support from Iraq if the government fails to sign energy-related contracts and rein in Iran-backed paramilitary groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Iraqi official, Baghdad, 29 May 2019.Hide Footnote A U.S. official in Baghdad said, “We have pressure points on the Iraqis. We can withhold U.S. currency from the Central Bank or blacklist groups for their affiliation with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 19 January 2019.Hide Footnote As if in reply, a Hashd commander issued this warning: “Blacklisting Harakat al-Nujaba has only increased their popularity. … Once you list them among your enemies, they become one”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Basra, 29 May 2019.Hide Footnote

III. A Fragile Neutrality

Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and Tehran’s response are putting severe strain on the Iraqi government, a partner to both.[fn]A senior UN Assistance Mission for Iraq official said, “The U.S. are over-asking the [Iraqi] prime minister to deliver on their maximum pressure policy. The Iranians respond by keeping the government weak. The outcome is that the Iraqi government is under pressure, not just the Iranians”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 May 2019.Hide Footnote An Iraqi lawmaker said:

Neither the U.S. nor Iran wants war. Yet the U.S. expects Baghdad to stand against Iran, and Iran expects Baghdad to stand against the U.S. Now parliament could put pressure on the government by threatening to withdraw confidence [if it dislikes government policy on balancing between the two], while Iran could easily influence some of the militias to provoke security incidents [in retaliation for U.S. actions in Iraq]. The government is under extreme pressure both internally and externally.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Amid the countervailing pressures, senior government leaders – the prime minister, president and speaker of parliament – have shown both determination and dexterity in asserting Iraq’s neutrality. They have found support among an Iraqi public equally concerned about a potential escalation.[fn]As tensions peaked in late May 2019, Hanaa Edwar, a civil society leader, said, “We, together with other civil society activists, have organised demonstrations in [Baghdad’s] Tahrir Square to denounce any side that would start a conflict in Iraq”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 29 May 2019.Hide Footnote In an interview with Crisis Group, President Barham Salih stated:

Our policy will remain “Iraq first” and away from a U.S.-Iran confrontation. There are countries neighbouring Iraq, including Iran, that have a vested interest in keeping Iraq stable and not part of this conflict. I am working with our neighbours’ foreign ministers and also seeking the support of the UN and EU to develop a framework of regional cooperation based on our shared interest to avoid another conflict.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 May 2019. Ayatollah Sistani echoed the need for “securing Iraq-Iran ties while improving Iraq’s relations with its neighbors based on mutual interests, non-interference and respect of sovereignty” during his meeting with Rouhani in March 2019. See “Iraq’s top Shiite cleric tells Rouhani ties must respect Iraq’s sovereignty”, Reuters, 13 March 2019.Hide Footnote

Likewise, Iraqi leaders are working hard to forge a consensus on their country’s neutrality across the domestic political spectrum. On the president’s initiative, the heads of the main political groups, including Fatah, convened and agreed that a conflict between the U.S. and Iran would negatively affect Iraq. They stated in a confidential document that they would refuse to turn Iraq into “an arena for competing players to settle scores”.[fn]President Salih said, “We convened key Iraqi leaders, including Maliki, Qais al-Khazali [leader of Asaeb Ahl al-Haq, one of the most influential Hashd groups], Hadi al-Ameri [leader of the Badr organisation and founder of the Fatah coalition] and a senior Sadrist, and agreed on a confidential document that clarifies the status of the foreign military presence in Iraq and reaffirms Iraqi leaders’ commitment to maintaining a neutral position in the U.S.-Iran confrontation and diversifying our foreign relations”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Responding to critics, Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi said the U.S. troop presence is legal because the government had requested it to support the fight against ISIS. In the same spirit, he said Baghdad would not allow Washington to send additional troops without granting its permission in response to a formal request.[fn]See “U.S. troops in Iraq were invited, PM Abdul Mahdi tells critics”, Rudaw, 20 February 2019.Hide Footnote On 18 June, following the rocket incidents, he issued a statement prohibiting foreign troops deployed for advisory or training purposes from using Iraqi soil to launch attacks against Iraq’s neighbours and forbidding any party to acquire weapons or carry out security operations without the government’s consent.[fn]See Ali Mamouri, “Iran already turning Iraq into a battleground against U.S.”, Al-Monitor, 19 June 2019.Hide Footnote He addressed the question of the Hashd’s status by issuing a decree reaffirming the government’s authority over paramilitary groups and denouncing any activities conducted outside his command.[fn]Full text of decree available at “Iraqi PM decrees full integration of PMF into Iraqi forces”, Rudaw, 1 July 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, following the airstrikes on Hashd armories, he issued a statement banning unauthorised flights in the country’s airspace and called for an investigation into the Baghdad explosions.[fn]See “Iraq takes security measures following mysterious blasts”, Associated Press, 15 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Should the U.S.-Iran standoff intensify or, worse, turn violent, it would have an immediate impact on Iraq’s domestic politics and shake the delicate equilibrium its leaders are striving to maintain.

Baghdad also is seeking a way out of its energy quandary. While it continues to pay Iran for gas and electricity imports, it is in the process of signing contracts with Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as well as with European and U.S. energy companies.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 October 2018. See also “GE and Siemens sign agreements for Iraq power deals”, Financial Times, 28 October 2018; “Iraq close to signing $53 billion deal with Exxon, Petrochina”, Reuters, 7 May 2019; “Iraq, Jordan agree deal over trade of oil and goods”, Reuters, 3 February 2019; and “Iraq close to pipeline deal with BP and ENI, rather than Exxon”, Reuters, 8 August 2019.Hide Footnote Still, as Fuad Hussein, Iraq’s finance minister, made clear, the government cannot afford to stop doing business with Iran:

Cutting gas imports from Iran will harm the government’s stability. The problem is political more than technical. We could import gas and electricity from other countries in the medium term, but if Iraq undermines its relationship with Iran, parliament is likely to withdraw its confidence in the government.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 15 January 2019.Hide Footnote

The government has started discussing the establishment of a “special-purpose vehicle” (loosely modelled on the European equivalent) that would allow it to pay for energy imports from Iran in Iraqi dinars instead of U.S. dollars, to be deposited in an Iraq-based bank account from which Iran could then draw exclusively to buy humanitarian goods in Iraq – thereby refraining from violating U.S. sanctions.[fn]“Iraq sets up ‘loophole’ to buy Iran’s power despite U.S. sanctions”, Agence France Presse, 2 July 2019.Hide Footnote

The president, prime minister and speaker of parliament have stepped up their diplomatic engagement as well. They have reached out to Iraq’s neighbours – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait – in an attempt to diversify ties and proposed a regional conference to build consensus on the perils of a U.S.-Iran confrontation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Barham Salih, president of Iraq, 28 May 2019. Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi visited Jordan and Egypt (March 2019), Saudi Arabia (April) and Kuwait (June). President Salih visited Saudi Arabia (November 2018), Turkey (May 2019) and Iran (June). Speaker of Parliament Mohamed al-Halbousi visited the U.S. (May 2019), Iran and the UAE (both in June).Hide Footnote Moreover, while not offering to mediate between the U.S. and Iran, fearing that doing so would only increase pressures on the government, they have served as an informal channel to pass messages between the two.[fn]An adviser to the president said, “Iraq is not mediating between the U.S. and Iran. The president is only passing messages. Trying to mediate would mean becoming part of that conflict. Instead, we [the presidency] are working to gather the foreign ministers of our neighbours and agree on a regional framework for cooperation. If we succeed in staying neutral, this will already have a mitigating effect on the confrontation”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote

These efforts notwithstanding, the Iraqi leadership’s commitment to neutrality may not suffice to insulate the country from external perils.[fn]A member of the Daawa party, a leading Shiite Islamist group to which three prime ministers belonged between 2005 and 2018, said, “The government is indecisive. If it no more than states its neutrality without actively creating relations that allow it to be neutral, it will become even more vulnerable to pressure from the U.S. and Iran”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 May 2019.Hide Footnote Should the U.S.-Iran standoff intensify or, worse, turn violent, it would have an immediate impact on Iraq’s domestic politics and shake the delicate equilibrium its leaders are striving to maintain.

IV. Pressure Points

Iraq faces several risks from the current crisis. Most ominously, an escalation to direct U.S.-Iranian confrontation could encourage paramilitary groups with ties to Iran to begin targeting U.S. assets on Iraqi soil.[fn]Among other risks, Iran suspects that the U.S., Saudi Arabia and/or Bahrain might incite attacks on Iran by Iranian Kurdish groups such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran and the leftist Komala. Both have offices and military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. Crisis Group interview, senior Iranian official, 17 July 2019. That said, Iran ought to be able to deter these groups, because their bases are located in areas dominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an organisation over which Iran wields considerable influence.Hide Footnote The most likely triggers for such action are continued (Israeli or other) strikes against Iranian assets in Iraq, a U.S. attack on Iranian assets and a U.S. decision not to renew Iraq’s gas and electricity import waivers. Separately, strong domestic discontent could emerge over other issues, for example, inadequate public services, that could push legislators to threaten a no-confidence vote in the Abdul-Mahdi government. Any of these eventualities could force the government to throw in its lot with the Fatah bloc, which, in turn, would pressure it to take Iran’s side in the U.S.-Iranian confrontation. The government’s only alternative to alliance with Fatah would be dissolution.

There is little doubt that political parties and paramilitary groups with longstanding ties to Tehran will choose Iran’s side if a conflict breaks out, especially if they believe that the U.S. provoked it. Faleh al-Khazali, a Fatah lawmaker, said:

For now, parties are united in opposing a confrontation between the Americans and Iran. But if the Americans launch an attack, there will be a response, and ordinary Iraqis will be the first to mobilise against the Americans.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Basra, 30 May 2019. A Daawa party member with close ties to Maliki said, “If the Americans start a war with Iran, we [Maliki’s faction of the Daawa party] will choose Iran’s side. The Hashd will operate outside the government’s purview. We may have an open-door policy with Saudi Arabia at the moment, but if there is going to be war, there won’t be a safe corner in the Gulf”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 1 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Since the end of Iraq’s sectarian war (2005-2007), Iran and its allied groups have been careful not to provoke open hostilities with the U.S. on Iraqi soil, aware that attacks on U.S. personnel could lead to all-out war and that whoever starts the fighting would bear responsibility in Iraqi public opinion.[fn]A civil society activist said, “Everyone is afraid to be part of a war; even those who hate Iran are against it. I’ll bet the side that starts the war will be the one to lose it [in the public eye]”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote But this restraint is unlikely to survive continued escalation – whether in the form of renewed attacks on Iraqi paramilitary groups’ weapons depots or a U.S. strike on either Iranian or Iraqi soil. At that point, one should expect to see Tehran mobilise Iraqi paramilitary groups in retaliation.

On 21 August, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of the Hashd, issued a statement holding the U.S. responsible for the strikes on weapons storehouses, alleging that Washington had “introduced Israeli drones into Iraq”. He warned of a Hashd response should another attack occur.[fn]The Muhandis statement reads: “We have available to us precise and confirmed information that the Americans introduced Israeli drones [into Iraq] via Azerbaijan”. “Official Statement of the Deputy Chairman of the Popular Mobilisation Units Commission”, al-Hashd website, 21 August 2019 (Arabic). Following the statement, a U.S. official said, “If my general concern level on an average day regarding violence that could harm U.S. personnel deployed in Iraq is a three out of ten, I am at eight or nine right now”. Crisis Group telephone interview, 22 August 2019.Hide Footnote On 25 August, the Hashd also accused Israel of targeting one of their convoys via U.S.-controlled airspace on Iraq’s border with Syria.[fn]The statement reads: “This naked aggression came despite the presence of aerial cover in the area from American aircraft in addition to a large surveillance balloon near the location of the incident”. “Popular Mobilisation Units Issue a Statement on the Targeting of al-Hashd in Anbar”, al-Hashd website, 25 August 2019 (Arabic).Hide Footnote The next day, the Pentagon, perhaps fearing retaliation, issued a statement denying U.S. involvement in the August attacks, saying “statements to the contrary are false, misleading and inflammatory”.[fn]Statement on Recent Attacks in Iraq”, U.S. Department of Defense, 26 August 2019.Hide Footnote

The Abdul-Mahdi government would be unable to stop the Hashd from striking back as it saw fit. The prime minister’s control over the Hashd remains weak. Despite his efforts to reaffirm his command, several groups continue to operate in parallel to those factions that have formally integrated into the security forces. These units are even outside the purview of the overarching Popular Mobilisation Commission.[fn]As an Iraqi analyst close to the Hashd put it, “Factions refrain from taking action, because they don’t want to get into trouble. But if anything starts, they are ready to join. Every Hashd group has fighters outside its regular contingent, waiting for orders”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 May 2019. A Sunni Hashd member said, “In case of conflict, paramilitary commanders are going to mobilise the Sunni Hashd in Anbar, where the largest U.S. military base [Ain al-Assad] is located. In late May, [National Security Adviser] Faleh al-Fayyadh [responsible for disbursing Hashd salaries] issued an order telling Sunni Hashd leaders in Anbar not to cooperate with or receive training and weapons from American forces”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote A Hashd commander said:

Iran does not want a war, but if there is going to be one, it will resort to all its allies in Iraq: not just fighters under the Popular Mobilisation Commission but also those operating outside of it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 May 2019.Hide Footnote

The prime minister’s 1 July 2019 decree on the integration of Hashd groups offers the government additional legal means of demanding accountability for activities carried out outside its purview and distinguishing between Hashd factions willing to operate under the Iraqi security forces’ umbrella and prime minister’s command and those that are not. Yet the government’s ability to bring to heel this network of military figures with strong ties to the Fatah bloc remains limited. Lack of cooperation among Iraq’s disparate intelligence agencies complicates any effort to investigate security incidents.[fn]A senior Iraqi diplomat said, “Iraq’s senior leaders remain dependent on U.S. intelligence to track down incidents and threats against U.S. personnel and assets. This is a major liability of Iraq’s intelligence system. A U.S. intelligence report attributing responsibility to Iraqi paramilitaries for security incidents will place the government in a difficult position”. Crisis Group phone interview, 26 May 2019.Hide Footnote Trying to prosecute culprits for these attacks could also endanger the government’s parliamentary majority.[fn]An adviser to President Salih said, “We suggested that the prime minister investigate the rocket attack near the American embassy. If he were to do so, however, people in parliament would find a way to retaliate. What we can do is to denounce these attacks and draw a sharp line between factions that want to respect the law and those that don’t”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote Further strikes against Hashd installations would also put the militias in a position to act as defenders of Iraqi sovereignty against foreign attacks.[fn]In his statement, Muhandis denounced “the Trump administration’s violation of sovereignty” and referred to the prime minister’s decree legalising the Hashd as a component of Iraq’s security forces before warning that the group would retaliate in the event of future attacks. On 22 August, the prime minister, president and speaker of parliament issued a joint rebuttal of Muhandis’ statement. They reaffirmed that the prime minister is responsible for issuing statements on security incidents and called on all security agencies, including the Hashd, to respect his prerogative. “Iraq will not be part of a proxy war”, Rudaw, 22 August 2019. On 26 August, the prime minister, president and speaker of parliament, together with Faleh al-Fayyadh, received Hashd representatives to praise their role in fighting ISIS and to reaffirm the importance of a unified national position to protect Iraq from violations of its sovereignty. See “The Three Presidencies Hold a Meeting with the Leadership of the Hashd al-Shaabi”, Iraqi Presidency, press release, 26 August 2019.Hide Footnote

A more likely and no less dangerous scenario is that an Iran confronted with debilitating economic pressures – which would grow stronger should the U.S. decide not to renew sanctions waivers for Iraq – could at some point retaliate by targeting U.S. interests. Iran may calculate that it would be better to risk a confrontation with the U.S. than to risk an internal crisis due to economic collapse. And if Iran were to hit back at the U.S., it would likely do so in Iraq, where it can count on the paramilitary groups and political allies in parliament to challenge the U.S. military presence.[fn]

Even a legislatively forced U.S. withdrawal would have serious consequences as it could jeopardise the fight against ISIS, whose threat may have lessened but has not been eliminated; its remaining fighters are holed up in rugged terrain in central and western Iraq. Continued cooperation between the Iraqi military and U.S.-led Coalition forces is essential to ensure that jihadist cells in rural areas cannot launch operations reaching major towns.[fn]ISIS currently operates in remote areas such as the Hamrin mountain range in Kirkuk and the depths of the Anbar and Jazeera (Ninewa) deserts. Iraqi government control over these areas has been tenuous for decades, including under the previous regime; traditional security forces cannot easily patrol there. An Iraqi security official said U.S. surveillance and intelligence are important to policing these areas: “It’s one of the reasons for the end of ISIS. [Those foreign forces’] exit would be very dangerous. So if there isn’t international cooperation against it, it will be hard to deal with it”. Crisis Group interview, Kirkuk, March 2019. A diplomat from a Coalition member state argued that the Iraqi military is now better trained and prepared than in the past, but “where they aren’t ready is in airpower and ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]. Iraq doesn’t need ground forces. It needs airpower”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, February 2019.Hide Footnote

Even absent a direct U.S.-Iran confrontation, Iran or its domestic allies could leverage popular discontent to corner the government. Street protests against the government’s failings in service delivery peaked in 2018 during the searing summer heat.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°61, How to Cope with Iraq’s Summer Brushfire, 31 July 2018. In June 2019, protests started up again in Basra and other southern provinces as temperatures rose. Mustafa Saadoun, “Basra protests build in Iraq as substandard services persist”, Al-Monitor, 29 June 2019.Hide Footnote A new round of protests this year could induce parliamentary blocs that still support the government to abandon it, increasing the prime minister’s reliance on the Fatah bloc and emboldening the elements closer to Iran to press the government to either confront the U.S. or face a no-confidence vote.[fn]The Sadrist bloc, the largest in parliament, has insisted that the government act on its reform program. On 18 June, Muqtada al-Sadr, its leader, threatened it would “change its stance” if the government failed to deliver on reforms and complete government formation. (Government formation was completed six days later.) A Sadrist lawmaker characterised the current circumstances as follows: “We are in a situation of stagnation rather than stability, and the government’s performance is below expectations”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 May 2019. On 16 June, the National Wisdom Movement (Hikma), a coalition led by Ammar al-Hakim that holds nineteen seats in the 329-seat parliament, ended its support for the government and shifted to the opposition in protest against the government’s poor performance. While the government can still count on the two largest political blocs, it would fall if the Sadrists (54 seats) were to join the opposition. A government minister said, “This prime minister does not have a party behind him and the government could fall at any time. If the prime minister resigns, it would take a long time for Shiite blocs to reach agreement on a new prime minister, considering how divided they are”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 26 May 2019.Hide Footnote

A government minister said, “Iran is amassing support in parliament to question the legitimacy of the American troop presence in Iraq. This would be a disaster. The Sadrists, in a position to claim ownership of the Iraqi national struggle against foreign interference, would support such legislative action. Many Shiite politicians seem to have a hard time understanding that Iraq can be stable only in a situation of a balanced Iran-U.S. relationship”. Crisis Group interview, Baghdad, 27 May 2019.Hide Footnote

V. Reducing the Risk of Confrontation

The cost of renewed conflict in Iraq would be enormous, not least in light of the significant investments both Iran and the U.S. have made in the country since 2003. To avoid this outcome, Washington will need to address the growing contradictions between its various policy objectives: countering Iran at virtually any cost; securing its post-2003 gains in Iraq through a continued military presence; and preventing an ISIS resurgence. Any escalation by Washington – more belligerent anti-Iranian rhetoric or intensified pressure on the Iraqi government to comply with sanctions on Iran, let alone U.S. (or Israeli) military action against Iran or its Iraqi allies – could prompt Tehran to activate its allies and target U.S. assets and personnel.

The Trump administration likewise will need to narrow the gap between what it demands of Baghdad and what Baghdad can effectively deliver. The U.S. administration’s anti-Iranian fixation and the pressure it exerts to get Iraq to comply with its sanctions are having a host of unintended effects. They are harming U.S.-Iraqi relations; emboldening Iranian allies in Baghdad; and complicating Baghdad’s attempts to achieve what Washington claims it wants: warmer relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbours. A more effective U.S. policy would tone down the anti-Iranian rhetoric; continue to issue sanctions waivers for reasons both economic (given Iraq’s dependence on Iran) and political (given the sensitivities of Iran and its Iraqi allies); and focus on a longer-term strategy of helping Baghdad balance Iran’s influence by backing its efforts to strengthen political and economic ties with U.S. partners, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar.

A stable Iraq will be in a better position to help Tehran absorb the impact of U.S. sanctions.

Iran, too, ought to see merit in avoiding actions that destabilise its neighbour. A stable Iraq will be in a better position to help Tehran absorb the impact of U.S. sanctions; as its oil sales diminish, Iran increasingly will rely on non-oil trade, with Iraq in particular. It is unclear how far the Trump administration will go in pressing Iraq to cut those economic ties, but Iran has every reason not to force the issue. Directly or indirectly targeting the U.S. in Iraq almost certainly would lead the administration to double down on its current approach and give those in Washington intent on increasing pressure on Baghdad a justification for doing so. Accordingly, Iran should clearly communicate to its Iraqi allies that they ought to refrain from provocative behaviour.

Iran also should have an interest in the success of the counter-ISIS campaign, including through the ongoing U.S./Coalition role, given the threat the organisation presented to Iran and to Shiites in Iraq. In the absence of a credible replacement for the technical capabilities the U.S. and its international partners bring to the fight, a move to expel American forces could end up harming both Iraq’s and Iran’s security.

As for Iraq’s leaders, they should continue to consolidate their country’s neutrality in the U.S.-Iranian standoff. The government faces difficult months, born of the potential combination of street protests, parliamentary disputes and regional confrontation. It should tell parliament and the public that Iraq cannot bear the political or economic costs of being embroiled in U.S.-Iranian battles.

The Iraqi government also should clearly spell out to the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress – perhaps via a high-level delegation visit to Washington – the measures it cannot take vis-à-vis Iran without risking domestic political or military backlash; the conditions under which it can remain neutral; and possibly a roadmap of steps it could take over the next six months in response to U.S. demands.[fn]As a senior Iraqi diplomat put it, “The prime minister understands the gravity of the situation and American expectations. But there are only a limited number of things he can do. It is in our interest as well to sign contracts that increase oil production and diversify our energy sources. But when it comes to security issues such as reining in militias, it requires a power base in parliament that this government simply does not have”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, 25 July 2019.Hide Footnote These steps could include strengthening economic and political ties to Arab neighbours and signing energy as well as trade deals with non-Iranian companies. Taking these measures would signal Iraq’s determination both to ensure its independence and to fortify its economy with diversification. Iraq’s message should be that it cannot remain neutral in the U.S.-Iran showdown unless Washington dials down its escalatory approach and refrains from compelling Iraq to take sides through its sanctions policy.

The Iraqi government also would be well advised to enlist the support of other members of the anti-ISIS coalition, highlighting the risks of an unstable Iraq. The EU’s July 2019 statement in support of Baghdad strengthening relations with its neighbours through an Iraq-proposed regional conference is a positive development in this direction at a critical time, as it could reduce the impact of U.S.-Iran tensions on Iraq.[fn]“EU supports Iraq-proposed conference on US-Iran tensions”, Associated Press, 13 July 2019. See also “Remarks by High-Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini at joint press event with Foreign Minister of Iraq”, Baghdad, 17 July 2019.Hide Footnote For outside actors, de-escalating the U.S.-Iran confrontation is a tall order. But supporting an Iraqi government committed to neutrality in that rivalry is an intermediate step that could mitigate risks of all-out war and chaos in the region while preserving Iraq’s recovery.

VI. Conclusion

Thus far, the Iraqi government has proven successful in distancing itself from the looming confrontation between its two powerful backers, the U.S. and Iran. But its efforts may fall short if Washington and Tehran remain on their current collision course.

Both the U.S. and Iran should wish to avoid dragging Iraq into their fight. Doing so would jeopardise U.S. assets in the country. It would harm Iran’s trade at the same time that U.S. sanctions begin to bite harder. And neither the U.S. nor Iran wants to give ISIS a new lease on life.

For both the U.S. and Iran, and for the other countries that contributed to defeating ISIS, the Iraqi leadership’s commitment to the country’s neutrality is an opportunity to seize, especially considering how devastating a new cycle of instability would be for a country struggling to emerge from the last one.

Baghdad/Brussels, 29 August 2019