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

Seizing the Moment: From Early Warning to Early Action

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

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brussels, 22 June 2016

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. What Can “Early Warning” Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Complexities of Early Action

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

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

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

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

III. Identifying Dangerous Political Dynamics

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

A. Leaders and Elites

Some observers argue that there is an “end of leadership” globally, as transnational communications and organisations gain influence at the expense of national figures. Where a leader such as Nigeria’s President Jonathan is willing to release his grip on power, however, underlying political and social tensions can be eased, while a recalcitrant chief can have the reverse effect. As Crisis Group observed in 2011, the initial protests in Syria, having created an “unprecedented sense of awareness, solidarity and responsibility among large segments of the population”, had the potential to engender peaceful change, but President Bashar al-Assad guaranteed wider violence by whipping up the fears of his base, especially in the Alawite community, and signalling his intention to “go down fighting”.[fn]Moisés Naim, The End of Power (New York, 2014). Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°31, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics, 24 November 2011, p. 3.
Hide Footnote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Security Sector and the Military

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

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

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

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

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

C. Peripheral Conflicts

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

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

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

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

D. External Drivers of Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E. Beyond Analysis: Anticipatory Relationships and Actions

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Dilemmas of Early Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. Facilitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Coercion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. Incentives

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

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

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

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

Resolving Crisis In the Middle East: An Iranian Perspective


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

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

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

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

D. Bringing Policy Tools Together

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

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

V. Conclusion

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

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

Brussels, 22 June 2016

Building site machines stand on the construction site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Guba in the North West of Ethiopia on 24 November 2017. Gioia Forster/DPA
Report 271 / Africa

Bridging the Gap in the Nile Waters Dispute

Ethiopia is building a mighty dam on the Blue Nile, promising economic benefits for both itself and Sudan. But Egypt fears for its freshwater supply. The parties should agree on how fast to fill the dam’s reservoir and how to share river waters going forward.

What’s new? Ethiopia is moving ahead with construction of Africa’s largest dam, despite Egypt’s worry that it will reduce the downstream flow of the Nile, the source of around 90 per cent of its freshwater supply. It is crucial that the parties resolve their dispute before the dam begins operating.

Why does it matter? The Nile basin countries could be drawn into conflict because the stakes are so high: Ethiopia sees the hydroelectric dam as a defining national development project; Sudan covets the cheap electricity and expanded agricultural production that it promises; and Egypt perceives the possible loss of water as an existential threat.

What should be done? The three countries should adopt a two-step approach: first, they should build confidence by agreeing upon terms for filling the dam’s reservoir that do not harm downstream countries. Next, they should negotiate a new, transboundary framework for resource sharing to avert future conflicts.

Executive Summary

The three-way dispute among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the sharing of the Nile waters remains deadlocked. An April 2018 leadership transition in Ethiopia eased tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa. But the parties have made little headway in resolving the crisis triggered by Ethiopia’s 2011 decision to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), expected to be the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Egypt fears that the dam will drastically reduce water flow downstream and thus imperil its national security. Ethiopia and Sudan assert their right to exploit the Nile waters to further develop their economies. The three countries need to act now to avert a graver crisis when the dam comes online. They should accede to immediate steps to mitigate damage, particularly during the filling of the dam’s reservoir, when water flow to downstream countries could decline. Next, they and other riparian states should seek a long-term transboundary agreement on resource sharing that balances the needs of countries up and down the Nile basin and offers a framework for averting conflict over future projects.

The stakes in the dispute are high. Egypt relies on the Nile for about 90 per cent of its freshwater needs. Its government argues that tampering with the river’s flow would put millions of farmers out of work and threaten the country’s food supply. In Ethiopia, engineers estimate that the GERD will produce about 6,450 megawatts of electricity, a hydropower jackpot that would boost the country’s aspirations to attain middle-income status by 2025. Authorities have sold the dam as a defining national endeavour: millions of Ethiopians bought bonds to finance its construction, helping implant the initiative in the national psyche. Fervent public support for the dam has recently cooled, however, following allegations of financial mismanagement.

Between 2011 and 2017, Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders framed the GERD dispute in stark, hyper-nationalist terms and exchanged belligerent threats. Politicians in Cairo called for sabotaging the dam. Media outlets in both countries compared the two sides’ military strength in anticipation of hostilities.

A recent rapprochement has quieted the row. Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, visited Cairo in June 2018 and promised to ensure that Ethiopia’s development projects do not harm Egypt. In turn, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said his country recognises that the dispute has no military solution. But despite the warming relations, there has been little substantive progress toward a resolution.

Political upheaval in all three countries complicates this task to varying degrees. In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir, in power since 1989, is clinging precariously to his job amid the most sustained wave of protest the country has seen in decades. In Ethiopia, Abiy, while enormously popular with the public, is struggling to consolidate his hold on power. Egypt’s Sisi is relatively secure in his position, but his drive to extend his stay in office until at least 2034 has divided the military establishment, his key domestic constituency. These internal dynamics mean that the leaders dedicate less time to the Nile dam issue than they should. They could blunder into a crisis if they do not strike a bargain before the GERD begins operation.

Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese authorities should consider a phased approach to agreeing on a way forward. Most urgent is the question of how quickly to fill the dam’s reservoir. At first, Ethiopia proposed filling it in three years, while Egypt suggested a process lasting up to fifteen. To achieve a breakthrough on this question, Ethiopia should fully cooperate with its downstream partners and support studies seeking to outline an optimal fill rate timeline. If necessary, the three countries should seek third-party support from a mutually agreed-upon partner to break the impasse. Ethiopia should also agree to stagger the fill rate so that it picks up pace in years with plentiful rains, which would minimise disruption of water flows.

To reduce mutual suspicion, leaders should take a number of confidence-building measures. Prime Minister Abiy should invite his Egyptian and Sudanese counterparts to tour the GERD construction site, thus highlighting Ethiopia’s willingness to address downstream countries’ concerns. Such a demonstration of Ethiopian good-will could afford the Egyptian authorities the space to make necessary adjustments, notably improving inefficient water management systems. For its part, Cairo should declare that it will not support armed Ethiopian opposition groups, to allay Addis Ababa’s fears.

Outside partners should encourage Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to approach the dispute not as an existential conflict but as a chance to establish a resource-sharing partnership.

Outside partners could help build confidence. The European Investment Bank, which the Ethiopians perceive as less pro-Egyptian than the World Bank, might offer Addis funding for the last phase of dam construction. Such funding could be conditional on Ethiopia cooperating on sticking points such as the fill rate. The EU should continue its talks with downstream countries on potential guarantees (including loans) and other instruments to support those countries in years in which drought or other shocks endanger food security. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Qatar and Turkey, could offer bilateral or trilateral investment in agriculture in Ethiopia and/or Sudan that afford Egypt a discounted and reliable supply of staples, notably wheat and rice. The U.S. and China, which enjoy close ties to some Nile basin governments, could also encourage parties to resolve their disputes before the GERD is completed.

Next, authorities in Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum should lay the ground for more substantive discussions of a long-term framework for Nile basin management to avert similar crises in the future. Egypt should rejoin the Nile Basin Initiative, the only forum that brings together all riparian countries and the best venue available for discussing mutually beneficial resource sharing. Such talks would consider Egyptian proposals that, in the future, upstream countries carry out major development projects in consultation with downstream nations. A permanent institutional framework could also help the countries prepare for challenges down the road, including climate change-induced environmental shocks, notably variable rainfall patterns, which could cause greater water stress.

Outside partners should encourage Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to approach the dispute not as an existential conflict but as a chance to establish a resource-sharing partnership. Delays in the GERD’s completion and the improved mood following Prime Minister Abiy’s ascent make this moment propitious for negotiating a way forward. Waiting until the dam is operational – when its impact on downstream countries is clearer – would raise the risk of violent conflict.

Nairobi/Abu Dhabi/Istanbul/Brussels, 20 March 2019

I. Introduction

One of the world’s longest rivers, the Nile cuts through eleven African countries with a combined population of 437 million.[fn]For a good profile of the river, see, Robert O. Collins, The Nile (New Haven, 2002).Hide Footnote From headwaters in the Ethiopian highlands (for the Blue Nile) and the Great Lakes countries of Rwanda and Burundi (White Nile), the river’s two main branches merge at Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, before flowing north through Egypt and finally into the Mediterranean Sea. The Blue Nile, the larger of the two branches, accounts for most of the river’s water flow into Sudan and Egypt, with two other branches, the Tekeze-Atbara and the Baro-Akobo-Sobat, also draining the Ethiopian highlands. In total, some 84 per cent of the Nile’s water flow originates in Ethiopia. For centuries, the Nile basin’s inhabitants have tapped the river for hydropower, fish and drinking water, as well as used it for recreation and tourism. Most critically, though, they have drawn upon it to irrigate farmland.

The Nile carries relatively little water compared to the world’s major rivers. Its volume is only 5 per cent of the Congo River’s, for example.[fn]See “Cooperation on the Nile”, Nile Basin Initiative, November 2013.Hide Footnote As populations grow and climate change makes water supply increasingly erratic, geopolitical battles for control of its waters, always a factor in shaping relations among riparian countries, have grown fiercer.

For centuries, Egypt has enjoyed virtually unrestricted use of all the river’s water. British colonial authorities helped codify its status as the Nile waters’ principal beneficiary in treaties they negotiated on behalf of Egypt and Sudan in 1902 and 1929.[fn]With these treaties, the British authorities also claimed to be representing the interests of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (now Tanzania), all at the time British colonies in the riparian basin.Hide Footnote In 1959, Egypt and newly independent Sudan concluded a bilateral agreement that essentially ratified the terms of the previous two. As a desert agricultural country – the Greek historian Herodotus famously called it “the gift of the Nile” – Egypt is heavily reliant on these waters. For years, it has assumed an aggressive posture to protect the security of its water supply and to prevent projects upstream that could hinder water flow. As former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat said in 1978: “We depend upon the Nile 100 per cent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war”.[fn]Christopher L. Kukk and David A. Deese, “At the Water’s Edge: Regional Conflict and Cooperation over Fresh Water”, UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs, vol. 1 (1996-1997), pp. 21-64.Hide Footnote Sudan also depends on the Nile, albeit to a lesser degree.

Ethiopia has long objected to this state of affairs, seeing the colonial-era treaties as lopsided, and aspired to exploit the river to expand its own economy. Ethiopia disowns the 1902 treaty as a relic of its monarchical past, and has never recognised the latter two agreements, about which it was not consulted.

In this light, Ethiopia’s surprise announcement, on 30 March 2011, that it planned to construct a large dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), on the Blue Nile caused considerable consternation in Cairo and Khartoum.[fn]“Ethiopia moves forward with massive Nile dam project”, National Geographic, 14 July 2011. 
 Hide Footnote
Both downstream countries reacted immediately and furiously, demanding that the project be frozen.[fn]See “Struggle over the Nile: Masters no more”, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2011. One former Egyptian general said the country should pull out all the stops to halt the project: “We don’t have hostile intentions against anyone. We don’t want to go to war just for the sake of fighting. But if someone is going to stop the water, Egypt will die of thirst”.Hide Footnote Since then, the GERD has been the centrepiece of the Nile waters dispute. The three parties’ relative geopolitical heft has shifted, and Sudan has reversed its opposition to the dam, but the basic dynamic remains the same: Ethiopia wants the GERD for hydroelectric power and industrial development, while Egypt fears the project will reduce its water supply. Sudan, on the other hand, hopes the dam can help it substantially expand agricultural production by better regulating annual floods. As the GERD’s construction continues apace, reaching agreement on the management of Nile waters, particularly on how quickly Ethiopia will fill the project’s reservoir, is critical.

This report outlines the main actors’ perspectives on the dispute and explores how they can reach such an agreement. It proposes that parties focus first on settling the GERD crisis to defuse tensions before the dam comes online. It suggests that the parties go on to negotiate a comprehensive transboundary resource management agreement, involving other riparian states, that could both ease tensions over the dam and include a lasting basin-wide settlement for resource sharing. The report is based on interviews conducted from April to November 2018 with a wide range of water experts, political and security analysts, government officials and diplomats in Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum, as well as Nairobi, Kampala, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Doha, Ankara, Istanbul, New York and Washington.

II. Ethiopia and the GERD

The Nile Waters Dispute: The Ethiopian Position

In this video, Crisis Group's Horn of Africa Deputy Project Director Murithi Mutiga reflects upon Ethiopia's position about the dam.
Addis Ababa has long contested Egypt’s claims of hegemony to the Nile waters, which were outlined in the series of treaties brokered by the British.

Addis Ababa has long contested Egypt’s claims of hegemony to the Nile waters, which were outlined in the series of treaties brokered by the British.[fn]For the full text of the first treaty, see “The 1902 Treaty between Ethiopia and Great Britain”, Horn Affairs, 8 June 2011. This deal between Emperor Menelik II and the British government required Ethiopia “not to construct, or allow to be constructed, any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana or the Sobat [a major tributary of the Nile] which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of Sudan”. Britain considered control of the Nile essential to protecting its imperial interests. It needed its Egyptian colony to keep access to the strategically important Suez Canal. See Arthur Okoth-Owiro, The Nile Treaty: State Succession and International Treaty Commitments – A Case Study of the Nile Water Treaties (Nairobi, 2004).Hide Footnote A statement Ethiopian authorities sent to the Egyptian government in 1958 summed up their view. Ethiopia, it said, “may be prepared to share this tremendous God-given wealth of hers with friendly neighbour nations [but] it is Ethiopia’s sacred duty to develop the resources it possesses in the interest of its own rapidly expanding population and economy”.[fn]Yacob Arsano, “Progress and Prospects of Cooperation in the Nile Basin”, Chatham House, 5 October 2012.Hide Footnote

Plans for a dam on the Blue Nile date from around the same time. The United States Bureau of Reclamation identified a site in geological surveys conducted between 1956 and 1964.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Decades of strife including a long civil war and wars with neighbouring Somalia and Eritrea – as well as Egypt’s strength on the world stage – made it impossible for Ethiopia to advance this objective for almost a half-century. Only with the extended period of economic development and relative political stability under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi could planning for such a dam proceed. His government made plans in secret for some years before going public with the announcement in 2011. Most Ethiopians regard the project as a source of national prestige and millions have invested their own funds in its construction. It “brings together all the diverse sections of society”, said a think-tank official. “The haves and the have-nots, the young and the old, women and men, locals and those in the diaspora; all came together to mobilise financing for the dam”.[fn]Crisis Group phone interview, think-tank official, Addis Ababa, November 2018.
 Hide Footnote

Still a work in progress, the dam is located approximately 700km north west of the capital Addis Ababa and 40km from the border with Sudan. It is sandwiched between two hills, with its twin power stations positioned on either side. Upon completion, the GERD is expected to be the largest dam in Africa, 1,800m long and 145m high, with a capacity to generate 6,450 megawatts of hydropower. At the height of construction about 12,000 people were employed at the site, working in shifts around the clock.

In the third week of February 2019, Ethiopia Electric Power, Ethiopia’s power utility, announced that it had contracted two Chinese firms to handle the pre-commissioning phase of construction, which is expected to be completed by 2022.[fn]“Ethiopia contracts two Chinese firms to complete Nile dam construction”, Africa News, 19 February 2019; and “Ethiopia says GERD needs four years to be completed”, Ethiopian News Agency, 13 December 2018.
 Hide Footnote
According to the country’s water minister, the dam will first be able to generate electricity at the end of 2020.[fn]“Ethiopia to start producing energy at dam by end of 2020”, Middle East Monitor, 3 January 2019.
 Hide Footnote
Past Ethiopian projections of when the dam will come online, however, have proven overly optimistic. At first, the dam was slated to begin operations in 2017, but administrative and financial problems delayed its completion. The current delay offers a window of opportunity for parties to reach some form of agreement on how to manage the dam’s impact on water flows. Waiting until the GERD is operational will raise the risk of conflict due to the high stakes at play, particularly for Egypt, with its heavy dependency on the Nile for freshwater.

A. Meles Zenawi and Ethiopia’s Project X

Planning for the GERD in Meles’s inner circle began around 2006.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ethiopian academics, analysts and officials, Addis Ababa, May-September 2018.Hide Footnote The government ordered updated site surveys, which were conducted between 2009 and 2010, and engineers submitted a dam design in November 2010.[fn]“Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project, Benishangul-Gumuz”, project overview, Water Technology (www.water-technology.net).Hide Footnote The prime minister’s office directly coordinated preparation for what was then known as Project X, carrying it out in extreme secrecy. Ethiopia handed the leading role in the dam’s construction to the Italian firm Salini Impregilo. The project was partially coordinated by the Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), a military-led industrial conglomerate, thus classifying the endeavour as a matter of national security.

A number of factors informed Meles’s decision to build the dam. The project was an integral part of his 2010-2015 Growth and Transformation Plan, which aimed to create large-scale foreign investment opportunities, quintuple power generation from 2,000 to 10,000 megawatts, cultivate a more dynamic manufacturing sector, and significantly expand road and rail infrastructure.[fn] The GERD was a natural outgrowth of Meles’s vision to shape a state for which economic growth was an “absolute and overriding priority. Development should be a matter of national survival; the ideology should be that growth is survival”.[fn]

In this light, Meles saw the GERD as an ambitious project that would symbolise Ethiopia’s efforts to achieve middle-income status.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ethiopian academics, analysts and officials, Addis Ababa, May-September 2018.Hide Footnote Sales of electricity produced by the GERD would be a key source of hard currency. Despite Meles’s huge efforts to establish industrial parks and create enabling infrastructure, exports lagged – and still lag – behind imports by a large margin. Ethiopia has long struggled to obtain enough hard currency to buy the imports that it needs.

Meles’s motives were also political. After the contested 2005 election, in which the opposition made impressive gains, he increasingly relied on repression to sustain his grip on power. The government thought that uniting the public behind a grand national endeavour would strengthen its hand. When Meles announced the GERD’s ground-breaking in March 2011, he added that Ethiopia would seek no external finance for the initiative. The government launched a massive nationwide fundraising campaign. Millions, including many peasant farmers, contributed, as the project attracted widespread support.[fn]The campaign included marathons and regional competitions to raise money as part of a Renaissance Trophy tour. The initiative raised millions of dollars.Hide Footnote “Every country must have one large defining project. This is our Hoover Dam”, said one Meles adviser, citing the giant American dam.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former senior Ethiopian official, Nairobi, February 2019.Hide Footnote The project drew widespread support from the masses, though many elites at home and in the diaspora were more sceptical.[fn]The Ethiopian government launched a massive nationwide campaign to mobilise funding for the project. Thousands contributed, including peasant farmers. Some in the diaspora urged Ethiopians not to put their money in, citing the administration’s poor human rights record. Many professionals, including thousands of government workers and staff at state-owned enterprises such as Ethiopian Airlines, also chafed at being forced (in effect) to give up a month’s or two months’ wages to buy bonds to support the project.Hide Footnote

Lastly, the prime minister saw the project as crucial for gaining leverage in the region. Ethiopia had lost direct access to the sea after Eritrea became independent, and it had frozen relations with Asmara since fighting a bitter war with Eritrea from 1998 to 2000. Addis perceived exporting electricity to countries with insufficient generation capacity of their own as a way to wield regional clout. Controlling the Nile’s flow would be another unspoken source of influence. Most critically, Meles viewed the GERD as fulfilling long-nursed Ethiopian ambitions to upend Egypt’s historic position as Nile basin hegemon. By gaining control of the flow of the river, his team calculated, Addis Ababa would gain considerable geopolitical clout. To cultivate greater continent-wide support for the dam project, Meles lobbied African leaders to endorse the initiative. The African Union adopted the dam as a flagship project and assigned its infrastructure unit, the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa, to support the dam’s construction.[fn]See “GERD – iconic project for the realisation of AU aspirations”, The Ethiopian Herald, 8 March 2017.Hide Footnote

While no one faults Ethiopia for desiring to use its hydrological resources to further expand its economy, some experts assert that the Meles administration made a number of mistakes in its conception and execution of the project. Looking to achieve geostrategic goals, notably ending Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile, Ethiopia settled on a dam design featuring a huge reservoir, bigger, some experts contend, than what was needed for a dam intended to generate hydropower rather than to store water for irrigation.[fn]For a summary of academic papers criticising the dam design, see Rawia Tawfik, “Revisiting Hydro-Hegemony from a Benefit-Sharing Perspective: The Case of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”, discussion paper, German Development Institute, May 2015.Hide Footnote The large reservoir gives Ethiopia the capacity to regulate the river’s downstream flow to Egypt and Sudan, but this control comes at a cost. The dam’s design means that the GERD can operate at peak capacity only during the few months in the year when rainfall is highest in the Ethiopian highlands. Some experts estimate that the dam will attain peak capacity only 28 per cent of the time.[fn]Aydagne Zelleke, an Ethiopian civil engineer, says the dam was designed as a “peak-power plant with low efficiency”, because the government at the time was playing a “political numbers game” – designed to underline the GERD’s status as a milestone marking the end of Egyptian dominance of the basin. See “Shock death intensifies dam debate: was Abiy pessimistic or realistic about the GERD?”, Ethiopia Insight, 31 July 2018.Hide Footnote Also, the extreme secrecy with which the project was managed meant that Ethiopia could not benefit sufficiently from external technical support, resulting in both a sub-optimal design and a more expensive project.

For some time after Meles made the GERD public in 2011, its construction proceeded undisturbed; Egypt and Sudan both initially resisted the project, but each was embroiled in domestic turmoil (see Sections III and IV). In August 2012, however, Meles died, prompting a period of upheaval in Ethiopia itself that intruded upon construction.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°89, Ethiopia after Meles, 22 August 2012. The post-Meles transition left power in the hands of a small, feuding establishment, mostly Tigrayans. The report warned that the most likely outcome would be “a much weaker government, a more influential security apparatus and endangered internal stability”. It also predicted correctly that in Meles’s absence, the regime would depend more and more on repression to maintain power over other ethnic elites.Hide Footnote The late premier had dominated all branches of government. His passing ushered in a power struggle that distracted policymakers from the single-minded focus he had maintained upon the dam’s construction.[fn]Ibid. Hide Footnote Accompanying this political upheaval was growing corruption, including within the security sector, which was leading dam construction. METEC, the military-run conglomerate and lead domestic contractor for the GERD, became a focus of controversy amid allegations of graft and mismanagement.[fn]“Dozens of top security officials arrested”, All Africa, 13 November 2018. At a press briefing in the second week of November, Ethiopia’s attorney general accused METEC officials of lining their pockets with funds raised by the public for the GERD project. The officials deny all claims of embezzlement and defence lawyers call on judges to halt the prosecution, claiming there is no evidence to support the charges. See “Police partially wind down investigation of Ex-METEC CEO”, Addis Fortune, 5 January 2019.
 Hide Footnote

The power vacuum created by Meles’s death, perceptions of ethnic exclusion particularly among the Oromo, the country’s biggest ethnic group, and frustration over an economy unable to absorb millions of unemployed youth contributed to social unrest. Increasingly, the regime had to focus on self-preservation rather than projects such as the GERD. Street protests began in 2015, and lasted until the resignation of Meles’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, in February 2018. At no point did dam construction stop during the period of political upheaval, but it did proceed at an uneven pace.

B. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the GERD

Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has striven to put the dam project back on track, though some in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) question his commitment to it.[fn]Abiy has appointed new project managers and tapped Chinese firms to conclude the installation of turbines and other electrical works. Yet his critics inside the ruling party say he has shown less enthusiasm for the project than his predecessors, particularly Meles. The perception is that Abiy wants to channel his energies into a project he himself has initiated, such as a $1 billion revitalisation of the capital – but cannot abandon the GERD due to the sunken costs, the popular support it has and the danger of domestic blowback. In the first week of March 2019, Abiy’s office announced a crowdfunding initiative – set to kick off with a $175,000-per-plate dinner for investors at a date to be announced later – for the urban renewal plan. See “Ethiopia is launching a global crowd-funding campaign to give its capital a green facelift”, Quartz, 5 March 2019. Critics note that Abiy often refers to the GERD’s downsides, particularly the allegations of corruption among officials in charge of construction, rather than to its potential benefits. Crisis Group interviews, former senior EPRDF officials, Nairobi and Addis Ababa, August 2018-February 2019.Hide Footnote Abiy was elected head of the EPRDF in April 2018 at the conclusion of a two-month party congress. Since then, he has governed boldly, striking a peace deal with Eritrea, releasing political prisoners, welcoming back exiled opposition leaders, appointing a slew of women to key positions and vowing to open up political space. But he faces enormous challenges. Ethnic tensions are mounting in much of the country, with militias proliferating, violence reaching levels not seen in decades and leaders in ethnic federal states demanding greater autonomy.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Report N°269, Managing Ethiopia’s Unsettled Transition, 21 February 2019.Hide Footnote How Abiy will keep these forces in check, particularly with elections looming in 2020, remains unclear. Moreover, his replacement of leaders in the security forces and crackdowns on old-guard figures accused of corruption appear to have generated hostility to his rule among elements of the bureaucracy and security establishment.[fn]Ibid. Hide Footnote

Many Ethiopians view the GERD as a critical plank of such an economic revival platform.

Abiy also needs reforms that can breathe new life into the economy and create jobs for millions of unemployed youths whose frustrations have spilled into the streets.[fn]“A problem for Ethiopia’s leader: the young men who helped him to power”, Reuters, 2 November 2018.Hide Footnote Many Ethiopians view the GERD as a critical plank of such an economic revival platform. Upon completion, the dam would go some way toward addressing chronic energy shortages, particularly in the industrial sector, and earning hard currency for the treasury. It would help many rural households switch to cleaner forms of energy.[fn]“While Egypt Struggles, Ethiopia Builds over the Blue Nile: Controversies and the Way Forward”, The Brookings Institution, 25 July 2013.Hide Footnote

Abiy signalled the dam’s ongoing importance when he toured the construction site just weeks after taking office in the company of Simegnew Bekele, the lead engineer.[fn]“Ethiopia PM visits GERD site, heads to Sudan on official visit”, Africa News, 1 May 2018.Hide Footnote On 26 July, however, the project suffered a fresh setback when Simegnew was found dead of a gunshot wound in his car in the capital’s busy Meskel Square. Simegnew was the figure most closely associated with the dam, and his impassioned media appearances explaining the GERD’s potential benefits had made him a much-loved figure across the political spectrum. Hundreds took to the streets in his hometown Gondar, as well as in Addis Ababa, to mourn him.[fn]“Why Ethiopia is grieving for ‘hero’ dam engineer Simegnew Bekele”, BBC, 29 July 2018.Hide Footnote The media speculated feverishly about possible foul play, but police eventually ruled his death a suicide.[fn]“Ethiopia says Blue Nile Dam engineer’s death a suicide”, The East African, 7 September 2018. Hide Footnote In late August, at his first press conference, Abiy fielded questions about the state of the GERD project. He accused METEC of failing the country and announced that the firm would play no further role in dam construction.[fn]“PM meets the press”, The Reporter, 25 August 2018. Hide Footnote On 12 November, police arrested 63 METEC officials for alleged involvement in corruption.[fn]“Ethiopia also arrested 27 METEC employees, police officials”, Reuters, 12 November 2018; and “Ethiopia: Over 40 officials of corruption-riddled METEC, members of intelligence under arrest”, ESAT News, 10 November 2018.Hide Footnote

It is unclear whether METEC’s removal from the project will speed up work on the dam, or how much work remains, because construction still proceeds in secret. Ethiopian authorities claim that the dam is 60 per cent complete, and Western diplomats who have visited the site say much of the physical infrastructure is finished.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Addis Ababa, August 2018.Hide Footnote That said, complex tasks remain pending, particularly the construction and installation of the turbines and generators, which Ethiopia has outsourced to Chinese firms China Gezhouba Group and Voith Hydro Shanghai.[fn]See fn 11.Hide Footnote In addition, due to foreign currency shortages at home, Ethiopia badly needs extra funding to pay for the final phases of construction and to settle bills owed to the main contractor.[fn]Abiy said the delays have left the government with huge contractor bills. The government reportedly owes the main contractor, Salini, tens of millions of dollars. “PM meets the press”, op. cit. Hide Footnote

Abroad, Abiy has shown greater sensitivity than his predecessors to the concerns of downstream countries Egypt and Sudan. He is notably friendlier to Egypt, at least in public. Cairo cheered his June 2018 decision to send the two most powerful figures in the security forces – intelligence head Getachew Assefa and armed forces chief Samora Yunus – into retirement; it viewed both men as harbouring hardline positions on the Nile waters dispute. Abiy has also repaired ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are among his most prominent external supporters and both have supplied funding to help stabilise Ethiopia’s struggling economy.

Abiy enjoys a number of advantages over his predecessors in GERD-related diplomacy. First, the project is identified with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the component of the ruling party that dominated previous administrations. Since he took office Abiy has tried to distance himself from this group’s legacy, for instance criticising aspects of their management of the dam project. In doing so, he has created wiggle room for compromises with downstream partners, which he can sell as correction of his predecessors’ mistakes. Secondly, Abiy has cultivated better ties with Cairo, Addis Ababa’s historical rival, and its allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. To this end, he might be better placed to ask Egypt to offer concessions of its own in exchange for greater Ethiopian cooperation.

The more convivial environment notwithstanding, Abiy clearly intends to complete the GERD. Indeed, he has little choice but to do so, if only because many Ethiopians regard the dam as indispensable for national development. If Abiy has changed the tone of Ethiopia’s Nile diplomacy, he has not altered the bottom line.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ethiopian analysts and officials, Addis Ababa and Nairobi, May-November 2018. It is noteworthy that Abiy has dropped many senior officials but retained Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu, who led negotiations with Egypt and Sudan under the previous government. The Ethiopians have yet to offer substantive concessions to the Egyptians, though they no longer exchange harsh words with them in public, instead promising to take Cairo’s concerns on board.Hide Footnote

C. Cooperation Mechanisms

Given that dam construction continues apace, it is urgent that the three main parties seek agreement on how to manage its impact. They should also pursue long-term accords for sharing the Nile waters. A venue is already in place for the two sets of negotiations – but each needs an infusion of diplomatic energy.

The most active negotiations over the GERD have taken place in tripartite talks involving Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The talks kicked off in 2011, soon after the announcement of the GERD, when the parties formed a trilateral joint technical committee to discuss a way forward. The parties notched an important achievement on 23 March 2015, when they endorsed a “declaration of principles” for resolving the dam crisis. The document calls on all sides to “cooperate based on common understanding, mutual benefit and good faith” and to take steps that prevent “significant harm” in using the Blue Nile.[fn]Agreement on Declaration of Principles between the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Republic of the Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project, Khartoum, 23 March 2015.Hide Footnote

This language, anodyne as it sounds, represented a significant compromise by all sides. In accepting that the three countries should share the Nile waters on the basis of “mutual benefit”, Egypt dropped its wholesale opposition to major upstream projects on the Nile and its demand that Ethiopia halt the dam’s construction. Sudan likewise signalled a more flexible position on upstream water use. And by committing to prevent “significant harm” with the dam project, Ethiopia, too, made a notable concession, namely that it needed to take the concerns of downstream countries into account.

Negotiators have made little headway since the declaration of principles, however, despite regular meetings. In 2011, Ethiopia rejected an Egyptian proposal that it suspend dam construction pending impact studies. Ethiopia also turned down an Egyptian request that it revise the dam’s design to incorporate four extra spillways that would guarantee the continuous flow of water in the event that the primary floodgates malfunctioned.[fn]For a good overview of the diplomatic back-and-forth since the dam dispute broke out, see Fred H. Lawson, “Egypt versus Ethiopia: The Conflict over the Nile Metastasizes”, The International Spectator, vol. 52, no. 4 (2017).Hide Footnote Ethiopia, in turn, accused Egypt of negotiating in bad faith while forging alliances with its erstwhile nemesis Eritrea and hostile elements in Somalia and South Sudan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ethiopian analyst, Addis Ababa, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Egypt blames the Ethiopian authorities’ persistent refusal to cooperate with requests for independent studies of the dam’s impact for the lack of progress. In Cairo’s eyes, Addis Ababa has consistently played for time, stringing talks along even as it continues with construction.[fn]According to an Egyptian official, Ethiopia at one stage dragged out discussions for months demanding the Egyptians offer a clear definition of the terms “significant harm” and “adversely affect”, concepts which Cairo wanted included in the terms of reference for an external study. The Egyptians saw this demand as an effort to block progress. Crisis Group interview, Egyptian diplomat, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote Egypt claims that this attitude reflects Ethiopian fears that an independent study would fault Addis Ababa’s approach to the GERD project’s management and thus tie its hands. “Ethiopia doesn’t want anything that publicly endorses our position to come to light. They will block anything that proves our position, and our concerns”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Egyptian foreign ministry official, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote Ethiopia disputes this and accuses the Egyptians of seeking to block the project from the start.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ethiopian officials, Addis Ababa, August 2018.Hide Footnote

The gap between what Ethiopia hopes for and what Egypt in particular would accept remains wide.

With Abiy in power, the tripartite talks could be more fruitful, as Ethiopia is displaying greater flexibility than in the past. When the three countries signed the declaration of principles, their respective security agencies had no open lines of communication, despite wielding great influence over policy (Ethiopian and Egyptian military and intelligence agencies had essentially cut off contact in 1995, following an assassination attempt on then President Mubarak in Addis Ababa). Throughout 2017, European diplomats strove to remedy this problem, pressing all sides to send security officials to talks. They achieved partial success with the January 2018 round: Egypt sent high-ranking security chiefs, even as Ethiopia delegated junior security officials.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Egyptian foreign ministry official, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote Abiy has changed this practice. He assigns senior security officials to take part in talks alongside officials from the foreign and water ministries.

The gap between what Ethiopia hopes for and what Egypt in particular would accept – particularly on the immediate issue of the pace at which Ethiopia fills the dam’s reservoir – remains wide. But it nonetheless appears bridgeable. All parties reportedly accept the need to strike a compromise between Ethiopia’s initial desire to fill the dam in three years and an Egyptian proposal that the reservoir be filled in fifteen.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian officials, Cairo, Khartoum, Addis Ababa and Nairobi, June-December 2018.Hide Footnote

In the second week of May 2018, the intelligence agency heads of the three countries, along with the foreign and water ministers, held talks on this subject and set up a committee including experts from the three countries to agree upon a way forward.[fn]“Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan reach agreement on Nile dispute”, Middle East Monitor, 16 May 2018.Hide Footnote The National Independent Research Study Group, as the team they formed was called, mirrors a 2013 attempt to determine a mutually acceptable fill rate. Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum should take steps to ensure that whatever decision emerges from this latest round sticks. Ethiopia should accept that the findings of the study should be binding. To build confidence, the three parties should appoint a third party to help guide the process and formulate technical proposals for both the fill rate and the plant’s operation that balance the needs of all parties. With Ethiopia aiming to begin power generation at the dam by the end of 2020, time is of the essence.

Difficult as it will be to resolve these immediate issues, the risk of future clashes could be severe if the parties do not also reach agreement on a longer-term basin-wide river management framework. Indeed, as populations grow and climate change renders annual rainfall more erratic, Ethiopia could seek to further exploit the Nile waters to expand its economy; for its part, Egypt – already worried that its volumetric share of the Nile waters is insufficient – could become even more alarmed about the national security implications of reduced water flow. While Cairo’s short-term focus is on the implications for water flow during reservoir filling in Ethiopia, in the medium term, Egypt worries acutely that Sudan could take advantage of better regulated flows of water from the GERD to substantially expand irrigation, a development that might be damaging for Egypt because Sudanese farming would consume significant amounts of water and thus reduce further Egypt’s volumetric share of the Nile waters.[fn]For analysis of the parties’ perspectives of the GERD and prospects for a resolution to the dispute, see Ana Elisa Cascão, “To Change or Not to Change? The Transboundary Water Question in the Nile Basin”, in Gunilla Almered Olsson and Pernille Gooch (eds.), Natural Resource Conflicts and Sustainable Development (London, forthcoming May 2019).Hide Footnote

External actors have long encouraged riparian countries to forge an updated transboundary agreement for sharing the Nile waters.[fn]Scott O. McKenzie, “Egypt’s Choice: From the Nile Basin Treaty to the Cooperative Framework Agreement – An International Legal Analysis”, Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems, vol. 21 (2012).Hide Footnote One platform for such cooperation is the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a multilateral forum for all eleven riparian states – Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, South Sudan and Eritrea, which has observer status. The NBI was established in 1999, with support from a number of bilateral and multilateral partners, notably the World Bank.[fn]“The Nile Basin Initiative: Building a Cooperative Future”, World Bank, February 2009.Hide Footnote

The platform has been weakened due to tensions among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. At its founding, member states agreed to pursue cooperation along two tracks. The NBI secretariat was to champion a technical track, outlining measures for sustainable development of the basin. The political leaders of all riparian countries, meanwhile, were to pursue a political-legal track, whose conclusions were to be spelled out in a Cooperative Framework Agreement that would outline mechanisms of cooperation between all parties. If the parties achieved consensus, the plan was to convert the NBI into a permanent commission to promote basin-wide cooperation.

Talks broke down after Addis Ababa rallied the upstream riparian states to endorse the Cooperative Framework Agreement without waiting for the backing of downstream partners. Ethiopia was particularly supportive of the framework’s call for “equitable utilisation” of the Nile waters, which satisfied its longstanding demand for upstream countries to benefit more from the river through development projects.[fn]For background and the negotiating positions of parties, see “The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement: The impasse is breakable!”, Sudan Tribune, 22 June 2017.Hide Footnote Egypt and Sudan both objected, perceiving the text as rewriting the 1959 agreement that allocated 100 per cent of the Nile waters to the two countries furthest downstream.

Cairo and Khartoum pressed for the document to clearly stipulate the need to protect water security for all countries and demanded that member states be explicitly required to offer prior notification of all major development projects in the basin. They lost the argument. Upstream countries baulked at what they perceived as a demand by their downstream counterparts for an effective veto over projects. Egypt and Sudan suspended their participation in the NBI shortly afterward (Sudan subsequently rejoined).[fn]Egypt objected to upstream countries’ decision to go ahead without achieving consensus, which it says violated the spirit of basin-wide cooperation and building of mutual trust that should guide the NBI’s operations, according to the NBI’s founding charter. “They [NBI members] went ahead and decided to sign without addressing our concerns, and we made the decision not to be a part of the framework”. Crisis Group interview, Egyptian foreign ministry official, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote Addis Ababa’s announcement of the GERD the following year only added to those tensions.

Today, the EU and Germany are the NBI’s principal remaining external funders. The World Bank, having initially reduced its participation amid heightened tensions among parties, also eventually resumed support through the Cooperation in International Waters in Africa program. Though the initiative has been undermined, it still undertakes research and maps out scenarios for future options in terms of water use, besides focusing on the effects of climate change and other pressures, including population growth. The NBI cannot, however, be effective without the participation of Egypt, a key player on the basin. Considering the warmer relations between Addis Ababa and Cairo, it would make sense for Egypt to rejoin this initiative, which remains the best available forum for discussions on a basin-wide settlement.

The wider forum enjoys two principal advantages over the trilateral discussions. The talks among Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa are project-specific and focused only on the GERD issue. The NBI, on the other hand, can craft a more forward-looking basin-wide consensus to govern resource use and avert conflict down the road. Also, the initiative would involve all the countries up and down the basin and could produce a consensus that goes beyond Ethiopian, Egyptian and Sudanese interests.[fn]See Cascão, op. cit. Hide Footnote

Beyond such questions, Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian leaders need to tackle the political issue of how to sell any compromise – on both the GERD and long-term water sharing – at home. So far none has mustered the political courage to embrace deals that risk exposing them to domestic criticism.

III. High Anxiety in Egypt

The Nile Waters Dispute: The Egyptian Position

In this video, Crisis Group's former North Africa Project Director Issandr El Amrani reflects upon Egypt's position about the dam. CRISISGROUP

For Egyptian authorities, the first-order priority is to shield the country from potentially drastically reduced water flow when the GERD is completed. Egyptian media outlets close to the security forces, echoing the country’s leadership, regularly portray the dam as a major threat to Egypt.[fn]See “Ethiopia’s catastrophic dam”, al-Ahram Weekly, 1 August 2013; and “Ethiopia’s game plan on the dam”, al-Ahram Weekly, 28 January 2016. Articles on the subject routinely claim that the dam is part of a conspiracy against Egypt by “enemy states” and also portray Ethiopia as stringing along talks on the GERD so that it can present Egypt with a fait accompli when the dam is built.Hide Footnote Likewise, assessing how the country was blindsided by Ethiopia’s plans to construct the GERD is a popular topic for discussions in online chats. In an otherwise subdued campaign, all candidates in Egypt’s March 2018 presidential election declared their intention to protect the country’s Nile interests. A new constitution adopted in 2014 requires the state to preserve Egypt’s “historical rights” to the Nile.[fn]Article 44 of the new constitution states: “The State shall protect the River Nile, preserve Egypt’s historical rights thereto, rationalise and maximise its use, and refrain from wasting or polluting its water. The State shall also protect groundwater; adopt necessary means for ensuring water security; and support scientific research in that regard”. “Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt 2014” (unofficial translation), 18 January 2014.Hide Footnote

As the country most dependent on the Nile, and the dominant power in the region, Egypt was traditionally most active in river-related diplomacy.

As the country most dependent on the Nile, and the dominant power in the region, Egypt was traditionally most active in river-related diplomacy, particularly during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s time in office (1954-1970). During the decades of anti-colonial struggle after World War II, Nasser built close relations with counterparts across Africa, an investment that earned the country’s positions sympathy.

Under Nasser’s successors, however, Egyptian ties with the continent frayed. Of particular note, Anwar al-Sadat ran afoul of Ethiopia when he took Somalia’s side in the Ogaden War (1977-1978). It was the first of several moves leading Addis Ababa to accuse Cairo of backing its foes as part of a policy of encirclement.[fn]An Egyptian diplomat said Ethiopia tends to overstate allegations of Egyptian meddling. He said Egypt supported Somalia’s Siad Barre during the Ogaden War, and in subsequent proxy conflicts, as part of Cold War geopolitical rivalries. (At the time, a Soviet-backed Marxist government ran Ethiopia, while Sadat had aligned Egypt with the U.S. in the early 1970s.) An Ethiopian official, however, said Egypt had refused to drop what he described as a longstanding policy of spreading conflict in the Horn to keep Ethiopia weak. Crisis Group interviews, Addis Ababa, May 2018.Hide Footnote Hosni Mubarak, who assumed power after Sadat’s assassination in October 1981, showed no interest in recovering Egypt’s position on the continent.[fn]Mubarak “deprioritised” relations with the rest of Africa, according to Harry Verhoeven, author of several papers on elite politics on the continent. These days, Verhoeven says, Egyptian officials begin their meetings with dignitaries from Horn of Africa countries such as Kenya and Tanzania with some sort of (implicit) apology for the fact that Egypt ignored the continent for so long. He says most in the region appreciate the change in rhetoric, which is “less arrogant and moralising than in the past, less assuming that Egyptian supremacy or dominance is a natural thing”. Crisis Group interview, Nairobi, May 2018.Hide Footnote Cairo cut off relations with Ethiopia after the 1995 assassination attempt against Mubarak in Addis, claimed by Egyptian Islamist militants but which he accused Ethiopian authorities of abetting.[fn]“Egyptian group says it tried to kill Mubarak”, The New York Times, 5 July 1995.Hide Footnote Egypt later backed Eritrea’s war of secession. The resulting rancour coincided with the period of Ethiopian economic growth under Meles which, in turn, helped pave the way for the GERD. The 2011 announcement of the dam’s construction came at a time of tense Cairo-Addis relations when Egypt was largely disengaged from regional diplomacy and after it had frozen its participation in the NBI.

At the time, the country also was grappling with the turbulence that followed Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. Otherwise preoccupied, Cairo was blindsided by Ethiopia’s proclamation about the dam and could muster only weak opposition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Egyptian diplomats and officials, Addis Ababa and Cairo, April-June 2018. The Egyptian officials said turmoil in Egypt between 2011 and 2013 robbed the state of the capacity to mount a coordinated diplomatic response to Ethiopia’s plans for the GERD.Hide Footnote “Egypt did not have a state at that time”, said an Addis Ababa-based Egyptian diplomat, who argues that Meles took advantage of instability in Cairo to pursue a much larger dam than initially envisioned: “They doubled, tripled and then quadrupled the size of the reservoir”.[fn] Demanding that Ethiopia halt construction, Cairo struggled to put together a coherent policy response during the short-lived presidency of Mohamed Morsi. Though some Egyptian politicians called for military action, Morsi was in no position to back up such bluster.[fn]Egypt’s diplomatic disarray, meanwhile, came at the cost of Ethiopia making substantial progress on the GERD while disregarding the possible downstream impact.

Since coming to power in 2014, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has reinvigorated Egypt’s Nile waters diplomacy. The Egyptian security and diplomatic apparatus threw its weight behind efforts to secure a deal with Addis Ababa and Khartoum after Sisi took office. Repeated rounds of talks yielded the aforementioned March 2015 declaration of principles, in which Ethiopia acknowledged the need to shield downstream countries from “significant harm” from the GERD. Sisi has cautiously welcomed Abiy’s ascension to office and hopes to use warmer ties with Addis Ababa to secure an agreement on the GERD that clearly protects water flow downstream.[fn]During Abiy’s visit to Cairo in June 2018, Sisi implored the Ethiopian prime minister to swear to God, in Arabic, that Egypt will not be harmed in any way by the dam. Abiy complied, and the message resonated across the country with video of that moment going viral on social media. It was aired on television for days. See “President Sisi asks Ethiopian to ‘swear to God’ over Nile crisis”, Al Bawaba, 11 June 2018. Despite the more positive public posture in recent months, Egyptian officials remain wary of Ethiopian intentions, noting that the Ethiopian bureaucracy and system heavily backs the GERD and that Abiy has authorised construction to continue apace. Crisis Group interviews, Egyptian officials, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote In pursuing this deal, he is partly motivated by domestic political considerations: he has been intent on shoring up his authority and support for his controversial attempt to lift the Egyptian constitution’s two-term limit on the presidency at a time of waning popularity.[fn]The president’s popularity has been declining amid biting austerity measures and severe repression of dissent. In what could be interpreted as a sign of insecurity on his part, Sisi reshuffled the security apparatus leadership three times in the past year. “Egypt changes defence, interior ministers in cabinet reshuffle”, Xinhua, 15 June 2018.Hide Footnote The Nile issue gives him an opportunity to rally nationalist sentiment. Sisi now also has a prime regional perch from which to make Egypt’s case: in February 2019, he assumed the rotating AU chairmanship.

Sisi’s government has thrown considerable energy into the tripartite talks. Though Egyptian diplomats privately concede it is too late to stop the dam, they have sought to persuade their Ethiopian and Sudanese counterparts of the need to abide by the terms of the 23 March 2015 “declaration of principles” – notably its provision that all parties ensure that the GERD causes no significant harm to downstream countries.[fn]Agreement on Declaration of Principles between the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Republic of the Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project, Khartoum, 23 March 2015.Hide Footnote They are thus eager to strike a deal on the GERD’s operations that does not sharply reduce water flow downstream. They worry about precedent: Ethiopia is estimated to have hydropower capacity of up to 45,000 megawatts and it might unilaterally pursue other hydropower projects down the line.[fn]See “Ethiopia’s Small Hydro-Power Market”, GTZ, December 2009.Hide Footnote Cairo would vigorously object if Addis Ababa undertook major new projects.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Egyptian diplomats and security officials, Addis Ababa and Cairo, June-August 2018.Hide Footnote Egypt also needs an arrangement with Sudan, which, in the words of an European diplomat, “Cairo views as a long, dry sponge that could soak up all the water”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Nairobi, September 2018.Hide Footnote

As seen, a principal hurdle is the absence of mutually agreed-upon studies of the dam’s impact. According to an Egyptian diplomat, “There are no [good] empirical or mathematical models for the actual effect on water flows as a result of the dam, and no exact numbers for what will be affected and how, and for how long”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, retired Egyptian official, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote It is not for lack of trying. In 2015, the Nile basin countries agreed to commission two firms, one French and one Dutch, to study the GERD’s potential effects. But the Dutch firm, nominated by Cairo, walked away; Egyptian authorities complain that the Ethiopians did not fully cooperate. The French firm continued its work, producing an inception report, a preliminary document laying out the terms for further evaluation of the project, but the parties could not agree on a way forward. In December 2017, Egypt proposed that the World Bank step in to conduct an independent study, an offer Ethiopia rejected.[fn]“Egypt concerned over discords with Ethiopia in dam talks”, Xinhua, 22 January 2018.Hide Footnote

A third effort at reaching consensus came on 15 May 2018, when the water and foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia met in Addis Ababa and agreed to form a panel of experts to conduct studies. Yet despite initial enthusiasm, little progress has been made insofar as the agreement allows each country to employ its own experts and provide its own non-binding reports.[fn]In effect, a retired Egyptian official said, this arrangement only “keeps everyone busy, and allows Ethiopia to waste more time as it gets closer to completing construction”. Crisis Group interview, Cairo, June 2018. Ethiopian analysts push back against this interpretation. “The Egyptians are simply unable to live with the fact that the ship has sailed – the dam will be a reality”. Crisis Group interview, analyst close to the Ethiopian prime minister’s office, Addis Ababa, August 2018. A diplomat who has followed efforts to conduct impact assessments said both sides were to blame. “Neither the Egyptians nor the Ethiopians provide data for the surveys. It shows a lack of commitment across the board, despite media reports that suggest only the Ethiopians don't cooperate”. Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Addis Ababa, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Whoever is to blame for the paucity of information, it creates a real problem for all parties as they try to plan for the expected disruptions from reductions in water flow. A former senior Egyptian agriculture ministry official said:

We do not seek to sabotage the dam. But we need clear information on its impact. We need mathematical models to determine what percentage of water will be lost. That way, we can gauge the impact on lost farmland and water losses at home. We need to confirm the threat level to Egypt.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Egyptian agriculture ministry official, Cairo, June 2018.
 Hide Footnote

That sentiment attracts sympathy outside the region. Western officials, for example, are generally critical of the Egyptian authorities’ handling of the dam crisis (particularly their early posture suggesting that they could stop the project unilaterally) and of the country’s water use practices.[fn]Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Addis Ababa, June 2018. The diplomat said Ethiopia boasted the most “consistent game plan” throughout the dispute, while Egypt squandered time early on trying to halt the dam project entirely.Hide Footnote But they support the core Egyptian demand for transparent, comprehensive studies to understand the GERD’s full impact.[fn]Some European diplomats say there is no political will for transforming farming culture, for instance. One diplomat argues, “water pricing in Egypt will never happen. Farmers believe in their divine right to water … ‘You can take away my gas subsidy, but don’t touch my water’”. Still, these Western diplomats argue that Egypt, already a water-scarce country, is right to demand studies on potential impact to water flow by projects in upstream countries. Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Cairo, July 2018.Hide Footnote

Until recently, Cairo’s poor relations with Addis Ababa and Khartoum were an obstacle to reaching any agreement on the dam. Several events exacerbated tensions: in 2016, Ethiopian authorities condemned Cairo’s decision to host Ethiopian Oromo rebels;[fn]“Cairo-Khartoum dispute over Oromo could derail dam talks”, Al-Monitor, 25 October 2016.Hide Footnote in January 2018, Ethiopia accused Egypt of sending troops to Eritrea, reportedly as a show of force aimed at both Ethiopia and Sudan, claims that Eritrea disputed.[fn]Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki denied that any Egyptian troops were at the Sawa base or anywhere else along the border with Sudan. “Sudan deploys troops to Eritrea border amid tension with Egypt”, The East African, 16 July 2018; and “Eritrean president denies presence of Egyptian troops in his country”, Sudan Tribune, 15 January 2018.Hide Footnote Sudan, in turn, massed troops near the border with Eritrea.

Though Prime Minister Abiy’s more recent outreach to Egypt has eased bilateral tensions somewhat, the two countries’ authorities eye each other suspiciously. Egypt appears to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Abiy and his administration, unsure of the new prime minister’s staying power and not fully trusting his assurances that Ethiopia will protect Egypt’s interests regarding Nile waters.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Egyptian serving and retired security officials, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote

Egypt’s relations with other relevant countries are also evolving. Sisi embarked on concerted diplomatic efforts with the other seven Nile basin countries, not so much to win immediate support for Egypt’s positions on the GERD as to line up allies for later negotiations over basin-wide water management. He offered Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo diplomatic support, including during Cairo’s recent term on the UN Security Council, rejecting calls for sanctions targeting their leaders’ attempted extra-constitutional power grabs.[fn]See “Egypt reiterates support to Burundi in various fields”, Egypt Today, 15 November 2018; and “Sisi stresses Egypt’s support for political agreement, security in DRC”, Egyptian State Information Service, 23 April 2017. The DRC’s President Joseph Kabila eventually left office, after a controversial December 2018 election. See Crisis Group Statement, DR Congo Elections: Reversing a Dangerous Decision, 28 December 2018. Hide Footnote He cultivated an especially close relationship with President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, traditionally a rival of Sudan and to a lesser degree Ethiopia.[fn]Though Uganda initially backed Ethiopia’s position and asserted upstream countries’ rights to develop the river, it has since cooled its support in the face of intense Egyptian diplomacy. A Ugandan official said his government had taken a more cautious approach because Yoweri Museveni is the longest-serving president in the Nile basin and sees himself as a “big brother” who can mediate among parties. Crisis Group interview, Ugandan government official, Kampala, July 2018. As part of its outreach, Egypt has offered Uganda substantial financial and technical support to help curb the invasive hyacinth weed on Lake Victoria, which impedes fishing.Hide Footnote Several senior Egyptian intelligence and military officials have taken up diplomatic posts in the Nile basin capitals.[fn]Major General (Rtd.) Tarek Salam, Egypt’s ambassador to Kampala, for example, was General Intelligence Services deputy director and a security adviser to President Sisi. Several other figures with security backgrounds have been appointed to embassies of riparian countries. See Asmahan Soliman, “A diplomatic shakeup with a taste of security”, Mada Masr, 12 September 2017.Hide Footnote Sisi also traded visits with his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta, seeking to counterbalance Nairobi’s defence pact and close relationship with Addis Ababa.

Cairo’s growing role vis-à-vis South Sudan is part of a broader attempt to reassert itself as a Horn power after years of absence under Sadat, Mubarak and Morsi.

Egyptian re-engagement has been particularly striking in South Sudan. Since at least 2015, Egyptian officials and security agencies have built close ties with their counterparts in Juba, inviting several South Sudanese delegations to Cairo.[fn]“Egypt says ready to enhance security in South Sudan”, Sudan Tribune, 22 February 2018.Hide Footnote Egypt also lobbied on South Sudan’s behalf at the UN Security Council, prompting South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, and his allies to describe Egypt as a treasured ally.[fn]See “South Sudan’s Kiir praises Egypt’s Sisi support for stability in his country”, al-Ahram Online, 10 January 2017.Hide Footnote In March 2018, Egypt supported South Sudan’s request to join the Arab League. Cairo’s growing role vis-à-vis South Sudan is part of a broader attempt to reassert itself as a Horn power after years of absence under Sadat, Mubarak and Morsi.[fn]Egyptian re-engagement with South Sudan might also be related to long-nursed Egyptian ambitions to construct the Jonglei canal, a project aimed at draining the Sudd, a vast swamp in South Sudan – with the aim of increasing the White Nile’s flow into Sudan and from there into Egypt. South Sudanese rebels destroyed equipment sent for the construction effort in 1984. They said the project would cause environmental damage in South Sudan, including the collapse of fisheries and the desiccation of grazing land. Sudan and Egypt resolved to restart the project in 2008 but halted the effort after South Sudan’s independence in 2011.Hide Footnote

Gaining external backing is one thing; preparing Egypt’s public for inevitable adjustments when the dam is completed is another.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Egyptian cabinet minister, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote Though officials acknowledge the GERD is a reality, they have done little to sensitise Egyptians to this fact. Egypt’s media – policed by the military and security apparatus – continue to suggest that military action could stop the dam’s completion. Opinion pieces regularly appear in the Egyptian press and on social media boasting of the size of the nation’s military and its ability to project force upstream, while amplifying the national security threat posed by the GERD.[fn]See “Scenarios of military intervention to resolve the Ennahda dam crisis”, Ida2at, 20 December 2017 (Arabic).Hide Footnote

In reality, as many analysts warn, the dam will compel Egypt to accelerate long overdue reforms in water consumption, rolled out haltingly in recent years.[fn]Egypt has taken a number of steps to improve its water use in the last two years. In June 2018, authorities announced they would import more rice and limit the amount of land used to grow this water-intensive crop. See “Egypt to begin importing rice after slashing its own cultivation”, Reuters, 5 June 2018. Authorities have also moved to expand alternative freshwater sources to complement the Nile, including desalination, wastewater treatment and expanded tapping of groundwater. The problem is that authorities are loath to publicly link any of these changes to expected reductions in Nile water flow, meaning that there is no public debate and no coherent national plan for improving water use. A British journalist who has reported on the crisis said Egypt “needs to start acting like a desert country”, pointing to countries such as Iraq and Jordan where people are far more conservative in their water use than Egyptians are. “The fact that the population is so concentrated within the Nile Valley has deluded many Egyptians and the state into thinking the country is a lot more water-rich than it is. While officials have paid lip service to the need to address water scarcity, they must take action soon because the status quo won’t last, and things will get worse”. Crisis Group interviews, Cairo, May-July 2018.Hide Footnote The country uses about 85 per cent of its water for its thirsty crops, with the main method being highly inefficient open-field irrigation. Studies show that this surface irrigation method “causes high water losses, decline in land productivity and salinity problems”.[fn]Rehab Osman, Emanuele Ferrari and Scott McDonald, “Water Scarcity and Irrigation Efficiency in Egypt”, Water Economics and Policy, vol. 2 (2016).Hide Footnote And yet, to date, officials have not publicly laid out what the GERD would mean for Egypt’s water use patterns.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Egyptian analysts, June 2018.Hide Footnote

External actors could help Egypt undertake adjustments that will be needed in the early years of GERD implementation. The EU already has offered to explore guarantees (including loans) and use other instruments to support downstream countries in years in which drought or other shocks jeopardise food security.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, European diplomats, Addis Ababa, May-June 2018.Hide Footnote Local private-sector actors argue that with outside help, notably from the Netherlands – a world leader in sustainable agriculture and efficient water use – Egypt could put in place measures to mitigate harm from reduced water flow.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Egyptian businessman, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote

IV. Sudan: Angling for Benefits

Poorer and less populous than Egypt, Sudan historically has been a weaker player in the Nile basin. For decades prior to South Sudan’s 2011 independence, it was embroiled in its own civil wars. Still, it has long asserted what it considers to be its rights under the 1959 agreement. Like Egypt, Sudan froze its participation in the NBI in 2010, believing that upstream countries had disregarded the interests of downstream countries in endorsing the Cooperative Framework Agreement and, once Ethiopia announced the GERD in 2011, expressed opposition to the project it feared would limit water supply downstream.

Khartoum was doubly caught off guard by the GERD announcement, of which it had no advance notice. It came at a time of domestic unrest. Khartoum was also bracing itself for the shock of South Sudan’s impending independence in July. Its opposition to the GERD was thus relatively muted. In 2012, however, President Omar al-Bashir’s government shifted its stance on the dam entirely, having been persuaded by Sudanese water experts and Ethiopian leaders that the GERD would help Sudan. Signalling its acquiescence in Ethiopia’s plans, Khartoum rejoined the NBI that November.[fn]“Sudan’s Bashir supports Ethiopia’s Nile dam project”, Sudan Tribune, 5 April 2012.Hide Footnote

Indeed, it appears that Sudan stands to significantly benefit from the dam. Its abundance of arable land and water gives the country enormous potential for the development of commercial agriculture. Once completed, the GERD could curtail the Nile’s flooding in Sudan and thus reduce sedimentation, saving the country millions of dollars it spends annually clearing silt from agricultural fields. By offering Sudan more regulated water flow throughout the year, the dam could allow for several harvests annually and greater crop yields. If the country adapts quickly when the GERD’s reservoir is filled, it could irrigate millions of acres of new farmland.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior government officials, Khartoum, Abu Dhabi and Ankara, May-September 2018.Hide Footnote

Sudan hopes to benefit from foreign interest in its agricultural potential, particularly from Gulf states and Turkey, to boost investment. Saudi Arabia, for example, sees Sudan as contributing to its long-term food security; Port Sudan is located less than 400km from Jeddah and would be a ready transfer point for Sudanese produce. Riyadh has a long track record of investment in Sudanese agriculture, and though the results have been disappointing, its interest is undiminished.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, Sudanese agro-investor in Saudi Arabia, June 2018. He noted that many Gulf countries see Sudan as the “ultimate destination” for investment dollars to secure their long-term food security. “The numbers are just insane”, he explained, but he added that private investors are loath to rush in until the investment climate improves.Hide Footnote Qatar, Turkey and the UAE likewise all wish to expand their investments in Sudan’s agriculture sector. Ankara is contemplating a joint farm scheme in Sudan. Already, Gulf monarchies are said to have bought thousands of acres of arable land for long-term use when Sudan’s business environment improves.[fn]“Gulf States are buying land, but gradually and cautiously so as not to scare the Egyptians”. Crisis Group telephone interview, academic researcher, Khartoum, June 2018. Many of these investments are made for political reasons, to boost Gulf monarchies influence and presence in the country and not with an eye to immediate profit. For a good resource mapping out the stakes, see Jos Meester, Willem van den Berg and Harry Verhoeven, “Riyal Politik: The Political Economy of Gulf Investments in the Horn of Africa,” Clingendael Report, April 2018.Hide Footnote Even Egypt has discussed plans to grow some of its staples (particularly wheat, of which it is the world’s largest importer) in Sudan. The two countries have formed a bilateral commission to push the proposal forward.[fn]“Egyptian-Sudanese relations witness massive development”, Egypt Today, 30 August 2018.Hide Footnote

The GERD could yield other benefits for Sudan. Purchasing hydro-electricity from Ethiopia will likely be cheaper than producing it domestically. Better-controlled water flow likewise would enable it to boost its hydropower production.[fn]According to an MIT study, more regulated, year-round water flow into Sudan will lead to increased power production at the country’s main dams – Roseires, Sennar and Merowe – in the basin. See “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: An Opportunity for Collaboration and Shared Benefits in the Eastern Nile Basin”, MIT, Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab, November 2014.Hide Footnote

As a result, Sudan has largely supported the GERD project in the course of the tripartite talks. It has downplayed concerns that the dam could sharply reduce water flow downstream and urged Cairo to accept that the dam could yield basin-wide benefits, including expanded agricultural production in Sudan and, potentially, hydropower exports to Egypt.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sudanese water experts and officials, Khartoum, June-August 2018.Hide Footnote Sudan’s primary demand of the Ethiopians, which accords with an Egyptian one, has been that Addis Ababa should accede to a transparent study of the project. Its main concern on this score is that any structural defects in the dam would be a disaster for Sudan; the dam is located near its border, and flood waters would submerge swathes of its territory if the structure were to collapse. Still, Sudan has played a constructive role in pushing the trilateral talks forward. Most significantly, its representatives have indicated to Egypt that even after the GERD is completed, they will not tap water for agriculture so aggressively as to threaten water supply downstream. Egypt does not fully trust those promises.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat who has spoken to officials in Cairo and Khartoum on the status of the trilateral discussions, Nairobi, January 2019.Hide Footnote

Khartoum’s pro-GERD stance has worsened its already strained relations with Egypt. At odds with Cairo for decades over Halayeb, a triangle of land on the Red Sea coast claimed by both countries, Khartoum over recent years has also incurred the Egyptian government’s wrath by sheltering members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed under both Sadat and Mubarak and now, after its brief stint in power in 2012-2013, is again proscribed and the target of repression. Bashir’s about-face on the dam only further angered Cairo. More broadly, Egypt’s government has long viewed Sudan as a potential base for the spread of Islamism in the region, a development it perceives as a threat to its hold on power.

As outlined, Egypt’s primary concern is that Sudan might expand its water use to Cairo’s detriment. So far, though Khartoum is entitled to 18.5 million cubic metres annually under the 1959 Nile agreement, it taps only about 12 to 14 billion cubic metres a year because it is under-developed.[fn]See Cascão, op. cit.Hide Footnote Sudan is citing its current light consumption as justification for unilateral expansion of its Nile water use down the line, saying it would remain within treaty obligations.[fn]A Sudanese academic with knowledge of official records told Crisis Group that Sudan uses an estimated 12 billion cubic metres of water annually, well below the 18 billion cubic metres allotted in the 1959 Nile agreement. Sudan’s water use has been declining due to incompetent handling of its major agricultural projects. Crisis Group interview, Sudanese academic, Khartoum, June 2018.Hide Footnote If the GERD enables Sudan to expand agricultural production, it would use more water, on top of Ethiopia’s own increased use. Such extra consumption would strain Egypt’s own supply. Bashir irritated Cairo further by offering to “donate” some of Sudan’s Nile treaty allotment to Ethiopia for the purpose of filling the dam’s reservoir.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ethiopian analyst, Addis Ababa, August 2018.Hide Footnote In turn, Sudanese officials accuse Egypt of arrogance and wilful blindness to the merits of Khartoum’s position.[fn]Reflecting on Sudanese elite attitudes toward what they view as Egyptian haughtiness, one former Egyptian ambassador (who has served in the region) said: “What can we expect? After years of treating them [Sudan] as if they are beneath us, an inconvenient and stupid neighbour, they are now throwing it back in our faces, while holding all the cards”. Crisis Group interview, retired Egyptian ambassador, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote A Sudanese water expert said:

There are huge benefits [to Sudan] and trying to deny them is absurd. Egypt’s attempt has been to scare Sudan away by circulating stories that [the GERD] might collapse [and flood Sudan]. But Egyptian specialists actually admit that it is going to benefit Sudan, and this is why they are worried![fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Salman Salman, Sudanese international water law expert and academic researcher, June 2018.Hide Footnote

Khartoum’s relations with Addis Ababa historically have been warmer than with Cairo. Bashir’s government cultivated lasting ties with men who would become senior figures in Meles Zenawi’s government by supporting them when they were leading the armed insurrection against Ethiopia’s former Marxist regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Relations hit a rough patch at the turn of the millennium due to Meles’s support for South Sudanese independence, but endured nonetheless. Until Addis Ababa’s recent peace deal with Asmara, Sudan and Ethiopia shared a common enemy in the Eritrean government, which Khartoum long accused of supporting rebels in eastern Sudan.[fn]John Young, “Eastern Sudan: Caught in a Web of External Interests”, Review of African Political Economy, vol. 33, no. 109 (September 2006), pp. 594-601.Hide Footnote This dynamic helps explain why Khartoum took the risk of upsetting Cairo by backing the GERD.

The U.S. government’s continued designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, along with the poor business environment, keeps foreign investors away.

The burning question is whether President Bashir will be in power long enough to enjoy the GERD’s putative bounty. Entering his third decade in office, he faces dissent inside and outside the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).[fn]Crisis Group interview, African diplomat who tracks developments in Khartoum, Nairobi, September 2018.Hide Footnote Some in the NCP, particularly younger officials but also others with whom he has fallen out, blame the president for a major economic crisis characterised by spiralling costs of living. Bashir’s critics – within the NCP and outside it – also view him as a liability in terms of relations with the West. The U.S. government’s continued designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, along with the poor business environment, keeps foreign investors away and blocks Sudan’s access to the international debt relief or bailouts necessary to salvage its economy. The International Criminal Court’s indictment of Bashir for atrocities committed in Darfur also makes it hard for Western donors to engage with Khartoum, though they maintain contact on efforts to curb migration to Europe and on counter-terrorism. Bashir’s fear of a palace coup explains his cabinet reshuffles, which interrupt efforts at reform.

Beyond that, popular discontent runs deep. In late December 2018, the government’s decision to raise the price of bread sparked demonstrations in cities throughout the country, with chants escalating rapidly from complaints about prices to calls for Bashir’s downfall during marches on the presidential palace.[fn]At first, media coverage of these protests was scant. But cell phone video posted to Twitter showed a crowd in Khartoum echoing the iconic slogan of the 2011 Arab uprisings, “The people want the fall of the regime (al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nizam)!”, Tweet by Tobias Schneider, @tobiasschneider, Middle East analyst, 5:09 pm, 22 December 2018. See Crisis Group Africa Briefing Nº143, Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan, 14 January 2019.Hide Footnote On 22 February, Bashir declared a state of emergency for a year, sacked the national and provincial governments, and replaced all regional state governors with security officials. The move, seen as a desperate gambit to survive the protest movement, did little to stop the demonstrations.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, Bashir Moves Sudan to Dangerous New Ground, 26 February 2019.Hide Footnote

The protest movement against Bashir has brought a further twist in relations between Cairo and Khartoum. Despite Egyptian authorities’ irritation with Bashir’s positions on various issues, including the GERD, they have lent him unwavering support as he battles to save his political life in the face of the most sustained protest campaign Sudan has seen in decades. Bashir travelled to Cairo in the second week of January and received Sisi’s unequivocal backing.[fn]“Bashir thanks Egypt for supporting Sudan’s security, stability”, Egypt Today, 14 January 2019.Hide Footnote The embattled Sudanese president requested Egyptian support in lobbying for financial assistance from the Gulf monarchies to stabilise Sudan’s economy.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat with good access to officials in Cairo, Nairobi, February 2019.Hide Footnote If Bashir survives, it is possible his stance on the GERD may shift yet again to align more closely with Cairo than with Addis.[fn]A European diplomat quoted an Egyptian official saying that Bashir, on his latest visit to Cairo, adopted positions on the GERD “that are very close to ours”. Crisis Group interview, Nairobi, February 2019.Hide Footnote Ethiopia has issued no public statement on the uprising in Sudan. Abiy abruptly cancelled a planned 4 March visit to Khartoum, but neither his office nor the Sudanese president’s offered an explanation.[fn]“Ethiopian premier cancels visit to Sudan”, Sudan Tribune, 5 March 2019.Hide Footnote

Another important question, whether Bashir survives or not, is how Sudan will pay for the infrastructure upgrades and other improvements it needs to reap the GERD’s promised benefits. Finding donors or investors will not be easy. The private investment climate in Sudan is poor and many foreigners who have expressed a theoretical interest are waiting. Bashir has long privileged the security sector and paid little heed to economic needs. The military’s control of economic management underpins the country’s chronic foreign exchange shortages, which contribute to the inflation and other economic problems that have helped bring protesters into the streets. It also alienates investors, who complain of byzantine regulations enforced by an inflexible bureaucracy. Sanctions and Bashir’s troubled relations with Western powers and international financial institutions make matters worse. For many foreign investors, the key issue is how long Bashir stays in power and how his eventual succession will be managed.

The GERD’s economic boons for Sudan are only likely to show up sometime in the future. The year-long state of emergency, repression of protesters and uncertainty over when – or if – Bashir will fall makes it even more unlikely that substantial foreign investment will flow into Sudan anytime soon.

V. Reaching Agreement on the Nile Waters

Though mutual suspicion among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan has stymied diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute, in principle all sides stand to gain from greater cooperation in sharing the Nile’s water.

Ethiopia needs external consumers for the hydroelectric power it will generate and thus needs good relations with its neighbours, particularly Sudan, a potential top export market. Given foreign currency shortages at home, it could also benefit from outside funding to complete the GERD and knows it would face diplomatic blowback if it dramatically slowed the water flow to Egypt. Sudan stands to gain enormously from the dam, provided it can attract the necessary investment in its agricultural sector. It also has an interest in ensuring that the dam’s construction is solid: any breach of water would inundate its crops and low-lying towns and villages. As for Egypt, the downstream country most dependent on Nile waters, it sorely needs the upstream countries’ cooperation. In return, Egypt could offer access to markets in its more advanced economy and also joint investment, including in agricultural ventures, with Sudan and Ethiopia.

Beyond reducing risks of confrontation, there are many arguments for a compact to ensure better management of Nile waters. Water stress will weigh ever more heavily upon Nile basin countries in the years ahead.[fn]See Tazebe Beyene, Dennis P. Lettenmaier and Pavel Kabat, “Hydrologic Impacts of Climate Change on the Nile River Basin: Implications of the 2007 IPCC Scenarios”, Climatic Change, vol. 100, no. 3 (2006), pp. 433-461.Hide Footnote Recurring drought has already made rain-fed agriculture, upon which millions depend, increasingly difficult to sustain without modifications to antiquated agricultural practices. Climate change will likely contribute to more erratic water supply and stream flows. Population growth up and down the basin also underlines the need for more sustainable water use. In 1960, the total population of Egypt, Ethiopia (including Eritrea) and Sudan (including South Sudan) was 113 million. This number rose to 487 million in 2016.[fn]See “Estimated and projected total population in Nile basin countries”, Nile Basin Initiative, 2016-2017.Hide Footnote The UN estimates that, together, these countries will add another 200 million people before 2050. Per capita water use will also rise, amid greater urbanisation and industrialisation in each country.[fn]Diplomats say the various parties have used these demographic pressures to press the EU, in particular, to play a greater role in finding a resolution to the Nile waters dispute. Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Addis Ababa, May 2018. A breakdown of the numbers can be found in Timothy Adams, Eltahir Group, Civil and Environmental Engineering, “Population Growth in the Nile Basin”, MIT Future of the Nile Water Workshop, 26 April 2018.Hide Footnote

An expert assessment of the GERD’s design by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology working group, using the limited data available, has identified three flashpoints if Nile basin countries cannot agree on cooperative water management.[fn]See “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: An Opportunity for Collaboration and Shared Benefits in the Eastern Nile Basin”, op. cit.Hide Footnote First, the GERD will create an unparalleled resource management problem-in-waiting. Egypt’s Aswan Dam, completed in 1970, can store up to 169 billion cubic metres of water in its reservoir.[fn]See “Egypt marks completion of Aswan Dam project”, The New York Times, 22 July 1970. As the Ethiopians have done with the GERD, Egyptian authorities sold the Aswan Dam as a game-changing national development project.Hide Footnote The GERD’s reservoir can hold 74 billion cubic metres. Thus, there will be two major storage reservoirs in the same international river basin, each with a huge capacity compared to annual river flow, but with no institutional or legal arrangement for managing both together.[fn]See Dale Whittington, John Waterbury and Marc Jeuland, “The Grand Renaissance Dam and Prospects for Cooperation on the Eastern Nile”, Water Policy, 10 February 2014. Despite the GERD’s huge reservoir, the Ethiopians would not need to hold the water in the reservoir consistently as they will want to use the water to generate power and then release it downstream. To that extent, the GERD is not regarded as a “water-consumptive” project since it is not designed for irrigation, which would typically require storing water. See Cascão, op. cit. Still, Egypt worries that in years when there is low rainfall, Ethiopia will hold more water back to guarantee year-long electricity generation, highlighting the need for a cooperative management framework for the river.Hide Footnote The danger is that both countries could seek to simultaneously fill up their reservoirs in anticipation of drought, for example, fostering conflict because there would be insufficient water to fill up both dams. Without a cooperative management framework, and particularly if Egypt feels that its water supply is threatened, chances for conflict would be high.[fn]Experts note that there are few international rivers with large storage facilities in both an upstream and downstream country. In general, there is a large dam in an upstream country and a smaller one downstream, as is the case in the Senegal River basin. In cases where more than one large dam sits in the same river basin, there are cooperative frameworks for operating the storage facilities. See “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: An Opportunity for Collaboration and Shared Benefits in the Eastern Nile Basin”, MIT, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Secondly, any sudden major reduction of water flow could trigger an ecological disaster. At present, excess water in the Nile flushes salts out of Egypt’s agricultural land into the Mediterranean. Diminished water supplies could lead to rapid salinisation and dramatic declines in agricultural productivity, throwing millions of farmers out of work, driving up food prices and provoking a political crisis. Technical solutions exist, but to implement them the parties will need clarity about the GERD’s effect on water flow and the timetable for filling its reservoirs.[fn]Ibid. Crisis Group interview, Egyptian agriculture ministry official, Cairo, June 2018.Hide Footnote

Thirdly, Ethiopia and Egypt could disagree about how to manage water flow during years of light rainfall. In those periods, Ethiopia will still want to store water for power generation while Egypt and Sudan will want extra water for agricultural and municipal use.[fn]Crisis Group interview, European water expert, Kampala, July 2018. The analyst noted that it was essential to implement safeguards and outline protocols in case of “extreme hydrological events” such as droughts. These measures might include offering guaranteed funding for food imports to downstream countries and encouraging Ethiopia not to store more water than it needs in its reservoirs, to prevent downstream shortages.Hide Footnote

None of these potential problems presents an insurmountable engineering challenge, though the three countries would need to set aside their mutual distrust. They also need to surmount complications related to the secrecy with which public policy is crafted in all three countries. Addis in particular conceals its Nile waters deliberations, partly because it worries about Egyptian sabotage in part due to statements by Egyptian authorities threatening to take military action to stop the dam.[fn]“Egypt: ‘All options open’ in Nile dam row with Ethiopia”, The Telegraph, 12 June 2013.Hide Footnote Ethiopian authorities reported that they foiled an attempt by Ethiopian rebels operating out of Eritrea to attack the GERD site in March 2017.[fn]“Ethiopia thwarts attack on Nile dam, Sudan apprehended 7 attackers”, Sudan Tribune, 3 March 2017.Hide Footnote Addis Ababa has allegedly hidden details of other dams from the downstream countries in the past.[fn]A senior Sudanese official said downstream countries were blindsided by Ethiopia’s construction of a major dam, with a 3 billion cubic meter storage capacity, on the Atbara river, which also flows into the Nile. Ethiopia only informed Egypt about the dam after finishing construction in 2009. Crisis Group interview, former Sudanese cabinet minister, Khartoum, June 2018. Ethiopia also resisted calls for studies into the impact of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam, whose construction began in 2006.Hide Footnote

Any mediation role for Gulf powers or for Turkey would be greatly complicated by their rivalries and battle for influence.

Multiple actors maintain open lines with the riparian countries and could nudge them toward compromise. China has close ties with both Egypt and Ethiopia. U.S. diplomats have discreetly shuttled between Addis Ababa and Cairo to explore possibilities for resolution, though some Ethiopian officials see the Americans as overly sympathetic to Egypt.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. diplomats, Addis Ababa and Abu Dhabi, May-July 2018. An Ethiopian analyst with close ties to the government argued the Egyptians assumed that they could stop the dam because some U.S. officials reportedly sympathised with the Egyptian positions. He claimed both sides underestimated Ethiopian resolve. Crisis Group interview, Ethiopian political analyst, Addis Ababa, May 2018. American officials said the U.S. did not favour any side and encouraged all parties to move toward a resolution. They said the Egyptians requested a “Camp David-style” summit on the issue but found insufficient U.S. support. Crisis Group interviews, U.S. diplomats, Addis Ababa and Abu Dhabi, May-July 2018.Hide Footnote The EU’s special representative for the Horn of Africa has engaged authorities in Cairo, Khartoum and Addis to encourage greater cooperation. Germany’s special envoy for Nile affairs has also met government representatives in the three capitals.

The Gulf powers and Turkey might also play a role. Both sides in the current Gulf crisis (Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand, Qatar on the other) wield influence along the Nile. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, seeing the region primarily through a security lens, have upped spending in the region over the past few years, largely to curtail Iran’s influence. Sudan has been among the chief beneficiaries, receiving aid and investment in return for severing ties with Tehran and sending thousands of Sudanese to fight with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.[fn]A senior Emirati official said Sudan has sent up to 10,000 troops to Yemen. He said the Emiratis appreciate the fact that Sudanese soldiers have gone to dangerous fronts while most other allies have committed only to air support. Many of the Sudan contingent of fighters are children as young as fourteen according to media reports. Crisis Group interview, Abu Dhabi, July 2018. See also Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°65, The United Arab Emirates in the Horn of Africa, 6 November 2018; and “On the front line of the Saudi war in Yemen: Child soldiers from Darfur”, The New York Times, 28 December 2018.Hide Footnote Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may not fully trust President Bashir and have not provided the level of support he craves, but they maintain close ties. In Egypt, those two powers are deeply invested in President Sisi’s success, seeing him as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. Both have given him significant aid and plan to expand economic ties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Emirati foreign ministry officials, Abu Dhabi, July 2018.
 Hide Footnote
The UAE also intends to support major infrastructure projects in Ethiopia.[fn]“After the launch of La Gare Downtown Luxury Complex, Addis Ababa city poised to build at least four similar joint projects”, Addis Standard, 20 November 2018; and “UAE plans oil pipeline from Ethiopia to Eritrea in latest Horn of Africa move”, Reuters, 10 August 2018.Hide Footnote Abu Dhabi has privately signalled that it would be willing to mediate between Cairo and Addis.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UAE foreign ministry official, Abu Dhabi, July 2018.Hide Footnote It has already helped Abiy make peace with Eritrea.

For their part, Qatar and Turkey enjoy especially close ties to Sudan and warm relations with Ethiopia. Turkey is rehabilitating the Ottoman-era Suakin port (recent reports that it intends to establish a naval base there have alarmed Cairo).[fn]Turkey had initially claimed that it planned to rehabilitate the port only as a tourist attraction. But in the second week of November 2018, Turkish officials signalled that they would station air, land and sea forces in Suakin. “Sudan’s Suakin revealed as the location for Turkish military base”, World Bulletin, 13 November 2018.Hide Footnote Qatar was among the first foreign governments to come to President Bashir’s defence as the popular unrest swelled, though how committed Doha is to his survival is an open question.[fn]“Qatar’s emir offers support for Sudan: Sudan presidency”, Reuters, 22 December 2018.Hide Footnote Qatar has also offered Ethiopia financial aid and Turkish companies are among the largest investors in that country.[fn]A Turkish official said local companies held investments worth about $3 billion in Ethiopia, employing some 30,000 people. The bulk of investment is in the textile, construction and light industry sectors. Crisis Group interview, Turkish foreign ministry official, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote Both Doha and Ankara are seeking to expand their economic footprint in the Horn and Nile basin while building diplomatic clout.

That said, any mediation role for Gulf powers or for Turkey would be greatly complicated by their rivalries and battle for influence. Though Egypt sided immediately with the Saudi bloc in its spat with Qatar, neither Sudan nor Ethiopia officially picked sides; both could still come under pressure to choose. Ethiopia in particular has become a site of Gulf-related competition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, government officials and analysts, Abu Dhabi, Washington, Istanbul, Ankara and Doha, June-November 2018.Hide Footnote Before Abiy took office, Addis Ababa was officially non-aligned in the Gulf dispute. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, however, perceived it as being close to Qatar (which offered Addis substantial budgetary support) and Turkey (whose investors have staked millions of dollars in construction and other sectors).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Turkish investors, think-tank officials and foreign ministry officials, Ankara, September 2018.Hide Footnote Abiy is seen as having pivoted toward the Saudi bloc. Qatar and Turkey reportedly remain keen to reposition themselves as key players in Ethiopia.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Ethiopian government official, Addis Ababa, August 2018.Hide Footnote Cairo, in accord with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, looks askance at Ankara and Doha’s efforts to cultivate allies in the region, particularly in Sudan, where they have invested substantially of late. These contrasting goals mean that it will be hard for the Gulf states and Turkey to serve as arbitrators along the Nile.

A. Policy Options

Despite mutual suspicion, a window of opportunity currently exists to find a way forward. Ethiopia’s transition has led to improved ties between Addis and Cairo, while Khartoum stands to be one of the GERD’s chief beneficiaries. External actors should support efforts to strike a deal before the dam is completed by encouraging all parties to show greater flexibility. All sides abandoned their maximalist positions in March 2015, when they effectively opened the door to a negotiated solution. By agreeing to discuss implementation of the dam, Egypt implicitly accepted Ethiopia’s demand for more equitable use of water resources. Conversely, by committing to avoid significant harm to downstream countries, Ethiopia accepted Cairo’s concerns about mitigating downstream impact. In talks, authorities in Sudan also signalled to Cairo that they do not intend to expand water use in a way that would threaten supply to Egypt. What is now required is for the three countries’ leaders to take confidence-building measures, paving the way for a deal well in advance of the GERD’s completion.

The most effective approach likely would proceed in phases:

a) Advancing talks on the GERD’s impact

To unblock the tripartite talks, Ethiopia should cooperate more fully with Egypt’s request for the parties to obtain binding technical advice from respected consultants outlining a fill rate timeline that neither unduly delays the project nor ignores downstream countries’ concerns about water flow. Past efforts in this vein ran aground due to suspicion among the parties. Particularly contentious has been the question of whether the studies’ findings would be binding. Egypt favours this position while Ethiopia fears it could be used to excessively constrain them.

Addis Ababa should accept that Cairo’s demands for such a study accord with international water law, which recommends that upstream countries assert their right to develop their resources while avoiding significant harm to downstream partners. Ethiopia should avoid stalling the initiatives under way since 2013 that aim to resolve this matter. As a further incentive for Addis, the EU’s long-term lending institution, the European Investment Bank, which Ethiopians perceive as less pro-Egyptian than the World Bank, could agree to fund the final stages of dam construction. To reassure Sudan, such a study would also address the dam’s safety.

To further build confidence, Prime Minister Abiy could invite his Egyptian and Sudanese counterparts on a joint tour of the dam site to lift the veil of secrecy that surrounds the project and demonstrate willingness to pursue a negotiated solution. These steps would have ancillary benefit: they could provide both Abiy and Sisi the domestic space required to sell a compromise to their constituencies at home. In the same spirit, Ethiopian and Egyptian security services could resume full cooperation and information-sharing. Egypt’s leaders repeatedly complained in the past that they had to negotiate with Ethiopian politicians over Nile water issues while the security establishment made all the decisions.[fn]A Western diplomat who has spoken to security officials in Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum said Egyptian officials concluded that the Ethiopians were not interested in pursuing a deal because they never included security sector officials in meetings even when the Egyptians requested it. The security officials then reportedly vetoed concessions offered by then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Prime Minister Abiy has changed this practice. Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Nairobi, July 2018.Hide Footnote Ethiopia under Abiy may be more open to meaningful engagement.[fn]Egyptian officials have told diplomats that the Abiy administration has been more responsive to their concerns than its predecessor. As described, they express satisfaction with Abiy’s June 2018 decision to replace heads of the intelligence services and the military viewed by Cairo as hostile. Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Nairobi, September 2018.Hide Footnote

Outside actors could help: as seen, the European Investment Bank could play a part; the UN could offer technical support; the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the EU could encourage authorities in both Addis and Cairo to compromise.

Achieving a breakthrough on the issue of the timeline for filling the dam would significantly reduce tensions and pave the way for more substantive talks on basin-wide cooperation.

b) Negotiating a longer-term Nile treaty

In a second phase, the parties should support efforts toward a long-term trans-boundary cooperation agreement up and down the basin. Egypt could signal good faith by rejoining the NBI, the most effective platform to reach a broader Nile basin agreement. This gesture would be both forward-leaning and justified by the present state of affairs: Egypt (along with Sudan) froze participation in the NBI because upstream countries refused to abide by the 1959 Nile agreement, which allocated 100 per cent of Nile waters to the two downstream countries. Those disagreements are now moot as explained above: the dispute is no longer a battle for hydro-hegemony but rather an argument about how to share resources in a way that benefits all riparian states.

In 2017, Egypt signalled its intent to re-engage with the NBI by sending lower-level officials to meetings.[fn]“Egypt’s participation will add new tonic to Nile Basin Initiative”, The New Times, 11 November 2017.Hide Footnote Its return to full participation could give a fillip to efforts to craft a permanent institutional framework for basin-wide cooperation. NBI member states, in turn, could invite Eritrea, a close Egyptian ally, to upgrade its status to full membership. That step, together with Egypt’s improved ties with Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Uganda, ought to provide Egypt with greater confidence that its concerns will receive a more favourable hearing in future talks. (In the past, the Egyptians perceived Ethiopia as the dominant player within the NBI.)

Any Nile basin agreement would need to respect the interests of all eleven basin countries.

Any Nile basin agreement would need to respect the interests of all eleven basin countries – which, apart from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, include the upstream countries of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. And it would need to lay out a framework for cooperation and consensus-building regarding GERD developments to avert similar showdowns in future. The prospect of such a framework that would protect Egypt’s water supply for years should appeal to President Sisi. He could publicly present it as a win insofar as it would provide guarantees that no longer exist in light of Ethiopia’s and other upstream countries’ rejection of the 1959 treaty. It also could create space for Sisi to more effectively implement long overdue reforms to increase water conservation and efficiency in Egypt.

At any rate, climate change-induced variations in water supply mean that the parties will have little choice in the long run but to make adjustments to their overall water management approach. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology project that the Nile basin will experience greater variability in rainfall patterns in the future – with more years featuring droughts or extreme floods – pointing to the need for greater cooperation between all riparian countries to avoid environmental shocks up and down the basin.[fn]Mohamed S. Siam and Elfatih A. B. Eltahir. “Climate Change Enhances Inter-annual Variability of the Nile River Flow”, Nature Climate Change, 2017.Hide Footnote If Egypt fully rejoins, the NBI could evolve into a permanent commission, as envisioned at its founding, offering a platform for sharing information between parties and providing strategic analysis to help the parties manage what will be a more difficult environmental terrain in the future.

c) Implementing reforms to improve water use

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan all can do more to prepare for less water due to climate change. Egypt and Ethiopia, in particular, in the past have resisted calls to conserve water because public opinion in both countries viewed such steps as displays of weakness in the face of regional rivals’ demands.[fn]One Egyptian economist said authorities in Cairo needed to be brave enough to prepare the public to use water more efficiently and also that they should cast the dispute in less existential terms to allow themselves wiggle room to sell a compromise deal later: “Egypt is on the cusp of a seismic shift when it comes to water. This will require a fundamental shift in how we consume and price water, but ultimately a change in our own national identity that moves away from tying everything to the Nile River”, Crisis Group interview, Cairo, June 2018. Public perceptions in Addis Ababa on the dispute are no less rigid. According to a former Ethiopian government official, Abiy would face significant public backlash at home if he was seen as offering too many concessions. Crisis Group interview, Nairobi, February 2019.Hide Footnote As the sides adopt a more cooperative posture, they should prepare to make necessary adjustments.

Adjustment should involve greater basin-wide cooperation that takes advantage of each country’s strengths. Ethiopia is ideally positioned as a hydropower generator: its high altitude, ample annual rainfall and relatively low average temperatures mean that it loses less water stored in dams to evaporation.[fn]Verhoeven, “Black Gold for Blue Gold? Sudan’s Oil, Ethiopia’s Water and Regional Integration”, op. cit.; Anwar Adem, Dessalew Aynalem, Seifu Tilahun and Tammo Steenhuis, “Predicting Reference Evaporation for the Ethiopian Highlands”, Journal of Water Resource and Protection, vol. 9 (January 2017).Hide Footnote Ethiopia could therefore serve as a hydropower production hub and export cheap power to neighbours.

Abiy’s government also should temper domestic expectations. The GERD undoubtedly will boost Ethiopia’s economy, but is unlikely to be the game changer government propaganda proclaims. Ethiopia’s economy remains weak and requires long-term reform. Four in five Ethiopians live in rural areas.[fn]In 2017, the World Bank estimated the Ethiopian rural population at 80 per cent. “World Bank Staff Estimates Based on the United Nations Population Division’s World Urbanisation Prospects”, World Bank.Hide Footnote Eighty-five per cent depend on subsistence agriculture. Average power consumption per connected household is ten times lower than the sub-Saharan African average.[fn]Ethiopia’s average power consumption was as 69 kWh/year per capita in 2014 compared to 510 kWh for sub-Saharan Africa. “Ethiopia Electric Power Consumption”, Trading Economics (www.tradingeconomics.com).Hide Footnote Private-sector participation in the country is low. Ethiopia is a difficult place to do business, with a slow, rigid and conservative bureaucracy. It is ranked 161 out of 190 on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index. Opening even a small business requires reams of paperwork and other bureaucratic hurdles.[fn]Crisis Group interview, European investor, Addis Ababa, August 2018. The investor made the point that bureaucrats typically greet foreign private sector players at best with indifference and sometimes with overt hostility. He said changing these attitudes would be one of Prime Minister Abiy’s biggest challenges.Hide Footnote The GERD is only one step of many required to improve Ethiopia’s economic fortunes.

For its part, Sudan badly needs to reform to improve the country’s investment climate and attract funds to develop its vast tracts of arable land for agricultural use.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, investors and Sudanese analysts, Khartoum, April 2018.Hide Footnote Greater cooperation with neighbours, including Egypt, could pave the way for joint farms that would grow staples such as wheat and rice, earning Sudan foreign exchange while securing Egypt’s food supply.

With its larger economy and greater pool of technical expertise, Egypt has much to offer the other riparian countries, not least one of the continent’s most extensive markets. At the same time, it faces the most substantial water deficit among basin countries and therefore will require thorough reforms to its water management system. It should embrace more efficient means of irrigation across the board, prepare its farmers for the inevitable adjustments and sensitise its population to the need for less wasteful water use practices.


VI. Conclusion

The case for cooperation among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in resolving the Nile water dispute is unambiguous. All stand to benefit. Dangers of failing to work together are just as stark. The parties could blunder into conflict, with severe humanitarian consequences, if they cannot formulate technical fixes to allow the GERD’s construction to take place in a way that spares downstream countries economic and environmental shocks. And all could pay a steep economic and ecological price if they do not join forces and adopt a more forward-looking approach. Leaders of the three countries should seek agreement today, rather than wait until the project nears completion.

The optimal way forward is to pursue a deal on the most immediate priority: agreeing on a dam fill rate timeline that both mitigates harm to downstream countries and protects Ethiopia’s desire to bring the dam online as soon as feasible. This step would prepare the ground for more substantive talks on a long-term multilateral framework for managing Nile water resources among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, as well as the eight other riparian countries. This framework, in turn, would lay out the terms for mutually beneficial resource sharing.

Nairobi/Abu Dhabi/Istanbul/Brussels, 20 March 2019

Appendix A: Key Issues for Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in the Nile Region

Appendix B: The Nile from Lake Tana to the Mediterranean