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

Seizing the Moment: From Early Warning to Early Action

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

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brussels, 22 June 2016

I. Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. What Can “Early Warning” Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Complexities of Early Action

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

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

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

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

III. Identifying Dangerous Political Dynamics

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

A. Leaders and Elites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Security Sector and the Military

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

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

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

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

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

C. Peripheral Conflicts

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

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

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

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

D. External Drivers of Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

E. Beyond Analysis: Anticipatory Relationships and Actions

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV. Dilemmas of Early Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. Facilitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Coercion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. Incentives

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

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

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

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

Resolving Crisis In the Middle East: An Iranian Perspective

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

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

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

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

D. Bringing Policy Tools Together

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

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

V. Conclusion

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

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

Brussels, 22 June 2016

EU Watch List / Global

Watch List 2021 – Spring Update

Every year Crisis Group publishes two additional Watch List updates that complement its annual Watch List for the EU, most recently published in January 2021. These publications identify major crises and conflict situations where the European Union and its member states can generate stronger prospects for peace. The Spring Update of the Watch List 2021 includes entries on Bolivia, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and Yemen.

Table of Contents

Introduction

European leaders hoping that a new U.S. administration and COVID vaccines would bring some respite to tempestuous global affairs might look back disappointed at the past few months. A lot has happened since Crisis Group put out our last EU Watch List in January. Despite some bright spots, little of it has been good.

First was the Myanmar coup; an entry in this update covers where things stand. The military takeover upended the country’s short experiment with pluralism and provoked a degree of popular fury the generals seemed unprepared for. Though they appear eager for a return to the normalcy, their brutal crackdown has taken the country in the opposite direction. With the economy in tatters, a humanitarian calamity worsening, ethnic armed groups renewing violence and new militias emerging, the crisis risks paving the way for state collapse.

Then, new U.S. President Joe Biden announced he would pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan, meaning European forces will leave, too, by mid-September this year at the latest. Biden characterised the decision as reflecting his administration’s reduced prioritisation of Afghanistan amid other threats and challenges around the world. He also explained that he did not see a rationale for keeping troops in Afghanistan if it was not likely they would improve conditions there. This line of reasoning was an implicit rejection of Washington’s longstanding policy of using the deployment as an insurance policy against resurgence of terrorist threats. For many Afghans, the drawdown brings dread. Much is uncertain, but another escalation in fighting – in a country that has already suffered more than four decades of war – appears the most plausible scenario, as insurgents test how far they can go against Afghan security forces. European governments, which have put their diplomatic support behind Afghan peace talks and their financial support behind the Afghan government, will have their work cut out to promote stability if that happens.

There were troubling signs in those parts of sub-Saharan Africa Europe tends to fret about most. In January, our Watch List covered Ethiopia’s rocky transition – things since have gotten worse. The war in its northern Tigray region grinds on, with evidence of horrific abuses by all sides, including scorched-earth tactics by Eritrean forces fighting alongside the Ethiopian army against Tigrayan rebels. Trouble is brewing elsewhere in the country, with ethnic strife on the rise ahead of elections expected in June. Ethiopia is also at loggerheads with Sudan over border areas. Violence continues to destabilise much of the rural Sahel. To make matters worse, as this goes to press, the Malian military has detained the country’s interim president and prime minister, who themselves came to power after a coup less than a year ago. In Chad, President Idriss Déby died in April near front lines fighting rebels, raising fears in European capitals about Chad’s stability and what his death would mean for battles against jihadists around the Sahel and Lake Chad that Déby portrayed himself as pivotal to – though, thus far, his son, who has taken over, has kept Chadian deployments in place. Whether these events will prompt any further reflection in European capitals about the French-led military-focused strategy across the Sahel remains unclear.

Then came the latest flare-up in Israel-Palestine. After weeks of tensions in Jerusalem and heavy-handed Israeli policing at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Hamas began firing rockets into Israel, prompting an Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Over eleven days of fighting, 243 Palestinians, including scores of Hamas fighters and 66 children, and twelve people in Israel including two children, died. Much of Gaza was left in ruins. It was the fourth Gaza war since 2007 but this round was different, notably in the violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians wracking cities in Israel itself and the displays of solidarity among Palestinians across the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and Israel. Beyond the human cost, the war should serve as a wake-up call that, notwithstanding Israel’s normalisation with some Arab governments and many European leaders’ apparent desire to wish the conflict away, it remains a dangerous flashpoint. Unless Israel and international actors re-examine their long­standing approach to the conflict by taking into account Palestinians’ shared suffering and apparent newfound common voice, and unless Palestinians have the chance to elect a new leadership, it’s only a matter of time before rockets and bombs start again.

Nor it is clear that an end to COVID-19 is in sight. If much of Europe is ploughing ahead with vaccines and anticipating summer holidays, the pandemic’s ravages in India, Brazil and elsewhere show the struggles in other parts of the world to get it under control. Until now, COVID-19 has little shaped  peace and security or the trajectory of any major war one way or the other. Yet, in many places, the pandemic and lockdowns have aggravated precisely those problems that fed discontent beforehand: rising inequality, higher living costs, scarcer public resources, fewer opportunities for young people. Today’s upheaval across Colombia, for example, or the protests in northern Lebanon some months ago, have not primarily been about COVID-19. But the pandemic played into the anger that took people to the streets. Unless the virus can be tamed and economies pick up, those protests may be a harbinger of things to come. The EU played a key role in setting up and supporting COVAX, which helps distribute vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. That support is likely to be crucial for some time to come.

As for major power politics, Biden has brought more continuity than change. European leaders can feel some relief at the shift in tone and sense of normalcy that has returned to transatlantic affairs and the UN Security Council. Still, U.S.-China ties are as fraught as ever. For Brussels, the balancing act remains largely the same: standing up to Beijing where it serves Europe’s interests, managing with as little friction as possible any divergence with Washington, and keeping open avenues for coordination on issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation. Russia’s troop build-up near its border with Ukraine earlier this year drove home again, as our entry below covers, the dilemmas it poses Western powers. Moscow appears to be withdrawing those forces, but the show of strength aggravated already toxic relations, coming together with tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions between Western capitals and Moscow, related to Czech findings of Russian sabotage, and fresh U.S. sanctions on Moscow for, among other things, its alleged cyberattacks and election interference. As we go to press, European leaders had just agreed to impose fresh Belarus sanctions in response to President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s brazen forced diversion of a European flight over his country’s airspace – characterised by some as state terror – to detain a Belarus dissident. As yet, no evidence suggests Moscow was involved, but it has publicly defended Minsk. Increased friction between Brussels and Lukashenka, a Putin ally, is unlikely to do much for Russia-West relations.

So where were the bright spots? Those lie – perhaps unexpectedly – in early rumblings of efforts to mend the rivalries that have fuelled Arab wars over the past decade. Turkish and Egyptian diplomats appear to have agreed to tamp down acrimonious rhetoric. The Gulf Cooperation Council spat is formally over, and while bad blood remains between Abu Dhabi and Doha, there are signs of reconciliation within the bloc. (Libya’s peace deal owes mostly to a fighting stalemate but cooling hostility among the parties’ outside backers – Turkey and Qatar on one side, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on the other – is part of the story.) Even Saudi Arabia and Iran are talking; their representatives met in Iraq to discuss Yemen. These apparent recalibrations may be partly motivated by Biden eyeing a return to the Iran nuclear deal and withdrawing his predecessor’s unconditional support for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. How much they’ll achieve remains unclear: Yemen’s war, as our entry below makes clear, is still going from bad to worse; competition among Gulf powers in the Horn of Africa appears undimmed. Still, given the destruction those enmities have wrought over the past decade, any stirring of change qualifies as good news.

May 2021

Bolivia: Shifting Loyalties Complicate Route to Reconciliation

The turmoil that followed Bolivia’s disputed 2019 election has subsided, but the country’s deep political wounds remain unhealed. Credible and largely uneventful polls in October 2020 installed Luis Arce as president and returned Evo Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) to power, laying to rest fears that a fresh election dispute would trigger another round of unrest. But while citizens’ faith in the electoral authorities has mostly been restored, the tensions of the past two years linger on.

Fierce disagreement persists about the 2019 polls, which led to Morales’ resignation and were declared null after a wave of post-electoral violence. On one side of the political divide are those who continue to see that election as an attempt at massive fraud aimed at prolonging Morales’ grip on power beyond constitutional limits; on the other are those who regard it as a coup orchestrated by Bolivia’s white elites, the military and their international allies, including the Organization of American States (OAS). Political polarisation deepened under the right-wing interim government led by Jeanine Áñez, which held power between the two elections, and was widely seen to be persecuting MAS members and political allies. Now that the MAS has come back to power, Áñez and several of her ministers have been jailed, stirring up still more political resentment and mistrust, and reinforcing the perception that the courts are in thrall to the government and bend to its dictates.

The path to reconciliation is hardly clear.

The path to reconciliation is hardly clear. President Arce came to power offering conciliatory rhetoric, and his government quickly unveiled an ambitious proposal to overhaul the politicised judicial system, which is a perennial source of partisan division. But any hope for a new tone disappeared in the rancorous run-up to regional and local elections, in which the MAS fared poorly amid growing internal tensions. Public discontent with the government, meanwhile, is mounting over poor management of the pandemic and a deepening economic slump. Although the EU and UN, as well as politicians such as Vice President David Choquehuanca and presidential runner-up Carlos Mesa, have mooted various plans for political and social reconciliation, their prospects look remote.

In these circumstances, the European Union (EU) and its member states should:

  • Continue working with the UN and other donors to provide technical assistance to national and local electoral authorities so as to guarantee transparent and credible polls in the future.
  • To reduce the polarising impact of perceived judicial partisanship on Bolivian politics, encourage the Arce administration to carry out comprehensive judicial reform on the basis of consultations with all political parties and civil society, while simultaneously moving forward on short-term goals, such as legal reforms to help address violence against women.
  • Press the Arce administration to ensure that the measures it takes with respect to Áñez are consistent with constitutional requirements.
  • Together with the UN and Catholic Church, help foster local dialogues aimed at preventing flare-ups of violence and build the conditions for an eventual national reconciliation process.

Political Fragmentation

Arce was elected president of Bolivia with 55 per cent of the vote after a turbulent year during which the administration of interim President Áñez was accused of human rights violations and using the pandemic to remain in power beyond its mandate. The election went smoothly. With EU and UN support, and with the widely respected Salvador Romero at the helm of the Superior Electoral Tribunal, the electoral authorities persuaded most Bolivians that the polls were free and fair. But peaceful polls and a landslide victory for the MAS over centrist Mesa (of the Civic Community party) and right-wing radical Luis Fernando Camacho (of the Creemos party) did not mean that Bolivia has united behind the MAS, as the results of March’s local and regional elections proved. The party won only three of nine races for state governor, and it now controls only two of the country’s biggest cities.

There are several explanations for the MAS’s lacklustre showing in the March polls. Back from exile in Argentina, Morales took control of the campaign. He placed his preferred candidates on the MAS slate, shunted aside popular figures such as Eva Copa, the young woman who led the Senate under the interim government, and turned off some traditional MAS voters in the process. The party also lost the support of voters who had expected the Arce administration to chart a course to domestic reconciliation, and who were disappointed when the new president declared a broad amnesty protecting his allies from being charged with serious crimes committed during the Áñez administration’s tenure. Morales found himself openly confronted by disgruntled former supporters, and well-known candidates defected from the party.

The new MAS-led government also faced growing criticism over its handling of COVID-19, especially regarding a lack of vaccines, and the public perception that it is not doing enough to respond to the related economic crisis. These widening divisions within the party as well as the MAS’s loss of support among its traditional constituencies represent a major shift in Bolivian politics. For example, many Aymara, an indigenous group that has historically supported Morales, shifted their allegiance to a new party founded by ex-MAS members, Jallalla. Significant numbers of small-hold farmers and the urban poor, who in the past were core MAS supporters, switched to other indigenous and leftist parties, such as Movement Third System.

These widening divisions within the party as well as the MAS’s loss of support among its traditional constituencies represent a major shift in Bolivian politics.

At the same time, the opposition has fragmented. The election of Camacho, who in 2019 mobilised thousands of supporters to demand Morales’ removal from office, as governor of Santa Cruz proved his enduring popular appeal among hardline opposition forces in some areas. Mesa’s Civic Community, a more moderate movement, holds 30 per cent of the seats in parliament, but was essentially absent from the local election battle.

“Lawfare” and Justice Reform

Political manipulation of the judiciary, widely known in Latin America as “lawfare”, has become one of the most distinctive and divisive characteristics of Bolivian political life. In the aftermath of the 2019 election, the Áñez administration brought politically tinged charges against Morales and others for sedition and terrorism. In turn, the Arce administration is levelling similar charges at Áñez, leading to her imprisonment since 12 March.

While evidence suggests that Áñez should face trial for grave crimes committed during her administration’s tenure, including the massacres of Senkata and Sacaba where at least nineteen people protesting Morales’ ouster were killed by Bolivian security forces, the way the Arce administration is prosecuting her is likely to increase the public’s sense that the judiciary is politicised. Among other issues, the constitution provides that former presidents are immune from normal prosecution through judicial channels for their actions while in power, and that they can only be tried by Congress. But in the present case, the government has determined that it lacks the votes in parliament to secure a guilty verdict, and admitted that it is therefore building a case against Áñez in the courts (which are widely viewed as lacking independence) based on her alleged role in what the administration characterises as a coup against Morales, despite scant evidence of her involvement.

Human rights organisations issued rapid condemnations of the Bolivian government’s imprisonment of Áñez and apparent use of the justice system to perpetuate a cycle of political revenge. The EU, UN, OAS and U.S. were similarly critical. This outside pressure helped convince La Paz not to file charges against other members of the interim government, but Áñez remains in jail, and some MAS factions have pushed back hard against the criticism, including through social media attacks on a disapproving European Parliament resolution. It is unlikely that these factions will soften their stance.

Efforts to reform the judicial system and break the cycle of revenge justice have thus far made little headway.

Against this backdrop, efforts to reform the judicial system and break the cycle of revenge justice have thus far made little headway. A reform proposal advanced by Justice Minister Iván Lima in December 2020 foundered in the face of lack of political backing from MAS leadership. A proposed referendum that would alter the way in which judges are elected – which now allows the party controlling Congress to decide who is on the slate – has been postponed until after the next judicial election, scheduled for 2023. Several high-profile members of an advisory council formed by the Arce government to pilot judicial reform have resigned, complaining that they had met only once.

Recommendations for the EU and Its Member States

To avoid a repeat of the violence that followed the 2019 elections, it will be important for Bolivian authorities to continue building public confidence in the electoral system. The EU should impress on the Arce administration the importance of maintaining an independent and impartial Superior Electoral Tribunal, and work closely with Dina Chuquimia, who replaced Romero after his resignation, to build on the progress achieved over the last year.

Additionally, the EU, in partnership with the UN, should continue to provide support to the Tribunal to strengthen its ability to run transparent and reliable elections, through technical assistance to improve vote counting; the purchase of better equipment and electoral materials; the design of a communications strategy that explains to the public the vote-tallying process and strengthens faith in its transparency; and the training of Tribunal staff, among other measures. Similarly, the Ombudsman’s Office and others have identified specific weaknesses in local electoral bodies that need to be addressed – in particular better training of local staff, guaranteeing that poll workers speak the indigenous language of the surrounding area and providing election materials that help voters understand their choices. The EU and member states that are already active in this area, such as Sweden, should extend their partnership with the UN and other donors to provide these electoral authorities with the technical and material support they require.

Given the corrosive and polarising impact of perceived judicial partisanship on Bolivian politics, the EU should also work with the Arce administration where possible to advance judicial reform efforts. Even if key parts of the planned reform are on hold, the EU and member states should continue to insist on improving the justice system, and press, among other things, for an increase in spending in this area (currently only 0.38 per cent of GDP) to allow for the creation of specialised courts, the appointment of more judges to ease case delays in the courts, and broader public access. The Arce administration should signal its commitment to ending politicised justice by developing a strategy to ensure that Áñez is treated in accordance with the constitution.

The EU could also support the justice ministry in pushing forward changes it has highlighted as priorities and that have broad political support; for example, modifications to Law 348 to Guarantee Women a Life Free of Violence. Bolivia has one of the highest numbers of femicides on the continent, and high levels of violence targeting women in politics. It could also partner with suitable national institutions and organisations to help modernise judicial bodies and give all Bolivians access to the judicial system.

Finally, together with the UN and Catholic Church, the EU should keep mediating political and social disputes that threaten to spill over into violence, as it has done since 2019. More substantial steps toward political reconciliation of the sort proposed by Mesa – including freeing political prisoners, prosecuting violent acts that took place between October 2019 and October 2020 (which would require reversal of the amnesty), and reinstating the two-thirds majority for certain legislative procedures to encourage greater inter-party cooperation (a threshold abolished in October 2020 by the MAS-controlled Assembly) – have been dismissed by the MAS but should still be on the table.

The EU and member states, together with well-regarded institutions such as the Catholic Church, should additionally offer political and, where needed, financial support for dialogue-based initiatives around specific issues that have established their worth. For example, altercations recently flared among coca growers (controlled growth of the plant is legal in Bolivia) after the government decided to move the location of one of two national coca markets, leading to protests and then a violent crack­down on protesters’ roadblocks. International mediation on issues such as this one could help minimise the chances that local frictions provoke wider unrest and instability, and progressively build the conditions for a national reconciliation process.

 

Help Contain the Damage of Myanmar’s Military Coup

The 1 February coup d’état in Myanmar has undone a decade of liberalisation, triggered a deep economic crisis, led to renewed ethnic armed conflict and set the country on the path toward possible state collapse. The security forces have responded to widespread popular resistance to the military takeover with brutal violence against demonstrators and the broader civilian population – killing hundreds and detaining thousands with the apparent aim of terrorising people into submission. Instead, resistance movements appear to have become even more determined, continuing to organise general strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Conflict has also resumed or escalated in several of the country’s ethnic areas as armed groups have deserted the peace process and attacked security forces. The economic meltdown prompted by the coup and the near collapse of many government functions, including the health and education systems, will have far-reaching and lasting consequences for Myanmar’s 55 million people. A humanitarian emergency is already in the making, as millions, particularly in cities, are pushed into poverty and face rising food insecurity.

The EU and its member states can help address the crisis in Myanmar by:

  • Channelling significant aid to address both the impending humanitarian emergency and longer-term needs relating to health, education and livelihoods; working to improve coordination among UN agencies, donors and implementing partners to ensure this aid’s efficient delivery; and urgently funding independent media;
  • Supporting regional diplomacy, particularly Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-led efforts, to boost the ASEAN special envoy’s legitimacy in engaging with the regime in a robust and effective manner; and backing efforts to convene an international contact group on Myanmar;
  • Maintaining and expanding targeted sanctions on the regime, the military and their business interests;
  • Continuing to engage closely with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and the National Unity Government as well as other legitimate representatives of the Myanmar people;
  • Ensuring that the EU arms embargo is strictly enforced and sufficiently covers dual-use items and technological tools of surveillance and repression; working with EU partners to develop a coordinated list of prohibited items; and sharing information with like-minded countries on efforts to block transfers on a voluntary basis.

A Multi-dimensional Crisis

After grossly miscalculating how Myanmar’s people would react to the 1 February coup, the regime appears determined to impose its will on the population through sheer brutality. Snipers have shot unarmed protesters, including children, in the head. Police and soldiers have attacked protest barricades with rifle grenades and mortars, targeted medical first responders and fired randomly into crowds, at passing vehicles and even into homes at night. State television has broadcast photos of detainees bearing clear signs of torture, possibly as a warning to others against resisting the coup. Some female detainees have been subjected to sexual and gender-based violence during interrogations. These actions, no doubt intended to terrorise, have not achieved their goals. On the contrary, they have fuelled further resistance by inflaming the already simmering hatred of the military across the country. Although the regime almost entirely shut down the internet, general strikes and civil disobedience continue – with young female activists playing particularly prominent roles – and people keep finding new ways to express their dissent, for example by replacing demonstrations with flash mobs in order to avoid arrest. Close to four months on, the military is struggling to consolidate its power grab.

As a result of the violence, absence of governance, and strikes and civil disobedience, which also affect the private sector, Myanmar’s economy is falling apart.

As a result of the violence, absence of governance, and strikes and civil disobedience, which also affect the private sector, Myanmar’s economy is falling apart. Many have lost their jobs. Income-generating opportunities in the informal sector are drying up and the banking system is at a virtual standstill. Many people have great difficulty taking out cash due to Central Bank-mandated withdrawal limits, while the regime’s internet shutdown has prevented most from access to electronic banking and payment services. The combination of the banking crisis with a collapse in business and consumer confidence, widespread insecurity, and broken logistics and supply chains has resulted in a hard stop to economic activity, and the UN Development Programme now estimates that nearly half of Myanmar’s population risks falling into poverty by 2022.

At this rate, the poverty crisis will soon become a hunger crisis. Food markets are dysfunctional, with some staples unavailable, and surging prices for others. That many people are without income or access to cash leaves them unable to buy what food there is. On 22 April, the World Food Programme warned that up to 3.4 million additional people in Myanmar would struggle to afford food in the next three to six months, particularly in urban areas.

Likewise, the public health and education systems have all but collapsed, as the vast majority of medical staff and teachers – most of them women – refuse to work for the regime. Schools, already closed for months due to COVID-19, have seen their planned reopening stall due to striking teachers and parents afraid for their children’s safety. Many public hospitals and clinics are shuttered, and soldiers have converted others, in key city locations, into forward operating bases after evicting the patients. COVID-19 testing and treatment have virtually stopped and the vaccination program is far behind schedule. With regular childhood vaccinations in jeopardy and key imported pharmaceuticals in short supply, public health experts are worried that a decade of progress in improving basic health care and tackling infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria will now be lost.

Meanwhile, armed conflict is increasing in several of the country’s ethnic areas. While full-scale conflict between the Myanmar military and ethnic armed groups has not yet erupted, clashes have escalated significantly since the coup. In some regions, such as Kachin and Kayin States, the situation is edging toward a resumption of all-out conflict, with the regime even resorting to airstrikes – including upon civilian targets. Several armed groups have put an end to existing ceasefires – some under pressure from their own constituencies to oppose the coup. While some may choose not to, it is now clear that the formal peace process for a negotiated political solution to Myanmar’s numerous ethnic conflicts is dead. Any hope of resolving the Rohingya crisis in the foreseeable future has also evaporated.

Another significant development is the formation of civil defence forces or militias by local communities, including in Sagaing and Magway Regions and Chin State. Armed with locally made hunting rifles as well as a small number of assault weapons and grenades, these groups are not capable of confronting experienced and well-armed army units, but they are able to use local knowledge of the terrain to harass and ambush soldiers, including in urban environments. Underground resistance groups are also carrying out improvised explosive device and arson attacks on regime targets and government administrative offices in Yangon, Mandalay and elsewhere, while hundreds of protesters have travelled from cities to non-government-controlled areas to receive military training from ethnic armed groups.

Growing conflict and insecurity in many parts of the country, coupled with a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis, may lead to significant population flows both internally and across the country’s borders.

Responding to the Crisis

With no sign of either an end to violence or a return to civilian rule, the EU and member states should take a number of steps to respond to the coup and its aftermath.

The first is to make urgent preparations to provide significant levels of support to ordinary people in order to address not only the looming humanitarian emergency but also longer-term needs related to the collapse of the health and education systems and the loss of livelihoods. The EU has already provided an extra €9 million for urgent humanitarian relief, but suspended its development assistance in March as a result of the coup. In order to deliver aid at scale while bypassing traditional mechanisms now under the junta’s control, the EU and member states should explore working through NGO and civil society channels (while protecting them from being overwhelmed or put at risk), multi-donor funds and UN agencies if possible, and local government systems as appropriate. To ensure efficient delivery of such aid, the EU should advocate for the nomination of a senior UN envoy for relief and recovery planning, who could be appointed by the Secretary-General to bring coherence and coordination to UN agencies’, donors’ and implementing partners’ responses to the crisis. With Myanmar’s media under immense pressure, Brussels should also urgently fund independent media outlets, who play a vital role in getting reliable information to the population and the outside world.

While the ongoing ASEAN-led process has significant limitations, it is the only diplomatic initiative under way and arguably the only platform for engaging both the regime and representatives of the elected civilian government.

Secondly, the EU should support global and regional diplomatic efforts to address the crisis. While the ongoing ASEAN-led process has significant limitations, it is the only diplomatic initiative under way and arguably the only platform for engaging both the regime and representatives of the elected civilian government. The EU should support it with the objective of making it more robust and effective, including by pushing for the speedy nomination of an ASEAN special envoy to help address the crisis and by pressing the junta to permit the envoy to travel to Myanmar as soon as possible. The EU should also back the convening of a contact group on Myanmar comprising key regional and Western countries, an idea that has been quietly discussed and that could usefully complement the ASEAN process. Finally, the Union and its member states should continue to engage closely with the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (a group of parliamentarians elected in November 2020) and the National Unity Government that it has appointed, as well as other representatives of Myanmar’s people, such as ethnic leaders (including Rohingya).

Thirdly, the EU should continue to develop its framework of restrictive measures. It should continue to expand targeted sanctions on the military and its business interests, members of the regime, its cabinet, senior police and military officers, and military-owned or -linked companies. It should, however, refrain from revoking Myanmar’s access to the Everything But Arms trade scheme that gives developing country products tariff-free access to the single market, as the impact would fall on workers – mainly young women from poor families employed in the garment industry – and there are no indications that such a move would create leverage over the regime.

Finally, the EU should strictly enforce its arms embargo and make sure that it sufficiently covers dual-use items and technological tools of surveillance and repression. The EU and its member states should work to develop with other partner countries a coordinated list of prohibited items and share information on their efforts to block transfers of such items. This step would create a framework for like-minded countries to coordinate constraints on the military.

Halting the Deepening Turmoil in Nigeria’s North West

Nigeria’s North West is sliding deeper into crisis. Criminal gangs, some of which started out as ethnic militias or vigilante groups, have proliferated in the region. These gangs are gaining in strength – adding recruits, arming themselves more heavily and carrying out far more audacious attacks on both civilian and military targets than they were a few years ago. The humanitarian and economic costs are enormous. As security deteriorates, jihadist groups linked to the Boko Haram insurgency that erupted in 2011 in north-eastern Nigeria are also expanding their reach into the North West. The crisis risks spilling over into neighbouring Niger.

Although Nigeria’s government has repeatedly vowed to curb bloodshed, its military response has been inadequate.

Although Nigeria’s government has repeatedly vowed to curb bloodshed, its military response has been inadequate. It has made little progress toward resolving the herder-farmer conflict that is at the root of the violence and little effort to alleviate deepening human misery in the region. It urgently needs to develop strategies that can contain armed groups and ease the humanitarian crisis in the North West, while expediting plans to promote peaceful coexistence between herders and farmers. Given the government’s resource and capacity deficits, international partners can do much to help.

The EU and its member states should assist the Nigerian government to:

  • Bolster its security presence in the North West by providing security forces with logistics and communications equipment, as well as reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering tools needed to locate gangs hiding in forests and prevent their attacks, while making such assistance subject to appropriate human rights vetting. The EU can also help the government tighten Nigeria’s borders by offering training and equipment that would improve its security agencies’ capacity to stem the influx of illicit firearms and foreign jihadists. It can further help the establishment and effective operations of the newly created National Centre for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons.
  • Increase financial allocations to roll out immediate humanitarian aid to hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in the region and others affected by the mayhem, particularly women who have been widowed, sexually abused or who have lost their livelihoods.
  • Support those initiatives and organisations working to foster local dialogues among herding and farming communities, as well as different ethnic and religious groups, and accelerate implementation of the National Livestock Transformation Plan, which aims to improve relations between herders and farmers by building ranches and rehabilitating grazing reserves in states that have endorsed the plan.

Rising Violence

The causes of the North West’s turmoil are complex and inter-related. Environmental degradation caused by the twin pressures of climate change and rapid population growth has aggravated resource competition between herders and farmers. Disputes over land and water prompted both herders and farmers to form armed self-defence groups, fuelling a cycle of retaliatory violence that has taken on a communal dimension. The herders are predominantly ethnic Fulani, while the farmers are mainly Hausa or from other ethnic groups. In some areas, particularly in the southern part of Kaduna state, these tensions are compounded by long-running animosity among the predominantly Muslim Fulani and Hausa, and smaller, largely Christian groups.

The emergence of criminal gangs, whom the Nigerian government and mass media call “bandits”, has aggravated an already precarious security situation. Some of these gangs started as herder-allied groups but now operate autonomously. Many are exclusively or predominantly Fulani, while others are ethnically diverse. Some have recruits from neighbouring Benin and Niger as well as countries as far away as Sudan. Most members are illiterate. Aided by the flow of illicit firearms and hard drugs across Nigeria’s poorly secured borders, these gangs, often storming villages on hundreds of motorcycles, engage in a range of criminal activities, from cattle rustling and kidnapping for ransom to extortion, sexual assault and armed robbery of gold miners and traders. Most gangs have taken refuge in the region’s vast woodlands – sometimes hidden in caves or mountainous terrain – including Kamuku forest in Kaduna state, Falgore forest in Kano state, Dansadau forest in Zamfara state and Davin Rugu forest, which straddles the states of Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara.

The gangs lack centralised leadership structures and are sometimes locked in bitter rivalries with one another. Some gang leaders claim they resorted to crime because successive federal or state governments neglected the welfare of the pastoralist Fulani or because security forces and vigilante groups formed by various communities abused them. Such claims may have merit in some cases, but in most they appear to be self-serving excuses for illicit profit seeking.

The gangs are continually evolving. Having originated in Zamfara state, they have since spread to all neighbouring states – Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Niger, Kebbi and Sokoto – and are growing in number and size. They are staging ever more mass abductions of students and other citizens in order to extract ransom payments from parents, families, communities or state governments, kidnapping over 700 schoolchildren and killing six between December 2020 and April 2021. But gang violence is no longer limited to hit-and-run attacks. In April, Muhammad Awaisu Wana, chairman of Niger Concerned Citizens, a civil society group, reported that armed groups had taken control of ten of fifteen wards in the Shiroro local government area of Niger state. Similar reports from Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina indicate that the gangs have established a permanent presence in parts of these states.

Gangs are also scaling up their weaponry, acquiring general-purpose machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Sheikh Ahmed Gumi, a prominent Muslim cleric who met several gang leaders in January, said they planned to buy anti-aircraft missiles to repel the Nigerian military’s aerial attacks. Gumi said: “What is currently happening … is insurgency and not banditry”. In April, gunmen stormed two military barracks in Niger state, killing at least seven soldiers; other assailants killed at least nine police officers in Kebbi state.

Rampant insecurity appears to be an opportunity for jihadists to extend their influence in the region by forging alliances with other armed groups.

Rampant insecurity appears to be an opportunity for jihadists to extend their influence in the region by forging alliances with other armed groups. A spike in jihadist activity in the North West raises the prospect that the region could soon become a land bridge connecting Islamist rebels in the central Sahel with the decade-old insurgency in the Lake Chad region of north-eastern Nigeria. Security sources point to a resurgence of the long-dormant Boko Haram splinter group, Jama’atu Ansarul Muslimina Fi Biladis Sudan (Group of Partisans for Muslims in Black Africa), better known as Ansaru, which was active in north-western Nigeria between 2011 and 2014. Elements of other Boko Haram offshoots, notably the Islamic State in West Africa Province, are arriving in the area.

At the same time, a poorly secured international boundary enables the influx of arms and facilitates the movement of jihadists to and from the Sahel, where local Islamic State affiliates have been expanding their influence. Moreover, as Crisis Group reported recently, organised banditry is spreading to neighbouring Niger’s south-western border strip between the towns of Maradi and Dogondoutchi.

The Growing Humanitarian Crisis

The violence is exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in the North West, which already has some of Nigeria’s highest levels of displacement, poverty, malnutrition and disease. The civil society organisation Global Rights reports that 1,527 people were killed by criminal and other armed violence in the North West in 2020, higher than the number (1,508) reportedly killed by the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East. In Kaduna state, the government reports that in the first three months of 2021, armed groups killed 323 people (compared to 628 in all of 2020) and kidnapped 949 others. The UN estimates that 279,000 people were displaced in Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina by the end of 2020, and that almost 2.6 million people across the three states are facing food insecurity in 2021.

Poverty is rising across the region. Gangs deny farmers access to their fields unless they pay levies, often making it impossible for them to plant or harvest crops. In Katsina state, Governor Aminu Masari said farmers have abandoned over 50,000 hectares of land in 2020. Amid the surge of kidnappings, ransom demands have forced many families – and sometimes entire communities – to sell property and take on debt. Some rural communities have agreed to pay taxes to armed groups to avoid attacks, an arrangement that further impoverishes residents.

Women have been disproportionately affected. Hundreds have been killed in attacks on their villages in recent years. Thousands have been widowed, leading to an increase in the number of single-income households. The violence has forced thousands more to flee their homes, abandoning farms, livestock and trades, thus losing sources of income. As gangs destroy markets and loot shops and warehouses, they cut off access to credit for many small-scale female traders. Wealthier business owners have also slashed their trade volumes in order to avoid travelling to suppliers on the region’s increasingly dangerous roads. Sexual violence is widespread. Having lost their livelihoods, some women have resorted to street begging or sex work so as to survive.

Furthermore, the violence poses a serious threat to education in the North West and Nigeria more broadly. Since December 2020, authorities shut down hundreds of schools across seven states – Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara – until better security arrangements are in place or the risk of mass abductions lowers. The use of some schools’ premises as displaced persons’ camps is also disrupting learning. Lower enrolment and attendance, resulting from insecurity, could add to Nigeria’s population of out-of-school children, already estimated at over 10 million and among the highest in the world.

Even more worryingly, the crisis is eroding the government’s capacity to perform certain core functions. On 5 May, citing the insecurity in the North West, the federal House of Representatives asked the National Population Commission to postpone the 2021 census until the situation improves. General elections scheduled for February 2023 may also prove impossible to organise in parts of the North West.

The Faltering Response

The Nigerian government lacks the personnel and resources to tackle the insecurity in the North West. Despite President Muhammadu Buhari’s repeated pledges to crush the armed groups, as well as police and military operations that have killed hundreds of gang members since 2015, attacks continue. The faltering federal response is fuelling conspiracy theories that some government officials may be complicit in, or even profiting from, the violence.

Security forces are stretched woefully thin across the region. In Niger state, the governor complained that there are only 4,000 police to protect 24 million citizens (a dismal ratio of one police officer per 6,000 citizens). In March, the emir (Muslim traditional ruler) of Anka, in Zamfara state, reported that “we have less than 5,000 security men fighting over 30,000 bandits”. The federal government, however, has undertaken no major recruitment campaigns for security personnel in several years.

A dearth of equipment further constrains security operations. In January, the Katsina state government secretary, Mustapha Inuwa, recalled an occasion where “about 292 army officers were brought for a particular operation with only four vehicles”. Residents report that troops have sometimes fled combat against the gangs after running out of ammunition. The equipment deficit is only partly due to resource constraints. Inertia in Abuja is also at play. In January, the Niger state governor complained that, three months after his government had procured drones to track armed groups, they had still not been delivered due to delays in documentation, including the procurement of end user certificates, from federal authorities.

Peace deals between state governments and gang leaders have yielded few results.

Peace deals between state governments and gang leaders have yielded few results. In mid-2019, the governors of Katsina, Sokoto, Niger and Zamfara states offered unconditional amnesties, rehabilitation and other incentives as a means of wooing the gangs to release hostages and disarm. These agreements led attacks to decline through the second half of the year. Disarmament stalled, however, for several reasons including possible bad faith by some actors, competition among groups and the failure of authorities to foster Hausa-Fulani reconciliation. Some armed groups that were not involved in the talks turned against those that agreed to negotiate. Many criminal gangs, oblivious of the peace agreements or perceiving them as a sign of government weakness, simply carried on their violent activities. The Zamfara state governor claims that his peace efforts are working despite continuing violence, but the others have since conceded defeat and terminated negotiations.

The humanitarian response has been insufficient. The federal government has made little effort to provide internally displaced persons (IDP) with food, water, emergency shelters or sanitary facilities, and its Humanitarian Response Plan for 2021 makes no mention of the crisis in the North West. Meanwhile, there are few international agencies on the ground, although the International Organization for Migration is documenting some of the displacement and the need for aid.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The Nigerian government needs considerable assistance in reversing the slide in the North West. On 23 March, the governors of three North West states – Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara – visited the EU delegation in Abuja, soliciting help. Together with its member states, the EU could render support in at least three areas.

The EU and its member states could assist Nigeria’s security agencies with logistics and communication facilities to help protect rural dwellers and respond more effectively to early warnings and distress calls.

A first priority is security support to the Nigerian government. The EU and its member states could assist Nigeria’s security agencies with logistics and communication facilities to help protect rural dwellers and respond more effectively to early warnings and distress calls. As most armed groups are hiding in forests, the EU could provide the military with reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering equipment to help apprehend them, making all such assistance subject to appropriate human rights vetting. Furthermore, the EU and its member states can help the Nigerian government secure the country’s borders by offering better training and equipment to strengthen customs and immigration agencies’ capacity to stem the flow of illicit firearms and foreign jihadists, and also by helping the Department of State Services improve intelligence gathering around border communities and target networks bringing firearms into the region. They can also support the full establishment and operations of the National Centre for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons, created by the government on 3 May, as part of efforts to curb illicit firearms in the country and improve regional cooperation in arresting the transnational flow of firearms.

Secondly, the EU and its member states should help ease the humanitarian crisis. Beyond providing direct aid to the thousands of IDPs living in poorly run camps, they could help the Nigerian government survey the numerous displaced who have found refuge in cities and villages. Many victims of abduction, women and children especially, though released, remain at risk of exploitation, trafficking and gender-based violence. The EU and its member states could focus on the establishment and expansion of special community-based counselling and rehabilitation programs, providing women and children victims with physical and psycho-social support that could help reduce their vulnerability to such risks. The European Commission’s announcement, on 11 May, that it would allocate €37 million for humanitarian relief to vulnerable populations in Nigeria in 2021 is a step in the right direction. In making distributions from this fund, the EU should consider the critical needs in the North West.

Thirdly, the EU and its member states should lend greater support to measures aimed at curbing herder-farmer tensions. In the short term, they should provide assistance to various initiatives by state governments, communities and civil society organisations promoting dialogue and peaceful coexistence between herders and farmers, and also among different ethnic and religious groups. Looking ahead, they should offer technical and financial support to state governments seeking to implement the National Livestock Transformation Plan, which represents Nigeria’s most comprehensive strategy yet to encourage pastoralists to switch to ranching and other sedentary livestock production systems. Modernising the livestock sector is key to resolving the herder-farmer conflict, which triggered the crisis in the North West in the first place – and now threatens Nigeria’s political stability and food security.

Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine

Relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) are frostier than ever.

Relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) are frostier than ever. Reasons include disagreements old and new, with Europeans concerned about issues from Moscow’s treatment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny and other dissidents, to its alleged meddling in their elections, to newly surfaced reports of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot. Those reports formed the backdrop for a rash of diplomatic expulsions by Prague and other European capitals, on one hand, and Moscow on the other. But it is the continuing war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian state forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that remains the sorest point of friction.

Russia raised worries of a substantial escalation in Kyiv and among Ukraine’s Western partners when it massed forces near Ukraine’s borders in March and April. While these anxieties were largely assuaged when Russia started to pull back its forces in late April, the situation as a whole remains fraught. A ceasefire Kyiv and Moscow agreed to in July 2020 has broken down. Negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow are deadlocked. Neither side is taking steps prescribed by the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements that ended the worst of the fighting and were intended to bring peace. The Normandy Format peace process that includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine is largely dormant, with no new summit on the horizon. Absent changes, the coming year could bring new problems and new dangers of further outbreaks of violence. The EU, for all its difficulties with Moscow, can and should work with member states and allies to mitigate the risks and seek ways to break the impasse.

To deter future threats to Ukraine and reduce tensions with Moscow, the EU and its member states should:

  • Forge consensus with the U.S. and UK about how they would respond to evidence of Russian threats to attack or actual attacks on Ukraine, focusing on what additional sanctions they would apply and under what circumstances. Options for increasing military pressure should be viewed cautiously, given that they could bring further risks of escalation.
  • For purposes of deterrence, quietly communicate agreed-upon red lines and repercussions to the Kremlin, being careful not to rely on bluffs that Moscow would be likely to call.
  • Encourage Kyiv, on one side, and Moscow and its proxies, on the other, to return to observing the July 2020 ceasefire as a prelude to renewed talks among the Normandy Format countries and the U.S.
  • Work with the Biden administration to create incentives for breaking the long-running impasse in talks, including by delineating, and communicating, a clear plan for gradual, reversible sanctions relief for Russia in response to measurable progress.
  • Develop and propose economic incentives to aid and support Kyiv’s planning for Donbas’s eventual reintegration, to include proposals for restoring social, economic and transport links between government-controlled and separatist-held Donbas.

Political Stalemates

In December 2019, as French, German, Ukrainian and Russian leaders met in Paris to hold their first Normandy Format meeting to advance the Ukrainian peace process in three years, there seemed to be cause for hope. With a new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had averred his commitment to peace both on the campaign trail and upon taking office, the summit might have been a first step on a new path after years of stalemate and disappointment.

A year and a half later, those hopes are foundering. The conflict parties have taken only two of the seven joint steps promised in Paris: Kyiv and the Russian-backed leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Donbas exchanged detainees in December 2019 and April 2020, and Kyiv and Moscow agreed to a ceasefire starting 27 July 2020. But other important steps – including, crucially, disengagement of forces from front lines, demining, particularly around key infrastructure facilities located on the line of separation between Ukrainian and separatist forces, and full access for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission – remain outstanding.

Moreover, even the slim progress made in 2019 and 2020 has begun to unravel. By March 2021, the ceasefire, the most successful of the many reached since the war began, had collapsed. As shelling and sniper fire resumed across the line of separation, a new crisis emerged. Russian troop build-ups near Ukraine in late March and early April sparked fears of a return to large-scale combat. The Kremlin said the soldiers were conducting routine training, but the deployment of paratroopers to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and establishment of a base camp at Voronezh (a few hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border) were nonetheless unusual and, understandably, alarming for Kyiv and its Western allies. When Ukraine asked for help, European countries, the EU, U.S. and UK spoke supportively but took no overt action in response.

At the end of April, ten days after Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden discussed a possible summit in a call, Moscow announced that the troops had completed their training and would be coming home. The announcement helped assuage concerns (although leaving unclear what precisely Moscow’s motives had been), but by then relations between Russia and the West were taking new twists and turns. In mid-April, the Czech Republic made public its findings of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot and announced the expulsion of eighteen Russians affiliated with Moscow’s mission in Prague. Further expulsions by both sides ensued, with other European countries also expelling dozens of Russian diplomats. At around the same time, Washington announced its own expulsions of Russian diplomats along with new sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s alleged hack of U.S. government infrastructure through software provided by the SolarWinds company. In response, on 14 May, Russia said it deemed the Czech Republic and the U.S. “unfriendly” countries, curtailing the staff of their diplomatic missions. Then on 19 May, Washington imposed sanctions on a total of thirteen Russian vessels involved in laying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bypass traditional routes for which Russia pays lucrative gas transit fees to Ukraine and pump Russian gas directly to Germany.

Yet amid the rancour there are positive signs. Even as the new U.S. sanctions were announced, when Putin and Biden’s top diplomats met in Iceland in preparation for their possible summit in June, they noted their differences but struck an optimistic tone. Moreover, the Kremlin and Kyiv were exchanging invitations for summits of their own: Zelenskyy invited his Russian counterpart to meet in Donbas and Putin countered with an invitation to Moscow – although only to discuss issues unrelated to the war. Ukraine and Russia confirmed in late May that preparations for a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy were under way.

But for there to be any chance of progress toward resolving the Donbas conflict, itself necessary for improving relations between Moscow and the West, the parties will need to address certain core areas of disagreement relating to implementation of the Minsk agreements. Among the most contentious is a Minsk requirement that Kyiv grant local autonomy (“special status”) to the separatist-held areas and hold local elections there in exchange for Ukraine regaining control of its eastern border. Ukraine says it cannot run credible polls in these regions until it has reassumed territorial control, and indeed its parliament has prohibited elections without first regaining such control. Russia says Minsk is clear: elections and special status come first, control only afterward. Moving past this fundamental impasse will be hard, but in theory, a deal is possible. The parties might agree, for example, that the OSCE and UN will monitor the border and region as a whole while elections are held, in order to assuage Kyiv’s concerns about their integrity.

The longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem.

In practice, however, the longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem. Complicating things further, Moscow sees Donbas-related sanctions as part and parcel of a broader Western pressure campaign, with Ukraine only one component. Russia is particularly rankled by what it perceives as the EU’s interference in its domestic politics. Russian parliamentary elections scheduled for September are likely to be a source of friction alongside the dispute over Navalny, particularly if, as appears likely, the Kremlin escalates its crackdowns on independent media and opposition. European positions may also harden due to forthcoming polls in European countries – notably Germany in September – in which European leaders will likely fear Russian meddling given Moscow’s previous alleged interference. Broader tensions make it all the harder to find mutually acceptable ways forward on Donbas.

Recommendations for the EU and Its Member States

Still, with Russia reversing its troop build-up and Washington interested in a June summit with Moscow, the EU and its member states may have an opportunity to work with the U.S. and UK to develop a joint deterrence strategy and revive the peace process.

Brussels, Washington and London should coordinate a common approach to deterrence in the face of future threats or aggression in Donbas. The first step would be to reach agreement on both red lines and consequences if Russia crosses them. For these purposes, sanctions, for all their limits, remain the primary non-military tool at the West’s disposal. Existing sanctions could be augmented through steps that would curtail lending to certain Russian enterprises, cut off Russian access to the SWIFT banking network or block Russian purchases of sovereign debt on the secondary market. Moscow is likely to be particularly concerned about the possibility of U.S. secondary sanctions, through which the U.S. could block access to the U.S. financial system for third parties that engage in prohibited transactions. The secondary sanctions could have a negative impact on EU member states, however, and risk adding to transatlantic tensions over the cost to European companies of U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2. (On the latter front, in a nod to ties with Berlin, the Biden administration waived sanctions on the company behind the pipeline and its chief executive.) Brussels and Washington should reach as good an understanding as possible about when Europe would back U.S. sanctions of this nature.

As for whether military pressure could be useful for purposes of deterrence, the West’s somewhat muffled response to the Russian troop build-up only reinforced awareness on all sides that neither the U.S. nor European countries want to get drawn into conflict in Ukraine. The Western powers should not make bluffs that Russia could well call. They should be extremely cautious about taking or threatening measures that would increase the likelihood of confrontation – such as putting Western advisers on the front line in Ukraine. While ramping up the provision of weapons to Kyiv might be less risky, doing so is not likely to yield the kind of battlefield advantage that would change Moscow’s calculations.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them. Sending the message through quiet rather than public channels may give Moscow more political room to absorb it without reacting counterproductively. To maximise the usefulness of sanctions as leverage, the Western powers should not threaten measures that they would be unwilling or unable to rescind in the event that Russia reverses course.

As the EU and its partners are developing their approach to deterrence, they should also be focusing on easing tensions on the ground and encouraging dialogue. This means getting the parties back to the table, ideally for a near-term summit among the Normandy Four and possibly the U.S. Either before or at the summit, France and Germany could press for a suite of de-escalatory measures: for example, returning to the July 2020 ceasefire; broader and freer access for OSCE ceasefire monitors; a roadmap to restoring civilian freedom of movement across the line of separation; and broader military deconfliction and resumption of prisoner exchanges.

Ideally, over the course of the summit and ensuing negotiations, the EU, U.S. and UK would also present Moscow with incentives for charting a path out of the current standoff. They could, for example – as Crisis Group has argued before – offer the Kremlin a concrete plan to exchange the lifting of specific Minsk-related sanctions (eg, against banks and companies) for specific Russian military and political concessions in Donbas (eg, compromises on the Ukrainian border, disarmament of combatants or flexibility on special status). The proposal would make clear that should Russia or its proxies renege, the sanctions will be reimposed. There is some risk in this course of action: should Russia pocket the concessions and then backslide, Brussels may find it difficult to cobble back together the consensus required for the reimposition of sanctions. But if the U.S. and its European partners are not ready to use sanctions relief to motivate incremental progress by Moscow, the combination of high demands and inflexible tools offers little hope of breaking the deadlock.

Brussels should also work with Kyiv to encourage flexible thinking along the lines suggested above about how to work through the impasse over “special status” and begin planning for the near-term reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter point is controversial: on one hand, Zelenskyy’s team has rallied to produce a roadmap for reintegration, but on the other, they appear to increasingly favour relegating the task to a distant and speculative future. If Brussels wants to help reverse this tide, it should keep up its promises of an EU economic support package to help rehabilitate the war-torn region, as well as offer plentiful guidance on overhauling Donbas’s fossil fuel-dependent economy. As further preparation for reintegration, Brussels should also maintain pressure on Kyiv to build an independent judiciary and adopt transitional justice legislation that encourages combatants to disarm and provides a framework for the fair trial of accused war criminals on both sides.

Arresting Yemen’s Freefall

In the spring 2020 EU Watch List, Crisis Group warned that the military, political and humanitarian situation in Yemen could go “from bad to worse”. That has happened: Yemen is in freefall. UN-led, U.S.-supported efforts to reach a nationwide ceasefire have borne no fruit. Nor have attempts to prevent a battle for Marib, the internationally recognised government’s last bastion in the north. Huthi rebels appear poised to launch another offensive on the city in the coming weeks and months. If Marib falls, and even if it does not, fighting is also likely to intensify on other fronts. A Saudi-brokered deal between the government and southern secessionists hangs by a thread, even after the sides formed a power-sharing government in December 2020. A Huthi takeover of Marib would also likely precipitate a fresh wave of conflict in Yemen’s south and west.

The humanitarian crisis continues to worsen amid huge aid shortfalls and a Yemeni government-imposed fuel embargo on Huthi-held territory. The UN has warned repeatedly that famine is imminent. Only the infusion of billions of dollars in aid has staved off mass starvation to date. But donors have pledged just half of the money the UN says it needs for 2021 amid a coronavirus-induced funding crunch. Fighting over Marib city could make aid agencies’ work harder by triggering mass displacement and further limiting the supply of basic commodities. On top of everything, a year after COVID-19’s spread in Yemen first drew global attention, the country is suffering its deadliest outbreak yet.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Send more aid, escalating Yemen’s status as a priority recipient of the EU’s global response to COVID-19 through joint initiatives between Brussels and member states; increasing humanitarian funding under the new budget programming; and accelerating discussions about investment in medium-term projects – away from front lines – that foster local stability.
  • Advocate for forming a UN-led international contact group to help coordinate the world’s response to Yemen’s disaster, including through more concerted diplomacy in support of a ceasefire and the peace process. Such a group should include the EU, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
  • Push the UN to shift its mediation efforts away from a two-party focus on the Huthis and the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi toward a more inclusive peace process that encompasses other political and armed factions as well as women’s and youth groups and other civil society actors.
  • Working within EU COVID-19 protocols, increase diplomatic outreach to the Huthis in Sanaa, the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council in Aden.

Marib Offensive and UN Mediation

Since early 2020, Huthi fighters have focused on taking Marib governorate, in particular the eponymous city, along with nearby oil, gas and electricity production facilities. The Huthi campaign has been intermittent, and the rebels have at times struggled to advance. Saudi Arabia, which is allied with the internationally recognised government led by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has mounted a fierce aerial defence. Thousands of Huthi and anti-Huthi fighters have been killed and injured over the course of the year. Yet the Huthis have shrugged off their losses. A clear trend has emerged on the ground: gradual if uneven Huthi progress, coupled with growing unease and falling morale among forces aligned with the Hadi government. Absent a major shift in the balance of power, the Huthis appear set to take more territory and gain greater leverage in talks with local leaders as they seek to negotiate the governorate’s surrender.

Absent a major shift in the balance of power, the Huthis appear set to take more territory and gain greater leverage in talks with local leaders as they seek to negotiate the governorate’s surrender.

Fearing a growing humanitarian and displacement crisis amid a major coronavirus outbreak, and aware that a Huthi takeover of Marib would have a knock-on effect on dynamics elsewhere in Yemen, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has sought since early 2020 to broker a nationwide ceasefire. In 2020, the Huthis told Griffiths they would agree to a truce if the Saudi-led coalition and Hadi government lifted all restrictions on Hodeida port on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and allowed the Sanaa airport to reopen to international flights after four years of Saudi-imposed closure. For much of the year, the government and the Saudis argued that the Huthi proposal gave the rebels too much and quibbled over the fine print in draft agreements.

The parties failed to reach an accord, and now the landscape has shifted. In early 2021, after making a series of rapid military gains, the rebels shifted the goalposts, insisting that the government and Saudis unblock the port and airport unilaterally before they would consider a truce. They also backed away from the prospect of a nationwide ceasefire, saying they would first consider a cross-border ceasefire under which they would stop drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia in return for a moratorium on Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, including Marib. Riyadh and the Hadi government deemed the Huthi position a non-starter. In turn, the Huthis rejected a public Saudi offer made in March to ease restrictions on Sanaa airport and resume negotiations over Hodeida in return for a nationwide ceasefire and a mutual halt to cross-border attacks.

Fresh U.S. Energy

The recent change in leadership in Washington has injected fresh energy into international efforts to stop the fighting, with President Joe Biden making ending the Yemen war a top Middle East policy priority along with returning to the Iran nuclear deal. In February, Biden announced that he was halting all offensive support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. He also said the administration would cease some arms sales, remove the Huthis’ designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) and appoint a new U.S. special envoy for Yemen – a role now filled by veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking. Lenderking has been highly active since his appointment, travelling regularly to the Gulf (but not yet Yemen), and pushing the Huthis and Saudis to agree to a truce.

Washington’s frustration with the Huthis is palpable.

Washington wishes to engineer a conflict outcome acceptable to both itself and Riyadh. Yet its ability to do so is limited, as the Huthis hold the upper hand. By publicly prioritising ending the Yemen war, the administration may also have given the Huthis, and their main external supporter Iran, the sense that the conflict represents a more valuable bargaining chip than in the past. Washington’s frustration with the Huthis is palpable, and U.S. officials appear to be increasingly convinced that they cannot persuade the rebels to abandon their quest for victory in Marib.

Humanitarian Meltdown

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has placed greater limits on aid agencies’ ability to work in Yemen, and on donors’ generosity toward a country the UN says is already the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Yemen continues to sit at the brink of famine. Donors pledged $1.7 billion to fund the UN’s humanitarian appeal in March, less than half the figure the UN had asked for, leaving a $2 billion gap in the UN’s budget for the year. The UN humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock, warned that as a result the UN “doesn’t have enough money to stop famine”.

A battle for Marib would make the humanitarian crisis still graver and more complex. Local government officials claim that two million people have moved to Marib since the war began six years ago, many of them with sufficient resources to settle and live without aid assistance, while UN estimates of poorer, formally displaced people living in temporary settlements hover around 700,000. In the event that fighting reaches Marib city, the UN believes that around 350,000 people will be displaced, seeking to travel either eastward to Seiyoun, a six-hour drive under normal circumstances, or southward to Shebwa. Both routes are likely to be dangerous, and fighting could cut off the Shebwa road entirely. The UN says it has contingency plans for a battle, but the response will put further strain on its already limited aid budget.

A Way Forward

With chances of a diplomatic breakthrough slim, Yemen’s trajectory in the coming months will largely be determined by developments in Marib. If the Huthis take Marib city, or negotiate its surrender, the government will lose its last major stronghold in the north; it may then face an attempted takeover by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in southern governorates as well. A Huthi victory in Marib could also precipitate intra-Yemeni deal-making, most likely between the Huthis and one or more rival factions, potentially including the STC, at the expense of the Hadi government. Moreover, the STC and other groups are likely to press for a direct role in UN-led talks, rather than the indirect one they are afforded as part of the Saudi-brokered 2019 Riyadh Agreement. Even if the Huthis and government can reach a ceasefire in Marib, many local conflict parties remain sceptical it will last, or that it is in their interest to comply with its terms if they are not given a say in subsequent UN-led political talks.

For these reasons, whatever happens next in Marib, it is increasingly clear that the international approach to Yemen needs to be rethought. The UN’s current two-party mediation framework that focuses narrowly on the Huthis and the Hadi government (with Saudi Arabia active behind the scenes and wielding a de facto veto over any settlement) excludes many of the armed and political factions likely to influence the durability of a ceasefire or political settlement. It also boxes out political parties, civil society actors, women’s groups and youth organisations that have been crucial throughout the war to preserving local stability and social cohesion and whose buy-in and support will thus be important in sustaining any pact.

With EU support, Washington should advocate for an approach to peacemaking that takes into account the conflict’s deepening complexity and creates space for this range of actors.

With EU support, Washington should advocate for an approach to peacemaking that takes into account the conflict’s deepening complexity and creates space for this range of actors. The EU and Special Envoy Lenderking should press for the creation of a UN-chaired international contact group, which can revisit the UN mediation framework and encourage adoption of a new multi-party approach that better reflects the emerging reality on the ground. Such a body could establish a division of labour among its members to support the peace process, with sub-groups focusing on key topics such as sub-national conflicts (like the one between the government and STC), economic warfare and outreach to the Huthis in Sanaa, which has been constrained by COVID-19, with no senior diplomat visiting since early 2020.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The EU and its member states should bolster UN-led efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. They should also help coordinate the international diplomatic response to the war.

The EU’s inclusion in an international contact group would allow EU representatives to act as a force multiplier, positioning them to solicit funds and diplomatic capacity from member states for issues the group determines to be priorities. The EU and member states can also, along with P5 members and others, push for contact group members to start making regular diplomatic trips to Sanaa, Aden and perhaps Marib to ensure better contact with the Huthis, the Hadi government and other relevant groups in Yemen, providing them with a clearer picture of international thinking about the conflict. The EU and its member states can also play an important role in advocating within the contact group for a more inclusive political process, and share their practical experience in brokering local truces, reopening roads and freeing prisoners.

Whether or not as part of any contact group, to help make the peace process properly inclusive, the EU and its member states should throw their weight behind efforts to press the UN Security Council to adopt a broader interpretation of Resolution 2216 (prevalent interpretations of which have unhelpfully limited UN mediation to two-party negotiations to end the fighting) so that the UN can introduce a quota for women and other civil society figures in direct talks. The EU should also work with the UN to establish a parallel mediation track with women’s and civil society organisations, that at a minimum enjoys a direct channel of communication with UN deliberations, and ideally leads to a substantive role in the negotiation of a political settlement for those involved. The EU already funds work for women’s inclusion; it should increase its support for and engagement with groups on the ground.

The EU and member states should also begin active discussions about how to increase humanitarian funding for Yemen in light of COVID-19’s continued spread, the troubling socio-economic indicators and the huge deficit facing UN aid agencies in 2021. The EU should make it an even greater priority to allocate extraordinary humanitarian funds in response to the virus and increase its development assistance through joint programming with member states under the new EU multi-annual budget. Finally, whether or not the war continues, the EU and member states should start making medium-term plans to help improve conditions – potentially entailing local infrastructure development, capacity-building support for local government and civil society organisations, small business loans and similar efforts in areas away from the front lines that are starved of basic services and governance. Such projects could help foster at least a modicum of stability away from the fighting and may prevent the further deterioration of local institutions.