Tag: conflict

NATO’s Warsaw Summit

At the end of this week, leaders from the United States and Europe will convene in Warsaw, Poland, for a NATO summit. The meeting – only the second summit since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine – will include high level strategic discussions, and will likely see the announcement of an increased NATO troop presence in the Baltic States to counter potential Russian aggression there.

The biggest question leaders intend to address in Warsaw is how to deter Russian aggression towards NATO members in Eastern Europe following its seizure of Crimea and involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. In effect, leaders will try to find a compromise solution which reassures NATO’s eastern members, provides additional deterrence, but does not provoke further military buildup and distrust from Russia. They will almost certainly fail in this endeavor.

In fact, the expected announcement of the deployment of 4 battalions of additional troops to the Baltics has already produced heated rhetoric from Russia. These deployments will likely lead to a Russian response, ratcheting up tensions and increasing the risk for inadvertent conflict in the region. In other words, they will contribute to a classic security spiral of mistrust and overreaction. The irony is that such deployments are largely symbolic, not strategic. Even four battalions will not change the fact that Russia could likely conquer the Baltics quickly if it so chose. And even though some would argue that their deterrent value is largely as a ‘tripwire,’ it isn’t clear why the existing Article V guarantee is insufficient for that purpose.

To be frank, in the focus on how to defend the Baltics, leaders have largely overlooked the low likelihood of a conflict in that region. For one thing, there is a qualitative difference between attacking Ukraine and attacking a NATO treaty member; Vladimir Putin certainly knows this. For another, Russia’s force posture simply doesn’t indicate that it has any intentions on the Baltics.

America’s Contradictory Yemen Policies

Reuters has an investigation today of the ways in which the Saudi-led War in Yemen has empowered Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group’s local affiliate. While it’s been relatively obvious to observers for some time that AQAP had benefitted from the conflict, the extent of their newfound control and wealth as detailed in the article is fascinating.

Thanks to the seizure of the city of Mukalla, AQAP now controls Yemen’s third largest port, a position that Reuters estimates has allowed them to earn up to $2 million per day in fees and taxes. Extortion of businesses, including around $1.4 million from the state oil company, has also provided an easy revenue source, as has the far less subtle method of simply robbing the city’s banks.

Perhaps of more interest is AQAP’s approach to providing civic services and stability. While it’s untrue that Al Qaeda has never experimented with state-building before, such a strategy has more typically been associated with ISIS. As the Reuters investigation notes,  in Mukalla, Al Qaeda is trying to present themselves as a less cruel and brutal ruler than ISIS, an approach which seems to be working with some Yemeni citizens who fear a return to instability.

So entrenched is the group that it attempted to set up a formal profit-sharing deal with the national government to split oil revenues. It is even managing taxes for the citizens of Mukalla, cancelling payroll taxes and promoting various populist policies. All of this is a remarkable feat for a group which has been the focus of concerted US drone strikes and counterterrorism activities for more than a decade.

Can a Syrian Ceasefire Hold?

Yesterday’s agreement for a cessation of hostilities in the Syrian conflict – including provision for humanitarian aid deliveries – is welcome news from an increasingly bloody conflict. The deal has been greeted with justifiable skepticism from observers around the world, who note the many and varied problems inherent in the proposed agreement. This is not a formal ceasefire, and it faces long odds of successful implementation. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth supporting to the fullest extent possible. If it does succeed in reducing violence inside Syria, it just might act as the necessary first step to a more comprehensive ceasefire and transition agreement.

One could hardly have imagined a more ill-omened location for the agreement, which was announced yesterday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The agreement itself calls for a cessation of hostilities inside Syria – though it does not apply to either of Syria’s main extremist groups, ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra – and for the rapid provision of access for the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Syria’s besieged cities. It is not an immediate deal: parties have one week before it takes effect. Yet if the deal sticks, it will help to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

What Is Russia’s Intervention in Syria All About?

There’s been a lot of speculation in the press recently about Russia’s motives for its military intervention in Syria, and many are quick to attribute the intervention to a desire to – metaphorically speaking - poke America in the eye. Surrounding this speculation are images of Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius, playing geopolitical chess at the grandmaster level.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s certainly convenient for Putin to make the United States look bad in any way he can. But there are a variety of other reasons for Russia’s involvement in Syria. And though Putin may briefly look like he is in control of the situation in Syria, the intervention is likely to end badly for him.

It’s notable that while many reports are portraying the Russian intervention in terms of U.S.-Russian relations, and intimating that Russia is in some way ‘winning’, Russia specialists are more likely to point to other factors, and to view the intervention as ill-fated.

Politico recently published a compilation of interviews with 14 Russia specialists on Putin’s goals in Syria. All but one pointed to a couple of key factors to explain Russian intervention: 1) Russian domestic concerns; 2) a desire for diplomatic gain; or 3) a desire to prevent other authoritarian regimes from falling. More tellingly, the vast majority also expressed the opinion that Russia’s actions are reckless, and will end badly.  

The first of these motivations – domestic political concerns – is likely the key reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria. It’s an excellent opportunity for Vladimir Putin to distract domestic attention from his ongoing failings in Ukraine, and to present an image of Russia as a great power.

Russia Raises the Stakes in Syria

What on earth is Russia doing in Syria? This question has no doubt crossed many minds in recent days, as Russia began to move substantial arms and troops into Syria. There are two possible scenarios: 1) with diplomatic ties at an all time low, and heavy sanctions already in place, Russia has decided it has nothing to lose in defying the West and backing the Assad regime militarily to the bitter end; or 2) Russia is maneuvering to give itself diplomatic leverage in any Syrian settlement by raising the stakes now. Though the latter is more likely, it’s difficult to know which scenario is accurate, further complicating already tortuous US policy towards Syria.

Over the last week, various news sources have reported an increase in Russian arms and troops flowing into Syria. On Monday, the Department of Defense confirmed that the Russians are setting up a Forward Operating Base at Latakia, including prefabricated housing and SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles. Open source researchers have found photos of Russian trucks and T-90 tanks near Latakia, increased shipments to Russia’s Syrian base at Tartus, social media posts showing that Russian troops are headed to Syria, and even satellite photos showing massive expansion of the runways, hangers and housing at Latakia.

In short, it seems that Russia is preparing to substantially increase its military presence in Syria, ostensibly to aid the refugee crisis and fight ISIS, but practically in support of the Assad regime. This doesn’t necessarily indicate an intention to commit ground troops, but certainly raises the possibility of Russian air support for Assad. There is no way to prevent this buildup: though NATO members like Bulgaria have closed their airspace to Russian flights, Iranian and Iraqi airspace remains open.

Confused about the Middle East? So Is the United States

Since the Arab Spring, many Middle Eastern countries have fallen into political chaos like dominoes. This week’s explosion of conflict in Yemen is just the most recent example. Though many of these conflicts are based on local grievances, they are being exacerbated by the involvement of the region’s larger states, and by the United States.

America’s leaders denounce intervention by unfriendly states like Iran. Yet the United States ignores or even enables such actions by U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. In doing so, America is simply contributing to the mess in the Middle East. Washington should back off and refuse to get more deeply involved in further Middle Eastern conflicts.

Yemen’s conflict is nothing new; the Houthi rebels have been active in Yemen for more than a decade, and captured the capital in January, forcing President Hadi to flee south. This week, as the rebels finally reached the southern city of Aden, Hadi fled, and apparently appealed to Saudi Arabia for help in combatting the Iranian-backed insurgency.

Yesterday evening, that help arrived in the form of a massive Saudi air campaign and a reported 150,000 troops. The Saudi efforts are supported by a number of other GCC and Arab states, as well as U.S. logistical and intelligence support.

But like everything in the Middle East today, this conflict isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The Houthis are indeed aligned with Iran, and probably receive monetary support. But they also represent a sizeable fraction of the Yemeni population, and many of their policies – such as opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen – are widely popular. Even more confusing, the Houthis are also adamantly opposed to Al Qaeda, and have spent substantial time and resources fighting AQAP fighters inside Yemen.

This conflict fits with a broader pattern of post-Arab Spring clashes in the Middle East, conflicts which are complex and local in nature, but which are treated as simply proxy wars or sectarian conflicts. The fear that Iran might make gains in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere drives Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to respond militarily, increasing tensions and conflict.

The U.S. response to this complex reality has been to reflexively back traditional U.S. allies. But in doing so, American policy has become confused, contradictory and overleveraged. We’re working towards similar goals as Iran inside Iraq, opposing them in Syria and Yemen, all while trying to reach a nuclear deal before the March 31st deadline. How this mess of policy contradictions is supposed to produce viable results is anybody’s guess.

Yemen has a long history of instability, and any military solution to the crisis will likely fail to produce a long-term solution; it will just paper over the problem. It’s not even clear whether the reinstallation of the Hadi government would be best for U.S. interests: though a Houthi government is unlikely to allow U.S. drone strikes against al Qaeda, they might prove more effective at fighting the group than the government has.

America should stop reflexively backing traditional U.S. allies in the region, and refrain from deeper involvement in these conflicts. Instead, we should think more clearly about when (and whether) the United States should be involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, and about how such actions fit our overall strategic goals. Because one thing is certain: further U.S. intervention in the Middle East would be an exceedingly bad choice.   

Yemen’s Chronic Instability

The last few days have brought dramatic news from Yemen: rebels occupied the presidential palace, initially forcing constitutional concessions and then the resignation of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The president was, at least nominally, a U.S. ally, cooperating with U.S. forces on drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).

Yemen itself had even been hailed as one of the few successes of the Arab Spring, with a negotiated transition resulting in steps toward democracy. But such an interpretation glosses over Yemen’s long history of instability, as well as intervention by foreign powers. The current conflict is not only a popular uprising, it’s a proxy war, one that has been worsened by U.S. policy in Yemen.

Yemen has experienced chronic instability throughout its history, in large part because of interference from Saudi Arabia, which has long been worried about Yemeni influence. The first Saudi king, Abdulaziz, is reputed to have called his senior sons to his deathbed, admonishing them to “keep Yemen weak.” The Kingdom has at various times provided funds not only to the Yemeni government, but also to various opposing tribal leaders.

The most recent iteration of Yemeni instability is a decade-long civil conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, Sunni militias, and a Zaidi Shi’a militia group known as the Houthis. This latter is also known as the Shabaab al-Marmineen (or the Believing Youth), and is believed to receive large quantities of funding and arms from Iran (and formerly Syria). The insurgency has spanned a decade, with only sporadic ceasefires, resulting in widespread death and displacement. The Houthis even initiated cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2009, which led to a large-scale Saudi invasion of Northern Yemen.

The Houthis were also heavily involved in the 2011 protests against Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, although they rejected the Saudi-negotiated transfer of power to then–Vice President Hadi. Since late last year, the Houthis have controlled large parts of the capital Sanaa, although power has remained nominally vested in the hands of the Hadi government.

The crisis in Yemen is thus not only a civil conflict, but also a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this, it is similar to the early Syrian civil war, which was initially driven by Saudi support for rebel groups and Iranian support for the Assad regime. While the situation in Yemen is unlikely to deteriorate in this way, it is worth focusing on the fact that many conflicts in the Middle East are actually driven by larger regional actors, some of them U.S. allies.

U.S. involvement in Yemen has also helped to worsen this crisis. The Hadi government’s support for U.S. drone strikes against AQAP contrasts strongly with Yemeni popular opinion, which has been widely outraged by the killing of innocents. Such unfortunate killings are driven by U.S. reliance on Yemeni targeting data: Yemeni leaders have a tendency to present political rivals as terrorists in order to engineer their demise. These deaths have driven growing anger at the Hadi government.

Ironically, the Houthi fighters are themselves strongly opposed to AQAP and actively engage in combat against the group. There is even evidence that the United States has cooperated with the Houthis on targeting AQAP.

The situation in Yemen remains fluid. The country appears to have no leader, and it is unclear whether the Houthi occupation of the capital constitutes a coup or not. But in either case, the United States should stay out of the conflict, evacuating the embassy if Sanaa becomes too dangerous. The crisis in Yemen is typical of the country’s long-running instability, and the pressures it faces from regional powers. U.S. involvement won’t help.