Tag Archives: civil war

Syria has reached “unprecedented levels of horror” – and it’s only going to get worse

Today’s papers are filled with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League peace envoy, comments to the UN Security Council that Syria has reached “unprecedented levels of horror”.

His comments come in the aftermath of the UN estimate that 60,000 have now died in the conflict. Although the actual death toll is likely to much higher as the UN excluded any partial or unverifiable reports of killings.

Last summer Amnesty International reported of a “tide of increasingly widespread attacks on civilians by government forces and militias which act with utter impunity”. Significantly, Amnesty International highlighted evidence that war crimes had been committed by both the opposition and government forces.

In November the human rights organisation made a direct plea to William Hague to try and curb the pattern of abuse against civilians being perpetrated by the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

It is hard to imagine the situation getting worse.

Worryingly, some of Mr Brahimi’s comments that went less reported suggest just that. He commented, “The region is being pushed into a situation that is extremely bad”.

This is an understatement.

Firstly there is Iran. A key player in the conflict that is desperate to keep a Shi’a regional ally – not least as a potential arms link export market for terror organisations working in and around Palestine and Lebanon. Many, including the West’s regional partners such as Saudi Arabia, see a functional transition of power from Assad as a way of reducing Iran’s regional influence.

With neither side strong enough to win the war outright, the regional external players are only likely to increase the bloodshed. There is a growing possibility that the fighting will cross borders to draw in more concrete action from regional players.

Secondly, where there is war, there is a killing to be made through arms exports. This opportunity hasn’t passed the UK and US. Currently using routes through Jordan, the UK and the US is ensuring that arms reach their favoured groups – ignoring the above mentioned war crimes. Of course the UK would argue they are acting to ‘protect civilians’ and the arms trade is an inconsequential side note. Whether or not we believe them is a different question.

Either way, the arms industry (which we know to have a small influence on our government) is more than happy to see this war drag out.

Finally, the West’s aim, the overthrow of Assad, also has the chance to further increase the bloodshed. Haytham Manna writing in the Guardian highlights the thorny side of the armed opposition including al-Nusra who Obama has labelled a “foreign terrorist organisation” and who Manna said “indiscriminately targeted non-Sunni people”. Will they and other Islamist groups form part of the new government when they are playing such a pivotal role in the armed resistance?

Even after the overthrow of Assad, will this end the civil war?

Bahimi’s warnings are clear and should act as a warning, not just to the Russians and Chinese who continue to block calls for sanctions against Assad, but also to the West who seem all too eager to jump into bed with those who fulfil their short term goals.

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Cental Asia and the war on terror

The language around the war on terror is slowly slipping out of use.  Its consequences however, are very much so still part of the contemporary geo-political scene.  Whether we are talking about rendition, torture or illegal invasions – the war on terror has, and is still having a major impact on international relations.

In this blog however, I am going to focus on a region of the world that is often ignored in western news coverage, but has a massive influence on our foreign policy – Central Asia.  I will briefly track the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia before looking at its impact on the contemporary political scene.

To illustrate Central Asia's geographical significance in world affairs

Soon after independence after the collapse of the USSR, the independent governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan faced opposition from small radical groups.  The reason I single out Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is not because their situation was unique to Central Asia, but because of the harsh measures they took to counter this threat. From the early 90’s onwards political engagement was severely restricted.  Critics suggest that this helped fuel the more powerful radial groups, who were predominantly Islamic organisations. As they developed in numbers and sophistication, they became inter-connected to what we broadly understand today as part of the “international terror threat” (excuse my use of this misleading crass terminology).

In response to this growing threat, all the Central Asian republics took the extraordinary step of banning any political organisation based on religious or ethnic origins.  A number of small Islamic organisations were forcibly dismantled.  As such member dispersed, some to seek support abroad, others to work at community levels.

The civil war in Tajikistan (92-97) acted as a calling card for radical Muslims from across the region.  After a series of defeats, the mujahedeen (those fighting in the name of their faith) moved across the border to Afghanistan. Approximately 100,000 refuges made their way to Afghanistan, although of course these were predominantly civilians.  It was during this period that political activists first made contact with the Taliban and what would later be referred to as Al-Qaeda.

In the late 90’s people start returning home and there was a move throughout the region to organise better structured terrorist Islamic movements.  The most prominent at this stage were the Islamic movement for Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahir.  From 1999-2001 the IMU launched a series of attacks on Uzbekistan looking to oust the political regime. These attacks would often be launched from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. They never took any real strong holds as they faced stiff international opposition predominantly from Russia.  In 2004 suicide bombings in Uzbekistan were allegedly masterminded by the IMU.

It is from this basis, we can see that post 9/11 Central Asian governments were more than happy to condemn the actions of Al-Qaeda and join the US in their “war on terrorism”. Immediately, all Central Asian republics granted free air-space over their countries to the US and NATO. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan all agreed to host US forces on their territory. The US set up two air bases, one in Kyrgyzstan and the other in Uzbekistan.

Once again, Central Asia is the unspoken stage of world politics.  Post the 2003 invasion of Iraq; we can see Russia, China, the EU and the US all fighting it out for influence in the region (for ideological, warfare and energy security reasons). Kazakhstan has sent engineers into Iraq, but the other 4 states have kept their distance.

Issues around energy security have become confused and intermixed with issues around the “war on terror”.  In 2005, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran all met up to hold a conference on protecting oil and gas infrastructure from terrorist activity.

Today, we can still see Central Asia’s role as a “feeder channel” to the Al-Qaeda missions fighting the US/NATO operations in Afghanistan. The growth of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups in Central Asia is directly impacting the stability of the Central Asia itself but also, Pakistan and US/NATO interests in Afghanistan. The volatile Afghanistan and Pakistan borderland is being made even more unstable and dangerous by Central Asian insurgents and it is unlikely real progress can occur without dealing with this issue head on. If we simply continue to fight the insurgents in a militaristic sense, I suggest that these “feeder channels” will continue to replace the fallen men. To really go at the problem’s root causes, long-term planning and effective and transparent regional cooperation will be needed. This is easier said than done when dealing with insular regimes such as Turkmenistan (which remember does have a massive border with Afghanistan).

The one thing that can be said for certain, is that Central Asia will remain to be a key geo-political battle ground that will, if trends continue, act as a testing ground for our “fight against terrorism” and global security.  The domestic politics of the 5 Central Asian states will continue to have ripple effects on all of our lives and cannot be ignored.

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Filed under Central Asia, EU politics, Politics, Russia, War