Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Libya’

Yemen: proxy war and war by proxy

There’s more than one nasty war going on in the Arab world.

Iraq and Syria get most of the headlines in western media given the current focus on the threat from Islamic State to European and American interests and citizens, as well as the direct involvement of western military forces in the campaign against IS.

But there’s also a war going on in Yemen, which since neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies intervened in March has claimed nearly 2,000 lives and caused a humanitarian crisis as Saudi forces have imposed a tight blockade on much of the country.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened when the complex on-going Yemeni civil war appeared to shift decisively against the government of President Hadi and in favour of Houthi rebels – Shi’ites seen as close to Iran.

The fighting appears to have escalated with Houthi forces being driven out of the strategically important port of Aden and a nearby airbase (which the US has used in the past to carry out drone strikes on al-Qaeda and its allies in Yemen and the region – told you it was complicated).

Reliable press reports suggest what seems to have turned the tables on the Houthis is the recent arrival of ground troops – both regular and special forces -from the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabia has also been funding Sunni rebel groups in Syria against President Assad, while Iran – rather than Russia – has been the main source of foreign support for the beleaguered Syrian government.

This aspect of the Syrian conflict is very much an old-fashioned proxy war and it has added greatly to the complexity and destructiveness of what is also a civil war.

The parallels with Yemen are clear. Though unlike Syria, Yemen is next door to Saudi Arabia and so direct intervention is a practical option.

To Sunni Saudi eyes, the Shia Houthis are like the Syrian government, which is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. They are apostates and allies of Riyadh’s great Shia rival for influence in Middle East – Iran.

But the Saudis are not freelancing. Its coalition’s intervention has the full backing of the United States, which is supplying arms and intelligence.

The US Navy has also been deployed off Yemen to prevent Iranian ships docking, citing suspicions they may be carrying arms for the Houthis.

So for Washington, Yemen is more like war by proxy against Iran.

In this way it resembles some of the conflicts of the Cold War where the US backed one side and the Soviet Union another.

What is also striking is the absence of any talk of “humanitarian intervention”.

There have been “humanitarian pauses” in Yemen where the two sides have agreed to (frequently broken) ceasefires to allow delivery of aid to civilians by the UN and NGOs.

But there has been no hiding that the intervention in Yemen is part of a good old-fashioned, geo-political power struggle.

Saudi Arabia moved when it thought its side was losing.

Perhaps after the debacle of Libya where the Responsibility to Protect was invoked and NATO, endorsed by the UN Security Council, intervened leading to the overthrow of Colonel Gadaffi and the country’s collapse into its current anarchic state, there is a realisation the humanitarian rhetoric just doesn’t wash any more.

Also, since Libya there’s been Syria.

If anything has demonstrated that the era of Sierra Leone and Kosovo in the late 1990s where western intervention in local conflicts was justified on moral grounds has passed, it is the international response to the Syrian conflict.

Instead of trying to help end an escalating civil war, the US, its western and Turkish allies took sides early against President Assad, who has been backed by Iran and Russia.

Despite this though, there has been a reluctance to get directly involved in the battle against Assad. Instead, the US has used its diplomatic muscle to try to undermine his government’s international legitimacy and support his non-Islamist opponents, as well as ill-fated efforts to train so-called moderate rebels.

For their part, Moscow and Tehran have propped Damascus up with arms – and in Iran’s case with money and military advisors.

In all this, the humanitarian interests of Syrian civilians have seemingly counted for a lot less than the struggle over the fate of President Assad.

The UN-led aid operation to help those forced to flee their homes has been chronically underfunded and most western countries have been reluctant to accept Syrian refugees – helping to drive the surge in migrants trying to get into the EU by any means.

So as the World continues its transition from one dominated by the US to one where there are competing centres of power prepared to back different sides in conflicts – and stymie UN action when their interests are directly involved – we can expect to become more familiar with proxy wars and wars by proxy like the one in Yemen.

PS

I was going to write about the EU migrant crisis this week but could not have said anything more poignant than my friend and former colleague, Robin Lustig. You can read his blog here.

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Calais migrant crisis – something must be done …. of course

“Send in the army”.

That familiar bedfellow of “something must be done” can now be heard coming from the mouths of British politicians and commentators.

They offer it as a solution to the Calais migrant crisis that’s been disrupting links between France and Britain for weeks incommoding commerce and tourism alike.

Apart from the fact England lost control of Calais in the sixteenth century and it is now part of sovereign French territory, the proposal that British troops be sent to France to secure the Ferry and Eurotunnel terminals and prevent the thousands of migrants there from attempting to stow away on lorries or get through the Channel Tunnel is not a solution.

As things stand London is struggling to convince that it is on top of the situation.

But the pressure Cameron is under is partly of his own making.

His government has failed to keep its – arguably unrealistic – promise five years ago to cut net immigration to under 100,000 a year, so any sense that migration is “out of control” leads to loud headlines and the need to appear to take decisive action.

This means things that are done like providing money for improved fencing at Calais and the offer of sniffer dogs – which make sense – appear inadequate in the eyes of critics.

Clearly, there is an immediate need.

Migrants who have gathered at makeshift camps near the French port after having made their way – in most cases – from the Middle East and Africa via south and south-east Europe need to be given accommodation and have their claims for asylum processed.

This will almost certainly require large-scale police action, where, if France agrees, British officers can help to move the migrants to alternative sites.

But this is not something military forces should be used – or indeed are trained – for.

Beyond dealing with the immediate problem though, the crisis will not be solved until a few other things are sorted out.

EU countries need to start actually cooperating, rather than merely promising to cooperate, in dealing with the thousands of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean.

Italy and Greece – and now increasingly Hungary – where most of the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans, Sudanese and others first arrive in the EU can’t cope on their own.

EU leaders – with the exception of the Brits, Danes and Hungarians – agreed at their June summit to share the burden by accepting allocations of asylum seekers, but progress is clearly not fast enough to keep up with the numbers arriving.

And while not all the migrants are refugees from conflict and oppression, Britain and its EU partners have a moral and legal obligation to give asylum claims a fair hearing.

The EU could also help to reduce the number of purely economic migrants by getting serious about helping African and Middle Eastern countries provide jobs and decent living standards by opening up their markets and investing in those countries, as well as better targeting development aid.

Such a policy was put in place twenty years ago under the Barcelona Process, but it has always seemed to lose out to other political and economic priorities and has proved inadequate.

But that still leaves the main cause driving the current surge in the number of migrants – the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the anarchic situation in Libya.

The UK has defended its parsimony in giving asylum to Syrian refugees by pointing to the humanitarian aid it is giving to help Syrian refugees in the region and the people displaced inside the country.

It is true Britain is one of the largest aid givers, however, it is revealing that newly released figures show the UK spent much more bombing Libya during the revolt against Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 than it did on aid to help stabilise the country after his overthrow.

And it is precisely the failure to stabilise Libya and its further descent into chaos that has enabled migrants to cross the Mediterranean in such large numbers.

The same skewed approach can be seen in Syria and Iraq.

The US alone is spending more than $ 9 million a day on its air strikes on Islamic State forces, while the UN-led relief operations for the millions of refugees who have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, let alone the millions displaced inside Syria, are chronically underfunded with less then a third of the money needed arriving so far this year.

So is it any wonder people are desperate enough to risk the journey to Europe?

If the politicians in London want to end the crisis in Calais, they don’t need to send in the troops, they need to shoulder a fairer share of the burden of asylum seekers in the EU, something they are currently refusing to do.

They also need to find the money to spend more on supporting international relief operations and be ready to invest in the reconstruction of Libya, Syria and Iraq if and when the fighting ends and the circumstances allow.

A foreign free election – or is it?

You don’t win many votes for foreign policy.

In keeping with this thought the main parties had largely avoided talking about it so far in the campaign and been criticised as a result – until Ed Miliband’s speech at Chatham House yesterday.

But then he was taking advantage of another political adage.

You can lose votes for foreign policy.

Following the hundreds of deaths of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, the Labour leader clearly decided it was a good moment to attack David Cameron for the ill-thought out intervention in the north African state that helped overthrow Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 and then the subsequent failure to support efforts to prevent the country collapsing into the state of anarchy the people smugglers and migrants are taking advantage of now.

As Mr Miliband tacitly acknowledged in his speech, Labour knows how foreign policy can lose you votes when he referred to learning the lessons from the 2003 Iraq invasion more than once.

He knows many of the votes his party lost to the Liberal Democrats in 2005 and 2010 were because of Iraq.

To be fair to him, Ed Miliband did more than take a pop at David Cameron’s record.

He made a reasonable fist of his speech – he pointed out the world is not a stable place at the moment and there are a variety of problems that the world’s fifth largest economy with – despite spending cuts – some of its more capable diplomatic and military services should be doing more to help tackle.

His analysis of the complex challenges facing the world ticked most of the right boxes – and he is to be praised for emphasising the threat posed by climate change and the opportunity to do something about it at the next UN climate summit in Paris in December.

But if he does replace Mr Cameron in No 10, will he follow through on his promises?

Would a Labour government re-engage with Britain’s EU partners to make the reforms many agree are needed in the revive the Union?

Would a Prime Minister Miliband increase defence spending to meet the 2% of GDP the country committed to at the last NATO summit? He hinted strongly yesterday that his party would spend more on defence without actually saying he would.

Miliband defended his opposition to military intervention against Syria which led to the government’s defeat in parliament – a vote many commentators – reading too much into it – saw as a symptom of Britain’s increasing isolationism.

He says military action is sometimes necessary, but should be a last resort and be undertaken in alliance with others, including regional powers.

But whether the voters agree is another matter.

It is notable that when the last British troops left Afghanistan after a 13 year mission last October it was a headline for a few hours and there was very little fanfare.

Neither of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were very successful in their own terms and many British people don’t seem to think the casualties suffered were worth what was achieved.

While it is true that foreign policy is not something that attracts mass interest and is often the reserve of the few, the appeal of a party like UKIP seems to derive partly from a weariness with – and wariness of – international involvement.

And also to say foreign policy has been largely absent from the campaign is only true if you define it narrowly.

Several foreign policy issues are playing a prominent part.

After all, UKIP’s raison d’etre is getting out of the EU – a more significant foreign policy move for the UK is difficult to imagine – and the Conservatives are promising an in-out referendum on membership if they win.

Immigration is a concern to many voters – all the parties talk about the need to control it – whether they are basically for or against it. And though immigration is usually categorised as domestic policy area, it cannot be seen in isolation from foreign policy.

One of the reasons migration to and from Britain is quite high is that recent governments – both the last Labour administration and the current coalition – have said they want Britain to be a global hub – not just for business, but for education, culture and diplomacy too.

Another issue that has come up in the campaign and featured in the TV debates is overseas aid – a fundamental plank of foreign policy.

UKIP are calling for the aid budget to be cut and the money spent at home, but this is an area where David Cameron is not guilty of Ed Miliband’s charge of being small-minded and inward-looking as his government protected foreign aid from cuts and he is committed to the 0.7% of GDP spending target if he is returned to power.

So foreign policy is part of the warp and weft of the campaign, but what was largely lacking until yesterday’s speech was an attempt to join up the dots and spell out a role for Britain in the world.

Will David Cameron take up the challenge to give voters the Conservatives’ overall vision for foreign policy?

Dying for the mistakes of others?

More than 400 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent days.

That sentence gives pause for thought and it should.

With the arrival of spring and better weather, 10,000 people have attempted to get into the EU by making the relatively short – but still perilous – crossing from Libya to Italy in recent days.

But they are often sent across in rickety, unseaworthy vessels by unscrupulous people smugglers who abandon them knowing the Italian navy and coastguard, following established humanitarian practice, will try to save them – if they are spotted in time.

Many come from countries torn by conflict like Syria, Libya and Yemen, or ruled by repressive regimes, like Eritrea.

That is the push factor.

But they are not all asylum seekers and there is the pull factor too.

Most can earn more money in Europe than at home and then they can help support their families back home in Africa and the Middle East.

EU governments are not short of advice on the need to use aid and trade to help develop the economies of their near neighbours to take away the incentive to migrate.

There have been a series of agreements and initiatives since the Barcelona Process was launched in 1996, but so far they have failed to staunch the flow of people.

The continuing differences in income between EU and African and Middle Eastern countries would be enough to ensure people still wanted to make the journey.

But the instability and conflict that followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 has added to the incentive by making life in several countries much worse.

And EU governments have compounded both the push and the pull with actions that ended up both encouraging and enabling more migrants to make the attempt to get in.

Despite having drawn the conclusion in the 1990s that supporting economic development in the MENA region was a long-term solution to cutting the number of migrants, in the 2000s the EU diverted scarce resources and political attention to its eastward expansion and then the Eastern Partnership initiative with, among others, Ukraine, that has ended in the struggle for influence with Russia.

Also, before 2011, the EU supported regimes in countries like Tunisia and Egypt whose repression helped trigger the uprisings of the Arab Spring which spread and ended in the civil war in Syria which has led 3 million people to flee the country as refugees – not to mention the 6 million internally displaced.

In Libya, several EU countries led by Britain and France, intervened militarily in the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi and helped overthrow him, but then they failed to provide the necessary political and economic support which might have preventing the country collapsing into the anarchy the people smugglers are now exploiting to use the country to funnel migrants across the Mediterranean.

So as things stand, EU countries are in a bind partly of their own making.

The migrants keep coming and popular resentment of immigrants in an economically stagnant Europe keeps growing and is fanned by populist parties like the FN in France and UKIP in Britain which attract support away from established parties by calling for a tougher line on immigration and cuts in foreign aid.

Assuming governments still have the will, this means the political room to enable a long-term answer to the problem – supporting economic development in neighbouring countries – is shrinking.

And the attempt by EU governments to discourage migrants last year by scaling down the effort to rescue boats in trouble has proved no deterrent to would-be migrants.

In the short term, it is likely that media coverage and UN criticism of the rising death toll will force those governments to return to helping the Italians rescue more migrants – which is the humane thing to do, but does nothing to help reach a lasting solution.

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