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Saturday, 23 January 2016

Russia Leaps into the Syrian Quagmire

I first wrote and published this article with a local Nigerian newspaper on October 9, 2015, just over a week after Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war.

A Russian SU-30M fighter jet takes off from Hmeymim airbase. The airbase is the main hub of Russia’s operations in Syria (Photo: Russian Ministry of Defence)

Amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, Putin has dramatically stepped up Russia’s military presence in the country. On September 30, 2015, Russian jets began bombing targets in Syria. 

Weeks before the intervention, a series of satellite images posted on line showing Moscow’s steady deployment of fighter jets, combat helicopters, tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, and anti-aircraft missile systems into the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia had already hinted at this possibility.

Russia’s expansion of the port facilities in its naval base at Tartus, the upgrading of the airfield at Latakia into an airbase, and the deployment of prefabricated housing suggests a substantial number of Russian military personnel may eventually be stationed in Syria. 

A few days to the commencement of operations, Russian media reported that the number of “military specialists” deployed in Syria had grown to 1,700.

What explains Russia’s actions?

Defeating the Islamic State

Russia officially claims its forces are there to help beat back the Islamic State. Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly on Monday 28 September reiterated this claim by calling on the US and its allies to join Russia, Iran, and the Syrian Government in a global anti-IS coalition

The insurgencies of the 1990s and early 2000s when Islamist militants in its North Caucasus Republics – Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria – nearly caused the disintegration of the Russian state remains a searing experience for the Kremlin’s security elites.

Russian officials, to push back against western scepticism that the Kremlin takes the fight against IS seriously, often state that more than 2,000 Russians – primarily from the North Caucasus – and some 3,000 nationals of the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia are fighting with the Islamic State. This for them is a source of immense concern as these fighters might eventually return home to reignite insurgencies in the North Caucasus or destabilize the fragile Central Asian states on Russia’s periphery.

After the recent agreement between Iraq, Russia, Syria, and Iran to share intelligence in the fight against terrorism, the Iraqi military spokesman was quoted as saying the initiative was the result of “increasing concern from Russia about thousands of Russian terrorists committing criminal acts within ISIS”.

Preserving the Syrian State

Another reason often cited by the Kremlin for Russia’s intervention is the desire to save the Syrian state from destruction.

Assad’s forces have taken a battering of late. Gone is the swaggering confidence of last year, when it seemed the Syrian civil war had irreversibly turned in his favour. The summer of this year saw government forces suffer shattering defeats and stunning reversals in the east and south of Syria – leaving roughly about 60% of the country in rebel hands.

In July a visibly deflated Assad finally acknowledged, in his first public speech for a year, that his troops were struggling to hold onto territory due to acute manpower shortages. 

In the speech he essentially admitted that the objective of reconquering all of Syria is an unrealistic dream for the foreseeable future; consolidating government strongholds in Damascus and the Alawite heartlands of Latakia and Tartus was now the strategic priority.With what seemed like the imminent collapse of the Assad regime, and with it the disintegration of the Syrian state, Putin felt compelled to act.

In his interview with CBS news correspondent Charlie Rose, which aired on September 27, Putin said his “deep belief” was that if governmental institutions are allowed to completely disintegrate, the last bulwark against Islamic extremists overrunning the whole of Syria will disappear. 

Therefore the only “solution to the Syrian crisis [is] strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism”.

Restart the Syrian Peace Process

One reason often cited by analysts, especially Russian analysts, for this projection of Russian power into the unstable dynamic of the Syrian civil war is to revive the stagnating peace process. At first take this may seem counter-intuitive, but on deeper reflection the logic to this line of thinking becomes clearer. 

The assumption is that with the opposition buoyed by their string of recent military victories, they and their western and regional backers will likely become less amenable to a political resolution of the crisis.

By clearly demonstrating that the fall of Assad is a redline that he is prepared to enforce, Putin, the analysis goes, is signalling that decisive military victory against the Syrian government is not possible. Therefore, the armed opposition and their international partners must reckon with the fact that the Assad regime will be an integral part of any political process in resolving the civil war.

Through a series of calculated and bold, but risky, military moves, Putin hopes to force a diplomatic breakthrough.

One related reason often cited by analysts is how interaction and negotiation with the west over the fate of Syria could lead to a lessening of Russia’s estrangement from western powers over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. By being a constructive player in Syria, as it was during the Iran nuclear deal, the west’s unity over continued sanctions on Russia may weaken.

Russia as a Great Power

A major driver of Russia’s foreign policy under Putin has been the desire to restore Russia as a great power in international politics. There is no better signifier of great power status than the capacity for independent action far from one’s immediate region.  

With the collapse of the US’ “train and equip” programme for ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels, and with the Obama administration seemingly hesitant to do little other than insist ‘Assad must go’, an opportunity has opened up for Russia to emerge as a powerbroker in the Syrian civil war.

From this perspective, the decision to intervene reflects the Kremlin’s view that the dangers posed to Russian interests should the Assad state fall outweighs the risks of being sucked into the Syrian quagmire. As a great power, Russia has therefore decided to act independently to preserve its interests.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Why Nigeria Should Think Twice Before Joining Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Military Alliance

An abridged version of this article was published in 'Africa Arguments' on 8 January 2016.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammad bin Salman announcing the establishment of its anti-terror alliance at a rare press conference in Riyadh on December 15 2015. Photo Credit AFP

On 15 December, Saudi Arabia made a surprising announcement as it unveiled to the world what it said will be a 34-state “Islamic military alliance” to combat terrorism “all over the Islamic world”.

This ambitious initiative, said Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman, “emanates from the keenness of the Muslim world to fight this disease, which has harmed the Islamic world’s standing in the international community”.

Little is known about how exactly this alliance will operate, but according to official statements it seems there will be a military component which includes intelligence sharing, a messaging component to combat extremist ideology, and a sanctions component focused on “stopping the flow of funds” to terror groups.

As for the countries involved, there are notable absentees such as Iran, Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, those said to be part of the alliance are drawn from across Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It remains to be seen which countries will formally join the Saudi-led coalition, but one of those considering membership is Nigeria.

On 17 December, Presidential Spokesman Garba Shehu said “Nigeria has been formally invited to be a member of the alliance”, but that the “decision to join has not been taken yet”.

Islam and OPEC in Nigeria-Saudi Relations

If Nigeria were to join, it would signify a major step-change in relations with Saudi Arabia.

Islam has historically anchored the relationship between both countries. It has facilitated trade, enhanced people-to-people contact and deepened cultural ties – especially with northern Nigeria. For example, the station in Jeddah which managed the affairs of Nigerian pilgrims during colonialism “became the nucleus of a fully-fledged Embassy” after independence.

The late Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, a towering figure in the history of Islamic reform in postcolonial Nigeria, was “an important broker in Nigeria-Saudi relations”. His extensive connections with Saudi Arabia’s religious and political establishments made him “one of Nigeria’s first semi-official diplomatic representatives in the kingdom” in the years preceding independence, and “the most important … [channels of] … investment … from Gulf states” in succeeding years.

In 1971 a new vector was added to the bilateral relationship when Nigeria joined OPEC, the Saudi dominated oil cartel. This aspect of the relationship however, hasn’t been as promising as expected in forging real strategic ties. Both countries haven’t always seen eye-to-eye over OPEC policies. Saudi Arabia is the only ‘swing producer’ in OPEC and the organization’s influence over global oil prices is largely underwritten by the Kingdom’s spare capacity, making Saudi oil policy prone to unilateralism.

As a result, during periods of crisis such as the current collapse in oil prices, OPEC members like Nigeria have often been unwillingly pulled along in the slipstream of Saudi policy. 

Some Advantages

Given their shared terrorism challenge, adding security cooperation to the Nigeria-Saudi relationship could have real potential.

Boko Haram clearly has a transnational dimension – it is increasingly engaging in cross border attacks and has links to other Islamist militant groups beyond West Africa – and an international security platform for intelligence cooperation could be hugely useful to Nigerian security forces.

Additionally, further support from the alliance in the form of funding or training could also significantly enhance counterterrorism efforts.

However, there are also potential perils from membership that the Nigerian government should consider seriously as it ponders the Saudi invitation.

What’s in a name? 

The first possible danger comes from the name of the group – the Islamic Military Alliance – and how this could play in Nigeria’s fraught domestic scene.

Soon after news broke of Nigeria’s supposed membership of the Saudi-led initiative, the Christian Association of Nigeria, the umbrella body for the country’s Christian groups, registered its protest, saying membership harms “Nigeria’s pluralistic character [and] portends great danger to national unity and integration”.

Should President Muhammadu Buhari sign-off on Nigeria joining, informing the public early, being transparent about how the decision was reached, clearly articulating the advantages for Nigeria, and securing broad elite consensus will be essential to avoid the anti-terror alliance becoming a polarizing factor in the country’s interreligious relations.

The intense controversy that trailed Nigeria’s membership of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1986 offers salutary lessons.

When “out of the blue” news broke in January 1986 that Nigeria had “secretly” become a member of the OIC the previous month, it sparked a political crisis. The non-transparent attainment of OIC membership exacerbated what in any case would have been a contentious issue, and the controversy it sparked effectively paralyzed Nigeria’s participation in the organization.

“In order to satisfy Muslims, [Nigeria] has not officially withdrawn its membership”, said historian Toyin Falola, “and in order to satisfy Christians, it has refused to play an active role in the OIC”.

If Nigeria joins the Islamic Military Alliance, it will have to be careful as to how it presents this move to the public.

Saudi Arabia’s Geopolitical Motives

The second problem derives from Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical motives and regional ambitions.

Most responses to the new anti-terror alliance have expressed skepticism as to the real reasons behind the initiative. The exclusion of Iran in particular – a country with which Saudi Arabia is locked in an intense struggle for regional supremacy – is seen by many as being indicative of Riyadh’s desire to galvanize the Sunni world against its rival.

A striking feature of the Middle East’s geopolitics is Iran’s prominent place in Gulf Arab threat perceptions – Oman being the notable exception, perhaps due to the country’s unique religious make-up (neither Sunni nor Shi’a but Ibadi, an entirely different sect. Oman neither joined the Gulf Cooperation Council’s war in Yemen, nor has it joined the new anti-terror alliance).

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen is a perfect example of how the ‘Iran threat’ now drives Gulf Arab foreign policy behavior. GCC member-states have never used military force abroad, except as part of a US-led coalition. Perceptions that US disengagement from the region is encouraging the expansion of Iranian power triggered that intervention and drives the GCC’s subsequent military activism.

“In private GCC officials make no bones in saying they felt compelled to [act in Yemen]”, said Ken Pollack at a prepared testimony before Congress in July 2015, “because the United States was embracing Iran rather than deterring or defeating it”.

Therefore, Nigeria’s membership of the anti-terror alliance could entail, if not explicit support, then at least implicit endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical objectives – objectives that are much broader than simply countering terrorism.

The sectarian undertones of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry could also have domestic repercussions for Nigeria given the unresolved tensions between the Nigerian state and its own restive Shia minority.

Whose Terrorists?

Linked to the question of Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical motives is a third problem: which militant groups will command the alliance’s focus?

Saudi Arabia says the new alliance will confront “any terrorist organization that appears in front of us”. But it is clear that the alliance’s leading states will have different perceptions of who the main threats are.

For Turkey, for example, the role of Kurdish separatists looms large in its concerns. Ankara’s attention is focused on unseating Syria’s President Assad and preventing its nightmare scenario of an independent Kurdistan emerging amidst Syria’s wreckage. Defeating Islamic State comes an important but distant third in its list of priorities.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s view of what constitutes terrorism – as enshrined in its 2013 anti-terror law – is so broad as to practically include “any act of protest or criticism” against the monarchy. The law was recently used to execute a prominent Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi monarchy, further inflaming regional tensions and leading to the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran.

A truism in international relations is that the heavyweights in any alliance generally define its objectives. The danger for Nigeria in joining Saudi Arabia’s initiative therefore is that it may find itself having to stand by the controversial, and sometimes reckless, policies of its powerful friends in the name of solidarity. 

No Algeria

The fourth problem for Nigeria’s possible membership of the alliance is the absence of Algeria.

Nigeria’s defence planners differentiate the country’s national interests into three levels of importance: ‘vital’ interest, identified as the country’s survival and the preservation of its territorial integrity; ‘strategic’ interest, identified as the stability of immediate neighbours and West Africa; and ‘peripheral’ interest, identified as the country’s “obligations to the international community” such as participation in UN mandated peacekeeping missions.

If one were to map the landscape of Nigeria’s security threats using this framework, a picture would emerge of three separate geographical levels of concern: stability in the Lake Chad region, where Boko Haram is concentrated, would constitute a ‘vital’ interest; the broader Sahel, which potentially offers Boko Haram strategic depth and connects Nigeria to the chaos in Libya, would be of ‘strategic’ interest; and stability in the Levant, where the so-called Islamic State is based, and beyond would come under ‘peripheral’ interests.

This perspective illuminates Algeria’s importance to Nigeria’s broader security. Stability in the Sahel is crucial for Nigerian security, and Algeria is the regional power in that neighbourhood. Despite its reticence about using military force – its constitution explicitly forbids external military adventures – Algeria’s potential as a stabilising power is undeniable. It is an “indispensable broker of stability in … the Sahel”, says a recent report by the International Crisis Group.

The Sahel is both a barrier and a highway straddling Nigeria and Libya, the latter of which is arguably home to Islamic State’s most important outpost. And Nigeria’s limited capability to project its power means close cooperation with Algeria is essential if the region is to push back against the further spread of IS.

Since March 2013, intelligence chiefs from eleven countries across the region – including Nigeria and Algeria – have met every two months, with foreign ministers meeting every three, as part of the Nouakchott Process to discuss Sahelian security. Diplomatic energy may well be better spent improving the performance this multilateral initiative, where matters affecting Nigeria’s direct strategic interests are concerned, than in the broader Saudi-led alliance.

In assessing whether to stay in or out of the Islamic Military Alliance, Nigeria should be careful to weigh the clear potential advantages against these equally formidable perils.