When silence does not make it better: US-Russia Nuclear Relations

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Today’s world faces numerous issues: crisis of liberalism, trade and economic wars between the major geopolitical rivals, populists and autocrats who hold their seats in parliaments and other governmental bodies. However, all those problems would become unimportant in case of another, not worldwide war, but a nuclear one.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), there are 9 nuclear-weapon states in the world: five of them are under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), three of them are not, and one state -Israel-, is an undeclared nuclear state. The biggest amount of nuclear missiles are situated on the territory of the United States and Russia, making them their heritage from the Cold War. 

The nuclear policy of the two countries is as different as their approach to the foreign policy. On the one hand, Russia’s military doctrine, included in the 2010’s edition states that first of all, Russian government considers NATO and its enlargment as the main threat to the country. Secondly, the right to use the regular army on the territory of another state which poses a threat to the sovereignty of the country as well to the rights of russian-speaking citizens, and last but not the least, there is the fact that nuclear weapons may be used against the state which violates the sovereignty and poses a threat to Russia’s existence.

On the other hand, the United States remains the only country in the world which has used nuclear weapons against another state. Luckily, there have not been any other cases in world’s history. The Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 established that nuclear weapons may be used only in case of nuclear attack from another state, great losses among citizens and serious damages to infrastructure and central authorities. In this regard, as its opponents and threats  the US names Russia and North Korea.

Relations between Russia and the US in terms of nuclear policy are not easy. However, keeping in mind that nowadays Russia is a state under sanctions regardless of numerous attempts of Vladimir Putin to depict it as “a democratic state”, it is going to be difficult to continue the dialogue in the sphere of nuclear non-proliferation.

America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty  and the denunciation of the INF Treaty  create a serious and dangerous precedent in the international relations. Moreover, the absence of  information on negotiations on the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty III  (START III) or the signing of a new treaty do not make that situation clearer. If after 2021 there is no extension of the existing treaty or a renewed one, then the parties will find themselves without any binding agreements in terms of strategic nuclear forces and it will create a legal – and dangerous- vacuum in their relations. 

Even if both states claim that it is impossible to use the preemptive strike, even if they are aware of the hazardous consequences of using nuclear forces, there is still a great need in for  dialogue between the US and Russia. After all, the economic problems, violation of human rights or climate issues would become totally irrelevant if nuclear weapons were used by any state.

Ankara at crossroads to protect its borders

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The international community has again turned its back as it watches the conflict in Syria escalate. Waves of refugees fleeing towards the Turkish border, entire towns emptying as the Syrian army, backed by Russia is systematically bombing the Idlib province for days on end in line with Bashar al-Assad’s wish to recapture “every inch of Syria”. Idlib is one of the last rebel populated strongholds remaining in Syria, attributing a great strategic significance to the latest events happening in the north-western region.

The conflict is seeing direct clashes between NATO member Turkey and Assad’s regime with its top backer Russia, which raises the fear of a full-scale war between these three forces. On Monday, forces loyal to Assad fired shells at an observation post manned by Turkish troops in Taftanaz, to the north of Saraqib, killing eight Turkish citizens, one of them being a civilian. These observation posts were set by the 2017 de-escalation agreements between Turkey, Russia and Iran, but the agreements have clearly been sidelined by self-interested rival efforts by the involving parties.

So as the de-escalation agreements, part of the peace process, are being violated, the Syrian army supported by Iranian militiamen and Russian air strikes are making advances on the ground and have been capturing dozens of towns and villages in Idlib since December.

In hopes of repelling attacks, Turkey had been providing artillery and support to rebel defensive positions in the city of Saraqib, which briefly prevented the Syrian army’s takeover of the city. However, the Syrian regime succeeded in capturing the town. This capture is a major strategic territorial move as the city is located in the intersection of the M4 and M5 highways, linking the east with the west and the north with the south of Syria, giving the regime broader manoeuvre possibilities, making it even more difficult for Turkey to contain Idlib.

The Turkish army responded to the attacks on Monday allegedly hitting 54 regime targets and killing 76 Syrian soldiers. Turkey will continue to retaliate while its observation posts are being targeted and has threatened to drive back all Syrian troops behind their twelve observation posts in Idlib if the Syrian army doesn’t withdraw, claiming that they are willing to do this no matter what the consequences are. But what Turkey does not seem to be aware of is what they are up against.

Turkey cannot afford a rupture with Moscow because of  joint interests including energy pipelines, or the prospect of purchasing Russia S-400 Missile Defense Systems in defiance of fellow NATO member, the US. But more importantly, Turkey should not undermine the capabilities of the Russia-backed Syrian army and should be aware that it cannot afford to engage in a full-scale war with Syria and Russia when it is already struggling to protect its borders.

Ankara is alone in this so its first order of business should be finding a balance in its foreign policy by regaining Western support in Idlib. Further inaction from the West along with reckless retaliatory operations will be too costly for everyone – if Assad forces continue to advance, not only it will be a humanitarian disaster, but the mass exodus will spill over to Turkey, the region and Europe by pushing Islamist militants beyond Syria’s borders.

Why attend Conflict Analysis Training anyway?

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A few months ago, I stumbled upon an email promoting a Conflict Analysis and Foreign Policy Training in Madrid. “Oh, wow” was my first reaction. First of all, because it was a topic I’m deeply into, second of all, because it seemed it’s going to be all new for me and I loooove to learn, and third, because it was in Spain. I think tapas was a good enough reason to apply for the training.

I’m kidding, of course. There’s no good tapas in Madrid (sorry, I was Granada Erasmus).

But there are many other reasons you should attend this training. For example, you will learn. A lot. When I attended the training in Madrid, there were people from various backgrounds: there were law, journalism, diplomacy, international relations and security experts and social psychologists (ok, only one – me). And all of them said the training was useful and that they acquired new skills. The training is almost completely practice oriented and you get a chance to implement what you learn about.

Photo: World Youth Academy

Which brings me to the second point – you will gain skills you probably won’t have a chance to learn anywhere else. Remember the variety of participants mentioned before? Yeah, well they all said it was all new to them, although they came from different universities and work backgrounds.

Which now brings me to the third point: exactly the people from different backgrounds. National, religious, work, study, experience, countries, we all differed. The opportunity to meet and engage with so many intelligent and motivated people is priceless. They all bring pieces of a puzzle with themselves, of different shapes, colours, texture, and during those three days we managed to put an amazing puzzle together.

Networking and planning potential cooperation is also an important part of the training. Different ideas emerge and you have a chance to do their reality-check because all those good people will help you understand when you are flying too high 🙂

But you also become inspired, many new ideas are born, you get to see and hear different viewpoints that make you think and enable your further professional and personal growth. And after all, it should be about development 🙂 Because only by investing in it, only by improving ourselves, we can improve the world we live in.

Photo: World Youth Academy | Ramiro Murguia

You make friendships. You meet an Axel who also has to spend a long night at the airport (the importance of this is kind of self-explanatory). You meet a Sara who instantly becomes a person you want to have in your life forever. You meet a Bek, whose charisma and night-time photo shooting skills bring huge amounts of joy to your day. (Yeah, there are stories behind these moments)

However, you should also attend this training because the world desperately needs it. We desperately need more people engaging in analysing such complex parallel realities called ‘conflicts’ and working through solutions that could potentially bring an end to them. Too optimistic? Well, as Gretzky (or Scott, or Michael Jordan for that matter, they were all attributed the saying) said – you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

Of course, another key point you shouldn’t miss – an always-serious-super-experienced-never-smiling-extremely-witty-coffee-loving lead trainer. You really want to meet this guy.

Although we have no tapas in Novi Sad, the food is AMAZING. Coffee too. We have cakes and craft beer. We have culture. We have the Danube. We have a heart.

Welcome. I promise you won’t regret it.

They are all evil: Trump’s “Vision” of Peace and Prosperity.

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Yesterday, Donald Trump, in the middle of his very own process of impeachment, announced his Middle East Plan, the so-called “deal of the century” negotiated with Israel without the Palestinians, and as Netanyahu is under investigation for fraud and bribery charges. Beyond this move -both on the US and Israel labeled as “distraction”  from the ongoing internal proceedings regarding the political future of the president and prime minister respectively- the deal of the century carries material consequences for the lives of the Palestinians living under Israel occupation and settler colonialism. 

Some commentators have suggested that the Peace to Prosperity Vision 2020 (“Vision”) echoes the situation of 1917 and the Balfour Declaration, leaving again the Palestinians out of the negotiation table on their own homeland and further ignoring their opposition to it. Highly unlikely, Trump might think that he is actually doing a favor to the Palestinians and that with this Vision, both him and Netanyahu are really approaching a solution to the conflict. Received amidst mixed reactions, it is convenient to highlight and analyze some of the most remarkable comments within the document.

Palestinians are likely to be terrorists, especially in Gaza. The document states throughout that all Palestinian leaders and authorities are terrorists. Most of the population might be as well. Among other examples: “Gaza is a very complicated situation. It is under the control of Hamas, a terrorist organization, and, as a result of Hamas’ policies, is approaching a humanitarian crisis. It is time to help the Palestinians achieve a hopeful and prosperous future(…)” (p.2). The same idea is spread out, at least the word terrorism linked to Palestinians and their leaders is mentioned 40 times.

Of course, this thinking does at least two things. Firstly, it delegitimizes Palestinians and pictures them as evil terrorists that are constantly threatening Israel. The “Vision” literally states that “A realistic solution would give the Palestinians all the power to govern themselves but not the powers to threaten Israel“. The consequence is, therefore, “limitation of certain sovereign powers in the Palestinian areas such as maintenance of Israeli security responsibility and Israeli control of the airspace west of the Jordan River”.

Secondly, by picturing Israel as a legitimate state under threat, the politics of settler colonialism, aggression, and other atrocities are easily overlooked. In Gaza, these politics have involved over the years, and with the support of the United States, the bombing of key infrastructure in the strip, including hospitals and schools; years of blockades and electricity cuts, hindering access to humanitarian aid, the cutting of funds by the US to the USAid in the region and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.

Although the document makes a great effort in trying to depict the US as the Palestinian savior while highlighting all the advantages the Palestinians will benefit from,  one might ask whose peace and whose prosperity is this plan referring to. Certainly not to the party that being the most affected by it, has not been included in the negotiation.

 

Peace is as far as ever for Libya

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The continued fighting taking place in Libya between the two local forces competing for power and their apparent inability or unwillingness to cooperate has put the country in the middle of what has become a complex international conflict with no future positive prospects.

With a growing international fear about the Libyan conflict, world leaders have gathered in Berlin to try and find a way to end the fighting between the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Saraj and the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. The conference’s aim was to get foreign powers to stop intervening in the war, to uphold an arms embargo and to nominate a UN ceasefire monitoring body – but concerns over the unwillingness to abide by these agreements are ever-growing.

With the intervention of foreign powers in the conflict, the conflict in Libya can no longer be seen as a binary Haftar vs Tripoli one. Among other parties, the GNA has the support of Turkey and Syrian rebel militants and the LNA has the support of Russia and its military private contractors as well as Sudanese militias. Since 2011, Libya has been the clear example of continued foreign interference and therefore consequent fragmentation of the security sector in Libya but also in the already fragile region.

In a parliamentary vote, Turkey decided to come to the aid of the GNA, which was followed by the deployment of Turkish troops and an additional 2,000 Syrian fighters. On the other side, the LNA is receiving support from Sudanese rebel groups from Darfur, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) together with the Russian private military contractor Wagner. Adding more fighting factions to a conflict is like adding oil to the fire –  the presence of these forces has been met with clashes between local militias or minorities and the foreign militias.

The participation of external proxy forces with both the GNA and the LNA not only shows the fragility of states in the region but also their reliance on foreign manpower and therefore the exacerbation of the conflict. Thus, it is evident that peace in Libya depends on foreign actors’ readiness to give room for alternative political manoueuvres.

Until we see an end to meaningless and precarious foreign presence, meddling and financing, there will be no meaningful political talks that will pull Haftar from Tripoli and therefore peace will remain highly improbable.

The Iraqi Dilemma: Between Geography and Diplomacy

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Over the past forty years Iraq has had military conflicts with both Iran and the US, and those wars have brought nothing but political instability, economic crisis and death to Iraq.

Iraq – Iran war: On September 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran and started a devastating war that would last eight years, involved several countries and created instability in the Middle East for decades to come.

US invasion of Iraq: In 2003, the US invaded Iraq and, after a couple months, US forces overthrew the government and captured and later executed Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein. The US’s occupation of Iraq proved to be a disaster. The Iraqi government put in place by Washington was too weak to control its own territory, leaving a vacuum of power in the country that was soon filled by violent militias and extremist groups, including the newly created ISIS.

Despite its difficult situation, over the past years, Iraq has managed to regain control of its major cities, push back ISIS, rebuild its oil industry ,and has been taking steps to solidify its newly formed democratic institutions. However, the Iraqi government has had to deal with a very complicated geopolitical scenario.

It has had to struggle to maintain its sovereignty, to improve its relationship with Iran (its most important neighbor) and to manage its military and economic relationship with the US. This dilemma has shaped Iraqi diplomacy and, today, Iraq’s diplomatic efforts are of utmost importance in order to avoid another conflict which the country will probably not be able to endure. As stated by Iraqi president Barham Salih  The United States is our ally. Iran is our neighbor”.

Nevertheless,  the assassination of Qassem Suleimani -a pillar in Iran’s foreign policy- has made Iraq the main stage in the conflict between the US and Iran. The US drone attack that killed Suleimani was conducted without the knowledge of the Iraqi government, violating its sovereignty and leaving the country in a very delicate situation. Iraq cannot afford to take sides in the dispute without jeopardizing its survival and overall the regional stability.

Politically, the government has to manage a divided parliament between Shiite – majority and close to Iran – and Sunni – minority and opposed to Iran – as well as pressure from both sides to limit each other’s influence in the country.

If Iran and the US keep escalating their war games and refuse to sit down at the negotiating table, the regional consequences would be disastrous for the Middle East and Iraq. Among other, the scenarios could go from  an US intervention in order to protect its regional interests to competition for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran creating more proxy wars in the region and an increase in the intensity of Israel’s conflict against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine both militia groups backed by Iran.

Iraq must at all cost avoid alienating either the US or Iran. Baghdad will have to push for a a diplomatic solution in order to deescalate the conflict, because war will be unbearable for both Iraq and the region.

Watch Out for the Sultan – Erdoğan in Libya

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The unprecedented escalation in Iran following the assassination of military mastermind Qassem Suleimani by one of Donald’s drones overshadowed another highly interesting development in the Middle East lately getting a new spin: Turkey entering the conflict in Libya.

With this step, that explicitly is at odds with the advices of many other stakeholders in “a failed state par excellence”, as observers say, not least the Arab League, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shows his claim to great power status.

This action appears in line with Erdoğan’s (over)confident self-perception of Turkey being a rising power that urges for its share in a multipolar world and is willing to apply blunt power politics whenever and wherever necessary.

Previous actions by his neo-Ottoman Excellency underline that. Be it infrastructural mega projects like the construction of Istanbul’s new airport, the first road tunnel under the Bosporus, or his newest desire, a canal through Istanbul. Be it his increasingly authoritarian rule finding its expression in press censorship, a purge targeting intellectuals, or his hunt for political opponents from both the Gülen Movement and the left-wing party HDP.

Yet, his attempts of showing off with his power have an international scope, too. Libya, where Turkey’s engagement did not just start last week, in that respect lines up in a row with Northern Syria, where Erdoğan tried to kill two birds with one stone. Pursuing a buffer zone to the war-torn neighbor to resettle refugees residing in Turkey coincided with a military warning to his archenemy, the Kurds, being home in and around that very region. Besides, Turkey made demands on natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, by heating up the Cyprus conflict, Europe’s longest frozen conflict.

Now, one might jump to the conclusion of perceiving Turkey as nothing but becoming another dubious Middle Eastern autocracy, but beware! This is far from reality. Ankara is the pivotal element of many conflicts in the region and thus of crucial interest to the international community.

It is Turkey that keeps myriads of refugees from entering Europe. The end shall not justify the means, though Turkey thereby effectively does the EU’s dirty laundry. It too is Turkey that sits at the table with Russia and Iran negotiating about how to bring an end to the war in Syria. This triangle can be considered the forum that is most likely to achieve this goal. And Turkey is the most pro-Western member, being part of NATO and, yet with neglectable prospects for success, EU candidate country. At the same time, Ankara is the gateway from Europe to the Middle East, not least being a member of the OIC.

Bearing this in mind, the international, particularly European, community shall have a critical but conscious look at Turkey that repeatedly and insistently shows it is not willing to be a mere passive actor of the fight for hegemony in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The whole world focusing on Tehran in those days might open the back door for the sultan.

Trump’s new year adventure in Iraq: killing of Iran’s top general and an echo of war

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The US did it again. So much for its renewed foreign policy strategy of less outside activity and pulling back. One might wonder, does making America great again involve eagerness to intervene in the Middle East? It seems so. On the 3rd of January 2020, the President of the United States gave the order to murder Qassem Soleimani. To be sure, the ordered assassination of a top Iranian military leader by the US president on foreign soil is an act of aggression.

At this point, the event should not be so surprising. However, it has sparked great concerns among US allies,  about Iran’s nuclear deal, retaliation or the possibility of an “asymmetric” war in the territories of Iraq and Afghanistan. But particularly relevant is the fact that Iran has just announced that it will abandon the nuclear deal enrichment limits, although it will remain open to negotiations with European partners.

Nonetheless, what might seem surprising in this scenario is the response of world leaders to the attack. After the shock, the general tone has been a call for de-escalation. A moderate response to what is an act of aggression that can result in terrible consequences. The UN has called for maximum restraint, as “the world cannot afford another war in the Gulf”,  and so have said European leaders in general, following the EU’s position, with the exception of Britain, of course, as Boris Johnson has even justified the killing. With the exception of Russia and China with stronger reactions, the event has not been formally condemned beyond Iran’s allies in the region.

The United States has pictured this attack as a heroic act that will save American -and European- lives; an exercise of a “preemptive defense” traditionally used by the US to justify interventions and military actions on sovereign soils around the world. But the US fake savior complex is something that nobody is buying anymore. Despite the mild responses and reactions, it doesn’t look like world leaders and US allies want to support another war (with the exception of Israel), especially since Iraq’s Parliament has just passed a nonbinding resolution to expel foreign troops of the country.

This move has not been well received within the US, as Trump has already threatened Iraq with sanctions if they were to be expelled, and they have already deployed 3,000 troops in the area. In light of this, it seems a bit unlikely that they will leave soon. But the US will neither have a nice time in Iraq nor in the rest of the region.

What is clear is both that the assassination of Soleimani has been premeditated, matured and the risks have been taken into account: gladly not every day the US decides to kill a venerated general of a foreign country. And, of course, that the US only bandwagons with the US.

Allies should take this into account.

New Year, New Crisis

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Syria is once again, submerged in chaos since the latest US withdrawal of its troops and consequent Turkish incursion through Syria’s northern border. A new chain of events has further destabilized the situation in the country and will continue to do so as we enter the new decade.

A recent de-escalation agreement sponsored by Turkey and Assad’s ally Russia has been overlooked and a new humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the Syrian north-western region of Idlib. Syrian and Russian forces have been indiscriminately bombarding the final major opposition-held bastion of Syria since mid-December. Barrel bombs and air strikes have been hitting civilian infrastructure in Idlib with the aim of forcing out civilians and rebel forces and gaining control of the area.

The deadly bombings have killed dozens and forced 235,000 people to flee parts of the Idlib province towards other parts of the country, creating a new refugee crisis. Idlib is home to an estimated 3 million people, many of them who are already refugees displaced from other areas of the country during the nine years of violence. Refugee camps are already overcrowded so people are living in the open, struggling to find food, shelter and medicine. Schools and hospitals have been targeted, making it impossible to satisfy basic human needs such as education or healthcare.

Aid agencies warn that the situation is untenable, but Assad insists that the civil war will not be over until Damascus retakes ‘every inch’ of Syria. Regaining control of the Idlib territory would allow Assad to control the whole country. So as government forces move forward and bombings intensify, civilians flee up north to the Syrian-Turkish border, creating further security and humanitarian issues – so an end to the conflict would still be very unlikely.

Civilians have been completely abandoned as the international community and its most powerful nations have turned their backs to the war-torn country. China and Russia have vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution that would have allowed more humanitarian aid flowing into Idlib. What is left to do is to condemn the situation through Twitter posts, but world leaders are running out of words of condemnation while the situation continues to worsen every day.

This passivity of the international community towards the Syrian conflict is at the expense of thousands of Syrians who have been abandoned. If after 9 years of conflict, what seems to be one of the worst humanitarian crises the country has seen is not enough for the international community to act – then what is?

SECURITY IS NOT JUST ANOTHER BRICK IN THE WALL

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An article published last week describes the new constructions on the border wall that Donald Trump promised as one of his landmark campaign goals. The publication shows the US President signing one of the sections of the wall built in El Paso, a very straightforward declaration on Trump’s policy to stop illegal immigration. Although the wall Trump promised is nowhere near completion, the rhetoric and accompanying strategy have already created obstacles to the true problem: insecurity.

During the campaign, the issue was framed by Trump as securing the border from dangerous criminals who slipped into the US from Mexico. The wall is meant to be a symbol of the physical efforts to stop the illegal flow of people into the United States whilst the administration also applied many controversial measures that lead to children being separated from their parents.

All the promises were made based on describing immigration as a rapidly growing phenomenon that brought insecurity to the US. The reality is that studies show that migration from Latin America, and especially from Mexico, has actually decreased. This does not mean that migration has stopped, the refugee crisis existing at the border shows that many still try to enter the US legally to try and escape the insecurity in their country of origin.

One of Trump’s claims about the wall is it would also help in stopping the smuggling of drugs into the US. Not only would that be inefficient but it also obscures the US’s responsibility in what is indeed a security issue. The insecurity created by the drug trade affects the entire continent. And as much as the existing portions of the wall have been useless in preventing ‘criminals’ and drugs going into the US it has also failed to block weapons from leaving the United States and into criminal groups in Latin America.

According to reports by NGOs, in the period of 2014 to 2016, “50,133 guns that originated in the United States were recovered as part of criminal investigations” in various countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. That number only reflects a small portion of weapons that fuels existing criminal conflicts in many countries of the region. However, Trump’s rhetoric and constant accusations never recognise the responsibility of the United States in creating such unsafe environments to migrants.