Next Year’s Wars
From Sochi to Sudan, 10 conflicts that will threaten global stability in 2014.
Before we dive into next year's list of conflicts to watch, some thoughts on the year we are about to conclude are in order. In short, 2013 was not a good year for our collective ability to prevent or end conflict. For sure, there were bright moments. Colombia appears closer than ever to ending a civil war which next year will mark its 60th birthday. Myanmar, too, could bring down the curtain on its decades-long internal ethnic conflicts, though many hurdles remain. The deal struck over Iran's nuclear program was a welcome fillip for diplomacy, even dynamism. The U.N. Security Council finally broke its deadlock over Syria, at least with regards to the regime's chemical weapons, and committed to more robust interventions in Eastern Congo and the Central African Republic. Turkey's talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) continue in fits and starts, but the ceasefire looks reasonably durable. Pakistan enjoyed its first-ever democratic handover of power.
As important as these achievements are, still more important is to keep them in perspective. Colombia's peace process remains vulnerable to messy domestic politics in the election year ahead. Myanmar's positive trajectory could derail if the bigotry unleashed on Muslim communities continues unchecked. Moving towards a final settlement with Iran amidst a sea of red lines and potential spoilers -- in Washington, Tehran, and the region -- is undoubtedly a more perilous challenge than reaching the interim deal in Geneva, welcome step though it was. And that Turkey and Pakistan, both entries on last year's "top 10" list, don't make it onto this year's list is hardly a clean bill of health, given the spillover of Syria's conflict into Turkey, and the ongoing dangers of extremism and urban violence in Pakistan.
But it is Syria and the recent muscular interventions in Central Africa that best illustrate alarming deficiencies in our collective ability to manage conflict.
Before we dive into next year’s list of conflicts to watch, some thoughts on the year we are about to conclude are in order. In short, 2013 was not a good year for our collective ability to prevent or end conflict. For sure, there were bright moments. Colombia appears closer than ever to ending a civil war which next year will mark its 60th birthday. Myanmar, too, could bring down the curtain on its decades-long internal ethnic conflicts, though many hurdles remain. The deal struck over Iran’s nuclear program was a welcome fillip for diplomacy, even dynamism. The U.N. Security Council finally broke its deadlock over Syria, at least with regards to the regime’s chemical weapons, and committed to more robust interventions in Eastern Congo and the Central African Republic. Turkey’s talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) continue in fits and starts, but the ceasefire looks reasonably durable. Pakistan enjoyed its first-ever democratic handover of power.
As important as these achievements are, still more important is to keep them in perspective. Colombia’s peace process remains vulnerable to messy domestic politics in the election year ahead. Myanmar’s positive trajectory could derail if the bigotry unleashed on Muslim communities continues unchecked. Moving towards a final settlement with Iran amidst a sea of red lines and potential spoilers — in Washington, Tehran, and the region — is undoubtedly a more perilous challenge than reaching the interim deal in Geneva, welcome step though it was. And that Turkey and Pakistan, both entries on last year’s “top 10” list, don’t make it onto this year’s list is hardly a clean bill of health, given the spillover of Syria’s conflict into Turkey, and the ongoing dangers of extremism and urban violence in Pakistan.
But it is Syria and the recent muscular interventions in Central Africa that best illustrate alarming deficiencies in our collective ability to manage conflict.
In Syria, the speed and decisiveness with which the international community acted to eliminate Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons can’t help but underscore its failure to act with equal determination to end the fighting; even concerted humanitarian action remains elusive. As the conflict in Syria enters its third winter, there is little indication it will stop any time soon, whatever hopes are centered around the Geneva talks scheduled for January. If the Security Council’s role is to maintain international peace and security, then as Syria’s conflict claims ever more lives and threatens to suck in Lebanon and Iraq, how else can one judge its impact than as an abject failure?
In the Central African Republic, meanwhile, the international community was apparently taken by surprise by the collapse into violence. There is no excuse for this: Decades of misrule, under-development, and economic mismanagement had left behind a phantom state long before this year’s coup unleashed turmoil and now escalating confessional violence. France’s robust support for the African Union (AU) in a full-fledged humanitarian intervention was commendable. But without concerted, sustained commitment to rebuilding the Central African Republic (CAR), it is unlikely to make much difference in the long run.
So how does this list compared with that of last year? Five entries are new: Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Honduras, Libya, and North Caucasus. Five remain: Central Asia, Iraq, the Sahel, Sudan, and Syria/Lebanon. Of course, by their nature, lists beget lists. It would not have been too difficult to draw up a completely different one. In addition to Pakistan and Turkey, Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been omitted, though all could have easily merited a place. Nor did South Sudan, apparently on the cusp of civil war, make it onto this year’s list.
In Afghanistan, next year’s elections, coupled with the Taliban’s continued insurgency in the face of unsettled international support for a still nascent national army, make 2014 a crucial year for the country — and a potentially ominous one for Afghan women. In Somalia, despite some gains by an AU mission and a new “provisional” government, al-Shabab militants have shown their continued ability to strike — both at home and abroad — and many of Somalia’s clans remain in conflict with each other. Finally, the sheer absence of the state and the rule of law in the DRC could have justified an entry on this year’s list, despite the recent welcome defeat of the M23 rebel movement and signs that, finally, the international community can no longer ignore the conflict’s regional dimensions.
But ultimately, this list seeks to focus not just on crises in the international spotlight — CAR, Syria, the Sahel, and Sudan — but also on some that are less visible or slower-burning. Thus Honduras — estimated to be the world’s most violent country outside those facing conventional conflict — is included, as is Central Asia, which totters ever closer to a political and security implosion.
The list illustrates the remarkable range of factors that can cause instability: organized crime in Central America; the stresses of the political competition around elections, as in Bangladesh; the threat of insurgency — in the North Caucasus, for example — or the dangers of regional spillover, as in Lebanon or the Sahel. Then there are the perils of authoritarian rule and an overly securitized response to opposition: in Syria, of course, but also in Iraq and Russia’s North Caucasus. An alarming rise in communal or identity-based violence is likewise contributing to instability in Iraq, Syria, and CAR (and Myanmar and Sri Lanka, for that matter). Finally, center/periphery tensions cut across a range of countries on the list. Mali, Libya, Sudan, and Iraq — plus Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and others — all wrestle with notions of strong, centralized governance that appear unworkable, yet struggle to find alternatives that don’t atomize the state or feed secessionism.
Above all, however, the list highlights that deadly conflict rarely springs up out of nowhere or is entirely unanticipated. It usually has long roots: in underdevelopment; states’ inability to provide all their citizens with basic public goods; inequality; and divisive or predatory rule. It shows, too, that reducing the fragility of the most vulnerable countries — arguably among the greatest moral and political challenge of our era — takes time, commitment, and resources. Three things that, sadly, too often are lacking.
Syria and Lebanon
The diplomatic breakthrough in September on Syria’s chemical weapons — and subsequent progress in dismantling them — has had little noticeable impact on the battlefield. Violence continues, with ever-worsening humanitarian consequences. Having avoided a U.S. military intervention, the Bashar al-Assad regime has displayed increasing confidence, re-escalating its campaign to drive rebels from strongholds around the capital, Aleppo, and the Lebanese border. The regime, with some success, has also sought to market itself to Western governments as a counterterrorism partner — ironically so, given that its brutal tactics and reliance on sectarian militias helped fuel the rise of its extremist adversaries in the first place.
In part, the regime’s momentum — however limited — can be attributed to disarray among rebel forces. The opposition’s primary political umbrella, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, has no real control of military operations on the ground. The opposition’s regional back
ers — principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar — support competing blocs within the coalition, as well as separate armed groups outside it, contributing to rifts that jihadi groups have exploited. The al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is now the strongest rebel faction in much of the north, but its aggressive tactics have alienated fellow militants and the opposition’s base. In response, other leading rebel groups formed the “Islamic Front,” potentially the largest and most coherent opposition alliance to date. Its Islamist platform, however, has raised concerns among some of the opposition’s external backers, and coordination issues remain a persistent problem.
Meanwhile, Syria is slowly but surely dragging Lebanon down with it. Lebanon’s population has swelled by at least 25 percent as a result of Syrian spillover. Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s growing involvement on the regime’s behalf, allegedly in a “pre-emptive war” to keep its jihadist enemies at bay, is in fact luring them to take the fight to the Shiite militant group at home. Other attacks have targeted Sunni mosques in Tripoli, where sectarian strife has pushed the army to take control.
International attention is currently focused on the renewed push to hold talks between the regime and opposition, scheduled for Jan. 22 in Geneva. But both sides see it as little more than a venue for the other to formalize its capitulation. The opposition coalition accepts the premise of the talks — the June 2012 Geneva communiqué calling for establishment of a mutually agreed transitional body with full executive authority — but has struggled to make a final decision about whether to participate under current conditions. The regime, by contrast, has readily agreed to join talks, but rejects the ostensible goal of the process: the formation of a transitional government. The positions of each side’s external backers will be critical in bringing the parties toward agreement in any political process, but here, too, signs of willingness to compromise are few, if any.
Since April 2013, when Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government intensified its violent crackdown on a peaceful Sunni protest movement, the tide of attacks, arrests, and executions has gradually swelled. Sunni distrust of the central government is greater than ever, providing an opening for al Qaeda in Iraq after years of decline. Over 7,000 civilians have fallen victim to this destructive cycle already this year, but still the government has shown no appetite for compromise. Iraq’s Sunnis, therefore, have turned to Syria, hoping a victory by the opposition there will enable a political comeback at home.
The coming year is likely to see further intertwining of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts. As the Iraqi state weakens, its frontier with Syria erodes. Baghdad, more overtly than ever, is aiding Damascus in order to stave off the Sunni wave it fears at home — though its support for the Syrian regime is encouraging precisely that, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda offshoot, has become the biggest player in northern Syria. To halt the violence, the Iraqi government should change its approach radically: It must win Iraqi Sunnis back to its side, re-engage them in the political process and in the fight against al Qaeda, and use its improved domestic support base to secure its own borders. Only an inclusive state can save Iraq from fragmenting.
The coming year’s parliamentary elections are unlikely to produce solutions. On the contrary, they risk exacerbating violence and attracting foreign interference. Maliki’s ambition to run for a third term pits his coalition against other Shiite groups, encouraging Iran to weigh in. At the same time, the political scene is fragmenting into a variety of political entities, the culmination of eight years of Maliki’s divide-and-rule strategy. The prime minister’s base has dwindled as well, so absent an unexpectedly dominant candidate or coalition, one can expect the elections to yield an excruciating period of bargaining and political paralysis.
Beset with myriad security concerns and mired in political deadlock, Libya’s post-Qaddafi transition is threatening to go off the rails. The General National Congress’ mandate is set to expire on Feb. 7, 2014, and the formation of a constitution-writing body is already over a year late. Ali Zeidan, the current prime minister, has been the target of several attacks — and a brief kidnapping — and calls for his dismissal are rising. Meanwhile, public confidence in state institutions is fast waning, and with it confidence in a transition process that was supposed to create the framework for a new democracy.
Like other Arab countries in transition, Libya has become increasingly divided along several different axes — Islamist vs. liberal, conservative vs. revolutionary, and center vs. periphery — all of which are contributing to instability on the ground. Following the collapse of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, militias largely took over from the official military and police force, and the country is awash in weapons. The coalition that brought Qaddafi’s former allies together with liberal exiles and long-imprisoned Islamists has collapsed, leaving in its wake a fragmented polity. In Libya’s east, almost daily targeted assassinations of security officials — for which residents blame radical Islamists — is fuelling belligerent anti-Islamist attitudes.
Overwhelmed, the government has been obliged, paradoxically, to bribe and cajole militias in an attempt to rebuild the state’s monopoly on force. So far, it has had little success: Armed groups have blocked gas pipelines and besieged crude oil facilities, reducing exports to around 20 percent of the pre-uprising level. The loss of revenues is crippling the national budget.
There are no easy answers to these problems. At a minimum, local militias and the proliferation of small arms will plague Libya (and its neighbors) for years to come, frustrating the government’s efforts to rebuild the country’s security forces and secure its borders. But it remains an open question whether Libya’s leaders can build sufficient consensus to keep the process moving in the right direction.
Honduras is the world’s murder capital, with more than 80 homicides reported for every 100,000 citizens in 2013. A weak, often compromised justice and law enforcement system means that most serious crimes are never prosecuted. One of the two poorest countries in the region — half the population lives in extreme poverty — Honduras is also among the 10 most unequal countries in the world. Much of the country is plagued by criminal violence, and most Hondurans cannot access state services or enjoy the protection of law enforcement. Democracy and rule of law — never strong — were further undermined by a coup in 2009.
The United Nations and human rights groups have reported that members of the Honduran National Police have engaged in criminal activity, including mur
der. Weak, corrupt security forces have turned Honduras into an ideal way-station for drugs heading from the Andes to U.S. markets. An estimated 87 percent of all airborne cocaine headed north stops first in Honduras.
Organized criminal activity ranges from drug and human trafficking to kidnapping and extortion. Criminal groups have become strong enough that the state has effectively lost control over parts of the country. Compounding these security threats are street gangs, led by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M18), which together boast an estimated 12,000 members. For the most part, these gangs terrorize the poor, urban neighborhoods in the capital city, Tegucigalpa, and the port of San Pedro Sula.
Violence in Honduras spiked upward in 2009, when President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup. The International Criminal Court is currently investigating crimes committed in the aftermath of that coup, while an official truth commission revealed that the military killed at least 20 people. Since 2009, 10 human rights activists, 29 journalists, 63 lawyers, and some 20 political candidates have been killed. In almost all of these instances, no one has been held accountable.
Newly elected President Juan Orlando Hernandez campaigned on an “iron fist” response to crime, proposing to create a militarized police force. Given ongoing complaints of human rights abuses by security forces — including allegations of involvement in disappearances and kidnappings for ransom — it is little surprise that his proposal has been met with vocal opposition by civil society organizations and the diplomatic community. Such an overly securitized response, built on corrupt or predatory institutions, is unlikely to resolve the problem. Absent concerted efforts to strengthen the rule of law, Honduras’ plight looks set to continue — even intensify — in the coming year.
Central African Republic
Months of deadly clashes in the Central African Republic (CAR) have brought an already perilously weak state to the brink of collapse, with 400,000 people displaced and untold thousands terrorized into hiding. Nearly half of the population is in need of some form of assistance, and state services, including the police and the army, no longer exist.
It was just a year ago that a transition of power from then-President François Bozizé appeared to be in on track. But that agreement fell apart and in March, Seleka rebels — a loose alliance of Muslim fighters from the CAR, Chad, and Sudan — staged a coup to oust Bozizé and replace him with their leader, Michel Djotodia. In September, Djotodia disbanded Seleka, triggering a wave of widespread violence with no effective national army in place to stop it.
The United Nations and Western powers were slow to respond, in part because they thought Djotodia could control Seleka fighters and that the African Union-led International Support Mission in the CAR (MISCA) could secure the capital, Bangui. They were wrong on both counts. The transitional government and the regional security force have failed to prevent a free fall into chaos. The “wait and see” approach of the United Nations and Western powers now has them breathlessly trying to catch up.
The Seleka have since splintered into leaderless factions that clash regularly with armed groups made up of villagers and national security services alike. Eyewitnesses report daily attacks on civilians and massacres carried out with machetes and semi-automatic weapons. More worryingly still, the conflict has taken on a religious undercurrent, with the Seleka pitted against newly formed Christian self-defense groups. The process of radicalization is well underway. If the violence continues and religious tensions escalate, large-scale confessionally-driven violence is frighteningly possible.
The conflict could also easily spread to other neighboring countries — insecurity is already rife on the border with Cameroon — although help appears to be belatedly at hand. Following French warnings of potential regional destabilization, the United Nations authorized France to send 1,600 troops to bolster MISCA’s operations and restore law and order. For now, the future of the CAR is in their hands. Challenges ahead include disarming militiamen in Bangui and preventing fighting between Christian and Muslim communities. Only then can the process of state-building begin.
A hotbed of instability and violence for years, conditions remain dire across much of Sudan. Political restlessness in Khartoum, economic fragility, and multiple center-periphery tensions all pose major conflict risks for 2014.
In November, Sudan’s defense minister announced a new offensive against Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) rebels in South Kordofan, Darfur, and Blue Nile, aimed at “ending the rebellion.” The rebel alliance, which is fighting for a more representative government, responded in kind, leveling attacks against strategic roads and army facilities in North and South Kordofan. Khartoum has since backpedaled, downplaying the significance of the campaign and saying the government is ready to resume talks. But African Union mediators still need Khartoum’s consent to start a comprehensive, national dialogue that includes the SRF.
In Darfur, the violence that began a decade ago has now mostly given way to fighting between Arab tribes, once the government’s main proxies against non-Arab rebels and communities. Since the beginning of 2013, inter-tribal violence has displaced an additional 450,000 people. One of the most violent conflicts in the region — involving the Salamat, Missiriya, and Ta’aisha tribes at the Sudan-Chad-CAR tri-border — has forced 50,000 more refugees into Chad. In the east of Sudan, lack of implementation of a 2006 peace deal backed by Eritrea is also threatening to reignite conflict.
Poor governance is also inching the country closer to disaster. Nationwide protests in late September against ending fuel subsidies sparked much deeper levels of discontent among urban populations, once reliable government supporters. The growth of militant Islamist groups — independent of the governing National Congress Party or the Islamist Movement — also points to a government losing control on all fronts.
The solution to all of these challenges remains the same as ever: The relationship between Khartoum and the rest of the country must be fundamentally redefined. Otherwise, regional grievances will continue to fester, Khartoum will continue to be consumed with crisis management, and the international community will continue to spend billions each year to manage the consequences.
One of several obstacles that could stand in the way of reforming Sudan’s centre-periphery troubles is President Omar al-Bashir’s indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Without some incentive, Bashir could well block all but cosmetic change for fear of losing power and ending up at the court. But if the international community confirms that credible reform is underway — and that the only thing standing in the way of further, comprehensive progress is the indictment — the Security Council could request that the ICC defer prosecution of Bashir for a year with no obligation to extend.
The Sahel and Northern Nigeria
The Sahel region and Northern Nigeria have emerged as major sources of instability for parts of West and Central Africa, as last year’s watchlist foretold. In 2014, expect separatist movements, Islamist terrorism, and north-south tensions to continue to spark violence, which the region’s weak or stressed governments are ill-equipped to address.
In Mali, a French military intervention in early 2013 successfully wrested control of northern cities from a coalition of Islamist militant groups. Subsequently, presidential and parliamentary elections were held without major incident. Still, the country is far from stable today. Terror attacks, inter-communal clashes and bouts of fighting between armed Tuareg groups and the Malian army have continued, while representatives of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the primary Tuareg separatist group, have repeatedly threatened to withdraw from peace talks. A U.N. mission has deployed to the country, but still lacks adequate resources and personnel.
To escape further conflict, Mali must look beyond immediate security concerns and provide its diverse population with essential services, impartial justice, and inclusive politics. The government in Bamako cannot be seen as imposing its own vision for stability on the north — or the roots of the conflict will remain untouched.
Next door, Niger may seem comparatively tranquil, but it is subject to many of the same pressures that tipped Mali into chaos. President Mahamadou Issoufou has pursued a security agenda focused on external threats, while his government is failing to deliver long promised and vital social goods at home. Tensions surrounding a government shuffle last summer revealed how fragile Niger’s democracy remains. Add to the equation suspected criminal infiltration of the state and security services, the acute misery of most of the population, and you have a decidedly combustible mix.
Finally, Nigeria’s Boko Haram continues to wage a bloody insurgency in the north of Africa’s most populous country. Despite a year-long and often harsh government campaign, the group still mounts regular attacks on military and police installations, and civilians — often from safe havens in the mountains, as well as from neighboring Niger and Cameroon. Fighting will claim further thousands of lives in 2014 unless the government adopts significant reforms, including addressing impunity, tackling systemic corruption, and promoting development. This will be made even more difficult as the country prepares for what could be fiercely contested general elections in 2015.
Bangladesh enters 2014 amid escalating political violence. Scores of people died and hundreds were injured in clashes between the opposition and security forces ahead of general elections scheduled for January, the former embracing a growing campaign of violent nationwide shutdowns, or hartals. The opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) has said it will boycott the elections, accusing the ruling Awami League (AL) of authoritarian rule and plans to rig the polls.
A boycott would deepen the crisis and lead to more deadly violence. Merely postponing polls — as some have suggested — without a roadmap for how to hold credible elections in the future is also not the solution. There is deep animosity between the heads of the AL and BNP, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, who have been swapping power since 1991. A phone call between them in October 2013 — reportedly their first conversation in over a decade — quickly deteriorated into barbs about each other’s mental health.
The roots of Bangladeshi political polarization run deep. Over the past two years, a government-appointed tribunal has carried out profoundly flawed trials for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of liberation from Pakistan. To date, everyone on trial is a Bangladeshi citizen. No one from the Pakistani military, the main force resisting the liberation of what was then East Pakistan, has been indicted. Making matters worse, the sentencing to death of six members of the BNP and Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami parties — for allegedly trying to sabotage the country’s formation — has inflated religious-versus-secular social divisions and spawned the radicalization of newer groups like Hefajat-e-Islam.
The only way out is via credible elections and a stable, responsive government. For that, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia must overcome their mutual loathing and negotiate an inclusive roadmap. The risks are manifold. Since 1971, the military has attempted some 30 coups, about a fifth of them successful. In two, prime ministers were assassinated, including Sheikh Hasina’s father, Mujibur Rahman. Today, the military remains a risk. Finally, the potential radicalization of Rohingya refugees, human rights concerns, and Bangladesh’s complicated economic trajectory all make for an explosive mix.
The 2014 Afghanistan drawdown is not the only thing to worry about in Central Asia. Most countries in this region are governed by aging leaders and have no succession mechanisms — in itself potentially a recipe for chaos. All have young, alienated populations and decaying infrastructure.
Uzbekistan, a perpetually difficult neighbor, squabbles with Kyrgyzstan over borders and with Tajikistan over water. Moscow is warning of a buildup of Central Asian guerrillas on the Afghan side of the border, and is ramping up military assistance. Tajikistan, the main frontline state, is also deeply vulnerable — with low governance capacity, high corruption, barely functional security forces, and limited control over some strategically sensitive regions. It is also a key transit route for opiates destined for Russia and beyond.
In Kyrgyzstan, extreme nationalist politics threaten not just the country’s social fabric, but its economy too, as some politicians seek political and possibly financial gain by hounding foreign investors in the crucial mining sector. Crime and corruption are endemic. The harshly authoritarian state of Uzbekistan is Moscow’s biggest irritant and the United States’ closest ally in the region. And yet its president, Islam Karimov, may have lost control over his own family: His eldest daughter, Gulnara, is suspected of having her own presidential ambitions and has lashed out against her mother as well as Uzbekistan’s security chief, probably the country’s second most powerful figure. Neighbors fear post-Karimov instability could trigger waves of refugees, a further pressure on their poorly defined borders.
Resource-rich Kazakhstan, meanwhile, has ambitions of regional leadership, but it could just as easily be undone by a host of internal problems. Investors like China worry that the Kazakhs have made heavy weather of handling even very modest insurgency problems. The country also suffers from a serious lack of transparency for foreign investment, enormous income disparities, a poor human rights record, and increasing pressure from Moscow. It also needs to design a smooth transition mechanism for its long-time leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Finally, Turkmenistan, generously endowed with hydrocarbons but weak in governance, hopes to withstand any post Afghanistan spillover by doing a deal with its new leaders. This has worked in the past, but there is no guarantee it will in the future.
While Afghanistan will undoubtedly be the focus of the i
nternational community again in 2014, Central Asia’s states will continue to grapple with their own individual and unique circumstances in a corner of the world too long cast as a pawn in someone else’s game.
North Caucasus (Sochi)
This February, Russia will host the Winter Olympics — at $47 billion, the most expensive ever — in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. But security is even more of a problem than cost: Europe’s most active ongoing conflict is taking place nearby in the North Caucasus. If the Olympics motto is “faster, higher, stronger,” Putin’s motto in approaching the North Caucasus insurgency appears to be “meaner, tougher, stronger.”
The leader of the North Caucasus Islamist insurgency, Doku Umarov, has threatened to disrupt the Olympics and urged militants to use all available means to commit terrorist attacks across Russia. His efforts appear to have paid off: In 2013, there were at least 30 terrorist attacks in southern Russia, according to independent media sources. Twin bombings on Monday, Dec. 30, that killed dozens in Volgograd — responsibility for which is as yet unclaimed — speak to the nature of the terrorist threat. In response, the Russian government has rolled out unprecedented security measures in Sochi, and strengthened border controls to prevent infiltration of fighters from abroad and minimize the risk emanating from the North Caucasus, especially its most restive republic, Dagestan.
Unfortunately, some of these measures could worsen the situation. In Jan. 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced Dagestan’s president and overhauled the republic’s nuanced security strategy, which had been showing signs of success. Along with vigorous anti-corruption measures, the new president, Ramazan Abdulatipov, backed a wave of repression against the Dagestan’s vibrant Salafi community. Security forces conducted mop-up operations in villages, arrested large groups of believers from cafes, madrassas, and homes, and intimidated moderate Salafi leaders, civic organizations, and businesses. Modest initiatives at inter-sectarian dialogue have ceased. Abdulatipov also closed the commission for rehabilitation of fighters and encouraged the creation of people’s militias, supposedly to combat extremism. These, however, have already been involved in intra-confessional violence.
Equally troubling was the announcement in September by Yunus-bek Yevkurov, president of another North Caucasus republic, Ingushetia, that the homes of insurgents’ families will be demolished and their land seized. In nearby Kabardino-Balkariya, the civilian president, Arsen Kanokov, was replaced by the former chief of the Interior Ministry’s Department for Combating Extremism — not exactly known for its subtle approach to security.
Sochi must be secure for the Games. But the return to harsh and heavy-handed policies is likely to intensify the conflict once the Games have ended, suggesting that 2014 will be another bloody year for southern Russia.
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