The Kurds in Iraq: Is their pursuit of autonomy a cause of conflict?

by Patrick Truffer. He has been working in the Swiss Army for more than 15 years, holds a bachelor’s degree in public affairs from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), and a master’s degree in international relations from the Free University of Berlin.

The history of the Kurds can be traced back some two thousand years to various nomadic tribes in the region. However, a common identity has emerged only in the past 100 years. In addition to a common language (with the different dialect groups of Kurmanji, Sorani and Palewani), culture, and religion, this identity was formed in response to oppression by other dominant ethnic groups (Alireza Nader et al., “Regional Implications of an Independent Kurdistan“, RAND Corporation, 2016). The Kurds in Iraq were particularly oppressed under Saddam Hussein, which reached the level of genocide with the al-Anfal campaign between 1986 and 1989. This forced a wedge between the Kurds and the Arabs which in turn led to an intensification of the Iraqi Kurds’ struggle for independence. The flight of the Iraqi Army from the fighters of the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (IS), which had conquered Mosul in June 2014 and then came within 30 km of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, did little to help build trust between the Kurds and Arab Iraqis. After successfully fighting off IS in Iraq, the Kurds present the bill: On September 25, 2017, there will be a referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan and the adjoining disputed territories. An overwhelming vote in favor is expected, while the reactions of the central government in Baghdad and of neighboring states remains uncertain. So what could happen after this vote? Will this perhaps lay the groundwork for further armed conflicts, perhaps even an ethnic civil war?

The roots of Kurdish nationalism
The small Iranian city of Mahabad became an intellectual hotspot of Kurdish nationalism in the first half of the 20th century, which is also indirectly connected with the pursuit of autonomy by today’s Iraqi Kurds. With the Soviet occupation of Northern Iran from 1941, an autonomous Kurdish region was formed in the northwest of Iran, which declared independence as the “Republic of Mahabad” in January 1946 (Hashem Ahmadzadeh and Gareth Stansfield, “The Political, Cultural, and Military Re-Awakening of the Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Iran“, The Middle East Journal 64, no. 1, 2010: 11, 14f). The republic was short-lived: With the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the resurgence of the Iranian central government, Kurdish autonomy efforts in Iran were violently suppressed at the end of 1946, but this short period of independence left a decisive impression on the Kurds of Iraq.

[…] the Republic of Mahabad was the critical moment at which the Kurds realized their freedom is arguably a rosy version of reality. — McDowall, 246.

Among the Iraqi Kurds involved was Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of the current President of Kurdistan Regional Government and long-standing Chairman of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Barzani was one of the Kurdish leaders who had fled to Mahabad with about 1,000 fighters after a failed rebellion in Iraq in October 1945. As one of the four Marshalls of the Mahabad forces, Barzani actively worked to preserve the republic’s independence (David McDowall, “A Modern History of the Kurds“, 3rd ed., I.B.Tauris, 2004, 241). He also founded the KDP in Mahabad in August 1946. The party is now the strongest faction in the single-chamber Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament.

After the Mahabad Republic was crushed by the Iranian Army, Mustafa Barzani fled to Iraq and then to the Soviet Union. In spite of this setback, he remained unswervingly dedicated to Kurdish independence, but turned his focus to the Kurds of Iraq.

The battle for autonomy in Iraq
Mustafa Barzani chalked up one short-lived success when Abd al-Karim Qasim — Iraqi Prime Minister after the 1958 coup d’état — called him back from Soviet exile. Under Mustafa Barzani’s leadership, the Iraqi Kurds were asked to solidify Qasim’s power. In return, the equality of Arabs and Kurds was included in the provisional constitution of the new Iraqi Republic. However, relations between the Kurds and Baghdad quickly deteriorated. The state’s concessions were not enough for the Kurdish nationalists and Qasim was not ready to give the Kurds regional autonomy. To the contrary, driven by paranoia against both Kurdish nationalism and the Pan-Arab movement, Qasim tried to take advantage of tensions among the various Kurdish groups as well as those between Kurdish and Pan-Arab nationalists. This led to the First Iraqi-Kurdish War between 1961 and 1970.

Not only was the failure of the Kurds to gain autonomy one of several causes of conflict between the Kurds and the Arab central government, it also led to tensions within the Kurdish ranks. Barzani was finally able to assert the idea of ​​comprehensive autonomy rights and fight off the poorly equipped government troops. The arbitrary bombing of Kurdish cities by the Iraqi Air Force helped further unite the Iraqi Kurds’ cause and the poor economic situation provided enough unemployed young men ready to fight. Due to the weak central government, the Kurds were able to hold their own until 1970. Finally, the war was ended with the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement, which assured the Kurds’ right to political co-determination and comprehensive autonomy rights. Saddam Hussein, who would later become Iraqi president, was the central government’s lead negotiator. The Kurds were able to assert their demands largely because stability and consolidation of power was the government’s primary project at that time (McDowall, 2004, 301-28).

The First Iraqi-Kurdish War  was ended with the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement. (Left: Mulla Mustafa Barzani; right: Saddam Hussein).

The First Iraqi-Kurdish War was ended with the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement. (Left: Mulla Mustafa Barzani; right: Saddam Hussein).

Oppression and the shaping of the Iraqi Kurd identity
The Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement lasted only four years. There were both political and economic reasons for its collapse and the Second Iraqi-Kurdish War that followed. The centralization of power and the Pan-Arab ideology of the Ba’ath Party were diametrically opposed to any attempts at autonomy. Moreover, the dispute over the oil-rich areas around Kirkuk escalated and the expulsion of 50,000 Kurds of Iranian origin constituted an unacceptable interference in inter-Kurdish affairs (McDowall, 2004, 330-36). In contrast to the First Iraqi-Kurdish War, Mustafa Barzani had miscalculated. The Kurds were both qualitatively and quantitatively confronted with the military superiority of Iraqi forces. At the same time, because Tehran and Baghdad had settled their territorial difference, Iran withdrew its support for the Iraqi Kurds. Under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani, the Peshmerga were decisively defeated by the Iraqi forces in mid-1975 and either forced to flee to Iran or surrender. The Iraqi central government then launched an Arabization campaign, particularly in the Kirkuk region in order to secure its long-term access to the oil fields (George S. Harris, “Ethnic Conflict and the Kurds“, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 433, no. 1, 1977: 121).

We have fought ten years for autonomy, we’ll fight another five for Kirkuk if necessary. — Mulla Mustafa Barzani in 1971, quoted in McDowall, 330.

It was only with the outbreak of the Iran–Iraq War in September 1980 that the Peshmerga again benefited from Iranian support. They reconstituted themselves in northern Iraq under Massoud Barzani as well as Jalal Talabani, founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and, much later, President of Iraq. This resulted in the 1986-1989 al-Anfal campaign in which the Iraqi Army used poison gas against 40 Kurdish villages between February and September 1988. This included the devastating poisoning of the Kurdish city of Halabja, an important center of the Kurdish resistance in the autonomy protests against the central government in Baghdad. This resulted in about 5,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries (Human Rights Watch, “Known Chemical Attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan, 1987-1988“, Genocide in Iraq – the Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds, July 1993). The deportations, executions, and poison gas attacks within the framework of the al-Anfal campaign almost led to a collapse of the Kurdish forces. The Kurds then started to use guerrilla tactics, attacked the Iraqi forces and strategically important installations, but were unable to achieve any territorial gains (Michael G. Lortz, “Willing to Face Death: A History of Kurdish Military Forces – the Peshmerga – From the Ottoman Empire to Present-Day Iraq”, Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations, Paper 1038, The Florida State University, 2005, 54-58).

The Kurds were only able to secure themselves territory during the course of the 1990 Gulf War and the US-imposed no-flight zone in Northern Iraq. Nevertheless, this difficult period had contributed greatly to the formation of a Kurdish identity, created solidarity, and pushed the drive for independence forward (Nader et al., 2016, 18f).

Securing territorial autonomy: The Iraqi Kurdistan Region
After the 1990 Gulf War, the Kurds were able to secure territorial autonomy with the help of the United States. They were able to expand this territory significantly with the complete collapse of the central government starting in 2003. Together with US forces, the Kurds took control of neighboring cities in northern Iraq, including Kirkuk and the surrounding region. This region remains in dispute to this day, because a referendum that had been scheduled for 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk belonged to the Kurds was never held by the central government. The flight of the Iraqi forces from the IS in June 2014 and the assumption of control over the region by Kurdish forces ultimately led the Baghdad government to recognize the facts on the ground. Simultaneously with the recovery of Iraq’s sovereignty and the political boycott of the Sunnis, Kurdish politicians secured important roles in the central government. In the long term, however, this will not prevent Kurdistan’s secession, since with the end of the Sunni boycott, the influence of the Kurds within the central government has been significantly reduced (Nader et al., 2016, 22f).

Post-2003 Iraq and the Disputed Territories.

Post-2003 Iraq and the Disputed Territories.

In addition to whether the oil-rich areas around Kirkuk belong to the Kurds, further relevant, yet unresolved issues include the rights of the Kurds to manage oil production on their territory and the amount of government revenue allocated to Iraqi Kurdistan. These disputes have often led to armed conflicts between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi armed forces. For example, in August 2008, government troops pushed into the disputed town of Diyala and tried to expel the Kurdish forces. It was only US intervention that prevented armed conflict (Nader et al., 34). There were similarly high tensions in 2012 and 2014.

It was only with the joint struggle against the IS and with the replacement of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by Haidar Abadi that these clashes took a back seat (Nader et al., 2016, 35f). However, in view of the territorial, political, and economic tensions between Erbil and Baghdad, Iraq’s internal stability is far from certain. The date of the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum comes not surprisingly after the successful ouster of the IS from the Kurdish area of influence, while Iraqi forces are still tied down in areas of conflict and the Peshmerga still rearming and training themselves.

Kurdish independence as a matter of time
Statistical investigations of ethnic civil wars indicate that current framework of the Iraqi state is wobbly at best. If states have autonomous territories after the end of ethnic civil wars, there is a high probability (>70%) that a new ethnic civil war will break out. This is often due to the fact that a re-established central government is again calling into question the autonomy rights of ethnic groups that it had previously negotiated in times of weakness. Another reason lies in the desire of ethnic groups to expand their autonomy rights at the expense of the central state’s integrity. Autonomous regions in conflict-stricken countries represent instability which will either move towards greater integration into a centralized state or to the independence of the autonomous region (Patrick Truffer, “Multicultural Failure? Peacebuilding after Ethnic Civil War“, Masters Thesis, Freie Universität Berlin, 2017).

The principal argument for Iraqi unity is that a single Iraq is better able to protect its citizens. But this claim is not supported by experience. When the Islamic State attacked Kurdistan in 2014 – using advanced U.S. weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army in Mosul – the Iraqi government refused to give Kurdistan its constitutionally mandated share of the federal budget or to provide our soldiers with weapons. — Masoud Barzani, “The Time Has Come for Iraqi Kurdistan to Make Its Choice on Independence“, Washington Post, 28.06.2017.

If the history of the Iraqi Kurds teaches one thing, it is that they cannot rely on the goodwill of an Arab-majority central government: The Kurds have to ensure their own security. Massoud Barzani’s announcement in early June of the referendum scheduled for September 25 was no surprise. The question of the independence of Kurdistan has never really been abandoned even after the end of the Iraq War. In a non-binding referendum, 98.8% of voters in Iraqi Kurdistan and the disputed areas voted for independence in 2005 (Kurdistan Referendum Movement – International Committee, “98 Percent of the People of South Kurdistan Vote for Independence“, KurdishMedia, 08.02.2005). The referendum announced by Barzani was supposed to have been held in 2014, but was put on hold at the time to focus on the fight against IS (Roy Gutman, “Kurds Agree to Postpone Independence Referendum“, The Toronto Star, 05.09.2014).

If the referendum is actually held, an overwhelming majority of votes in favor of independence is expected. According to Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari, a former Foreign Minister and Finance Minister in the Iraqi central government, and an uncle to Massoud Barzani, this would not automatically result in a declaration of independence. Rather, a positive outcome of the referendum would strengthen the negotiating position of the autonomous Kurdish government vis-à-vis Baghdad. In particular, under current Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, who, contrary to his predecessor, is interested in equal cooperation with the Kurds, there is perhaps some room for compromise on the points of dispute. Subsequently, a long-term process of separation negotiated with the central government would be likely (Steven A. Cook, “Are Conditions Ripening for Iraqi Kurdish State?“, Council on Foreign Relations, 05.01.2017). This approach was even suggested by Barzani himself in a commentary in the Washington Post. The independence of Kurdistan is to be negotiated with Baghdad and agreed to with neighboring states and the international community:

While the results of the referendum will bind future Kurdistan governments, the timing and modalities of our independence will be subject to negotiation with Baghdad and consultation with our neighbors and the wider international community. — Masoud Barzani, “The Time Has Come for Iraqi Kurdistan to Make Its Choice on Independence“, Washington Post, 28.06.2017.

The reaction of Baghdad and neighboring countries to a successful referendum
The action taken by the autonomous Kurdish government after a successful referendum is crucial for Baghdad’s and its neighbors’ decision how to react. An immediate, unilateral declaration of independence with the inclusion of the disputed areas around Kirkuk would lead to a harsh, negative reaction by Baghdad and the cessation of all payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government. This financial loss cannot be compensated for by Kurdish oil production, especially given the low price of oil. The Kurdistan Regional Government was barely able to cope with previous adjustments and reductions in payments as happened in 2015 (Mohammed A. Salih, “KRG Seeks $5 Billion Lifeline“, Al-Monitor, 23.06.2015; Patrick Osgood, “In Payment Drought, Oil Companies Pare KRG Investment“, Iraq Oil Report, 10.02.2015). However, Baghdad could not do anything with its regular armed forces. The closest would be the outbreak of armed conflicts between the Peshmerga and the Shia militia in the disputed areas, as already happened in 2016 (Ghazwan Hassan and Isabel Coles, “Kurds and Shi’ites Clash in Northern Iraq despite Ceasefire“, Reuters, 25.04.2016).

After a century of trying, it is time to recognize that the forced inclusion of the Kurds in Iraq has not worked for us or for the Iraqis. We ask that the United States and the international community respect the democratic decision of Kurdistan’s people. In the long run, both Iraq and Kurdistan will be better off. — Masoud Barzani, “The Time Has Come for Iraqi Kurdistan to Make Its Choice on Independence“, Washington Post, 28.06.2017.

Even internationally, the Kurdistan Regional Government can hardly count on much support for a unilateral declaration of independence. Such an approach would be perceived by Iraq’s neighbors and the wider international community as being hasty, ill-considered, and even irresponsible and leading to further instability in the region. The reaction will be quite different in the case of a negotiated separation. Turkey could treat an independent stable Kurdistan, which prevents the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to use the territory as a safe haven [1], as a welcome buffer along its southeastern border against the continued instability in Iraq. Since 2007, Ankara has established good relations with Erbil. Turkey is currently the largest investor in the Iraqi Kurdistan. For this reason, an independent Kurdistan might seem lucrative to Turkey from an economic point of view, whether as source of oil or as a new export market (Cook, 2017) [2].

Iran also has political and economic interests in Iraqi Kurdistan, albeit less pronounced [3]. In addition, there are good relations between the Iranian central government and the PUK, not least because the Kurds have their thumbs on the leadership of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan in their region (Nader et al., 2016, 116ff). However, there is fear in the Iranian central government that an independent Kurdistan might inspire the Iranian Kurds to fight for their own autonomy or even independence. These concerns are probably largely unfounded, because the Iranian Kurds are very different from one region to another and Kurdish nationalism there is very weak. Nevertheless, with the independence of Kurdistan, Iran will most likely increase its current repressive regime against its own Kurds. The faster and more abrupt the independence, the more likely indirect, destabilizing measures would be taken against the Iraqi Kurds, such as the abolition of political and economic relations or even the clandestine support of the Shia militia in Iraq against Iraqi Kurds in the disputed areas (Alex Vatanka and Sarkawt Shamsulddin, “Forget ISIS: Shia Militias Are the Real Threat to Kurdistan“, The National Interest, 07.01.2015).

Peshmerga forces stand guard at a checkpoint in northern Iraq.

Peshmerga forces stand guard at a checkpoint in northern Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum on September 25, 2017 will, in all probability, pass. However, this is not the goal itself, but only a starting point for longer-term negotiations on the terms for the separation of the Kurds from Iraq. Both the statements of Kurdish politicians, as well as political and economic considerations regarding the conduct of Baghdad, neighboring countries and the international community point to a long-term, negotiated independence of Kurdistan. Immediate, unilateral declaration of independence is rather unlikely.

The biggest obstacle to a long-term, negotiated independence is the brokering of an agreement on whether the Kirkuk region will be included. Should unilateral facts be created, which is actually the case in the course of the offensive of the IS, the flight of Iraqi forces and the assumption of the security of this territory by the Peshmerga, the escalation of violence in and around the disputed areas is probable. In this context, Kurdish autonomy efforts in Iraq could lay the foundation for new armed conflicts, or even an ethnic civil war.

The history of the Kurds clearly shows that increased efforts for autonomy carries the risk of new armed conflicts, but statistical investigations also show that the Kurds, with the current status quo and the re-emergence of the central government, might face the same fate in the long run.

[1] Since 2009, political parties that support the PKK have been banned in Iraqi Kurdistan, PKK politicians have been arrested and PKK agencies have been closed (Gonul Tol, “Turkey’s KRG Energy Partnership“, Foreign Policy, 29.01.2013).
[2] Turkey’s trade volume with Iraq amounted to about $12 billion in 2014, with $8 billion being traded with Iraqi Kurdistan alone (“Turkish Premier Vows ‘Any Necessary Means’ for Kurdish Security on Erbil Visit“, Rudaw, 21.11.2014).
[3] Iran’s trading volume with Iraqi Kurdistan amounted to about $6 billion in 2014 (“Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan Region Annual Trade Hits $6bn“, Islamic Republic News Agency, 25.02.2015.)

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Turkey’s expanding domestic drone production

by Paul Iddon.

I don’t want to be sarcastic but I would like to thank [the United States government] for any of the projects that was not approved by the US because it forced us to develop our own systems.

So said İsmail Demir, the under-secretary for the Turkish defence industry, on May 2016. Demir was speaking at a time when the US Congress delayed the sale of drones and armaments to Turkey, over concerns about Ankara’s conduct in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Demir argued that this wasn’t a problem. After all, Turkey can now make its own drone systems and use them as they please without fear of having to rely on a supplier who might withhold deliveries or spare parts.



Less than a month before Demir made these remarks, Turkey tested the domestically-produced Bayraktar TB2 UCAV and successfully hit a target on a test range from 8 km away. “The Bayraktar uses the MAM-L and MAM-C, two mini smart ammunitions developed and produced by the state-controlled missile maker Roketsan,” noted Defense News in May 2016. “Roketsan’s mini systems weight 22.5 kilograms including a 10 kilogram warhead.” Already in October 2015, we spotted the Bayraktar TB2 UCAV parked in front of an aircraft shelter at Batman air force base.

Turkey deems itself one of the world’s lead drone producers. The country’s Science, Industry and Technology Minister Faruk Özlü declared that Turkey is aiming to produce drones as heavy as four tons and “equip them with high quality weapons and cameras”. Current drones in the Turkish inventory, Özlü said, “weigh around 560-600 kg with a small weapon system on them”.

Turkey also produced the TAI Anka, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone. Operational models are for reconnaissance. The Turkish Defense Ministry says the military will take delivery of the first six, out of a total of ten ordered, this year.

Additionally, the country’s STM Defense Technologies and Engineering Co. announced in May that they are going to introduce a series of new so-called kamikaze and monitoring drones — the Alpagu, the Kargu and the Doğan — designed to operate together and “equipped with artificial intelligence algorithms for monitoring”. The Alpagu is a fixed-wing tactical attack UAV launched from a pneumatic portable launcher expendable for single use and can be made ready in just 45 seconds. The Kargu is a similar multi-rotor variant. The Doğan’s reported ability to effectively monitor battlefields and gather intelligence, with their “fairly high optical zooming capabilities and high flight performance”, could make them an effective tool for pinpointing targets for Turkish artillery strikes.

One of Turkey's domestically produced TAI Anka drones (Photo by N13s013, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

One of Turkey’s domestically produced TAI Anka drones. (Photo by N13s013, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

The Turks aim to become completely self-sufficient in the production of all their drones and all the systems on them (see also “Turkey’s growing domestic arms industry“,, 21.05.2016). It has relied on a signals intelligence (SIGINT) system made in the US for its drones, which it aims to replace with its own BSI-101 SIGINT system.

Demand for Turkish drones have increased primarily due to two factors: Ankara’s dual campaigns against Islamic State (ISIS) and the PKK, and the failed July 2017 coup and subsequent crackdown which significantly reduced the strength and manpower of the Turkish military.

The Turkish Air Force has an estimated 240-270 F-16 Fighting Falcons, and is one of the few country’s which can domestically produce the iconic fighter-bomber. After the coup however, according to one statistic, they now have only one pilot not in jail for every two of these jets in their current inventory. Turkey discharged up to 350 pilots responsible for flying various aircraft in the air force since the coup attempt.

A Turkish F-16 fighter jet flying over Albacete Air Force Base, Spain during Trident Juncture 15 on October 21, 2015. (Photo: Cynthia Vernat).

A Turkish F-16 fighter jet flying over Albacete Air Force Base, Spain during Trident Juncture 15 on October 21, 2015. (Photo: Cynthia Vernat).

Turkey publicly appealed for former pilots to refill these depleting ranks, only to have the plea go unanswered. Another telling statistic found that out of a sampling of six pilots who left the air force and could return if they chose, only one said he would “re-register to help replace dismissed colleagues whom the government blames for being part of a network that planned the failed July 15 coup”.

“Turkey fielded seven F-16 squadrons with strike or attack as their primary mission before the coup attempt,” noted analysts Mike Benitez and Aaron Stein in a September 2016 analysis. “However, of those original seven, four are now being shuttered, leaving three squadrons designated for strike and attack”.

In other words, it may take Turkey years to fully operate its entire F-16 fleet again: a fleet which it uses to routinely violate Greek airspace over disputed territories in the Aegean, bomb the PKK in southeast Turkey, and Qandil Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as launch cross-border airstrikes into Syria against other Kurdish fighters and ISIS.

If Ankara’s new upcoming drones are as accurate and effective as Turkey boasts they may prove less risky to use, say, above Syria than their F-16s. In November 2016, during their operation “Euphrates Shield” in northwestern Syria, Turkey had to halt air support to their troops and allied Syrian militiamen for one week when Damascus threatened to shoot their jets out of the sky. The loss of drones over the battlefield would, for obvious reasons, be less costly, both financially and politically, to Ankara than the loss of manned aircraft.

Ankara’s enthusiasm for indigenous unmanned aircraft is unlikely to fill the void left by the loss of pilots to operate their manned aircraft, nor elevate the Turkish Air Force from a state of half-strength any time soon. Nevertheless, it bolsters another part of Ankara’s domestic arms industry and may provide the military with new capabilities as it continues to fall short in meeting the requirements to run its highly formidable military at pre-coup strength.

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Motivations and Effects of Coca Cultivation in Colombia

by Michael Martelle. Michael is a masters student studying Security Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

For several decades Colombia has been synonymous with “cocaine” in the minds of citizens and policymakers around the globe, and not without reason as at its peak Colombia accounted for 90% of the world’s cocaine. Colombian security forces have made serious and increasingly effective efforts to limit the narcotics trade within their borders, although their efforts have been complicated (and distracted) by the nation’s long-running conflicts. Massive amounts of Colombian territory are under the control of right-wing paramilitary groups (such as the United Self-Defenders of Colombia and more recently the Aguilas Negras) benefiting from the experience of former cartel members, and marxist guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and, until recently, FARC. A recent peace agreement between the Colombian Government and FARC has brought an end to Colombia’s fight with it’s largest guerrilla organization and has raised hope for significant progress in counter-narcotics and internal stabilization.

Progress will be difficult, however, unless a multitude of factors can be addressed. FARC may have been politically motivated, but many of the farmers doing the actual coca cultivation in rural regions are motivated by poor economic prospects. While FARC may be demobilizing, without economic development and legal market access these farmers will still be motivated to cultivate coca. Remaining narcotics related organizations (particularly paramilitary groups) will be eager to take advantage of the coca produced on land in former FARC territory. Many of these regions have already seen an increase in violence since the signing of the peace agreement as criminal organizations attempt to gain a foothold in former FARC territory before the government can establish a security presence and administrative services. Post-peace stability and counter-narcotics will require multi-dimensional strategies to address the causes and effects of coca cultivation and narcotics-related insurgency in Colombia.

History & Motivations for Large-Scale Coca Cultivation
The history of Colombia’s coca-cultivating insurgent groups suggest both economic and political motivations to violence and coca cultivation. Colombia’s political system has historically been shared between two political parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. When formed in the mid-19th century, The Liberal Party principally represented merchants advocating international trade. The Conservative Party, formed at the same time, represented wealthy landowners advocating a hierarchal society with a strong role for the Catholic Church. Both parties represented citizens from the mid to upper classes and left the lower classes, the bulk of the rural population, with third-party representation. After a series of Liberal Party reforms led to extreme polarization, political violence known as “La Violencia” broke out in 1946. In 1957, after a failed attempt at military rule, the two parties agreed to form the National Front and divide political positions while alternating the office of the President. This effectively excluded any other political parties leading Marxist factions to form the FARC and ELN guerrillas.

Colombia cocaine production: In this January 7, 2016, photo, a farmer stirs a mix of mulched coca leaves and cement with gasoline, as part of the initial process to make coca paste, at a small makeshift lab in Antioquia, Colombia. Apart from gasoline and cement, ammonia, sulphuric acid, sodium permanganate, and caustic soda are some of the chemicals used to produce the paste.

Colombia cocaine production: In this January 7, 2016, photo, a farmer stirs a mix of mulched coca leaves and cement with gasoline, as part of the initial process to make coca paste, at a small makeshift lab in Antioquia, Colombia. Apart from gasoline and cement, ammonia, sulphuric acid, sodium permanganate, and caustic soda are some of the chemicals used to produce the paste.

The largest of the leftist groups, FARC, first took root in rural “Campesion” territories where small-scale coca cultivation already existed. FARC was originally opposed to coca cultivation on ideological grounds as they believed farmers were being coerced by traffickers. The need for funding, and an acceptance of the fact that farmers were more able to support themselves with illicit cultivation, led FARC to begin “protecting” farmers and charging a farm tax, or “gramaje”, on product passing through FARC territory. Under this arrangement, and assisted by exploding global demand, both FARC and Colombian coca cultivation expanded rapidly. In an attempt to consolidate vertically and avoid FARC taxes, narco-traffickers began investing profits in establishing their own control over land , bringing them in direct conflict with FARC and forming the first Colombian Cartels. After peaking in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Cartels declined in the face of Colombian counter-narcotics campaigns. This led to the formation of new coca-related organizations, as former cartel members took their expertise to paramilitary organizations such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

FARC, by comparison, was both unwilling and unable to grow its coca operations vertically. FARC leaders felt that a more obvious and visible role in coca cultivation would undermine its reputation and discredit it politically among the Colombian people. Even if they had been willing, however, the organization did not have the same level of expertise in trafficking and distribution as the Cartels and later the paramilitaries. For this reason FARC was forced to form connections with small to medium sized criminal organizations for trafficking and distribution.

Although Colombian insurgent groups were born out of political ideology, the impact of commodity prices on insurgent activity suggest strong economic factors as well. While the effect of commodity prices on civil wars is well-documented, a pattern was recognized in Colombia of labor intensive agriculture (coffee, coca) and labor non-intensive natural resources (oil) having opposite effects on the level of violence. As oil prices rose and generated more funding for state security forces, violence increased as insurgent groups tried to disrupt sources of labor non-intensive revenue. Conversely, when the prices and wages for labor-intensive commodities rose fighters were more likely to work in the fields and less likely to take violent action.

Commodity prices have had an impact on crop choices as well. In the late 1990s, improved global coffee production led to a drop in coffee prices and triggered a recession in Colombia. Colombian farmers, already barely able to cover the basic costs of business, increasingly turned to the more profitable, more reliable, and easier to grow coca. These patterns suggests that insurgent motivations, and the motivation to participate in the narcotics trade, are heavily economic. These patterns, and the fact that coca cultivation is most intense in impoverished regions, support the argument that the primary motivation for narcotics cultivation today is economic and highlights the need for the development of Colombia’s rural regions to forestall insurgency and narcotics cultivation.

Current Trends in the International Coca Trade
The coca and cocaine trade has internationally been in a state of decline, though signs suggest it may be stabilizing with a short term increase. Global production in 2014 was estimated at between 746-943 tons of 100% pure cocaine, a slight annual increase but still roughly three quarters of the 2007 peak and 10% below the late 1990s.

Known South American coca-growing regions.

Known South American coca-growing regions.

Cultivation of raw coca went through a more dramatic decrease between 1998 and 2014, dropping more that 30% (40% if measured between 2000 and 2014). This decrease in cultivation without an equivalent decrease in final cocaine production is attributed to improvements in the processing of cocaine.

Most processed cocaine is trafficked either to North America or Western Europe via Africa. North America, the largest cocaine market in the world, has seen increased prices stemming from decreased global production and narcotics-related violence in Mexico, which an estimated 87% of the cocaine supply passes through. This may be contributing to a significant decrease in cocaine consumption. Between 2006 and 2014 general population cocaine use dropped 32% with a corresponding drop in cocaine-related fatalities.

It is more difficult to obtain definitive usage statistics on the European market and its plurality of nations and authorities, though other statistics, such as interdiction, can still yield valuable indicators. It is believed that the European cocaine market peaked briefly in 2007 when 120 tons of cocaine were seized in the continent, four times the 1998 amount. 2014 saw this number stabilize at 62 tons, of which 98% was accounted for by European Union nations. Despite stabilized continental statistics, several states have seen pronounced short-term changes as the market shifts from nation to nation.

There are also signs that the Asia-Pacific region is on its way to becoming a significant market for cocaine. From 1998-2008, average yearly cocaine seizures in Asia were 0.4 tons. The period between 2009-2014 saw that number triple to 1.4 tons. Oceania saw a similar rise in the same time period, from 0.5 tons to 1.2 tons. Australia, which accounts for 99% of Oceania seizures, saw a sharp increase in cocaine use from 2004 (1% of the general population) to 2010 (2.1% of the general population) without a subsequent decrease. Reports of Sinaloa Cartel presence in Australia, China, Malaysia, and the Philippines suggest that cocaine suppliers are making significant moves to establish themselves in the Asia-Pacific region.

Global production and consumption statistics present a paradox, however. Even though global prevalence of cocaine use from 1998-2014 remained largely stable, and the number of cocaine users increased due to overall population growth, cocaine production decreased. This suggests either significant errors in global data or a global decrease in per capita consumption, possibly indicative of a shift from dependent use in mature markets to more “casual” use in emerging markets.

Impact of Coca Cultivation in Colombia
The high-water mark of Colombian coca cultivation was reached between 1999 and 2002 when Colombia produced 90% of the world’s cocaine. Colombia’s share of the global trade eventually has declined to less than half of the global supply but still produces 90% of samples seized in the United States. In 2012, Colombia’s Defense Minister priced Colombia’s narcotics market at US$6-$7 billion and attributed 40%-50% to FARC. There were disagreements over his statistics, however. Colombia’s Attorney General released a contemporary estimate valuing FARC’s income from all sources at US$1.1 billion, and the director of Colombia’s police force in 2013 claimed FARC controlled 60% of the drug trade but only made US$1 billion off of it.

Despite disagreement over the exact scope of narcotics cultivation in Colombia, it is unquestionably large enough to have an environmental impact. In an effort to escape and evade Colombian authorities, coca fields and the facilities used for cocaine production are generally moved progressively deeper into forests causing severe deforestation. Less visibly, precursor chemicals used in producing cocaine from raw coca leaves have been found to permeate the soil and water in these already threatened rainforests.

Cocaine Trade Map

Cocaine Trade Map

Because much of cocaine’s value-added occurs when it is trafficked internationally (compare the previously mentioned estimates on Colombia’s narcotics market with its global cocaine retail value of US$80-$100 billion) and traffickers generally do not bank funds in Colombia, the coca industry’s earnings at its height were equal to only 4.4% of the nation’s GDP. More difficult to quantify, however, are the economic consequences of land repatriation, development of human capital and professional skills, and the wide-reaching impact of violence and narco-terrorism.

Narco-related violence in the form of murder, kidnappings, and bombings have also had a political impact on Colombia. The military campaigns of FARC, ELN, and other Marxist insurgent groups against Colombian security forces are the most obvious example, but the most brutal and politically impactful violence began as a reaction to the guerrillas. Originally formed as a defense against FARC, trafficker and cartel self defense units quickly morphed into death squads and expanded their target list to include all leftist elements in society. This political targeting combined with the complicity of other conservative elements of Colombian society had the effect of further polarizing the political spectrum. Traffickers and cartels also used corruption and outright intimidation in an attempt to force their way into “legitimacy” within an elite-dominated power structure.

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India’s Hasimara During the Doka La Standoff

Imagery acquired on 26JAN15 of Hasimara Airbase, West Bengal. (Digitalglobe)

Imagery acquired on 26JAN15 of Hasimara Airbase, West Bengal. (Digitalglobe)

Last week we looked at the Gonggar civil-military airfield, one of China’s closest to the Doka La standoff. In this post, we’ll look at India’s Hasimara, an airbase in West Bengal about 80km southeast of the crisis. Recent commercial imagery acquired in July has shown up to eight Indian Air Force MIG-27ML/UPG on the parking apron at the strategic location. The aircraft are reportedly operated by No 22 Squadron.

The number of the ground attack aircraft operationally deployed at the airbase has officially lessened since last year when No 18 Squadron was “number-plated” or decommissioned. In February 2017, workers began relocating the retired MIG-27ML/UPG south of the runway in a new area cleared for field-parking. The following month 14 of the aircraft were visible and by July, up to 22.

Even prior to the announced retirement, it’s difficult to say how many of the MIG-27ML/UPG remained operational. Starting in 2013, imagery available in Google Earth and elsewhere began showing the swing-wing aircraft isolated at a north section of the airfield. Over the last four years many remained in this location and appeared to be cannibalized, possibly for parts. Similar activity has been viewed at other Indian airfields hosting the MIG-21.

Although few observations of Hasimara were made during July, imagery did not capture any additional platforms at the airbase to fill the gap. The IAF is currently authorized to maintain up to 42 fighter squadrons — the number Indian planners estimate for a two front war — but has contracted to 32. As new aircraft are available and the IAF stands up new squadrons, Hasimara is slated to receive new deployments with discussions in the Indian press suggesting one of India’s Dassault Rafale squadrons. Unfortunately, the French-built aircraft will not arrive until 2019.

In the meantime, the airbase also hosts a surface-to-air missile component. Two Akash groups composed of four batteries each remain on-site on the north side of the airfield. The platform operates in the medium-range role with each Akash battery equipped with three missiles. A single group with its battery level radar is capable of engaging up to four targets, guiding up to eight missiles simultaneously with a maximum of two missiles per target.

Bottom Line – Hasimara remains aircraft light despite China’s growing rotations of fighters in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

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Gonggar During the Doka La Standoff

Imagery acquired on 24DEC2016 of Gonggar Airbase, Tibet Autonomous Region. (Digitalglobe)

Imagery acquired on 24DEC2016 of Gonggar Airbase, Tibet Autonomous Region. (Digitalglobe)

As the standoff between China and India continues at Doka La, we’ve been monitoring regional airbases on both sides of the border. Recent commercial imagery acquired in July of Gonggar continues to show the ongoing deployment of the PLAAF’s Shenyang J-11 fighters, a modified and locally produced version of the Russian Su-27SK. It’s possible these may be an upgraded variant, though at present we’re unable to distinguish on imagery.

Up to sixteen of the fourth generation aircraft were captured on the parking apron by 21 July, up from ten observed earlier in the month. Some Indian sources report these as J-11A from the Shizuishan-based 6th Air Division’s 16th Air Regiment, though the accuracy of the source reporting has been suspect in the past.

Overall, a review of historical imagery shows that the number of aircraft deployed to the high altitude airport continued to climb last year. Prior to the arrival of the J-11s, imagery now available in Google Earth also shows at least sixteen Chengdu J-10s parked on the operations apron in December. Indian sources report these as J-10As from the Mengzi-based 44th Air Division’s 131st Air Regiment.

Interestingly, fighters forward deployed in 2016 have also been sharing the apron with either a rotation of MI-17 or MI-171 HIP, the latter an improved variant. The HIPs were still observed on imagery throughout 2017 and up to eight were visible in recent captures.

As far as Gonggar’s surface-to-air missile site, imagery from July shows that active elements were removed from the launch pads, either returning to covered storage or possibly jumped for exercises that were widely reported in the region. Interestingly, recent imagery shows China simultaneously deploying mixed units to the pads, fielding both the HQ-12 (KaiShan-1A), a truck-mounted derivative of the HQ-2, and the strategic HQ-9, a system modeled heavily on Russia’s S-300PMU tech. The HQ-12 functions in the medium altitude role providing point defense while the HQ-9 defends at longer ranges. Since we last reported on the site, China has erected several environmental shelters to deny partial EO observation.

Bottom Line – Imagery observations continue to support the notion that China is bolstering rotations at its civil-military border airports independent of the most recent regional tensions.

(Note: This report has been updated with new observations)

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A Turkish attack on Afrin could spark a full-fledged war in Northern Syria

by Paul Iddon.

Unlike the other three Kurdish regions in the Middle East, Syrian Kurdistan (known among Kurds as West Kurdistan, or Rojava) is not contiguous. The ruling authorities in Syria over the years attempted to keep the Kurds divided by splitting up their territories, making them more easier to control and subjugate. When the Kurds finally garnered unprecedented self-rule, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew the bulk of state military forces from the region in 2012, to fight elsewhere in the war-torn country, they had to deal with the fact that their territories were split into three separate enclaves.

Rough maps of the Syrian Kurdish cantons across as they existed in early 2014, in mid 2015 and late 2016. Jazira (Cizire) and Kobanî were joined together since July 2015.Rough maps of the Syrian Kurdish cantons across as they existed in early 2014, in mid 2015 and late 2016. Jazira (Cizire) and Kobanî were joined together since July 2015.

The enclaves, referred to by the Kurdish authorities as cantons, are spread across Syria’s northern border with Turkey. In the north-east are the two primary cantons, Jazira and Kobanî. Situated to the east of the Euphrates is Kobanî and further north-east on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan is Jazira Canton. To the west of the Euphrates is an about 100 km stretch of territory and then the smallest canton, Afrin. Linking up with Afrin would effectively put the Kurds in control of the entirety of Syria’s border with Turkey.

The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) rule Rojava. Their armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), bravely defended Rojava’s cantons against Islamic State (ISIS). The YPG also afflicted ISIS with its first major setback, when it broke the groups brutal unrelenting siege of Kobanî (October 2014-January 2015) with US-led coalition air support. Since then they’ve gradually repelled that group from their territories and went on the offensive against them. In the summer of 2015 they successfully forced ISIS from the border town of Girê Spî (Tal Abyad) and in the process linked up their cantons, putting them in control of three-quarters of the Syrian border. After rolling back the ISIS offensive against the cantons they founded a larger Arab-Kurdish military coalition called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in October 2015, to confront ISIS across Syria.

In the meantime Turkey declared the about 100 km stretch of border from Kobanî to Afrin a “red-line” for the YPG. Immediately west of the Euphrates from Kobanî canton is Jarablus and not far west from Afrin is Azaz. Ankara invariably states that this Jarablus-Azaz region is vital to its security and doesn’t want a group that it argues is closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to control it. ISIS occupied large swaths of this region. Other Islamist groups, such as the Levant Front, backed by Turkey also held territory there in the Azaz region and opposed the Kurds, viewing them as collaborators with the Syrian regime.

SDF overlook the Tishrin Dam (Photo: Mauricio Morales / Al-Jazeera).

SDF overlook the Tishrin Dam (Photo: Mauricio Morales / Al-Jazeera).

Ankara’s red-line was, nevertheless, crossed by the SDF/YPG. In December 2015 the group captured the Tishrin Dam from ISIS further south from Kobanî. They subsequently began to build-up a foothold on the west side of the Euphrates.

In February 2016 the Syrian regime and its Russian backers launched a major offensive against Aleppo. This tied down other opposition groups opposed to the YPG.

Seizing an ideal opportunity the Kurdish fighters advanced eastward of their tiny isolated canton and successfully seized the small city of Tel Rifaat and the disused Menagh Airbase from the Levant Front. Russia even provided them with some supporting airstrikes for this offensive. Turkey responded by halting any further advance with cross-border artillery fire. The YPG, nevertheless, still hold both areas today.

In late May 2016 the SDF/YPG forces coming from Kobanî and Jazira were ready for a new mission: to capture Manbij, a major ISIS state stronghold in the Jarablus-Azaz vicinity. In secret meetings at Incirlik Airbase the Americans convinced the Turks not to interfere with the operation, promising them that mostly Arab members of the SDF would lead the operation into that Arab-majority city, with the YPG playing a supporting role – given their prowess as pointers for coalition airstrikes.

It was a lengthy and costly operation that lasted all summer, but the SDF/YPG prevailed by late August. The SDF established a military council in Manbij to administer the city post-ISIS. They clearly had grander plans given the fact they had prepared other councils for the nearby city of al-Bab and Jarablus. These councils were never implemented since the Turkish military launched a major cross-border operation into the Jarablus-Azaz area on August 24, Operation Euphrates Shield, and captured these cities from ISIS using Free Syrian Army (FSA) militiamen as proxies. The operation enabled Ankara to directly takeover the border region and keep Afrin separated from Kobanî. Consequently Turkish troops and their FSA proxies remain in the region to the present.

SDF forces beside their flag use a walkie talkie and tablet (Photo: Rodi Said / Reuters).

SDF forces beside their flag use a walkie talkie and tablet (Photo: Rodi Said / Reuters).

Turkey’s FSA proxies later threatened Manbij to the extent that the US had to send in Army Rangers in armored vehicles to prevent any clashes. Sporadic clashes between Turkish forces and the Syrian Kurds are not uncommon, in fact they are increasing as of late. In early April 2017 Turkey even launched a unilateral airstrike against a YPG base in Rojava’s northeast.

As Turkey is readying to send troops into Syria’s Idlib province as peacekeepers, to uphold the de-escalation zones it negotiated along with Iran and Russia, it’s increasing attacks against the YPG in the northwest. Ankara is now saying that the YPG in Afrin should be neutralized as it almost has the tiny far-flung canton completely boxed in.

“In order to stabilize the region, the Afrin region needs to be cleared of terror elements and terrorists,” said Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak on June 28, in a clear reference to the YPG. “Turkey is continuing to work with its counterparts to achieve this end with the help of the Foreign Ministry and the National Intelligence Organization.”

To Afrin’s west and north are the Turkish provinces of Hatay and Kilis, to her south there will soon be an unspecified number of Turkish troops as part of the de-escalation zones and to her near east are Turkey’s aforementioned FSA proxies.

Turkish-backed FSA militiamen.

Turkish-backed FSA militiamen. (AFP photo.)

Turkey likely figures it’s easier to confront the YPG in that isolated region, where there are no American troops, rather than in the far larger, and contiguous, north-east territories.

The YPG have their own intentions, they view the continued Turkish military presence in Jarablus-Azaz as an occupation and seek to force them out. Were a full-blown war to break out over Afrin the Kurdish forces would likely target the Turks and their allies in these areas. It’s unclear if the small American force in Manbij could even stand in the way of a major Turkish-YPG war.

It’s highly unlikely that Syrian Kurdish forces outside of Afrin would passively sit on the sidelines if the Turks attempt to pulverize their comrades there. This would in turn have stark implications for the ongoing Raqqa operation, which could slow down or even stop if the SDF/YPG need to re-allocate the necessary manpower and resources to fight the Turks.

In other words Turkey is more likely than not to spark a regional war across all of northern Syria if they try to cut off and crush the YPG in Afrin. Which is one reason, of many, the US should scramble to de-escalate the situation there rather than run the grave risk of letting it spiral out of control.

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Monitoring Economic Indicators from 500 Kilometers Up: Egyptian Oil and Gas Terminals

by Chris Biggers. This article was first published at Planet Stories.

Ain Sokhna Port, south of the Suez Canal. Image ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. Left: Jun 2017 / Right: Feb 2016

From space, satellites monitor the movement of commodities that can affect the health of national economies.

In Egypt, they track Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), one of Egypt’s most important commodities. With a rapidly growing population — more than 89 million — it remains crucial to many of the country’s domestic activities, particularly heating water and cooking. According to the World LPG Association, per capita consumption of the fuel is one of the highest in the world.

In the years following the Global Economic Crisis and the Arab Spring movement, access to fuel for cooking has proved challenging, but nonetheless continues to be a priority for the country. According to the World Bank, more than 75% of Egyptian households rely on LPG. The country consumes approximately 4.3 million tonnes of the fuel each year, of which 1.47 million tonnes is produced domestically while another 2.18 million tonnes is imported from abroad.

And more and more LPG may be making its way into Egypt from outside the country. At Planet, we’ve been observing the expansion of Egypt’s oil and gas infrastructure at Ain Sokhna — a port located about 40 km south of Egypt’s strategically important Suez canal. It’s there, Planet’s 3–5 meter resolution imaging satellites show Egypt in the process of building a third basin and expanding a liquid bulk terminal. The space snapshots show the erection of six new storage tanks to be associated with the expanded terminal which, upon completion, will hold additional LPG and gasoil. At the time of capture, the tanks were in various states of build.

Moreover, the port also happens to be home to Egypt’s Floating Storage Regasification Units (FSRUs) which pump about 20 million m3 per day of foreign natural gas to feed Egypt’s grid and commercial sector. They were chartered in 2015 for a five year period. In February, Egypt announced plans to push between 100 and 108 liquified natural gas (LNG) cargos through the terminals in 2017. Planet’s high cadence imagery has already captured these vessels arriving alongside the FSRUs at the port.

In recent years, natural gas has become a competitor to LPG as Egypt has moved to connect additional households to the natural gas grid through a prior World Bank funded project. Accordingly, over 355,000 consumers have been connected to the gas grid in the Greater Cairo area, alone. Through the project, the state plans to connect about 1.5 million households in 11 of Egypt’s 27 governorates. Most recently, France, an important partner in the region, pledged another 68 million euros to expand gas connections to 2.4 million households. However, overall progress has been slow.

Both imported LNG and LPG will likely be integral to reducing the magnitude of Egypt’s energy security problems, especially until Zohr — a “super giant” gas field in the Mediterranean — begins production in earnest. Zohr is estimated to contain a reserve of approximately 850 billion m3 of natural gas. Eni, an Italian energy group which discovered the field in 2015, projects costs for development around $14 billion, a substantial sum given gas companies are reducing global expenditures.

Egypt LNG terminal near Idku. Captured June 15, 2017. Image ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc.

Egypt LNG terminal near Idku. Captured June 15, 2017. Image ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc.

If all goes according to plan, Eni believes the field will produce 70 million m3 of gas per day by 2019. That gas may further support domestic consumption, further easing pressure on Egypt’s energy demands — especially if more households are connected to the grid. However, depending on price, Egypt could restart significant exports and still use LPG as it continues to construct additional storage capacity and import infrastructure. If that occurs, Planet’s imaging fleet stand ready to capture Egypt’s LNG liquefaction terminals near Damietta and Idku.

As of 2017, Damietta’s LNG terminal remains offline as Egypt sends more domestic gas production to the grid, a policy that’s helped ease electricity shortages. The situation is unlikely to change in the short term as disputes persist around Egypt’s decision to declare force majeure in 2014. However, as Zohr’s production increases in 2018, we could see significantly more cargoes leaving from Idku. In 2016 for example, Planet’s imagery captured 7 of the reported 9 cargoes at port while another 4 have already been observed in 2017.

In the meantime, despite returning GDP growth and an IMF-led economic reform program, the North African country remains under stress with high levels of unemployment, inflation, and increasing public debt. GDP numbers from the first quarter show a 1.7% decline compared to last year and consumption of LPG and other fuels remain taxing on the state’s coffers. In the first half of FY 17, Egypt has already seen a $2.11 billion fuel subsidy bill, a jump of 46% over the same time last year. According to Egypt’s Petroleum Minister, 50% of the subsidy is spent on diesel, 20% for LPG, 20% for gasoline, and another 10% for fuel oil and petroleum derivatives. Egypt’s officials expect to spend more than $8 billion over FY17–18 for the bill.

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Ethiopian Security Strategy: Upgrades Overdue

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

The strategic significance of Ethiopia within Africa and the broader Indian Ocean region cannot be under-stated. With approximately 99.5 million people residing within its borders, Ethiopia is one of the continent’s most populous countries. Covering more than 1.1 million square kilometres of land, it is also the 26th largest in terms of geographic area. Ethiopia has frequently been the main driver of regional integration processes, such as through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). However, given all of this, Ethiopia’s stated foreign and security policy is surprisingly, even alarmingly, unsophisticated.

The most recent strategic document from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was issued in 2002, though a modest update was offered in 2009. A detailed reading of this document suggests that Ethiopian foreign policy was, and perhaps still is, eastward-oriented: sub-sections are devoted to relations with Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan, as well as relations with Arab states (particularly Egypt) and Israel. However, little attention is paid to countries to the west and south which could also be considered part of Ethiopia’s security neighbourhood, such as Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania. Of course, both the original strategy and its update pre-date South Sudan’s independence from Sudan and the impact subsequent waves of South Sudanese refugees have had on Ethiopia.

Furthermore, the strategy envisions a unilateral approach to securing Ethiopia’s national interests and emphasizes the importance of bilateral relations. Very little attention is paid to the virtues of multilateralism, despite Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s national capital, playing host to various African Union (AU) institutions. This may simply reflect Ethiopian strategic perception at the time; when the original document was issued, substantial numbers of Ethiopian troops were deployed to Somalia in an effort to combat the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic Courts Union and tensions were simmering with Eritrea. As clashes over the Ethiopia-Eritrea border continue, with skirmishes taking place as recently as June 2016, and as Ethiopia expresses frustration with the lack of support for its efforts to stabilize Somalia, it is likely that this scepticism for multilateralism persists among Ethiopian policy-makers.

But the lack of a clear foreign and security policy since 2002 leaves little certainty over whether this is indeed the case or where Ethiopia truly sees itself in the world. Despite the myriad security threats with which the country is faced, the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) also finds itself operating with largely outdated equipment. The ENDF’s ground forces predominantly use vehicles acquired from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries during the 1980’s, following Ethiopia’s success in the Ogaden War against Somalia. In 2013, Ethiopia acquired newer Chinese-manufactured YW-534 armoured personnel carriers and WZ-523 infantry fighting vehicles, but much of Ethiopia’s mechanized infantry relies upon transport from Soviet BMP-1’s acquired almost 40 years ago.

Ethiopian troops, as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, drive through Baidoa town with a WZ551 APC followed by an YW531 -- Chinese-made -- during a routine patrol (Photo: Abdi Dagane).

Ethiopian troops, as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, drive through Baidoa town with a WZ551 APC followed by an YW531 — Chinese-made — during a routine patrol (Photo: Abdi Dagane).

Although the Ethiopian Air Force has managed to acquire several Sukhoi Su-27 multirole fighters from the Russian Federation, it heavily relies upon MiG-23 fighters purchased from the Soviet Union in the 1970’s to make up its numbers. With a total of approximately 33 fighter aircraft to secure its airspace, the ENDF still has weak airpower when compared to other regional actors. For example, the Egyptian Air Force’s complement of F-16 Fighting Falcons alone outnumbers the Ethiopian Air Force’s entire fleet or aircraft. Egypt and Ethiopia experience considerably different security situations, but the disparity in size and quality of aircraft operated by the two countries illustrates how severely Ethiopia has neglected its airpower. The ENDF also completely lacks a maritime branch. Though Ethiopia is a landlocked country, the Blue Nile flows from the Lake Tana through Ethiopia to Sudan and joins the White Nile at Khartoum. As piracy becomes a growing concern on the Sudanese and South Sudanese stretches of the Nile River, Ethiopia will require the means to deter any activities which could disrupt shipping or fuel instability, especially if Ethiopia invests in modernized riverine infrastructure. Uganda, which is similarly landlocked, nonetheless maintains a few inshore patrol vessels to secure its portion of the White Nile and Lake Victoria.

Some commentators have indicated that Ethiopia’s under-developed security policy may stem from a different conception of military power. Specifically, aside from roughly five years of Italian occupation in 1936-1941, Ethiopia is the only African country not to suffer under European colonialism. As such, history leaves Ethiopian policy-makers predisposed to regard the ENDF as a means of self-defence and nation-building, rather than a tool for power projection. This would explain the ENDF’s reliance upon mass infantry rather than a quality air force and “brown water” navy – mass infantry can be used as a means of addressing unemployment and countering any internal insurrections among Ethiopia’s diverse regions. For example, when mass protests broke out in August 2016 in Ethiopia’s Oromiya and Amhara regions, ENDF infantry were deployed and more than 90 protesters were killed.

Deficient domestic policies have ensured, in short, stunted development in Ethiopian foreign and security policy. So long as the ENDF is looked to as a means to quash internal dissent, Ethiopia will be unable to achieve its potential as a regional leader. Though an “upgrade” is long overdue both in terms of strategic orientation and defence equipment, it is likely Ethiopia will continue to be an inward-looking country.

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Women’s rights in Yemen

by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.

Nisma Mansoor

Nisma Mansoor

Nisma Mansoor likes to watch “Game of Thrones” and wear make-up. She peppers her Facebook wall with emojis, memes, and selfies. She studies the same subjects that her parents did in college. She has a blog and a part-time job at an NGO. A feminist with liberal political convictions, Nisma wants to work as a hydraulic engineer. In Europe or North America, no one would think twice about such a typical collegian. It might shock Westerners, then, to learn that Nisma lives in Yemen.

At twenty-two years old, Nisma is finishing her last year at the University of Aden, the country’s second-largest city and one of the few that the Yemeni government still controls after Iranian-backed rebels seized the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014. The circuitous path that encouraged Nisma to become a hydraulic engineer and feminist parallels Yemen’s own complex history with women’s rights.

From 1967 to 1990, Yemen struggled with the same division that plagued Germany, Korea, and Vietnam during the Cold War. Pro-Western nationalists governed North Yemen from Sana’a while South Yemen, the only communist state in the Arab world, had its capital at Aden. Women’s rights in Aden flourished under the socialist regime. Some women even joined the army and the police.

The South’s progressive, secularist social policies encouraged women such as Nisma’s mother, herself a communist, to seek advanced degrees. Her parents met at a university in Baku, then part of the Soviet Union. Her father was studying hydrogeology, her mother petroleum engineering.

Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels attend a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters, Sanaa, Yemen, June 20, 2016 (Photo: Hani Mohammed).

Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels attend a gathering aimed at mobilizing more fighters, Sanaa, Yemen, June 20, 2016 (Photo: Hani Mohammed).

When Nisma was born in 1994, the year of a brutal civil war between northerners and southerners after Yemen’s 1990 unification, her parents emphasized the importance of female education in a country that had been at the forefront of women’s rights in the Arab world.

“My childhood was very good,” Nisma reflected. “I was raised by very caring parents. I grew up in a family that values education.” Her parents enrolled her in an international school because of the tribal conservatism that had started creeping into Yemen’s state schools. After the northerners defeated the southerners in the 1994 civil war, they imposed family laws restricting women’s rights on Aden.

Whereas Nisma’s parents had learned Russian, she studied English with the hope of one day attending an American or European university. Nisma could study civil engineering at the University of Aden, but only a foreign education could offer expertise in hydraulic engineering. “I want to be a women’s rights activist and engineer to be the voice of southern women while helping them with their quality of life,” she told me. Smiling behind a blue headscarf, Nisma plans to confront two of Yemen’s greatest challenges at once: gender apartheid and water scarcity.

“Yemeni women face severe discrimination in all aspects of their lives,” Human Rights Watch reported in 2013. “Women cannot marry without the permission of their male guardians; they do not have equal rights to divorce, inheritance or child custody, and a lack of legal protection leaves them exposed to domestic and sexual violence.” The ongoing civil war that began in 2015, meanwhile, worsened a water crisis in one of the world’s driest, poorest countries. “While the war is going on, the water level in the aquifer is going down, so the problem may end up being bigger than the war,” said William Cosgrove, a water expert and former World Bank water resources specialist for the Middle East.

The Gender Inequality Index represents the loss of achievement within a country due to gender inequality. It uses three dimensions to do so: reproductive health, empowerment, and labour market participation. In 2015, Yemen ranked on place 159 -- with other words: at the last place.

The Gender Inequality Index represents the loss of achievement within a country due to gender inequality. It uses three dimensions to do so: reproductive health, empowerment, and labour market participation. In 2015, Yemen ranked on place 159 — with other words: at the last place.

“Everyone can build a house, but being a hydraulic engineer means changing people’s lives,” Nisma observed over Facebook Messenger. “I’ve seen people who spend their entire days looking for something to drink. Girls who should be in school are instead searching for water.” For Nisma, fighting water scarcity equals fighting for women’s rights on her terms.

“Nisma’s approach to studying hydraulic engineering for development purposes actually fits very well within the framework Yemeni women’s movements have established since the outset—framing the issues as national duties, rather than women’s issues per se,” remarked Natana Delong-Bas, a professor at Boston College specializing in women and gender in the Muslim world. “This has long been a way for women to make a contribution seen to have national purpose.”

Hundreds of women like Nisma attend Yemeni universities, yet they face difficulties translating their education into employment. “All universities in Yemen have over 60 percent female enrolment, but it doesn’t transfer to the workforce,” said Fernando Carvajal, an academic who has lived in Aden and Sana’a and runs the blog Diwan. Extremists from al-Qaeda and ISIS have also threatened the University of Aden for failing to implement sex segregation. According to Nisma, they once kidnapped the dean.

For Nisma to become a hydraulic engineer, she will likely have to study in Europe or North America. She considered applying to American universities through the Fulbright Program, but Executive Orders 13769 and 13780, US President Donald Trump’s attempt at a Muslim ban, torpedoed those plans because they prevent Yemenis from obtaining visas to the United States. “I hope you get rid of Trump soon,” said Nisma. “He’s insane.”

While looking for alternative programs in other Western countries, Nisma is focusing her efforts closer to Aden. “She loves her city.” noted Mohammed al-Qalisi, one of her friends from Aden. “As a community activist, she’s become a decisionmaker, putting forward her vision to help our civil society fight different bad attitudes and habits,” added Nazar Nasser Ali Haitham, like Nisma an agitator for the South’s return to independence. Nisma’s job as a monitoring and evaluation assistance at RNW Media, a Dutch NGO promoting freedom of the press and speech, ensures that her community hears her voice.

“While most of the women in world enjoy their lives and rights, women in Yemen are fighting every day to get their basic needs,” Nisma wrote on Facebook. “They fight each and every day to ensure that their children will have clean water to drink and food to eat.” To her, the fight against gender apartheid and water scarcity are the same battle, and she plans to lead it.

Posted in Austin Michael Bodetti, English, Politics in General, Yemen | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The significance of Iran’s missile attack on Syria

by Paul Iddon

One of the missiles Iran launched at Deir Ezzor in Syria on night of June 18.

One of the missiles Iran launched at Deir Ezzor in Syria on night of June 18.

On the night of June 18 Iran fired six long range missiles from its western provinces at Islamic State (ISIS) to the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor in retaliation for the June 7 terrorist attacks in Tehran, which killed 18 people.

Iran’s retaliation strike (Operation Laylat al-Qadr; عملیات لیلةالقدر) demonstrates that it has the capability to hit targets more than 650 km away in relatively short notice. This is something the Iranians had difficulty doing until late in their bloody eight year war with Iraq back in the 1980s. Obviously, Iran’s missile capabilities have progressed ever since, in spite of US and international sanctions.

Iran’s leadership have eagerly sought to promote the strike as proof of their military strength. “They cannot slap us. We will slap them”, declared Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his official website and in a widely-shared video on Instagram, which showed footage the terror attacks in Tehran and the retaliatory missile launches.

For Tehran, the missile strike serves two purposes: Retaliation against those attacks on Iran’s capital and a, not so subtle, warning to the United States and the Islamic Republic’s rivals in the region. “The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message,” said Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) General Ramazan Sharif on Iranian state television. General Mohammad Hossein Baqueri, the Iranian military’s chief of staff, also declared that: “Iran is among the world’s big powers in the missile field.” He also warned the US that in the event of a war their military bases in the region will be targeted. “We are in permanent rivalry with them [the Americans] in different fields, including the missile sector,” Baqueri said.

The June 7 terrorist attacks in Tehran provided the IRGC an apt opportunity to test their missiles – all indigenously-produced – for the first time in an actual war zone. Since the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran only used their missiles against the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK) militant group in Iraq hosted by Saddam Hussein. The most significant strike against MEK was in April 2001. The missiles used in that attack were the older Shahabs, an Iranian-made Scud derivative, which, in this strike, flew no more than 150 km to their targets.

Massive crater allegedly from an Iranian ballistic missile, which had fallen in western Iraq.

Massive crater allegedly from an Iranian ballistic missile, which had fallen in western Iraq.

The IRGC claim that aerial photographs taken from their Syria-based drones confirmed that in the attack on Syria all missiles, which reportedly included the new Zolfaghar, a missile unveiled just last September with a range of 700 km, struck their intended fixed targets – an ISIS command headquarters and arms and ammunition depots. There is reason to believe they were indeed relatively accurate, but also reason to be sceptical that all missiles successfully impacted on their targets as Tehran claims (see “Exclusive photos: Syria-bound Iranian ballistic missiles fall in Iraq“, The New Arab, 29.06.2017 and “Iran mocks reports its Syria missile strikes fell short“, The Washington Post, 25.06.2017).

In terms of both cost and effectiveness it’s not necessary to strike an adversary like ISIS from hundreds of kilometres away. Symbolically, on the other hand, such a strike is a perfect way to demonstrate ones reach — and not only Iran is using such an opportunity. On October 7, 2015, the Russians fired 26 Kalibr cruise missiles (the first of several intermittent cruise missile strikes, the latest one being on June 23) from vessels in the Caspian Sea to targets in Syria almost 1,500 kilometers away, shortly after intervening in that country’s civil war. As is the case with Iran’s Operation Laylat al-Qadr that was the first time the Russians used these long-range cruise missiles in combat and demonstrated to potential rival powers in the region, namely the United States, the range of their weaponry. This, and the opportunity to test these weapons in actual combat, likely motivated these strikes over any practical tactical considerations. After all, their jet fighter-bombers already based in Syria could strike any adversary much more cheaply with little risk of getting shot down.

But the US is not a bit better than the rest. When US President Donald Trump wanted to punish the Syrian regime for the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack last April, he fired an enormous payload of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the regime’s Shayrat airbase. Unleashing such a devastating payload against a single fixed target isn’t necessarily practical, but it’s a clear demonstration of strength.

Trump’s bombardment of Syria’s Shayarat with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles -- click on the image to enlarge (compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography).

Trump’s bombardment of Syria’s Shayarat with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles — click on the image to enlarge (compiled by Louis Martin-Vézian of CIGeography (Facebook / Twitter).

Back in 2006 the Pentagon considered expanding the reach of the United States’ conventional missile arsenal by modifying their nuclear Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) to carry conventional payloads, to be used in case of a war against either Iran or North Korea. With a range of a mind-boggling 12,000km conventional Tridents would have enabled the US to readily strike adversaries from a whole continent away in short order, an unequivocal demonstration of both reach and strength. But the idea was scrapped due to the risk that any launch of these missiles would alert Russia’s early warning system for a nuclear attack. After all, it would have been difficult for Moscow to differentiate between the launch of conventional and nuclear-armed Tridents.

Iran’s Deir Ezzor strike may well prove to be a one off case. However, as Tehran continues to enhance, expand and test its missile capabilities – much to the consternation of Washington, which charges Iran with violating UN Security Council Resolution 2231 by doing so – it may readily seize another opportunity to demonstrate, to domestic and foreign observers alike, these weapons, or newer models and variants, capabilities in a combat situation.

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