Thursday, August 11, 2011

The End Of The Asparagus

After more than four years and 250 posts, I've decided to close this blog down. For quite a while I've been busy with my other websites and have struggled to find the time to update it very often, and so I'm going to end it here. However, I'll leave all of the posts online as an archive. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

No Sign Of Easy Solution To Libya Conflict

France has reportedly begun supplying weapons on the quiet to the rebels in Libya, in an attempt to help them break the apparent stalemate in their battle against Colonel Gaddafi's forces. According to a source quoted in Le Figaro, France took the action without consulting its partners in the NATO bombing of the regime, because "there was no other way to proceed."

It's been slow going over the past three months for France, Britain and their allies. Forced to intervene to prevent a possible massacre when Gaddafi's forces reached the gates of the rebel-held Benghazi, the notion that Gaddafi's regime might fall quickly under pressure from the rebel forces on the ground and the NATO warplanes in the air now looks wildly optimistic. The popular uprising against Gaddafi which western leaders undoubtedly hoped for has not materialised, and instead of being on the side of the Libyan people, NATO rather appears to be merely on one side in a civil war. And the weaker side at that.

How NATO extracts itself from the conflict is less clear. But for a lesson from recent history, we can look a little further to the north in Bosnia. There, although the country's borders have remained in tact, largely separate administrations exist for the Serb-dominated areas, and those populated by Muslims and Croats. Critics say it's a solution which has put the conflict into deep freeze rather than solved it, but at least nobody's killing each other anymore.

Diplomats are reluctant to encourage the break-up of any nation, for fear that could spread instability to neighbouring countries, and the preferred option for those looking at Libya from both near and far would undoubtedly be it to remain in one piece. But when the internationally-brokered peace deal finally arrives, as surely it must, don't be surprised if it's a horribly complicated mess of regional assemblies and bureaucracies, that keeps everyone more or less apart, and just about happy enough to avoid reaching for their guns.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Bin Laden's Death A Part Of Al Qaeda's Slow Decline

Osama bin Laden is dead. The leader of Al Qaeda was apparently shot and killed at a compound in Pakistan by American special forces. He'd been in hiding for almost a decade since ordering the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The death of bin Laden is undoubtedly symbolic. As well as being the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, he was its name and, through the video messages which had such a global impact in the months and years after 9/11, he was its face.

But, in practical terms, his death will have little impact on a network which has already been in gradual decline for some years. Bin Laden has been holed up in a house with little opportunity to communicate with the outside world, so his influence on Al Qaeda's people and operations has probably been extremely limited since 2001.

Besides, Al Qaeda, which roughly translates as "the base," has never been a conventional military or guerrilla type terrorist group, such as the Tamil Tigers or IRA. It's always been a very loose affilitation of groups in assorted parts of the world, often with wildly differing views and methods. The role of Bin Laden and his chief lieutenants has usually been one of financier, facilitator and, though his favourite philosophical notion of "propaganda by deed" - suicide bombings to you and me - inspiration.

The death of Bin Laden will weaken the idea of Al Qaeda as a central network still further. Groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is primarily based in Yemen, will carry on regardless. But with the Arab Spring suggesting that, in some countries at least, there's a desire for a democratic rather than Islamist future, those groups increasingly look like they're alongside Bin Laden on the wrong side of history.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Croatia's Hero Jailed For War Crimes

One of the most popular figures in Croatia, Ante Gotovina, has been jailed for 24 years for war crimes carried out against the Serbs during the end of the Balkan War in 1995. Another man got 18 years, while a third was cleared, following an international trial in The Hague.

The Gotovina case has been a prickly one for successive Croatian governments. As the man who led the Croat Army to a series of victories over the Serbs in the summer of 1995, as the Serbs were themselves under pressure from belated international air strikes, he was and is something of a national hero. But hundreds of Serb civilians died during that campaign, as they were forced by the Croats from the Krajina region, traditionally a Serb enclave (the word Krajina means frontier).

And it's offences relating to that which have landed Gotovina in prison after all these years. But the real reason is much larger. Croatia wants to join the EU, and soon, like its neighbour Slovenia did back in 2004. Failing to finish the unfinished business of the war was a major sticking point preventing that happening.

If it weren't for the prospect of EU membership, Gotovina would surely still be at large. But that carrot has proved too strong for the Croatian government to resist, even if it means temporary unpopularity among many Croat citizens. Perhaps one day, something similar will help the Serbs bring Ratko Mladic and others to justice.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

No Compromise For Syria's Assad

While the world has been largely watching Libya, Syria has become the latest government to face protests as part of the so-called Arab Spring. But despite sacking his government, President Assad this week signalled he wouldn't be offering much in the way of compromises to his internal opponents, as he insisted long-standing emergency laws would remain in place.

The resignation of the entire government wasn't nearly as big a concession as it sounds. Control of Ba'athist Syria has always been concentrated in the hands of the President and a few cronies, including those who run the country's security apparatus. It was ever thus. The last serious attempt at an uprising, 29 years ago, ended in an extraordinary massacre ordered by the current President Assad's father.

When Assad Junior came to power in 2000, there was some hope he might prove to be a reforming leader. Western-educated and with a British-born wife, he was considered a somewhat reluctant President, who only got his chance after his elder brother Basil died in a mysterious car crash.

But those hopes have been gradually extinguished during his decade in office. He might not be about to massacre opponents as his father did, but President Assad is clearly determined to retain as much personal power as he's always had. If his regime ultimately falls as part of the Arab Spring, and that prospect seems an awfully long way off despite the demonstrations, it'll be quite a demonstration of how the region is changing.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Colonel Gaddafi Digs In

Libyan military forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi have spent another day counter-attacking rebel positions in the east of the country. After large parts of the country fell during the early stages of the uprising, it's now the regime forces which are making most of the running.

Libya is different to Egypt and Tunisia, the two other North African countries in which autocratic leaders have recently departed in the face of public opposition. Part of it is down to Colonel Gaddafi himself, a man habitually described as mad, or at the very least unpredictable. Despite suggestions he might flee to Venezuela, he has remained in Tripoli in an attempt to see off the uprising, perhaps because he refuses to believe many of his people really have turned against him, and perhaps because after 42 years in power he simply can't contemplate leaving.

But part of it is also down to the internal structures of Libya. In Egypt, it was the powerful military, and its refusal to turn on the protestors, which spelled the end for President Mubarak. However, Libya has a relatively weak military, a legacy of Colonel Gaddafi wanting to prevent a coup of the sort that first brought him to power.

There are also large numbers of African mercenaries on Gaddafi's side, reportedly being paid $200 a day to fight. These are desperate men who have no qualms about attacking rebels and civilians. The international disgust about Libyan forces "firing on their own people" slightly misses the point. The foreign fighters aren't firing on their own people as such. They're doing what they're being paid to do, and as a result are much more likely to remain loyal to Gaddafi.

Any hopes of a relatively bloodless revolution and transition to democracy have already been dashed. Years and possibly decades of fighting, negotiations, peace plans, and international involvement now look very likely.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Egypt Tries To Stop The Dominoes Toppling

Egypt has said it's going to ban protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the long-standing autocratic ruler of that country. The decision follows several days of tense demonstrations, which in turn came after the ousting of the leader of nearby Tunisia, amid public anger over rising prices and a lack of everyday freedoms.

Mr Mubarak, and other leaders in the Arab world, will doubtless have been left very alarmed by what went on earlier this month in Tunis. In the short-term they will do what they can to prevent a 'domino effect' of regimes falling across north Africa and the Middle East, of the kind we saw in Eastern Europe in 1989. The draconian restrictions on public gatherings are, the Egyptians hope, a way of doing that without resorting to violence, in a way which will allow the momentum of the Tunisia revolt to dissipate, easing the immediate threat to the Cairo regime.

However, what happened in Tunisia may have changed the long-term politics of the region forever. Rulers such as Mubarak have long been supported by western nations, and the US in particular, because they have been seen as strongmen. Better to have a stable leader who we find a bit disasteful, the rationale goes, than a regime packed by unpredictable Islamic fundamentalists.

If attempts to establish a more democratic system in Tunisia, with a government featuring politicials from all sides, prove successful, the argument that hardline Arab leaders are the only thing preventing the region sliding into the grip of extremists will lose currency. Mubarak and the rest might have to open up a bit to retain western support, and stay in power.