Sunday, January 12, 2014

2014: The Year to Come in International Relations

It’s certainly been an eventful year in international relations and for The Global Atlas’ coverage of global events. From South Sudan’s and Syria’s spiraling civil wars to the surrender of M23 rebels and NSA revelations, 2013 was a year of chaos and hope. We saw prominent leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela and most recently Ariel Sharon pass away, while America’s leading lawmakers brought their constituents—and the U.S. economy—to the brink and back. Secretary of State John Kerry, under President Obama’s direction, has even reached a historic nuclear agreement with Iran despite the powers’ lack of diplomatic relations dating back before 1979. Through it all, The Global Atlas has been a witness to and commentator on these events. Here’s a list of our biggest stories from this past year, along with the authors’ predictions for what to expect in 2014.

Get your Prozac out: Vicky discusses the Middle East

A Pro-Morsi protest in August
A little more than two years after a vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest government corruption and a lack of economic opportunity, the fruits of the so-called Arab Spring are still surprising observers, rarely in a positive way. In Egypt, what began as a hopeful test of democracy was soon let down by both major parties in the country. As Muslim Brotherhood-backed and democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi sparked fears of a return to authoritarianism, first by circumventing the judicial branch and then by introducing a very pro-Islamist constitution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) brought those fears to life by deposing him in July (the irony should be noted here). Since the ouster, which the US has declined to term a coup, SCAF has instituted what amounts to martial law, especially when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood. Virtually all of its top leaders have been jailed, the group has been labeled a terrorist organization, and hundreds if not thousands have died in clashes between pro-Morsi or Muslim Brotherhood or democracy protestors (these things are not all the same nor are they mutually exclusive) and security forces. With a new constitutional referendum set for next week and elections due later this year, a semblance of democracy could return to Egypt in 2014. As SCAF leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced his candidacy for the presidency this week, it looks like the façade will remain just that: a mere semblance.

Perhaps the grimmest story of 2013 is the ongoing – getting into never-ending territory – civil war in Syria. The conflict has now claimed over 100,000 lives, and that’s the last official estimate we’ll get
A young boy jumps over the bodies of chemical attack victims.
from the UN until the war is over: the situation on the ground has become too unpredictable, and verifying sources is too difficult for the official body count to continue. The world braced itself for another US military incursion in the Middle East on the heels of a horrific chemical weapons attack on the town of Ghouta outside of Damascus, allegedly at the hands of the regime. Luckily, US Secretary of State John Kerry haphazardly stumbled into a deal with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov allowing for international control and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. While an external military strike earlier in the conflict may have been enough to end it, rebel forces on the ground have become increasingly factionalized, making even war criminal Bashar al-Asad look like a viable post-war leader.

Of particular concern was the November announcement of seven Islamist rebel groups that they were breaking off to form their own alliance for the establishment of an Islamic state. Rebel infighting has killed 700 people in the past week as radical groups fight other rebels for control of key areas, essentially doing the Asad regime a favor. The true victims of the ongoing conflict are the besieged citizens of Syria, over two million of which have registered with the UNHCR as refugees outside the country and 6.5 of which are displaced internally. Over 9.3 million – or nearly half of Syria’s population – are in need of assistance, and widespread starvation in areas cut off from aid for months is feared. Clerics even had to issue a fatwa permitting Syrians to eat dogs and cats, a practice that is a cultural and religious taboo. Without a negotiated political settlement reached at the Geneva talks in the coming weeks, 2014 looks very grim for Syria’s people as different factions in the conflict may be left to fight it out, at the cost of countless lives and unimaginable suffering.

Neighboring Iraq has been mired in a civil conflict of its own that significantly grew in 2013, bolstered by the fighting in Syria next door. 2013 was the deadliest year in the last 5, with 8,800 people dead, 7,157 of whom were civilians. By comparison, in 2012 the civilian death toll was 3,238, illustrating the increase in attacks on military and civilian targets alike. Already in 2014 rebels took control of Falluja and Ramadi in Anbar province, a Sunni-dominated area that has grappled with the loss of privileged status since the fall of Saddam Hussein and perceived neglect by the Nouri al-Maliki government. While following the Sunni Awakening or sahwa in 2008 that led to a break between local tribes and Al Qaeda, residents have once again begun to embrace radical AQ-affiliated groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) that straddles the border with Syria. Political solutions in Baghdad have largely failed, and outstanding issues such as oil control and revenue distribution, de-Baathification, and a census determining the relative size of religious groups will lead to more conflict in 2014. Bearing in mind that Maliki’s Shi’ite party is the least hostile to the Sunnis in Anbar, should a more radically anti-Sunni party be voted into office in the national elections in April, Iraq will not be free of bloodshed in the coming year.

One much-needed positive development in the region came from an unlikely corner: Iran and the P5+1 countries reached an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program this year, and a sea change in relations is a possibility.  This week, chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyyed Abbas Araqchi announced that ongoing talks had yielded solutions to all outstanding issues, although a State Dept. spokesperson said there were a few issues to be ironed out. While the progress towards a permanent deal is great news for international stability, the stumbling blocks of Israel and the US Congress still stand in the way.  As of last week, 58 US Senators said they would support the additional sanctions in the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act that has yet to be introduced for a vote. If the sanctions go through, even if US Pres. Barack Obama vetoes them as he has said he would, the deal’s future would be all but destroyed. Let’s hope that for once, the US Congress shows restraint and does what it seems to do best these days: not pass the legislation.

Zach: Fukushima Falters, South Sudan Implodes, and the NSA is Revealed 

The Long and Arduous Road: The Clean-Up of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Nuclear fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
It’s been about three years since the Fukushima nuclear power plant was hit by a tsunami, triggering machine failures that allowed the plant to overheat and subsequently leak dangerous levels of radiation into the environment. As I wrote in a past post, the clean-up effort began its slow start after botched attempts to contain contaminated water from spilling into the Pacific and remove the fuel rods emitting the radiation. New estimates contend that it could take up to 40 years for the clean-up effort and decommissioning of the site to reach completion. Hundreds of thousands of IDP’s have been forced to find other accommodation, as their homes and villages may not be livable in the foreseeable future. I predict that given the complexities of the operation, and keeping in mind the difficulties already faced, the Fukushima disaster will register as one of the biggest nuclear disasters ever, with far-reaching implications for human and animal life alike. Major nations such as Germany and the United States have already started scaling back their nuclear power ambitions given the clear environmental, physical and economic consequences if anything were to go wrong. This will likely have a slight impact on global energy markets as well, as the more advanced industrialized nations rollback their nuclear plans in favor of safer bets, like gas, wind and solar.

South Sudan’s Civil War

While observers have mixed feelings about classifying the conflict, South Sudan has in recent months completely devolved into civil war following the Vice President’s resignation and subsequent mobilization of loyal rebel forces.  Both pro- and anti-government forces have committed massive human rights violations currently under investigation by UNMISS, the OHCHR and the African Union. Over 230,000 people have been displaced by the violence, which largely falls along ethnic lines.
South Sudanese soldiers.

The current crisis is best explained by a mixture of economic and political frustration, poor infrastructure and the formation of a coalition government before any national reconciliation effort.  Oil revenues have slowly trickled in but at a rate that hasn’t kept up with growing humanitarian crises, which reach most of the population. Ultimately, economic frustration and political impotence have reenergized South Sudan’s fractious rebel groups, who were supposed to join the national army and who now engage in open violence against civilians and soldiers alike. The situation in South Sudan speaks to the steep hurdles facing new nations of little unity or infrastructure, and casts a dark shadow over future prospects for peace. Realistically, the outlook looks very grim. Despite extensive help from the UN, including the deployment of more peacekeepers and human rights experts, a regional peace agreement might be the only (temporary) solution to stop the violence. Then, national reconciliation and transitional justice processes must be implemented as to avoid future ethnic enmity and violence that has plagued the people of South Sudan for decades.

NSA Overreach Sparks Global Privacy Debate

In June 2013, former NSA intelligence contractor Edward Snowden began releasing documents outlining parts of the U.S.’ extensive intelligence gathering operations, starting with the disclosure of the PRISM program, which sought citizens' metadata from America’s largest tech giants. Since then, however, more startling information has been released, including details of a clandestine operation that collects millions of phone records from Verizon users, and the unveiling of secret surveillance treaties between countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and even Sweden, whose political neutrality has now been called into question. More recently, released documents shed light on extensive spying efforts of world leaders and the creation of a global surveillance network.

These revelations have huge consequences for privacy and beg the question of the effectiveness of surveillance efforts that purport to serve national security interests. Although President Obama’s own committee recommended that the programs be scaled back significantly, it is unlikely that we will see the NSA or global surveillance recede. On a more positive note, the issue has energized constituencies around the world, who are now demanding tougher privacy laws and a great deal more transparency from government officials about intelligence gathering operations, especially those carried out by states against their own peoples. The jury is still out on whether our own governments will make disclosures themselves (perhaps with enough domestic and diplomatic pressure), but I predict that the spotlight will remain fixed on issues of privacy and global surveillance in the foreseeable future. We haven't seen the last of Edward Snowden, and certainly not the last of his disclosures. 2014 will surely be the year of privacy, online rights, and the emergence and bolstering of efforts to push back on global surveillance networks. 

Colin: A Cautious, Optimistic Eye Towards Europe

In the coming year, Europe will enjoy numerous opportunities and will face just as many obstacles. After several years of economic woes, it appears that Europe may be poised to rebound as they move away from harsh austerity measures and focus on job growth and strengthening trade ties outside the region. Additionally, the Olympic games set to begin in a few weeks in Sochi, Russia, will bring unprecedented tourism to a country that has lately had a bit of an image problem. To put it more succinctly, this could be Europe's year to really bounce back from the larger part of a lackluster decade.

To accomplish this, however, Europe will have to remain focused on some of the issues that persist on the continent. While there is undoubtedly promise that lies ahead for much of the region, there are quagmires that will have to be addressed in order to ensure that Europe puts its best foot forward.

A Security Test for Sochi

As the Olympics quickly approach, there is the prospect of increased tourism, and a much-needed PR boost for a Russia that has come to be characterized by their abysmal human rights track record and an intimidating, tough-guy President. Bringing the Olympics to Russia will give it the image boost that it has so desperately needed recently. However, with tens of thousands of military and police personnel already on the ground in Sochi, it is clear that security is a substantial concern. This wariness has been exacerbated in recent weeks by terrorist attacks in Volgograd, allegedly executed by Chechnyan militants who have often been referred to as the al Qaeda of the region. It is clear that Russian President Putin has prepared as much as possible to ensure that the Olympics are safe - he will need to continue to exercise appropriate judgment and keep it as a focus throughout the games.

A bombing in Volgograd, Russia, has sparked anxiety about the upcoming Sochi Olympic Games

Ukraine: Selling One's Soul to the Devil

Ukraine will perhaps face more challenges than opportunities this year. Towards the end of 2013, Ukraine made headlines over protests taking place in Kiev over Ukraine's ties to Russia. Ukraine has largely floundered since its autonomy at the end of the Cold War: its obsolete heavy industry sector requires enormous amounts of fuel, which it continues to depend on neighboring Russia for, and although the citizens of Ukraine have gravitated towards more of a nationalistic pride over the past decade, Ukraine seems unable to escape from the shadow of its former parent Russia.

Desperately in need of a cash flow, Ukraine just agreed to closer ties with Russia in exchange for $15 billion in various loans from the country. This is a fool-hardy partnership for Ukraine, who was offered more integration with the European Union and turned it down. The E.U. certainly has reason to worry about Ukraine, as its economy borders on collapse and its relationship with Russia keeps mostly cut off from the rest of the continent. Ukraine must reevaluate its relationship with Russia, focus on revamping its struggling industries, and foster closer ties with the E.U. and the rest of the world. If it does not immediately work towards these goals, it may see a disappointing decline in the coming years.

Turkey: Friend or Foe?

Turkey's ascension into the E.U. has been a high-priority focus for several years now, and will continue to be so in 2014. The benefits to this integration are myriad and obvious: Turkey is the largest personnel provider to NATO, and has a large, stable economy. From this perspective, it is exactly the type of country that the European Union needs as they work towards their own economic stability. Furthermore, Turkey is seen in the international community as a prime example of secularization in a predominantly Islamic country. Integration into the E.U. would surely help Turkey better serve as a role model for other Islamic countries working towards such secularization.

The question that has arisen over the past six months, however, is whether or not Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is such a good leader after all. Last summer Turkey made headlines when a plan to demolish a public party in Istanbul caused intense backlash from the community. Prime Minister Erdogan responded to subsequent protests in the worst possible manner - by sending in riot police to beat and arrest peaceful, unarmed protestors. The demolition plan was ultimately shelved, but it is unclear if that is a permanent move or merely a temporary act of appeasement.

PM Erdogan

Turkey is now in the limelight once again, for a massive purge by Erdogan of Turkish police and politicians. Several high-profile individuals have either been fired or have resigned amidst what is amounting to a potentially huge alleged scandal involving Erdogan himself. Many see the purge being carried out as Erdogan's attempt at protecting himself - if this is the case, there may be many more layoffs in the coming weeks as the scandal reaches a fever pitch. Regardless of whether or not the rumors swirling are true, so much bad publicity for Turkey can only harm its chances of reaching an agreement with the European bloc to become a member of the Union.

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