Friday, August 29, 2014

It’s Just Africa: Oil, Guns, and Sectarian Violence in South Sudan

The United Nations confirmed that this past Tuesday, a U.N. peacekeeping helicopter on a routine cargo flight had been shot down as it flew over the oil-producing Unity State in South Sudan. UTair, the Russian airline that owns the aircraft, speculated that the helicopter was shot down with a surface to air missile. Of the four crew members who had been on board, one (the co-pilot) is alive and being treated for minor injuries by Médecins sans Frontières, but the other three (commander, flight engineer, and flight attendant) had been killed. UTair, which has been working with the UN since 1991, stated that it would temporarily halt flights over this area.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) confirmed that the Mi-8 helicopter, which was contracted to the UN Mission and had been flying from Wau in the southwest region of Sudan to Bentiu in the north, had crashed about 6 miles south of Bentiu. A spokesperson for the governor of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal State claimed that the South Sudanese rebel commander had warned the UN last week not to fly over his territory. At peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the rebel delegation issued a statement denying the South Sudanese government accusations. The rebel statement stated that “the area in which the (aircraft) was reportedly shot down is government-held territory, if indeed the aircraft was shot down.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Costs of War: The End of Gaza?

A Gazan woman surveys here destroyed home.
Courtesy Reuters/Suhaib Salim.
As the dust and smoke clear over the Gaza Strip in the wake of Tuesday’s ceasefire agreement between Hamas and the Israeli government, the toll of the 50-day conflict begins to become clear. The human losses are undeniably first in the minds of Gazans and Israelis: over 2,200 dead and 11,000 injured, mostly Palestinian civilians, numbers that bely the terror visited upon both communities living under siege for almost two months. While the human costs are horrific, Gaza’s future viability may turn out to be a more long-term casualty visited upon Gazans. In 2012, the UNRWA released a report that estimated Gaza would be uninhabitable for the two million plus people who will be imprisoned there by 2020.  As the damage stemming from the most recent conflict is assessed, there is no question that this picture will look much bleaker, and the timeline for Gaza’s demise will have accelerated unless dramatic action is taken on the part of Hamas, the Israeli government, and the international community.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ferguson Unrest, and Its Effect on Foreign Policy

"Smoke filled the air, with riot police closing in on protestors, using tear gas to render them useless to fight back. It was the tenth day of unrest, with scores already arrested or injured, and one dead."

No, that is not in reference to Ukraine. It is not in reference to Thailand, or Malaysia, or anywhere in the Middle East. It's in reference to Ferguson, Missouri, where a police officer shot an unarmed black teenager nearly two weeks ago, and where Americans have come from all over to protest. Those protests have fluctuated between relatively docile and frighteningly violent - something that Americans may not be as used to experiencing directly as they are to reading about in the news elsewhere. Missouri Governor Nixon has declared Ferguson to be in a state of emergency; the state police have been called in to regain control over the bedlam - thus far, the results have been missed.

This is a foreign affairs blog, and in the spirit of international relations, the unrest in Ferguson leads me to ponder what implications our own domestic malaise have on our broader foreign policy agenda. Do they at all? I think so. The Russian Foreign Minister for human rights, Konstantin Dolgov, justifiably lashed out at the U.S. on the situation, publicly saying that the U.S. should not be focused on intervention in other countries "under the false pretext of democracy and defending human rights."The Egyptian government urged the U.S. to demonstrate "respect for the right of assembly and peaceful expression of opinion." Across the world, despots and dictators alike are relishing in the events unfolding here and the hypocrisy that accompanies them.

Two problems emerge from this. First, domestic turmoil undermines American credibility when we weigh in on issues abroad, such as the harsh oppression of gays in Russia or the seemingly endless uprisings and subsequent crackdowns in Egypt. The U.S. is often perceived as a defender of the oppressed, but it becomes difficult to uphold such a lofty defense when there are challenges to it so close to home. It is not unthinkable that countries take to the international stage to decry American intervention when peace - the end goal of such intervention - is not so easily attained domestically. If the problem continues to snowball and grow, it could pose a serious problem for President Obama's foreign policy agenda.

Second, criticism from those that we often criticize for human rights violations is disturbing in that it provides one more thing in common between us and them. We do not associate with the likes of Syrian President Asad for good reason - he has mercilessly killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians in the country he supposedly rules. Now, obviously there is a stark contrast between the Syrian Civil War and the unrest in Ferguson, but the principles behind both are frighteningly relative.

That is not to say that America is anything short of a bastion of human rights and respect for others. Shortcomings occur from time to time, as they do in every developed, Western nation. However, it is imperative that the U.S. does not lose sight of the broader picture, and does everything it can to calmly quell the uprising in Ferguson before its repercussions broaden in scope and impact other important aspects of American policy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Rewriting History in the Middle East: The Yazidis [No Longer] in Iraq

State borders in the Middle East have been in flux for millennia, with the strongest ruler of the day vying for control over fertile land, trade routes, and major water sources. Today, the region is populated with many countries whose modern-day borders were arbitrarily delineated by the British-French Sykes-Picot Agreement, whose peoples have been in a constant struggle to reclaim what they believe is rightfully their land. Much of a state’s validity comes from being able to show that they have the oldest claim to the region, so what happens when a people’s physical life, when their physical history is deleted?

What happens when a city is blown to smithereens by explosive charges, as with mosques and churches in Mosul, instead of falling to salvageable ruins? What happens when an entire people is removed from their ancestral homeland, fleeing to a neighboring country, leaving no trace of their existence in the former land? Or, in the grand scheme of political and strategic interests, is the individual human story irrelevant?

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Road Back to Baghdad Part 3: The Reckoning

Early this morning US time, two 500-pound, laser-guided bombs were dropped by US forces on Islamic State (IS) targets outside of Erbil, Iraq. Overnight, the Obama administration shifted its policy of non-military intervention in the ever-expanding conflict with the Islamic State, citing both humanitarian and strategic concerns. Since June 2014, Islamic State has made several alarming advances in Iraq and Syria, claiming major cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul, and re-engaging Syrian government and rebel forces across the border.

Islamic State positions. Courtesy NY Times.
The capture of key territory in both countries has reinforced the extremist group’s financial and military resources, and in IS strongholds, a strict form of Islamic law is being enforced. The US airstrikes come on the heels of the displacement of tens of thousands of Yazidi Iraqis, whose religion has been deemed “devil worship” by IS and who were warned to “convert or die.” In his statement last night, US Pres. Barack Obama indicated that the decision to expand humanitarian and military aid was based on fears that “acts of genocide” may soon be carried out against Iraqi Yazidis, approximately 40,000 of whom are trapped without food or water on Sinjar Mountain in Kurdish Iraq.