Sahel, Syria, Afghanistan, an explosive arc of crisis.

©Baba Ahmed

At a time when it is customary to offer New Year’s greetings, the Muslim world seems to be in a never-ending crisis with acute peaks of tension. While the causes are not unique and the situations are diverse, the theory of dominoes or oil stain must be present in our minds.

The brutal death of Iranian General Ghassem Soleimani at the hands of an American drone fire has brought the whole region to a boiling point and, as the saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold. Revenge always calls for revenge without us knowing how far an uncontrolled slippage can go. We talk about avoiding war, but are we not already engaged in an undeclared war?

We cannot pretend that the Middle East and North Africa are on the other side of the world. They are our next-door neighbours and the European Union countries are on the front line. Today, the ability of these countries and of Europe to carry weight on the international stage is being tested by the challenges.

Humanitarians, who are already present and active in the region, are likely to be directly affected by the humanitarian effects of these conflicts. They will have to adapt and strengthen their relief capacities for the populations affected by these rebounding crises.

Comme cet hôpital, 56 autres centres de santé ont été bombardés. Janvier 2020, ©ONU.

Syria “In Idlib, people are trying to save their skin”.

In the region of Idlib, in north-western Syria, the ground offensive and bombing launched by Bashar El Asad’s army with the support of Russia has enabled them to retake many localities. These include Maarat Al-Nouman and Saraquet, under the control of the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Cham (HTC), with the aim of retaking the M5 motorway linking Damascus to Aleppo in order to open up this city.

According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), from December 1, 2019 to January 1, 2020, nearly 300,000 people fled their homes to move northwest of Idlib, particularly in the regions of Afrin and A’zaz. It should be recalled that the previous offensive, between the end of April and the end of August 2019, had already caused the forced displacement of about 400,000 Syrians in this region of Idlib.

The humanitarian situation is disastrous and the rigours of winter are there. “We are wild animals to be treated like this,” said one displaced person. Under pressure from Russia and China, the Security Council has just voted on Friday, January 10, 2020 a resolution extending until July 10 the cross-border humanitarian aid operation to Syria by limiting it to the crossing points with Turkey and excluding those previously used with Jordan and Iraq.

 In north-east Syria, in the Kurdish region of the Rojava, there is widespread confusion and uncertainty. Russians and Turks conduct mixed patrols which provoke hostile demonstrations as in Kobané. At the World Refugee Forum on 17 December in Geneva, in the presence of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the Turkish President outlined his plan for this territory in north-eastern Syria which he seized by force.  He declared that the creation of this “safe zone” should, according to him, allow the repatriation of one million Syrian refugees from Turkey! His plan seems to be to drive out the Kurds and Syriacs and replace them with Syrian Arab and Sunni refugees who are being supervised by armed jihadist groups and paid by Turkey. What is the opinion of the United Nations which organised this Forum to which President Erdogan was invited? Does the absence of reaction mean acceptance, if not resignation to Turkey’s policy of fait accompli!

In London, on 4 December, on the 70th anniversary of NATO, the member countries refused to declare the Kurdish fighters of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) as a terrorist group as Mr Erdogan wanted. French President Emmanuel Macron went further and deplored Turkey’s attitude “fighting those who fought with us” against Daesch. And in 2020 France will continue its commitment to humanitarian aid for the victims of the conflict in northern Syria.

Emmanuel Macron et le président nigérien Mahamadou Issoufou, décembre 2019.

The Sahel at the moment of truth.

The death of 13 French soldiers on 25 November in Mali caused a real shock as to the reality of the situation in the Sahel. France is questioning its strategy and the support of the G5 Sahel member states. It is Jean-Yves Le Drian who declared “it is necessary to clear up misunderstandings and remobilize” while the new president of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, noted that “a battle has been lost in the Sahel” at a time when anti-French sentiment is being expressed in the area.

Faced with the risk of getting bogged down, everyone is looking for their own solution. Some people mention the lack of resources of the armies of the G5 Sahel countries. Others believe they have found the solution in the reinforcement of the military system with special forces from various European Union member countries. One can even hear a little music evoking the hypothesis of discussions with the rebel groups.

We are not going to anticipate the conclusions and consequences of the meeting that will take place on Monday 13 January 2020 in Pau between the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, and the heads of state of the 5 countries concerned, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. Paris is waiting for these leaders to “explicitly” confirm their support for French military involvement. If this seems logical in the face of adversity, it is also a symbolic gesture expected in the face of the sacrifice of 41 French soldiers since 2013.

I would like to raise two issues here. The rebellion is founded and fuelled by social, political, economic and ethnic divisions in a context of galloping demography. Of course, jihadist ideology has its part to play, but to stop there and confine ourselves to constantly talking about the fight against terrorism will not resolve the causes of the divisions.  The key lies in a political solution to those rifts.

The other issue is humanitarian. In his 11 November 2019 report to the Security Council, Antonio Guterres stated that “more than 1 million people have been displaced within the five countries, more than double the number in 2018”. And Filipo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, stressed that “displacement is the barometer of these crises”. Humanitarian aid must be effective, efficient and not conditioned by a political agenda. It is a matter of humanity and urgency.


Afghanistan, a war without end?

This country has just successively lived through 3 decisive events that will weigh heavily in 2020: the presidential elections, President Trump’s visit to Kabul and the publication of the “Afghanistan Papers” in the Washington Post.

The stakes of the presidential election in Afghanistan were twofold. On the one hand, it was to encourage a significant voter turnout and on the other hand, it was to give the President-elect renewed legitimacy. The Taliban had called for a boycott of the elections. According to provisional results announced on 22 November, Head of State Ashraf Ghani won 50.64% of the vote (1,824,401 ballots), compared with 39.52% (720,099 ballots) for Chief Executive Abdulllah Abdullah. It should be noted that one million ballots were rejected for irregularities and 16,200 complaints were lodged with the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC). It will be necessary to wait for the results of the complaints before finally announcing the final results.

This was the lowest turnout of all the polls with 2.8 million ballots cast for 9.6 million registered voters out of a population of about 32 million. It should be remembered that in 2004, during the first presidential election, this percentage was 85%. The objective of participation and legitimacy was not achieved and undermined the coalition in power in Kabul, which was, moreover, very divided.

President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to Kabul on the night of 28-29 November caused a sensation. He came to announce the resumption of negotiations with the Taliban while confirming in the presence of the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, his desire to continue the military disengagement of the United States. Talks resumed between the US special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad and Abdul Ghani Baradar for the Taliban and have been continuing in Qatar ever since.

Donald Trump’s objective is to reach an agreement by the time of the American presidential election in November 2020. This is short when one knows Afghanistan, the difficulty of a ceasefire and an inter-Afghan dialogue. However, after 18 years of a war that the United States and its NATO allies have not won against the Taliban, is there any other solution than a peace agreement between brother enemies? The other option, after an American departure, is the continuation of the war between Afghans, which will inevitably lead to support from neighbouring countries for the two opposing camps. We would return to the situation that prevailed at the beginning of 2001, before the attacks on the World Trade Center, when the Taliban seemed likely to win.

In this context, the publication on Monday 9 November 2019 of the article “A secret history of the war” by the Washington Post was a thunderbolt. The newspaper obtained and published many of the notes and recordings of more than 600 interviews and 2,000 pages of interviews with American and Afghan officials conducted by the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (SIGAR).

The content of the interviews is so surreal that it goes beyond what we could have imagined despite our doubts. Thus, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State for Defence from 2001 to 2006 admits “I have no visibility on who the bad guys are”! An American general, Douglas Hutte, says “we lacked the most basic understanding of Afghanistan and had no idea what we were doing”. Finally, Jeffrey Eggers, an officer who worked under the Bush and Obama administrations, adds “in the end, what did we get after spending $1 trillion?

 The answer to American disengagement, beyond Donald Trump’s campaign promises, can be found after 18 years of war in these “Afghanistan Papers”. One is tempted to think, what incomprehension, what blindness, what a waste. American disengagement also sounds like that of Western countries.

As for the humanitarians, the developers, the friends of Afghanistan, their mission is to remain faithful to the most vulnerable after 40 years of war, so obvious is the need for aid, beyond the political and military hazards.

Alain Boinet.