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The Concerning Situation in Idlib Province in Syria

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A great deal of global attention has been afforded to Syria since the beginning of its civil war in 2011. In recent months however, the country has found itself facing fresh waves of scrutiny with the return of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and US President Donald Trump’s recent announcement to withdraw US troops from the region. Despite allegations that ISIS is almost defeated, along with Syrian Democratic Forces closing in on the terror group’s last remaining stronghold in Baghouz, the security situation still remains increasingly unstable in the country with new threats lurking on the horizon.

The jihadist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has been making gains in northern Syria in the last few months, mainly by way of seizing more than a dozen towns and villages in Idlib province. This has resulted in a rapidly deteriorating security situation in the area. The group have previous affiliations to Al-Qaeda and have remained a dangerous opposition force throughout the duration of the Syrian conflict, according to the Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). CSIS further state that the US State Department formally recognised the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation in May 2018. However, according to CSIS, they are now thought of as a fairly localised Syrian terrorist organisation which preserves a Salafi-jihadist ideology. International aid organisations have subsequently withdrawn aid and support for schools and hospitals in the fear of aid money being diverted by the terrorist group. This has inevitably had a wide-scale effect on the quality of life of civilians living in Idlib province.

Residents have also been rightly concerned that the Syrian government will use the gains of the terrorist organisation as a justification to launch a full-scale assault and completely break the ceasefire which Russia and Turkey initially agreed in September last year. Idlib has already been subject to weeks of shelling, resulting in the deaths of at least 160 people since the beginning of February, according to reporting by The New Arab. At the beginning of March, in an apparent effort to end the killings, Turkey and Russia announced they would be launching joint patrols in Idlib province. According to Al Jazeera, the agreement states that Russian forces would patrol the edge of the province, whilst the Turkish army would operate in the demilitarised zone. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akdar testified that the patrols marked a significant step for ensuring stability in the region.

However, mere days after this agreement was brokered, Russian aircraft struck hospitals and civilian infrastructure in the area. According to reporting by The Guardian, the bombardment by Russian and Syrian planes was the most extensive yet with airstrikes reportedly intensifying in Idlib. Idlib residents said Russian aircraft conducted at least 12 aerial strikes on residential areas, including a civilian prison on its outskirts. At least 10 civilians were killed and 45 injured.

Approximately three million people are thought to live in Idlib province. Analysts have warned that a full-scale assault could result in severe displacement, leading to hundreds of thousands of refugees joining the four million who have already left Syria. Judging from the previous capabilities and intentions of Bashar al-Assad, he will be likely to want to regain complete control of the entire region, despite warning from humanitarian organizations and the international community that an offensive could send many fleeing towards Syrian’s northern border with Turkey. This would further compound the already existing humanitarian crisis in Syria. For example, 65,000 people who have fled from ISIS’ last stronghold in Baghouz are believed to be currently camping at Al-Hawl camp in northeast Syria. This figure is three times the capacity of the camp, with officials stating that health services are collapsing under the burden of so many people. Camp workers have warned that they do not have enough food, medicine or tents and have said that diseases will spread rapidly as a result.

Aid agencies have previously warned that a significant assault on Idlib could cause one of the worst humanitarian crises’ in Syria’s war. The situation could well pave the way for the next crisis in the Middle East, threatening the UN’s capacity to stick to other catastrophes it is currently engaged in, such as Yemen. However, given the strong desire of Western governments and humanitarian agencies to avoid furthering a crisis, aid will likely be reintroduced to the area, along with greater pressure applied on Bashar al-Assad to concede some control.

Are Water Wars Emerging?

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In the wake of the deadly Pulwama suicide terror attack of 14 February in which more than 40 Indian police officers were killed by a Pakistan-based insurgency group called Jaish-e-Mohammed, New Delhi has vowed to retaliate, among other measures, by cutting back on water flowing through its rivers to Pakistan. Indian Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari stated in a tweet that “Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.” India has made this threat before when an Indian Army base was attacked in Uri in 2016, but in the end chose to use surgical strikes against targets in Pakistan. This time, however, India seems more determined about using water as a weapon.

Under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), brokered by the World Bank in 1960, India and Pakistan divided the rights to the enormous Indus river and its tributaries as follows: while the waters of the Sutlej, the Beas, and the Ravi rivers flow to India, the waters of the West Indus, the Jhelum, and the Chenab rivers flow into Kashmir and beyond that into Pakistani territory. While the treaty has held even in spite of three wars between the two nations since 1965, it is increasingly being strained to its limit. Pakistan has accused India of throttling its water supply and violating the treaty by constructing dams over the rivers flowing into Pakistan from Kashmir.

Although both sides rely heavily on the water flows for hydropower and agriculture, it is Pakistan, for which the water of Indus is a lifeline: most of the country depends on it as the primary source of freshwater and it supports 90 percent of the country’s agricultural industry. While previously Pakistan was considered relatively plentiful with water, a mixture of mismanaged irrigation, water-intensive agriculture and climate change has reduced the water flow of Indus significantly. Now Pakistan is ranked as third among countries facing severe water shortages making it one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. It is facing challenges brought about by climate change which were not considered important during the negotiations for the IWT in 1960 and the access to water has become a matter of survival for the country. Therefore, a rhetoric suggesting a possible water war is alarming considering the fact that Pakistan is a country with nuclear weapons. If Pakistan were to be backed into a corner because its lack of access to water which is needed for growing food for its exploding population, it would be forced to use every means available to them.

In this dangerously evolving scenario the only thing that might keep India from shutting Pakistan off from the Indus waters is China. Because even India is dependent upon the mercy of China due to being even further upstream. As a result, if China were to pursue the regulation of water runoff from the glaciers in the Himalayas, it would have a similar effect on India.

Russia in Venezuela

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After what has been a long crisis in Venezuela, the situation has now turned into a presidential stand-off between the socialist de-facto President Nicolas Maduro on one hand and self-proclaimed interim President Juan Guaido. Not only has this divide been heavily prevalent in Venezuela, but the international community is zooming in on the situation and taking sides. Amongst Guaido’s supporters we find most of the liberal western countries such as the US, most of the EU, the UK, Canada and many more. On the other side, supporting Maduro, we find countries such as China, Cuba, Turkey, Iran and last but not least, Russia. But what exactly is Russia’s interest in Venezuela? Being one of Russia’s last outpost in South America, Russia is heavily invested in having a Russia-friendly leader, Maduro, in place in Venezuela. Not only in terms of projecting power, but also protecting investments, as Russia has put big sums of money, several billions of USD, towards the oil and gas industry in the country. It is almost certain that if Maduro fails to stay in power and Guaido takes over, Russia’s influence in the country would be greatly diminished. Therefore, Russia is likely to go to great lengths to protect Maduro’s presidency, however, an outright military intervention is not likely given the severe repercussions that could entail.

Venezuela’s principal significance for Russia is most likely its location, on the doorstep to the US. Having a heavy influence in Venezuela provides a great, and possibly the only, opportunity to project power for Russia in the Americas. Russia’s interest in projecting power is, according to several experts, likely a nostalgic desire for a strong Russia as a serious player in the world arena. As recent as December 2018, Russia landed two nuclear-capable bombers, TU-160’s, on the Simon Bolivar airport in Venezuela as a show of support for Maduro’s government. The move raised serious concern in the US and was highly condemned. The US’s strong reactions to the event revealed to some extent exactly how significant the Russian influence in Venezuela is to the US, and thus, to the Russians.

Russia has invested heavily in Venezuela’ gas and oil asset, giving them even more reason to protect Maduro. Several billions USD has been forwarded towards Maduro and PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. Recently, Maduro visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia, where Putin pledges additional funds to Venezuelan oil and mining. Reportedly, 17 billion USD has been poured into the Venezuelan oil and gas industry, and although a fair bit of it has been paid back, Venezuela still has a substantial debt towards Russia. Venezuela is having a hard time keeping up with the payment schedule, and rely on its oil reserves, one of the largest ones in the world, to be able to pay the loans back. However, due to US-led sanctions against the country and severe mismanagement of the oil production, the ability to sell oil and thus keeping the schedule is diminished. Further, if a US-friendly leader, like Guaido, were to take power in Venezuela, the investments made in the country might end up worthless and loans may not be paid back.

Maduro’s blockage of western humanitarian aid can become the catalyst for US military action. Arguably, the most sensitive conflict area is currently at the bridges on the border between Colombian town Cucuta and Venezuela, where Maduro-loyal military personnel are blocking US humanitarian aid from entering the country. Several clashes between protesters and military forces over the aid in the last days have resulted in at least two dead and several hundred injured. If sustained, the situation can lead to the necessity of military help to get the aid across the border, thus making the situation even more fragile. Russia’s possible response to a US military intervention in Venezuela is very hard to predict. Russia has a tremendous amount to lose if they lose Maduro, however, given the great physical distance between the countries a Russian military response would probably be very hard to sustain.

At the end of January 2019, Russia-connected private military company, the Wagner Group, was reported to be on the ground in Venezuela to protect Maduro. Although the links between the Russian government and the Wagner Group are unclear, it widely reported that Kremlin exerts some type of influence over the group. Sending mercenaries connected to Wagner Group instead of regular, Russian uniformed military forces helps Russia keeping their involvement in Venezuela at an arm’s length, providing plausible deniability. With the aid of the Wagner Group’s private security personnel, Maduro does not wholly depend on support from the Venezuelan military. However, it is unclear how much pressure the Wagner Group can withstand, and if enough of Venezuela’s military forces turn against Maduro, the mercenaries protecting him will likely not suffice. Russia can, in that scenario, decide to either back down and lose Venezuela to Juan Guaido, or double-down on their effort and send more help to Maduro, either in the form of more mercenaries or Russia-uniformed military personnel.

As the crisis in Venezuela continues, Russia will probably do its best to keep its involvement at an arm’s length. The possible consequences of a full-on military intervention might be very severe, as alliances have been pledged throughout the international community. It is almost certainly in everyone’s interest to resolve the Venezuela situation without resorting to military means, therefore exhausting every possible diplomatic venture before starting to mobilize military force will likely be the preferred course of action. But, to appear strong is in the blood of Russia, and most certainly Putin. Losing the influence in Venezuela would not only be a strategic and economic setback, but also a case of losing face. Because of this, military action to retain influence over Venezuela cannot be ruled out.

What are the implications of the fragile ceasefire in Yemen?

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Despite the largely successful December peace talks, the relationship between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels has remained delicate. Since the original discussions, the warring parties have been engaging in both physical and verbal combat, frequently breaking the ceasefire and vehemently accusing each other of violations and lies. In its taxing umpire role, the United Nations (UN) has been working hard to mediate and facilitate communications between parties, but behind doors are most likely wringing their hands at the breakdown of promises. There may be a ceasefire, but it is tenuous, feels half-hearted and is precariously held together by the UN.

January saw violent attacks and extensive damage to humanitarian supplies. On 25 January, the UN announced that two silos at the Red Sea Mills grain facility had been damaged by a fire caused by mortar shelling. The facility contains critical food supplies for almost 4 million people. Just one day later, eight civilians were killed and 30 wounded in the shelling of a displacement camp. Although UN Envoy Martin Griffiths has been keeping upbeat over the duration of the month, he stated on 31 January that he was “deeply concerned about recent hostilities” in the region. With the breakdown of the earlier prisoner exchange talk in Amman, the drone attack on a Yemeni government base and the bullets striking a vehicle carrying Patrick Cammaert earlier in the month, the ceasefire has been severely tested.

So far, February has been more positive in that hostile interactions have mainly been limited to verbal clashes. At the beginning of the month, representatives from both parties met on a ship in the Red Sea in an UN-orchestrated attempt to execute a troop withdrawal from Hodeidah port. The withdrawal was meant to have been completed by 7 January; however, the Saudi-backed government and Houthis have remained in steadfast disagreement over the control of the city and ports. Later, another round of peace talks took place in Amman. The parties made an attempt to finalise the prisoner exchange deal. However, they failed to reach an agreement, with both sides accusing each other of lying. The Houthis stated that the talks could drag on for months if the Saudi-backed government denied the existence of thousands of Houthi fighters in captivity, accusing the opposition side of supplying a list containing fake and duplicate names. According to The National, the talks finished without a final agreement on how to redeploy rival forces as part of the ceasefire agreement. In spite of this, the warring parties later agreed to exchange the bodies of killed fighters, making an “important progress in moving the release process forward,” according to a UN Committee tasked with overseeing the swap.

The frail ceasefire has inevitably garnered significant media attention. The focus on the ongoing violence in Yemen has led to public outcry, placing intense pressure on countries who engage in arms dealings with Saudi Arabia. On 13 February, US lawmakers voted to end US support for the conflict. The US House of Representatives approved a resolution which would force the Trump Administration to withdraw US troops from involvement in the region. The White House has previously threatened to veto the motion, stating that the resolution was inappropriate. It argued the measure would harm relationships with Saudi Arabia and hinder the American ability to combat violent extremism. The recent news has marginally increased the possibility of the US halting arms’ sales to the Saudi Kingdom. Nevertheless, this appears unlikely judging by Trump’s previous unwillingness to criticise Saudi Arabia and his friendly relationship with Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Further critique has been directed at the Prince due to the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which Trump has refused to condemn or reprimand in any manner. Trump could have used the global criticism of the Prince as a tool for ending the war in Yemen by piling pressure on Saudi Arabia, but the US President has been more interested in maintaining America’s weapon sales to the region.

The fragile ceasefire undoubtedly increases the likelihood of full-blown fighting firing up again. This would in turn lead to a worsening humanitarian crisis through civilians in Houthi-run areas being attacked by Saudi-coalition airstrikes, the blocking of food and aid by Houthis through major ports and the loss of critical infrastructure, leading to health conditions which would be compounded further by the lack of medical care in the region. On 14 February, the UN warned that approximately 24 million people are in need of assistance and protection in Yemen. This figure accounts for 80% of the country’s population. The UN released the 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview Report for Yemen, which reveals that 14.3 million people are classified as being in acute need, with approximately 3.2 million requiring treatment for acute malnutrition. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the “severity of needs is deepening,” with the number of people in desperate need at 27% higher than last year. The UN’s top relief coordinator Mark Lowcock said unless government and rebel forces manage to hold a ceasefire, a fifth of the UN’s food reserves in Yemen could rot. This would subsequently endanger the lives of millions of civilians. In the last month, many media sites have increasingly reported on the recent swine flu outbreak in the region. The lack of medicine and medical equipment has meant that the disease has been difficult to contain. It is clear that the continual violence has had a long-term effect on the region and will continue to do so many years later, with the fragile ceasefire further confirming the constant instability of the region.

The delicate ceasefire also raises questions over the motives of the warring parties. The conflict would arguably help further Iran’s agenda for power, who are widely thought to fund the Houthi-rebels. The Islamic region has been hit hard by US sanctions which came into full force last year and has been struggling to re-assert its dominance in the Middle East as a result. Marwan Kabalan, the Director of Policy Analysis at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies, has questioned whether Iran really wants a final settlement to be reached. The region hopes to keep Saudi-Arabia occupied in Yemen, so they do not have the resources to undertake activities against Tehran on other fronts in the Middle East. Additionally, Iran could be hoping to use the Yemen conflict as a bargaining chip in a deal to lift the US sanctions and recover the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This could be a feasible possibility this year if the ceasefire between the warring parties completely disintegrates and the UN is forced to make a decision and divert a further humanitarian disaster. Given the desire of a number of European countries to safeguard the 2015 Nuclear deal and the real possibility of the complete fragmentation of the ceasefire and the likely humanitarian catastrophe that will follow, Iran could potentially find itself in a strong position to free itself of the US sanctions.

If the warring parties permanently fail to stick to their ceasefire agreement, it is uncertain what the UN will do. Given the strong desire of Western governments and humanitarian agencies to avoid furthering the crisis, this ongoing situation could continue for years. The question is whether the UN has the capacity to stick to this, particularly in light of new emerging potential humanitarian crises in the Middle East. For example, Syria is gradually becoming more unstable with the recent seizure of more than a dozen towns and villages in northern Syria. The advance by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, of the Levant Liberation Committee, was detrimental to the September ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey that deflected a government offensive in Idlib province. Russia and Turkey have since agreed to take decisive measures in the region, and it is reported that aid agencies have begun withdrawing from Idlib. Aid agencies have previously warned that a significant assault on Idlib could cause one of the worst humanitarian crises in Syria’s war.

It is difficult to say what the Yemen conflict will resemble at the end of this year. However, it is clear that the fragile ceasefire does not bode well. Along with the apparent unwillingness of the warring parties and the aggravated humanitarian crisis, it looks like troubling times are ahead for Yemen.

The Londonderry Bombing

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On Saturday 19 January 2019, a bomb exploded in a car in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, after police were given a 10-minute warning to evacuate the area.  At 7.23pm, the vehicle with the bomb inside had been left outside the courthouse on Bishop Street, and three minutes later, a warning was called into the Samaritans in the West Midlands that was passed onto the West Midlands police who notified the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The bomb, which went off at 8.09pm, was described as a “crude device”, and the PSNI said the attack outside the courthouse was “unbelievably reckless”. Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said, “Clearly, it was a very significant attempt to kill people here in this community.” However, the bomb was detonated just after the area was cleared, so there were no injuries or casualties. The police have since released CCTV footage of the bomb explosion.

The PSNI have released a statement that the bomb attack may have been carried out by the New IRA, a dissident republican group. The New IRA was formed in 2012 to unify under one leadership a number of dissident republican organisations. The group believed to be the largest dissident republican organisation and thought to be responsible for a number of attacks post-2012, including the murders of prison officers David Black and Adrian Ismay. ACC Hamilton said, “The new IRA, like most dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland, are small, largely unrepresentative and determined to drive people back to somewhere they do not want to be.” However, ACC Hamilton added that the device “has not been as effective as they would have wanted for it to be”. PSNI Supt Gordon McCalmont told BBC Radio that the police were trying to get the city back to normal and show the attack had “little or no long-term impact”.

On Sunday evening, the PSNI arrested two men, aged 34 and 42 in the city, and two men in their 20s earlier in that day. On Monday, a 50-year-old man was arrested and remains in police custody. The previous four men have been subsequently released. Three further security alerts in Londonderry were triggered when two vehicles were hijacked by masked men and a delivery van was abandoned. Police said residents have been allowed to return to their homes following the alerts, which were confirmed as hoaxes. An alert in north Belfast on Monday night was also confirmed as a hoax. Police said that while the alerts were hoaxes “we cannot underestimate the impact these incidents have had on our community”. PSNI Supt Gordon McCalmont remarked that “The occupants of the hijacked vehicles did not believe when they set out for work this morning that they would be threatened by masked men”. Supt McCalmont said that “These groupings obviously want us to respond. We will be very balanced. This threat has always been in this city”, adding that “My sense is that this is not because of Brexit.”  Previously, in 2015, there had been a spate of bomb attacks in Londonderry that were blamed on dissident republican groups.

In a speech in the House of Commons on Monday, the Prime Minister Theresa May said, “This house stands together with the people of Northern Ireland in ensuring that we never go back to the violence and terror of the past.” However, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said Saturday’s attack was an attempt to drag Northern Ireland back into violence and conflict. Although, since 2017, there remains a political vacuum in Northern Ireland due to the row between Sinn Féin and the DUP that collapsed the executive power-sharing in Stormont. Brexit and the Irish border issue have added fuel to the fire that could destabilise the fragile political stability and peace established by the Good Friday Agreement.