You Cannot Kill An Idea

[This post has been updated as of 5:30 on Monday, November 3rd.  See the bottom of the article.]

A week ago, on Tuesday, the Parliament of Burkina Faso announced it was going to discuss an amendment to the constitution to allow President Compaoré to run for a fifth term next year. This move met with major protests. On Thursday, before Parliament could even attempt to hold the vote, protesters stormed the Parliament building and the ruling party headquarters and set them both on fire. The President disappeared. On Friday, the military announced it was taking charge. Blaise Compaoré, 27 years the President of Burkina Faso and murderer of one of Africa’s most promising leaders, had fled.

Blaise Compaoré, President of Burkina Faso from 1987 to 2014.

Even in my wildest dreams I never thought it could have happened so quickly. I have waited for Compaoré’s ouster for years. He came to power in 1987, in coup sponsored by the French against his former comrade Thomas Sankara. Sankara himself come to power in a coup in 1983. But Sankara was a very different sort of African head of state: anti-austerity, populist, and genuinely radical. He banned forced labour for tribal elders and FGM, instituted a massive vaccination campaign, and began to implement gender parity in government (following his comment “I can hear the roar of women’s silence”). He sold off the fleet of presidential vehicles, refused to use air-conditioning on the grounds that few other people in Burkina had it, and renamed the country (previously called the Upper Volta). There were also uncomfortable authoritarian undertones to his policies in the later years, with the creation of youth brigades and restrictions on the press, and show trials against those viewed as not doing their part. Given a longer rule in power, who knows in which direction he would have swung.

Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987.

As it turned out, we never found out. Compaoré got a bit excited during the coup and had Sankara murdered, earning himself a lasting place in the replete panoply of African tyrants. Sankara’s death was the Patrice Lumumba assassination all over again, except this time the killer wasn’t some anonymous Belgian captain in the middle of the Congolese jungle – he was the new president, and everyone knew it. The murder overshadowed every day of Compaoré’s 27 years.  And finally he’s gone.

Now for the come-down. A lot of people have been fairly suspicious towards the prospects of anything representative emerging from Compaoré’s end. I can see why they’re suspicious. Without the army’s cooperation, I doubt very much that Blaise would have left. The initial power struggle involved two high-ranking officers, neither of whom was particularly distant from Compaoré, decided who would become the next head of state. With the parliament dissolved and the constitution suspended, who else could it be? Initial statements about elections within 60 days have been swiftly retracted. All hail Lt.-General Isaac Zida, Burkina Faso’s President for the next 27 years.

But the signs aren’t all bad. For a start, Burkina Faso’s West African neighbourhood is no longer particularly autocratic. Only the two thinnest countries in Africa, Togo (a Gnassingbé family business since 1967) and Gambia (two consecutive military periods of military rule), stand out as slivers of dictatorship. Several of the members of the West African organisation, ECOWAS, might not be especially strong states –Nigeria and Mali come to mind– but they’re not autocratic. If things are changing in Africa in general, the tide in West Africa shifted long ago.

The opposition in Burkina is also more mobilised and more unified than one might expect. Public discontent with Compaoré has been building for years, and the example of his predecessor has provided a strong ideological focus for many activists. The same day that the military announced Zida had its full support, a coalition of opposition parties signed a statement opposing the move.

The third, and perhaps inevitably most important, factor is the international response, which, given that few politicians actually knew that Burkina Faso existed and those who did probably quite liked Compaoré, has been a muted but firm insistence on the return to constitutional order. The UN, the US, and the EU have all taken this line, but the organisations which really matter are the African Union and ECOWAS.

The African Union is insisting on a return to constitutional order. This might seem a little counterintuitive – the Union is famously tolerant of autocracy among its ranks – but think again. The AU is tolerant of existing autocracy, regimes like Tanzania, Angola, Sudan, or Chad, which have been going for decades, but exceptionally short-tempered when it comes to new attempts to impose autocracy. Hence the suspension of Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and most recently Egypt, after military coups. True, the AU withdrew its objections to Egypt once Sisi had been elected President, but then Egypt, as the recipient of billions of dollars of aid and a population of 80 million people, is important; Burkina Faso is not. It is a terribly poor country intensely vulnerable to the imposition of economic sanctions of the sort the UN is now threatening. In similar situations, the military cartels in charge of Mali and Guinea-Bissau both caved in and yielded to elections.

Burkina Faso among the members of ECOWAS.

Burkina Faso among the members of ECOWAS.

In fact, the only thing which made Burkina Faso vaguely important was Blaise Compaoré’s determination to fashion himself into a sort of West African Tony Blair, the ECOWAS peace envoy whose presence was so invaluable in persuading unconstitutional military governments in Guinea-Bissau and Mali to yield power (or so it’s claimed). With Blaise as the region’s elder statesman, Burkina could stake a claim to regional influence; without him, it has nothing but its sudden inability to ignore demands from both ECOWAS and the AU to restore constitutional order.

I’m not saying that whoever gets chosen as leader will necessarily do well, or even that it will be someone unconnected with Blaise, but I do think that the process will ultimately take place via an election rather than the military. After six coups (’66, ’80, ’82, ’83, ’87, ’14) Burkina Faso’s chances of having its first constitutional change of power in 54 years of independence have markedly improved.

Update, 5:30 November 3rd: About an hour after I posted this, the army declared its intention to pick a civilian leader to oversee the transition to democracy, over which it will watch carefully.  Quite what this means is unclear: are they choosing this leader to be a new Prime Minister, with executive authority? The words ‘head of state’ were scrupulously absent from the declaration.  Or is Zida planning to emulate Mali’s Amadou Sanogo and operate as an éminence grise while the Transitional President is the regime’s smiley face? (Possibly not as this didn’t end very well for Sanogo.) Most pertinent of all: will the street accept it?

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Lukashenka’s Second Chance

The Ukrainian crisis is still unfurling like some hideous blood-soaked flag, but as Poroshenko switches from chocolates to international diplomacy and the Union of New Russia lays claim to half of Ukraine’s territory, discussion rages about the lessons for other Eastern European nations.  Mikheil Saakashvili’s efforts to remain relevant after losing the Georgian presidency by haranguing Western leaders smack a bit too much of ‘I told you so’ to be appealing.  Viktor Orbán, who rose to prominence standing in front of Soviet tanks and telling them to get out of Hungary in 1989, has in the past few months changed his tune since catching a glimpse of Vladimir Putin’s impressive collection of money, and was one of the few European leaders to say absolutely nothing at all about Ukraine despite the fact that the country he runs borders onto it.  The duty of publicly decrying Putin’s actions has fallen to the Poles, who know something about Russian seizure of territory since Stalin moved their entire nation several hundred miles to the West during World War Two.

Closer to the border, anywhere with a population of Russians has been the subject of numerous articles considering if it could be the next stop in some plan to recreate the Soviet Union.  President Nazarbayev is presumably congratulating himself on his foresight in moving the Kazakh capital into the northern part of the country in the early 1990s for no conceivable reason other than to keep the Russian population there under control.  The Baltic states, which are the most likely candidates, are protected by their membership of the EU and NATO, and pleas for annexation by the Transnistrian government overlook the fact that the Russians would have to get through all of Ukraine first.  With the insurgency in Eastern Ukraine seemingly coming to slow halt and Russia’s palpable reluctance to honour the Donetsk and Luhansk referendums, the worst of the annexation fever is almost certainly over.  But then there’s Belarus.

President Lukashenka on a Belarussian stamp. [Image from Wikimedia]

The fracture of Ukraine and overall chaos in the region presents a very interesting opportunity for the Belarussian government, should it choose to take it (and it certainly looks that way).  From taking power in 1994 until the charmingly violent election in 2010, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (or Aleksandr Lukashenko if you’re Russian) had a tried and true method of gaming the international system.  He and his government would alternately approach the Europeans and the Russians, playing the two sides off against each other and asking for funding and resources.  To the EU, Lukashenka’s line was that he wanted to democratise, oh, how he wanted to, but the Russians wouldn’t let him, and therefore it was important that the EU backed him to stand up to Russia (and could he have a lot of money please?).  To Russia – or more correctly, Putin; Putin and Lukashenka have a testy but usually pleasant working relationship – Lukashenka explained that the EU was meddling in Belarussian internal affairs (and could he have a lot of money please?).  This astoundingly simple and transparent gambit kept Lukashenka going for nearly two decades.

Of course, there were costs: on the European side, political prisoners were released (but then re-arrested again once everyone had forgotten about them, naturally); on the Russian side things were rather more serious.  Since coming to power, Lukashenka has maintained the public fiction that Belarus will eventually re-unite with Russia, and the two nations have been in a State Union for many years.  At the same time, the occasional spats between the two leaders tended to revolve around issues of Belarussian sovereignty: Lukashenka more than once raged against the influence of “Russian mafias” in the country, and clearly enjoys power enough to understand that union with Russia would damage his position immensely.

In the winter of 2010, Belarus foolishly held an election.  Lukashenka won, the result was contested, and the KGB and Belarussian police forces launched a vicious and thorough assault on anti-government protesters.  Lines of black-garbed riot police charging at civilians in the snow dominated the news (an excellent selection of pictures can be found here).  The European Union lost its patience and imposed financial and political sanctions.  The music had stopped on the diplomatic game of musical chairs, and Lukashenka was sitting in Putin’s lap.  Within months, Belarussian foreign currency stocks of Euros, pounds, and dollars had almost vanished.  The currency collapsed – twice.  On the 1st of May 2011, one pound was worth 4,605 rubles, already unimpressive; by the 1st of November, the rate was over 14,000 to the pound.  Lukashenka’s relationship with Putin deteriorated.

Lukashenko (l) and Putin at an Ice Hockey match in January of this year. [Image from Wikimedia]

Then Ukraine happened, and now Belarus may be edging its way back into quantum diplomacy.  For one thing, it has raised speculation about Lukashenka’s future, and Russia’s role in that decision.  From one point of view, Russia’s reaction to Yanukovych’s ouster should be deeply reassuring to Lukashenka, and Belarussian activists certainly suggest that people now fear that any future uprising will simply be negated by Russia.  At the same time, Lukashenka is far more independent of Moscow than Yanukovych, or at least he wants to be, and he also has a longer history in power even than Putin.  He has been contemptuous of Yanukovych-style oligarch presidents, although not of Yanukovych personally, and may suspect that the Russians would adore an opportunity to shove him aside and replace him with some squalid billionaire Putinist.

Perhaps this explains Lukashenka’s refusal to toe the line on Ukraine since Yanukovych’s ouster.  He incurred Russia’s wrath by meeting with the acting president Oleskandr Turchynov, whom Putin had denounced as illegitimate, and dismissed the option of a federated Ukrainian state in favour of preserving a unified structure.  He ridiculed the referendums held in Donetsk and Luhansk, and his comments on Russia’s annexation of Crimea have been somewhat less than enthusiastic.

Obviously, this deliberately ambiguous stance is partly directed towards keeping his own position stable and secure, but it is also an attempt to appeal, once again, to Europe and the West.  The present moment of upheaval gives Belarus a chance to undo the political isolation which has dogged it since 2010.  If Lukashenka is smart, he can start playing the sides against each other for his own benefit, not least in order to forestall the possibility of Russian activity within Belarus.  It won’t be easy, particularly on the European side, which already has almost every Eastern European country speaking for it.  But Lukashenka’s alternative future, as the Chief Governor of Russia’s Belarusskaya Oblast, doesn’t have much to recommend it.

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Syria’s Urban Warfare

The Azaz area in Aleppo in 2012, after a bombardment [Image from Wikimedia].

A few weeks ago I noticed an odd trope turning up in discussion of the Syrian Civil War: an assertion, without much context, that the country is highly urbanised.  I’ve certainly come across this idea before, and given the imbalance between the virtually uninhabited badiya (the Syrian desert out towards Iraq) and the Aleppo-Hama-Homs-Damascus line of cities in the country’s greener portions, it seems plausible.  But if you examine the facts, it turns out that Syria’s rural-urban split is remarkably tilted towards the rural side.

(All of these data come from before the civil war, of course; I’m not even going to pretend that there are current figures.)

The percentage of Syria’s population living in cities was 56.1% in 2011, according to the UN World Urbanisation Prospects report.  This places Syria at #100, slightly above Slovenia and China and just behind Serbia.  Syria’s urbanisation rate is 3.1%, placing it above well over two-thirds of the world’s countries (a high urbanisation rate usually correlates with a low urban population).  Globally, then, Syria certainly doesn’t count as a highly-urbanised country.

Within the Arab League, the statistics are even less impressive.  Of the League’s Members, the only ones which are less urbanised are Egypt (43.5%), Mauritania (41.5%), Sudan (33.2%), and Yemen (32.3%).  Syria’s neighbours are all significantly more urbanised, particularly Lebanon (87.2%) and Israel (91.9%), but even Jordan (82.7%), which really only has Amman.  Among its regional and cultural companions, Syria is still one of the least urbanised nations.

Of course, it is always possible that varying methods of obtaining data within various countries render a comparison between countries more or less worthless, but I’d like to think that the United Nations pays at least marginal attention to using the same research methods in different countries.  So, if we assume the figures to be true, where on earth does this idea that the country is a highly-urbanised nation come from?

I have a few theories about this.  One is that as Syria’s rate of urbanisation (3.1%) is fairly high, particularly compared to neighbouring countries, those working inside the country or studying it would notice a strong pattern of rural-to-urban migration, which may contribute to an impression that the country’s urban population is larger than it really is.  I’d imagine that most people who spend a prolonged period of time in cities –unless they’re explicitly studying the urban/rural gap– would probably come away with the idea that a higher percentage of the population lives in urban areas than is actually the case; certainly until I looked the figures up there seemed nothing unreasonable to me in Syria having an urbanisation rate of 70% or 80%.

But if we look at the context in which these claims are made, another explanation suggests itself: Syria’s “highly-urbanised” status is brought out to represent the fact that most of the fighting is taking place in cities, and that is certainly a point worth making.  The extraordinary level of urban violence and destruction which has already occurred in Syria has left most of the country’s cities in ruins (among them its most populous city, Aleppo).  Compared to the sort of warfare one imagines in most contemporary civil wars (South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia, and so on) Syria’s is certainly an order of magnitude different.  The national urban stalemate, in which the front lines lie inside city centres and across residential districts, is something which I associate with nothing more recent than the Bosnian Wars.

The main road of Sarajevo during the height of the siege in 1993 [Image from Wikimedia].

This level of intense warfare has all sorts of effects on cities: mass displacement of populations, division of cities across political lines, eradication of the normal routine of daily life (calling it ‘disruption’ seems rather mild), to say nothing of the damage sustained to regional and global heritage by the destruction of the Aleppo Mosque and Old City, the shelling of Krak des Chevaliers, bombings in the ruins of Palmyra, and countless other offenses against places which used to be the focal points of a lucrative tourist industry (although it’s important to point out that, with the possible exception of Palmyra’s desert ruins, the tourist sites are also vital points in the geography of everyday Syrian life, and their destruction is far more a loss to them than it is to Western tour groups).

All of these effects of urban warfare are encapsulated by the description of Syria as ‘urbanised’.  With only just over half of the population living in urban centres, think how much more devastating things might have been, had the proportion been higher.  But the effect of stating it in this way, as if Syria’s population naturally gravitated to the urban centres, may have unfortunate effects in the future.  Once the war finishes (admittedly in about 200 years’ time, but it’s best to get your analysis in early), there will be an immense population of refugees hastening to return.  The return of a displaced population is a challenge facing urban authorities at the end of most wars; combined with the scale of urban destruction Syria is already facing (to say nothing of what it could look like in a year, or 5 years) the situation would be catastrophic.  To international agencies involved in managing refugee settlement, the standard belief that Syrian society used to be a largely urban one could be useful to justify keeping people in cities, where access to employment and resources is supposedly greater, than sending them back to their villages.  Syria is not a highly-urbanised nation – but, despite the war (or because of it), it may yet become one.

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In Defence of Arizona


The skyline of Central Phoenix on an unusually overcast morning [Image by Duncan Wane, 2009].

I have lived in Arizona, on and off, for 13 years now.  I went to high school here, my mother lives here, the house I’ve lived in the longest is here, I have friends here, and –despite its rapid and dizzying development– I know Phoenix better than perhaps anywhere else in the world.  I see no contradiction between calling myself Arizonan and not calling myself American, in the same way that I don’t really like being English but I identify strongly with Oxford.  As you’d expect, I rather like Arizona.  I have consequently spent 13 years defending it to other people.

In the UK, Arizona is one of the few places people generally know of which isn’t a major coastal city.  The image they have is generally one of cowboys, deserts, and the Grand Canyon – not entirely unfair.  In the rest of the US, however, and particularly on the East Coast, the general reaction to Arizona is somewhat more vitriolic.  I get looks of pity, exclamations of distress, and general expressions of contempt.

Arizona’s state politics are, as everyone knows, absurd.  Our lawmakers regularly try to assert that they have to right not to apply certain parts of the Constitution or Federal Law; people here have to fill out a second more detailed voting registration in order to vote in state elections; we have armed militias in the border counties which habitually harass and murder people suspected of being immigrants; the Sheriff of Phoenix, who is almost certainly a criminal, has been in office longer than Robert Mugabe and possesses his own private army; and the State is still thought of as the home of the abominable SB 1070.  All of this is true, and well-publicised.

However, reducing Arizona to this right-wing trend also ends up ignoring the political contributions and mobilisation of anyone who disagrees with it.  Americans like to conceive of their culture war as fundamentally geographical, and of course there are many states which reliably vote in a certain direction.  But each state contains a wide diversity of political opinion, and the margin of electoral victory by which a presidential candidate carries a state rarely exceeds 5%; when it does, it’s a landslide.  Arizona, for all the irritating behaviour of its major politicians, has a powerful (if widely-ignored) left-wing movement to oppose them.  More than that, it has been a site of serious confrontation between the right and the left since before it became a state, often presaging the major issues which would seize the nation.

The Democratic Party does function in Arizona, of course.  Janet Napolitano, now in charge of Homeland Security, used to be the Governor, and the Mayor of Phoenix is also a Democrat.  But, separated from the Democratic heartland in New England, and contemptuous of California, left-leaning Arizonans –and there are a surprising number of us– tend to look more to the grassroots to organise, rather than relying on the national parties, which leads to surprising intellectual frankness on a number of points.

Thus Phoenix, “the world’s least sustainable city”, boasts a number of local agricultural initiatives and cafés which serve only food which grows naturally in the Valley.  In an era in which sustainability is so often merely a buzzword or an excuse, this is refreshing.  As Arizona is the state with the largest First Nations population, the Heard Museum of Native American Art houses not only an impressive collection of artifacts but also a room describing in detail the torment and degradation suffered by the Nations at the hands of the American government, along with a detailed mural which depicts, among other things, a bald eagle symbolically pecking itself to death.  On the matter of immigration, Arizona’s border counties engaged in a symbolic but meaningful attempt to secede from the rest of the state in 2012, in order to show their displeasure with the State Government’s persecution of immigrants.  After the Occupy Phoenix protests were cleared out by police in October 2011, they re-emerged, with the authorities threatening similar tactics.  In response, a right-wing group of armed veterans travelled to Phoenix from and formed a barrier protecting the occupation from the Phoenix Police.  Arizona’s traditional suspicion of federal politics is not just a Republican trait.


A bald eagle pecks itself to death in the Heard Museum’s mural [Image by Duncan Wane, 2011].

One of the first battles fought was over the issue of the recall.  Arizona’s Constitution was the first in the nation to provide for the possibility (in Article 8, if anyone’s interested) that any elected official could be subject to a recall election, after a grace period, once a certain number of signatures had been collected to that effect.  Despite the best efforts (and subterfuge) of many of Arizona’s least likable politicians of the 1910s, the recall provision remained in the draft Constitution and still applies today.  It applies to every government official, up to and including the State Governor, and has been used many times to dispatch disagreeable politicians to an early career death.

Arizona’s political war moves in phases of about 25 years.  During each phase, the conservative faction becomes slowly more powerful, and shriller, until it attempts something truly astonishing: in 1917, it was the Bisbee Deportations, during which 2,000 mine workers and other citizens were illegally deported to New Mexico by copper corporation vigilantes who then took over the town and ran it as their own for several weeks.  In 1987, Evan Mecham (a proto-Tea Party perennial candidate) unexpectedly won the Republican gubernatorial primary, and then became Governor, upon which his first act was to abolish Martin Luther King Day.  These tremendous demonstrations of power and hubris are followed by collapse, more catastrophic in some cases than in others.  In 1917, the labour movement in Arizona was crushed for a generation until the arrival of César Chávez, but the affair drew national condemnation, including from President Wilson.  In 1988, Mecham’s term in office was brought to a rapid close when he was simultaneously recalled and impeached.

The most recent occurrence of this type might be the outrage surrounding SB 1070 and its aftermath.  For all that the bill is associated with Arizona in the popular imagination, its most important provisions were struck down as unconstitutional (widely covered in the national press), and the man who wrote and sponsored the bill, Russell Pearce, was ousted in by a recall election less than a year after the bill had been passed (ignored by the national press).  Obviously, it’s too early to say whether his dismissal from office marks a full turn of the wheel; evidence suggests that there is probably another act yet to be played out.

I am not denying that the Arizonan population possesses more than its fair share of right-wing political feeling: that much is clear.  Nor am I arguing that Arizona and Phoenix are somehow exceptionally politically vibrant.  My point is that obsessing over Arizona’s government as if they somehow represent everyone here ignores the very real pushback from within the State.  Jan Brewer, Joe Arpaio, and the rest will pass out of importance, and doubtless they will be replaced by others in a similar vein, who will make their own colossal mistakes.  But, no matter how absurd it gets, there will be a reversal, and when it comes, it will be home-grown.

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How Do You Solve A Problem Like Syria?

(This week’s post is a day late, for which I apologise.  It will unfortunately also be shorter than usual as the work builds to a screaming fury.  Normal service resumes next week.)

I’ve been taking a class in Conflict Resolution (as an academic discipline rather than from a practical perspective as a mediator), and rather foolishly chose Syria as the subject for my various papers.  I say this was foolish because our final paper assignment is essentially to solve the conflict, and if I managed to achieve that within a 10-page paper I would send it to the United Nations and other relevant government agencies rather than to my professor.

The city of Azaz after a bombing [image from Wikimedia].

When I say ‘solve’, I am exaggerating somewhat.  The paper does not have to lay out a plan for how to end the conflict, just how to de-escalate it, ideally working within a six-month timeframe.  In many ways this is ideal; once you’ve established that the War isn’t going to end, you feel a little better taking half measures.  It’s a conflict resolution perspective rather than a conventional political one.  This doesn’t mean that we can advocate for a course of action which would clearly be impossible to pursue, such as bombing Israel or inviting Syria to annex Lebanon, but it does result in having slightly different priorities when evaluating the future of the conflict, ie.: the paper is solely concerned with how to speedily de-escalate the conflict, and not with what shape Syria will be in after the war is over (except inasmuch as that might spark a resumption of the conflict).

In illustration of this point, after spending several days investigating the various strategies outlined by our course for dealing with a conflict, and applying each of them to Syria in turn, I discovered –to my surprise and intense annoyance– that the quickest way to end the conflict in Syria is to encourage a government victory.

This relies on one major assumption, of course, which is that the war will not simply continue as long as the Ba’thists remain in power, and there are two ways of approaching that.  You could argue that even if the government succeeds in crushing or coming to an enforced agreement with most of the opposition groups, there will be pockets of resistance, as well as organisations like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, which would happily carry on the fight.  The government is unlikely to be able to restore control over the Kurdish areas or the Eastern desert cities currently in the hands of ISIS for quite some time.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that an opposition victory would achieve any of this either.  Unless the successor government comes to power with the blessings of the whole spectrum of opposition movements, not to mention the Ba’thists, somebody will object to it and make their views known militarily, opening up the prospect for the civil war to move into a second phase.  The spectre of Libya (which currently has between 0 and 2 Prime Ministers, depending on your point of view) hangs over Syria’s future.  The Kurds are even more likely to retain de facto independence.  Even in the best scenario, Syria is likely to face a sustained campaign of terrorist attacks for quite some years.

I remain convinced that one of the reasons the West has made such a pig’s breakfast of its reaction to the Syrian Civil War is because of the complete disjoint between its stated policy (end the war as quickly as possible) and what it actually will countenance (nothing short of the ouster of the Ba’th Party).  Furthermore, for better or for worse, I think it leads us in the direction the conflict is going.  Since the Qusayr offensive last summer, the government has had a military advantage over the rebellion, and evidently feels more secure than it has in the past.  The presidential election in June is an attempt to re-establish Bashar’s mandate, as well as an indication that the Geneva talks are essentially meaningless (no change there then).

Already a number of opposition groups have reached temporary agreements or ceasefires with the government, most recently a few days ago in Homs.  The rebels who engage in this behaviour are usually members of locally-based militias which were founded on the principle of defending their towns and villages rather than parts of country-wide groups (although many of them may claim membership of the non-existence FSA as a sort of branding exercise).  As Russia-US tension grows, international pressure on both sides to come to an agreement is already loosening.  I believe we will see more of these impromptu ceasefires in the coming months.  Likewise Western governments, despite their outward revulsion at the prospect, will come to terms with the Syrian government staying in charge, as long as they get rid of their chemical weapons on time.

In the end I decided that I could not, in good conscience, write a paper advocating the enormous transfer of arms and diplomatic support to the Syrian government just to get the conflict over quickly.  In part this was because there is no way in hell that the United States could ever pursue that as a policy: no matter how hypocritical the government’s moral arguments against it, public opinion and international alliances could never allow it to happen.

Of course, as I mentioned before, the question of how to end the conflict quickly does not take into account the nature of the state after the conflict has been de-escalated.  Syria governed by a (mostly-)victorious Ba’th Party will not be a cheerful place.  The government might well feel secure enough to let in UN peacekeepers and humanitarian aid to begin dealing with the staggering refugee crisis, but that spectacle will only emphasise the utter eventual futility of a war which will have achieved nothing.

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Palestine vs. The Palestinians

(This week’s post will unfortunately be shorter than usual as work is kicking into a higher gear with the approaching end of the semester.)

One of the bigger stories of the past week has been the (tentative) reconciliation suddenly achieved between Fatah and Hamas with the prospect of a unity government on the horizon for the first time since the Palestinian elections in 2006.  The announcement was almost immediately overtaken by Israel’s reaction and the United States reaction to the reaction, and at present the media coverage is focussed on the presumed death of the peace process (although how you can kill something that’s already dead is beyond me).  Nevertheless there is, I think, an implied assumption that the reconciliation is beneficial and a good step forward for Palestine.  This might turn out to be true, at least inasmuch as it ensures that Fatah and Hamas will no longer be openly at each other’s throats and paves the way for the presentation of a united Palestinian front to face Israel, at least on a governmental level.  But I don’t think the unity agreement is a spark of unalloyed good news for Palestinians.

There has always been a strong perception that Hamas and Fatah are the only political game in town for Palestine, and while this might be true on a strictly party level – we’re not going to see the Third Way streak to power anytime soon – it is foolish to believe that this means the two parties command the loyalty of all Palestinian citizens, or even a majority of them.  Hailing the unity agreement as some absurd ‘reunification’ of the Palestinian people gives credence to the idea that the two parties represent everybody.  There are some rumours that third parties will be included in the unity government, as well as independent technocrats, but I don’t think anybody has any real doubt that Fatah and Hamas will be the real driving forces behind it.

Neither Fatah nor Hamas is a particularly good model of governance for any nation, particularly one which needs it as direly as Palestine.  Both parties are staggeringly corrupt and given to subjecting the Palestinians to additional human rights violations on top of the already gigantic burden of being under military occupation and blockade.  Since the split in 2006, they have focussed most of their energies on staying in power rather than doing what they can to improve the country.

Furthermore, assuming that Fatah and Hamas represent everyone leads to the equally invidious idea that Palestinian elections only serve to work out the balance of power between the two groups.  Palestinian elections are long overdue – the last parliamentary ballot was held in 2006, and since the Fatah-Hamas split the Palestinian government has effectively been operating under emergency law.  Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in 2005 after the death of Arafat, formally should have ceased to be president in January 2009.  His avowed intention not to stand for a second term whenever the elections are finally held seems to be less an expression of democratic principles and more an explanation for his unwillingness to actually conduct elections.  That the negotiations with Israel have been run since 2009 by a government with no formal mandate has not helped their credibility among Palestinians.  The country urgently needs to hold new elections, and while the unity government might be a prelude to such an announcement, it might equally be yet another excuse to postpone them, especially with Israel not in the mood to facilitate the process.

The reconciliation has also been the cause of the most recent death of the long-imaginary Peace Process, and has led to increased tensions with the Israeli government (or at least, more visible tensions than usual).  Netanyahu’s particularly crass statement that Fatah had to choose between peace with Hamas and peace with Israel seems to demonstrate an unwillingness to acquaint himself with the basic principles of conflict resolution: if your conflict has three parties, you cannot end that conflict by only dealing with two of them.  Today’s Hamas, for all its many faults, is not the same party which came to power in 2006.  Having to deal with actual responsibility for a piece of territory and the people living in it has altered the movement’s priorities over the last few years.  That Israel itself has (indirectly) negotiated with Hamas on several occasions is a tacit recognition of that fact.

The Peace Process has been dead for years, but what has been damaged in the past week is the public fiction of its continuation.  That this thoroughly intangible but deeply symbolic blow has come as a result of what most outside observers will see as Israeli intransigence will benefit Fatah and the newly-formed unity government enormously.  Two days ago, Mahmoud Abbas gave a public statement in which he called the Holocaust “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era”, at the same time that the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused him of being a Holocaust denier.  The situation has even pushed John Kerry to use the word “apartheid”, which I thought was definitely not supposed to be on the Secretary of State’s traditional vocab list when discussing Israel.

Out of all the players, one party clearly benefits most: Fatah.  The veneer of the peace process has collapsed, and nearly everyone thinks it’s not their fault; Abbas sent the Israelis sympathy about the Holocaust and got an earful of vitriol from Netanyahu; Hamas is coming back into the fold with its tail between its legs; and Abbas and Hamdallah will remain the Heads of State and government.  The party is still in control of Palestine despite the lag of almost 10 years since the last elections (and it didn’t even win those).  Meanwhile Hamas, pressured by its separation from its erstwhile sponsors, Syria and Iran, and the regional irrelevance of its more recent sponsor, Qatar, as well as the reinstatement of the blockade on the Egyptian border, looks weaker and more desperate.  Fatah is up, Hamas is down, and the Palestinian people are nowhere.

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States, Peoples, and Partition

In class two weeks ago, one of my professors confronted us with an intriguing question: how many states should there be? It’s a question I’ve not really considered.  I’ve put lots of thought into how many there are but I never thought seriously about my ideal map of the world.  If you were starting from the current world map, what would be the criteria you could use to break off a piece of state? To deal with the question of how many there should be, we should probably establish how many there currently are.  This is no easy feat – in fact, in order to achieve it, we need to go down one further level and ask the even more basic question.

What Is A State?
A state needs to have many things.  First and foremost, it needs to have a government, even if that government doesn’t have much control over its territory (see: Somalia).  That government should, secondly, claim control over a certain defined amount of territory, and thirdly, it should be able to exercise control over the territory.  Hence governments in exile (such as Tibet) do not count, because they control no actual territory; neither does the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.  Most importantly, the government should claim independence and be able to exercise it (the declarative theory of statehood), otherwise you risk including autonomous regions and provinces as sovereign states.

Flags of the UN member states outside the General Assembly [image from Wikimedia].

Notice that, by this definition, a state does not have to control all of the territory it claims – thus the Republic of China is a state because it has exclusive control over the island of Taiwan, even though that island represents a fraction of the land the RoC government claims (all of mainland China, plus those bits of India, Pakistan, Russia, and so on which the current Chinese government ceded its claims to; the RoC doesn’t recognise their authority to do so).  It’s just important that it controls a reasonable amount of it.

Armed with that definition, we can return to the first supplementary question, and again ask: how many states are there in the world today? The conventional answer – 193 – is not satisfactory because that is simply the number of sovereign states which are represented at the United Nations, and as we have just covered, that is not the defining characteristic of a state.  I would say that there are 206 states:
– The 193 UN member states;
– the 2 UN observer states, one widely-recognised (Vatican City) and one with limited recognition (Palestine);
– two ‘states in free association’ with New Zealand (the Cook Islands and Niue), which would be otherwise classed as dependencies if not for the fact that they have been granted independent access to a number of UN agencies;
– and 9 de facto states with varying degrees of international recognition.  Some of these (Taiwan, Kosovo, and Western Sahara) are recognised by dozens of UN states and appear on most international maps.  Of the rest, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are recognised by Russia and a handful of other UN states, Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria are recognised only by each other and the aforementioned Russian protectorate states, Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey (which occupies it).  Somaliland is recognised by nobody, although it is ironically probably the best-run of the limited-recognition states except for Taiwan.

A Transnistrian passport [image from Wikimedia].

So there we have it.  There are 206 countries in the world.  If we’re talking about how many countries there should be, we are probably imagining that all these countries would be internationally-recognised and not shut out of the global community in the way that many unrecognised states have been, so let’s first of all assume that all 206 countries have become UN member states.  Well done.  Now what?

The Partition Debate
Well, all we’ve actually achieved so far is to describe the current situation.  In fact, the question of how many countries there should be comes down to a corollary of the question I asked earlier – not “What is a country?” but “What should a country be?”, or rather, “Which areas of land should be sovereign states?” This is far more difficult, and (I’m warning you now) doesn’t really have an answer, but the sort of criteria you could use to justify creating a new state – things like preventing war or genocide – are an interesting jumping-off point to explore the general academic debate about whether it is ever justified to create a new state artificially in order to resolve a conflict.

In essence, this discussion is connected to the academic and policy debate over partition and its benefits and disadvantages.  Since the end of the Cold War, the issue of partition has become surprisingly relevant.  Before 1990, with two balanced global powers preventing the UN from getting usefully involved in regional or local conflicts, the idea of an internationally-mediated partition was impossible because no international group could have been assembled which would be allowed to carry out the job.  Furthermore, the concept of partition was associated more with disastrous British attempts to divide Palestine and India, examples which nobody wanted to follow.  However, since the dismembering of Yugoslavia and the USSR, international involvement in conflicts has spiralled, and partition has become correspondingly popular as a solution for fights we view as ‘intractable’.  Apart from the Yugoslav example, Bosnia has been internally partitioned, Kosovo was separated from Serbia, Iraqi Kurdistan became de facto independent, and South Sudan separated from the rest of Sudan after a referendum.  Compared to a history of absence, this is a startling new development.

The most common argument against the acceptance of partition as a means of solving conflicts is that is weakens the international consensus over the inviolability of borders.  Since the 1950s, aided by the establishment of the UN and the independence of dozens of African states who declared that their borders, while artificial, could not be redrawn without widespread slaughter, there has been a general respect for existing boundaries.  Even when the USSR and Yugoslavia collapsed, internal borders were used as the foundation of the emerging states.  Partition scholars worry that by casually dividing a state which has suffered ethnic war, we weaken that consensus.  Furthermore, since it is unlikely for a state in civil war to decide to partition itself, international powers are required to involve themselves.  A weakened respect for international borders might allow regional powers to use separatist movements to carve up unruly neighbours.  Defenders of partition, who fought back vigorously against this claim, have been somewhat mute in the aftermath of Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008, and the subsequent declarations of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence later that year.  That the Crimean declaration of independence in February openly cited Kosovo as a precedent was a further embarrassment.

Primordial Ethnicity
Not only is the blanket acceptance of partition potentially destructive, it is also based on a faulty understanding of ethnicity and the role of the state.  Both the international academic advocates of partition and those who argue for the independence of particular regions (Scotland and Catalonia, for example) rely on an implicitly European conception of the design and function of a state: a state is an area of land in which a people live; most inhabitants of that land are members of that people, and most of the members of that people live on that land.  Hence the French live in France, the Danes live in Denmark, and the Bulgarians in Bulgaria, and there aren’t a great many of them outside those places.  What could be simpler?

Well, for a start, how many peoples are there in the world? 208? 300? 500? Several thousand? Does each ethnic group of Africa get its own state? What about places in which ethnicities are mixed – do you resort to semi-legal internationally-organised ethnic cleansing? An ethnicity is not monolithic, so how would you deal with mixed-race people who stand between national groups?

The present relatively clean situation we have in Europe was achieved in the aftermath of the deportations, exterminations, ethnic cleansing, and genocide of World War Two.  Six million Jews were killed, twelve million Germans deported into what is now Germany, and the entire nation of Poland (with its inhabitants) was shifted 160 miles east.  The borders of Eastern Europe are arguably no more natural than those of colonial Africa.  Where anomalies remain (the former Yugoslavia, Hungarian populations in Romania and Slovakia, Ukraine) they continue to cause tension and conflict.  In recent decades, the conception of a state as ‘belonging’ to its ethnic people is becoming more problematic as the number of immigrants to Europe soars.  For all that we might think we have come a long way since the 1930s, in no small measure we have become tolerant because we haven’t needed to be.

An ethnographic map of Europe in 1896, from the Times Atlas. Notice the spread of Germans throughout what is now Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and so on, the presence of Greeks in Turkey, and the total absence of anything recognisable as modern Poland [image from Wikimedia].

Many partition advocates tend to misunderstand the root causes of many ethnic civil wars, attributing them to primordial hatred which simply cannot be overcome without a physical barrier in the form of an international border.  Hutus and Tutsis, Muslim and Christian Arabs, Arab and Jews, Indians and Pakistanis, and Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs have all been fighting since time immemorial, and nothing we can do will stop them.  This sort of view seems to take all too literally exactly the sort of explanations that parties to ethnic conflicts use to justify their actions.

No self-respecting nationalist or separatist movement is going to stand there and say, “No, honestly, we’ve got along with the others for a very long time, but at the moment the economy’s not so good, so we’re feeling a bit riled up.”  An ethnic war, although it might seem intractable, cannot begin without some short-term economic or political factor.  Solutions which may have seemed temporary at the time – the separation of Kosovo, the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan – are now virtually irreversible, even though the governments whose abuses led to international intervention have been out of power for at least a decade.

In the end, what many people argue for in the partition debate is not an end to partition but a re-evaluation of its usefulness and the establishment of a framework for situations in which it would be used.  The readiness with which Kosovo’s declaration of independence was accepted by many Western nations is just as self-serving as Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  The idea that Kosovo is some sort of sui generis unique situation and doesn’t create a legal precedent is rubbish.  It is very difficult to make the case that partition nowadays is applied in an even and uniform manner, unless that manner is hypocrisy.  But then, which tool of international politics could you not say that about?

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