Syria, Somalia, and State Failure

Damascus, Syria Skyline

The city of Damascus in a quieter time. The photo shows part of the capital city’s skyline in 2006. Photo credit: RabunWarna (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Two years after widespread anti-government protests began in Syria, the situation there is rapidly deteriorating. Last week’s issue of The Economist marked the deterioration  with a cover story declaring “the death of a country.” Indeed, the numbers tell a story of humanitarian catastrophe: 70,000 killed; 150,000-200,000 political prisoners; 1 million refugees; and 2 million displaced within Syria. These are staggering figures for any country, but especially so for a relatively small country  of 21 million people. In the three months since I last focused on the situation in Syria, this crossroads state has taken troubling steps toward state failure.

Here it is worth quoting from the The Economist’s editorial:

As the world looks on (or away), the country jammed between Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel is disintegrating. Perhaps the regime of Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, will collapse in chaos; for some time it could well fight on from a fortified enclave, the biggest militia in a land of militias. Either way, Syria looks increasingly likely to fall prey to feuding warlords, Islamists and gangs – a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant. [emphasis added]

In certain respects, the comparison of Syria with Somalia is warranted. Both states suffered long under authoritarian rule prior to their descent into catastrophe. Both states have experienced fragmented civil wars, with rival anti-government groups targeting each other. Both states have been influenced by Islamist militants. Both states have significantly destabilized neighboring countries.

Syria, though, is not Somalia. And Syria is not likely to become another Somalia anytime soon. The fundamental breakdown in this comparison is the contrasting experiences of these two places with modern statehood. Those who know Somalia best (e.g. Ken Menkhaus) argue that resistance to centralized government has been a hallmark of this part of the Horn of Africa. Despite linguistic, religious, and ethnic homogeneity, most Somalis have adamantly resisted centralized government. The lack of legitimacy accorded modern state institutions led to the failure to construct a state after independence in 1960. Decades after independence, the central government had still not established basic state institutions such as courts and an effective police service. The ineptness of the Siad Barre government (1969-1991) and the turmoil associated with the end of the Cold War led to deeper problems for Somalia in the 1990s and 2000s. Somalis are still struggling to accept some form of Westphalian-type statehood, 53 years after independence.

The situation in Syria is strikingly different. Even with the deep ethnic and sectarian divides in Syria, a strong majority of Syrians embrace the concept of modern statehood. The anti-Assad forces – though divided – are struggling to capture Damascus and establish a new government for Syria. The Syrian rebels – now recognized in many foreign capitals as the rightful political representatives of the country – are seeking a rather conventional agenda with their war.

So, even if Syria soon becomes a “failed state,” the prospects for rebuilding the state are at least fair. Somalia, in contrast, has never really had a functioning state, despite the fiction of world political maps and the country’s seat at the United Nations.

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France and State Failure in Mali

On January 11th, France began air strikes in Mali, in an effort to defeat an Islamist insurgency. Cynics can be forgiven for seeing this latest military intervention in Africa as just one more chapter in a long narrative of post-colonial meddling by France in its former colonies. There are indeed some key parallels between the current operation and previous French engagements in places like Chad, Togo, and Central African Republic. This intervention, though, is different in key ways. And, critically, the multi-lateral intervention in Mali could provide some pointers about longer-term efforts to deal with failed states.

During the Cold War, the United States and other Western states largely allowed France to intervene in Africa at will, even in areas outside its former colonial domain. Publicly, France usually justified its efforts as supporting anti-Communist ends. In practice, French commercial and geo-political interests often drove decisions to utilize troops in African countries. Remember, France has long maintained military bases in places like Dakar, N’Djamena, Libreville, and Djibouti, though that military footprint has shrunk in size in the post-Cold War era.

So, has France simply replaced Cold War aims with global counter-terrorism, in its justification of African interventions? There is some truth to this assertion, but France no longer has the interest or the resources to sustain unilateral adventures in Africa.

In the current operation in Mali, it is quite telling that France seems content to let neighboring West African states supply ground forces to support the beleaguered Malian government. The ECOWAS ground forces do not yet seem to be ready, but the regional organization does have a history marked with some successes in security affairs.

In addition, France’s air strikes are supported – at least in broad terms – by a December 2012 United Nations Security Council resolution. Russia, China, and the entire Security Council do not want to see gains by the Malian Islamists. So, even if not all states agree on the timing of France’s move, there would appear to be broad consensus in support of a coalition to defeat the Islamists.

In terms of the longer-term effort to address state failure, neither the French public nor others should believe that a few weeks of air strikes will be enough to deal with the root causes of ineffective governance in critically weak states. Indeed, Mali’s current turmoil is partly the result of imported fighters and weapons from Algeria and Libya. The international community will need to do a much better job of addressing “regional conflict formations,” an issue that I address in my recently released book.

Central African Republic: An Obscure Failed State

Afghanistan. Somalia. The DRC. These are familiar failed states. This month, the landlocked and obscure Central African Republic (CAR) is also grabbing a few headlines as well.

It is no great surprise that CAR generally receives little attention from the global news media. It is a small, economically marginal country of little geo-political interest to major powers. And it is located on a marginalized continent.

Nonetheless, this former French colony of about five million people is a powerful example of a key aspect of state failure in the contemporary world. Like many other post-colonial states, the Central African Republic has long been a critically weak state with a strong core-periphery pattern. CAR is also part of a bad neighborhood, what some analysts have referred to as a “regional conflict formation” (not unlike the situations in the Great Lakes region of Africa, or the Afghanistan-Pakistan region). (I discuss both of these issues in greater detail in my book Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.)

In recent weeks, a rebel coalition based in CAR’s northern and eastern peripheries has gained the upper hand over government forces. Last week, the United Nations withdrew about 200 personnel, and the United States evacuated its embassy in the capital, Bangui. Tellingly, protesters in Bangui gathered at the French embassy to berate the former colonial master for NOT sending soldiers to support the government.

Like many other critically weak and failed states, the Central African Republic exhibits a stark core-periphery pattern. Government presence and resources are concentrated in the capital city and a limited sphere of influence. More distant areas – and especially rural areas – largely exist outside Bangui’s control.

This core-periphery pattern is not new in the case of CAR. Here I quote from the abstract of an influential 1997 article by Thomas Bierschenk and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan

. . . the absence of the state in the rural areas of the CAR is so striking that the position in certain respects has almost reached the level of caricature. It also reflects the more general situation in other parts of the continent where the excesses of a centralised, over-staffed post-colonial régime can coexist perfectly with the pronounced absence in the rural areas of certain functions which are commonly supposed to be provided by the state, including basic administration and justice, as well as social, educational, and health services.

Fifteen years after the publication of this research, there is striking evidence for the limited influence of government outside the national capital, a phenomenon so characteristic of other failed states.

The Palestinians, the UN, and Statehood

UN General Assembly

The meeting hall of the United Nations General Assembly. This is the room in New York City where decisions about statehood are made. Photo credit: Rob Young (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

On November 29th, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelming voted to admit Palestine as a permanent observer. Despite strong opposition from the United States and Israel, the General Assembly voted 138 to 9 (with 41 member states abstaining) to grant this diplomatic recognition. Though the UN is an inefficient and much-maligned world body, the United Nations General Assembly is the body that weighs questions of statehood in the contemporary era.

The Palestine vote has understandably attracted the most attention in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority had long been trying to gain observer status in New York, and the Israelis and the Americans had opposed this decision over a multi-year period. The General Assembly vote is another crucial milestone in the growing diplomatic isolation of Israel. In response to the UN vote, the Israeli government announced plans to fast-track a huge expansion of Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.

Beyond this particularly important Middle East conflict, though, the Palestine vote underscores the continuing relevance of the United Nations to world politics. Prior to the UN era (1945 – ) – and the short-lived League of Nations era – international recognition of statehood was relatively chaotic and lacked a systematic character.

On the surface, the phrase “international recognition” sounds rather ordinary and unimportant. In reality, lack of international recognition is the key sticking point for most unsuccessful bids for sovereignty. Just ask the separatists from Somaliland, or Tibet (Xizang Province, China). In the current geopolitical era, unless the club of existing states (i.e. the UN General Assembly) grants you membership, your territory does not warrant the label “sovereign state.” And, importantly, Palestine has not achieved this designation. At least not yet.

Interestingly, the “Permanent Observer” status is one that has no founding basis in the United Nations Charter. Following is a brief excerpt from the General Assembly’s public pages:

The status of a Permanent Observer is based purely on practice, and there are no provisions for it in the United Nations Charter. The practice dates from 1946, when the Secretary-General accepted the designation of the Swiss Government as a Permanent Observer to the United Nations. Observers were subsequently put forward by certain States that later became United Nations Members, including Austria, Finland, Italy, and Japan. Switzerland became a UN Member on 10 September 2002.

Will the Palestine vote open the door for additional permanent observers at the UN General Assembly? The answer is likely no. The only other current observer is the Vatican. In the case of Palestine, both the longstanding nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict  and the symbolic and substantive importance of the conflict in the wider world point to an anomalous situation.

Even so, the world would do well to start re-thinking the status quo with regard to statehood recognition. In particular, state failure represents a huge challenge to the current system. My new book, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses, explores these issues in much greater depth.

Rwanda and the DRC (The Fall of Goma)

Eastern Congo’s largest city, Goma, has fallen to the M23 rebels. Since April 2012, the rebels have gone from a nuisance to a serious threat to the Kabila government in Kinshasa. As with the turmoil of the 1990s, the smaller neighboring states of Rwanda and Uganda are playing key roles in the present crisis. Rwanda, in particular, has long intervened in its fragile neighbor to the west.

Eastern DRC humanitarian crisis

Photo credit: European Union Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (Creative Commons license).

Before we return to Rwanda’s role, it is worth underscoring the gravity of the current situation. Goma is a city of about one million people, a good portion of them internally displaced persons (IDPs). The city also sits on the border with Rwanda, and is not far from the Ugandan border. Goma is a key trade and transit center in the Great Lakes region.

The startling fact about the M23 takeover of Goma on November 20th is that the city fell with very little resistance from government forces. The BBC is reporting that DRC police officers in Goma are now handing in their weapons to the rebels. Additional government soldiers are defecting to the M23.

And – this is key – the rebels are threatening to march on the capital city of Kinshasa. The DRC’s leader, Joseph Kabila, should know this narrative well. His father, Laurent Kabila, led a march on Kinshasa in 1997 that began in eastern Congo. The elder Kabila, of course, received crucial backing from Rwanda and Uganda.

So, as history repeats itself, what are Rwanda and Uganda seeking to achieve in backing this new group of rebels? It is hard to say. In the not-too-recent past Rwanda has announced intentions to annex part of eastern Congo. And, though such a pronouncement is offensive to many, it is hardly unusual when viewed through a global historical lens. Stronger, more capable states have long sought to control or conquer weakly governed neighboring territories. The work of Gerard Prunier and others suggest that battle-hardened Paul Kagame (Rwanda’s President) tends to see geopolitics through a realist lens.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame

Photo credit: U.S. Army (Creative Commons license).

It is not at all clear that 2012 will be a repeat of 1997. The M23 may not be capable of expanding their domain in the East and marching on Kinshasa. It is clear, though, that the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains a failed state. Even if the central government retakes Goma and other rebel-held areas, the events of 2012 indicate a difficult road ahead for 2013 and beyond.

What are your suggestions for strengthening the Congolese state and bringing greater stability to the Great Lakes area of Africa?

Book Launch – Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses

The book Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses by Brennan Kraxberger has just been published. The book is currently available through Amazon, and will be available via other distributors later this week. For more information – including an expanded free sample (with table of contents and index) – click here. The ebook version’s price is $4.99 (U.S. dollars). If you are a reviewer or a college instructor, please contact the author for a complimentary copy.

The Expectations Game at the United Nations (and the Relevance of the UN General Assembly)

The General Assembly is meeting once again in New York, so it is prime season for critics to list all the ways that the United Nations is not fulfilling its mission. In the United States, UN bashing can take bizarre forms, such as the Texas judge who has been preparing residents for an invasion by the world body. In more reasonable quarters, the UN is a perennial target for scorn.

As we are seeing with the recent protests in the Muslim world, much of the criticism of the UN is based on mis-information. Here are a few key points of fact that should guide our assessment of the New York-based body:

  1. The United Nations is not a world government. Member states (i.e. those seated in the General Assembly) retain their sovereignty.
  2. The UN has a very small annual budget. In fact, the cost of all UN operations – including peacekeeping – amount to only about one-third of Virginia’s public expenditures.
  3. Apart from recognition of new member states, the General Assembly has very little authority. The UN Security Council – which includes the veto-wielding states of Russia, China, France, the UK, and the USA – is the one UN body with significant authority.
  4. As long as the authoritarian states of China and Russia sit as permanent members on the Security Council, that body will never be a great champion of human rights and democracy.

So, residents of Texas and elsewhere, you should have no fear of a looming UN invasion. That is not to say this world forum is irrelevant to our lives. Here I want to hone in on one often-overlooked dimension of the UN General Assembly.

As noted above, the General Assembly is mostly a talking shop. It is a body that mostly debates and passes resolutions without binding provisions. The qualifier, though, is key. No other body in the world lays legitimate claim to recognizing state sovereignty. Unless the GA gives its blessing of “club membership,” sovereign statehood is only an aspiration. This is why Taiwan is only a de facto state, and Somaliland is just an autonomous region of the failed state of Somalia. Thus, it is supremely ironic that right-wing UN bashers would accuse the UN of plots to strip states of their sovereignty. In fact, it is the UN that reinforces and recognizes the sovereignty of states.

That is not to say that the UN system of recognizing state sovereignty is without flaws. As my forthcoming book will discuss, the current system actually facilitates state failure by expecting very little of sovereign states. In short, the current system emphasizes the rights of states, while demanding little in the way of responsibilities. Some innovative thinkers go so far as to demand that the UN consider withdrawing statehood recognition as a way of incentivizing effective governance.

As the entire UN membership reconvenes in New York, what are your thoughts on the successes and failures of the United Nations?

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.