Government forces in Syria have this week increased their attacks against moderate Syrian rebels in both intensity and scale, as reported by the New York Times. Hassan Abu Nouh is an anti-government activist based Talbiseh, Homs, and has close ties to the local insurgent force, the Iman bil Allah Brigade. He told the paper “They [Assad’s governmental forces] are hitting us like crazy,” “Maybe no one will be alive to tell the story next week.”
The sudden increase in government attacks comes at a pivotal moment for factions in Syria, as President Obama has in the past few days gained crucial approval and funding from the House of Representatives for his plans to arm the moderate Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State, although the deliberations encountered much skepticism – the vote was a surprisingly close 273 to 156. Many analysts believe that increased violence against Syrian rebels is directly linked to the United States’ decision, as the Assad regime has a strong interest in ensuring that only its own forces benefit from any potential weakening of the Islamic State.
The UN has halted a measles vaccination campaign in Idlib after up to fifteen children died after receiving being given their vaccinations. The precise reasons for the deaths are unknown, though the World Health Organization (WHO) has pledged to launch an investigation, saying that the establishment of “the precise cause of the children’s deaths is vital.” WHO and the UN hope to restart the campaign “as soon as possible”, so as to ensure protection against measles for the particularly vulnerable Syrian children.
The World Food Programme has announced that it could be forced to cut funding for over 6 million Syrian refugees unless they receive more funding. John Ging, director of operations at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Reuters: “In October, WFP will be able to deliver 60% of what they have been delivering. In November it will be down to 40%.” Ging puts this down to a simple lack of funds, saying “the money is not coming in.” This means that as winter approaches, humanitarian agencies will be forced to cut back on what little food and material aid they have, rendering yet more grim the fate of aid-dependent Syrians.
Members of the Myanmar Army and Karen National Union (KNU) are due to resume on and off again peace talks next week. However, clashes broke out September 9th between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which is the armed wing of the KNU, and the Myanmar Army near the Oo Thu Hta region of Papun District in Karen State. The KNU fight, both militarily and within the government, for greater autonomy for the Karen, an often-persecuted ethnic minority in Burma’s east. According to The Irrawaddy, “The KNU signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government in 2012, but clashes between the two sides have continued intermittently ever since. Critics say a failure to consolidate the ceasefire through efforts such as the implementation of a code-of-conduct to govern the armed groups has contributed to the ongoing hostilities.” Despite ongoing clashes, the Myanmar government has repeatedly indicated its desire to implement a nationwide ceasefire with all rebel militias, including the KIA, yet such an agreement has failed to materialize.
Additionally, earlier this week two bombs were found in the Karen populated Myawaddy Township near the Thai border. Karen militias, such as the KIA, have been in conflict with Thai border authorities over alleged mistreatment and extortion of Karen migrant workers by Thai border authorities.
On Thursday, 11 September, a two-year-old curfew was lifted for the town of Sittwe in Rakhine State. Sittwe has been the center of conflict between the stateless Muslim Rohingya and Buddhist Rakhine. To date, the conflict has resulted in the death of 192 people and displacing 140,000 Rohingya to internally displaced persons and refugee camps in Bangladesh and India. You can read more about the challenges facing the stateless Rohingya in India here.
In other news, Burma has been undergoing a rapid economic transformation as the country has reengaged with the world economy. However, with new growth comes new challenges. The economic rise has caused concern over uneven development, with benefits reaching only a small, select group of wealthy elites. Additionally, a recent census was significantly smaller than previous estimates, causing some to worry that attracting new investors may be difficult and that profits from untapped Burmese markets may be smaller than anticipated by those who have already invested.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Congolese Minister of Information Lambert Mende denied allegations of an attempt by Congolese President Kabila and the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) to alter the country’s constitution. Opposition activists assert that the President seeks to exploit his numerical majority in parliament to alter the nation’s presidential term limits. Under current regulations, Kabila is required to step down as head of state in 2016. Proposed alterations would permit the President to run for a third term. Political protests escalated in Kinshasa last week after Jean-Bertrand Ewanga, the General Secretary of the opposition, Union for the Congolese Nation, received a yearlong prison sentence for insulting Kabila. Tensions between the ruling party and the opposition remain high.
Didier Bitaki, leader of the Mai Mai Kifuafua rebel militia, stated this week that the group’s 2,800 combatants are ready and willing to surrender, provided that the Congolese state can guarantee security in the Walekale region of eastern Congo. Bitaki’s movement formed in Walekale in response to attacks by rival militias in the region, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The commander maintains that Mai Mai Kifuafua combatants were justified in taking up arms according to the Congolese constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to protect life and property. According to Bitaki, in the past the Congolese military (FARDC) was unable to fulfill this role. The Congolese government today seeks to integrate Mai Mai combatants into the state military or into Congolese society.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded the first case of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in late August. Between August 26 and September 9, the disease spread to over sixty people and claimed the lives of over thirty individuals. The Congolese strain of Ebola is unrelated to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and is in fact a separate strain of the virus that emerged independently in the Congo. Congo’s Ebola cases remain confined to four isolated villages in Equateur province and, with no paved roads running from any major city to the outbreak zone, WHO officials are optimistic that the outbreak may be contained. The UN force in the DRC (MONUSCO) continues to supplyresources to help combat the outbreak.
On September 16, South Sudan’s ministry of labor issued an edict stating that foreign nationals working in the country must leave South Sudan within one month, excluding diplomats and government aid agencies. The government stated that this move towards a foreigner-free South Sudan was due to fear that foreigners are taking jobs that could be given to South Sudanese. There have also been rumors that foreigners in the country have been supporting the rebels financially and militarily. International NGOs have voiced concern that expelling aid organizations could cause the country to fall faster into famine.
The decision has caused many foreign investors to re-think their decisions to invest in projects in South Sudan, raising concerns over the future of an already economically weak South Sudan. Foreign investors like Exxon Mobile have left the country, taking with them jobs and economic gain. This policy has also frustrated neighboring African countries as their economic advisors in the country will now have to leave, greatly impacting trade relations.
Last Friday, the United States has imposed sanctions on two military officers on opposite sides of the conflict in South Sudan to show frustration over continued ceasefire violations. The two officers are on the opposing sides of the conflict, one backed by President Kiir and the other loyal to Kiir’s fired deputy Riek Machar. The US Treasury department stated that both men are perpetuating the violence that has killed thousands and displaced over 1 million since December.
Finally, South Sudanese mediators have condemned the renewed fighting as they were beginning a new round of peace talks. Seyoum Mesfin, the chairman of the mediation process stated that this new round of violence is a “ purposeful act aimed at derailing the next phase of the peace process”.
Central African Republic (CAR)
Last Monday, the United Nations formally took over the African Union’s peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic. The transition added about 1,800 UN troops to the 6,200 AU troops already present. The switch to the UN peacekeeping force, known as MINUSCA, comes after the Associated Press said that it had determined that more than 5,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of violence last December.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch and Stichting Vluchteling, a Netherlands refugee agency,called on the new UN force to “urgently improve protection for civilians in eastern and central parts of the country” where the organizations say sectarian violence continues to increase. Meanwhile, several human rights groups have urged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to send investigators to the country and for MINUSCA to help set up a special court in CAR. The human rights groups stressed the need for perpetrators of grave crimes to be brought to justice “without delay”.
Emerging Conflicts: Lesotho
Events continue to unfold in Lesotho after an attempted coup on August 30th. The tiny country of just two million people is completely surrounded by South Africa. The government is a constitutional monarchy, although the king is largely ceremonial and the head of government is the prime minister.
In June, Prime Minister Tom Thabane suspended parliament with the support of the king due to fears of an impending coup. However, critics believed this move was a power grab from Thabane aimed at avoiding a no confidence vote.
WOn August 30th, military forces surrounded government buildings, forcing the prime minister to flee to South Africa. It is believed that the coup was prompted when Thabanetried to remove Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, leading the army to attempt a coup. On September 3rd, South African troops escorted Thabane back into Lesotho, where he retook control of the government.
While the situation has calmed down, it is still unclear what will happen. Elections originally scheduled for 2017 are set to be moved forward, although a date has not yet been set. Thabane says he will not reopen parliament until Kamoli is arrested, although Kamoli denies the charges against him. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), a 15-country organization, continues to mediate the conflict, and South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is taking over from President Jacob Zuma.
Although the conflict may be resolved peacefully, it is a major setback for Lesotho and SADC. Lesotho reinstated multiparty elections in 1998, and, although they had at times been surrounded by violence, Lesotho was still considered a democratic success story. This has also not helped the reputation of SADC. It does done little to prevent human rights abuses in Zambia and Swaziland, and the appointment of Zimbabwean autocrat Robert Mugabe to chair the organization does not inspire confidence. Mozambique is preparing for contentious elections next year, and a similar situation to Lesotho would further destabilize the region.