The Burmese government has signed a draft ceasefire agreement with the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT). The NCCT is a group representing 16 different armed groups in Burma and has been in talks with the Burmese government for months. Fighting between the Burmese Army and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) regularly interrupted the talks. The draft agreement was later called “a historic and significant achievement” by the United Nations. A nationwide ceasefire has been one of President Thein Sein’s most important and difficult goal since being elected in 2011.
On Thursday, Beijing announced that Burma had apologized and accepted responsibility for bombing the Chinese province of Yunnan last month. Five people were reportedly killed as fighting between the Burmese Army and a group called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army moved across the border to China.
Central African Republic (CAR)
The border between the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a hotbed of activity in recent months. Since the arrest of Dominic Ongwen, a top commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA has intensified its attacks on villages across the border. On March 21, the LRA kidnapped 15 Congolese refugees and 1 Congolese national and held them for several days before releasing 13 of them. The LRA, a militant group best known for being the subject of “Kony 2012” has been the subject of international attention for its widespread atrocities and use of child soldiers. The kidnappings have inflamed relations between CAR and the DRC.
In another incident, residents in eastern Cameroon reportedly killed a number of suspected fighters from CAR who had attempted a large-scale kidnapping. This followed an attack earlier in the month, when fighters from CAR had kidnapped 16 people near the border. Some suspect that the attack was launched by a rebel group known as the Democratic Front of the Central African People (FDPC), which was at one point a part of the Seleka militia that overthrew the national government in March 2013. The leader of the FDPC was arrested in Cameroon in 2013, and the FDPC retaliated by abducting 26 people. While Cameroon eventually released their leader, tensions were never fully resolved.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
On March 26, the UN Security Council (UNSC) renewed MONUSCO’s mandate. UNSC Resolution 2211 (2015) authorizes MONUSCO to remain in eastern Congo through March of 2016. The new resolution cuts the mission’s troop strength by 2,000 peacekeepers, while retaining an existing 21,000 troop maximum that allows the UN to send additional troops in response to security concerns. Tension remains between the Kabila administration and MONUSCO, and Kabila continues to call for an immediate troop drawdown of 6,000 peacekeepers and to request an explicit timetable for the UN’s departure from the DRC. Speaking for the administration, DRC information minister Lambert Mende said, “no one should come here within the bureaucracy of the UN to transform our country into a colony.” Civil society endorsement of the mandate renewal remains far more positive, however, suggesting that the administration’s views may not represent those of the nation.
National elections in 2016 may prove a crucial test case for the efficacy of Western electoral aid in promoting democracy abroad. On Tuesday, March 31, President Barack Obama called Congolese President Joseph Kabila to express concern over the head of state’s refusal to explicitly refute suspicions that he may seek an illegal third term in 2016. With the departure of U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region Russ Feingold in late February, Western influence in the DRC appears at a crossroads. In response to the detention of a U.S. diplomat earlier this month, the Kabila administration responded that the Congo was not a “sub-prefecture of the United States.” The diplomat has since been released. Meanwhile, activists of the pro-democracy Filimbi movement from Congo, Senegal, and Burkina Faso remain in government custody.
MONUSCO Mission Chief Martin Kobler maintains that the Congolese army’s (FARDC) counter-FDLR operations stand to achieve only limited success in the absence of UN support. Civil society representatives from North Kivu met with Kobler in late March to convey concerns regarding the negative impact that the FARDC offensive continues to impose on Congolese civilians, and to ask the mission to work with Congolese authorities to mitigate these risks. While the FARDC claims success in neutralizing nearly 200 FDLR rebels and driving the force out of twelve towns in the Kivus, residents in North and South Kivu note that the militia retains effective governance over a non-negligible number of towns and villages in the region.
During an official visit to Damascus, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to discuss increased coordination between the two countries in opposition to Islamic State forces. The current Iraqi government is among the few Arab countries that have continued to voice support for Assad, in spite of the suspension of Syria’s membership from the Arab League in 2011. Although the United States and Iraq coordinate militarily in opposition to the Islamic State, the United States refuses to ally itself with the Syrian regime in this capacity, on account of Assad’s ongoing actions in the Syrian Civil War.
This week, a United States warplane airdropped approximately 60,000 anti-ISIS propaganda leaflets over Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS. The comic-like flyers graphically depict potential recruits lining up in an ISIS recruitment office, only to be placed into a meat grinder. According to Pentagon Spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, the leaflets are intended to discourage people from joining ISIS because, “It’s not beneficial to your health.”
With the Syrian conflict entering its fifth year, the surge in refugees in neighboring countries has been matched by a massive jump in the number of Syrians seeking asylum. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 150,000 Syrians applied for asylum last year, marking a 166 percent increase in Syrian applications since 2013. Syrians alone comprise approximately one-fifth of all asylum seekers.
Chief of the prominent Nusra Front opposition group, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, is calling for greater unity among different Muslim factions in the Syrian city of Idlib, as well as the establishment of a religious court to preside over local issues and restore legal order to the city. In November, the Nusra Front gained control of Idlib by ousting several Western-backed Syrian opposition groups. Al-Jolani has categorically rejected Western support in the fight against ISIS and the Assad regime.
Emerging Conflicts: Yemen
Yemen is in disarray and civilians continue to suffer heavy costs. The Houthis, a primarily northern Shi’ite rebellion, took over the capital, Sana’a, in January. President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi fled with his government to the southern city of Aden, one of the government’s last remaining areas of control. However, the Houthis are now fighting to take over Aden as well. President Hadi has fled to Saudi Arabia and heavy fighting continues throughout the city.
The Houthis and Iran have been developing a loose alliance. The Houthi rebellion has also been bolstered by support from the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced from office after a series of protests in 2012. Saleh, formerly an opponent of the Houthis, has joined their attempt to remove President Hadi from power, although it is unclear whether this alliance will last. Saudi Arabia remains a staunch ally of the Hadi government, and fears increased Shia and Iranian power in the region. On March 25, Saudi Arabia began leading airstrikes against the Houthis, and may even launch a ground invasion in the future. The United States, also a supporter of the Hadi government, joined the coalition along with Egypt, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan, and Sudan. However, the conflict between the Houthis and the Hadi government is not the only conflict in Yemen. A southern separatist movement and a strong al-Qaeda branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) both remain active in Yemen.
The conflict is causing massive human costs for Yemeni civilians. The economy is already one of the poorest in the region and economic activity has been heavily disrupted by the fighting. On March 21, a group claiming to be a Yemeni branch of the Islamic State sent suicide bombers into mosques in Sana’a, killing 142 people. UN Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos estimates that 519 people have been killed in the last two weeks. Heavy fighting in the densely populated cities of Sana’a and Aden has been especially dangerous.
Saudi airstrikes are also incurring massive civilian casualties. On March 30, 29 people were killed when an airstrike hit a camp for internally displaced persons. On March 31, 6 civilians, including four children, were burned to death when an airstrike hit a fuel depot. The next day, 27 people were killed after a strike hit a dairy factory. Humanitarian aid agencies have also struggled to get support into the country due to a Saudi-led blockade. Heightened security risks have put further pressure on the distribution of humanitarian aid, as a Red Crescent worker was recently shot and killed.
The International Crisis Group has called for an immediate ceasefire and a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The Houthis recently expressed their openness to talks, provided that the Saudi-led coalition halts its bombing campaign and that negotiations are conducted by “non-aggressive” parties.