Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

The Tragedy of Tunisia

If ever there were an Arab country you want to work, it’s Tunisia.
Of the 22 Arab countries, Tunisia is the only one that has weathered the stormy Arab Spring and ended up with a viable democratic government. Its Islamist party has consistently worked with secular counterparts and not made the kind of power plays that doomed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its democratic transition. And Tunisia’s three national elections–held at unheated schoolrooms across the country–between October and December were practically pristine. (I was an international monitor at the December presidential vote.)
Tunisia is a sliver of North Africa nestled between disintegrating Libya and the military-backed government of Algeria. It is a stark contrast to those neighboring geographic giants, and to increasingly autocratic Egypt further east. Tunisia has represented a slice of hope.
Yet Tunisia has also provided more foreign fighters than any other country—in absolute numbers and proportionately—to Islamic State and other militant groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. More than 3,000 had joined by the end of 2014. Last fall the government said it had prevented an additional 9,000 from leaving the country. Just as alarming, an estimated 500 that have trained as killers have returned home.
The tragedy of Tunisia, which played out Wednesday in the terrorist attack at a Tunis museum that killed more than 20, is reflected in Sidi Bouzid.
The poor central city is a long way from the Mediterranean beaches and white-washed buildings with aqua trim that are more familiar to tourists. It was in remote Sidi Bouzid that a young fruit vendor set himself on fire in late 2010 to protest social inequality.Mohammed Bouazizi‘s grisly death sparked the wave of uprisings in 2011 that became known as the Arab Spring.
A large stone monument at the site where Mr. Bouazizi covered himself with paint thinner and lit a match honors his inspiration. It shows a fruit vendor’s cart pushing over several thrones. On the side, written in Arabic, English, and French: “For those who yearn to be free.”
Tunisia’s problem is that four years after Mr. Bouazizi’s self-immolation, flash points remain and many still face profound inequities. When I went to Sidi Bouzid in 2012, a vendor selling bulbous oranges at the street corner where Mr. Bouazizi had worked told me, “We have more freedoms now, but fewer jobs.”
Today, almost a third of Tunisia’s young people are unemployed. It’s not just the poor: More than 200,000 recent university graduates can’t find work. “Most of them have been waiting five, eight, even ten years for a job,” Karim Helali of Afek (“Horizons”), a progressive party favored by Tunisia’s young, told me in December.
Mr. Helali was not surprised by the appeal of militant groups. “Any time these people decide to go to their deaths, it’s because they don’t accept conditions of life. They believe they are rejected by society,” he said.
Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahda, Tunisia’s moderate Islamist party, told me: “The young are still waiting for the fruits of the revolution. So the poorest region is still in protest.”
On the eve of Tunisia’s first democratic election, for parliament, in October, a Pew pollfound that almost 90% of Tunisians described the economy as bad. More than half said the tumultuous transition had left Tunisia worse off than it had been under autocratic rule. Support for democracy had “declined steeply” since the Arab Spring, Pew found.
Three successful elections gave Tunisia a badly needed boost. Lack of jobs is only one of several issues that have disillusioned Tunisia’s young and enticed some of them to militancy. The fragile democracy faces tougher core issues, reflected in the fact that only 32% of eligible voters participated in the final presidential poll. The lowest turnout was among the young. And the lowest turnout in any town nationwide was in Sidi Bouzid.

Clearly, Tunisia has not yet produced enough to believe in.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

Global Arms Sales Soar
By ROBIN WRIGHT   March 16, 2015

If judged by arms sales, the world is getting deadlier. Much deadlier.
For decades, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has monitored the flows of weaponry. Its new report, which evaluates sales in periods of five years to account for multiyear deals and fluctuations in delivery, found that volume of arms exports rose 16% globally from 2010 through 2014, compared with the previous five years.
The United States, once again, was the largest exporter. Its export of major weapons–to 94 countries and territories–grew 23% in the same five-year period. But sales increasingly reflect the economics of the arms industry, not just policy or alliances.
“The USA has long seen arms exports as a major foreign policy and security tool, but in recent years exports are increasingly needed to help the U.S. arms industry maintain production levels at a time of decreasing U.S. military expenditure,” Aude Fleurant, director of the institute’s Arms and Military Expenditure Program, said in a statement Sunday.
The next largest exporters were Russia, China, Germany, and France. Sixty countries export arms, but the top five account for almost three-quarters of all arms transfers worldwide.
China surpassed Germany for the first time. Its exports soared 143% between the two most recent five-year periods, though its share of global exports is still only 5%, the institute reports.
Russian exports of major weapons–to 56 countries and to rebel forces in Ukraine—increased 37%. But its largest sales were more concentrated, with India, China, and Algeria accounting for almost 60% of Moscow’s exports.
The most notable numbers may be arms imports by the six oil-rich Gulf sheikhdoms, which increased 71%. Saudi Arabia became the world’s second-largest importer of major weapons globally between 2010 and 2014, the report says. Saudi imports were four times larger than in the previous five-year period.
The five largest importers among 153 countries that bought arms were India, Saudi Arabia, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, according to the report.
Overall, Asia accounts for five of the 10 largest importers. “Enabled by continued economic growth and driven by high threat perceptions, Asian countries continue to expand their military capabilities with an emphasis on maritime assets,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher with the institute. “Asian countries generally still depend on imports of major weapons, which have strongly increased and will remain high in the near future.”
Among other trends the report noted:
* To fight Islamic State, Iraq received arms from countries as diverse as Iran, Russia, and the U.S. in 2014;
* Cameroon and Nigeria received arms from several countries after an urgent appeal for more weapons to fight Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist movement;
* African arms imports rose 45% from 2010 through 2014, compared with the previous five-year period.
* Azerbaijan had the largest single-country increase in arms exports: 249%.
The report does not bode well for the prospects of peace almost any place in the early 21st century.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

In War on ISIS, Numbers 

Don’t Always Tell the Story

By ROBIN WRIGHT   March 13, 2015
Wars often degrade into numbers games of competing troop strengths, arsenals, territory held, bombing runs, and body counts. But judging an asymmetric conflict is complicated, and the battle against Islamic State involves militaries that are, in most respects, vastly different.
In Iraq, the battle for Tikrit reflects the imbalances and oddities. In Syria, the aftermath of the battle for Kobani shows how victories in this war are not always clean or decisive.
In Tikrit, some 30,000 have been fighting to retake Saddam Hussein’s home town. There are at least three disparate forces–the Iraqi army, an umbrella group of Shiite militias, and Sunni tribal fighters–with senior military advisers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards providing strategy. They attacked ISIS simultaneously on three fronts.
ISIS had only hundreds of militants in Tikrit, according to Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited Iraq this week.
By numbers alone, the first major Iraqi offensive against ISIS should have been a romp.
Yet the fight to retake this city 90 miles north of Baghdad has been a slog, partly because of such immeasurable factors as motive, incentives, and ideological commitment. Sunni militants loyal to ISIS have repeatedly demonstrated more discipline and greater devotion, in Iraq and in Syria, than their rivals.
At this point, ISIS seems destined toretreat from Tikrit. Iraqi Prime MinisterHaidar al-Abadi declared Thursday that victory was near, despite suicide bombings and booby-trapped roads and buildings that have slowed the offensive.
Although the Iraqi army nearly collapsed last summer, ISIS is now outnumbered and outgunned in Iraq. The Iraqi military has 48,000 effective forces–about a quarter of its peak strength of 210,000 troops in 2009. A handful of Shiite militias, operating under the umbrella of Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, made up two-thirds of the fighting forces in the Tikrit campaign. Between 1,000 and 3,000 Sunni tribal fighters also took part in the battle.
Yet Islamic State militants have proven their willingness to fight, whatever the cost in human life or urban destruction. And insurgencies always have the edge of stealth. As it ceded turf in Tikrit, ISIS intensified its assault on Ramadi, a city nearly twice the size of Tikrit and only 60 miles west of Baghdad.
On Thursday, ISIS fighters blew up an Iraqi army headquarters in Ramadi, killing more than 40 soldiers. ISIS militants had dug a tunnel below the headquarters and set off homemade bombs, according to local officials.
In Syria, the first and biggest success against ISIS illustrates the complexities of this asymmetric war. On Jan. 26, ISIS was forced to retreat from Kobani, the little Kurdish town on the Turkish-Syrian border. With the help of more than 600 airstrikes since August by the U.S.-led coalition–at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars–a Kurdish militia with vintage arms pushed the militants out. It was a costly defeat for ISIS: More than 2,000 of its fighters were killed, U.S. officials said at the time.
Yet since that victory, the U.S.-led coalition has bombed “near Kobani” 175 times, according to a tally of U.S. Central Command’s daily press releases. That’s 67% of the coalition bombings in all of Syria since the win in Kobani. In other words, ISIS is still a threat “near Kobani,” just as it may be near Tikrit even if it pulls out.
In short, numbers don’t always tell the whole story of any battle.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Wall Street Journal

Four Years of War Destroyed Syria

By Robin Wright 
Four years into its civil war, Syria is a “catastrophic” disaster where society has begun to disintegrate, life expectancy has plummeted, most people are jobless, and millions of children have abandoned school, a new report reveals.
The Syrian Center for Policy Research, supported by two United Nations agencies, concludes that human development is “rapidly regressing,” which is destabilizing a country that has long been the strategic center of the Middle East.
The numbers are staggering in every category, but the shortened life expectancy stands out. In 2010, life expectancy in Syria was almost 80 years. Today, life expectancy from birth is estimated at 55 years, the report says.
Syria began to implode shortly after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime cracked down on peaceful demonstrators in March 2011. The conflict has produced dozens of militias, including Islamic State, and destroyed vast swaths of major cities and countryside.
Survival is an issue for the majority of Syrians because the economy is no longer sound, the report says. Unemployment has surged to 57.7% from around 15% when the uprising began in 2011.
Four out of five Syrians live in poverty. Two-thirds are unable to secure basic foods and essentials for daily life, and Syria “has become a country of poor people,” the report warns.
Economic loss since 2011 exceeds $200 billion. “The armed conflict has depleted the capital and wealth of the country,” researchers conclude. “The continuing closure of businesses and the shedding of labor have resulted in a fundamental restructuring of the economy, with a lacerating contraction of most economic sectors.”
Education is in a “state of collapse.” More than half of Syrian children no longer go to school. Most have not been to school for three years, spawning the beginning of a lost generation.
In desperation, the “economy of violence” has led growing numbers of Syria’s young people to enlist in networks engaged in illicit activities, smuggling, and war-related enterprises, the report says.
Human geography has been transformed in just four years, the report warns. Syria’s population has been hollowed out by 15%; more than half of Syrians have been displaced from their homes by violence. More than 3.3 million have fled Syria as refugees, with an additional 1.5 million migrating to find work and safer terrain in other countries.
Physical trauma is rapidly escalating too, the report says. At least 6% of Syria’s population has been killed, maimed, or wounded over the past four years. The number of injured has reached 840,000, while the death toll almost doubled in 2014 and is nearing a quarter-million people—with no end to the conflict in sight
International diplomatic efforts so far have failed. Western-backed rebels have increasingly lost territory over the past year to militants in Islamic State and Nusra Front, with the exception of Kobani, a small Kurdish town on the Turkish border. And the Assad regime, with help from Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, appears able to survive for the foreseeable future. 
There may be many more years of war to come, mainly at the expense of Syria’s people.