Good morning Pine Tree Republic citizens! In our Front Page News features, I share 3-5 of the top news stories from the past week and discuss the broader global context in which they occurred. Each post concludes with questions to follow in the coming days and weeks to better understand how today’s news shapes tomorrow’s world. As always, please share your thoughts on these and other stories of the week in the comments section.
This week’s stories include a growing war in Yemen, debating Canada’s involvement in the war against the Islamic State, elections in Nigeria, and a worsening dispute between Ukraine’s oligarchs.
1. “Yemen’s Turf Battle Just Got a Lot Bigger – And a Lot More Dangerous“, by Stephen Snyder and Andrea Crossan (The World) and “Out of Yemen, U.S. Is Hobbled in Terror Fight“, by Eric Schmitt (New York Times)
The Story: On Wednesday, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition began bombing a Shiite rebel group known as the Houthis, who have recently taken control of Sanaa, the capital city of neighbouring Yemen. The Houthis had taken arms agains the sitting Yemeni government, which was a Sunni regime closely tied to its more powerful neighbour in Saudi Arabia. As the Houthi rebellion has expanded its reach and led to reprisals from rival groups, including a series of Islamic State suicide bombings earlier in the month, the United States evacuated its Special Operations forces from an important base in the country. Meanwhile, Iran and its Shiite-led partners in the Middle East have condemned the Saudi-led bombing campaign, with the spectre of more violence to come.
“What has complicated the American global counterterrorism mission most dramatically in the past year is the rise of the Islamic State… The group’s expanding attraction now seems to be not only inspiring ideological followers from Nigeria to Afghanistan, but also loyalists with only tenuous ties to the parent group who are willing to carry out deadly attacks, as happened last week at a popular museum in Tunisia and two mosques in Yemen.”
Context: The escalation of violence in Yemen this week is the latest symptom of a broader struggle to fill the power vacuum in the Middle East, left behind by the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the Arab Spring movements that destabilized authoritarian regimes across the region. This particular flashpoint is the most serious yet, as it has directly drawn in Saudi Arabia’s military in a conflict on its border against a militia that is likely receiving assistance from Iran – making the Middle East version of a “cold war” between these two powers much warmer. As Schmitt points out in his article, one consequence is that it further reduces the United States’ ability to monitor and disrupt terrorist organizations in this region, at a time when the Islamic State and Al Qaida both seem to be growing in strength. With its indirect support for the Houthis, Iran is clearly posing a challenge to U.S. influence in one of the most geopolitically significant places in the region, just as it and the U.S.-led coalition are expected to be coming close to an agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. The timing is curious, and may either reflect a division within Iran’s regime (where some members seek closer ties with the West, while others seek to thwart the negotiations), or perhaps a deliberate attempt to strengthen its negotiating power by pressing a current advantage it sees in influencing developments in the Middle East. In either event, one possible unintended consequence to follow will be the effect on Iran’s domestic politics. Not far removed from mass protests for reform in 2009 and again in 2011, actions that seem to undermine the opportunity for the lifting of sanctions may spark renewed instability within Iran itself.
Question to Follow: How does the current conflict in Yemen affect negotiations between Iran and the West over its nuclear program? What will the ramifications of this be in Iran’s own political system?
2. “Moral Clarity Aside, Canada’s Syria Mission Lacks an Endgame“, by Campbell Clark (Globe and Mail) and “Syria Gives the Liberals a Way Out“, by Konrad Yakabuski (Globe and Mail)
The Story: This week, the Canadian Parliament debated whether Canada should expand its current involvement in fighting the Islamic State (IS) to Syria. For the past six months, Canada has been providing air support and technical training to Kurdish forces battling IS in northern Iraq, and the IS is reportedly moving soldiers and equipment across the border to territory it controls in Syria. Now that the initial six-month authorization of Canada’s mission in Iraq is coming to an end, the Government is seeking to extend the mission for at least another year, and to join the United States and regional allies in conducting missions over Syria. The opposition Liberals and New Democratic Party have expressed concerns over this extension, including the possibility that this may lead to an open-ended conflict without a clear endgame.
The broader strategic picture is more cloudy. Striking the Islamic State in Syria could aid the regime of Bashar al-Assad. There are reports that strikes are already helping rival jihadis in the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. There are hundreds of other factions, and it’s unclear how air strikes will affect the chaos.
Context: The expansion of Canada’s campaign against IS from northern Iraq to Syria is likely to result in a significant change in its mission. Whereas Canadian Forces have a clear partner to work with in Iraq (the Kurds) and are part of a broader alliance involving the United States, European, and regional allies, no such organized alliance exists at the moment in Syria. The endgame of the mission isn’t clear, and the previous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that air attacks alone are not likely to change the balance of power, without an effective ground campaign. Given the heightened risks that Canadian Forces would face in Syria, the possibility that air strikes would embolden the Assad regime, and the fact that European allies have not yet decided to follow the U.S. lead in Syria, the government’s decision to expand its participation seems atypical. One of the motivations driving this decision – perhaps sub-consciously – is the Canadian military’s desire for a new defining role in today’s world. After participating in a series of UN peacekeeping missions over the past decades, and an active role in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan from 2001-2014, the military is now struggling with budget cutbacks and an unclear role. An expanded mission combating the Islamic State might provide it with a renewed sense of purpose, at a time when it appears increasingly difficult to organize UN- or NATO-led coalitions. A similar case could be made on the political side of this decision. After spending years touting itself as the most effective manager of the Canadian economy, the Conservative government now faces an election year in which the country’s resource-based economy is struggling. The Conservative Party now appears to be making the case for the other plank of its identity – defender of the Canadian military. As Yakabuski notes in his analysis, expanding Canada’s mission to Syria is likely to be popular with voters, while putting opposition parties in a difficult position. What remains to be seen is how this open-ended commitment continues to evolve, and whether its successes and/or failures significantly alter the nature of how Canada chooses to involve its military in global conflicts.
3. “Nigeria Steers Africa Further along the Path of True Democracy,” by Geoffrey York (Globe and Mail) and “Nigeria’s Choices for President: A Former Military Ruler or a Corrupt Incumbent,” by Julia Barton (The World)
The Story: Nigerians went to the polls on Saturday and Sunday to vote in presidential elections, voting between incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, a former army general who ruled Nigeria in the 1980s. At the time of writing, election results were expected to be close, and Geoffrey York notes the progress that Nigeria and other African countries have made over the last two years in strengthening democratic institutions. He notes that last year’s rebellion in Burkina Faso was a turning point, in which citizens took to the streets to prevent then-leader Blaise Compaoré from extending his 27-year rule, and has sparked a protests in other African countries to prevent leaders from illegally seeking to extend their rule. On the other hand, The World‘s Julia Barton explains how Nigeria’s choices in this election don’t quite represent the best of democracy – Nigerians essentially have to choose between an incumbent who has led an extensively corrupt administration, or a challenger who promises more military-style rigidity in ruling the country.
Upcoming African elections] are massive, landmark events. It’s no longer business as usual. There’s a revitalization of the importance of elections. There’s a reconnection between people and politics, and people believe they have a voice. And that’s new.” – Stephanie Wolters, Institute for Security Studies
Context: At a time when Africa’s largest country by population is facing the twin threats of plummeting oil prices and militancy from the extremist group Boko Haram, the promise of a close election whose outcome isn’t already pre-determined sends encouraging signs about the strength of its nascent democratic institutions. Given the Nigerian economy’s heavy dependence on oil (it accounts for 70 percent of Nigerian revenue), a drop in oil prices by more than 50 percent has the potential to cripple the state’s institutions, which in many countries would lead governments to adopt more dictatorial tendencies to extend its staying power. Yet, the examples of citizens resisting this trend in the fellow West African countries of Senegal and Burkina Faso, and perhaps Nigeria’s dependence on neighbouring countries to help fight Boko Haram, seem to have restricted the ability of the President to further delay elections. The increasing power of citizens to hold their governments to account is no doubt supported by the exponential growth of mobile phone use in Africa, and ability of citizens to more easily share examples of government overreach and mobilization tactics. At the same time, this particular election in Nigeria offers a note of caution. As we have noticed with the evolution of the Arab Spring, those who initiate a challenge to existing regimes are not necessarily the same groups who ultimately benefit from change. Rather, it is often groups who already have developed an organized structure, such as military and religious groups, that are best positioned to fill the power vacuum. And in many African countries who have just recently emerged from civil and ethnic conflict, the trend towards greater resistance to sitting regimes may not always result in positive change.
4. “In ‘War of the Oligarchs’, Ukrainians Will Be the Losers“, by Mark MacKinnon (Globe and Mail)
The Story: Mark MacKinnon reports on a developing conflict within Ukraine, where President Petro Poroshenko fired powerful governor Ihor Kolomoisky this week. Although both leaders were fighting Russian-allied rebels in eastern Ukraine, they have also been involved in a behind-the-scenes power struggle over control of the country, most recently around a new law limiting how much influence Kolomoisky can have over the country’s lucrative pipeline companies. Like the president, Kolomoisky is one of Ukraine’s billionaire oligarchs, who made his fortune through an extensive financial, energy, and media empire. He has several powerful allies within Ukraine’s Parliament, including the country’s prime minister, who has openly criticized President Poroshenko over his ceasefire deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This most recent spat may further unravel Ukraine’s fragile coalition as it seeks to push back the rebellion in the eastern part of the country.
The Ukrainians who stood on ‘the Maidan,’ Kiev’s Independence Square, last winter demanding change could be forgiven for thinking that they still haven’t gotten the country they were asking for, only rule by different oligarchs. There is already talk in Kiev of the need for ‘a third Maidan’ (the similarly flawed Orange Revolution of 2004 is counted as the first), this time to purge the oligarchs from the system for good.
Context: This latest round of disputes within the Ukrainian government carries echoes of the Arab Spring – despite a pro-democracy movement that succeeded in toppling an authoritarian regime, those who ultimately take power do not embody the ideals that initially led to the revolution, but rather reflect groups or individuals who already had significant resources at hand when the revolution took place. In this case, the most powerful political force in Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union has been a small group of oligarchs who control the country’s most significant industries and media (itself an outcome of the rapid and unregulated transition to a capitalist economy in the 1990s). One difference in this case is the role that international institutions such as the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are playing, directly or indirectly, in shaping the evolution of Ukraine’s political future. It was the prospect of admission to the EU, and subsequent rejection by then-President Victor Yanukovich, that sparked the Maidan protests in 2014. And given that $15 billion in loans from the IMF, intended to bolster Ukraine’s economy, may be cancelled due to outstanding debt owed by Ukraine to Russia, the government may become even more reliant on the power of its oligarchs. Should this spark a renewed round of unrest among pro-democracy activists, it is unclear how the EU and other Western countries would respond.
Question to Follow: How would the EU and other institutions respond to a renewed round of pro-democracy protests in Ukraine?
I look forward to reading your comments and perspectives on this week’s news.