Terrorism

Energy Industry: The Sector Most Affected by Terrorism

In recent weeks, a number of oil and gas facilities in Syria were struck by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by drones. This is unfortunately not the first time that this has happened as the energy sector remains a major interest of terrorist and insurgent groups operating in the region.

In regard to energy supplies, Syria is significant in the eastern Mediterranean as it was found to possess the largest proven reserves of crude oil in the region. The oil and gas industry as a whole has always been a major source of income for the country as it accounted for approximately one-fourth of government revenues. In the pre-war period, Syria was one of the major producers and exporters of petroleum supplies. Indeed, the production of crude oil before 2011, amounted to around 400,000 barrels per day, half of which were exported.

There is currently a major conflict of interests between the United States, Russia, Iran and Turkey regarding the control of the Syrian oil and gas fields. In this context, numerous attacks on Syrian energy infrastructures have been carried out either by state or non-state actors, resulting in the Syrian government losing control of key oil fields. Indeed, such attacks have far-reaching consequences for the county’s economy. The Syrian oil and gas production have undoubtedly experienced a dramatic drop since the civil war erupted. It has essentially undergone a steep fall of approximately 95%, thus forcing the Syrian government to start importing oil.

The energy industry became a legitimate target of terrorist groups in the 1990s and it is the sector most affected by terrorism at a global level. Syria is not the only example of this kind. Oil industries in Nigeria, Colombia and Venezuela are considered to have been affected by terrorism in some sense. Research has shown that in regions with high-level tensions, such as Syria, the possibilities of a terrorist attack against energy infrastructures are higher. The incentive behind such an attack may be to cause a great deal of damage in order to attract media attention, to put pressure on the relevant government or to obtain control over the energy resources.

There are numerous militant or terrorist groups seeking to exploit sources of energy and natural resources. A prime example is the Islamic State whose funding strategy included the conquering of territory rich in oil and gas. Indeed, the Islamic State heavily relied on the oil-producing areas it controlled; the exploitation of such territories reaped huge profits, making the Islamic State the wealthiest terrorist organization that ever existed. They used these profits not only to fund its terrorist activity but also to buy weapons and to recruit new members. Economic incentives played a key role in many fighters’ decision to join the group. Therefore, the protection of energy facilities in conflict zones and counter-terrorism operations is vital so that they do not fall into the wrong hands.

The energy sector is particularly important for states that largely depend on in thus social well-being depends on its proper functioning. An attack against energy infrastructure by hostile states or terrorists causes serious disruption and problems to societies as well as places national security at risk. It is therefore essential to ensure the security and safety of energy infrastructure anywhere in the world, but especially in unstable countries with fragile security. This could be achieved by working together with organizations that are specialized in energy security responsible for carrying out risk, threat and vulnerability assessments. This, in addition to developing new detection technology in preventing terrorist attacks, will help to enhance forecasting and rapid response capabilities for the protection of energy infrastructure to promote peace and security globally.

How Terrorist Organizations Could Exploit the Idlib Crisis

The Russian-led offensive in the Idlib province has already displaced at least 800, 000 people in three months. Many of them have been displaced multiple times during the Syrian Civil War and are now fleeing towards Turkey, seeking refuge in camps on the closed border. In addition to the grave humanitarian crisis it prompted, the campaign gives terrorist organizations an opportunity to exploit the current situation.

There are fears that Daesh could take advantage of the chaos to regain some of its strength, which is something that occurred in northeast Syria after the Turkish offensive last October. Although the Idlib province does not face the challenge of keeping thousands of Daesh members in prisons and camps, there are fighters, who relocated to the region from other areas of Syria, as well as Daesh linked groups. Despite little concern that the group would be able to seize territory compared to what it once held, it was still able to mobilize thousands of members and it is in possession of a considerable sum of money, making it a potent security risk. In addition, there are other groups present in the region, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which could exploit the crisis in different ways.

Terrorist groups could take advantage of the new refugee wave and head for Turkey. Idlib is home to around 3 million people and Turkey, which already hosts the largest refugee population in the world, is afraid of the new refugee influx. President Erdogan stated that Turkey will not carry such burden on its own and that all European countries will feel the negative impact of this pressure.

Besides the possibility of thousands of refugees pouring in both Turkey and Europe, there is a risk of terrorists and foreign fighters joining the wave and travelling back home or elsewhere. Syria has been known for attracting a huge number of foreign fighters who pose a security risk to their home countries. Although Turkey sealed its border, diplomats say that the country will not be able to prevent all the people from crossing to its territory. Moreover, as the offensive is continuing and the territory under rebel control is shrinking, there is a question of what will happen if advance of the operation is not halted. But, even if terrorists were not able to enter Turkey, they could benefit from their presence in refugee camps.

Refugee camps on the Turkish borders might become a hotbed of radicalization and a pool for recruitment. The majority of people fleeing to refugee camps are women and children. With a lack of security, terrorists are met with ideal conditions to spread their ideology to children, often lacking proper education, and arguably more susceptible than adults. However, as many people fled the fighting multiple times, their grievances could be exploited more easily than before, pushing them closer to the decision to join an armed group. Furthermore, refugees are living in dire conditions and poverty therefore becoming a member of an organization might be the only way to provide for their family. All in all, terrorists might take advantage of people’s situation in refugee camps in a number of ways.

As there are thousands of fighters, it is highly unlikely that the Syrian army will be able to eliminate or capture all of them. Thus, some of the terrorists might decide to hide in the camps with the aim of surviving the government’s operation and launching terrorist attacks in the future.

Currently, the only possible solution to the crisis seems to be a stop to the government offensive and a resort to diplomacy. At the same time, this scenario seems unlikely. Turkey stated that the situation will not be solved until Syrian forces withdraw. Soon after, the Syrian army consolidated control of Aleppo and pledged to eradicate all militant groups. A Turkish delegation visited Moscow on February 17 to engage in ongoing talks; however, efforts to broker a lasting ceasefire have failed in past weeks. Therefore, prospects for stoppage of the offensive and a relief to the crisis look rather dim.

Yemen

Strikes Against Terrorist Leaders in Yemen Have Little Impact on Peace Efforts

Last week, the White House confirmed that a United States missile strike killed the top Al-Qaeda leader in Yemen While the assassination of Qasim al-Raymi, the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official eliminated a terrorist whose roots stretch beyond 9/11, it is unlikely that it will impact violence in the country or the overall effectiveness of the terrorist group.

Reporting from several sources recount that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tracked al-Raymi and executed an unmanned drone strike against him — the second drone attack against the leadership of a US-government classified terrorist group. In recent years, his leadership was even characterized as detrimental to the AQAP’s operations and a successor, likely the reported external operations leader Khalid Batarfi, could provide the group with a sense of renewal.

Nonetheless, operations to neutralize AQAP leadership remains an ineffective way to combat the cyclical violence in Yemen. Fighting between separatist and government forces compound to create an atmosphere that breeds instability and terrorist groups like the AQAP. Prior to al-Raymi’s death, a soldier and a civilian were killed in an ambush linked to the AQAP whilst fighting between the two groups in Yemen’s civil war resulted in the loss of over 100 lives at a military training base around the same time.

American counterterrorism efforts have a long and complex history in Yemen. Since 9/11, the US has utilized everything from drone strikes, surveillance and special operations in the country. The outbreak of the Yemeni civil war in 2011 did not compel the US to shift their tactics or move towards their stated mission to “build the capacity of the local government forces, working by, with, and through these partners to accomplish our common counterterrorism objectives” in a way that proliferates the least amount of violence.

Civilians and ground forces in the Yemeni conflict face the brunt of the lack of policy development. Streets and hospitals are encompassed in the dangerous warzone. These types of situations allow terrorist groups like the AQAP to find a safe haven as those engaged in counter efforts on the ground are preoccupied with daily missile exchanges and the problematic task of sourcing enough medical supplies to treat the wounded.

The United States has suffered the consequences of its lack of amended counterterrorism policy in Yemen too. For instance, the AQAP claimed responsibility for the terror attack on the Pensacola Naval Air Station. It is evident that the war in Yemen pushed all of the players in the conflict to new levels of violent action.

The US needs to participate in peace efforts to deal with terrorism in Yemen. By leaving peace talks to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, the power imbalance of the negotiating bodies propagate mistrust and devolve into violence. With seasoned diplomats, extensive experience in peace negotiation and a relationship on both sides of the conflict, the US has tools at its disposal to bring peace to Yemen while making the world a safer place for everyone in the process.

From Violence to Politics: Will the Taliban Become a Political Party?

The Taliban has rejected engaging in negotiations many times, but President Ghani’s proposal to fully recognize the group as a legal political party in 2018 was a turning point. Terrorist organizations change and many have proven to have the ability to engage in politics. Organizations like Hezbollah or the Irish Republican Army (IRA) changed strategy and came to prioritize politics over violence for advancing their agenda. Perhaps the Taliban too is showing signs of transforming into a political party?

Tapping into politics does not necessarily mean letting go of violence. Estimated to have around 60,000 full-time fighters, the Taliban’s territorial reach does not show signs of pull back. They retain the ability to conduct high-profile urban attacks, demonstrate considerable tactical capabilities, and their attacks have become more effective in the third quarter of 2019.

As security expert Audrey Kurth Cronin points out, many groups that engaged in politics have maintained violent activities. Hezbollah became a fully-fledged political party shortly after the signing of the Ta’if peace agreement in 1989, but like the Taliban showed no signs of slowing down militarily.  Although it has been running in elections since 1992 and has become one of the most important players in the parliament, Hezbollah has not disarmed like other militias in Lebanon. Similarly, the Taliban are unlikely to commit fully to politics.

Perhaps becoming political could be a means to an end. Conflict negotiations are built on the assumption that parties want the conflict to end. However, in the case of the Taliban this is not clear. United States officials assess that the Taliban does not pose an existential threat to the Afghan government at the moment, but signal that the dynamic can change if the US alters its deployments in Afghanistan.

Negotiations could be a vehicle for the Taliban to force US troops out of Afghanistan, so they could defeat the government and other local rivals in order to reinstate the Islamic Emirate by force. Similarly, Hezbollah’s military capacity competes with that of the government of Lebanon, and both analysts and governments have argued the group’s political activity has only been means to their continuous anti-Israel terror campaign.

Engagement in politics could also feature Taliban radical splinters, which may carry on the terrorist campaign. The Taliban may not be a very fragmented organization under the leadership of Haibatullah Akhundzada, but disagreements within the group could occur if the Taliban and the Afghan government strike a deal. Radical factions could be dissatisfied with concessions made during negotiations and carry on terrorist attacks despite opposition from Taliban leadership.

The IRA is such a case – when the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 granted the formation of an Irish Free State, the organization split. The pro-treaty faction grew into the army of the Irish Free State. The anti-treaty faction – under the leadership of Eamon de Valera — carried on the terrorist campaign. Although until the Good Friday Agreement of 1996 the IRA featured multiple radical splinters that carried on terrorist attacks, the factions also engaged in politics, some growing into the most important political parties in Ireland (such as Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein).

Whether the Taliban transforms into a political party is also a regional bid. The creation of the Taliban was catalyzed by Pakistani influence.  Numerous reports have indicated that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency was involved in the creation of the Taliban, and still supports the insurgency as a matter of official policy to contain the influence in Afghanistan of its rival India.  Similarly, Hezbollah surfaced when Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps arrived in Lebanon to provide support for pro-Iranian Shiite militias against Israel, and the political party has been depicted as an outpost of Iranian influence.

Several lessons can be drawn from the experience of the Hezbollah and the IRA’s changeover to politics.

  • A comprehensive strategy for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of the Taliban should be formulated. Although the Ta’if agreement called for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, and so did several United Nations Security Council Resolutions, Hezbollah expanded its military power and did not show signs of integrating into the Lebanese Armed Forces.
  • A plan for moderating Taliban aims for Islamist government is necessary, as they will most likely seek reinstating Islamist rule in Afghanistan. In comparison, Hezbollah’s engagement in politics has been granted by the group’s receptiveness to political pluralism – “we are committed to Islam but unwilling to impose it by force”.
  • Any deals should contain areas of deliberate strategic ambiguity to minimize Taliban factionalization. The Good Friday Agreement was ambiguous enough to enable participants to describe the accord in terms that were palatable to their constituents, and so should be any agreement between domestic parties in Afghanistan.
  • The role of third-party states is crucial. In Lebanon, success and failure of conflict regulation depends on the maintenance of positive exogenous pressures, and Syrian and Iranian interests affected the trajectory of Hezbollah. Similarly, the interests of Pakistan must be considered as a key element of any potential Taliban engagement in politics.

Consequences of the Ongoing Offensive in Idlib

Without the attention it once attracted, the Syrian civil war not only continues, but has even escalated in past weeks due to the ongoing offensive in the last rebel-held province of Idlib. However, what might be perceived as a final push for victory by Bashar Assad’s regime and its allies will most likely bring yet another humanitarian crisis and further destabilize the war-torn country.

In late 2018, Russia and Turkey brokered a deal that was supposed to create a demilitarized buffer zone around the province to mitigate the crisis. Turkey is a key supporter of Syrian rebel groups and thus an important actor in the Idlib region; however, the rebels and Syrian regime continued low-intensity clashes even after the deal was reached. The Syrian Army renewed its offensive with daily airstrikes in December 2019. This offensive is ongoing despite efforts to broker a ceasefire in the beginning of January.

(Source: The Guardian)

Idlib province is home to approximately 3 million civilians and an estimated tens of thousands of fighters, therefore, the potential for an increase in internally displaced persons and a refugee influx to Turkey is significant. For example, at least 350,000 civilians have left the province for Turkey since the renewed offensive. In addition, half a million people fled before the offensive started due to fears of the attacks and sought safety in refugee camps on the Turkish border.

Such a wave of refugees may not only cause problems for Turkey, but for European countries as well. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan already threatened the European Union that he would “open the gates” to Europe if Turkey does not receive additional aid to manage the crisis. With more refugees pouring into Turkey as a result of the offensive, Erdoğan might use these developments to put more pressure on the EU.

Moreover, airstrikes have killed dozens of civilians in the past days and weeks. Additionally, the airstrikes left a number of villages in ruins, targeted hospitals and schools. Such actions inflict further damage on the country and its infrastructure resulting in a more expensive, difficult and longer post-war reconstruction in the future.

Besides civilians, the question of rebel fighters present in the province remains. Due to their large estimated numbers, it is improbable that all of them will be killed or captured, therefore, these fighters could pose a security threat in the future. Syria and Iraq have attracted thousands of foreign fighters in the past who could potentially carry out terrorist attacks across the world were they to travel back home or elsewhere. Conversely, they could remain in Syria to continue terrorist activities and make the transition towards peace more difficult.

The Idlib offensive might bring the Syrian civil war closer to an end than ever before, however, the consequences would be severe. Attacks are already taking a toll on civilian lives and exacerbating a relentless humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands flee the province. Nevertheless, Assad seems determined to regain control of the entire country. It is a fair assumption that the offensive will mark yet another grim milestone in the 9-year Syrian civil war.

New ISIL Leader Officially Named and Confirmed

It was recently officially confirmed by two intelligence services that Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi is the new head of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Prior to the reveal of his identity, Al-Salbi was known as Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi: a name implying that he is of Qurayshi descent and thus legitimizes his role as a new ‘caliph’.

Early Years and ISIL Roots

Al-Salbi — alias Hajji ‘Abdallah — was born in the small northwestern Iraqi city Tal Afar; a city once under Al-Qaeda control from 2004 to 2006 and a subsequent strategic base for the Islamic State. He graduated with a degree in Sharia law from the University of Mosul, was a religious scholar in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and is believed to be a founding member of ISIL.

Like most of the Islamic State’s leading fighters, he is a former officer who had served under Saddam Hussein and played a prominent role in the fight against the United States and its allies. In 2004, he was captured by American troops for associations with al-Qaeda and placed in Camp Bucca detention center where he met al-Baghdadi.

It was only natural that al-Baghdadi took advantage of his period of detention to indoctrinate as many inmates as possible and set up a common vision, namely the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Within Camp Bucca, Baghdadi created a network of hardline fighters that he destined for positions of leadership in the Islamic State.

The new ‘caliph’, nicknamed as the ‘Professor’, is one of those fighters connected with Baghdadi and adopted his unwavering commitment to the Islamic State. He appears to have led many of their international operations and he is considered to have played a decisive role in the enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women and children, as well as the murder of an equal number of Yazidi men in Iraq, started in 2014.

Current Situation

Although the succession of Baghdadi by al-Salbi was only recently confirmed, he is likely to have taken over the day-to-day operations of the terrorist organisation well before the former’s death. Being wounded and suffering from a chronic illness, al-Baghdadi had already designated a successor since last August. During that time, the Rewards for Justice Program (RFJ) of the US Department of State announced a reward up to $5 million for information regarding al-Salbi, placing him on the list with the most wanted terrorists. There is no doubt that he will be an efficient leader that will attempt to reinvigorate the Islamic State. What remains to be seen is whether he will be as inspiring as his predecessor who had been admittedly very successful in recruiting fighters from all around the world and inciting them to fight for a common cause.

Recent discussions around its new leader indicate that the Islamic State is indeed regenerating and confirms fears about a possible re-emergence. The situation both in Iraq and Syria has created a favourable environment for ISIL to rebuild its strengths and organise its operations. This is certainly not a simple task without any territory under their control, however, regional instability has disrupted security and reduced the effectiveness of the security services.

If tensions and conflict are not addressed soon, intelligence gathering will be extremely challenging, and attempts to prevent the Islamic State from breaking their imprisoned fighters out and retaking territory will be even less likely to be successful. Consequently, prisons where IS fighters are held should be properly guarded, in order to avoid a mass break out, and a particular attention must be focused on monitoring desert regions around the Iraq-Syria border, and other areas which are beyond the control of the central government.

 

Trump on Afghanistan

Afghan Promises and a Peace Plan in Trump’s State of the Union Address

At the State of the Union, President Trump endorsed peace talks with the Taliban and promised that he continues to work to “end America’s wars in the Middle East” and bring troops home. He stated:

“In Afghanistan, the determination and valor of our warfighters has allowed us to make tremendous progress, and peace talks are underway. I am not looking to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Afghanistan, many of them innocent. It is also not our function to serve other nations as a law enforcement agency. These are warfighters, the best in the world, and they either want to fight to win or not fight at all. We are working to finally end America’s longest war and bring our troops back home!”

The US-Taliban talks

Mark Esper, the United States Defense Secretary, stated intent to reduce the number of troops to 8,600 from 14,000 with or without a deal with the Taliban. This aligns with statements made this past Monday by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the Taliban must first give “demonstrable evidence of their will and capacity to reduce violence” for peace talks to progress.

 In the past week, US Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad completed talks in Doha, Qatar where he met with the Taliban political office and later with the Afghan political community in Afghanistan. There have been numerous talks behind closed doors and open discussions with the Taliban on issues of reduction of violence, US troop withdrawal, and a possible interim government to end the Afghan conflict. Nonetheless, nothing is promising, and Afghanistan is an unpredictable country with so many elements in flux.

A US deal with the Taliban will be condition-based primarily anchored on the US troop withdrawal, the Taliban commitment to cut ties with al-Qaeda and the renunciation of Afghan soil as a place to plan  attacks against the United States and its allies.

The Afghan dilemma

The prolonged ethnic conflict in Afghanistan is at the root of the political rift in Afghanistan. A race for power and supremacy supplanted any rational opportunities for compromise in the inner workings of the Afghan political community. Ethnonationalism is on the rise thus escalating tensions between tribes and ethnicities and  — most importantly — among the youth of Afghanistan. A September 2019 presidential election stirred deeper chaos and left its people uncertain over the future of their country. 

The Taliban game of politics

Taliban has been rather successful in the advancement of their interests of power and recognition.  A regime that was established in the 1990s and toppled by the US in 2001 has now emerged with a mission to build a global reputation and controls a significant portion of Afghan territory, where they set up an Islamic Emirate or similar form of government. Establishment of such a political system nationwide is their strategic objective and a peace deal — or no deal — will not change that.

Taliban have said recently that they agreed to a short-term ceasefire, but left any questions about a permanent ceasefire unanswered until an agreement with the US on troop withdrawal is reached. They hesitate to hold any talks with the Afghan government as they believe the Afghan government is weak and is unready to negotiate and respond to Taliban demands. The Afghan government simply wants the Taliban to surrender and end the violence. This has become a deal-breaker for intra-Afghan dialogue. 

 Talks between the US and the Taliban are only the first step of a long process. Intra-Afghan dialogue — where the Taliban meet with Afghan officials — is the next step. In this phase, both sides of the conflict will discuss key barriers, demands, amendments to the constitution to increase the likelihood of success in reaching sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

 Promising future?

Convincing the Afghan political community to negotiate with the Taliban is the hardest part of achieving Afghan peace. Throughout the nine rounds of peace talks, the Taliban presented themselves professionally with one voice and one strategy while the Afghan representatives seem to lack a clear vision with a government that appears unsupportive of their efforts. The Afghan government has not finalized the list of peace talk participants yet.

 Here are three possible scenarios for Afghanistan

  1. Presidential election: A new government should be established through a second round of elections between the two front-runners given that candidates failed to reach 52 percent of the vote. The winner with 52 percent of the vote would become the president of Afghanistan and will have to negotiate with the Taliban in the next 5 years.
  2. Interim government: It is a reasonable option that an interim government should be formed until a stable Afghanistan can create a new government. The last elections were a complete failure due to security challenges, electoral fraud, technical difficulties and a low voter turnout (approximately 1.5 million voted in a country of 35 million citizens), thus an interim government offers a path forward for now.

  3. The continuation of the current regime: It is even more likely that the current regime retains power in a situation where a second round of elections are indecisive and the Afghan political community cannot compromise on an interim government.

Afghanistan’s future is unpredictable with so many moving parts though Afghans are hopeful that peace is possible. Trump’s State of the Union speech acted as yet another reminder that the situation in the country continues to perplex domestic and international political actors as they continually seek opportunities to end the decades of violence.

What In The World Is Coronavirus? A Short Primer

Editor’s Note: One does not typically expect to see an article related to public health or infectious disease on Rise to Peace. After all, we are an organization focused on counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts. Nevertheless, an opportunity to educate our followers about Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) arose and organization leadership thought such a measured analysis should be shared. We live in a globalized world and one of the aspects that accompany such a world system is the spread of viruses and subsequent public health issues. Education is the best antidote against fear and paranoia. Reminders such as these present opportunities for all of us to ‘get back to basics’ in daily preventative measures not only to keep ourselves healthy, but our elderly, young, chronically ill and immune-compromised neighbours. Learn about the current virus all over the headlines right now and use the advice to prevent other common viral infections. Thanks to Emirhan Darcan Ph.D for this timely piece!

Most viruses that cause infectious diseases in humans come from animals. Viruses usually have a reservoir animal that is not affected by the virus and several animals that transmit it. Influenza and similar viruses that infect the respiratory tract usually originate from birds (where they mutate) and then spread to humans via pigs or other animals. Where humans and animals live together in cramped spaces, as in China, a virus variant can develop which jumps over to humans and then makes the leap from person to person.

The new pathogen is called 2019-nCoV and infects the respiratory tract. It was discovered at the end of 2019 in Wuhan, China. In the worst case, an infection can lead to pneumonia. Initial accompanying symptoms are rhinitis and fever. The pathogens causing the diseases Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) belong to the same family. As of February 3, there were more than 20,000 confirmed cases in more than two dozen countries. 426 deaths have been reported.

How the infection spreads from person to person is not known for sure. The droplet infection (sneezing, coughing) would be the most contagious way of transmission. As you would from the flu: wash your hands often and keep a fair distance from those who are symptomatic. Face masks do not provide reliable protection against viral disease, but they do prevent you from repeatedly touching your face. This is more likely to protect others.

The biggest difference between the current CoV disease and SARS lies in the timing: Chinese New Year is the time when Chinese people want to see their families and therefore travel is increasing rapidly across the country. This will make it difficult to curb the spread of the 2019 nCoV though China has cancelled some public celebrations and extended the holiday period.

The lethality of the virus depends not only on the pathogen, but also on the circumstances. The 2019-nCoV is thought to have a lethality rate of about 2 percent. This would be lower than in the SARS outbreak of 2002/03 with a death rate of 9 to 16 percent of all infected persons. MERS is less infectious but kills more infected people: 30 to 40 percent. The most lethal virus so far is believed to be the Zaire type of the Ebola virus, which killed up to 90 percent of the infected. The Marburg and Lassa type of Ebola, on the other hand, had a lethality rate of between 20 and 25 percent. Less than 0.1 percent of those infected from the flu, 2.5 percent are suspected to have died from the Spanish flu of 1918/1919. In the past, 3 to 6 percent died from rubella and 0.1 to 0.2 percent from measles.

The reproduction rate R0 indicates approximately how many people a single virus carrier can infect. However, there are many uncertainties, for example, that the number of known cases does not correspond to the actual number of cases, or that infected people without symptoms could spread the virus further. The health status of a population also has an influence. For the current Corona-virus, estimates vary from 1.4 to 2.2 or 3.3 to 5.47. A R0 is greater than 1 means that the virus is spreading. The wave of influenza has a R0 of 1 to 2, with an estimate of 3 for SARS, and the highest values for the risk of infection are found in the literature for measles (12-18) and whooping cough (12-17).

China has prohibited travel and shutdown cities. The World Health Organization (WHO) has intervened. Despite the low mortality rate, the disease is more serious than influenza, and there are more hospital admissions. Hospitalization is expensive and absenteeism from work is expensive. Health systems could quickly reach their limits if the disease continues to spread. It is therefore appropriate for health authorities to react differently than in the case of an influenza epidemic. This is also because the virus is new and no one is yet immune to it.

The rapid global response to the discovery of the new virus is a good sign. Even if the dynamics of infection and mortality do not seem to reach record levels, it is important to react quickly, otherwise, a pandemic, i.e. a global epidemic, may still be imminent. China has learned from SARS and so have health authorities worldwide. Today, when the origin of a virus can be traced, no country can afford to conceal it because the number of infections rose rapidly. A virus can also mutate at any time.

It is feared since the danger of a pandemic has been better understood. Not much can be done against unknown viruses and the therapy of a patient is limited to nursing care. The condition for a pandemic is the ability of a pathogen to jump quickly from person to person. Most dangerous are pathogens that have a high lethality, but at the same time, a long incubation period and the ability to infect other people even without symptoms. It is therefore difficult to take epidemiological measures against them.

— Emirhan Darcan Ph.D

The High Possibility of the Reemergence of the Islamic State

In light of the recent developments in both Iraq and Syria, it is quite understandable that the Middle East faces yet another enduring crisis. Current rhetoric and military actions highlight the fragile security situation and the possible scenario of the resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Indeed, the resurgence of the Islamic State is now a likelier outcome and there is a twofold explanation for this. Firstly, the Turkish operation ‘Peace Spring’ against the Kurds in north-eastern Syria, together with the withdrawal of American troops from the region, complicates the operation against any remaining powers of the Islamic State. The Kurds, who had long combatted ISIL, are now preoccuptied by the Turkish military activities, thus leaving unattended many prisons where tens of thousands of IS suspects are held. There are already reports of hundreds of ISIL escapees and, even worse, there are fears that a mass break-out of ISIL members is being planned. Should this be the case, IS fighters will once again become a grave security threat.

Secondly, the death of General Qassem Soleimani disrupted regional security too. As a well-respected member of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and commander of the Quds Force, he was a key figure in Iran and central to the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East. In addition, he played a pivotal role in the fight against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which cost the lives of a large number of American soldiers. Nonetheless, although the Quds Force is a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization in the US, they have been especially effective in the fight against ISIL. Consequently, the US move to dispatch him, has certainly benefited the Islamic State, as he was their enermy.

In view of the above, without these credible rivals in their way, the Islamic State is faced with fewer obstacles to regain territory. A mass release of ISIL fighters from prisons and the drone strike on General Soleimani actually distract Iraqis’ attention from their political grievances, namely the corrupted government and the Iranian dominance in the country. The Iraqi people are now more concerned about a possible resurgence of the Islamic State rather than anything else. Despite their discontent due to the Iranian military presence in the country since 2014, they acknowledge the important contribution of Soleimani to ISIL’s defeat.

Moreover, Iran’s determination to take revenge for Soleimani’s death has raised serious concerns for the anti-ISIL coalition. In this sense, they halted operations against the remaining IS fighters in order to focus on protecting their troops and envoys based in Iraq; a decision which turned out to be correct as Iran has launched numerous ballistic missiles against US bases and the US embassy.

It goes without saying that such circumstances provide the breeding grounds needed for the Islamic State to re-emerge. Further, it must be acknowledged that the ever-increasing instability and discontent across the region, as well as the ongoing violence, were some of the underlying causes which motivated ISIL in the past. Therefore, there is little doubt that the Islamic State will again take advantage of the situation created in Iraq and Syria to rise once more, almost unimpeded.

In order to prevent this disastrous scenario from happening, policymakers must stop being distracted and losing direction. Although ISIL has suffered considerable losses in terms of fighters and territories, it has not been completely defeated yet. Consequently, instead of fighting each other, countries such as the US and regional actors, such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, must act together with the joint aim of combating ISIL and preventing their expansion again.

Will Violence Stop If the United States and Taliban Reach a Deal?

The latest talks between the United States and the Taliban may conclude with a deal. Content of the peace agreement has been finalized in Doha, according to former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal. Sources indicate the Taliban agreed to a reduction in violence and potential talks with Afghan government if the deal is sealed.

The agreement revives hopes for a long-term solution in Afghanistan’s painful 18 years of war. However, the potential deal must be treated with caution if US negotiators do not look beyond the peace agreement.

The US-Taliban negotiations have been marked by an on and off pattern of violence. In August 2019, the US and the Taliban concluded the 9th round of direct talks and were on the verge of reaching a deal that could allow the pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan and a ceasefire that would put an end to violence. However, in September the Taliban conducted an attack that killed one US soldier and 11 civilians in Kabul. President Trump responded by calling off a scheduled meeting with the Taliban and abruptly halted the peace efforts for over three months. At the end of November, the US president made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, met Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, and declared he revived the paralyzed peace talks.  Yet, an alleged US-Taliban prisoner swap failed, and the ‘trust building’ exercise between the parties seemed to also be overwhelmingly weakened.

According to Trump, the Taliban strategy has been to better their leverage in the peace talks through terrorism. On December 11, the Taliban staged an attack on the Bagram military base. An explosive-laden vehicle went off in the vicinity of the airbase and was followed by shooting. One day after, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad announced a ‘brief pause’ in the already intermittent peace talks. Two more US soldiers were killed by Taliban in January, reaching a total of  2,400 U.S. troops killed in the US’s longest war. The US-backed government forces also stroke back through artillery and aerial attacks that killed over 20 Taliban.

Given that both parties have been focused on maintaining power positions during the negotiations, the content of the agreement might be less of a breakthrough than expected. The US approach to negotiations with the Taliban has been modelled on a straight forward logic: if you have more power than the counterparty, you win, otherwise, you lose. The Taliban, on the other hand, have been capitalizing on a different kind of power – that of field knowledge and terror.  However, the release of the ‘Afghanistan Papers’ by the Washington Post has confirmed it is unclear what ‘winning’ means for the US, as there is little consensus among US leadership on the war’s objectives or about how to end the conflict.

Recent developments show talks lost sight of what are the best potential results of a US-Taliban peace agreement.  Taliban’s spokesman Suhaln Shaheen declared that “there had been no discussion on cease-fire since the beginning, but the US proposed reduction in violence.” Whereas US officials praise the Taliban’s decision to accept a violence reduction plan, Afghan government officials are rather concerned: a ‘reduction of violence’ plan does not contribute anything beneficial to the peace process, said Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.  Salam Rahimi, the state minister for peace affairs, called the plan ‘unacceptable’.

The past months show no indication that an agreement will automatically lead to de-escalation. Peace processes often imply strategic and tactical deception and the second half of 2019 witnessed violence escalation. The number of high-profile Taliban attacks increased, indicating that actors willing to negotiate and eventually sign peace agreements may engage in violence in order to undermine their new partners.

Although both the Taliban and the US seem to have a common goal — the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan — on the short term its materialization remains unlikely. In practice, the US will not withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan, and nor will the Taliban stop engaging in violence. Even if the deal is signed, it is unlikely the Taliban would implement a ceasefire, given the fragmentation and lack of discipline within the organization.

Although a potential agreement between the parties revives hopes for a solution in Afghanistan, positive scenarios are likely only if the US looks beyond the current deal during negotiations. A deal between the US and the Taliban is the beginning of a long term peace process, and has little value for the future of Afghanistan unless a clear action plan for the aftermath of the agreement is formulated.  The United States must formulate recommendations and contribute to the negotiations and reconstruction efforts that will follow a deal with the Taliban.

A comprehensive plan for addressing the domestic conflict is necessary.  The conflict has a strong domestic component that goes beyond the US-Taliban conflict. The Afghani Constitution mentions 14 ethnic groups, and the country is subject of a fragile balance. Sustainable bridges must be built for further negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, as the former refused repeatedly to negotiate with Afghan officials because they are part of a “puppet government”. Furthermore, the withdrawal of US troops without a plan for security provision may witness an increase in intra-state conflicts. The power vacuum left behind may benefit not only the Taliban, but any of the 22 terrorist organization currently operating in Afghanistan.

The regional component of the conflict in Afghanistan further complicates resolution and should also be addressed. Pakistan warned thhat tensions in the Middle East following the killing of Iran’s Al-Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani could hit the reconciliation process in Afghanistan: “On the one hand, we have historical and brotherly relations with Iran, while on the other, our millions of people are working in the Gulf States. We have to be very careful. We have to maintain a balance to protect our own interests” said Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

Regardless of a potential conclusion of peace talks between the US and the Taliban, observers must remain cautiously optimistic. The potential agreement might be less of a breakthrough than it seems, and the cycle of violence is unlikely to be broken unless a long term plan for the future of Afghanistan is in sight.