Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, May 31, 2013

Will Azerbaijan Become the Next Uzbekistan?

Ilham Aliyev (AFP OUT)  U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan at a bilateral meeting September 24, 2010 in New York City. Obama has been in New York since Wednesday attending the annual General Assembly at the United Nations, where yesterday he stressed the need for a resolution between Israel and Palestine, and a renewed international effort to keep Iran from attaining nuclear weapons.

President Barack Obama and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan share smiles and shake hands in 2010 in New York. Photo Source: Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America.

Three Caspian littoral states--Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan--form what I call a Caspian “strategic triangle," with foreign policies and geopolitical orientations that are of critical importance to the interests of outside actors such as Russia and the United States.

Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is technically multi-vector, although it is relatively closely tied to Russia due to linguistic, geographical and even politico-economic ties (the Customs Union and the prospective Eurasian Union). Turkmenistan is a wild card, with an incredible amount of natural gas reserves and no clearly-defined orientation even nearly seven years after the death of Sapamurat Niyazov.

Azerbaijan, however, is on the side of the West. It not only enjoys strong relations with Israel, the U.S. and Turkey, but is also highly antagonistic toward neighboring Armenia, a friend of Iran, staunch ally of Russia, and an enemy of Turkey. Azerbaijan’s large energy reserves (most notably found in the Shah Deniz field) and position as an entry point for the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan Pipeline, the proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline, and the Southern Corridor all help make Azerbaijan a darling of the West. But certain events and trends show that Azerbaijan may in some ways becoming a Caucasus version of Uzbekistan.

Of the five former Soviet Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan (with the possible exception of Turkmenistan) has been the most independent of Russia, in both foreign and domestic policy (e.g., it purged the Russian language from public life), and thus became a natural partner for the United States and the West in the incredibly geo-strategically important region of Central Asia. The régime of President Islam Karimov allowed the U.S. military to station troops in Uzbekistan for its operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in return the U.S. kept its criticism of Uzbekistan’s atrocious human rights record to a minimum- until the Andijon Massacre of 2005. Since then, as U.S.-Uzbekistan relations deteriorated, Uzbekistan has flirted with and teased Russia. Recent trends show a thawing of ties between the U.S. and Uzbekistan (the latter having left the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2012), though there is no telling the state of U.S. relations with Uzbekistan five years from now.

Thus far, relations between Azerbaijan and the U.S. have been comparatively smooth, and it seems likely that this state of affairs will continue. Azerbaijan is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, and has contributed to the War on Terror in the defense, intelligence and law enforcement fields. In 2008, Senator Richard Lugar (R- Indiana) labeled Azerbaijan as “one of the few friends America has in the Caspian basin,” and later went on to support, along with his colleague, then-Senator Joe Biden, the creation of a special envoy to the country to help safeguard the U.S.’s long-term energy interests.

Despite the fact that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns stated that the three areas of cooperation most important to the Azerbaijani-U.S. relationship are security, energy/economics and democratic reform, cooperation between Azerbaijan and the United States on the former issues may not be possible if the U.S. pushes too hard for the latter, and security interests may very well trump the issue of human rights and reform in Azerbaijan. If Azerbaijan is the one of the only friends the U.S. has in an incredibly critical region, America won’t want to rock the boat too much, and it’s a good bet Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, knows it.

Ilham Aliyev (who succeeded his father Heydar in 2003) will most likely run for a third term in the upcoming October elections, and this has prompted an intensification of protests all across the country. Concerns were raised earlier this spring when it was discovered that a device known as a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) was on hand for police usage during a protest in Baku. The LRAD, which delivers an ear-piercing 150 decibel beam, was not used, but the presence of such a crowd-control device, which originates in the U.S., has caused concern that Western weapons are being used to arm and support the Aliyev administration.

Emin Milli, an Azerbaijani blogger and rising star in Azerbaijan’s opposition movement, recently told Radio Free Europe in an interview that whereas Heidar Aliyev left some room for opposition, Ilham has tightened his grip on his opponents, and instead of being the guarantor of stability he seeks to portray himself as, he is the source of increasing instability. Mr. Milli specifically called out the U.S. and British governments for being complicit in supporting Aliyev in the name of greater energy concessions. It seems similar to how both the U.S. and British governments lent their staunch support to Uzbekistan’s Karimov (recall how, when UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray spoke out against Karimov’s excesses, he was eventually removed from his post).

It’s possible that not only will the West turn a blind eye to autocratic practices and human rights abuses under a continuing Aliyev régime because of energy geopolitics, but also because of a fear (real or imagined) of Iranian influence in Azerbaijan. (Not only are Azerbaijan and Iran both Shiite Muslim countries, but around a quarter of the population of Iran is ethnic Azeri and speaks a dialect of Azeri). Azerbaijan’s geographical positioning between Iran and Russia make its location of similar strategic importance to Uzbekistan, allowing for an American insertion point, especially if any sort of military action should be taken against Iran.

From the standpoint of human rights and human security, the West could be caught in an awkward position if it lends continuing support to the Aliyev government if it should react to a situation similar to the way Uzbek security forces handled Andijon. No two situations play out exactly the same in international relations, and it is highly unlikely that, should things go from bad to worse in Azerbaijan, relations between Azerbaijan and the West would sour to the point that Azerbaijan would seek to develop ties with another regional actor, as Uzbekistan did in response to Western criticism over the events in Andijon.

Not only would it not work because of Azerbaijan’s poor relations with Armenia (Russia’s ally) and because of Iran’s support for Armenia, but because Azerbaijan is too strong of a strategic partner in the Caucasus for the West to give up, especially because of uncertainties in Georgia's foreign policy orientation (at this point still professed to be pro-Western).  Yet U.S. support for an Azerbaijan that doesn’t respect human rights could harm America's legitimacy as a defender of human rights on the world stage, and could even be used as leverage by Russia to discredit the U.S. in its mission to promote and defend human rights around the globe.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Cooperation and Geopolitics in the Central Asian Drug Trade

One of the greatest challenges to security and stability in Central Eurasia is that the otherwise cash-strapped nations of Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Tajikistan, have been sources of large amounts of drugs, specifically heroin, to the Russia and Europe. Entry to these markets is not particularly difficult with porous borders and no shortage of willing customers with disposable cash. The problem of drug addiction has become particularly widespread in Russia, yet despite the increase in drugs and drug addicts in the country, the geopolitical implications of cooperation with the United States seem to trump Russia’s willingness to cooperate with Western nations to counter the drug trade in the region.

The majority of drugs entering Russia come from Afghanistan, via routes through the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, particularly Tajikistan. Russia is experiencing a major increase in drug use, with a staggering 8.5 million Russian citizens struggling with drug addiction. In 2012 eighty-eight thousand citizens were arrested on drug charges and 85 tons of drugs were seized by law enforcement in Russia. That same year, Tajik officials prevented at least 20 illegal border crossings by suspected drug traffickers from Afghanistan, and seized nearly six tons of drugs; they have acknowledged that this large volume is not simply the result of greater success on the part of Tajik drug enforcement officers, but also due to the increase volume of drugs grown in, or passing through, Tajikistan. Overall, organized crime groups use the porous Afghan-Tajik border to smuggle 100 tons of heroin into Russia and Europe annually.

In early 2013, Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s FSKN, warned that Afghan land under cultivation for opiates rose in 2012 from 131,000 hectares to 154,000 hectares, and that he expected an even larger increase after U.S. and allied troops pulled out of Afghanistan in 2014.

The United States has offered to assist with the creation of a counter-narcotics center in Central Asia, but this was declined by Russian officials due to wariness of strengthening America's presence in the region. Recently the FSB decided to curtail its cooperation with U.S. law enforcement, specifically with the FBI, on matters of counter-narcotics. While a new agreement is currently being developed between the DEA and its Russian counterpart, the FSKN, to work in closer cooperation on drug enforcement, Russia has also been looking for new international partners in combating the Central Asian drug trade, specifically Iran. Viktor Ivanov met with officials from Iran’s Interior Ministry in late 2011 to discuss further cooperation. While the choice of Iran may be logical because of its shared border with Afghanistan and the fact that it shares (to a large extent) a common language with large sectors of the Afghan and Tajik population, the Iran-Russia initiative may be part of an effort to counter American influence in the region.

The U.S. has already given Tajikistan’s border security services money to finance the construction of new border checkpoints, which has received praise from Tajik border troop commander Sherali Mirzo. The security services of all five former Soviet Central Asian republics, in fact, receive extensive funding from the United States, with an official reporting of 4.2 million dollars from the U.S. State Department going to Central Asian counter-narcotics initiatives, partially with the intention, according to some, of helping the U.S. gain the upper hand in Central Asia vis-à-vis Russia. According to Nurali Bibisbekov, head of the economic security section of Kazakhstan’s Committee on National Security, there has, in fact, been effective cooperation on counter-narcotics between agencies from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uzbekistan.

On a regional level, Tajik officials have begun reaching out to their Afghan counterparts in offering counter-narcotics training (which, according to one Afghan official, was more practical and effective than similar training he had received in Europe and Turkey) and have met with officials from Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee to discuss the narcotics trade in Central Asia and ways to increase inter-agency cooperation- concern over the increase in production and sale of opiates from Afghanistan led to “several concrete resolutions” being taken by the Kazakh and Tajik sides to help stem the problem.

Geopolitical concerns are the greatest hindrance to Russia being able to tackle the problem. Nevertheless, despite the geopolitical undertones of Russia’s reaction to the Central Asian drug trade, it is not NATO’s responsibility to deal with drug problems in the region, but rather is the responsibility of the individual states in question, said the director of NATO’s informational bureau in Russia, Robert Pszczel, during a conference on greater cooperation between NATO, the EU and Russia. He has advocated greater interoperability between NATO and Russian authorities, but that the flow of drugs into Russia is, at the end of the day, a Russian problem.

In response to the inflow of drugs, there have been calls for a tighter visa regime in Russia against nationals from Central Asian states. Civil activists have placed particular blame on Tajik nationals for facilitating the influx of drugs into the country. Discussions are underway between Russia and Tajikistan regarding the possible activation of Russian troops along the Tajik border to help stem the flow of drugs; right now there is a limited Russian officer cadre stationed in Tajikistan, but they are limited to providing advice and consultations for their Tajik colleagues.  Russian troops were stationed in Tajikistan until 2005 as part of the aftermath of the Tajik Civil War from 1992-1997. Yet it’s possible that this Russian military presence (similar to accusations leveled against Russia in light of its military presence in Transdniestria and breakaway parts of Georgia) may be nothing more than a veiled attempt to increase its strength in the region, especially with coalition troops due to leave Afghanistan next year.

Another, albeit much softer initiative undertaken by Russia to stem the flow of drugs from Central Asia is the proposed creation of an open joint-stock company in the hydropower industry, which will, the theory goes, create jobs and thus distract young people from involvement in drug usage, etc. When asked during an interview with Russia’s Kommersant daily, Viktor Ivanov seemed to give rather flimsy answers to questions such as “Shouldn’t the Russian government try to focus on creating jobs for young Russian addicts?”, simply brushing off certain domestic initiatives as either not being cost effective or unworkable. It seems the real reason for his dismissive response is because Moscow likely wants to increase not only Russia’s espoused counter-narcotic thrust into Central Asia, but, as with the case of a hydropower company, strengthen Russia’s grip on key industry assets in the region (this could especially be the case with Uzbekistan, through which the Amu Darya and Syr Darya flow, generating much hydroelectric power).

Regardless of Russia’s intentions, it is in the best interests of Russia and the United States, as well as China, the EU and other states privy to the problems of the Central Asian drug trade, to work more closely to tackle this problem. Drug usage itself has, and continues to be, a threat to the social stability of the countries beset by widespread consumption, and the revenue generated from drug sales is often used to finance terrorist activity. Much as with who has access to energy, however, the question of who has the right to intervene in counternarcotics initiatives runs the risk of becoming the subject of geopolitical wrangling as well, which poses a serious risk to regional and even global security as a whole.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Latest on Syria, Part II

Photo by Syrian news agency SANA, which supposedly shows buildings damaged by an Israeli air strike. 

Following on my last blog post from earlier today, the other big piece of news is that Israel has launched two separate air strikes on Syria in the last week. Israel claims that these attacks were unconnected to the civil war in Syria, that it was not helping the rebels in their struggle against Assad. Rather, they were carried out, Israel insists, to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring weapons that could be used against Israel. News reports indicate the air strikes have alarmed Russia and China, both of which worry that the civil war is turning into a wider regional, if not international, military conflict. But that happens in war, as they are awfully difficult to contain once started. In fact, as Russia and China surely know, the civil war has already taken on international dimensions: The U.S. is providing training; Qatar and Iran is granting arms and funds to the warring parties in Syria; foreign fighters from Sunni countries have entered the fray; fighting has spread to the borders with Turkey and Lebanon; and now Israel has interjected itself into the conflict.

There is lots of blame to go around. First and foremost, the Assad regime is brutal, unwilling to cede power, and is doing everything it can to continue its grip over the state. But keep in mind there are other culprits at work in this case, though, to be sure, they don’t bear near the same level of responsibility and accountability as Assad and his cronies. For example, the rebels are unorganized and just as brutal. Despite their pleas, Russia and China do the bidding of the Assad regime. The Sunni-Shia struggle is playing out in Syria, with countries on both sides of the divide contributing to the prolonged war. As we now know, Israel has launched air strikes, which could lead to dangerous consequences. Indeed, Syria has warned Israel that the attacks “open the door to all possibilities.”And then there’s the U.S., which has abdicated its leadership on this issue.
Team Obama ought to have pushed for a cease-fire and then a permanent cessation of military conflict between the rebels and the Assad government. That small but important act would have effectively staved off so many of the bad things that have occurred along the way during the war, including, most notably, the deaths of thousands of Syrians and the ever widening realm of war. But to do so likely would have retained the political status quo inside Syria and left Assad in power, something team Obama didn’t want to happen. Moreover, Team Obama didn’t want to interrupt the progress, however slow, that the rebels have made over the last year. The U.S. hoped that this progress gained traction, thereby prompting the rebels to consolidate their politico-military activities and triggering much more external support. That didn’t work out. The problem is that hope, while an effective campaign slogan, doesn’t substitute for actual foreign policy. It’s high time for the Obama administration to get on the ball and act as a problem solver here.

The Latest on Syria

In late April, U.S. intelligence agencies revealed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, particularly sarin, on a small scale, against Syrian citizens. For argument’s sake, at least for the moment, let’s assume this assessment is correct.

The use of chemical weapons has been long thought to be a game changer. President Obama has declared it a “red line.” Presumably, he meant that the use of chemical weapons by Assad forces would trigger a larger a much larger US commitment to ousting Assad and/or assisting the rebels.

This hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Sure, the U.S. has now sent 200 military advisers to Jordan, but many pundits and analysts expected much more than that. They think that once Assad crossed Obama’s red line, America should have responded with an appropriate punishment via military means. Otherwise, what was the point of issuing the red line? It was just empty words. Indeed, after having tested Washington without any repercussions, American credibility under Obama, at least on this issue, is damaged. And threats from hereon probably won’t be taken seriously. After all, if Team Obama hasn’t done anything about the death of tens of thousands Syrians and the use of chemical weapons, then why would it ever act in the future?

The critics have points, to be sure. But a larger problem actually pre-dates the revelations about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Simply put, Obama announced a red line, but failed to articulate clearly what would happen to Syria if it crossed it. He never articulated the terms of punishment. So what if Syria does violate Obama’s line in the sand? What happens then? Supposedly, it should change things, according to Obama. But what specifically does that mean? And what does it mean for Assad and his cronies? It wasn’t clear then and it’s not clear now.

This is where Team Obama screwed up. Absent a clear and credible threat to punish Syria, deterrence won’t work. In this situation, Assad didn’t think Syria would be punished for any undesirable behavior. As a result, America’s threat wasn’t taken seriously, and that strongly contributed to Syria breaching the red line. In using chemical weapons, Assad was willing to make the gamble that Obama didn’t want to get involved the ongoing, and increasingly messy and bloody, conflict.

Red lines, threats, and deterrence, these are the topics have dominated the recent discussion and debate about U.S. policy toward Syria. And then, yesterday, a major curve ball was thrown, something so serious that all the above talk and analysis about red lines and Obama's failures could be null and void.

Reuters released news that UN human rights investigators have found evidence that the Syrian rebels, not the Assad government, has used sarin in the conflict. According to Carla Del Ponte, a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a current member of the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria:

"Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated," Del Ponte said in an interview with Swiss-Italian television.
"This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities," she added, speaking in Italian.

It will be interesting to see how this latest bit of news plays out here in the States. My guess is that this news will give Obama sufficient breathing space to buy more time to stay of the Syrian civil war. It has been clear for quite some time that Obama wants almost nothing to do with the conflict and would prefer that America stay on the sidelines. Perhaps this is because Team Obama really isn’t sure how to act in this situation; or maybe it’s because there are no easy answers here, a paralysis by analysis dilemma. Regardless, the UN findings will likely dampen some of the war fever. After all, who wants to support a group of people who have flouted and violated international law? And the news will reinforce the idea that more investigation, more fact-checking, is needed before the U.S. ups its commitment to the rebels, which allows the U.S. to continue to kick the can down the road.

Of course, though, not everyone will jump off the intervention bandwagon. Already, Dan Murphy, of the Christian Science Monitor, has cast doubts on the validity of the UN report, and that argument will likely get picked up by the pro-intervention crowd. Plus, letting the UN set America’s foreign policy agenda is a touchy subject in the U.S., especially on the right, and as a result there is going to be a natural resistance to taking De Ponte’s comments seriously. Furthermore, keep in mind that three of America’s longtime allies—France, Britain, and Israel—have already indicated that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, that Obama’s red line has been crossed. Even though the White House has said that these were "low-confidence assessments by foreign governments,” I anticipate many lawmakers to be more persuaded by the claims and findings by the Big Three than the UN.