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Geopolitical Summary: Conflicts, Protests, Oil Exploration and Drug Trafficking

Conflict Rages on in Ivory Coast as Ouattara Forces Prepare for Abidjan Offensive
Tensions in Syria as Government Resigns Amid Ongoing Protests
Is Russia’s North Caucasus Rebel Network Leader Doku Umarov Dead?
Colombia: ANH Signs 60 Contracts to Boost Oil Exploration Activities
Ecuador: “Operation Karpatos” Brings Down International Drug-Trafficking Ring
Venezuela: Chávez negotiating for long-term credit with China

Conflict Rages on in Ivory Coast as Ouattara Forces Prepare for Abidjan Offensive

The United Nations has evacuated its civilian staff from Ivory Coast as clashes between forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo and insurgents supporting Alassane Ouattara intensifying in the aftermath of November 2010 elections, for which the UN has recognized Ouattara as the winner, while Gbagbo has refused to accept defeat. The last five days have seen particularly intense fighting, as Ouattara advances on the capital, Abidjan, and the two sides are engaged in a battle to control the cocoa-growing regions in the country’s west. Some estimates say that more than 1,300 people have been killed in the fighting since November, while another half million have fled their homes, many of them across the border to Liberia. Reports on Sunday night said that Ouattara’s forces were amassing outside Abidjan, preparing for an offensive to take the city.

Analytical Note: While the international community largely came out in favor of Ouattara early on, recognizing him as the winner of November elections, calling on Gbagbo to resign and sanctioning him and freezing his assets, the UN’s position is now less clear. Recently, it accused Ouattara’s forces of massacring civilians in a village in the west where the battle for control over the country’s cocoa assets rages on. Ouattara supporters have in turn blamed the UN for abandoning civilians in the west to massacre by Gbagbo’s forces. Meanwhile, Gbagbo continues to ramp up the rhetoric against what he calls foreign occupation, especially following France’s decision to take over the airport in Abidjan and to boost its military presence in the country. It also appears that Gbagbo is targeting UN facilities in the country. Last week, one UN staff member was killed, and 11 others have been injured. The evacuation comes at a time when the UN was planning to increase its operations there. Gbagbo is believed to maintain control over much of the country still, and taking the city from him will be easier said than done. As Ouattara’s forces prepare for their Abidjan push, violence will intensify exponentially, and Ouattara is rapidly losing support among those who voted for him as civilians are indiscriminately caught in the cross-fire. The conflict will also have grave implications for neighboring Liberia, which is only itself recovering from a protracted civil war, and whose impoverished young men are seeking employment as mercenaries to fight in Ivory Coast. As hundreds of thousands of people from Ivory Coast continue to flee across the border, the situation threatens to destabilize Liberia, which cannot accommodate them economically or logistically.

As noted in a previous publication by GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs for the Global Intelligence Report, foreign intervention in Ivory Coast has long been strategically illogical. Former colonial powers and the African Union maintain their interest in sustaining Ivory Coast along illogical colonial boundary lines, refusing to consider the break-up of the state despite the drastic communal differences that are impossible to reconcile. The result, that report noted, “has been that ‘peacekeeping’ and ‘conflict resolution’ measures introduced to states by external forces (UN, AU, ECOWAS, etc.) have largely been mechanisms to suppress fighting rather than tools to resolve underlying structural problems.”

Ouattara is a northern Muslim, while Gbagbo is a southern Christian, each of them representing massive populations of around 10 million people. This not a new rivalry, as both have been vying for control of the country for decades. While Ouattara is supported by the French and interested therefore in keeping Ivory Coast under the French sphere of influence, Gbagbo was initially shooting for a US alliance under Bush, though was not met with any significant encouragement. The country has long been polarized and will remain as long as it is forced to maintain a union based on unrealistic colonial borders. 

Tensions in Syria as Government Resigns Amid Ongoing Protests

On Tuesday, 29 March, Syrian President Bashir al-Assad accepted the resignation of his cabinet to clear the way for a new government that promises political reform, as protests pick up momentum and clashes between protesters and security forces and government supporters leave scores dead. (Estimates range from 60 to 150 dead in the last two days of clashes).

By Friday last week, thousands of protesters returned to the streets to mourn those killed in the clashes, indicating that Assad’s move to dismantle the government and appoint a new prime minister, promising reforms, was not enough for appeasement. Indeed, on Saturday, the government played a cat-and-mouse game, rounding up and arresting more protesters, while releasing some others detained earlier.

The situation is unlikely to unfold as it has in Egypt or Tunisia, for instance, as Assad maintains much more public support than his counterparts in those countries did. While the majority group is Sunni, there are sizable and strong minorities groups, such as the Shia Allawites, to which Assad belongs, and the Christians, who continue to support the president. Nothing short of a civil war, under these circumstances, would remove him, and he will hang on to the military’s loyalty. There are even elite Sunni groups that support him.

To illustrate this divide, the military has deployed to the port city of Latakia and other cities to quell anti-government protests, while at the same time, reports say that tens of thousands of Assad supporters are also rallying in the capital of Damascus.

Still, the situation is uncomfortable for Assad, who is hoping that the resignation of his government and the promises of reform – including the vow to remove the emergency law that has been in place since 1963 – will be enough to keep the situation from merging with the “Arab Spring”, for from becoming another Libya.

The international response, and particularly that coming from Washington, has been vague at best, and there is no indication that the West intends to intervene militarily, or otherwise, likely fearful of the implications of civil war in Syria.

Instead, the US has issued soft statements to the effect that Assad should embark on reforms. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that Syria would not face Libya’s fate of international military intervention. In fact, it appears that Washington cannot form any type of concrete consensus on how it feels about Assad, nor whether the process of removing him would be worth the necessary civil war or the resulting regional implications.

The US should be torn: On one hand, Syria is a destabilizing force for Lebanon, supports Hezbollah and aligns itself with Iran. It has maneuvered to upset progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process, and is believed to be logistically supporting Hamas to that end. But it is also a stable country, thanks to its strong-arm leadership, and indeed, maintains a low profile on its border with Israel. Assad’s regime has no desire to flirt with Israeli retaliation on its border, and this is extremely significant. The fall of the Syrian government, however, could create chaos and a number of dangerous uncertainties for the Middle East peace process. The primary question here is how is it possible to both support the demands of the protesters in Syria and at the same time ensuring stability on Syria’s borders.

Is Russia’s North Caucasus Rebel Network Leader Doku Umarov Dead?

While Russian officials claim to have killed Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov in an attack last week, rebel sources say that Umarov is alive and well and that only his personal bodyguard, along with possibly 16 other rebels, was killed in the clashes with security forces in Ingushetia on 28 March, during which Russia called in its air forces. The air force attack was connected to the January bombing of Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in which 37 people were killed and for which Umarov claimed responsibility. Specifically, the attack targeted a militant base said to be used for training suicide bombers near Ingushetia’s Verkhny Alkun. Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed police source as saying that Umarov’s body was not immediately recognized among the dead following the operation, and as such it cannot be ruled out that he survived the attack. This is not the first time that Umarov has been reported killed in battle. Even earlier this year, Russian media reports claimed he had been killed in air strikes over Chechnya, only to resurface later. Remains are now undergoing DNA testing to determine whether Umarov was indeed among the dead. While it can be said that Russian authorities have made progress towards dismantling the North Caucasus-based terrorist networks, and killing or capturing their leaders, it is important to remember that there are growing divisions within the ranks of these networks themselves, and that capturing or killing its leaders has little impact on overall network capabilities.

Colombia: ANH Signs 60 Contracts to Boost Oil Exploration Activities

On 24 March 2011, Colombian Minister of Mines and Energy, Carlos Rodado Noriega reported that the National Agency of Hydrocarbons (ANH) signed more than 60 contracts with different companies for oil exploration activities. The Ministry aims to reach production levels of 1.5 million barrels a day by 2015. Ecopetrol President Javier Gutiérrez commented that there was strong growth in 2010 and expressed his hope for continued growth in 2011.

Ecuador: “Operation Karpatos” Brings Down International Drug-Trafficking Ring

The Ecuadoran police cooperated with the Spanish Civil Guard, the Romanian police, the Italian police and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in Operation Karpatos to bring down a drug trafficking group originating in Romania. The group was caught smuggling hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and heroin from Ecuador and Turkey with the intent to distribute the drugs throughout European Union countries. Security forces are currently searching for Victor Manuel P.S., “El Viejo,” a Colombian narcotrafficker suspected to be connected with the network.

Venezuela: Chávez negotiating for long-term credit with China

On 24 March 2011, Venezuelan Minister of Commerce Edmeé Betancourt reported that President Chávez is negotiating for US$8 billion of credit with China, which Venezuela will pay in oil production. US$4 billion will be deposited in the China-Venezuela Strategic Development Fund while another US$4 billion will be used for house construction.

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