April 29 - May 5
This Week: Israel, Hezbollah, & Sarin in Syria, China goes camping in India, Myanmar & Nigeria face ethnic violence.
Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for April 29 - May 5!
On April 22nd, Nigerian officials reported a clash between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram, a militant group, leaving more than 185 people dead. On May 1st, Human Rights Watch disputed the government’s account of the clash and accused the military of going on a rampage, burning more than 2000 houses and killing over 200 people. The Army denies the claims, but villagers from the town recounted stories of soldiers dousing houses with petroleum and lighting them on fire.
Nigeria is home to one of the bloodiest insurgencies in the world right now. The country is largely split between the ruling Christians in the South and the Muslim minority in the North, and the gross inequality between the two groups has fueled ongoing conflict. Boko Haram, an islamist group whose name loosely means “Western teachings are forbidden,” is the latest group to take up the conflict, and they’ve waged a bloody bombing campaign for more than two years, leaving hundreds dead. The military has contributed to the casualty count as well: its responses to attacks by Boko Haram are often indiscriminate attacks against villages, though the attack in April was large even by the standards of the conflict. Boko Haram’s behavior is deplorable, but it’s in line with the group’s aims: the rampant violence is meant to cause the collapse of the Nigerian State. The Military’s actions are just senseless, and it’s hard to see how it accomplishes anything but turning more people against the government and destabilizing the state further.
Another wave of anti-Muslim violence struck Myanmar on Tuesday when a Buddhist mob burned more than 100 homes, ransacked two mosques, and injured 10 people, one fatally, after a muslim woman collided with a buddhist monk while walking down the street.
The attacks are the first since March, when ethnic tensions spilled into riots. The anti-muslim sentiment has been an ongoing problem for Myanmar in the last year, with more than 200 people killed so far and tens of thousands displaced. Human Rights Watch has accused the Myanmar government of encouraging the ethnic violence, and footage from the attacks in March show police standing by while the mobs rampage. The violence and the government’s complicity are particularly disappointing given the recent promising moves towards democracy in the country - in the last year and a half, the country held elections, freed hundreds of political prisoners, and has liberalized the press. It has been praised highly by the US and the EU, but the recent campaign against the muslim minority should prompt some consideration before the last of the sanctions against the country are lifted.
On April 15th, around 30 Chinese soldiers advanced more than 10km past the Indian border into disputed territory, setting up a small camp with several tents and a banner declaring the area Chinese territory. After a three week standoff and several attempts at negotiations, the Chinese soldiers finally withdrew on May 5th.
While the Chinese government was quick to point out the border between India and China is not well defined, the incursion was a fairly transparent attempt to push China’s claim on the territory (the banner was a nice touch). China has several outstanding territorial claims with neighbors, and it has been getting more assertive in sending patrols to areas it considers its own, but this was fairly brazen.
On Tuesday, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, warned the group could become more heavily involved Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. On Friday and Sunday, a series of airstrikes attributed to Israel struck several Syrian military installations, including missile storage facilities and a research center connected to Syria’s chemical weapons program. Israel has not yet officially confirmed the strike, and while the Syrian government called the airstrikes a “declaration of war,” the country has not indicated any official response yet. Meanwhile, the British Defense secretary said the evidence offered of chemical weapon use by the Syrian government was “too degraded” to be conclusive, while a group of UN Inspectors announced they had strong suspicions that opposition groups had themselves used sarin gas.
Hezbollah has already been active on behalf of the Syrian regime for some time, but Nasrallah’s announcement is the first by the group that hints of their activities in the region. The Syrian regime has been one of the primary supporters of Hezbollah, serving both as a source of weapons and as a conduit to Iran, and the group has affirmed its loyalty to the Assad regime several times already. When asked about the airstrikes, Israeli officials responded “The state of Israel is protecting its interests and will continue doing so” - reports suggest the targets of the Israeli attacks were Iranian missiles destined for Hezbollah. The Israelis are betting that the Syrian army is already too busy to respond, which seems like a good bet – the last thing the Assad regime needs is another front in the war. The question is how seriously Iran takes the threat of losing Syria. The country has been Iran’s main point of influence in the broader Middle East - if Iran sees Israeli intervention in Syria as a serious threat to its own strategic landscape, Israeli action may lead to a broader conflict even if the Syrians opt to turn a blind eye.
The chemical weapons are a larger issue. I mentioned last week that the evidence for government was extremely shaky — a problem compounded by the Syrian opposition’s history of half-truths and exaggerations. It’s not looking better as the week goes on, and if the UN inspector’s reports wind up being true — and that’s a big “if,” especially since they’re in the country at the invitation of the Assad regime itself — it would almost certainly kill any proposals to funnel arms to the opposition. For the regime, the only possible reason to use chemical weapons right now is to test whether or not the West is serious, and that’s entirely too dangerous a game when the Syrian Army is still capable of inflicting plenty of damage the old fashioned way. Already after a week of rumor, the US is closer than it’s come in two years of conflict to getting involved - Assad’s managed this war too closely so far to screw up this badly now. For the opposition, on the other hand, accusations of chemical weapons use are the only thing that seems like it will get them the outside help they’re desperately seeking, which means any claims need to be subject to extreme scrutiny.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!