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inFOCUS Quarterly

Spring 2016

Israel - Beyond the Headlines

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Boko Haram Video Shows Kidnapped Girls

A new video surfaced Thursday reportedly showing 15 of the more than 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. April 15th marks the second anniversary of their abduction from the town of Chibok.

The video, obtained by CNN, was sent from the group's captors to government negotiators to show "proof of life." According to one of the girls who spoke in the recording, it was originally made in December 2015. However, the government did not inform the families of the victims, leaving them to learn about the video only after it had become public. This is the first footage released of the girls since May 2014.

A screenshot of Boko Haram's video. (Photo: CNN)

Known as the "Chibok Girls," Boko Haram kidnapped the students at gunpoint in the northeastern town of Chibok while they were sitting for exams. The terrorist group's leader Abubakar Shekau threatened to sell many of the girls into slavery or arrange forced marriages for them. While the majority of the girls are Christian, Boko Haram forces them to obey strict Sharia Law.

Amid these events, both local and international activists campaigned hard for the safe return of the Chibok Girls. Even after a series of large protests in 2014 and 2015, demonstrators continue to take to the streets in an effort to pressure the Nigerian government to do more. Meanwhile, "Bring Back Our Girls" became trending phrase in predominantly Western social media to bring awareness to the Chibok Girls. First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted out a picture of herself with the slogan in 2014.

Even with the public outcry and numerous military offensives against the terrorist organization, the government has been incapable of rescuing the girls. Frustration with ineffective leaders helped contribute to former President Goodluck Jonathan's electoral defeat last year, however current Muhammadu Buhari has not achieved much more. A report from the UN Human Rights Commissioner release this week echoes the frustration felt by many that, "despite reassurances from those at the highest level of the Nigerian Government, the parents have not seen any concrete progress in locating and liberating their daughters."

By Michael Johnson  |  April 14, 2016 at 3:51 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Ceasefire Holds in Nagorno-Karabakh

A fragile ceasefire between Armenian-backed separatists and Azerbaijan appears to have held on Wednesday, four days after fighting erupted. Regional leaders hope the agreement will end the worst outbreak of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh seen over the past two decades.

Hostilities broke out in the South Caucasus on Saturday morning with artillery fire, tank mobilizations, and helicopter flyovers threaten to end a 1994 truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Each side blamed the other for sparking the flare up in the mostly mountainous area. Baku claims to have captured several towns, suggesting the first possible change in the conflict's frontline in 20 years.

Soldiers prepare to open fire from a howitzer on positions in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan, Tuesday, April 5, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Representatives from both sides visited Moscow and agreed to stop the violence at noon local time on Tuesday. Azerbaijan's defense ministry accused separatists forces of breaking the ceasefire 115 times in a statement issued on Wednesday, but neither side appear to have an interest in further escalating the situation. So far the renewed fighting has left at least 64 people, mostly soldiers, dead.

Considered a "Frozen Conflict" since the mid-1990s, ethnic Armenians have long controlled areas of Azerbaijan, as well as Nagorno-Karabakh, without any international recognition. Violence broke out between the two sides in the late 1980s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and escalated into full-scale nationalist/ethnic war. Civilians in mixed ethnic areas either fled or were forcibly displaced. In all, the conflict claimed the lives of about 30,000 people before a ceasefire was reached in 1994.

Since then, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been unable to agreed on a political solution to end their long running dispute. Known as the Minsk Group, U.S., French, and Russian diplomats have worked for years under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to facilitate a durable peace and normalization agreement. This weekend's incident shows they are a long way from success.

Regional meddling has also played a role in the stalled talks. Russia has sold arms to both the Armenians and the Azeris, but Moscow seems to be more aligned with Armenia on local issues. Meanwhile, Ankara's outspoken support for Baku, and longtime disdain for the Armenians does little to enable trust and cooperation in the South Caucasus.

By Michael Johnson  |  April 7, 2016 at 9:53 am  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Student's Death Highlights Oppression in Egypt

The family of an Italian Ph.D. student found dead in the outskirts of Cairo last month threatened to release photos of his badly-beaten body during a news conference Tuesday. Giulio Regeni's mother hopes the move will pressure the Egyptian government into completing a thorough and honest investigation into her son's death.

Regeni disappeared on January 25, 2016, as he went to meet a friend near Tahrir square. According to media reports, there was a heavy police presence that night in downtown Cairo as it marked the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Regeni's body was found over a week later, dumped half-naked in a ditch just west of the Egyptian capital.

Giulio Regeni's funeral in Fiumicello, Northern Italy. (Photo: AP)

The Egyptian security forces' accounts Regeni's death have been inconsistent from the start, with human rights groups suggesting a government coverup. Authorities originally said the cause of death was a road accident, but an Egyptian autopsy suggested murder, with Regeni showing signs of torture, including removed fingernails, broken bones, and cigarette burns. A full report report from the Medical Examiner's office was not made public. Security forces then suggested a criminal gang was responsible for the murder after reportedly finding Regeni's personal effects during a police raid in Cairo on March 24. Officials claimed that the four men killed during the operation belonged to a kidnapping network.

However, three unnamed members of the security forces, interviewed separately and cited in the New York Times, said that the Italian student had been taken into police custody on January 25th. Officers were said to have searched his phone, finding connections to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and leftist movements he went to Egypt to study. "They figured he was a spy," said one of the unnamed officials, "After all, who comes to Egypt to study trade unions?"

The circumstances surrounding Regeni's death have captured media attention in Italy and around Europe. Human rights groups estimate hundreds of Egyptians have undergone "enforced disappearances" at the hands of the security forces since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi rose to power almost two years ago. But the suspected kidnapping and torture of a Westerner seems to have crossed a line. Regeni's death brings the government unwanted scrutiny, and more importantly, highlights the impunity of the security forces in the modern Egyptian state.

By Michael Johnson  |  March 31, 2016 at 2:31 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Gulf States Designate Hezbollah as Terrorist Organization

The six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) announced Wednesday that it had designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, saying the group posed a threat to the "Arab national security." The declaration marks the latest in a series of moves by the Sunni-led governments of the GCC to undermine the influence of Iran and its Shiite proxies.

While failing to mention any specifics, a GCC statement made references to "hostile acts" Hezbollah committed in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The organization, long considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel, was also accused of arms smuggling and inciting violence in region.

An Armed Houthi follower carries a poster on posters of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah during a rally against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen's capital Sanaa October 2, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

The GCC's declaration comes two weeks after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar warned their citizens against traveling to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based. Officials expressed concern over Lebanon's political uncertainty and sectarian tensions. Another Sunni ally, the United Arab Emirates, banned its nationals from traveling to the tourism-dependent country.

Saudi Arabia also suspended financing for the Lebanese government, thereby obviating a $3 billion military aid package to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in late February. Analysts say Beirut's lack of control over Hezbollah was the likely reason the deal was abandoned. The Kingdom's leaders in Riyadh worried that the central government could not stand up to Hezbollah's influence and such weapons would be used against Sunni interests fighting in Syria. Some of the French supplied weaponry under the agreement had already been delivered to Lebanon in mid-2015, included armored vehicles and guided anti-tank missiles. Another $1 billion earmarked for the country's internal security forces was also canceled.

Meanwhile in Yemen, the internationally recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi recently accused Hezbollah of training Houthi militias and supporting attacks along the border with Saudi Arabia. A coalition of Sunni-Arab states intervened last year to retake areas held by the Houthis, a Yemeni tribe closely aligned with Iran.

By Michael Johnson  |  March 4, 2016 at 10:20 am  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Oil Ministers Seek Production Cap, Rebound

Some of the world's largest oil exporting nations agreed on a plan to limit oil output during an Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting Tuesday in Doha, Qatar. The group seeks to raise the historically low price of crude, but a resurgent Iran sought to undermine the cartel's decision for its own political aims.

Saudi Arabia led the initiative to freeze oil production at January levels, with Venezuela, Qatar, and non-OPEC member, Russia agreeing to follow suit. Iraq also expressed interest in the deal, but said it would only limit exports if agreement among all OPEC states was reached. It should be noted that OPEC has frequently announced production limitations, but history shows that individual countries quickly break ranks and produce whatever they believe they can sell.

A Iranian flag in front of a gas flare at an oil pump. (Photo: Reuters)

Ministers hoped that lowering oil production would in turn create market shortages and increase profitability for member states. The price for a barrel crude has hovered around $35 per barrel in the U.S., historically low compared to over $100 per barrel in 2014. The cost of oil has dropped for a confluence of reasons, including lower demand in developed economies. But more importantly, the introduction of new technologies and processes, such extracting oil from shale formations, has eroded OPEC's influence over supply. Saudi Arabia hopes a 30 million barrel-a-day production ceiling will force out the new competition.

Raising the price is essential for most oil-producing countries because they have based their national budgets on a projected price. Libya, for example, needs oil to be at $184 bbl to break even. Iran needs $131 bbl; Venezuela $118; and Saudi Arabia $104.

Tuesday's meeting may be the turning point, where the cartel and Russia will begin to limit supplies. Member countries are dismayed with the lower production margins that starved their national budgets, and the Saudis themselves have undergone a recent credit rating downgrade. Meanwhile, analysts say Russia, the world's third largest oil producer, is not legally subject to the production curb, but Western sanctions and underinvestment means the country is already near its production limits.

Iran may ultimately play the spoiler in the cartel's political ability to raise prices. Iranian press cited Oil Minister, Bijan Zanganeh, as saying cooperation is needed to stabilize prices, but that he would not agree to cut oil production. Tehran, now relieved of sanctions, wants to regain market share, but only at the expense of other oil states.

By Michael Johnson  |  February 18, 2016 at 4:53 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

As Asad Pushes for Aleppo, Humanitarian Crisis Looms

The UN and other international aid agencies announced this week that they fear a pending humanitarian disaster for civilians living in Aleppo, Syria's most populous city. With the help of Russian air strikes, government troops have mostly surrounded rebel-held areas of the city, threatening to sever the aid lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people.

Earlier this month, forces loyal to President Assad retook Nubl and Zahraa, about 15 miles north of the city, cutting off a vital opposition supply route leading from Turkey. Rebel fighters now face "a severe challenge in mobilizing sufficient forces to reverse this new attack" and will be "no longer be able to receive reinforcements" following the regime's gains, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.

Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrive for talks on the Syrian peace process in Zurich, Switzerland, on Jan. 20. (Photo: AFP)

Foreigners have dominated the advance against the opposition, adding momentum to the regime's campaign to retake the central Aleppo from the northwest. Russian airstrikes and special forces have coordinated closely with government units, while the U.S. military estimates that up to 2,000 Hezbollah, Shiite militia, and other fighters backed by Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have also been active in the provence.

The advance of regime forces not only cuts off the supply routes for rebels, but also limits the ability of the UN and NGOs to transport aid. to civilians. The UN says that food assistance for up to 300,000 people living in Aleppo could be blocked following last week's offensive. The World Food Program will be unable to reach the eastern part of the city if, as appears likely, an alternative route is also be severed.

Russian and Syrian forces have faced international criticism for their actions. Not only have their forces indiscriminately attacked civilian areas, but they are deliberately encircling cities, laying siege to civilian districts, and starving out opposition control areas. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said Moscow is "making an already very bad situation even worse" by creating conditions that force people to flee their homes.

The stark plight civilians in Aleppo has not brought about a renewed urgency in Geneva, where diplomats have attempted to restart proximity talks designed first to begin a ceasefire and, ultimately, to end the fighting. The talks, which included U.S., Russian, and Syrian officials, as well as opposition leaders, ended on February 3rd without progress, three days after they began.

Buoyed by momentum from their offensives, Russian and Syrian diplomats were not in a mood to compromise, hoping to gain more leverage' in the coming weeks based on their military successes. Rebel representatives, on the other hand, had refused to formally take part in negotiations until the shelling of civilian areas stopped. The two parties were unable to bridge their differences to truly engage with one another. While talks are scheduled to resume no later than February 25th, events on the ground appear as if they far outpace any progress made by diplomats and politicians a 1,700 miles away.

By Michael Johnson  |  February 11, 2016 at 11:19 am  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

Islamic State Shows New Influence in Libya

Islamic State's top commanders have begun to seek refuge in Libya, according to a statement made this week by a senior intelligence official in the country. Western and local leaders are now considering new moves to counter the threat from jihadists that has flourished in lawless areas since the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

Speaking to the BBC, head of intelligence for the city of Misrata, Ismail Shukri, described an influx of foreign fighters in recent months. Reports suggest about 3,000 Islamic State fighters now control the coastal city of Sirte, bringing with them public crucifixions, beheadings, and the same form of Sharia law that exemplifies Islamic State brutality. Shukri estimates that non-Libyans comprise "around 70%" of the Islamic State's militiamen, "most of them are Tunisians, followed by Egyptians, Sudanese and a few Algerians." Others from Iraq and Syria have roots in Saddam Hussein's disbanded army. Meanwhile, Islamic State leaders with "long-term importance" to the group are quietly relocating away from the pressures of coalition airstrikes, he said. "They view Libya as a safe haven."

Libya Dawn militia fighters look at ISIS positions near Sirte, March 19, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

Authorities in Misrata, about 150 miles to the west of Sirte, say they are planning an offensive to oust Islamic State from the city. But media reports suggest that IS fighters outnumber government loyalists by 2:1. A local militia commander, Mohammed al-Bayoudi, lamented he would not be able to destroy IS alone and welcomed NATO support. "Airstrikes alone cannot defeat IS," he warned, "what the army really needs is logistical support."

With the backdrop of a rising Islamic State presence in Libya, diplomats from 23 countries met this week in Rome to discuss how to fight the worldwide rise of the group's self-proclaimed caliphate. U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned that while the American-led coalition had made "undeniable" advances in Syria and Iraq, Libya's billions of dollars of oil resources could help fuel the the group's ambitions. However, in a joint statement officials only promised to "continue to monitor closely developments" in the country and "support the Government of National Accord in its efforts to establish peace and security for the Libyan people."

Ultimately, to stop the spread of Islamic State, its terrorism, and its repressive form of Sharia law, a viable partner is needed on the ground. With Libya divided into two rival factions, an internationally recognized government headquartered in the eastern city of Tobruk and the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli, radical groups will be able to exploit the chaos for their own gains. U.S. Special Forces, under the direction of President Obama, have been in the country to vet possible militias to ally with since late last year, but without a united central government for others to rally behind, fighting the spread of Islamic State will remain an uphill battle.

By Michael Johnson  |  February 5, 2016 at 2:39 pm  |  Permalink  |  Submit a Comment

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