Now Comes the Hard Part: Five Priorities in the Continuing Fight against Boko Haram

Boko Haram militants launched a brutal assault on three villages just outside of the Borno State capital of Maiduguri on Saturday, fire-bombing houses, detonating improvised explosives and suicide vests, and leaving an estimated 85 to 100 people dead. Assailants reportedly seized food and livestock before torching the villages of Dalori, Walori, and Kofa. Military guards foiled an attempt to penetrate the nearby Dalori camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), which houses some 22,000 people, among them 8,000 children, most of whom were rescued last year from Boko Haram–held towns. The Dalori attack is a stark illustration of the group’s enduring lethality and of the continued vulnerability of Borno State communities. The Nigerian military has made important gains against Boko Haram, but there is a long way to go in protecting civilians and building toward a more enduring peace.

The Dalori attack comes little more than a month after President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria told a BBC interviewer that Boko Haram, as an organized fighting force, was finished. “Technically,” he said, “we have won the war.” Having pledged early in his tenure to defeat Boko Haram by the end of 2015, the president may have felt compelled to announce some sort of victory against the insurgency as the year came to a close. He went on to explain that Boko Haram is no longer able to launch “conventional attacks” or engage the military directly, but instead has been reduced to using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and indoctrinating young girls—often 15 or younger—to detonate suicide bombs against unprotected civilians. In this, he is correct, although a “technical” defeat, as defined by the president, makes very little difference to the victims and families of Boko Haram’s most recent attacks.

Nigeria has unquestionably made important headway against Boko Haram in the last 18 months, and that progress should be acknowledged and encouraged. Beginning in late 2014, the Nigerian government launched a more forceful and concerted military offensive on Boko Haram strongholds, bringing in private contractors to train an elite mobile strike force that used air and infantry assets to rout militants from towns they controlled and aggressively pursue them. With support from neighboring Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, Nigerian forces have wrested all but four Borno State local government areas (LGAs) from the control of Boko Haram, which at one point controlled 25 LGAs in three northern states.

On coming to office in May 2015, President Buhari promised a major overhaul of the counterinsurgency strategy, relocating the operation’s command and control center to Maiduguri, prosecuting a major military procurement corruption case against the former national security adviser, and vowing to discipline security forces responsible for human rights violations. Many hundreds of Boko Haram members—and a number of their senior leadership—have been killed or captured since President Buhari took office, and the group no longer appears to have access to the kinds of equipment and weaponry it has had in the past. Modes of transport that once included tanks, armored vehicles, and Toyota Hilux trucks have been replaced by Volkswagen Golfs, bicycles, and, in some cases, horses. IEDs remain fairly unsophisticated, locally made with fertilizer and cooking fuel, packed into gas canisters or auto filters. Over the last month, the Nigerian Air Force has mounted a sustained assault on Boko Haram targets in Sambisa Forest, taking out “high value” individuals as well as fuel pumps, solar panels, and significant weapons caches. There have been no video appearances by erstwhile leader Abubakar Shekau (or by any of his alleged impersonators) since early 2015, and the group’s increasingly sophisticated media operation, which had reportedly received technical assistance from ISIL’s publicity team, has gone largely quiet. Residents of Maiduguri describe vast improvements in the city’s security environment: “Eighteen months ago, the city was a war zone,” said one Maiduguri resident. “I was just waiting for a bullet to hit me—either from Boko Haram or the military.” Today, businesses and health clinics have resumed operations. More and more schools are open, although a number of them have been temporarily converted into IDP camps. Public support for Nigeria’s military forces is growing, and messages of encouragement and memorials for fallen soldiers are proliferating on social media.

Nonetheless, as the weekend attacks underscore, announcements of victory, technical or otherwise, are misleading. Boko Haram’s strength was never as an organized fighting force, but as a fractured, ruthless organization, willing to inflict maximum damage on the softest of targets—school children, marketplaces, mosques, and churches. Its seizure of sparsely populated territory in the far North East had less to do with grand strategy and administrative capacity than with the weakness of the government’s security presence in those areas. Suicide bombings and “hit and run” attacks on unprotected civilian targets have persisted as the group’s tactical mainstay since 2010, and eliminating the capacity and opportunities for such attacks will be far more difficult than a territorial rout.

Moving Beyond a Technical Defeat: Five Priorities

There is broad consensus among policymakers and analysts that for sustained security over the long term, Nigeria will need to plan—and, when possible, rapidly implement—a comprehensive strategy that prioritizes civilian protection and improves socioeconomic conditions for impoverished communities across the North East. Infrastructure development, economic revitalization, transparent and accountable governance, and an end to corruption are all high on the priority list. At the center of that longer-term strategy must be a major effort to provide the region’s youthful populations with improved access to quality education and economic opportunity. “Unless we invest massively in education,” said Borno State governor Kashim Shettima in a recent conversation, “our security situation now is just an appetizer for future disaster.” But those grand plans, while essential and laudable, will take considerable time to roll out and bear fruit—even if started with urgency. They are predicated on some modicum of security and a return to some degree of normalcy. Today, more than 2 million Nigerians remain displaced by Boko Haram. Four LGAs in Borno remain outside of government reach, and even towns like Dalori on the outskirts of a major urban (and military) center remain vulnerable. Counting on a comprehensive development and governance approach to secure the peace is just not realistic right now, but neither is a purely military effort to “destroy” Boko Haram.

In this context, deadlines and declarations of victory or defeat are not helpful: the challenge is to get to a degree of normalcy that will permit a more sustained governance and development solution. Getting to that point will likely be a long, uneven, and halting process. It will require a continued response from Nigerian security forces—one that is carefully calibrated and puts priority emphasis on civilian protection—and it will require greater government attention to five priority areas:

1. Prevent Boko Haram from regenerating. Boko Haram has proved resilient in the past, and constraining its ability to regroup or resupply itself by drawing on regional networks and transport corridors is critical. Boko Haram members have always been able to move with ease across Nigeria’s northern borders: to Chad (via Lake Chad and its many islands), to Niger, and through the heavily forested and mountainous areas that straddle the Nigeria-Cameroon border. Following the extrajudicial killing of founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, much of Boko Haram’s leadership fled Nigeria across these porous northern frontiers. During that hiatus, Abubakar Shekau is said to have travelled to northern Mali and trained with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO); other members reportedly travelled through Chad and Niger to train and fight alongside jihadist elements in Somalia, Algeria, and Afghanistan. They returned to Nigeria in 2010, and Boko Haram reemerged as a far more deadly and sophisticated enterprise. Turmoil in Libya and the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011 resulted in an additional influx of weaponry from Libyan arsenals and of Nigerian fighters (many Nigerians were members of Qaddafi’s security forces), arriving primarily through supply routes in Chad. Today, as ISIL becomes an increasingly entrenched presence in Libya, it will likely become a magnet for Boko Haram fighters driven out by Nigerian and regional forces. This may appear to offer some respite to Nigeria, but if international moves against ISIL in Libya are eventually successful, those fighters are almost certain to return, and the possibility of an even more sophisticated, battle-hardened, and ruthless Islamist insurgency should be an issue of grave concern.

Essential to preventing regeneration of Boko Haram will be cooperation among Nigeria and its regional neighbors to block supply routes and exfiltration, eradicate rear-bases and training camps, and share intelligence on movements of fighters and on sources of funding and supply. The regional Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), which comprises Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, was established to do just that. The task force has largely stalled, however, as distrust and mutual recriminations between Chad and Nigeria persist, and as differences in perceptions of threat, responsibility, and priority are hampering progress. Less than half of the task force’s estimated $700 million budget has been raised, and both Chad and Nigeria—where oil exports are the primary source of government revenues—are in fiscal crisis. Key diplomatic and security partners—including the United States, France, the African Union, and United Nations—will need to sustain diplomatic pressure for more robust and effective regional cooperation and ensure that those efforts are adequately and appropriately funded.

As important as blocking the physical ingress and egress of fighters and weapons from the region, the Nigerian government will need to launch a major coordinated effort to track and disrupt Boko Haram’s domestic and international sources of finance. President Buhari has recognized this need—he underscored the point in his inaugural address—and the government should work quickly to strengthen and expand the capacity in Nigeria’s Financial Intelligence Unit to lead a forensic investigation in partnership with domestic and international law enforcement agencies and financial institutions. The United States can play an important role in helping Nigeria map and disrupt terror funding flows and should assist in building institutional capacity to do so, in Nigeria and the broader region.

2. Strengthen intelligence through community engagement. As Boko Haram reverts primarily to asymmetrical tactics, collaboration and timely exchange of information between security forces and communities takes on paramount importance. In the past, individual informants received little assurance from security forces of anonymity or protection from Boko Haram reprisals. Heavy-handed military tactics left civilians reluctant to engage or collaborate. Many Maiduguri residents credit the establishment of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), which became a link between communities and security forces, as a turning point in the city’s security environment. The CJTF was initially a loosely knit group of volunteers who in 2011–2012 took up arms—sticks, machetes, and locally made guns—to protect their neighborhoods against Boko Haram. More important than their fighting capacity has been their willingness to provide information to the police and military, identifying Boko Haram members, tracing their movements, and turning over suspects to Nigerian security forces. Today there are some 24,000 CJTF members across Borno; the state government has begun to provide stipends to a small number (1,800) of trained and vetted members, but the vast majority continue to volunteer. The CJTF is not without problems. There have been reports of serious abuses (although commanders claim that they now have better disciplinary rules in place), and even the group’s leaders worry about how these fighters—mostly young and unemployed—will ultimately be demobilized and reintegrated. “These boys feel strong and have a lot of responsibility at a young age,” a CJTF sectoral commander told me. “If we tell them to go back to whatever they were doing before, they will surely become a nuisance in the future.” Others worry that they could very easily be politicized and used as “protection” (read: “intimidation”) forces in local election campaigns and political debates. For now, the government and CJTF leadership will want to preserve the important surveillance function of CJTF volunteers, but should continue to strengthen lines of responsibility and accountability, to avoid creating a quasi-autonomous militia that could create potential security problems down the line. Ideally, adequately vetted members should have an opportunity to be integrated into security or civilian protection forces or receive enhanced training and livelihood opportunities as the security situation allows.

Beyond the CJTF, federal and state authorities will need to engage the broader public in an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to countering asymmetrical threats. Provision of information and messaging to North East communities was a particular weak spot of the previous federal government, and consistency and timeliness of messaging by security forces is still problematic. The Federal Ministry of Information has begun a promising series of radio and television public service announcements to raise situational awareness among civilians, with information on how to identify IEDs and potential suicide bombers and a call for greater vigilance on suspicious neighborhood activity. These efforts will need to be expanded to state and local levels and tailored to those communities most at risk. Building trust with communities, many of which have never benefited from government service or protection, will be a long-term process, but expanding mechanisms of communication and building the basis for an eventual culture of community policing should be an urgent priority.

3. Provide an off-ramp for Boko Haram fighters.Even as it moves aggressively against Boko Haram targets, the Nigerian government will need to provide a process that makes surrender a more attractive option for current members and that offers some possibility of rehabilitation and reintegration for the many thousands of those who have turned themselves in or been captured. Boko Haram members are not an undifferentiated mass, and their reasons for joining fall across a broad spectrum. Within the group’s ranks are hard-line ideologues and criminal opportunists, leaders and followers, adults and children. Many were forcibly conscripted; others (including many girls and women) were kidnapped and subsequently indoctrinated; some joined for economic gain or a sense of empowerment. Even those members who were coerced into joining—or were underage—may feel “stuck” in the group, unable to return to their communities and fearful of being killed if they surrender. Many may see entrenching themselves further within the group as their only option. Sorting out categories of members and issues of culpability will be a long complex process that must also provide some sense of justice and accountability for Boko Haram’s victims. Such programs may not be politically popular, but peeling away adherents and would-be recruits will be a key part of weakening the Boko Haram brand.

A de-radicalization and counter-radicalization—or countering violent extremism (CVE)—program, initially launched by Dr. Fatima Akilu, former director of behavioral analysis in the Office of the National Security Adviser, includes prison-based de-radicalization and reeducation programs, community engagement programs, support and psychosocial counseling for traumatized populations, and post-traumatic stress counseling for victims and for Nigerian military forces. The status of these programs since Dr. Akilu’s dismissal in September 2015 has been somewhat in doubt, and the levels of funding and political support have been vastly inadequate for a program of such critical importance. Nigeria will need to rapidly expand the absorptive capacity of these programs, which could also provide an important source of insight and evidence for CVE programming in Nigeria and beyond. This is an area where international assistance and encouragement—including perhaps from the Nigerian diaspora—could be critical in providing support, profile, and much-needed technical assistance, particularly in building capacities for psychosocial support.

4. Don’t forsake a generation of IDPs. Two million Nigerians have been displaced by insecurity in the North East; among them are 1.4 million children. A small fraction live within government-sponsored camps; others have had to fend for themselves, melding into host communities or informal settlements. With insecurity and violence likely to persist, the needs of these citizens—whether they live in camps or not—will remain an urgent challenge. Many IDPs have been deeply traumatized and are—with good reason—wary of returning to their homes. In many cases there is little for them to go home to: villages and towns, homes, wells, and infrastructure have been destroyed. “My entire city, including me, has been living in Maiduguri for more than a year,” said the chair of Konduga LGA, which sits between Maiduguri and the Sambisa Forest and was a strategic target for Boko Haram. “There is nothing there.” The chair was accompanying a representative of the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) to an IDP camp in Konduga LGA with two truckloads of rice. Camps in and around Maiduguri are managed by state authorities and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). While they face considerable capacity challenges, they are nonetheless relatively better off than camps in outlying LGAs, which are managed by local authorities and SEMA and lack the logistic, security, and assistant support that the urban camps enjoy. The majority of IDPs have little certainty on when they might be able to return home, and there is a possibility that many will live in this displaced limbo for years to come. The international community, along with the Nigerian government and citizens, should rally to support these displaced communities, ensuring that the many children among them are given the education and services they need to thrive and eventually help rebuild the North East region.

5. Think beyond Boko Haram and beware of rising sectarian rivalries. Boko Haram will remain a top security focus, but Nigeria will also need to be wary of becoming a proxy battleground for larger ideological and geopolitical rivalries. Competition between ISIL and al Qaeda—and between Iran and Saudi Arabia—could fuel increasingly deadly internal competition within Nigeria and at the same time draw the country into a diplomatic morass that could prove politically and economically costly.

Boko Haram and other Sahelian extremist groups have a long record of dynamism and opportunism. Internal disputes over ideology, ego, strategy, and leadership—and competition for profile, manpower, and resources—have ensured a continual fracturing and reforming of alliances and rivalries among them. Today, mounting rivalry between ISIL and al Qaeda could raise the stakes for jihadist competition even further. Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIL last year, renaming itself Islamic State West Africa Province. At the same time, al Qaeda’s Sahel affiliates—Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), MUJAO, al Mourabitoun, and others—have reasserted themselves with high-profile attacks in Bamako and Ouagadougou, after being temporarily on the defensive following the French-led intervention into Mali. The quest for notoriety and one-upmanship among jihadist groups will have heavy and tragic human costs.

Compounding the possibility of sectarian and ideological competition is the rising assertiveness of Nigeria’s Shiite movement. In November, Boko Haram claimed an attack against a members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), the country’s largest Shiite organization, as they marched in an annual pilgrimage. Just weeks later in December, the Nigerian military killed hundreds of IMN members (the group claims as many as 700) in the North Central town of Zaria, flattening the movement’s central mosque and gravely wounding its charismatic leader Ibrahim al-Zakzaky, who remains in detention. The massacre was ostensibly set off when IMN members blocked a convoy carrying the Nigerian Army chief of staff. That initial altercation left 10 protesters dead, but security forces returned to IMN headquarters that evening for the much larger assault. The government has remained largely silent on the real reasons for the massacre, but in private, federal officials hint at a serious and imminent threat from elements within organization, which to date has publicly professed a policy of nonviolence. An ongoing investigation may provide greater clarity on the nature of the threat and the circumstances of the assault, but many observers worry that brutality of the military response could serve only to inflame and further radicalize Shiite elements, very much as the killing of Yusuf and his followers in 2009 generated a more vicious and violent iteration of Boko Haram.

A number of Nigerian analysts express concern that the Zaria incident—as well as the al Qaeda–ISIL rivalry—could draw Nigeria into a broader geopolitical and ideological contest. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran spoke to President Buhari following the Zaria killings, expressing his concern for the country’s Shiite community and dismay that al-Zakzaky remained in detention. King Salman of Saudi Arabia called President Buhari shortly thereafter, reportedly expressing his support for the fight against terrorism and pledging greater cooperation. Speculation that Nigeria might join the Saudi-created Islamic Military Alliance against Terrorism, has stirred considerable consternation in the Nigerian media, and few Nigerian analysts want to see the country pulled into a geopolitical battle that could inflame inter- and intra-religious domestic divisions.

There will be no decisive victory in the long fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria. With the group now largely routed from the towns it controlled, the security situation in some ways has returned to where it was before Boko Haram developed territorial ambitions. Boko Haram is indeed weakened, but the government and its international partners must urgently block its capacity and opportunity to regenerate. This will require a shift from a “search and destroy” military mindset to a more multifaceted approach that prioritizes civilian protection and engagement, genuine collaboration with regional neighbors, and international cooperation to cut the group’s financial lifelines. Only then can the much bigger task of economic revitalization and recovery fully begin. The hard part is still ahead.

Jennifer Cooke, director of the CSIS Africa Program, and Tom Sanderson, director of the CSIS Transnational Threats (TNT) Program, travelled to Maiduguri—and to the Dalori IDP camp—in mid-January, as part of a CSIS project on violent extremism in the Sahel.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Syria: What’s Next?

FEBRUARY 4, 2016


Erdogan’s Foreign Policy is in Ruins


Erdogan’s Foreign Policy Is in Ruins

It wasn’t long ago that Turkish foreign policy was the talk of the town. Defined by the catchy phrase of “zero problems with the neighbors,” Turkey aimed to both improve relations with its neighborhood and slowly emerge as the dominant regional power. It was a classic case of enhancing soft power through democratization and economic reforms at home, coupled with shrewd diplomacy aimed at establishing Ankara as a mediator in the region’s conflicts.

This policy lies in ruins today. It is the victim of the unpredictable turnabout in the Arab Spring, especially in Syria; hubris; and miscalculations in domestic and foreign policy. With the exception of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, Turkey’s relations with almost all of its neighbors have soured. At the same time, tensions with the United States, European Union, and Russia have all dramatically increased. If Ankara has any sway today, it is mostly because of its geography — which gives it proximity to Syria and the refugee calamity — and its willingness to use strong-arm tactics in diplomatic transactions.

So how did Turkey’s international ambitions fall apart? It’s a question with multiple answers. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grandiose ideas of his role in the world, his desire to transform Turkey into a strong presidential system, and the collapse of the Kurdish peace process, itself a casualty of the Syrian crisis, all have contributed to damaging Ankara’s once-promising foreign policy.

Turkey and the Arab Spring

Even before the Arab Spring, there were signs that Turkish foreign policy was faltering. In 2009, after almost seven years of conservative rule, Turkey’s accomplishments were noteworthy: rapid economic growth, the transformation of Istanbul into an international hub, democratization at home, and the domestication of the powerful military establishment. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) went from electoral victory to electoral victory, as ordinary citizens were seduced by his accomplishments and turned off by a hapless opposition.

Having consolidated his position at home, especially after the 2007 elections, Erdogan became more of a risk-taker. He initiated a calculated public showdown with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the 2009 World Economic Forum, in which he angrily castigated Israel’s policy in Gaza, which threw relations between the two countries into a tailspin. However, it also paid off tremendous dividends in the Arab world, as Erdogan and Turkey’s popularityskyrocketed, and Arabs flocked to Turkey for tourism and in search of investment opportunities. This was followed by a pro-AKP Turkish NGO’s decision to charter a boat and sail to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the disastrous Israeli response, which ended with the deaths of nine Turks and saw relations with Israel collapse further.

The advent of the Arab Spring also pushed the United States and Turkey to work together closely. They appeared to synchronize their public statements on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in an effort to push him out and later worked together on supplying arms and supplies to the Free Syrian Army. Turkey once again emerged as a regional model country that had successfully married Islam and democracy in the person of Erdogan and his AKP.

As early as 2010, Obamadeclared Turkey to be a “great Muslim democracy”

As early as 2010, Obama declared Turkey to be a “great Muslim democracy” and “a critically important model for other Muslim countries in the region”; in 2012, he even named Erdogan among the top five leaders with whom he had forged a close relationship.

Turkey, however, wanted to be more than a model. The rise in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which the AKP leadership had had close relations, opened the possibility of an active role for Ankara as the movement’s most powerful regional ally. The Arab Spring in effect allowed for the Turkish leadership to imagine itself as the region’s leading power: As then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu put it, Turkey “will lead the winds of change in the Middle East … not just as a friend but as a country which is seen as one articulating the ideas of change and of the new order.”

Turkey’s moment had arrived. But it wouldn’t last long: Davutoglu’s hoped-for “new order” was dealt a setback when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government was overthrown by a combination of public protests and the army, and Erdogan’s relations with the new military-led regime disintegrated rapidly. But it was in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s regime stubbornly persisted in the face of an insurgency that Turkey helped support, where Turkish foreign-policy objectives were ultimately upended.

How Syria changed everything

Before the 2011 uprising, Syria had been the ultimate successful example of Turkey’s “zero problems” foreign policy. Soon after the AKP’s rise to power, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and Erdogan established a close working and even personal relationship. This was a remarkable turnabout, considering that in 1998, Turkey threatened Syria militarily due to its support of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was then waging an insurgency against the Turkish state. Erdogan helped launch indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria, and went on to support the Baathist regime against a U.N. effort, led by the United States and France, to pressure Syrian troops to leave Lebanon.

When the peaceful protests started in Syria, Erdogan at first maneuvered to prevent Assad from succumbing to the same fate as the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders. He counseled Assad to introduce reforms — in fact, he reportedly suggested that these did not have to be very profound — but to no avail.

As Assad gave a free rein to his military to crush the protests, Erdogan turned on his former ally and friend.

As Assad gave a free rein to his military to crush the protests, Erdogan turned on his former ally and friend.

A number of factors contributed to Erdogan’s decision: anger that Assad would not heed his counsel, the common perception that Assad would not survive anyway, the belief that he could shape the new Syria, and finally the dramatic escalation of violence during the holy month of Ramadan in 2011 on what Erdogan saw as Sunni protestors. He called for Assad’s removal and publicly proclaimed that the Syrian dictator had only months left in power. Soon, he said in September 2012, “we will be going to Damascus and pray freely with our brothers at the Ummayad Mosque.”

Assad, however, would not fall so easily. The divergence between Erdogan’s wishes to see Assad replaced by a friendly Sunni-based alliance and the reality of the Syrian dictator’s stubborn hold on power frustrated the Turkish leader and pushed him toward a go-it-alone policy. Deep splits started to emerge with the United States, as Erdogan expressed disappointment in Obama’s unwillingness to enter the fray despite massive civilian casualties at the hand of regime forces.

Erdogan’s break with Assad also heralded the beginning of a sectarian Sunni policy that became more pronounced as the Syrian regime endured. Turkey’s policy of encouraging foreign fighters to flow across its border into northern Syria has also helped radicalize the opposition and has raised tensions with Ankara’s U.S. and European partners. The Turkish government knew that many of these foreign fighters would join jihadi militias, such as the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, but allowed them to do so because the homegrown “moderate” rebels had proved unsuccessful in bringing about the demise of the Assad regime. Jihadi fighters, some of whom were battle-hardened and more willing to die for the cause, would presumably complete the task that other Syrian rebels could not.

The unintended consequences of tens of thousands of foreign fighters converging on Syria soon became apparent. Many of the foreign fighters gravitated toward the Islamic State, helping it become the power it is today. In May 2013, during a visit to Washington, Obama urged Erdogan to stop supporting jihadi elements, specifically al-Nusra Front, and prevent their access through the Turkish border. But by then, a jihadi infrastructure within Turkey had materialized that bedevils Turkish security officials to this day.

The prime beneficiary of the loose border controls has been the Islamic State. The infrastructure in Turkey that developed to support the jihadis would ultimately be used to strike against Turkish towns, starting with Diyarbakir, Suruc, Ankara, and lastly Istanbul. The first three bombings targeted Kurds and leftists, leaving more than 135 dead, and the last attack in Istanbul’s tourism district killed 11 German tourists. The Islamic State has also executed its Syrian opponents inside Turkey with impunity and set up exchanges for Syrians and others to ransom their loved ones held by the Islamic State on Turkish soil.

The Kurdish Question

The empowerment of the Syrian Kurds has been the most important consequence of Syria’s spiral into chaos. Disenfranchised and repressed by successive Syrian regimes, the Kurds were able to take advantage of the country’s fracturing to lay claim to territory where they constituted a majority. They soon found a powerful ally in the United States: When the Islamic State advanced on the Kurdish-held town of Kobani in October 2014, the U.S. Air Force pounded the jihadi group, launching an extraordinary and successful relationship that has proved to be the most successful effort at dislodging the Islamic State from territory it has conquered.

But this deepening alliance came at the expense of the Turkish government. The dominant Syrian Kurdish movement, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is a close ally if not a subsidiary organization of the PKK, which trained and nurtured it, making it into a formidable fighting force. Washington has made it clear that it distinguishes between the PKK and the PYD, despite the umbilical relationship between these two organizations. From a legal perspective, while the PKK is on the U.S. terrorism list, the PYD is not — and has been the recipient of American military support in its war against the Islamic State. As the United States has deepened its relationship with the PYD, Washington’s only concession to Ankara has been to give in to Turkish ultimatums not to invite the PYD to participate in recent Syria peace talks in Geneva.

In retrospect, the Syrian Kurds’ victory in Kobani proved to be the deathblow for Turkey’s domestic peace process with its Kurdish population. At the time, Erdogan was harshly critical of the American intervention in Kobani as he and his party perceive the PYD to be a greater scourge than the Islamic State. In February 2015, he repudiated the agreement his lieutenants had negotiated with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party and the PKK. New documents suggest that the breaking point was his fear that Syrian Kurds would duplicate the Iraqi Kurdish experiment of creating an autonomous region on Turkey’s southern border.

By last summer, the war by and against the PKK at home had resumed with a vengeance. Since the June 7 election, some 256 security personnel have been killed; the casualties on the side of the PKK, while harder to pin down, have also been high. The destruction in Kurdish towns such as Silopi, Cizre, and the Sur district of Diyarbakir, where Turkish tanks have fired on homes and the youth wing of the PKK has decided to put up stiff resistance, has also been devastating.

Erdogan correctly understood that the Kobani siege represented a possible turning point for the Kurds’ fortunes in the region.

He had two choices, co-optation or suppression. He chose the latter.

He had two choices, co-optation or suppression. He chose the latter.

Even as the Kurds undermined Erdogan’s domestic and international position, the Turkish president found his hands tied even further in Syria by the Russian intervention on behalf of Assad. In a careless move, Turkish fighters in November 2015 shot down a Russian bomber that had briefly intruded into Turkish airspace, an action that triggered a rash of costly economic, political, and military actions in retaliation by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan had misjudged Putin: The shoot-down was born in the frustrations emanating from his failures in Syria and from watching the Russians and Iranians succeed in bolstering the much-battered Syrian army against Turkey’s allies in the country.

The ripple effects from Syria have put Turkey at odds with Iran. From the beginning of the Syrian conflict until the end of 2015, when the Russians intervened directly and the role of Iran’s Quds Force became more obvious, Turkey and Iran had agreed to disagree on this issue. The extensive business ties between Erdogan’s government, including large-scale gold sales, Turkey’s dependence on Iranian gas, and Iran’s need for the foreign exchange revenues created by these exports have helped the two countries avoid a public shouting match. This is in the process of changing because the confluence of forces on the ground has turned the tide in favor of Assad.

Erdogan has not given up on his dream of Turkish influence in the region. Ankara recently announced that Turkey would open up a naval base in Qatarand set up training facilities in Somalia. When convenient, the Turkish president also has proved capable of altering his policies at a moment’s notice — most recently by warming relations with Israel. A rapprochement with Jerusalem opens the lucrative possibility of constructing gas pipelines from the eastern Mediterranean fields through Cyprus to Turkey.

What’s next for Erdogan

Erdogan faces three interlinked challenges. He is relentlessly pursuing a constitutional change that would allow him to centralize executive powers in the presidency, allowing him to run the country unconstrained by its institutions; the escalating conflict with the Kurds threatens to lead to their complete break with the Turkish state; and the deterioration of the Syrian situation promises not only to exacerbate the Kurdish conflict at home but also weaken relations with the United States, as Washington strengthens its ties with the Syrian Kurds.

Erdogan may well get his way on some of these issues — particularly the creation of a presidential system — but the price will be even greater divisions within Turkish society, and between Turkey and its traditional allies. Erdogan is confident that his approach toward the Kurds is succeeding and is banking on the disillusionment of some in the Kurdish community, especially the more pious elements, to turn on the PKK. In the meantime, however, the suffering in Kurdish-majority cities is likely to have an indelible impact on the Kurdish community. Changing international conditions, primarily in Iraq and Syria, suggest that a military victory now may turn out to be a Pyrrhic one.

As for Syria, there is clearly a major divergence in priorities between Turkey and the United States and Europe. For Turkey’s Western partners, the No. 1 priority is to defeat the Islamic State — whereas in Ankara, the overthrow of the Assad regime and the prevention of a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria are the overriding concerns. The continuation of the Kurdish strife at home will further push Ankara away from its allies on Syria.

The crux of the matter is this: Turkish foreign policy is no longer about Turkey but about Erdogan. Floundering at home and abroad, the Turkish president has embarked on an illiberal course at home undermining what are admittedly flawed institutions and reconstituting them in his image. His omnipresence and unchallenged position mean that foreign policy is the product of his worldview, whims, and preferences. There is no one who can challenge him. The systematic approach of the early years has given way to indulgence; this more than anything explains the ups and downs of Turkish foreign policy.


What North Korea’s Latest Missile Test Means for the U.S. & Its Allies



A reporter once asked President Kennedy the difference between the Atlas rocket that launched John Glenn into orbit and another designed to carry nuclear weapons. “Attitude,” Kennedy is said to have quipped in reply. North Korea has now rung in the Lunar New Year with another successful satellite launch under its belt, an event certainly oriented toward rocket capability of the military persuasion.

Coming on the heels of the North’sfourth nuclear detonation, the launch reflects both continued technical advances and their sustained ICBMambitions. These recent events mean that active measures to counter North Korea’s missile program will likely take on renewed importance. This will include increased regional missile defense capacity for both the U.S. and its allies, improved homeland missile defense capability, and military postures tailored to quickly defeating North Korea’s strategic forces in the event of a crisis and deterrence failure.


The launch did not come as a surprise. Last week, following increased activity at the Sohae launching station near Tongchang-ri and the Chinese border, Pyongyang gave notice of its launch plans to the International Maritime Organization. On Feb. 7 at 9 a.m. local time, North Korea launched an Unha rocket due south. DPRK state television posted video of the launch, set to triumphant military marches.

Initial reports indicated that the missile might have broken apart after launch, but U.S. Strategic Command detected and tracked the missile “into space.” Perhaps the reported failure was a deliberate detonation of the separated first stage, to avoid recovery. South Korea recovered parts of the 2012 missile launch, which led them to estimate that the missile had a range of 10,000 kilometers.

The rocket orbited an “earth observation satellite” called Kwangmyongsong-4 (Lodestar), the same name given to previous satellites, of which only one probably successfully entered orbit: Kwangmyongsang-3 in December 2012. The first attempt, however, was in August 1998 with a Taepodong missile that overflew Japan. Notably, the missile’s flight path was virtually identical to that used on that previous launch.

 At first blush, these similarities make the launch look like a mere repeat of the test three years ago. Assessing its full significance and whether North Korea has indeed demonstrated ICBM capability, however, lies in the payload’s weight, velocity, and orbital altitude. If true that the latest satellite weighed 200 kilograms, it would be a significant increase from the 2012 satellite, said to be half that. (By comparison, Sputnik weighed just 83 kg.)

Notwithstanding North Korea’s claims of peaceful intentions and their ostensible interest in meteorology, U.S. officials were quick to state the obvious: that the launch is intimately tied to its military efforts. A STRATCOM press release pointedly noted that they assessed it to be “a missile launch.” The early missile programs of the U.S. and Soviet Union likewise went in tandem with their aspirations for the peaceful exploration of space. In 1957 alone, for instance, the Soviet Union demonstrated its first ICBM and orbited Sputnik, both using an R-7 rocket.

But even if a missile has the thrust to deliver a nuclear weapon, the weapon still has to fit atop it. A report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the head of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), and the head of U.S. Northern Command have suggested that North Korea may indeed have the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon for delivery on a missile like the KN-08. Whether they have actually done so remains unclear, but miniaturization is at least as much a concern of their continued nuclear testing than marginal improvements in yield.

Besides miniaturizing a nuclear weapon and building a rocket powerful enough to deliver it, North Korea has apparently not yet demonstrated the ability to have such a warhead reenter the atmosphere. On the other hand, reentry technology has been around a long time, there may be sources of foreign assistance, and at any rate North Korea may be willing to accept greater technical risk or less advanced technologies. At an earlier stage of its missile program, for instance, Chinese engineers are said to have used simple slabs of oak wood to ablate heat away from the warhead to survive reentry. North Korea has surprised before, and it may do so again.


Although a long-range rocket might be in some ways be less of an immediate concern to its neighbors within range of shorter ones, the Feb. 7 launch will likely directly affect regional missile defense efforts. North Korea’s short- and medium-range systems include a host of artillery and short-range rockets, its legacy No-Dongs, Taepo-Dongs, and a newer mobile solid-fueled SS-21 variant called KN-02. News reports this week have continued to highlight reports of mobile missiles, apart from the missile perched on the Sohae launchpad.

The most profound significance of the satellite launch will likely be political, however, for what it will do to U.S.-ROK relations, missile defense cooperation in the Asia Pacific, and the prioritization of military capability against a wide range of North Korean threats. A neighbor with ambitions for a nuclear-armedICBM is a neighbor that cannot be trusted.

One may expect ROK and Japan to continue to improve their Patriot anti-missile systems. Japan will continue to upgrade their sea-based missile-defense ships, and South Korea may consider making their Aegis ships to be missile-defense-capable. Japan is likely to move forward on either Aegis Ashore (with a potential mix of Standard Missile interceptors), or possibly THAAD. For its part, the South Korea government may be increasingly unlikely to accept vulnerability to the missile attack, and may move forward decisively to hosting a medium-tier system like THAAD. Japan is expected to continue improvements to both land-based Patriot defenses and sea-based Aegis, but in recent months have also discussedTHAAD. ROK also currently has shorter-range Patriots, but has expressed the need for some kind of a medium-tier system by 2020.

U.S. Regional Defenses

The U.S. continues to evaluate its missile defense force structure in the Asia-Pacific, including for Hawaii and Guam. The U.S. is in the process of making the THAAD deployment on Guam permanent, a necessary but insufficient step given the range and number of missile threats to an island so highly important for U.S. power projection in the Asia Pacific. This week’s test makes ROK hosting of a U.S. THAAD battery on the peninsula increasingly likely.

On Sunday, the ROK and the U.S. issued a joint statementindicating that they would begin formal talks for the deployment of THAAD at the “earliest possible date.” Although THAADwould contribute significantly to the defense of the peninsula from some of the more demonstrated medium tier threats from the North, no weapon system is a silver bullet. Other offensive strike and other active defenses are still needed to contend with lower tier air and missile threats along the entire kill chain, both before and after launch.

In June 2014, USFK’s General Scaparrotti recommendedTHAAD as appropriate to defend the South, but prospects for deployment there have been highly contentious and delayed for political reasons, including pressure from China. Such a deployment would represent a significant advance for missile defenses on the peninsula. In the longer term, however, a single THAAD battery is inadequate to defend the entire area; two or even three might be probably be necessary given both geography and the quantity of DPRK missiles.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Army does not have extra THAADbatteries lying around. Despite the Army’s formal requirement of nine batteries, only three are currently operational, plus one activated battery in training. One of the three operational is already forward-deployed at Guam. The future year defense plan currently includes plans to complete only seven batteries by 2019, leaving unclear the status of the eighth and ninth. The Army has identified an extended-range THAAD interceptor as important for Asia-Pacific needs by 2025, but its development is still not underway.

The U.S. Navy likewise falls short of even its own missile defense requirements. Combatant commanders have requested an increase from 44 to 77 missile-defense-capable Aegis ships by 2016, but until recently the Navy considered removing missile defense capability from its cruisers. And despite the Navy’s stated requirement of 40 ships with ability to simultaneously conduct air and missile-defense missions, today only three ships today have the Baseline 9 software necessary to do so.

At least in relation to homeland missile defenses, regional missile defenses have been prioritized in recent years, but much more remains to be done even to meet current requirements.

Homeland Defense

Since 1993, North Korean missiles have been at the center ofU.S. and allied discussions of both missile defense and preemption. The 1998 launch of a Taepodong missile over Japan helped galvanize U.S. reconsideration of the ABMTreaty and the need for homeland missile defense. The 2016 Unha launch will likewise affect U.S. homeland missile defense considerations.

In response to North Korean and other developments, the Clinton administration in the mid-1990s crafted a three-phase architecture for homeland defense, which included up to nine X-band radars (including one in South Korea), and 100 to 250 Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs) at two sites—a notional architecture significantly more expansive than that deployed today. President Clinton deferred the decision about deployment in late 2000, but the following year the Bush administration moved to both withdraw from the ABM treaty and move towards putting actual interceptors in the ground, using the boosters and kill vehicle from the Clinton-era architecture.

By late 2004, the U.S. had deployed some initial (but quite limited) defensive capability for the homeland, the first since a brief six-month deployment in 1976 of nuclear armed interceptors in North Dakota. Today, the United States has 30 GBIs deployed to defend the homeland, most in Alaska and a few in California. Responding once again to unavoidable signs of North Korean missile advances, the Obama administration in March 2013 restored previous plans for 44 GBIs. Some 37 interceptors will be deployed by the end of 2016, and the remainder by 2017. A successful return to intercept took place in June 2014, and another successful flight test just occurred on January 28.

Two X-band radars are now deployed to Japan to support homeland defense, and an additional long-range discriminating radar will be built in Alaska. Although the Ground Based Midcourse defense system suffered testing setbacks, the Missile Defense Agency is now on a path to substantially improve GMD’s reliability and lethality. Strides have been made to both improving the existing system and laying the basis for a modestly improved Redesigned Kill Vehicle.

Extremely promising work has been made in the area of directed energy, and a small number of laser-carrying UAVs could eventually support boost-phase intercept against North Korea. This capability is not yet here, however, and for the foreseeable future chemically powered rockets remain necessary to kill other rockets.

The Iran Connection

North Korea’s test is also not disconnected from Iran, its frequent partner in missile development. Unless this recent event was unlike most previous long range missile tests, foreign dignitaries and engineers (from Iran and elsewhere) were likely on hand to witness the launch at Sohae, either as potential customers or as a part of a more substantial coproduction arrangement.

Only last month, the U.S. Department of the Treasury identified and sanctioned Iranian people and corporations for contributing to a North Korean 80-ton booster—probably about the size of the rocket launched on Feb. 7. Of particular concern is if Unha’s engines and other ICBM-related technologies could help develop a longer-range Iranian missile, including one sometimes called Simorgh.

While the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) put a number of restrictions on nuclear weapons development within Iran, it does not touch its missile program, and even paves the way to eliminate international ballistic missile-related sanctions after eight years. In recent months, the Obama administration has rebuked Iran for conducting several ballistic missile tests in direct violation of UNSCR 1929 and its successor,UNSCR 2231.

Transnational cooperation is, of course, nothing new to the world of proliferation. Indeed, besides missiles, nuclear weapons development and even testing within North Korea could be a basis for future Iranian breakout, while avoiding the appearance of noncompliance with the JCPOA.

For these and other reasons, missile defense efforts under the European Phased Adaptive Approach continue to remain important. The Obama administration and its NATO allies have therefore prudently retained the EPAA implementation despite the nuclear deal with Iran.


The Unha launch is hardly the basis for panic, but neither is there is any reason to think that the North Korean missile threat is diminishing. With little evidence that China will act to constrain their neighbor’s advances, and even less that Kim Jung Un has self-restraint on his own accord, and a total lack of faith in anything like stable deterrence, active measures will remain necessary to provide security and stability.

Ballistic missiles have many times been fired in anger and, in particular, to hold back or deter superior conventional forces—witness, for instance, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and recent reports of a dozen missiles of North Korean origin fired by Yemeni Houthis since last July alone. Deterrence fails, and missiles are used in conflict. None of these countries, however, had anything like the weapons available to North Korea.

If and when the Kim regime one day collapses, we may perhaps eventually learn more about the untold horrors the Korean people have undergone in order to support and produce its missile program, more about the foreign assistance the missile program has received (and given) over the past decades, and the true extent of their capabilities. In the meantime, the black-box nature of the regime and prospects for uncertainty mean that we must actively hedge against deterrence failure, not merely for the U.S. homeland but also for forces and allies in the region.