Conflicts Without Borders

Conflicts Without Borders

Mini Teaser: How to contain the virus of ethnic conflict.

by Author(s): Stefan Wolff

The "diffusion qua precedent" in the case of Kosovo when it comes to opportunities is instructive. Regardless of how one feels about the legitimacy and legality of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, there is little if any need to turn it into an almighty precedent. Russia may be right in insisting that short of a new UN Security Council resolution, only a consensual separation of Kosovo from Serbia would have been legal under current international law. But waving the big stick of Kosovo as a precedent is counterproductive, not least in relation to any of the conflicts in Russia's own neighborhood. By the same token, the refusal, so far, to recognize Kosovo by several European governments such as Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania establishes a precedent where there is none-and a wrong one at that.

Kosovo is unique and requires a unique response-rejecting its independence with reference to other cases undermines this position and strengthens the very separatist forces that are meant to be deterred. By delaying or denying international recognition to Kosovo out of concern for the implications that such a move might have on suspected separatist movements in their own countries, these states are sending exactly the wrong message. For one, they equate their own problems with those of Kosovo. Yet, neither of these countries has Serbia's track record of past persistent and grave human-rights violations. Nor do people living in areas like Spain's Basque Country give the same strong support to independence as do some 90 percent of current inhabitants of Kosovo. Moreover, Northern Cyprus, another often-cited area that could "abuse" Kosovo as a precedent, in fact seeks reunification with the south. In 2004, they approved of a UN-sponsored plan to that effect, which was rejected by the south. So neither of these two cases, nor the situations in Slovakia and Romania involving ethnic Hungarians, are comparable to the situation in Kosovo.


WHEN THE spread of conflict is not driven by ethnic groups, it is driven by states. This is apparent in Iraq, an equally complex case of diffusion and escalation. Turkey's recent invasion of the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq was motivated by its own security concerns in relation to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against successive Turkish governments for over two decades. The threat from the PKK and Kurdish demands vis-à-vis Turkey in general, however, is perceived to have increased as a result of developments in Iraq. This also increases Turkey's motivation to be involved. The 2005 constitution formally established Kurdistan as a region in Iraq with far-reaching powers of self-government, including its own military forces. On the one hand, this allegedly gives Kurds in Turkey more incentives to ask for an equally advantageous status. More importantly, perhaps, it also means that Kurdish popular sentiment in Iraq might provide a power base and safe haven for the PKK, from which the terrorist organization may reinvigorate its campaign in Turkey.

Yet, the threat of diffusion and escalation does not end there. Other states could be equally motivated to play a part in the conflict. There are also sizable Kurdish communities in Iran and Syria. Further complicating matters, Iran and Saudi Arabia back different sides of another conflict driven by radicalized religious groups: the sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia within Iraq. This could easily escalate further into a proxy war for regional hegemony. In addition, Iran, more than Saudi Arabia, also has an interest in making life as difficult as possible for the multinational coalition in Iraq, and has escalated the various interlinked conflicts in the Middle East, if only by using proxy forces like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.

Policy responses should take these actors' concerns into account and focus on eliminating potential spoilers of any settlement. So irredeemable PKK terrorists must be sidelined and deprived of their political and power bases. But this can only succeed if it happens in combination with acknowledging and addressing the legitimate grievances of Kurds by the Turkish government (a policy that has already begun), and a Kurdish acceptance, on both sides of the border, that violence is an unsuitable means to pursue otherwise legitimate ends. Above all, the current borders in the region must be recognized explicitly. This involves respect for the territorial integrity of both Iraq and Turkey, as well as for the right of Kurds in Iraq to their autonomous region.

The Turkish-Kurdish example indicates just how difficult it will be to remove motivations from the equation of diffusion and escalation of ethnic conflict. In many other cases, immediate success in this respect is likely to be equally difficult to achieve.


MORE RECENT, "nontraditional" patterns of diffusion and escalation reveal varied means and follow a different and more dangerous logic. Over the past several years, evidence has grown that there are increasing and solid links between ethnic conflicts on the one side and international terrorism and organized crime on the other. This has also created a new dynamic for the spread of ethnic conflict, and one that is much more difficult to tackle with the traditional set of responses aimed at containing and eventually settling such conflicts.

The links between conflict, crime and terrorism are, for example, particularly obvious in Southeast Asia, involving the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. At the center of a regional fundamentalist Islamic terror network is a group called Jemaah Islamiyah. It maintains links with similar groups, including the Abu Sayyaf group and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the southern Philippines, the Malaysian Kampulan Mujahidin, insurgent groups in southern Thailand, such as the Pattani United Liberation Organization, and the Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia. These links are primarily based on shared experiences of senior commanders in the anti-Soviet Afghan war in the 1980s and 1990s. They manifest themselves today in joint training, recruitment, financing and operational cooperation, and often involve direct and indirect links to terrorist groups in the Middle East, including al-Qaeda.

The various groups have exploited local grievances and grafted themselves onto preexisting ethnic conflicts, forming a dangerous, symbiotic partnership with local insurgents. They offer local fighters access to funds and know-how and receive in return a base from which they can wage their very own brand of jihad. This jihadist connection, however, should not make us overlook the fact that the environment of ethnic conflict in Asia also proves fertile ground for organized crime and draws on it as a major source of funds for armed struggles. The Abu Sayyaf group, for one, finances its activities primarily with the proceeds of kidnapping. Other groups in Burma, Bangladesh and northeast India are involved in the production and smuggling of drugs.

While similar types of escalation are under way in Africa and have already had a certain measure of success in the east (specifically Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda), the Horn (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia) and Nigeria, the strategy of implanting Islamic jihad in any of Europe's ethnic conflicts has so far been relatively ineffective. Here, the major new dimension of spread is organized crime. In Kosovo, various groups have long been involved with drug smuggling, gunrunning and human trafficking. Kosovar Albanian mafia groups today control much of Western Europe's prostitution. And Transnistria in Moldova, an unrecognized separatist entity, is a major source and transport route for drugs, cigarettes and women destined for the sex industry in Europe.


THE GENERAL point here is not to criminalize what are often legitimate grievances of suppressed population groups, but to highlight that ethnic conflict spreads in very different ways. Even in an age when international terrorism is seen as the greatest scourge, ethnic conflicts-no matter how far away they happen-pose serious security challenges and need to be tackled.

For the most part, ethnic conflicts are political conflicts. They can be resolved in a bargaining process in which all parties can agree on institutions, rules and regulations that allow them to resolve their disagreements by political rather than violent means. Sensible policy responses need to take account of the causes and consequences of traditional and nontraditional patterns of diffusion and escalation if they want to succeed.

Removing the motive for people to spread ethnic conflict would be the most likely strategy of sustainable success. This would mean addressing greed, grievance and security concerns of ethnic communities, states and private-interest groups. Obviously, this is easier said than done, not least because it is often rather difficult, if not outright impossible, to disentangle the various actors' claims, especially if they have become interwoven over long periods of time. Removing motivations is more likely to be possible in cases where criminal and international terrorist involvement is minimal. Here, policy responses must start by taking the concerns of all actors involved seriously and striving for comprehensive bargains using pressures and incentives alike to make solutions sustainable. It also means using the traditional mechanisms to prevent spread: eliminating potential spoilers, stopping flows of arms, money and "expertise" to susceptible areas, and diaspora support.

Not creating the kind of opportunity in which developments in one ethnic conflict can, beyond all proportions, have global ramifications is primarily a responsibility of political leaders. Rather than letting themselves be driven by short-term domestic concerns (presidential elections in Cyprus, parliamentary elections in Spain, a weak presidency in Romania, etc.), political leaders need to show skill, vision and responsibility when dealing with matters of ethnic conflict and its diffusion and escalation.

Essay Types: Essay