x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Somalia on the edge

The UN Security Council authorises states to use land-based operations in Somalia as part of the fight against piracy, but as its transitional government fractures this has become the most unstable country in the world. Naval efforts in combating piracy have been encumbered by the ease with which skiffs can outmanoeuvre warships. Land operations face an equally daunting task through a lack of intelligence.

As the fight against Somali piracy intensifies, warships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the United States, may soon be joined by naval forces from China. A Chinese merchant ship became the fourth vessel to be attacked in two days. "The crew of the China Communications Construction Co. ship fought pirates for five hours before coalition helicopters chased them off, Noel Choong, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Maritime Bureau, said by phone today. He said a Turkish cargo ship, a Malaysian tug, and a yacht were seized off Somalia yesterday, the same day the United Nations Security Council backed military action against piracy," Bloomberg reported. Naval operations have thus far been of limited success since the asymetry between a warship and a fibreglass skiff is one that counts to the pirates' advantage. As an Italian naval officer told The New York Times, "going after them in a 485-foot-long destroyer, bristling with surface-to-air missiles and torpedoes, was like 'going after someone on a bicycle with a truck.' "But the pirates - true to form - remain unfazed. " 'They can't stop us,' said Jama Ali, one of the pirates aboard a Ukrainian freighter packed with weapons that was hijacked in September and was still being held. "He explained how he and his men hid out on a rock near the narrow mouth of the Red Sea and waited for the big grey ships with the guns to pass before pouncing on slow-moving tankers. Even if foreign navies nab some members of his crew, Mr Jama said, he is not worried. He said his men would probably get no more punishment than a free ride back to the beach, which has happened several times. " 'We know international law,' Mr Jama said." In an effort to tilt the military equation in favour of the anti-piracy forces, the Security Council on Tuesday authorised states to use land-based operations in Somalia as part of the fight against piracy. The Washington Post reported: "The vote represented a major escalation by the world's big powers in the fight against the pirates, who have disrupted commerce along one of the world's most active sea routes and acquired tens of millions of dollars in ransom... "The US-drafted resolution authorises nations to 'use all necessary measures that are appropriate in Somalia' in pursuit of pirates, as long as they are approved by the country's Transitional Federal Government [TFG]. The resolution also urges states to deploy naval vessels and military aircraft to carry out the operations, and it calls for the creation of a regional office to coordinate the international effort." McClatchy Newspapers said: "Somalia's long East African coastline is a lawless stretch of empty beaches and mountain hollows, and experts think that foreign forces lack the military intelligence to carry out well-targeted land attacks. They warn that civilian casualties would stoke anti-Western sentiment in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation, where powerful Islamist militias are threatening to topple an internationally backed - but desperately weak - interim government. "It's unlikely that American forces would be involved, given the lingering memories of 1993, when a US Black Hawk helicopter was shot down over the Somali capital, Mogadishu, resulting in the deaths of 18 servicemen. The current struggles of a small African Union peacekeeping mission also raise doubts that any country would be willing to send ground forces into Somalia. " 'Our intelligence is pretty shaky inside Somalia on a whole bunch of things,' said Roger Middleton, a Somalia researcher at Chatham House, a British-based research center. 'There's a real danger of arresting fishermen.' "One of the Bush administration's last foreign-policy initiatives immediately drew scepticism from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said over the weekend that the United States lacked the military intelligence to carry out a land-based operation. Officials in other countries have suggested that land pursuits could violate international law." Voice of America spoke to Ambassador David Shinn who doubts the effectiveness of the Security Council resolution. He once served as the State Department Deputy Task Force Director for Somalia and also served as an ambassador to Ethiopia. "The problem with piracy," he said, "is you can not control it until you have a functional government in Somalia that controls the country and the coast line [The TFG does not]. So, the idea of trying to deal with the problem with a large naval presence in the Indian Ocean or permitting members of the UN to go on land in hot pursuit of pirates may have some impact on the margins but will not change the ultimate challenge - that will remain." Ethiopia is expected to soon withdraw its troops from the Somali capital, Mogadishu. This could mean a return of the Islamic-led government that preceded the TFG. According to Ambassador Shinn, "The Islamists will tell you when they were last in power in 2006 that they did clamp down on piracy, and will do so again. But it appears that virtually everyone in authority in Somalia is getting a lot of money from piracy ransom money, estimated at being 120 million dollars last year, some of which even goes to members of families that are associated with the TFG. When you have this much money circulating, there is a very big temptation to let it continue to flow. So, it's not clear if the Islamists would clamp down on it." In an indication of the increasing instability of the TFG, The New York Times reported: "The president of Somalia announced Sunday that he was unilaterally firing the prime minister, throwing Somalia's beleaguered government, and the nation itself, into further disarray. "President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a warlord in his 70s who has been steadily marginalised for several months because he is widely seen as an obstacle to peace, said he was dismissing Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, a former aid official, because the government had 'failed to accomplish its duties.' "But it is not even clear that the president has the authority to do this." VOA later reported that Somalia's parliament gave Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein a strong vote of confidence. "There was no immediate reaction from President Abdullahi Yusuf, who told VOA Somali service on Sunday that he would abide by parliament's decision." On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Mr Yusuf had decided to disregard the rebuff from parliament and went ahead and unilaterally appointed his own prime minister. "The situation leaves Somalia with a huge crack in its beleaguered government, insurgents in control of much of the country, rising prospects of famine - and two prime ministers. "Somalia's transitional government has never been unified, powerful, popular or effective. But the United Nations and foreign countries have supported it with millions of dollars because it has been seen as the least bad option in a war-torn country that has not had a functioning central government for nearly 18 years. " 'Disagreement seems to be part of our culture,' said Abdulkadir Hussein, a shopkeeper in Mogadishu. 'Our people like conflict, rather than peace and negotiations.' "Another problem is that the Islamist insurgents who recently seized control of much of the country are also sharply divided. Many analysts predict that if the transitional government collapses - which it could do soon - the Islamists will fight it out among themselves." Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that now is not the time to send United Nations peacekeeping troops to Somalia. "The danger of anarchy in Somalia was 'clear and present', Mr Ban said, and action must be taken," the BBC reported. "But he said conditions were not in place for sending peacekeepers. " 'If there is no peace to keep, peacekeeping operations are not supposed to be there,' the UN chief said. "Instead, he said, more efforts were needed on an inter-Somali peace process and to bolster the current African Union force." The latest list compiled by defence analysts for Jane's Country Risk identified Somalia as the most unstable country in the world.

pwoodward@thenational.ae