Robert Malley: 10 Crises to Watch in 2018

Robert Malley addresses LAWAC members at a breakfast on February 15.

We are surrounded by political and military conflict, both domestically and around the world. Robert Malley, the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group (ICG), said that one of his organization’s challenges in compiling its “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2018” was which conflicts to exclude. The list, found here, runs from North Korea and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar to the Ukraine, multiple countries in the Middle East and in Africa, and includes Venezuela. In ranking them, Malley said the ICG takes into account how deadly these conflicts are – or could be – and how amenable they might be to some form of resolution.

North Korea made the top of ICG’s list this year, given the horrendous potential for mass casualties should a “hot” conflict break out that could very quickly involve nuclear weapons. On the one side there is the Trump administration tightening sanctions and threatening military action. On the other side the North Korean government seems not only impervious to sanctions but has apparently accelerated its nuclear and missile program out of paranoia against the US actions. “This is two fast trains headed for a collision… our recommendation is to put some time on the clock. Let’s try negotiations.” Malley suggested a pause in US military exercises in South Korea could be matched by a pause in North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing: “We need to give them a deal to try to affect their behavior, not just punish them.” He said that all the evidence suggested that North Korea is “capable of being deterred.”

In Myanmar, thousands of Rohingya Muslims have been killed and around 700,000 have fled across the border to Bangladesh in the past year. Malley said it would require substantial international pressure on the government to reverse what the UN has termed ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military. “The problem is that the Burmese don’t see them as Burmese, they regard them as a Muslim group from Bangladesh who don’t count as citizens.”

In the Middle East, Malley pointed to three fundamental conflictual relationships: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, Iran vs. Israel and Iran vs. America. “These three conflicts all have a high-level of risk but almost no diplomacy. We need engagement, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” War-torn countries like Yemen, Syria and Iraq are “paying the price for the lack of Saudi-Iranian dialogue.”

Malley said that while it is clear there is a division in Iran between the hardliners around the Supreme Leader and more moderate officials who would like to be more integrated with the outside world, the US should be very cautious about how it gets involved. “If we try to support the moderates it might boomerang and strengthen the hardliners – we have seen this time and again in the past when the US has tried to meddle in the internal politics of others.” In the longer term, he said, Iran will change in its own way: “The current regime does not reflect the peoples’ will. That country will evolve.”

Compared to the wars of the Middle East, the big conflicts in Africa (the Congo, the Sahel, Sudan) get very little attention in the US. “Africa suffers because it is not the focus of geopolitical struggle like the Middle East is,” said Malley. He pointed to the Congo where millions have died in repeated cycles of civil war and many more languish in poverty, even though the country is very well endowed with natural resources. The current president, Joseph Kabila, is resisting giving up power and allowing elections to go ahead, leading to more violence. The key in the Congo, as elsewhere in Africa, said Malley is to have the US and Europe adopt a unified stance behind the African Union. “Africans don’t like westerners coming in and dictating solutions to them,” he said, referring the history of colonialism in the continent.

In Venezuela, Malley said a similar unified approach from the international community will be required to bring about change. “At the moment, Russia and China are continuing to do business with the Maduro regime, while the US is talking about sanctions.” In addition to talking with one voice, Malley said that it might be necessary to contemplate some form of amnesty or safe haven for leaders who have been accused of wrong-doing. “We have this debate with human rights organizations all the time,” said Malley, “but if the intention is to bring peace and stability to the ordinary people, some form of safe haven for the perpetrators of violence may be needed.”

Asked about the Israel-Palestine conflict and the chances of a two-state solution, Malley said that he had just returned from Israel and felt “we are further from a two-state solution now than we were in 1993 when Rabin and Arafat shook hands in the Rose Garden.” In the West Bank, he said, “I didn’t meet a single Palestinian under 30 who believes in a two-state solution.” In the longer term, Malley said that neither the status quo nor a one-state solution would be workable. But he said that the obstacles to getting a two-state solution back on track were considerable.