Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ominous Somali Crossroad

Somalia’s long struggle for survival in a hostile world seems about to get worse unless the world, which to date has exacerbated local problems, can carefully nurture the faint ray of light offered by negotiations among moderates occurring amidst general reorganization. [See also “Does Anyone Care About the Somali Disaster?”, Dec. 5; "The Other War Washington Is Losing," Nov. 26]

That forgotten “other war” in Somalia is about to get even worse…but a ray of light actually exists in Somalia’s long night. (Ethan Zukerman in an excellent review comes down on the very plausible side of getting worse.) At the moment, both the Islamic opposition and the internationally-recognized rump regime supported by the Ethiopian intervention force are reorganizing. The ray of hope is that moderates from the Islamic Courts Union and the rump government are talking and might be able to form a centrist regime.

Unfortunately, although Ethiopia has recently talking about withdrawing, it is actually reinforcing its army in Somalia, which is likely to spark more violence and undermine movement toward compromise. The Ethiopian intervention is what has been fueling the rising extremism over the past two years. More of the same is not likely suddenly to have the exact opposite impact. On the opposite side, the hard-line Islamist faction that emerged in response to the Ethiopian intervention, the Shabab, just declared an Islamic state in territory they control.

Therefore, the ray of light is likely quickly to be darkened: yes, a moderate middle of national reconciliation is emerging, including the prime minister of the rump government and a faction of the old ICU. Conversely, both the Ethiopians and the extreme Islamist faction are consolidating their positions even as peacekeeping efforts appear to be fading. Outside forces with the power to make a difference are happy to exploit Somalia for their broader goals but otherwise reluctant to get involved in any serious effort to restore peace to a society that outsiders have been abusing for so long.

This evidently delicate situation will require careful international handling--sensitivity to local conditions and willingness to listen to local grievances--to avoid intensifying the collapse of Somali society and to preserve what little movement toward peace now exists.

If Obama sincerely intends to “change,” the sudden fluidity in Somalia would make this an opportune moment for shifting Washington’s stance from hard-line reliance on military solutions in support of one side to a neutral search for a solution acceptable to a majority of Somali society.

No comments: