Is China likely to be in a stronger position at the end of the Trump presidency?

The Trump presidency presents China with unique opportunities and unique challenges. How China responds to these challenges and opportunities will have a huge impact on the shape of the global order and on the Asia-Pacific in particular. This paper will briefly analyse China’s current strategic position and then based on this analysis will attempt to outline likely Chinese strategy in the coming year. It needs to be stressed that the global strategic environment is constantly changing, now more than ever. A change in the environment next week, for example a new policy from the Trump administration, could easily make all the analysis in this paper redundant. This is an inherent risk that lies with any attempt at prediction in the international arena.

China’s strategic environment is currently in flux. American strategy in the Asia-Pacific had been fairly constant from 1945 until the end of the Obama administration. It has, for the most part, been based around maintaining freedom of navigation along maritime trade routes, maintaining a level of regional stability, and preventing any one power from dominating the region and becoming a peer competitor. It was this last goal that prompted the ‘rebalance to Asia’ under Obama that involved American military, economic, and political resources and activities in the Asia-Pacific being heightened. The rebalance had limited success and the Trump administration already appears to be dismantling the political and economic dimensions. This is evidenced by US withdrawal from the TPP, apparent lack of interest in regional institutions, and rhetoric suggesting that the US is no longer willing to support its regional allies and partners to the same extent that it previously would (although these last two assertions regarding institutions and allies and partners may change).

Chinese President Xi Jinping with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte

The Trump administration’s actions and rhetoric present China with opportunities and challenges. The opportunities stem from the global leadership vacuum as the US withdraws its engagement on many global issues, economic opportunities created by controversial US trade policies, and the damage to US reputation and credibility with its allies and partners. On the other hand, the challenges come in the form of a more confrontational, less predictable US.

Slogans such as “America First” present an image of a US that is no longer willing to be the primary stake holder in every global issue. Whether this is the case or not, the heads of states of countries from all around the world can be forgiven in wondering whether the US will continue to be the global leader they once were. Additionally, the Trump administration’s rhetoric have been decidedly protectionist. As Trump and his officials were making these statements Chinese President Xi Jinping was giving a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos defending economic globalisation (which you can read here). At the same time as the US appears to be moving away from action on climate change China announced a $360 billion investment into renewable energy over the next four years. From a public relations point of view, these moves are brilliant, and it is natural that as the US begins to appear to be an unreliable global leader, China will begin to look more alluring.

President Xi Jinping with UK Prime Minister Theresa May

This being said, it should not be assumed that China wants to be a global leader in the same way that the US was. As Ankit Panda of ‘The Diplomat’ points out, being a global leader is expensive and thankless. There is no reason China would want to inherit certain problems such as Syria or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Historically for controversial issues such as these, China will tend to stay in the background and make broad statements that no reasonable party disagrees with. It is unlikely that China will begin to expend political and economic capital on issues that, for the most part, don’t affect them. As Zhang Jun, the Director General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s international economics department said, “If anyone were to say China is playing a leadership role in the world, I would say it’s not China rushing to the front, but rather the front runners have stepped back, leaving the place to China.”

What China will want is to become a regional leader and a global economic leader. Both of these are possible to a certain degree. The US withdrawal from the TPP and statements that indicate potential tariffs aimed at a number of countries, from Mexico to German car manufacturers, there appears to be a void that China can begin to fill. It should however be stressed that, especially for a small economy, US and Chinese markets are not entirely interchangeable. The US has historically been willing to run trade deficits and its local economy has a huge source of consumer demand. China on the other hand runs trade surpluses and there is less consumer demand in local Chinese markets. This means that US trade deals cannot so easily be replaced with Chinese ones. It’s not impossible, but it’s also not easy.

President Xi Jinping with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

The most significant area of opportunity for China is the erosion of US credibility in the Asia-Pacific. The US alliance and strategic partner network had been severely limiting to China. The US had several significant allies and partners, whilst China had no significant allies and very few security partners. However, pulling out of the TPP resulted in a huge loss of US credibility. The US wasn’t the only country in which the TPP was controversial, and the leaders of countries like Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam put a huge amount of political capital on the line to push forward a controversial deal, with the expectation that closer ties with the US would reap long term economic and strategic benefits. Countries like Malaysia and Vietnam are now wondering whether the US is a serious partner; can they trust the US to follow through on future assurances? Regardless of other concerns they might have about China, at least geography dictates that the Asia-Pacific will always be guaranteed to be China’s top priority.

The above paints a picture of potential opportunity for China, opportunity with caveats, but opportunity nonetheless. The change in international environment does however present some significant challenges for China. These challenges come in the form of more aggressive and unpredictable US policy, namely in the areas of trade, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan issue.

President Xi Jinping with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Whilst it is too early to try and predict what it would look like, it is likely that there will be some kind of US action to crack down on Chinese trade practices. We know this both from Trump’s rhetoric and the people he has chosen to surround him. For example he has chosen Peter Navarro, the author of Death by China (a book largely acknowledged by economics to be on the fringe) as the director of the newly created White House Trade Council. This being said, there certainly are questionable Chinese trade practices. These range from steel dumping (selling huge amounts of steel in other countries at a loss to drive competition out of business and to gain a larger share of the market), to massive government subsidies to firms so that they can buy out competitors in key industries, to currency manipulation (artificially raising and lowering the value of their currency as it suits them). These are not new problems and the Obama administration noted them as well and had policies in place to try and combat these. These policies tended to be nuanced, long-term and industry specific. Trump has proposed a more radical approach that frankly could result in a trade war. A trade war would negatively affect both countries in different ways. The US is Chinas largest trading partner, and China is one of the US’s largest, but is also the largest foreign owner of US debt, owning over $1.3 trillion (around 7%) of US debt. What these mean in practice is complicated, but the bottom line is that both countries can hurt each other economically. In China this is particularly troubling, as regime security largely rests on economic success. A damaging enough trade war not only has the potential to hurt China, but could lead to the undermining of the Chinese Communist Parties power base.

President Xi Jinping with French President François Hollande

The South China Sea and Taiwan are other areas that will prove to be challenging for China. These are difficult to comment on as besides for a string of tough-talk comments from officials, the Trump administration has yet to put out an official policy concerning these areas. What is somewhat clear, is that it is likely that Chinese strategies that were successful in the face of the Obama administration’s policies, may not be successful against a Trump administration. A Trump administration is likely to be more confrontational and less likely to apply nuance to its China policies. As of the moment China cannot afford a war against the US. But on the other hand, they cannot afford to be seen to back down in the face of US threats. This would hurt their credibility on both domestic and international fronts. China must avoid being forced into a position where they need to choose between war and extreme loss of face. This will need to involve delicate manoeuvring, strategic diplomacy, and quickly learning to read the Trump administration’s intentions. It is this last task that will be the most difficult. It is likely that the Trump administration is still developing their policy, and after it is developed there is no promise it will be consistent. The security of China’s national interests will lie in their ability to work out how far the US can be pushed, and what actions are likely to trigger positive or negative US reactions. Another difference is that if China is forced into a limited conflict with the US, the gut reaction of the international community will likely place the blame on foreign policy blunders by Trump. This is a new development as just six months ago the gut reaction would have been to blame ‘an aggressive China.’

President Xi Jinping with German Chancellor Angela Merkel

This strategic environment is likely to result in the following action by China in the next year.

  1. The continued growth of economic influence and attempts to shore up the Chinese economy so as to mitigate any potential trade war with the US. This will involve continued investment into their One Belt One Road policy as they expand their trade influence west into Central Asia and Europe. There may also be attempts to use the vacuum left by the TPP to create an economic framework for the Asia-Pacific that allows China to use their economic influence to achieve strategic objectives.
  2. A global charm offensive that routinely displays China as a responsible, reliable global stakeholder in direct contrast to the US. This will involve China selectively involving itself in issues that were previously beyond its scope. China will take care not to overreach and will constantly emphasize a ‘rules based order,’ negotiation, and ‘win-win scenarios.’ This will have the intended effect of reassuring the world as to their intentions.
  3. China will focus on taking advantage of the loss of US credibility in the Asia-Pacific to create new regional security architecture. This is already beginning as can be seen in the speech of Lui Zhenmin, China’s Vice Foreign Minister, at the Xiangshan forum in which he outlined five organizing principles for China’s vision of a new security framework (can be read here). This new security architecture will seek to supplant the US alliance network as the primary security guarantor for the region.
  4. Finally China will attempt to navigate between provoking the Trump administration into a detrimental war and appearing to give in to an aggressive Trump. One can expect a mix between strong rhetoric on the domestic front, an emphasis on international law, dialogue, and negotiation on the international front, and a steady build-up of Chinese military assets so as to deter hasty US action.

Once again it needs to be stressed that, as with all predictions, these are liable to change as new information comes to the fore. US-China relations is likely to be one of the major potential flashpoints during the Trump administration and whether Trump’s first term ends with China in a much stronger or much weaker position is not up to any on side, but will depend on the competing strategies, and the action-reaction dynamics of both the US and China.

President Xi Jinping with Russian President Vladimir Putin

Why South Korea and Japan are not friends

South Korea and Japan do not get along. This is strange, as on paper, one would expect the two countries to be close friends. They are both Asian liberal democracies with the US as their largest ally. They are in the same geographical region and both trade heavily with the other. Importantly, they are both concerned about potential geopolitical trends such as a rising China and are anxious about an armed and dangerous North Korea. These appear to tick the three boxes, economic interest, strategic interest, and similar enough cultures that tend to lead to close friendships between countries.

The reason there is tension between the two states comes down to their history and the resentment this history has caused. Korea was ruled by the Joseon dynasty for just over 500 years but, being right next to powerful Imperial China, was eventually reduced to somewhat of a client kingdom. A peasant revolution led to the short-lived Korean Empire being declared in 1897 and in 1910 Japan forcibly annexed the region. They would rule this area until their World War Two defeat in 1945.

The height of the Japanese Empire (1942)

Before the Japanese annexed the area Korea was a nation deeply-divided. Peasant revolutionaries and the ruling-class had been at each others throats for a long period of time. However, the thirty-five years of Japanese occupation was brutal. It involved slaughter, the seizure of land, the treatment of Koreans as second class citizens, forced labour, and of course, the infamous ‘comfort women’ (women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military). The anti-Japanese sentiment these actions stirred up was the driving force behind the unifying nationalism that forged Korean national identity.

Japanese memory of this time is different, and is twofold. On the one hand, many Japanese remember World War Two as a time where military elites took power and drove the country into a war that caused much suffering. This period ended when Japan became the only ever victim of a nuclear bombing. This narrative involves the Japanese as the victims of that time. Another narrative, used by many Japanese nationalists, claims that the imperial legacy wasn’t all bad for countries like South Korea. They introduced modern economic practices, modernized agriculture, built infrastructure, and introduced rigorous education systems.

The existence of these two narratives have led Japanese decision makers to give apologies that South Koreans have found to be half-hearted at best. For example, Shinzo Abe’s 2015 speech, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Second World War was met with anger in Seoul. South Korean President Park Geun-Hye made a public statement shortly afterward saying that Abe’s speech fell far below her expectations. More dramatically, in 2005 Japanese action in disputed territory led to protests in South Korea that involved the burning of the Japanese flag as well as self-mutilation.

Anti-Japanese protests in Seoul (2015)

Most notably, many South Koreans feel as though Japan has repeatedly minimized the issue of the comfort woman. They are not entirely wrong in this. Ikuhiko Hata, an influential Japanese historian claimed that there were never more than 10,000-20,000 comfort women (mainstream historians estimate around 200,000). He also claims that none of the women were forcibly recruited, something which is demonstrably false.

The result of these factors: a not so distant memory of brutal Japanese occupation; the roots of national identity in anti-Japanese sentiment; and. the ongoing historical (and territorial) disputes has led to a huge amount of public resentment in South Korea against Japan. To this day, South Korean political leaders exploit negative domestic sentiment toward Japan in order to help their election chances.

More protests in Seoul

Despite these tensions the two countries do work together. Although, they have very different responses to the rise of China and to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, both countries have a strong strategic rationale to coordinate. They are involved in many multilateral ventures together and are both involved in the Six Party Talks (talks between China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia, and the US aimed at peacefully resolving the North Korean nuclear program). Most recently, in mid-November, the two states signed a preliminary intelligence sharing pact, promising to share sensitive information regarding North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities. This agreement was originally designed in 2012 but was suspended due to public criticism. There are still loud voices in South Korea claiming that a security pact should never be created with Japan, a former colonial ruler.

The tensions between South Korea and Japan comprise an interesting case study. It demonstrates that there is more to the relationships between countries than economic and strategic rationale. Messier ideas such as history and identity play a large role. This is incredibly frustrating for an analyst of international relations. Identity is near impossible to measure, and the use of history is unpredictable at best. An interesting comparison to the Japanese-South Korean relationship might be the relationship between Germany and the countries that were occupied in World War Two. But that would be a job for another article.


Who is Rodrigo Duterte and what does he mean for the Philippines

On the 30th of June this year the controversial Rodrigo Duterte will begin his terms as President of the Philippines. But who is this man, why has his election so heavily divided Filipinos and international commentators, and what does his presidency mean for the Philippines?

Duterte has been the Mayor of Davao City (the third largest city in the Philippines) for over 22 years, running on a strong anti-crime platform. During the 2016 Presidential campaign he quickly established himself as the unconventional, anti-establishment candidate, running with a great deal of showmanship and controversy.  He outraged critics and captivated fans with his refusal to stop his swearing, off colour jokes, or threats to kill throughout the election campaign. Notable examples include joking about the rape and murder of an Australian missionary, calling the Pope a “son of a whore,” and threatening to have journalists who are “unfair” to him killed. Typical to his nonconformist style, he skipped his own proclamation after claiming victory in the election, choosing to perform his usual duties as Mayor of Davao instead.

The three main issues he ran on included stamping down on crime, weeding out corruption, and a push toward Federalism.

Regarding crime, he cites his record as Mayor and the success he has had in battling criminal syndicates in the past. Controversially, as Mayor he was linked to 1,000 extra-legal executions of alleged criminals. Rather than apologizing for this he claims that as president he will “turn the 1,000 into 100,000.” At his final campaign rally he built upon this, saying “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men, and do-nothings, you better go out. Because as the mayor, I’d kill you.” This strong man stance, along with his claim that he will end crime in six months has been met with huge support and is a key component of his electoral success.

Another core issue was his promise to challenge the ruling elite. Economically and politically, the Filipino society consists of huge inequalities. According to some economists, 40 families in the Philippines control 76% of GDP. Additionally, in 2014 the Centre for People Empowerment in Governance estimated that dynastic families controlled 80% of congressional seats and another 80% of Governors and Mayors. In the 2016 election this was particularly visual as three out of the five candidates were backed by the powerful Couangco family. Duterte’s popularity and election is seen by many analysts as a symptom of the frustration of many Filipinos who have been disenfranchised by the political establishment.

Duterte also stood out through his promise to push for federalism. The Philippines currently have a unitary government with the vast majority of the power coming from the central government in Manila. However, many advocates of federalism, including Duterte, argue for a division of responsibility and power between the central (federal), state, and local governments. Duterte claims that this division of power will lead to more attention being given to poorer regions of the Philippines which will in turn lead to higher levels of economic growth. Additionally, Duterte argues that giving poorer regions some level of autonomy will help to bring peace in areas such as Mindanao that have experienced armed insurgencies.

Photo: Reuters

Many are questioning how his election will impact the troubled Chinese-Philippines relationship. In the past 6 years, relations have been strained over territorial disputes over areas in the South China Sea such as the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. The tensions have been exacerbated over reports of growing Chinese aggression toward Filipino fishermen. Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed hope that Duterte’s new administration could mean the revival of Sino-Filipino relations. In response, Duterte expressed a willingness to improve bilateral relations, and to work closely with China on joint development projects, but clarified that this would in no way constitute the Philippines backing down on its claims in the South China Sea. Speaking directly to China, he said, “I told you that is ours, you have no right to be there.”

It is questionable whether once in office, Duterte’s hard-line will soften and whether if it doesn’t he will have the ability to work with congress to approve his ambitious policies. His potential success will very much depend on his ability to work with his more mainstream Vice-President, Leni Robredo. Filipino elections involve voting for Presidents and Vice-Presidents separately, and this time, the pair come from different tickets. Some, like Filipino political scientist Julio Teehankee, have great hope for the pair, saying that under them the Philippines will see a “disciplinarian father and nurturing mother” who make a potent mix.

Whatever the case, the way in which the first few months of a Duterte presidency unfold will have huge ramifications on the Philippines, and indeed on the Asia-Pacific as a whole.

Boko Haram – The Deadliest Terrorist Organization in the World

Most people in the West first heard about the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram when they kidnapped 200 girls from a Nigerian school in April 2014. This quickly prompted the social media campaign #bringbackourgirls, and a lot of news coverage that lasted until the next interesting thing happened. People began to hear a little about them again in early 2015 when they pledged allegiance to ISIL’s Islamic State. To most people in the West this is the extent of their knowledge of Boko Haram. But Boko Haram and the situation in Northern Nigeria is really important to understand.

In 2014 Boko Haram kidnapped the wife of the Vice Prime Minister of Cameroon. By the beginning of 2015 Boko Haram controlled as much land as Belgium. By November 2015 the Global Terrorist Index put out a report that ranked Boko Haram as being the most deadly terrorist organization in the world, narrowly beating ISIL. So who the hell are these people, why are they so good at what they do and if they’re so important, why don’t we know about them? Ideally, by the end of this article, we’ll be able to answer these questions, you’ll have a helicopter view of what’s happening in Northern Nigeria and together we will use our combined knowledge to further our quest for world domination.

boko haram execution
The more you find out about these guys, the more frightening they are. Source:

First things first, Boko Haram’s real name isn’t Boko Haram. It’s actually ‘jama’at ahl al-sunna li-l-dawa wa-l-jihad’. For completely understandable reasons the Nigerian people nicknamed it Boko Haram, meaning “Western education is forbidden” (‘Boko’ is the Hausa word for ‘fake’ or ‘sham’ which is the term they use for secular Western education and ‘Haram’ is Arabic for ‘forbidden’). This is their nickname because of the strong stance they take against any form of secular education, which they believe contradicts the teachings of Islam. The exact nuances of their belief system is something we will go into a little further down in the article. But first we need to put Boko Haram in context.

Context stuff

Is Boko Haram an Islamic terrorist group? Yes. Does this mean that it’s exactly like the Islamic terrorist groups from the Middle East? No, not even a bit. This is largely because even though a lot of people like to think of Islam in Africa as being a relatively new import it’s been there for a really really long time. The view that it’s a newish thing comes from the really awful idea that history in Africa didn’t start until Europe colonized it. Islam first spread to Africa in 614 and was first documented in Nigeria around the 800’s. Since then there have been huge African Empires such as Mansa Musa’s Mali Islamic Empire in the early 1300s. These huge Muslim empires are actually really important, because they form part of the legend of a ‘glorious past’ that extremist clerics can tap into in their story telling.

The Mali Empire in the 1300’s. Source:

Another historical figure revered by Nigerian Jihadists is Uthman dan Fodio a Jihadist from the 1800’s who led an insurgency against the Muslim leaders of Nigeria at the time because he decided they were not Islamic enough. He ended up conquering most of what is now Northern Nigeria creating the Fulani Empire which would go on to become the largest slave society of modern times. This success in waging a Jihad and creating an empire under Islamic law (a caliphate) would go on to become the model that all Nigerian Jihadists would later aspire to. In the 200 years or so since Uthman many different groups of Islamic radicals in Nigeria have attempted to recreate his success. This means that an organization like Boko Haram isn’t a new concept, but is merely the newest and most successful of a string of Jihadist groups in Nigeria.

Nowadays Nigeria is pretty evenly split between Islam and Christianity, with just about 50% of the population identifying as Muslim and just around 45% of the population identifying as Christian. The north of Nigeria tends to be mostly Muslim and the Southern provinces tend to be mostly Christian. An informal arrangement has meant that in the most recent incarnation of Nigerian democracy they have alternated between Christian and Muslim Presidents. This led to an uneasy balance between Muslim and Christian communities, with some areas getting along more than others, but despite tensions their relationship being largely peaceful. This switching of Presidents will become important later, we need to remember this.

Boko Haram starts

mohammed yusef
Founder of Boko Haram Mohammed Yusef. Source:

Now that we have ourselves a tiny bit of context let’s start to talk about Boko Haram themselves. The group that would later be nicknamed Boko Haram was started in 2002 as a split off from a radical youth group at the Alhaji Muhammadu Ndimi mosque in Maiduguri. Originally, this split off, created by a man called Mohammed Yusef, was radical but not violent. Yusef wanted to create what he believed was a true Islamic society under the strictest, most literal interpretation of Islamic law. They had four loose pillars in their agenda:

  1. Opposition to western education
  2. Opposition to the modern state of Nigeria and its system of government
  3. The wish to create an Islamic caliphate or empire
  4. A believe in the use of violence to affect these changes

Between 2002 and 2009 they grew and began to develop a frankly bizarre interpretation of what it means to be Muslim. For example, their interpretation denies that the earth is a sphere and also claims not to believe in evaporation. This odd interpretation of different Islamic texts meant that the broad Nigerian and global Islamic communities dismissed Boko Haram as being a bunch of young radicals who were not versed in Islamic law. However as the movement grew larger and more extreme they grew harder to dismiss.

As the movement grew they went from being perceived as crazy but relatively harmless to a threat to security as they began to get into small but frequent clashes with authorities. At this point anyone examining their behaviour would have likened them more to an unruly motorcycle gang than a real armed force. However in 2009 they began to get a little more ambitious and radically stepped up their attacks in what was known as the 2009 Boko Haram uprising.

They orchestrated attacks across several different states in Northern Nigeria, including trying to storm a police station. The President at the time, a Muslim named Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, told the police and the army to stamp down on the uprising and to “not hold back”. Three days after it had started, the uprising was brutally crushed, 700-800 of their members were killed, and Yusef, still the leader of Boko Haram was captured and extra-judicially executed. Nigerian authorities high fived each other, a troublesome group put down before they could become a real threat.

Boko Haram take two

The killing of Mohammed Yusef meant that his second-in-command, a man named Abubakar Shekau, was now in charge. Unfortunately for Nigeria and the world, he was even more extreme than his predecessor.  Shekau gathered what was left of Boko Haram to lick their wounds. It was at this time that Al-Qaeda noticed them. The Al-Qaeda branch in the Maghreb (most of North-West Africa) issued a statement of condolence and then offered to train the Boko Haram members who were left so that they could fight the Christians in Nigeria. The statement in part read “We are ready to train your people in weapons, and give you whatever support we can in men, arms and munitions to enable you to defend our people in Nigeria”.

New Leader of Boko Haram Abubakar Sheka. Source: BBC

Boko Haram speedily agreed and many split off into Niger, Cameroon and Algeria where they received training in militant camps. A year later in mid-2010 Shekau regrouped in the city of Maiduguri in North-Eastern Nigeria. This time there were no longer a small scale sect trying out being militant but a well-organized underground movement engaging in terrorism.

Since then Boko Haram began subjecting north-eastern Nigeria to a campaign of terror. Attacking Christians and Muslims alike. As long as you didn’t believe in their version of Islam then you were an infidel. In 2011 the attacks escalated to include suicide bombings in major cities around the country, organized sexual violence and the mass abduction of women. By August 2014 they finally controlled enough territory that they felt they were able to declare themselves a Caliphate. In 2014 alone, they killed between 6900 and 7000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands

It was in the middle of all this in April 2014 that the 200 school girls were abducted from a rural secondary school. The apparent lack of response by the then Christian President Goodluck Jonathan sparked a huge amount of international outrage, mostly in the form of hashtags. The outrage did however include the governments of the US, UK, China and Israel offering their assistance in the form of aerial, military and Special Forces. However, unfortunately this followed the trend of other crises in Africa where the West gets very outraged about a specific bad thing, ignores other bad things that are going on, refuses to hear about any good things that happen, and then promptly forgets about the whole package just in time for dinner.

Michelle Obama was one of the leading figures who endorsed #BringBackOurGirls. Source: Her twitter account

Boko Haram reached the peak of its power in early 2015 (it was at this time that they announced that they were affiliated with ISIL) before government forces, under a new Muslim President, President Buhari, began rolling their forces back and retaking territory. By the middle of 2015 almost all the territory, with the exception of a few local government districts, had been taken back. But this in no way meant that the crisis was over or that Boko Haram was finished. They continued their terror campaign, sometimes killing 250 people a week, bombing mosques, churches, restaurants, buses and government buildings. Despite the Nigerian government declaring victory at least twice since the second half of 2015, this is where we stand. As of the time I am writing this article, the most recent attack has been the 13th of February, where 30 people were killed and a huge number of women and children captured (note, I’m writing this on the 15th of February).

So why do/did people support Boko Haram?

First of all it is important to mention, that the vast overwhelming of Muslims in Nigeria DO NOT support Boko Haram. Nigeria has the biggest population out of any country in Africa, with over 186 million people. A tiny tiny tiny percentage of these people have worked with Boko Haram whilst the majority of Muslims in the country call them ‘Aljannu’, Hausa for Devils. But with the 7th largest population in the world, a tiny tiny tiny percentage is enough to make an army. People tend to radicalize enough to support Boko Haram for a few reasons.

First of all can be explained by the fact that the North of Nigeria, as we previously explained, has historically been a bedrock for Jihadist movements. There had been similar uprisings in the 80’s, and one in the early 2000’s by a group called the Nigerian Taliban. Boko Haram is just the most recent of these groups, and due to their military training and the general spread of radical Islamic insurgencies around the world, have managed to be a lot more successful than previous groups. Northern Nigeria is a much poorer area than the south, and when people are in desperate economic situations, they are more likely to be sympathetic to more radical responses.

The spread of Al-Qaeda across the world, and the success of groups such as ISIL also had a huge part in creating the right environment for Boko Haram to grow. The recruitment which has led to so many people leaving Western countries to fight for Jihadist movements had a similar effect of leading young people in Nigeria to move further North to join Boko Haram. After the 9/11 attacks there was a huge spike in Nigerian children being named Osama recorded so this would indicate that there was already a fertile environment for these kinds of views.

Goodluck Jonathan
The incredibly handsome President of Nigeria from 2010-2015, Goodluck Jonathan. Source:

Mixing into this was the perceived incompetence and corruption in the Nigerian government which led to many people seeking aid in groups that threatened to tear down the state. Finally, as mentioned previously, some areas in the North had much stronger tensions between Christian and Muslim communities. For a little while, ironically in response to the Boko Haram crisis, President Jonathan claimed that there was no time for elections and that therefore he would be staying another term. Many Muslims who believed it was “their turn” to have a President saw this as another example of wealthy Christians refusing to let go of power and therefore were more open to radical anti-Christian messages.

So where does this leave us now?

Boko Haram might have lost its territory, but it has not lost its ability to attack civilians and to recruit people to do the same. Even in the unlikely chance that Boko Haram as an organization is defeated, there are still people who believe in the bizarre but dangerous Boko Haram ideology, so it is likely that another group would rise up to take their place. The longer Boko Haram exists, the more dangerous they make the region. Insurgent groups are created in other countries, inspired by Boko Haram’s success, jihadists from all around Africa have a place to train and take back their new-found war experience to their home country, Nigeria’s economy will continue to fail due to a war and an environment unsuitable for business or investment, people will get poorer and therefore more susceptible to radicalisation, and most importantly, people will continue to die.

(editors note: probably find a happier note to end on next time)

The Assad Regime explained (ish)

So you know that the Syrian Civil War is going on, you know it involves people rebelling against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. You might even know that Russia has been working really, really hard to make sure that he stays in power.

But why did people rebel against his rule in the first place? If things are looking so bad for him and so many people want him gone, how has he survived so long? And why does Russia care so much about the whole situation? There are heaps of other countries and regimes they could support that wouldn’t take up nearly as many resources and would have the advantage of not backing a man who for a while was one of the most hated men in the world.

(Disclaimer: It’s not big surprise that the answers to these questions are complex. So in the interest of not overloading people with information I’ve had to make some judgement calls about what information I believe to be the important highlights.)

Let’s get started

Syria map

This is Syria. Since it gained independence in 1946 it’s had a pretty dynamic history. Brushing over a lot of important events, it started as a democracy but was overthrown in 1949 led by a general, who was then overthrown by a different general shortly afterwards. In 1958 Syria briefly joined Egypt to form “The United Arab Republic” but this country dissolved after only three years because the Syrians thought the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was too ambitious. At this point a new coup occurred and after a few tries the Ba’ath Party took over and they haven’t left since.

Meet the Assads

From left to right: Maher, Majd, Basel, Bushra, and Bashar. Standing with him is his wife Anisa Makhlouf. -
Hafez Al-Assad and his family. A young Bashar Al-Assad is on the far right looking dope. Source:

In 1970, Hafez Al-Assad (let’s just call him Hafez), Bashar Al-Assad’s father, took over the Ba’ath party and the country and got its first taste of stability. As well as looking like your headmaster, Hafez ruled Syria for 30 years. The length of time is actually a really important point. This is less due to what he did while he was in charge, although there were some pretty big things, but more because of the fact that after such a long period of fighting, instability and leadership changes, having one person in charge for such a long time was a really welcome change. Considering this we can begin to understand why many older Syrians who remember the constant instability would support the Assad family. In their minds, no matter how dictatorial things get (very), it was better than what was happening before.

Your headmaster, Hafez Al-Asad. Source:

After Hafez died in the year 2000 we finally get to the Assad we’re familiar with – Bashar. Fun fact, originally Bashar had little to no political aspirations. He was the second son of the President, and with his older brother first in line to become the new President, Bashar began studying to be a doctor, eventually becoming an ophthalmologist. However, his older brother died in a car accident in 1994 and Hafez began grooming his second son to replace him.

Assad’s first few years as President were actually very well received, many people in Syria and the West spoke about him as a reformer who was going to move Syria towards a more equal society. He was romanticized as the reluctant President who wanted to be a doctor, but who was doing the best he could whilst in charge. For all we know, this may have even been the case at first, but as with most dictators, the true nature of their rule comes out in how they act when their rule is challenged.

Enter the 2011 Arab Spring

People forget the role of women in the Egyptian revolution. Source:

In 2011, the Arab Spring happened. A series of democratic uprising occurred all over the Arab world, starting in countries like Tunisia, and spreading to other countries like Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and also Syria. It really only began to get Western attention during the fall of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. He was a man who everyone thought had been ruling Egypt with an iron fist. After he went down, many news analysts and experts began to predict the same results all over the Arab world, particularly in Syria. This fitted well into the idea many Westerners had that many countries would just naturally demand to be democracies like in the US and Europe. After all, they thought, why wouldn’t everyone want to be like the US and Europe?

The protests calling for democracy in Syria actually had a relatively slow start. This was mostly due to the fact that there had been a superficial calm in Syria for the past few decades. But after the warm up time they needed, the protests exploded in size and intensity.

There were a few moments that led to the swell in protests. One involved the arrest of some of the children of the leaders of a small rural town nearby the capital. The boys had been caught writing anti-regime graffiti. The parents of the boys and a small crowd went up to the police station to demand their release. The crowd began to get bigger and more agitated, and eventually the army arrived and began firing on the participants.

Assad cracks down on his own people

The wreckage of a market place in the city of Aleppo after Syrian government airstrikes. Source:

Without going through a step by step breakdown of the escalation from there we can say that as the resistance grew louder, Assad cracked down in harsher and harsher ways, laying siege to his own towns and villages, which in turn caused more and more people to join the uprising. Eventually some members from his own army broke away and began supporting the resistance, calling themselves the Free Syrian Army.

Whilst this was the first big organized rebel group, there would be many more to come (for a much more detailed breakdown of the different rebel groups check out my article here). By mid-2012 Assad’s army was launching large-scale operations to retake certain cities and neighbourhoods, but they were losing more ground each day. It reached a point where Assad began cluster bombing his own civilians. 2013 was largely marked by an international effort to try and stop Assad from using chemical weapons against his own civilians, an effort that was repeatedly blocked by Russia (We will get to you Russia, don’t think I’ve forgotten you). 2014 saw the introduction of ISIL into the mix and 2015 has been marked by a mammoth international effort by a broad range of parties to influence the way the war is going, mostly through airstrikes.

As of August 2015, it is estimated that the Syrian government firmly controls something between 18% and 25% of the entire country. This may seem like a meagre amount (and it definitely is) but it’s actually the second most any single group holds (ISIL holds the majority at 35-50% but most of the territory under their control consists of smaller villages, towns and desert with only a handful of large population areas. It’s a difficult line to walk when talking about ISIL as you must make sure not to underplay how dangerous they are but also not to overplay how successful they are. Hopefully I will get to them in another article).

So how has Assad’s regime survived?

A genuine quote from 2011. Source:

So with these massive pushbacks, being attacked from every side, having had some of the world’s biggest powers trying to take it down, how has the Assad regime lasted? The answer boils down to a few key factors, namely the unique style of Assad’s government and the support of Russia and Iran. Let’s address each one separately.

At the beginning of the Arab Spring, many people assumed that Assad would fall just as other Arab leaders such as Egypt’s Mubarak did. But this was a flawed assumption based on the idea that all Arab countries were the same, which they objectively are not. Egypt’s big revolution had a two things going for it that Syria’s did not. The first was a set of unhappy business owners and middle class. When Egypt’s university students began to demand more democratic systems, a lot of business owners and richer members of the middle class agreed with them, and therefore began throwing money at the protestors whilst withdrawing money from government areas. This had a very heavy impact with the second thing the Egyptian revolution had going for it; the army. The Egyptian army doesn’t function the same way we imagine an army to function. For one, the army actually owns a huge amount of businesses and business interests, selling things from bottled water to washing machines. This means that they have an even stronger interest in stability than most armies already do. When they saw other business owners throwing their lot in with the rebellion, they knew which way the wind was blowing. Whilst they didn’t actively help the rebellion at first, they refused to fire upon protestors despite being ordered to and eventually were rumoured to pull their troops away from the Presidential palace in the final days before Mubarak resigned.

Syria had a completely different situation.  For one thing, despite everything else, Assad was quite popular amongst many business owners and the higher middle class. Business conditions were good and businesses hesitated slightly too long before picking sides.  The result was that the early rebellion never got a lot of the funding it needed. As well as this, the army in Syria is very much under the control of the government, in direct contrast to in Egypt where the army is a power in its own right. This is because, due to obvious historical reasons, Bashar Al-Assad’s father Hafez made sure to keep the army under a tight leash than before. He also drilled into Bashar the importance of keeping the army happy, so that when the initial rebellion arose, the bulk of the army stayed loyal to the Assad family.

That has changed to some extent. While the army remains loyal to Assad, the soldiers are not always loyal to the army. The army started the war with 325,000 soldiers and as of mid-2015 are down to 178,000. Most of these men have defected to one rebel group or another. They are still the biggest single fighting force in Syria but are stretched to their capacity, struggling to keep a hold on the land they still control.

The second reasons is Russia and Iran, and whilst Iran is important here, the bulk of the credit needs to go toward Russia. Unfortunately for you I’ve been informed that this article is already getting a little long. So to find out about them you’ll need to wait until the next article.

The Syrian Rebels Explained (ish)

The Syrian Rebels

rebels training

Even putting aside how messed up it is, the Syrian conflict is slowly developing into one of the more confusing conflicts going on in the world at the moment, not least of all because of the sheer amount of combatants, the giant mess of allegiances and the fact that the Syrian conflict isn’t just located in Syria (It is also going on in Iraq, the Sinai in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and depending on who you ask, everywhere. Frankly I shouldn’t be calling it the Syrian conflict at all, yet here we are).

Very very loosely and very very simply, the conflict consists of the Syrian Government, led by President Assad and backed by Russia and Iran (kind of) vs the Syrian Rebels, which are actually over 20 different groups, many of whom are fighting each other, some of which are backed by a US led coalition consisting of the UK, Jordan, Turkey, the UAE, France, Saudi Arabia and a bunch of other countries but most of who are backed by no one.

Whilst these two loose groups are fighting each other another player enters the game, ISIL, a group originally from Iraq, once backed by Saudi Arabia (no longer). ISIL begins fighting everyone involved, declaring war on everyone who isn’t them. All the various sides fighting each other agree that ISIL is awful, but they don’t quite agree on what to do about them.

Emerging as a response to ISIL a fourth player enters the game, the Kurds. Now when we say the Kurds we don’t mean all the Kurds. The Kurds are an ethnicity mostly found in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey who have been persecuted for a while. This persecution led the Syrian Kurds to develop their own army which they promptly deployed against ISIL (other groups of Kurds as well but if you want to know about them we’ll need a whole new article). The Syrian Kurds allegedly have began using this fight as a chance to finally begin to carve out land to create their own Kurdish state. Turkey doesn’t really want this and have begun fighting them whilst also fighting ISIL. This has become a little awkward as Turkey is part of the US led coalition who are big fans of the Syrian Kurds.

Complicated? That’s fine, I drew a graph with a comical amount of arrows.

Syria Graph 1

It’s fine if you don’t understand what’s happening, most of the people actually fighting the war don’t either. All that matters for the purpose of the rest of this article, is that when I say “Syrian Rebels” you understand that they’re the ones fighting the Syrian Government, ISIL and each other.

In the media you will often hear the Syrian Rebels referred to as if they are one or two groups. Whilst this is wrong, it is understandable why the media would want to do this, as the conflict is hard enough to describe even radically simplified. Referring to each rebel group individually would make the story even less accessible to the general public than it already is. Unfortunately, that’s what I’m about to try to do. I will try to do this as simply as possible, but what this means is that I’m inevitably going to be stuck on an impossible mission to make the information accessible whilst still trying to present an accurate picture of what’s going on. Also due to the ever changing nature of the conflict I will not be mentioning all of them, just some of the main players and some miscellaneous other groups. So please bear with me as I attempt this balancing act.

Let’s jump right into it. The many groups of Syrian Rebels can loosely be divided into two broad groups. The first is the Syrian Opposition who are mainly fighting to rid the country of President Assad for a list of reasons ranging from wanting Syria to be a democracy to wanting Syria to be a dictatorship but just under a different person. The second broad group are the Jihadists, many of whom are branches of the better known group Al-Qaeda, they mostly want the country to be run by a more religious Islamic government rather than the secular but still awful Assad government. This isn’t to say that there aren’t members of the first group who want the country to be more religious, the main thing that distinguishes this second group is the Al-Qaeda affiliation.

Let’s attempt to describe some of the bigger players:

Free Syrian Army:


When most people think about the resistance, this is the group they are normally thinking of.  Originally started in 2011 by several defected Syrian army officers they defined their enemies as all Syrian Security Forces attacking civilians and their stated their goals as bringing down the Assad Regime. Sounds noble and heroic? It probably was before the original group was destroyed near the beginning of the war. The group now calling itself the Free Syrian Army is actually a coalition of over 10 different groups many of whom have widely different philosophies. This coalition is the most ethnically and religiously diverse entity in the war, featuring 90% Sunni Muslims, but also Shia Muslims, secular forces, Druze, Palestinians, international volunteers and many other assorted groups. How big is it? The answer is we don’t know. As the FSA is a mesh of so many different groups under one loose banner, and as these groups all exist in the confusing Syrian warzone, it is increasingly hard to measure. It is however estimated by many different sources that their strength ranges between 45,000 and 60,000. They are however, along with the YPG (the biggest Kurdish force) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (we’ll talk about them later) the main group supported by the West’s coalition. This doesn’t mean they are the good guys, in fact a large amount of war crimes have been attributed to the FSA. However being the collection of over 10 very different organizations that they are, it is hard to work out which part of them committed these crimes.

As of the moment, their main enemies include Assad’s forces, ISIL, the Al-Nusra front (we’ll talk about them in a bit), and they have a working relationship with the Islamic Front.

The Islamic front:


Formed by seven smaller groups merging in 2013, this group is largely made up of Sunni Islamists and is backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Their website describes their objectives as such. “The Islamic Front aims to completely overthrow the Assad regime in Syria and build an Islamic state who’s only sovereign, reference, ruler, direction and individual, societal and nationwide unifier is Allah Almighty’s Sharia law”. Unlike a lot of the other Islamist groups, these guys are fine with Syria being a democracy, as long as Sharia law is sovereign. They also acknowledge the ethnic and religious minorities that live in Syria and say they are welcome there, as long as they follow Sharia law. Depending on whom you listen to, and who you count as the Islamic Front, their numbers range anywhere between 40,000 and 70,000, although most people tend to guess closer to the 40,000 side.

As of the moment their main enemies are Assad’s forces, ISIL and Shia militias such as Hezbollah. They have a working relationship with both the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra, despite the fact that these two groups are fighting each other.

Al-Nusra Front


The Al –Nusra front can basically be thought of as Al-Qaeda, Syrian department. Not that Al-Qaeda is one organization, or has departments. But that’s not important at the moment. On a face value, they have similar goals to an organization like the Islamic Front. They both want to destroy the secular Assad regime and replace it with Islamist rule, governed by religious Sharia law. There are however some very very very important differences. The first and most obvious one is Al-Nusra’s open affiliation with the international jihadist movement followed by the fact that Al-Nusra’s interpretation of what Sharia law is, is a lot more hard-line than that of the Islamic Front. As well as this, unlike the Islamic Front, Al-Nusra refuses to work with secular groups like the Free Syrian Army. The difference between the two groups is so stark, that until the emergence of ISIL, Al-Nusra was considered to be the most extreme, most radical group involved in the conflict. The big problem comes about in that until recently, they were also the most effective and well trained fighting force out of the Syrian Rebels.

Al-Nusra and ISIL have a tangled history. The leader of Al-Nusra was originally sent over by ISIL leadership to set up Al-Nusra to be ISIL’s proxy. After ISIL split from Al-Qaeda they suggested a merger, going as far as announcing this merger before consulting with Al-Nusra’s leadership. This merger was prompted rejected and after about a month of intense negotiation between the two organizations, ISIL executed some senior officials of some of Al-Nusra’s allies in the region. This lead to open warfare between the two groups. That Al-Nusra decided that ISIL was too extreme for them tells you nothing about Al-Nusra, but everything about ISIL.

Their numbers are probably the hardest to estimate. It is estimated that they have over 11,000 core members, but possibly up to 20,000 troops that come from local Syrians who may not have the Jihadist ideology, but who joined to protect their territory. As of the moment, their enemies include the Free Syrian Army, Assad’s forces, ISIL, Hezbollah and many other smaller groups and their allies include the Islamic Front and other Islamist Forces who are sympathetic to Al-Qadea.

Minor groups

Whilst these three are the biggest groups that make up the Syrian Rebels, there are many other groups operating, each of whom could probably have a book written about them. Just to mention a few.

The Sham legion


Created in 2015 and is an alliance of about 19 different groups to consolidate the strength of moderate Islamists. Estimated around 4,000 fighters

Army of Mujahedeen


Translating to “Army of Conquest”, this group formed in 2014 to almost exclusively fight ISIL whom they accused to disrupting security and stability. They also fight the Syrian Government to the side. They have shrunk radically due to a cut in foreign support. Estimated between 5,000 and 12,000. At least one of these people must be a designer because they currently boast the only flag with a nice, blue gradient.

Jaysh Al-Sham


A group actually existed with this name briefly in 2014, but disbanded shortly afterwards. The new Jaysh Al-Sham was created in October 2015, as an offshoot of Ahrar Ash-Sham who in turn are now a part of the Islamic Front. Simple as that. Not much is known about them besides that their flag seems to be made out of the Arabic version of Microsoft Wordart, estimated to number anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000.

Fatah Al-Islam.


A Sunni Jihadist group that formed in 2006 in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. After fighting the Lebanese army for a while they decided to fight the Syrian Army instead when the war began, but didn’t do very well. Estimated around 200 members left.

Syrian Democratic Forces


Technically not a minor force. This group was created only in October 2015. It consists of break offs from the Free Syrian Army, most of the Kurdish forces in Syria and many Christian militias. It aims to take the focus away from Assad and towards forcing ISIL out of Syria. While it’s too early to call how they will do as a movement, they appear to have had many early successes, possibly due to their huge amount of support from the Western coalition. Their numbers are estimated to be roughly around 40,000, about three quarters of which, come from the Kurdish YPG.


The list goes on and on and on and on. And the truth is new groups are forming and disbanding all the time, each with their own ideologies, manpower, allies and enemies. It is my personal opinion that no single group, including governments, participants and experts, has an accurate picture of what is actually happening on the ground, which makes it a particularly discouraging topic to try and write an informative piece on. A disclaimer, as I’ve been concentrating on the actual rebels, I have left out many layers of complexity, including (but not limited to) the Gulf States, Jordan, more detail about ISIL and the different Kurdish factions. If people are interested, I’m more than happy to write up something about them later.

But just to make things clear, I updated the previous graph and made it a whole lot more accurate

Syria Graph 2

Much better


For my sources and/or a bunch of useful links to find out more, click here