All posts by Dr Helene Lavoix

Dr Helene Lavoix (MFin Paris, MSc PhD Lond), Director and Senior Analyst, is the founder of The Red (team) Analysis Society and a political scientist (International Relations) specialised in Strategic Foresight and Warning (SF&W) for conventional and unconventional security issues. She is the author of “What makes foresight actionable: the cases of Singapore and Finland” (confidential commissioned report, US government, November 2010), “Enabling Security for the 21st Century: Intelligence & Strategic Foresight and Warning” RSIS Working Paper August 2010, “Constructing an Early Warning System,” in From Early Warning to Early Action, European Commission, ed. DG Relex, 2008, “Detailed chronology of mass violence – Cambodia (1945 – 1979),” Online Encyclopaedia of mass violence, 2008 and the editor of Strategic Foresight and Warning: Navigating the Unknown, ed. RSIS-CENS, February 2011; etc. More on Listed on the public list curated by LSEImpactBlog: @LSEImpactBlog/soc-sci-academic-tweeters.
1024px-MiG-29_wreck 2014

The Syrian War: the Start of a New Phase

This (long) post ends the current series of updates on the Syrian war. It focuses on the evolution within the National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council, the expected failure of Geneva 2 and the start of a new phase in the Syrian war. This will allow us, next, to finally turn to an evaluation of our scenarios and indicators.

The National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council

The last alliance to emerge over the Autumn has been Syria Revolutionaries Front (SRF), created on 9 December 2013 (see Youtube video), which is composed of moderate or non-ideologically motivated groups, as detailed by Lund (13 Dec 2013) and mapped below (click on the Continue reading

Putin Shinzo Abe

The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly No140 – A new strategic configuration in the Far East and globally?

Editorial – Towards a new strategic configuration in the Far East and globally? Japan, China, the U.S. and Russia - As so many are focusing on the last round of global protests, now in Ukraine, in Venezuela, and in Thailand (although the situation there is much less emphasized in crowdsourced news), or on the seemingly always rising tensions across the Middle East, in the Far East, tension has gone up at least a notch, with the Japanese government suggesting it wanted to revisit the 1993 study leading to Japan’s 1994 apologies for South Korean “comfort women” during World War II (see Washington Post article).

Furthermore and most noticeably, Japan seems also not to be hesitating anymore to risk “a chill” with its American ally, to use Continue reading

The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly No139, 13 February 2014

Editorial – Storms and floods, harbinger of multifaceted changes: While the US knows a very cold winter, Western Europe is hit by the ninth storm since 17 December 2013, each bringing destruction and floods in its wake. This shows first, in a somehow novel way, that so-called “rich and developed”countries can be relentlessly hit by what is most probably a consequence of climate change. Here we are faced with storms and related floods, but other types of extreme weather events could also occur. Second, these storms start giving us an idea of how this vulnerability will most probably have multifaceted and mammoth impacts.

Actually, this issue is far from being completely new. We have already underlined the high likelihood to see this issue coming to the fore in “A road to hell” and have explored with a scenario in The Chronicles of Everstate some of its potential  impact (read 2018 – 2023 EVT – Complex catastrophes and following posts). Yet, monitoring undeniable indications (signals) that the problem is happening here and now is a novelty.

The polemic that the floods in the UK generated, as reported by the Huffington Post in “Foreign Aid Or Flood Relief?“, as well as the very heated debates we can read in the comments following the article, exemplifies what is also most probably at stake here: a potential redefinition of foreign policy, notably in its aid and development component, and a change of the normative setting presiding to the world order.

As more people are directly impacted in their everyday lives by climate change, they will expect their political authorities to ensure their security first. As the overall resources of the state will also be hit by extreme weather events (would it be only through a loss of economic activity, to say nothing of the net loss of wealth) and as public deficit are already straining public policies, cut will have to be made in budgets, and aid and development is a very likely target for this.

Actors benefiting and living from the old order, not only people receiving aid but also IGOs, NGOs, consultants, experts, specific businesses, etc. will most certainly fight not to see their livelihood dwindle, which means that we shall see heated ideological debates and polarization. Short of a miracle or real black swan event, maybe of a grey swan event (and making one happen would be a smart strategy for those living of aid and cooperation), it is most likely that they will lose this battle, as the mission of political authorities is to ensure the security of their citizens, not of other countries’ populations. For example, in democracies, people will vote for those who will offer solutions to their problems, not for those who promise to help far away people.

As a result, the humanitarian norms that have been embedded in the international system will most probably change, assuming they are not just abandoned, which in turn will have strong impact on the way to define and conduct international policy.

Meanwhile, this week is also rich with signals on lasting, spreading or renewed issues, such as tension in East Asia, doubts on global financial health and related economic issues, crisis in Ukraine, Greece, Bosnia, and now Venezuela, war in Syria, etc. This is almost “business as usual”, although the piling up of signals, week after week, shows escalation and global instability.

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Horizon scanning, risk, war, security, warning, signal

YPG by Rojava

The Kurds and Rojava, State-Building in the Syrian War

Before to look at the Geneva Conference in general and to evaluate our scenarios and indicators, we need to understand all changes on the ground. Over the Autumn and Winter we have witnessed a major reconfiguration of forces in Syria, as seen in the last post with the rise of Salafi-Nationalists. We shall today look at the evolution that took place in Western Kurdistan, notably the birth of novel political institutions, Rojava, and how and why Kurds relate to the Geneva conference, before turning (forthcoming post) to the last Sunni alliance to emerge the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and to the National Coalition. Continue reading

The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly No138, 6 February 2014

Editorial – The financial system… again - The 23 January Weekly selected the contraction of the Chinese PMI as one of the signals to notice. Impacts of the China PMI drop have been felt notably in Asia, but, at least so far, not so much happened in the rest of the world. Thus, which types of warning could we deliver following this contraction, added to the emergent countries currency problems, the latter having been foreseen for months? Should we follow those who do not really wonder, who do not see those signals as deserving much attention, and who just think that business will continue as usual for ever?

Alternatively, should we, as Phoenix Capital Research publishing on the rather bearish financial blog Zero Hedge, ask: “Is Anyone Really Surprised That the System is On the Brink Again?” We would then follow the same (logical) argument according to which as nothing has truly and really been done financially, and as the same cause always produces the same effect, we should be ready for another mammoth episode of the crisis, and should have been for a while. The question then would not actually be if there will be a new melting down of the system but when.

What if there were also, potentially, another way to look at the situation? In that case, the weak signals would not only be the indications we saw previously, but also the minimal reaction of so many financial markets, added to the erosion of the middle class, and to the spread of poverty that has been seen again and again throughout the last years, notably in developed countries. In this alternative hypothesis, change since 2007/2008 has actually happened, but not the change that rational economic actors believing in a relatively good and just system expected. The real evolution could have been slow and denied, it could have been one grounded in injustice legitimated by outdated ideology, in the exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few, and for the preservation of a system that indulges a specific elite that has been in power for a while and only wishes to preserve its privileges (see The Chronicles of Everstate for the material and ideological stakes and dynamics at work in elite politics).

If those changes have really fully taken place, as is most likely, then, the risks to see a meltdown that would touch the richest, at least on the short-term, might be reduced. This does not mean that the “meltdown” would not impact a large number of people, but those in power may believe they are now enough insulated and protected not to really care, financially. Yet, would they also be right not to care on other fronts? The middle class is an essential component of democracies, thus its disappearance may well send shock waves throughout our democratic regimes, as the rise of pan-European far right alliances may indicate. Prolonged economic stress, as known by Japan, or economic downturn, as could happen in some emerging countries, could be a factor favouring extreme behavior by political authorities unable to find another way to ensure their legitimacy and thus their rule. In other terms it could be an incentive towards war, all the more so that the international tension, compared with 2008, is much higher.

Detailed multidisciplinary foresight and warning analyses are more than ever needed for everyone, including the most privileged, if strategic decisions are to be taken at best, or “strange”  and potentially lethal surprises are bound to abound.

Click on the image below to read on Paper.Listrategic warning, political risk, strategic foresight, war, conflict, international security

The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly No137, 30 January 2014

Editorial – Perceptions and facts – Besides the acceleration of the regionalization and internationalization of the Syrian war and quagmire, besides the futurist use by Erdogan of “hologram to address party members” (imagine a world where such practice would be common), among others, this week presents us with two very interesting instances of the importance of perception and its relationship to facts.

Identifying weak signals and monitoring for warning demand that we observe the world, the actors and their actions to try understanding what could happen next or more largely the potential chain of events that may follow.  We thus need not only to pay attention to events and facts but also to how others will interpret those phenomena. How the actors perceive the world will in turn influences their actions – including their statements and the analyses they publish. Those will then be perceived by all actors and influence in turn their actions. Out of this web of reciprocal perceptions, actions and reactions, a reality emerges made of the facts or events we are looking for and trying to foresee.

China and its “growing assertiveness” (as perceived by two U.S. scholars and relayed by CNN) and Russian and American policies towards Ukraine are two very real examples of this phenomenon. In the first case, try to read the article published on China, and imagine you are Chinese: how would you feel and what would you do, as government official, or which policy would you support as citizen? Imagine that a very similar article were published by Chinese scholars, but replacing China by America, getting their fact right but explaining them in a very specific light? Repeat the same experiment imagining you are Korean, then Japanese. Would your feelings and the actions you would want to undertake be different each time? Would your feeling be strong? The escalating tensions that most often result from conflicting perceptions were exemplified in the U.N. (BBC News – Asia history tensions flare at UN debate). This, also let us expect that tensions in East Asia will not lower soon.

A far as Ukraine is concerned, perceptions lead both the U.S. and Russia to adopt very similar policies, which each believes (or says it believe) as right and done for the good of Ukraine:  the U.S. readies financial sanctions while Russia”awaits new Ukraine government before fully implementing rescue“. From a Russian perspective, the U.S. approach may be seen as unacceptable, a meddling in the affairs of a sovereign country, moreover part of its “near abroad”. From an American perspective, Russia’s behaviour may be seen as unacceptable, a forceful way to manipulate what a foreign independent democratically elected government can do, i.e. a meddling in the affairs of a sovereign country.  We thus, actually, have similar perceptions but each applied to an opposite side of the Ukrainian political spectrum. For all the talks of moving beyond a Cold War mentality, Cold War perceptions seem to still be very pregnant.

Being able to warn and foresee (as designing a strategy) demands that we become aware of those perceptions, that we abstract ourselves as analyst from them, first to be able to see how they influence actors, and second, when we deliver warning and foresight products, to make sure that our message can be heard.

Ideally, it could also lead to better understanding among actors and, maybe, to a more constructive future.

Click on the image below to read on Paper.Li

perceptions, images in world politics, facts, horizon scanning, strategic warning, risk, national security, international security


rocket Army of Islam 2014

Facing the Fog of War in Syria: the Rise of the Salafi-Nationalists?

Since October 2013, much has been going on in Syria. We shall first review major changes in the state of play for the Syrian actors, starting with the Salafi-Nationalist groups, before to re-evaluate our scenarios and their indicators in the light of recent events, notably Geneva 2.

As was already underway during September, the various groups opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad have pursued their reconfiguration, while the relationships and interactions among them have evolved.

A logical evolution: the Islamic Front

If the “Islamic framework” (see update 21 Oct), created on 24 September 2013, was short-lived, as expected by many experts, it was nevertheless an important indication of the changes taking place on the ground, while its very composition foretold the current configuration.

To facilitate the understanding of the dynamics and historical evolutions, we have kept, for the latest version of the mapping of the nationalist groups below (click on the image for a larger picture), the outline of the Islamic framework (the signatories being within a dotted frame) as well as dissolved groups (defunct groupings or alliances are now displayed with a white background surrounded by a dotted green line (one dot, one block, for alliances; only blocks for tighter groups). The current alliances have a green background surrounded by a red line. The Islam Army’s (Jaysh al-Islam – see update 21 Oct) bright green frame underlines its strong Salafi orientation.

Syria, Syrian war scenarios

We thus see clearly, first, the emergence of the most powerful of the new group, the Islamic Front, created November 22 2013, out of the strongest groups that previously composed the framework. Those groups also share a commitment to the nationalist brand of Salafism as usefully characterized by Lund. As the core factions of the two previous dominant groupings (the SIF and the SILF) join in the Front, they disappear, as is made graphically clear in the video announcing the creation of the Islamic Front.

the creation of the IF logo

Two groups from the SIF, Liwa al-Haqq (Homs) and Kataeb Ansar al-Sham (Northern Latakia), also joined the Islamic Front. We may also not that a small Kurdish group was added to the Islamic Front, most probably to make sure it could be seen as representative of all fighters in Syria.

Those groups that signed the Islamic framework and did not become part of the Islamic Front formed the Army of the Mujahideen (Jaysh al-Mujahideen), which was created on 3 January 2014, around Aleppo (Suhaib Anjarini on Al-Akhbar, 6 Jan 2014).  Jaysh al-Mujahideen is a relatively small fighting force of 5000 fighters ,according to Lund (7 Jan 2014). However, and as described by Suhaib Anjarini, a relatively small force may be crucial both tactically and strategically, notably in guerrilla warfare.

The Islamic Front, a military and political power?

Militarily, the Islamic Front represents between 45000 (Landis 15 Dec 2013, Lister from IHS Jane’s) and 70000 (Lund, 15 Jan 2014) fighters. If we take various estimates of the components of the Islamic Front, we find: Liwa al-Tawhid 10000 to 11000 (Suahib Anjarini, 22 Oct 2013, al-Monitor); Harakat Ahrar al-Sham between 10000 and 12000  (Omar Kayed, 2 Dec 2013, Al-Monitor); Islam Army 25000 (Ibid); Suquour al-Sham between 8000 and 10000 (Ibid.), which adds up for the lower figure to 53000 to which should be added the groups from Homs and Latakia.

What is also most interesting regarding the Islamic Front is its political structure, reaffirming the will to implement an Islamic State, as well as its communication policy. For example, besides its official twitter account, @Islamic_front, we can follow, the IF’s Political body (@ IslamicFront_p), its Shariah Board (@ IslamicFront_R). Meanwhile the twitter account of the Army of Islam @ IslamArmy01 and its Facebook page also uses the same logo and thus underline its belonging to the IF. Lund has written a very interesting series in the Carnegie’s blog he now leads, Syria in Crisis, on the Islamic Front emphasizing those aspects, which is definitely a must read (as the whole blog).

Salafi-Nationalists and Jihadis, a violent complex relationship

The main enemy of the Islamic Front is and remains the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its foreign allies. Meanwhile, as underlined by Lund (8 January 2014 - see also Landis “The Battle between ISIS and Syria’s Rebel Militias” 4 january 2013), the Islamic Front’s position regarding the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) (see Sunni extremist factions with a global jihadi agenda) is “ambiguous”: it stresses the negative side of its hegemonic character, many of its units fight ISIS de facto on the ground, it supports groups openly fighting ISIS such as Jaysh al Mujahideen (Anjarini, Al-Akhbar; Landis, Ibid), but there is no ‘official” all out war from the Islamic Front against ISIS.

Strategically, the Islamic Front’s position makes sense as trying to fight two enemies at once, while also consolidating power might be a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, it mays also need, at one stage or another, would it be only temporarily, act with ISIS or need it (for example transit points through Iraqi territory held by ISIS). Finally, as underlined by Lund, this position enhances the possibility the Front becomes increasingly attractive for ex-Jihadis.

Interestingly, the Islamic Front’s position is quite similar to what Anjarini (Al-Akhbar) describes regarding Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s ideology, notably stressing that, despite “not being extremist,” they are not the enemies of Jihadis:

“We distance ourselves from any confrontation with our brothers in al-Nusra Front, or any other jihadi faction, whether through direct fighting or in coordination with any faction against them.” … “We call on the honest ones among our brothers the mujahideen in ISIS to defect and join their brothers in Syria against the Nusairi [derogatory term for Alawi] Assad regime.” Suhaib Anjarini on Al-Akhbar (6 Jan 2014).

The Islamic Front and international relations

In terms of international relations, if any of the hypotheses we made previously regarding potential maneuvering between Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia, using and being used by the Islamic framework and Jaysh al-Islam held true, then the creation of the Front shows that pragmatism on the ground finally wins, and that quarrels external to Syria seem to have been put aside. It would thus show the ability of the Islamic Front and its components to successfully maneuver in the regional environment and to extract the best possible support from outside backers.

On the larger world scene, the Islamic Front has been adamant about its refusal to participate in Geneva, despite, according to Lund, repeated U.S. attempts to invite them. On 20 January 2014, as Geneva was about to start, the Islamic Front with the Army of the Mujahideen (see below) and the Islamic Union for Soldiers of the Levant (an alliance of five Islamist groups in Damascus created on 30 Nov 2013, see Zaman Alwasl, 1 Dec 2013), reiterated its position, while paying attention to thank “Turkey and Qatar and the other states that have helped our revolution” in “A statement from the forces on the ground regarding the Geneva II conference“:

“…It is inconceivable that a political solution will succeed. As we see it, the regime, through savage and criminal practices, has undermined any chances that a solution like Geneva could succeed…. It has left no room for dialogue, except for those who represent only themselves.
It has become common knowledge that long-delayed and procrastinated political solutions only serve to dilute the issue at hand, as has been the case with the series of conferences seeking a political solution to the Palestinian issue. The Palestinians’ concessions must not be repeated in the Syrian case.
The true military and political forces in Syria [my emphasis] have not authorized any Syrian party to neglect the rights of the Syrian people or compromise any of their demands. The Syrian people will not be satisfied by any one group attending Geneva II on their behalf, bringing with them a series of concessions and retreats rather than defending our legitimate human rights and demands….” (Syria Direct, 22 January 2014)

This statement is most probably not only directed at foreign powers but also at the delegation attending Geneva on behalf of the Syrian “opposition”,  a misnomer, as, let us not forget it, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NC) is recognized as the legitimate authority in Syria by a large number of countries (see State of Play), including by the League of Arab States. It somehow defines the boundaries beyond which the NC cannot go without frontally opposing the Islamic Front, a force that it cannot dismiss.

This statement also emphasises the positive links, rather than tension, existing between the Islamic Front and other actively fighting yet much smaller groups.

Towards a new stronger state-like actor in Syria?

We may thus envision that the Islamic Front is currently building up its overall political apparatus, which could validly compete, complement or absorb the NC, should this become necessary, or when the time is ripe.

This emerging state-like institution, with its own shape that needs to respect its “alliance structure” and its positive relationships to other like-minded groups, if it succeeds, will be much stronger than the current NC as it is grounded and located in Syria, and is in an organic relationship with the means of violence and related mobilization, crucial components of a state and its construction. Once the Islamic Front is strong enough, then it may be able to negotiate with the NC and their still strong remaining forces (forthcoming) to try enhancing their international legitimacy and standing.

Featured image: From the Army of Islam Facebook page

The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly No136, 23 January 2014

Editorial – The power of biases: This week strikingly underlines the power of biases and how much beliefs and wishful thinking may overtake our understanding and lead human actions, constraining among other the timeliness of ideas and policies.  First, we have the sudden realization by Davos participants that yes, war between China and Japan is possible. Interestingly – and worryingly – it would seem that there, at least, China and Japan seem to have a similar and shared understanding of the situation, but would this be enough to start truly working towards de-escalating the situation?
Then, we have the Montreux meeting regarding the Syrian war, Geneva 2, where foreign diplomats insist on hoping to bring about even tiny positive results when, not only the position of those Syrian actors who are present are irreconcilable but, worse still, when a large part of the fighting forces remain unrepresented (without forgetting that political representation and international legitimacy are also a stake in all negotiations). Short of a real miracle or true black swan, what practical and positive step could truly emerge out of this conference, besides enforcing participants in their beliefs they have done everything to favour peace? 

In the first instance, people confronted to different points of views by the main actors seemed to have been shocked out of their previous understanding, and thus biases might have been mitigated. In the second instance, it is much less obvious that a novel awareness is dawning.  How various actors will be able to reinterpret the results of Geneva 2 according to their initial goals will determine if beliefs and thus comprehension will change and thus if biases could finally be minimized.

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biases, horizon scanning, warning, signal

The Red (Team) Analysis Weekly No135, 16 January 2014

Editorial – Rediscovering Politics? This week is particularly interesting, especially because of the emergence of new analyses, or rather of the rediscovery of fundamental political dynamics (and, of course, by political I do not mean politician) as fitting perfectly well current and future trends.

First, religion on the one hand, science in its high-tech and geo-engineering version, the two sides of the same coin – this normative system that, among others, presides over our understanding of the world and contributes to legitimate political power – will meet climate change and ecosystemic upheavals. Out of the answers that each side of the coin will be able to give, and out of the translation of those ideas into concrete measures by political authorities will most likely be born a new world, and new political systems. Until then, the struggles and turmoil will most probably be violent and epic.

Second, those interested in change, opposition movements and political actions will certainly find the article “How Did Raqqa Fall To The Islamic State of Iraq & ash-Sham? (Syria Untold)” particularly instructive. The lessons to be learned here, may very well be that in times of war and when confronted with enemies that are determined, organised, and play according to other rules (even when one is not at war), the past (end of 20th century – beginning of 21st century) gentle pacifist “activist” behaviour is completely counter-productive and, actually, obsolete. Once this rediscovered awareness spreads, the world may become, in general, more violent and tense (for a while). It may however also be the lesser price to pay for changes one seeks or for avoiding those evolutions one refuses. In this light, the way so many Egyptians dealt with the Muslim Brotherhood, as they refused a new system they did not want, may be seen as full of foresight, brave and wise.  The alternative would have been probably easier over the very short-term,  much grimmer over the mid to long-term, as shows Syria Untold’s story.

Finally, among an array of signals or indications of issues and problems strengthening (more than emerging), a few lead us to ask some pressing questions: Will Libya fully descend into civil war? Or, even more worryingly, when will Libya be at war? How far into domestic turmoil is Lebanon and what will the start of the Hariri trial stir? How high are we in the escalation process between China and Japan? How much of a “wild card” is Turkey, considering the complex situation in which it is at all level?

Click on the image below to read on Paper.Lihorizon scanning, strategic warning, risk, weak signal