Monday, 24 October 2011

Kurdish and Iraqi authorities in border flag dispute

Iraq's central government and the authorities of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are locked in a dispute over which flags are to fly at the border between their two jurisdictions.

KRG officials have insisted that they will not remove Kurdish flags from government buildings on the boundary line, defying instructions issued by Iraqi premier Nouri Al-Maliki in early October. An official from the peshmerga, the Kurdish security foreces, told Reuters that the Kurds “won't implement Maliki's order definitively unless the Kurdish people themselves lower the flag.”

The order from Maliki provoked strong reactions in the Kurdish region, particularly in border cities such as Mundhiriya and Khanaqin, where ethnic loyalties are most contested. Thousands took to the streets to protest the premier's instruction and subsequent statements by his office that raising the Kurdish flag in border areas was a “constitutional violation.”

The incident comes at a time of heightened tension between the Kurdish government in Erbil and Baghdad. The KRG is seeking to incorporate Khanaqin, as well as other border regions, into their jurisdiction, something which Baghdad refuses. The two sides are also still at loggerheads over the fate of the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, control of nearby oilfields, and an oil law which would determine the KRG's right to export oil.

Wider issues are also adding to the strains in the relationship. Last week's announcement that all US military forces would leave Iraq by the end of the year has refocused attention on the often tense relationship between Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga.

The US conducted joint patrols with Iraqi Arab and Kurdish military units in the border zones, helping to build trust and prevent stand-offs between the two forces. With their withdrawal, the future of the joint patrols is in doubt. Kurdish-only patrols in Arab-populated border areas will create tensions with the local community, and vice versa.

Another complicating factor is Turkey's cross-border operation against Kurdish militants, launched on 20th October. Although the KRG has sided with Turkey in its fight, the sustained presence of Turkish troops in Kurdistan is likely to cause a greater sense of national identity among Kurds. Combined with the flag issue, this is likely to cause greater tensions in the border regions between Kurds and Arabs.

Sources: AFP, Reuters

Monday, 17 October 2011

Kenyan forces cross into Somalia to hunt kidnappers

In a significant escalation, Kenyan army units have crossed into Somalia to hunt for the kidnappers of two aid workers seized from a refugee camp on the border.

The two Medecins Sans Frontieres workers were kidnapped on 13th October by gunman and taken back into Somalia. The Kenyan government has repeatedly tried to seal off the border, which is regularly crossed by thousands of refugees fleeing Somalia's fighting and the country's drought.

Militants from Al-Shabab, which controls much of central and southern Somalia, are believed to have infiltrated the flow of refugees and have also fought along the border to recapture territory held by pro-government militias.

Previously the Kenyan military has focused on sealing the border, only launching brief raids into border regions of Somalia, but the intervention which began on 17th October appears to be on a much bigger scale. Hundreds of troops backed by tanks, artillery and helicopters have moved into Somalia. According to local residents, Al-Shabab units in the area have been forcibly recruiting locals to boost their numbers in a demonstration that they are preparing to fight.

The kidnapping of the aid workers was the trigger for the incursion, but for some time the Kenyan authorities have been concerned by the porous border situation and the ease with which Al-Shabab has managed to cross into Kenya, recruiting among refugees or kidnapping Westerners. The deployment of so much heavy weaponry indicates that freeing the hostages will come second to a punitive raid on Al-Shabab forces.

Kenyan officials have been blunt. Kenya's Internal Security Minister George Saitoti said that “Our territorial integrity is threatened with serious security threats of terrorism, we cannot allow this to happen at all.”

Saitoti also said that the government is sealing the border with Somalia, although this would be almost impossible to do effectively. For its part, Somalia's weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has denied that Kenyan forces have entered Somalia, stressing that although they welcomed Kenyan support they did not require military assistance.

Officials in Kenya and elsewhere would disagree. Although TFG forces backed by African Union peacekeepers have driven Al-Shabab out of most of Mogadishu in recent weeks, the militants still control vast swathes of the country and are more than a match for the TFG's underfunded and poorly-trained forces.

The extent and duration of the Kenyan intervention remains to be seen, but it demonstrates that the border situation continues to provoke regional instability.

Sources: BBC, AFP, AllAfrica

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Indonesian ministers summoned over border dispute with Malaysia

The Indonesian House of Representatives has said that it will summon key officials from the government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to explain what progress is being made on a border dispute with Malaysia, amid angry protests.

The two states are at loggerheads over both their land and sea borders. Indonesian lawmakers have claimed that the Malaysian government has stepped up naval patrols on the border and sought to effectively annex nearly a kilometre of sea.

Their main area of dispute at sea is the Ambalat zone of the continental shelf between them, which is believed to contain huge undersea energy resources. Malaysia claimed the area in a map which it issued in 1979, but Indonesia rejects the claim. The dispute has not stopped each side from granting oil and gas contracts in the area, but tensions periodically spike, often including confrontations between the two navies.

The land border is the main subject of contention at present. In early October, Indonesia accused Malaysia of damaging several border markers in the West Kalimantan region, leaving parts of the border unclear.

Although the two sides have agreed to send a joint surveying team to the area and settle it as a technical issue, some Indonesian media outlets and officials responded by whipping up nationalist sentiments and declaring that over 1000 hectares of land had been taken by Malaysia.

On 13th October an angry crowd, organised by a group calling itself Forum Betawi Rempug gathered outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta and hurled missiles at the building, damaging a security post and forcing police to use tear gas.

The strong feelings on both sides will give added impetus to a plan by the two governments to set up Local Border Committees at each boundary crossing point. The idea was proposed by the head of the Malaysian customs department Datuk Seri Mohamed Khalid Yusuf at a bilateral cooperation meeting between the two sides.

Notwithstanding the willingness of some politicians to score political points from the dispute, the issue looks to be settled at a technical level; neither side has an interest in aggravating tensions.

Sources: Jakarta Post, Borneo Post

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait meeting over maritime boundary dispute

Amid a sudden deterioration in their bilateral relationship, Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to hold a meeting with Kuwait to settle their joint maritime border.

On 11th October, Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Sabah announced that a tripartite meeting had been agreed in principle between the three sides. He said that it was “basically a technical issue but it will need a political decision from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait”. No date was set for the meeting.

Kuwait and Iran have been in discussions for years over demarcating their joint sea border, in which Saudi Arabia is also involved, with little progress. Regional political tensions and uncertainties over their respective borders with Iraq have caused major delays.

Determining who has the right to the region's continental shelf is of importance largely because of the presence of the Dorra gasfield in the disputed zone. The field is estimated to contain up to 200 bcm of natural gas.

At present, all three states share the Dorra field. Kuwait has been actively working on developing its share of the field, and in April a senior executive from Kuwait Petroleum Corp said that a plan to start drilling by 2013 was still on schedule. Kuwait has, however, been cautious in proceeding due to the lack of agreement over ownership.

The plan to resolve the outstanding technical issues of the joint maritime border comes as relations between Tehran and Riyadh hit a new low. News of an alleged plot by Iranian agents to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington has prompted fears of a new phase in the 'cold war' between the two regional powers.

Although unlikely to directly affect the border negotiations, a crisis in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia would make it more difficult for them to agree on sharing the resources of the Dorra field.

Sources; Al Arabiya, AFP

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Turkmenistan plans naval patrols on disputed Caspian border

Turkmenistan, the Caspian's most cautious and least well-defended state, has announced plans to boost its navy and patrol its maritime borders as questions loom over the future of the Caspian sea.

Speaking at a naval shipyard where two new missile patrol boats have recently been delivered, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov said that Turkmenistan “needs ships to patrol its maritime borders, to maintain their security and counter negative phenomena and modern challenges”, while stressing that Turkmenistan's naval doctrine was purely defensive in nature.

Although Turkmenistan's naval capabilities are weak and its political will doubtful, Berdimuhamedov's speech was a clear statement that the country is keen to defend its waters amid growing tension over the division of the Caspian.

The EU's decision to open negotiations with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan on a Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) last month, to bring Central Asian gas west to Europe, has been strongly opposed by Russia and Iran. The Caspian's two strongest states argue that a TCP would cause serious environmental damage and cannot be agreed without the consent of all five littoral countries.

Their real objection, however, is that a TCP would permit an avenue for Central Asian gas to reach Europe without crossing their territory, weakening their regional influence.

In addition, the status of Caspian borders remains contested while the littoral states debate how large a share each should take. This has not stopped exploration of oil and gas deposits, but it has created zones of uncertainty. A recent Wikileaks cable revealed that in 2009, Iran moved an oil rig into disputed waters between it and Azerbaijan, prompting fears of conflict in Baku. Turkmenistan also fears Iranian intimidation.

The country's naval forces are ill-equipped to patrol its borders or defend its territory. It has a handful of rusting Soviet patrol boats operating from dilapidated facilities. The government has been busy purchasing more, however, including some from Ukraine and others from Russia and Turkey. The new missile patrol boats inspected by Berdimuhamedov were built by a joint Russian-Turkmen venture, with most of the work done by Russian firms.

Although the government wants the new navy to be completed by 2015, along with port facilities and a naval academy, Turkmenistan will continue to lag behind its neighbours. Its stated intention to patrol its borders, however, suggests that it is taking its position in the Caspian very seriously.

Sources;, Eurasianet

Monday, 10 October 2011

India and China agree to new border mechanism

Asia's two most powerful states have agreed to establish a new institutionalised mechanism to manage their lengthy land border, amid growing disputes over boundaries at sea.

On 6th October India's Defence Minister A.K. Antony told journalists that New Delhi and Beijing were working on setting up a new process involving diplomatic and military agencies from both sides, and that the mechanism would be up and running within around three months.

A new system to resolve border disputes is sorely needed. India regularly accuses Chinese forces of entering its territory, which China denies. The two sides fought a brief but bloody border war in the Himalayas in 1962, and the border between them is still hotly disputed. China claims most of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India, arguing that the McMahon Line which Tibet concluded with the British Empire in 1914 – and which now serves as the de facto border between India and China - was invalid.

The situation along the line of control in India's northeast remains tense. New Delhi has recently announced plans to boost the number of troops in the region by up to 50,000, as well as building airstrips near the border. Beijing has warned that a military build-up would be destabilising for the region, but has been accused of increasing its own presence there. In September, India accused Chinese air and ground forces of violating its territory.

The new proposed mechanism would reinforce the existing arrangements, in which ad hoc meetings of military officials, diplomats or expert groups are organised to discuss any pressing issues. The new arrangement, however, will bring all these groups together in a regular process. The inclusion of diplomatic policymakers is vital for keeping the situation under control and informing the central governments of both states.

It is not clear exactly when the mechanism will come into force but it seems that both sides acknowledge the need to reduce tensions there. Smoothing relations over the 3,500 km land border would be a positive note in the Sino-Indian relationship, currently undergoing tensions over disputed maritime boundaries in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

India is working closely with southeast Asian states as a counterweight to China, which has alarmed smaller countries with its aggressive claims to sovereignty over the sea and its associated resource bonanza. Meanwhile India has watched with concern as China builds up its economic and military presence in a 'string of pearls' around the Indian Ocean, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Pakistan.

Sources: The Diplomat, The Hindu

Monday, 3 October 2011

Monastery dispute stalls Azerbaijan-Georgia border demarcation

Talks on demarcating the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia have stalled again, according to officials at the Georgian foreign ministry. The main issue to be settled is the fate of a 6th century monastery complex which straddles the mutual border.

The demarcation process has been drawn out for years, despite the cordial relations between Baku and Tbilisi and their joint interest in facilitating greater cross-border ties. The old Soviet borders are currently used as a placeholder, whilst the Alazan river also forms a natural boundary along some of the 480km of their boundary.

According to Georgian officials, 160km still remains to be demarcated. The biggest issue is the fate of the David Gareja Monastery, known as the Keshish Dag in Azerbaijan, which sprawls across a mountain slope dividing the two countries – both sides claim that the bulk of the complex lies within their territory. The monastery was founded in the 6th century and is Georgian Orthodox, giving it great significance for modern Georgia.

For Azerbaijan the monastery is significant for two reasons. Firstly it is claimed to be the work of 'Caucasian Albanians', believed to be the ancient inhabitants of Azerbaijan and regularly used as a historical weapon in Azerbaijan's battle with Armenia over who has the 'right' to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Secondly and more prosaically, the site is viewed as a strategic height which Azerbaijan is reluctant to give away.

Although officials have downplayed the long-running dispute, public opinion is vociferously opposed to any compromise. The rest of the border can probably be delimited without much controversy, but it remains to be seen whether a compromise can be struck over the fate of the monastery.

The lack of a demarcated border has not been much of an impediment to relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia, which are close and based on extensive energy and infrastructure projects. Given nationalist sensibilities in both countries, however, sacrificing anything believed to be an integral part of national history would be a major headache for the authorities. In the South Caucasus 'compromise' is often equated with 'surrender'.

It seems, therefore, that the commission working on border demarcation is simply seeking to put off the issue of the monastery complex for as long as possible. It has not stopped cooperation, and the ambivalence of the status quo seems to be a situation which everyone can live with, for now.

Sources:, Institute for War and Peace Reporting