LIMA - The negotiations that are set to begin formally in October are by no means the first attempt to demobilize members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and incorporate the guerilla organization into the political process. There’s no guarantee, therefore, that these talks will succeed where others have failed. And yet it’s still worth asking the question: are there reasons to believe that this time things could work out better? I believe the answer is yes, mainly because the conditions that caused previous peace talks to fail have changed.
The first effort to put an end to Colombia’s internal conflict took place in the mid 1980s. At the time, certain demobilized FARC fighters set up a political party, the Patriotic Union, which decided to participate in presidential elections. They were decimated in the process: some 3,000 Patriotic Union members – a group that included party activists, leaders and candidates – were killed by paramilitary fighters. As we now know, those paramilitary groups had ties with certain sectors of the Colombian government.
The second attempt to stop the war failed in 2002, but for different reasons. Not only were FARC leaders wary of trusting the government, they were also aware of how little popular support they enjoyed. Some polls suggested that only 5% of the public still backed the organization. Even in a best-case scenario, they figured, the FARC would end up as a marginal political force. In a worst-case scenario they could face reprisals. It didn’t make sense, therefore, to surrender, especially at a time when they enjoyed more military and economic power than they had ever had. The FARC had a well-equipped force of some 16,000 to 20,000 fighters, plus effective control over about 20% of the Colombian territory. A study financed by the World Bank showed that in addition, the FARC was earning as much as $500 million a year from its involvement in the drug trade, as well as $200 million annually from kidnappings and extortion.
Incentives to negotiate
The FARC, in other words, had no incentive to negotiate with the government in good faith. More recently, however, the governments of current President Juan Manuel Santos and his predecessor, President Alvaro Uribe, provided incentives. For one thing, they hit hard at the FARC militarily, effectively cutting the guerilla army’s numbers down to between 8,000 and 9,000 armed individuals. They also delivered a blow to the FARC’s top leadership. Prior to 2008, the organization’s seven-member Directorate had not suffered a single combat casualty. Between 2008 and 2012, three of its members were killed by Colombian armed forces. A fourth – the FARC’s founder himself – died of natural causes.
All of that demonstrates the degree to which the military has infiltrated the FARC as well as the degree to which the organization’s Directorate has lost control over its bases. This in turn resulted in a drop in the revenue the FARC was able to generate from kidnappings, leading eventually to a decision by the organization to give up the practice all together as a condition for initiating negotiations with the government.
In addition, the governments of Uribe and (to a lesser degree) Santos managed to significantly reduce Colombia’s overall homicide rate and to demobilize the majority of paramilitary fighters. As a result, there is now less of a threat of reprisals against the FARC should they agree to lay down their weapons.
To sum it all up, the FARC now has a number of incentives that simply weren’t there in 1985 and, even more so, in 2002. The government also has incentives for wanting to negotiate an end to the conflict – despite the fact that militarily speaking, it currently has the upper hand.
That’s because as I already mentioned, the FARC still has between 8,000 and 9,000 armed fighters who are sheltered in vast forested areas that are sparsely populated but full of resources. Attacks against oil pipelines have increased – up 340% over the course of the first seven months of 2012. The FARC use the attacks to extort money from companies that operate in the area and to give themselves more negotiating power with the government, whose economic growth strategy depends in part on encouraging private investment in the very industries that operate in those regions. These are places the Colombian state has never fully controlled and from which, for half a century, it has failed to dislodge the FARC. Accomplishing that objective via negotiations would cost the state far less time, money and human lives than if it were to drag the war out even longer.
*Farid Kahhat teaches at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima, Peru.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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