President of Somalia sets top three priorities: Security, security, security

All the more important as an MP from the new parliament is gunned down in a Mogadishu street.

In Mogadishu you are never far from an AK47.

In fact the proliferation of small arms in this once beautiful Indian Ocean capital city is as equally pressing an issue as al-Qaeda linked al-Shabab’s latest string of terrorist attacks, although the militant Islamist group’s recent use of suicide bombers and random grenade attacks in many parts of the city can also be seen as a last ditch attempt in their slowly declining power struggle with the newly-elected Somali Government.

Of course such attacks are likely to increase, particularly as Somali and Ugandan forces from the east and Kenyan forces from the west are fast approaching the port town of Kismayo, a once key al-Shabab stronghold, and as they lose ground in open battle they will resort to terrorism. Journalists, MPs, entrepreneurs, in fact any civilian that happens to be at the wrong place and at the wrong time is now "fair game", as al-Shabab applies their bloody terror tactics in an attempt to derail the stabilisation process and reverse any progress made in the last twelve months. They know creating an atmosphere of fear in Mogadishu can unsettle local militias, raise old tensions, and coupled with the wide availability of AK47s, easily create chaos again in this city once famed for its Islamic architectural heritage and home to the oldest mosques on the East African coastline.

In his second full day in office, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia’s newly elected president made clear his number one priority: "security", then quickly added that it’s also his second and third. All understandable when considering the assassination attempt made minutes earlier by al-Shabab which left four Somali security forces members dead along with a soldier from the African Union Mission in Somalia. Three suicide bombers attacked the temporary residence of the president, the newly built but unopened Jazeera Palace Hotel located on a main road near the airport. As the attackers reached the heavily guarded hotel compound two of them detonated their vest-bombs killing the five soldiers while the third attacker was shot dead by security forces before he could trigger his device. Inside the hotel the President was hosting a visit from the Kenya Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Ongeri, and after hearing the explosions, glanced at his slightly concerned visiting dignitary and calmly responded: "Don’t worry, you’re in safe hands."

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the estimated eighteen people killed in Thursday’s double suicide bomb attack in a popular restaurant across from the national theatre in the old quarter of Mogadishu, and two days later for Mustaf Haji Mohamed, the first member of the new parliament to be assassinated - gunned down in a Mogadishu street as he left a mosque following evening prayers (the MP was the father-in-law of Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the former president). Striking soft targets in the city is becoming a conspicuous feature of al-Shabab tactics as evident in recent weeks with over a dozen grenade attacks throughout the city using improvised explosive devices. Although an all-out gun battle also occurred during a night attack at a security post in the north of the city the targeting of innocent civilians is now their modus operandi.

In another incident and again not far from the Jazeera Palace Hotel and the fortified UN compound an individual was shot dead in broad daylight and while the killing this time was linked to criminal activity it does highlight the problem when small arms are easily available on local markets, along with fruit and veg, and all the other household necessities (new AK47 retails at $1,000).

Last week after returning from a visit outside the city with two local colleagues and our obligatory two security staff, a militia gunman routinely stopped our 4x4 at a check point located on the fringe of the city. Before the head of our team could brief the militiaman on our activities an argument had broken out between the militiaman and one of our own security staff, both were armed with AK47s. In a rage the hyped-up militiaman ran over to the passenger side of the vehicle and pointing his weapon at our security staff started screaming at him in Somali to drop his gun and get out the vehicle before he shoots him. My colleagues were pleading for calm, but as fast as the incident occurred it blew over, and the now pacified militiaman was shaking all our hands. In his bloodshot eyes were the signs of qat, the addictive stimulant plant that triggers erratic behaviour, often chewed by the militiamen. The episode was a simple reminder of the volatile nature of "security".

For many Somalis, particularly the residents of Mogadishu, these recent security incidents have been yet another reminder of the immense challenges that the country still faces despite successfully electing their first president since 1969 (the year when President Shermarke was assassinated less than five months after being elected to office). Now as President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud takes the helm, following his historic election victory, he faces stormy seas before Somalia, or even Mogadishu alone, is in "safe hands". That is only likely to happen once the al-Shabab issue has been resolved, local militias have been disbanded, the eradication of small-arm weapons commences and the Somali government is empowered and able to provide security for all its citizens.

Anonymous Geographer works in Somalia

Newly elected Somali president Hasan Sheikh Mahmud arrives at the Jazeera hotel in Mogadishu after surviving an assassination attempt. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.