NEWS ANALYSIS: In Davos, Swiss army shows it can tackle the worst
Davos is on a war footing. As snipers fan out over the rooftops of the Alpine resort and the Swiss army rolls kilometres of barbed wire through the town, officers have more than the security of Mario Draghi and Lloyd Blankfein in mind. They are also preparing for a worst-case scenario: European chaos sparked by a collapse of the euro.
At their annual exercise in September, the Swiss army drilled for a conflict between two fictitious neighbouring states in crisis. The challenge was figuring out how to turn Switzerland into a fortress that could keep out the flood of refugees a conflict would send its way.
"Rising nationalism in Europe is a trend that needs to be monitored," Maj-Gen Jean-Marc Halter, Switzerland’s second-highest ranking officer who took charge of the war game and is overseeing security at Davos, says at his headquarters in the Swiss capital, Bern.
"It’s the army’s job to protect the country against all possible security threats," he says.
While Switzerland has not seen conflict since the Sonderbund civil war of 1847, Davos has provided a chance to demonstrate military readiness ever since former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attended the forum in 1985.
About 3,300 troops will protect government heads this year, including President Jacob Zuma, Britain’s David Cameron and Italy’s Mario Monti, and secure the airspace in a 46km radius around the Alpine village. The five-day event, which starts today, is the single biggest operation executed by the Swiss army.
Switzerland is right not to be complacent, says James Galbraith, a professor of government and business relations at the University of Texas, who warns of a potential "explosion of violence" on the continent. "Europe is still heading toward a social and human crisis. In Greece, there’s already a breakdown of public order. You have the rise of an essentially fascist organisation that’s harassing immigrants."
If Spain, which is plagued by regional divisions, leaves the euro, it could break apart, says Mr Galbraith, who last year published a book titled Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis.
"These things have the potential to escalate very rapidly, which is what we saw in Yugoslavia," where a series of wars killed more than 120,000 people after the state disintegrated in 1991, Mr Galbraith says. "When I speak of Yugoslavia, it’s to remind people that advanced societies have the potential for advanced levels of violence."
On January 14, a gunman fired at Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s office at his party’s Athens headquarters following a spate of fire-bombings around the capital. Rioters last February set fire to a number of buildings housing a Starbucks café, a bank and a movie theater in the Greek capital.
The Italian government said last May it would step up the use of armed forces to safeguard more than 14,000 "sensitive" sites in the face of increasing violence.
More than 16km of barbed wire help deter most attacks on Davos and thwart the attentions of anti-globalisation activists, who in 2000 broke a window at a McDonald’s, vandalised several cars and burned a US flag. Still, "there is a certain potential for violence that can’t be ignored", Maj-Gen Halter says.
Revolutionary Perspective, a violent political group, claimed responsibility on an Italian activist website for an explosion that shattered windows in Davos’s four-star Posthotel Morosani in 2011.
The risk that civil unrest in Europe would trigger a wave of refugees into Switzerland is nevertheless slim, says Anand Menon, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London and professor of west European politics at the University of Birmingham.
Wide-scale migration requires "something cataclysmic", says Prof Menon, who sees Islamic terrorism as a bigger threat, especially since France’s intervention in Mali.
"Greece, to a significant extent, is no longer self-governing and that will cause problems there," Prof Menon says. "But I don’t think it represents a security threat to other countries, certainly not as far afield as Switzerland."
In September’s 16-day exercise, code named Stabilo Due, a European crisis triggered a clash between two fictitious states, Elbonia and Danubia. The conflict sent a wave of refugees towards Helvetia, the name of the allegorical female warrior found on Switzerland’s postage stamps and coins, prompting deployments of aircraft and tanks by the Swiss military.
The Swiss army has declined to comment on the number of refugees they envisaged. "These exercises in the field are indispensable," Brig Rene Wellinger says on the Swiss army’s website. "Shooting ranges and simulators don’t present these types of leadership problem."
The role of the army at Davos is questioned by some legislators as providing security for the forum runs up a Sf8m ($8.6m) bill for Swiss taxpayers. "The army should be used when Switzerland is threatened by a foreign power," says Geri Mueller, an MP for the Swiss Greens. "It has no business being there."
While 170 Swiss soldiers on night manoeuvres accidentally invaded neighbouring Liechtenstein almost six years ago, Switzerland itself was last occupied in 1798 by French troops under the command of Napoleon. Adolf Hitler, who called the Alpine country "a pimple on the face of Europe", drew up a plan called Operation Christmas Tree to subjugate the country, though concerns that such a campaign would occupy as many as half a million troops may have been the reason it was never carried out.
Switzerland’s neutrality laws, which stem from the Treaty of Paris that followed Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, ban the military from fighting abroad other than in peacekeeping missions.
Still, while the potential for the euro to collapse should not be taken lightly, Switzerland does not have much to fear, according to Mr Galbraith.
"The prospect of a few Greek refugees turning up in Switzerland shouldn’t be particularly alarming," he says.
"Some of the unsavoury characters descending on Davos strike me as capable of far more damage."
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