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After defining the term failed state for more than two decades, Somalia has been quietly making progress towards a functioning government. To bring together international support, the British government is hosting a conference on Somalia. Somalia's neighbors are there, plus top diplomats from the West. And the diplomats also have on their minds a state that is being torn apart right now: Syria. NPR's Michele Kelemen traveled with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to today's gathering London.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So let's begin with why this conference at this moment in time?
KELEMEN: Well, the British government has really made Somalia a priority. It wants to see the international community come together in a more coordinated way. And as you said, there really is a feeling here in London and among U.S. officials that things are actually improving in Somalia.
There are huge challenges. You have piracy, of course. The humanitarian needs are great. There's a basic problem of governance. And there's the al-Shabaab. That the Islamist group that the U.S. says has links to al-Qaida and has been threatening this weak internationally backed government in Mogadishu.
But U.S. officials say that al-Shabaab has been degraded in the past year - not defeated, but degraded. And that's partly due to this African Union-U.N. peacekeeping force, which once controlled just a few blocks of Mogadishu, but now has the capital and has ambitions to get more control over Somalia.
MONTAGNE: Now, the U.N. Security Council has approved a resolution expanding that U.N. peacekeeping force. Tell us more about it.
KELEMEN: Yeah. The size of the force, it's actually 9,000 now. But what this U.N. Security Council resolution that was approved yesterday does is it increases the maximum for the force from 12,000 to over 17,000. A few thousand Kenyans invaded Somalia last year to fight the al-Shabaab. And those troops will now formally join this African Union force. They'll be re-hatted, as they say in U.N. speak.
The U.S. and U.K. are counting on better funding for this force. They're looking to Arab states and also countries like Turkey to play more of a role in that. That's part of the conversations they're having today.
And the U.N. resolution also imposes a ban on charcoal exports. Apparently, al-Shabaab earns a lot of money taxing the charcoal business. So this ban is meant to take revenue away from the al-Shabaab.
MONTAGNE: Is any of this likely to affect the problem of Somali pirates?
KELEMEN: Well, the British government recently announced a new intelligence center sharing on piracy that will be headquartered in the Seychelles. They're also talking about setting up courts and prisons in Somalia, mainly working with regional governments, these semiautonomous areas called Somaliland and Puntland, where a lot of the piracy problem emanates from.
MONTAGNE: And Michele, tomorrow, Secretary Clinton is going to turn her attention to another really key problem, Syria, at a conference in Tunisia. And this conference is happening at a time when Bashar al-Assad, the president, seems intent on destroying a city, Homs, at the center of the uprising there. So what sense do you have of what can be accomplished in tomorrow's meeting?
KELEMEN: Well, the secretary is trying to deal with that today, as well. She met with some of the foreign ministers who are going to be attending tomorrow's conference. We're told that there are going to be 70 countries involved tomorrow. So today was a smaller group to try to get a sense of what countries are willing to do and what the conference can accomplish. Getting that kind of conference off the ground is challenging enough. And in some ways, it at least shows that Bashar Al-Assad is isolated internationally. But I'm not hearing a lot of great ideas on what countries can do to stop him. The focus now has been simply on getting humanitarian aid to people in Syria, and even that is a challenge.
MONTAGNE: Michele, thanks very much.
KELEMEN: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.