As the world enters a new year the conflict map of the world looks much the same as it did throughout 2019. Despite sometimes promising news from peace talks and occasional prisoner swaps or releases, most of the armed conflicts have ground on. In 2020 there may well be an increase in violence overall and the places hardest hit by violence will continue to suffer the brunt of the consequences.
2020 had barely begun before there was a spectacular and unwelcome development in Iraq when the US assassinated a senior Iranian General, provoking a volley of missiles at US bases in Iraq. That Iran and the US are in conflict should surprise no one, for despite all the fears and punditry around a potential direct conflict between the US and Iran, they have been fighting each other for over a decade through proxies in both Syria and Iraq. To say that this rivalry is at its most dangerous since the Iranian revolution of 1979 would not be an overstatement. This is the kind of spectacular rivalry, one which involves a hegemon or major power, which troubles leaders worried about inter-state wars that rarely break out. Meanwhile, most of the violence is of the intra-state or trans-state kind and involves rebels fighting government forces, with the armed forces of a state or its proxies fighting for either side, or militias carving out a piece of territory or controlling a resource. Sometimes the militias and armed groups build up strength and launch raids across a border and other times there will be multiple actors within a given conflict zone. Insurgents and militias tend to ignore borders and nation-states don’t always set a good example either.
This links to a trend that has contributed to major conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen as regional rivalries continue to impact on intra-state conflicts that have been internationalized from the off. In Libya, the internationally recognised Tripoli government is backed by Turkey and Qatar, while Egypt and the UAE back the rival LNA led by General Haftar. They have also brought in foreign fighters to aid their causes. Syria’s war underwent two major escalations, the first when Turkey launched an incursion into Kurdish north-east Syria and the Syrian government and its allies launched an offensive into the rebel bastion of Idlib province where the jihadist HTS dominate. Turkey’s interest in Syria is with supporting the remaining rebels, countering the Kurds (everywhere) and the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The presence of Hezbollah and Iranian forces in Syria has added to the sectarianism of the Syrian War and ensured a steady flow of Israeli airstrikes. Yemen continues to be a victim of the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, although Iran has always denied supporting the rebel Houthis. Despite some significant progress, such as the deal reached over the port city of Hodeida and a resolution of a violent split within the anti-Houthi forces, Yemen remains vulnerable to external events affecting Saudi Arabia and/or Iran. The presence of the latter usually draws the attention of the US, providers of logistical support for the Saudi-led coalition. This barely scratches the surface of what are very complex conflicts in which the domestic actors were more than capable of descending into fighting but the involvement of external actors has exacerbated the violence and ensured that each conflict has been prolonged.
In 2019 there was a 36% increase in incidents of armed conflict in Africa (according to ACLED). Armed Violence continues to afflict the countries of the Sahel. Here a potent mix of rebellions, environmental stresses and Islamist or jihadist insurgency has caused a severe escalation of conflict in Burkina Faso, adding to existing problems in Chad, Niger and Mali. The combined forces of the G5 Sahel, France and the UN have struggled to respond. As we enter 2020 there are regular attacks by insurgents. Somalia, backed by the AU and UN, continues to struggle against the militants of Al-Shabaab and Nigeria’s battle with Boko Haram continues. There has also been ethnic strife in South Sudan and Ethiopia and clashes in the Central African Republic, despite positive developments in all three countries. In Cameroon the Anglophone crisis continues and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an alphabet soup of militias operates in the east, the government has launched an offensive against the Ugandan based Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). Add problems in Chad, insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai region and Mozambique, and the aforementioned fighting in Libya and the severity of armed conflict across Africa becomes clear. Africa as a whole is one of the CARIS areas of focus and will continue to be so in 2020.
There are also other conflicts that require mention. In Ukraine, the civil war between the government and Russian backed separatists in the east remains static, although there have been prisoner swaps and negotiations. Myanmar still contends with multiple insurgencies, having had its international reputation trashed due to its appalling treatment of the Rohingya. According to national media talks with rebels are ongoing. Finally, the deadliest conflict for civilians was in Afghanistan, where the US and Afghan forces are locked in combat with the Taliban. The government of Afghanistan and the Taliban are both eager for the US to leave, which is not beyond the realms of possibility provided that the Taliban would stop killing Americans.
There has been no shortage of efforts at conflict mitigation and resolution in all areas of conflict and this will continue to be the case throughout 2020. Intra-state and trans-state conflicts last longer than interstate conflicts and they are also much more complex, providing unique challenges for the UN, regional organisations such as the AU and OSCE, and aid groups. The links below all carry the message that the impact of armed conflict will increase. This also means that there will be more opportunities for conflict resolution.
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Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.