March 9, 2014
This year’s wars
Iraq is one of ten worldwide conflicts we should keep a close eye on this year
BRUSSELS — Before we dive into this year’s list of conflicts to watch, some thoughts on the year we have concluded are in order. In short, 2013 was not a good year for our collective ability to prevent or end conflict. For sure, there were bright moments. Colombia appears closer than ever to ending a civil war which next year will mark its 60th birthday. The deal struck over Iran’s nuclear programme was a welcome fillip for diplomacy, even dynamism. The UN Security Council finally broke its deadlock over Syria, at least with regards to the regime’s chemical weapons, and committed to more robust interventions in Eastern Congo and the Central African Republic. Pakistan enjoyed its first-ever democratic handover of power.
As important as these achievements are, still more important is to keep them in perspective. Colombia’s peace process remains vulnerable to messy domestic politics in the election year ahead. Moving toward a final settlement with Iran amidst a sea of red lines and potential spoilers — in Washington, Tehran and the region — is undoubtedly a more perilous challenge than reaching the interim deal in Geneva, welcome step though it was. And that Turkey and Pakistan, both entries on last year’s “top 10” list, don’t make it onto this year’s list is hardly a clean bill of health, given the spillover of Syria’s conflict into Turkey, and the ongoing dangers of extremism and urban violence in Pakistan.
But it is Syria and the recent muscular interventions in Central Africa that best illustrate alarming deficiencies in our collective ability to manage conflict.
In Syria, the speed and decisiveness with which the international community acted to eliminate Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons can’t help but underscore its failure to act with equal determination to end the fighting; even concerted humanitarian action remains elusive.
In the Central African Republic, meanwhile, the international community was apparently taken by surprise by the collapse into violence. There is no excuse for this: decades of misrule, under-development, and economic mismanagement had left behind a phantom state long before this year’s coup unleashed turmoil and now escalating violence.
So how does this list compared with that of last year?
Five entries are new: Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Honduras, Libya and North Caucasus. Five remain: Central Asia, Iraq, the Sahel, Sudan and Syria/Lebanon. Of course, by their nature, lists beget lists. It would not have been too difficult to draw up a completely different one. In addition to Pakistan and Turkey, Afghanistan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been omitted, though all could have easily merited a place. Nor did South Sudan, apparently on the cusp of civil war, make it onto this year’s list.
But ultimately, this list seeks to focus not just on crises in the international spotlight but also on some that are less visible or slower-burning. Thus Honduras — estimated to be the world’s most violent country outside those facing conventional conflict — is included, as is Central Asia, which totters ever closer to a political and security implosion.
Syria and Lebanon
The diplomatic breakthrough in September on Syria’s chemical weapons has had little noticeable impact on the battlefield. Violence continues, with ever-worsening humanitarian consequences. Having avoided a US military intervention, the Bashar al-Assad regime has displayed increasing confidence, re-escalating its campaign to drive rebels from strongholds around the capital, Aleppo, and the Lebanese border. The regime, with some success, has also sought to market itself to Western governments as a counter-terrorism partner — ironically so, given that its brutal tactics and reliance on sectarian militias helped fuel the rise of its extremist adversaries in the first place. Meanwhile, Syria is slowly but surely dragging Lebanon down with it.
International attention is currently focused on the renewed push to hold talks between the regime and opposition. The positions of each side’s external backers will be critical in bringing the parties toward agreement in any political process, but here, too, signs of willingness to compromise are few, if any.
Since April 2013, when Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government intensified its violent crackdown on a peaceful Sunni protest movement, the tide of attacks, arrests, and executions has gradually swelled. Sunni distrust of the central government is greater than ever, providing an opening for al-Qaeda in Iraq after years of decline. Over 7,000 civilians have fallen victim to this destructive cycle already this year, but still the government has shown no appetite for compromise.
The coming year is likely to see further intertwining of the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts. Baghdad, more overtly than ever, is aiding Damascus in order to stave off the Sunni wave it fears at home — though its support for the Syrian regime is encouraging precisely that, as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an al-Qaeda offshoot, has become the biggest player in northern Syria. To halt the violence, the Iraqi government should change its approach radically: It must win Iraqi Sunnis back to its side, re-engage them in the political process and in the fight against al-Qaeda, and use its improved domestic support base to secure its own borders. Only an inclusive state can save Iraq from fragmenting.
Beset with myriad security concerns and mired in political deadlock, Libya’s post-Gaddafi transition is threatening to go off the rails.
Like other Arab countries in transition, Libya has become increasingly divided along several different axes — Islamist v liberal, conservative v revolutionary, and centre v periphery — all of which are contributing to instability on the ground.
Honduras is the world’s murder capital, with more than 80 homicides reported for every 100,000 citizens in 2013. A weak, often compromised justice and law enforcement system means that most serious crimes are never prosecuted. One of the two poorest countries in the region — half the population lives in extreme poverty — Honduras is also among the 10 most unequal countries in the world. Much of the country is plagued by criminal violence, and most Hondurans cannot access state services or enjoy the protection of law enforcement. Newly-elected President Juan Hernández campaigned on an “iron fist” response to crime, proposing to create a militarized police force. Given ongoing complaints of human rights abuses by security forces, it is little surprise that his proposal has been met with vocal opposition by civil society organizations and the diplomatic community. Honduras’ plight looks set to continue.
Central African Republic
Months of deadly clashes in the Central African Republic (CAR) have brought an already perilously weak state to the brink of collapse, with 400,000 people displaced and untold thousands terrorized into hiding. Nearly half of the population is in need of some form of assistance, and state services, including the police and the army, no longer exist.
A hotbed of instability and violence for years, conditions remain dire across much of Sudan. Political restlessness in Khartoum, economic fragility, and multiple center-periphery tensions all pose major conflict risks for 2014.
The Sahel, Northern Nigeria
The Sahel region and Northern Nigeria have emerged as major sources of instability for parts of West and Central Africa, as last year's watchlist foretold. In 2014, expect separatist movements, Islamist terrorism, and north-south tensions to continue to spark violence, which the region’s weak or stressed governments are ill-equipped to address.
Bangladesh enters 2014 amid escalating political violence. Scores of people died and hundreds were injured in clashes between the opposition and security forces ahead of general elections scheduled for January, the former embracing a growing campaign of violent nationwide shutdowns. The roots of Bangladeshi political polarization run deep. The only way out is via credible elections and a stable, responsive government. Finally, the potential radicalization of Rohingya refugees, human rights concerns, and Bangladesh’s complicated economic trajectory all make for an explosive mix.
The 2014 Afghanistan drawdown is not the only thing to worry about in Central Asia. Most countries in this region are governed by ageing leaders and have no succession mechanisms — in itself potentially a recipe for chaos. All have young, alienated populations and decaying infrastructure. While Afghanistan will undoubtedly be the focus of the international community again in 2014, Central Asia’s states will continue to grapple with their own individual and unique circumstances in a corner of the world too long cast as a pawn in someone else’s game.
North Caucasus (Sochi)
This February, Russia will host the Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. But security is even more of a problem than cost: Europe’s most active ongoing conflict is taking place nearby in the North Caucasus. Sochi must be secure for the Games. But a return to harsh and heavy-handed policies by the government is likely to intensify the conflict once the Games have ended, suggesting that 2014 will be another bloody year.
Arbour is president of the International Crisis Group, an NGO .