Written by Christopher Putvinski and originally published on The Outsider. Edited by Christopher Nash.
As another year draws to a close, it appears that conflict is only becoming more widespread, not less. The good news is that this is somewhat of an erroneous view of things; as Steven Pinker shows in his book The Better Angels of our Nature, the world has increasingly become a safer, less violent place, not more violent.
But one can be excused for believing otherwise. Taking the time to review some of 2015’s most notable conflicts – many of which have their origins in previous years – only shows how hatred and misunderstanding are afflictions from which the world still suffers.
Let’s begin with Libya; the country has been facing infighting and civil war since the fall of its former dictator Colonel Muammar Qaddafi four years ago. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and the chaos has created a safe haven for a branch of the Islamic State widely considered to be the most dangerous of the existing ones. While a tentative peace deal has been struck between the two rivaling East and West Factions, the country has a long and difficult road to traverse before stability returns, let alone democracy and the dissolution of disparate militia groups vying for power.
The chaos in Yemen, too, has created a safe haven for another branch of the Islamic State. But Yemen is a more wretched and complex story than Libya, and has been for some time. Even with an internationally-recognized head of state, the country has been unstable, which already allowed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most ruthless brand of that terrorist organization, to operate unimpeded. (Even if it did face the occasional drone strike from the US. Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen, for example). As the New York Times puts it, “Rarely has the region that constitutes modern-day Yemen been controlled in its entirety by a single power.”
Guys, the Times is on point; even the nominal leadership of President Abu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his predecessor President Ali Abdullah Saleh somewhat contained the admittedly large safe haven the country provided to AQAP. Yet Yemen fell into an even darker hole when almost one year ago, Houthi Rebels were able to overthrow the government. The consequence has been none other than civil war, with Iran implicitly supporting the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia leading a nine-country coalition backing the self-exiled president. In the six months from January to July, the fighting, which includes Saudi-led airstrikes, has killed hundreds. It has also permitted a new branch of the Islamic State to form.
Syria & The Migrant Crisis
While we’re on the topic, conflicts that emerged as a result of Arab Spring, Syria and the Migrant Crisis have assisted the spawn, which probably has garnered the most attention. If nothing else, it by far produced the most poignant photograph of the year: three-year old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying face-down on a beach, on which he washed up after downing trying to reach Europe.
The migration crisis is the worst Europe has experienced since World War 2, with more than 1 million people fleeing countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Over 3,500 people have died crossing the Aegean Sea this year. Europe has responded diversely; whereas Germany, for example, has offered an open-door policy to refugees, expecting as many as 800,000, many Eastern European countries have been less accepting. And the Paris terror attack on November 13 that killed at least 130 people, and the subsequent thwarted ones, have only bolstered the reluctance to take in refugees. The popularity of France’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Front party, for instance, has increased since the attacks, as revealed by recent elections.
Meanwhile, the implacable, almost five-year-long civil war in Syria continues to smolder. More than 300,000 people have lost their lives, and the conflict shows little sign of abating. Peace talks are set to commence January 25. The good news is that the peace talks have the support of the UN Security Council, which, as I’m sure you know, include the United States and Russia, both of whom are supporting different sides in the war. It is, however, the US that has hitherto lost the most face: whereas once it was demanding Bashir al-Assad’s resignation, it is now willing to bring him to the negotiating table, which may (and likely will) result in him staying in power.
The Islamic State (IS)
The Islamic State has had much influence on the US’s change of course. At one time, chemical weapons were the US’s biggest concern. Now it is this terrorist cult, which controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq, to degrees which see it collecting taxes, implementing its own form of judicial oversight, and drawing up detailed local budgets.
What’s more, the US’s enemy Iran, with which it just negotiated an historic nuclear deal, opposes the Islamic State, as does the US’s half-enemy Russia, which lost hundreds of civilians when the group bombed one of its airliners in November. Russia has been bombing the group and US-supported Syrian rebels for the past few months. Regardless of why the US finds itself acquiescing to the tyrannical and murderous Assad, it’s impossible to speak about Syria without mentioning Iraq, for the conflicts have more in common than many think.
US citizens, for one, have heard a lot about Iraq for the past 12 years. The infamous Iraq War ended four years ago, yet the US still finds itself militarily involved. The reason is namely because of the Islamic State, which used instability in Syria and a political vacuum in Iraq—not to mention an ill-trained military—to take over the cities of Ramadi and Mosul. The takeovers led to the Islamic State declaring a caliphate in its territory in Syria and Iraq.
The offensive against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq has taken a number of turns. The big story a few weeks ago was Turkey purposely shooting down a Russian jet; but the news of late has actually been positive. According to Reuters, it appears that the Iraqi Army has taken back the city of Ramadi, and it is now aiming for Mosul, “by far the largest population center controlled by the Islamic State in either Iraq or Syria” and the home of Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
One could also add the offensive Turkey is waging against that country’s Kurds, and the fight Turkey’s being given in return. While it has been the Iraqi Kurds on whom the US has mainly relied for support in fighting the Islamic State, and to a lesser but still important extent Syria’s Kurds, the idea that these stateless people may finally be given a home is not something Turkey or Iraq will allow. Such is especially problematic for Turkey, however. For the last three decades that country has been battling a separatist movement waged by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 40,000 lives have been lost throughout the separatist struggle, and the ending of a ceasefire in July looks likely to renew the conflict the ceasefire has tentatively put on hold.
The news coming out of another country that was the center of a US-led war, however, is not as encouraging. In Afghanistan, the US has increasingly weened support to the Afghan Army, ensuring that they would begin fighting their own battles against the Taliban. This proved troublesome when the Taliban captured the city of Kunduz in September, and the fight that ensued to reclaim it involved the US inadvertently bombing a Doctors Without Borders facility.
A battle is now underway among the Taliban and Afghan Special Forces for the strategically-important city of Sangin, in Helmand Province. Disturbingly, it now appears that elements of the Islamic State have emerged in the country, and may be trying to consolidate their efforts.
The scourge of terrorism effects not just the Middle East, however. Perhaps the conflict most well known outside of that region is Boko Haram’s battle with Nigeria. Recent President-elect and Military-insider Muhammadu Buhari has directed the Nigerian Military to destroy Boko Haram by 2015; he only a few days ago made the claim that “technically we have won the war” against the terrorist group.
One though, should not believe this vacuous claim. Around the same time President Buhari was “technically” declaring victory, Nigerian officials were warning that Boko Haram was planning a massive kidnapping, similar to the Chibok one in which 276 girls were kidnapped.
To the president’s credit, Boko Haram’s capacity to attack has been diminished slightly; nonetheless, the group is still very much lethal and very much vile and is still causing terror in northern Nigeria. To be sure, 20 percent of Nigeria is still controlled by the group.
Politically, perhaps the most disappointing story that emerged in 2015 comes from Africa, specifically the country of Burundi. “Escalating unrest,” is how the Washington Post describes it. What makes Burundi disappointing is that it is typical of what happens in Africa: leaders are elected (sometimes appointed) and flout term limits or alter constitutions so they can continue ruling, unimpeded, for years on end. Government regulation is quite different in these nations. Indeed, a recent Economist headline about another political takeover summed it up: “The Coup in Burkina Faso Follows the Usual Script.”
The source of violence in Burundi comes from President Pierre Nkurunziza announcing that he would run for a constitutionally-banned third term, “sparking protests, a failed coup and ongoing violence.” The turmoil has been ongoing since April, and has taken the lives of at least 600 people and has resulted in over 200,000 people fleeing their homes. But Burundi is a box of tinder so to speak; bear in mind that the same Hutu and Tutsi ethnic dynamic that fed the Rwandan Genocide exist in Burundi, too, and that Burundi is no stranger to conflict.
The Central African Republic
Stepping back for a second, there has hitherto been little, if no, mention of religion. One conflict that has undertones of it, though, is the one happening in the Central African Republic, where Christians and Muslims have been taking opposing sides in a political struggle for the presidency and in combat with each other as a result. The good news is that it appears elections for the presidency and parliament will go forward; this only a few weeks after the country voted for a new constitution. The bad news is that the situation is, predictably, still tenuous.
But one need not travel far in Africa to face more disappointment. Case in point: The world’s youngest country, South Sudan. South Sudan’s unrest started about two years ago, when the country’s then-president, Salva Kiir, accused his former vice president of plotting a coup against him. As is the potential with Burundi, the fighting that broke out has fallen almost purely along ethnic lines, with the Dinka tribe supporting Kiir and the Nuer tribe supporting former Vice President Riek Machar.
While a supposed Peace Agreement was signed in August, fighting continues. To date, tens of thousands of lives have been lost and over two million people have been displaced. Not only that, but other humanitarian crises are looming. Already 4 million people, or one-third of South Sudan’s population, are living with food insecurity. Drought is exacerbating what violence has already wrought, and now, as a report on food insecurity as the country put it, “the situation is likely to deteriorate into famine in the absence of urgent and immediate humanitarian access.”
Israel and Palestine
But news has been less positive out of Israel and Palestine. A year and a half since another war in Gaza, tensions are again high, this time in the West Bank, as attacks against Israelis and Palestinians have become almost a daily occurrence. Since October 1, 117 Palestinians and 21 Israelis have been killed. What is more, as the Guardian puts it:
“A growing vacuum of political leadership on both sides is prompting renewed discussion of a series of troubling scenarios, including a collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a sudden or more gradual escalation of violence.”
While most of these stories were understated in the media, it is surprising to reflect on how little the Ukraine crisis has been mentioned in the media, not least because it is Europe’s only ongoing war. According to the UN, 9,000 people have been killed in fighting since April of last year. The reduction in reporting is likely attributable to the reduction in violence. To again cite the United Nations, almost 50 civilians died between August and November 15. While violence may be on the wane, the fact that civilians are still being killed is troubling. What’s more, the UN cautions that human rights violations—self-censorship, absence of the rule of law, lack of freedom of movement—are prevalent, namely in the east of the country, where the conflict has namely been confined to.
It’s hard to draw any optimistic or non-defeatist conclusions after examining this list. It is true: terrorism and war still abound and continue to inflict damage and destruction on the world. So too does political dysfunction and humanitarian crises.
But, lest we lose sight of the good, it’s important to note that there is indeed positive news on which to reflect. For starters, the Sustainable Development Goals, which, if they turn out to be anything like their preceding Millennium Development Goals, will markedly make the world more advanced and developed.
One could also mention the historic trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the equally, or perhaps even more, historic climate change agreement reached in Paris.
While we tend to focus on the negative, it’s important to remember that any given year is filled with goods news too, and it’s even more important that we don’t, as we work to solve and raise awareness about the world’s conflicts and wars, forget that.
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