The rise of conflict around the world in 2016

MNA Editorial Desk: In 2016, the world is facing the prospect of more strategic competition between strong nations with conflicting interests on the one hand, and an increase in fragility and disintegration of states on the other. When these two trends merge, as they have done in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, for example, conflicts become more likely to take on regional and global dimensions.

Pulling together a list of the wars most in need of international attention and support in 2016 is challenging for all the wrong reasons. For 20 years after the end of the Cold War, deadly conflict was in decline. Fewer wars were killing fewer people the world over. Five years ago, however, that positive trend went into reverse, and each year since has seen more conflict, more victims, and more people displaced.

2016 is unlikely to bring an improvement from the woes of 2015: It is war — not peace — that has momentum.

Half of the conflicts on this year’s list involve extremist groups whose goals and ideologies are difficult to accommodate through negotiated settlement, complicating efforts to plot a path to peace.

To be sure, stopping the abominations of the Islamic State and other jihadis is vital, but it also exposes policy dilemmas: The dramatic increase in the reach and influence of jihadis over the past few years is a symptom of deeper trends in the Middle East: mounting sectarianism, a crisis of legitimacy of existing states, and escalating geopolitical competition, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. When the enemy comes from within a given region, military action directed from abroad is more likely to aggravate than assuage.

There are other glimmers of hope, too: major strides forward in Colombia’s peace talks, a cease-fire in Ukraine bolstered by the Minsk process, progress in Myanmar’s democratic transition, and a welcome, if long overdue, resolution from the U.N. Security Council on Syria.

At the close of the year, the war in Syria is the world’s gravest, with its effects stretching across the region and sucking in major powers. More than a quarter of a million Syrians have been killed and almost 11 million — about half the country’s population — displaced in or outside the country.

The rise of the Islamic State, which now controls a large swath of eastern Syria and northwest Iraq, has drawn in firepower from countries including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia. As yet, however, none of these countries has articulated a coherent strategy to defeat the Islamic State.

The Saudi-led war in Yemen — backed by the United States, Britain, and allies in the Gulf — has been grinding on since March 2016, with no end in sight. U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland in mid-December yielded only an agreement to resume negotiations on Jan. 14. Nearly 6,000 people have reportedly been killed, almost half of them civilians. More than 2 million people have been uprooted from their homes; an additional 120,000 have fled the country.

The war has destroyed the country’s already weak infrastructure, deepened political divides, and introduced a narrative of sectarianism where previously there had been little or none. The conflict threatens the security of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Saudi Arabia itself, by feeding the growth of terrorist networks like al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Yet again, the world’s newest country is at risk of descending into full-blown civil war. The peace agreement reached between the government and the largest armed opposition group in August after intensive African-led mediation is on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, independent armed groups outside the deal are proliferating.

South Sudan won independence from Sudan, only to explode into civil war on Dec. 15, 2013, as divisions within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement led to fighting and targeted ethnic killings in the capital of Juba. Only hours after the conflict erupted, tens of thousands of people sought refuge at U.N. bases to escape ethnic massacres and sexual violence.

Today, nearly 200,000 people live under the direct protection of U.N. peacekeepers. Over the past two years, more than 2.4 million people have been displaced, and tens of thousands have been killed. A report released by the African Union in October detailed atrocities by both sides, including mass killings and rapes.

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