For some, this world is a great place to be. For some, it’s hell on Earth.
Superpowers are still breaking spears in many countries around the world, leaving the poor and hungry to die, while pretending they care. Once you see humanitarian aid going to a certain country, you know there’s no end of the conflict in sight.
Even Americans are not crazy enough to intervene with military anymore. Things are more political and countries keeps their distance by “accidentally’’ selling guns to opposite sides, firing the conflict. There are ongoing conflicts that are so long and bizarre that they make you realize the lack of political will for them to be solved forever.
Leaving all of that aside, let’s see the most active conflicts.
The coming part of this article was written by Robert Malley of International Crisis Group and you can read the full edition - here.
If one place has borne the brunt of international lawlessness over the past year it is Yemen. The humanitarian crisis there – the world’s worst – could deteriorate further in 2019 if the key players do not seize the opportunity created over the past weeks by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in achieving a partial ceasefire and encouraging a series of confidence-building steps.
After more than four years of war and a Saudi-led siege, almost 16 million Yemenis face “severe acute food insecurity”, according to the UN. That means one in two Yemenis doesn’t have enough to eat.
Fighting started in late 2014, after Huthi rebels expelled the internationally recognised government from the capital. It escalated the following March, when Saudi Arabia, together with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), began bombing and blockading Yemen, aiming to reverse the Huthis’ gains and reinstall the dislodged government. Western powers largely endorsed the Saudi-led campaign.
In late 2018, Yemeni militias backed by the UAE surrounded Hodeida, a Huthi-controlled port, through which aid for millions of starving Yemenis passes. The coalition appeared determined to move in, convinced that taking the port would crush the rebellion and make the Huthis more pliant. But the consequences of such an offensive would be almost unimaginable. The top UN relief official, Mark Lowcock, has warned it could provoke a “great big famine”. That, and the fallout from Khashoggi’s murder, prompted Western powers to begin restraining the Gulf coalition. On 9 November, the U.S. announced it would no longer refuel coalition jets conducting air raids in Yemen. A month later, Griffiths, with Washington’s help, reached the “Stockholm agreement” between the Huthis and the Yemeni government, including a fragile ceasefire around Hodeida.
There are other glimmers of light. U.S. pressure to end the conflict could intensify in 2019. The Senate has already voted to consider legislation barring all U.S. involvement in the war. Once the Democrats assume control of the House of Representatives in January 2019, they could move more aggressively in this direction.
That and more will be needed to end the Yemen war or at least avoid it taking another turn for the worse. All parties – the Huthis and their Yemeni adversaries, but also the Saudis and Emiratis – seem to believe that time is on their side. Only pressure from Europe, Oman, and Iran on the Huthis; from the U.S. on Saudi Arabia and the UAE; from those two Gulf countries on the Yemeni government; and from Congress on the U.S. administration stands a chance of making a difference.
If Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, Afghanistan suffers its deadliest fighting. In 2018, by one tally, the war killed more than 40,000 combatants and civilians. Trump’s reported decision in mid-December that half of U.S. forces in Afghanistan would leave brought further unease. In principle, Washington’s signal that it is ready to pull out could advance diplomatic efforts to end the war by focusing belligerents’ and regional actors’ minds. But the ad hoc nature of the decision—seemingly made without looping in top officials—and the spectre it raises of the U.S. cutting and running could bode badly for the coming year.
In 2018, the war exacted a higher toll than at any time since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul more than seventeen years ago. A three-day ceasefire in June, which the Taliban and the government enforced and which prompted joyous celebration by fighters and civilians alike, offered a short respite, though fighting resumed immediately afterwards. Taliban fighters now effectively control perhaps half the country, cutting off transport routes and laying siege to cities and towns. A sharp uptick in U.S. airstrikes has not curbed their momentum.
In September, Washington appointed the veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as an envoy for peace talks – a welcome sign that it was prioritising negotiations to end the war. Taliban leaders appear to be taking the talks seriously, though the process is stuck over their continued insistence that the U.S. commit to a timeline for full withdrawal of international forces as a precondition for a wider peace process involving other Afghan factions, a sequence that would be a win for the Taliban while saddling other Afghans with uncertainty.
Only days after Khalilzad’s latest talks with the Taliban came Trump’s bombshell. Withdrawing 7,000 troops in itself will probably not be militarily decisive: U.S. forces now mostly perform support roles. Indeed, there could be value to the U.S. making clear it is serious about bringing troops home. All sides understand that a rapid pullout could provoke a major new civil war, an outcome nobody, including the Taliban, wants. With a U.S. drawdown in the cards, the Taliban’s suspicion about Washington’s motives might ease, propelling talks forward.
Neighbouring countries and others involved in Afghanistan – notably Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China – all want the Americans out eventually, but none of them wants a precipitous withdrawal. They may be more inclined to support U.S. diplomacy if they believe that Washington will eventually give up its strategic foothold in South Asia. Trump’s announcement could therefore spur them to help end the war, but regional powers could just as easily increase their meddling by doubling down on Afghan proxies to hedge their bets.
The rashness of Trump’s decision risks outweighing any potential silver lining. Its timing appeared to catch everyone – from Khalilzad and top U.S. military chiefs to the Afghan government – off guard. The fact that it was not coordinated with Khalilzad meant that the envoy could not extract any concessions from the Taliban in return for such a key pledge that partially addressed their core demand. In Kabul, the sense of betrayal was palpable. A few days later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani nominated two hard-line anti-Taliban officials as his defence and interior ministers, suggesting a move away from his compromising tone of the past year.
The festivities that greeted the June ceasefire revealed broad support for peace, and there are signs that the war’s core protagonists are open to a settlement. But that was always an uncertain bet. Trump’s decision has only added to the uncertainty.
Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Israel, and Iran
Much like 2018, 2019 presents risks of confrontation – deliberate or inadvertent – involving the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. The first three share a common view of the government in Tehran as a threat that has been emboldened for too long and whose regional aspirations need curbing. For Washington, this has translated into withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, the restoration of sanctions, more aggressive rhetoric, and threats of powerful retaliation in the event of Iranian provocation. Riyadh has embraced this new tone, and – mainly in the voice of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – suggested it will fight back and seek to counter Iran in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and even on Iranian soil. Israel has focused on Syria, where it has regularly struck Iranian and Iranian-aligned targets, but it has also threatened to target the Iranian-backed militant group Hizbollah in Lebanon.
So far, Iran – confident in long-term trends and deterred by the possibility of retaliation – has opted to hunker down. While it has resumed missile testing, and the U.S. has accused it of using its Shiite proxies in Iraq to threaten the U.S. presence there, its response appears calculated not to invite a harsh reply. But as economic pressure builds on Iran, this posture may not last. Moreover, the risk of an accidental clash originating in Yemen, in the Persian Gulf, in Syria, or in Iraq cannot be discounted.
The main source of tension, so far, has been the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the reimposition of secondary sanctions against countries engaged in business with Tehran. That Iran has not responded in kind to what it describes as economic warfare owes much to the efforts of the deal’s other signatories, namely European countries, Russia, and China. Their attempts to preserve a modicum of space for trade coupled with their continued diplomatic engagement with Tehran have given sufficient reason for Iran’s leaders to adhere to the terms of the deal. Those leaders also seem to be hoping for a one-term Trump presidency.
This calculus could change. While U.S. and Saudi hopes that sanctions will force Iran to modify its disruptive behaviour or prompt regime change almost certainly will be disappointed, the economic squeeze is hurting ordinary Iranians. As more pain is inflicted on Iran’s citizens, hard-line voices urging the Islamic Republic to eschew the agreement will grow louder, especially as jockeying for President Hassan Rouhani’s and, possibly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s posts heat up. Even if they comply with nuclear constraints, the temptation could grow in Tehran to make Washington pay a price for its actions by taking aim at its presence in the region, for example by encouraging attacks by Iraqi Shiite militias against U.S. targets in Iraq.
Hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is playing out in proxy struggles across the Middle East, from Yemen to Lebanon. Any of these conflicts could escalate. Yemen is arguably the most dangerous. Should a Huthi missile inflict casualties in a Saudi city or if the Huthis target international commercial shipping in the Red Sea – a move they have long threatened to make – the conflict could enter a far more dangerous phase.
In Syria, Israel has so far been adept at striking Iranian targets without prompting a wider war. Iran, no doubt aware of the potential cost of such escalation, calculates that it can absorb such attacks without endangering its deeper interests and longer-term presence in Syria. But the Syrian theatre is congested, Iranian forbearance is not limitless, and the likelihood of a miscalculation or an attack gone awry remains a risk.
Hanging over these dynamics will be continued reverberations of the October assassination of Khashoggi. The murder amplified criticism in the U.S. of both Saudi foreign policy and the seemingly unconditional U.S. support for it. These feelings will intensify next year as Democrats assume control of the House. One can only hope this leads to stronger U.S. pressure on Riyadh to end the war in Yemen and to greater congressional scrutiny of U.S. and Saudi escalatory policies toward Iran.
As 2018 came to a close, it looked as if the Syrian conflict would continue along the same path. It seemed that the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with Iranian and Russian help, would win its battle against the opposition. The war against the Islamic State would approach the finish line. Foreign actors would maintain a fragile equilibrium in various parts of the country: among Israel, Iran, and Russia in the south west; Russia and Turkey in the north west; and the U.S. and Turkey in the north east. But with a mid-December phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Trump upended that balance; increased the odds of a bloody conflict involving Turkey, its Syrian allies, Syrian Kurds, and the Assad regime; and, in so doing, potentially gave the Islamic State a new lease on life by fueling the chaos on which it thrives.
The Trump administration’s earlier policy of indefinitely retaining a military presence in Syria was always of questionable value. It was unclear how 2,000 U.S. troops could curb Iranian influence or create meaningful pressure on the Assad regime. The fight against the Islamic State is not over, but it need not require maintaining U.S. troops on the ground. That said, a precipitous withdrawal presents one major risk: it will leave the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the Kurdish-dominated armed group that partnered with U.S. forces against the Islamic State and now controls roughly one-third of Syrian territory – perilously exposed
The YPG could now face an attack from Turkey (which considers it a terrorist organisation due to its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK) or by the Assad regime (which aims to reassert control over the entirety of the country, including the oil-rich north east). Should disorder ensue, the Islamic State could seize the opportunity to stage a comeback by regrouping and recapturing some of the territory it has lost over the past two years.
In short, the real question for the U.S. should not have been whether to stay or go, but under what timetable and what conditions to withdraw.
Both the U.S. and Russia should have an interest in preventing an all-out scramble for the territory abandoned by the U.S. because it could revitalise the Islamic State and because (from Russia’s perspective) it could result in Turkey controlling more of Moscow’s ally’s land. Averting this scenario will require Washington and Moscow (separately or in tandem) to persuade Turkey not to launch an assault on YPG-held territory, to persuade the YPG to lower its armed profile, and to facilitate a deal between Damascus and the YPG that entails the return of the Syrian government to the north east coupled with a degree of Kurdish self-rule in the area. Such an outcome would simultaneously allow Syria to restore its sovereignty, reassure Turkey by limiting YPG authority and firepower, and protect the Kurds from military attack. It might be too late to achieve this goal. It is not too late to try.