The two most important wars currently are in Syria and Ukraine, but for different reasons.
The Syria war, now including Iraq, matters because it is by far the world’s deadliest current armed conflict, and because the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, or ISIL) has created a transnational challenge unseen in international politics in many years. The data team in Uppsala, Sweden, was unable to estimate battle deaths for 2013, and the data for 2014 will not be released for several more months, but we know the order of magnitude is tens of thousands per year and something on the order of 200,000 over the last four years. Apparently, somewhat more than half of these are military fatalities with the rest civilians. Many millions of civilians have been displaced and large numbers are suffering terrible deprivation. Humanitarian efforts are frustrated both by inability to reach populations in need and by inadequate funding. (Contribute to UNHCR here.)
Peace efforts for Syria are near a standstill. There are no peacekeepers, no agreements, no negotiations, no UN Security Council resolutions laying out the path to follow. Russia backs the Assad government and the West opposes it. The UN envoy has been trying to get local cease-fires in specific places (currently working on Aleppo) with limited success.
Meanwhile ISIS holds territory in Syria and Iraq, most importantly the city of Mosul, Iraq. ISIS challenges the entire state system on which international relations has operated for centuries. This unites all the countries to stop them, from the United States and European powers to Russia, Iran, and the Gulf states. However, peace negotiations are not a viable option, and the military campaign against ISIS raises a collective goods problem in terms of who bears the costs. Currently Iran and Iraq on the ground, and mostly the USA in the air, are providing the bulk of forces. Given its lack of allies, ISIS will not pose a long-term threat, and is over-hyped in the media owing to its spectacles of barbarism, in my opinion.
The war in eastern Ukraine is far smaller and less deadly (about 6,000 deaths) but matters for another reason – it breaches red lines that had contained armed conflicts in recent years. For the first time since the U.S. invasion of Iraq more than a decade ago, two state armies have been directly fighting each other. This is a bit ambiguous, however, since Russia has sent its forces into battle with insignia stripped off, as “little green men,” rather than overtly.
The Russian seizure of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 represents a very, very rare case in recent decades of one member of the United Nations taking territory from another by armed force. Iraq did so with Kuwait in 1990 but the border was restored the next year by an international coalition in the Gulf War. Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 but the matter remains highly contested still. These days, borders disputes are far more often resolved through international law and arbitration – this has happened in several Latin American cases and in West Africa in the past decade. In Crimea, the land-grab is mitigated by the fact that Russia traditionally owned the peninsula and still has its navy based there. When Russia and Ukraine were both part of the Soviet Union, in 1954, Khrushchev abruptly transferred ownership to Ukraine. Still, many international borders have odd histories but using military force to readjust them would be an extreme step backward from the progress we’ve made over decades.
At the moment a shaky cease-fire (Minsk II) is in place in eastern
Ukraine, though it’s too early to say if it will hold up or just serve as a resupply lull. Peace negotiations have included Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are present, though often frustrated in their efforts. The Ukrainian government would like to see UN peacekeepers but Russia probably will not allow this. Ukraine and Russia have lived with a wide range of conflicts, ranging from natural gas prices to ethnic/linguistic differences, ideological divergence, and territorial disputes, ever since the USSR broke up in 1991. There is some hope that a political process in the coming years will allow the two countries to coexist peacefully, perhaps with Crimea joining Russia under a legal framework approved by Ukraine, and eastern Ukraine firmly returned to Ukraine’s control with local autonomy. Economic sanctions on Russia are taking a high price but may or may not change Russian behavior.
The Ukraine war is also the main, though not the only, instance of armed conflict spreading beyond the zone of fighting that has characterized recent years. That zone extends from central Africa through the Middle East to Pakistan. Beyond, and at the edges, wars had been winding down. This is still true in Colombia, the only important armed conflict left in the Western Hemisphere, where peace talks have been going on for two years and a cease-fire is taking hold. But in West Africa, new and serious fighting has broken out in northern Nigeria; in northern Africa, Libya is descending into civil war; and in Southeast Asia, new fighting has broken out in the north of Myanmar/Burma. These are all reversal in areas at the edge of the world’s zone of active warfare, where wars of recent decade had been fading away and peace had been taking hold.
Smaller wars in the heart of that zone continue. Brutal ethnic conflicts in the Central African Republic and in the world’s newest country, South Sudan, are abating somewhat but settlements remain elusive. In both cases, outside powers are engaged in working for peace, and UN peacekeepers are present (sizable missions, about 10,000 in CAR and 15,000 in South Sudan). UN peacekeeping also continues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (about 25,000 troops), where progress is being made slowly, and in Darfur, Sudan (about 20,000). Somalia has made a lot of progress in the last few years, with insurgents pushed out of cities, but Yemen has become more violent in recent months and is in danger of splitting in half. Israel and the Palestinians appear destined to fight recurrently as they did in Gaza last year. Afghanistan remains at war after the withdrawal of NATO combat forces (though direct talks with the Taliban are in the works).
The backsliding in recent years can only be discouraging. This has accompanied an overall deterioration in top-level relations, especially between Russia and the West. China continues to be the most peaceful great power (in history, arguably), but has stepped up its alarming moves to claim large contested areas of the nearby seas. North Korea continues to add to its arsenal of at least a half dozen nuclear weapons, and Iran’s nuclear program could create a sizable arsenal within years, and a regional arms race, if current negotiations fail. The U.S. and Russian nuclear programs are “modernizing” after years of downsizing that saw stockpiles shrink by three-quarters over thirty years.
We should keep today’s wars in perspective, however. Overall, the world’s armed conflicts are still smaller, fewer, and more geographically limited than during the Cold War. Almost all of Central, East and Southeast Asia, southern Africa, Europe, and the Americas are at peace. In historical perspective, we just marked the 70th anniversary of the deadliest bombing raid in history, on Tokyo in 1945, which incinerated 100,000 civilians in one night – more than the total battle fatalities in the world last year.