Category Archives: Armed Conflicts

Posts about war and conflict

Is the War Fever Breaking?

From my Op Ed with Steven Pinker in the Boston Globe:

“QUIETLY, AMID the carnage and chaos in the daily news, 2016 is shaping up as a good year for peace in the world. You read that right. A significant escalation of war over the past few years is, at the moment, abating. …”

See:  https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/04/15/the-decline-war-and-violence/lxhtEplvppt0Bz9kPphzkL/story.html

Glimmer of Hope for Cease-Fires

Syria talks photoMost wars end without military victory for either side, and whatever arrangements move a conflict toward resolution, they generally begin with a cease-fire. Recently several of the world’s serious armed conflicts took steps in the direction of cease-fires — certainly a welcome development in the period of backsliding from peace over the last five years.

The world’s worst war at present, in Syria, saw a baby step toward political resolution today as four major outside powers met in Vienna to discuss it — Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia (Russia supports the Syrian regime; the others oppose it). The talks hardly justify or vindicate Russia’s violent military intervention in Syria, but it’s still better to have backers of different sides talking. Whether it’s better than nothing, or is actually nothing, remains to be seen.

In Ukraine, meanwhile, a real cease-fire has taken hold, probably because of Russia’s preoccupation in the Middle East now. Previously the Minsk Agreement was honored in part but fighting continued in places. Now the front line is quiet, which is a step forward.

Yemen also shows tiny steps forward.  The Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels who control the capital have finally agreed today to meet. The UN envoy charged with making it happen has not yet set the date or agenda. Perhaps it will happen before the Yemenis all starve.

In Mali, where Tuareg rebels signed a cease-fire with the government in February, two feuding Tuareg tribes who had been fighting each other have now reached agreement as well.

Myanmar (Burma) has just reached a peace deal with some, but not all, of its rebellious ethnic groups. Possibly the others will come on board in the future. Myanmar is preparing for its first elections since the military loosened its grip on the country somewhat.

South Sudan had been sliding over a precipice and facing widespread starvation after persistent and brutal fighting between the two largest ethnic groups in the world’s newest country (which had spent decades in a brutal civil war before splitting from Sudan). Recently the leaders in South Sudan also signed a political agreement and cease-fire, which has been holding imperfectly and may not last but nonetheless represents a ray of hope.

October 24 is “UN Day” and this year it’s the organization’s 70th birthday.  In Mali, South Sudan, and Yemen, all largely removed from great-power interests, the UN has been a key broker in negotiations.  In the conflicts directly involving Russia — Ukraine and Syria — the great powers make their own deals without the UN. In Myanmar outside mediators seem to have played little role, and in the recent peace deal in Colombia, the mediator was Cuba.

This diversity of approaches to making cease-fire deals underscores an important point — there is no one set route to end wars and broker agreements.  Sometimes it’s governments, sometimes the UN, sometimes NGOs or individuals, but if a war is to end someone has to go in and help the sides get to an agreement.  And that agreement almost always begins with a cease-fire.  The first step in ending a war is to stop the shooting.

Peace in the Western Hemisphere

Peace deal handshake

Cuba’s Raul Castro celebrates peace deal between Colombia’s president and FARC leader, Sept.2015

Amidst the violent turmoil in the Middle East and the world’s backsliding in its long-term progress toward peace, a piece of good news deserves notice. Last week a breakthrough finally occurred in peace talks between the government of Colombia and the FARC rebels. The talks, held in Cuba, had dragged on for several years but have now produced an agreement to definitively end hostilities in six months, in March 2016. A truth commission will sort out war crimes, and penalties will follow a compromise between impunity and severe punishment.

The agreement marks the end of the last war in the Western hemisphere and thus continues a trend over recent decades that have seen the zone of active fighting in the world shrink to an area now stretching from central Africa to Pakistan, with a tendril up into Ukraine and occasional little skirmishes in southeast Asia. (Actually fighting in Pakistan is much reduced this year, and a shaky peace deal was agreed last month in South Sudan, though Syria’s war rages on.)

Peace in the Western hemisphere does not mean an absence of violence. Thousands continue to die in drug-related violence in Mexico, homicides against indigenous people in Guatemala, and gang violence in El Salvador. But the historical contrast is stark.

Just a few decades ago, civil wars (with international involvement) ravaged Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Argentina’s government waged a “dirty war” against leftists, Chile lived through a brutal coup and dictatorship, and Brazil had a military government. The United States invaded Grenada and Panama.

Although economic growth in Latin America has slowed recently, some 70 million people there rose out of poverty in the past decade. Literacy and education rates are very high, birth rates are low, and the region has become solidly middle-income. Actually, Latin America has become so successful that it’s easy to ignore amidst the troubles of other regions – making the evening news only when a big corruption scandal (Brazil) or especially violent incident (Mexico) flares up.

With the reopening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States this year, the Western hemisphere now enjoys normal and peaceful interstate relations from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. It’s not paradise to be sure – inequality, corruption, violence, and racism have definitely not disappeared – but the progress is dramatic.

The war in Colombia lasted fifty years, took more than 200,000 lives, and displaced millions from their homes. Peace will be sweet.

World Backsliding on Peace

Data graph of battle deaths

UCDP: Uppsala Conflict Data Project, Sweden.     PRIO: Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway.

The latest Swedish data on world battle-deaths (through 2014) add to the evidence of a serious reversal of the decades-long trend toward fewer and smaller wars.

From fewer than 25,000 battle-deaths in 2011, the total has jumped to nearly 40,000 in 2012, 70,000 in 2013, and more than 100,000 in 2014. The world has moved from a historic interlude of relative peace, about halfway back to Cold War levels of armed conflict, and will get there in a few more years on the present trajectory. (Uppsala battle-death data are minimums based on confirmed reports of incidents.)

Most of the reversal in the peaceful trend over the past decade has come specifically from the terrible civil war in Syria, and the consequent new Iraqi war with the so-called Islamic State (IS). Of the world’s 101,000 battle-deaths in 2014, some 54,000 were in Syria and 13,000 more in Iraq, together making up close to two-thirds of the world total.

Afghanistan and Pakistan each added another 12,000 battle-deaths; Nigeria and Ukraine had about 5,000 each. Smaller wars with 1,500 to 2,000 battle deaths included South Sudan, Yemen, and Israel/Hamas. Adding this year’s developments into the picture, the civil wars in Yemen and South Sudan have worsened dramatically in 2015, with millions of people facing starvation unless solutions are found.

The world’s most serious wars are quite internationalized. Foreign fighters and outside military forces are operating in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Ukraine, South Sudan, and Yemen. By contrast, United Nations or other international peacekeepers are conspicuously absent from the world’s major conflicts today, the main exception being South Sudan where they are ineffective. (It’s unclear if these conflicts became deadlier because of the absence of peacekeepers or if the world’s powers avoid using peacekeepers in the deadliest conflicts.)

The increase in war over the last four years does not negate the longer-term decline in armed conflict, but does clearly set the shorter-term trend in the other direction, with the potential to undo much past progress if things continue in the new way. Battle-deaths in 2014 were still less than half the typical level during the Cold War years, and of course no comparison to the World Wars. In the peaceful post-Cold War period, we’ve had two previous spikes in battle-deaths up to near the level reached in 2014. These corresponded with the Ethiopian civil war and Gulf War around 1991, and the Ethiopia-Eritrea War around 1999 – the world’s last sustained interstate war.

Because quantitative data are always suspect in some quarters, and battle-deaths are in some ways problematic, I’ve argued the long-term decline of armed conflict since the World Wars primarily using evidence other than just battle-deaths.

Among the salient landmarks are the “zeroes” – no nuclear wars since 1945, no wars between great powers since 1953, no naval battles worldwide for more than 25 years, no tank battle anywhere for more than 10 years, no wars between two regular state armies (the most destructive category) in more than 10 years.  And the rising great power, China, has not fought a single military battle in more than 25 years (historically unheard of). Geographically, the areas of the world affected by active fighting have shrunk to a zone from central Africa through Pakistan. Whole regions such as Central America and Southeast Asia, not long ago plagued with multiple wars at once, are nearly entirely at peace now.

As battle-deaths climb, however, some of the other peaceful developments also seem to be slipping. The war in Ukraine crosses several red lines, including the spread of active war up into Europe and the de facto fighting between two regular uniformed armies, although dressed up as local conflict and “little green men.” It’s not quite an interstate war, but it’s pushing the limits. Meanwhile Russia’s annexation of Crimea was an alarming breach, unprecedented in decades, in which one UN member seizes and annexes the territory of another. Iraq tried that with Kuwait but unsuccessfully.

Even China’s remarkable “peaceful rise” seems to be slipping lately, with more bellicose rhetoric and expansive claims in the South China Sea – where China says everything belongs to China and therefore is not subject to international law. So far, China is not an important contributor to the new trend away from peace, but China’s changing attitude does somewhat undermine the fragile norms of peace that had been strengthening.

Syria and the adjacent Sunni areas of Iraq, consisting of less than half of one percent of the world’s land area, currently produce two-thirds of the world’s bloodshed from armed conflict.  Americans wishing to help the millions of Syria refugees directly can do so through the UN refugee agency here. Diplomatic efforts for a political settlement need to be redoubled and supported.

Note:  I’ve updated my “wars in progress” page with the 2014 data.


Sources:  UCDP Battle-deaths data, v.5, 2015. See Pettersson, Therése & Peter Wallensteen. Armed Conflicts, 1946-2014. Journal of Peace Research 52(4), 2015. Available at http://www.pcr.uu.se/research/ucdp/datasets/ucdp_battle-related_deaths_dataset/ . PRIO data:  Peace Research Institute Oslo, Battle Deaths Dataset 3.0, updated from Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch, “Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths”, European Journal of Population 21, no. 2–3 (2005). Data provided by Human Security Report Project (HSRP), Simon Fraser University.

The World’s Wars — An Update

Homs-tank feb 23 2012 reutersThe 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.

State of the World’s Wars

UCDP battle deaths to 2013 smallThrough the haze of horror and grief at war scenes around the world, systematic data collection can provide a needed big-picture perspective. The world’s experts on that, in Sweden, recently released the updated dataset on armed conflicts through 2013.

The bad news is that 2013 continued a trend in the wrong direction (so far clearly continuing into 2014), with war increasing in the world. The measure of total “battle-related deaths” refers to military and civilian deaths caused by violence during war fighting, which is only a fraction of total war-related deaths, but more reliable than other measures for tracking trends. The world total battle-deaths dropped dramatically from the Cold War era, with around 200,000 annually, to the low point of under 12,000 in 2005 (and typically for years in that period, around 20,000). Since then, it has trended up, reaching more than 45,000 last year.

How much more, we don’t know, because the data collectors could not come up with a “best estimate” figure for the war in Syria, and gave only a minimum, 22,750. That minimum is about equal to the battle-deaths for the rest of the world combined, and the real figure for Syria could easily be double that minimum, which would make Syria a strong majority of the world’s battle deaths. Another way to think about this is that if tomorrow a cease-fire took hold in Syria/Iraq (strictly hypothetical under current conditions), the world’s battle-death totals would drop by at least half, perhaps two-thirds or more, and return the world to the low levels of overall conflicts that characterized the early 2000s.

There is a policy message here: While other international dramas and tragedies flare up, don’t lose track of Syria. It is the world’s bloodiest conflict by far. The spread of the war to Iraq in 2014 has only strengthened this imperative.

Moving to the rest of the world, the 2013 data list six other “wars,” defined as producing more than 1,000 battle-related fatalities in the year. This is an arbitrary definition but one long used by political scientists, and effective in separating smaller, sporadic armed conflicts from more serious ones with regular ongoing fighting. Afghanistan had about 8,000 battle-deaths and the others all fewer than 2,000 – Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan, Pakistan, and D.R. Congo.

Another 26 “armed conflicts” were recorded, in 18 countries (some countries have several insurgencies at once). The more serious of these conflicts, with more than 200 battle-deaths in 2013, were in India, Mali, the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.  Today, Ukraine would be in this category, as would Israel/Gaza and Central African Republic. Others, however, could drop off the list as some progress toward peace is happening in India, Mali, and the Philippines.

The most positive trend that continues in the world despite the upsurge of the Syria/Iraq war, is the absence of interstate war in the world, a new development historically that has proven robust over the past decade. The war in eastern Ukraine has not escalated to a fight between the regular Russian and Ukrainian armies, a fight that would have crossed the red line against interstate war. Neither have the maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. The world’s regular state armies still threaten each other, with 20 million soldiers worldwide and every conceivable weapon, but none have fought each in a war for 11 years. (Russia-Georgia in 2008 killed 500 in 5 days.)

I’ve revised my “Wars in Progress” page to reflect the new data.

Guide to Middle East Complexity

WaPo ME chart BSm0bOBCYAAAph6The idea seems to be gaining traction that the Middle East is incredibly, incredibly complex – far too complex for Americans to ever understand and far, far too complex to intervene in with any hope of success, be it military strikes on Syria, peace negotiations with Israel and Palestine, or military aid to Egypt. Last week the Washington Post’s foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher published a chart of Middle East players filled with arrows in every direction — sheer chaos (the chart was from an Egyptian blogger, “the big Pharoah”).

I’ve redrawn the chart – breaking “Syrian rebels” into four constituent groups but otherwise retaining the same actors — and it’s not that complicated. (Sure, a level down from here, on either chart, lies lots of complexity down to individual personalities and cross-cutting ties, but that wasn’t the original chart’s point.)

Goldstein Middle East Chart

Fisher comments on his chart:  “There are rivals who share mutual enemies, allies who back opposite sides of the same conflict, conflicting interests and very strange bedfellows.” But actually, on my version you see mostly a two-way split between the Russian-backed Shi’ite axis in the upper right and the actors on the left. The main complexity is a rivalry between Qatar (home of al Jazeera TV) and Saudi Arabia (along with the other Gulf states). They back opposing sides of the conflict within Egypt between General Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood. They both support the Free Syrian Army but favor different factions within it (the Saudi-backed side is dominant now in the Syrian rebel leadership). In the lower right, al Qaeda and the Kurds each control territory in Syria and are more concerned with administering it than bigger ambitions.

There are a few anomalies but not of great significance. For instance, Israel likes the USA, which likes Qatar (where we held military exercises this year), which likes Hamas, but Hamas does not like Israel!

Thirty years ago studying international relations in graduate school, my professor Nazli Choucri taught me that “the Middle East conflict” was actually at least five conflicts layered over each other.  Today it’s even less about Israelis versus Arabs than then. But the region is not a swirling cloud of unpredictable and shifting conflicts that no one could ever understand. Journalists at the Washington Post, and elsewhere, should try to understand and explain these conflicts, not throw up their hands. My opinion.

For those of you who would like a map to go with the chart, here you go:

middle east map

Syria War Reverses Trend in Battle Deaths

UCDP battle deaths to 2012The latest battle-deaths data, for 2012, have arrived from the researchers in Uppsala, Sweden, and the news is bad. With the civil war in Syria killing tens of thousands last year, the world total battle deaths jumped up about 70%, reversing the downward trend of recent decades, though not reverting to the high fatality levels of the Cold War years.

The big picture here is a long-term decline of armed conflict worldwide from the World Wars (a hundred times worse than today) to the Cold War proxy battlefields (several-fold worse than the post-Cold War era) to the most recent decade of fewer and smaller civil wars and generally no interstate wars. The Syria spike in 2012 marked the highest battle fatalities since the Eritrea-Ethiopia war ended in 2000. Since then, war deaths had been bouncing along at historically low levels, with some ups and downs. Other than the one-sided clashes of the U.S. coalition with Iraq in 2003 (several weeks) and of Russia with Georgia in 2008 (five days), the world has not had an interstate war since the early months of this century. Maintaining the taboo on interstate war is a prime imperative as the crises in Syria, and elsewhere, threaten to get worse.

There was a similar spike in battle deaths in 2009 when the bloody, brutal end of the Tamil Tigers insurgency in Sri Lanka pushed up the worldwide total. But that spike was smaller than the 2012 one, and lasted only two years before dropping down again. Syria might (or might not) go on for a lot longer than two years.

It is important to understand that the “battle deaths” measure is a partial estimate of total war deaths. Although it includes both military and civilian deaths, only those from violence are counted—be it a gun battle, air strike, or suicide bombing—and only those that occur in the context of a battle, where two sides are attacking each other. So, for example, a government massacre of peaceful protesters would not be included, nor would the many people who disappear and whose bodies show up dumped in the street (or never show up). Disease and starvation among refugees also are not counted, and only verified deaths are included.

The Syria battle-death total for 2012 was about 15,000—clearly just a subtotal of the war’s cost, but a useful subtotal for tracking change through time. That 15,000 was up from 1,000 in 2011, and was almost double the annual battle deaths in Sri Lanka in 2008 and 2009. It was higher, per year, than either Iraq or Afghanistan at their worst (of course, they lasted for years and we have yet to see about Syria). It is possible the Syria number reflects in part a greater effort by several parties to document deaths in the war, compared with other armed conflicts around the world. But in my view this effect does not explain most of the striking rise in deaths.

Other than Syria, 2012 showed few changes from 2011. Battle deaths in Afghanistan remained around 7,000; those in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan each fell between 1,000 and 3,000; and those in Iraq were below 1,000. Other low-level armed conflicts sputtered along in Sudan, Nigeria, Turkey, Burma/Myanmar, D.R. Congo, southern Russia, South Sudan and Pakistan (in decreasing order of battle deaths, all between 300 and 1,200). The world total for 2011 was 23,000, and it increased in 2012 to 38,000.

Fundamentally, we don’t know the answer yet to the big question:  Is the 2012 spike the start of a sustained reversal of the declining war trend, back to the bad old days of the Cold War? Or is the 2012 spike like the 2009 spike but higher and longer-lasting, namely a temporary jump in war that reverts in a few years to a low world battle deaths level (and perhaps future temporary spikes)?

The most worrisome aspect of the Syria war is its potential to spread geographically and potentially spark much larger armed conflicts. Already low-scale but lethal violence has jumped borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Currently, the Syrian government receives weapons and soldiers from Iran and from the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, a client of Iran’s. Meanwhile the Syrian rebels receive weapons from Qatar, a Sunni emirate right across the Gulf from Shi’ite Iran, and the Sunni Islamist fighters in Syria receive volunteers, weapons, and money from various foreign populations, notably Sunni areas of Iraq. If that weren’t bad enough, the old superpowers, America and Russia, are also lined up on opposite sides. One reason for the high battle deaths of the Cold War era was that outside weapons and money on both sides kept proxy wars going for years. This could all too easily happen in Syria.

Because there are so few good options to improve the situation in Syria, media and public attention tend to drift away from the issue. That is a mistake.

Unfortunately, the international community failed, earlier in the conflict, to use the United Nations effectively as the powerful tool that it could be.  Because Americans (public and officials) underestimate the potential of the UN, we do not put enough effort into using that potential. In October 2011, the Syria problem came before the Security Council. I thought the great powers should find what they agree on and pass a resolution to enact it. That would have meant deep compromises to get Russia on board. But it would have brought the Syria problem within the UN where the great powers could exert influence to contain and manage the problem.

Instead, the U.S. administration, in an exception from its generally solid foreign policy record, pushed an anti-Assad resolution that guaranteed a Russian veto. Then we passed a similar resolution in the General Assembly by a huge margin, having absolutely no binding effect but embarrassing Russia when few countries sided with it. The United States thus deftly used the Syria crisis to show how bad Russia is, and demonstrate the moral superiority of America and its allies. U.S. and western officials declared fervently that Assad must go. This may all be true, but it did not help the Syria people one bit. And when China took Russia’s side in the UN, the attempt to isolate Russia more or less failed too.

Now, so many months and so many deaths later, the United States is trying to get on the same page with Russia to work out some kind of solution in Syria.  It is vastly harder now. It still needs to be tried.

One point of my work on the decline of war is that the continuation of the recent trend is not inevitable. There is an ever-present potential for a reversal. What happens in the coming years will depend on the choices that people make. We’ve made some bad ones about Syria. But now the job of making the best of a bad situation is vitally important for the entire world, before Syria’s lethal wildfire intensifies and spreads along the Sunni-Shi’ite divide and beyond.

 

[Data source:   UCDP Battle-Related Deaths Dataset v.5-2013, Uppsala Conflict Data Program, www.ucdp.uu.se, Uppsala University.]

The Next War to End

One of the interesting aspects of the decline of armed conflict in recent decades is the geographical shrinkage in the area of the world affected by actual shooting wars in progress. This pattern continues with the most recent war to end, in the Philippines, at the far eastern end of the zone of conflict stretching from west and central Africa to south Asia.

Kachin soldiers Jan 20 2013 AFPThe war likely to end next is Burma [Myanmar]. The government there has taken substantial steps toward democracy after decades of authoritarian military rule (including massacres of protesters more than once). Around Burma’s borders are ethnic groups who carried on armed conflict with the government. All the major groups have now reached cease-fires except one, the Kachin in the north next to China. Their war had been suspended for 17 years under an earlier cease-fire that broke down in 2011. (Note: peacekeepers help maintain cease-fires, but the Kachin conflict had none.) A recent government offensive greatly weakened the Kachin position, and now the sides seem close to reaching a cease-fire, according to a report from last week’s negotiations. The next round of talks are to take place before April 10. Both China and the United States would like Burma’s wars to end comprehensively; China could send refugees home, and would gain economically from Burma’s development, and the United States wants a successful transition to democracy there. In the past month, only “sporadic” clashes have taken place, and if a cease-fire agreement is reached I will take Burma off my list of wars in progress.

I had thought the next war to end would be far west of the arc of conflict, the last real outlier geographically — Colombia. It is the last war in the western hemisphere, the last remnant from a bygone era when most of Latin America was up in flames with leftist armed insurgencies, rightist militias, and great-power meddling. What remains today, in Colombia, is a weak guerrilla force sustained by cocaine revenues and losing its recent battles with the government. Peace talks are underway, and one of these months Colombia might reach a cease-fire. Until then, they fight while they talk.

The East Asian peace has been noted as a key component of the world’s overall pattern of declining violence.  The end of wars in the Philippines and (potentially) Burma would extend that peace southwest, with favorable implications for ending the little war in southern Thailand.  (Then, on to India, where small-scale Maoist insurgencies continue.)

Wars begin with a bang and end with a whimper, at least the media attention paid to them does. Cease-fire agreements that could end longstanding wars in places like the Philippines, Burma, and Colombia may seem like small potatoes compared with the outbreak of a new war. But the shrinkage of the world’s zone of war is a big deal, expanding whole regions of the world where a new norm of not fighting active wars is gaining traction.

 

The World’s Most Important Wars Today

My recently-updated list of 14 wars in progress worldwide is a mixed bag, so here is a short list of the most important to pay attention to.

aleppo 2012 jameslawlerduggan.com1. Syria. Fighting is going on every day in multiple locations; armed forces face each other along many front lines; heavy weapons such as artillery and air power are in use regularly. This is the most lethal war now in progress, with the latest UN estimates suggesting 70,000 killed in two years. The ongoing rate of deaths is not diminishing. The war has also created the world’s worst current refugee emergency (donate here to help).

Syria also is the most important war strategically in world politics. Like in the old Cold War days, the United States and Russia are backing opposing sides in a war, the rebels and the government, politically and with weapons (the rebels being supplied by Gulf states, not the United States itself). If that weren’t enough, the war is a proxy for the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, with Syria’s government allied with Iran and Hezbollah while the rebels are allied with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

The Syrian war has been stalemated for so long, with neither side able to defeat the other, that the casualty and refugee numbers just churn on month after month. However, in the past few months there has been a shift of momentum toward the rebels. There are no known serious peace negotiations going on. Whether the Assad regime can continue to last, and for how long, are question marks hanging over the war — are the questions of what happens after the government falls (not necessarily the end of fighting).

2.  Afghanistan/Pakistan. The war is a mess, with two governments, lots of armed groups, and abundant outside military forces. Nonetheless it is much less lethal than the Syrian war. In 2012, the Afghan war killed fewer than 5,000 people, two-thirds of them civilians. The war has strategic importance as the international community’s biggest military deployment (NATO and others joining with U.S. troops). With the international force drawing down and largely departing by next year, concerns if the war does not continue to abate include a new rise of Islamist radicalism, and potentially even a threat to Pakistan’ s nuclear weapons.

3.  Congo. A new peace agreement has just been signed for the troubled eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Whether it will take hold or last is anyone’s guess. A few months ago, the Rwanda-backed rebel group M23 went on the offensive and seized the key town of Goma. However, under international pressure they left the town and fighting has been sporadic since then. What distinguishes the Congo war is its length and persistence, along with the extreme poverty of the country, which magnifies war effects through disease, malnutrition, and other indirect effects. Eastern Congo hosts one of the UN’s two largest peacekeeping operations (a troubled mission over the years) and is a major focus of human rights activism.

Note: Congo is not, as NY Times Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman claims, “the world’s worst war.”  It is just the worst war that he has reported on for years and personally seen how horrible it is. But every war is the world’s worst war if you’re in the middle of its atrocities. By an objective assessment of levels of fighting, deaths, toll on civilians, atrocities, sexual violence, refugee flows, and the like, Syria rather than Congo is currently the world’s worst war.

4.  Somalia and Mali. In each country, al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists challenged a recognized government and seized substantial parts of the country’s territory. In each, an internationally sanctioned force including African troops went in and defeated the Islamists, although fighting continues in both. The difference is that turning around the military momentum took about a decade in Somalia and about a month in Mali — the 21st-century French army accounting for the difference. Can these governments be strengthened and their economies developed so that al Qaeda in Africa becomes no more than a nuisance?

5.  Israel/Palestine. Right now, this conflict has one of the lowest levels of lethal violence of the world’s armed conflicts. And even back in November when Israel and Hamas were blasting each other with airstrikes and rocket attacks, the casualty levels were much lower than in the Syria war (and, unlike Syria, did not grind on for months on end). The importance of the Israel/Palestine conflict, however, is its symbolic importance in a region destablized by the Arab Spring revolutions.  It is the world’s longest-running armed conflict at 60+ years.  The current lull in violence should not inspire complacency, as the unstable mix could blow up at any time and even spread to other countries. Only U.S. leadership would seem to offer any hope of resolving the key conflicts between Israel and Palestine, but what U.S. president wants to spend capital on what may be a hopeless cause?

In the big picture, even the war in Syria is relatively small-scale. At the moment, the rate of killing in warfare worldwide remains, as it has for about a decade, historically low. If the world can find its way to a solution in Syria and continue to draw down the war in Afghanistan, and if no new big wars start in the meantime, the world’s low levels of war could drop even lower. It’s another reason, if we needed one, to redouble efforts on the Syria problem.