10 Conflicts to Watch in 2013
From Turkey to Congo, next year's wars threaten global stability.
Every year, around the world, old conflicts worsen, new ones emerge and, occasionally, some situations improve. There is no shortage of storm clouds looming over 2013: Once again, hotspots old and new will present a challenge to the security of people across the globe.
There is, of course, an arbitrariness to most lists — and this list of crises to watch out for in 2013 is no different. One person’s priority might well be another’s sideshow, one analyst’s early warning cry is another’s fear-mongering. In some situations — Central Asia, perhaps — preventive action has genuine meaning: The collapse into chaos has yet to happen. More complicated is anticipating when it will happen, what will trigger it, and how bad it will be. In others — Syria, obviously — the catastrophe is already upon us, so the very notion of prevention can seem absurd. It has no meaning save in the sense of preventing the nightmare from worsening or spreading.
What follows, then, is a “top 10” list of crises that does not include the ongoing, drug-related violence in Mexico, the simmering tensions in the East China Sea, or the possibility of conflict on the Korean peninsula after a rocket launch by Pyongyang. As if this mix wasn’t combustible enough, there are new leaders in China, Japan, and on both sides of Korea’s de-militarized zone who may well feel pressured to burnish their nationalist credentials with aggressive action. Nor do I mention the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe, the ongoing trauma in Somalia, or the talk of war in response to Iran’s nuclear program. Any of these could credibly make a top 10 crises list.
Focusing on countries also makes it more difficult to highlight some of the undercurrents and tensions percolating through the various crises we are likely to confront next year. So, before we begin our list, here are four examples, in brief.
Elections, we know, place enormous stresses on fragile polities: they’re a long-term good that can present short-term challenges. The 2011 presidential polls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo failed to meet this challenge, and the current violence in the DRC’s eastern provinces is at least in part driven by the bankruptcy of governance that the elections, if anything, exacerbated. Much attention in the coming year will be on how Kenya and Zimbabwe manage their forthcoming votes, and on how the region and the world respond.
A similar tension lies between the long-term benefits of justice — promoting accountability and addressing an accumulation of grievances — and the reality that it can often pose immediate risks. Whether in Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Kenya, or Colombia, the “justice or peace” debate is in need of fresh thinking.
The role of sanctions in preventing conflict also seems too often to involve a dialogue of the deaf. Did sanctions encourage the changes in Myanmar (also known as Burma) — or simply punish the people, not the rulers, of that country? Have they become part of the problem in Zimbabwe rather than a driver of change? And most prominently, how will sanctions defuse the Iran nuclear crisis, when they appear to signal to Tehran that the goal is to change not the regime’s behavior but the regime itself? It might behoove the international community to avoid the temptation to impose sanctions as an automatic default response to a given situation; sanctions will only be effective as part of a coherent, overall strategy, not as a substitute for one.
And finally, a word on the rule of law. Too often, we see this well-worn phrase used in the sense of “rule by law”: That is, autocratic rulers co-opt the language and trappings of democracy, using the law to harass rather than protect. Hence the use of law to harass rather than protect; hence the international community’s tendency to train and equip law enforcement units who, in the eyes of the civilians they are charged with protecting, likely don’t need to become more efficient in techniques of repression. The international community needs to be more vigilant toward this charade and more focused on the substance of the rule of law — perhaps most importantly the notion of equality before the law — than its form.
The laws of war may also need to adapt to the evolving nature of modern warfare. Asymmetric warfare and the language of the “war on terror” challenge the critical distinction between “combatants” and “civilians.” Technology, too, presents new dilemmas. Despite claims of surgical accuracy, drone strikes produce collateral civilian damage that is difficult to measure, while exposing one side to no risk of combatant casualties. In some instances, drones also may be self-defeating: They terrorize and cause deep trauma to those communities affected, potentially increasing support for radical groups.
It’s difficult to convey all this in a list. But, with that said, here is the International Crisis Group’s “top 10” list of global threats for the coming year. It is non-prioritized, and seeks to include a mix of the obvious risks and those we believe are bubbling beneath the surface. And because we’re optimists at heart, it includes an addendum of three countries where recent developments suggest that the coming year could bring peace — not torment. We certainly wish that for all.
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Unsurprisingly, the “Sudan Problem” did not go away with the South’s secession in 2011. Civil war, driven by concentration of power and resources in the hands of a small elite, continues to plague the country, and threatens to lead to further disintegration. Divisions within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), growing popular unrest, and a steady national economic meltdown also could send this country off the rails.
Sadly, 10 years ago, the situation was almost identical — only then Khartoum was fighting against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), representing the entire South, whereas now government coffers are drained by ongoing fighting against the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an alliance of major rebel groups from Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states. The victims, as always, are the civilians caught in the middle. As it did in the South, the government has sought to use access to humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip, essentially using mass starvation as part of its military strategy.
The only lasting solution is a comprehensive one, bringing all of Sudan’s stakeholders together to reform how power is wielded in a large and diverse country. Over the long term, the status quo — incessant warfare, millions displaced, billions spent on aid — is intolerable for all parties. If it is to be resolved for good, the NCP and international players will need to offer much more than at any time in the past — the former a process of genuine all-inclusive dialogue, the latter economic and political incentives.
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Freezing weather in the mountains this fall and winter has slowed fighting in the decades-long insurgency waged by Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but the omens look worrying for spring 2013. Already, 870 people have been killed since the PKK resumed its attacks, and security forces revived their counterterrorism operations, in mid-2011. That’s this conflict’s worst casualty rate since the 1990s.
Political tensions in Turkey are also rising, as the legal Kurdish movement, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), takes an increasingly pro-PKK line. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to lift its MPs’ immunity to prosecution, and the state has arrested several thousand Kurdish activists on charges of pro-PKK terrorism since 2009 — even though many are not being accused of any act of violence. The Turkish government has also stopped secret talks that it conducted with the PKK from 2005 to 2011 and abandoned most of the “Democratic Opening” that had offered hopes of greater equality and justice for Turkey’s 12 to 15 million Kurds, who comprise as much as 20 percent of the population.
The government could still win over most of Turkey’s Kurds by announcing a comprehensive set of reforms. These would include launching a process to offer education in mother languages, amending the election law to reduce electoral and funding barriers, increasing decentralization to Turkey’s 81 provinces, and ending all discrimination in the country’s constitution and laws. It should also work toward a ceasefire, urge insurgents to stop attacks, avoid large-scale military operations, including aerial bombings, and stand up to pressure for ever stronger armed responses.
The likelihood of a major U-turn is, however, low. It appears to be Erdogan’s ambition to win Turkey’s 2014 presidential elections, for which he has been aligning himself ever-more firmly with rightwing and nationalist voters. More militaristic factions in the PKK, emboldened by their allies’ successes in Syria, are also gaining the upper hand, and likely will continue attempts to hold areas in the southeast and attack symbols of the Turkish state in 2013.
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Plagued by factionalism and corruption, the Afghan government is far from ready to assume responsibility for its own security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014. Relations with Washington continued to deteriorate in 2012, particularly when scores were killed in February following reports that U.S. troops burned dozens of copies of the Quran and other religious materials, and when U.S. soldier Robert Bales in March shot 17 villagers, including nine children, in the southern province of Kandahar. A spate of insider attacks since then has contributed to the increased distrust between Afghan and U.S. military leaders, while friendly fire incidents undermined the Afghan National Security Forces’ morale.
The looming political transition in Kabul is possibly even more important for the future of the country and the wider region. Although President Hamid Karzai has signaled his intent to exit gracefully when his term ends in 2014, fears remain that he may try, directly or indirectly, to retain influence over the post-election setup. A reasonably credible election — something Afghanistan has yet to experience — could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence in the government’s capabilities.
The best guarantee of Afghanistan’s stability is to ensure the rule of law during the political and military transition in 2013 and 2014. If the leadership fails at this, the coming crucial period will result in deep divisions and conflicts within the ruling elite, which the Taliban-led insurgency will exploit. At worst, it could result in the fragmentation of the security services and trigger extensive internal conflict. Some possibilities for genuine progress remain — and we have to remain hopeful — but the window for action is narrowing.
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Drone strikes continued to cause tension between the United States and Pakistan in 2012, though NATO supply routes did reopen in early July following a U.S. apology for a deadly attack on Pakistani soldiers in November 2011. There also was some political progress between Pakistan and Afghanistan: The two countries joined forces in December to ask the Taliban and other insurgent groups to disarm and enter peace talks.
With fresh elections taking place in 2013, Pakistan’s government and opposition must urgently implement key reforms to the electoral commission to cement the transition to democracy. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party and its main parliamentary opposition, Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League, should put aside their political differences and focus on preventing a perennially intrusive military from disrupting democratic life. An increasingly interventionist judiciary, which appears bent on destabilizing the political order, also must not be allowed to undermine the country’s chance for its first peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another through a credible election.
Pakistan’s humanitarian crises also need urgent domestic and international attention. Three successive years of devastating floods have threatened the lives of millions, and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced due to military operations and militancy. These twin crises have given Pakistan’s radical Islamist groups opportunities to recruit and have increased the potential for conflict. Since Pakistan’s democratic transition began in 2008, some progress has been made, but much more is needed in 2013 to build the federal and provincial governments’ disaster and early recovery response.
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Sahel: Mali, Nigeria, and beyond
Instability in the Sahel region of Africa increased on a number of fronts in 2012, and attempts to stem that trend will be high on many countries’ agendas in 2013. Mali — where a military coup toppled the government in March, while separatists and al Qaeda-linked fundamentalists took over the country’s north — tops the list of regional troubles.
The coming year will see both the rollout of a necessary international intervention in Mali, and possibly more important, a political process to reunify the country. On the former, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the African Union have already approved a mission of 3,300 soldiers to help the Malian state wrest control of the northern part of the country from Islamist fighters, pending international endorsement of such a move by the U.N. Security Council.
Fear of an intervention without end has led to reluctance in many quarters about deploying an international force in the vast northern desert. But the risks of inaction are just as great. Getting boots on the ground will take some time, as will the desperately needed restructuring and training of Malian units by a separate EU mission.
On the political side, it is necessary to make sure that the process of reuniting the country is truly inclusive. Some of the groups controlling the north are clearly beyond the pale — they are terrorists, and they are not interested in coming to the negotiation table. Others may be more amenable to a deal. But much depends on the Malian government’s political and military leadership, which remains shaky after the interim prime minister was forced to resign by the military in December. The new and ostensibly more consensual prime minister might facilitate a national dialogue aimed at designing a roadmap to resolve Mali’s political crisis and organizing for elections in 2013. However, with the military coup leaders showing a worrying propensity to remain enmeshed in civilian political life, the country’s future remains uncertain.
The Sahel region also has another deeply worrying conflict in northern Nigeria, where the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has been blamed for thousands of deaths in recent years. The government’s response has been an uneven mix of confused talk about possible negotiations and heavy-handed, often indiscriminate, security efforts that may have aggravated the violence and sent more recruits into the hands of the extremists. Without concerted attention and a dramatic about-face in government policy, look for 2013 to be another bloody year in northern Nigeria.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The April 2012 mutiny in the east by M23 rebels, former rebels turned military turned rebels again, created a distinct feeling of déja vu. Once again, after so many years of conflict, regional and international actors are left scrambling to contain an insurgent rebel group, with a range of ostensibly domestic demands but clearly profiting from external backing, and prevent another regional war in the DRC. The consequences of the latest round of violence have been tragic for civilians, with reports emerging of wide-scale human rights abuses, extrajudicial executions targeting civil society, and massive displacement of local populations.
Mediation efforts by the regional International Conference of the Great Lakes Region have seen the withdrawal of M23 from the eastern city of Goma and the initiation of peace talks, but the risk of repeated rebellion and widespread violence remain. Previous attempts at post-conflict reconstruction in the DRC have met with little success. Without adequate pressure on both the DRC government and Rwanda-backed rebels to enact crucial governance reforms and open political dialogue, the sad history of civil conflict will likely continue to repeat itself in the DRC in 2013.
Congo’s dismal state should also force the international community to take a hard look at its own behavior. Ten years into a massive commitment to shore up stability in the DRC, bring legitimacy to the government in Kinshasa, and protect civilians in the east, the situation is going from bad to worse. The government of President Joseph Kabila lacks national buy-in; the citizens of the eastern Kivu provinces — despite the presence of the largest-ever U.N. peacekeeping operation — remain woefully unprotected; and the country’s integrity remains prey to the whims of predatory neighbors.
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Despite reforms to address the shortcomings and violence of the 2007 polls in Kenya, significant structural drivers of conflict remain. Youth unemployment, poverty, and inequality are high, security sector reform has stalled, and ongoing land disputes continue to deepen ethnic polarization. As the planned March 2013 elections approach, the risk of political violence is high.
Two leading presidential aspirants, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, have been charged with crimes against humanity and are due to face trial at the ICC in April 2013, raising hopes that finally a serious attempt is being made to erode long-standing immunity for political elites. But the cases could just as easily dash hopes of accountability if they aggravate ethnic tensions or tarnish political opponents, leading to a fresh bout of violence.
Having an indictee as president, or as vice president, will have enormous implications for not only Kenya’s foreign relations but also internal reforms. The 2013 elections will likely play out against a backdrop of threatened attacks by Somalia-based militant group al-Shabab and protests by the separatist Mombasa Republican Council. Either could provoke a backlash against the country’s sizable ethnic Somali and Muslim communities, causing further destabilization during what will already be a difficult year for Kenya.
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Syria and Lebanon
The conflict in Syria has continued to take numerous ugly turns, and will probably continue to do so. The regime has proved difficult to topple, and its foes even harder to eradicate. As those in the region and further afield speculate about the coming fall of the regime — the initial post-Assad stages carry enormous risks, not only for Syria’s people but for the region at large. Just getting through the winter will be hard, as growing numbers of Syrians are displaced, entire neighborhoods are leveled, state institutions further erode, and international aid falls short.
President Bashar al-Assad’s approach in dealing with those opposed to his rule tore Syrian society apart. The opposition’s gradual radicalization in response has fuelled a self-reinforcing cycle in which both sides have increasingly relied on military solutions over political ones. As Syria’s religious and ethnic communities have polarized, regime supporters have dug in their heels — committing atrocities spurred on by their perception of facing a “kill or be killed” situation, and their fears of large-scale retribution when Assad falls.
The violence devouring Syria has also made it fertile ground for hardline Sunni Islamists, who have managed to rally around them those disenchanted with the West — not least thanks to their access to Gulf Arab funding and jihadi military knowhow acquired elsewhere. To reverse this dangerous trend, the opposition needs to articulate a more credible, less nihilistic vision for the future, members of the international community need to coordinate their policies, and a perilous military struggle needs to move towards a political solution.
Inevitably, and especially due to the sectarian undertone this conflict has acquired, Syria’s war is leaking over its border into Lebanon. History bodes ill: Beirut seldom has been immune to the influence of Damascus. It is crucial that Lebanon’s leaders address the fundamental shortfalls of their governing structure, which exacerbate factionalism and leave the country vulnerable to the chaos next door.
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This region provides a laundry list of countries on the brink. Tajikistan lumbers into 2013 with nothing good to show for 2012. Relations with Uzbekistan continue to deteriorate, and internal domestic disputes threaten to foment separatist ambitions in Gorno-Badakhshan. This mountainous and remote eastern province had little time for the central government in Dushanbe — even before government troops clashed with local fighters, many of them veterans of the Tajik civil war, whom they described as members of an organized crime group. Some of the fighters, including one of their leaders, were members of Tajikistan’s border forces. Additionally a number of residents of Khorog, described at one point as youth who had been misled by anti-government propaganda, also participated. (The area has long been deeply suspicious of the central government).
Kyrgyzstan is no better. It continues to ignore festering ethnic tensions and rule-of-law issues in the south while a long-anticipated ethnic policy languishes unadopted in the office of the president. The central government’s reach in Osh grows progressively weaker, and the international community again seems to have little or no interest in all the early warning signs.
Widespread and systematic human rights abuses, meanwhile, are still the norm in Uzbekistan. To make matters worse, there are no plans for political succession once President Islam Karimov, 74, leaves the stage — a recipe for regional upheaval. Until the United States clears the last of its troops and materiel from Afghanistan, however, the issue is not likely to get much traction in Washington.
If trends continue, Kazakhstan faces another violent year ahead — 2012 saw a record number of terrorist attacks in western and southern parts of the country by previously unidentified jihadist groups. Astana’s attempt to cast itself as a stable ship in a regional sea of unpredictability is undermined by the fact that this is a country where protesters are shot dead and activists jailed. Socioeconomic grievances may yet be the undoing of the Kazakh state.
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As Syria descends deeper into chaos, knives are being sharpened and battle lines being drawn in Iraq. The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has chosen to side with Iran, Russia, and China in an attempt to avoid the reshaping of the region by Sunni Gulf states, Turkey, and the United States.
Maliki has repeatedly burned his bridges with Iraq’s other religious and ethnic communities, taking measures to expand his control over political institutions and the security forces. His actions violate the Erbil agreement, which was formulated in 2010 to limit the powers of the prime minister and grant fair power sharing to Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish parties.
Maliki now faces resistance not only from the president of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, but also from Sunni and secular opponents — and even from cleric Muqtada Sadr in his own Shiite Islamist camp. The incapacitation of President Jalal Talabani, a key mediator in the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil, adds to political uncertainty in the new year. Pouring fuel on the fire, al Qaeda continues to shatter the relative calm with devastating bombings. Maliki has clearly lost the trust of a good part of the political class, which accuses him of veering toward indefinite, autocratic rule. But efforts to hold a parliamentary no-confidence vote against him have foundered over deep divisions among his opponents.
This effectively leaves Maliki as caretaker prime minister until the next elections in 2014. It is a recipe for violence, and it is certainly possible for a spiraling sectarian-tinged civil war in neighboring Syria to exacerbate tensions in Iraq and usher the country into yet another round of strife in 2013.
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And now, for some good news — Colombia
Finally, a political solution to Colombia’s long and bloody guerrilla war may be in sight. Following a year of secret contacts, formal peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas opened in October 2012.
The broader dynamic of the conflict also encourages a political settlement. The FARC has been weakened militarily, and this generation of leaders have possibly their last opportunity to vindicate decades of struggle by signing a peace deal that allows the guerrillas to participate in building peace. The government operates from a position of strength — its military advantage, if not decisive, appears irreversible.
The success of the talks is not assured. Differences over policy issues on the agenda are substantial, skepticism toward the FARC remains widespread among many in Colombia, and — even though a majority of Colombians back the process — support for the negotiations has been falling. But mainstream political forces remain committed to the talks, and opponents have so far failed to make much headway. The security forces are also better aligned with the civilian leadership than in the past and have a seat at the negotiation table, reducing risk of the coordination failures between political and military agendas that have marred previous peace attempts.
A decade of intense counterinsurgency warfare has greatly weakened the combat strength of the guerrillas and pushed them into ever more remote rural hideouts, substantially reducing their impact on the major urban centers. But the conflict still costs lives on a daily basis, holds back socioeconomic development, and impedes the consolidation of a truly inclusive and pluralistic democracy. The road ahead will not be short or smooth, but Colombia cannot afford to miss this chance for peace.
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This could be the year that sees the Philippines take decisive steps toward establishing lasting peace in the troubled south, after the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s largest and best armed insurgent organization, signed a breakthrough peace agreement in October. The deal follows 15 years of fitful talks and setbacks and is the best chance yet of ending the 40-year insurgency, which has killed an estimated 120,000 people. The conflict with the MILF is the major — though by no means only — source of violence plaguing the region. Warlords, kidnappers, and violent extremists who harbor terrorists from elsewhere in the region also have the capacity to wreak havoc for years to come.
The peace agreement aims to solve these problems by creating a new, genuinely autonomous region in the Muslim-majority region of Mindanao. It will have more authority, more territory, and more control over resources — and if things go according to plan, will be in place by the time President Benigno Aquino leaves office in 2016.
The October deal put off several tough questions that still need to be resolved, including legislation to set up the region and the future of MILF fighters. The MILF will need to sell some tricky provisions in the deal to its supporters. The Aquino administration will need to persuade Congress to pass the new law and clear constitutional hurdles before it can devolve power to the government in the new autonomous region. The obstacles are huge, but hopes are high that peace in the southern Philippines is finally within reach.
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Myanmar’s leaders continue to fulfill their pledges on reform, moving the country decisively away from its authoritarian past. Political prisoners have been released, blacklists trimmed, freedom of assembly laws implemented, and media censorship abolished. President Thein Sein has built a partnership with the opposition, especially the National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was voted into parliament this year.
But the road to democracy is proving hard. Widespread intercommunal violence in Rakhine state, targeting principally the Rohingya Muslim minority, has cast a dark cloud over the reform process. Such tensions often arise as more freedom allows buried conflicts to resurface — even so, the continued risk of communal violence in Rakhine is very alarming and will need a concerted, unambiguous response from the government and Aung San Suu Kyi to make clear it has no future in the new Myanmar. The inability to sign a ceasefire in Kachin State, another festering ethnic conflict, also risks undermining the president’s new peace initiative with ethnic armed groups.
The West has moved quickly to begin dismantling sanctions on Myanmar and end its diplomatic isolation. President Barack Obama’s visit in early November showed the strength of U.S. support for the reforms. But Myanmar isn’t out of the woods yet: Both the government and the opposition need to show moral leadership to achieve a lasting solution to lingering ethnic-based conflicts, which threaten their country’s reform process and stability.
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