10 Conflicts to Watch in 2016

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2016

Pulling together a list of the wars most in need of international attention and support in 2016 is challenging for all the wrong reasons. For 20 years after the end of the Cold War, deadly conflict was in decline. Fewer wars were killing fewer people the world over. Five years ago, however, that positive trend went into reverse, and each year since has seen more conflict, more victims, and more people displaced. 2016 is unlikely to bring an improvement from the woes of 2015: It is war — not peace — that has momentum.

That said, there are conflicts whose urgency and importance rise above. This year’s list of 10 is weighted toward wars with the worst humanitarian consequences: Syria and Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Lake Chad basin. It includes those in influential and functioning states, like Turkey, as well as those that have collapsed, like Libya. It features conflicts that are already bad but are poised to get much worse without intelligent intervention, such as Burundi, as well as tensions, such as those in the South China Sea, that are simmering but have yet to boil over. The list also considers the hopeful example presented by Colombia, where considerable progress is being made toward ending a 51-year insurgency.

Half of the conflicts on this year’s list involve extremist groups whose goals and ideologies are difficult to accommodate through negotiated settlement, complicating efforts to plot a path to peace. Looking ahead to 2016, it’s time to dispense with the notion that fighting against violent extremism suffices as a plan for world order — or even the basis of a solution for a single country like Syria. To be sure, stopping the abominations of the Islamic State and other jihadis is vital, but it also exposes policy dilemmas: The fear of what follows the demise of authoritarians (Iraq and Libya being prime exhibits) creates a strong incentive to back repressive regimes, but order based solely on state coercion is not sustainable. The dramatic increase in the reach and influence of jihadis over the past few years is a symptom of deeper trends in the Middle East: mounting sectarianism, a crisis of legitimacy of existing states, and escalating geopolitical competition, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. When the enemy comes from within a given region, military action directed from abroad is more likely to aggravate than assuage.

There is an alternative to this approach: States could work pragmatically at managing differences rather than overcoming them while leaving political space open for local actors to speak up. This will require courage, patience, and creative diplomacy, but the two most important diplomatic successes of 2015 — the Iran nuclear deal and the agreement on climate change — give reason to believe an international approach based on finding common interests could work. There are other glimmers of hope, too: major strides forward in Colombia’s peace talks, a cease-fire in Ukraine bolstered by the Minsk process, progress in Myanmar’s democratic transition, and a welcome, if long overdue, resolution from the U.N. Security Council on Syria.

Most of the conflicts listed here require action at several levels — between major powers, regionally and locally — and none are amenable to a quick fix. Given the challenges of ending conflicts amid the upheaval of a revolutionary era, it is all the more urgent to provide humanitarian aid and to mitigate the human toll of violence — evidenced starkly in the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled toward Europe in the past year. States must also redouble efforts to forge political agreements, taking advantage of even the narrowest openings to find opportunities for compromise. The fluidity of the present moment can and must be used to shape a new, better-balanced order.

Syria and Iraq

At the close of the year, the war in Syria is the world’s gravest, with its effects stretching across the region and sucking in major powers. More than a quarter of a million Syrians have been killed and almost 11 million — about half the country’s population — displaced in or outside the country. The rise of the Islamic State, which now controls a large swath of eastern Syria and northwest Iraq, has drawn in firepower from countries including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia. As yet, however, none of these countries has articulated a coherent strategy to defeat the Islamic State.

Worse still, Moscow and Western powers have been working at cross-purposes, with Russian jets bombing anti-Islamic State rebels that Washington considers partners against the jihadi group. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to use indiscriminate aerial bombardment and other methods of collective punishment, inflicting civilian casualties in Sunni-majority areas that dwarf the numbers of victims claimed by the Islamic State’s violence. Assad’s tactics fuel continued cycles of radicalization, in Syria in particular, but also across the region, by fanning sectarian flames and feeding the sense of Sunni victimization from which the Islamic State profits.

The pace of diplomatic action has quickened, spurred in part by Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September and the Islamic State-sponsored terrorist attacks in Paris in November. While the growing internationalization of the conflict presents many dangers, it may also open possibilities for diplomacy. In December, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a cease-fire and political solution in Syria. The resolution sets forth an ambitious timetable, with talks between the government and the opposition to start in January; a Syrian-led political process to establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” within six months; and elections within a year-and-a-half. Questions about Assad’s future — which provoke the most vehement disagreement between major powers on the Security Council, rival regional powers, and Syrian factions — remain unaddressed.

Despite many reasons to be skeptical, it is worth hoping that this latest initiative marks the beginning of a meaningful effort to resolve the conflict. A conference in Riyadh in December exceeded expectations by bringing together an unprecedented range of the opposition’s armed and political factions to agree on a negotiating team. Participants pledged their commitment to a pluralistic Syrian future and conditional willingness to engage in the peace process. For a national cease-fire to work, however, there must be a strategy for dealing with spoilers — especially al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, which is geographically, and often operationally, integrated into the non-jihadi opposition in much of western Syria.

In Iraq, meanwhile, the Western strategy to defeat the Islamic State relies largely on military offensives by Iraqi Kurds, a mostly Shiite Iraqi army, and Iran-backed Shiite militias. This risks feeding the resentment of Sunni Arabs in areas currently under Islamic State control. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government is under pressure from rival Shiite factions for a host of reasons — including anger over corruption, the state’s failure to provide basic services and security, resistance to his reform agenda, and intramural jockeying for power. Shiite militias are not only fighting the Islamic State, but have organized to fill the security vacuum and defend Baghdad and Shiite holy sites. The militias’ partial success resonates with many unemployed youth, who have been at the forefront of street protests. The Islamic State rules partly through brutal coercion but also by exploiting fear of the Shiite-dominated government and by empowering formerly marginalized segments within the Sunni community. Iraqi forces have spent months trying to retake Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, after a humiliating withdrawal last May, and in the last week of the year managed to finally gain control of the city. The next priority will be to oust the Islamic State from Mosul, the northern city where it is perhaps best entrenched.


Recent photographs from the southeastern city of Diyarbakir show young militants with assault rifles manning sandbagged roadblocks and engaging in bloody urban battles. Such images capture a dangerous escalation in Turkey’s long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a confrontation that has killed more than 30,000 people since 1984. Many factors have fueled the sharp upsurge in violence following the end of peace talks last spring and the collapse of the cease-fire in July. Turkey’s Kurdish movement backs the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the PYD, which has made gains in fighting against the Islamic State. Ankara worries that cross-border Kurdish solidarity will further strengthen demands for a separate state. This perceived threat has weakened Turkey’s focus on the fight against the Islamic State, leading many Turkish Kurds to conclude that Ankara supports the terrorist group that is ostensibly their common enemy.

Over the past six months, the conflict has escalated to its most violent point in two decades. Both sides know that there is no military solution; however, each wants to weaken the other as much as possible while waiting for the Syria quagmire to settle. To prevent the Middle East’s ethno-sectarian violence from spilling further into Turkey, both sides should urgently end violence, agree on cease-fire conditions, and restart peace talks. Free from electoral pressures for four years, the new Justice and Development Party (AKP) government should formulate a concrete reform agenda to address demands for Kurdish rights — including decentralization and mother-tongue education — that can be advanced within a democratic framework.


The Saudi-led war in Yemen — backed by the United States, Britain, and allies in the Gulf — has been grinding on since March 2015, with no end in sight. U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Switzerland in mid-December yielded only an agreement to resume negotiations on Jan. 14. Nearly 6,000 people have reportedly been killed, almost half of them civilians. More than 2 million people have been uprooted from their homes; an additional 120,000 have fled the country. The war has destroyed the country’s already weak infrastructure, deepened political divides, and introduced a narrative of sectarianism where previously there had been little or none. The conflict threatens the security of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly Saudi Arabia itself, by feeding the growth of terrorist networks like al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The violence has its roots in a botched political transition following the departure of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced out amid protests in 2011. After years of indecision about the country’s political future, Houthi militias took matters into their own hands and captured the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. The Houthis — a predominantly Zaydi Shiite movement rooted in the north — began moving south in alliance with forces loyal to Saleh. On March 25, 2015, they seized a strategic military base near Aden and held the defense minister hostage. The next day, Saudi Arabia launched a major military campaign — Operation Decisive Storm — to roll back the Houthi advance and restore the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Houthis bear much of the responsibility for triggering the war, but the Saudi-led campaign has only escalated the violence and thus far proved largely counterproductive.

Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as proxies for Iran. While Iran’s role has been minimal, Tehran has not hesitated to make political hay of Houthi successes, thereby further raising the stakes in a volatile region. The perception that it is meddling has alarmed Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as ascendant and having hegemonic ambitions. A peaceful solution to the Yemen war may well require a prior accommodation between these two regional superpowers, currently a remote possibility.


The Islamic State’s apparent consolidation of its base around Sirte, on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, has brought fresh urgency to international efforts to end a political crisis that has left the country in a shambles.

Following NATO’s military intervention and the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, assorted political parties, tribes, and militias have been fighting for power and control over the nation’s vast oil and gas riches. Since mid-2014, the country has been governed by two rival factions — another way of saying that no one is really in charge. A U.N.-brokered deal to form a national unity government emerged in December, thanks to heavy lifting from the United States and Italy. Members of both factions signed up, but many powerful constituents still oppose the deal. The unity government may not be able to govern much, especially if opponents prevent it from taking a seat in Tripoli.

Meanwhile, lawlessness continues to take a heavy toll. Thousands of detainees languish in prisons without proper judicial review while kidnappings and targeted killings are rampant. Libya is also a major transit hub for refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe from other parts of the Middle East and Africa. The unchecked flow of arms and fighters through Libya has fueled conflicts across the Sahel, including in Mali and the Lake Chad basin (see below). Western intelligence officials say that the impoverished Fezzan region in the south is swiftly becoming a haven for criminal networks and radical groups. On top of all this, economic collapse looms on the horizon unless oil production increases and officials act to maintain the integrity of Libya’s core financial institutions, which the two rival administrations have been squabbling over.

The first task for the new Libyan government, and its international partners, must be to bring aboard those Libyans who currently oppose it. At best, the recently signed agreement should be seen as a beginning, not an end, to the peace process.

Lake Chad basin

Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon face an evolving threat from the jihadi militant group Boko Haram. Over the past six years, the group has transformed itself from a small protest movement in northern Nigeria to a powerful force capable of mounting devastating attacks across the Lake Chad basin. Last March, it pledged allegiance to the Islamic State — an affiliation that appears to have had little impact beyond improving Boko Haram’s online presence.

This past summer, Cameroon experienced the greatest increase in attacks by Boko Haram, followed closely by Niger and Chad. Nigeria, however, remains the epicenter of the conflict. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who took office in May, ambitiously pledged to end the insurgency by December. While this remains a distant goal, Buhari — a former army major general — has shaken up his country’s security establishment and joined with regional forces to drive Boko Haram from the areas in northeastern Nigeria it had seized earlier in 2015.

Boko Haram is, however, resilient, adaptable, and mobile. Military efforts, to date, have had limited success in countering its use of suicide bombers, who are often young women and girls. Its terrorist attacks on remote and unprotected villages — and even on regional capitals, like N’Djamena — continue. Indiscriminate responses by state security forces and insufficient efforts to win over the affected communities only pour fuel on the fire. Regional governments are still failing to address the factors behind radicalization. Decades of political corruption, festering grievances, and poor access to basic social services have bred deep anger and alienation. These issues are compounded by rapid population growth and environmental degradation, which drive social tension and migration.

South Sudan

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

The roots of the conflict date back to internecine competition among various factions during South Sudan’s decades-long independence struggle. South Sudan won independence from Sudan, only to explode into civil war on Dec. 15, 2013, as divisions within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement led to fighting and targeted ethnic killings in the capital of Juba. Only hours after the conflict erupted, tens of thousands of people sought refuge at U.N. bases to escape ethnic massacres and sexual violence. Today, nearly 200,000 people live under the direct protection of U.N. peacekeepers.

Over the past two years, more than 2.4 million people have been displaced, and tens of thousands have been killed. A report released by the African Union in October detailed atrocities by both sides, including mass killings and rapes. Now, with an increasing number of the country’s more than 24 armed groups aligned with neither the government nor the main opposition forces, the prospect of a multipolar war is real. Regional actors, especially members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which mediated the peace agreement, and international powers, including IGAD partners China, Norway, the United States, and the United Kingdom, must take urgent, united action to push South Sudan’s leaders to respect their commitments to the peace deal and avert a catastrophic return to war.


Almost daily, dead bodies appear on the streets of Bujumbura, with the circumstances surrounding their deaths often unknown. More than 300 people have been killed since last April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to seek a third term in office despite widespread opposition. Nkurunziza’s re-election in July, following a failed coup attempt, sparked a season of confrontation between government forces and armed opposition fighters. Escalating violence raises fears of a return to conflict after a decade of relative peace. At least 300,000 people died during Burundi’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 2005 after dogged peace-building efforts led by former Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

In December, the African Union Peace and Security Council took the bold step of authorizing an African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi to halt the slide toward civil war and mass atrocities. Nkurunziza reacted angrily and said Burundians would “stand up and fight” against foreign troops. The African Union has reached out to the government and is calling on both sides to cooperate with peace talks, with the next round scheduled for Jan. 6. It is not clear if the African Union has sufficient member support to impose a mission against the will of the Burundian government.

The humanitarian situation is dire. More than 200,000 people have fled the country, and U.N. officials have warned that without immediate action there is a risk of “catastrophic violence.” So far, the crisis is more political than ethnic. However, some leaders appear to be exploiting ethnic divisions, and there is a risk of mass atrocities if violence continues unchecked. It also threatens to further destabilize the fragile Great Lakes region, with increasing numbers of refugees fleeing to Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


U.S. President Barack Obama’s endgame in Afghanistan seems ever more remote, as the country remains mired in conflict more than 14 years after the United States intervened to oust the Taliban and destroy al Qaeda. Today, the Taliban, despite internal splits, are still a formidable force; al Qaeda maintains a presence, and the Islamic State has established a foothold. A short-lived breakthrough in Pakistan-brokered peace talks last July was scuttled after opponents of the talks disclosed that the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had died in 2013. The Taliban eventually confirmed these reports and announced that longtime deputy Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour had taken over. Mullah Mansour, who reportedly has close ties to Pakistan’s intelligence services, consolidated his leadership position with a string of military victories, including the temporary capture of Kunduz in late September. Yet factionalism continues to bedevil the Taliban movement. Unconfirmed reports surfaced in early December indicating that Mullah Mansour may have been injured or killed in a firefight with rivals in Pakistan. A handful of field commanders throughout the year declared allegiance to the Islamic State.

Fighting across multiple provinces continues to inflict heavy civilian casualties — one reason that Afghanistan is second only to Syria as a leading source of refugees. Rampant corruption and abuse of power by local authorities continue to be the chief drivers of support for the insurgency. The United States now says that it will maintain troop levels at 9,800 for most of 2016, and NATO’s Resolute Support Mission is committed to providing financial support for Afghan security forces until 2020. But given the potency of the insurgency, there is clearly no military solution to the conflict. And the splintering and proliferation of militant groups threaten future efforts to broker peace. President Ashraf Ghani’s attempts to resume negotiations with the Taliban are controversial and strain the cohesion of his national unity government. For talks to succeed, they must be broadly Afghan-led and owned, and driven more by the interests of the Afghan people than by those of powerful external players like Pakistan and the United States.

South China Sea

The South China Sea risks becoming a theater of big-power competition, as the United States challenges China’s large-scale land reclamation and construction on several disputed reefs. China’s aggressive assertion of its territorial claims sets it on a collision course with several Southeast Asian nations with competing sovereignty claims in one of the world’s busiest waterways, an area rich with fisheries and possible oil and gas reserves. Tensions flared in May, when a U.S. spy plane flew near Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago, where China is building an airfield. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter called for an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation in the disputed area and announced that the United States “will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” In October, a U.S. Navy warship approached another disputed reef in the Spratlys, prompting a sharp rebuke from Beijing that the action was illegal and posed a threat to its national security. In November, Obama announced an aid package worth $259 million over two years to boost the maritime security of Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia, all rival claimants to China.

In what could prove a landmark case, a tribunal in The Hague is considering an arbitration request filed by the Philippines accusing China of violating international law in the South China Sea. Beijing refuses to participate or accept the court’s jurisdiction, but the case could still help unite international opinion and nudge China toward greater cooperation. A decision is expected in 2016.

Beijing should realize that its use of sharp elbows diminishes confidence in regional self-governance and encourages its neighbors to turn to the United States for protection. In turn, Washington must use its words and actions to defend the global commons and support multilateral diplomacy, rather than merely asserting its military supremacy. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations should drive negotiations with China to commit all parties to a code of conduct to manage maritime disputes before small ripples grow into big waves.


Peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) achieved a series of breakthroughs in recent months, raising hopes that the country may finally see an end to its 51-year-old armed conflict in 2016. The conflict has claimed the lives of an estimated 220,000 people; 50,000 have been “disappeared,” and a staggering 7.6 million people have registered as victims of the conflict.

In December, the two sides announced a milestone agreement on transitional justice, one of the toughest issues on the agenda. They had previously reached agreements — with some matters left open for discussion — on rural development, political participation, and drug policy.

President Juan Manuel Santos has declared an ambitious March 23 deadline for reaching a final agreement, but he has pushed back the date for a bilateral cease-fire. Sensitive questions continue to dog the disarmament and reintegration of rebel forces, as well as monitoring mechanisms to ensure implementation. Other complex issues include how to confirm the peace agreement: The government has committed to a popular vote, while the FARC has long called for a constituent assembly. A smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), must also join the peace process. And the huge challenge of healing the scars left by decades of war in a country still plagued by illegal armed groups remains. All that said, there are positive signs that the continent’s longest-running, and last-remaining, armed conflict will soon come to a conclusion.

Photo credit: Getty Images