Hamburg (waw) – Das Jahr 2023 hat gerade erst begonnen, da zeichnen sich schon die Konfliktherde der Welt ab. Ein Blick darauf, welche drei „conflict regions“ am stärksten unter Kriegs- und Konfliktgefahr stehen, habe ich bereits publiziert. Hier die Conflict-Brennpunkte vier bis zehn im englischen Originaltext.
Die Texte, Szenarien und alle Fotos finden sich in einer Veröffentlichung der International Crisis Group.
„Nach den letzten Jahren wäre es selbstgefällig, das Undenkbare auszuschließen.“Crisis Group
Conflict No. 4: Yemen is in limbo. A truce in April between Houthi rebels and the country’s internationally recognised government, backed primarily by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), lapsed in October. Major fighting has not resumed, but both sides are preparing to go back to war.
The UN-brokered truce was an unexpected bright spot in a brutal eight-year conflict. In November 2021, Houthis, who control much of Yemen’s north west, seemed to be nearing victory. Had they taken the city of Marib and nearby oil and gas facilities, that would have won them the war for the north, bought their quasi-state badly needed funds, and spelled the end for then-President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government. Their offensive was averted when UAE-affiliated forces pushed the Houthis out of strategic territory in Marib and neighbouring Shabwah in January 2022. The Houthis responded with cross-border missile and drone strikes on the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Then the Ukraine war prompted global food and fuel shortages that placed new pressures on all parties.
In early April, the UN announced a two-month truce between Hadi’s government and the Houthis.
The resulting stalemate created space for mediation. In early April, the UN announced a two-month truce between Hadi’s government and the Houthis. Riyadh, increasingly disillusioned with the war, backed the deal. Several days later, Hadi resigned. He was replaced by an eight-man presidential leadership council (PLC), handpicked by the Saudis and Emiratis, which is more representative of the coalition of Yemeni factions fighting the Houthis and, almost as often, each other.
Initial hopes that a broader settlement would follow have dimmed. After two extensions, UN-led negotiations over an expanded truce collapsed in early October, scuttled by the Houthis’ demand that the government pay rebel military and security force salaries. (According to sources on both sides and in the UN, the government and Saudis had agreed to pay civilian salaries but drew the line at covering the cost of forces fighting against them on the ground.)
Both sides build up forces
Fighting is mostly on hold even without the truce. Major ground offensives and cross-border attacks have not resumed, and talks continue, mostly now through bilateral Saudi-Houthi channels. But conflict and tensions are rising. The Houthis have launched what they call warning shots at PLC-controlled oil and gas infrastructure, leading to a halt in oil exports. They say oil sales can resume when they and their forces are paid their share of revenues. In retaliation, the government sought to halt fuel imports into the Houthi-controlled Red Sea port of Hodeidah, but Riyadh stopped it. Both sides are reportedly building up forces and military equipment around key front lines.
The risk of renewed war is uncomfortably high. Some within the Houthi camp lean toward another offensive, though for now, while probably stronger than their rivals, the Houthis are starved of funds and their forces are weakened. Alternatively, they might strike a deal with the Saudis on salary payments, extend the truce, and use the money and time to regroup. Some Houthi leaders hope for a wider agreement with Riyadh that entails a Saudi exit from the conflict and cements the Houthis’ status as Yemen’s dominant force. But such an arrangement, by ignoring the interests of many anti-Houthi factions that already chafe at being left out of bilateral talks, would likely plunge Yemen into a new phase of war. Even with the Saudis out, it seems unlikely that the Houthis could easily overrun all of Yemen, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
Better would be an extended truce that paves the way to intra-Yemeni talks. A genuine settlement of conflict has to meet all major Yemeni factions’ requirements and probably requires UN mediation. But with the Houthis sensing that they get more through intransigence and Iran, the one outside actor with some influence over the group, in no mood to help, such a settlement is perhaps the least likely scenario.
Conflict No. 5: One of 2022’s deadliest wars, in and around Ethiopia’s Tigray region, has for now ground to a halt. Two of the main belligerents – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated Ethiopian politics for decades before Abiy assumed power in 2018 and then fell out with him – signed a deal on 2 November in Pretoria, South Africa, and, 10 days later, a follow-up agreement in Nairobi. But the calm is fragile. Key questions remain unsettled, notably whether Tigray’s forces will disarm and whether Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, whose army has been fighting alongside Ethiopian troops, will withdraw his troops to the internationally recognised border.
Hostilities and conflict broke out in late 2020 when Tigray’s forces seized a series of national military bases in the region, claiming to be pre-empting a federal intervention. Over two years of fighting, the advantage tipped back and forth. A March 2022 truce offered some respite. In late August, it broke down, and full-fledged war resumed. Federal, Amhara, and Eritrean forces again overwhelmed Tigray’s defences.
The toll has been staggering. Researchers in Belgium’s Ghent University estimate that 385,000 to 600,000 civilians had died of war-related causes as of August 2022. Sources from both sides say hundreds of thousands of combatants have died in fighting since August 2022. All parties stand accused of atrocities, with Eritrean forces leaving a trail of particularly cruel devastation. Sexual violence has been rampant, seemingly used strategically to humiliate and terrorise civilians. For most of the war, Addis Ababa blockaded Tigray, cutting off electricity, telecommunications, and banking and constricting food, medicine, and other supplies.
Plenty could go wrong
The Pretoria agreement was a victory for Abiy. Tigray’s leaders conceded to restoring federal rule and disarming within a month. Addis Ababa said it would lift both the blockade and a terrorism designation on the TPLF. In Nairobi, Abiy’s commanders appeared to offer a more flexible timeline for disarmament, agreeing that Tigrayan forces would give up heavy weapons as Eritrean and Amhara regional fighters withdraw. Since then, the truce has held. Aid has surged, and federal authorities have reconnected Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, to electricity.
The Eritreans, for their part, have not pulled out. Nor have Tigrayans handed over weapons.
But plenty could go wrong. A conflict and dispute over Western Tigray’s fertile borderlands, which the Amhara call Welkait and claim as their own, is especially thorny. The Eritreans, for their part, have not yet pulled out, though reports suggest some of their troops have begun withdrawing. Nor have Tigrayans handed over weapons. The parties need to coordinate a delicate sequencing, lest each side blame the other for delays.
It’s Abiy’s battlefield ally, Isaias, who could end up his biggest headache. In 2018, Abiy’s peace deal with Isaias ended decades of hostility between the two countries, even if to some degree also paving the way for the joint Ethiopia-Eritrea offensive against Tigray. Abiy has come out on top in his struggle with the TPLF. But despite all the bad blood, he probably needs some form of accommodation with Tigray’s leaders to avoid sowing the seeds of another insurgency. His government needs to determine the TPLF’s role in any interim regional administration and whether to permit some Tigrayan soldiers to become regional forces or re-enter the federal army. Whether the Ethiopian prime minister recognises the need for magnanimity is unclear. Equally critical, though, is whether, if he does, he can sell that to Isaias, who joined the war hoping to kill off his archenemy, the TPLF.
Conflict No. 6: M23, a previously dormant rebel group, which UN reports suggest is backed by Rwanda, is wreaking havoc in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Fighting has driven tens of thousands of people from their homes and could spiral into a wider regional proxy war.
M23 holds several towns and surrounds the provincial capital of Goma. In 2013, the group was beaten back by a ramped-up UN force but now appears well-armed and organised. It includes ex-Congolese soldiers, many of whom are Tutsis, an ethnic group spread across Africa’s Great Lakes, and profess to champion communal interests.
M23’s sudden re-emergence owes as much to tensions among Great Lakes states as it does to local dynamics.
M23’s sudden re-emergence owes as much to tensions and conflict among Great Lakes states as it does to local dynamics. The Congolese government had been trying to reassert its authority in the troubled east, home to dozens of rebel groups, including some from neighbouring countries. Last year, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi invited in Ugandan troops to fight the Allied Democratic Forces, a mostly Ugandan group that declares itself part of the Islamic State. The Congolese president appears to have quietly approved Burundian operations on Congolese soil, too. That irked Rwandan President Paul Kagame. He saw his neighbours’ presence as potentially depriving Rwanda of influence in eastern Congo, where it has economic interests, like Burundi and Uganda, and has long fought insurgents of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (known by the French acronym FDLR), a remnant of the Hutu militia responsible for the 1994 genocide.
Tshisekedi accuses Kagame of backing M23 as a way to extract Congolese resources. UN experts also point to Rwandan support for the rebels, with one leaked UN report in December 2022 saying there was “substantial evidence” that the Rwandan army directly intervened in Congo’s fight against M23 and backed the group with weapons, ammunition and uniforms. Kigali rejects the allegations. In turn, it accuses the Congolese army of working with the FDLR (which Tshisekedi denies, though UN reporting also largely confirms).
An added complication is Congo’s general election in 2023. The vote could mark for the country another step away from its disastrous civil wars conflict two decades ago. But suspended registration or voting in the east due to violence would cast a shadow over the results. Tshisekedi might also want to turn up the anti-Rwanda rhetoric when campaigning, which would endanger minorities that some Congolese already paint as M23 supporters.
An East African military mission – minus Rwanda, whose contingents Kinshasa rejected – has a mandate to restore calm to eastern Congo. The UN has a 14,000-strong peacekeeping force, with many housed in Goma, but it appears reluctant to take on insurgents and is deeply unpopular among many Congolese. Instead, Kenya, as part of the regional force, has the unenviable task of taking the fight to M23.
Long-suffering locals have high hopes that Kenyan troops can beat back rebels, but Kenya sensibly views the goal more as securing Goma and its surrounding main roads and pushing M23 into a ceasefire. The group might then rejoin peace talks between the Congolese government and dozens of eastern armed groups from which it had been expelled due to the fighting.
Getting Rwanda on board will be crucial, given its influence on M23 leaders. The best shot to achieve that lies in concerted diplomacy by East African leaders aimed at repairing relations between Kagame and Tshisekedi, which has shown some initial signs of progress, alongside efforts to curb collaboration between the Congolese military and the FDLR. The East African force is an opportunity, in other words, to make space for diplomacy as much as it is to fight M23.
If that diplomacy fails, Kenyan troops could get bogged down in eastern Congo’s treacherous terrain. Already, the deployment of so many neighbours’ forces in eastern Congo runs the risk of a return to the proxy wars that tore the region apart in the 1990s and 2000s.
7. The Sahel
Conflict No. 7: Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger show no signs of beating back stubborn Islamist insurgencies. Western leaders, whose military involvement over the past decade has done little to stem violence, seem at a loss at how to respond to coups in Burkina Faso and Mali.
Burkina Faso is in the direst straits. Jihadi groups control an estimated 40 percent of its territory, including vast rural areas in the north and east. Militants have laid siege to a major northern town, Djibo, for months. Fighting has killed thousands of people and driven nearly 2 million from their homes. As the losses mount, so does finger-pointing within the army. Two coups this past year, both triggered by massacres of troops by militants, have seen a lieutenant colonel, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, seize power in January, only to be ousted in September by a previously unknown captain, Ibrahim Traoré. Traoré himself is struggling to unify divided security forces. He may follow the lead of his Malian counterparts by playing to populist sentiment, criticising France, and drawing closer to Russia. Most worryingly, Traoré is recruiting volunteers to battle jihadis, which could send ethnic bloodshed spiralling.
Mali suffered two coups of its own, in 2020 and 2021. The conflict state is virtually absent in the far north. There, Islamic State- and al-Qaeda-linked militants fight one another and battle non-jihadi rebels, who are predominantly Tuareg, a community that spans much of the Sahel. Tuareg rebels inked a deal with Bamako in 2015, hoping to win army positions and devolution. But now, feeling abandoned, some rebels may see benefit in again uniting with jihadis. (Al-Qaeda-linked militants joined and then usurped a Tuareg-dominated separatist rebellion that captured northern Mali about a decade ago.) Farther south, in central Mali, fighting that pits Malian forces and Russian Wagner Group mercenaries against militants seems stalemated and marked by both sides’ rampant human rights abuses.
Jihadis spreading southward
Niger is in better shape, though there are worrying signs there, too. The government has either integrated civilian militias into the security forces or refused to arm them. Its readiness to engage jihadi groups may also have contributed to a lull in violence. Still, President Mohamed Bazoum survived a coup attempt in March 2021, and subsequent arrests, including among high-ranking officers, may have fuelled hostility within the army. Jihadis have entered parks and forests along the Burkina Faso and Benin borders, drawing closer to the capital, Niamey.
The West now seems most concerned with preventing jihadis from spreading southward to the Gulf of Guinea.
Outside involvement in the Sahel is evolving fast. France, which intervened to oust militants from northern Mali in 2013, has ended its operations in that country, given fraught ties with Bamako, though it retains bases in Niger. A UN mission, in Mali since April 2013, has also struggled to make headway. The West now seems most concerned with preventing jihadis from spreading southward to the Gulf of Guinea. Regionwide anger against the French is rising, thanks in large part to a decade of Western failures to check militants’ advances but also to Russian disinformation. Wagner’s brutal guns for hire are hardly likely to do better, but many locals chafe at criticism of the Russian group given past the West’s legacy.
Most vital at a moment of inflection for the region is that leaders rethink what has been a predominantly military-centric approach to tackling Islamists. Military operations play a role in the conflict, but must be subservient to efforts to mend intercommunal relations, win over people in the hinterlands and potentially even talk to militant leaders. Western governments should feel chastened by their record over the past decade. But as some Sahelian leaders turn to Moscow, it would be a mistake to cut ties and try to force them to pick sides.
Conflict No. 8: Since the murder of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, Haiti has been paralysed by political gridlock and rampant gang violence. Public services have collapsed and cholera is spreading. Things are so bad that some Haitians now pin their hopes on foreign troops, despite the dismal legacy of earlier interventions in Haiti.
Ariel Henry, Haiti’s interim prime minister who took over from Moïse, enjoys support from influential foreign powers but faces stiff Haitian resistance. Since he assumed power, Henry’s rule has been opposed by the Montana Accord, a group of opposition politicians and civil society representatives. Henry was supposed to steer a transition to elections, but rampant insecurity has prevented a vote, and Henry also disbanded the election commission.
Hundreds of gangs control more than half of the country. They suffocate the capital, Port-au-Prince, by blocking roads and imposing a reign of terror, including using rape to punish and intimidate people, sometimes targeting children as young as ten. The biggest coalition, the G9, is headed by notorious gang leader Jimmy “Barbeque” Chérizier. Haiti’s gangs have existed for decades, often with ties to politicians. But their power has ballooned since Moïse’s murder.
Things have come to a head over the past six months. In July, battles between the G9 and another gang over Cité Soleil, a slum near Port-au-Prince, killed more than 200 people in a little over a week. Two months later, Henry lifted fuel subsidies, sending prices spiralling and causing mass protests, which gang members joined. The G9 then seized a major oil terminal, leaving almost the entire country with shortages of fuel, which has, among other things, disrupted access to clean drinking water. Chérizier said he would only give the terminal back once Henry stepped down, though Haitian police forces were able to recapture it some months later.
Call for foreign support
Aid workers’ struggles to reach health clinics combined with clean water shortages have given rise to resurgent cholera.
The result has been conflict and humanitarian catastrophe. Half the population, 4.7 million people, faces acute hunger, and almost 20,000 are thought to be at risk of starving. Aid workers’ struggles to reach health clinics combined with clean water shortages have given rise to resurgent cholera. A recent World Health Organization report said there were more than 13,000 cases between early October and early December, with 283 recorded deaths – but these are likely huge underestimates.
Faced with these challenges, Henry in October called for foreign military support. Any such mission will have its work cut out fighting gangs of young men and children embedded in densely populated urban areas. There’s political opposition, too: the Montana group largely opposes any mission, believing the interim prime minister will use it to prop up his rule. Many other Haitians are wary, given the island’s subjugation by outside powers and the troubled record of previous foreign deployments. Yet an increasing number of people, especially in areas that suffer the worst gang violence, have expressed support out of sheer desperation.
U.S. and Canadian sanctions on several sitting and former top politicians, alongside Chérizier, have sent shockwaves through Haitian elites and might give them some pause to think about future ties to gangs. But few foreign countries are champing at the bit to deploy troops. That said, if Henry and his rivals were to agree on the role of such a mission and on a transitional road map, foreign forces could be Haiti’s best hope. Even their arrival and the threat of operations might lead gangs to abandon main roads and loosen their chokehold on the capital.
Conflict No. 9: Pakistan is entering an election year with a deeply divided body politic, as former Prime Minister Imran Khan whips up populist support against the government and the all-powerful military.
Khan claimed that Washington was behind a plot to oust him.
Khan’s exit from office last spring came alongside his fall from the Pakistan Army’s grace. Having won office backed by the top brass, relations deteriorated due to Khan’s inept rule, fiery anti-U.S. rhetoric, and attempts to plant loyalists in top army positions. As support for a no-confidence vote grew, Khan claimed that Washington was behind a plot to oust him. Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa rejected the conspiracy, concerned about the impact it might have on relations with the U.S., and rebuffed Khan’s last-ditch effort to win him over with an indefinite extension as chief. In April, Khan was ousted. A coalition government headed by Shehbaz Sharif took over.
Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party then quit Parliament and took to the streets. Countrywide, violent protests intensified when Sharif’s government rejected Khan’s demand for snap polls. His supporters also slammed the top brass, particularly Bajwa. Anti-Western rhetoric has whipped up anger among a receptive public. Khan’s claims that Sharif is mismanaging the economy also strike a chord as living costs rise.
Elections on the horizon
On Nov. 3, during a weekslong anti-government march on the capital, Islamabad, Khan was shot and wounded. The would-be assassin, apprehended on the spot, insists he acted alone. But Khan accuses Sharif, a cabinet minister, and a senior military intelligence official of conspiring to murder him.
All this bodes poorly for elections, due before October 2023. Already the main contenders disagree on the rules of the game, with Khan accusing top election officials of backing Sharif’s government. He looks set to reject the outcome if his party loses. Now under new command, the military vows to stay out of the political fray. But the generals may find it hard to stand by if things fall apart or head in a direction they perceive as threatening.
Another political crisis is the last thing Pakistan needs atop many other challenges. This year, devastating floods submerged a third of the country, affecting one in seven Pakistanis; 20.6 million people still require humanitarian aid. Credible estimates put total damages and economic losses at $31.2 billion, with at least another $16.3 billion required for recovery. The most vulnerable segments of the population, women and girls, are among the worst affected, seeing their limited access to education, income, and health care further decrease.
Thanks to the floods, Pakistan now requires even more aid.
Conditions on an August 2022 International Monetary Fund bailout that stopped Pakistan from defaulting on its debt also put Sharif in a bind: rescind and lose the bailout, or roll out painful reforms and risk driving populist support for Khan. Thanks to the floods, Pakistan now requires even more aid, which has been slow to come. Delays in relief and reconstruction could further deepen grievances and boost Khan’s base.
Meanwhile, Islamist militants are resurgent. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, bordering Afghanistan, has seen militant attacks on security forces spike. The uptick owes both to the Taliban’s sheltering of Pakistani militants in Afghanistan and Islamabad’s own failed bid, mediated by the Taliban, to strike a deal with militants. Having hosted Taliban leaders for decades during the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Islamabad appears to be struggling to impose its will on its erstwhile ally.
Conflict No. 10: The biggest flash point between the U.S. and China looks increasingly unstable, as Washington seeks to maintain primacy in the region and Beijing pursues unification with the island.
Unification has long been China’s objective. Beijing says it hopes this happens peacefully, but it will not rule out force. Washington’s assessment is that Xi Jinping has set 2027 as the date by which China’s military should be capable of seizing Taiwan. For its part, the U.S. maintains a “One China” policy – aiming for a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s status without prejudging the outcome – and a posture of “strategic ambiguity” about whether it would come to Taiwan’s defence. But with Beijing increasingly powerful and assertive, Washington shows signs of hardening policies adopted when China’s military was weaker.
Things heated up last summer, when outgoing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. As a legislator, Pelosi does not report to U.S. President Joe Biden (whose administration reportedly discouraged the visit). But Beijing unsurprisingly saw her visit as a powerful signal of support to Taipei and a harbinger of eroding U.S. commitment to the “One China” policy. In response, it staged unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan and deployed warships and aircraft across the “median line”, which has served as the tacitly agreed upon edge of Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait for decades.
Challenges for the US
Growing concern about China’s rise, its assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific, and its commitment to build its military capabilities have become a core preoccupation of U.S. policy. Hawkishness on China – including related to Taiwan – is a rare issue enjoying bipartisan consensus in Washington. Both the Biden administration and Congress believe that the U.S.’ ability to deter a Chinese invasion has slipped, and they want to build it back.
For the U.S. government, the challenge is to make credible both the costs that China would incur should it launch a military campaign and the assurance that if it desists, Washington will not seek Taiwan’s permanent separation.
China seems unlikely to invade any time soon. Breaching Taiwan’s defences would be a slog and, having seen the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing likely grasps the international opprobrium and economic cost an offensive could trigger – even if the U.S. opts not to intervene militarily.
Still, credible U.S. threats – continuing to strengthen Taiwan’s self-defence capabilities, making its Asia-Pacific military posture less vulnerable to Chinese attack, and identifying punitive economic measures with allies and partners – can help deter Beijing. But such steps must go hand in hand with assurances that U.S. policy remains unchanged. If Beijing believes that refraining from attacking gives Washington and Taipei space to create conditions for Taiwan’s permanent separation, then its calculus will lean toward war.
No war, but escalation
Biden seems aware of the danger. Although he has a troubling tendency to commit to aiding Taiwan militarily (aides have walked back his comments quickly each time), he was on script when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping face to face during the G-20 meeting in November. He assured Xi Jinping that U.S. policy remains unchanged. Xi Jinping, in turn, told Biden that China continues to pursue peaceful unification.
Still, near-term hazards could increase tensions. On the U.S. side, Kevin McCarthy, who led the Republicans while they were in the House minority, has already said he will visit Taiwan if he succeeds Pelosi as speaker. At a minimum, China would respond with shows of military strength on par with its exercises in response to Pelosi. Should Beijing’s internal economic and political woes mount, a more forceful show of resolve is possible, particularly if the U.S. is seen to be pressing its advantage at a time of perceived Chinese weakness.
Such an escalation would not spell war right away, but it could inch the world’s mightiest economic and military powers closer to it.