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.

One Response to The World’s Most Important Wars Today

  1. “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?”

    The precedents of Clinton, who spent a good deal of time on the issue with, in the end, no settlement, and of G.W. Bush, who also spent a certain amount of time on it without much result, perhaps have influenced the Obama admin’s explicit or tacit decision to not do very much (at least not visibly) on the issue. With the U.S. unwilling to do much in the way of using either carrots or sticks (and it has never been willing to exercise any real leverage on Israeli policy, with the possible exception of G.H.W. Bush’s suspension of loan guarantees), perhaps the time has come openly to reject the idea that “only U.S. leadership” can resolve the conflict.

    Since the U.S. has shown that it is unwilling or unable to exercise leadership here, maybe the time has come for experts on the region (of whom I am definitely not one) to state publicly and forcefully that the U.S. has become part of the problem not the solution, that the U.S. policy of largely uncritical support for whatever Israeli govt is in power represents an impediment to peace, and that only by bypassing the U.S. and looking for help elsewhere can the parties hope to move toward a solution.

    In the form of a brief comment I realize this may sound implausible, but the idea of the U.S. as “indispensable” (to use M. Albright’s word) is to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy, and maybe if people started saying out loud that the U.S. is not indispensable it would have a salutary effect. (Kerry’s first public speech as Sec of State, which I caught some of on the radio, suggests that he, or his speechwriters, are pretty much in the Albright mold, unfortunately in my opinion.)