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10 Conflicts to Watch in 2024

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2024

Can we stop things falling apart? 2024 begins with wars burning in Gaza, Sudan and Ukraine and peacemaking in crisis. Worldwide, diplomatic efforts to end fighting are failing. More leaders are pursuing their ends militarily. More believe they can get away with it.

War has been on the rise since about 2012, after a decline in the 1990s and early 2000s. First came conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen, triggered by the 2011 Arab uprisings. Libya’s instability spilled south, helping set off a protracted crisis in the Sahel region. A fresh wave of major combat followed: the 2020 Azerbaijani-Armenian war over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, horrific fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region that began weeks later, the conflict prompted by the Myanmar army’s 2021 power grab and Russia’s 2022 assault on Ukraine. Add to those 2023’s devastation in Sudan and Gaza. Around the globe, more people are dying in fighting, being forced from their homes or in need of life-saving aid than in decades.

On some battlefields peacemaking is non-existent or going nowhere. The Myanmar junta and the officers who have seized power in the Sahel are bent on crushing rivals. In Sudan, perhaps today’s worst war in sheer numbers of people killed and displaced, U.S.- and Saudi-led diplomatic efforts were muddled and half-hearted for months. Russian President Vladimir Putin, banking on dwindling Western support for Kyiv, seeks to force Ukraine to surrender and demilitarise – conditions that are understandably unpalatable for Ukrainians. In all these places, diplomacy, such as it is, has been about managing the fallout: negotiating humanitarian access or prisoner exchanges, or striking deals such as the one that got Ukrainian grain onto global markets via the Black Sea. These efforts, while vital, are no substitute for political talks.

Where fighting has ended, the quiet owes less to dealmaking than battlefield victory. In Afghanistan, the Taliban seized power as U.S. troops left, without bargaining with Afghan rivals. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed struck a deal in late 2022 with rebel leaders that ended the Tigray war, but it was more a cementing of Abiy’s victory than an accord about the region’s future. This past year, Azerbaijan took back control of Nagorno-Karabakh, its September offensive finishing off what its victory in the 2020 war started, ending a 30-year standoff over the enclave and forcing an exodus of ethnic Armenians.

Wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen have also wound down but without lasting accommodation among the parties or even, in Libya and Syria, a political track worth the name. In fact, belligerents are mostly waiting for a chance to seize more land or power.

It is hardly news that warring parties want to vanquish rivals. But in the 1990s, a flurry of agreements ended conflicts in places from Cambodia and Bosnia to Mozambique and Liberia. The deals were imperfect and often entailed ugly concessions. A period scarred by the Rwandan genocide and Balkan bloodletting can hardly be romanticised as a golden era of peacemaking. Still, the string of accords appeared to signal a future in which calmer post-Cold War politics opened room for diplomacy. Over the past decade or so, such deals have been few and far between. (Colombia’s 2016 settlement of its decades-long civil war and the Philippines’ 2014 deal with rebels in its Bangsamoro region are outliers and, in some ways, legacies of another era.)

The past few months’ ghastly turn in Israel-Palestine is perhaps the trend’s starkest illustration. Peacemaking efforts there petered out years ago, and world leaders largely looked away. Several Arab governments struck U.S.-brokered deals with Israel that mostly ignored Palestinians’ plight. Israel ate up more Palestinian land, with settlers acting ever more brutally, often in concert with the Israeli army. The occupation became ever crueller. Palestinians’ hopes of statehood withered, as did the credibility of their leaders who had banked on cooperation with Israel. Nothing can justify Palestinian militants’ murderous rampage on 7 October. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not start that day. Now, the Hamas-led attack and Israel’s retribution in Gaza – an assault that has razed much of the strip and could plausibly expel many of its inhabitants – may well erase hope for peace for a generation.

So, what is going wrong? The problem is not primarily about the practice of mediation or the diplomats involved. Rather, it lies in global politics. In a moment of flux, constraints on the use of force – even for conquest and ethnic cleansing – are crumbling.

The collapse of the West’s relations with Russia and China-U.S. competition shoulder much of the blame. Even in crises in which they are not directly involved, big powers dispute what diplomacy should entail and whether or how to throw their weight behind it.

Uncertainty about the United States contributes, too. U.S. power is not in freefall, and its decline relative to that of other countries does not necessarily herald disorder. Indeed, it would be misleading to overstate the sway the United States ever enjoyed as a hegemon; overlook its destabilising misadventures in Iraq, Libya and other places; or underplay its military strength today. The past two years offer plenty of evidence of U.S. clout – both for good, in helping Ukraine defend itself, and for ill, in lending Israel’s ruin of Gaza near unconditional support. The problem is more the United States’ political dysfunction and seesawing, which brings volatility to its global role. A potentially divisive 2024 vote and the possible return of former U.S. President Donald Trump, whose fondness for strongmen and disdain for traditional allies already rattle much of Europe and Asia, make for an especially uneasy year ahead.

Several non-Western middle powers have become more assertive. That Brazil, the Gulf monarchies, India, Indonesia and Turkey (to name just a few) enjoy more influence is in itself no bad thing. To some degree, middle powers’ refusal to line up tidily behind competing big powers serves as something of a restraint on those capitals. But especially in the Middle East and parts of Africa, regional powers have gotten more active in wars – as, they would argue, big powers have long done – and prolonged fighting. Warring parties today have more places to turn for political backing, funds and weapons. Peacemakers have to reckon with not only belligerents on the ground but also outside sponsors who see local fights through the prism of wider rivalries.

Hazards go beyond the wars’ human toll. Leaders emboldened by wins at home may not stop there. Diplomats in the Caucasus region fear that Azerbaijan, having prevailed in Nagorno-Karabakh, might now seek to challenge Armenia’s borders in an attempt to wring concessions from its government over a transit route through the country’s south. Horn of African leaders fret that Abiy, fresh from his Tigray triumph, might use force to seek a renewed route for his landlocked country through Eritrea to the Red Sea. Odds of either happening, while still low, are high enough for discomfort. The norm of non-aggression that for decades undergirded global order is already fraying thanks in part to Russia’s attempt to annex more of Ukraine. In 2024, the risk that leaders move beyond quashing dissent at home or meddling abroad through proxies to actually invading neighbours is graver than it has been in years

The danger of wider conflagration also overshadows this year’s list. Major powers have strong incentives not to fight each other, but more conflicts are raging and tensions mounting along the world’s most perilous fault lines – Ukraine, the Red Sea, Taiwan and the South China Sea among them. Loose talk of war in Beijing, Moscow and Washington risks normalising the almost incalculable cost of a clash involving the United States and either China or Russia.

It seems unlikely that world leaders, given their divisions, will recognise how perilous things have become, collectively reaffirm their belief in not changing borders by force, and put more energy into forging deals in war-torn places that see belligerents brought to justice and civilians without blood on their hands take over.

Probably the best we can hope for this year is muddling through. Diplomacy away from war zones can help. A bright spot in 2023 was Iranian-Saudi rapprochement – the result of Iraqi, Omani and Chinese mediation – which dials down a rivalry that for years has fuelled Arab wars. Turkish and Greek leaders, both fresh from elections and spooked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have sought to mend ties strained by the two countries’ long dispute over the Aegean Sea. A well-coordinated summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in late 2023 took some of the heat out of the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Even amid disorder, leaders can see benefit in calming waters and strengthening guardrails in the world’s riskiest areas.

On battlefields, though, it’s tougher – more a matter of spotting opportunities to halt fighting and mitigate suffering as they arise and redoubling efforts to stop conflicts spreading. That almost certainly means accepting flawed bargains between belligerents as better than protracted war-making and working with those involved to make agreements more likely to endure. It makes little sense today to shut out those who, whether on the ground or from afar, are behind violence but also essential to winding it down. Ideally, world leaders would also give supposedly frozen conflicts the attention they need before it’s too late, as the tragedy in Gaza illustrates.

Hope for the best, in other words, but peacemaking today is mostly about stopping the worst. As this year’s list shows, that in itself would be no small thing.

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