Conflict continues to thrive despite pandemic
Although much of the world’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus disease, the pandemic has unfortunately not led to a halt in conflict. So far in 2021, hotspots for conflict include Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia.
A few days ago, the last US troops left Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as part of a broader withdrawal of US troops from the country. However, for Afghans, there has been an increase in violence in the last year. The Taliban has been gaining territory and there are serious concerns that it will continue to do so. Attacks targeting civilians have continued, including one in May against a school that killed 85 people, many of them schoolgirls. As the US and other NATO forces pull out, the war is entering a new period, with the potential for a new wave of violence.
The situation in Yemen is another intractable war that is seeing significant violence this year. Last year and the first half of 2021 has been one of the deadliest periods since 2018, particularly due to fighting around the Houthis’ efforts to capture Marib. The UN has called Yemen “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” with the country sitting on the brink of famine.
Syria also remains one of the world’s most violent places. While the extent of the fighting has declined in the last year, the conflict still kills people on a regular basis, including in the Idlib area. The war is stuck, rather than over. Syria also faces potential famine. The country will face a particularly acute humanitarian disaster if the UN stops providing critical humanitarian assistance through the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing into northwestern Syria. There are serious concerns that Russia will veto any measure to maintain the aid line beyond July 10.
Ethiopia has one of the younger wars, starting in November 2020. The conflict between the government and allied forces versus the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has killed thousands and displaced nearly 2 million people. Hundreds of thousands of people already face famine conditions, with more at risk. The government recently declared a unilateral ceasefire and, on Sunday, the TPLF accepted a ceasefire “in principle” but named multiple conditions. Reports suggest that the government is trying to isolate the Tigray region. The conflict could continue and threaten the country’s broader stability, especially given low-level conflict in other parts of the country.
Each of these conflicts has characteristics that are unique to the countries involved. The specific political, ethnic, historical, geographical, geopolitical and economic contexts in each region shape the conflicts.
While recognizing the differences between conflicts, there are also important similarities. One is an enduring environment of conflict. The current war in Afghanistan is nearing 20 years, but the country previously saw many more years of war. Syria’s civil war began about 10 years ago. The current Yemen war is more than six years old and the country previously experienced decades of conflict between different internal groups and across the old north-south divide. The Tigray conflict is only a few months old, but the border war and years of tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea preceded it, and Eritrean soldiers have played a role in the current conflict.
While recognizing the differences between certain wars, there are also important similarities.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
In all four cases, there is a lack of widespread acceptance of the national government’s legitimacy. In Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, there are clearly large, armed segments of the population that do not accept the government, even if the government has international recognition. The situation in Ethiopia is different but reflects internal disagreement over the nature of the country’s political structure. As with so many modern conflicts, there is a fundamental lack of a unified national identity.
Conflicts often become more intractable when outside powers intervene to pursue their own interests. This is clearly part of the problem in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, where multiple external actors are involved. Furthermore, in each conflict, several internal actors are participating, complicating any peace efforts.
All four conflicts are also characterized by extensive displacement and a lack of sufficient humanitarian access. In addition to thousands or hundreds of thousands of fatalities, there are millions of people displaced internally or across borders as a result of these conflicts. In addition to internal displacement, Afghanistan and Syria have generated two of the world’s largest refugee flows. The Tigray conflict is one of the most acute recent refugee crises. Many people in Yemen have nowhere to flee but are displaced within the country. All four conflicts have put people at risk of famine and critical humanitarian access challenges.
There are many other places where conflict has continued to kill and displace people during the pandemic. In Asia, multiple internal conflicts in Myanmar and the country’s overall instability have caused deaths and displacement. Only 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas this year killed more than 200 people. Libya’s war has involved multiple outside actors, complicating efforts to reach a lasting peace deal. Africa has multiple violent hotspots, including the Sahel region, Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central Africa Republic. Beyond these areas of ongoing conflict, there are many other parts of the world where factors such as political instability and extensive criminal violence threaten to escalate into full conflicts and create new refugee flows.
Rather than hitting pause on war, the pandemic has intensified people’s suffering, eroded economic systems and distracted from peace efforts. In the rest of 2021, new efforts will be necessary to try to address durable conflicts and prevent new ones.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today.