Who Will Intervene in the World’s Hot Spots?

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Troops ride in a vehicle near central Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, March 2, 2018 (AP photo by Ludivine Laniepce). The country's emerging conflict is outpacing the government's response.

As conflicts and crises persist around the world, there is growing uncertainty about how—or if—they will be resolved. The international order is fraying, generating uncertainty about who will intervene and how these interventions might be funded.

There are interminable conflicts, like the situations in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, which have produced years of violence, countless thousands of deaths and even more refugees. Then there are the emerging hot spots, including northern Mozambique and the China-India frontier, and any number of potential flashpoints, like the Eastern Mediterranean. Even in situations where there is some tenuous hope of reconciliation, there is also uncertainty—such as South Sudan, where a 2018 peace deal that put an end to years of civil war is for now holding, even as widespread violence continues to plague the country. And the Russian invasion of Ukraine has now brought high-intensity, interstate warfare to the heart of Europe for the first time since the end of World War II.

At the same time, the nature of terrorism is also changing. After a period of recalibration following the loss of its caliphate in western Iraq and Syria and the subsequent death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State has once again become more active in the two countries, even as it shifts its attention to new theaters of operation, like the Sahel, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. In so doing, the group and its affiliates are taking advantage of dwindling international interest in mounting the kinds of counterinsurgency campaigns needed to meet these new challenges. More recently, the killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul raised questions about the group’s relations with Afghanistan’s new Taliban government.

These developments come at a time when Western powers have shown a flagging interest in conflict intervention, more broadly. The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, a region that has been battered by attacks from Islamist groups and fighting among local militias, is one of the few conflicts to rouse European efforts to restore stability—and prevent a potential surge of migrants. But even there, European leaders have stopped short of backing the kind of large-scale military engagement required to turn back the militant groups, and they are now making plans to wind down their involvement, which has failed to accomplish any of its stated goals.

U.N. peacekeeping operations, which might traditionally have played a role in mitigating these conflicts, are in need of significant reforms. Sexual abuse scandals and a mounting reputation for becoming ensnared in difficult, unwieldy missions in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan have curbed the global appetite for peacekeepers. Now funding constraints due to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic could further jeopardize the U.N.’s peacekeeping capabilities. The resulting vacuum has opened up opportunities for regional organizations, including the African Union, to fill the gaps, both in terms of stemming conflict and responding to disasters. But it is not yet clear if they will.

All of this is happening against a backdrop of proliferating humanitarian emergencies due to conflict and natural disasters. Persistent fighting in eastern Congo hampered the response to the Ebola outbreak in the region and continues to slow humanitarian efforts. Meanwhile, Yemen is entering the sixth year of a cholera outbreak that has already killed nearly 4,000 people. Refugee numbers are swelling, even as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic are set to generate new crises, while further stretching the scant resources available for addressing the existing ones

WPR has covered the world’s conflicts and crises in detail and continues to examine key questions about how they will evolve. How will the war in Ukraine affect efforts to intervene in existing conflicts and prevent emerging ones? How will persistent conflicts in Syria, Yemen and the Sahel be resolved, and can more humanitarian crises be averted while the fighting lasts? As the effects of climate change accelerate, will the world address the humanitarian crises it causes? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Russia’s illegal annexation of four partially occupied areas in Ukraine would appear to turn the U.N. Charter on its head, prompting some observers to wonder whether it has outlived its usefulness. In fact, however, the charter is working exactly as was envisioned, and perhaps even better than its framers hoped, for three reasons.

The War in Ukraine

After months of tensions and alarm, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February came as a shock, but not a surprise. In the weeks thereafter, the Russian attack bogged down in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, but also tactical, strategic and logistical blunders. In place of the lightning victory Moscow—and many Western military analysts—expected, the conflict has now become a war of attrition, featuring brutal and indiscriminate Russian attacks on civilian population centers as well as credible accusations of war crimes. Meanwhile, the fallout from the conflict, as well as Western sanctions on Russia, has spread globally in the form of skyrocketing food and energy costs, but also a diplomatic battle for allegiance that echoes the Cold War standoff between Washington and Moscow.

Persistent Conflicts, Crises and Proxy Wars

Across the globe, there are a handful of years-long conflicts that show no signs of drawing to a close. In some situations, like Syria and Yemen, that is because fighting on the local level is a proxy for battles between other countries; Libya was in the proxy wars category until a cease-fire put a tenuous stop to the fighting there. By contrast, places like South Sudan and the Central African Republic were—until still-fragile peace agreements took hold—torn by rivalries among key domestic actors amid global disinterest. Now renewed fighting in CAR has put that country’s stability in jeopardy. And then there is Afghanistan, where the U.S. troop withdrawal announced by President Joe Biden has been completed, ending the United States’ “forever war”—but not Afghanistan’s.

Emerging Conflicts

Alongside persistent conflicts, new hot spots are emerging, whether on the India-China border, where clashes left dozens of soldiers dead in the summer of 2020, or in Myanmar, where opposition to the military junta is slowly but surely crystallizing into an armed insurgency. Civil war has also broken out in Ethiopia, even as a murky insurgency in northern Mozambique has moved into the spotlight with high-profile attacks that have highlighted its expanded capabilities. With the U.S. having backed away from its role as “global policeman,” the vacuum left behind, combined with the increasingly competitive geopolitical arena, has increased the potential for tensions in these hot spots to spark into conflict.

Terrorism

The United States and other Western nations have demonstrated a diminished appetite for continuing to fight transnational terrorist networks, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State, in distant lands. But the threat of violent extremism may be spreading, even as it evolves to become more independent of these transnational networks, as in several recent attacks in France. Meanwhile, recent events in the U.S. demonstrate that the threat from domestic right-wing extremists has become more urgent.

Peacekeeping

After several high-profile failures of its peacekeeping missions in the 1990s, the U.N. set out to rethink and improve blue-helmet operations at the turn of the millennium. But they continue to be dogged by a number of critical problems, including the intransigence of local leaders and missions that are simultaneously bloated and underfunded. The U.N. launched the Action for Peacekeeping initiative in March 2018, in an effort to improve the effectiveness of its missions. But ongoing discussions as well as follow-through on the initiative’s proposals have been hampered by great-power tensions, particularly between the U.S. and Russia.

Humanitarian Disasters and International Responses

Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. undermined international institutions that have been central to organizing and maintaining disaster and humanitarian responses. The Trump administration attempted to undercut U.N. agencies that help coordinate these efforts, leaving regional actors and international agencies scrambling for funding. The administration of President Joe Biden has reaffirmed America’s traditional leadership role in these multilateral institutions. The move comes not a moment too soon, as the effects of climate change are only becoming more severe, to say nothing of the coronavirus pandemic, which will make humanitarian assistance even more urgent in vulnerable countries.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.

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