You don’t have to look far today to see either an ongoing violent conflict with significant impact, or a tense situation that could very quickly turn into such a conflict. War continues to rage in Yemen, Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan (though at the rate the Taliban is advancing at the writing of this piece, it may not be going on much longer), causing mass upheaval, hardship, and other repercussions throughout their respective regions. Meanwhile, other geopolitical points of contention have the potential to turn to bloody conflict under the right circumstances in the coming years, such as a Russian invasion of the Baltic States or escalation of their invasion of Ukraine, a Chinese attempt to seize Taiwan or more territory in the South China Sea, a war with the United States, Israel, and their respective allies against Iran over its nuclear program or regional ambitions, or the ever-recurring threat of war or instability emanating from North Korea – just to name a few.
However, between these conflicts and other global stressors like the effects of climate change, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and much more, it’s easy for other conflicts to fall beneath the radar of most people until they finally become bad enough to be noticed. Conflicts involving countries that may not capture attention in the same way that China, Russia and the other usual suspects do. Conflicts that are no less important, but that people who aren’t gigantic nerds about this kind of stuff (like me) may not be spending a lot of time thinking about, if at all.
So, this month, I wanted to do a quick around-the-horn on three of what I think are some of the most important conflicts or potential conflicts to keep an eye on in the near future due to how bad they could get and the potential impact they could have on their respective regions and the rest of the world. This list is by no means all-inclusive, and I thought about adding more, but I decided to keep this installment to a tight three because I felt these three have been the ones most pressing in my mind lately that have not had as much coverage in the news. I also wanted to flesh each of them out a bit more than I could have done with a bigger list (and also, frankly, because I’m wiped and the thought of writing any more pre-emptively exhausted me). I may follow this up sometime in the near future with additional conflicts for the list and I’ll likely make this a recurring segment as conflict map of the globe continues to shift and morph.
For now, though, let’s begin:
1. Burma (Myanmar)
Years of perceived progress towards democratization in Burma (officially renamed “Myanmar” by the previous military junta) came crashing down in February 2021. The political party of former dissident and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had just maintained their majority in November 2020 elections after being swept into power in the 2015 elections – the first free and fair elections in the country since the de jure dissolution of the previous military junta in 2011 (one of two successive military governments that had ruled Burma since 1962).
However, as it often goes, the election of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy had not immediately fixed all of Burma’s persistent issues. Under the new government, Burma’s long-time persecution of minority groups within its border persisted – including actions that the United Nations has called crimes against humanity and even genocide against the Rohingya people. Despite elections, the military still maintained significant influence over politics and wished to maintain it. When the party they backed failed to regain control of the government in the 2020 elections, military denounced the election as illegitimate due to fraud – a claim that was rejected by the country’s electoral commission on January 29th, 2021.
It was only a few days after the military’s claims were rejected in the courts that it decided to change the situation by force, launching a coup de tat and deposing the government. It arrested Suu Kyi and other members of her government and inner circle, initially charging her under trumped-up offenses of violating the country’s COVID-19 emergency regulations before unveiling more serious charges weeks and months later, including violating the country’s official secrets act and bribery. The coup and arrests almost immediately resulted in mass protests against the military that are still ongoing at the time of writing this essay. The natural inclination of the military has been to respond with violence, which has predictably only toughened resistance to them. As of July 19th, the activist group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners estimated that at least 914 people had been killed by security forces since the coup.
As the military continues to crack down on protests and the possibility of non-violently rolling back the coup fades, many protestors and activists have resorted to taking up arms to defend themselves, or even with the intent of removing the military from power by force. There’s already been reports of attacks by newly organized opposition groups on military and security forces in recent months. This is in addition to the already existing, long-running internal armed conflicts within Burma between the military and rebel forces associated with multiple different minority groups, which the military has reportedly stepped up its attacks against following the February coup. Some of the existing ethnic rebel forces have reportedly offered their assistance and support to newer anti-coup forces, which raises the possibility of a more expansive armed front against the military and a wider war should one break out.
Six months on from the coup, neither the military nor opposition forces show any signs of wavering. The conflict has even taken on an international dimension, with a alleged plot to assassinate Myanmar’s UN Ambassador who is one of multiple officials and diplomats who have opposed the coup and the junta (the junta denies all involvement in the plot). The longer this struggle goes on, the greater the likelihood of more open and intense conflict going forward – a possibility that neighboring regional powers like India, China and others will almost certainly take an interest in when it comes to their own interests as well as regional stability.
It was only in 2019 that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize after successfully negotiating a peace with long-time adversary and former internal-subject Eritrea. Just a year later, Abiy was going to war against his own people.
The origins of this conflict come from actions Abiy took the same year as his Nobel Prize win, consolidating several regional and ethnic-based political parties into a new political party under his leadership. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front – which has a checkered authoritarian past, its old coalition having previously dominated Ethiopian politics for some thirty years – refused to join the new party after having been ousted by Abiy from its role as leader of the previous governing coalition a year prior. The TPLF accused Abiy and his government of being illegitimate after postponing August 2020 elections due to COVID-19, and went on to hold its own regional elections in September in defiance of the federal government.
The federal government initially responded by declaring these elections illegal, following that up with a build-up of military forces – along with regional paramilitary forces from the Ethiopian region of Amhara – on the Tigray border. The political conflict suddenly escalated to a military one on November 4th, 2020, when the TPLF launched a series of coordinated surprise attacks on multiple Ethiopian National Defense Force bases throughout the region, overrunning several units, capturing weapons and equipment, and even taking thousands of ENDF troops prisoner.
In the weeks that followed, the ENDF appeared to regroup and retake the initiative. On November 28th, the ENDF entered the Tigray capital of Mekelle as the TPLF withdrew. Riding high on this apparent victory, Abiy declared that Ethiopia had “completed and ceased the military operations in the Tigray region” (a statement that did not remind me of anything else I had ever seen in that context before). He then proceeded to impose a large-scale communications and media blackout on the restive region. Information on what was happening in Tigray became hard to come by for the next eight months as a result, with little activity being seen.
The communications blackout – along with Abiy’s claim of the war being over – was shattered when the TPLF launched a counter-offensive in June, retaking the regional capital of Mekelle. The dramatic reversal of fortune was one of several factors that no doubt influenced the Abiy’s government into declaring a unilateral ceasefire following the ENDF’s withdrawal from Mekelle.
What the TPLF’s June counter-offensive has made clear is that any hopes the federal government had of this conflict being short and decisive are now long gone. The unilateral cease fire appears to be unravelling, with the TPLF occupying parts of fellow Ethiopian regions Afar and Amhara and both the federal government and Amhara’s regional government threatening counter-offensives of their own against the TPLF. Abiy has called upon “all capable Ethiopians” to join the war effort against the TPLF, accusing foreign powers of supporting them. Blames and recrimination for various offenses have gone back and forth between the factions. This bodes ill for a conflict that, less than a year in, has already exacted a heavy toll. The war has reportedly displaced some two million people and placing thousands under famine conditions as the conflict keeps them from being able to plant new crops. The death toll is hard to pin down with competing claims from both sides but is likely in the thousands – many of those civilians, including children, as well as aid workers.
The fresh TPLF incursions and the reactions to them threaten to widen the war beyond Tigray itself and engulf more of Ethiopia into violent conflict. As the federal government relies increasingly on regional paramilitary forces in an effort to regain the initiative in the conflict, it may only further entrench and even worsen the regional and ethnic politics that Abiy intended to extinguish when he undertook the political initiative that contributed to the outbreak of war in the first place. Meanwhile, the TPLF is not without allies of its own apparently, for just today as I post this essay the Oromo Liberation Army – another armed force in Ethiopia based around the Oromo, the largest single ethnic group in the country – has apparently allied with the TPLF with the stated aim of overthrowing Abiy’s government by force, despite past differences between the two. Any hopes of de-escalation now appear to be solidly in the rear-view mirror as the regions and ethnic groups of Ethiopia stake sides in this growing conflict.
Lebanon – like the other countries on the list – is no stranger to conflict. Its brutal, 15-year long, multi-sided civil war was both a hotspot for intervention and competition between regional powers, as well as in the wider Cold War between East and West. Even with the official end of that civil war in 1990, Lebanon has still been subjected to recurring violence of all stripes – from both outside and within its own borders – as well economic instability, political corruption and deadlock, and a whole host of other adverse conditions.
However, all of these stressors have been intensified over the last year, starting with a massive explosion that occurred around a year ago on August 4th, 2020, when hundreds of tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrite exploded in the capital city of Beirut’s port, causing mass destruction and the death of over 200 people. Since that explosion, things only seemed to have worsened in Lebanon. The country is in the midst of one of the world’s worst economic collapses, with the costs of essential supplies rising dramatically while the country’s money simultaneously drops in value almost as quickly. Not that there’s many essentials to buy, with things like food, fuel, and medicine all in short supply. Blackouts and power cuts can last so long that you may only get one hour of power a day if you can’t afford a generator and fuel for it. Many have left the country in search of relief and better opportunities, while those forced to stay find day to day life more and more difficult.
It appears now that things may be coming to a head with Lebanon’s current crisis, with the frustration and anger over Lebanon’s ills naturally finding form as violence. On August 9th, three people were killed in disputes over fuel supplies. Police and protestors clashed on the one-year anniversary of the Beirut explosion, when protestors attempted to storm the main building of Lebanon’s parliament. Just three days prior to that anniversary, five people were killed at a funeral procession for a Hezbollah member – who had himself been killed only the night before. Violence, never far from the fore in Lebanon’s tumultuous political environment, appears to be returning as the situation in the country continues to deteriorate.
Hezbollah itself is another point of contention that could lead to additional violence. The Shia Islamist paramilitary organization which is closely aligned to Iran has been a powerful force in Lebanese politics since its founding during the Lebanese Civil War, and in many ways is a state and a military unto itself within Lebanon. It has clashed multiple times with Israel since its creation, most recently in the last few days, launching fresh rocket attacks across the border between Lebanon and Israel after Israel declared it would respond against Iran for a fatal drone strike against an Israeli owned tanker (the latest in an ongoing, shadowy tanker war between the two countries). This has brought the predictable Israeli military response in the form of large scale artillery barrages, with muscular threats of further escalation by newly-minted Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett – as well as promises of further retaliation by Hezbollah on their part.
Ruther rifts and conflict between Hezbollah and the rest of Lebanon may also be a concern amidst the specter of renewed war with Israel. On August 10th, the country’s President condemned criticism of the patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community after he made comments encouraging the military to confront Hezbollah and halt its rocket attacks against Israel. Between Israel, Hezbollah, a corrupt, ineffectual, and entrenched political and security establishment, an economy in free fall, and many other ails, Lebanon isn’t lacking in potential sparks to set alight the tinder of a fresh conflict. If a new war does break out, the bigger question may be whether the new war would be as chaotic, bloody, and long-lasting as the previous civil war was, and whether it would be as much of a hotspot for competition and proxy fighting among both regional and great powers on an increasingly tense global stage.
And many, many more…
As I said before, this list is by no means all-inclusive. I have other conflicts in mind that I could talk about after these three and I almost certainly will cover them in the future. Likewise, I know with everything else going on in the world, these may be the last things in the world anyone wants to think about.
But, part of the reason I started writing here is because I wanted to make sure folks in my political neck of the woods (as it were) are a bit more aware when it came to international relations and war and things of that nature, so I offer this initial list of three conflicts to keep an eye on with the intent of arming you with knowledge and being more aware of a shifting international landscape that can and will touch your life somehow at some point – and that actions that you or your government take could also affect them. My intent isn’t to bum you out at the state of the world and the fact it could get much worse quickly, but to keep you in the know and better equip you for what may happen and the potential impacts that could have.
Ok, that came more self-important and lecture-y than I intended it too but I’m not sure how to word it any better. Just know my heart and brain are in the right place here. Promise. Lacking any better way to wrap this up: thanks for reading and see you again for next month’s essay.