Conflicts to Keep An Eye On (October 2022 Edition)

Well folks, there’s been a lot going on in the world (obviously). There’s also been a lot going on in my life (don’t worry, nothing bad for the most part; just super busy), so that made deciding on what I wanted to write about (and what I was capable of writing about satisfactorily) very hard this month. So, I decided to bring back a previous idea I had so I can make it a semi-recurring feature: pointing out conflicts that you might not know about or be as focused on but that you should be aware of.

Since the start of the War in Ukraine, there’s a lot of crises and conflicts that seem to have slipped under the radar (or sunk even further below if they were already low down there). While the War in Ukraine is absolutely important and worth your attention, I worry it – and other high-profile events domestically and internationally – have led to a lot of other crises and conflicts that could have far reaching implications to be drowned out in a sea of noise.

I could write at length about a laundry list of various armed conflicts and ongoing crises that are worthy of attention, but this would rapidly turn into a book at that rate. So – as with my previous iteration of this kind of essay – I’m going to point out a small handful of conflicts and crises that I think are particularly worth monitoring due to the potential scale and scope of their impacts. This list is completely subjective and based purely on my own personal judgements and assessments. I’m not trying to say these conflicts are the ONLY ones you should be keeping an eye on and that no others are worthy of attention or action, but I’m just trying to focus your effort and attention on ones that I happen to think are noteworthy in particular.

Also, I’m going to try and do something that I didn’t think of with the last version of this essay: where possible, I’m going to try and give you sources you can go to for information on the status of these conflicts and crises, whether they be on social media or elsewhere. Just be aware that due to the fog of war and deliberate efforts at controlling the narrative by all sides involved in these events, information still may be hard to come by and you should always consume information carefully and critically and check your sources before you assume anything.

With all those disclaimers out of the way, let’s get right to it:

1.  Ethiopia

Ethiopia is the first of two returning conflicts on this list, which I am restating because I think they definitely need more attention due to the fact that they are entering new stages and that their impacts could be severe not just for their own populaces but for the wider regions they’re in. Ethiopia’s internal conflict has already had a number of twist and turns and now is experiencing fresh ones.

If you want a recap on the early phases of the war and its causes, you can read my original hot spots piece, but to provide a very quick summary: the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia began late in 2020 when political differences between the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the ruling party in the Tigray region and former ruling party in the prior governing coalition of Ethiopia – came to a head and turned violent. Since it began, the war has seen fortunes shift dramatically between the forces of the Ethiopian federal government and its supporters and the TPLF and its allies, before settling into a stalemate for months with no substantial activity on either side. Coverage has been further complicated over the federal government’s media blackout, with many international journalists being thrown out of the country and those remaining being prohibited from visiting the areas of the country affected by the conflict.

In recent weeks, the conflict has flared up again after a large scale build up by pro-government forces (which was detected by third party satellite monitoring). However, there is a new wrinkle in this phase of the conflict, as the government of neighboring Eritrea appears to have thrown itself wholeheartedly into the war on Ethiopia’s side, with large numbers of Eritrean forces launching offensives into TPLF held territory in conjunction with the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and its own allied paramilitary forces. After months of relative inactivity, pro-federal forces now appear to be capturing numerous towns and key positions from the TPLF.

The involvement of Eritrea shows how quickly geopolitics can sometimes shift from being intractable to flexible. For years, Ethiopia and Eritrea were solid adversaries – with Eritrea once having fought a decades long battle for independence from Ethiopia. It was only in 2018 that Ethiopian PM Abiy negotiated a peace deal with Eritrea after years of off-again on-again war (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize a year later). Now relations have improved enough that Eritrea is willing to send thousands of troops into battle to help preserve the government that for years it saw as its primary threat. Much like with Russia as it persists in its invasion of Ukraine, Eritrea – which is widely considered one of the most totalitarian governments in Africa – has mobilized a large number of reservists and is continuing to intensify its call-up efforts to extent that – like in Russia – many Eritreans are attempting to flee mobilization as the government attempts to crack down on draft dodgers – which include both men and women.

While the TPLF certainly aren’t giving up yet and aren’t going quietly into that good night, these new developments on the front lines bode ill for them. Reportedly suffering a “four pronged” offensive by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces, they now have to spread their forces among even more fronts. While this war has seen fortunes shift dramatically before even in the face of overwhelming odds, the situation for the TPLF looks darker than it did before. The situation also looks darker for the people of the affected regions, who have been the victims of armed atrocities by both sides as well as humanitarian deprivation. While the African Union has started peace talks in South Africa aimed at bringing an end to the conflict, the federal government continues to advance on the ground and seize towns from the Tigray forces and their allies.

This is one of the few conflicts where I don’t really have a side I’m definitively “on” as both have significant sins from both this war and past conflicts, but where I hope a lasting peace can be achieved due to the severe impact that it is having on regular people in Ethiopia who are just trying to survive – and the impact it could have throughout the rest of the region if it persists. With that in mind, there is a severe lack of good credible sources – both in mainstream media and social media – that are keeping regular track of the goings on in the Ethiopian conflict (partly due to a lack of interest or being drowned out by other news, and partly due to the federal government media blackout). One of the few good sources I’ve found just for keeping track of movement on the ground is the Twitter account EthiopiaMap, which tends to be pretty reliable and honest about its sources and when it can’t be sure about things. It offers updates on military movements, shares relevant articles, and more. Otherwise, big media outlets only tend to maybe publish a story when there’s suddenly some big activity on the ground and then lose interest.

2.  Iran

This is one of the items on my list that – while not yet a conflict, is certainly a crisis that has the capacity to turn into a conflict and is worth keeping an eye on as it continues – time of writing – to persist with no end in sight despite government efforts to clamp down on it. I am of course talking about the ongoing protests and riots in Iran.

The current protests against the government in Iran began with the death of a Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who apparently died after being hospitalized for brutal injuries suffered at the hands of Iran’s so-called “Morality Police” for purported violations of Iran’s hijab rules. After her funeral in her native Kurdistan region, protests began to rapidly spread and continue to grow and persist. While women’s rights and the religious rules imposed by the regime appear to be focal points of the protests, the protest movement now appears to have evolved into a more broadly anti-government movement against the authoritarian nature of the Iranian regime. The protestors appear to come from a wide variety of backgrounds and are generally advocating for more rights and freedoms. The protestors have even gone as far as to call for the downfall of the government and the death of its leaders – including the ailing Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Violent anti-government protests in Iran are not new, of course. 2019 saw a significant protest movement against the government that started with a spike in fuel prices – one that was brutally put down by Iran’s security forces. Iran was also famously wracked by months-long, widespread protests in 2009 revolving around accusations that the regime had rigged the presidential election in favor of hard line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, this movement seems to now have developed a more explicitly and overtly anti-government character and has already lasted longer than the 2019 uprisings did. While it has not yet reached the level of the 2009 election protests, it continues to intensify and grow even in the face of government efforts to quash it – including security forces beating and firing at protestors with live ammunition and shutdowns of the internet to prevent communication and to try and stop accounts of the protests getting out. The regime has also been working to discredit the legitimacy of the protest movement, accusing them of being organized by “foreign powers.” The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – the military force assigned to protect the Islamic Revolution and its leaders – has already launched attacks into Iraqi Kurdistan, accusing Kurds there of supporting the uprising.

Its hard to say how far the current protest movement will go. It could easily go the way of the previous protests and uprisings against the government. So far, it has been resistant to regime efforts to snuff it out, though the regime still has many additional resources at its disposal it could bring to bear against the protestors (even with how heavy handed its response has already been so far). I certainly would like to see the current government in Iran gone and for the people of Iran to choose a more fair and equitable system for themselves as they should have had seventy years ago (before the United States and the United Kingdom decide to fuck it all up). While I’m somewhat jaded and cynical on this topic, I do still hold out hope for change as I always try to do. Crazier things have happened. Iranians can achieve a better life for themselves. Even if it doesn’t pan out this time, I have every confidence that eventually the people of Iran will prevail. Every authoritarian regime has a shelf life, the Iran’s may be rapidly approaching expiration.

While government crackdowns have been a complicating factor, information on the Iran protests seems to be getting out easier than it has from Ethiopia. Jake Hanrahan of Popular Front has shared a number of videos from the Iran protests, as has the OSINT account Aleph. Tammuz_Intel is another useful account to watch, as it focuses on events in Iraq – which due to the influence of Iran among political factions there and the presence of a large Kurdish population there, events in Iran have a significant potential to spill over into Iraq as well.

3.  Armenia and Azerbaijan

This section is probably going to be shorter only because I’ve already written at length about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan – including in my most recent essay and one of my first. None the less, I want to make sure no one forgets about this one, especially as it is guaranteed to flare up again (and likely to do so sooner rather than later).

This September saw the heaviest combat between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the war that was fought in the Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh region two years prior. Setting aside the debate over conflict in that “disputed” region (which is functionally independent and overwhelmingly Armenian despite being recognized as part of Azerbaijan), this time Azerbaijan committed outright aggression against the internationally recognized territory of Armenia proper, attacking within Armenia and seizing territory recognized as part of Armenia (a fact that can actually be verified from space by way of NASA’s FIRMS satellites).

The international response to this aggression has – of course – been largely lackluster. Armenia’s erstwhile ally and security guarantor, Russia, has done basically nothing in response (largely due to the fact that the vast majority of its military resources are now dedicated to its failing war in Ukraine). When Armenia appealed to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – the military alliance led by Russia that Armenia is a member of – for direct assistance, the organization refused and instead opted to send a “fact finding” mission. The United States has been more vocal in decrying Azerbaijan’s actions this time around, allowing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to visit Armenia and condemn Azerbaijan’s attack. However, it’s hard not to be cynical and see US outreach to Armenia out of anything more than great power politics to screw over Russia – especially as the EU continues to cozy up to Azerbaijan in order to find a replacement source of oil and natural gas as Russia is steadily closed out of the European market.

Much like with prior Azeri aggression, the weak response of the world has assured that it will happen again and will be worse. Every time Azerbaijan is allowed to get away with attacking Armenia, its emboldened and goes even further the next time. While the series of flare ups that have occurred since the 2020 war have not risen to the level of full-scale war again just yet, it is unfortunately only a matter of time as long as nothing is done to stop Azerbaijan or bring it to heel. The ultimate goal of Azerbaijan – and its patron, Turkey – is the elimination of Armenia and the Armenian people. Azerbaijan doesn’t shy away from its racialized hatred of Armenia and will continue to nibble around the edges of Armenia until it finally feels it can launch a full-scale war of destruction to finish the job that’s been underway for years. The world must pay attention and be willing to speak up and do what it can to help Armenia to try and prevent this from happening (and if it does come to pass, to do everything it can to stop it in its tracks).

With all that in mind, fortunately I have a lot of sources here for you to turn to for this. A major one is one of my favorite people on the internet, Joe Kassabian (podcaster, author, historian, and more), who now lives in Armenia. Another excellent source is Neil Hauer, a conflict journalist that not only covers Armenia heavily but also reports on events in other parts of the former-Soviet Union that often are neglected news wise. Jake Hanrahan of Popular Front also routinely reports on events in Armenia and has also made a documentary on the 2020 Karabakh war.

4. Burma (Myanmar)

Burma is the second returning conflict on this list from the last time I wrote it and is returning for the same reason as Ethiopia – in that it is entering a new and intensifying phase. Unlike with Ethiopia, however, momentum seems to be going against the government in this case and there does not appear to be any end in sight for the near future, with more bloodshed ahead.

When we last left this conflict back in the summer of 2021, it was still very much in its early phases following the February coup. With the exception of the previously existing armed groups that had already been active in the country (mostly formed by minority ethnic groups that had been fighting for greater autonomy or independence from the central government for years prior to the coup), armed opposition purely on the basis of democratic resistance to the coup was still in its early stages. The conflict wasn’t yet considered to be a full-scale civil war.

Now, in late 2022, the time for protests have long since passed and armed rebellion has become the primary means of resisting the junta maintained by the Tatmadaw – Myanmar’s armed forces. This has ranged from hit-and-run attacks on outposts and checkpoints by urban guerillas to full on coordinated assaults by rebel forces against Tatmadaw held towns. The rebel movement is not without its problems, lacking in supplies and struggling with unity among its various different participating groups. Its individual battles with the junta are also still relatively compared to a larger conflict – like Ukraine. Despite all this, clashes between the junta and the various forces opposing it is gradually growing in size and intensity throughout the country and armed resistance gains further momentum.

While rebel activity is slowly but steadily expanding and intensifying, the junta also seems to be showing no signs of giving in despite reported setbacks in the field and as its physical control over the country slips away. While there have been unverified reports of several thousand defections among the ranks of the Tatmadaw and police, the military and security forces as a whole continue to fight on in defense of the junta – committing brutal atrocities in the process.

The junta also still has some important allies, despite both regional and worldwide condemnation of its activities. Neighboring China is the junta’s most prominent ally one of its main arms suppliers. While it does publicly push the junta to engage in dialogue with opposition groups to “achieve political reconciliation,” this is done more out of a desire for stability in a nation on its periphery rather than any desire by China to see an end to bloodshed and oppression. China has already made it clear that it will back the junta to the hilt “no matter how the situation changes” in the future. Russia – to the surprise of absolutely no one – also continues to back the junta, which has sought closer ties to the fellow rogue state even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (with Russia being another key arms supplier for the junta). While shunned by many and lacking recognition, the junta maintains just enough support from the right powerful players to continue fighting back against the opposition forces for the foreseeable future.

Much like with Ethiopia, coverage of goings on in Burma is complicated by the junta’s tight control over media access to the country. However, there are still some good resources out there for getting information on the status of the struggle. Nathan Ruser from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute routinely covers new events in the conflict, as well as other conflict and geopolitical news throughout Asia.  Conflict researcher War_Noir also includes research and analysis on the conflict in Burma – along with numerous other conflicts worldwide. Once again, Jake Hanrahan of Popular Front has also taken time to cover the conflict (I honestly don’t think there’s a conflict – internal or interstate – that man isn’t tapped into at this point).

(Dis)Honorable Mentions

As I mentioned before, this list is by no means all-inclusive of all the conflicts going on in the world – and certainly not all-inclusive of all the conflicts you should care about. Clearly, war is still raging in places like Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen – among others. The only reason I didn’t write about these is that they’re all either front page news still or are still getting enough coverage that I didn’t think they needed a spotlight. Also, with most of them, the situation hasn’t shifted enough on the ground recently to necessitate a re-assessment (like with Ethiopia and Burma). With those conflicts, consider the situation normal: all fucked up.

There are other crises that have not yet spilled over into war that are worth noting. One example is Lebanon – which I wrote about previously and is still teetering on the brink (the only reason I didn’t include them there is I didn’t have enough of a change in the situation there to push me to do an update). Iraq is also in the midst of a persistent political crisis that has already temporarily dipped into open conflict this year and has the potential to do so again – in addition to the already mentioned potential of further spillover from the unrest in Iran. Despite the Taliban’s victory in the Afghan War, their control is not absolute and resistance to their rule remains active (and may strengthen as disillusionment with their government rises). Consider these to be (dis)honorable mentions for conflicts you should keep an eye on if you’re not already doing so.

At the end of the day, I realize we all only have so much emotional energy to devote to keeping appraised of all the horrible events going on worldwide and at home. Hell, international relations and the study of war are my passions, and even I have been having to take more breaks from looking at Twitter or thinking about the state of the world for the sake of my own mental health. I’m not shoving these conflicts in your face to demand that you constantly stay appraised of every single shot fired or you’re some kind of horrible person. I just want to make sure people are at least aware of them and know to look out for major developments regarding them, as their outcomes could potentially have a significant impact on their lives. We’ve already seen how Ukraine – in conjunction with other factors – is affecting the world in terms of energy prices and other spillover effects. Plus, it never hurts to throw a little solidarity the way of those in these conflicts that are fighting for their rights and freedoms against authoritarians.

I am extremely low on energy this week so I’m afraid I have no snappy or thoughtful conclusions for you this time around. I’m just gonna wrap it up before my writing’s quality suffers any more. I promise next month I’ll be more on the ball. Until then, take it easy and stay safe out there.

Photo Credit: Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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