Armed conflict (war) is frequently considered an inevitable consequence of the human experience; this past year suggests just how true that might be. Across the globe we witnessed the horrors of armed conflict–enslaved Yazidis in Iraq, demolished homes in the Gaza Strip, and terrorized schoolchildren in Pakistan. The sheer number of armed conflicts around the world, as well as the atrocities committed, is a bit discouraging.
This year we decided to summarize some of the notable conflicts and developments in warfare around the world, splitting our overview into two installments for a more manageable read. Below, we’ve summarized the hostilities in Ukraine and Libya, the activities of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the situations in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, and South Sudan, as well as some of the developments in weaponry and related technology. Check back next week for our 2014 review of international justice and conflicts in Yemen, the Gaza Strip, Nigeria, and elsewhere in the world.
As we celebrate a new year and new beginnings it is our hope that those affected by these conflicts may soon achieve their resolution and fulfill the promise of a brighter future.
Islamic State. This year, the world watched closely as the self proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) gained power in the Middle East through a campaign of terror in Iraq and Syria. Originally a faction of al-Qaeda calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the militant group began gaining power and capturing strongholds in Iraq in January, starting with Fallujah. By February, al-Qaeda had renounced its connection due to IS’s goal of creating an Islamic caliphate but it wasn’t until June that IS gained global attention by launching a series of bombings across Baghdad and taking control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. IS seized military bases, police stations, government buildings, and the central bank of Mosul, from which the group stole $429 million U.S. dollars. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki ordered a state of emergency across the country and requested assistance from allies such as the United States.
Throughout June, IS grew in power and took more territory in Iraq, including the city of Tikrit. On June 15, IS militants posted pictures and video of a massacre of Shiite members of the Iraqi security forces in Tikrit, claiming to have killed 1,700 soldiers over the course of three days. A survivor of the massacre spoke out about his experience in September. At the end of June, IS declared that it was establishing a caliphate across the territories it controlled in Iraq and Syria and named its leader, Abu al-Baghdadi, the caliph, or leader. From this point on, the group has referred to itself as “the Islamic State.”
In the beginning of August, IS captured the Yazidi city of Sinjar; Yazidi women and children were sold into slavery and as many as 500 men were killed. Between 35,000 and 50,000 Yazidis were trapped in Sinjar, surrounded by IS militants and unable to replenish food and water supplies. The UN Special Representative for Iraq warned that “a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar.” On August 8, the U.S. military stepped in and began a series of airstrikes on IS targets in northern Iraq. President Barack Obama stated that the airstrikes in Iraq could last months as the U.S. supported the Iraqi government in their fight against IS.
By mid- September the scope of the operation was broadened, and the United States and its allies began launching airstrikes in Syria as the IS gained territory. In mid-October, the U.S. was calling the mission Operation Inherent Resolve, and the United States launched airstrikes on IS fighters near the border town of Kobani in an effort to support fighters trying to reclaim it from IS. The airstrikes continued for the rest of the year as IS maintained control over much of the surrounding area.
In November, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga joined the fight against IS in Syria. To bolster support against IS in the region, the United States authorized sending up to 1,500 more military personnel to Iraq to serve “in a non-combat role to train, advise, and assist Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish forces.” Despite increased support and continued airstrikes against critical strongholds, IS lost minimal territory. Airstrikes by Iran appear to have been successful as it began conducting operations against IS in parallel to the U.S.-led coalition.
Dismantling IS will take more than military operatives, and the U.S. government is currently working to understand the psychology behind the growing support for IS and its ideology. We can all expect to hear more about IS in 2015.
Ukraine. The Euromaidan movement in Ukraine began in the fall of 2013 but culminated in February 2014 when President Viktor Yanukovych finally fled Kiev. The 2004 constitution was reinstated, which decreased presidential power, and talks recommenced with NATO and the European Union. Things looked promising, but almost immediately, unmarked military personnel (a.k.a. Russian military personnel) began to support pro-Russian protests in Crimea, resulting in a referendum to secede from Ukraine in March and a subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia. Pro-Russian protests also led Donetsk and Luhansk (collectively known as Donbass) to declare independence from Ukraine, escalating the armed conflict between separatist rebels and the Ukrainian government.
Over 5,000 combatants and civilians have died due to conflict in Ukraine since April, including the passengers and crew of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which was shot down on July 17th over Donetsk. Fingers have been pointed at all parties involved, without any conclusive evidence on the identity of the responsible party. A ceasefire was finally declared in September when the parties signed the Minsk Protocol, a 12-step ceasefire process, but hostilities appear to continue. In November, thousands of Russian troops were moving into Eastern Ukraine, suggesting a possible new offensive and alienating Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit. While peace talks continue to stall, some concessions have been made, like the exchange of prisoners.
Afghanistan. A flag ceremony marked the end of NATO’s current mission in Afghanistan and the beginning of another. Moving from the thirteen-year operation of an International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) to a new two-year Resolute Support operation, NATO’s presence in the country is far from over. Afghan security will be entirely in the hands of its government forces, with NATO and other partners providing support. While the transition happened with little fanfare, the Taliban did not miss the opportunity to call it a victory: “ISAF rolled up its flag in an atmosphere of failure and disappointment without having achieved anything substantial or tangible,” a Taliban spokesman said.
As noted by the Washington Post, the close of 2014 has been a particularly challenging time for Afghanistan. The Taliban is waging a terrorism campaign without precedent. The election that resulted in the power sharing agreement between President Ashraf Ghani and the appointment of Abdullah Abdullah as his chief executive earlier in the year. This brought forth a peaceful transition of power, but setting up a unity government has proved challenging. Months later, they have yet to appoint a cabinet. Whatever happens next, it will likely require resolute support from NATO’s 12,000-strong operation.
Central African Republic. The Central African Republic has seen some of the worst sectarian turmoil in the history of the nation. The civil war is split largely on religious lines, with the minority Muslim population, organized into militia called the Séléka, battling with majority Christians, who similarly organized into militia called the Anti-balaka. After two years the civil war eventually led to a coup d’état by Séléka rebels but a lack of recognition of the new government by neighboring nations led to the resignation of the government and further deterioration into violence.
The conflict has had a grim impact on the country’s civilians. An estimated one million people have been displaced by the fighting, many of them Muslims. French and African Union peacekeepers deployed to the area can do little to quell the violence. Militias and vigilantes alike continue to leverage a chaotic and lawless environment to commit murders and pillage the homes of their former neighbors.
Libya. Since the ouster of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi by NATO supported opposition in 2011, Libya has remained in a near-constant state of conflict. A divisive June election reignited tensions between nationalists who won control of parliament, and Islamists who have maintained strongholds throughout the country, including in the country’s capital of Tripoli. Forces on both sides are funded by external supporters, threatening to draw in other regional powers. The internationally recognized government of Abdullah al-Thinni, backed by the United Arab Emirates, has been unable to centralize governance and disarm the Qatari-backed Islamists. With the legitimacy of the election in question and fighting intensifying, Libya will continue to be a powder keg in 2015.
South Sudan. At the end of 2013, civil war spread rapidly in South Sudan — barely over a year after the young State ratified the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. A power struggle between the nation’s leaders quickly became a fratricidal civil war, with numerous attacks against civilians of the different tribal groups (Dinka and Nuer), and several massacres. After a year of fighting there is still no official death toll, but it is estimated to be anywhere between 50,00 and 100,000. Regardless, the number of victims is set to rise because the conflict prevented the locals from planting crops and the threat of famine looms large for 2015.
Of Drones and Other Weapons. When it comes to advanced weapons systems the limelight remains on drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Questions about their use are a constant in the media. Just this week Der Spiegel published a report revealing that UAV operations in Afghanistan have not only targeted Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, but also drug traffickers. Justification for the targeting of traffickers was based, apparently, on their role as purveyors and facilitators of financial support for the Taliban. Similarly, the New Yorker published a powerful report on the use of UAVs in Afghanistan and its impact on civilians.
The year saw big advancements in military technology thanks in large part to robotics and radar absorbing materials. Perhaps inspired by the mass adoption of UAVs, several autonomous naval craft have been introduced. The U.S. Navy is testing one such technology affectionately named “swarm” boats. These autonomous robotic boats are small but operate by the dozens. They operate as screens for larger warships and automatically “swarm” the enemy when a threat is detected. The U.S Navy is also developing underwater drones called “Slocum Gliders” meant for intelligence gathering of enemy fleets.
Stealth technology, which describes the ability of military vehicles to avoid radar systems, has also seen advancements this year. The U.S. Navy launched the world’s first stealth destroyer, which has a low profile hard to see on radar screens, and a reduced thermal signature to counter heat-seeking devices. Taiwan has similarly deployed its first stealth warship, a missile corvette called the Tuo Jiang. It has a dual haul design for stealth, and is designed to attack aircraft carriers. In the air, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter continues trials and initial production runs. This controversial new fighter combines vertical take-off capabilities with radar absorbing stealth abilities. It is meant to replace aging ground support aircraft as a multi-role, all-purpose warplane with super-sonic capabilities. Tremendous progress has also been made on the electronics supporting a pilot’s situational awareness. Cameras and sensors on the F-35 allow the pilot an all-around view of the surroundings, even the ability to see through the floor of the aircraft at potential targets.