Wed, Mar 07, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The world is at war, but most conflicts are not between nations

Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, Afghanistan and Ukraine — the globe is scarred by violence

By Jason Burke  /  The Observer

In Afghanistan, the war is both to establish a state and about differing visions of what form it should take.

In Syria, the war is to maintain, or overthrow, a state.

In Yemen, the war is to control one.

In the DR Congo, the conflict’s roots lie in the weakness of the state.

States have also prolonged these conflicts and, in some cases, caused them.

Russia’s irredentist ambitions in Ukraine, Pakistan’s interference in Afghanistan.

The involvement of so many regional and international actors in Syria fueling, whether deliberately or accidentally, violence.

Yet, however important, states are far from the only protagonists in these conflicts.

In two decades of covering dozens of conflicts around the world, I have reported on just two that involved the troops of two nations in direct confrontation.

One was the short war between India and Pakistan in 1999; the second was the war in Iraq in 2003.

According to researchers at the University of California, there are none more recent.

The front lines in these new conflicts often follow boundaries that divide clans or castes, not nations.

They lie along frontiers between ethnic or sectarian communities, even those dividing, for example, pastoralists from herders or the landed from the landless, from those who speak one dialect or language from neighbors who speak another.

These front lines are not difficult to trace, on the map or on the ground.

In fact, if we look around the world at all its many conflicts, and if we define these wars more broadly, then we see front lines everywhere, each with its own disputed territory strewn with casualties.

In Mexico, Brazil, South Africa or the Philippines, there is huge violence associated with criminality and the efforts [by states] to stamp it out.

There is violence perpetrated against women by those who fear progress in the struggle for a more equitable distribution of power, status and wealth.

There is economic violence — how else to describe the deaths of 1,000 people in a building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 or, in DR Congo the injuries to miners digging out critical commodities for the world’s industries?

Our world might not be racked by conventional conflicts between nation states of previous ages, but it is still a very violent place.

The harsh reality might be that we should not be wondering why wars seem so intractable today, but why our time on this planet creates such intractable wars.


The conflict in Syria is soon to enter its eighth year and, though the fighting that once consumed much of the nation has now been restricted to a much smaller area, the chance of real peace still looks very distant.

The best that anyone can hope for is a slow evolution toward a precarious pause punctuated by bouts of appalling brutality as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, bolstered by support from Moscow and Tehran, makes efforts to reassert its authority over the shattered nation.

What such efforts involve has become clear.

In the past few weeks, air strikes by Syrian planes have killed more than 600 civilians in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus held by the opposition since 2013.

Although the Islamic State group has now been forced from almost all of its territory in Syria, other hardline Islamist groups remain very active, including one powerful organization linked to al-Qaeda.

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