It’s war, but not as we know it


Despite the violence we all see on TV, we live in a remarkably peaceful age. The global economy is more integrated than ever before, and major wars between states are rare. Though it is dangerous to guarantee anything in international relations, the prospect of a global conflict seems more distant than at any point in the last century.

However, despite a long-term decline in violence, the world has become a more violent place over the past seven years. We now face a new sort of conflict, not between states, but within them. These are conflicts that our international institutions, the UN in particular, are poorly equipped to manage.

In the last year, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan have all seen six-figure death tolls from violence. Thousands more live have been lost in the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine, the Central African Republic, Yemen, and Mexico. In contrast, the largest truly inter-state conflict was the confrontation in the Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, in which at most 200 were killed.

International wars no longer pose a huge threat to global peace, but structural flaws in the governments less developed states, and the difficulties of addressing this new sort of conflict have been exposed. We cannot, as has often been done, continue to apply the broad-brush ‘Clash of Civilizations’ narrative to these conflicts, but seek to understand each conflict in its own specific political context.

Consider Syria. The news still tends to portray the conflict in terms of the despotic dictator, the Islamic Extremists, and the ‘moderate rebels,’ our supposed democracy-loving secularists. This sort of reduction both obscures the true nature of the conflict and the potential for solution. The conflict arises not simply out of the Arab-spring, or a one-dimensional struggle against a despot, but from Syria’s complex political history. From 1971 – 2000 Hafez al-Assad held a tight grip on power, carefully manipulating domestic and regional affairs. Since his death, his son, Bashar, continued to fill the same role, maintaining a delicate, but stable, balance which established the minority Alawite group, to which the al-Assads belong, at the head of the state and security apparatus. With the advent of the Arab Spring, the tension suppressed by the Assads’ policies has been unleashed, and the regime was attacked by the under-represented, extreme and liberal. What must be recognized is that the story is not one of progressive, liberal Western values clashing with repressive Islamic ones, but of political antagonisms bred over time. The Assad regime is certainly repressive, but it is at least on paper a secular, nationalist regime rather than an Islamic one; this conflict cannot be simplified down to ‘Islam vs liberalism’. Any sort of resolution must recognize that the deep-seated antagonisms within Syrian society cannot be solved overnight.

The current conflict in Ukraine is often cast as a fault-line conflict between the liberal Western and authoritarian, orthodox Russian systems. This narrative explains the behaviour of the EU, the US, and Russia, but cannot alone account for the continuing disruption and violence committed by and against Ukrainian citizens. This ignores the importance of economic, political, and cultural rifts within Ukraine. The ethnic Russian population in the Donbass region had lower birth rates, higher incomes, and a more industrialised economy than the rest of the nation. Victor Yanukovych, President until his removal from office last year, was elected primarily by voters from the south and east of the country. Many of these people have felt disenfranchised by Yanukovych’s removal and subsequent replacement by Petro Poroshenko, who was elected primarily by the north and west. As of yet, the new government in Kiev has failed to give the pro-Russian militant groups in the east any good reason to cease their violence and end the conflict. Russian involvement complicated the conflict, but we cannot pretend that many people in the Donbass region have serious grievances with the government in Kiev.

Both of these conflicts show the problems with the current system of global governance, the UN in particular, which are structured to settle old-fashioned interstate conflicts. Bringing the Afghan government and the Taliban, ISIS and Iraq, or Nigeria and Boko Haram to the negotiating table and attempting to fashion a peace-treaty is fruitless. The problem with the traditional methodology when used by the worlds powers is that it focuses on what the politics of conflicts mean to us, not to the groups involved. In doing so, there is nothing we have to offer the groups behind the current violence across the globe.

What is required, and what might work, is the recognition that rather than treating these conflicts part of an over-arching global conflict, they must be approached as the domestic political problems they are. Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine, Afghanistan and many more nations have political institutions ill-equipped to deal with the internal conflicts they face. In order to end these conflicts, we cannot merely depend on the ‘inevitable’ triumph of liberalism or democracy, but offer support to these institutions so that conflict can be resolved and contained internally. Antagonistic factions must be enfranchised and neutralized through good governance. This will prove easier in some cases than others (it will be particularly hard to achieve an acceptable balance of power in Syria), but it is the only way. Brute force destruction of rebel groups, or international treaties and accords cannot produce a sustainable peace, as they only treat symptoms. Creating lasting peace in the modern age requires a greater understanding of the internal conflicts within states, not between them.

PHOTO/ Christiaan Triebert


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