2017 A Year In Conflict
Another year in ‘The Century of Peace’ draws to a close. Another year distressingly akin to the preceding one, and the ones before it. It has been marked by conflict, with older ones showing no signs of closure and newer tension spots arising. And leaders spewing bombast add to the tensions of an already volatile world
In India, the year will most probably be remembered for the 70 day long stand-off at Doklam when Indian and Chinese troops came closest to open hostilities since the 1967 clash at Nathu La. Kashmir has entered a phase of insurgency which seemed to reach a nadir around June, but a new set of policies has seen a string of military successes that may reap dividends, provided it is accompanied by political and economic packages to wean the populace back into the mainstream. Fortuitously, the Naxal problem has remained somewhat dormant, and the hinterland has seen no major terrorist attack, in spite of a series of scares and close shaves.
The four yearlong conflicts in Iraq and Syria are now in the fag end of the battles with the IS. Yet, though the IS has been evicted from its strongholds there, its ideology is alive and kicking. Worse, the end-state of the prolonged conflict in both these nations, promises even more turmoil, and the entry of Russia and the USA in Syria sets the stage for a new theater of confrontation between these two world powers. To add to it all, worsening ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran and their proxy war in the two year long civil war in Yemen adds fuel to an already inflamed region. And Afghanistan’s fifteen year long war follows its convoluted course, attracting new entrants into this strategic piece of turf.
The only saving grace has been that no war has broken out between two nations. And that too could just change with the dangerous game of ‘I Dare’ that North Korea is playing through its nuclear and missile testing. The accompanying bombast of these tests have been matched with equal belligerence by Trump and that makes the Korean Peninsula the world’s most volatile zone which may just reach flashpoint in 2018.
Syria, Iraq and the IS
Syria is emerging as the arena of ‘The New Great Game of the 21st century’. The four year long civil war has seen over 500000 casualties, displaced over 2 million, and caused a humanitarian trauma not seen since the World War. Russia’s entry in the war last year, has changed the picture considerably. Its air and missile strikes and the presence of Russian advisers, have turned the tide in Assad’s favour, gradually pushing the rebels on the back foot. Its active role and increased naval presence in the Mediterranean (including the deployment of its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetzov) is an open show of intent. The US which had remained in the sidelines during President Obama’s watch has re-entered the fray with an intensification of air and missile strikes. Its launch of 56 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian Air Force base of al-Shayratin retaliation for purported Syrian chemical strikes was its first attack on Syrian government bases. (Syria denied the charge of using gas against rebel positions in Idlib province which killed 58 and wounded over 200 claiming the gas was released when US bombs hit a chemical dump held by rebels). The US so far has its stated aim of merely defeating the IS in Syria, but with greater Russian involvement there may decide to enhance its own role. Then the situation may just get murkier.
Although a US-Russian brokered ceasefire is in place since July 17, it is unlikely that the war will reach any permanent settlement. The Russians are unlikely to let their ally President Assad, be removed, and with Russian and Iranian support he could just cling on to power, irrespective of world opinion. The diverse conglomeration of Sunni groups battling him under the loose umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Front (which the US supports) are in no position to oust him as of now. But they can still hold their own and are still a major player in Syria. The only saving grace is that the IS has been virtually eliminated and evicted from the self-proclaimed Capital of its Caliphate, Raqqa, which fell in October to a loose US-led coalition of Syrian Democratic Front fighters, Kurdish and Iraqi militia. But though the IS has been defeated, the conflict between Assad’s forces (backed by Russia and Iran) and the anti-Assad rebels (backed by USA) has not reached a conclusion. Syria could be carved up into zones, one controlled by the Syrian government, another by the rebels. The Kurds too, could demand a tract of land for their Kurdistan. Syria could then degenerate into the same situation that Iraq and Yemen find themselves in , and unless a permanent solution is found the conflict in Syria is likely to continue.
In Iraq, Iraqi forces and Shia militia attained their major success against the IS with the recapture of Mosul, after a nine month battle which saw the most brutal urban combat since World War II. Mosul finally fell to Iraqi forces in July, exactly 3 years from the time when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi proclaimed his caliphate from the Al Nuri mosque there. The victory over the IS has come at a cost. Most of the areas have been ravaged, over 60,000 killed and over 2 million of the population displaced. Priceless historical and cultural monuments have been razed. The major challenge now is for the Iraqi government to keep the disparate Shia militia that assisted it in its battle against the IS under check. A likely problem that could arise, is that the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, who were in the mainstream of operations against the IS could now demand Kurdistan in an area encompassing Northern Iraq, Southern Syria and Eastern Turkey. The end of this war has thus sown the seeds for another potential conflict.
With the loss of its Caliphate and the likely death of Baghdadi the IS has lost the influence it once had. But like Al Qaeda before it, its ideology lives on. It has helped inspire a series of lone-wolf attacks across US and Europe and has spread its influence to other parts of the world. In the Philippines, the Abu Sayyaf group – a faction affiliated to the IS - seized the town of Marawi, forcing the government to press in attack helicopters and armoured vehicles to retake the town. The fact that the IS group had been lying dormant and unnoticed before they erupted to take over the town is reminiscent of the IS capture of Mosul three years ago and indicative of the strategy they can adopt in the future in trouble zones like Indonesia, Nigeria, Sudan, Tunisia and Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda too is not a spent force. Its resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the emergence of ‘Al Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent’ show that the specter of Islamic Fundamentalism is gradually rising here. Its manifesto speaks of establishing Islamic rule in Kashmir and then the rest of India. This coupled with the attraction which the IS ideology has for some misguided youth add a dimension to Islamic fundamentalism in India that cannot be ignored.
The Korean Peninsula
The world’s most dangerous hot spot has become hotter under its cherubic leader Kim Jong Un. It celebrated America’s Independence Day on 04th July with the launch of its first ICBM – KN -14 (Hwasong -14) with an estimated range of 10,000 kilometers when mounted with a 650 kilogram warhead, which gives it the reach to strike Alaska and some parts of the US mainland. It followed it up with a nuclear test on 17 September, which was purportedly a fission-fusion device with a yield of 120 kilotons, or 16 times the destructive power of the bomb used at Hiroshima. And then to drive the message home, it followed up with another ICBM launch a month later that set off air raids sirens in Japan before the missile fell in the Pacific Ocean 4000 kilometers away.
North Korea now has the capability to strike South Korea, Guam, Japan and parts of mainland USA. Their miniaturization capability is still not known, but in all probability, they have developed the wherewithal to mount a nuclear device atop an ICBM and flatten an entire city. So, have they crossed the ‘red line’ as yet? President Trump’s pronouncements seem to indicate so. He has matched fire with bombast and threatened to “Totally destroy North Korea and ‘Rocket Man’”. Actions such as flying B2 bombers close to North Korea, and moving US warships in the vicinity, compounds an already volatile situation which can get out of hand with just a small misstep.
Should the US launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear assets, it can easily plunge the Korean peninsula into an all-out war. North Korea’s military strength with 1.2 million troops, 21,000 artillery pieces, 2400 tanks, 563 aircraft, 72 submarines and an estimated 10-12 nuclear warheads is not to be sneezed at. An unsuccessful attack may prompt its erratic leader to launch the remnants of his nuclear arsenal on South Korea, Japan and US bases in Guam and even its mainland which can cause over 2 million casualties. Even a non-nuclear war can devastate much of the Korean Peninsula, cause over two lakh casualties and create over 20 million refugees.
The Korean Peninsula is possibly the world’s most dangerous flashpoint and Kim Jong’s irrationality has to be countered in a measured manner. The situation can go out of hand rapidly, and could arrive at a dangerous and lethal culmination point in this year.
The long turmoil of Afghanistan continues. Although politically President Ashraf Ghani is on firm ground, the specter of the Taliban hovers over Kabul. Over the year the Taliban have re-grouped and following this year’s spring offensive, have captured most of Kandahar and Helmand province and now control over 40% of the country. The
ill-equipped and poorly motivated security forces are subject to increasing attacks on their bases and outposts and this year itself, 2800 Afghan security personnel and over 12000 civilians have been killed. The end of the year saw a spate of suicide attacks – a relatively new tactic- in the heart of Kabul that caused over 80 casualties. Ominously, the suicide attacks were claimed by the ISIS which is indicative of its growing presence in this troubled land.
The USA has decided to change its long-standing Afghan policy and adopt a more proactive posture. It upped the ante when it dropped the ‘Mother of all Bombs’ or to use its correct nomenclature, the GBU -431 B Massive Ordnance Airblast Bomb over a honeycomb of caves and tunnels in Afghanistan’s Nungarhal province which killed 70 militants. Trump has indicated that he is willing to take a more active role and has promised an additional 4000 troops to supplement the meagre force of 15,000 US troops in the beleaguered nation.
That may actually be too little too late. Afghanistan is reeling under the combined onslaught of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the IS and other parties are moving in. Russia is emerging as a major player in conjunction with China and Iran. What is worrying is that they seem to tilt towards a deal with the Taliban – ostensibly sponsored by Pakistan. That will be inimical to Indian interests. In a change of stance, the US has clamped down on the role of Pakistan in sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan and even cut off its $250 million tranche of aid. Trump’s Twitter outburst accusing Pakistan of ‘lies and deceit’ in playing ‘a double game’ is indicative of a hardened US role against it. The US has been urging India to play a more active role, but no military engagement should even be considered. Our present political support to President Ghani, and providing long-term infrastructural aid is a balanced stance and our engagement should not go beyond that. Staving off the Taliban should be a prime concern. Should the Taliban return in an ill-conceived power-sharing deal, Afghanistan could well become the Syria of the sub-continent.
Pakistan continues its struggles with its own demons. Although the army’s offensive has curbed Islamic militants, sectarian strife is as rampant as always. Shias, Ahmadiyas and Christians are soft targets as always and terrorist attacks go on with impunity throughout the country. The removal of Nawaz Sharif has brought a new stage of political instability and the rise of political forces like Hafiz Saeed implies that militants may seize power politically with dangerous consequences. The cease-fire along the Line of Control has virtually broken down, with 780 violations by Pakistan along the LOC and another 120 across the International Border which have claimed 33 lives. The last weeks of the year saw an intensification of cross border actions by both sides, and with the prevailing environment, it would take just one major action by either side to completely derail the no-war-no-peace situation that exists along the border.
The Dragon Breathing Fire
With China, the gloves are off. It has shed all pretensions of ‘peaceful rise’ and pushes its outrageous territorial claims with impunity. Its actions in the South China Sea and along the disputed Indo-China border have been indicative of its aggressiveness.
It has expanded its claims in the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea by building artificial islands and setting up military bases – establishing de facto ownership of the islands. It then pushed the envelope by declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone over the islands.
In seeking to assert its freedom of navigation over the disputed international waters, the US has been flying B1 Lancer bombers and sending ships and aircraft into the area. Trump has given the US navy the freedom to operate at will in the South China Sea and so far, six incidents have already taken place with US and Chinese vessels in close proximity of each other. One war-like incident may just set the two nations off on a collision course.
China is also implanting its footprint in the Indian Ocean through a chain of ports in Humbantota (of which it acquired a 70% stake by offsetting the huge $ 1.2 Billion debt Sri Lanka incurred in its construction), Gwadar and with the establishment of a military base in Djibouti in East Africa. This straddles the entire Indian Ocean and brings it dangerously close to Indian shores.
The Doklam stand-off is a dangerous portend in Indo-China relations. Fortunately, the 70 day stand-off ended without loss of face to either side. In spite of the defusing of that situation, Chinese military activities and troop movements along the LAC have increased, which is indicative of the fact that another situation could recur in the future. Indo-China relations have been affected by our growing relationship with USA and Japan (perceived as inimical to China); India’s refusal to participate in the One Belt One Road initiative, China’s blocking of India’s entry into NSG, its support to Pakistan, trade balance and a host of issues. Yet in spite of differences it is in the interest of both sides that the LAC remains dormant and it does not erupt again this year.
Other Trouble Spots
Other almost-forgotten trouble spots continue to rage as well. In Nigeria, the war with Boko Haram shows no signs of abating. Sudan and Somalia are engulfed in ethnic civil wars, and ethnic violence unleashed by the Burmese Army against the Rohingyas has let loose a flood of over 2 million refugees. In Yemen, the civil war has gone on for over two years with the Saudi led coalition attaining no success against the Iran supported Houthi rebels. Yemen sets the stage for a larger Iran-Saudi confrontation as they joust for Shia-Sunni supremacy. In the turmoil of the Middle East, Iran has carved a “Shia crescent” in an area extending over Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and Yemen. This sets it on a collision course with Saudi Arabia, under its new impetuous leader Mohammed – bin - Salman, which could start a new phase of Shia-Sunni strife.
New arenas may also emerge. The US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, has overturned a 40 year old policy which can unravel the Peace process and reignite the powder keg of the Middle East. Spain too could see a period of secessionist strife after Catalonia’s referendum seeking independence. This can trigger similar demands in Palestine, Turkey and Iraq (with the Kurds) and even Russian speaking majorities in Ukraine and Georgia.
To the turmoil that the world is engaged in, add the abrasive personality of Donald Trump. His policies, be it in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, or with China and Russia don’t evoke confidence or hint at stability. His bombast over North Korea and his “my nuclear button is bigger than yours” statements only make the situation worse. Relations with both Russia and China have predictably nose-dived, and there are indicators that the Cold War could revive. His rejection of NATO and traditional US allies could realign world power equations. The greatest danger in the coming year is of the US revoking the US-Iran nuclear deal which can send Iran back into isolationism and antagonism, and unsettle the Middle East completely. As the US pendulums between isolationism and interventionism, it adds to the instability of an already unsettled world.
Amongst the conflicts of 2017, many are likely to spill over into the next year and some extend even beyond that. Even as you read this, around 40 large and small conflicts are underway. It can only be hoped that as the year progresses, at least some of the numerous fires are doused, and no new arenas are allowed to emerge. Because one thing has remained constant in the conflict of this century. Each conflict goes on interminably, and unless concluded, usually begins a self-perpetuating cycle that leads to even further strife.