Global Conflict Tracker

Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

An outbreak of military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh

Recent Developments

Nagorno-Karabakh—the disputed border region between Armenia and Azerbaijan—faces an increasing risk of renewed hostilities due to the failure of mediation efforts, escalating militarization, and frequent cease-fire violations. Over the past several years, artillery shelling and minor skirmishes between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops have killed dozens. In early April 2016, fighting resumed in violation of the 1994 cease-fire, reportedly killing more than sixty people. Prior to this incident, Azerbaijani forces had shot down an Armenian helicopter in November 2014, and cease-fire violations continued at a steady rate throughout 2015. 

Background

Although 95 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh population is ethnically Armenian, the territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. When the two countries were incorporated into the Soviet Union, tensions over the territory remained muted. However, as Soviet control over its satellite states weakened in the 1980s, hostilities flared once again. A six-year war erupted after Nagorno-Karabakh tried first to formally join Armenia and then declared independence in 1991. After a cease-fire was brokered by Russia in 1994, the territory was largely left to govern itself autonomously. 

After remaining a frozen conflict for more than a decade, tensions again rose as both sides accused each other of repeated cease-fire violations. Negotiation and mediation efforts, primarily led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, have failed to produce a permanent solution to the conflict. Russian-mediated peace talks have also not resulted in any concrete steps toward de-escalation.

Concerns

Without successful mediation efforts, cease-fire violations and renewed tensions threaten to reignite a military conflict between the countries and destabilize the South Caucasus region. This could also disrupt oil and gas exports from the region, since Azerbaijan is a significant oil and gas exporter to Europe and Central Asia that produces more than 850,000 barrels of oil per day. U.S. economic interests may then be harmed and a spike in the global oil market could arise.

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Islamist Militancy in Pakistan

Increased internal violence and political instability in Pakistan stemming from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan militancy

Recent Developments

Pakistan continues to face significant threats to its internal security from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups. In November 2015, an American drone strike in North Waziristan killed Khan Sayed, a senior TTP commander who led a breakaway faction of the movement. Although TPP attacks have slowed in 2015, reports indicate that TTP members have fled to other tribal regions and across the border into Afghanistan to regroup and join the fight there.

Background

After Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to negotiate a peace agreement with the TTP unraveled and militants attacked an international airport in Karachi, the government launched an offensive in June 2014 against militant strongholds in North Waziristan. Air strikes continued throughout 2015, and Pakistani military officials report that more than three thousand militants have been killed. However, the operations have spurred an internal refugee crisis from North Waziristan and Khyber, and peripheral TTP elements have reportedly formed violent splinter organizations due to disagreements about whether to continue targeting the Pakistani state. 

The TTP responded to the offensive with several attacks, including a suicide bombing at a checkpoint near Lahore in November 2014 that killed more than fifty people and injured more than one hundred. In December 2014, TTP militants launched an attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, killing more than 140 people, mostly schoolchildren, in the deadliest terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history. 

In response, Pakistani political parties agreed on a comprehensive National Action Plan to combat terrorism and extremist ideology across the country, and Prime Minister Sharif lifted a death penalty moratorium to allow the execution of terror convicts. However, the military, which is historically dominant over civilian governments, is believed to still be providing support to the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other militant proxy groups that often collaborate with the TTP.

Concerns

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan could increase regional instability by allowing militants from Pakistan to establish a safe haven in a fragile Afghanistan. Additionally, acute instability in Pakistan has security implications for neighboring countries Afghanistan and India. The TTP is closely allied with the Afghan Taliban in its battle against Afghan troops and India fears that anti-state and state-sponsored Pakistani militants could carry out cross-border terrorist attacks. Moreover, the vulnerability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to attack or theft by nonstate actors remains a major concern for U.S. and India policymakers.

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Taliban in Afghanistan

Increased violence and instability in Afghanistan resulting from the withdrawal of coalition combat forces and strengthening of the Taliban insurgency

Recent Developments

President Obama announced in October 2015 a halt to further withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, and pledged in February 2016 to send additional advisors to southern Afghanistan to provide added protection to the 9,800 deployed forces, and to bolster the train, advise, and assist mission. The policy reversal comes after months of high Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) casualties, increased difficulty maintaining security and protecting territory, and reports of a growing self-proclaimed Islamic State and resurgent al-Qaeda presence. 

In September 2015, after months of stalemate with Afghan government forces, the Taliban captured the northern provincial capital of Kunduz. This was the first time since 2001 that the Taliban held a major Afghan city. The battle to take back the city, launched by ANSF and backed by U.S. special forces and air power, lasted for two weeks and highlighted fears that the ANSF may not be capable of defending major population centers. During the fight, U.S. forces mistakenly targeted a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, killing twenty-two people. 

In late July 2015, the Taliban confirmed that reclusive leader Mullah Omar, not seen since the invasion in 2001 and believed to have been hiding in Pakistan, had died in a Pakistani hospital in early 2013. Long time deputy Mullah Akhtar Mansour was selected to lead the insurgency, but disagreement over the decision threatens to fracture the movement, and has led some disaffected commanders to defect to the Islamic State.

Background

In the wake of al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban government refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. The Taliban leadership quickly lost control of the country and relocated to southern Afghanistan and across the border to Pakistan. From there, they have waged an insurgency against the Western-backed government in Kabul, international coalition troops, and Afghan national security forces.

The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since the U.S. invasion in 2001 and continues to carry out suicide bombings in major cities. 2015 is the first year the ANSF have been responsible for securing the country, with only about 12,000 NATO troops remaining in the country following the U.S. drawdown at the end of 2014. The first half of 2015 saw a 40 percent jump in ANSF casualties, with more than 4,300 security forces personnel killed and another 8,000 wounded. Over that same period, there were 1,592 civilian deaths and 3,329 injuries. 

Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election resulted in political deadlock, requiring two rounds of voting and an international audit to address allegations of voter fraud. In early September 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement to form a national unity government led by Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive. Ghani and Abdullah face challenges jointly governing a country increasingly plagued by Taliban-led violence 

Uncertainty surrounding the future of international donor assistance has strained the Afghan economy. While the United States and its allies have pledged to provide support to Kabul, the transition to a peacetime economy risks further destabilizing Afghan society by inflating the budget deficit and increasing unemployment rates.

Concerns

The United States has a vital interest in preserving the many political, economic, and security gains that have been achieved in Afghanistan since 2001. A resurgence of the Taliban insurgency could once again turn Afghanistan into a terrorist safe haven. Moreover, internal instability in Afghanistan could have larger regional ramifications as Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia compete for influence in Kabul and among influential subnational actors.

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Civil War in Syria

Intensification of the Syrian civil war resulting from increased external support for warring parties, including military intervention by outside powers

Recent Developments

External involvement in the Syrian civil war is increasing. In September 2015, Russia deployed fighter jets, helicopters, surface-to-air missiles, and approximately two thousand military personnel to its military base near Latakia, and began an air campaign in Syria to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Following a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, for which the self-declared Islamic State claimed responsibility, France expanded its air strikes in Syria and the United Kingdom launched its own air campaign, both targeting the Islamic State. In October 2015, the Obama administration authorized the deployment of fifty U.S. Special Operations ground forces to join Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State and committed an additional 250 forces in April 2016. Also in October 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry met with all major external participants in the conflict for the first time, including Russia and Iran, to “explore the modalities of a nationwide cease-fire” and request that the United Nations oversee a transition of power. 

In late February 2016, the United States, Russia, and Syria agreed to a cessation of hostilities that, despite minor violations, has not yet collapsed. Soon after, Russia announced its military drawdown from Syria, which has been partially carried out. Syrian government forces have been making critical advances against the Islamic State, resulting in victories like the Syrian seizure of Palmyra, an ancient Syrian city that had been occupied by the group for nearly a year.

Background

What began as protests against President Assad’s regime in 2011 quickly escalated into a full-scale war between the Syrian government—backed by Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Shia Muslim political party and militant group Hezbollah—and anti-government rebels groups. This has led to spillover into neighboring states and intervention by outside parties, particularly in response to the expansion of the self-declared Islamic State from Iraq into Syria. 

Ongoing instability has enabled the expansion of powerful radical elements. The Islamic State has captured extensive territory in Syria, perpetrated shocking violence against Shiites, Christians, and fellow Sunnis, and beheaded captives from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other countries. Additionally, the Islamic State has been able to recruit over 25,000 foreign fighters, most of whom are fighting in Syria.

France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with the support of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab partners, have conducted air strikes against Islamic State targets. After a controversial U.S. train-and-equip program was shut down in September 2015—having successfully trained less than one hundred fighters and of whom some had defected to al-Qaeda—the Obama administration authorized the deployment of fifty U.S. Special Operations ground forces to support Kurdish forces fight the Islamic State. Meanwhile, at the request of the Syrian government in September 2015, Russia began launching air strikes against what it claimed were Islamic State targets, but has also targeted groups opposed to Assad, such as al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.  

Efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution have been unsuccessful. The Geneva II peace process, a UN-backed conference for facilitating a political transition, collapsed as opposition groups and the Syrian regime officials struggled to find mutually acceptable terms for resolving the conflict. In October 2015, the United States, Russia, and European countries invited Iran to participate in negotiations, renewing hopes of reaching an outcome. Although the Obama administration expressed willingness to work with Russia and Iran, it has ruled out the possibility of a return to status quo under Assad. The United States and Russia agreed on a planned cessation of hostilities in Syria that has been in effect since February 27, 2016. 

Concerns 

Since the start of the war, more than 470,000 people have been killed, 4.1 million have fled the country, and 6.5 million have been internally displaced. A majority of refugees have fled to Jordan and Lebanon, straining already weak infrastructure and limited resources. More than two million Syrians, along with migrants and refugees from other war-torn countries, have fled to Turkey and attempted to cross the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe, overwhelming European countries without the capacity or, in some cases, willingness to cope. Meanwhile, external military intervention, including arms and military equipment, training, air strikes, and even troops, in support of proxies in Syria threatens to further prolong a conflict already in its fifth year. While the Obama administration has ruled out the possibility of using U.S. air strikes to target Assad, the introduction of Russian air power and U.S. special operations forces presents the threat of further U.S.-Russia military escalation and confrontation. Additionally, ongoing violence could create a safe haven for other extremist groups active in Syria, allowing groups such as Hezbollah and the al-Qaeda affiliated-Nusra Front to launch attacks against U.S. personnel in the country, or the Islamic State to launch attacks against the United States or European allies and partners. 

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Sectarian Conflict in Lebanon

Increased sectarian violence and political instability in Lebanon due to spillover from the Syrian civil war

Recent Developments

Lebanon’s political system and security infrastructure has been deeply affected by the spillover from the Syrian civil war. The Lebanese parliament has been struggling to reach consensus about the next president since May 2014, leading Prime Minister Tammam Salam to step in as the acting president. The political gridlock and the subsequent lack of legislation and reform has resulted in a deterioration of the country's infrastructure and public services, which are further taxed by increasing refugee populations. The government was unable to provide garbage collection services for nearly eight months, creating a significant garbage crisis before temporarily restarting services in March 2016.

On the security front, the latent sectarian divisions in the country have been exacerbated as the self-proclaimed Islamic State battles with Hezbollah and other Shia groups in Lebanon. Hezbollah is also deeply involved in the neighboring Syrian civil war, supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. An estimated 1,200 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict. The top Hezbollah commander in Syria, Mustafa Badreddine, was killed in a blast near Damascus airport in May 2016. Badreddine had previously been indicted by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and was being tried in absentia. 

In November 2015, the Islamic State targeted a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, killing forty-three people and injuring over two hundred in double suicide bomb attacks—the deadliest since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. Prior to this incident, Hezbollah areas in southern Beirut had been targeted in 2013 and 2014, but mostly by Sunni militants who opposed Hezbollah’s decision to join the fight in neighboring Syria. 

Background

Lebanon has absorbed more than one million Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict in 2011. This compromises nearly one-fourth of Lebanon’s population and more refugees than any other country bordering Syria. The World Bank predicts that these refugees will cost Lebanon close to $7.5 billion, as the country struggles to adjust its economy to meet the demands of a growing population. Beyond the economic effects, the spillover from Syria has also heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

Historic differences between Hezbollah—a Shia political party and militant organization backed by Iran and designated by the United States as a terrorist group—and Sunni groups in Lebanon have significantly escalated. Particularly in Tripoli, just thirty miles from the Syrian border, the predominant Sunni population—led by the March 14 alliance—combats Shia supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Hezbollah militants who conduct terrorist attacks on Sunni mosques.

The influx of Syrian refugees, coupled with Hezbollah’s involvement in fighting Syrian rebels, has resulted in cross-border skirmishes and increased weapons smuggling. Militants from Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State have attacked the Sunni border town of Arsal on several occasions, highlighting Lebanon’s vulnerability to violence emanating from Syria.

Concerns

These security risks have alarmed U.S. policymakers, as well as members of European and Gulf states, who are interested in mitigating the conflict in Lebanon and finding a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. As the coalition’s fight against the Islamic State expands, this could have greater implications for Lebanon, as it sits on the frays of the fight.

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Islamist Militancy in Egypt

Increased instability and terrorist attacks in Egypt, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula, resulting in a military crackdown

Recent Developments

Egypt’s military campaign against Wilayat Sinai (formerly Ansar Beit al-Maqdis) in the Sinai Peninsula has intensified since it declared allegiance to self-proclaimed Islamic State in November 2014. In October 2015, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airplane in response to Russia’s fight against the Islamic State in Syria. The previous year, the group carried out the largest terrorist attack in Egypt since 2005, with two attacks in the Sinai Peninsula killing thirty-one soldiers. 

The rate of terrorist attacks by Wilayat Sinai and other Islamist militants has been rapidly growing. Militants also carried out separate attacks at prime tourist destinations near the pyramids in Giza and the Karnak Temple in Luxor that same month. In July 2015, Wilayat Sinai launched an assault on the Egyptian military and government sites in northern Sinai near Egypt’s border with Gaza and Israel, resulting in the deaths of at least seventeen Egyptian soldiers and one hundred militants. 

Background 

Incidents of terrorist attacks in Egypt are the highest they have been since the 1990s. Known then as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the group emerged as a terrorist organization in the Sinai following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The insurgency was then intensified by political instability and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood following the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. 

Ansar Beit and other Islamist militants were primarily focused on attacking Egyptian security forces in retaliation for the government crackdown on Islamist groups, but have since expanded to attacking civilians on the metro, outside of the foreign ministry building, and near Cairo University. Militants also assassinated Egypt’s Chief Prosecutor Hisham Barakat in June 2015—the first major government figure to be killed since 2013.

The intense military campaign led by President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has targeted the insurgency in the Sinai and near the Gaza Strip. The military has bulldozed hundreds of homes in Rafah on the border with Gaza because of suspicions that Hamas is supplying the Sinai militants with weapons and other supplies. Sisi has also sought to tamp down on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, labelling the group a terrorist organization in December 2013. 

Concerns

There is a general concern about how the Sinai Peninsula could become another sanctuary for the Islamic State to carry out operations throughout the Middle East. Wilayat Sinai could help facilitate other attacks in Egypt as well, adding to political instability in the country. Its existence also poses a threat to Israel, which shares a border with the Sinai region and has on several occasions intercepted rockets from the region.

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Destabilization of Mali

Destabilization of Mali by militant groups with spillover effects on neighboring areas

 

Recent Developments 

Due to recent attacks targeting foreigners, concerns are growing that terrorist groups in Mali are increasing in numbers and strength. Since the November 2015 kidnapping and mass shooting at a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital, attacks have extended to neighboring countries. Most recently on March 13, a shooting at a beach resort in Ivory Coast killed nineteen civilians. Jihadist groups such as al-Mourabitoun, a branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, comprising primarily ethnic Tuaregs and Malians from the northern part of the country, may try to derail the peace agreement that was signed in June 2015 by the Coordination of Azawad Movements, a coalition of Tuareg rebel groups and the Malian government. As a result of the deteriorating security situation, the U.S. Department of State warned U.S. citizens in December 2015 against traveling to Mali and authorized the departure of nonemergency personnel from the U.S. embassy.

Background 

Militant groups in Mali continue to assert territorial claims in the north of the country, undermining the government and threatening to destabilize neighboring countries. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita began his term in September 2013, seventeen months after a military coup by the Malian army created a power vacuum allowing militant groups such as Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to gain territory in northern Mali. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and military missions led by G5 Sahel countries—Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger—were deployed to combat extremism in the region. However, some militant groups still maintain control of northern areas. Other militant groups have been driven across borders to territory outside of the G5 Sahel mission’s mandate. 

Concerns

The United States has long supported economic and social programs in Mali, but funding to the central government was cut off after the 2012 coup. In support of the French-led mission to combat extremism, the United States established a drone base in neighboring Niger in March 2013 to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to France and other partners in the region. The strengthening of militant groups in Mali or their spread to neighboring countries could allow AQIM to establish a safe haven and destabilize the region through militancy and terrorism.

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Violence in the Central African Republic

Escalation of sectarian violence in the Central African Republic between the Seleka rebels and "anti-balaka" militias, possibly resulting in mass atrocities

Recent Developments

Since the outbreak of violence in 2013 in the Central African Republic (CAR), around six thousand people have been killed and a quarter of the population has been displaced, with more than four hundred thousand refugees and three hundred thousand internally displaced persons. Although mediation efforts supported by the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) resulted in the signing of the Brazzaville Cease-fire Agreement in July 2014, parties on all sides of the conflict have violated the accord. 

In February 2016 Faustin Archange Touadéra, a former prime minister, was elected to the presidency after receiving nearly 63 percent of the votes in a runoff election. The election gives reason to be hopeful for the country’s future and many displaced citizens now plan to return home. However, there are still serious problems that need to be addressed. The conflict has wreaked havoc on the economy and left the country with about 60 percent of its population in poverty, a crippled private sector, and nearly half a million displaced people. Further complicating effective governance are the destabilizing effects of the Seleka and anti-balaka gang rebel factions that continue to control much of the country.

Background

Following decades of violence and instability since gaining independence, an insurgency in CAR led by the Seleka (or “alliance” in Sango)—a coalition of armed, primarily Muslim groups—has resulted in the severe deterioration of the country’s security infrastructure and heightened ethnic tensions. Seleka fighters launched an offensive against the CAR government in December 2012, and seized the capital city of Bangui and staged a coup in March 2013. In response to brutality by Seleka forces, “anti-balaka” (meaning invincible in Sango) coalitions of Christian fighters formed to carry out reprisal violence against Seleka fighters, adding a religious element to the violence that had previously been absent. 

In September 2013, anti-balaka forces began committing widespread revenge attacks against mostly Muslims civilians, displacing tens of thousands of people to Seleka-controlled areas in the north. Seleka forces were disbanded by the government shortly after revenge attacks began, but many ex-Seleka members started committing counterattacks, plunging CAR into a chaotic state of violence and ensuing a humanitarian crisis. 

Reports by human rights groups and UN agencies suggest that crimes committed by both ex-Seleka forces and anti-balaka groups amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Additionally, anti-balaka groups have deliberately and systematically targeted Muslims. Intra-Seleka fighting and involvement by foreign fighters from Chad and Sudan have also escalated the fighting.

Due to the scale of the crisis, the UN Security Council in April 2014 established a peacekeeping force that incorporated African Union and French forces that had been deployed to CAR previously. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic was established with a strength of ten thousand troops and a mandate to protect civilians.

Concerns

The United States has long supported economic growth, strengthening the rule of law, and political stability in CAR, and it remains concerned about the high levels of violence and worsening humanitarian crisis. Further deterioration of the security environment will increase sectarian violence and continue to destabilize the region, posing challenges to ending the conflicts in neighboring South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Intensification of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with regional spillover

Recent Developments

At least seventy armed groups are believed to be currently operating in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite the stabilizing presence of nineteen thousand UN peacekeepers, the stronger militant groups in the region, like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), continue to terrorize communities and control weakly governed areas of the country, financing their activities by exploiting the country’s rich natural resources. Millions of civilians have been forced to flee the fighting: the United Nations estimates that currently there are at least 2.7 million internally displaced persons in the DRC, and approximately 450,000 DRC refugees in other nations. 

In addition to the violence caused by armed groups, President Joseph Kabila has caused further political instability by indicating a possible desire to delay the upcoming 2016 election and to stay in power after his term ends. In December 2015, Kabila called for “political dialogue” with opposition parties, but the police have violently cracked down on internal dissent. This includes the November 2015 use of tear gas against student protesters and the breakup of a January 2015 protest, in which police fired shots and killed over forty people.

Moise Katumbi, a popular opposition leader who was governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province, declared his candidacy for the presidential election in early May 2015. Since his announcement, mass protests and clashes between the police and civilians have become increasingly tense and common.

Background

The current violence in the DRC has its origins in the massive refugee crisis and spillover from the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. After Hutu génocidaires fled to eastern DRC and formed armed groups, opposing Tutsi and other opportunistic rebel groups arose. The Congolese government was unable to control and defeat the various armed groups, some of which directly threatened populations in neighboring countries. From 1998 to 2003, government forces supported by Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe fought rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda, in what is now known as the Second Congo War. The death toll may have reached more than five million people (estimates vary greatly). Despite the signing of a peace deal and the formation of a transitional government in 2003, weak governance and institutions, along with corruption and an absence of the rule of law, have contributed to ongoing violence perpetrated by armed groups against civilians in the eastern region. 

One of the most prominent rebel groups to emerge in the aftermath was known as the March 23 Movement (M23), made up primarily of ethnic Tutsis allegedly supported by the Rwandan government. M23 rebelled against the Congolese government for supposedly reneging on a prior peace deal signed in 2009. It was defeated by the Congolese army and UN peacekeepers in 2013 after it gained control of Goma, a resource-rich provincial capital in eastern DRC on the border with Rwanda and home to more than one million people. The UN Security Council authorized an offensive brigade under the mandate of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC to support the DRC state army in its fight against M23. Since M23’s defeat, other armed groups have emerged due to general lawlessness, chaos, and weak governance in eastern DRC.

The country’s massive resource wealth—estimated to contain $24 trillion of untapped mineral resources—also fuels violence. The mineral trade provides financial means for groups to operate and buy arms. In an effort to prevent funding armed militias, the United States passed legislation in 2010 to reduce the purchase of “conflict minerals,” but due to the complex supply chains in the DRC mineral sale business, obtaining certification has proven difficult for companies that purchase resources from secondhand buyers. As a result, multinational companies stopped buying minerals from DRC, putting many miners out of work and even driving some to join armed groups to gain a source of livelihood.

Concerns

Weak governance and the prevalence of many armed groups have subjected Congolese civilians to widespread rape and sexual violence, massive human rights violations, and extreme poverty. The United Nations, African Union, and neighboring countries have struggled to address threats posed by remaining rebel groups and promote sustainable development. The DRC’s continued violence has the potential to spill over into Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi—countries with longstanding ties with the United States. 

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Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea

An armed confrontation in the South China Sea between China and one or more Southeast Asian claimants to disputed maritime areas

Recent Developments

Territorial and jurisdictional disputes in the South China Sea continue to strain relationships between China and other countries in Southeast Asia and risk escalation into a military clash. The United States has sought to uphold freedom of navigation and support other nations in Southeast Asia that have been affected by China’s assertive territorial claims and land reclamation efforts. In the fall of 2015, the United States signaled that it will challenge China’s assertion of sovereignty over disputed territory by flying military aircraft and deploying ships near some of the islands. 

In recent years, satellite imagery has shown China’s increased efforts to reclaim land in the South China Sea by physically increasing the size of islands or creating altogether new islands. In addition to piling sand onto existing reefs, China has constructed ports, military installations, and airstrips—particularly in the Spratly Islands. 

Background

China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea—and the sea’s alleged 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—have antagonized competing claimants Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As early as the 1970s, countries began to claim as their own islands and various zones in the South China Sea such as the Spratly islands, which may possess rich natural resources and fishing areas.

China maintains that under international law, foreign militaries are not able to conduct intelligence gathering activities, such as reconnaissance flights, in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). According to the United States, countries should have freedom of navigation through EEZs in the sea and are not required to notify claimants of military activities. China’s claims threaten sea lines of communication, which are important maritime passages that facilitate trade and the movement of naval forces. In response to China’s assertive presence in the disputed territory, Japan sold military ships and equipment to the Philippines and Vietnam in order to improve their maritime security capacity and to deter Chinese aggression.

In recent years, China has built three airstrips on the contested Spratly Islands to extend its presence in disputed waters, and militarized Woody Island by deploying fighter jets, cruise missiles, and a radar system. China has warned its Southeast Asian neighbors against drilling for oil and gas in the contested region, which has disrupted other nations’ oil exploration and seismic survey activities. To challenge China’s claims in international waters, the United States has occasionally deployed destroyer ships on freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to promote freedom of passage. Currently, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is hearing a claim brought by the Philippines against China, although Beijing refuses to accept the court’s authority.

Concerns

The United States, which maintains important interests in ensuring freedom of navigation and securing sea lines of communication, has expressed support for an agreement on a binding code of conduct and other confidence-building measures. The United States has a role in preventing military escalation resulting from the territorial dispute. However, Washington’s defense treaty with Manila could draw the United States into a China-Philippines conflict over the substantial natural gas deposits in the disputed Reed Bank or the lucrative fishing grounds of the Scarborough Shoal. A dispute between China and Vietnam over territorial claims could also threaten the military and commercial interests of the United States. The failure of Chinese and Southeast Asian leaders to resolve the disputes by diplomatic means could undermine international laws governing maritime disputes and encourage destabilizing arms buildups.

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Sectarian Violence in Myanmar

Intensification of sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar

Recent Developments

Violence and tensions between Buddhist and Muslim communities continue in Myanmar's Rakhine State. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled the country in 2015, and the UN estimates that there are around 240,000 internally displaced people. 

While Myanmar’s first national election in more than twenty-five years took place in November 2015, and the pro-democracy Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party will claim a parliamentary majority, questions still remain about both the status of the Rohingya people, who were not allowed to vote in the election, and the future nature of the military’s relationship with its new civilian leadership. 

Background

The Rohingya, a highly persecuted Muslim group numbering over one million, face discrimination both from their neighbors and their nation, as they are not officially considered citizens by Myanmar’s government. Buddhist nationalist groups, including the 969 Movement—an anti-Muslim campaign led by Buddhist extremists—call for boycotts on Muslim shops and encourage attacks on Muslim communities, as well as the expulsion of Muslims from Myanmar. Since 2012, more than one hundred thousand Muslim Rohingyas have been made homeless and hundreds have been killed, after two waves of attacks in June and October of 2012 intensified the century-old conflict in the predominantly Buddhist country. 

The displacement of the Rohingya has significantly increased tension between Myanmar and its neighbors. Bangladesh’s border with Myanmar’s Rakhine state is sealed and heavily patrolled to prevent an influx of refugees, contributing to the increase of refugees who seek to flee by boat or who cluster in refugee camps, particularly those on the border with Thailand.

There is little indication that addressing the Rohingya issue will be a priority for Myanmar’s new government, as it works to establish a new relationship with the military and addresses multiple ongoing insurgencies. The military signed a cease-fire with several armed ethnic groups in October 2015, but several major groups—including two of the largest militias, the United Wa State Army and Kachin Independence Army—continue to fight the central government. While the cease-fire agreement is a major step towards peace in Myanmar, it does not finalize a balance of power between the central government and the restive borderlands, or require ethnic groups to disarm, and ignores violence against the Rohingya people specifically.

Concerns

As the U.S.-Myanmar relationship warms, tensions over human rights issues will remain a divisive factor. However, Myanmar’s stability is increasingly important to U.S. interests given Myanmar’s geostrategic importance in Southeast Asia, vast natural resources, and emerging functional democratic government. 

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Tensions in the East China Sea

An armed confrontation in the East China Sea between China and Japan stemming from tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

Recent Developments

Tensions between Japan and China over the contested Senkaku/Daioyu islands in the East China Sea have subsided in recent months as a result of high-level political discussions organized to prevent a dangerous escalation. However, close interactions between air and maritime forces of both countries continue.

In June 2015, the Japanese government revealed that came closer to Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by establishing natural gas projects along the border between the two countries. Chinese and Japanese naval and air patrol vessels continue to operate closely in the area, making the risk of a miscalculation that could lead to an armed confrontation a real danger. To maintain its strategic advantage, China has converted naval warships of considerable size and capability to coast guard vessels, These actions, as well as Chinese coast guards’ constant patrolling, present serious concerns for Japan. In 2015, Chinese aircrafts approached Japan’s airspace more than 570 times, causing the Japanese government to scramble in response. There has been a sharp increase in the number of jet fighter scrambles in the past year; Japan’s air force recorded a 16 percent increase in airspace incursions, which represents the second highest number of interactions since the 1980s. 

Background

Aside from a brief period after World War II when the United States controlled the territory, the Senkaku/Daioyu islands have formally been a part of Japanese territory since 1895, although owned by a private Japanese citizen. China began to assert claims over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands in the 1970s. Tensions resurfaced in September 2012 when Japan purchased three of the disputed islands from the private owner. The economically significant islands, which are northeast of Taiwan, have potential oil and natural gas reserves, are near prominent shipping routes, and are surrounded by rich fishing areas. 

Each country claims to have economic rights in an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of two hundred nautical miles, but that space overlaps because the sea only spans three hundred and sixty nautical miles. After China discovered natural gas near the overlapping EEZ-claimed area in 1995, Japan objected to any drilling in the area due to the fact that the oil reserve could be connected to a field that spans into the disputed zone

In April 2014, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to explicitly state that the disputed islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, although the United States takes no formal position on their ultimate sovereignty. An accidental military incident or political miscalculation by China or Japan could embroil the United States in armed hostilities with China.

Discussions between Japan and China to develop a crisis management mechanism tool began in 2012. Talks stalled when tensions peaked in 2013 after China declared the establishment of an air defense identification zone. After Japan and China signed a four-point consensus document laying out their differences concerning the disputed islands last fall, bilateral discussions resumed in fall 2014, bilateral discussions resumed in early 2015, aiming to implment the maritime and aerial communication mechanism.

Concerns

Rising nationalist sentiments and growing political mistrust heighten the potential for conflict and hinders the capacity for peaceful resolution of the dispute. Though Chinese and Japanese leaders have refrained from forcibly establishing control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, unauthorized action by local commanders could result in the unintended escalation of hostilities. Through treaty commitments with Japan, a military confrontation could involve the United States. To preserve relations with China and continue cooperation on various issues, the United States has an interest in de-escalating tensions. 

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North Korea Crisis

A severe North Korean crisis caused by a military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/ICBM-related activities


Recent Developments

North Korea’s government has continued its aggressive and erratic behavior, as demonstrated by recent military and cyber provocations, and continued efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long range missiles. In addition to harming its own citizens, the country’s actions threaten the entire Korean peninsula.

In January 2016, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear weapons test, claiming to have detonated its first hydrogen bomb. However, analysis of the seismic readings and radiation left doubt as to what type of weapon was actually tested. Continuing to defy international sanctions, in February 2016 Pyongyang fired a long-range rocket to launch a satellite in to orbit, which was widely viewed as continued testing of intercontinental ballistic missile technologies and has further increased tensions. These actions have elicited serious concerns, with new U.S. sanctions passed in February 2016 following additional punitive measures taken by Japan and South Korea.

North Korea has continued to test weapons systems since 2012, including the launch of the long-range Unha-3 rocket in December 2012 and a nuclear test in February 2013. Pyongyang threatened a fourth test in November 2014, following the adoption of a resolution by the UN General Assembly condemning North Korean human rights abuses.

Other incitements include firing rockets across the South Korean border, known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), in August 2015 and North Korea’s cyberattack on U.S.-based Sony Pictures in December 2014, as well as its 2010 shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, which is located around twelve miles south of the North Korean coast.

Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s supreme leader, has undertaken efforts to consolidate his power by purging high-ranking officials, including his own family members. There are reportedly between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners detained in North Korea. 

Background

North Korea (officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is isolated, impoverished, and a proclaimed enemy of its southern neighbor—an important U.S. ally.

U.S. military involvement in the Korean peninsula has its roots in the Korean War of the early 1950s, in which the United States supported forces in the southern part of the peninsula against communist forces in the north, who were aided militarily by China and the Soviet Union. Today, the United States is committed to defending South Korea under the terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of Korea. The United States has nearly 29,000 troops deployed in the Korean peninsula for that purpose. In addition to U.S. troops, many of South Korea’s 640,000 soldiers and North Korea’s 1.2 million soldiers are stationed near the DMZ, making it one of the most heavily armed borders in the world. 

In violation of UN Security Council resolutions, North Korea continues overt nuclear enrichment and long-range missile development efforts. Although the scope of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program remains uncertain, U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that it has enough plutonium to produce five nuclear weapons. 

Concerns

North Korea is a nuclear power with a complex relationship with China, and preventing both an interstate Korean war and a North Korean internal collapse are critical U.S. national security interests. Small-scale military and cyber provocations by North Korea pose significant risk as each incident carries with it the potential for widespread escalation

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Conflict in Ukraine

An intensification of fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed militia forces and Ukrainian security forces, with potential overt Russian military intervention

 

Recent developments 

The standing cease-fire in eastern Ukraine has been continuously violated. U.S. officials have warned that the year-end deadline for a peace deal signed in February 2015 will not be met. Although the conflict has calmed since it first erupted in early 2014, there was a significant increase in fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels around Donetsk in late 2015. In November 2015, saboteurs destroyed power lines to Crimea leaving millions there without electricity for nearly two weeks as protests prevented their repair. 

Background 

The crisis in Ukraine began with protests in the capital city of Kiev in November 2013 against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a deal for greater economic integration with the European Union. After a violent crackdown by state security forces had the unintended effect of drawing an even greater number of protesters and escalating the conflict, the President Yanukovych fled the country in February 2014. 

In March 2014, Russian troops took control of the Crimean region, before formally annexing the peninsula after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation in a disputed local referendum. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the need for Crimea to be part of a “strong and stable sovereignty,” which he argued could only be Russia. The crisis heightened ethnic divisions across Ukraine, and two months later pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine held a referendum that declared independence from Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk. 

Violence between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military in the east has injured 21,000 and killed over 9,000. Although Moscow denies its involvement, Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have reported the buildup of Russian troops and military equipment near Donetsk and Russian cross-border shelling.

The situation in Ukraine escalated into an international crisis, putting the United States and the European Union (EU) at odds with Russia, in July 2014, when a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over Ukrainian airspace, killing all 298 onboard, by what Dutch air accident investigators concluded was a Russian-built surface-to-air missile and which the Ukrainian authorities suspect was supplied by Russia to the separatists. Since February 2015, Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany have attempted to broker a cessation in violence through the Minsk Accords—which include provisions for a cease-fire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry, and full Ukrainian government control throughout the conflict zone. However, efforts to reach a diplomatic settlement and satisfactory resolution have been unsuccessful. 

Concerns

The conflict in Ukraine risks further deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations and greater escalation if Russia expands its presence in Ukraine or into NATO countries. While the United States and Europe have not committed military support to Ukraine beyond defensive weaponry, Russia’s actions have raised wider concerns about its intentions elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and a Russian incursion into a NATO country would solicit a response from the United States as a treaty ally. The conflict has heightened tensions in Russia’s relations with both the United States and Europe, complicating prospects for cooperation elsewhere including on issues of terrorism, arms control, and a political solution in Syria.

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  • Stephen Sestanovich

    George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies

  • Michael A. Levi

    David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change

  • Robert Kahn

    Steven A. Tananbaum Senior Fellow for International Economics

  • Robert D. Blackwill

    Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy

Civil War in South Sudan

Protracted civil war in South Sudan stemming from political and ethnic divisions

Recent Developments

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.6 million have been internally displaced since civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013. Under the threat of international sanctions and following several rounds of negotiations supported by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), President Salva Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar on August 26, 2015. As the first step toward ending the civil war, Machar returned to Juba on April 26, 2016 and was sworn in as vice president, after spending more than two years outside of the country.

It remains to be seen whether the peace deal will hold and the transitional government will take shape. After signing the agreement in August, 2015, violence continued and both sides to the conflict blamed the other for violating the cease-fire. After the leaders failed to reach an agreement by the deadline in March 2015, South Sudanese lawmakers again postponed elections and extended President Kiir’s term; elections are now slated for 2018. The peace talks, which began in January 2014, have resulted in several agreements, but both parties to the conflict and other splintering factions repeatedly violate the cease-fires. 

Armed groups, including the government’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), have committed widespread violence against civilians, especially women and children, humanitarian workers, and peacekeepers. As of July 2015, more than 166,000 people are seeking protection on UN bases, which have become displacement-like settlements known as protection of civilian sites, in areas such as Bentiu, Juba, and Malakal.

Background

Ignited by a political struggle between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar that led to the Machar's removal from as vice president, violence erupted between presidential guard soldiers in December 2013 and immediately took on an ethnic character. Soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group, one of the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, aligned with President Kiir and those from the Nuer ethnic group, the other largest ethnic group, supported Riek Machar. In the midst of chaos, President Kiir announced that Machar had attempted a coup and violence spread quickly to Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states. Since the outbreak of conflict, armed groups have targeted civilians along ethnic lines, committed rape and sexual violence, destroyed property and looted villages, and recruited children into their ranks.

Violence has prevented farmers from planting or harvesting crops, causing food shortages nationwide. In July 2014, the UN Security Council declared South Sudan’s food crisis the worst in the world. It warned that some four million people—a third of South Sudan’s population—could be affected and up to fifty thousand children could die of hunger.

In late December 2013, the UN Security Council authorized a rapid deployment of about 6,000 security forces, in addition to 7,600 peacekeepers already in the country, to aid in nation building efforts. In May 2014, the Security Council voted in a rare move to shift the mission’s mandate from nation building to civilian protection, authorizing UN troops to use force. Since reprioritizing protection, the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan has faced extreme challenges due to the deterioration of the security situation and its complex relationship with the government of the Republic of South Sudan, which is a belligerent to the conflict. 

Concerns

The United States was a lead facilitator of South Sudanese independence, which was voted for in a 2011 referendum that was held in the southern part of Sudan, excluding the contested area of Abyei, providing diplomatic support and humanitarian aid. Prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2013, the United States strongly supported and advocated for Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which became the new country’s government. However, the United States has taken a back seat in peace talks as IGAD mediates between Kiir and Machar. The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on commanders from both sides, but diplomats say real pressure for a deal to be implemented must come from neighboring states.

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