SHARING KNOWLEDGE    CREATING NETWORKS

Articles

World in Turmoil: Wars, Elections, and Unprecedented Challenges in 2023

Sub Title : Commentary on various conflicts across the world during 2023

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2024

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 60

Category : Geostrategy

: January 27, 2024

The article provides a comprehensive overview of the major conflicts in 2023, focusing on the Russia-Ukraine war, the Middle East conflict, and the looming situation in Taiwan. It delves into the complexities of each conflict, from the challenges faced by Israel in Gaza to the struggles of Ukraine against Russian forces. The piece also sheds light on overlooked wars, such as the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict and ongoing civil wars in Africa and the Middle East.

The detailed analysis covers the internal unrest in Myanmar, the political turmoil in Pakistan, and the precarious situation in Afghanistan. The author anticipates that the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East will persist in 2024, emphasizing the potential for a broader war and the uncertainties surrounding Taiwan. Additionally, the article highlights the escalating tensions in the South China Sea and the challenges posed by climate change and artificial intelligence.

2023 has been characterised by two major wars – the Russia-Ukraine war, now approaching its third year, and the Middle East conflict which erupted with the 07 October attacks on Israel by Hamas and its retaliation. That four month long war (so far) has already sucked in external parties and can be even more disastrous than the conflict in Europe

In the receding war of Ukraine and the spreading one of the Middle East, there is another looming in the background – Taiwan. Could Xi Jinping use the distraction caused by these wars to try his hand at “the sacred duty of reunification of Taiwan…by force, if necessary.” An invasion of Taiwan has been predicted around 2027 or so but can be advanced to as early as 2024 if the global climate is suitable – which it now appears to be.

While these conflicts have dominated the headlines, others continue to take a far greater toll on lives and livelihoods. The Azerbaijan-Armenia war in September saw the virtual dissolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave in two days of fighting. The civil wars in Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Myanmar and the Sahel go unnoticed and unchecked – claiming lakhs of casualties and displacing millions. Africa is roiled by coups and counter-coups. And Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and others are in an internal ferment that can spiral out of control at any time. As per Conflict Watcher, the past two years have seen more conflict than at any time since the end of World War II. The  wars have claimed an estimated 1,40,000 lives in 2023, a reduction from the figure of 2,20,000 last year, largely due to the easing of the bloodbaths of Somalia and Yemen. Not a single war of the past year has been satisfactorily resolved, while newer ones have erupted.

War in the Middle East

On 7 October 23, the sacred day of Simchat Torah, Hamas terrorists attacked Israel and in a day long carnage, killed over 1400 people and took around 240 hostages back to Gaza. It was the largest single day loss of life in Israel’s turbulent history. That same day, Israel mobilised 300,000 reservists and its cabinet announced a formal declaration of war for the first time in 50 years. Operation ‘Swords of Iron’ was launched to eliminate Hamas, getting the hostages back, and creating a new security architecture in Gaza.

After three weeks of air and missile attacks, Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza on 28 October, one which has continued for over three months now, destroyed 60 per cent of Gaza’s infrastructure, displaced over 1.5 million people and claimed over 24,000 thousand lives and 56,000 wounded (so far).  To put it in perspective, that is three times the civilian casualty count caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine after two years of war.

World sympathy was initially with Israel, but that dissipated very fast as images of attacks on hospitals, refugee camps and residential areas began flooding the news channels. Israel moved from being a victim to the aggressor in just three short weeks. Its land invasion merely compounded the issue. It began initially in North Gaza, when 1.1 million Gazans were told to vacate their homes and move south of the line Wadi Gaza. Israeli tanks surrounded Gaza City and other centres where the Hamas leadership were reportedly sheltering. But while buildings and complexes were flattened and strikes hit hospitals and refugee camps, the loss to Hamas members and leaders could never be ascertained. Israel claimed to have killed over 8000 cadres (most presumably buried under rubble) but most of the top leaders – including Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa – simply disappeared using the famed ‘Gaza Metro’ – the 515 km long warren of underground tunnels – and escaped towards the south in the city of Khan Younis.

Once again the inhabitants of South Gaza were ordered to vacate their homes and move. But as at the time of writing  they are still elusive, even as Israeli operations have re-focused on Central Gaza. Nor have many hostages been rescued. Over a hundred were returned in a prisoner swap, but most remain untraceable. Some were killed by ‘friendly fire’ even as they waved out to approaching Israeli soldiers, and pressure is mounting on the Israeli leadership to get them back safely. Israeli casualties have been comparatively restricted – around 180 soldiers or so till end of December – but it is still higher than all their earlier wars with Hamas put together.

This war has drawn other parties into the fray. Hezbollah, the Houthis, and other groups from the West Bank, Iraq and Syria, have intensified attacks on Israel in solidarity with Hamas. Hezbollah has launched rocket attacks and raided Israeli settlements. In retaliation, Israel has struck Lebanon itself, killing  the deputy chief of Hamas, a senior Hezbollah leader, and an Iranian general in the heart of Beirut with drone attacks. The Houthis in Yemen have expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian people through a flurry of drone and missile attacks, blocking shipping in the Red Sea and the Straits of Bab el Mandeb – the crucial waterway through which 15 percent of the world’s shipping transits. The USA formed a coalition – ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ – to ensure safe passage through the waters. US and UK aircraft and missiles also struck Houthi targets in Yemen itself, raising fears that the war could soon widen in scope, perhaps even bringing Iran in direct involvement.

There is no clarity how this war will end. Hamas and its leadership will most probably be eliminated, but they will simply arise in another form. The hostages remain pawns in a larger game, but it would be safer to get them back through negotiations than armed action.

Ukraine

The events of the Middle East have pushed the Russia-Ukraine war to the sidelines. Russia had succeeded in capturing Bakhmut around March. But that success was clouded by the ‘Wagner mutiny’ which was successfully squashed (and led to the demise of Yevgeny Prigozhin two months later). Much was hoped from the much vaunted Ukrainian spring offensive this year. The USA and its western allies had pumped in vast amounts of aid and equipment to build up an offensive force of around twelve brigades, but the offensive was inordinately delayed and launched only around June-July 23. The much-hyped offensive “to regain the last inch of Ukrainian soil,” was poorly planned and executed. The troops were inadequately trained, and the offensive forces dispersed along a 400 kilometre wide front. The initial Ukrainian attacks were beaten back at the first line of Russian defences, with losses to the newly-acquired Leopard and Challenger tanks. After that, the Ukrainian offensive crept forward slowly and timidly, advancing around 500 meters or so on a good day. After five months of operations, the Ukrainians advanced around 11-13 kilometres and managed to penetrate the first Russian defensive line in only one location –  near Tokmuk – before coming to a halt with winter. Even if they do follow up the offensive next year, at this rate it will take the Ukrainians 103 years to recapture its  lost territories.

To make matters worse, the war in Gaza has diverted attention and aid away from  Ukraine. Most European nations are now weary of the war and willing to accept a ‘land-for-peace’ solution. US aid is being diverted to Israel and Joe Biden’s ‘blank cheque policy’ now finds few takers. Without external aid, Ukraine will be able to fight for just 45 days before it runs out of fuel and ammunition.

Civil and Uncivil Wars

While the two major wars have dominated world attention, other wars have had an even more devastating effect.  In September, Azerbaijan simply took over the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had formed the breakaway republic of Artsakh. Nagorno- Karabakh was populated by a mix of Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis and had been a bone of contention between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1991. The two sides even fought two wars over it. The last war in 2020 saw Azerbaijani drones virtually decimate the Armenian ground forces and gain control of most of the outlying districts of Nagorno-Karabakh in six weeks of fighting before Russia brokered a ceasefire and maintained a fragile truce. Taking advantage of the removal of Russian peacekeepers, who had been diverted to Ukraine, Azerbaijan launched another offensive in September 23, which overran the enclave in two short days and simply took it over. The war led to the displacement of over 200,000 Christians who fled to Armenia, fearing persecution. It also upended the delicate balance of power in the Central Asian Republics and reduced Russia’s traditional influence over it.

Other wars – especially the civil wars – have gone on for years, some for decades.  The latest to join the list was Sudan, which plunged into internal conflict in April 23, when fighters of the Rapid Support Forces – an ethnic militia headed by the warlord Mohammed Hamdam Dagalo, broke off with the Army chief General Abdel al Burhan (who had himself come into power two years earlier in a coup aided by Dagalo’s forces) and marched onto Khartoum.  The battle for power between these two men soon degenerated into a civil war along tribal and ethnic lines, that spread across the nation, killed over 10000, and displaced over 1.2 million, and goes on with no clear end in sight

Sudan has joined the long line of nations in Africa – Nigeria, Niger, Gabon, Burkina Faso,  Chad, and Guinea that have been embroidered in civil war after an attempted coup. Six coups have taken place in these nations over the past two years, which have invariably degenerated into internal war, in which millions of ordinary citizens have been affected. In the turmoil, vast swathes of North and Central Africa have been taken over by Al Shabab – an affiliate of the Islamic State, and other Islamic militant groups, who thrive in conditions of such instability. Africa is fast emerging as the next epicentre of Islamic militancy.

Other long-standing civil wars – Ethiopia, Somalia, Syria, Yemen have gone on for years without resolution. In Ethiopia, the government forces had imposed a virtual blockade over the breakaway northern province of Tigray, which killed over 2 million by an induced famine. There was some respite, with a ceasefire between Ethiopian government forces and Tigray Peoples Liberation Front in November 22. But, other ethnic groups have not stopped their fighting with the Ethiopian government. So, in spite of a temporary truce, a renewed spate of fighting could be on the cards.

In Somalia, a civil war has raged unchecked for 20 years – so much so that it has been forgotten.  The Yemen Civil War  between Iran-backed Houthis and Saudi-backed government forces has been going on for nine years now. This has  displaced  4 million people and killed over four lakh – 20 times the casualties of Ukraine – in what the United Nations call, “the world’s  largest humanitarian crisis of 2023.”  The Saudi led coalition has had little success, barring ineffectual air strikes, and seem to have given up the war. The Houthis  now control all of southern and  western Yemen, including the capital Sanaa. They are stronger than before, and have even attacked Israel and shipping in the Red Sea, getting the USA in to the fray. This proxy war between Saudi and Iran is now extending to become a proxy war between USA and Iran – which is playing its cards through proxy groups like Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas and Shia militia in Iraq and Syria. This adds a dangerous dimension to the Israel-Hamas-Hezbollah-Houthis-Iran-USA conflict which can engulf the entire Middle East in its scope.

Closer home, Myanmar has been in unrest since February 21, ever since the military junta – the Tatmadaw-  upturned the elections,  imprisoned  Aung San Sui Kyi and imposed military rule. This led to a nationwide uprising for the return of democracy, which soon became a virtual civil war between the military and a coalition of ethnic and tribal groups fighting under the loose banner of Movement for Restoration of Democracy. This October, rebel fighters launched a coordinated offensive – Codenamed Operation 1027, after its start date of 27 October. They seized over 20 military posts and took control of vast tracts of area in Arakan, Shan and Rakhine provinces. The  military Junta responded with a vengeance – as always –  launching air strikes (some of which inadvertently hit Bangladesh) and bombing entire villages of suspected supporters.

The internal instability in the Hermit Kingdom, has caused 2 million refugees and over 1,20,000 deaths. It has had a depilating effect on its neighbours, especially India, Bangladesh and Thailand which have been flooded by refugees. It jeopardised India’s plans for connectivity to Southeast Asia and destabilised the border states. As we go to print, a ceasefire was announced between the militant groups and the military, brokered by China, in January 24.  But will it hold?

The Af-Pak Region

Pakistan has been in political turmoil ever since Imran Khan’s ‘selected’ government was  upturned in April 22, and replaced by Shahbaz Sharif’s coalition. Yet things really came to head when he was arrested in May 23. This triggered a wave of violent protests and destruction by his supporters, that even targeted army installations and their symbols.

The clampdown launched by General Asim Munir soon re-established the primacy of the army. Imran and most of his supporters have been imprisoned and Imran is barred from contesting elections. National elections are due in February 24, and the country goes to polls amidst unprecedented political, social and financial turmoil. But whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to alleviate the internal situation by much.

In the wake of the internal chaos, the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have intensified their activities. The TTP refused to extend a truce with the government in November 22, and in 2023 have launched 664 attacks on army posts, convoys, mosques and even Air bases. The TTP has been joined by the Islamic State in Khorasan and Tehreek-e-Jihad, Pakistan, and the Baloch Liberation, Army, in launching an orchestrated series of attacks across all of the NWFP and Baluchistan. The TTP even took over complete districts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The TTP is an affiliate of the Taliban, which refuses to rein in its fighters and even provides safe sanctuaries after an attack. This has got Pakistan on a  confrontation course with the Taliban. Pakistan’s decision to evict 1.5 million Afghan refugees has further soured relations. To add to the mix, Iran launched missile attacks at Jaish al Adl militant group locations inside Pakistan, in retaliation for their attacks on Iran. TTP attacks will intensify as the country goes into election mode, and unless the army wakes up to the threat and counters it decisively, Pakistan may just go the Afghanistan way.

In comparison to Pakistan, Afghanistan is a haven of stability. The Taliban have established their puritanical form of government, but have managed to keep violence down. Internal battles between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State continue, but the country has not slipped into anarchy as it did in the 90s. But with Islamic fundamentalism established in the country, it is a matter of time, before it starts expanding outwards in to the region – which is a cause for concern.

What will 2024 Bring?

2024 is likely to see the wars of both Ukraine and the Middle East continue for some time. Putin has vowed to continue the war “till all its aims have been met” and now Russia holding on to the territory they have captured seems a foregone conclusion. With Ukraine slipping off the world’s radar, a renewed Russian offensive for even larger land grab (and the eventual removal of Zelensky) is a possibility.

The Middle East churn too, is unlikely to be resolved soon. Israel may find itself even more isolated by its actions, and the Palestinian issue and a “Two-State Solution” will be back on the table. And there is the fear of a wider war, perhaps even involving USA and Iran, that always looms large.  And of course, another potential flashpoint – Korea – never really goes off the boil. Any one of the provocative actions by Kim Jong Un, could go out of control at any time.  China has been ramping its aggression in the China Seas, taking over islands and building bases in the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands, even using water cannons and ramming other shipping to reinforce their claims. This has got it increasingly on collision course with the USA, Japan, Philippines. Vietnam and a host of nations.

But these are small actions. The major action could come in Taiwan. The Taiwanese elections of January 24, has brought the Democratic Progressive Party back in power for a third term. This party is increasingly anti-reunification and pro-independence. The mood in Taiwan, too, is getting increasingly anti-China with each generation. Could Xi Jinping use the diversion caused by the wars of Ukraine and the Middle East (and the US presidential elections of November 24) to seize a “once-in-a-century moment” and try to reunify the island by military force? If it does happen, will the USA intervene, as President Joe Biden publicly stated it would?  The answer to that question is what we await in the looming confrontation of the coming years.

These conflicts have taken attention away from the two major threats facing the world –  climate change and artificial intelligence. World temperatures rose by 1.48°C this year –  higher than ever in recorded history – causing floods, drought, crop failure, forest fires and lack of snowfall – across the world. If unchecked, temperature rise will be impossible to reverse and could be potentially annihilating. And AI has emerged as the saviour and destroyer of the world. It is still not clear which avatar it could take, if allowed to roam unchecked.

2023 – like the years before it – has only seen an increase in the scope and level of conflict across the world. Newer areas of conflict have emerged, which threaten to encompass some of the most critical areas of the globe. And there are others looming on the horizon. We can only watch to see the direction of these conflicts, and take measures to insulate ourselves and preserve our national interest in the chaos enveloping the world.