The Changing Face of Deadly Conflict

By Gareth Evans, Crisis Group President Emeritus and former Foreign Minister of Australia

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter stands near the southern Kirkuk front line with ISIS in Iraq. MAGNUM/Moises Saman
Gareth Evans

Policymakers trying to prevent and resolve deadly conflict — and those, like the International Crisis Group, seeking to influence them — are all too unhappily familiar with that corollary to Murphy’s Law which tells us: “If you’re feeling good, don’t worry: you’ll get over it”. The continuing decline in the reality and prospect of war between states gives us much to be pleased about, as does the reduction — more than most people think — in the number and intensity of wars and incidents of mass violence within states, at least those driven by the familiar forces of greed for territory or government power, or the fears or grievances of particular groups.

But we have all been deeply sobered by the re-emergence, within and across state boundaries, and on a scale not seen for centuries, of a new breed of conflict: extreme violence driven by non-state actors motivated by religious ideology. Starting with al-Qaeda and its offshoots and imitators in Africa and Asia, this has been now given most alarming expression with the emergence of the Islamic State (IS), or Da’esh — its leadership now focused on Syria and Iraq, but rapidly finding supporters elsewhere, like Boko Haram in West Africa and a number of jihadi groups in North Africa and South East Asia. The strategies and tools that have been working elsewhere to date have had little or no traction in this context, and all of us need to go back to the drawing board.

But first the better news. The elimination of interstate war, by far the most destructive kind of conflict, has been the overwhelming preoccupation of policymakers for centuries, and — far more than the protection of individual and group rights, or even economic development — was the overwhelming rationale for establishing the UN.

And that goal is remarkably close to being achieved: since the end of the Cold War, no interstate conflict has come close to rivalling the carnage of the Korean War in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1970s, and the Iran-Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the 1980s. All the world’s larger powers seem at last to have accepted that there is no longer, if there ever was, any cleansing virtue or inherent nobility in war. With present day technology, the damage inflicted by any cross-border conflict would be unbelievably horrific, far outweighing in today’s economically interdependent world any conceivable benefit to be derived.

Of course there is no room for complacency, and intelligent diplomacy — supported by the kind of deep analysis and thoughtful policy prescriptions that Crisis Group continues to produce — will go on being indispensable in dampening tensions as they arise.

India-Pakistan relations remain on a knife-edge, and could be ignited by another Mumbai-type terrorist incident; there are recurring stresses in East Asia associated with China’s new assertiveness; and Central and East Europeans remain acutely suspicious of Russia’s intentions after its incursion into Georgia, annexation of Crimea, and active support for the militias now destabilising eastern Ukraine. Cyberspace has emerged as a crucial new vector through which states, directly or through non-state proxies, can surreptitiously destabilise and damage potential adversaries. And the dream of eliminating nuclear weapons, the use of which could turn even a limited regional exchange into a global catastrophe, seems as far away as ever.

With the decline of interstate war, the overwhelming preoccupation of policymakers in the two decades of Crisis Group’s existence has been with civil war, and outbreaks of unconscionable mass violence within state borders — perpetrated by the state itself or non-state actors within it, and often, at least initially, involving one-sided attacks on unarmed civilians. Here again, although such conflicts and violence are not close to eradication, there is basically a good news story to tell, at least for those situations where the violent actors seem to be primarily motivated by what might be described as “traditional” factors: the grievances or fears, real or imagined, of particular ethnic, religious or other groups against the state or other groups; struggles for political or territorial self-determination; or simply struggles to acquire and exercise political or economic power.

As documented by the Human Security Report Project in Canada, utilising the excellent database of the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, after an upward spike in the late 1980s and very early 1990s — associated with the breakdown of Cold War structures and some unresolved post-colonial issues — there has been a major trend decline in these kinds of conflicts within states, in the number of genocidal and other mass atrocities, and in the number of people killed as a result of them. The precise figures vary with the particular definitions employed, but a general decline of the order of 50 per cent or more in all these respects is now, despite the instinctive perceptions of most of us to the contrary, broadly accepted within the research community.

A number of factors seem to have contributed to this, including reductions in global poverty (reducing the motivation for and increasing the opportunity costs of joining rebellions, and increasing state capacity to respond to them); the success of non-violent resistance in a number of countries (every struggle that is so resolved does not enter the conflict database); and the increasing normative weight of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle, unanimously embraced by the UN General Assembly in 2005, which is changing the way the world thinks and talks about mass atrocities, even if this does not always translate into effective action.

But the best explanation of how and why this has happened seems to be institutional more than economic, political or normative: the huge upsurge in activity in conflict prevention, conflict management, negotiated peacemaking and post-conflict peacebuilding activity that has occurred over the last two decades.

Most of that has been spearheaded by the much-maligned UN, although there has been a great deal of additional input from governments and other organisations, including the International Crisis Group, which has well-earned its present reputation as the world’s leading non-government source of information, analysis and policy advice on all these matters.

While again there is no room for complacency, it is fair to say that the toolbox of preventive measures is ever better understood, including in the context of post-conflict peacebuilding; we have been doing better at diplomatic peacemaking; and we are getting ever more professional in our peacekeeping, with 130,000 uniformed and civilian personnel now in the field. These peacekeepers are generally now armed with stronger mandates, though many missions remain under-resourced in terms of personnel, equipment and logistic support, not least in the largest and most problematic of the UN’s current missions, in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur.

Now for the much less good news. A great deal of this effort and achievement in dramatically reducing deadly conflict and violence, both between and within states, has been overshadowed in recent years by the re-emergence of extreme religiously motivated violence driven by non-state actors.

There has been a dramatic upturn in the number of deaths associated with conflicts — some within and some straddling state borders — in which radical Islamists have been one of the warring parties: some 250,000 since 2011 in Syria alone (although there, killings by IS and other jihadi groups are only one component of a catastrophic civil war in which enormous casualties have been caused by the Assad regime and a great many by other militias opposing it).

The enormous problem faced by policymakers in confronting actors like IS and Boko Haram — and al-Qaeda and the Christian fundamentalists of Kony’s Lords Revolutionary Army before them — is that none of them now (although IS may prove to be an exception) are behaving in a way that makes them remotely susceptible to the toolbox of diplomatic and other peacemaking and peacekeeping measures, both non-coercive and coercive, which have very often made the achievement of sustainable peace settlements possible in the other contexts described above.

Nor has outright military action expressly designed to degrade and destroy organisations like IS so far had much visible success. We know by now that conducting any kind of open-ended military “war on terrorism” anywhere in the Middle East, particularly when it involves complex environments where legitimate targets are commingled with civilian populations and collateral damage is bound to occur, is bound to be perceived by many — and will certainly be portrayed by the extremists in question — as Western crusaders mounting yet another “war on Islam”. Which inevitably leads to jihadis being replaced by new recruits as fast, or faster, than they can be killed.

Dealing with this new challenge really will require going back to the drawing board. Certainly, part of the response will have to be military: in the case of IS at the very least to stop further territorial expansion, and to save populations at risk of mass atrocity crimes in the exercise of the international community’s responsibility to protect them. But, because of the counterproductive nature of force applied other than in most measured and limited way, the military enterprise should be seen as much more one of containment rather than destruction.

Sometimes the price of stopping mass killing has to be deeply unpalatable political compromise.

In the case of the Syrian civil war between the Assad regime and its non-IS opponents, with Russia’s latest interventions making outright military victory against the Assad regime ever more out of reach, it is being increasingly accepted in the West that, like it or not, at least some kind of transitional role for President Assad is going to have to be part of the solution.

Nor — however hard it is to stomach this prospect given the almost unbelievable horrors it has perpetrated so far — should it be assumed that some kind of political settlement with IS itself will forever be out of reach. IS does seem to be in the business of state formation, and coldly and deliberately engaged in terrifying violence, not as the senseless behaviour of a “death cult”, but to achieve that political objective — like the Stern Gang and IRA and plenty of others before it. It may well decide, as have some other initially brutal but later internationally accepted regimes, that continued atrocities perpetrated against those it wants to govern are not the best recipe for its own survival either internally or externally.

Of course there has to be a policy response to the problem of the recruitment and deployment elsewhere in the world of violent extremists by jihadi organisations like IS. But generally speaking, effective counter-terrorism is much more about strong international cooperation on intelligence and policing, and winning relevant community support at home, than it is about winning military battles abroad. It is also about recognising, as a number of Western governments remain reluctant to do, that there are some genuinely political, as distinct from pathological, reasons, why jihadi extremists find it so easy to recruit both throughout the Middle East and in the diaspora. They include the radicalising perceptions that the U.S.-led West continues to prop up authoritarians and dictators totally indifferent to their own citizens’ rights, and that it continues to be indefensibly one-sided in its approach to the Israel-Palestine problem. It won’t be easy to alter the policy of the U.S. and those who sail with it in these respects, but it is difficult to imagine any fundamental change in this new threat environment without at least a major change of tone in the way in which the West presents itself in the Islamic world.

In all of this, the kind of deep and thoughtful analysis and policy prescription that Crisis Group has provided to the international community for the last twenty years has never been more necessary. What has given Crisis Group its cutting edge over that period is that it learned very early, and has continued to apply, the lessons of what makes for a successful international non-government organisation. There are four crucial factors: meet a real need; have a very clearly defined mission and stick to it; be, and be seen to be, completely independent of vested interests; and run the organisation with absolute professionalism, recognising that if one wants to influence governments at the highest levels, the written and oral advocacy product has to be of a quality the very best of them are used to.

Crisis Group from its inception has added value by providing deep field-based information and analysis beyond the capacity of not only media organisations but also most governments.

Often this is because security and policy constraints limit their access to key local players: non-state actors can sometimes do things, and provide perspectives, that state actors cannot. It has stuck to its niche of producing field-based research, practical policy prescriptions, and high-level advocacy. It has constantly made very clear that it is not beholden in its recommendations to the view of any of its donors, be they governments, foundations or from the private sector. And it has attracted and retained personnel of the highest professional quality, generating outputs that have been seen as consistently successful in ringing early warning alarm bells, identifying the right policy responses to new and evolving conflict situations, and often creatively reconceptualising issues that have cried out for new thinking.

The world of conflict prevention and resolution never stands still: both new thinking, and the adaptation of old thinking to new circumstances, is constantly necessary. With the appearance of violent religious extremism as an alarming new conflict driver in the Middle East and elsewhere, things are no longer what they used to be. But then again, they never really were. Crisis Group has ridden the waves of change in the global conflict environment with a high measure of success in its first two decades. May it continue to do so for many years more.

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This article represents the view of the individual writer, not that of International Crisis Group or of its Board.