Conflicts to Watch in 2022
2021 saw devastating conflicts intensify across the world, from the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, to the insecurity in the Sahel, to the exacerbated humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, to the global rise in disinformation. The new year will likely see unresolved cracks deepen, and Red Line Senior Researcher & Analyst Perri Grace has compiled a list of the key conflicts she will be watching in the new year.
The United Nations has maintained a presence in Somalia for decades, and the assistance mission called UNSOM was mandated in 2013. The tolerance for this mandate along with the African Union mission is wearing thin however. Somalia will be entering 2022 with the mission’s end date looming; on December 21st it was extended to March 31st 2022. This extension called for the mission to redouble efforts to fully respect the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of "the unity of Somalia", but the lack of progress thus far and looming end date does not inspire hope.
The state is widely fractured, severely split economically, politically and socially, and essentially comprises three autonomous areas - Puntland, Somaliland and Somalia - artificially combined into one state. Disputes between communities over the power balance and resource allocation is inevitable and internal government tensions are not going away anytime soon. The last year in Somalia has been complex, in particular a missing spy intensified an internal political rift as President Farmajo cut some of the prime minister's power as the country repeatedly delayed the elections.
The Ethiopian Civil War has created a power vacuum that groups like Al-Shabaab will be working quickly to take advantage of
Al-Shabaab has become emboldened by the conflict in Ethiopia, which has created an enormous power vacuum that they will seek to take advantage of. With the threat of international forces being deployed to the Horn of Africa dialling down, there will be a significant opening for them to expand their operations and influence. Al-Shabaab attacks on Mogadishu continue to grow in frequency and are likely to worsen this year as the Somali government faces ongoing internal challenges. As 2021 ended with fatal clashes in Puntland, it will be a complicated and risky year ahead for Somalia and the Horn of Africa, as existing security issues are exacerbated by economic devastation and the Ethiopian Civil War.
Everything that could go wrong in 2021 did go wrong. As an entity, the Afghanistan that entered the year does not exist anymore, instead the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will enter 2022. The US withdrawal was an unmitigated disaster, and the international community losing the best shot at peace in front of the world's eyes. We clung to our feeds this year as we heard intelligence sources tell us Kabul could fall in 90 days, and while many of us didn’t think those forecasts were totally accurate, we did not foresee the country would fall to the Taliban insurgency in just 11 days. We watched in horror as regions fell one after another.
While much of the news coverage and daily reminders of the tragedy and disappointment Afghans have faced for decades has died down, but the impacts of the death of the country, the loss of women’s rights, and widespread insecurities are as real as they have ever been, and the true aftershocks are being felt now with the world’s spotlight turned elsewhere and Afghans adjust to a new world. This country faces tough times that are likely to only get more challenging. ISKP will ramp up attacks, the economy will likely collapse, famine will become more widespread, and the humanitarian crisis will worsen. The United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to loosen sanctions supporting in a bid to assist Afghans with basic human needs although it will not end Taliban-linked entity sanctions.
The United Nations Development Program also warned that by mid-2022, 97% of Afghans could fall below the poverty line unless the ongoing political and economic challenges are addressed. The unfortunate reality is that the world isn't watching as attentively as before, and so this is a highly likely scenario.
Horn of Africa
After the Tigray conflict entered its second year we saw the launch of Oromo insurgencies in the form of the OLA, and the Tigray forces announced a withdrawal from their neighbouring regions of Amhara and Afar. The latter could well be just a strategic move, much like the Taliban's silence before the US Afghanistan exit.
"With over two million people displaced, this is a conflict defined by ethnic and gender-based violence, torture, executions, and infrastructure targeting."
The hate speech and misinformation has only increased in the last months, with even Abiy Ahmed calling for the people to 'bury' the enemy and get ready to defend. The situation is tense, and with the north's communication blackout, this rhetoric will likely increase in intensity, and we will never receive the complete picture. With over two million people displaced, this is a conflict defined by ethnic and gender-based violence, torture, executions, and infrastructure targeting. This is no minor conflict, and going into the following year, the real impact on the region and the country will be felt.
The impact of dropping numbers of Ethiopian UN and AU peacekeepers in places like Sudan and Somalia is going to hurt, and there remains the possibility of the Ethiopian conflict spreading to become a regionally involved one.
Mali and the Sahel
France is reorganising its anti-insurgent forces in the Sahel region, and Mali, which was hit with two coups this year, is going to take advantage of their shuffle and further ingrain their influence. With some of the French bases being handed over to the Malian army and a reduction in the number of troops sent by Paris, we can expect the region to flare up. French and international forces have been facing many challenges in the region, and some neighbouring countries, like Niger, have had their patience for their peace efforts grow thin. The massive increase in young populations over the past few decades will lead to demographic crises, which combined with the impacts of climate change in the region will likely see the conflicts in Mali and the wider Sahel get worse.
With peacekeepers in the region often targeted, Mali is the UN’s most dangerous conflict, and this is not likely to change in 2022. With JNIM’s foothold in the Sahel cemented and their influence growing, there isn’t much optimsm left for a sustainable peace in the region.
Lebanon is struggling to survive as a state; the economy has collapsed with the local currency losing around 93% of its value, food is expensive, medicine and electricity supplies are low, blackouts are frequent, the country is divided, and the government has failed to root out its deeply ingrained corruption problem. The recovery since the blast has been marked by disputes and even more corruption.
The country is expected to take to the polls in May, but that seems to be wishful thinking. It looks inevitable that the elections will be delayed with the government’s instability making it difficult for them to even meet in the last few months of 2021 due to the squabbles over the Gulf diplomatic row, port explosion investigation judge Tarek Bitar, and October’s clashes in Tayyouneh. The country’s energy minister further stated that World Bank funding talks are anticipated to wrap up in the first quarter of 2022. Hezbollah will be vying for more control in the elections and may well be successful. Even if the elections are on time, Lebanon will be slow to react; they have a notorious reputation for slow cabinet formation. It will be an unfortunate year for Lebanon with few winners, many losers, and a hopeful diaspora.
Karabakh The Nagorno Karabakh Region between Armenia and Azerbaijan has, and continues to be, one of the most ethnically venomous conflicts throughout the post-soviet sphere. The conflict was semi-stagnant for years until September 2020, wherewith the assistance of regional partners, the Azeri army managed to conquer much of the formerly Azeri majority parts of the Republic of Artsakh. (This is far more complicated so feel free to click here for a full run down).
"Civilians in Stepanakert now wake up each morning in the shadow of the Azeri cannons"
Before the war, citizens living in Stepanakert (the capital of Karabakh) were hundreds of kilometres from the Azeri frontlines, and civilians could push the war to the back of their minds. Fast-forward to today though and the frontline between the two deep adversaries is much closer, with the artillery and guns of the Azeri army now dug into the hills directly overlooking Stepanakert. Civilians in the city now wake up each morning in the shadow of the Azeri cannons, and the atmosphere has become tense. The emboldened Azeris now in an advantageous position are likely to push issues like the corridor between Nachchivan and Azerbaijan proper, knowing that Stepeakekert can be held in a hostage-like position should another conflict break out. The room for miscalculations here is minimal though as both sides will defend their claims to the bitter end, and no one is sure how far Armenia can be pushed before the government in Yerevan is forced to respond. Russia will do what it can to keep the peace between the two sides, having vested interests in both, but nationalists from both sides are still raring for a fight. If control over the situation is lost the war will be nasty from the first day, as the time between war being declared and civilian shelling will now be measured in minutes rather than months.
The legacy of Stalin still echoes through much of the periphery of the former Soviet Bloc, with many of the SSR’s borders drawn in ways that condemned these republics to eternal dispute. The most confusing set of borders drawn by the Soviets would have to be the ones around the Fergana valley, between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In that area, you have enclaves of ethnic Tajiks living inside the borders of Kyrgyzstan, and vice versa.
"It doesn't take much to spark the powderkegs in Central Asia, and each one of these Soviet drawn ethnic enclaves is a potential flashpoint."
Although these tensions are usually at a low simmer, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan entered into a short war in the Batkan region at the very southern tip of Kyrgyzstan earlier this year, with dozens killed and thousands displaced. It took three days for the international community to be able to intervene and broker a ceasefire, but the ethnic tensions and fuel for conflict are very much still there. In the border regions of some of these Central Asian republics it is not unusual for a brawl in a bar, or an ethnic punch-up in a school to spiral into these mini conflicts as others are called in from around the area. It doesn't take much to spark the powderkegs in Central Asia, and each one of these Soviet drawn ethnic enclaves is a potential flashpoint. What is particularly worrying analysts in the region is the build-up of forces and lack of cooperation between the two sides. Kyrgyzstan has just taken delivery of a number of Turkish made drones and is receiving advice from various militaries in the region. Tajikistan on the other hand (primarily due to ethnic reasons) is incrementally devolving from its neighbours when it comes to policy toward the new government in Afghanistan, refusing to cooperate with the now majority Pashtun government in Kabul. The gap between the two countries that really should be working together is continuing to widen, and ethnic flare-ups in the Fergana region will only exacerbate those divides.
Ethnic conflict in the Fergana valley is nothing new to the region, the worry here is that this time an incredibly interventionist Turkey may become more involved, or that Tajikistan may look to use this issue to reassert themselves in a region they feel increasingly isolated from.
Brazil closes the year entering a recession as incumbent far-right President Jair Bolosnaro fights for reelection. The country is battling economic, political and social challenges and there is great turbulence coming up for Latin America’s largest economy. Investors are increasingly concerned with banks downgrading the 2022 GDP forecasts to an alarming 0.6% in comparison to 2021’s 4.8%. A pandemic, climate change, the plummeting Brazilian Real, and higher commodity prices mean the country is looking at further inflation and will be facing greater economic challenges in 2022, regardless of the election’s result.
There is mass struggle in Brazil, with roughly 52% of the population facing food insecurity. President Bolsonaro, who has not aligned himself to a political party and instead relies on the approval of the elite and armed forces, will either win the upcoming election or protest it, with the latter potentially causing a similar situation to what we saw on January 6 in the United States. Nonetheless, internal political disputes mean more oxygen for gangs to move, and so there is likely to be a rise in crime levels and gang-related violence in 2022.
Check your sources
A new year also means new propaganda, misinformation and disinformation, and this year was full of politically motivated rhetoric. Strategically disseminated narratives will continue to plague countries across the world next year, destabilising stable countries and inflaming conflicts. Russia has ended 2021 by recycling claims once again that the American private military is preparing chemical component provocations in Ukraine's eastern conflict zone, a story originally attributed to Syria years ago. With multiple elections coming up this year, politicians will use false context and misleading interpretations to polarise the public and fight for support as we saw this year with members of India’s BJP party using old images attributed to Uttar Pradesh development projects to mislead the public about infrastructure projects and glorify the party ahead of state elections. Next year it will be particularly important to watch the narratives emerging from Brazil, France and Hungary as they head to critical elections.
Misinformation has no border, no political alignment, no form of government and no immunity.
Don't drop your gaze: New year, old conflicts
There is some optimism at the end of the tunnel, a new year for much of the world also means a chance for the peace process, a reassessment of foreign policy goals and humanitarian hope. This year many actors are going to question US foreign policy and we are likely to see an increase in developing states looking to China and other strongman regimes. In 2022, we must not neglect many parts of the world that continue to live in a conflict plateau. The Central African Republic has seen little progress in its UN mandate, Syria will enter another devastating year, Yemen is looking darker than ever, and the DRC is struggling to survive. The UN has warned that demand for humanitarian aid will be skyrocketing due to the combined impact of the pandemic and climate crises, throwing more and more people to the brink of famine. The UN aid chief himself stated that the need for humanitarian assistance "has never been as high as this".
The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until unity can be established. With the western world looking bearish on the decline of COVID-19's impact, it cannot move forward without the rest of the world. But, as we learnt in 2021, it is enormously challenging to forecast anything in the world of geopolitics.
Written by Perri Grace
Edited by Owen Swift