Welcome to 2017: Get your war on

If it seems like we have a lot of wars going on all over the world right now, well, that’s because we do–e.g., Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Kashmir…shall I continue? I’m not here to talk about any of those. Instead, this is a look at a handful of places that could flare into brand new wars (or at least new phases of very old wars) in 2017. This is admittedly an inexact designation. For example, the conflict that may be most at risk of escalating into full-fledged war began escalating last year, so if it does escalate into a war we’ll probably say it began in 2016. I’m talking about the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, the autonomous, majority Armenian enclave that claims to be part of Armenia but is, as far as the rest of the world (save Armenia itself) is concerned, part of Azerbaijan.

Karabakh’s history goes all the way back to ancient Armenia and, the southern Caucasus being the tumultuous place they are, if we tried to recount all the different political entities that have controlled it at one time or another we’d be here for another 10,000 words. Suffice to say that it’s long been majority Armenian, so the people there were decidedly unhappy when the extraordinarily short-lived (it lasted about three months) Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic broke up into Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia in 1918, and Karabakh wound up in Azerbaijan. Armenia and Azerbaijan then warred (1918-1920) over their borders, including the status of Karabakh. British occupation at the end of WWI affirmed Azerbaijan’s control over the province, but the people of Karabakh kept fighting Azerbaijani control and asserting their desire to unify with Armenia.

Then the Soviets swept through the southern Caucasus and the whole conflict kind of got stuck in place. Moscow toyed with the idea of giving Karabakh to Armenia, but then opted to leave it in Azerbaijan but to create the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast–which, in hindsight, was the worst of all the ways Moscow could’ve handled this dispute. To some extent it didn’t really matter any more because everybody was part of the same USSR regardless of province. But leaving Karabakh in Azerbaijan meant the ethnic resentment would remain, while giving it autonomy thwarted any efforts to integrate the region into Azerbaijan. Most of the outright violence was quashed by the Soviets, but Karabakh separatist movements began to gain steam again in the 1960s.

But, of course, in 1991 the Soviet Union went up in a puff of smoke from the chimney of Mikhail Gorbechev’s Crimean vacation house–assuming it had a chimney, but I digress. Actually tensions between Karabakh and Azerbaijan began rising in the late 1980s, when the rapidly collapsing Soviet state could no longer do much to stifle it, and those tensions escalated into the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War, which in ~1992 really became another Armenia-Azerbaijan War. Armenia won, decisively, and by the time Azerbaijan started talking peace with the Karabakh regional government Armenia controlled not only most of Nagorno-Karabakh but also the territory between the enclave and the Armenia-Azerbaijan border:

The lighter areas are technically Azerbaijani territory that came under Armenian control during the war (Wikimedia)

The situation froze this way in 1994–sporadic fighting still kept breaking out, but nothing very major. However, 2008 saw the worst fighting between the two countries since 1994, and since then the conflict has escalated to a higher level. Last April 1-5, the two countries fought a legitimate battle in which dozens of soldiers were killed and Azerbaijan was able to capture some previously lost territory. I wish I could be more specific, but each side’s estimates of the casualties and the territory that changed hands is wildly different from the other’s–for example, Armenia says it lost 91 soldiers and Azerbaijan says it lost between 31 and 94 soldiers…but Azerbaijan says that Armenia lost 320 soldiers, while Armenia says that Azerbaijan lost between 300 and 1500 soldiers. So let’s just say there were “a lot” of casualties and leave it there. Scattered violence occurred several times through the rest of the year, though nothing on the scale of that April engagement. 2016 was unquestionably the bloodiest year in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict since the war ended in 1994, and leaves a lot of reasons for concern as 2017 begins.

Here are four other potential 2017 hot spots, though this is not intended to be a comprehensive list. I realize I’m cheating here a bit, because if I would’ve written this last week I would have included The Gambia on the list for sure, but that whole crisis fizzled out, so now I don’t look as dumb as I otherwise might have looked.

  • Kosovo: Relations between Serbia and Kosovo have never been good, for obvious reasons, but the two countries have been trying to at least be civil to one another because the European Union has made it very clear that neither will be seriously considered for EU membership otherwise. The problem is that EU membership doesn’t look as fantastic as it used to, and Serb-Kosovar tensions are starting to rise again. The Kosovo government is warning of an attempted “Crimea-esque” Serbian annexation of the majority Serb parts of northern Kosovo, and Serbia is sending trains festooned with Serb nationalist messages toward the Kosovo border for reasons that, frankly, aren’t entirely clear.
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo: Around New Year’s, DRC’s political opposition and incumbent President Joseph Kabila reached a deal, brokered by the Catholic Church, that would leave Kabila in office for another year–one year past when his term was supposed to end and he was supposed to run (and almost certainly be defeated) for reelection–on the condition that Kabila won’t run again. All fine and swell. But Congo’s bishops are warning that talks on implementing the deal have gone nowhere and the whole thing risks collapsing. The DRC is a powderkeg under the best of circumstances, and with inter-ethnic violence a problem in peripheral regions and ex-rebels trying to reenter the country from Uganda, it’s particularly unsettled at the moment. If the Kabila deal does fall apart chaos could be the result.
  • Mexico: The amount of drug violence in northern Mexico is already at civil war-levels (it’s one of the five or six most violent countries on the planet right now), and if the Trump administration takes steps that destabilize Mexico–by, for example, seriously damaging the Mexican economy–it will only get worse.
  • Egypt/Sudan/Ethiopia: The threat of conflict looms in the background as these three countries try to come to some arrangement regarding Ethiopia’s planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. There’s already not enough water in the Nile basin to meet agricultural demands, so Sudan and Egypt are sensitive to anything that might threaten the river’s tributaries. Because it’s a hydroelectric dam (i.e., not intended to hoard water), and if it’s properly managed, the GERD could actually offer some benefits to downstream nations by regulating the Blue Nile’s annual flow without reducing it. But if it’s not properly managed then things could get very ugly, and ecological impacts aside it remains to be seen how the GERD will impact electrical production at Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. All three countries have been negotiating on and off about the GERD for years now, but the dam’s construction is clearly outpacing those talks, and promised impact assessments aren’t being done.

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