CrisisWatch N°138, 1 February 2015
The year opened with a worsening of the ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Nigeria and Ukraine, each with potentially major regional implications. Violence escalated in Sudan, as well as in Lebanon's Tripoli and along its southern border with Israel, and a deadly clash between police and militants in the southern Philippines threatened to derail the peace process there. In South Asia, both Bangladesh and Nepal saw political tensions intensify. On a positive note, the Sri Lanka elections resulted in a peaceful transition of power from long-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa to Maithripala Sirisena, despite initial fears of election-related violence.
Yemen’s downward spiral took yet another dramatic turn. President Hadi and the government resigned on 22 January after Huthi rebels consolidated control over Sanaa and put Hadi under virtual house arrest. The entire political process established with the signing of a UN-backed peace and power-sharing agreement in September has been thrown into question, raising the prospect of territorial fragmentation, economic meltdown and widespread violence – as outlined in our Conflict Alert. There is little external actors can do at this point, except possibly Saudi Arabia and Iran, to influence Yemen’s internal political dynamics. The Huthis have set a 4 February deadline for all parties to reach a power-sharing agreement or they will assume control of the state through a “revolutionary leadership”. Yemen again made international headlines for its connection with global terrorism as al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s local branch, claimed responsibility for the 7 January Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.
The significant increase in Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria’s north throughout 2014 was compounded by what may have been the insurgent group’s deadliest attack yet. Reports suggest in early January they killed anywhere between 150 and 2,500 civilians in Borno state. As the February elections loom, there is a danger that ongoing insecurity in the north could worsen potential political violence and undermine the credibility of the polls, as discussed in our recent report on violence and the elections.
The most intense fighting for many months in eastern Ukraine resulted in heavy civilian and military casualties and a significant increase in internally displaced civilians, and further undermined peace talks. It also led to heightened concern in Western capitals that Russia has not abandoned the idea of open military intervention. The stated aim of the separatists is to seize the totality of Donetsk oblast, but there is so far no conclusive change in the balance of military power in the east. The possibility of a resumption of full-fledged hostilities, and the risk of a humanitarian crisis during winter, were discussed in our recent report. Without immediate and forceful international intervention to end the fighting, the current offensive could herald the beginning of a new and very costly military conflict.
As anticipated last month, violence once again increased in Sudan following the collapse of peace talks between the government and rebel groups in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, as both sides launched major offensives in the disputed areas. (See our new report). In late January, a Hizbollah attack on an Israeli military convoy along Lebanon’s southern border – retaliation for an Israeli airstrike that killed six of its fighters in the Golan Heights – caused fears of an impending all-out confrontation, although both parties said they wanted to avoid a costly escalation. Earlier in January, a deadly suicide attack in Tripoli shook the relative calm that had prevailed in the city for months. In the southern Philippines, 44 police and at least seven civilians were killed in a clash between police and MILF militants, undermining support for last year’s historical peace agreement between the government and the longstanding rebel group at a critical time in its implementation.
In South Asia, the first anniversary of Bangladesh’s disputed January 2014 elections saw dozens killed in clashes between government and opposition groups, and marked the start of a new phase of the political deadlock between the ruling Awami League and opposition Bangladesh National Party. Tensions between Nepal’s political parties worsened when they failed to reach consensus on a draft constitution before a self-imposed 22 January deadline. Sri Lanka’s long-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa surprised many observers when he conceded defeat to opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the 8 January presidential election, following a largely peaceful election day. Sirisena has promised reform, including more meaningful devolution of power and accountability. However, international pressure and support will be needed for those promises to be met and the political transition to succeed (as discussed in our recent briefing).