Amid shifting global dynamics, the war in Yemen saw another serious escalation with the Saudi Arabia-led coalition launching a new campaign to regain territory, while fighting intensified in eastern Ukraine at the end of the month. The U.S. and China exchanged harsh rhetoric over the South China Sea, and the new U.S. administration’s decision to build a wall on its border with Mexico sparked tensions with its southern neighbour. Domestically Mexico also saw a swell of popular anger triggered by fuel price increases. In the Balkans, political tensions spiked in Bosnia and between Kosovo and Serbia. Meanwhile in Africa, soldiers mutinied repeatedly across Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon’s government hardened its repression of protests in the country’s Anglophone regions. On a positive note, West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS successfully pushed for a peaceful handover of power in Gambia.
Trends and Outlook
In Yemen, with the peace process at near standstill, the Saudi-led coalition and aligned Yemeni troops launched a new military push against Huthi rebels and forces supporting former President Saleh. On 7 January, they began an offensive to retake an area in the south west bordering the Bab al-Mandeb strait, a strategic sea passage running between Yemen and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, and a stretch of Red Sea coastline. They simultaneously increased military pressure in the north including in Saada, Hajjah, Jawf and Marib governorates. Coalition-aligned forces claimed to have retaken Dhubab district on the Red Sea and on 23 January Mokha city further north, but at the end of the month fighting continued. The UN now puts the number of civilians killed since the conflict began in March 2015 at 10,000. As Crisis Group has warned, although the UN remains an essential umbrella under which to negotiate a settlement, after three rounds of failed peace talks and numerous ceasefire attempts, it has lost credibility with all sides and is unlikely to revive meaningful negotiations without a change in the main belligerents’ calculation as to what constitutes an acceptable compromise.
In Ukraine, clashes between the military and separatists along the front line in the east intensified in late January, with some twenty people killed including civilians in fighting near Donetsk. The UN Security Council voiced its concern over the deteriorating security situation and the impact on civilians cut off from water, electricity and heating. As we explained in a report in December, three years after the conflict began, Russia’s military intervention continues to define all aspects of Ukrainian political life. As well as pushing the Kyiv government to root out corruption, the U.S. and EU must maintain sanctions on Russia until it withdraws completely from eastern Ukraine. Elsewhere in the region, political tensions rose in Bosnia following the celebration by the Republika Srpska (RS) of RS Day on 9 January, in defiance of a state Constitutional Court ruling that it is discriminatory and unconstitutional. RS President Milorad Dodik repeated calls for greater autonomy for RS and again raised the prospect of secession. Tensions spiked between Kosovo and Serbia after Belgrade reopened a railway line to northern Mitrovica in the ethnic Serb part of Kosovo and sent a train painted with slogans saying “Kosovo is Serbia”. The train was stopped at the border with Serbia claiming Kosovo was planning to attack it, while Kosovo President Thaci said Belgrade was plotting to annex northern Kosovo.
Tensions rose between China and the U.S. over the South China Sea amid shifting U.S. foreign policy priorities under President Trump. As new U.S. administration officials signalled a tougher approach to China’s presence in the area, Beijing reiterated China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over parts of the South China Sea and urged the U.S. to “speak and act cautiously to avoid harming the peace and stability” of the region. Tensions also rose between Mexico and the U.S. after President Trump signed an executive order to build a wall along the countries’ shared border. The month saw widespread social unrest within Mexico over increased petrol prices, expressing public discontent at corruption in the political establishment, a lack of economic prospects and violent crime. Crisis Group has identified Mexico as one of 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2017, emphasising that the U.S. would better serve its own interests by strengthening its partnership with Mexico to address the systemic failings that give rise to violence and corruption.
In Africa, thousands of soldiers mutinied across Côte d’Ivoire to demand better conditions and bonuses. The mutineers, most rebels in the country’s civil war (2002-2007), took control of Bouaké city in the centre and temporarily took hostage the minister of defence. The government managed to resolve the crisis by capitulating to all demands, paying up and reshuffling the military leadership, but discontent in the military remains a major threat to the country’s stability. In Cameroon, the government hardened its repression of a protest movement in the English-speaking Southwest and Northwest regions. After talks between it and civil society representatives over perceived marginalisation of the English-speaking minority broke down mid-month, the government chose to quash the protest by banning a secessionist and a federalist organisation, arresting movement leaders, suspending internet service to Anglophone areas and threatening media outlets with closure.
In a positive turn of events, West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS, in its role as promoter of regional peace and security, successfully pressed for a peaceful handover of power in Gambia. By applying both diplomatic pressure and the threat of force, the bloc persuaded President Jammeh, who rejected his defeat in a December 2016 election, to step down on 20 January, allowing election winner Adama Barrow to take up the presidency.