Crisis Group's President Robert Malley on this month's conflict developments
The President's Take

Out with the Old Year, Omens for the New

In his introduction to this month's edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's conflict tracker, our President Robert Malley sees indicators of escalation in Somalia, Sudan and Syria, and possible signs of conflict mitigation in Afghanistan, Armenia and Yemen.

For all of us at Crisis Group, this past month has been overshadowed by the arbitrary detention of our colleague, Michael Kovrig, by Chinese authorities. My heartfelt thanks to everyone – governments, academics and colleagues – who are helping us in our efforts to secure his prompt release. Those efforts will persist without fail until Michael is reunited with his loved ones.

2018 ended with a bang, not a whimper – and the bang was mostly the sound of actual or looming conflicts. First up was Sudan, where protests broke out in many towns and cities amid mounting frustration at the deepening economic crisis, with protesters calling for the resignation of Omar al-Bashir, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1989. Already, dozens of people are said to have been killed by riot police firing into crowds; worse can be expected as Bashir fights to retain his grip on power. The most serious threat to his rule likely stems not from protests alone, but from divisions they might aggravate within his security services. That said, it would be foolhardy to predict Bashir’s imminent demise. Aptly capturing the uncertain mood, a Khartoum resident quipped to my Crisis Group colleagues that Bashir “is doing well enough for a man falling off a building”. 

2018 ended with a bang, not a whimper – and the bang was mostly the sound of actual or looming conflicts.

Pay attention to Somalia as well, where relations between Mogadishu and Somalia’s regions, or federal states, took yet another dangerous turn when Somali police backed by Ethiopian peacekeeping forces arrested Mukhtar Robow, a former Al-Shabaab leader and regional presidential candidate in South West state. The move was rash, and it prompted clashes between his supporters and the police. More broadly, the arrest sent a terrible signal to any insurgent leaders tempted to lay down weapons and reconcile with the government: do so on Mogadishu’s terms or risk winding up in jail.

In Syria, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw two thousand U.S. troops from the north east – correct in substance, reckless in execution – could unleash a military free-for-all involving Turkey, the Syrian regime, Syrian Kurdish fighters and Russia.

There are some promising signs and, as 2019 begins, I’ll end on those. The intra-Yemeni agreement reached thanks to UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’s efforts is tentative, incomplete and fragile – but for now it has achieved what needed to be achieved, which is to put off a dreaded assault on the port city of Hodeida. Afghanistan is witnessing unprecedentedly serious talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Again, sceptics might well have the better of the argument and can point to the intensification of hostilities on the ground as proof. But there is an opportunity that, as with Yemen, should be seized. And, as we explained in a commentary published immediately after it occurred, Nikol Pashinyan’s victory in Armenia’s parliamentary election could presage improvements in his country’s relations with Azerbaijan.

Finally, in Sri Lanka, a nearly two-month constitutional and political crisis ended on 16 December when Ranil Wickremesinghe was restored to office as prime minister. The underlying factors that threaten the country’s stability – political turmoil, a beleaguered economy, tensions between militant Buddhists and Muslims, the alienation of Tamils – remain. But the Supreme Court’s intervention, coupled with pushback by political parties, the media and ordinary citizens, led to a victory for the rule of law and parliamentary democracy that is rare enough for us to take note. It may not be quite enough to ring in the new year with hope. But I’ll take it.

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