Pulling together a list of the wars most in need of international attention and support in 2016 is challenging for all the wrong reasons. For 20 years after the end of the Cold War, deadly conflict was in decline. Fewer wars were killing fewer people the world over. Five years ago, however, that positive trend went into reverse, and each year since has seen more conflict, more victims, and more people displaced. 2016 is unlikely to bring an improvement from the woes of 2015: It is war — not peace — that has momentum.
That said, there are conflicts whose urgency and importance rise above. This year’s list of 10 is weighted toward wars with the worst humanitarian consequences: Syria and Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Lake Chad basin. It includes those in influential and functioning states, like Turkey, as well as those that have collapsed, like Libya. It features conflicts that are already bad but are poised to get much worse without intelligent intervention, such as Burundi, as well as tensions, such as those in the South China Sea, that are simmering but have yet to boil over. The list also considers the hopeful example presented by Colombia, where considerable progress is being made toward ending a 51-year insurgency.
Half of the conflicts on this year’s list involve extremist groups whose goals and ideologies are difficult to accommodate through negotiated settlement, complicating efforts to plot a path to peace. Looking ahead to 2016, it’s time to dispense with the notion that fighting against violent extremism suffices as a plan for world order — or even the basis of a solution for a single country like Syria. To be sure, stopping the abominations of the Islamic State and other jihadis is vital, but it also exposes policy dilemmas: The fear of what follows the demise of authoritarians (Iraq and Libya being prime exhibits) creates a strong incentive to back repressive regimes, but order based solely on state coercion is not sustainable. The dramatic increase in the reach and influence of jihadis over the past few years is a symptom of deeper trends in the Middle East: mounting sectarianism, a crisis of legitimacy of existing states, and escalating geopolitical competition, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Iran. When the enemy comes from within a given region, military action directed from abroad is more likely to aggravate than assuage.
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