Major Conflicts in 2015: A Year in Review

Future Foreign Policy

Syrian Conflict

Syrian and Iraqi Refugees – via Wikimedia Commons

By Vanessa Thevathasan

With curtains closed on 2015, it’s time to look back at a year defined by political instability, violence and mass displacement of the likes not seen since the Second World War.

Old, familiar conflicts continued apace last year in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan while many cases of protracted instability and violence have fallen into present day ‘forgotten conflicts,’ those that continue to be ignored by mainstream media, including sectarian violence in Myanmar, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and civil war in the Republic of Congo.

Peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts continue in these countries while the international community deals with the global terrorism vortex created by the Islamic State. 2015 become the year defined by the refugee crisis breaking out of the Middle East to reach the shores of Europe in an unprecedented scale. At the years close and with no end in sight to these conflicts, foreign policy objectives will be steered towards protecting regional security and responding to the complex human security consequences of war. The United Nations (UN) 2016 appeal stands at $20 billion for the 87 million people urgently needing help, a stark reflection of the crises we are facing. A decade ago, the UN requested just $4.7 billion. Syria, Yemen, Iraq and South Sudan will remain priorities this year, fuelling even greater displacement with and across borders.

Bearing this in mind, the following offers an insight into some of the most violent conflicts of the last year, which remain concerns for us in 2016.


European states remain focused on stabilising eastern Ukraine. Russia’s aggressive exertion of power into the territories of neighbouring countries remains a geo-political thorn in the side of its neighbours and the rest of Europe.

The crisis in Ukraine began in November 2013 with protests in the capital city of Kiev against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject a deal for greater economic integration with the European Union. By February 2014, President Yanukovych had been forced to flee the country after the government authorised a violent crackdown on protests that further escalated anti-government sentiment.

A month later, Russian troops took control of the Crimean region, which later was to result in a disputed local referendum permitting formal annexation after Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation. This also triggered ethnic divisions splintering the region even further after pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine held a referendum that declared independence from Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk.
A UN report released at the end of last year estimated that at least 9, 115 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine since the outbreak of violence in April 2014.

More than 20,000 people have been injured and near to a million have been forcibly displaced. Sanctions against Russia were recently extended as a result of Russia’s military intervention in the country and after negotiations collapsed that were aimed at stemming Russian retaliation against Ukraine for its trade deals with Europe. Russia has suffered an estimated economic loss of €100 billion as a result of these sanctions.

U.S. and European relations with Russia remain extremely fragile after the conflict in Ukraine and the proxy wars in Syria. Russian intensions towards other Eastern European countries have heightened concerns that the Russian Federation will annex more territory. Analysts are watching whether a Russian incursion into a NATO country would motivate military action against Russia.

Middle East and North Africa

2015 became the defining year the world paid attention to an unprecedented refugee crisis seeping out of countries dealing with entrenched violence and political instability in the region.

As the year went on, the complexity of these conflicts and scale of civilian causalities and humanitarian needs has raised deep concerns among aid responders. The year ended with little changing in the way of stability, peace brokering or enforcing civilian protection. Triggered by the attacks in Paris in January and November, the Islamic State is now widely seen as the major global threat to homeland security in 2016, with a coalition of states now involved in strategic airstrikes against the Islamist group.


In 2011, the Arab Spring arrived at the doors of Syria. Protests against President Assad’s regime descended into a civil war between the Syrian government and anti-government rebel groups. Four years of war has provided ample ammunition for the Islamic State to extend its presence from Iraq into Syria, adding to the complexity of an already fractured society. The projected size of the Islamic State stands at 20,000 – 31,500 in the country.

Following the attacks in Paris on November 13, for which the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, governments have renewed their fight against the extremist group. Now, the United States, France and the United Kingdom have expanded their airstrikes targeting the group. September 2015 marked the beginning of a proxy war with Russia after the Syrian government requested air support against IS targets but have been widely condemned after hitting rebel strongholds and civilian areas. On December 23, 2015, Amnesty International released its findings that the use of cluster ammunition and unguided bombs on civilian areas has left hundreds of civilians dead in Syria in the last few months.

In October 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry convened a meeting of all major external powers involved in the conflict to work on a nation-wide cease-fire with the United Nations overseeing the transition of power. There was no timetable for this vision in 2016. In December 2015, the United Nations Security Council failed to reach a consensus on a draft resolution supporting an internationally supported end to the conflict in Syria.

With no resolution the country will enter 2016 marking a grim milestone – half a decade of conflict. Syria has been utterly obliterated. More than four million people displaced from the country have sought sanctuary and safety in resource-poor countries Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well for the first time arriving on the shores of wealthy European states. Six million are internally displaced in the country.

Few aid services can deliver food, water and shelter to vulnerable populations cut off by the bombing. In a cause for slight hope that negotiations can work, aid has been allowed to the besieged rebel-held town of Madaya. UNHCR representative Sajjad Malik spoke of the “horrifying conditions” while delivering food for the 40,000 people trapped inside. While the deal allowing aid was brokered by the UN, it took months of negotiations that left the town without assistance for three months. Deprived of food and medicines has caused the weakest to die of starvation, mainly the elderly and children, and left hundreds of people severely malnourished. Rule 53 on customary internationally law clearly states: “The use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare is prohibited.” Food used as a weapon of war can be seen as a war crime, crime against humanity or both. Reuters reports that the UN is gathering testimony from those trapped in Madaya. And Madaya is by far the exception – eastern Ghouta, Darayya, Zabadani and outside Damascus are all under siege. Rebel-held Foah and Kefraya are also in desperate need of aid, while IS militants are besieging government-held areas in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour. Civilians have long been a pawn in this war.

Syria is now seen as the battleground against IS, but if we agree that ideology has no borders, destroying it means more than just a global militarised response to extremism in Syria. After Paris, deradicalisation and stabilisation are issues now for governments in Europe.


2015 was yet another year of tumultuous violence across Iraq. The Iraqi army experienced intense battles with IS through the year, but despite strategic support from U.S aircrafts, the Islamic State remains in full control of parts of Iraq. IS has, however, lost almost 10 percent of its territory and more than a six months after being captured in March the strategic town of Ramadi, the capital of the mainly Sunni-populated Anbar Province, was recaptured by the Iraqi army in December. Kurdish and Yazidi forces reclaimed Sinjar in November 2015, a year after it was seized in August 2014.

While these wins are significant, the struggle to stabilise Iraq for over a decade has meant the current violence is threatening to once more break up the country along its sectarian fault lines for good. The fact that Prime Minister Abadi has attempted to form an inclusive government of Sunni, Shia and Kurds in senior positions will help calm some sectarian tensions. These reforms are extremely important if Iraq is to be brought back from the brink of all out civil war.


Internal fracturing in Yemen is down to multiple factors, including political instability, external meddling by neighbouring countries and fallout of the U.S. counter-terrorism operations as a result of years of drone attacks causing massive civilian causalities.

Disturbances started in September 2014 after a Houthi insurgency took control of Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. The Houthis are a Shia rebel group linked to Iran that has a history of revolutionary movements against the Sunni government. The events that followed forced the resignation of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his government after the Houthis seized the presidential palace in January 2015. However, in September 2015, Hadi reneged on his resignation and returned to Yemen.

As a result of the conflict and with Yemen facing a national water crisis, more than 12 million people have been affected by food insecurity and more than a million people are internally displaced. The United Nations and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) reported 5,239 people were killed or injured in the first half of last year, 86 percent of whom were civilians.

This year marks even more uncertainty for the country. The United States is deeply invested in counter-terrorism operations in the country since its drone strikes started in 2002. However, with no government stability, a growing Houthi insurgency propped by Iran threatens to turn Yemen into a terrorist haven. IS has carried out attacks in the capital targeting Shiites and Houthi headquarters. In July 2015, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey stated that the Islamic State should be seen has a bigger threat to homeland security than al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), where Yemen’s political vacuum is attracting extremist groups to use the country as its strategic base.
There is no resolution between Houthi militants and the ousted Yemeni government. The Sunni-Shia divide also threatens to be blown wide open with the intervention of regional powers, including support by Iran, and countered by the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, drawing the country into a firestorm of unending violence.


Libya brought somewhat better news towards the end of 2015. In a deal seen as the culmination of four years of post-Qaddafi stabilisation efforts, representatives of Libya’s rival parliaments signed a UN brokered agreement to form a unity government.

The staying power of the deal is uncertain for two reasons. Firstly, rebel and militia groups have a history of attempting to divide the country among political and tribal lines, and the UN-mediated talks could give these groups cause to retaliate. Secondly, IS has also established itself in Sirte since February 2015. Its strength is steadily growing and currently stands between two to three thousand, many of whom fought in Syria. November 2015 marked the death of Abu Nabil, head of the Islamic State in Libya by a U.S air strike, the first strike to take place outside of Iraq and Syria. However, the Islamic State has called for foreign fighters to travel to Libya instead of Syria.

Without stability soon, Libya will become a hub for extremist groups using the country as a base to coordinate regional attacks and escalate violence.

Israel and Palestine

Sporadic escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine continued in 2015. The international community has been nervous of a further all-out war between the two countries after the 50-day war of June/July 2014. More than 2,400 civilians were killed after Israel carried out over 6,000 airstrikes in Gaza in response to three soldiers who were kidnapped and killed by Hamas supporters.

Autumn 2015 saw a resurgence of violence around the holy site of Jerusalem that left 98 people dead. Almost daily stabbings of civilians triggered an Israeli security force crackdown and the arrest of Hassan Yousef, cofounder and senior official of Hamas. United Nations Security Council was urged to ease tensions, fro which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared that Palestine could no longer be bound by the Oslo Accord, which delivered more two decades of ‘peace’ since 1993.

A third intifada is feared if the cease-fire collapses and the violence of 2014 and 2015 spills over into civil war proper. While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry oversees the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, relations between Israeli and Palestinian citizens remain strained.

South Asia

Afghanistan centralise the concerns for regional security in South Asia. Violence perpetrated by the Taliban and Islamic State has criss-crossed over the borders of these two states. Afghan refugees continue to pour into Pakistan and seek refuge as far as Europe.


The situation in Afghanistan remains highly volatile. This year alone, $1.7 billion of U.S. foreign aid has been dispersed to keep stabilisation efforts on track. Much of the foreign aid and diplomacy efforts have focused on preserving the political, economic and security gains in Afghanistan since 2001. Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election resulted in a brokered agreement to form a national unity government led by Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive.

On October 2015, President Obama announced a halt to further withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan. At the close of the year, 6,834 U.S. troops remain in the country, with 13, 223 NATO forces. By the end of 2016, it’s projected that 9,800 U.S troops will remain in the country concerned with training, advising, mission support and counterinsurgency operations, together with a further 2,000 NATO troops.
The Obama administration was forced to reverse its decision for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops after months of intense fighting and high Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) causalities led to concerns that territory will cede permanently to either the Taliban or the growing presence of IS and al-Qaeda.

Taliban insurgency is still thriving in parts of the country. On December 28, 2015 a Taliban suicide bomber struck near the Kabul airport, just two weeks after a major assault on the city. The year has been pocketed with Taliban counter-attacks against the ANSF; September 2015 marked one of the biggest losses to the Afghan government forces when the Taliban captured the northern provincial capital of Kunduz, the first time the group held a major city since 2001.

Amongst the fighting and entrenched instability, Afghan’s development has suffered. While foreign aid has been pledged to the government, high unemployment and increasing budget deficit offers even fewer opportunities for recovery for population exhausted by war and economic insecurity.


Protracted tribal and ethnic conflicts continued into 2015 across Africa. Decades long conflict in Congo, emerging instability in Mali and Burundi, the unrivalled force of Boko Haram in Nigeria and the fracturing of newly independent South Sudan plagued the region. These countries remain on high alert after ongoing political insecurity and extremist activity. Resource-poor neighbouring countries are struggling to deal with large-scale refugee displacement as a result of widespread destabilisation. Peacekeeping efforts are attempting to restore unity and provide civilian protection in the midst of failed mediation and frequent attacks.


Boko Haram is one of the deadliest extremist groups in the region and has been steadily gathering its strength since 2011. At the end of the year, 20 percent of the country’s territory has been ceded to Boko Haram, with over a million internally displaced.

Seen as one of the biggest Islamist militant groups in Africa, the group has the strategic advantage to carry out more terrorist attacks against the government and religious groups. Boko Haram came to the attention of the international community after the kidnapping of over two hundred schoolgirls in April 2014, which also highlighted the government’s inability to dislodge the group of its hold in the north of the country.
Elections in 2015 saw the defeat of incumbent Goodluck Jonathan by President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator, who will now oversee its security, political and economic stalemate. However since his election, and adding to the mix of problems posed by Boko Haram, endemic corruption, uneven distribution of natural resources, including oil revenue, public support is rapidly turning against the Burhari government.

Boko Haram’s alignment to IS has intensified regional security concerns. With Nigeria being the largest oil producer in Africa, many countries are invested in political and economic stability in the country. The United States has pledged its commitment to provide military support to the Nigerian government in its fight against Boko Haram.

South Sudan

Right from its birth, South Sudan has seen nothing but violence. Since December 2013, over 50,000 people have been killed and nearly 2 million internally displaced, while 12, 523 UN peacekeepers oversee security in an intensely fragile country.

The conflict first started as a political struggle between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar when violence erupted between presidential guard soldiers in December 2013. In this political battle, ethnic tensions spilled over. Soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group supported President Kirr and soldiers from the Nuer ethnic group supported Riek Machar. The violence in the country has sparked growing human rights concerns as armed groups target and rape civilians, destroy and plunder villages, and continue to recruit child soldiers.

The conflict has caused growing number of people to suffer hunger as a result of nation-wide food shortages. In July 2014, the UN Security Council called South Sudan’s food crisis the world’s worst among global food crises, with over four million affected and more than 50,000 children on the verge of starving to death.

The conflict and humanitarian crisis has meant that focus has shifted from nation building to civilian protection. The UN Mission in South Sudan faces an extremely challenging security situation and has to deal with an extremely complex relationship with the government of South Sudan that is seen as an aggressor in the conflict.

The United States took the lead in facilitating South Sudan independence after a 2011 referendum and continues to provide diplomatic support and humanitarian aid. Both United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on both sides, but more regional diplomatic effort will be needed to add real pressure contain the violence.


The latest violence in Mali came to international attention in November 2015 after the kidnapping and mass shooting at a luxury hotel in the capital directly targeting foreigners. Only last June was a peace deal signed by the Coordination of Azawad Movements, a coalition of Tuareg rebel groups, and the Malian government. However, such attacks show the threats posed by jihadist groups such as al-Mourabitoun, a branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb comprised primarily of ethnic Tuaregs. By the close of the year, the U.S. Department of Sate warned against U.S citizens travelling to Mali and withdrew all non-emergency personnel from the country in December 2015.

The government has struggled to contain the influence of militant groups in Mali and is losing more territory in the north of the country undermining its ability to enforce security and further threatening to destabilise neighbouring countries. Much of the gains by militant groups were made when the military coup by the Malian army caused a power vacuum allowing extremists to move in. The deployment of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali and military missions led by G5 Sahel countries Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger fought to combat extremism in the region but the attacks in November suggest that militant group are becoming bolder.

At present, more than 10,000 UN peacekeepers are on the ground, while the number of refugees and internally displaced are rising. A fast decent into violence could allow al-Qaeda in Mali (AQIM) to entrench itself in the country and turn the country into a safe haven for terrorists and a hub for militant activity.

The United States is deeply invested in political stability across Asia, which is resource rich in oil and natural gas as well as being a key trading route.

The South China Sea is a long running territorial dispute in the region. And the ethnic violence in Myanmar has caused waves of refugees to flee the country after Buddhist extremist groups seek to erase the country of its one million Muslim minority group, the Rohingya.

South China Sea

The territorial conflict in the South China Sea started in the 1970s when countries claim islands and zones as their own. Many of these islands are rich in natural sources and fishing areas. China’s sweeping claims to sovereignty over the sea, and consequentially owning 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, has rattled competing claimants Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Tension has risen over the exclusive economic zone, with China arguing that international law does not permit foreign militaries to conduct intelligence gathering while the U.S. argues that countries can carry out military activities without notifying the claimant. China’s position limits the trade and movement of naval forces in the zone and threatens access to the rich abundance of oil and natural gas in the region. To counter China’s claim, the U.S. has deployed destroyer ships on missions in the South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague is currently hearing a claim brought by the Philippines against China.

Without a resolution in the disputed region, international laws governing maritime disputes will be undermined and encourage a build up of arms in the region. The recently signed deal to enhance defence cooperation between U.S. and Singapore will no doubt add to this tension.


The Rohingya are one of if not the most persecuted minority group in the world. The Rohingya are a Muslim group of over one million facing extreme discrimination by the government in Myanmar and neighbouring countries as a result of being rendered stateless by their own government. Buddhist nationalist groups, including the extremist anti- Muslim 969 Movement, continue to provoke attacks on Muslim communities to force them out of the country. Since 2012, there has been a resurgence of violence against the Rohingya causing 240,000 internally displace and 120,000 refugees. Much of the violence has taken place in Myanmar’s Rakhine State where hundreds of Rohingya have been slaughtered. A recent investigative report by Al-Jazeera evidenced a present day genocide against the Rohingya.

Despite November 2015 marking the first national election in more than twenty-five years that saw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party claim a parliamentary majority, the question of Rohingya citizenship has not been addressed. The limbo means the Rohingya were not allowed to vote in the election. Aung San Suu Kyi continues to avoid acknowledging the massive human rights abuse against the Rohingya and has so far failed to address Rohingya persecution in her democratic reform polices for the country meaning that Rohingya statelessness will not be a priority for Myanmar’s new government.

October 15 marked a cease-fire with several armed ethnic groups, but many other groups including the United Wa State Army and Kachin Independent Army continue to fight the government. While the cease-fire still remains it has not paved the way for final power distribution between the central government and ethnic borderlines, nor has it enforced disarmament or accounted for the violence against the Rohingya.


The picture that emerges from the survey of conflicts in the past year does not bode well for the year ahead. 2016 will mark the greatest humanitarian test of our time. Stephan O’Brien, UN’s Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator (USG/ERC), stated: “Suffering in the world has reached levels not seen in a generation. Conflicts and disasters have driven millions of children, women and men to the edge of survival.”

Deepening threats posed by IS has brought this to the fore and will continue well into 2016 as states mount a global fight against extremism and radicalisation. With over 60 million civilians displaced globally, 20 million refugees worldwide, many fleeing the conflicts listed above, and dealing with the humanitarian crisis will be immensely challenging. The growing role of regional powers last year means they will have more responsibility for containing conflict and facilitating diplomatic relations. Peacebuilding in 2016 will rely on more countries working together to reach peaceful resolutions more than ever before.


Vanessa is a researcher, independent journalist and communications specialist focused on bridging the stabilisation, humanitarian, and development sectors. In addition to her role with ECAS, she consults for TedxYouth in London and Build Africa.  Vanessa is trained in law (SOAS), international politics (University of Cambridge) and Middle East politics (LSE).

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