State of the World: War and Conflict in 2020 Review

2020 was a busy year with wars throughout the world. What will 2021 bring?

State of the World: War and Conflict in 2020 Review

The year 2020 already has its place in history reserved as a significant period of time.  The pandemic, the U.S. election, civil unrest in the United States, global economic recession, to just name a few major factors in the tragic uniqueness of this year, are enough to mark 2020 as “memorable.” But on top of all that, we also had significant military and social conflicts around the world.  Several instances of international squabbling and fighting broke out that, in several cases, could have led to major wars, perhaps even fairly large regional wars.  Thankfully, that scenario did not occur, but as we review these issues, the basic sources of conflict remain in place, perhaps to erupt again in 2021.

U.S.-Iran Conflict

Looking back on this year, the first major international crisis revolved around the latest, and most serious, uptick in the long-standing Iran-U.S. Conflict.  Shiite militias in Iraq, known to be Iranian proxies, launched several rocket attacks on Iraqi and Coalition bases housing U.S. military troops in December, 2019. These attacks killing and wounding Americans, prompting the United States to retaliate against that militia’s bases in Iraq and Syria in late December. That prompted Shiite militants to attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.  Then, on January 2, 2020, a U.S. missile strike killed Iranian General General Qassem Soleimani, who led the Quds Force, a part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and who was responsible for many terrorist and proxy attacks on Americans, Israelis, and other foes of Iran. 

Iran responded on January 7, firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. military bases in al-Assad, in western Iraq, and Irbil, in northern Iraq.   Over 100 U.S. troops suffered injuries, primarily traumatic brain injuries from the explosive blasts and shockwaves.  Waiting to see what President Donald Trump would do in response, the world held its breath.  A major conflict between America and Iran could easily and quickly grow to engulf the entire region.  No further retaliations occurred, though Iran has since said that their revenge was not yet complete,and the anniversary of Soleimani’s death is coming up on January 2.

Libyan and Syrian Wars, with Turkish and Russian  Intervention

Two other long-standing conflicts flared up, and are notable in 2020 in large part due to the deepening involvement of Turkey and Russia, on opposite sides of each war. In 2019, Turkey became more involved in Libya, backing the Tripoli government (partly out of a desire to gain oil exploration rights in the Libyan-claimed maritime economic zone) and partly out of a desire to assert themselves as a regional power.  Russia, among other nations, backed the other Libyan faction, based in eastern Libya.  Turkish intervention, in particular, their novel use of armed drones to establish air superiority, turned the tide of war as General Haftar’s eastern faction army attempted to seize the capital city of Tripoli.  Russia soon thereafter deployed new air defense missile platforms to Libya, as well as transferring several warplanes to control of the Wagner mercenary army (a Russian company that is frequently a proxy for Russian intervention in multiple nations).

Similarly,  in Syria’s complex civil war, Turkey and Russia are heavily involved, with the Turks backing an anti-government rebel force, and Russia propping up the Assad government with Russian troops and warplanes, along with Wagner Group mercenary troops. In late 2019 and early 2020, clashes occurred on an ongoing basis between Turkish and Turkish-backed rebels on one side, and Syrian forces (both army and militias) on the other.  In the Spring of 2020, as Syria launched an offensive designed to drive out pro-Turkish forces from the western border region, the Turks unleashed their armed drones to devastating effect.  Turkey claimed their drones and artillery killed over a thousand Syrian troops, while destroying scores of Syrian tanks and other vehicles.  A cease-fire was arranged between the Turkish president and Russia’s Putin, but the underlying tensions remain, as Turkey is still occupying some Syrian territory.

Turkey also escalated tensions with their historic rival Greece, largely over oil exploration in maritime areas claimed by Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus.  No clashes occurred, but both nations placed their militaries on heightened alerts, and there were concerns that an accident at sea or on their border could result in fighting.  This rivalry is longstanding, and could flare up again in 2021.

India’s  Pakistan and China Conflicts

India and Pakistan have fought multiple wars over the region of Kashmir.  2020 saw more clashes, resulting in military and civilian deaths on both sides.  This continual back and forth across the contested border will likely extend into 2021 and beyond.  This conflict has a high likelihood of someday expanding into another full-scale war between India and Pakistan. Reminder: Both rivals are armed with nuclear weapons.

India’s renewed border problems with China took a very serious turn in 2020, as their long-standing border disputes resulted in several clashes, mostly physical fights between large groups of Indian and Chinese soldiers (i.e. no guns) but did result in the deaths of 20 Indian troops, at least one Chinese officer, and dozens injured on both sides. Evidence points to the Chinese forces intentionally escalating the otherwise quiet border dispute in an attempted land-grab. 

This was the first instance of deadly fighting between the two giant rivals since the 1970s.  China and India fought a major border war in 1962.  As a result of the Chinese military buildup in several border areas, India went shopping for updated military technology, including French fighter planes and light armored vehicles suited for use in the mountainous Himalayas.  Clearly, this conflict may have calmed down since those deadly clashes, but both sides are prepping for the possibility of continued and escalated conflict in the future.

The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War between Armenia and Azerbaijan

Another long-term conflict moved from a slow simmer to a boil in 2020 as Armenia and Azerbaijan renewed their conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.  Full-scale war erupted and lasted from late September to November 10, when a Russian-brokered cease-fire took effect.  Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas of Azeri territory had been under Armenian control since their last major war from 1988-1994.  Azerbaijani forces, with significant aid from Turkey and through extensive use of military drones, devastated Armenian forces and forced the Armenians to concede territory. Each side suffered around 3,000 military deaths, and numerous civilian casualties.

The Armenians are still in control of large parts of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Azerbaijan still claims that territory belongs to them.  The basic causes of the 2020 war remain, and the Armenian public is very unhappy with their government for agreeing to cede territory.  This war also has a high probability of resuming in 2021.

Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia

November 4, 2020 saw the start of a major conflict in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia, with the Tigray Regional Government, led by the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) against the central government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Neighboring Eritrea is allied with the Ethiopian government against the Tigrayans.

The Ethiopian government is trying to move the nation from an ethnically-based regional federalism model to a more unified system, which exacerbated ethnic tensions between the dominant Amhara ethnicity and regional ethnic groups, such as the Tigrayans.  Fighting broke out on November 4 between Federal troops and the Tigray Regional Government’s forces.  Ethiopia’s military offensive has taken several Tigrayan cities, and thousands of Tigrayans have become refugees.

Eritrea is aiding the Ethiopians, while Sudan has deployed troops to their border and has claimed victory over Amhara militias loyal to the Ethiopian government. 

As 2020 comes to a close, this war continues, and has the potential to evolve into a regional war between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan.  Also, negotiations over Ethiopia’s massive new Nile River dam (near the Sudan border) took place throughout 2020, with Egypt warning that the dam posed an existential threat to the Nile-dependent Egyptians.  This conflict could become very messy in 2021.

The Western Sahara War Resumes

The long-dormant war in the Western Sahara, interrupted for the past 30 years by a truce, erupted on November 13 into renewed violence with military clashes between the Moroccan military and the Polisario Front.  These clashes represent the most serious violence between the two sides since the 1991 truce took effect. This was another long quiescent conflict, having been quiet for nearly 30 years.

In an interesting development, the outgoing Trump Administration recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara. This was presented as a quid pro quo for Morocco’s normalization of relations with Israel.

In addition to these major (or potentially major) conflicts, civil war and insurgencies (many with foreign intervention) continue in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, across the Saharan Maghreb region, Somalia and Kenya, Mozambique, and others.  International tensions continue in the South China Sea (claimed by China and multiple others), Taiwan (claimed by China), Korea, and Ukraine (a cease-fire did take effect in 2020, but we shall see if it lasts).  Internal political crisis continues in Belarus in the aftermath of their presidential election.  In the United States, President Trump continues to claim he won the 2020 election, while President-Elect Biden prepared to take office on January 20.  The U.S. is still dealing with racial tensions and political unrest, with right-wing groups allegedly planning on disrupting the January 20 inauguration of Joe Biden.  America’s racial equity issues, may also spark renewed civil unrest in the months to come.

2020 has been a tumultuous year in many respects, with international military and political conflicts adding to the coronavirus and economic chaos throughout the world.  The State of the World newsletter will continue to monitor these, and other conflicts in 2021 to keep you informed.

Please feel free to comment and to share this article with others.

Have a safe and happy New Year!

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Sources and Notes:

On the Iran-U.S. 2019-2020 Conflict:

Timeline of the U.S. Iran Conflict 2019-2020

India and China Conflict:

India: French Rafale jets land amid tensions with China,by%20the%20end%20of%202021.

Tigray Conflict:

Sudan’s Involvement:

Western Sahara Conflict: