The return of conquest wars

Shifting global power and inaction on past transgressions have brought us to this point, so Western leaders should perhaps not be surprised.

An armoured personnel carrier (APC) is seen silhouetted as the sun sets, amid the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza
An armoured personnel carrier (APC) is seen silhouetted as the sun sets, amid the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza

The return of conquest wars

War is back. The horrendous violence seen in Gaza, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine during 2023 has raised concerns that conflict may become increasingly frequent in the coming years.

Indeed, as Estonia’s foreign minister Margus Tsahkna told The Guardian in December, these developments, primarily Russia’s actions in Ukraine, risk a “return to an age of empires in which 'might is right', and everyone suffers.” Of course, in reality, war has never gone away.

The last decade has seen appalling civil wars in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Libya, to name but a few, all of which saw industrial-scale killing on a similar scale to today’s conflicts.

However, What seems to have changed is who is fighting and to what end. The civil wars of the 2010s were domestic conflicts. Though they dragged in foreign actors, some of whom fought each other indirectly, most of the time, the conflict was over who ruled the state in civil war.

The conflicts of 2023, in contrast, were wars between states. Russia is fighting Ukraine, Azerbaijan fought Armenia and Israel, though it does not recognise Hamas’s legitimacy, is treating Gaza as if it is a sovereign state. Moreover, unlike civil wars, the conflicts have a strong territorial component and are not really about who rules.

Russia is seeking to annex parts of eastern Ukraine. Azerbaijan has successfully retaken Nagorno-Karabakh and its environs, while Israel is talking of creating a buffer zone within Gaza to protect its own civilians from future attacks.

Elsewhere, rumours have swirled that Ethiopia might be considering a new attack on Eritrea to gain access to the port of Assab. In the new muscular environment that Tsahkna warns about, such wars of conquest over territory could become commonplace.

Read more: Maintaining a defensive-only posture in the Red Sea is risky

'Old wars' and 'New Wars'

When the Cold War ended, scholars and observers of conflict noted a shift in the patterns of warfare. The Cold War era had seen both inter-state and intra-state wars: those fought between states and those fought within states.

The US and USSR would often back one side, whether it was Washington supporting Israel and Moscow supporting Arab states in the many Arab-Israeli wars or the rivals backing different combatants in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Mozambique or Angola. But after 1990, the dial shifted away from inter-state wars, and civil wars came to dominate. The violence in Somalia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia was quite different from what had gone before.

One scholar, Professor Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics, argued that these ‘New Wars’ differed from the ‘Old Wars’ of the Cold War and earlier. While the ‘Old Wars’ saw conventional armies, frequently from different states, fight one another, the ‘New Wars’ were more likely to be fought within states and by non-conventional means.

Non-state actors, like militias, were often combatants as much as state armies. At the same time, identity, such as religion or ethnicity, was more often a motivating factor than the ideologies, such as nationalism, communism and fascism, that drove ‘Old Wars’.

Kaldor added that such ‘New Wars’ are frequently financed not by state governments, as in the ‘Old Wars’, but rather through predatory means whereby actors benefit from continuing the war, such as extracting revenue from civilians or selling the key resources they control.

Ukrainian service members of the 4th Ivan Vyhovskyi Separate Tank Brigade fire a 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer toward Russian troops near the front line town of Kupiansk.

The civil wars of the 2010s appear to have been ‘New Wars’ that mostly match Kaldor’s description. Syria, Libya and Yemen were all intra-state wars fought as much by non-state militia as conventional armies.

In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad used a conventional military. Still, it was supported by non-state Syrian militia, the Shabiha and later the National Defence Forces, as well as non-Syrian militia from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, his rivals were all non-state actors of different political stripes. Ideology was a factor in the conflict, given it was primarily about whether al-Assad should rule. Still, identity did become a significant factor, with ethnic and religious divisions between Syria’s Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, Alawis, Christians and Druze impacting who fought for whom.

Likewise, though foreign state governments did pour money into the conflict, the domestic actors also relied on extracting revenue internally to finance the war, with control of Syria’s eastern oil reserves helping to fund Kurdish fighters and a ‘checkpoint war economy’ allowing al-Assad’s forces and rebel groups to stay in the field.

In Yemen, the Houthi movement that captured Sana'a in 2014, triggering the conflict, was a non-state actor.

The story was similar in Libya and Yemen. In Libya, the state military dissolved in both the first and second civil wars of 2011 and 2014-present, replaced by militias who did most of the fighting.

In Yemen, the Houthi movement that captured Sana'a in 2014, triggering the conflict, was a non-state actor, while its Yemeni government opponents soon came to rely on the non-state militia to fight back, such as Islah and the Southern Transitional Council. Identity similarly played a prominent role in both conflicts.

In Libya, which is largely ethnically and religiously homogenous, local identities proved divisive, whether Tripolitania and Cyrenaica or attachment to specific cities like Sirte, Misrata and Zintan. In Yemen, the Houthis' Shia identity was an important distinction from other Yemenis, while the South Yemeni identity motivated some in the South to fight the North.

That said, as in Syria, ideology, especially over political Islam, also played a role. Finally, as in Syria, both Yemen and Libya sucked in foreign funding, but the internal players also extracted resources, such as oil and a checkpoint economy.

Read more: The signs of stalemate in Russia-Ukraine war

Houthi militants

The return of 'Old Wars'

Such 'New Wars' have not suddenly ceased. The conflicts in Yemen, Libya and Syria remain unresolved, and the pattern of war continues in the manner described by Kaldor.

Moreover, new 'New Wars' continue to break out, most recently the Tigray War in Ethiopia (2020-22): a civil war that saw the Ethiopian military fight the non-state Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in what seemed to be an identity-driven ethnic conflict. However, at the same time, we have seen the return of conflicts that appear more like the 'Old Wars' Kaldor believed had been consigned to the past.

The most significant, of course, is Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022. While Moscow's non-state Wagner group has been involved, this has primarily been a conventional inter-state war between two state militaries. Moreover, this has been a war of ideology rather than identity: a clash of nationalisms akin to the violent wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Importantly, rather like those wars, and unlike Kaldor's 'New Wars', this has been a conflict about territory. In September 2022, Russia annexed four Ukrainian regions: Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, in addition to Crimea, which it captured and incorporated in 2014.

Kyiv, meanwhile, has stated that it will not consider ending the war until all five territories are returned in full. There is an identity component to the conflict, given that Moscow has used the presence of a Russian minority in the four regions (and a slight Russian majority in Crimea) as justification for their annexation.

However, the war has not descended into the kind of inter-communal ethnic violence seen in the Balkans in the 1990s, suggesting identity is a side issue rather than the driver of conflict.

The recent wars in Azerbaijan similarly look more like 'Old' rather than 'New' wars. In 2020, Azerbaijan launched an attack on the Armenian forces that had been occupying its territory since 1988-94, successfully forcing them from all bar Nagorno-Karabakh. This, too, was then conquered earlier this year. These, too, were conventional wars. Though Turkey sent non-state Syrian militia to help Baku, most of the fighting was between conventional armies.

In 2020, Azerbaijan fought Armenia, while in 2023, it defeated the Artsakh Defence Army, the conventionally organised military of the unrecognised breakaway republic in Nagorno-Karabakh – a state actor in all but name.

Identity was a factor in the conflict, with the ethnic Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as Yerevan believing their linguistic, ethnic and religious differences to the Azeri majority justified their claims to independence.

However, Azerbaijan claimed its reconquest on the grounds of sovereignty, not ethnic triumphalism. Though most of the Armenians living in the province opted to flee to Armenia after the war, Baku insisted they would be welcome to stay. There were no reports of significant ethnic violence.

Again, this suggests that Azeri nationalism and desire to regain lost territory was more of a driver than explicit ethnic chauvinism.

Palestinians inspect the damage at the Al-Maghazi refugee camp in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike.

Finally, there is an argument to suggest that Israel's conflict in Gaza is also an 'Old War'. In many ways, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an 'Old War' from the Cold War era that has remained unsolved. This, after all, is not a civil conflict over who rules but rather a clash of two nationalities over the same piece of land.

While Hamas is viewed internationally as a non-state group, it was been running Gaza as a government since 2007. It so might be seen as a hybrid between a conventional force and a militia. Certainly, it enjoys far more structure than much of the non-state militia involved in Kaldor's 'New Wars.' Moreover, specific to the Gaza war, while Israel has set destroying Hamas as its goal, it has also floated the possibility of carving out a buffer zone in parts of the Gaza Strip.

Though how the conflict plays out remains to be seen, such a goal would make the Gaza conflict partly a war about territory and, therefore, another 'Old War' of conquest like in Ukraine and Azerbaijan.

While Hamas is viewed internationally as a non-state group, it has been running Gaza as a government since 2007. It might be seen as a hybrid between a conventional force and a militia. 

New causes with old roots

How might we explain this seeming move away from 'New Wars' back to wars of conquest? The most obvious factor is the shift in global power.

Kaldor hypothesised that the end of the Cold War was the prompt for the end of 'Old Wars' and the growth of New Wars. With the end of the rivalry between the US and the USSR, there were fewer external patrons to support inter-state wars, while the dominance of the US in the post-1990 era meant few states dared to launch wars of conquest for fear of incurring Washington's wrath – Saddam Hussein having been the last to suffer as a result in 1990-91.

The shift from that era of unipolarity to the new multi-polar world might be one explanation for the return of 'Old Wars'.

The multi-polar world provides several potential sponsors for states looking to launch inter-state wars. Azerbaijan, for example, enjoyed the support of Turkey, Russia continues to receive backing from China, while the US continues to back Israel. Moreover, with the perceived decline of American power, governments may be less deterred by possible US intervention should they launch a war of conquest.

A serviceman of Karabakh's Defence Army fires an artillery piece towards Azeri positions during fighting over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region on September 28, 2020.

An older factor, though, might be that states have not paid the price for past conquests, and, in this new multipolar order, others are taking note. Israel continues to sit on most of the territory it captured in the 1967 war, save for Sinai and Gaza, without serious sanction from the international community.

It even saw the US recognise its illegal annexation of Golan and East Jerusalem in 2019, perhaps signalling to other states that if you hold out for long enough on occupied territory, eventually the world will come round. Russia similarly faced little international reprimand for occupying Georgia's territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008 and only limited sanctions for its capture of Crimea six years later.

While more severe punishments were sent Moscow's way for attacking Ukraine again in 2022, with the war deadlocked, Russia may believe the benefits outweigh the costs. Moreover, it might believe it can withstand international criticism and pressure indefinitely, as Israel has for years while sitting on occupied territory.

In such an international climate, it is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that Ethiopia's prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has reportedly considered invading Eritrea to capture Assab.  Other states have shown that, in today's multi-polar world, 'might make right' and resorting to war to capture territory is once again gaining appeal.

This is a dangerous precedent that leaders such as Tsahkna are right to warn about. However, shifting global power and inaction on past transgressions has helped bring us to this point, so Western leaders should perhaps not be surprised.

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