March Madness at Notes on the Periphery!: Part 1 (Europe and the Middle East)

It’s mid-March. Those of you in the United States know what that means: it’s time for the most exciting three weeks of the year—NCAA college basketball’s final tournament. Each year, 68 college teams (annoyingly bumped up from 65 a few years ago) compete for the national title in a single-elimination bracket. The “bracket” is broken down into four regionals, with each regional consisting of teams seeded 1-16 (under the new format, there are two of one of the seeds in each regional). The winners of each regional advance to the Final Four, then the prevailing two meet in a final championship game, and a winner is crowned in early April. (Unfortunately my Georgetown Hoyas, like usual, have already flubbed.)

 In the spirit of March Madness, as it is often called, I thought I would try out the bracket concept as it relates to Notes on the Periphery. This time, instead of basketball teams, I will use 64 “forgotten” conflicts around the world—including active insurgencies, long-standing “frozen” conflicts, and tense territorial disputes.

The 64 flashpoints are arranged four regionals (Middle East & Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas). Each regional includes 16 conflicts—ranked roughly by how likely (in my completely subjective opinion) each is to escalate in the coming year.

Of course, this March Madness analogy is not meant to be an exhaustive nor testable model of prediction. (It’s more of a cheap trick to combine two of my interests—conflicts and basketball.) But the idea is to provide a brief introduction to a multitude of different disputes you may not have previously been familiar with!


This first post will break down the “Middle East & Europe” regional—splicing together two seemingly disparate regions that actually face many similar problems. Namely, the politics of self-determination, ethno-religious conflict, and jihad have led to violence in these 16 cases in recent years.

(Note: sticking with the “forgotten” theme, I have excluded several present disputes you are likely already familiar with—Syria, Egypt, Israel-Palestine, Hezbollah, Israel-Iran)

So: without further ado, the 16 flashpoints, in order of least to most likely of escalation in the coming year. Here’s the bracket!

ME Europe bracket

#16 – Cyprus

Primary belligerents: Turkish Cypriots vs. Greek Cypriots

Ever since Turkey invaded to halt a Greek-backed coup attempt in 1974, this relatively small island in the eastern Mediterranean has been spliced in two: a Turkish-held north and Greek Cypriot-inhabited south. While not an active battlefield (it’s more of a “frozen” territorial dispute), the Cypriot issue remains divisive—a primary roadblock to improved Greek-Turkish relations. Unfortunately, Cyprus’ current financial woes (dominating present news coverage of the island) are likely to overshadow languishing UN-brokered negotiations. While newly-elected president Nicos Anastasiades (in Greek Cyprus) once supported a 2004 plan to unify the two zones, he is unlikely to win support amongst a Greek Cypriot population that voted around 3 to 1 against the plan in a 2004 referendum.

Flabbergasted and looking for more?: Read a 2011 International Crisis Group brief here and New York Times feature here.

#15 – Western Sahara (Morocco)

Primary belligerents: Polisario vs. Government of Morocco

A 16-year armed struggle ended in 1991 after the armed wing of the Polisario Front agreed to a cease-fire with the Government of Morocco on the condition that ethnic Sahrawis would have a chance to vote in an independence referendum. Well, about that…more than 21 years later—owing largely to Moroccan and foreign power recalcitrance—no referendum has been held. The Polisario Front, now overwhelmingly a non-violent organization, continues to push for an independent Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic from refugee camps in western Algeria. Despite a small flare-up in December 2010, there are few signs the status quo of Western Sahara’s status will change anytime soon.

More on the non-developments since 1991: A good legal analysis here and a closer look at the refugee situation in Algeria here.

#14 – South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Georgia)

Primary belligerents: South Ossetia military, Abkhazian military, and Russia vs. Government of Georgia

Sidelined after his party lost parliamentary elections last October, President Mikheil Saakashvili is almost certainly gritting his teeth. Billionaire and new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has taken steps to improve ties with Russia, likely to the chagrin of pro-Western Saakashvili. Bad blood between Moscow and Saakashvili’s old government was mutual (Putin once threatened the president he would “hang him by the balls”!), precipitated largely by a 2008 war in which Russia invaded Georgia on behalf of pro-separatist regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow, along with 5 other countries (including mighty Nauru and Tuvalu), recognizes the two regions’ status as independent nations. Ivanishvili’s good relations with Russia and Russia’s de facto control over the South Ossetian and Abkhazian “militaries” are likely to preclude conflict in 2013, but the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi (just 10 miles from Abkhazia) are likely to reignite international discussion of the sticky issue.

Flexing its real power: Turns out Abkhazia is a beast at international dominoes competitions. Maybe this is why one more nation (Vanuatu) recognizes Abkhazia’s independence than South Ossetia’s independence?

#13 – Northern Ireland

Primary belligerents: Continuity IRA and Real IRA vs. Government of Northern Ireland and pro-British loyalists

The 1998 “Good Friday Agreement” put an end to the worst three decades of violence between pro-Irish Catholics (calling for merger with Catholic Ireland) and unionist or pro-British Protestant loyalists. But two trends in the past four months have heightened concern of renewed violence. First, the Belfast city council’s vote to stop waving the Union Jack from City Hall every day (as has been tradition for a century) in December 2012 triggered nearly two months of unionist protests, the worst since 1998. Demonstrations quickly turned violent, as rioters hurled fireworks, rocks, and even petrol bombs at police in central Belfast. The riots have since subsided but are a clear indication the wounds of a long, bloody war have not yet healed. Second, while relatively quiet throughout much of 2012 (though active throughout much of the 2000s), nationalist militants (Continuity IRA, Real IRA, and others) have continued their campaign of attacks and deaths threats against local police and politicians. A particularly brazen recent attempt was foiled just minutes before militants sought to set off four mortar bombs in the city. (This would have constituted the first multiple mortar attack since the 1998 ceasefire.)

Still shocked that Western Europe made the list?: A very brief history of the conflict and a lengthy update from 2012 on the peace monitoring process.

#12 – Kosovo

Primary belligerents: Serbian Kosovars vs. Albanian Kosovars

While Serbian-Kosovar relations have come a long way since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbian rule in 2008, a standoff between an ethnically Albanian-dominated Kosovar state and a minority Serb population threatens to unravel progress. A dialogue kicked off in March 2011 between Belgrade and Pristina halted abruptly after Kosovar police moved into the Serb-dominated north to stop border and customs interference in July 2011. Local Serbs beat back the police force, killing one officer, and set off a series of minor clashes that continued sporadically throughout 2012 and into early 2013. NATO’s KFOR military mission and the European Union’s EULEX rule of law mission have helped stabilize the situation, but no permanent solution is likely to come until state-to-state talks produce an agreement on greater autonomy for Kosovo’s Serbs. The good news: a breakthrough in December 2012 (Serbian-Kosovar accord establishing joint border posts) suggests that a larger rapprochement between the two countries may be near. The bad news: it’s the Balkans, and agreements between ethnic adversaries can take a very long time.

Don’t totally trust my judgment on all things Europe (you probably shouldn’t)?: Let the always awesome International Crisis Group contextualize the issue better than I did.

#11 – Nagorno-Karabakh (Armenia-Azerbaijan)
Primary belligerents: Ethnic Armenians vs. Government of Azerbaijan

Chalk this up as yet another unresolved vestige of a bloody 20th century ethnic conflict in Europe (or Asia, depending on who you ask). A bloody insurrection-turned-war for control of the tiny wooded region of Nagorno-Karabakh cost the lives of over 30,000 between 1988-1994 and displaced hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azeris caught in the crossfire. Today, Nagorno-Karabakh remains a semi-autonomous region within Azerbaijan but populated and largely run by ethnic Armenians. Almost two decades after the war, a series of peace initiatives run by the OSCE Minsk Group have failed to make progress on key issues: Armenian/Nagorno-Karabakh troops continue to hold around 14% of Azerbaijani territory, well beyond the area of Nagorno-Karabakh itself; some 580,000 Azeris remain internally displaced; and ethnic Armenians in the occupied territories refuse to cede their own sovereignty and security to a hostile government in Baku. Small-scale skirmishes between Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani soldiers occur frequently, and a heavy arms race and bellicose rhetoric threatens to escalate tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

If you said, “Nagor-goo what?”: As usual, International Crisis Group is the number one place to start for learning more.

#10 – Eastern Province (Saudi Arabia)

Primary belligerents: Shi’a Saudis vs. Government of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has so far avoided the fate of some of its less fortunate neighbors since the Arab Spring began. But it has not gone completely unscathed, facing sporadic violent protests in 2011 and 2012 in the country’s Eastern Province. Unrest, spurred by mostly Shi’a demonstrators calling for an end to discrimination and marginalization, was particularly acute after police shot popular Shi’a Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in the leg and jailed him in July 2012. Though protesters claim to be nonviolent, particularly large crowds, most recently in Qatif, have sparked a lethal state response. 12 protesters in all were killed in 2012, with a significant potential for more in 2013. Recent crackdowns on Saudi activists and a looming monarchical succession crisis in the House of Saud may spark greater turbulence in the coming weeks, months, or years.

Read up: Bruce Reidel assesses the possibility of revolution in Saudi for 2013 and Karen Elliott House’s new book “On Saudi Arabia” looks at potential causes of instability.

#9 – Houthi rebellion (Yemen)

Primary belligerents: Houthi (Zaydi) rebels vs. Government of Yemen

Yemen’s primary security concern throughout most of the 2000s was not Al Qaeda, but rather a Zaydi Shi’a insurgency in the country’s north, led by the powerful Houthi family—thirsty for power and implementation of Shi’a religious law. Triggered by the military’s violent response to anti-Saleh demonstrations in Sa’dah, an all-out war broke out in 2004. Thousands of deaths later, direct conflict began to dial back after 2010, but occasional skirmishes still occur. If Houthi representatives at the current 6-month “national dialogue” leave unsatisfied (or are forced out of the talks), the dispute could erupt again into a violent campaign against the state.

Some background: AEI’s profile of the Houthi movement and an update from The Economist.

#8 – Hirak movement (Yemen)

Primary belligerents: Hirak (southern) movement vs. Government of Yemen

Virtually ever since South and North Yemen united as one country in 1990, a significant portion of the southern population has demanded a return to the two-state system. A 1994 civil war that badly wounded Ali Salim al-Baidh’s southern opposition largely silenced anti-unification grumblings for more than a decade. But delayed pensions sparked small protests in 2007, and the mostly peaceful movement for secession has gained steam ever since. Following Saleh’s departure, the so-called “Hirak” movement has tried to seize upon the ensuing chaos to pressure President al-Hadi to accept southern autonomy. 2013 has already seen at least nine deaths after government forces opened fire to hold back pro-secession demonstrators in Aden. Just this week some of the largest southern protests in years threatened to undermine the important “national dialogue” in Sana’a. Hirak avows civil disobedience for now, but a violent campaign is possible.

Houthis to the left, Hirakis to the right: Foreign Policy magazine’s good recent coverage of Yemen’s cleavages threatening the Sana’a dialogue here, here, and here.

#7 – North Caucasus (Russia)

Primary belligerents: Ethnic separatists and Islamic extremists vs. Government of Russia

Trouble in the North Caucasus has handed Russia the prize for deadliest ongoing conflict in Europe. While violence and terrorism in the Chechen republic has slowed since 2009, it still persists and has spread to neighboring republics, including Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and North Ossetia. Ethnic Ingush, Chechens, etc. have mostly manifested their frustrations through mass demonstrations, fistfights, and gun violence aimed at individual soldiers. Over 2,000 have died in clashes in the past two years…though I suppose it could be worse (like the Chechen wars in 1994-96 and 1999-2009). Radical Islamists have benefited from simmering ethnic disputes and probably pose the most serious local and national (i.e., attacks in Moscow) terrorism threat.

Don’t know your Dagestan from your Ingushetia?: Check out the play-by-play from International Crisis Group and a BBC timeline of the long Chechen conflict. Also, a very good map charting the different ethnic groups here.

#6 – Sinai Peninsula (Egypt)

Primary belligerents: Sinai extremists and Bedouins vs. Government of Egypt and Government of Israel

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has always been a thorn in Cairo’s side, but the acceleration of Islamic extremism and instability has been particularly acute since the 2011 Egyptian revolution. On one hand, there are the jihadists. A Salafist group calling itself Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen has claimed several attacks on Israel from Sinai and the Gaza Strip, and illicit trafficking of supplies and weapons through Sinai remains a critical lifeline to extremists in Gaza. Jihadists were likely responsible for an August 2012 attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and ensuing incursion into Israel. On the other hand, Sinai has a history of Bedouin unrest – most recently behind recent kidnappings at foreign tourist hotspot Sharm el-Sheikh. Some Bedouin tribes are almost certainly harboring (and producing) jihadists. Despite an Egyptian military crackdown after the August attack, armed gunmen continue to thrive as the Egyptian defense forces are distracted elsewhere.

More on the powder keg wedged between Egypt and Israel: A report from early 2012 laying out the basic context, and a look at the dangerous potential impact on Egypt-Israel relations.

#5 – Kurdish insurgency (Turkey, Iraq)

Primary belligerents: Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Peshmerga vs. Government of Iraq and Government of Turkey

Peace advocates scored a big victory last week when PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan declared from prison a halt to a three-decades-long Kurdish insurgency against the Turkish state. Field commanders have so far appeared to respect their leader’s cease-fire decision and are leading a retreat back to bases in northern Iraq. The bad news is that Kurds are still mired in two conflicts: the raging civil war in Syria and a standoff with Prime Minister Maliki’s government in Iraq. The Kurdish “Peshmerga” army of northern Iraq enjoys significant autonomy over an oil-rich region—both a blessing and a curse. While Kurds enjoy some freedoms from Iraqi rule, they are unlikely to achieve their goal of secession without a fight, as Maliki’s government (understandably) considers the territory strategically an economically vital. Tensions were running high in late 2012, after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (Kurdish leader) suffered a stroke. Kurds are worried that Talabani’s replacement will be an Arab Shi’a (or at least another Kurd not nearly as skilled as Talabani), cutting off a vital source of influence in the Iraqi government. Talabani’s death or a worsening of the dispute over Iraqi oil could spark a serious crisis within an already fragile Iraqi state.

Kurd you find time to look at these?: New York Times on Iraqi-Kurdish tensions in December, and updates from the Institute for the Study of War, a go-to source on Iraq.

#4 – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (North Africa)

Primary belligerents: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) vs. Governments of Algeria, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably heard at least murmurs of a growing concern over Al Qaeda’s primary affiliate in Africa. But while many are quick to highlight the death of Saharan AQIM commander Abou Zeid and (possible) loss of Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Mali, it is easy to forget AQIM’s central theater: northern Algeria, where AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel is suspected to be located. The threat to Algeria has not receded (with more In Amenas-style attacks plausible), and the failure of AQIM’s experiment in Mali is likely to increase the terrorist group’s presence in neighboring countries: Mauritania, southern Algeria, Libya, and Niger. AQIM’s diffuse, decentralized nature works to its advantage: the death of no single leader will cause the organization to crumble.

More on AQIM: Prof. Jean Pierre-Filiu has a good read on AQIM’s emergence and internal structure from 2010, and Andrew Lebovich has a more recent backgrounder on the group here.

#3 – Ansar al-Sharia (North Africa)

Primary belligerents: Ansar al-Sharia movements vs. Governments of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt

If there is anything close to a rebranded, more subtle Al Qaeda presence emerging in the wake of the Arab Spring, it is the new “Ansar al-Sharia” phenomenon. Not a single group, but rather several independently operating ones from several North African countries, Ansar al-Sharia could nonetheless be a more populist form of Al Qaeda. Think more Hamas lite—a fundamentalist vision and a penchant for violence and terrorism, but also concern for the protection and well-being of a sympathetic local population. Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (there is also an Ansar al-Sharia in nearby Derna) is thought to be responsible for local security while also suspected for carrying out the September 11 attack that killed four Americans. Just as enigmatic is Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia. While connected to a September 14 assault on US Embassy Tunis, the group also operates publically, holding protests and press conferences. The greatest worry is that as an Arab public grows weary with the failures of post-Arab Spring governments, more will turn to Ansar al-Sharia, or likeminded Salafist groups, with a guiding ideology virtually identical to that of Al Qaeda.

A growth industry: Few experts have waxed poetic on Ansar al-Sharia as of yet, with the major exception of Washington Institute fellow Aaron Zelin. He has good reports here and here.

#2 – Al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen)

Primary belligerents: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) vs. Government of Yemen

As Gregory Johnsen’s new book points out, AQAP emir Nasir al-Wihayshi reconstructed a terrorist network built to last. Operationally decentralized, AQAP is resilient in the face of leadership losses (i.e. Anwar al-Awlaki, Said al-Shihri) and continues to pose a powerful challenge to Abd Mansour al-Hadi’s government despite setbacks in recent months. 2011 saw the height of the group’s power, as a militant front (also called “Ansar al-Sharia”), for which AQAP pulled the strings, seized most of Abyan governorate and threatened to topple Aden, the country’s vital port and second-largest city. After President Saleh’s departure later that year, his replacement—al-Hadi—led a successful operation to retake much of the lost territory in mid-2012. But AQAP’s top leadership escaped mostly unscathed, and clashes with AQAP-backed forces still occur weekly, if not daily. More worrisome, past experience has shown the group has a knack for high explosives—capable of killing hundreds at a time—and may direct operations toward Saudi Arabia or even the United States again.

More on AQAP: See my review of Johnsen’s book (“The Last Refuge”) here and a fantastic report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center here. AEI’s “Critical Threats” program also has extensive Yemen coverage.

#1 – Iraq

Primary belligerents: Al Qaeda in Iraq, Shi’a militants, and Sunni/Shi’a protesters vs. Government of Iraq

An Iraq menaced by political/military opposition on all sides—Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd—earns the top spot in this regional. While the somewhat separate Kurdish issue has already been discussed above (#5), the greatest threat of all in Iraq stems from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki himself. His rapid ascendancy to virtual authoritarianism has earned him enemies all around. Triggered by physical intimidation that eventually spurred Finance Minister and popular Sunni leader Rafi al-Issawi’s resignation, nationwide protests brought Iraq nearly to its knees in January 2013 and continue today. An Iraqiyya-led coalition of Sunni and Shi’a politicians has threatened to oust Maliki in a no-confidence vote, and patience with the Prime Minister is evaporating abroad. Meanwhile, Shi’a militant groups are on the resurgence, and the Islamic State of Iraq (essentially a revamped Al Qaeda in Iraq) regularly wreaks havoc in Baghdad and the surrounding regions. Ten years after the US invasion, now oft-forgotten Iraq is presently on a path toward disaster.

For more: The Economist has a somewhat rosier picture, but Foreign Affairs and the Institute for the Study of War help scare the bejeesus out of us.

Other potential candidates: Libyan militias, protests in Bahrain/Jordan, DHKP/C (Turkey), Shebaa Farms (Israel, Lebanon, Syria), Syria spillover (Lebanon, Iraq), Transnistria (Moldova).


Whew. You made it to the end. If you enjoyed this sampling, stay tuned for 16 more conflicts in the “Africa regional” later this week!

This entry was posted in Al Qaeda, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Balkans, Caucasus, Cyprus, Egypt, Europe, Georgia, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, March Madness, Middle East and North Africa, North Caucasus, Northern Ireland, Saudi Arabia, territorial disputes, terrorism, Tunisia, Turkey, Western Sahara, Yemen and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to March Madness at Notes on the Periphery!: Part 1 (Europe and the Middle East)

  1. dhirsch1 says:

    This is a totally novel concept and I love it. I’ve been thinking about trying to write a post on why soccer clubs are like states, but conceptual clarity still eludes me.

  2. Andrew Wojtanik says:

    Thanks! Am thinking about letting viewers vote (once I’m done with the 3 other brackets) to predict which conflicts will get worse over the next year. Then, next March, see how everyone did.

  3. Pingback: Weekly News Roundup: Central African quagmire, Burmese violence, and UN steps up its game in Congo | Notes on the Periphery

  4. Pingback: March Madness at Notes on the Periphery!: Part 2 (Sub-Saharan Africa) | Notes on the Periphery

  5. Pingback: March Madness at Notes on the Periphery!: Part 3 (Latin America) | Notes on the Periphery

  6. Pingback: March Madness at Notes on the Periphery!: Part 4 (Asia-Pacific) | Notes on the Periphery

  7. Pingback: March Madness at Notes on the Periphery!: Part 5 (full bracket) | Notes on the Periphery

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