Nagorno-Karabakh: diplomacy stalls as decades-old conflict threatens to re-emerge

The fragile 22-year ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh was shattered at the beginning of April, as four days of intense fighting resulted in dozens of deaths on both sides. The recent clashes have led to a renewed fear that a conflict which has lay dormant at the crossroads of Europe and Asia for two decades, could be about to re-emerge.

The outbreak of violence has heightened existing tensions, which had been steadily worsening over the last few years. Attempts at negotiation have repeatedly failed, leaving peace talks virtually non-existent and the region in a state of uncertainty and fear.

In the most recent wave of violence, Azerbaijan said 16 servicemen were killed, whilst the Karabakh authorities said 20 of their troops had died, along with several civilian casualties. A new ceasefire was announced on 5th April, which has so-far held firm. However, the situation on the ground remains fragile; and given the region’s complex history, a lasting solution appears to be a distant prospect.

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The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been under the control of Armenian forces since the war ended with a truce in 1994 – (Image Source: Wikipedia)

The mountainous, land-locked region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the subject of an unresolved territorial dispute between Azerbaijan (in which it is located) and its ethnic Armenian majority, supported by neighbouring Armenia. The conflict has its roots in the 19th Century when the area was part of the Russian Empire, and during which time there was fierce competition between Christian Armenian and Muslim Turkic influences in the region. The two groups lived alongside each other in relative peace until the end of World War One and the Bolshevik Revolution, when the Soviets established Nagorno-Karabakh as an autonomous region of Azerbaijan, but with an ethnic Armenian majority population.

Tensions increased gradually over the decades, eventually spilling over into large-scale violence following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, which resulted in Armenia and Azerbaijan becoming independent states. An all-out war ensued from 1992-1994, with fierce fighting over the territory leaving 30,000 people dead, and resulting in ethnic Armenians gaining control of the region. They also pushed into surrounding areas, occupying swathes of Azeri territory and effectively creating a ‘buffer zone’ linking the breakaway province to Armenia. During the war, more than 600,000 ethnic Azeris fled from Karabakh, whilst more than 300,000 ethnic Armenians who previously resided in Azerbaijan were displaced, and many have been unable to return home.

After a Russian-brokered truce was signed in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh was left as an enclave under Armenian control, but within the internationally-recognized sovereign state of Azerbaijan. Although Armenia has never officially recognized the region’s independence, it has naturally become its main financial and military backer. In the 22 years since the conflict ended, both sides have had soldiers killed in sporadic violations of the ceasefire. However until this year’s clashes – the most deadly since 1994 – a stalemate has largely prevailed, with both sides unwilling to compromise. The Azeri’s resent the loss of land viewed as ‘rightfully theirs’, whilst the ethnic Armenians continue to state their right to self-determination.

The truce left an inherently unstable and unsustainable situation on the ground: a ceasefire line which stretched across Azeri territory, with no international peacekeepers deployed to monitor the situation. These problems are further exacerbated by the memories of a traumatic war, which left the population mentally-scarred and fostered a legacy of hatred and animosity. In this toxic atmosphere, tensions have steadily increased beneath the surface, whilst the international community has lost interest – pre-occupied with conflicts elsewhere which are viewed as more strategically-important.

In recent years, Azerbaijan has used its Caspian Sea oil wealth to spend billions of dollars on advanced weaponry. At the same time, Armenia has strengthened its defence alliance with Moscow and bolstered its own military capacity. As a result of these developments, the ‘line of contact’ between the two sides has become one of outer Europe’s most heavily militarized zones, further increasing tensions and acting as a visible reminder that conflict could break-out at any moment.

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The war in Nagorno-Karabakh lasted from 1992-1994, leaving an estimated 30,000 killed and 900,000 displaced across Azerbaijan and Armenia (Image Source: Nicholas Babaian)

After the April skirmishes, Azerbaijan’s defence minister Zakir Hasanov said his troops were prepared to target the breakaway region’s capital, Stepanakert, if separatist forces continued to shell settlements. In response, the Karabakh authorities promised a ‘crushing response’ in the face of aggression. There is now a considerable prospect that more frequent low-intensity fighting could derail the already fragile peace process. The danger of escalation has been further heightened by militaristic propaganda, which has maintained the level of threat perception and hugely influenced public opinion over the last two decades.

In particular, the recent surge in violence has distracted the populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan from domestic issues and economic woes, contributing to a resurgence of nationalism in both countries. This has led to fears that emotions are again running high as past memories are being evoked, creating a mood for revenge in an already tense environment.

The wider geopolitical context also provides cause for concern. Some analysts believe there is potential for this largely regional dispute to escalate into a ‘proxy war’ between Russia and Turkey, whose relations have severely deteriorated since Turkey shot-down a Russian warplane over northern Syria in November 2015, after an accusation of violating Turkish airspace. Given the current animosity between these two large powers, their potentially opposing positions in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute are of significant concern. Russia has defence treaty obligations to Armenia, and would be required to defend it if attacked. Turkey has traditionally supported Azerbaijan and has recently issued a number of strong statements, with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stating that Turkey will ‘’stand shoulder to shoulder with Azerbaijan’’, and will continue its support until ‘’all its lands are liberated’’.

Given the rapidly deteriorating scenario, there has been increased international pressure for renewed peace talks. However, previous attempts have proven remarkably difficult; which is unsurprising considering that Armenia and Azerbaijan have severely strained bi-lateral relations, with no formal diplomatic links. The latest attempt at peace negotiations, mediated by the Minsk Group, and initiated by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), have seen little progress. The peace talks are stuck at their foundations, and remain limited to the basic objectives of avoiding all-out war and keeping the process alive. For years, momentum has been non-existent as both sides have remained far apart, unable to agree on either a basic agenda or timescale.

As clashes continue with greater severity and the region becomes more heavily militarized, a return to full-scale conflict edges dangerously closer. The risk of escalation is especially heightened in the absence of meaningful peace negotiations, which to be successful would require the involvement of all parties and significant compromise. The tragic fatalities from the clashes earlier this year serve as a reminder that the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is far from dead, and highlight the enormous human consequences that would accompany a return to conflict. Despite the complexity of the situation and difficulties to be overcome, it is surely in the interests of all sides to begin a process of meaningful negotiations and seek an end to further bloodshed.

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Yemen facing humanitarian crisis as war takes devastating toll on civilians

One year on from the start of a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels, launched by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states, the air strikes continue as the increasingly complex war in Yemen shows little sign of ending. The impact on civilians has been huge: almost 6,000 have been killed, 2.5 million displaced from their homes, and almost 20 million people left without access to a regular food supply, safe drinking water or medical supplies. Whilst the world’s attention has been focussed on Syria, the destructive war in Yemen has left the country on the edge of ruin, and the population on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

The conflict has its origins in September 2014, when Houthi rebels based in the north of the country, launched an offensive against the government and seized control of the capital, Sanaa. The country’s President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was initially placed under house arrest, before fleeing across the border to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In the following months, the rebels quickly took control over almost all of western Yemen, whilst government forces retreated to the east. In the midst of the chaos, jihadist militant groups such as Al-Qaeda were also able to exploit the power vacuum and gain a foothold.

The Houthis, who constitute a minority of Yemen’s population, allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from power during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Saleh remained a powerful force in Yemeni politics, retaining the loyalty of a large portion of the security forces.

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Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, has been under the control of Houthi rebel forces since September 2014 (Image Source: Ferdinand Reus)

The major Gulf power, Saudi Arabia, looked on with increasing concern and interest as the conflict unfolded across its southern border. In March 2015, the Saudi defence minister Prince Salman quickly assembled a coalition of Arab air forces, including the UAE and Bahrain, and began a campaign of air strikes against the rebels on 26th March. Initially, the alliance hoped that their overwhelming firepower would turn the tide of the conflict within a few months; yet 12 months later, little progress has been made and civilian casualties are mounting.

Over the past 12 months Saudi Arabia has been increasingly involved, training and equipping forces loyal to President Hadi in an attempt to confront the rebels on the ground. Law and order has collapsed, leaving the country in a state of chronic disintegration with no central authority. In the East, the conflict has gained a new layer of complexity as armed militias and violent jihadist groups have emerged to play a more prominent role.

There is now growing international opposition to the bombing campaign, with the EU Parliament recently voting to call for the imposition of an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. However, not all world powers share this view, as the US and the UK have continued to supply aircraft and weapons to their long-standing regional ally Saudi Arabia, including precision-guided missiles which have been used in the air campaign.

Whilst numerous human rights groups have argued that civilians represent the majority of casualties from air-strikes, the Arab coalition has said that its targets are chosen carefully, and continue to insist that they abide strictly to international rules on the conduct of war. Several previous attempts at peace talks in Switzerland have failed, but a new round of talks is due to be held in Kuwait in the coming weeks, initiating a renewed attempt to find a solution. However, as the war has become increasingly complex and more international actors have become involved, a peace deal any time soon is looking unlikely.

To understand the complexity of the conflict, it is important to look at the wider strategic context. The division between Sunni and Shia Muslims has long been a source of tension in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia (the most powerful Sunni state) sharing an intense and long-standing rivalry with Iran (the most powerful Shia state). The Houthi rebels in Yemen are also Shia, and are backed by Iran. In this context, the conflict in Yemen can be viewed as a sectarian, proxy war between the two regional rivals, with Saudi Arabia reluctant to allow one of its neighbours to be controlled by a Shia-led government, and determined to maintain its dominant influence in the Arabian Peninsula.

These tensions have flared up more visibly in recent years as the Middle East has entered a period of upheaval, and Iran has re-entered the international community after signing a nuclear deal with the West. As a result of these two factors, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has increased dramatically, with both states looking to increase their control and influence over the region, driven by a sense of paranoia and opportunity. In particular, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become more assertive and outward-looking since King Salman replaced King Abdullah in January 2015, revoking the country’s traditional diplomatic stance in favour of a more confrontational and active approach.

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A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has been conducting air strikes against Houthi rebels since March 2015 (Image Source: Ibrahem Qasim)

As this geopolitical game has extended its influence to Yemen over the last 18 months, it is civilians who suffer the worst consequences. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world before the conflict began, plagued by years of instability, poor governance and widespread poverty. Even prior to the conflict, 50% of Yemen’s population lived below the poverty line, whilst the youth unemployment rate was over 60%. Now, after 18 months of fighting, the humanitarian situation has ‘severely deteriorated’, according to the UN’s Human Rights Co-ordinator Johannes van der Klaauw. Since the conflict escalated in March last year, the UN estimates that 5,878 civilians have been killed and up to 30,000 wounded. The country’s infrastructure has been almost completely destroyed, and basic services have ground to a halt.

Both sides in the war have been accused of committing serious abuses, many of which amount to war crimes. Human rights groups have accused the Saudi-led coalition of using cluster bombs, and targeting homes, hospitals and factories. The Houthi rebels have also been accused of shelling residential areas and laying mines; whilst the UNHCR said in November last year, that it has verified more than 8000 reports of human rights violations since the conflict began.

Further exacerbating the effect on civilians, the Saudi-led coalition has imposed crippling import restrictions and a naval embargo on the country, resulting in severe food and fuel shortages. According to a UN report, 21 million out of Yemen’s 26 million population now require humanitarian aid, whilst 19.3 million are without access to safe drinking water, and 2 million people are ‘acutely malnourished’.  In addition, 14 million people lack basic healthcare due to the destruction of hospitals and a lack of supplies, whilst 1.8 million children have been unable to go to school. An estimated 120,000 people have fled the country, whilst those that do remain in Yemen, live under the fear of constant bombardment from aerial attacks and ground fighting. Humanitarian organizations attempting to work in the country have been severely hampered by funding difficulties and access constraints.

As each month passes, the situation for civilians in Yemen is becoming increasingly desperate. A solution looks to be a distant prospect, as the conflict continues largely un-noticed by an outside world focused on recent developments in Syria and Europe. Obscured from view, the war in Yemen shows little sign of ending, leaving its cities in ruin and its citizens on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

Political crisis pushes Burundi to the brink of a second Civil War

Burundi is a state in turmoil: a political crisis accompanied by escalating levels of violence, is threatening to plunge the country into conflict – little more than ten years after the end of a devastating 12-year civil war which left 300,000 dead.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein, recently said that ‘’all the alarm signals – including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis – are flashing red’’ indicating that a ‘’complete breakdown of law and order, is just around the corner’’. President Obama has also expressed concerns, stating in November: ‘’from Burundi’s painful past, we know where this type of violence can lead. Leaders in Burundi have spewed hateful rhetoric, and terrible acts of violence have taken the lives of innocent men, women and children.’’

Since the turn of 2016 the situation has become far worse, as violence has continued almost un-noticed by the outside world. If the situation is not stabilized soon, Burundi’s unfolding crisis could quickly descend into a return to full-scale civil war.

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Burundi’s Civil War lasted for 12 years from 1993-2005, resulting in the deaths of more than 300,000 people (Image Source: AFRICOM)

The current crisis began in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third-term in office, in violation of the country’s constitution. In response, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest. Police responded by opening fire on the crowds, killing two people and wounding many others.

The violence has continued to spread and an attempted military coup was thwarted in May 2015, by which time more than 217,000 people had fled to the neighbouring states of Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Little has been done to bring the violence under control, with peace talks put on hold and the African Union (AU) opting not to send a peacekeeping force.

Over the past 10 months since the crisis began, the violence has escalated. Government forces have responded brutally in the face of opposition, launching a campaign of murder and intimidation in the neighbourhoods where the protests originated. An atmosphere of fear and impunity now prevails, as the independent media has effectively been shut-down, and human rights organizations have been forced out of the country.

According to the UN, at least 439 people have been killed in the conflict so far, whilst disappearances have become routine. The most widely-publicized act of violence to date occurred on 11th December, when security forces responded to an attack on military installations in the capital city Bujumbura, by executing at least 87 civilians within the space of just a few hours. The UN estimated that at least 130 people were killed in December, making it the deadliest month in the conflict so far.

There have been allegations of large-scale arrests and extra-judicial detentions in ‘secret prisons’, whilst there have also been accusations of torture and documented cases of sexual violence against women. Witnesses and satellite images have indicated the existence of at least nine mass graves, which have appeared in and around the capital in recent months.

When considering the historical context of violence in Burundi, the outlook for the current conflict looks increasingly dangerous. The previous civil war began in 1993, after the democratic election of President Melchior Ndadaye. President Ndadaya was ethnically Hutu; whereas previously the country’s political elite had been dominated by the minority Tutsi population. Just three months into his term, Ndadaya was assassinated, leading to a cycle of revenge attacks, after which the country became locked in a bitter, ethnic-based civil war.

The conflict ended in 2005 after 12 long years, which had resulted in 5% of the total population being killed, and thousands more displaced. A new era of democracy was ushered in with the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. Crucial to Burundi’s future stability and integration of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, the agreement recognized that the conflict was caused by ‘’a struggle by the political class to accede and/or remain in power’’, as opposed to being a result of ethnic hatreds.

The new constitution outlined a power-sharing structure and set a strict two-term limit for presidents. It was president Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third-term, in opposition to the constitutional limit, which initiated the current political crisis and ensuing wave of violence.

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President Pierre Nkurunziza’s run for a third-term in office, sparked Burundi’s political crisis which began in April 2015 (Image Source: World Economic Forum)

So far, the opposition movement has remained largely united across ethnic lines. However, this situation is dangerously at risk of fracture – a development which would almost certainly result in a rapid descent towards civil war. The government has been accused of playing the ‘ethnic card’, demonising communities and attempting to divide the population for their own political advantage.

The UN Special Advisor on Genocide, Amada Dieng, has spoken of this worrying trend, suggesting: ‘’we can observe today in Burundi, a clear manipulation of ethnicity by both the government and opposition. We know that ethnicity can be used to divide populations and spread hatred among them, which can have tragic consequences.’’

This worrying development, evidenced by the direct targeting of Tutsis by the security forces and more divisive government rhetoric, is a sign that the conflict is beginning to take on a distinctly ethnic dimension.

Some analysts have highlighted parallels between Burundi today, and neighbouring Rwanda in the build-up to its 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed. Others have argued that the current crisis has so far remained predominantly political in nature, and has not yet divided the population along ethnic lines.

However, in a country plagued by past conflict, and with its political leaders seemingly willing to incite hatred and stir-up existing divisions, there are growing signs that Burundi – a country which has enjoyed relative peace, stability and progress over the last 10 years – has been set on a rapidly deteriorating trajectory by its political elite, leaving ordinary citizens fearful of a return to civil war.

Western Sahara: An independence struggle frozen in time and forgotten by the world

The Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara are split off from the rest of civilization by a 2,700km wall stretching across the desert: a stark physical reminder of an independence struggle which remains unresolved after 40 years. In the four decades since Moroccan troops entered and occupied the remote territory in 1975, the resulting conflict and struggle for independence has barely been reported, and has largely been overlooked by the international community.

This ‘media invisibility’ is in stark contrast to coverage of other situations where a population has been divided: such as the Cold War separation of East and West Germany, and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Even on the rare occasions when the territory does make the news, there is often a lack of background context to the dispute, which dates back to the end of the colonial era.

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Western Sahara has been a disputed territory for more than 40 years, with its ambitions for independence still unrealised (Image Source: Jaysen Naidoo)

What is today known as Western Sahara, was a former Spanish Colony up until the 1975 ‘Madrid Agreement’, in which Spain agreed to end colonial rule, and control of the area was passed on to Morocco and Mauritania. Mauritanian troops soon withdrew, and Morocco annexed the territory. These events were followed by a 14-year guerrilla war between Moroccan troops and the Polisario Front – a group fighting against the perceived occupation, operating from neighbouring Algeria.

To counter the rebel movement, Morocco built a 2,700km wall in the 1980’s to separate the troubled territory from the rest of the country. The wall remains in place today, manned by an estimated 120,000 Moroccan soldiers and surrounded by thousands of landmines which have wounded more than 2,500 people over the last four decades. The heavily-militarized wall remains in position despite the fact that the conflict officially ended in 1991, after a UN-brokered ceasefire agreement was signed by both sides.

In the years immediately after the violence ended, the outlook began to look more positive: the UN set up a Peacekeeping Mission in 1992, known as the ‘UN Mission for a Referendum in Western Sahara’. The aim of the mission was to give the Sahrawi people a vote on self-determination; yet 25 years later this has still not materialized, and the political situation remains deadlocked.

The lack of any meaningful progress is a cause of increasing frustration amongst the native people of Western Sahara, with more than 155,000 of them still living in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria after being displaced by the conflict. Morocco has continually rejected independence as an option, and has been accused over the years of abusing human rights and using excessive force against protestors. For example, several people were killed when security forces broke up a pro-independence demonstration, at a protest camp just outside the capital Laayoune in November 2010.

The Moroccan government has a different perspective on the situation, claiming that Morocco has rightful historical claims to the land. In support of this, the Almoravid Dynasty encompassed both of what is now present-day Morocco and Western Sahara, long before the Spanish colonial era began in 1884. In the current context however, continued control of the area gives the ruling Monarchy legitimacy in the view of many Moroccan citizens, whilst many envisage a path towards the eventual legal annexation of the territory.

A factor making independence an even more unlikely prospect is Morocco’s extensive control over economic activity in Western Sahara. The territory is rich in fisheries, phosphate and possibly offshore oil – whilst the Moroccan government has also spent billions of dollars on infrastructure development across the country. As a result of this ‘economic entrenchment’, many now argue that there is too much at stake for Morocco to consider allowing a referendum to take place: independence would mean that valuable economic gains would be wiped out, damaging Morocco’s position as one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. Morocco’s economy has been growing at an annual rate of around 4.5% per year, whilst the country has developed strong relationships with Western governments, who also have an interest in Morocco’s continued political stability and economic progress.

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More than 155,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, and are living in refugee camps in neighbouring Algeria (Image Source: European Commission)

Since the turn of the 21st Century, there have been several attempts to reach a peace agreement, which have all ended in failure. The key issue is the process of ‘identification’: effectively the problem of deciding who would be eligible to vote in a future referendum. In 2001, UN Special Envoy James Baker mediated peace talks, and submitted a framework agreement known as the ‘Third Way’. This proposed autonomy for the Sahrawi’s under Moroccan sovereignty, with a referendum taking place after a four-year transition period, in which Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara would also be entitled to vote.

Unsurprisingly, this proposal was rejected by Polisario and neighbouring Algeria, as the Sahrawi people remain resolutely committed to achieving full independence. Alternative proposals put forward by the Sahrawi people have been rejected by Morocco, who insist that Moroccan settlers residing in the territory should also be granted the right to vote. A lack of compromise from both sides has resulted in the political stalemate which persists today.

Whilst the situation remains stagnant, the frustrations of the Sahrawi population are increasing, and sentiments are again growing stronger. Several observers have predicted that if a way forward is not found soon, the violent conflict which ended in 1991 could soon re-ignite.

However, even if a referendum is held and Western Sahara does gain independence, the problems will not necessarily be resolved. Any new government of the self-proclaimed ‘Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic’ would face huge challenges in ensuring that the state is economically viable. Either autonomous or independent, Western Sahara would still be heavily reliant on Morocco for trade, development and security for many years to come.

Given the decades of stalemate and continuing tensions, a solution which would suit both parties seems unrealistic, out-of-reach and almost impossible to achieve. However, the current situation is unsustainable: the longer it goes on, the greater the risk of Western Sahara returning to a state of conflict. To achieve a realistic settlement which advances the rights of the Sahrawi people whilst maintaining the political and economic stability of the area, compromise and dialogue is necessary on both sides of the wall.

Central African Republic disintegrates into a spiral of religious violence

The devastating conflict in the Central African Republic has been characterized by horrific human rights abuses: over the last three years, tens-of-thousands of civilians have been needlessly massacred – ruthlessly killed by torture, lynching, shooting and burning. What is equally as shocking, is that this violence has taken place beyond the gaze of the Western world: attracting only a minimal level of media coverage, and remaining low on the foreign policy agenda of western governments.

Not only has the international community failed to act, but it has also seemingly failed to even notice. More than half a century on from its independence in 1960, the Central African Republic has been forgotten and left to ruin: few people in the West are aware the conflict is taking place, and fewer still could locate the country on a map.

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Rwandan Soldiers have been part of the AU peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (Image Source: Defense Imagery)

Whilst the country has been plagued by instability throughout its existence, the current conflict began in March 2013, when an armed insurgency led by the Seleka (a coalition of armed Islamic groups) seized the capital Bangui, and staged a coup which forced President Franscois Bozize into exile. Its leader Michel Djotodia declared himself as the country’s leader – becoming the first Muslim president to rule the Christian-majority nation of 4.6 million people.

Since then, the country has disintegrated, descending into a spiral of violence along religious lines. In response to the coup, Christians have taken up arms in vigilante militias known as Anti-Balaka, launching wave after wave of revenge attacks against Muslim civilians. Over the past three years of conflict, society has become deeply divided and plagued by distrust and paranoia between Christians and Muslims, which has set into motion a spiral of unimaginable hatred, aggression and senseless violence. The Central African Republic is now embroiled in a complex civil war, and quickly sliding down the path towards genocide.

The majority of victims have been civilians, with horrific atrocities being committed across the country on a daily basis. Reports by human rights organizations and the UN, have accused both sides of ‘crimes against humanity’, whilst Amnesty International has described human rights violations on an ‘unprecedented scale’.

As this massacre takes place in the heart of Africa, the world continues to look the other way. Thousands of lives are being ended at the hands of militias – with numerous reports of throats being slit, people being bludgeoned to death and tortured, whilst beheadings and public executions have become a daily occurrence. More than 450, 000 people are now internally displaced within the country, whilst human rights groups have said that up to 3 million of the population are in ‘dire need’ of assistance.

In the wave of religious-fuelled retaliatory violence that has swept the country, many Muslim communities in the north-west have been wiped off the map. For example, in an Anti-Balaka attack on the town of Boyali in January 2014, 34 civilians were killed and 961 homes burned down on one day alone.

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More than 450,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, which began in March 2013 (Image Source: Defense Imagery)

After their initial gains at the start of the conflict, the Seleka have been on the retreat: their leader was forced from the office of the presidency in January 2014, being replaced by a transitional government led by interim President Catherine Samba-Panza. In April of that year, the UN took over responsibility for the African Union peacekeeping mission in the country, deploying 12,000 troops with a mandate to protect civilians. Numerous attempts to bring a solution to the conflict have since failed, with both sides routinely violating ceasefire agreements.

Against a backdrop of state disintegration, deep inter-religious tensions and a lack of international support, the violence in the Central African Republic looks set to be for the long-term. The rushed organization of elections risks exacerbating the current situation, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) says that several ‘critical challenges’ must be addressed before any meaningful political process can begin. An ICG report on the conflict suggests that a comprehensive strategy must be put in place to disarm the population; whilst the transitional government must do all it can to promote unity, by stating clearly that both Muslims and Christians will have a role in the nation’s future. The security situation must also be dealt with: the killing can only be ended when the government and external actors have built up the necessary capacity to restrain armed groups and prevent violence against civilians. Only when these issues have been addressed, will a political process be able to take place.

Meanwhile, the ordinary people of the Central African Republic continue to suffer daily, almost invisible to the outside world. As is so often the case with conflicts in Africa, it has been largely ignored by the international community, rendered too far-removed and too insignificant to the geopolitical interests of western states to warrant much attention. If there is any chance for progress to be made, the Central African Republic can’t continue to be a ‘blind spot’ on the world political map.

Somalia’s recent progress remains under threat from Al-Shabaab

After being plagued by decades of conflict and the more-recent insurgency of militant group Al-Shabaab, Somalia has long been labelled as a failed state. However in recent years the situation has stabilized: Al-Shabaab militants have been pushed back, and much of the country is now under the control of a functioning legitimate central government – the first in Somalia for 25 years.

Since the landmark election of President Hassan Sheik Mohamud in September 2012, steady progress has led to an atmosphere of cautious optimism; with UN Envoy Augustine Mahiga describing an ‘’unprecedented opportunity for peace’’. However, Somalia’s new-found stability is fragile: the presence of Al-Shabaab is a continuing worry, whilst long-term challenges remain after 25 years of upheaval.

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The African Union has deployed more than 22,000 troops to Somalia to fight Al-Shabaab militants (Image Source: AMISOM)

Somalia first collapsed into anarchy in 1991, following the overthrow of the military regime of President Siad Barre. In the following decade, rival warlords tore the country apart in the absence of a legitimate central authority, leading to the deaths of more than 500,000 people as a result of war and famine.

In the 2000’s the violence took on a new dimension, with a coalition of Islamist Sharia Courts seizing the capital Mogadishu in 2006. This once-powerful group known as the ‘Union of Islamic Courts’, was quickly defeated by Ethiopian and African Union (AU) forces – however, this was not the end of Islamist insurgency in Somalia.

The group’s radical youth wing, Al-Shabaab, rose from the ashes to mount a sustained and bloody challenge to the Somali state. Al-Shabaab advocates the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi version of Islam, and has imposed a strict version of Sharia Law in areas under its control: this has included the stoning to death of women accused of adultery, and amputating the hands of thieves.

Al-Shabaab has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and is estimated to have between 6000-7000 fighters. It initially made rapid territorial advances to control almost all of central and southern Somalia by 2010, including the capital Mogadishu.

However, this success was short-lived after the intervention of outside nations. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has been working in the country since 2007, and was initially made up of a coalition of troops from Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Sierra Leone. After making steady progress in pushing-back the militants, Kenyan troops joined in the effort to help force Al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu in August 2011, which was followed by their retreat from the crucial port-city of Kismayo in September 2012.

The US has also played a key role, providing $204 million in humanitarian assistance and launching drone strikes from its base in neighbouring Djibouti – one of which killed Al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane in September 2014.

Al-Shabaab is now severely weakened – it has been pushed out of many of the towns it once-controlled, and has retreated to its heartlands in the rural south. In August 2014 AMISOM made further progress after launching Operation Indian Ocean, which seized almost all of Al-Shabaab’s coastal territory and killed many of its key leaders. Somalia is now an example of how close regional co-operation can result in successful military outcomes: in stark contrast to the current regional divisions in the Middle East over the conflict in Syria.

The mood in Somalia is more optimistic than it has been in decades: it finally has a stable government and a legitimate president. Since the 2012 election of President Mohamud, the country’s economy has been re-energised and its banking sector re-established, the military has been built-up and the UN has ended its 21-year arms embargo. There has also been increased foreign investment, with Turkey helping to fund a new airport and hospital in Mogadishu.

Internal unity has also been strengthened, with the central government now controlling all of Somalia’s regions except for Somaliland: the far north-west region which has been autonomous since 1991. There is no doubt that the country is on an overall upward-trajectory: aside from the successes on land, piracy has declined and Mogadishu is now experiencing a small property boom.

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Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud has led the country since September 2012 (Image Source: AMISOM)

However, the militant threat still lingers beneath the surface. Al-Shabaab remains prominent in some rural areas, denying basic rights to citizens under its control, committing widespread sexual violence against women and carrying out public executions, whilst also restricting humanitarian access. It has also carried out deadly attacks in government-held areas, such as the February 2015 suicide car bomb targeting a UN convoy near Mogadishu Airport, which killed 6 civilians.

Worryingly, Al-Shabaab has extended its reach by launching over 150 terrorist attacks in neighbouring Kenya. The most deadly of these was the April 2015 massacre at Garissa University, in which 147 students were killed by gunmen. This followed the widely-publicized 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, in which at least 68 civilians were killed.

So despite the recent strides forward, Somalia still faces huge security challenges. Civilians continue to be killed and wounded: over 120,000 people have been displaced since the start of 2014, whilst the Armed Conflict and Event Data Project reported that 4,365 civilians were killed during 2015 alone. In Mogadishu, military checkpoints and roadblocks remain, whilst Al-Shabaab continues to carry out frequent gun and bomb attacks.

The humanitarian situation is also desperate: the UN says that over 1 million people face acute food insecurity, whilst living conditions in refugee camps are dire. Children in Somalia regularly die from preventable diseases such as malaria, whilst there is a lack of access to education and healthcare. And this is aside from the severe mental scars which must be present after more than two-decades of devastating conflict and suffering.

Looking to the future, the Somali government and its neighbours have the huge task ahead of re-building a state savaged by war, and facilitating sustainable economic development which could finally put an end to the cycle of violence. The country’s new political system has so-far been successful, yet is still unproven: the next key test of Somalia’s stability will be elections scheduled for later in 2016. The outlook remains positive, but a sense of perspective must be maintained, as future progress in Somalia is likely to be slow, difficult and fraught with setbacks.

South Sudan remains fragile after two years of Civil War

After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, the mood in South Sudan was one of celebration and hope for the future. However less than five years later it has gone from being the world’s newest country to a ‘failing state’, after experiencing two years of brutal conflict which have divided the nation along ethnic lines.

Despite a ceasefire being signed in August 2015, South Sudan remains wounded, tense and bitterly divided, with the prospects of a lasting peace looking unlikely. The country’s civil war, characterized by horrific human rights abuses and attacks on civilians, has taken place largely outside the glare of media spotlight. Over the past two years the conflict has claimed more than 50,000 lives, with at least 1.6 million people internally displaced and 12,500 UN peacekeepers being deployed in an attempt to stabilize the situation.

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The Civil War in South Sudan began in December 2013 (Image Source: Steve Evans)

The civil war began in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir Mayardit – also head of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which had fought for independence – sacked his entire cabinet and accused Vice President Riek Machar of instigating a failed coup against his regime.

The feud between two rival politicians quickly escalated in to full-scale conflict, and took on a strong ethnic dimension from the start, dividing South Sudan between its two largest ethnic groups. The Dinkas aligned with President Kiir, whilst the Nuers largely supported the rebel movement led by Machar.

The conflict which followed has had devastating effects on South Sudan’s civilian population. Rape and sexual violence have been used as a method of intimidation, child soldiers have been recruited to fight, whilst property has been looted and entire villages have been destroyed. The violence has also severely affected South Sudan’s economy: the farming industry has ground to a halt, causing nationwide food shortages and leading to widespread hunger and starvation. In 2014, the UN described the country’s food crisis as the ‘’worst in the world’’, with up to 4 million people severely affected and up to 50,000 children dying of malnourishment.

Whilst recent atrocities committed in the Middle East have frequently made the front pages of newspapers, the horrific scale of human rights abuses in South Sudan has continued almost un-noticed by the outside world. In April 2014 rebels attacked a UN base in Jonglei state, killing 58 people including many children, before UN peacekeepers could intervene. When the town of Bentiu was seized, civilians were massacred in a hospital, with one UN worker describing the scenes as ‘resembling the 1994 Rwandan genocide’.

Thousands of women and girls have been abducted, tortured and raped; whilst ethnic cleansing has taken place on a mass scale: men have frequently been executed by both sides, with some eyewitness reports even claiming that babies have been burned alive.

The people who have somehow managed to survive are now living in desperate, cramped conditions, seeking refuge on UN bases. Food and water supplies are scarce, whilst the spread of disease is rife. As a result of the conflict, South Sudan now has amongst the highest rates of starvation and infant mortality in the world.

However, there have recently been positive developments. In August 2015 a peace agreement was signed after several rounds of negotiations. However the deal remains fragile, with frequent armed clashes initiated by both sides regularly violating the ceasefire.

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South Sudanese Army Generals during the 2011 Independence celebrations (Image Copyright: Steve Evans)

A question many are now asking in light of the initial celebratory mood after South Sudan’s ‘liberation’; is ‘how has it come to this?’

Firstly, the US-supported independence campaign and western-funded state-building project, presented a simplified picture and glossed over the internal divisions within South Sudan. Before the independence referendum in 2011, the issue was simplified as being the ‘Christian South’ breaking away from the ‘Muslim North’; ignoring the underlying deep-rooted ethnic tensions which would inevitably make the process of uniting the South more difficult than it appeared.

The main focus was on building infrastructure and state institutions, at the expense of ensuring good governance, resource redistribution and reconciliation. For example since independence, 38% of oil revenue has been spent on the military whilst just 7% has been spent on education. President Kiir has struggled to transform the SPLM from being a militant liberation organization into a democratic political party. Political elites have been accused of displaying increasingly autocratic behaviour, whilst creating divisions and stirring ethnic tensions.

Despite the recently improved situation the prospects for long-term stability do not look good, as many obstacles to peace remain. Firstly, both sides have committed in the past to end the fighting, but have routinely broken their promises to launch new offensives. Secondly, the power-sharing agreement does not tackle the issues of accountability and justice, whilst it also leaves the underlying causes of the conflict unresolved. Thirdly, there is dis-unity on both sides of an increasingly complex conflict: there are hardliners in both camps, whilst broad coalitions of civilian militias and military units will be difficult to control.

Going forward, South Sudan’s neighbours are likely to play a key role in mediation. However to add to the complexity, they are also divided and have competing aims. For example, Uganda has consistently supported President Kiir; Sudan has allegedly provided weapons and logistical support to the rebels; whilst Kenya has a key interest in the situation considering its strong economic links with South Sudan.

In the end, the civil war has served only to cause mass human suffering, deepen ethnic animosity and create a heavily militarized society with a dangerous culture for revenge. The cycle of conflict which has plagued South Sudan will be difficult to break without addressing the underlying causes. Considering the region’s troubled history of violence and a society now deeply fractured along ethnic lines, the outlook is bleak. South Sudan has the potential to become ‘another Rwanda’; the world is again at risk of a horrific genocide taking place in Africa almost un-noticed, outside the gaze of the mainstream media, and largely ignored by western politicians before it is too late.

Four years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya descends further into chaos

Whilst media attention throughout 2015 has been focused on the Syrian War and the Refugee Crisis in Europe, another complex conflict has been unfolding largely un-noticed, just across the Mediterranean. When the brutal regime of Colonel Gaddafi fell in 2011, Libya was at the centre of international news headlines. Four years later however, the growing instability in the country has become a side-show to these ‘main events’.

After the gruesome death of Gaddafi at the hands of rebels in Sirte, the initial outlook for Libya was overwhelmingly positive. It was viewed in the West as a country ‘freed from authoritarianism and tyranny’, with the opportunity to rebuild itself as a modern democratic state. After the Arab Spring protests spread to Libya in March 2011, a NATO bombing campaign was remarkably successful in aiding the rebels in removing the remnants of the previous regime, leading to the capital Tripoli being captured in August, followed by the death of Libya’s former strongman two months later. These events were accompanied by scenes of celebration and a mood of optimism, as the western-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) took power and a period of relative stability ensued.

However, it did not last long. Four years later, Libya is a ‘failed state’ plagued by militias. With no effective government, authority or state structures, Libya is a dangerously divided and fractured society on the brink of returning to full-scale civil war.

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The Libyan Civil War broke out after the ‘Arab Spring’ protests spread across North Africa in early 2011 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Libya currently has two competing governments. Firstly, there is the General National Congress (GNC) based in Tripoli, backed by the Libyan Dawn network of Islamist-inspired militia groups. Secondly, the rival western-backed government is effectively exiled in the Eastern city of Tobruk. Known as the ‘House of Representatives’ (HoR), it is internationally-recognized as Libya’s legitimate government and is more secular in nature. However, to view the situation in Libya through the paradigm of ‘two opposed governments’, would be a dramatic simplification of the reality. Libya is a country deeply divided along regional and tribal fault-lines, with a strongly disaffected population and growing risk of civil war.

These divisions can be seen most clearly through analysing the sheer number and diversity of armed groups currently operating in Libya. Irrespective of the protracted political crisis, it is these armed militias which dominate the day-to-day situation on the ground in the absence of any real authority.  Islamist militias such as the Libyan Dawn network are generally supportive of the GNC. However in reality, it is a broad coalition of various armed units and factions, with competing aims and desires. Alongside Libyan Dawn, many jihadist groups are present: including Islamic State (IS), Ansar al-Shariah and the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. On the other side of this blurred divide are groups generally supportive of the Tobruk government, such as the armed forces and allied units led by General Khalifah Haftar, and powerful non-Islamist militias including Al-Zintan.

To add to the already-dangerous situation, Islamic State has begun to gain a foothold in Gaddafi’s former home town of Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast. IS has been able to take advantage of the power vacuum, recruiting locals alongside foreign fighters from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt. Whilst the country’s political leaders have been pre-occupied with the dispute between the two rival governments, IS has gradually introduced its extreme form of Islamic law in areas under its control, conducted massacres including the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in February 2015, and has threatened to exploit the exodus of migrants across the Mediterranean to smuggle fighters into Europe.

The contrast between the West’s enthusiasm to intervene in 2011, and their reluctance to discuss the situation in Libya over the last four years, has been considerable. A 2015 Report by Human Rights Watch draws attention to the recent escalation of conflict, which has caused widespread destruction of property, civilian deaths and injuries. An estimated 400,000 people are now internally displaced, whilst many foreign embassies and the NGO’s have evacuated their staff from the country. The Libya Body Count website has reported a total of 4,340 violent conflict-related deaths in Libya since January 2014; however in reality the total is likely to be far higher.

The continuing instability has created the perfect conditions for conflict to flourish. The lack of border security has resulted in the increased trafficking of humans and weapons, whilst the judicial system has broken down as militias frequently have attacked judges, prosecutors, lawyers and witnesses. The longer the current political impasse continues, the greater potential there is for the situation to deteriorate; and with the recent rejection of a UN-backed peace deal, there is little sign of progress.

Given Libya’s increasingly complex and volatile internal situation, characterized by division, violence and lawlessness; there is clear potential for the country to become ‘another Syria’.

However, to understand the current situation more fully, we must move beyond simply looking at these internal developments. We must also ask critical questions of western policy, exploring its weaknesses and exposing its contradictions. For example, the West was happy to help remove a human-rights abusing dictator in Libya; whilst at the time maintaining strong alliances with numerous other human-rights abusing, totalitarian dictatorships across the region. This raises questions about the ‘real’ aims of regime change, and exposes the selectivity and hypocrisy of western interventions.

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After leading Libya for more than 40 years – since 1969 – Colonel Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebels in Sirte, in October 2011 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

So after the initial optimism that followed the removal of Gaddafi, what can we learn from the disintegration of Libya? Firstly, it is clear that the problem of ‘complex civil war’ also exists outside the borders of Syria. Whilst the media and western governments primarily focus on the Syrian conflict, the considerable worsening of the situation in Libya has been largely ignored. Secondly, the conflict in Libya must be understood within the wider context of the growth of Islamist militancy in unstable regions. Alongside the proliferation of IS in Syria, Iraq and now Libya, other extremist Islamist groups are on the rise: such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The motivations of these groups are closely linked; therefore there is a need for western governments and the mainstream media to shift the focus from primarily being on IS in Syria, and instead pay more attention to the wider context and ideological linkages between conflicts.

Finally, Libya is an example of the dangers of western intervention. Four years after the removal of Gaddafi, the original aims of the Arab Spring protestors and well-intentioned western leaders, lie in tatters. Optimistic demands for civil, political and economic rights have disappeared into a power vacuum characterized by growing divisions, sectarianism and increasing violence.  The example of Libya exposes the double-edged sword at the heart of Western foreign policy in the Middle East: tolerate human rights abuses and prop-up an authoritarian regime to preserve stability; or foster regime change with the hope of bringing democracy, at the risk of dire consequences. This seemingly impossible dilemma suggests that a third-way might be preferable: neither supporting nor intervening against authoritarian regimes; but developing a long-term strategy to tackle human rights abuses, whilst encouraging political reform from the inside.

An Overview: The ‘New Media Environment’ and Conflict in the 21st Century

In the early 21st Century, a new type of global geopolitical conflict has emerged. Whereas the defining ‘old wars’ of the 20th Century were often fought between two clearly distinct sides, with states as the main protagonists (such as WWI, WWII and the Cold War); conflict since the turn of the millennium has seemed far more complex. These ‘new wars’, have blurred the boundaries between civil and inter-state conflict, involving many disparate actors with diverse and competing aims. The number of fighting units has increased dramatically: for example in the current conflict in Syria, there are estimated to be over 80 separate rebel groups, fighting the Assad regime, ISIS, and each other. To add to the already confusing picture, many external states have become involved in the conflict: the US-led coalition conducting air strikes, along with the further involvement of Turkey, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

These contemporary conflicts are driven by the conditions of globalization; enabled through new technologies of communication and aided by cross-border flows of weapons, people, information and ideas. The boundaries between war and organized crime have also become blurred: whereas previous wars were funded primarily by the nation-state, today’s conflicts are funded through private donors, resource exploitation and the smuggling of people and weapons. This new type of conflict is characterized by increasingly extreme levels of violence towards civilians, with groups aiming to spread fear and terror in order to achieve their political and ideological aims. In the Syrian civil war, as well as in many recent conflicts throughout the Middle East and Africa, this has been materialized through tactics including torture, beheadings, executions, destruction of heritage sites and the use of mass rape as a psychological weapon of war.

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Image Source: Christian Triebert

Across the same time period, media coverage of conflict has undergone dramatic and extraordinary changes. Whilst traditional ‘Old Media’ was based on a few-to-many model, with TV bulletins and newspapers being the primary modes of consumption; ‘New Media’ technologies have facilitated a de-centralized media environment based on the internet and multi-platform reporting. As a result of these changes, coverage of conflict has become almost immediate. Coverage is now exhaustive and event-driven, typified by the emergence of 24-hour news channels such as CNN, Fox, Sky News and Al Jazeera, along with the rapid growth and popularity of online news websites. This shift has been pushed even further in recent years, with the increased popularity of blogging and the emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

Another important trend has been the rapid expansion of ‘Citizen Journalism’. Civilians in the world’s conflict zones are now able to capture events first-hand on devices such as smartphones, and upload their content to social media. This allows the dissemination of witness accounts to a mass audience, in almost real time – further increasing the diversity of material available, and helping to ‘fill in the gaps’ in areas which are difficult for journalists to access. Such citizen-produced content has increasingly been used by mainstream news organizations in their reports, with news bulletins on Syria now being typified by shaky, grainy images and first-hand accounts from within the conflict zone.

The rapid changes which have taken place in the media over the last few decades have resulted in coverage of conflict becoming more immediate, in an event-driven media environment based around ‘breaking news’ and the use of dramatic, compelling footage. Images have become an increasingly important medium through which audiences visualise and understand contemporary conflict: increasing the reality of the situation and enabling viewers to gain a clearer picture of events on the ground. ‘Iconic images’ now play an increasingly important role in perceptions of conflict, as they act as a visual marker in the viewer’s mind: for example, the image of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled in Baghdad, George Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, and the Abu Ghraib torture photographs have become symbolic of the Iraq war. In the current context, camera-phone images of Colonel Gaddafi’s body being dragged through the streets of Libya in 2011, and horrific images of ISIS beheading western hostages have become gruesome icons of the current upheaval in the Middle East. In this sense, images in the media have become a powerful weapon in shaping public perceptions of conflict.

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Image Source: Magharebia

So what is the result of this new age of conflict, combined with the corresponding explosion in media coverage? Firstly, the power of the media is obvious: it is the primary medium through which audiences make sense of the increasingly complex conflicts of the 21st Century. The media has significant power to highlight the devastating nature of conflict, influence mainstream public opinion, provoke emotive responses, and pressure governments in to taking action. However, dangers emerge as a result of the almost incomprehensible level of coverage: already-complex conflicts can seem even more confusing to viewers, and the real stories of conflict can be left untold. Coverage may be saturated; yet debate is often limited. Conflict is simplified and the dominant perspectives are left unquestioned, resulting in misunderstandings and misperceptions.

There is a desperate need for coverage to do more than just report on daily events as they happen. Media coverage must strive to ask the more difficult questions, acknowledge the complexities of conflict and explore the contradictions which underpin the dominant narratives. For example, the current war in Syria must be located within its historical, socio-economic and geopolitical context, with more critical and controversial questions being asked of actors on all sides of the argument (for example: ‘what has been the role of the Western arms industry in fuelling conflict in the Middle East?’, or ‘Is it morally defensible for western governments to trade with extremist regimes, at same time as being publicly committed to fighting extremism?’). Only once questions such as these enter the mainstream debate, will governments more-fully be held to account, and more in-depth understandings of modern-day geopolitical conflict become possible.