Since fighting broke out in February, there have been 1,100 civilian deaths, but the Ukrainian government is finally closing in on the two major strongholds of the country’s pro-Russian separatists, as its “counterterrorist operation” intensifies since the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. By Monday, Ukrainian forces had surrounded Luhansk and were bearing down on Donetsk, the largest city still held by the Moscow-backed rebels. The deaths of 298 civilians on board MH17 has also spurred the U.S. and Europe to announce their farthest-reaching sanctions against Russia yet.
But there is reason to believe Moscow, which denies arming the rebels or providing the anti-aircraft missiles that allegedly brought down MH17, has not given up on hamstringing Ukraine’s momentum westward. Russian President Vladimir Putin has seen his domestic approval skyrocket after overseeing the Crimean Peninsula’s secession from Ukraine and incorporation by Russia, but that boost is at stake if the eastern rebellion flops and Moscow has nothing to show for it but a weakened economy. Russia began yet another round of military drills along the border with Ukraine on Monday, hinting once again that direct military intervention could be on the table should the pro-Russian rebels falter.
Central African Republic
Violence between Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic has taken a fragile pause since last week’s signing of a cease-fire agreement in neighboring Congo. After overthrowing the government of President François Bozize, a Christian, in March 2013 on grounds that he had systematically persecuted the Muslim minority, the country’s largely Muslim Seleka rebels massacred scores of civilians, including women and children, often with machetes, and burned down entire villages. In response, Christian anti-Balaka (“anti-machete”) rebels have slaughtered Muslims with comparable brutality, spurring hundreds of thousands to flee, while others are holed up under the protection of 12,000 African Union and French peacekeepers. The conflict has left thousands dead so far.
But many are skeptical that the cease-fire, signed by factional leaders, will be honored on the ground, given the CAR’s general climate of chaos and impunity. The country’s interim president recently asked the International Criminal Court to open a formal investigation into the conflict’s human rights allegations in the hope that fighters, fearing prosecution, will lay down their arms for good.
Even during the bloodiest days of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, Syria did not shed its title as the deadliest conflict in the world. A recent 10-day stretch in mid-July saw 1,800 people killed — a record for the more than three-year war. Making use of brutal and demoralizing barrel bombs, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad seems to be at a strategic advantage in all the major cities, with the commercial capital of Aleppo in danger of slipping from the rebels’ grip. With lackluster Western support, Syria’s moderate rebels have suffered ammunition shortages and defections to better-funded rival factions, including Al-Qaeda-breakaway group Islamic State.
In the power vacuum in rebel-held northern and eastern Syria, the Islamic State has consolidated control over one-third of the country, including most of Syria’s oil fields, as it continues to bridge its gains across the porous border with Iraq. In early July, it took over most of Deir e-Zour, the last major city in Syria’s east that wasn’t under its control.
Iraq is facing its worst sectarian crisis in years, as Sunni insurgents led by the Islamic State continue to gain ground in the country’s north and west. Riding a wave of Sunni hostility against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, Islamic State insurgents have not lost much ground to Iraq’s security forces and on Monday captured several more towns, an oilfield and Iraq’s largest dam from Kurdish forces, who have also seized some territory after Baghdad’s forces withdrew. The Islamic State has declared its vast holdings across Syria and Iraq a restored caliphate and have funded its rapid expansion by smuggling more than $1 million in oil per day.
The Kurds, meanwhile, seem posed to declare their independence from Iraq — a long-held ambition in the Kurds’ autonomous northern enclave. They, too, have engaged in controversial oil sales right under the nose of Baghdad, which has threatened legal action against anyone who buys oil from the Kurds.
Leopoldo López, the leader of Venezuela’s anti-government protest movement, went on trial last week on charges that he incited violence that left 43 people dead in February. Though the Harvard-educated López turned himself in to authorities just days after mass unrest broke out, his anti-socialist platform and demand that President Nicolás Maduro step down live on in a largely middle-class and student movement that has barricaded streets in major cities and battled both security forces and Maduro loyalist militias, or colectivos, for months.
The opposition blames Maduro for failing to address the country’s high crime rate and for allowing rampant inflation, which has led to empty shelves in supermarkets and widespread shortages. They also accuse the government of an illegal crackdown on protests and of censoring the opposition in Venezuelan media.
But they have not succeeded in broadening their message to fold in the working-class citizens, who by and large support former President Hugo Chávez’s socialist Bolivarian revolution, which slashed Venezuela’s poverty rate and championed subsidies of staple foods for the poor. For his part, Maduro has painted the opposition as “bourgeoisie capitalists” and even accused López of working for the CIA to destabilize oil-rich Venezuela. The worst violence seems to have tapered off, but nearly six months of unrest have left Venezuela more polarized than ever.
In the past few weeks, Libya has seen its worst violence since the 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi, with nearly 300 killed in fighting between rival militias for control of Tripoli’s international airport and the eastern city of Benghazi. The country’s new House of Representatives convened for the first time on Monday to try to revive Libya’s foundering democratic project and forge some sort of consensus among the militia groups, which in effect rule the country.
Most of the groups currently battling had worked together to take down Gaddafi and now find themselves divided along regional, ideological and generational lines. But no group has a coercive advantage over any other, prompting fears that the country could be headed toward drawn-out civil war.
With the West unlikely to stage another intervention like the one in 2011, some say regional powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia might back renegade Gen. Khalifa Hiftar and other forces backing his campaign to drive Libya’s extremist militias out of the country (along with the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt and Saudi Arabia designate a terrorist organization). On Monday the Egyptian former secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, publicly stated that Cairo could consider military intervention if violent strains of Islamism threaten to spill beyond Libya’s borders — something Hiftar has repeatedly warned could happen.