In a world awash with weak states, powerful weapons and crumbling institutions, conflicts can easily continue for generations—and perhaps never end.
Jason Smith was both very unlucky and very lucky. His bad luck began on February 20, 2015, when he was walking back to his home in McAdoo, Pennsylvania on a very cold evening. He doesn’t quite remember what happened, but he thinks that he tripped and fell face down into the snow. He lost consciousness and remained that way for the next 12 hours. He stopped breathing. His heart stopped pumping blood. When paramedics pulled him from the snow, they declared him dead.
Here’s where the luck comes in. Smith’s body temperature dropped below 68 degrees, which put him into a state of hibernation. The emergency personnel transported Smith to a nearby hospital where the staff performed CPR. After another couple of hours, doctors filled him up with new, oxygenated blood. His heart resumed beating. After a two-week coma, Smith woke up. He’d lost his toes and his pinkies to frostbite, but his brain had miraculously survived intact.
Or perhaps it was not a miracle. After all, hypothermia is now frequently used in hospitals in the treatment of heart attacks. Doctors have known for some time that lowering the body’s temperature can help it recover from trauma.
Many countries today find themselves in Jason Smith’s face-down-in-the-snow predicament. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Somalia are all suffering massive trauma, in this case as a result of armed conflict and outside intervention. Having fallen into the category of “failed states,” they are all practically dead on arrival (DOA), at least as functioning entities.
It’s always possible that a miracle cure—a robust peace treaty followed by some form of nation-building—will end the bloodshed in these countries and gradually knit their disparate parts back together. But I wouldn’t count on it.
In some cases, the wars will just continue, as they have in Afghanistan and Iraq ever since the celebrated application of US shock-and-awe tactics. Missions can be declared accomplished and expeditionary forces withdrawn. But Pandora’s horrors cannot be so easily reboxed. We’ve gotten accustomed to wars that have finite terms, like the American Civil War or World War I. But at one time conflicts stretched across generations, like the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could conceivably last that long as well.
If they’re lucky, such conflict-ridden states might endure the same intermission that Jason Smith experienced. The wars won’t end. They will just be frozen, the temperature of the conflict brought down through a succession of ceasefires. At some point in the future, these failed states might be brought back to life, perhaps when some of the trauma has healed or the infections of hatred have subsided. In this best-case scenario, the countries involved might lose some extremities—a Crimean pinkie, for instance—but they will be fortunate to have pulled through the worst of it. On the other hand, these countries might fall apart no matter how long their deep freeze lasts, just as all those hopeful immortals who’ve opted to bury their dead bodies in tanks of liquid nitrogen will never likely thaw back to life.
This raises a fundamental question about the current world situation. It’s become commonplace to speak of the Global War on Terror as a “forever war.” But perhaps the problem runs a great deal deeper. Perhaps we are no longer able to end any wars.
The Elusive Peace
The quintessential frozen conflict of our era is over 60 years old. The Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice. No peace treaty marked the end of combat.
In other words, for more than 60 years, the war between the two Koreas has been in a state of suspended animation. North and South Korea have exchanged artillery fire, clashed at sea and maintained a nearly non-stop war of words during that period. At any point, up to and including the current period of deteriorating relations, the war could have turned hot. Yet for the most part, Koreans in the north and south have gone about their separate business, often inured to the trauma of having their peninsula torn in two.
Frozen wars are not the same as cold wars. After all, the United States and Soviet Union never actually fought against each other, not directly at least. A frozen conflict, meanwhile, is one that was once hot and has since iced over.
The term “frozen conflict” has been most often used in conjunction with wars on the Russian periphery—in Moldova, Georgia and now in Ukraine. In all three cases, separatists backed by Moscow carved out their own semi-autonomous regions—in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and now the Donbass. The fighting has largely tapered off. The separatist regions have been recognized by only a handful of other states. These are stand-offs with no easy solutions in sight.
It’s not just a post-Soviet problem. Look at the map through this lens of “frozen conflicts” and you see that much of the world has fallen into this crevasse. Many of the world’s hotspots are in fact in a deep freeze: Kashmir, Israel-Palestine, the Taiwan Strait, Myanmar, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Sudan, southern Thailand, northwest Pakistan, eastern Congo, eastern Saudi Arabia.
In fact, it’s very difficult to find a peace that is as clear-cut and durable as the one that prevailed between France and Germany after World War II or that exists today between the US and Vietnam. The war in Bosnia ended in 1995 with the Dayton Accords. Angola ended a 27-year conflict in 2002. The conflict in Aceh ended in 2005. The Sri Lankan government brought an end to the civil war in that country (though largely through brutality rather than diplomacy).
Elsewhere, peace has been elusive. Ethiopia and Eritrea still squabble over disputed territory. The Turkish government and Kurdish separatists, after having apparently achieved a peaceful rapprochement, are now renewing hostilities. The Colombian government and the major rebel group FARC were supposed to sign a peace agreement this month, but it now looks like that won’t happen. Virtually everywhere else that conflict is ongoing, diplomats have failed to cajole the warring factions into signing peace treaties.
Twenty-five years ago, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thereafter, we were supposed to embark on a path of peace and prosperity.
Steven Pinker may well be right about the declining levels of violence in the world. But there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in sustainable peace. We’ve frozen our devils in place in the hopes that the better angels of our nature will one day wing into sight to save us from ourselves.
Syria and Beyond
It would be premature to list Syria as a frozen conflict. The ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia has only been in place for about two weeks—since February 27. It doesn’t apply to areas under the control of the Islamic State or the Nusra Front. And since Turkey considers the Kurdish rebels in Syria to be terrorists and Russia often classifies any group opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad in similar terms, the very term “ceasefire” lacks substantive meaning. According to some estimates, 135 of people have died during this period of suspended hostilities—and that’s only people in the area covered by the ceasefire. Elsewhere in Syria, another 552 people have been killed. And the number of civilian casualties has increased in the last couple days.
At several points during the Syrian conflict, it seemed as if Assad was on his way out, defeated by anti-government rebels and the Salafists of the Islamic State. When Russia intervened on the government’s side, it managed to achieve exactly the same outcome as in Ukraine, bolstering a beleaguered minority determined to dig in its heels. Stalemate is a key ingredient of a frozen conflict.
Of course, there was no guarantee that Syria could have avoided a frozen outcome if Russia had stayed out of the conflict. The divisions in the country—ethnic, confessional, ideological—ensure that it will be very difficult to recreate any version of the old Syria in the future. The hatreds run deep, violence has become endemic, and outside actors have too many contradictory objectives to find a satisfactory resolution.
The situation in Syria demonstrates the sheer difficulty of reaching peace in today’s world. There are five main reasons why peace is so often beyond our grasp.
1) The world is awash in weapons. The volume of major weapons transfers went up 16% between 2010 and 2014 compared to the previous four-year period, and the US is the leading driver of the $76 billion industry. Arms supplied to one faction often end up in the hands of its enemies, making arms embargos and targeted weapons transfers nearly impossible. And just as we have an explosion of shootings in the US because of the availability of handguns, wars are much more likely to start, continue and resist resolution because young men continue to have access to truckloads of sophisticated weaponry.
2) Both international and regional institutions are weak. The United Nations and regional bodies like the African Union are too weak to force combatants to lay down their weapons, too weak to provide enough peacekeepers to enforce a ceasefire, too weak to provide sufficient funds to rebuild conflict zones and ensure that strife doesn’t return.
3) Such institutions remain weak in part because superpowers like the US and would-be superpowers like Russia and Turkey are determined to achieve their goals by force. The US continues to practice a la carte multilateralism, supporting only those international efforts that intersect with its national interests. As long as Washington continues to rule by drone, forget about a robust international rule of law and the institutions required to uphold it. And don’t expect other countries to do anything other than follow the leader.
4) States are weaker too. Thanks to the prevailing orthodoxy of neoliberalism—and its requirements to privatize, restrict government “interference” in the economy and cut back on welfare provisions—states have fewer nation-building levers at their disposal and, therefore, command less loyalty from their citizens.
5) Consequently, particularism is flourishing. Ethnic nationalism and religious fundamentalism have greater appeal in the absence of strong consolidating ideologies. In many countries, ideologies such as Arab nationalism, Marxism and liberal democracy have all failed to secure peace and prosperity. It’s no surprise, then, that people are turning to ideologies that are far narrower in scope and audience.
Twenty-five years ago, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thereafter, we were supposed to embark on a path of peace and prosperity. But somehow, we lost our way. We tripped. We fell. And now we find ourselves, like Jason Smith, face down in the snow. If we’re lucky, we’ll get pulled out in the nick of time, our various traumas frozen in suspended animation. We will have lost something in the process, but we will survive.
But we may not be lucky. Despite our fine words and the efforts of hardworking diplomats, we may no longer be able to end wars. Live by the sword, die by the sword—and there are no medical miracles that can save us from that terminal illness.
*[This article was originally published by FPIF.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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