The crisis watch for the month of April shows that Syria’s conflict intensified further, and could take another violent turn as the offensive on Raqqa, the stronghold of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), becomes imminent. In Egypt, ISIS stepped up attacks, particularly against Coptic Christians, and May could see both jihadists and security forces increasingly resort to violence.
In South Asia, the Taliban claimed deadly attacks against the military and civilians throughout Afghanistan, killing at least 140 soldiers in reportedly the deadliest Taliban attack on armed forces since 2001, while violence escalated in Kashmir. In Venezuela and Macedonia political tensions continued to mount, while in Paraguay, popular anger sparked by a move to lift a one-term limit on the presidency was defused after President Cartes announced he would no longer seek re-election.
Crisis Watch’s Trends and Outlook
In Syria, an escalation in violence by Syrian and outside actors eroded prospects for a political settlement and, with an offensive on ISIS’s stronghold Raqqa imminent, fighting in May could be worse still. The U.S., among others, held President Assad’s regime responsible for a chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held town on 4 April that killed at least 80. Three days later the U.S. launched a missile strike on the air base from which it believes the attack was launched, straining its relations with Russia, Assad’s backer, whose support for the peace process is critical.
In late April, Turkey bombed Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in north-east Syria, and the U.S.-backed YPG edged closer to an assault on the city of Raqqa. As Crisis Group has warned, while the Kurdish fighters are an important U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS, Washington should take steps to mitigate the damage this partnership may cause to its relationship with Ankara and prepare to overcome local governance challenges after ISIS is dislodged from Raqqa.
In Egypt, ISIS ramped up attacks particularly against Coptic Christians, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency and fighting between security forces and jihadists intensified in the Sinai Peninsula. On 9 April, two separate suicide attacks at Coptic churches killed 48 people. Following firefights and airstrikes on ISIS positions in Sinai, another suicide bombing on 25 April in North Sinai killed at least 40.
This worrying escalation could lead to further attacks on churches in May and the risk that the government, under the state of emergency, employs yet more heavy-handed tactics to suppress dissent. As Crisis Group explained, addressing the country’s polarised politics and resurgent authoritarianism is critical to defusing the jihadist threat and reforming sclerotic state institutions.
In South Asia, the Taliban claimed a number of attacks against the military and civilians throughout Afghanistan, and on 21 April infiltrated an army base in Mazar-e-Sharif city in Balkh province, killing at least 140 soldiers. As we have warned, preventing the loss of more territory to insurgents, particularly during the Taliban’s new spring offensive, is an urgent priority which will require, among other steps, robust international assistance and addressing widening internal disagreements and political partisanship that permeate all levels of the security apparatus.
Elsewhere in the region, tensions worsened between Indian security forces and Kashmiri separatists and protesters around a by-election in Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir’s capital. On 9 April, the day of the by-election, Indian security forces opened fire on protesters throwing stones and attacking polling stations, killing seven. Overall, eight people were killed and over 200 injured in election-day clashes. Meanwhile, in India’s Chhattisgarh state, Maoists ambushed a Central Reserve Police Force patrol on 21 April killing at least 25, reportedly the worst attack on security forces since 2010.
Macedonia’s political standoff turned violent in late April as protesters opposed to the formation of a new Social Democrat (SDSM)-led coalition government stormed parliament and attacked MPs after they elected a new ethnic Albanian speaker. Over 100 were injured, including SDSM leader Zoran Zaev as well as other politicians, journalists and police. In a new Commentary on the Western Balkans, Crisis Group has warned that the new majority coalition must be allowed to take office and govern, or Macedonia risks ethnic conflict.
Almost 30 people were killed in Venezuela as security forces and government supporters cracked down on protestors in the capital and elsewhere demanding elections and the dismissal of Supreme Court justices behind a March ruling to assume the National Assembly’s legislative powers. As growing opposition to the government drew hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets, the government deployed the National Guard and police to disperse them with tear gas, water-cannon and plastic bullets, often fired at close range.
On 1 May, President Maduro announced the government would appoint a new body to rewrite the constitution, drawing further opposition ire. Meanwhile, in a positive move, Paraguay’s President Cartes announced he would no longer seek re-election in 2018, defusing tensions in the wake of violent protests in late March against a move to lift a one-term limit on the presidency.