Tens of thousands more people are dying in armed conflicts around the world, even as the number of conflicts falls, according to an authoritative study that attributes the rising death toll to an “inexorable intensification of violence”.
Sixty-three armed conflicts led to 56,000 fatalities in 2008, whereas 180,000 people – more than three times as many – died in 42 conflicts last year.
The numbers reflect the extremely violent fighting in Syria and Iraq and deaths in increasing following the withdrawal of western combat troops.
The data is contained in the first published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict killed 2,500 people last year, mostly civilians, while fighting in Libya, Yemen and also contributed to the rise in overall deaths.
The study found the number of displaced people exceeded 50 million in 2013. It warned that civilian populations continue to pay the price of conflicts in short-term dislocation and the longer-term impact of the collapse of government services, particularly education, healthcare and economic development. The World Bank estimates that 1.2 billion people, roughly one fifth of the world’s population, are affected by some form of violence or insecurity.
As conflicts cause widespread destruction, increasing numbers of displaced people and refugees, and the risk of “ungovernable megacities”, the west has been increasingly reluctant to intervene.
Nigel Inkster, the former MI6 chief of operations and now the director of transnational threats and political risk at the IISS, said in an introduction to the survey: “The wars in Afghanistan and have exposed the limitations of hard military power and have given rise to a growing aversion to intervention among Washington and its allies, as well as among those states inherently distrustful of what they perceive as US hegemony.”
Emerging powers have shown no inclination to compensate for western disengagement, he noted.
“The toxic inheritance of Iraq and Afghanistan” has been the cause of the west’s reluctance to intervene, Ben Barry, the senior fellow for land warfare at the IISS, told a press conference in London on Wednesday.
In retrospect that was not politically justified, he added. Commenting on suggestions that the EU was becoming increasingly introverted, Barry said the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean was a “potential wakeup call”.
Inkster said Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for secessionists in Ukraine had raised the spectre of wider armed confrontation in Europe, even if in practice it still seemed a distant possibility. He said: “In none of these situations [Ukraine and East Asia, Indian and Pakistan] or any others that can be envisaged, is war inevitable: for war to happen, capabilities have to align with circumstances.
“But capabilities can give rise to misplaced confidence which, combined with the chronic inability of policymakers to see the world from the perspective of potential rivals or opponents, ensures the risk of miscalculation can never be overplayed.”
In an essay in the IISS survey on the evolution of global jihadism, Alia Brahimi, of Oxford University, said the “significant moral and political support” Isis received had enabled it to take control of territory the size of the UK and command as many as 50,000 fighters in alone.
Isis wants to impose long-term order on land it holds, controlling the population by installing fear, and its sights are now set on , she said on Wednesday.