In Brief

Armed groups on the rise: how battlefield dynamics are changing

New figures show there are both more conflicts and more sides within each one

More non-state armed groups have emerged in the past six years than in the previous six decades, according to new research from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The Geneva-based humanitarian organisation also found that the number of non-international armed conflicts more than doubled from the beginning of the century.

“Not only are there more conflicts, but there are more sides in a conflict,” adds the ICRC in a report on its website.

About a third of clashes today are between two parties, nearly half are between three to nine parties, and a quarter feature more than ten parties in the warring territory.

By the end of the Libyan war in October 2011, 236 separate armed groups were registered in the city of Misrata alone. In Syria, more than 1,000 armed groups were counted in 2014.

“We’re seeing a high level of fragmentation,” says Clionadh Raleigh, professor of political geography and conflict at the University of Sussex.

“There has been a loosening of rules around violence generally, a loosening of order,” Raleigh adds, in quotes reported by The New York Times.

The continued rise of local factions, each structured in different ways but frequently with less top-down control, causes a problem for organisations such as the ICRC, who would normally advise military commanders on international humanitarian law and rely on them to enforce the rules.

“In this new labyrinth of non-state and state-sponsored fighters, humanitarian workers have a harder time reaching wounded soldiers and civilians and protecting their own staff members,” says the US newspaper. “They are also finding it more challenging to teach the non-state fighters about the Geneva Conventions and how those laws of warfare should apply to them.”

In a newly released study, The Roots of Restraint in War, the ICRC says that the new battlefield dynamic makes influencing warring groups more difficult but not impossible.

The report recommends that humanitarian workers find culturally specific ways of getting their message across. A case study in South Sudan looked at the impact of speaking to local prophets who hold sway within the community, or using local customs as analogies for humanitarian law.

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