Russia-Ukraine update: Russian troops close on Bakhmut, higher Russian casualties in February 2023, and Belarus and Russia reaffirm close ties.
Turkey-Syria: Turkish strikes in northern Syria continue despite the deadly earthquake, but talks between the countries took place in December 2022.
Peru: Deadly protests continue and a state of emergency in three departments has been extended until at least mid-March.
Israel-Palestine: Violence has increased and led to worries of a renewed escalation of the conflict, amid protests in Israel over Netanyahu's judicial reforms.
Sahel belt: While the security situation in the Sahel worsens, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea propose a trilateral partnership.
Haiti: Canada is set to send troops amid worsening of the humanitarian crisis.
Moldova: President Sandu openly accused Putin of destabilizing Moldova and anti-government protests erupted, likely fueled by pro-Russian factions.
Suriname: Anti-government protests erupted and crowds stormed the National Assembly
Cameroon: The conflict between separatist Anglophone forces and the Cameroon government is deteriorating.
Azerbaijan-Iran: Political tensions rose after embassy attack.
Ethiopia: Tigray peace agreement’s progress and fighting surge in Oromia region.
Conflicts January-February 2023
1. Russia - Ukraine
As written in our intelligence brief, the recent Russian strategy has been to break through the frontline to create an opportunity for a spring offensive. In January and February, Russian forces continued to attack positions across the frontline close to the cities of Donetsk and Bakhmut. Russian attacks around Bakhmut were met with resistance by Ukrainian forces, which resulted in heavy fighting around Bakhmut. In January, the Russian forces gained control over the area south and north of Bakhmut, especially in the area of Soledar. Throughout February, the Russian forces succeeded in gaining more terrain surrounding the city, and on February 26, Russian forces managed to push Ukrainian forces out of the towns north of Bakhmut, which eventually resulted in the fall of the Ukrainian defense line. This means that the city might be captured by the Russian forces soon.
Even though Ukrainian forces are holding the city, a tactical withdrawal may be the best option for the Ukrainian forces. This would mean that the city of Bakhmut will fall, but it would spare the Ukrainian forces military resources that could be significant in the future. For Russia, taking over the city of Bakhmut after almost a year of heavy fighting would be of symbolic importance. However, because of the size of the city, a Russian take-over of Bakhmut would not be the major breakthrough Moscow had hoped for in preparation for the spring offensive. Since Bakhmut has been on the brink of a Russian take-over already since the fall of Soledar, the Ukrainian forces have been able to prepare for a withdrawal. It is expected that such a withdrawal will happen without too many difficulties.
Throughout January and February, fighting also intensified in the region south of Vuhledar, where the Russians took serious terrain gains. However, around February 19, Ukrainian forces started a successful counterattack in which Russian forces suffered several casualties and were pushed back to the southern bank of the Kashlahack River. The Russians didn’t manage to force a breakthrough in other parts of the defensive line, which prevented a huge spring offensive until the end of February.
It was reported by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense that the number of casualties on the Russian side was higher in February than at any time since the first week of the invasion. There are no official numbers on Ukrainian forces’ fatalities, but they are estimated to be three times lower than the Russians’. The attempt of the Russian forces to break through the Ukrainian defense line thus came at a high cost and without much success.
1.1. Russia and Belarus relations
Throughout February Russia maintained close relations with Belarus. President Alexander Lukashenko is known to be a firm ally of the Kremlin and backer of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On February 16, 2023, Lukashenko stated that Belarus would join Russia in the war if Belarus was attacked. Russian and Belarussian military forces conducted joint drills with the formation of a joint military grouping. On February 21, a Russian document called “Strategic Goals of the Russian Federation in Belarus” was leaked. This document, which is thought to be authentic, shows the Russian plan to annex Belarus by 2030. This has led to growing concerns, especially in neighboring Poland. On February 23, Poland’s foreign ministry spokesperson stated that Poland will expel the defense attaché of Belarus.
However, Russian influence over Belarus is contested within Belarus. On February 27, a Russian military aircraft was destroyed near Minsk. Belarusian partisans, who are trying to resist the Russian military activities in Belarus, have claimed responsibility for the attack. It is likely that Russia will try to increase its influence over Belarus in the future and consequently this will lead to a spike in violence by groups opposing Moscow’s influence in the country.
In November 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey would start a new ground offensive against the Kurds in Syria, which was heavily criticized by the US and its allies. However, the offensive has yet to begin. On December 28, 2022, the defense ministers of Russia, Syria, and Turkey met for talks in Moscow for the first time since 2011. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the representatives of the three countries discussed ways to resolve the Syrian crisis as well as concerns about refugees and extremist groups. It seems that the Governments of Turkey and Syria are making efforts to improve their relationship which has deteriorated since the start of the Syrian Civil War.
Despite the absence of a Turkish ground offensive and the talks between Turkish and Syrian officials, Turkey has continued to attack fighters of the PKK and YPG. Istanbul claims the death of 261 fighters of these groups since the beginning of January. Despite the deadly earthquake that happened on February 6, 2023, in southern and central Turkey and northern Syria, Turkish operations and attacks have continued. On February 24, 2023, Turkish forces killed the alleged mastermind behind the deadly street bombing in Istanbul in November 2022 during an operation in northern Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the Turkish airstrike also led to civilian casualties and the wounding of a local Kurdish police officer. It is expected that Turkey will continue its attack in northern Syria during the coming months. With the presidential elections in June 2023 in mind, it is hoped that those attacks will help to achieve domestic political gains for Erdogan.
Unrest in Peru continued after protests broke out in early December 2022. At least 60 people have died and 1,200 have been injured during clashes with security forces, marking the country’s worst outbreak of violence in over 20 years. Protests began on December 7 with the ousting of then-President Pedro Castillo after he attempted to illegally dissolve Congress and avoid an impeachment trial. Then-Vice President Dina Boluarte replaced Castillo as President.
The demonstrators have been demanding the resignation of Boluarte and early elections, which are currently still planned for 2026. To appease the protestors, Boluarte proposed to hold elections in October 2023, however, Congress rejected this proposal, further aggrieving the protestors. Long-standing grievances about high levels of poverty and discrimination, as well as the violent crackdown of the protests by security forces, have also fueled the current unrest in Peru.
Protesters have been blocking crucial roads, especially in the copper-rich southern Andes, disrupting the traffic and truck transit from mines. The roadblocks are causing huge economic impacts on mining and tourism. Tourist sites such as Machu Picchu were closed in January 2023, but reopened on February 15, albeit for an indefinite period. Arequipa’s Alfredo Rodríguez Ballón International Airport also reopened in February, but the Inca Manco Cápac International Airport in Juliaca, Puno remains closed. Peru has extended the state of emergency in Amazonas, La Libertad, and Tacna departments through at least March 18, 2023. This measure permits armed forces to carry out law-enforcement tasks and suspends some constitutional rights.
As of February 28, 2023, Peru’s government announced the launch of projects on road infrastructure, energy, and sanitation worth nearly $9 billion, presumably with the aim of easing down the protests. However, the response of Peruvian authorities and law enforcement has been criticized by Amnesty International for violating international human rights and using disproportionate levels of violence against protestors.
The protests are expected to continue as long as Boluarte remains in power, as her resignation is one of the main demands of the protestors. Meanwhile, infrastructure disruptions might cause food and fuel shortages. Even though tourist attractions and airports are open as of February 2023, it is possible that they will close again if the unrest continues or intensifies.
Violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank has strongly increased in the last couple of months, reaching its highest level in years. On January 26, 2023, nine people were killed in a raid by the Israeli military in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. The operation was aimed at arresting several members of a terrorist organization that was suspected of planning an attack. The military action was described by inhabitants of the Jenin refugee camp as a “massacre”. The raid has been the deadliest Israeli military operation since 2005. On January 27, Palestinian militants fired six rockets toward southern Israel, which was followed by Israeli bombings of two military sites in Gaza overnight. On February 26, two Israeli settlers were killed in the West Bank, which led to revenge attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians. The violence throughout January and February may lead to an escalation of the conflict in the coming months.
The increase in violence between Israel and Palestine comes at the same time as major political unrest in Israel. Protesters are fighting plans of Netanyahu’s government to reform Israel’s judicial system. The reform package is controversial because they would allow the parliament to overrule any supreme court decision with a smaller majority. According to Netanyahu, the changes will lead to a restoration of ‘balance’ between branches of the government and boosting business. If the Supreme Court of Israel is weakened, it would also be easier to establish more settlements on Palestinian territory. Economists and legal experts warn these reforms could push Israel toward authoritarian rule and weaken Israel's economy.
On January 7, 2023, protests against the judicial reforms started in different places around Israel. It is stated that 130,000 to 160,000 people joined protests on February 25 in Tel Aviv and tens of thousands in other places around the country. On March 1, the protests reached its record during a ‘national day of disruption’ in multiple places in Israel. Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Tel Aviv, while trying to block roads and trains. The protests during the ‘national day of disruption’ were the first in a series of protests that turned violent after the police cracked down. It is reported that around twenty protesters have been arrested during the ‘national day of disruption’ and that several protesters were hospitalized.
Alerts and developing situations January-February 2023
1. Sahel: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea
Since 2020, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea have experienced military coups and are now ruled by military juntas. As a result, all three countries were suspended from the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which also imposed sanctions. In early February 2023, the three countries criticized the measures taken by the ECOWAS and AU, asking to lift their suspension, and proposed a trilateral regional partnership to foster rural development, facilitate trade, and combat insecurity in the Sahel. Despite the worsening security situation and increasing political instability, the international organizations reaffirmed the suspension and existing sanctions.
In the past decade, insurgencies linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda spread throughout West Africa, staging several deadly attacks and killing thousands. On February 25, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack that killed more than 70 soldiers in northern Burkina Faso. As French troops’ operations in Burkina Faso are officially over (as of February 19, 2023), Russia and the Wagner group are likely to be the country’s newly selected partners for the fight against terrorism. Mali also cut ties with France after nine years in favor of closer relations with Russia’s military in May 2022, but despite the junta’s claims of pushing back on terrorism, the security situation remains highly complex. For the Sahel region, if Mali, Burkina Faso, and potentially Guinea continue to welcome Wagner group troops and crack down on the population, violence and human rights abuses will escalate in the upcoming months.
Haiti is currently experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis due to the increasing power of armed gangs since the assassination of former Haitian President Jovenel Moise in July 2021. Armed gangs are controlling and terrorizing villages in the countryside and large sections of key cities, including 60 percent of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. An estimated 200 armed groups operate in the criminal network that engages in kidnappings, homicides, drug trafficking, and money laundering. The humanitarian crisis is marked by the blockade of supplies of fuel and clean water and the collection of garbage, leading to the spread of cholera. Moreover, the gang’s tight grip on Haiti is disturbing the services of hospitals and schools.
Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry and the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have previously requested military assistance from the international community to tackle the violence. However, this request was met with dissatisfaction by some Haitians who have not forgotten Haiti’s long history with foreign intervention. Nevertheless, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on February 17 that Canada will send navy vessels to the coast of Haiti that will conduct surveillance and gather intelligence. It remains unclear how many vessels Canada will send and how long they will stay.
In February 2023, Moldovan President Maia Sandu openly accused President Putin of attempting to sabotage and destabilize the pro-European government of Moldova, as mentioned in our previous briefing. The country that lies between Ukraine and EU-member Romania is currently experiencing heightened attention on the geopolitical stage for being the potential next victim of Putin’s (hybrid) warfare.
On February 28, 2023, new protests took place in Moldova’s capital city Chișinău, with thousands of protesters demanding the resignation of President Sandu and denouncing possible involvement in the war in Ukraine. Interestingly, the protests were supported by the Shor Party, led by the exiled oligarch Ilan Shor who is an ally of Putin. Hence, the protests are likely to be fueled by pro-Russian sources, which means that the protests might be part of Russia's hybrid warfare campaign against the pro-European Moldovan government. Out of security concerns, Moldova’s air space briefly closed on February 14. As of February 27, Wizz Air announced that it will suspend its flights to Moldova from March 14.
On February 17, protests broke out in the capital city of Suriname, Paramaribo. The initial peaceful demonstration turned violent as protesters stormed the National Assembly. Part of the crowd clashed with police forces, throwing bricks and bottles and engaging in acts of vandalism. At least 119 protesters were arrested. The reasons for the unrest is dissatisfaction with government austerity measures and high inflation. As of February 28, the situation in Suriname has stabilized, but increased security measures remain in place. President Chandrikapersad Santokhi aims to de-escalate the tensions in the country by means of dialogue with civil society organizations.
The conflict between separatist Anglophone forces and the Cameroon government has deteriorated since January 2023. The conflict has been ongoing since September 2017, and so far over 6,000 people have died. The separatist forces are fighting for the creation of a breakaway state in the country’s minority English-speaking regions in the North West and South West. The surge in hostilities followed Canada’s Foreign Minister announcement in January 2023 that claimed it would facilitate peace talks between the Cameroon government and the separatist groups. However, Cameroon’s government denied this announcement, stating that it has not requested help from a foreign party to act as a mediator. Hostilities will likely continue as long as Cameroon’s government denies engaging in peace talks.
Follow-ups on previous conflict monitoring reports
The most recent Dyami Conflict Monitoring Report focused on the November 2022 peace agreement between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian Government. This peace agreement put an end to the two-year conflict in the Tigray region, during which both parties were suspected of carrying out mass atrocities. Eritrean forces, which allied with Ethiopian government troops during the war, have been accused of committing mass atrocities in Tigray during the conflict too. The aim of the peace deal was to end the fighting within the region as well as the assault on civilians.
The peace process has made progress over the months of January and February; heavy weapons were handed in by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Eritrean forces withdrew from the major cities within the region. However, it is reported that fighting between security forces and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) has continued in Oromia. On January 1, five people died and 480 hostages were freed during an attack on a prison in Southern Oromia by the OLA. The government of Ethiopia has continued to use of force against the OLA. It is likely that the violence in Oromia will continue in the upcoming months.
Additionally, the peace agreement between the TPLF and the Ethiopian Government has not led to an end to risks for civilians in Tigray. Women, health workers, and aid organizations have reported that assaults on civilians have continued since November 2022. As stated by BBC, the assaults in Tigray are committed predominantly by Eritrean troops. However, assaults by militias from the Amhara region as well as the federal government forces were also reported. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government has been trying to stop a U.N.-mandated inquiry into atrocities that happened during the war, calling for the findings not being published anymore. The request has not yet been formally submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
In October and November 2022, tensions between Iran and Azerbaijan increased as a result of Iran’s support for Armenia, military drills in the border areas, and the new transport corridor that would connect Azerbaijan and its Nakhchivan exclave. Azerbaijan also enjoys friendly relations with Israel of which Iran is weary. In January 2023, tensions escalated after the Azerbaijani embassy in Tehran was attacked. Azerbaijani officials blamed Iran for the attack, closed the embassy, and warned its citizens against visiting Iran. Tehran denied the accusations and claimed that the assailant acted for personal motives. Despite the increasing tensions, it is unlikely that the situation will develop into a military conflict, and will probably be solved diplomatically instead. If a conflict were to begin, however, it would quickly include NATO member Turkey, as the country has a mutual defense pact with Azerbaijan.
About the authors:
Alessia is Intelligence Analyst and Project Coordinator at Dyami. She has field experience in South America, Colombia especially, and has experience in researching organized crime and conflicts. Her academic background includes conflict analysis, international humanitarian law, and criminology.
Anneloe is currently enrolled in the masters Conflict Studies & Human Rights at Utrecht University and completed her Bachelor's in History and International Relations from Historical Perspective, equipping her with skills to contextualize (historical) events and to acknowledge both the uniqueness and similarities between certain events. She is an experienced researcher in the field of disinformation and is very keen to learn more about (cyber) espionage.
Iris de Boer
Iris has a background in Human Geography and has developed a broad interest in geopolitics and armed conflict during her academic career. She is currently enrolled in the Master’s degree Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University, during which she developed conflict mapping and conflict analyzing skills. Her previous research focused on the polarized display of the United States presidential elections in 2020 within Dutch media.