Global flash points: How to spot signs of peace

Monitor correspondents and experts suggest what to watch for in eight international conflicts.

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    Hope ahead? In December, a Palestinian walks past a section of the wall in Jerusalem erected to protect Israelis from suicide bombers.
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    Tripoli, Lebanon: Lebanese boys step down damaged stairs where Lebanese troops clashed with suspected al-Qaeda-inspired militants in June 2007.
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    Invite: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to pilgrims as he circles the Kaaba, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Iran's relations with Sunni Arab neighbors have improved as evidenced by Ahmadinejad's invitation to take part in the Hajj pilgrimage.
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    Independence? Kosovo Serbs hold banners during a protest on Dec. 18. While Kosovo seeks independence from the rest of Serbia, Serbs see Kosovo as the cradle of their civilization and insist it remain part of their country. With the end of a United Nations process to reach an agreement between the two sides in December 2007, Kosovo leaders are expected to declare independence after Serbia's elections in January.
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    Snow patrol: Turkish soldiers patrol along a road in southeastern Turkey, bordering Iraq. Turkey has massed 100,000 troops on the border and vowed to crush the PKK, launching limited ground incursions and airstrikes against suspected PKK targets. During an expected winter respite, progress on the diplomatic front is possible.
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    Villavicencio, Colombia: President Alvaro Uribe gestures while giving a speech at Apiay military base. A mission to free three hostages held by Colombian guerillas appeared to collapse Dec. 31 as the government and rebel leaders accused each other of trying to kill the deal. With numerous failed negotiations, international pressure is growing for Uribe's administration to strike a humanitarian deal for the release of the some 45 high-profile hostages held by the FARC.
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    New colors: African Union peacekeepers don berets in blue United Nations colors, in place of green African Union berets, now part of an expanded hybrid force with the UN. The African Union force has failed to bring peace in Darfur.
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At the outset of 2008, many of the world's conflicts seem locked in a stalemate. But history shows that peace often comes as a surprise.

Indeed, if one looks at the resolution of major conflicts in the past 20 years, "almost none of them could have been anticipated just beforehand," says John Darby at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in Notre Dame, Ind. More than 40 peace deals have been signed in the past two decades, he says, in places as diverse as Angola, Guatemala, Aceh (Indonesia), and Tajikistan.

Next week, President George Bush heads to the Middle East to spur on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Marc Gopin at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., notes that US administrations have often done their best conflict-resolution work in the last two years of an eight-year term.

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Staff writer Christa Case Bryant looks at key global flash points and asks experts how to identify signs of progress – or a turn for the worse.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT

THE CRUX: Palestinians want their own state, established on some or all of the territory Israelis claim. Israel seeks Palestinian recognition of its right to exist, and an end to violence against its citizens.

THE STATUS: The two sides formally renewed negotiations at the Annapolis conference in December, and aim to reach a permanent peace agreement by the end of 2008 – the final months of President Bush's term.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

• Reconciliation between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. While some experts say such an agreement is crucial to eventual peace, it could also make continued negotiations more politically difficult for Israel, which won't deal with Hamas as long as it calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

• A prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas, which has held an Israeli corporal in Gaza for 18 months. Such a move could enable Israel to include Hamas in negotiations.

• A deal that isolates Hamas, leaving it feeling it has no choice but to undermine the peace process.

LEBANON

THE CRUX: This tiny country is a microcosm for broader battles gripping the Middle East as the region's key players – Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria – exert their influence in Lebanon in an ongoing battle for supremacy.

THE STATUS: The ruling March 14 bloc, a coalition named for the 2005 Cedar Revolution that helped end Syrian domination of Lebanon, is pitted against the pro-Syria opposition, led by Hizbullah.

The US supports March 14 as a useful bulwark against Hizbullah and its backers, Syria and Iran. The rise of March 14 also represents the most successful example of the Bush administration's Middle East democracy drive. But Syria and Iran seek to deny Washington its toehold.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

• Calm between US ally Israel and Hizbullah, in light of the reduced prospect of an American attack on Iran. And, perhaps, a thaw in relations between the US and Syria.

• Possible attacks from Fatah al-Islam, an Al Qaeda-influenced militant group. It has laid low since the Lebanese Army triumphed over it after a four-month battle in 2007 that was the nation's most grueling fight since the 1975-90 civil war. But isolated Fatah al-Islam cells remain in the north and in Palestinian refugee camps.

• Sunni-Shiite tensions. Overshadowing for the first time Lebanon's traditional Christian-Muslim divide, is the broader schism among Muslims in the Middle East.

IRAN

THE CRUX: The main conflict between the West and Iran is its nuclear-energy program, which the US has criticized as a cover for developing weapons. Washington has also accused Tehran of backing Hizbullah in Lebanon and destabilizing Iraq. There are also tensions between an increasingly powerful Shiite Iran and the Sunni Persian Gulf states.

THE STATUS: The US released a new National Intelligence Estimate in December concluding that Iran halted a weapons program in 2003 – reversing previous assessments and lowering expectations for an air strike. Iran's relations with Sunni Arab neighbors have also improved, with President Ahmadinejad receiving the first-ever official invitation to take part in the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia last month.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

• More diplomatic tug-of-war over Iran's program, including a stronger push for more UN sanctions. Also, Iran's first-ever nuclear power plant at Bushehr, built by Russia, is due to begin operation.

• Better relations with Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors, crucial for stability of the Gulf region.

• Iran's influence in Iraq. Three US-Iranian meetings have been held at the ambassadorial level in Baghdad to discuss Iraqi security. Iranian officials want to expand the talks to other issues that have divided the two countries.

KOSOVO

THE CRUX: Ethnically distinct from the rest of Serbia with a 90 percent Albanian majority, the tiny province seeks independence. Serbs, however, see Kosovo as the cradle of their civilization, and insist it remain part of their country.

THE STATUS: An 18-month United Nations process to reach an agreement between Serbs and Kosovars ended in December. Kosovo leaders are expected to declare independence after Serbia's Jan. 20 elections.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

• Russia's position. As a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council and supporter of Serbia, it could prevent the West from gaining international consensus for Kosovo's independence. If Kosovo proceeds unilaterally with Western support, Russia may use that precedent to back separatist forces in Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

• Serbian elections, which will reflect public opinion on the Kosovo issue.

• Kosovo declaration of independence. Serbia has promised to refrain from violence, but hard-line militias may take action themselves. It will also be an early test of Kosovo leaders, some of whom were former members of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

TURKEY

THE CRUX: In a bid to restore public support in Turkey's Kurdish southeast, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has escalated its violent campaign for greater Kurdish cultural and political rights.

THE STATUS: Turkey, which fears it could lose territory to any eventual Kurdish state, has mobilized 100,000 troops along its border with Iraq's Kurdish north, where Turkish planes have fired on PKK targets. The conflict has drawn in the US, which is allied with Turkey but also dependent on the support of Iraqi Kurds in its reconciliation efforts in Baghdad.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

• A relatively calm winter, with snow in the PKK's mountain hideouts making military operations difficult. Experts expect clashes to resume in the spring.

• During the winter respite, possible progress on the diplomatic front. In November, Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) proposed talks between the KRG, Turkey, Washington, and Baghdad.

• Moves toward amnesty for PKK rebels, which experts say is requisite for any eventual peace.

COLOMBIA

THE CRUX: A decades-long civil war, though tempered in recent years, still simmers between right-wing paramilitaries aligned with the government and leftist guerrillas.

THE STATUS: Some 30,000 paramilitaries have demobilized, but Colombia's largest left-wing rebel group, the FARC, is holding some 45 high-profile hostages whom they're leveraging for political recognition. Numerous negotiations have failed, and international pressure is growing on the hard-line administration of President Alvaro Uribe to strike a humanitarian deal.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

• Release of some hostages as the FARC seeks a public-relations upper hand against Mr. Uribe's government.

• The resumption of preliminary peace talks with the smaller, leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) – a process that fell apart when Uribe fired Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as negotiator. "If they can ... find another third party to mediate, significant progress could be seen in six months," says political analyst Gerson Arias at Ideas Para La Paz, an independent think tank in Bogota.

• The first convictions of top right-wing paramilitary leaders who demobilized in exchange for reduced sentences.

• New right-wing paramilitary groups. While the government has dismissed them as criminal gangs tied to drug trafficking, Mr. Arias says that they are recruiting members of the paramilitary groups to train them.

DARFUR

THE CRUX: The five-year-old conflict has largely centered on fighting between black African rebel groups and the government-supported janjaweed militia drawn mainly from Arab tribes. Casualties are estimated at more than 200,000. More than 2.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

THE STATUS: On Jan. 1, the beleaguered African Union force that has failed to bring peace gave up their green berets for the blue hats of an expanded hybrid force with the United Nations.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:

• How quickly the UN troops can bring security to Darfur's sprawling aid camps. It will take at least a year for the full 26,000 troops and police officers to be deployed, and they lack air support.

• Whether rebel groups can agree on a common position and return to peace talks abandoned in Libya in October.

• New agreements springing from the 3-year-old Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was designed to end the decades-old civil war between the Arab-dominated north and the Christian and animist south. Little progress has been made in agreeing how to share revenues from oil-rich areas on the border. If the North-South war starts up again, observers are concerned that it could become intertwined with the conflict in Darfur, complicating peace efforts.

• Activists and the Olympics in Beijing. US actress Mia Farrow and others will highlight China's links to the Sudanese government, supplying arms and buying oil.

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