What constitutes a war has become difficult to define

With nearly 60 conflicts raging around the world last year, the idea of what constitutes a war has become difficult to define. Whether it is a violent crisis, a limited war or an all-out war, modern warfare has taken on a new dimension.

A Mexican soldier monitors drug gangs in Michoacan state. Alexandre Meneghini / AP
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On September 22, 1980, following a formal declaration of war, Iraqi forces poured over the border of Iran at to start a conflict that in next eight years would claim at least half a million lives.

No country has declared war on another since that date. Yet this does not mean that the world has been at peace for the past 24 years.

Rather, war has taken on a new dimension. As Pope Francis visited the graves of 15,000 soldiers who died in the First World War this weekend, he warned of: “Another world war. Perhaps one can speak of a third war; one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.”

This image is a far cry from the conventional fears of a Third World War; one waged with nuclear weapons that would leave billions dead and render the Earth all but inhabitable.

But given the scope and scale of conflict in 2014, does the pontiff have a point? Men, women and children, soldiers and civilians are dying today in conflicts that cover every continent and both hemispheres.

Are these wars? The concept is increasingly hard to define. Britain has not declared war on another country since Thailand in 1942, yet has fought numerous battles, from Suez to the Falkland Islands. The United States last formally declared war on Romania, also in 1942, fighting Vietnam, Afghanistan and two Gulf Wars with nothing more than the authorisation of the Congress. Yet its soldiers continue to die, and to kill around the world.

Each year, the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIICR) produces a "conflict barometer" whose terms are defined from violent crisis to outright war.

Using this standard, the barometer released this year shows 13 wars worldwide last year, but 45 highly violent conflicts, including 25 that it categorised as “limited wars.”

Some of these are universally recognised as warfare. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Taliban continues to fight, 11 years after the US invasion. The rise of ISIL has brought a new and more terrifying dimension to the fighting in Syria and Iraq.

The HIICR also categorises as wars the conflict with Islamists in Yemen and Egypt as on-going wars. Conflicts with Islamists accounted for the majority of wars last year, including Nigeria — with Boko Haram — Sudan, Mali, Pakistan and the Philippines, where Muslim separatists still fight for independence. Russia also continues to fight in the Caucasus, in violence that left 500 dead last year. The fighting in Ukraine, which has probably taken over 3,000 lives this year, did not take place in time for the 2014 study.

Of the 25 limited wars, the HIICR identified clashes in Kashmir involving India, waring opposition groups in Libya and Turkey’s battles with Kurdish separatists.

In the Americas, conflict was fuelled by drugs, with Mexico identified as a country effectively in a full-scale war with the drug cartels that is costing tens of thousands of lives each year.

According to a similar "conflict encyclopaedia" prepared by Sweden's Uppsala University, there were 33 conflicts in the world last year.

The bloodiest of these, says the study, was Syria, which accounted for two out of three people dying in battle. It includes the United States as a country in conflict because of its war with Al Qaeda and now ISIL

For the first time, though, the university did not attempt to publish worldwide casualty figures, saying there was not enough reliable information to do so.

How many have died in this undeclared third world war is hard to quantify. Syria tops the list, followed by Mexico, ethnic violence in South Sudan and the continuing Iraqi insurgency. These four may have accounted for at least 100,000 deaths in 2013 and over 40,000 this year.

Smaller conflicts have the potential to flare up at any time. Violence in the Gaza Strip cost less than 50 lives in 2013. This year the toll is well over 2,000. These smaller wars collectively take perhaps another 20,000 lives a year.

The “conflict barometer” also identifies “violent crises”, which it says have the potential to become wars. Nine of these became limited wars in 2013, it says, including the eventually defeat of the rebel group M23 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while fighting in the Central African Republic was reclassified as a full-scale war.

Peace can be as hard to determine as war. Uppsala University’s conflict encyclopaedia identified nine peace agreements that were signed in 2013, a rise of two on the previous year, what the university calls an “optimistic” pattern of “cooperation in some conflicts.”