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10 Conflicts to Watch in 2017
10 Conflicts to Watch in 2017
Tribesmen loyal to the Houthi movement hold their weapons as they attend a gathering to mark 1000 days of the Saudi-led military intervention in the Yemeni conflict, in Sanaa, Yemen on December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi
Op-Ed / Global

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2018

From North Korea to Venezuela, here are the conflicts to watch in 2018.

It’s not all about Donald Trump. 

That’s a statement more easily written than believed, given the U.S. president’s erratic comportment on the world stage — his tweets and taunts, his cavalier disregard of international accords, his readiness to undercut his own diplomats, his odd choice of foes, and his even odder choice of friends. And yet, a more inward-looking United States and a greater international diffusion of power, increasingly militarized foreign policy, and shrinking space for multilateralism and diplomacy are features of the international order that predate the current occupant of the White House and look set to outlast him.

The first trend — U.S. retrenchment — has been in the making for years, hastened by the 2003 Iraq War that, intended to showcase American power, did more to demonstrate its limitations. Overreach abroad, fatigue at home, and a natural rebalancing after the relatively brief period of largely uncontested U.S. supremacy in the 1990s mean the decline was likely inevitable. Trump’s signature “America First” slogan harbors a toxic nativist, exclusionary, and intolerant worldview. His failure to appreciate the value of alliances to U.S. interests and his occasional disparagement of traditional partners is particularly self-defeating. His lamentations about the cost of U.S. overseas intervention lack any introspection regarding the price paid by peoples subjected to that intervention, focusing solely on that paid by those perpetrating it. But one ought not forget that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the same election season, and Barack Obama, as a candidate in the preceding ones, both rejected foreign entanglements and belittled nation building. Trump wasn’t shaping the public mood. He was reflecting it.

The retrenchment is a matter of degree, of course, given the approximately 200,000 active-duty U.S. troops deployed worldwide. But in terms of ability to manipulate or mold events around the globe, U.S. influence has been waning as power spreads to the east and south, creating a more multipolar world in which armed nonstate actors are playing a much larger role.

The second trend, the growing militarization of foreign policy, also represents continuity as much as departure. Trump exhibits a taste for generals and disdain for diplomats; his secretary of state has an even more curious penchant to dismember the institution from which he derives his power. But they are magnifying a wider and older pattern. The space for diplomacy was shrinking long before Trump’s administration took an ax to the State Department. Throughout conflict zones, leaders increasingly appear prone to fight more than to talk — and to fight by violating international norms rather than respecting them.

This owes much to how the rhetoric of counterterrorism has come to dominate foreign policy in theory and in practice. It has given license to governments to first label their armed opponents as terrorists and then treat them as such. Over a decade of intensive Western military operations has contributed to a more permissive environment for the use of force. Many recent conflicts have involved valuable geopolitical real estate, escalating regional and major power rivalries, more outside involvement in conflicts, and the fragmentation and proliferation of armed groups. There is more to play for, more players in the game, and less overlap among their core interests. All of these developments present obstacles to negotiated settlements.

Over a decade of intensive Western military operations has contributed to a more permissive environment for the use of force.

The third trend is the erosion of multilateralism. Whereas former President Obama sought (with mixed success) to manage and cushion America’s relative decline by bolstering international agreements — such as trade deals, the Paris climate accord, and the Iran nuclear negotiations — President Trump recoils from all that. Where Obama opted for burden-sharing, Trump’s instinct is for burden-shedding.

Even this dynamic, however, has deeper roots. On matters of international peace and security in particular, multilateralism has been manhandled for years. Animosity between Russia and Western powers has rendered the United Nations Security Council impotent on major conflicts since at least the 2011 Libya intervention; that animosity now infects debates on most crises on the council’s agenda. Trump is not the only leader emphasizing bilateral arrangements and ad hoc alliances above multilateral diplomacy and intergovernmental institutions.

Then again, much of it is about Trump, inescapably.

The most ominous threats in 2018 — nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula and a spiraling confrontation pitting the United States and its allies against Iran — could both be aggravated by Trump’s actions, inactions, and idiosyncrasies. U.S. demands (in the North Korean case, denuclearization; in Iran’s, unilateral renegotiation of the nuclear deal or Tehran’s regional retreat) are unrealistic without serious diplomatic engagement or reciprocal concessions. In the former, Washington could face the prospect of provoking a nuclear war in order to avoid one, and in the latter, there is the possibility of jeopardizing a nuclear deal that is succeeding for the sake of a confrontation with Iran that almost certainly will not.

(A third potential flashpoint that didn’t make it into our top 10 — because it came so late and was so unexpected and gratuitous — is the Jerusalem powder keg. At the time of writing, it has not yet exploded, perhaps because when one is as hopeless as the Palestinians there is little hope left to be dashed. Still, the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for purely domestic political reasons, with no conceivable foreign-policy gain and a risk of explosion, must rank as a prime example of diplomatic malpractice.)

As with all trends, there are countervailing ones often propelled by discomfort that the dominant trends provoke. Europeans are defending the Iranian nuclear deal and may end up deepening their own common security and strategic independence, President Emmanuel Macron is testing the reach of French diplomacy, and international consensus on action against climate change has held. Perhaps African states, already leading efforts to manage crises on the continent, will step up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or another of the continent’s major conflicts. Perhaps they or another assortment of actors could make the case for more engagement and dialogue and for defusing crises rather than exacerbating them.

These may seem slender reeds on which to rest our hopes. But, as the following list of the International Crisis Group’s top 10 conflicts to watch in 2018 unhappily illustrates, and for now at least, they may well be the only reeds we have.

1. North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing coupled with the White House’s bellicose rhetoric make the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula — even a catastrophic nuclear confrontation — higher now than at any time in recent history. Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017 and the increasing range of its missiles clearly demonstrate its determination to advance its nuclear program and intercontinental strike capability. From the United States, meanwhile, comes careless saber-rattling and confusing signals about diplomacy.

Kim Jong Un’s push for nuclear arms is driven partly by fear that without such deterrence he risks being deposed by outside powers and partly by perceived threats inside North Korea, notably elite rivalries, the tightly managed but still unpredictable impact of economic reform, and his difficulty in controlling information flow — including from foreign media channels.

The aggressive tone from Washington reflects equal urgency in the opposite direction. At least some senior officials believe North Korea must be prevented at all costs from advancing its nuclear program, in particular from being able to strike the continental United States with a missile carrying a nuclear payload. After crossing that threshold, they believe, Kim Jong Un will conclude that he can deter Washington from protecting its allies and thus impose demands — from lifting trade restrictions to expelling U.S. troops, all the way to Korean reunification on his terms. Those same officials appear convinced that he can be dissuaded from retaliating in the event of limited, targeted military action.

For now, the United States is implementing a “maximum pressure strategy”: corralling the Security Council into tougher sanctions, pressing China to do more to strangle its neighbor’s economy, conducting large Air Force and Navy drills, and signaling directly or through congressional allies that it does not fear military confrontation. Despite conflicting messages from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Trump administration is making clear that it is not interested in talks whose goal would be anything short of North Korea’s denuclearization, an objective as worthy as it is delusional. As the White House sees it, the approach is working: U.S. military action is no longer unimaginable for either North Korea or China. It hopes the former will be compelled to back down and the latter will get them there.

But this approach means a race against time — with Washington almost certainly on the losing side. Restrictive measures will not bite immediately, and they will bite the North Korean leadership last; ordinary citizens will suffer sooner and worse. Feeling threatened, Pyongyang is more likely to accelerate weapons development than halt or slow it. Both China and South Korea support tighter sanctions and are as frustrated with Pyongyang as they are alarmed by the prospect of U.S. military action. But South Korea has little power to alter the situation, China’s willingness to pressure North Korea may be reaching its limit, and its influence over a fiercely independent neighbor resentful of its reliance on Beijing is easily overstated. While Chinese President Xi Jinping fears the prospect of war on the peninsula bringing chaos, a possibly U.S.-aligned regime, and U.S. troops to his doorstep, he also fears that squeezing Pyongyang could precipitate turmoil that could spill over into China.

Without a viable diplomatic offramp, Washington risks cornering itself into military action. Even a precisely targeted attack would likely provoke a North Korean response. While Pyongyang would think twice before initiating a conventional strike on Seoul, it could take other steps: an attack on a soft South Korean target; an asymmetric strike against U.S. assets on or around the peninsula; or crippling cyberattacks. These might not immediately trigger regional conflict, but they would provoke an unpredictable escalation.

A successful diplomatic initiative ultimately will need to address two competing preoccupations: U.S. and wider international fears of what the Pyongyang regime would do with an advanced nuclear capacity, and the regime’s fear of what might happen to it without one. The U.S. government should marry its sanctions and those of the U.N. to a clear and realistic political goal. An incremental solution could include pauses on North Korean testing of its missile system or weapons, before Pyongyang crosses what the White House sees as a red line; the United States agreeing to less provocative military exercises; and consensus on humanitarian support even as sanctions kick in. That might not satisfy anyone. But at least it would provide the space needed to explore a more durable resolution.

2. U.S.-Saudi-Iran Rivalry

This rivalry will likely eclipse other Middle Eastern fault lines in 2018. It is enabled and exacerbated by three parallel developments: the consolidation of the authority of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s assertive crown prince; the Trump administration’s more aggressive strategy toward Iran; and the end of the Islamic State’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria, which allows Washington and Riyadh to aim the spotlight more firmly on Iran.

The contours of a U.S./Saudi strategy (with an important Israeli assist) are becoming clear. It is based on an overriding assumption that Iran has exploited passive regional and international actors to bolster its position in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. Washington and Riyadh seek to re-establish a sense of deterrence by convincing Tehran that it will pay at least as high a price for its actions as it can inflict on its adversaries.

The strategy seems to involve multiple forms of pressure to contain, squeeze, exhaust, and ultimately push back Iran. It has an economic dimension (via U.S. sanctions); a diplomatic one (witness vocal U.S. and Saudi denunciations of Iran’s regional behavior and Riyadh’s ham-handed attempt to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation); and a military one (so far exerted principally by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and by Israel in Syria).

Whether it will work is another question. Although recent protests in Iran have introduced a new and unpredictable variable, Tehran and its partners still appear to be in a strong position. The Bashar al-Assad regime, backed by Russian air power, is prevailing in Syria. Across Iraq, Iran-linked Shiite militias are entrenching themselves in state institutions. In Yemen, Tehran’s relatively small investment in backing the Houthis has helped them weather the Saudi-led campaign and even launch missiles of unprecedented range and accuracy into Saudi territory.

Despite demonstrating its resolve to confront Iran and its partners, Riyadh has been unable to alter the balance of power. Forcing Hariri’s resignation backfired, not just because he later withdrew it, but also because all of Lebanon united against the move and Hariri then inched closer to Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah. In Yemen, Riyadh turned the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against each other, but in doing so further fragmented the country and complicated the search for a settlement and a face-saving Saudi exit from a war that is enormously costly not only to Yemenis but also to Riyadh’s international standing. The Trump administration confronts similar obstacles. Thus far its belligerence, refusal to certify the nuclear deal, threats of new sanctions, and launching of several strikes at and near regime targets in Syria have done little to reverse Tehran’s reach.

With so many flashpoints, and so little diplomacy, the risk of an escalatory cycle is great: Any move — new U.S. sanctions that Iran would see as violating the nuclear deal; a Houthi missile strike hitting Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, for which Washington and Riyadh would hold Tehran responsible; or an Israeli strike in Syria that kills Iranians — could trigger a broader confrontation.

3. The Rohingya Crisis: Myanmar and Bangladesh

Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis has entered a dangerous new phase, threatening Myanmar’s hard-won democratic transition, its stability, and that of Bangladesh and the region as a whole.

An August attack by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, prompted a brutal and indiscriminate military response targeting the long-mistreated Muslim Rohingya community. That assault led to a massive refugee exodus, with at least 655,000 Rohingya fleeing for Bangladesh. The U.N. called the operation a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. The government has heavily restricted humanitarian aid to the area, and international goodwill toward Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning state counsellor, has dissipated. Her government retains its hard-line stance toward the Rohingya and resists concessions on even immediate humanitarian issues. In this, it has the support of the population, which has embraced the Buddhist nationalist and anti-Rohingya rhetoric disseminated through state and social media.

Pressure from the U.N. Security Council is critical, and Western governments are moving toward targeted sanctions, which are a key signal that such actions cannot go unpunished. Unfortunately, these sanctions are unlikely to have a significant positive impact on Myanmar’s policies. The focus is rightly on the right of refugees to return in a voluntary, safe and, dignified manner. In reality, however, and notwithstanding a late-November Bangladesh/Myanmar repatriation agreement, the refugees will not return unless Myanmar restores security for all communities, grants the Rohingya freedom of movement as well as access to services and other rights, and allows humanitarian and refugee agencies unfettered access.

While publicly, Bangladesh’s government is trying to persuade Myanmar to take the refugees back, privately it acknowledges the hopelessness of that endeavor. It has neither defined policies nor taken operational decisions on how to manage more than a million Rohingya in its southeast, along the Myanmar border, in the medium- to long-term. International funding for an under-resourced emergency operation will run out in February. All this — indeed, the very presence of a large population of stateless refugees — creates enormous dangers for Bangladesh. Conflict between refugees and a host community that is heavily outnumbered in parts of the southeast and faces rising prices and falling wages is an immediate risk. The refugees’ presence also could be used to stoke communal conflict or aggravate political divisions ahead of elections expected in late 2018.

There are risks, too, for Myanmar. ARSA could regroup. It or even transnational groups exploiting the Rohingya cause or recruiting among the displaced could launch cross-border attacks, escalating both Muslim-Buddhist tension in Rakhine state and friction between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Any attack outside Rakhine would provoke broader Buddhist-Muslim tension and violence across the country. Acknowledging the crisis, implementing recommendations of the Kofi Annan-led Advisory Commission on Rakhine State, and disavowing divisive narratives would put the Myanmar government — and its people — on a better path.

4. Yemen

With 8 million people on the brink of famine, 1 million declared cholera cases, and over 3 million internally displaced persons, the Yemen war could escalate further in 2018. After a period of rising tensions, dueling rallies, and armed assaults, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced in December that his General People’s Congress was abandoning its partnership with the Houthis in favor of the Saudi-led coalition. Saleh paid for it with his life; he was killed immediately by his erstwhile partners.

Saudi Arabia and its allies — believing that the Houthi/General People’s Congress split opens new opportunities and still convinced a military solution exists — will likely intensify their campaign at a huge cost to civilians. Iran will keep finding ample opportunity to keep the Saudis bogged down, and the more anarchic Yemen’s north becomes, the more likely that violence is to bleed across the border. The Houthis will continue to take the fight to the Saudi homefront, firing missiles toward Riyadh and threatening other Gulf states.

Negotiations, already a distant prospect, have become more complicated. The Houthis, feeling simultaneously emboldened and embattled, could adopt a more uncompromising stance. The General People’s Congress, a pragmatic centrist party, could fragment further. The south is divided, owing partly to the widening rift between forces loyal to Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and southern separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates.

There are signs of mounting U.S. discomfort with the indiscriminate Saudi bombardment and the blockade of Houthi-controlled territories. But the Trump administration’s belligerent rhetoric toward Iran encourages all the wrong tendencies in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and its allies should instead lift the blockade of Yemen and reopen civilian airports. Politically, there should be a new Security Council resolution providing for a balanced settlement. The Saudis are loath to concede anything to a group they consider an Iranian proxy, but were they to embrace a realistic peace initiative, the onus would shift to the Houthis to accept it.

5. Afghanistan

The War in Afghanistan looks set to intensify in 2018. The United States’ new Afghanistan strategy raises the tempo of operations against the Taliban insurgency, with more U.S. forces, fiercer U.S. airstrikes, and more aggressive ground offensives by Afghan forces. The aim, according to senior officials, is to halt the Taliban’s momentum and, eventually, force it into a political settlement. For now, though, the strategy is almost exclusively military.

This strategy faces serious obstacles. While hitting the Taliban harder might bring tactical gains, it is unlikely to change the war’s course or the incentives of a locally rooted and potent insurgency. The Taliban currently controls or is contesting more territory than at any time since 2001; it is better equipped and, even if pressured through conventional fighting, it would retain the ability to mount spectacular urban attacks that erode confidence in the government. Besides, between 2009 and 2012, the Taliban withstood more than 100,000 U.S. troops.

Military leaders contend that this time will be different because Trump, unlike Obama, has not set a withdrawal date. That argument holds little water. It also misreads the insurgency: Battlefield losses in the past have not impacted Taliban leaders’ willingness to negotiate. Forthcoming Afghan elections (a parliamentary poll is slated for July 2018; a presidential vote is due in 2019) will suck oxygen from the military campaign. Every vote since 2004 has ignited some form of crisis, and political discord today is particularly severe, with President Ashraf Ghani accused by his critics of monopolizing power in the hands of a few advisors.

The strategy also underplays regional shifts. Thus far, U.S. regional diplomacy has centered on pressuring Pakistan; yet the calculations that motivate Islamabad’s support for the insurgency are unlikely to change. The Taliban also now enjoys ties to Iran and Russia, which claim to view it as a bulwark against an Islamic State branch in Afghanistan that is small but resilient—and also capable of mounting high-profile attacks. Washington’s militarized approach and diminished diplomacy risk signaling to those countries that it seeks not to stabilize and leave Afghanistan but to maintain a military presence. Given that they are likely to perceive such a presence as a threat to their own interests, it could lead them to increase support for insurgents. Nor does U.S. diplomacy on Afghanistan currently involve China, whose increasing clout in parts of South Asia will make it critical to any settlement.

It is true that demonstrating sustained U.S. support might reinforce the morale of the Afghan Army; a precipitous withdrawal, in contrast, could trigger chaos. But as the battlefield tempo increases, the Trump administration should keep lines of communication to the insurgency open and explore the contours of a settlement with Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional powers, however slim prospects currently appear. U.S. allies in Afghanistan should push for a greater diplomatic political component to the U.S. strategy. As it stands, that strategy sets the stage for more violence while closing avenues for de-escalation. Afghan civilians will pay the price.

6. Syria

After nearly seven years of war, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has the upper hand, thanks largely to Iranian and Russian backing. But the fighting is not over. Large swaths of the country remain outside regime control, regional and international powers disagree on a settlement, and Syria is an arena for the rivalry between Iran and its enemies. As the Islamic State is ousted from the east, prospects for escalation elsewhere will increase.

In eastern Syria, rival campaigns by pro-regime forces (supported by Iran-backed militias and Russian airpower) and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (the SDF, backed by the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition), have forced an Islamic State retreat. In Syria and Iraq, Islamic State remnants have retreated into the desert to await new opportunities.

For the regime and the SDF, the fight against the Islamic State was a means to an end. The two aimed to capture territory and resources, but also to build on those gains — the regime by consolidating control; the Kurds by pressing for maximal autonomy. Thus far, the two sides mostly have avoided confrontation. With the Islamic State gone, the risks will increase.

The east is also perilous due to wider U.S.-Iran rivalry and the close proximity of these rival forces. Iranian gains, particularly the corridor linking regime-held parts of Syria to government-controlled Iraq, could provoke the U.S. to attempt to block what it views as a dangerous land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean. Iran might target U.S. forces to retaliate against U.S. actions elsewhere or to push the United States out altogether.

In the southwest, Israel could view Iran-backed militias operating on and near the Golan Heights as a direct threat and take military action to push them back. Whether Moscow can prevent any Iranian or Hezbollah presence there, as it has pledged to do, is unclear. Israel may take matters into its own hands, striking Iran-allied forces. That pattern — prodding by Iran, pushback by Israel — could last for some time. But a wider confrontation is only one miscalculation away and could quickly spread beyond Syria, to Lebanon.

One of the gravest immediate dangers, however, is the possibility of an offensive by the Assad regime in Syria’s northwest, where rebel-held areas are home to some 2 million Syrians and into which Turkey has deployed military observers as part of a de-escalation deal with Iran and Russia. Regime and allied forces appear to have shifted some attention from the east to those areas, placing that deal under stress. A regime offensive in the northwest could provoke massive destruction and displacement.

7. The Sahel

Weak states across the Sahel region are struggling to manage an overlapping mix of intercommunal conflict, jihadi violence, and fighting over smuggling routes. Their leaders’ predation and militarized responses often make things worse.

Mali’s 2012 crisis — which saw the Malian army routed from the country’s north, a coup that overthrew the government, and jihadis holding northern towns for almost a year — illustrates how quickly things can unravel. Since then, implementation of a peace deal that aimed to end that crisis has stalled, while instability has spread from the north to Mali’s central region as well as parts of neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Dynamics in each place are local, but governments’ lack of authority and their inability to stem — and, at times, their frequent contribution to — violence is a common theme. Weapons that flooded the region as Libya collapsed after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s overthrow have made local quarrels deadlier. The instability has opened a rich vein for jihadis, who piggyback on intercommunal conflict or use Islam to frame struggles against traditional authorities.

As the situation has degenerated, the regional and international response has focused excessively on military solutions. Europeans in particular view the region as a threat to their own safety and a source of migration and terrorism. In late 2017, a new French-backed force known as the G5 Sahel — comprising troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania — prepared to deploy into a field already crowded by France’s own counterterrorism operations, U.S. Special Forces, and U.N. peacekeepers. While military action must play a part in reducing jihadis’ influence, the G5 force raises more questions than it answers. It lacks a clear definition of the enemy, instead envisaging operations against an array of jihadis, traffickers, and other criminals. Disrupting smuggling in regions where that business represents the backbone of local economies could alienate communities. Regional leaders also appear likely to misuse military aid to shore up their own power.

To avoid further deterioration, military efforts must be accompanied by a political strategy that rests on winning the support of local populations and defusing rather than aggravating local disputes. Opening or restoring lines of communication with some militant leaders should not be ruled out, if doing so can help diminish violence.

8. Democratic Republic of Congo

President Joseph Kabila’s determination to hold on to power threatens to escalate the crisis in Congo and a humanitarian emergency that is already among the world’s worst. At the end of 2016, the Saint Sylvester agreement appeared to offer a way out, requiring elections by the end of 2017, after which Kabila would leave power (his second and, according to the Congolese Constitution, final term in office should have ended December 2016). Over the past year, however, his regime has backtracked, exploiting the Congolese opposition’s disarray and waning international attention and reneging on a power-sharing deal. In November, the election commission announced a new calendar — with a vote at the end of 2018, extending Kabila’s rule for at least another year.

The most likely course in 2018 is gradual deterioration. But there are worse scenarios. As the regime clamps down, fails to secure parts of the country, and stokes instability in others, the risk of a steeper descent into chaos remains — with grave regional implications.

There are already troubling signs. Popular discontent raises the risk of unrest in urban centers; in recent days, the violent dispersal of protesters in Kinshasa and other towns has left several people dead. Elsewhere, local militias plague several provinces. Fighting over the past year in the Kasai region has reportedly left more than 3,000 dead, and the conflict in the country’s east claims dozens of lives each month.

International engagement has been lackluster. Disagreements between Africa and the West do not help: Western powers are more critical and have sanctioned some of Kabila’s entourage, and African leaders and regional organizations are reluctant to criticize the regime openly, even as some recognize the dangers behind closed doors. Only more active, forceful, and united diplomacy — and ideally a more engaged Congolese opposition — stand a chance of nudging Kabila toward a peaceful transition. The Saint Sylvester principles (credible elections, no third term for Kabila, an opening of political space, and respect for human rights) still offer the best route out of the crisis.

9. Ukraine

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed over 10,000 lives and constitutes a grave ongoing humanitarian crisis. While it persists, relations between Russia and the West are unlikely to improve. Separatist-held areas are dysfunctional and dependent on Moscow. In other areas of Ukraine, mounting anger at corruption and the 2015 Minsk II agreement, which Russia and Ukraine’s Western allies insist is the path to resolve the conflict, creates new challenges.

Implementation of that agreement has stalled: Moscow points to Kiev’s failure to carry out the Minsk agreement’s political provisions, including devolving power to separatist-held areas once they are reintegrated into Ukraine; Kiev argues it cannot do so while Russian interference and insecurity in those areas persist. Both sides continue to exchange fire across the line dividing Ukrainian troops from separatist and Russian forces.

Yet the east is not the whole story. The Ukrainian state remains fragile even outside areas where Moscow interferes directly. President Petro Poroshenko’s government has not addressed the systemic corruption at the root of many of the country’s problems. Many Ukrainians are losing faith in laws, institutions, and elites. Anger at the Minsk agreement, which Ukrainians see as a concession to separatists and Moscow, is growing, even among reformists.

Given the diplomatic deadlock, Russia’s circulation of a draft U.N. Security Council resolution proposing peacekeepers for Ukraine in September 2017 came as a surprise. There are good reasons to suspect Russia’s intentions. Despite the high costs of its entanglement, little suggests it intends to loosen its grip on eastern Ukraine. The lightly armed force it proposed, whose mandate would include only providing security to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitors, would more likely freeze the conflict than resolve it.

Yet Moscow’s proposal opens a window for Kiev and its Western allies to explore how peacekeepers might secure not only the line of separation but also the Ukraine-Russia border, and to create conditions for local elections and the reintegration of separatist-held areas. They should, however, factor in growing animosity toward the Minsk agreement. Europe’s involvement is essential for progress on peacekeeping negotiations and to promote a more measured debate in Ukraine that can halt the nationalist backlash against the Minsk agreement.

10. Venezuela

Venezuela took yet another turn for the worse in 2017, as President Nicolás Maduro’s government ran the country further into the ground while strengthening its political grip. The opposition has imploded. Prospects for a peaceful restoration of democracy appear ever slimmer. But with the economy in free fall, Maduro faces enormous challenges. Expect the humanitarian crisis to deepen in 2018 as GDP continues to contract.

In late November, Venezuela defaulted on part of its international debt. Sanctions will make debt restructuring nearly impossible. Increasing Russian support is unlikely to suffice, while China appears reluctant to bail Maduro out. A default could provoke the seizure of Venezuelan assets abroad, crippling the oil trade that accounts for 95 percent of the country’s export earnings.

Street demonstrations and clashes that killed over 120 people between April and July subsided after the July election of a National Constituent Assembly composed entirely of government allies. Subsequent polls for state governors and mayors led to major opposition losses amid disputes over whether to participate. But food shortages, a collapsed health system, and spiraling violent crime mean conditions for unrest persist.

While opposition politicians look to the presidential vote, due by late 2018, as an opportunity and entry point for foreign engagement, the government is unlikely to permit a credible vote. It might call early polls, catch its opponents unprepared, and deploy the same voter suppression tactics it has used to win local and regional elections. If the opposition begins to show signs of recovery, Maduro might seek to avoid elections altogether by claiming that external threats warrant a state of emergency. A less probable scenario is that the ruling party splits over who will succeed Maduro; without a formal mechanism, the military would be the likely arbiter. Meanwhile, the weak Venezuelan state will continue to provide a haven for criminal networks and opportunities for money laundering, drug trafficking, and people smuggling, further disquieting Venezuela’s neighbors.

The prognosis for 2018 is further deterioration, humanitarian emergency, and an increased exodus of Venezuelans. Sustained domestic and international pressure — as well as guarantees of future immunity — will be required to push the government toward credible presidential elections.

Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a multi-ethnic coalition dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), advance toward the Islamic State's bastion in Raqqa on 13 December 2016. AFP/Delil Souleiman
Op-Ed / Global

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2017

Originally published in Foreign Policy

From Turkey to Mexico, the world’s most volatile flashpoints will get a lot more unpredictable this year.

The world is entering its most dangerous chapter in decades. The sharp uptick in war over recent years is outstripping our ability to cope with the consequences. From the global refugee crisis to the spread of terrorism, our collective failure to resolve conflict is giving birth to new threats and emergencies. Even in peaceful societies, the politics of fear is leading to dangerous polarization and demagoguery.

It is against this backdrop that Donald Trump was elected the next president of the United States — unquestionably the most important event of last year and one with far-reaching geopolitical implications for the future. Much has been said about the unknowns of Trump’s foreign-policy agenda. But one thing we do know is that uncertainty itself can be profoundly destabilizing, especially when it involves the most powerful actor on the global stage. Already, jittery allies from Europe to East Asia are parsing Trump’s tweets and casual bluster. Will he cut a deal with Russia over the heads of Europeans? Will he try to undo the Iran nuclear accord? Is he seriously proposing a new arms race?

Who knows? And that is precisely the problem.

The last 60 years have suffered their share of crises, from Vietnam to Rwanda to the Iraq War. But the vision of a cooperative international order that emerged after World War II, championed and led by the United States, has structured relations between major powers since the end of the Cold War.

That order was in flux even before Trump won the election. The retrenchment of Washington, for both good and ill, began during Barack Obama’s presidency. But Obama worked to shore up international institutions to fill the gap. Today, we can no longer assume that a United States shaped by “America first” will provide the bricks and mortar of the international system. U.S. hard power, when not accompanied and framed by its soft power, is more likely to be perceived as a threat rather than the reassurance that it has been for many.

An international system guided by short-term deal-making is unlikely to be stable.

In Europe, uncertainty over the new U.S. political posture is compounded by the messy aftermath of Brexit. Nationalist forces have gained strength, and upcoming elections in France, Germany, and the Netherlands will test the future of the European project. The potential unraveling of the European Union is one of the greatest challenges we face today — a fact that is lost amid the many other alarming developments competing for attention. We cannot afford to lose Europe’s balancing voice in the world.

Exacerbated regional rivalries are also transforming the landscape, as is particularly evident in the competition between Iran and the Persian Gulf countries for influence in the Middle East. The resulting proxy wars have had devastating consequences from Syria to Iraq to Yemen.

Many world leaders claim that the way out of deepening divisions is to unite around the shared goal of fighting terrorism. But that is an illusion: Terrorism is just a tactic, and fighting a tactic cannot define a strategy. Jihadi groups exploit wars and state collapse to consolidate power, and they thrive on chaos. In the end, what the international system really needs is a strategy of conflict prevention that shores up, in an inclusive way, the states that are its building blocks. The international system needs more than the pretense of a common enemy to sustain itself.

With the advent of the Trump administration, transactional diplomacy, already on the rise, looks set to increase. Tactical bargaining is replacing long-term strategies and values-driven policies. A rapprochement between Russia and Turkey holds some promise for reducing the level of violence in Syria. However, Moscow and Ankara must eventually help forge a path toward more inclusive governance — or else they risk being sucked ever deeper into the Syrian quagmire. A stable Middle East is unlikely to emerge from the temporary consolidation of authoritarian regimes that ignore the demands of the majority of their people.

Terrorism is just a tactic, and fighting a tactic cannot define a strategy.

The EU, long a defender of values-based diplomacy, has struck bargains with Turkey, Afghanistan, and African states to stem the flow of migrants and refugees — with worrying global consequences. On the other hand, Europe could take advantage of any improvement in U.S.-Russia relations to reset arms control for both conventional and nuclear forces, which would be more opportune than opportunistic.

Beijing’s hardheaded approach in its relationship with other Asian countries and with Africa and Latin America shows what a world deprived of the implicit reassurance of the United States will look like.

Such transactional arrangements may look like a revival of realpolitik. But an international system guided by short-term deal-making is unlikely to be stable. Deals can be broken when they do not reflect longer-term strategies. Without a predictable order, widely accepted rules, and strong institutions, the space for mischief is greater. The world is increasingly fluid and multipolar, pushed and pulled by a diverse set of states and nonstate actors — by armed groups as well as by civil society. In a bottom-up world, major powers cannot single-handedly contain or control local conflicts, but they can manipulate or be drawn into them: Local conflicts can be the spark that lights much bigger fires.

Whether we like it or not, globalization is a fact. We are all connected. Syria’s war triggered a refugee crisis that contributed to Brexit, whose profound political and economic consequences will again ripple outward. Countries may wish to turn inward, but there is no peace and prosperity without more cooperative management of world affairs.

1. Syria & Iraq

After nearly six years of fighting, an estimated 500,000 people killed, and some 12 million uprooted, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears likely to maintain power for now, but even with foreign backing his forces cannot end the war and regain total control. This was evident in the recent recapture of Palmyra by the Islamic State, just nine months after a Russian-backed military campaign had expelled the group. Assad’s strategy to cripple the non-jihadi opposition has worked to empower radical Islamist groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front). Non-jihadi rebels have been further weakened by the recent defeat in Aleppo; they remain fractious and undermined by their state backers’ divergent approaches.

The regime’s December recapture of eastern Aleppo marked a cruel turning point, with the regime and its allies succeeding by relentlessly besieging and bombarding civilians. Western diplomats expressed horror and outrage yet failed to muster a concrete response. The evacuation of civilians and rebels ultimately proceeded, haltingly, only after Russia, Turkey, and Iran struck a deal. This troika followed up with a meeting in Moscow to “revitalize the political process” for ending the war. Neither the United States nor the United Nations was invited or even consulted. A cease-fire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey at the end of December appeared to fall apart within days, as the regime continued military offensives in the suburbs of Damascus. Despite the significant challenges ahead, this new diplomatic track opens the best possibility for reducing the level of violence in Syria.

The war against the Islamic State is likely to continue, and there is an urgent need to ensure it will not fuel further violence and destabilization. In Syria, two competing efforts against the group — one led by Ankara, the other by the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — are entangled with the conflict between the Turkish state and PKK inside Turkey. Washington has backed both efforts while trying to minimize direct clashes between them. The incoming Trump administration should prioritize de-escalating the conflict between its Turkish and Kurdish partners above the immediate capture of territory from jihadis. If violence between the two spirals, the Islamic State will be the first to gain.

The Islamic State still claims a caliphate across parts of Iraq and Syria, although it has lost significant territory over the past year. Even if it is defeated militarily, it or another radical group may well re-emerge unless underlying governance issues are addressed. The Islamic State itself grew from a similar failure in Iraq. It is spreading an ideology that is still mobilizing young people across the globe and poses threats well beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, as recent attacks in Istanbul and Berlin have shown.

In Iraq, the fight against the Islamic State has further undermined the state’s ability to govern, caused enormous destruction, militarized youth, and traumatized Iraqi society. It has fragmented Kurdish and Shiite political parties into rival factions and paramilitary forces dependent on regional backers and competing over Iraq’s resources. The fight to defeat the Islamic State, whose rise has fed on deep grievances among Sunni Arabs, has compounded the damage done by the group’s rule. To avoid worse, Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government need support and pressure to rein in paramilitary groups.

Success in the current U.S.-backed military campaign to retake Mosul, if mishandled, could turn into failure. Besides the regular Iraqi Army, special counterterrorism forces, and federal police who are leading the effort inside the city, local groups are also involved, seeking spoils of victory. Moreover, Iran and Turkey are competing for influence by using local proxies. The longer the battle drags on, the more these various groups will exploit opportunities to gain strategic advantage through territorial control, complicating a political settlement.

Iraq, with support from the United States and other partners, should continue military and logistics support to Iraqi forces pushing into the city and establish locally recruited stabilization forces in areas retaken from the Islamic State to ensure that military gains are not again lost. They will also need to jump-start governance involving local, and locally accepted, political actors.

2. Turkey

A New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul — which killed at least 39 people — seems like a harbinger of more violence to come. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, a departure from the group’s general practice in Turkey that could signal an escalation. In addition to worsening spillover from the wars in Syria and Iraq, Turkey also faces a spiraling conflict with the PKK. Politically polarized, under economic strain, and with weak alliances, Turkey is poised for greater upheaval.

The conflict between the state and PKK militants continues to deteriorate following the collapse of a cease-fire in July 2015. Since then, the PKK conflict has entered one of the deadliest chapters in its three-decade history, with at least 2,500 militants, security forces, and civilians killed as both sides opt for further escalation. Clashes and security operations have displaced more than 350,000 civilians and flattened several city districts in Turkey’s majority Kurdish southeast. A PKK-linked double bomb attack killed 45 people near a soccer stadium in Istanbul in December. In response, the government is once again jailing representatives of the Kurdish movement, blocking a crucial channel to a political settlement that must include fundamental rights protections for Kurds in Turkey.

Though rooted in local sentiments, the escalation is also driven by Ankara’s growing concern over Kurdish gains in northern Syria and Iraq. This, and the danger posed by the Islamic State, persuaded Ankara to send its first detachments of troops into both countries, sucking it further into the Middle East maelstrom.

Domestically, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government continues its crackdown on political opposition and dissent and is pushing for constitutional changes to usher in a presidential system — likely to be put to a public referendum in early spring. In the wake of the coup attempt last July, the government launched a massive crackdown, purging more than 100,000 officials.

Turkey’s Western allies, though dependent on a strong NATO partner on Europe’s southern border, have been strongly critical of the government’s authoritarian bent. This adds to the tensions created by stagnating negotiations between the EU and Ankara over Turkey’s accession to the bloc. In November, Erdogan responded angrily to criticism from Brussels, threatening to tear up the March 2016 refugee deal by which Ankara agreed to prevent the flow of Syrian refugees from moving onward to Europe. More than 2.7 million Syrian refugees are currently registered in Turkey; their integration poses significant challenges for the state and for host communities.

Relations with Washington are strained by Turkey’s military escalation with U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria and by Turkey’s call for Washington to extradite alleged coup mastermind Fethullah Gulen. Ankara has reached an uneasy rapprochement with Moscow, and the December assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey has, for the moment, brought the two countries closer together. Ankara is increasingly downplaying its Western alliances and scrambling to make arrangements with Russia and Iran. However, Turkey and Iran are still on a dangerous course, fueled by profound disagreement over their respective core interests in Iraq and Syria.

3. Yemen

The war in Yemen has created another humanitarian catastrophe, wrecking a country that was already the poorest in the Arab world. With millions of people now on the brink of famine, the need for a comprehensive cease-fire and political settlement is ever more urgent. Yemenis have suffered tremendous hardships from air bombardments, rocket attacks, and economic blockades. According to the U.N., approximately 4,000 civilians have been killed, the majority in Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. All parties to the conflict stand accused of war crimes, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.

Saudi Arabia entered the conflict in March 2015 to counter advances made by the Houthis, a predominantly Zaydi Shiite militia viewed by Riyadh as a proxy for its archrival, Iran. Although the Houthis are not closely tied to Iran, it serves Tehran’s interests to have Saudi Arabia stuck in a vicious stalemate in Yemen.

Both sides appear locked in a cycle of escalating violence and provocations, derailing U.N. peace talks. In November, the Saudi-backed Yemeni government led by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi rejected the U.N.’s proposed roadmap. That same month, the Houthi movement and its allies, mainly forces under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, formed a new government. Despite the challenges, it may still be possible to convince the parties to accept the roadmap as the basis for a compromise that would end regional aspects of the war and return it to an inter-Yemeni process. Much depends on Saudi Arabia’s calculations and the willingness of its international sponsors, especially the United States and Britain, to encourage Riyadh to fully support the political compromise on offer. Failure to get the process back on track carries risks for all involved, as violent jihadi groups, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State, are thriving in Yemen’s chaos.

4. Greater Sahel and Lake Chad Basin

Overlapping conflicts across the Greater Sahel and Lake Chad Basin have contributed to massive human suffering, including the uprooting of some 4.2 million people from their homes. Jihadis, armed groups, and criminal networks jockey for power across this impoverished region, where borders are porous and governments have limited reach.

In 2016, jihadis based in Central Sahel launched deadly attacks in western NigerBurkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire, underscoring the region’s vulnerability. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Mourabitoun remain active while a new group claiming affiliation to the Islamic State is developing. All appear likely to continue attacks targeting civilians, as well as national and international forces. Mali is the U.N.’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission, with 70 personnel killed by “malicious acts” since 2013.

Mali could face a major crisis this year, as implementation of the 2015 Bamako peace agreement threatens to stall. The recent fracturing of the main rebel alliance in the north, the Coordination of Azawad Movements, has contributed to a proliferation of armed groups, and violence has spread to central Mali. Regional powers should use the upcoming African Union summit in January to revive the peace process and possibly bring in groups that are currently left out. Algeria, an important broker of stability in the region, has a key role to play as the deal’s chief mediator.

In the Lake Chad Basin, the security forces of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad have stepped up their fight against the Boko Haram insurgency. At the end of December, the Nigerian president announced the “final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists in their last enclave” in the Sambisa Forest, yet the group has not been vanquished. A leadership quarrel has split the jihadi movement, but it remains resilient and aggressive. Although international attention has focused on Boko Haram’s kidnapping and abuse of women and girls, policymakers should also note that some women joined the movement voluntarily in search of economic and social opportunities. Understanding the various ways women experience the conflict should directly inform strategies to tackle the roots of the insurgency.

The Boko Haram insurgency, the aggressive military response to it, and the lack of effective assistance to those caught up in the conflict threaten to create an endless cycle of violence and despair. If regional governments do not react responsibly to the humanitarian disaster, they could further alienate communities and sow the seeds of future rebellion. States should also invest in economic development and strengthen local governance to close off opportunities for radical groups.

5. Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo received some good news shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve when Catholic bishops announced that a deal had been reached to resolve the country’s political crisis. President Joseph Kabila has not yet signed on to the agreement, which requires him to step down after elections are held, sometime before the end of 2017. Despite high levels of mistrust between the parties, the deal mediated by the Congolese Catholic Church remains the best chance for a path forward. The overarching challenge now is to prepare for elections and a peaceful transition in short order, for which solid international backing is essential.

Kabila’s determination to cling to power beyond his second term, in defiance of the Congolese Constitution, met with significant opposition and volatile street protests throughout 2016 — and threatens more widespread violence to come. Congo’s endemic corruption and winner-takes-all politics mean Kabila’s entourage has much to lose, so they may not let go easily. African and Western powers need to coordinate efforts to pull Congo back from the brink and prevent further regional instability. MONUSCO, the U.N.’s largest peacekeeping mission, does not have the capacity to deal with such challenges and would be more effective with a narrower mandate, moving away from institution building and toward good offices and human rights monitoring.

Last September, at least 53 people were killed, mostly by security forces, when demonstrations against Kabila’s rule beyond the end of his mandate turned violent. Clashes between security forces and protesters in several cities around the end of his term, on Dec. 19 and 20, reportedly killed at least 40 people. Violence is likely to continue if the elections are again postponed. The main opposition coalition, the Rassemblement, will be prepared to harness the power of the street to try to force Kabila out. The political tension in Kinshasa is also contributing to increased violence in pockets throughout the country, including the conflict-ridden east.

6. South Sudan

After three years of civil war, the world’s youngest country is still bedeviled by multiple conflicts. Grievances with the central government and cycles of ethnic violence fuel fighting that has internally displaced 1.8 million people and forced around 1.2 million to flee the country. There has been mounting international concern over reports of mass atrocities and the lack of progress toward implementing the 2015 peace agreement. In December, President Salva Kiir called for a renewed cease-fire and national dialogue to promote peace and reconciliation. Whether or not these efforts succeed depends on the transitional government’s willingness to negotiate fairly with individual armed groups and engage with disaffected communities at the grassroots level.

The internationally backed peace agreement was derailed in July 2016 when fighting flared in Juba between government forces and former rebels. Opposition leader and erstwhile Vice President Riek Machar, who had only recently returned to Juba under the terms of the deal, fled the country. Kiir has since strengthened his position in the capital and the region as a whole, which creates an opportunity to promote negotiations with elements of the armed opposition, including groups currently outside the transitional government.

The security situation in Juba has improved in recent months, although fighting and ethnic violence continue elsewhere. International diplomatic efforts are focused on the deployment of a 4,000-strong regional protection force — a distraction that would do little to quell an outbreak of major violence and pulls energy away from the deeper political engagement needed to consolidate peace. The existing U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, needs urgent reform — which is especially clear following its failure to protect civilians during last July’s spasm of violence in Juba. A glimmer of hope in the country’s tragedy is the delicate rapprochement underway among South Sudan, Uganda, and Sudan that might one day help guarantee greater stability.

7. Afghanistan

War and political instability in Afghanistan pose a serious threat to international peace and security, more than 15 years after U.S.-led coalition forces ousted the Taliban from power as part of a broader campaign to defeat al Qaeda. Today, the Taliban are gaining ground; the Haqqani network is responsible for attacks in major cities; and the Islamic State has claimed a series of attacks targeting Shiite Muslims that appear intent on stoking sectarian violence. The number of armed clashes last year reached the highest level since the U.N. started recording incidents in 2007, with large numbers of civilian casualties. Further weakening of the Afghan security forces would risk leaving large ungoverned spaces that could be exploited by regional and transnational militant groups.

America’s longest war barely registered as a policy issue during the U.S. presidential election. Trump’s intentions on Afghanistan remain unclear, though he has repeatedly expressed skepticism about nation building. His controversial choice for national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, served as director of intelligence for Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq and Afghanistan. Flynn’s proclaimed focus on “radical Islamic terrorism” as the single-most important global threat misdiagnoses the problem, with worrying implications in Afghanistan and beyond. The strategic direction over time must be toward a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, which will require greater regional convergence as well as Chinese involvement. Meanwhile, Russia, Pakistan, and China have formed a working group on Afghanistan with the stated aim of creating a “regional anti-terrorism structure”; Kabul so far has been left out of the trilateral consultations.

Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan have long been strained due to Islamabad’s support for the Taliban and other militant groups. Tensions increased last fall as thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan were forced to flee amid increased violence, detentions, and harassment. Afghanistan’s refugee crisis was made worse by the EU’s plan to deport 80,000 asylum-seekers back to Afghanistan — a politically driven response to a humanitarian emergency. All this on top of the country’s economic crisis adds heavy pressures on a dangerously weak state.

8. Myanmar

The new civilian government led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi promised peace and national reconciliation as its top priorities; however, recent flare-ups of violence have jeopardized efforts to end nearly 70 years of armed conflict. In November, a “Northern Alliance” of four armed groups carried out unprecedented joint attacks on urban targets in a key trade zone on the Chinese border, triggering military escalation in the northeast. This does not bode well for progress at the next session of the 21st-Century Panglong Conference slated for February, part of a renewed peace process to bring together most of the country’s major ethnic armed groups.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Muslim Rohingya minority is drawing renewed international concern. The population has seen its rights progressively eroded in recent years, especially following anti-Muslim violence in Rakhine state in 2012. The latest round of violence in Rakhine was sparked by a series of attacks in October and November targeting border police and military in an area near Myanmar’s northwestern frontier with Bangladesh. Security forces hit back hard in a campaign that made little distinction between militants and civilians, with allegations of extrajudicial executions, rapes, and arson. By mid-December, the U.N. estimated that around 27,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh. More than a dozen fellow Nobel laureates issued an open letter criticizing Aung San Suu Kyi for her failure to speak out about the abuses and calling for full and equal citizenship rights for the Rohingya.

The initial attacks were carried out by an armed group known as Harakah al-Yaqin (“Faith Movement”), whose emergence is a potential game-changer in Myanmar. Although the Rohingya have never been a radicalized population, the government’s heavy-handed military response increases the risk of spiraling violence. Grievances could be exploited by transnational jihadis attempting to pursue their own agendas, which would inflame religious tensions across the majority Buddhist country.

9. Ukraine

After almost three years of war and roughly 10,000 deaths, Russia’s military intervention defines all aspects of political life in Ukraine. Divided by the conflict and crippled by corruption, Ukraine is headed for even greater uncertainty. Trump’s professed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin scares Kiev, as do rumors that the United States may decide to scrap sanctions against Russia. Implementation of the February 2015 Minsk peace agreement is stalled, effectively bringing Russia closer to two of its goals in the Ukraine conflict: the establishment of permanent pro-Russian political entities in eastern Ukraine, as well as normalization of its annexation of Crimea that started the war in 2014.

Across Ukraine, there is growing disillusionment with leaders who were brought to power by the Maidan demonstrations of early 2014 but who now increasingly resemble the corrupt oligarchs thrown out. Western support for President Petro Poroshenko is ebbing due to Kiev’s unwillingness or inability to deliver promised economic reform and robust anti-corruption measures. Poroshenko’s problems may be compounded if early parliamentary elections are held in 2017, in which pro-Russia parties could gain ground.

The United States and EU must press Kiev harder for reforms while using strong diplomacy with Moscow, including maintaining sanctions. Putin must be convinced that there cannot be a return to normalcy in Europe so long as various forms of hybrid warfare are used to keep the situation in Ukraine unsettled. Russia’s tactics — including the use of force, cyberattacks, propaganda, and financial pressures — send a chilling message across the region.

10. Mexico

A high level of tension between the United States and Mexico might seem inevitable after Trump’s campaign pledges to build a border walldeport millions of undocumented immigrants, and terminate the North American Free Trade Agreement. He also famously characterized Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists and drew on support from white nationalist groups. In an early effort to avoid future confrontation, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto invited candidate Trump to visit the country in September — a move that initially backfired with a Mexican public already angry about high crime, corruption, and a weak economy.

Peña Nieto knows Mexico cannot afford to make an enemy of its mighty neighbor. Mexico’s political and business elites are reportedly out in force to convince Trump and his advisors to modify stated positions on immigration and free trade.

If the United States were to pursue a policy of massive deportations, this would risk triggering an even worse humanitarian and security crisis. Refugees and migrants from Mexico and Central America are fleeing epidemic levels of violence combined with endemic poverty. A 2016 survey found that armed violence in Mexico and the Northern Triangle had killed around 34,000 people, more than were killed in Afghanistan over the same period. Stepped-up deportations and border enforcement tend to divert undocumented migration into more dangerous channels — benefiting criminal gangs and corrupt officials. The United States can better serve its own interests by strengthening its partnership with Mexico to address the systemic failings that give rise to violence and corruption.