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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.

Click here for the 2020 edition of 10 Conflicts to Watch.

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.

A member of the Afghan security forces stands guard next to damaged army vehicles after a Taliban attack in Ghazni city, Afghanistan on 15 August 2018. REUTERS/Mustafa Andaleb
Commentary / Global

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020

Friends and foes alike no longer know where the United States stands. As Washington overpromises and underdelivers, regional powers are seeking solutions on their own – both through violence and diplomacy.

Local conflicts serve as mirrors for global trends. The ways they ignite, unfold, persist, and are resolved reflect shifts in great powers’ relations, the intensity of their competition, and the breadth of regional actors’ ambitions. They highlight issues with which the international system is obsessed and those toward which it is indifferent. Today these wars tell the story of a global system caught in the early swell of sweeping change, of regional leaders both emboldened and frightened by the opportunities such a transition presents.

Only time will tell how much of the U.S.’s transactional unilateralism, contempt for traditional allies, and dalliance with traditional rivals will endure – and how much will vanish with Donald Trump’s presidency. Still, it would be hard to deny that something is afoot. The understandings and balance of power on which the global order had once been predicated – imperfect, unfair, and problematic as they were – are no longer operative. Washington is both eager to retain the benefits of its leadership and unwilling to shoulder the burdens of carrying it. As a consequence, it is guilty of the cardinal sin of any great power: allowing the gap between ends and means to grow. These days, neither friend nor foe knows quite where America stands.

The roles of other major powers are changing, too. China exhibits the patience of a nation confident in its gathering influence, but in no hurry to fully exercise it. It chooses its battles, focusing on self-identified priorities: domestic control and suppression of potential dissent (as in Hong Kong, or the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang); the South and East China Seas; the brewing technological tug of war with the U.S., of my own colleague Michael Kovrig – unjustly detained in China for over a year – has become collateral damage. Elsewhere, its game is a long one.

Russia, in contrast, displays the impatience of a nation grateful for the power these unusual circumstances have brought and eager to assert it before time runs out. Moscow’s policy abroad is opportunistic – seeking to turn crises to its advantage – though today that is perhaps as much strategy as it needs. Portraying itself as a truer and more reliable partner than Western powers, it backs some allies with direct military support while sending in private contractors to Libya and sub-Saharan Africa to signal its growing influence.

To all of these powers, conflict prevention or resolution carries scant inherent value.

To all of these powers, conflict prevention or resolution carries scant inherent value. They assess crises in terms of how they might advance or hurt their interests, how they could promote or undermine those of their rivals. Europe could be a counterweight, but at precisely the moment when it needs to step into the breach, it is struggling with domestic turbulence, discord among its leaders, and a singular preoccupation with terrorism and migration that often skews policy.

The consequences of these geopolitical trends can be deadly. Exaggerated faith in outside assistance can distort local actors’ calculations, pushing them toward uncompromising positions and encouraging them to court dangers against which they believe they are immune. In Libya, a crisis risks dangerous metastasis as Russia intervenes on behalf of a rebel general marching on the capital, the U.S. sends muddled messages, Turkey threatens to come to the government’s rescue, and Europe – a stone’s throw away – displays impotence amid internal rifts. In Venezuela, the government’s obstinacy, fuelled by faith that Russia and China will cushion its economic downfall, clashes with the opposition’s lack of realism, powered by U.S. suggestions it will oust President Nicolás Maduro.

Syria – a conflict not on this list – has been a microcosm of all these trends: there, the U.S. combined a hegemon’s bombast with a bystander’s pose. Local actors (such as the Kurds) were emboldened by U.S. overpromising and then disappointed by U.S. underdelivery. Meanwhile, Russia stood firmly behind its brutal ally, while others in the neighbourhood (namely, Turkey) sought to profit from the chaos.

The bad news might contain a sliver of good. As leaders understand the limits of allies’ backing, reality sinks in. Saudi Arabia, initially encouraged by the Trump administration’s apparent blank check, flexed its regional muscle until a series of brazen Iranian attacks and noticeable U.S. nonresponses showed the kingdom the extent of its exposure, driving it to seek a settlement in Yemen and, perhaps, de-escalation with Iran.

To many Americans, Ukraine evokes a sordid tale of quid pro quo and impeachment politics. But for its new president at the center of that storm, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a priority is to end the conflict in that country’s east – an objective for which he appears to recognise the need for Kyiv to compromise.

Others might similarly readjust views: the Afghan government and other anti-Taliban powerbrokers, accepting that U.S. troops won’t be around forever; Iran and the Syrian regime, seeing that Russia’s newfound Middle East swagger hardly protects them against Israeli strikes. These actors may not all be entirely on their own, but with their allies’ support only going so far, they might be brought back down to earth. There is virtue in realism.

There’s another trend that warrants attention: the phenomenon of mass protests across the globe. It is an equal-opportunity discontent, shaking countries governed by both the left and right, democracies and autocracies, rich and poor, from Latin America to Asia and Africa. Particularly striking are those in the Middle East – because many observers thought that the broken illusions and horrific bloodshed that came in the wake of the 2011 uprisings would dissuade another round.

Protesters have learned lessons, settling in for the long haul and, for the most part, avoiding violence that plays in the hands of those they contest. Political and military elites have learned, too, of course – resorting to various means to weather the storm. In Sudan, arguably one of this past year’s better news stories, protests led to long-serving autocrat Omar al-Bashir’s downfall and ushered in a transition that could yield a more democratic and peaceful order. In Algeria, meanwhile, leaders have merely played musical chairs. In too many other places, they have cracked down. Still, in almost all, the pervasive sense of economic injustice that brought people onto the streets remains. If governments new or old cannot address that, the world should expect more cities ablaze this coming year.

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020

An overview of the 10 conflicts Crisis Group will be watching most closely this year. CRISISGROUP

1. Afghanistan

More people are being killed as a result of fighting in Afghanistan than in any other current conflict in the world. Yet there may be a window this coming year to set in motion a peace process aimed at ending the decades-long war.

Levels of bloodshed have soared over the past two years. Separate attacks by Taliban insurgents and Islamic State militants have rocked cities and towns across the country. Less visible is the bloodshed in the countryside. Washington and Kabul have stepped up air assaults and special-forces raids, with civilians often bearing the brunt of violence. Suffering in rural areas is immense.

Continuing with the status quo offers only the prospect of endless war.

Amid the uptick in violence, presidential elections took place in late September. Preliminary results, announced on 22 December, give incumbent President Ashraf Ghani a razor-thin margin over the 50 per cent needed to avoid a run-off. Final results, following adjudication of complaints, aren’t expected before late January. Ghani’s main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, whose challenge to results based on widespread fraud in the 2014 election led to a protracted crisis and eventually a power-sharing deal, is crying foul this time too. Whether the dispute will lead to a second round of voting is unclear, but either way it will likely consume Afghan leaders into 2020. 

Last year did, however, see some light in U.S.-Taliban diplomacy. For the first time since the war began, Washington has prioritised reaching a deal with the insurgents. After months of quiet talks, U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leaders agreed on and initialed a draft text. Under the deal, the U.S. pledged to pull its troops out of Afghanistan – the primary Taliban demand – and, in return, the insurgents promised to break from al-Qaeda, prevent Afghanistan from being used for plotting attacks abroad, and enter negotiations with the Afghan government as well as other key power brokers.

Hopes were dashed when Trump abruptly declared the talks dead in early September. He had invited Taliban leaders to Camp David, along with Ghani, and when the insurgents declined to come unless the agreement was signed first, Trump invoked a Taliban attack that killed a U.S. soldier as a reason to nix the agreement his envoy had inked.

After a prisoner swap in November appeared to have overcome Trump’s resistance, U.S. diplomats and Taliban representatives have started talking again, though whether they will return to the same understanding remains unclear. In reality, the U.S. has no better option than pursuing a deal with the Taliban. Continuing with the status quo offers only the prospect of endless war, while precipitously pulling U.S. forces out without an agreement could herald a return to the multifront civil war of the 1990s and even worse violence.

Any deal should pave the way for talks among Afghans, which means tying the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal not only to counter-terrorism goals but also to the Taliban’s good-faith participation in talks with the Afghan government and other powerful Afghan leaders. A U.S.-Taliban agreement would mark only the beginning of a long road to a settlement among Afghans, which is a prerequisite for peace. But it almost certainly offers the only hope of calming today’s deadliest war.

2. Yemen

In 2018, aggressive international intervention in Yemen prevented what UN officials deemed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis from deteriorating further. 2020 could offer a rare opportunity to wind down the war. That chance, however, is the product of a confluence of local, regional, and international factors and, if not seized now, may quickly fade.

The war’s human cost is painfully clear. It has directly killed an estimated 100,000 people while pushing a country that was already the Arab world’s poorest to the brink of famine. Yemen has become a critical fault line in the Middle East-wide rivalry between Iran on the one hand and the U.S. and its regional allies on the other. Yet a year after it briefly grabbed international headlines, the five-year-old conflict is at risk of slipping back out of international consciousness.

The loss of focus is the flip side of recent good news. A December 2018 deal known as the Stockholm Agreement, fostered a fragile ceasefire around the Red Sea port city of Hodeida between the internationally recognised government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Huthi rebels who seized the capital, Sanaa, from him in September 2014. The agreement likely prevented a famine and effectively froze fighting between the two sides. Since then, the more dynamic aspects of the conflict have been a battle within the anti-Huthi front pitting southern secessionists against the Hadi government, and a cross-border war that has seen the launch of Huthi missiles and retaliatory Saudi airstrikes.

The lull in violent conflict in the second half of 2019 should not be mistaken for a new normal. The opportunity for peace should be seized now.

Today’s window of opportunity reflects movement on these latter two fronts. First, fighting between loyalists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the government in August 2019 pushed the anti-Huthi bloc to the point of collapse. In response, Riyadh had little choice but to broker a truce between them to sustain its war effort. Second, in September, a missile attack on major Saudi oil production facilities – claimed by the Huthis, but widely suspected to have been launched by Tehran – highlighted the risks of a war involving the U.S., its Gulf allies, and Iran that none of them seems to want. This helped push the Saudis and Huthis to engage in talks aimed at de-escalating their conflict and removing Yemen from the playing field of the regional Saudi-Iran power struggle; both sides have significantly reduced cross-border strikes. If this leads to a UN-brokered political process in 2020, an end may be in sight.

But the opportunity could evaporate. A collapse of the government’s fragile deal with the STC in the south or of its equally vulnerable agreement with the Huthis along the Red Sea coast would upend peacemaking efforts. The Huthis’ impatience with what they consider the Saudis’ sluggishness in transitioning from de-escalation to a nationwide ceasefire, coupled with their access to a stockpile of missiles, could rapidly reignite the cross-border war. Heightening U.S.-Iranian tensions could also spill into Yemen. The lull in violent conflict in the second half of 2019, in other words, should not be mistaken for a new normal. The opportunity for peace should be seized now.

3. Ethiopia

Perhaps nowhere are both promise and peril for the coming year starker than in Ethiopia, East Africa’s most populous and influential state.

Since assuming office in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has taken bold steps to open up the country’s politics. He has ended a decades-long standoff with neighbouring Eritrea, freed political prisoners, welcomed rebels back from exile, and appointed reformers to key institutions. He has won accolades at home and abroad – including the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.

But enormous challenges loom. Mass protests between 2015 and 2018 that brought Abiy to power were motivated primarily by political and socio-economic grievances. But they had ethnic undertones too, particularly in Ethiopia’s most populous regions, Amhara and Oromia, whose leaders hoped to reduce the long-dominant Tigray minority’s influence. Abiy’s liberalisation and efforts to dismantle the existing order have given new energy to ethno-nationalism, while weakening the central state.

Ethnic strife across the country has surged, killing hundreds, displacing millions, and fuelling hostility among leaders of its most powerful regions. Elections scheduled for May 2020 could be violent and divisive, as candidates outbid each other in ethnic appeals for votes.

Adding to tensions is a fraught debate over the country’s ethnic federalist system, which devolves authority to regions defined along ethno-linguistic lines. The system’s supporters believe it protects group rights in a diverse country formed through conquest and assimilation. Detractors argue that an ethnically-based system harms national unity. It is past time, they say, to move beyond the ethnic politics that has long defined and divided the nation.

Ethiopia’s transition remains a source of hope and deserves all the support it can get, but also risks violently unraveling.

Abiy has generally sought a middle ground. But some recent reforms, including his merger and expansion of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), move him more firmly into the reformers’ camp. Over the coming year, he’ll have to build bridges among Ethiopian regions, even as he competes with ethno-nationalists at the ballot box. He’ll have to manage the clamor for change while placating an old guard that stands to lose.

Ethiopia’s transition remains a source of hope and deserves all the support it can get, but also risks violently unraveling. In a worst-case scenario, some warn the country could fracture as Yugoslavia did in the 1990s, with disastrous consequences for an already troubled region. Ethiopia’s international partners need to do what they can – including pressing all the country’s leaders to cut incendiary rhetoric, counselling the prime minister to proceed cautiously on his reform agenda, and offering multiyear financial aid – to help Abiy avert such an outcome.

4. Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso is the latest country to fall victim to the instability plaguing Africa’s Sahel region.

Islamist militants have been waging a low-intensity insurgency in the country’s north since 2016. The rebellion was initially spearheaded by Ansarul Islam, a group led by Ibrahim Malam Dicko, a Burkinabé citizen and local preacher. Though rooted in Burkina Faso’s north, it appeared to have close ties to jihadis in neighbouring Mali. After Dicko died in clashes with Burkinabé troops in 2017, his brother, Jafar, took over but reportedly was killed in an October 2019 airstrike.

Violence has spread, blighting much of the north and east, displacing about half a million people (of the country’s total population of 20 million) and threatening to destabilise regions further afield, including the south west. Precisely who is responsible is often murky. In addition to Ansarul Islam, jihadi groups based in Mali, including the local Islamic State and al-Qaeda franchises, now also operate in Burkina Faso. Militant strikes can be intermingled with other sources of violence, such as banditry, herder-farmer competition, or all-too-common disputes over land. Self-defence groups that have mobilised over recent years to police rural areas fuel local intercommunal conflicts. Old systems to manage disputes are breaking down, as more young people question the authority of traditional elites loyal to a state that itself is distrusted. All this makes fertile ground for militant recruitment.

Unrest in the capital, Ouagadougou, hinders efforts to curb the insurgency. People regularly take to the streets in strikes over working conditions or protests over the government’s failure to tackle rising insecurity. Elections loom in November 2020, and violence could affect their credibility and thus the next government’s legitimacy. The ruling party and its rivals accuse each other of preparing vigilantes to mobilise votes. The country appears close to collapse, yet elites focus on internecine power struggles.

Burkina Faso’s volatility matters not only because of harm inflicted on its own citizens, but because the country borders nations along West Africa’s coast. Those countries have suffered few attacks since jihadis struck resorts in Côte d’Ivoire in 2016. But some evidence, including militants’ own statements, suggest they might use Burkina Faso as a launching pad for operations along the coast or to put down roots in the northernmost regions of countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, or Benin. In May 2019, Ivoirian authorities report having disrupted planned attacks in the country’s largest city, Abidjan. Coastal countries exhibit weaknesses militants have exploited in their northern neighbours, particularly neglected and resentful peripheries. Some – notably Côte d’Ivoire – also face contentious elections this year. This both distracts their governments and means any crisis would make them more vulnerable still.

In Burkina Faso itself, the government’s response to the expanding insurgency, relying overwhelmingly on force, has tended to make matters worse. Soldiers are often abusive, fuelling anger at the state. As is the case elsewhere in the Sahel, officials often tarnish the Fulani ethnic group, particularly some nomadic subtribes, as jihadi sympathisers. Operations targeting Fulani then force them to seek protection from militants, feeding a cycle of stigmatisation and resentment.

Cooperation between Burkina Faso and its neighbours thus far has focused mostly on joint military operations. Coastal states may be gearing up to do the same. Yet governments in the region would be better off focusing as much on intelligence sharing, border controls, and policies aimed at winning over villagers in areas affected. Without those, the turmoil appears set to spread further.

5. Libya

The war in Libya risks getting worse in the coming months, as rival factions increasingly rely on foreign military backing to change the balance of power. The threat of major violence has loomed since the country split into two parallel administrations following contested elections in 2014. UN attempts at reunification faltered, and since 2016 Libya has been divided between the internationally recognised government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli and a rival government based in eastern Libya. The Islamic State established a small foothold but was defeated; militias fought over Libya’s oil infrastructure on the coast; and tribal clashes unsettled the country’s vast southern desert. But fighting never tipped into a broader confrontation.

Libya has long been an arena for outside competition.

Over the past year, however, it has taken a dangerous new turn. In April 2019, forces commanded by Khalifa Haftar, which are backed by the government in the east, laid siege to Tripoli, edging the country toward all-out war. Haftar claims to be combating terrorists. In reality, while some of his rivals are Islamists, they are the same militias that defeated the Islamic State, with U.S. and other Western support, three years ago.

Libya has long been an arena for outside competition. In the chaos after former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s 2011 overthrow, competing factions sought support from foreign sponsors. Regional rivalries overlaid the split between the two rival governments and their respective military coalitions, with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) backing Haftar-led forces and Turkey and Qatar supporting western armed groups loyal to Sarraj.

Haftar’s latest offensive has found support not only in Cairo and Abu Dhabi but also in Moscow, which has provided Haftar military aid under the cover of a private security company. U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration had supported the Sarraj government and UN-backed peace process since coming to office, reversed course in April 2019, following a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Turkey, in turn, has upped support for Tripoli, thus far helping stave off its fall to Haftar. Ankara now threatens to intervene further.

As a result, the conflict’s protagonists are no longer merely armed groups in Tripoli fending off an assault by a wayward military commander. Instead, Emirati drones and airplanes, hundreds of Russian private military contractors, and African soldiers recruited into Haftar’s forces confront Turkish drones and military vehicles, raising the specter of an escalating proxy battle on the Mediterranean.

The proliferation of actors also stymies efforts to end the bloodshed. A UN-led attempt in Berlin to bring the parties back to the table appears to be petering out. Whether the peace conference that the UN and Germany hoped to convene in early 2020 will take place is unclear. For their part, Europeans have been caught flat-footed. Their main concern has been to check the flow of migrants, but disagreements among leaders over how to weigh in have allowed other players to fuel a conflict that directly undercuts Europe’s interest in a stable Libya. 

To end the war, foreign powers would need to stop arming their Libyan allies and press them into negotiations instead, but prospects of this happening appear dim. The result could be a more destructive stalemate or a takeover of Tripoli that could give rise to prolonged militia fighting, rather than a stable single government.

6. The U.S., Iran, Israel, and the Persian Gulf

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran rose dangerously in 2019; the year ahead could bring their rivalry to boiling point. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement and impose mounting unilateral sanctions against Tehran has inflicted significant costs, but thus far has produced neither the diplomatic capitulation Washington seeks nor the internal collapse for which it may hope. Instead, Iran has responded to what it regards as an all-out siege by incrementally ramping up its nuclear program in violation of the agreement, aggressively flexing its regional muscle, and firmly suppressing any sign of domestic unrest. Tensions have also risen between Israel and Iran. Unless this cycle is broken, the risk of a broader confrontation will rise.

Tehran’s shift from a policy of maximum patience to one of maximum resistance was a consequence of the U.S. playing one of the aces in its coercive deck: ending already-limited exemptions on Iran’s oil sales. Seeing little relief materialise from the nuclear deal’s remaining parties, President Hassan Rouhani in May announced that his government would begin to violate the agreement incrementally. Since then, Iran has broken caps on its uranium enrichment rates and stockpile sizes, started testing advanced centrifuges, and restarted its enrichment plant in its Fordow bunker. With every new breach, Iran may hollow out the agreement’s nonproliferation gains to the extent that the European signatories will decide they must impose their own penalties. At some point, Iran’s advances could prompt Israel or the U.S. to resort to military action.

A diplomatic breakthrough to de-escalate tensions between the Gulf states and Iran or between Washington and Tehran remains possible.

A string of incidents in the Gulf in the past year, culminating in the 14 September attack against Saudi energy facilities, underscored how the U.S.-Iranian standoff reverberates across the broader region. Meanwhile, recurrent Israeli military strikes against Iranian and Iran-linked targets inside Syria and Lebanon – as well as in Iraq and the Red Sea basin, according to Tehran – present a new, dangerous front. Any of these flash points could explode, by design or by accident.

Recognition of the high stakes and costs of war has nudged some of Iran’s Gulf rivals to seek de-escalation even as they continue to back the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” approach. The UAE has opened lines of communication with Tehran, and Saudi Arabia has engaged in serious dialogue with Yemen’s Huthis.

The potential for conflict has also prompted efforts, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, to help the U.S. and Iran find a diplomatic off-ramp. U.S. President Donald Trump, eager to avoid war, has been willing to hear out his proposal, and the Iranians are also interested in any proposition that provides some sanctions relief.

But with deep distrust, each side has tended to wait for the other to make the first concession. A diplomatic breakthrough to de-escalate tensions between the Gulf states and Iran or between Washington and Tehran remains possible. But, as sanctions take their toll and Iran fights back, time is running out.

7. U.S.-North Korea

The days of 2017, when U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hurled insults at each other and exchanged threats of nuclear annihilation, seemed distant during most of 2019. But tensions are escalating.

The dangers of 2017 yielded to a calmer 2018 and early 2019. The U.S. halted most joint military drills with South Korea, and Pyongyang paused long-range missile and nuclear tests. U.S.-North Korea relations thawed somewhat, with two Trump-Kim summits. The first – in Singapore in June 2018 – produced a flimsy statement of agreed principles and the possibility of diplomatic negotiations. The second – in Hanoi in February 2019 – collapsed when the gulf between the two leaders on the scope and sequencing of denuclearisation and sanctions relief became clear.

Since then, the diplomatic atmosphere has soured. In April 2019, Kim unilaterally set an end-of-year deadline for the U.S. government to present a deal that might break the impasse. In June, Trump and Kim agreed, over a handshake in the demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas, to start working-level talks. In October, however, an eight-hour meeting between envoys in Sweden went nowhere.

The two leaders have at times floated the idea of a third summit, but they have backed away at least for the time being. That may be for the best: another ill-prepared meeting could leave both sides feeling dangerously frustrated.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang – which continues to seek leverage to obtain sanctions relief and an end to joint military drills – stepped up short-range ballistic missile tests, which are widely understood not to be covered by the unwritten freeze. North Korea seemed to be motivated by both practical reasons (tests help perfect missile technology) and political ones (those tests appear intended to pressure Washington to propose a more favourable deal). In early December, Pyongyang went further, testing what appeared to be the engine for either a space-launch vehicle or a long-range missile and related technology, at a site that Trump claimed Kim had promised to dismantle.

Trump and Kim should steer clear of high-level pageantry and high-drama provocations, and empower their negotiators to get to work.

Although Pyongyang’s warning of a “Christmas gift” for Washington if the U.S. does not propose a way forward it deems satisfactory had not materialised at the time of writing, prospects for diplomacy seem to be dimming.

Yet both sides should think about what will happen if diplomacy fails. If the North escalates its provocations, the Trump administration could react much like it did in 2017, with name-calling and efforts to further tighten sanctions and by exploring military options with unthinkable consequences.

That dynamic would be bad for the region, the world, and both leaders. The best option for both sides remains a confidence-building, measure-for-measure deal that gives each modest benefits. Pyongyang and Washington need to put in the time to negotiate and gauge possibilities for compromise. In 2020, Trump and Kim should steer clear of high-level pageantry and high-drama provocations, and empower their negotiators to get to work.

8. Kashmir

After falling off the international radar for years, a flare-up between India and Pakistan in 2019 over the disputed region of Kashmir brought the crisis back into sharp focus. Both countries lay claim to the Himalayan territory, split by an informal boundary, known as the Line of Control, since the first Indian-Pakistani war of 1947-48.

First came a February suicide attack by Islamist militants against Indian paramilitaries in Kashmir. India retaliated by bombing an alleged militant camp in Pakistan, prompting a Pakistani strike in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Tensions spiked again in August when India revoked the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, which had served as the foundation for its joining India 72 years ago, and brought it under New Delhi’s direct rule.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, emboldened by its May re-election, made the change in India’s only Muslim-majority state without any local consultation. Not only that: before announcing its decision, it brought in tens of thousands of extra troops, imposed a communications blackout, and arrested thousands of Kashmiris, including the entire political class, many of whom were not hostile to India.

These moves have exacerbated an already profound sentiment of alienation among Kashmiris that will likely further fuel a long-running separatist insurgency. Separately, the Indian government's new citizenship law, widely regarded as anti-Muslim, has sparked protests and violent police responses in many parts of India. Together with the actions in Kashmir, these developments appear to confirm Modi’s intention to implement a Hindu nationalist agenda.

New Delhi’s claims that the situation is back to normal are misleading. Internet access remains cut off, soldiers deployed in August are still there, and all Kashmiri leaders remain in detention. Modi’s government seems to have no roadmap for what comes next.

Pakistan has tried to rally international support against what it calls India’s illegal decision on Kashmir’s status. But its cause is hardly helped by its long record of backing anti-India jihadis. Moreover, most Western powers see New Delhi as an important partner. They are unlikely to rock the boat over Kashmir, unless violence spirals.

The gravest danger is the risk that a militant attack sets off an escalation.

The gravest danger is the risk that a militant attack sets off an escalation. In Kashmir, insurgents are lying low but still active. Indeed, India’s heavy-handed military operations in Kashmir over the past few years have inspired a new homegrown generation, whose ranks are likely to swell further after the latest repression. A strike on Indian forces almost certainly would precipitate Indian retaliation against Pakistan, regardless of whether Islamabad is complicit in the plan. In a worst-case scenario, the two nuclear-armed neighbours could stumble into war.

External actors should push for rapprochement before it is too late. That won’t be easy. Both sides are playing to domestic constituencies in no mood for compromise. Resuming bilateral dialogue, on hold since 2016, is essential and will necessitate concerted pressure, particularly from Western capitals. Any progress requires Pakistan taking credible action against jihadis operating from its soil, a non-negotiable precondition for India to even consider engaging. For its part, India should lift the communication blackout, release political prisoners, and urgently re-engage with Kashmiri leaders. Both sides should resume cross-border trade and travel for Kashmiris.

If a new crisis emerges, foreign powers will have to throw their full weight behind preserving peace on the disputed border.

9. Venezuela

Venezuela’s year of two governments ended without resolution. President Nicolás Maduro is still in charge, having headed off a civil-military uprising in April and weathered a regional boycott and a stack of U.S. sanctions. But his government remains isolated and bereft of resources, while most Venezuelans suffer from crushing poverty and collapsing public services.

Juan Guaidó, who as National Assembly head laid claim to the interim presidency last January, attracted huge crowds and foreign backing for his demand that Maduro, re-elected in a controversial poll in 2018, leave office. Yet the unpopular government’s survival has offered Guaidó, as well as the U.S. and its Latin American allies such as Brazil and Colombia, harsh lessons. No one can rule out the government’s collapse. Still, hoping for that is, as one opposition deputy told my Crisis Group colleagues, “like being poor and waiting to win the lottery”.

For a start, Maduro’s rivals underestimated his government’s strength – above all, the armed forces’ loyalty. Despite hardship, poor communities remained mostly unconvinced by the opposition. U.S. sanctions heaped stress on the population and decimated an ailing oil industry, but were circumvented by shadowy actors working through the global economy’s loopholes. Gold exports and cash dollars kept the country afloat and enriched a tiny elite. Many of those left out joined the mass exodus of Venezuelans, now numbering 4.5 million, who in turn funneled remittances back home to sustain their families.

The crisis is having other ripple effects. The UN estimates that 7 million Venezuelans need humanitarian aid, many of them in border areas patrolled by armed groups, including Colombian guerrillas. Though sharing more than 1,300 miles of criminalised, violent, and largely unguarded border, the Colombian and Venezuelan governments no longer talk to each other, instead trading insults and blame for sheltering armed proxies. The border has become Venezuela’s primary flashpoint. In the meantime, the split between those Latin American countries backing Guaidó and those supporting Maduro has aggravated an increasingly polarised regional climate.

But there is still a negotiated way out of the turmoil. It would entail compromise from all sides.

With the U.S. seemingly downplaying the possibility of a military intervention – even as Venezuelan opposition hardliners pine for one – the issue is now whether Maduro’s obstinacy and the opposition’s and Washington’s lack of realism will mean a deepening crisis and possible flare-up, or whether more pragmatic voices can find a path to agreement. The omens are not overly promising. Government-opposition talks facilitated by Norway were suspended in September.

But there is still a negotiated way out of the turmoil. It would entail compromise from all sides: the opposition would need to drop its demand that Maduro leave now; the government would have to accept steps ensuring a credible and internationally monitored parliamentary election in 2020 as well as an early – and equally credible –  presidential poll in the near future; and the U.S. government would need to incrementally relieve sanctions as progress is made toward a resolution. This would be an acceptable price for Venezuela’s peace and stability, and to avoid a far worse calamity.

10. Ukraine

Ukraine's comedian-turned-president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, elected in April 2019, has brought new energy to efforts to end Kyiv’s six-year-old conflict with Russia-backed separatists in the country’s eastern Donbas region. Yet if peace seems slightly more plausible than it did a year ago, it is far from preordained.

Zelenskyy’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, negotiated the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, which aim to end the Donbas conflict; they call for the separatist-held areas’ reintegration into Ukraine in exchange for their autonomy, or “special status”. But the agreements remain unimplemented as Kyiv and Moscow disagree on their specifics and sequencing.

Zelenskyy pledged while campaigning to make peace. He interpreted his and his party’s landslide wins in 2019 elections as mandates to do so. He started by negotiating mutual withdrawals from front-line positions and a ceasefire with Russia and its proxies. In September, he cut a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a prisoner swap. The following month, he endorsed the so-called Steinmeier Formula put forward in 2016 by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then Germany’s foreign minister and now its president, which proposed that elections in separatist-held areas would trigger first provisional, and then, if the vote was credible, permanent special status and reintegration into Ukraine.

Zelenskyy’s take on the formula required Ukrainian control in those territories before the vote. He nonetheless faced immediate domestic backlash from an unlikely coalition of military veterans’ organisations, far-right groups, and public intellectuals. In contrast, Moscow and separatist leaders welcomed Zelenskyy’s acceptance of the formula, despite his conditions.

In December, Zelenskyy and Putin met in Paris with Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The leaders failed to agree on Minsk sequencing but left with plans for a more comprehensive ceasefire, further disengagement at front-line positions, increased Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring, and new crossing points for civilians at the line of contact separating Ukrainian and separatist forces.

Zelenskyy’s detractors at home appear satisfied he did not sell out in Paris. This gives him more room for maneuver. If things go as planned, the next meeting in France, set for spring, should tackle other components of the Minsk agreement, including amnesties, further troop withdrawals, and a path to reintegrating separatist-held areas into Ukraine.

Much could go wrong. Ceasefire and disengagement plans might collapse and fighting could escalate. Even if they hold, Zelenskyy needs Moscow to compromise for peace to stand a chance. So far, however, although Moscow has been more amenable to deals with Zelenskyy than with his predecessor, its core positions remain unchanged: it denies being party to the conflict it initiated, fought in, and funded. It insists Kyiv should negotiate Donbas’ self-rule with separatist leaders.

Peace would offer clear dividends for Ukraine and carry benefits for Russia: it could bring sanctions relief and remove the burden of financial and military support to separatist-held areas. From his Western allies, Zelenskyy needs all the help he can get as he continues his charm offensive in eastern Ukraine and outreach to Moscow.

Originally published in Foreign Policy: 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020