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A Yemeni man gestures at the site of an air strike in the capital Sanaa, on November 5, 2017. Yemen's rebel-held capital was struck by overnight air raids that continued well into the next day, targeting the defence ministry and a popular public square. MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP
Commentary / Global

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019

As U.S. leadership of the international order fades, more countries are seeking to bolster their influence by meddling in foreign conflicts. In this new era of limit testing, Crisis Group’s President Robert Malley lists the Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2019.

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

In a world with fewer rules, the only truly effective one is knowing what you can get away with. The answer today, it turns out, is: quite a lot.

As the era of uncontested U.S. primacy fades, the international order has been thrown into turmoil. More leaders are tempted more often to test limits, jostle for power, and seek to bolster their influence – or diminish that of their rivals – by meddling in foreign conflicts. Multilateralism and its constraints are under siege, challenged by more transactional, zero-sum politics. Instruments of collective action, such as the UN Security Council, are paralysed; those of collective accountability, including the International Criminal Court, are ignored and disparaged.

Nostalgia can be deceptive. Too fond a portrayal of the era of Western hegemony would be misleading. Iraq’s chemical weapons use against Iran in the 1980s; the 1990s bloodletting in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia; the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Sri Lanka’s brutal 2009 campaign against the Tamils; and the collapse of Libya and South Sudan: all these happened at a time of – in some cases because of – U.S. dominance and a reasonably coherent West. A liberal and nominally rules-based order hardly stopped those setting the rules from discarding them when they saw fit. The erosion of Western influence, in short, looks different from Moscow, Beijing, and the global south than it does from Brussels, London, or Washington.

As the West’s influence declines [...] leaders across the world are probing and prodding to see how far they can go.

Still, for better and for worse, U.S. power and alliances have for years shaped international affairs, set limits, and structured regional orders. As the West’s influence declines, accelerated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s contempt for traditional allies and Europe’s struggles with Brexit and nativism, leaders across the world are probing and prodding to see how far they can go.

In their domestic policies, many of those leaders embrace a noxious brew of nationalism and authoritarianism. The mix varies from place to place but typically entails rejection of international institutions and rules. There is little new in the critique of an unjust global order. But if once that critique tended to be rooted in international solidarity, today it stems chiefly from an inward-looking populism that celebrates narrow social and political identity, vilifies minorities and migrants, assails the rule of law and independence of the press, and elevates national sovereignty above all else.

Trump may be the most visible of the genre, but he is far from the most extreme. The wind is in the sails of strongmen worldwide. They realize, at times perhaps to their surprise, that constraints are crumbling, and the behavior that results often fuels violence or crises. Myanmar’s mass expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya, the Syrian regime’s brutal suppression of a popular uprising, the Cameroonian government’s apparent determination to crush an Anglophone insurgency rather than tackle the grievances fueling it, the Venezuelan government’s economic warfare against its own people, and the silencing of dissent in Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere are but a few examples. All are motivated in part by what leaders perceive as a yellow light where they used to see solid red.

The wind is in the sails of strongmen worldwide.

Beyond their borders, these leaders test norms, too. Having annexed parts of Georgia and Crimea and stoked separatist violence in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russia is now throwing its weight around in the Sea of Azov, poisoning dissidents in the United Kingdom, and subverting Western democracies with cyberwarfare. China obstructs freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and arbitrarily detains Canadian citizens – including the International Crisis Group’s Michael Kovrig. Saudi Arabia has pushed the envelope with the war in Yemen, the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, and the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul. Iran plots attacks against dissidents on European soil. Israel feels emboldened to undermine ever more systematically the foundations of a possible two-state solution.

Such actions are hardly new or equal in magnitude. But they are more brazen and overt. They have this much in common: They start with the assumption that there will be few consequences for breaches of international norms.

The U.S. government has hardly been an innocent bystander. Trump’s disdain for human rights and penchant for transactional diplomacy have set a strikingly negative tone. So too has his flouting of America’s international commitments: tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and, worse, threatening to impose economic punishment on those who choose to abide by it; hinting he will leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty if U.S. demands are not met rather than working within it to press Russia to comply; and signalling, through attacks on the International Criminal Court and chest-thumping speeches about U.S. sovereignty, that Washington regards its actions and those of its friends as beyond accountability.

The danger of today’s free-for-all goes beyond the violence already generated. The larger risk is of miscalculation. Overreach by one leader convinced of his immunity may prompt an unexpected reaction by another; the ensuing tit for tat easily could escalate without the presence of a credible, willing outside power able to play the role of arbiter.

True, not everyone gets away with everything all the time. Bangladesh seemed poised to forcibly return some Rohingya refugees to Myanmar but stopped, almost certainly in response to international pressure. The feared Russian-backed reconquest of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, has, for now, been averted, in no small measure due to Turkish, European, and U.S. objections. The same is true (again: for the time being) when it comes to a potential Saudi-led offensive on the Yemeni port of Hodeida, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi largely deterred by warnings about the humanitarian impact and cost to their international standing.

Elsewhere, leaders anticipating impunity have been taken aback by the severity of the response: Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, by the stiff sanctions and show of united resolve that Western powers have maintained since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the killing of its former agent on British soil; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by the outrage that followed Khashoggi’s murder.

Overall, though, it is hard to escape the sense that these are exceptions that prove the absence of rules. The international order as we know it is unravelling, with no clear sense of what will come in its wake. The danger may well lie less in the ultimate destination than in the process of getting there. As the following list of 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019 amply illustrates, that road will be bumpy, and it will be perilous.

Video: 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019

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

1. Yemen

If one place has borne the brunt of international lawlessness over the past year it is Yemen. The humanitarian crisis there – the world’s worst – could deteriorate further in 2019 if the key players do not seize the opportunity created over the past weeks by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in achieving a partial ceasefire and encouraging a series of confidence-building steps.

After more than four years of war and a Saudi-led siege, almost 16 million Yemenis face “severe acute food insecurity”, according to the UN. That means one in two Yemenis doesn’t have enough to eat.

Fighting started in late 2014, after Huthi rebels expelled the internationally recognised government from the capital. It escalated the following March, when Saudi Arabia, together with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), began bombing and blockading Yemen, aiming to reverse the Huthis’ gains and reinstall the dislodged government. Western powers largely endorsed the Saudi-led campaign.

All parties seem to believe that time is on their side.

In late 2018, Yemeni militias backed by the UAE surrounded Hodeida, a Huthi-controlled port, through which aid for millions of starving Yemenis passes. The coalition appeared determined to move in, convinced that taking the port would crush the rebellion and make the Huthis more pliant. But the consequences of such an offensive would be almost unimaginable. The top UN relief official, Mark Lowcock, has warned it could provoke a “great big famine”. That, and the fallout from Khashoggi’s murder, prompted Western powers to begin restraining the Gulf coalition. On 9 November, the U.S. announced it would no longer refuel coalition jets conducting air raids in Yemen. A month later, Griffiths, with Washington’s help, reached the “Stockholm agreement” between the Huthis and the Yemeni government, including a fragile ceasefire around Hodeida.

There are other glimmers of light. U.S. pressure to end the conflict could intensify in 2019. The Senate has already voted to consider legislation barring all U.S. involvement in the war. Once the Democrats assume control of the House of Representatives in January 2019, they could move more aggressively in this direction.

That and more will be needed to end the Yemen war or at least avoid it taking another turn for the worse. All parties – the Huthis and their Yemeni adversaries, but also the Saudis and Emiratis – seem to believe that time is on their side. Only pressure from Europe, Oman, and Iran on the Huthis; from the U.S. on Saudi Arabia and the UAE; from those two Gulf countries on the Yemeni government; and from Congress on the U.S. administration stands a chance of making a difference.

2. Afghanistan

If Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, Afghanistan suffers its deadliest fighting. In 2018, by one tally, the war killed more than 40,000 combatants and civilians. Trump’s reported decision in mid-December that half of U.S. forces in Afghanistan would leave brought further unease. In principle, Washington’s signal that it is ready to pull out could advance diplomatic efforts to end the war by focusing belligerents’ and regional actors’ minds. But the ad hoc nature of the decision—seemingly made without looping in top officials—and the spectre it raises of the U.S. cutting and running could bode badly for the coming year.

In 2018, the war exacted a higher toll than at any time since the Taliban were ousted from Kabul more than seventeen years ago. A three-day ceasefire in June, which the Taliban and the government enforced and which prompted joyous celebration by fighters and civilians alike, offered a short respite, though fighting resumed immediately afterwards. Taliban fighters now effectively control perhaps half the country, cutting off transport routes and laying siege to cities and towns. A sharp uptick in U.S. airstrikes has not curbed their momentum.

In September, Washington appointed the veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as an envoy for peace talks – a welcome sign that it was prioritising negotiations to end the war. Taliban leaders appear to be taking the talks seriously, though the process is stuck over their continued insistence that the U.S. commit to a timeline for full withdrawal of international forces as a precondition for a wider peace process involving other Afghan factions, a sequence that would be a win for the Taliban while saddling other Afghans with uncertainty.

Only days after Khalilzad’s latest talks with the Taliban came Trump’s bombshell. Withdrawing 7,000 troops in itself will probably not be militarily decisive: U.S. forces now mostly perform support roles. Indeed, there could be value to the U.S. making clear it is serious about bringing troops home. All sides understand that a rapid pullout could provoke a major new civil war, an outcome nobody, including the Taliban, wants. With a U.S. drawdown in the cards, the Taliban’s suspicion about Washington’s motives might ease, propelling talks forward.

Neighbouring countries and others involved in Afghanistan [...] want the Americans out eventually, but none of them wants a precipitous withdrawal.

Neighbouring countries and others involved in Afghanistan – notably Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China – all want the Americans out eventually, but none of them wants a precipitous withdrawal. They may be more inclined to support U.S. diplomacy if they believe that Washington will eventually give up its strategic foothold in South Asia. Trump’s announcement could therefore spur them to help end the war, but regional powers could just as easily increase their meddling by doubling down on Afghan proxies to hedge their bets.

The rashness of Trump’s decision risks outweighing any potential silver lining. Its timing appeared to catch everyone – from Khalilzad and top U.S. military chiefs to the Afghan government – off guard. The fact that it was not coordinated with Khalilzad meant that the envoy could not extract any concessions from the Taliban in return for such a key pledge that partially addressed their core demand. In Kabul, the sense of betrayal was palpable. A few days later, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani nominated two hard-line anti-Taliban officials as his defence and interior ministers, suggesting a move away from his compromising tone of the past year.

The festivities that greeted the June ceasefire revealed broad support for peace, and there are signs that the war’s core protagonists are open to a settlement. But that was always an uncertain bet. Trump’s decision has only added to the uncertainty.

3. U.S.-Chinese Tensions

The standoff between China and the U.S. is not a deadly conflict, no matter how bitter the trade war between Washington and Beijing has become. Still, rhetoric between the two is increasingly bellicose. If relations, already at their lowest ebb since the Tiananmen protests almost three decades ago, continue to deteriorate, the rivalry could have graver geopolitical consequences than all of the other crises listed this year.

In a deeply divided Washington, one position that wins bipartisan consensus is that China is an adversary with which the U.S. is inexorably locked in strategic competition. Most U.S. policymakers concur that Beijing has exploited institutions and rules to its own end – joining the World Trade Organization or signing up to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, even as it acts inconsistently with the spirit of both. President Xi Jinping’s ending of term limits, rapid expansion of China’s military, and extension of the Communist Party’s control across state and society confirm to many in Washington the dangerous turn the country has taken under his stewardship. The U.S. government’s 2018 National Defense Strategy cites “inter-state strategic competition” as its primary concern, with China and Russia named as primary competitors, after many years in which terrorism took the top spot.

Heightening the sense of lawlessness is Beijing’s unjust detention of three Canadians – including one of my colleagues, the North East Asia expert Michael Kovrig – widely seen as a tit for tat for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, wanted for Iran sanctions violations by the U.S., with which Canada has an extradition treaty.

Beijing is ever readier to throw its weight around in multilateral institutions and its region.

In reality, China likely has no short-term desire to fundamentally challenge the world order. Nor will it match Washington’s global clout anytime soon, provided the Trump administration takes steps to stop haemorrhaging allies and credibility. But Beijing is ever readier to throw its weight around in multilateral institutions and its region. In Asia, it expects a Chinese sphere in which neighbours are sovereign but deferential. U.S. policymakers mostly regard such an arrangement as inimical to U.S. alliances and interests.

Mounting U.S.-Chinese tension has implications for conflicts in Asia and beyond. For the two superpowers, pooling efforts to end crises has never been easy. An increasingly bitter rivalry would make it much harder. China would be less likely to back either tougher sanctions against North Korea, if stuttering talks between Washington and Pyongyang break down, or U.S. diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan.

Risks of direct conflict remain slim, but the South China Sea is a troubling flash point. The past two decades have seen occasional run-ins between Chinese forces and U.S. planes. Beijing stakes claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea, stopping mere miles from the Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Philippine coastlines, and has aggressively built bases on strategic natural and man-made islands. From Beijing’s perspective, such manoeuvres are standard operating procedure for what Xi calls a “big country”. China wants what the U.S. has: pliant neighbours, influence around its periphery, and the capacity to control its sea approaches and transport lanes. Others, of course, see it differently. The smaller South East Asian nations object, and some look to Washington for protection.

Beijing and Washington could reach some form of trade deal in the months ahead, which would help ease tensions. But any respite is likely to be short-lived. On both sides, leaders believe a long-festering geopolitical and economic clash has reached a point of rupture.

4. Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Israel, and Iran

Much like 2018, 2019 presents risks of confrontation – deliberate or inadvertent – involving the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. The first three share a common view of the government in Tehran as a threat that has been emboldened for too long and whose regional aspirations need curbing. For Washington, this has translated into withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, the restoration of sanctions, more aggressive rhetoric, and threats of powerful retaliation in the event of Iranian provocation. Riyadh has embraced this new tone, and – mainly in the voice of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – suggested it will fight back and seek to counter Iran in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and even on Iranian soil. Israel has focused on Syria, where it has regularly struck Iranian and Iranian-aligned targets, but it has also threatened to target the Iranian-backed militant group Hizbollah in Lebanon.

So far, Iran – confident in long-term trends and deterred by the possibility of retaliation – has opted to hunker down. While it has resumed missile testing, and the U.S. has accused it of using its Shiite proxies in Iraq to threaten the U.S. presence there, its response appears calculated not to invite a harsh reply. But as economic pressure builds on Iran, this posture may not last. Moreover, the risk of an accidental clash originating in Yemen, in the Persian Gulf, in Syria, or in Iraq cannot be discounted.

The main source of tension, so far, has been the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the reimposition of secondary sanctions against countries engaged in business with Tehran. That Iran has not responded in kind to what it describes as economic warfare owes much to the efforts of the deal’s other signatories, namely European countries, Russia, and China. Their attempts to preserve a modicum of space for trade coupled with their continued diplomatic engagement with Tehran have given sufficient reason for Iran’s leaders to adhere to the terms of the deal. Those leaders also seem to be hoping for a one-term Trump presidency.

Hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is playing out in proxy struggles across the Middle East, from Yemen to Lebanon.

This calculus could change. While U.S. and Saudi hopes that sanctions will force Iran to modify its disruptive behaviour or prompt regime change almost certainly will be disappointed, the economic squeeze is hurting ordinary Iranians. As more pain is inflicted on Iran’s citizens, hard-line voices urging the Islamic Republic to eschew the agreement will grow louder, especially as jockeying for President Hassan Rouhani’s and, possibly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s posts heat up. Even if they comply with nuclear constraints, the temptation could grow in Tehran to make Washington pay a price for its actions by taking aim at its presence in the region, for example by encouraging attacks by Iraqi Shiite militias against U.S. targets in Iraq.

Hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is playing out in proxy struggles across the Middle East, from Yemen to Lebanon. Any of these conflicts could escalate. Yemen is arguably the most dangerous. Should a Huthi missile inflict casualties in a Saudi city or if the Huthis target international commercial shipping in the Red Sea – a move they have long threatened to make – the conflict could enter a far more dangerous phase.

In Syria, Israel has so far been adept at striking Iranian targets without prompting a wider war. Iran, no doubt aware of the potential cost of such escalation, calculates that it can absorb such attacks without endangering its deeper interests and longer-term presence in Syria. But the Syrian theatre is congested, Iranian forbearance is not limitless, and the likelihood of a miscalculation or an attack gone awry remains a risk.

Hanging over these dynamics will be continued reverberations of the October assassination of Khashoggi. The murder amplified criticism in the U.S. of both Saudi foreign policy and the seemingly unconditional U.S. support for it. These feelings will intensify next year as Democrats assume control of the House. One can only hope this leads to stronger U.S. pressure on Riyadh to end the war in Yemen and to greater congressional scrutiny of U.S. and Saudi escalatory policies toward Iran.

5. Syria

As 2018 came to a close, it looked as if the Syrian conflict would continue along the same path. It seemed that the regime of Bashar al-Assad, with Iranian and Russian help, would win its battle against the opposition. The war against the Islamic State would approach the finish line. Foreign actors would maintain a fragile equilibrium in various parts of the country: among Israel, Iran, and Russia in the south west; Russia and Turkey in the north west; and the U.S. and Turkey in the north east. But with a mid-December phone call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Trump upended that balance; increased the odds of a bloody conflict involving Turkey, its Syrian allies, Syrian Kurds, and the Assad regime; and, in so doing, potentially gave the Islamic State a new lease on life by fueling the chaos on which it thrives.

The Trump administration’s earlier policy of indefinitely retaining a military presence in Syria was always of questionable value. It was unclear how 2,000 U.S. troops could curb Iranian influence or create meaningful pressure on the Assad regime. The fight against the Islamic State is not over, but it need not require maintaining U.S. troops on the ground. That said, a precipitous withdrawal presents one major risk: it will leave the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the Kurdish-dominated armed group that partnered with U.S. forces against the Islamic State and now controls roughly one-third of Syrian territory – perilously exposed.

The real question for the U.S. should not have been whether to stay or go, but under what timetable and what conditions to withdraw.

The YPG could now face an attack from Turkey (which considers it a terrorist organisation due to its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK) or by the Assad regime (which aims to reassert control over the entirety of the country, including the oil-rich north east). Should disorder ensue, the Islamic State could seize the opportunity to stage a comeback by regrouping and recapturing some of the territory it has lost over the past two years.

In short, the real question for the U.S. should not have been whether to stay or go, but under what timetable and what conditions to withdraw.

Both the U.S. and Russia should have an interest in preventing an all-out scramble for the territory abandoned by the U.S. because it could revitalise the Islamic State and because (from Russia’s perspective) it could result in Turkey controlling more of Moscow’s ally’s land. Averting this scenario will require Washington and Moscow (separately or in tandem) to persuade Turkey not to launch an assault on YPG-held territory, to persuade the YPG to lower its armed profile, and to facilitate a deal between Damascus and the YPG that entails the return of the Syrian government to the north east coupled with a degree of Kurdish self-rule in the area. Such an outcome would simultaneously allow Syria to restore its sovereignty, reassure Turkey by limiting YPG authority and firepower, and protect the Kurds from military attack. It might be too late to achieve this goal. It is not too late to try.

6. Nigeria

Nigerians will go to the polls in February 2019 to elect a president and new federal legislature, and again in March to choose state governors and lawmakers. Nigerian elections are traditionally violent affairs, and conditions this time around are particularly combustible.

The presidential contest between incumbent Muhammadu Buhari and his main rival, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, will be hard fought. Relations between Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress and Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party – which governed for sixteen years until Buhari came to power – are as acrimonious in the capital as they are in hot spots across the country. Disputes between Buhari and the leaders of parliament’s two chambers, both of whom defected from the ruling party in July, delayed funding for the electoral commission and security agencies, hindering election preparations. The opposition’s distrust of both the commission and security forces heightens risks of protests during and after the vote. Such protests have a troubled precedent: demonstrations after the 2011 polls morphed into attacks on minorities across northern Nigeria in which more than 800 people died.

Nigerian elections are traditionally violent affairs, and conditions this time around are particularly combustible.

The election comes atop other challenges. Levels of violent crime and general insecurity remain high across much of the country. Civilians in parts of the north east bear the brunt of the brutal conflict between government troops and a resilient Islamist Boko Haram insurgency. One militant faction, known as Islamic State West Africa Province, appears to be gaining ground. Violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt this past year between predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian farmers escalated to unprecedented levels, killing approximately 1,500 people. Though that bloodshed has calmed over past months, it has frayed intercommunal relations – especially between Muslims and Christians – in those areas, which are likely to see fiercely fought elections, as ballots from there could swing the national presidential vote. Already, politicians are stoking divisions for political ends, including by using inflammatory, identity-based language against rivals.

In the oil-rich Niger Delta, too, tensions between locals and the federal government could boil over this year, given simmering anger at the latter’s failure to fulfil pledges to clean up oil pollution, build infrastructure, and increase social investment over the past few years.

The immediate priority for the government must be to avert an election crisis by beefing up security in vulnerable states and taking steps to ensure that security forces act impartially, while all parties pledge to campaign peacefully and handle disputes lawfully. That in itself will not resolve Nigeria’s many problems. But it would be a necessary start.

7. South Sudan

Since South Sudan’s civil war erupted five years ago, 400,000 people have died. In September, President Salva Kiir and his main rival, the former vice president-turned rebel leader Riek Machar, signed an agreement to hold fire and rule together until elections in 2022. The deal satisfies – for now at least – the two antagonists’ interests and those of Presidents Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, the two regional leaders with the most sway in South Sudan. Most importantly, it has reduced violence. For now, this is reason enough to support the accord. Yet the odds remain stacked against it ushering in a new era of stability.

First, the deal is worryingly similar to a pact the two men signed in August 2015, which collapsed the following year, triggering a surge in fighting. By envisaging elections in 2022, the deal perpetuates the Kiir-Machar rivalry until then, paving the way for another showdown. It also remains a work in progress. Most alarming, security arrangements for Juba, the capital, remain contested, as do plans for unifying a national army.

By envisaging elections in 2022, the deal perpetuates the Kiir-Machar rivalry until then, paving the way for another showdown.

In Sudan, meanwhile, Bashir faces what could be a serious challenge to his own rule. In mid-December, protesters took to the streets in many towns and cities decrying high prices and urging the president to step down. The protests’ endgame is unclear. But a prolonged crisis in its northern neighbour could be hugely destabilising for South Sudan.

Finally, donors, wary of funding deals that have collapsed in the past, are now mostly sitting on the sidelines. The U.S., which until recently spearheaded Western diplomacy in South Sudan, has stepped back. Others are waiting to see tangible steps forward by Kiir and Machar before opening their check books.

Such caution is understandable. But if this deal fails, it is not clear what would replace it, and the country could collapse into major bloodshed again. Some form of third-party shuttle diplomacy among regional heads of state, who back different sides and largely focus on protecting their own short-term interests, will be necessary. An envoy, clearly backed by Western and other actors outside the region, might help keep regional leaders focused on ensuring the deal does not fall apart, as well as build consensus for a wider settlement that shares power across South Sudan’s groups and regions. Without that, the fragile opportunity for peace that currently exists could evaporate.

8. Cameroon

A crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone areas is on the verge of escalating into civil war and destabilising a country that was once considered an island of relative calm in a troubled region.

The tempo of the crisis has escalated steadily since 2016, when Anglophone teachers and lawyers took to the streets to protest the creeping use of French in the education and legal systems. Their demonstrations morphed into wider protests over the marginalisation of Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, which represents about one-fifth of the country’s population. The government refused to acknowledge the Anglophones’ grievances or engage their leaders as security forces violently repressed protests and jailed activists.The response fuelled Anglophones’ anger at the central government, pushing many protesters who had initially called only for autonomy and rights into the arms of separatist groups, whose attacks started in late 2017. A disputed presidential election this October, which President Paul Biya, aged 85 and in power for 36 years, won and in which few Anglophones voted, hardly helped.

Nearly ten separatist militias now battle government forces, while two organisations provide direction from abroad: the interim government of Ambazonia (the putative name of the self-proclaimed Anglophone state) and the Ambazonia Governing Council. The separatists are pitted not only against Cameroonian security forces, but also against pro-government “self-defence” groups. Criminal gangs in Anglophone areas have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their activities.

At least 500 civilians have died in the violence. The UN counts 30,000 Anglophone refugees in Nigeria and 437,000 internally displaced in Cameroon.

According to the International Crisis Group’s estimates, fighting has already killed nearly 200 soldiers, gendarmes, and police officers, with some 300 injured, and killed more than 600 separatists. At least 500 civilians have died in the violence. The UN counts 30,000 Anglophone refugees in Nigeria and 437,000 internally displaced in Cameroon.

Defusing the crisis will first require confidence-building measures. These should include the government’s release of all political detainees, including separatist leaders; a pledge from both sides to implement a ceasefire; and support for a planned Anglophone conference, which would allow Anglophones to select leaders to represent them in negotiations. These steps could pave the way for talks between the government and Anglophone leaders, followed by some form of national dialogue in which options for decentralisation or federalism would be on the table.

Cameroonian authorities made a welcome move in mid-December when they released 289 Anglophone detainees, though hundreds, including separatist leaders, are still behind bars. It remains unclear whether this signals a genuine change of heart by the government, which has appeared determined to crush insurgents rather than address Anglophone concerns. Nor is it clear whether the release can, on its own, persuade hard-line separatists to talk rather than fight.

Without meaningful, mutual compromise, Cameroon is in danger of sliding toward a major and destabilising conflict.

9. Ukraine

The war in Ukraine continues to smoulder with no end in sight. Sparked by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its subsequent support for separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, it also fuels the wider geopolitical standoff between Russia and Western powers. The latest flash point is the Sea of Azov, where in November Russian and Ukrainian vessels clashed and Russia effectively blocked access to the Kerch Strait, at the mouth of the sea. The confrontation suggests that neither side sees any advantage in compromising.

As Kyiv sees it, the attack on Ukrainian military ships and seizure of two dozen sailors is the culmination of months of Russian attempts to squeeze Ukrainian boats out of those waters, violating a 2003 bilateral treaty that guarantees both countries free shipping. Moscow claims the boats were entering its coastal waters and that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko provoked the skirmish to shore up Western backing and his domestic base ahead of presidential elections scheduled for March 2019. Poroshenko’s subsequent efforts to introduce martial law didn’t help; the Kremlin, together with the president’s domestic critics, painted it as a political stunt. Either way, the incident clearly showcased Moscow’s newfound willingness to use overt force against Ukraine.

As Kyiv sees it, the attack on Ukrainian military ships and seizure of two dozen sailors is the culmination of months of Russian attempts to squeeze Ukrainian boats out of those waters.

Meanwhile, fighting in the Donbas continues, and civilians living along front lines – abandoned by both Kyiv and the separatists – are paying the price. Neither Ukraine nor Russia has taken steps to end the war. Kyiv refuses to devolve power to Donbas – something it pledged to do as part of the Minsk agreements that set out a path to end the war – until Russia withdraws arms and personnel from separatist-held areas, which Moscow shows scant willingness to do. Proposals for possible peacekeeping missions have not gone far.

Absent a meaningful shift in tack by either side, 2019 will most likely see more of the same. Kyiv is unlikely to budge before elections (in addition to the presidential vote, parliamentary polls are due before the year’s end). Russia may chafe at the cost of keeping separatist-held areas afloat, but it is unlikely to give up influence in the Donbas any time soon. The Ukrainian elections or domestic developments in Russia might bring opportunities for peacemaking. But as the Azov spat shows, the danger of escalation is ever present.

10. Venezuela

Home to enormous oil reserves, Venezuela ought to be the envy of its neighbours. Instead Latin America is watching apprehensively as the country’s implosion threatens to provoke a regional crisis.

Venezuela’s economy is in freefall, with a devastating social impact. Poverty and malnutrition are rampant. Once-eradicated diseases, such as diphtheria, have made a comeback. Some 3 million of Venezuela’s 31 million people have fled the country, primarily to Colombia and other neighbours. The U.N. expects that number to climb to 5.3 million by the end of 2019.

President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling clique [...] refuses to admit the depth of Venezuela’s agony or accept most humanitarian relief.

President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling clique, having badly mismanaged the economy, now refuses to admit the depth of Venezuela’s agony or accept most humanitarian relief. The government has dismantled the country’s institutions, stripping the opposition-controlled parliament of its powers and stage-managing the election of a rubber-stamp legislature in its place. On 10 January 2019, Maduro will start a second term, though neither his domestic opponents nor much of the outside world consider his re-election credible. For its part, the opposition is paralysed by infighting, with a vocal faction (mostly in exile) calling upon foreign powers to topple Maduro by force.

Venezuela’s neighbours are struggling to accommodate the influx of people fleeing and anxious at the prospect of more. One barometer of Latin American impatience is the stance of Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States: in September, he said the region “should not exclude any option”, implying a military intervention could be coming. The Trump administration has made similar hints. Such talk may be just that, and one of Maduro’s strongest critics, new Colombian President Iván Duque, disavowed it in October – fortunately, given that external military action would almost certainly provoke further chaos.

There are few good policy options. The U.S. and Europe have targeted Maduro’s inner circle with sanctions, with Washington adding financial restrictions, though broader trade penalties are inadvisable, as they would harm the population. Peru and others suggest cutting diplomatic ties, but that would isolate Venezuelans as their plight worsens.

If concerned outsiders are to help while discouraging talk of armed intervention, they should press for a peaceful transition, likely involving negotiations on political and economic reform between the government and opposition and some form of transitional administration. Maduro has little incentive to agree to such a step, of course. But Latin American leaders could increase the pressure by imposing their own sanctions on top Venezuelan officials, to be lifted if the government complies (although such regional sanctions would be almost unprecedented).

Without such steps, Venezuela’s collapse remains possible, and the suffering of its people looks set to continue, with the country’s neighbours left to pick up the pieces.

Originally published in Foreign Policy: 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019

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