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Collapse of the Houthi-Saleh Alliance and the Future of Yemen’s War
Collapse of the Houthi-Saleh Alliance and the Future of Yemen’s War
10 Conflicts to Watch in 2018
10 Conflicts to Watch in 2018

Collapse of the Houthi-Saleh Alliance and the Future of Yemen’s War

On December 4, Houthi fighters killed Yemen’s former president and their erstwhile ally, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Prior to their violent divorce, Saleh’s General People’s Congress party (GPC) and the Houthis (a Zaydi/Shia rebel movement) were partners against the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and its allies, including the United States, who are fighting on behalf of the internationally recognized government of Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Despite nearly three years of a punishing air campaign and strategy of economic strangulation by the coalition, the Houthi-Saleh alliance remained firmly ensconced in the northern Zaydi highlands. They also controlled most of the Red Sea coastal province of Hodeidah and parts of the southern uplands (a predominantly Shafi/Sunni area in north Yemen), including Ibb and limited parts of Taiz.

But Houthi-GPC cooperation was fraught and fragile, with both groups keeping one eye on external enemies and the other on their partner. Ultimately their differences coupled with Saudi-led coalition efforts to drive a wedge between them, cracked the partnership. What happens next is unclear. The academic literature offers few insights on how rebel alliance dynamics shape civil war outcomes.[fn]Sean M. Zieglar, “In the Shadow of Rivalry: Rebel Alliances and Civil War”, PhD Dissertation, Department of Political Science Duke University, 2013. Zieglar identifies a gap in the literature in bringing together studies of alliance formation with studies of intrastate conflict. He then argues that competitive rebel alliances can be both a source of strength and instability. Somewhat counterintuitively, competitive alliances between rebels may allow them to overcome traditional collective action problems like free riding, ultimately making them more successful against governments in civil wars. However, intra-alliance competition and the security dilemma within the coalition, may also lead to increased risks of relapse into violence once a civil war ends.Hide Footnote Yemen’s case highlights the importance of this lacuna, particularly in understanding under what conditions coalition collapse encourages negotiation or war entrenchment. This paper will explore the origins, evolution and breakdown of the Houthi-Saleh partnership with an eye towards understanding how they could shape the course of war and the prospects for peace. While difficult to predict, it is likely the violent breakdown of the alliance will deepen and prolong Yemen’s regionalized civil war to the detriment of Yemen’s people and regional security.

The origins of Houthi-Saleh cooperation

From its inception, the Houthi-Saleh alliance was in many ways a negative coalition, united by what they oppose, not in their prescriptive aims.[fn]See Dix, Robert H. “Why Revolutions Succeed & Fail,” Polity 16, no. 3 (Spring 1984) ; and Beissinger, Mark. “The Semblance of Democratic Revolution: Coalitions in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution,” American Political Science Review. Vol. 107, Issue 3 (Aug. 2013).Hide Footnote The foundation of their cooperation was in opposition to common domestic and regional enemies. Prior to the Arab Spring, the Houthis fought six rounds of conflict with the Saleh regime, which killed their leader Hussein Badr al-Deen al-Houthi in 2004 and laid waste to much of their home governorate, Saada.[fn]For additional reading on the Houthis movement, including its origins, history of conflict with the Saleh regime, its component parts, and its post-2011 evolution see: Shelagh Weir, “A clash of fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen,” MERIP 204 Vol. 27, no. 3, 1997; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86,Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb, 27 May 2009; Barak A. Salmoni, Bryce Loidolt and Madeleine Wells, Regime and Periphery in Northern Yemen: The Houthi Phenomenon, RAND, 2010; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Houthis from Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014; Marike Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict, (London: 2014).Hide Footnote The Houthis took part in the 2011 uprising against Saleh, remaining in the protest squares even after he agreed to step down as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative that transferred power to his vice-president, Hadi; they argued that the deal did not go far enough in removing the old regime. In support of further change, the Houthis participated in a national dialogue conference (NDC), the cornerstone of a UN-sponsored transition that grew out of the GCC initiative, which gave new political constituencies like them voice, but arguably too little binding decision making authority. Throughout the transition, the Houthis kept one foot solidly outside of the political process, retaining their weapons, honing their military strength and expanding their territorial control.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Houthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014.Hide Footnote

From the start, both the Houthis and Saleh’s GPC viewed the transition sceptically and became increasingly alienated from it over time.[fn]For the purpose of this paper, Saleh’s GPC refers to the part of the GPC that did not defect to join the 2011 uprising and remained loyal to him when he entered the alliance with the Houthis, first tacitly in 2013/2014 and later formally during the war. Established in 1982, the GPC has always been an umbrella organization that contains supporters from different regions, religious backgrounds and political persuasions. Under Saleh, it was an important source of patronage distribution. In 2011, many members defected, some returning to parties more suited to their political or religious orientation, like the Yemeni Socialist party, others forming new groups, like the Justice and Build Party, and still others more closely associating with regional movements, like the Hiraak. When Saleh joined forces with the Houthis, a group of prominent GPC members, many of them technocrats, sheikhs and tribesmen who strongly opposed the Houthis and/or had close ties to Saudi Arabia, supported the Hadi government, while maintaining their GPC affiliation. Others tried not to take sides; many of them reside in Cairo.Hide Footnote In particular, they shared a common resentment toward the apparent beneficiaries, the Sunni Islamist party Islah and its allies. These included Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (a powerful decision maker in the Saleh regime for 33 years, who led the war against the Houthis, but defected to join the 2011 uprising), prominent members of the Ahmar family (no relation to Ali Mohsen) and Salafi groups.[fn]For additional information of the variety of Salafi movements in Yemen see: Laurent Bonnefoy, Salafism in Yemen: Transnational and Religious Identity, (London 2011).Hide Footnote By 2013, as urban elites and international stakeholders were focused on the NDC, the Houthis began to upend the balance of power in the north, first by defeating Salafi fighters in Saada governorate in January 2014 and then by defeating a loose alliance of Salafi, Islah, Ali Mohsen and al-Ahmar combatants in Amran and other northern governorates prior entering the capital in September 2014.[fn]Widespread clashes broke out between Houthi and Salafi fighters in October 2013 around the Salafi religious institute, Dar al-Hadith in Dammaj, Saada. Dar al-Hadith had long been a point of tension in Saada and was rejected by the Houthis as a foreign implant bent on spreading Saudi-supported Salafism in a culturally Zaydi area. After enduring a punishing blockade imposed by the Houthis, the Salafis and their families were evacuated from Dar al-Hadith in January 2014 and relocated to Sanaa. That same month, the Houthis also won a battle against Salafis in Kitaf, Saada on the border with Saudi Arabia. For a chronology of battles in Saada and surrounding governorates see, Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Houthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014.Hide Footnote In these battles, disgruntled GPC members and tribesmen, many of whom were motivated by longstanding frustration with the al-Ahmar family or by animosity towards Islah, began to tacitly cooperate with the Houthis, turning the military tide against their common enemies.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance was in many ways a negative coalition, united by what they oppose, not in their prescriptive aims.

The Houthi-Saleh alliance was not inevitable. Yemeni politics were fluid during 2012 to 2014, as established power centers like Saleh’s GPC sought to regain their footing and groups like the Houthis and the southern movement (Hiraak), which is dedicated to the independence of southern Yemen, tried to assert their own agendas.[fn]For background on the southern movement see: Susanne Dahlgren, “The Snake with a Thousand Heads: The Southern Cause in Yemen”, Middle East Report, Vol. 40, no. 256 (2010); Stephen Day, “updating Yemeni National Unity: Could Lingering Regional Divisions Bring Down the Regime?”, Middle East Journal, Vol. 62, no. 3 (Summer 2008); Crisis Group Middle East Report N° 114, Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question, 20 October 2011.Hide Footnote During the national dialogue, the Houthis flirted with a possible alliance with Hiraak, which like the Houthis complained of economic and political marginalization as well as direct state repression under the Saleh regime. Parts of the GPC leadership, mostly technocrats but also some sheikhs, considered adopting Hadi as its patron before the latter distanced himself, suspicious of anyone with close ties to the former president.[fn]Author interviews, GPC members in Sanaa, February, March and April 2012.Hide Footnote

When the Houthis invaded Sanaa in September 2014 on a wave of popular frustration with the Hadi government, they did so with the help of Saleh’s GPC and affiliated army units. Yet not all GPC-Saleh supporters were pleased; many were critical of the Houthis’ subsequent February 2015 announcement to replace the Hadi government with a “revolutionary committee.” Relations between the two soured and soon turned violent, as they clashed over control of the Saleh-aligned Republican Guard base in Raymat al-Humayd in March 2015.

But the Saudi-led military intervention that same month pre-empted a potential breakup. Saudi Arabia wanted to push back against the Houthis, whom they claim are an Iranian proxy, and reinstate the Hadi government. The Saudi-led military campaign targeted both Houthi and Saleh forces, arguably doing more damage to the Saleh-aligned army, which presented easily identifiable targets compared to Houthi fighters. This strengthened the Saleh-Houthi alliance in opposition to what is commonly viewed in the highlands as an existential national struggle against Saudi Arabia, rather than as a civil war, as it is viewed elsewhere in Yemen.

Yemeni critics of the Houthi-Saleh alliance contend that the nature of the partnership ran deeper. Some say that it was a highland coalition to ensure the Zaydis’ historic dominance over other parts of Yemen.[fn]Author interviews, Yemeni businessman from Taiz, March 2015; Hadi advisor, October 2015; Yemeni activist from Ibb, November 2015; Hadi government member, September 2017.Hide Footnote Southerners often saw it as additionally, if not primarily, an attempt by northerners to prevent the independence of southern Yemen.[fn]Author interviews, Adeni politicians, June 2015.Hide Footnote The Houthis, and to a lesser extent Saleh’s GPC, indeed do derive their core military strength from the Zaydi highlands, and both are staunch advocates of Yemen’s territorial unity. Yet the jump to a Zaydi versus Shafai distinction breaks down in practice especially in regards to Saleh’s GPC, which includes many loyalists and sympathizers from Shafai areas.

For both Saleh’s GPC and the Houthi movement, scepticism of federalism is connected to economic as much as identify considerations. Both were supportive of federalism in the national dialogue but their commitment is questionable and their actions give reason for concern. Saleh obstructed genuine decentralization during his 33 years of rule, preferring to centralize resources and power in Sanaa, where he could dispense benefits to patrons. The Houthis resorted to violence in 2015 in part because they opposed a six-part federal division schema, which would have turned the highlands into a resource-poor, landlocked region.[fn]The majority of Hiraak supporters also rejected six part federalism, instead preferring a path to southern independence or a minimum two-part (north-south) federalism.Hide Footnote The Houthis, along with Saleh-aligned military units, then marched southward on Aden, ostensibly to fight al-Qaeda, but effectively to consolidate political control. In doing so they stoked intra-Yemeni regional resentment and sparked a civil war.

Houthi-Saleh partnership: its components, evolution and breakdown

Until December 2017, Saleh’s GPC and the Houthis were partners in both war and governance, but their relative contribution to each was uneven. During the course of the conflict, the military-security balance increasingly favored the Houthis, as they appointed their loyalists in the military-security apparatus and worked to build tribal and military loyalties through a combination of financial inducements, fear, and personal relationship building. Saleh and his loyalists retained influence in the security services and tribal structure but were ultimately outmaneuvered by the Houthis. The Republican Guard, the army’s most qualified and well-trained component before the uprising, previously led by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, today is a shadow of its former self. The GPC tried to rebuild and strengthen the Republican Guard under its leadership; but the Houthis resisted this effort, denying the GPC leadership of the organization.

In governance, the GPC was far more experienced and its relative contribution seemingly more important. In August 2016, the two sides formed a ten-person “supreme political council,” split evenly between them, which functioned as the executive authority. Two months later, they formed a “national salvation government,” dividing ministerial posts. Both sides chafed under the partnership, fighting over positions from the vice-minister level down. The GPC criticized the Houthis for not disbanding the “revolutionary committee,” which continued to act as a shadow government, overseeing decision making within the ministries and thus exercising real power.

The issue of resource allocation also divided them. Following its corrupt rule, the GPC accused the Houthis of misusing limited resources flowing into the north. In turn, the Houthis accused the GPC of continued corruption as well as engaging in a political smear campaign against them at a time when the focus of both should have been on supporting the war effort. The Houthis appeared particularly offended by the GPC’s accusations, since they were suffering the brunt of war casualties.

Until December 2017, Saleh’s General People’s Congress party and the Houthis were partners in both war and governance, but their relative contribution to each was uneven.

Prior to the collapse of the coalition, the political leaderships of both sides maintained that what bound them together – opposition to “Saudi aggression” and defense of the homeland – superseded what divided them. Some even suggested that post-war political partnership should be possible, although it was unclear what the division of power would look like.[fn]Author interviews, two GPC leaders and a Houthi representative, Sanaa, April 2017; GPC leader and Houthi representative, September 2017.Hide Footnote But the rank-and-file and hardliners on both sides were far less sanguine. Some argued for dissolving the political partnership and said they were ready to fight if necessary.[fn]Author interviews, GPC member and Houthi supporters, Sanaa, April 2017.Hide Footnote From the GPC perspective, the Houthis are intolerant, religiously based zealots, with little experience in governance, who want to grab power and return Yemen to the discriminatory rule of the Zadyi Imams.[fn]Zaydi Imams ruled north Yemen for a millennium before the 1962 republican revolution ousted them. All Zadyi Imams were hashimites, decedents of the Prophet Mohammed.Hide Footnote For the Houthis, the GPC is a corrupt party of the past, whose leadership cannot be trusted and should be held accountable for crimes.[fn]Author interviews, GPC members, Sanaa, November 2014; GPC member, Sanaa, February 2015; GPC member, September 2015; GPC members, Sanaa, April 2017; Houthi supporters, Sanaa, February 2015, Houthi supporter, Sanaa, April 2017.Hide Footnote

In August 2017, tensions between the two sides reached a tipping point when the GPC staged a massive rally in Sanaa to celebrate its 35th anniversary. It brought together GPC supporters as well as Saleh critics opposed to the Houthis. Many hoped that Saleh would use his show of strength to turn the capital away from the Houthis through sit-ins by armed groups and, if need be, limited battles, or at least announce the alliance’s breakup.[fn]Author interviews, GPC, Islah and Hiraak supporters, August 2017.Hide Footnote Ultimately Saleh disappointed them by taking a conciliatory approach. He praised the GPC and called up more fighters, a move that Yemenis across the political spectrum saw as a sign of his inability to oppose the Houthis.[fn]Author interviews, three Hadi government supporters, tribal sheikh, Houthi supporter, Houthi leader, political independent, two GPC members, September 2017.Hide Footnote

In retrospect, the damage to the relationship had been done. The Houthis suspected the GPC of conspiring with their enemies, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to remove them from power. In late November, a skirmish over control of the Saleh mosque in Sanaa ignited battles between the two in the capital. On December 2, Saleh, the consummate political opportunist, did an about face, calling for turning over a new page with the Saudi coalition and for his loyalists to fight the Houthis. Initially, it looked like he could win. But by December 3, his forces were surrounded. On December 4, Houthi fighters killed him, subsequently arresting GPC supporters suspected of helping with the internal coup.

What comes next?

Saudi Arabia and its allies, including at times the U.S., worked hard to drive a wedge between the Houthis and Saleh to weaken them militarily and improve the Hadi government (and by extension Saudi Arabia’s) bargaining position.[fn]This had taken a variety of forms. At the beginning of the war, Saudi Arabia gave financial and political support to GPC members who defected from Saleh’s camp and fled to Riyadh to support the Hadi government. By supporting a Saudi-aligned GPC outside Yemen they appeared to be trying to cannibalize the part of the GPC aligned with the Houthis, while at the same time marginalizing Saleh, whom the Saudis distrusted and blamed for brining the Houthis to Sanaa in the first place. This ultimately proved unsuccessful as the core of the GPC either remained with Saleh or refused to support either camp. As the war progressed, there were also several rumored attempts by the United States and Saudi Arabia to cut a deal directly with Saleh that would ensure a future for his party (and possibly his exit from the country), in return for the GPC’s willingness to turn against the Houthis politically and/or militarily. Speculation around this track peaked in August 2017 and many Yemenis and analysts suspected that Saleh had struck a deal with Saudi Arabia or the UAE to that effect.Hide Footnote These efforts have arguably backfired, producing, at least for now, a clear Houthi military victory in Sanaa. Looking ahead, the collapse of the Houthi-Saleh coalition is unlikely to provide a clear win for Saudi Arabia or its allies and instead is more likely to prolong and deepen the war in the north, an area that has thus far been spared the ravages of ground fighting.

A mediated settlement is a distant prospect at the moment. Before they came to blows, Houthi-Saleh competition offered a chance for Riyadh and its allies to offer a reasonable settlement, outside of the narrow parameters of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 of 2015, which essentially calls for the Houthi-Saleh surrender to the Hadi government. Given the GPC’s desire to return to a political process in which its governing experience and relative political popularity would have given it an advantage, it would have likely accepted a proposal. This would have put pressure on Houthi hardliners and given would-be dealmakers within their ranks a chance to negotiate an exit. But that opportunity has been lost.

Now that the Houthis are in control, Riyadh will be less likely to accept a compromise with a group that it considers an Iranian proxy. In fact, Saudi Arabia has already hardened its stance, increasing aerial bombardments and announcing plans to support Yemenis in retaking the north from the Houthis. Riyadh is framing events as providing a military opportunity, arguing that without the cover of the GPC, the Houthis are isolated and exposed as a sectarian, Iranian project. They hope that troops loyal to Saleh will defect from the Houthis and join with anti-Houthi fighters, shifting the battle in the coalition’s favor. Eager to push a military advantage, UAE-backed Yemeni forces have made some gains, most notably along the Red Sea coast, a relatively flat and hospitable terrain where the Houthis have limited popular support and pro-Saleh troops were an important part of the fight. They captured Khawkha, a city between Houthi-controlled Hodeidah to the north and UAE-controlled Mokha to the south, a victory that may have been helped by Saleh-aligned forces leaving the battlefield. The coalition is threatening to capture Hodeidah city, the north’s most important port, and Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz, and even Sanaa.

The collapse of the Houthi-Saleh coalition appears set to deepen the conflict and to complicate the prospects of a durable peace.

Threats aside, the coalition may once again be miscalculating. While Houthi-Saleh split does expose the Houthis to new vulnerabilities, especially regarding popular support as they will likely rely more and more on repression to retain control, but these do not translate neatly into Saudi-led coalition military victories and are instead likely to expand the war in the north and increase the suffering of the population there. Some GPC fighters and political figures will defect to join the Saudi-led coalition, others will stay at home, and still others will remain with the Houthis, out of fear, resentment to the coalition bombings, and/or lack of alternatives. The Houthis remain the strongest military force on the ground, and they retain considerable popular support in the northern highlands, in no small part the result of hatred directed against the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign and blockade.

While coalition military gains are possible, especially in places like Hodeidah province and Taiz, this would require ground troops and a political cohesiveness on the part of anti-Houthi fighters that has thus far been lacking. Any assault on Houthi controlled territories, particularly if it is directed at Hodeidah, a vital port, will have devastating humanitarian consequences in a country already on the cusp of famine. As in the past, Houthi fighters will be the last to suffer and may even gain from further economic strangulation as they control the limited resources that make their way into the north. Moreover, the Houthis will likely continue to retaliate with missile strikes into Saudi Arabia and against coalition assets in the Red Sea, actions that raise the spectre of regional escalation beyond Yemen.

For their part, the Houthis are at the same time embattled and emboldened by their victory. On one hand, they have moved quickly to consolidate full control over Sanaa, cracking down on GPC supporters and suspected enemies, through targeted raids and detention. They claim that the internal purge will only make them stronger against external enemies. At the same time, they are sensitive to the political dangers of alienating the GPC writ large and have used conciliatory language, saying that their crackdown is directed only against those who took up arms against them. They are trying to forge a new alliance with what is left of the GPC in Sanaa, although if they do, few will believe that the GPC there has any free will. The Houthi political leadership has also said they are ready to renew political talks to end the war, possibly an indication that they believe they are at a high water mark and would do well to negotiate from a position of strength. But it is far from clear what their bargaining positions are and not unreasonable to assume their demands have increased, making compromise more difficult.

In short, the collapse of the Houthi-Saleh coalition appears set to deepen the conflict and to complicate the prospects of a durable peace. In their actions, the Houthis are becoming more insular and oppressive; in doing so they are fuelling cycles of violence against them and alienating potential and former allies. For their part, Saudi Arabia and its allies continue to underestimate the Houthis’ military capabilities and their support base in the context of a war that is viewed by many northerners as an existential threat from both Saudi Arabia and domestic enemies. While the Houthis may ultimately not need the alliance with Saleh to continue the war, the political implications are important. Without Saleh’s GPC, the Houthis are more easily labelled by their opponents as a sectarian group aligned with Iran, but more importantly from a Yemeni domestic perspective, bent on implementing an oppressive theocracy based on the rule of Zaydi Imams. These perceptions and stereotypes are reinforcing zero sum politics and making future reconciliation more difficult.

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 29,“Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen.”

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

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2018

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

It’s not all about Donald Trump. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. U.S.-Saudi-Iran Rivalry

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Rohingya Crisis: Myanmar and Bangladesh

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

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

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

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

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

4. Yemen

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

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

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

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

5. Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

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

6. Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. The Sahel

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

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

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

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

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

8. Democratic Republic of Congo

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

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

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

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

9. Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

10. Venezuela

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

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

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

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

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