Conflicts to Watch in 2020
he understandings and balance of power on which the global order had once been predicated 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. Russia, in contrast, displays the impatience of a nation grateful for the power. 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. The consequences of these geopolitical trends can be deadly.
Here is a brief mention of five conflicts that will have far-reaching implications in the year 2020.
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 in 2020 to set in motion a peace process aimed at ending the decades-long war. As regard the prospects of peace in this war-torn country, last year did see some light in US-Taliban diplomacy. After months of quiet talks, US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leaders agreed on and initialled a draft text. But, hopes dashed when Trump abruptly declared the talks dead in early September, invoking a Taliban attack that killed a US soldier as a reason to nix the agreement his envoy had inked. Nonetheless, after a prisoner swap in November appeared to have overcome Trump’s resistance, US diplomats and Taliban representatives have started talking again. Whether they will return to the same understanding remains unclear, though.
In reality, the US 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 US forces out without an agreement could herald a return to the multi-front civil war of the 1990s and even worse violence. However, any deal should pave the way for talks among Afghans, which means tying the pace of the US 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 US-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.
Yemen has become a critical fault-line in the Middle East-wide rivalry between Iran on the one hand, and the United States and its regional allies on the other. In 2018, aggressive international intervention in Yemen prevented what UN officials deemed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis from deteriorating further. The year 2020 could offer a rare opportunity to wind down the war.
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 Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Houthi rebels who seized the capital, Sanaa, from him in September 2014. Since then, the more dynamic aspects of the conflict have been a battle within the anti-Houthi front pitting southern secessionists against the Hadi government, and a cross-border war that has seen the launch of Houthi missiles and retaliatory Saudi airstrikes.
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-Houthi 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 highlighted the risks of a war involving the US, its Gulf allies, and Iran that none of them seems to want. This helped push the Saudis and Houthis 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.
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. 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.
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, most of his rivals are the same militias that defeated the Islamic State, with US and other Western support, three years ago.
Haftar’s latest offensive has found support not only in Cairo and Abu Dhabi but also in Moscow, which has provided him with military aid under the cover of a private security company. President Donald Trump, whose administration had supported the Sarraj government and UN-backed peace process, reversed course in April 2019, following a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-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 spectre of an escalating proxy battle on the Mediterranean.
- The US, Iran, Israel, and the Persian Gulf
Tensions between the United States 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—The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—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 programme 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 US 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 US to resort to military action.
A string of incidents in the Gulf in the past year, culminating in the September 14 attack on Saudi energy facilities, underscored how the US-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 H-uthis.
The potential for conflict has also prompted efforts, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, to help the US and Iran find a diplomatic off-ramp. US 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.
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. First came a February suicide attack against Indian paramilitaries in Kashmir. India retaliated by bombing an alleged militant camp in Pakistan, prompting a Pakistani strike in Indian-Occupied 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 contested joining of India 72 years ago, and brought it under New Delhi’s direct rule.
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 freedom movement there. Separately, the Indian government’s new citizenship law, widely regarded as anti-Muslim, has sparked protests inviting 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, even those considered pro-India, remain in detention. Modi’s government seems to have no roadmap for what comes next.
Pakistan has tried to rally international support against India’s illegal decision on Kashmir’s status. But its stance is hardly heard as most Western powers see New Delhi as an important trade 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. In Kashmir, freedom fighters 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. India is playing to its domestic constituency, and is in no mood for compromise. If a new crisis emerges, foreign powers will have to throw their full weight behind preserving peace on the disputed border.