It’s the last day of January and I swore I wasn’t going to keep writing these “new year” pieces past the end of the month. The thing is, between family situations, deadlines, and–to be completely honest–a low grade case of burnout, I just haven’t been as prolific as I thought I would be. So to sum up the new year, and in what I readily admit is a cheat, here are a few things to watch for the next 11 months.
If you believe that Russia rigged last fall’s election to put Donald Trump in office, then you already know that Moscow is expecting big things in the coming year. If, like me, you’re a skeptic who is inclined to think that something fishy went down but would like to see more evidence, then…well, you should still probably know that Moscow is expecting big things, because their optimism isn’t just about the new president. But expectations have a way of leading to disappointment, and at the moment Russia is staring a pretty big one right in the face.
There’s been little that Vladimir Putin has wanted more than to return Russia to the Great Power table in world affairs, and–whatever else you may think about it–his decision to intervene in Syria has done just that. It’s Russia–not the US, or the UN, or the EU–that is calling the diplomatic shots with respect to the Syrian civil war now. It’s the one scheduling peace talks, deciding who gets to attend, and writing draft constitutions for a post-war Syrian state. This is a far cry from where Moscow was as recently as 2014, when it was eating the back of the international community’s collective hand over its actions in Ukraine, to say nothing of where it was 20 years ago (i.e., in full, shock doctrine-induced collapse). So you have to hand it to Putin–in addition to securing Russian interests in Syria, the main reason for the intervention, he now owns an entire regional war. The downside for him is that, well, he now owns an entire regional war, and his attempts at ending said war in a way that involves negotiations and not more human carnage aren’t looking so hot at the moment, what with no new Astana talks planned and the next scheduled round of talks in Geneva having been postponed. If Putin wants to be seen as a major power-broker, he’s going to have to find a path toward settling the war that he chose to adopt. But so far, settling the war in Syria has been much easier said than done.
Now, if there is anything that Vladimir Putin wants more than Russia’s return to Great Power stature, it’s a fix for Russia’s ailing economy. He’s undoubtedly looking to Trump to end US sanctions against Russian oligarchs and corporations, but I think he’s savvy enough to realize that Trump can’t do that immediately and will need to be seen getting something from Moscow in return. In the meantime, though, Putin scored a pretty substantial win last year when he reached a deal with OPEC to cut oil production in an effort to raise prices. That should help…unless prices get high enough to reactivate the American fracking industry in a major way. But in the meantime it should provide some benefit to the Russian economy as the sanctions issue unwinds itself.
How the sanctions issue unwinds itself will have a big impact on another situation related to Russia, which is the disposition of Ukraine. It’s entirely possible that Putin will, at some point this year, drop most/all of his direct support for the Ukrainian rebels and push for some kind of peaceful but destabilizing deal between the rebels and Kiev. Fighting has actually started heating up in eastern Ukraine over the past couple of days, but that could be isolated or it could be that one or the other side is trying to strengthen its position in advance of potential settlement talks. Putin’s objectives in Ukraine–red meat for his base and instability in Kiev–have been met, and if he wants to give Trump a “win” to cement their ties, this wouldn’t be a bad one. At the same time, though, even if the conflict in Donbas is settled there’s still the fairly giant, but largely ignored, matter of Crimea to discuss. Russia isn’t going to give it up, but neither is Kiev likely to drop its claim on the peninsula, and the international community is going to have to take this head-on at some point because, well, the annexation was a pretty substantial blow to ~70 years of post-war international consensus on wars of conquest.
Russian provocation in the Baltics in 2017 also bears watching. As in eastern Ukraine I think Putin might be inclined to take it easy here, for now, as a concession to Trump, but he’s likely to expect that Trump will downsize Washington’s NATO commitment to the Baltic states.
China, as the international relations professionals like to put it, is America’s only potential peer competitor, and depending on how this whole Trump thing shakes out (so far, not great), China’s rise to peer status with the US could happen faster than many had expected. China’s neighbors, responding to Trump’s rhetoric on defense treaties and trade relations, are turning toward China. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, undoubtedly a fan of China’s frequent executions policy, has gone further in this direction than other regional leaders, but there is a definite regional trend toward making nice with Beijing. China is also poised to take on greater leadership roles in Africa, the Middle East, and on global issues of concern like climate change. Much of that is due to years of effort by Beijing to lay the groundwork for its expanded geopolitical role, but some of it is also due to the uncertainty being caused by the mercurial Trump administration.
Which brings us to the issue of the South China Sea. Tensions were already increasing between Beijing and Washington over access to the waterway, which China claims as its territorial waters in violation of basic tenets of maritime law. But Trump’s post-election outreach to the president of Taiwan, and his administration’s blustery rhetoric about preventing China from placing weapons on man-made islands in the SCS, are increasing those tensions pretty quickly.
War and Peace
I covered Syria a few paragraphs ago, but obviously there are conflicts–declared wars or otherwise–to talk about in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, South Sudan, Nigeria, Kashmir, Mali…well, a lot of places. Will Iraqi forces be able to recapture Mosul in a way that helps bring that country together? Will Donald Trump figure out how to win the war in Afghanistan or will he decide that enough is enough? Is Libya ever going to have a stable government again? When Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi finally returns to Sanaa, are there going to be any Yemenis left alive to see it? Are we going to see a Rwanda-scale genocide in South Sudan? Is 2017 the year Boko Haram is finally rendered kaput, and, if so, what happens to the millions of people left in humanitarian limbo by that conflict? Will India and Pakistan move closer to war, or step back from it?
Some other conflict-related questions abound. What will ISIS become when it loses the rest of its territory in Iraq and, eventually, Syria? If the Yemeni civil war finally reaches an end, how will al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula adjust? How much trouble can al-Shabab cause in Somalia, or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its franchises cause in West Africa? Will there be civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Can the international community save the Rohingya or is it already too late?
And to get back to Syria for a second, what is that war going to look like in January 2018? It would be stunning for that conflict to be resolved a year from now, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising for it to have entered a new phase, one in which only Assad and a couple of other actors (the Kurds, maybe ISIS still, maybe some Turkey-backed rebels) actually control territory, while the largest jihadi networks (i.e., Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham) absorb the rest of the rebellion and continue it as a hybrid guerrilla/terrorist campaign.
You may have noticed there are a lot of questions here but not many answers. There’s a perfectly good reason for that, which is [incoherent mumbling]. And with that, let’s move on to the next thing to watch!
Iran and Middle Eastern Regional Politics
The central player in Middle Eastern diplomacy is Iran, which has two different contests for regional supremacy happening at the moment. One, obviously, is with Saudi Arabia. Every country in the region that could possibly serve as a go-between in this rivalry–Oman, Iraq, Lebanon, Kuwait–has seemingly tried to fill this role, but it just doesn’t seem like Riyadh and Tehran are ready to talk yet. But as their various proxy conflicts begin to settle down–Iran’s proxy in the stronger position in Syria, the Saudis’ proxy eventually likely to retake power in Yemen–there’s a chance that the two countries will be able to at least sit at a table together without shouting insults at one another.
Iran’s second contest is with Turkey, over who can sway Russia over to their side and thus have the dominant position in determining Syria’s future. Russia, its immediate needs in Syria seemingly addressed, has been signaling for some time now that its interests could diverge from Iran’s if it thinks it can enhance its position as a regional hegemon by going in a different direction. Turkey is trying to take advantage of that, and it’s possible that the Trump administration will too, but any shift in this regard is probably going to play out over months, not weeks.
North Korea is edging closer to having a weaponized hydrogen bomb and a working ICBM, both of which would be pretty major developments. At the same time, high-level DPRK defector Thae Yong-ho has been talking about the North Korean regime as though it’s teetering on the edge of total collapse. Who knows if Thae is right, but undoubtedly this is a story that bears watching.
This is basically a question of how much abuse the Mexican government will allow Trump to heap upon it before it does something drastic, like significantly cutting its border enforcement budget or seeking to dramatically increase its already substantial trade ties with Beijing. And then, if it does something like that, the question becomes how Washington will respond. Should be a fun ride.
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