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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Crisis Group chief’s 10 conflicts to monitor in 2018

The threat of nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, 'US-Saudi-Iran rivalry', the Syrian conflict and the Rohingya crisis are among the list

A previously unknown network of North Korean hackers has targeteding companies worldwide, including one in the Middle East, in retaliation for a failed business deal. Korean Central News Agency / Korea News Service via AP
A previously unknown network of North Korean hackers has targeteding companies worldwide, including one in the Middle East, in retaliation for a failed business deal. Korean Central News Agency / Korea News Service via AP

Robert Malley, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, an independent organisation working to prevent wars, has set out the 10 conflicts that should be monitored in 2018.

In a punchy opening to his report, he warns that the big conflicts are not going to be “all about Donald Trump”, despite what Mr Malley calls “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”.

Mr Malley concedes that the most “ominous threats” this year will be the bubbling nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula and that the confrontation between the United States and its allies against Iran could be aggravated by Mr Trump’s decision making. He adds that the impact of what he terms “the Jerusalem powder keg” is yet to be seen at this stage.

Topping the list of conflicts, Mr Malley says that “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 increasing number of tests and the improvements the missiles are displaying, along with Mr Trump’s “careless sabre-rattling”, indicate the two countries are in a race against time and one that Mr Malley thinks Washington will likely lose.

Mr Malley argues that if North Korea were to agree to pause their missile tests and if the United States agreed to less provocative military exercises and a consensus on humanitarian support, it could provide the space needed to explore a longer term resolution.

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Second in his list is what he terms the ‘US-Saudi-Iran rivalry’. Washington and Riyadh can focus on Iran more now ISIL’s power is waning.

Mr Malley says: “America and Saudi Arabia 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.”

It is a situation where escalation is possible, and the recent protests in Iran have introduced a new and unpredictable variable.

The Rohingya crisis is the third key conflict for 2018, with Mr Malley saying it has “entered a dangerous new phase” that threatens “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, led to a massive refugee exodus, with at least 655,000 Rohingya fleeing for Bangladesh. The UN has called the operation a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.

Mr Malley warns that “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”. He adds that the refugees’ presence could aggravate political divisions ahead of elections expected in late 2018.

Fourth on the list is the conflict in Yemen, an area with 8 million people on the brink of famine, 1 million declared cholera cases, and over 3 million internally displaced persons.

Mr Malley says that “negotiations, already a distant prospect, have become more complicated” but believes if Saudi Arabia were to embrace what Mr Malley terms “a realistic peace initiative”, then the Houthis would be under pressure to accept it.

Afghanistan’s war is fifth on the crisis group chief’s list. As America steps up to attempt to halt Taliban insurgency, Afghan civilians are paying the price. Mr Malley warns that a withdrawal could “trigger chaos”, instead he recommends that diplomacy should form a greater part of America’s strategy.

The Syrian conflict, now almost seven years old, is the sixth conflict to be monitored in 2018.

Although ISIL has been ousted from some areas, the fighting is not over yet. Additionally, power play between the Kurds and the pro-regime forces will only increase as ISIL dissipates.

The east of the country is vulnerable to the effects of the US-Iran rivalry and the southwest could see Israel viewing the Iran-backed militias operating on and near the Golan Heights as a direct threat and take military action to push them back. Russia has pledged to prevent matters escalating in this way but Mr Malley writes that it is unclear if this will be done.

“One of the gravest immediate dangers,” Mr Malley says, “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”. Massive destruction and displacement could occur as a result.

Seventh on the list is the Sahel conflict, with Mr Malley saying: “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 militarised responses often make things worse”.

A peace deal which followed Mali’s 2012 crisis has stalled and instability has spread from the north to Mali’s central region as well as parts of neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Mr Malley urges a political strategy aimed at winning local support to accompany military efforts if the situation is to de-escalate.

Conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo is eighth in the list, with President Joseph Kabila’s determination to hold on to power threatening to escalate the crisis in Congo and one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies.

Mr Malley says the late 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement appeared to offer a way out, as it set out that elections must be held by the end of 2017 and as a result Mr Kabila would leave power. However, in November, the election commission announced a new calendar — with a vote at the end of 2018, extending Mr Kabila’s rule for at least another year.

2018 could see the situation gradually deteriorate, or, in a much worse scenario, for Mr Kabila’s regime to use aggression in some areas while failing to secure other parts of the country - some areas of which are already plagued by local militias.

The penultimate conflict on the list is the bubbling crisis in the Ukraine, where over 10,000 have died.

Mr Malley says: “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”.

The tenth conflict is the crisis in Venezuela, with the situation on the ground worsening as President Nicolás Maduro tightens his government’s political grip as the opposition has “imploded”. Debt continues to spiral and the ramifications will be felt by the country’s citizens. Already street demonstrations killed over 120 people between April and July - scenes that could be repeated as food shortages, a collapsed health system, and spiralling violent crime continue.