Radical Islamists, drug wars, and fighting against the system- these are some of the geopolitical risks of 2020.
In a world with fewer rules, leaders are emboldened to test limits more often, jockey for power, and seek to deepen their influence – and weaken that of rivals – by interfering in foreign conflicts. An effective way of sensing one's freedom to operate is knowing what you can get away with.
Local strife serves as veritable dashboards for global trends in the manner they kindle, unravel, continue and are resolved. They reflect paradigm shifts in great power relationships and the intensity of their competition as well as the aspirations of regional actors.
Yemen: On the Path of Destruction:
Yemen faces its biggest crisis in decades, with the overthrow of the government by the Houthis and an offensive led by Saudi Arabia. This along with a Saudi-imposed blockade have brought about humanitarian catastrophe, resulting in more than one million people being internally displaced, cholera outbreaks, medicine shortages, and threats of famine.
Our Assessment: A lasting solution will require acquiescing to the three major factions: the Houthis, Hadi’s government, and the Southern Transitional Council. Any new government in the interim will require foreign assistance to challenge the rival militias, rebuild the country’s infrastructure, and address the ever-rising humanitarian needs.
Iran and U.S. Lock Horns
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. have increased since 2018, turning into an armed confrontation after the Commander of the IRGC Quds Force, Qassim Soleimani, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Iraq in January 2020.
Our Assessment: The renewed U.S.-Iran conflict could impact Iran’s domestic stability. Soleimani’s death shortly unified split sectors of Iranian society in nationalist sentiment. But the belated admission that Iran shot down a passenger jet has brought about anti-government protests. It now stands to be seen if security concerns will supersede the frustration over the political system.
A U.S.-Taliban accord has made it possible for intra-Afghan talks to establish power-sharing arrangements, withdrawal of foreign troops, and a permanent ceasefire. But the refusal of the Afghan PM to release prisoners has broken the reduction in violence deal, leading the situation to be on shaky ground again. The continuing Taliban violence against the Afghan National Army, even after the accord, also does not bode well for peace in this troubled nation.
Our Assessment: Before any reduction in violence can be achieved, the two sides will have to come to a decision about the future of Afghanistan’s democracy, human rights, how to deal with armed warlords, and other testy issues.
A degrading economic crisis along with endemic government corruption has resulted in a protest movement against Lebanon’s political system and the ruling elite. Students have been taking a prominent role in the demonstrations as well.
Our Assessment: It is possible that violence could escalate, as unrest could intensify the longer this situation continues without major governmental reforms. With tensions high between U.S. and Iran-allied groups, it remains to be seen how this will play out in Lebanon between various political parties – particularly with Hezbollah.
Rising Indo- Pak Tensions & Internal Disharmony
Tensions are heightened between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue, along with the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA, 2019).
Our Assessment: Ruling party leaders have themselves admitted to being blind-sided by the outrage against the CAA, which raises concerns about their ability to anticipate violent scenarios and prevent them from taking place. The government must find a way to ensure communal clashes are kept to a minimum. It remains to be seen whether the ruling BJP will be willing to adopt a multipronged approach to address the growing challenges to governance.
The Deadly Drugs Wars of Mexico
2019 saw a record number of drug-related homicides in Mexico: over 31,000. Apart from inter- and intra-organisational tensions, there are increasing reports of violent street crime affecting civilians on a day-to-day basis.
Our Assessment: Mexico faces a complex and divided criminal market, and a resolution to these structural problems is unlikely in the short-term, which could once again see homicide rates peak this year.
The Sahel: Domestic Strategies or an Islamist Focus?
Threats in the Sahel continue to escalate. Chad is beginning to experience insurgency in areas that have largely remained ungoverned; Niger’s Tillaberi region–once able stave off pressures on its porous borders – is now in the radar of Al Qaeda and ISIS; Burkina Faso is in the vortex of radical Islamist. Incidences of violence in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have doubled in 2019 compared to 2018.
Our Assessment: Extended militant networks are getting a relatively free hand to recruit, train their cadre and indulge in arms trafficking. Such large-scale recruitment across porous borders amplifies the vulnerabilities of neighbouring states. A lack of understanding of local conflicts could potentially escalate violence in the Sahel, and the increased infiltration could bring about a change in the risk matrix.
Somalia and the Al Shabaab
The recent increase in Al Shabaab operations against both Somalia and Kenya are likely to continue in 2020. Somalia has become a prominent example of destabilization brought by the rivalry between Qatar and the GCC.
Our Assessment: Al Shabaab is likely to renew attempts at de-legitimizing the Somali government. Somalia’s Gulf allies are as likely to increase efforts at securing political sway ahead of the general election. The events of this year will have a massive impact on the future of the country, raising the stakes for all involved.
Ethiopia’s Ethnic Battles
Political violence in Ethiopia has moved from fighting against systemic issues to ethnic strife, featuring riots and clashes brought about by ethnic militias. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's failure to control the situation could cost him the upcoming elections.
Our Assessment: Violence related to the borders and competition over resources could worsen if federal forces are not able to contain the situation. The push for greater autonomy in Ethiopia’s regional states is already shaping the country’s political landscape.