The Global Conflicts to Watch in 2014

From a cyberattack on America to a civil war in Iraq, the threats we'll be worrying about next year
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Center for Preventive Action/Council on Foreign Relations

As South Sudan, the world's newest country, veers dangerously close to ethnic civil war, we're already getting a glimpse of the international crises that could greet us in the new year. Now the Center for Preventive Action, an affiliate of the Council on Foreign Relations, has presented a more comprehensive view, releasing its annual forecast of the conflicts that could pose the greatest threat to the United States in 2014.

The survey, which asked more than 1,200 U.S. government officials, academics, and experts to assess the impact and likelihood of 30 scenarios, divides the results into three tiers of risk. And some of the findings are alarming. Beyond the familiar flashpoints—military intervention in Syria's civil war, strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities—the report raises concerns about overlooked threats ranging from turmoil in Jordan to civil war in Iraq to a border clash between China and India. The study is also notable for the risks it downplays, including armed confrontation between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.

The most threatening and most likely conflicts (in red) include some you might expect: limited military intervention in Syria's deteriorating civil war; a cyberattack on critical infrastructure in the U.S.; military strikes against Iran if nuclear talks fail or Tehran advances its nuclear program; a North Korean crisis sparked by military provocation or internal political instability; a major terrorist attack on the U.S. or an ally; and greater turmoil in Afghanistan and Pakistan as U.S. troops withdraw from the region and Afghanistan holds elections.

But other potential crises in this category have received less attention and were deemed less threatening in last year's survey, including the "strengthening of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula resulting from continued political instability in Yemen and/or backlash from U.S. counterterrorism operations" (in the latest example of those operations, a drone strike hit a Yemeni wedding); "civil war in Iraq due to rising Sunni-Shia sectarian violence" (the civilian death toll in the country more than doubled this year); and "growing political instability and civil violence in Jordan triggered by spillover from the Syrian civil war" (according to the experts polled, there is less of a risk of a similar phenomenon occurring in Lebanon, where a bombing near the Iranian embassy in Beirut recently killed 23 people).

Second-tier risks (orange), according to the report, include a "severe Indo-Pakistani military confrontation triggered by a major terrorist attack or heightened violence in Kashmir" and "escalating violence and risk of mass atrocities in the Central African Republic," where a wave of sectarian killings has raised fears of a coming genocide.

In what may be the most striking finding, military conflict between China and neighbors like Japan and the Philippines in the East and South China Seas is judged to be less of a threat than it was in 2013, even after a tense year capped most recently by Beijing's creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea. The thinking, perhaps, is that China's has tested the limits of its assertiveness in the region and will show more restraint in the coming year, or that the countries involved have now established mechanisms to resolve disputes before they devolve into armed confrontation.

Some of the least likely and threatening conflicts (yellow) have never before been included in the study, including China and India butting heads over disputed territory, Venezuela succumbing to political crisis in the wake of Hugo Chavez's death, and Buddhists and Muslim Rohingyas clashing in Myanmar. South Sudan is mentioned, but only in the context of possible military conflict with Sudan—not in terms of South Sudan itself imploding (the survey was conducted in November, before internal fighting erupted in the country).

These predictions about threats to global stability in 2014 are just that—predictions, and U.S.-centric ones at that. Last year's report, for instance, did not foresee the coup in Egypt, and did mention the (admittedly low) probability of "widespread unrest in Zimbabwe surrounding the electoral process and/or the death of Robert Mugabe," who remains very much alive. 

Still, these maps should give you a pretty good sense of the hot spots that have U.S. officials most concerned heading into 2014.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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