In the summer of 2012—around the time that the Islamic State’s inchoate plans for a caliphate merited a mere footnote in a U.S. congressional report on the year-old Syrian conflict—Robert Satloff argued that a civil war was taking shape in Syria, and that its terrible consequences would extend far beyond Syrians; Americans, too, would soon be acquainted with the horror.
Among the plausible scenarios, he reasoned in the New Republic, were a revived Kurdish insurgency in Turkey and thousands of jihadists “descending on Syria to fight the apostate Alawite regime, transforming this large Eastern Mediterranean country into the global nexus of violent Islamist terrorists.”
“None of this is fantasy,” Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, assured his readers.
Today, they need no convincing. In the three years since Satloff issued his warning, the Syrian Civil War has steadily metastasized as a perceived threat to U.S. national security, nurturing ISIS, bludgeoning Iraq, and radiating refugees in the Middle East and Europe. Consider, for example, the results of a new survey of American foreign-policy experts and practitioners by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action. Nearly 500 respondents estimated the likelihood and impact on U.S. interests of 30 potential conflicts in 2016. These conflicts were then sorted into three tiers of risk to America.
A deepening of the Syrian conflict “resulting from increased external support for warring parties, including military intervention by outside powers” was rated both highly likely and high-impact—the only “contingency” in the study to be ranked so gravely.
The countries in red below represent all conflicts that were assessed as either highly likely to occur/intensify or high-impact, meaning the contingency could threaten the U.S. mainland, spark U.S. military involvement because of mutual-defense treaty commitments, or endanger the supply of strategic U.S. resources. (The annual CFR report focuses on political- or security-related scenarios rather than economic crises, extreme-weather events, and other types of disasters; you can find the results of previous surveys here and here.)
The findings are perhaps less a forecast of things to come than a reflection of the primary concerns among experts heading into 2016. The map doesn’t necessarily depict where fighting, instability, or humanitarian suffering will be most acute; instead, it offers a sense what U.S. policymakers and crisis-managers might see when they look out onto the world, weigh America’s strategic interests, and decide how to allocate their finite time and resources in the coming year.
President Obama may believe America’s future lies in Asia, but the Middle East endures as the capital of American preoccupation. As Paul Stares, the report’s lead author, writes, “Of the eleven contingencies classified as Tier 1 priorities, all but three are related to events unfolding” in the Mideast. Several stem from the Syrian Civil War.
High-Priority Threats to America
Among the scenarios in this high-priority tier of conflict are a mass-casualty attack on the U.S. homeland; a major cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure; a crisis with or in North Korea over, say, nuclear-weapons testing or political tumult in Pyongyang; increased fighting between Kurdish groups and Turkish forces, aggravated by the Syrian Civil War; a deterioration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; political disarray in Libya and Egypt; and Iraq splintering further as a result of ISIS advances and Sunni-Shiite violence.
Another worry appeared for the first time in the survey: “political instability in EU countries stemming from the influx of refugees and migrants, with heightened civil unrest, isolated terrorist attacks, or violence against refugees and migrants.” And this judgment was made before ISIS’s November attacks in Paris; the survey concluded the day of the rampage.
This fear isn’t solely about the influx of asylum-seekers from Syria and other countries, or Europe’s ongoing economic struggles, Stares told me: “I think there’s this sort of unease among American experts about the whole European project, the integrity of the European Union,” and its viability as a U.S. partner.
“The hope that this will continue to be a vibrant and stable place has been shaken somewhat by not only the terrorist attacks, but also signs of dissension between countries, particularly in the east, who are resistant to taking in refugees and are clearly turning to the right and becoming more conservative. And you see this in other parts of Western Europe,” he added. “I think [unease about Europe] has somewhat supplanted concern that was evident this time last year about friction between European/NATO countries and Russia.”
Stares was struck by the relative lack of anxiety about a worsening of the war in Afghanistan, which was deemed highly likely but only of moderate impact. “Afghanistan has sort of receded into the background mainly because of concern over the Middle East … which is somewhat surprising given that the Taliban have made some significant advances since last year,” he said. “But I think it’s this sort of displacement effect of the Middle East on people’s perceptions of risk.”
Two contingencies were downgraded from high to medium priorities between this year’s survey and last year’s, even though hostilities in each case are still pronounced: an armed confrontation between China and its neighbors over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and an escalation in fighting between Russian-backed militias and Ukrainian security forces in eastern Ukraine.
A ceasefire in eastern Ukraine “seems to be holding,” Stares noted, “and Russia has a lot on its plate both internally and in terms of its [military] intervention into Syria. Why would they dial up tensions in Ukraine at this moment?” Similarly, “there’s probably a sense that China has made the island grabs that it wants to do, and it is consolidating its position [in the South China Sea]. And given China’s [sluggish] economic situation … and a certain level of high-level agreement between the U.S. and China with the various meetings between [Presidents] Xi and Obama, people are saying, ‘Look, I don’t think the Chinese are really going to rock the boat here this year.’”
A third scenario—an intentional or unintentional military face-off between Russia and one or more NATO member states—appeared for the first time in the survey, in the second tier shown below. As for Iran, angst has shifted since 2014 from the country’s nuclear program, which was substantially restricted in July as part of an agreement with world powers, to its support of proxy militias in various Middle Eastern conflicts. This tranche of priorities also includes violence from organized crime in Mexico, destabilizing spillover from Syria to nearby countries, and China and Japan contesting the sovereignty of islands in the East China Sea.
Medium-Priority Threats to America
The third tier includes three contingencies that haven’t featured in the survey before: political instability in both Saudi Arabia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the growth of Islamist militancy in Russia and particularly the North Caucasus region, spurred in part by Vladimir Putin’s military operations in Syria and the threat of Russian ISIS fighters returning home.
Stares attributed Saudi Arabia’s presence on this year’s list to three factors: “I think it’s the combination of some reports of internal dissension within the Saudi royal family … reports of financial, economic, or budgetary difficulties in the Kingdom as a result of depressed oil prices and therefore depressed government revenues ... and thirdly the Saudi [military] intervention in [the civil war in] Yemen, which has had some resonance within Saudi elites. I think there’s concern about whether Saudi Arabia may have overstretched itself there. And it’s unclear how this will end, and how much of a burden—and how much blowback—there might be.”
In Nigeria, where a new president was elected in March, turmoil related to the jihadist group Boko Haram was judged to be less of a risk than it was last year, even though Boko Haram remains the world’s deadliest terrorist organization. Also mentioned here were the prospects for a major clash between India and Pakistan and a more profound crisis in post-Chavez Venezuela, where the economy is in tatters and the opposition has won control of the legislative but not the executive branch. (Respondents wrote in their own conflicts as well, including territorial competition in the Arctic, fallout from the potential death of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, now 91, and possible mass atrocities in politically polarized Burundi, where 87 people were killed last Friday.)
Low-Priority Threats to America
In a recently released guide to the multi-sided conflict in Congo, the Council on Foreign Relations notes that for almost two decades, the country’s eastern provinces have been the site of the deadliest fighting since World War II. And the costs of that violence are staggering. CFR points out that Congo’s hydropower potential is greater than sub-Saharan Africa’s total current energy capacity, that its arable land could feed nearly all of Africa, and that its mineral wealth is critical to the world’s consumer electronics—but that much of this economic promise has yet to be realized. These natural resources have exacerbated the conflict, but they also highlight the huge upside to resolving it. Whether war ebbs depends in part on elections in November 2016, when President Joseph Kabila could either permit a democratic transition or flout the constitution and try to maintain his 15-year hold on power.
It’s quite a consequential moment for Congo. But judging by the maps above, it’s one that U.S. officials may not pay all that much attention to.