What 2020 will bring part two

As for an introductory remark part one, we should not forget that the world’s population could reach a staggering 8-6 billion people by 2030 — triple the population of the early 1960s. Much of this increase will come from the poorest regions of India, South America, and Africa. Africa alone is expected to represent nearly half of the world’s population by the middle of this century; by some estimates, India is adding 1 million people to its working-age population a month. If we don’t place international cooperation over national self-interest, the world will be unprepared for this population explosion, which could become a catalyst for greater global conflict.



The odds of a U.S. military response either directly against Iran or against the militias in Iraq backed by Tehran have risen following a 27 Dec. rocket attack on a military base in Kirkuk that left a U.S. contractor dead and four U.S. military personnel injured. At least 30 rockets struck the K-1 base in northern Iraq that houses both U.S. and Iraqi military forces.

Why it matters is because, in mid-December, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that any Iranian attack harming U.S. personnel would draw a "decisive U.S. response." That was just the latest in a drumbeat of similar warnings he has issued to Iraqi and Iranian leaders since June. Other U.S. officials including (Rep.) Senator Sen. Tom Cotton today, have publicly and privately referred to any U.S. casualty as a result of Iranian action as a "red line." Any direct U.S. military response against Iran or its proxies, whether in the wake of this incident or others, will substantially increase the possibility of Iranian retaliation against U.S. interests that could spark a wider conflict. If a U.S. response remains limited to the PMUs in Iraq, it could set off a relatively contained exchange between the U.S. and Iranian proxies in the country. However, a direct U.S. military response against Iran would open the door for wider escalation, which in the extreme could draw in other U.S. allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.  

Given the presence of some 5,000 U.S. military personnel and numerous militias linked to Iran in Iraq, there is ample opportunity for incidents there to kindle a wider conflict. At least 10 rocket attacks attributed to Iranian-backed forces have occurred near Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces over the past several months, but none resulted in U.S. casualties. The United States has not responded militarily to other Iranian-linked attacks in the Middle East, including ones that devastated Saudi oil facilities, targeted vessels in the Persian Gulf and downed a U.S. drone, because they did not cause U.S. casualties.                                                            

Also, Iran's buildup of proxies and missiles in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon could bring the region closer to war, especially as Israel will move independently to restrain Iranian influence when it clashes with its interests.

Iran's buildup of proxies and missiles in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could bring the region closer to war, especially as Israel will move independently to restrain Iranian influence when it clashes with its interests. As it is, Israel is already engaged in an aggressive airstrike campaign in Syria and, since the summer, Iraq and Lebanon. The Israeli military has sought to diminish Iran's ability to use long-range missiles to threaten Israel and impose a high cost on Iran for its military buildup in these countries.

Israel has taken steps to quietly build a broad anti-Iran coalition at the diplomatic level, while Iran has invested deeply in cultivating ties with militias and other non-state actors.

Each country has a different escalation pattern; Lebanon, for example, is one of the most sensitive areas for Iranian buildup. This is, in part, because Iran's Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, is Tehran's most capable, and Israel is concerned about the impact of a full-scale conflict. Accordingly, Israel is countering Iranian interests in Lebanon with greater restraint than in Syria or Iraq. In next-door Syria, the buildup is provocative but less likely to escalate into a regional war, as Israel's strikes on Iranian forces have become part of the pattern of their ongoing confrontation, and Tehran has decided to endure the campaign rather than trigger a regional war. Moreover, the Syrian government remains weakened by the civil war, and Israel's yearslong bombing campaign has disrupted Iran's buildup, making it less likely that Damascus and Tehran can readily strike back as effectively against Israel.

Finally, in Iraq, the Iranian military expansion has now prompted some Israeli airstrikes against Tehran's ballistic missiles in the country, leading Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), many of which have links to Iran, to look for ways to retaliate against Israel or its American ally. Such retaliation could injure or kill U.S. forces, touching off a tit-for-tat escalation — particularly after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Iraqi leaders in June that the killing of Americans would cross Washington's red line. As it is, American bases have come under harassment by still unverified forces, prompting at least one instance of reported U.S. retaliation against the PMUs. After a Dec. 3 attack on Iraq's Ain al-Asad base, for instance, U.S. forces reportedly assisted with the arrest on Dec. 19 of a PMU commander allegedly linked to the attack. Ultimately, because PMU retaliation could drag the United States into the fray — and because Iran's buildup remains in its infancy — Israel has shown some restraint recently in conducting strikes in Iraq.

The trajectories of both Iran's nuclear development activities and its actions in Iraq and the Levant suggest that the lull in tensions since the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks are about to come to an end. All parties want to avoid a conflagration, but Iran is feeling empowered by its perception of U.S. weakness, meaning both of these tracks present increased dangers in 2020. The nuclear track risks will increase over time unless the countries can find an exit — although Iran could spring a surprise at any time, plunging the region into conflict.


Russia deploys new hypersonic missile system

Also what might become of an influence the coming year is that on Tuesday, the Russian military announced it had deployed a hypersonic weapon that flies at superfast speeds and can easily evade U.S. missile defense systems, potentially setting off a new chapter in the long arms race between the world’s preeminent nuclear powers including also other countries.


Over the past decade, the gap in conventional power between India and Pakistan has only grown, even as Pakistan has tried to heal that gap with nuclear weapons. Despite (or perhaps because) of this, tensions between the rivals remained at a low simmer until steps taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reduce the autonomy of Kashmir and to change citizenship policies within the rest of India. These steps have caused some unrest within India, and have highlighted the long-standing tensions between Delhi and Islamabad. In a move that could impact ties with India, Saudi Arabia has agreed to hold a special foreign ministers’ meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) devoted to Kashmir after it persuaded Pakistan to back out of an Islamic summit hosted by Malaysia last week. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday claimed that India is planning to carry out an "action of some sort" in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Further domestic disturbances within India could give Pakistan (or extremist groups within Pakistan) the idea that it has the opportunity, or perhaps even the responsibility, to intervene in some fashion. While this is unlikely, to begin with, conventional military action, it could consist of terrorist attacks internationally, in Kashmir, or internationally. If this happened, Modi might feel forced to respond in some fashion, leading to a ladder of escalation that could bring the two countries to the brink of a more serious conflict. Given China’s looming position and the growing relationship between Delhi and Washington, this kind of conflict could have remarkably disastrous international ripple effects.

The Indian government’s actions in Kashmir, coupled with India’s new citizenship law, appear to confirm Modi’s intention to implement a Hindu nationalist agenda.

The gravest danger is the risk that a militant attack sets off an escalation. In Kashmir, insurgents are lying low but still active. Indeed, India’s heavy-handed military operations in Kashmir over the past few years have inspired a new homegrown generation, whose ranks are likely to swell further after the latest repression. A strike on Indian forces almost certainly would precipitate Indian retaliation against Pakistan, regardless of whether Islamabad is complicit in the plan. In a worst-case scenario, the two nuclear-armed neighbors could stumble into war.

If a new crisis emerges, foreign powers will have to throw their full weight behind preserving peace on the disputed border.


Korean Peninsula

North Korea has opened a high-profile political conference to discuss how to overcome "harsh trials and difficulties," state media reported Sunday, days before a year-end deadline set by Pyongyang for Washington to make concessions in nuclear negotiations.

The days of 2017, when U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hurled insults at each other and exchanged threats of nuclear annihilation, seemed distant during most of 2019. But tensions are escalating.

Although Pyongyang’s warning of a “Christmas gift” for Washington if the United States does not propose what Kim deems a satisfactory way forward had not materialized at the time of writing, prospects for diplomacy seem to be dimming.

Yet both sides should think about what will happen if diplomacy fails. If the North escalates its provocations, the Trump administration could react much like it did in 2017, with name-calling and efforts to further tighten sanctions and by exploring military options with unthinkable consequences.

That dynamic would be bad for the region, the world, and both leaders. The best option for both sides remains a confidence-building, measure-for-measure deal that gives each modest benefits. Pyongyang and Washington need to put in the time to negotiate and gauge possibilities for compromise. In 2020, Trump and Kim should steer clear of high-level pageantry and high-drama provocations, and empower their negotiators to get to work.



More people are being killed as a result of fighting in Afghanistan than in any other current conflict in the world. Yet there may be a window this coming year to set in motion a peace process aimed at ending the decadeslong war. Deadly violence continues to grip Afghanistan even as the United States and the Taliban negotiate talks aimed at reducing US' military footprint in the country in return for the fighters ensuring an improved security situation.

Levels of bloodshed have soared over the past two years. Separate attacks by Taliban insurgents and Islamic State militants have rocked cities and towns across the country. Less visible is bloodshed in the countryside. Washington and Kabul have stepped up air assaults and special-forces raids, with civilians often bearing the brunt of the violence. Suffering in rural areas is immense.

Any deal should pave the way for talks among Afghans, which means tying the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal to both counterterrorism goals and the Taliban’s good-faith participation in talks with the Afghan government and other powerful Afghan leaders. A U.S.-Taliban agreement would mark only the beginning of a long road to a settlement among Afghans, which is a prerequisite for peace. But it almost certainly offers the only hope of calming today’s deadliest war.


Syria, Ukraine, and protests

In Syria, the United States combined a hegemon’s bombast with a bystander’s pose. Local actors (such as the Kurds) were emboldened by U.S. overpromising and then disappointed by U.S. under-delivery. Meanwhile, Russia stood firmly behind its brutal ally, while others in the neighborhood (namely, Turkey) sought to profit from the chaos.

The bad news might contain a sliver of good. As leaders understand the limits of allies’ backing, reality sinks in. Saudi Arabia, initially encouraged by the Trump administration’s apparent blank check, flexed its regional muscle until a series of brazen Iranian attacks and noticeable U.S. nonresponses showed the kingdom the extent of its exposure, driving it to seek a settlement in Yemen and, perhaps, de-escalation with Iran.

To many Americans, Ukraine evokes a sordid tale of quid pro quo and impeachment politics. But for its new president at the center of that storm, Volodymyr Zelensky, a priority is to end the conflict in that country’s east—an objective for which he appears to recognize the need for Kyiv to compromise.

Others might similarly readjust their views: the Afghan government and other anti-Taliban powerbrokers, accepting that U.S. troops won’t be around forever; Iran and the Syrian regime, seeing that Russia’s newfound Middle East swagger hardly protects them against Israeli strikes. These actors may not all be entirely on their own, but with their allies’ support only going so far, they might be brought back down to earth. There is a virtue in realism.

There’s another trend that warrants attention: the phenomenon of mass protests across the globe. It is an equal-opportunity discontent, shaking countries governed by both the left and right, democracies and autocracies, rich and poor, from Latin America to Asia and Africa. Particularly striking are those in the Middle East—because many observers thought that the broken illusions and horrific bloodshed that came in the wake of the 2011 uprisings would dissuade another round.                                                                                          

Protesters have learned lessons, settling in for the long haul and, for the most part, avoiding the violence that plays in the hands of those they contest.

Global protests in 2019


Some commentators have tried to tie all the protests together, arguing rallies and demonstrations and blockades more often than not are a reaction to anti-democratic and right-wing forces taking hold in many places around the world.

Maybe so for some but not all, and there are plenty of contradictions. And then and now, protesters on the left or right of the political spectrum share on thing in common — a firm conviction that things should and can change.

One big difference with the past, though, has come with social media and the internet. Modern communication has helped to fuel anger and assist greatly in the organization and recruitment of protesters to take on authorities.


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