What conflicts will be most prominent in 2019? Below are our estimate of the ten situations most likely to result in continued violence and clickbait headlines. Some are potentially more dangerous than others but it is difficult to measure that kind of risk. It is possible to eliminate two major sources of headlines; Russia and China. Both of these nations have nukes and a lot of disputes with neighbors. Yet both of these nations have rational leaders, at least when it comes to avoiding major conflicts. Russia was dismayed when its aggression against Ukraine in 2014 led to sanctions by its largest trading partners. Then came an unrelated permanent plunge in world oil prices that has done more damage than the sanctions. China has avoided more sanctions so far and befitted from the lower oil prices. But China has unrelated internal political, economic and demographic problems that make any major conflict suicidal for the current communist leaders. But like the leaders of Russia and Pakistan, the Chinese find it useful to create some foreign threats to distract their populations from internal problems. This is an ancient tactic that delays having to deal with internal problems at the risk of escalating into a real war. In terms of risk Russia and China are more smoke than fire. The ten situations discussed below are most definitely very dangerous although some are not so great as clickbait.
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) may be greatly diminished but various al Qaeda franchises (in central Africa, Yemen, Syria and South Asia) are still very active and so are various Islamic terror groups that have been around a long time in places like Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, northern Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Caucasus where they concentrate on non-Moslems or Moslems considered heretics. Some of these groups have been terrorizing their neighbors for centuries. What is different now is that most Moslem rulers recognize that this sort of thing does no one any good and is bad for Islam. Even the new ruler of Saudi Arabia accepts this and is seeking a solution that makes things better and not worse. The problem is that there is no one recognized (by even a majority of Moslems) authority on what (if anything) defines acts that justify Islamic terrorism. So the Islamic terrorism will still be out there in 2019 and beyond. Rising affluence, literacy and access to global media and the Internet has made Islamic terrorism more visible and more likely to occur outside Moslem majority areas. It will lead to some better educated Islamic terrorists but also to more Moslems abandoning Islam. That is a capital crime in many Moslem majority states and that sometimes means execution or murder by mob.
Greater Syria And The Levant
The Syrian civil war is not over but it is entering its third phase, which may involve the rest of the “Levant” (Lebanon and Israel). The first phase was in 2011-2 when the majority of Syrians turned against the Assad government. The Assads seemed doomed. But then the various rebel groups began spending more time fighting each other than the Assads. It got worse when ISIL showed up in 2013 and did not end until ISIL was eliminated as a major threat by the end of 2017. Now the factions are rearranging themselves for continued fighting. Already Turkish troops are fighting, or threatening to attack Kurds in northwest Syria while American troops prepare to leave the Kurdish northeast if the Turks and Russians will agree to deal with the remaining Islamic terror groups. But Turkey has proved unreliable and Russia has not got the troops in Syria to make a difference by themselves. Russia is there to provide air and logistics support for the Syrian government. The Syrians are battle weary and also don’t have sufficient ground forces to deal with the Kurds and remaining Islamic terror groups. This leaves Iran, which has paid for a large army of Shia mercenaries who are there mainly to establish bases from which to attack Israel. That leaves Israel, the most powerful military power in the region, to deal with the Iranian threat. Israel has told Iran to get out of Syria or face continued air attacks and “special operations” that will further embarrass the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s and thought declaring war on Israel was a good idea. Most Iranians disagree with that and are out in the streets for over a year now making their opposition quite visible. This is a very volatile situation that does not present many good options.
North Korea is not a major threat because it might invade South Korea or use its nuclear weapons. The more likely threat, especially to China, is that the North Korean economy and government will collapse to the point that there is no effective government at all. At that point, millions of North Koreans will find they can flee to China, Russia or South Korea. Most of these refugees will get to China where they will be an unwelcome and expensive presence. Worse, the Chinese will probably realize it is in their best interests to go in and clean up, as best they can, the mess that used to be a fellow communist dictatorship. That invasion might lead to disputes, or worse, with South Korea. North Korea has been sliding towards this disaster since the 1990s and it’s not a question of “if” but “when” something blows up. The leaders of China and North Korea have indicated they both realize the danger but that may not be enough. The Chinese have other problems, most of them economic and domestic. North Korea still has a large army, chemical and biological weapons and some unreliable and primitive nuclear weapons and the option to carry out a suicidal attack on South Korea. It is a volatile and unpredictable situation that could end badly.
This country has the largest oil reserves of any nation on the planet. But it also has one of the most corrupt, ineffective, lawless and clueless governments in the world. Venezuela has become a home base for drug cartels, Iranian Islamic terrorists and Chinese investors seeking a long term relationship. Drug gangs already exercise considerable power in Venezuela and leftist rebels from Colombia have moved in to exploit new opportunities. No one, not even major creditors (China and Russia) want to intervene directly. The neighbors do not want to intervene as that is not the accepted way of handling these things. However, the neighbors are faced with a choice of either intervening to deal with the chaos and violence or do nothing and wait for the chaos and violence to come to visit at intolerable levels. There might be a military coup as there have already been minor outbreaks of violence or organized disobedience by the security forces. Whatever happens here during 2019 it is unlikely to be peaceful.
Iran is at war on multiple fronts including another nationwide popular outburst against the religious dictatorship running the country. There was some of this popular protest in 2009 that called for fair elections and one in 1999 seeking freedom of speech. Those two were put down with force. But the latest outburst, that began at the end of 2017 and continues, specifically calls for withdrawal from foreign wars and paying more attention to economic problems at home. Protestors were, for the first time, calling for the corrupt religious rulers to be removed, killed if necessary. Some protestors call for a return of the constitutional monarchy the religious leaders replaced in the 1980s (after first promising true democracy). The popular uprising was quickly contained but not shut down and the government found that its many wars had also turned sour. Before the 2017 nationwide protests, the religious rulers saw Iran on the way to some major victories in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. That optimism turned out to be premature. The good times were supposed to begin in the wake of a July 2015 treaty that lifted the many sanctions Iran operated under. The government got a lot more money but did not apply most of it to improving the Iranian economy. Instead, a lot of that cash was stolen by corrupt officials or diverted to the many foreign wars. Foreign economists believe that because of this the Iranian economy won’t get moving again until the 2020s. Still unresolved is the other problem that bothers Iranians; an Islamic conservative minority with veto power over any attempts at reform from within. Independent reformers are considered enemies of the state by the ruling clerics. Most Iranians just want a better life. There are some more complications. Half the population consists of ethnic minorities (mainly Turks, Kurds and Arabs), and some of these groups (Arabs, Kurds and Baluchis) are getting more restive and violent (for different reasons). Meanwhile, the Islamic conservatives are determined to support terrorism overseas and build ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons at home, rather than concentrating on improving the economy and living standards and addressing the corruption within their ranks. Expensive efforts to aid pro-Iran groups in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon have had some success and are justified as examples of the ancient Iranian empire being reborn. The government sees these foreign adventures as a way to distract an unhappy population. That has backfired and these foreign wars tend to be a losing proposition and in Syria the loss could be spectacular because the main adversary is Israel. The nukes are still important because Iran has been increasingly vocal about how Iran should be the leader of the Islamic world and the guardian of the major Islamic shrines (Mecca and Medina) in Saudi Arabia. Iranians believe that having nukes would motivate the Arabs to bow down and Israel to disintegrate. The Arabs have been kicked around by the Iranians for thousands of years and take this latest threat very seriously. That has led to a major reform effort in Saudi Arabia with a new generation of leaders willing to take on corruption and which alliances really benefit the Saudis. That has resulted in openly working with Israel to deal with Iranian aggression. This has made victories in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen less likely and an increase in anger among most Iranians more likely. This mess is unlikely to resolve itself peacefully.
The major threat in Afghanistan remains the drug trade and largely Pushtun (the largest tribal minority in Afghanistan) drug gangs that are seeking to turn the country into a narco-state dominated by the wealthy and heavily armed drug lords. This is where Afghanistan was headed in early 2001 as the Taliban struggled to gain control over the entire country and were largely financed by “taxes” from the drug gangs. Then as now, Islamic terrorism is portrayed as the main problem in Afghanistan but what makes the Islamic terrorists so potent is the money they obtain by serving as hired guns by the drug gangs. The second major problem in Afghanistan is Pakistan, which considers Afghanistan a problem to be handled by keeping the Afghans fighting each other. Meanwhile, Pakistan gets rich by controlling most of the drug smuggling and legitimate traffic going into and out of landlocked Afghanistan. The Americans and the rest of the world are pressuring Pakistan to curb its support for Islamic terrorism and drug gangs in Afghanistan. That is unlikely to happen as the drug trade is too lucrative for too many powerful people in both countries. Afghans know that interference by more powerful neighbors, particularly the ancient Indian and Iran empires is a recurring problem. For once the Afghans have a foreign benefactor (the Americans and NATO) that are willing to help and want nothing more than the country to be peaceful and free of the drug trade. This makes these infidel (non-Moslem) foreigners more acceptable than fellow Moslems from Iran and Pakistan (which used to be part of a larger Indian Empire). The West cannot afford to have Afghanistan remain a center of heroin production because that keeps much of Afghanistan lawless and available as a sanctuary for Islamic terrorists. Western forces can stay (and have a chance of destroying the drug gangs, something most Afghans back) or leaving the drug gangs to survive and thrive, often in cooperation with Islamic terrorists willing to provide security for cash.
Despite being a formidable military force, or perhaps because of it, the Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Iran Turkey and Syria are again under pressure to back off from efforts to create an independent Kurdish state. The last few decades have given Kurds hope that their time may have finally arrived. Since the early 1990s the Iraqi Kurds have been autonomous (originally with British and American help) and they had always been more effective soldiers than the Iraqi Arabs. Some things, however, do not change. The Kurds still suffer from tribal and clan divisions as well as corruption, but to a much lesser extent than the Arabs. Thus a disproportionate number of Western trainers were sent to the Kurds in Iraq and Syria when effective allies in those areas were needed. The Kurds are considered reliable enough to work with Western commandos and protect ground control teams (that can call in air strikes). Kurds regularly assist the American and British commandos in carrying out their most dangerous tasks; reconnaissance inside hostile territory. But the Kurds have not got the manpower for large scale operations. And that’s why they were pushed out of Kirkuk province in late 2017 by more numerous Iraqi Arab soldiers and militiamen. Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran are also under attack and the Kurds have not got the numbers, or cash, to deal with all their hostile hosts.
The Kurds have had more than their share of bad breaks. Like many mid-size ethnic groups the Kurds were never able to establish their own nation and for thousands of years have been subjects of one empire (Iranian, Roman, Turkish and so on) or another. A century ago they were part of the Turkish homeland because the Turks recognized the Kurds as worthy allies (but still part of the empire). Turks even like to call the Kurds “mountain Turks”, a name the Kurds do not like at all. After World War I the Kurds living near the Turkish city of Mosul found that they were no longer Turkish subjects but now part of the largely Arab nation of Iraq. This was done by the victorious allies (mainly Britain and France) to deny the Turks (now a country, not an empire and reduced to its present borders) oil, which had recently been discovered in the areas around Mosul and Kirkuk. Needless to say, the Arabs, long unwilling subjects of the Turkish Empire, did not welcome the Kurds (who were often the Turkish enforcers when the Arabs got out of line). The Turks recognized and used Kurdish military skills and Arabs feared the Kurds because of that. Meanwhile, the Kurds, in general, were angry that the allied post World War I promise of a Kurdish state (once the Turks were defeated) was not kept. That was mainly because the Turks, once pushed back to their homeland, made it clear that there would be a major fight if the allies tried to keep all the promises made at the expense of the Turks. The war weary allies backed off after a brief war and the Kurds were screwed again. That was the 1920s and the basic situation has not changed much. Yet the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds feel they have a chance of holding on to their autonomous enclaves which are adjacent to each other. That is not working out. The autonomy of the Syrian Kurds is threatened by Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government. As in the past, the Kurds will not just back off. There will be blood.
This includes the Sahel (the semi-desert area south of the Sahara desert) and the violence in Mali, Niger and Somalia. Just south of the Sahel there are major conflicts in Central Africa proper. These include wars in Congo, Nigeria and several smaller nations inland plus Sudan, South Sudan and Kenya on the east coast. Since World War II this is where most of the violence, deaths and misery have occurred worldwide. Despite that these conflicts and their aftermath have received the least attention in the media. Not much will change in 2019.
The Pakistan Plan
In Pakistan, the military staged a silent coup since 2017 and took control of the top elected leaders, the mass media and highest courts. The Pakistani military plans to keep this power by doing what they have done for decades; create foreign threats where none exist and use that to justify the continued power, prosperity and immunity from prosecution of Pakistani military leaders. To make this work Pakistani generals have to ensure that several volatile situations do not blow up. One of the more obvious examples of this is Afghanistan, which the Pakistani military sees as a potential problem that is best handled by establishing a degree of Pakistani control over who does what in Afghanistan. Thus Pakistan created the Taliban in the early 1990s to end the civil war in Afghanistan and that had unfortunate side effects. For Pakistan, Afghanistan seems to be nothing but unfortunate side effects.
In northwest India, Pakistan claims all of Kashmir province, a dispute that has been going on since the late 1940s. Pakistan is the aggressor here and has lost several wars and a protracted Islamic terrorism campaign (carried out by Pakistan supported Islamic terror groups) has not succeeded either. The Pakistani military has made an ally of China, which also has claims on Indian territory. India has a 4,000 kilometer border with China and several portions of it are in dispute. Pakistan supports China in all of these disputes. India and China fought a short war in 1962 over their border disputes. The Indians lost and are determined not to lose if there is a rematch. But so far, the Indians have been falling farther behind China in terms of military power and infrastructure (roads and military bases near the border). This all began when China resumed its control over Tibet in the late 1950s. From the end of the Chinese empire from 1912 to 1949, Tibet had been independent. But when the communists took over China during 1949 they began to reassert control over Tibet. This began slowly, but once all of Tibet was under Chinese control in 1959 India found itself with another difficult and demanding neighbor. The main disagreement was about where the border should be. In 1914, the newly independent government of Tibet negotiated a border settlement (the McMahon line) with the British (who then controlled India.) China called this border agreement illegal and wanted 90,000 square kilometers back. India refused, especially since this would mean losing much of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India. The one positive aspect of all this is that most of the disputed border is mountains, the highest mountains in the world (the Himalayas). So no matter how much you prepare for war, no one is going very far, very fast, when you have to deal with these mountains. China is seen as the more serious threat but with Pakistan and China working together, India sees the problem as even more serious. All three nations have nuclear weapons and the Pakistani ones are seen as the most vulnerable to misuse. Either the Pakistani generals will seriously threaten to use their nukes if India crosses the border to deal with the Kashmir dispute or the many Islamic terror groups Pakistani supports and provides sanctuary for will get possession of one of those nukes. Because of the corrupt and greedy Pakistani military leadership, Pakistan is stuck in a perpetual state of corruption and political uncertainty.
The Palestinian efforts to destroy Israel have backfired in a big way and now the two organizations that control the Palestinians (Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza) are losing the financial and diplomatic support they have enjoyed for over half a century. The cause of this calamity is the inability of the Palestinians to form a united and effective government. Instead, they have suffered under decades of corrupt and ineffective leaders that led, in 2005, to a split with Islamic radicals (Hamas) taking control of Gaza while Fatah continued to rule the West Bank. Both factions agree on a few things; Israel must be destroyed and violence is justified to get it done. Fatah was more willing to pretend it would negotiate a peace deal with Israel but has proved to be as intransigent as Hamas about actually doing so. Fatah now openly admits it shares the Hamas attitude that peace is not possible with Israel and the only solution is the destruction of Israel.
The Palestinian problem was invented by the Arab countries when Israel declared independence in 1948 and Arab nations refused to accept and absorb Moslems who fled (mostly) from the newly created Israel on the promise of the Arab nations soon mobilizing sufficient military strength to destroy Israel, drive the Jews out and allow the refugees to return home. That never happened and it was quickly recognized that there was a serious refugee problem. The UN established a program to take care of these refugees but in a very unusual move, the 750,000 original (later called Palestinian) refugees were allowed to pass on their refugee status to their children. No other refugee group was allowed to do that by the UN and now there are calls from major donor nations (especially the U.S., which has paid for most of that special treatment from the beginning) to rescind that rule. About the same number of Jews were driven out of Moslem countries after 1948 and they were all accepted and absorbed by other nations, mainly Israel and the U.S. Since 1947 the number of “Palestinian refugees” has grown to five million and Arab states continue to refuse to absorb them. Many Palestinians have managed to find acceptance (and citizenship) in other nations (usually not Moslem majority ones) but few have renounced their rights as hereditary refugees. This situation was all about Arabs believing they had the right to decide who can live in “Moslem territories” and for them, Israel was a major offense. This is nothing new. Moslems had been driving infidels out of Islamic nations for a long time. This has not worked with Israel and the Moslem world, in general, takes this as a great offense. That was the attitude for many decades but nothing changed. In the 1960s those Arab refugees rebranded themselves as “Palestinians” and began seeking what their Arab sponsors had promised them, a home of their own.
Since 2005 the Arab donors have become increasingly disenchanted with the Palestinians. Even by Middle Eastern standards the corruption, ineffective government, ingratitude and double-dealing of the Palestinians had become intolerable. The Palestinians ignored years of warnings from their Arab backers and failed to maintain a united Palestinian government. This wasted a lot of the Arab aid money and the corruption among Palestinian politicians became too obvious, excessive and embarrassing even for Arab backers, who had their own problems with corruption. This was compounded by the Palestinian inability to make peace with the Israelis, who had made lasting deals with Jordan and Egypt. Worse, the Palestinians were saying to their own people, and the Arab world, that they had no intention of making peace and were dedicated to destroying Israel. This was only said in Arabic and it was only a matter of time before these print, radio and TV pronouncements would be translated and become known to the rest of the world. That has happened in the last decade and now the Palestinians have few friends in the West except for anti-Semites and some leftist groups. Worse, there is less foreign aid, which is all that kept the Palestinian scams going. At this point, the Palestinians have run out of affluent donors who are willing to give. The Palestinian leaders who ran this scam for decades have no easy (or safe, for themselves) way to change tactics without admitting responsibility for the mess. It used to be said that the Palestinian situation could not get worse but Palestinian leaders regularly defied that prediction and found a way to make things worse. Thus the Palestinian leader will call for more violence as their situation becomes more desperate. That has kept most Palestinians willing to tolerate or even act on what their leaders call for. But it is not working, except to cause more Palestinian suffering. However, the Palestinian disaster did have one positive side effect; it was seen as one of the reasons for the Arab oil states to make peace with Israel and become allies in the fight against Iranian aggression. Naturally, many Palestinians support the Iranians.