In 2014, when Business Insider’s Military & Defence team got together to guess the state of the world a year down the line, we thought we were embarking on a slightly embarrassing endeavour.
Turns out, several of our predictions were correct.
Meanwhile, Iran signed a landmark nuclear deal in July that has the potential to reshape the Middle East and the larger issue of global nuclear arms control.
Here’s 15 big geopolitical events that we think lie in store for 2016.
Iran will mildly cheat on the nuclear deal.
Iran spent the second half of 2015 pushing the limits of the landmark July nuclear agreement it reached with a US-led group of countries.
Since the deal, Iran has conducted multiple illegal tests of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, arrested and imprisoned US citizens, and failed to fully cooperate with an international probe into its past nuclear-weapons program.
Because of that, the Obama administration announced its plans to issue new sanctions that will target nearly a dozen companies and individuals in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Hong Kong for their suspected role in helping develop Iran’s missile program and supporting human-rights abuses and international terrorism.
As tensions mount, expect Tehran to continue to push limits by running uranium through an advanced centrifuge (as it did in late 2014 in apparent violation of the 2013 interim nuclear agreement) and by stalling to reduce its uranium stockpiles to the agreement-mandated 300 kilograms.
At this point, Iran will cheat around the deal’s margins in 2016 — and for the international community do little to counter them.
Syria will get much worse.
The ongoing US-backed push for a political resolution in Syria will fail for the simple reason that various combatants don’t seem to want a peaceful resolution at this point in the war.
In the coming year, the US’ triangulation on whether Bashar al-Assad should stay as the result of a peace negotiation will backfire, alienating the more hardline groups in the Syrian opposition that actually present the greatest threat to the Assad regime’s survival.
The failure to reach a shared negotiating platform on terms that the Assad regime will also accept will not just nix the latest round of peace talks. It will also give Assad and his backers an excuse to sit out any future peace push (unless the regime appears to be in imminent danger of collapse).
There are plenty of other reasons to be pessimistic about Syria in the coming year. Russia has expanded its military operation aimed at defending the Assad regime.
The Israeli bombing in Syria that killed child-murdering Hezbollah terrorist Samir Kuntar on December 20 risks an escalation between Israel and the Iranian proxy group. Turkey is mired in a dangerous entanglement of interests along its border with Syria, too.
Few if any of the problems surrounding the Syria war will be solved in 2016, and the world’s most destructive conflict will enter its sixth year in early 2017 with no end in sight.
Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman will not be captured.
Despite the intensifying hunt for fugitive Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, who escaped from Altiplano prison using a sophisticated custom-built labyrinth in July, authorities will not capture Guzmán alive.
David Shirk, a University of San Diego professor who leads USD’s Justice in Mexico project, provided Business Insider with some insight on the suspicions of why this is the case: “People think that somehow there’s been a pact or a negotiation between the [President Enrique] Peña Nieto administration and certain cartel organizations,” Shirk said.
Amid these charges, Mexico’s interior ministry has been accused of hiding a video with sounds of power tools and digging, proving that Guzmán’s planned escape was a dead giveaway to prison guards.
“The video exists and is crucial in identifying the level of complicity in [El] Chapo’s escape,” Sen. Alejandro Encinas, the secretary of the Mexican Congress’ Bicameral Committee on National Security, told EFE Agencia.
Furthermore, Guzmán has proven he can elude capture, as he did in early October when Mexican Marines chased him off a small cliff and Guzmán still got away after breaking his leg.
Obama will go for one last Middle East accomplishment — at Israel’s expense.
Obama has fulfilled many of his objectives in the Middle East, withdrawing US troops from Iraq, limiting US involvement in the Syria conflict, and reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran.
However, he’s made no progress in moving Israel and Palestine closer to peace.
It’s been reported that Obama was weighing a US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution outlining the international community’s expectations for a final-status solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Such a resolution would upend the last 20 years of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” which has been predicated on the idea that the two sides would reach an agreement based on negotiations with one another — and not based on dictums from the international community.
Israel bristles at the idea of “final status” UN resolution, with officials arguing it would stack the peace process against them and undercut their position in any future negotiation — all without exacting any equivalent penalty on the Palestinian Authority.
Advocates of such a measure point to the last 20 years of stalled negotiations and argue that it’s time to try something new, even and perhaps especially if it comes at Israel’s apparent expense.
Given Obama’s lack of success in pursuing Middle Eastern peace, and his March 2015 statement that the US would “reassess” its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expect the US to introduce or endorse a final-status resolution in late 2016 that lays out the US’ set of expectations for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
A Kurdish insurgency will worsen in Turkey.
Fighting between the Turkish government and PKK-linked Kurdish separatists will continue to get worse throughout 2016, and could approach a full-blown insurgency.
The violence will extend out of the predominantly Kurdish east of Turkey and will begin to affect cities like Istanbul, which has a sizable Kurdish minority.
The rising violence will also contribute to a spread of ultra-nationalist attacks carried out by Turks against Kurds and other groups seen as possibly loyal to a Kurdish cause — such as minority Alevi Muslims.
The Turkish Kurdish community could also fragment between religious Kurds largely supportive of Turkey’s governing AKP Islamist government and the strictly secular PKK.
The US-Turkish relationship will deteriorate.
Against the backdrop of increasing Kurdish violence in Turkey, the Turkish-US relationship will deteriorate.
Focusing on building a capable ground force for eliminating ISIS in Syria, the US and other NATO countries will continue to push for support to Syria’s Kurdish YPG fighting force, which is linked to the Turkish PKK.
The flow of supplies to the YPG, and the group’s continued establishment of an autonomous state along the Turkish border, will infuriate Ankara.
This will ultimately lead to a deterioration in the US-Turkish relationship, making it more difficult for the international community to reach a consensus on Syria.
The US will face an uptick in cyberattacks.
Terrorists, rogue nations, and cyber criminals will intensify cyberattacks against targets that are seen as weak or vulnerable. These attacks, particularly by hackers affiliated with ISIS, may attempt to target locations such as power grids throughout the US.
Such attacks, if successful, may be able to suspend power in isolated areas, but will be unable to knock out power throughout vast swathes of the country due to the US lacking any single centralized utility company.
Cyberattacks on other targets, such as potential cyber-espionage attacks on US companies and government networks, will likely also increase and be carried out by hackers associated with — but not directly part of — the governments of places like China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran.
Putin and the EU will make a deal in Ukraine.
In 2016, Putin will be looking for an exit strategy from Ukraine, and an exhausted EU will hand him one.
Plunging energy prices and international sanctions have crippled the Kremlin, even more so that Russia is escalating its military operations in Syria.
With the US suddenly interested in cooperating with Russia in both fighting ISIS and reaching a resolution in Syria, Putin will have all the more incentive to cut his losses and pocket a limited but significant set of victories in eastern Ukraine.
The deal will look something like this: Separatist-controlled sections of eastern Ukraine will be reintegrated into the rest of the country but gain increased autonomy that perhaps resembles Republic of Srpska’s status within Bosnia after the 1995 Dayton Accords.
The Kremlin will cut off most of its assistance to Ukrainian militants and withdraw its troops and artillery from Ukraine. The issue of Crimea will be tabled without any kind of a specific or formal resolution — as will the thorny issues of Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership.
This limited set of agreements will hand Putin a partial victory and pave the way for Russian reintegration into the international community, at a time when both the EU and Russia are weary of a more than two-year-long conflict.
ISIS will continue to set up franchisees around the world.
In the wake of a number of ISIS-directed, and inspired, attacks around the world, the terror group will continue to expand.
Local terror organizations throughout the world will continue to pledge allegiance to ISIS-central in Iraq and Syria, leading to the illusion that the group is rapidly expanding and controlling more territory.
However, ISIS’s franchising throughout the world will ultimately make the group become more like al Qaeda. The group will go from focusing on capturing and holding territory to continuing to focus more on terror attacks abroad against soft targets.
The spread of ISIS franchisees will also make the ISIS brand less focused as ISIS-central will be unable, or unwilling, to direct the actions of its affiliates.
The Saudi-backed coalition will dislodge the Houthis from most of Yemen.
Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Yemen in March 2015 in an attempt to restore the country’s internationally recognized leadership to power after Iran-backed Houthi rebels dissolved the country’s post-Arab Spring transitional government the previous month.
The Saudi-led campaign has been accused of repeated human-rights violations and has turned Yemen into one of the world’s most dire humanitarian catastrophes. But it’s also successfully rolled back certain Houthi gains and built up a consensus against Iranian meddling in the country: In April, the US sent an aircraft carrier to waters off of Yemen to blockade an incoming Iranian arms shipment.
This pattern should continue into 2016. This coming year, the Houthis will lose control of the Yemeni capital of Sa’ana after weeks of brutal urban warfare. At that point, the international community’s real challenge will begin: Rebuilding the Yemeni state in a way that tamps down, rather than inflames, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, despite the presence of a Saudi-backed military coalition in the country.
The presidents of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo will extend their power beyond constitutional limits.
Africa’s Great Lakes region remains one of the most volatile places on earth, as the protracted crisis over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional third term as president of Burundi demonstrates.
Nkurunziza isn’t going to be the last of the region’s leaders to keep themselves in power longer than the rules mandate.
In late October, Rwandan President Paul Kagame — one of the world’s most ruthless autocrats — changed Rwanda’s constitution to allow him to rule until as late as 2034.
He’ll be easily reelected in 2016, and the international community — which values stability in the Great Lakes above just about every other objective — will probably do little to counter his power grab.
The neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, which is the site of maybe the world’s most complex armed conflict, also faces a looming crisis over term limits. President Joseph Kabila, the weak, long-serving and decidedly sub-competent leader of one of Africa’s largest and most populous countries, has already sparked internal unrest amid suspicions that he planned on staying power in 2015.
With the fresh examples of Burundi and Rwanda, it’s doubtful he’s going much of anywhere next year, either. In an era when sub-Saharan Africa is generally becoming more peaceful and prosperous, the Great Lakes will remain a potential trouble spot.
China’s actions in the East and South China Seas become increasingly erratic, but it won’t be enough to start a war.
China is facing a string of potential economic troubles in 2016, in the wake of the country’s 2015 stock market meltdown and a growing sense that the Chinese economy hasn’t been growing as quickly as officially reported.
Nationalism is a convenient out for any authoritarian government facing a legitimacy crisis, but Beijing has historically been cautious in how it has managed its population’s nationalistic sentiments.
In recent years, China has encroached into disputed parts of the South China Sea without seeming to actively look for military confrontations with its neighbors.
That won’t change this year, but China’s economic situation might force Beijing to manufacture a rally-round-the-flag moment for a population with an existing deep-seated distrust of the Communist Party-led system.
In 2016, expect another flare-up on par with China’s provocative mid-2014 deployment of oil platforms within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.
Qatar will not be stripped of the 2022 World Cup.
The international soccer bureaucracy had a rough 2015. After the US indictments of top FIFA officials for fraud, many assume that it’s only a matter of time before the alleged bribery that allowed the tiny, oil-rich Persian Gulf state Qatar to secure the 2022 World Cup is exposed and the tournament is relocated.
Given the March announcement that the tournament would be played in the winter months due to Qatar’s extreme summer heat — meaning the World Cup would cut into the lucrative European club season — there are already plenty of reasons to move the tournament aside from possible fraud.
But Qatar is not going to be stripped of the World Cup in 2016, or in any other year. As little as the world seems to want to play the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the legal fight over a canceled tournament might be too much for FIFA and its sponsors to handle, absent a convincing smoking gun proving that Qatar bribed its way to its hosting privileges.
Stripping Qatar of the tournament could undermine future bidding processes, and alienate the Federation’s Arab and Middle Eastern members as well. It’s just easier for FIFA to write off the 2022 World Cup as as the excesses of an earlier era than it is to go through the political and legal hassle of actually relocating it.
The opinion of the US will fall throughout the Muslim world.
Public opinion of the US will continue to fall throughout the Muslim world.
This will be due to US inaction in regards to the war in Syria, continued US support for status quo and strongman governments in the Middle East, and a view in the Sunni world that the US is siding with Iran and the Shia community against their interests.
Anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric throughout the 2016 presidential race will damage US-Muslim relations. Further reluctance to accept Syrian refugees into the country will also breed bad will.
Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan will clash.
Iraq will continue to de facto federalize itself in 2016. Iraqi Kurdistan, desperate for funding to buy arms, pay salaries, and continue to hold the line against ISIS, will continue to sell oil itself directly through Turkey against the insistence of Baghdad.
This will further cement Kurdistan’s autonomy and threaten the existence of a singular Iraqi state.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s current de facto control over Kirkuk will also be a flash point. The city was excluded from the Kurdistan autonomous region, although Kurds think of it as being a core part of their land and history — as do Arabs and Turkmen.
The city only fell into Kurdish hands after the ISIS blitz across northern Iraq, and the status of the city will lead to sharp divides between Baghdad and the Kurds.
The tensions inherent in this situation will also lead to military confrontations between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shia militias operating in Iraq.
The groups may not come to full conflict, but the tensions will impact any potential operations between the Kurds, the militias, and the Iraqi Security Forces — particularly in challenging operations, such as a potential bid to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from ISIS.