ANALYSIS: Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2018

“Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2018” 
Chatham House , London, February 6th, 2018 


Patricia Lewis, Research Director on International Security at Chatham House, and Robert Malley, President and CEO of the International Crisis Group (ICG) discussed the International Crisis Group’s Ten Conflicts To Watch in 2018. The aim was to identify the key challenges to global security and examine their potential threat to regional stability, as well as their foreign policy implications for governments around the world.


According to the ICG report, the following were the top 10 conflicts to watch in 2018:

  1. North Korea
  2. U.S.-Saudi-Iran Rivalry
  3. The Rohingya Crisis: Myanmar and Bangladesh
  4. Yemen
  5. Afghanistan
  6. Syria
  7. The Sahel
  8. Democratic Republic of Congo
  9. Ukraine
  10. Venezuela

Robert Malley previously served as Special Assistant and Senior Advisor to President Obama for the Counter-ISIL Campaign, as well as White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region. Earlier, he served as Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, and Director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.


  • North Korea

Robert Malley began by saying that from North Korea to Venezuela, the ICG’s focus had not necessarily been on those conflicts that could potentially be the bloodiest. Instead, the focus had been on those dangerous situations that could actually be resolved if certain important observations and recommendations made by the ICG were put into action.

Turning first to North Korea, he said that the dilemma rested upon the fact that North Korea had a nuclear program that was moving forward despite overt threats from and robust sanctions by the US. Robert Malley, felt that from this perspective there was no alternative but war. However, he noted that some measures, despite the current impasse, could be taken to slow the process down, and give diplomacy a chance to try and prevent what would be no less than a catastrophic conflict that had the potential to spread. He said time was an essential factor, and that all avenues needed to be explored to try to determine what North Korea really wanted. He said that in his view, nuclear conflict was not imminent, and that the Winter Olympics in South Korea would help improve the current atmosphere by helping to calm things down at this time.

  • Afghanistan

Malley turned next to Afghanistan and pointed to the fact that in recent months, violence had increased. He said that for the foreseeable future, there seemed to be no resolution to the impasse between the government and the Taliban.

Robert Malley said ICG analysts had concluded that dispatching more troops to Afghanistan was unlikely to end the current impasse. He felt it was also ridiculous for the US to  refuse to engage in a dialogue with the Taliban, and that the US underestimated the current leverage held by the Taliban, while overestimating its own military advantages.

Robert Malley said that the Taliban couldn’t be coerced into surrendering, just as the Saudis had failed to pressure the Houtis in their bitter conflict against them. He reminded the audience of what was perhaps the most significant failure in this regard: the conflict between the Israeli government and the Palestinians.

  • American Retrenchment

Before turning to other flash points referred to in the ICG report, Robert Malley addressed the subject of American retrenchment, which had been mentioned in the opening paragraphs of the ICG report.

He said that contrary to what had been proclaimed by Donald Trump and his supporters, namely that the US was in some kind of a ‘retrenchment mode’, there had in fact been no evidence of any real retrenchment, as America seemed to remain quite involved in most international matters: Over 200,000 American troops were located in different parts of the world. Instead, according to Malley, what had been witnessed over the past year had been the militarization of foreign policy and the erosion of multilateralism.

He said it was a fact that Donald Trump liked and wanted to project power, in contrast to his perception of Barack Obama, whom he considered  weak in this regard. Malley therefore held the view that the only retrenchment witnessed so far had been in the field of diplomacy.

  • Saudi Arabia/Iran/Qatar

Turning his attention to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar, Robert Malley said that while regional powers were bent on competing for influence in this arena and beyond, the absence of diplomacy meant that the region had become very volatile and extremely dangerous.

Robert Malley then spoke about the JCPOA. He noted that despite continued EU, Chinese and Russian support for this agreement, there was a good chance that the US might walk away from this deal by the middle of May 2018. He said walking away from this deal would no doubt be a reflection on Donald Trump’s desire to be different from Barack Obama and to try to undo his achievements. In that case, any backtracking by America would be in contrast to the existing belief and general consensus among all parties that the JCPOA was in fact a good deal. It was his view that were the US to walk away, it would be up to the EU to try and persuade the Iranian regime to continue its commitments to the agreement, given that the US in any event was unlikely to simply stand by. He felt it was also in the interest of Iran to try to stick with the EU and prevent its own increasing isolation in the international arena. He ended his remarks on this subject by saying that in such a scenario, there was no question that Iran would suffer, though its suffering would be much less were it to stick with the Europeans.

  • Not in the ‘Top Ten’: The Israel – Palestine Theater

Robert Malley ended his presentation by discussing the ongoing and unresolved Israel-Palestine problem, which had not made the ‘TopTen’ in the ICG report. He said that an interesting feature about this theatre of conflict was that it was non-violent until such time as violence erupted most explosively (for example, the 1st and 2nd Intifada). He noted that while this ongoing problem had recently become more stable, a series of events had nonetheless contributed to the erosion of faith on a number of key issues, such as diplomacy with the US (after Trump declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced that he was moving the US embassy there), the de-legitimization of the Palestinian Authority, and a reliable commitment by all sides to a ‘Two-State Solution’.



Key Points from 
the ICG’s Report
Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2018,from North Korea to Venezuela,


It’s not all about Donald Trump.

That’s a statement more easily written than believed, given the U.S. president’s erratic comportment on the world stage — his tweets and taunts, his cavalier disregard of international accords, his readiness to undercut his own diplomats, his odd choice of foes, and his even odder choice of friends. And yet, a more inward-looking United States and a greater international diffusion of power, increasingly militarized foreign policy, and shrinking space for multilateralism and diplomacy are features of the international order that predate the current occupant of the White House and look set to outlast him.

The first trend — U.S. retrenchment — has been in the making for years, hastened by the 2003 Iraq War that, intended to showcase American power, did more to demonstrate its limitations. Overreach abroad, fatigue at home, and a natural rebalancing after the relatively brief period of largely uncontested U.S. supremacy in the 1990s mean the decline was likely inevitable. Trump’s signature “America First” slogan harbors a toxic nativist, exclusionary, and intolerant worldview. …..

The second trend, the growing militarization of foreign policy, also represents continuity as much as departure. Trump exhibits a taste for generals and disdain for diplomats; his secretary of state has an even more curious penchant to dismember the institution from which he derives his power…..

The third trend is the erosion of multilateralism. Whereas former President Obama sought (with mixed success) to manage and cushion America’s relative decline by bolstering international agreements — such as trade deals, the Paris climate accord, and the Iran nuclear negotiations — President Trump recoils from all that. Where Obama opted for burden-sharing, Trump’s instinct is for burden-shedding.

The most ominous threats in 2018 — nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula and a spiraling confrontation pitting the United States and its allies against Iran — could both be aggravated by Trump’s actions, inactions, and idiosyncrasies. U.S. demands (in the North Korean case, denuclearization; in Iran’s, unilateral renegotiation of the nuclear deal or Tehran’s regional retreat) are unrealistic without serious diplomatic engagement or reciprocal concessions. In the former, Washington could face the prospect of provoking a nuclear war in order to avoid one, and in the latter, there is the possibility of jeopardizing a nuclear deal that is succeeding for the sake of a confrontation with Iran that almost certainly will not.

(A third potential flashpoint that didn’t make it into our top 10 — because it came so late and was so unexpected and gratuitous — is the Jerusalem powder keg. At the time of writing, it has not yet exploded, perhaps because when one is as hopeless as the Palestinians there is little hope left to be dashed. Still, the Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for purely domestic political reasons, with no conceivable foreign-policy gain and a risk of explosion, must rank as a prime example of diplomatic malpractice.)…

The International Crisis Group’s top 10 conflicts to watch in 2018:

  1. North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing coupled with the White House’s bellicose rhetoric make the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula — even a catastrophic nuclear confrontation — higher now than at any time in recent history. Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017 and the increasing range of its missiles clearly demonstrate its determination to advance its nuclear program and intercontinental strike capability. From the United States, meanwhile, comes careless saber-rattling and confusing signals about diplomacy.

  1. U.S.-Saudi-Iran Rivalry

This rivalry will likely eclipse other Middle Eastern fault lines in 2018. It is enabled and exacerbated by three parallel developments: the consolidation of the authority of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s assertive crown prince; the Trump administration’s more aggressive strategy toward Iran; and the end of the Islamic State’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria, which allows Washington and Riyadh to aim the spotlight more firmly on Iran.

The contours of a U.S./Saudi strategy (with an important Israeli assist) are becoming clear. It is based on an overriding assumption that Iran has exploited passive regional and international actors to bolster its position in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. Washington and Riyadh seek to re-establish a sense of deterrence by convincing Tehran that it will pay at least as high a price for its actions as it can inflict on its adversaries.

The strategy seems to involve multiple forms of pressure to contain, squeeze, exhaust, and ultimately push back Iran. It has an economic dimension (via U.S. sanctions); a diplomatic one (witness vocal U.S. and Saudi denunciations of Iran’s regional behavior and Riyadh’s ham-handed attempt to force Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation); and a military one (so far exerted principally by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and by Israel in Syria).

Whether it will work is another question. Although recent protests in Iran have introduced a new and unpredictable variable, Tehran and its partners still appear to be in a strong position. The Bashar al-Assad regime, backed by Russian air power, is prevailing in Syria. Across Iraq, Iran-linked Shiite militias are entrenching themselves in state institutions. In Yemen, Tehran’s relatively small investment in backing the Houthis has helped them weather the Saudi-led campaign and even launch missiles of unprecedented range and accuracy into Saudi territory.

Despite demonstrating its resolve to confront Iran and its partners, Riyadh has been unable to alter the balance of power. Forcing Hariri’s resignation backfired, not just because he later withdrew it, but also because all of Lebanon united against the move and Hariri then inched closer to Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah. 

In Yemen, Riyadh turned the Houthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against each other, but in doing so further fragmented the country and complicated the search for a settlement and a face-saving Saudi exit from a war that is enormously costly not only to Yemenis but also to Riyadh’s international standing. The Trump administration confronts similar obstacles. Thus far its belligerence, refusal to certify the nuclear deal, threats of new sanctions, and launching of several strikes at and near regime targets in Syria have done little to reverse Tehran’s reach…..

  1. The Rohingya Crisis: Myanmar and Bangladesh

Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis has entered a dangerous new phase, threatening Myanmar’s hard-won democratic transition, its stability, and that of Bangladesh and the region as a whole.

  1. Yemen

With 8 million people on the brink of famine, 1 million declared cholera cases, and over 3 million internally displaced persons, the Yemen war could escalate further in 2018. After a period of rising tensions, dueling rallies, and armed assaults, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced in December that his General People’s Congress was abandoning its partnership with the Houthis in favor of the Saudi-led coalition. Saleh paid for it with his life; he was killed immediately by his erstwhile partners. Saudi Arabia and its allies — believing that the Houthi/General People’s Congress split opens new opportunities and still convinced a military solution exists — will likely intensify their campaign at a huge cost to civilians. Iran will keep finding ample opportunity to keep the Saudis bogged down, and the more anarchic Yemen’s north becomes, the more likely that violence is to bleed across the border. The Houthis will continue to take the fight to the Saudi homefront, firing missiles toward Riyadh and threatening other Gulf states.

Negotiations, already a distant prospect, have become more complicated. The Houthis, feeling simultaneously emboldened and embattled, could adopt a more uncompromising stance. The General People’s Congress, a pragmatic centrist party, could fragment further. The south is divided, owing partly to the widening rift between forces loyal to Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and southern separatists backed by the United Arab Emirates.

There are signs of mounting U.S. discomfort with the indiscriminate Saudi bombardment and the blockade of Houthi-controlled territories. But the Trump administration’s belligerent rhetoric toward Iran encourages all the wrong tendencies in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and its allies should instead lift the blockade of Yemen and reopen civilian airports. Politically, there should be a new Security Council resolution providing for a balanced settlement. The Saudis are loath to concede anything to a group they consider an Iranian proxy, but were they to embrace a realistic peace initiative, the onus would shift to the Houthis to accept it.

  1. Afghanistan

The War in Afghanistan looks set to intensify in 2018. The United States’ new Afghanistan strategy raises the tempo of operations against the Taliban insurgency, with more U.S. forces, fiercer U.S. airstrikes, and more aggressive ground offensives by Afghan forces. The aim, according to senior officials, is to halt the Taliban’s momentum and, eventually, force it into a political settlement. For now, though, the strategy is almost exclusively military.

  1. Syria

After nearly seven years of war, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has the upper hand, thanks largely to Iranian and Russian backing. But the fighting is not over. Large swaths of the country remain outside regime control, regional and international powers disagree on a settlement, and Syria is an arena for the rivalry between Iran and its enemies. As the Islamic State is ousted from the east, prospects for escalation elsewhere will increase.

  1. The Sahel

Weak states across the Sahel region (e.g. Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) are struggling to manage an overlapping mix of intercommunal conflict, jihadi violence, and fighting over smuggling routes. Their leaders’ predation and militarized responses often make things worse….

  1. Democratic Republic of Congo

President Joseph Kabila’s determination to hold on to power threatens to escalate the crisis in Congo and a humanitarian emergency that is already among the world’s worst. At the end of 2016, the Saint Sylvester agreement appeared to offer a way out, requiring elections by the end of 2017, after which Kabila would leave power (his second and, according to the Congolese Constitution, final term in office should have ended December 2016). Over the past year, however, his regime has backtracked, exploiting the Congolese opposition’s disarray and waning international attention and reneging on a power-sharing deal. In November, the election commission announced a new calendar — with a vote at the end of 2018, extending Kabila’s rule for at least another year.

The most likely course in 2018 is gradual deterioration. But there are worse scenarios. ……

  1. Ukraine

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed over 10,000 lives and constitutes a grave ongoing humanitarian crisis. While it persists, relations between Russia and the West are unlikely to improve. Separatist-held areas are dysfunctional and dependent on Moscow. In other areas of Ukraine, mounting anger at corruption and the 2015 Minsk II agreement, which Russia and Ukraine’s Western allies insist is the path to resolve the conflict, creates new challenges.

  1. Venezuela

Venezuela took yet another turn for the worse in 2017, as President Nicolás Maduro’s government ran the country further into the ground while strengthening its political grip. The opposition has imploded. Prospects for a peaceful restoration of democracy appear ever slimmer. But with the economy in free fall, Maduro faces enormous challenges. Expect the humanitarian crisis to deepen in 2018 as GDP continues to contract…..