By Armin Rosen, Jeremy Bender and Pierre Bienaimé
If 2014 proved anything, it’s that guessing at the state of the world a year down the line is a vain or even slightly embarrassing endeavor.
Indeed, who could have expected a year ago that Russia would take over Crimea, ISIS would break out of Al Qaeda and declare a caliphate, the US would start bombing Syria and Iraq while approaching a nuclear deal with Iran,or that Ebola would ravaged three west African countries and scare the world?
Nevertheless, we’re going to do our best to predict the big geopolitical stories of 2015:
1. The Islamic State will lose control of Mosul.
The US will continue to increase the number of “advisors” on the ground in Baghdad while upgrading “coordination” with Iran in preparation for a surprise push against the city in mid-2015. The US-Kurdish-Iraqi-Iranian assault will succeed in dislodging ISIS but not in totally defeating the group.
2. The Israeli elections end in chaos.
A rejuvenated Labor party will win the most seats in the Knesset — but will fail to form a government, thanks to centrist and ultra-orthodox parties refusing to join one another in a coalition. Meanwhile, the insurgent Gideon Sa’ar will narrowly fail to dislodge Netanyahu as head of Likud, meaning that the Prime Minister will enter his third term in the weakest position of his political career. He will respond by entering into an unusual deal with Labor that makes the pro-peace process Tzipi Livni his foreign minister while committing the government to taking a superficially serious go at negotiating with the Palestinians. The Palestinians will quietly accede to a watered-down version of their pending UN resolution demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and enter into proximity talks with the Israelis. To no one’s shock, these negotiations will go nowhere.
3. Tensions explode between Greece and Turkey over disputed gas deposits in the Aegean Sea.
By the end of the year, the waters off of the north of Cyprus will be thoroughly militarized with a South China Sea-like face-off between two prideful and desperate countries that are also NATO allies. The escalation will end any discussion of constructing liquid natural gas terminals in Cyprus or pipelines in the northeastern Mediterranean. This will in turn make countries reluctant to sanction Russia’s energy industry and indirectly benefit Vladimir Putin.
4. The year will end with no nuclear agreement between the US and Iran.
Ayatollah Khamenei won’t go all the way on a deal, while the P5+1, which will drop its demands on the disclosure of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps role in the country’s nuclear program, won’t be able to stomach Iran’s requirement of a 10-year sunset clause and an insistence on plutonium reprocessing rights. The biggest foreign policy initiative of Obama’s second term will basically end in failure, leading him to spend a lot more time focusing on lower-hanging fruit like rapprochement with Cuba — which he’ll visit in September, at the beginning of the Caribbean tourism season.
5. Famine grips the conflict-affected parts of South Sudan.
A stalled peace process, plummeting oil production, and the prospect of US and international sanctions will leave the government of the world’s newest nation in its most dire position since the country gained independence in 2011. Meanwhile, two missed growing seasons, interrupted supply lines, and increasing food prices will lead to east Africa’s worst food emergency since the Somali famine of 2011.
6. Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika dies.
The longest-serving president in Algerian history has been in ill health and has barely been seen in public since his “re-election” in April of last year. It’s likely he hasn’t really been running things for awhile now. Despite widespread protests in Algeria during the Arab Spring period the putative president’s death will have little actual impact on the country, whose socialist military government has successfully insulated Algeria against much of the chaos in neighboring Mali and Libya.
7. Putin’s Eurasian Union slinks into the background.
A sinking ruble will convince Armenia to indefinitely delay its membership in the Russian president’s Eurasian Customs Union. The US will dangls the possibility of sanctions relief in front of Belarus as well in the hopes that the country’s authoritarian and traditionally pro-Russian government switches sides. The war in Ukraine will continue but Eurasianism as a project will die in 2015.
8. Afghanistan goes better than expected.
The social and political dividend from this year’s peaceful transfer of power to new president Ashraf Ghani, alongside a backstop of over 10,000 US troops and increased Pakistani operations against Taliban forces operating from their territory will prevent the kind of precipitous backsliding that many feared would accompany the end of NATO combat operations.
9. ISIS will slowly evolve into a more al Qaeda-like organization: As it loses ground in the Middle East, it’ll focus on terrorism abroad.
This past year saw the proliferation of “lone wolf” attacks that may or may not be related to ISIS but were at least inspired by the group — car attacks in France and Canada, a hostage situation in Australia, and a shooting in Ottawa.
This shift in tactics will continue as ISIS loses ground and calls on its supporters overseas to launch attacks, as it did this past September.
10. Countries will be compelled to intervene in Libya, again.
The spread of ISIS into Libya, the collapse of any central authority, the presence of two competing governments, numerous Islamic groups, a renegade general, and the proliferation of weapons from the country to terrorist hotspots around the world will lead to foreign troops again being deployed to the country.
Egypt and the UAE have already carried out airstrikes against Islamist targets in Libya. As the political situation continues to deteriorate and the chaos from Libya threatens the stability of neighboring countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and Niger, outside powers will be convinced that they have to act.
Most likely, Egypt and the UAE will continue carrying out aerial operations. Europe could also become involved in military efforts in Libya as any ongoing chaos in Libya is not too far removed from the shores of southern Europe.
11. Another airborne disaster ratchets up the tension between Russia and the rest of the world.
The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was uniquely horrific. But Russia and its proxies nearly brought down civilian aircraft at other points in 2014 and could easily do so next year.
Last March, a Russian military plane nearly collided with a Swedish commercial jet carrying 132 passengers. Disaster “was apparently avoided thanks only to good visibility and the alertness of the passenger plane pilots,” according to a European Leadership Network report on the “dangerous brinkmanship” between Russia and the West.
Another close call came in early December, again involving a Swedish passenger plane and a Russian aircraft that had turned off its transponders — the devices by which planes announce their location in order to avoid exactly these sorts of disasters.
On the military side, NATO member states have scrambled planes to intercept Russian incursions three times more frequently in 2014 than in the year prior. Each confrontation had its own small window for a potential disaster with wide political and security implications.
The more confrontations like this in European skies, the greater a chance for a repeat of the MH17 disaster in the new year.
12. Obama and Turkey collaborate to create a buffer zone in northern Syria.
“My presidency is entering the fourth quarter,” Obama told reporters at a year’s end conference. “Interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Running with the president’s sports analogy, his foreign policy toward the Middle East can be summarized as overtures in the first quarter (“a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”), selective support for some of the Arab Spring’s new movements in the second, and indecision in the face of civil wars in both Syria and Iraq in the third.
Part of the game-plan for the fourth started to emerge late this year: Iraqi special forces trained by the US would begin their push for ISIS territory in the spring, despite local forces eager to take the fight to the extremists sooner in Mosul.
Alongside this trained force in Iraq, a no-fly zone — which Turkish officials see as a means to turn the tide against Assad — offers the Obama administration another way of addressing the deep political problems of the region with the help of its allies.