2018 – The Year that was

Sub Title : A snapshot of the dynamics of developments in various conflict hotspots across the globe

Issues Details : Vol.12 Issue Jan/ Feb 2019

Author : Ajay Singh

Page No. : 40

Category : Geostrategy

: April 22, 2019

The Article details the events of the past year across the Globe and the ramifications thereof Are we headed towards peace or otherwise ? Only time with tell

A Good Year – So Far

The only new war to have broken out during the year was a Trade War which involved no shooting – though its ramifications on the world economy could be greater than an actual war. In Korea, one of the major flash points of the world, the nuclear ratcheting diminished considerably and even a kind of reconciliation was reached between the two Koreas. In fact, the only major incident was the naval action between Russia and Ukraine in the Sea of Azov where Russian patrol boats and aircraft fired at Ukrainian vessels and detained them, charging them with violating Russian waters. And yes, after years of arguing, nations even got together to agree on a Climate Change Agreement at Katowice.

Terrorist attacks, especially lone wolf strikes, have taken place, but fortunately the world has been spared a major attack. But, the long-standing wars of Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Nigeria continue unendingly. Afghanistan has seen an exceptionally violent year. Over 40,000 have been killed this year as the Taliban stepped up their onslaught against Ghani’s beleaguered regime. What has made it worse is Trump’s ill -advised decision to withdraw half the US troops from Afghanistan, leaving the nation open.

Similarly, in Syria, the abrupt decision to halt air strikes and withdraw the 2000 US troops on the premise that “The IS has been defeated” is pre-mature and leaves the battle half-done. Suddenly the equations of both conflicts have changed for the worse. What it implies is that though 2018 has been a relatively peaceful year, the stage is being set for greater conflict in the year to come.

The Year of Changing Power Equations

If anything characterized 2018, it was the manner in which the USA adopted an increasingly isolationist stance and ceded strategic space in theatres of the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East, Europe and Afghanistan – space into which China and Russia have moved in subtly. The US- China rivalry has now reached a stage of open hostility. So far, the rivalry has been confined to the Trade War which President Trump launched with the tweet, ‘Trade wars are good and easy to win’ and imposed tariffs of $240 Billion on Chinese goods. The Chinese responded with retaliatory tariffs and the ripple effect sent world markets into a tizzy, caused a slowdown in demand and production and impacted world commerce. Although China has indicated a climb down, this war will last for a while, shaking economies – including India’s – across the world.

Yet the real dangers of growing US-China tensions lie elsewhere. With the much-hyped US ‘Pivot to Asia’ having subsided, China has expanded its envelope in the South China Sea. It continues to build islands, runways and bases on its claim lines virtually up to the maritime boundaries of Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and Taiwan. The US has ceded space in the Indo-Pacific but in asserting the principles of ‘Freedom of Navigation’ has sent aircraft and naval vessels into the disputed waters. There have been 17 incidents involving encounters and even near collisions between US and Chinese aircraft and ships. If one of these face-offs go out of control, it could lead to a dangerous situation in the troubled waters.

As China expands its sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific, Russia is pushing its power with just the right degree of tact and coercion in Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan. The growing Russian – Chinese closeness has emboldened both nations. President Putin is on a high after his re-election and the boost that Russia’s image has taken after conducting the Football World Cup. Europe is uncertain by Trump’s disavowal of NATO and his disdain for European allies. A messy Brexit threatens the very foundations of the European Union and France and Germany, the engines of European unity, are undergoing a period of political upheaval. In this turmoil, Russia has subtly edged outwards into Eastern Europe. It followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 with a subtle takeover of the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine, where Russian sponsored separatists have got the better of Ukrainian security forces. After an uneasy truce, the Russia –Ukraine conflict blew up again this November when Russian patrol ships rammed a Ukrainian vessel and captured two gunboats and a tug stating that they had entered Russian territorial waters in the Sea of Azov. The waters where this incident took place are international waters which Russia now lays claim to. It has reinforced its claims by building a bridge across the straits from Crimea to Southern Russia, in effect blocking Ukrainian access and controlling all shipping through its waters.

This incident signals that Russia, like the erstwhile USSR, will not hesitate to use force to assert its claims in Europe and elsewhere. With the USA withdrawing from the global stage, Russia, in conjunction with China is poised to take the lead in arenas as diverse as Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan and on issues like climate change and trade. Perhaps this has been the defining year in which Pax America finally retreated and gave way to a new emerging order.

The Continuation of Old Conflicts

Even if no new conflicts have emerged, the old wars remain. It has been an exceptionally bad year for Afghanistan . A Taliban resurgence has taken over 60 percent of the country and seven major provinces are in their hands. Government control is restricted to Kabul, which itself is wracked by attacks virtually every week.

What has precipitated an already dangerous situation, is the US decision to abruptly withdraw half its strength in Afghanistan. This has possibly been the, fall-out of a decision, during secret talks between the Taliban and the US Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, which was taken without even consulting the Afghan government and has left the nation up for grabs.

The 15,000 troops already there, can do little but defend their bases and prevent an all-out assault on Kabul. That modicum of protection too will go and it will give a free run to the Taliban. What is scarier is that this time they have the support of Russia, China, Iran, Saudi and of course, their long time sponsor – Pakistan. Should the Taliban come back in power – as all indicators show – India’s assiduously developed links in Afghanistan, its Parliament building, roads, hydel projects and electric stations will be at risk and Indian influence will be ruthlessly targeted. Our linkages to Central Asia, including from the port of Chahbahar will be cut off. Worse still, a victorious Taliban under their Pakistani sponsors will unleash a flood of foreign fighters to Kashmir to start a very dangerous phase of conflict there.

Another war zone has also taken a turn. Syria has been a maelstrom of conflicting interests, with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime supported by Russia and Iran, battling a hotchpotch of Sunni rebel groups. Its Southeastern areas had been taken over by the Islamic State, who in turn were fought by the YPG – a Kurdish militia that seeks retribution for the atrocities the IS committed against Kurds. The US and NATO forces entered the fray in 2014 with the avowed aim of defeating the Islamic State, but launched missiles and air strikes at Assad’s forces from time to time in retaliation for his chemical attacks. However, with active Russian support, Assad has regained control over most of his area, and now is poised to take over the badly bombed out town Idlib, the last bastion of the rebels. The IS had been pummeled by US air strikes and ground attack by the YPG–which besides fighting the IS also hopes to establish a Kurdish state.

In December came the abrupt US decision to withdraw all 2000 of its troops from Syria and halt air strikes on the premise that the IS had been defeated. (Later, said to be under reconsideration.) It was premature, to say the least. The IS still held on to its enclaves and it would require another 3-4 months of sustained air strikes coupled with ground action by the YPG to truly eliminate the scourge. The war against the IS was only half-won.

Should the US withdraw from Syria, its NATO allies will follow suit. It will be Russia and Iran who will have emerged as the winners of the game. Assad, in spite of his humanitarian excesses, is firmly entrenched and will remain in power with their support. The Syrian war will continue through most of this year, till the rebel groups are finally subdued. The grisly toll of over 400000 killed and 6 million displaced will only increase. The IS too may continue to hold on to its captured areas since the YPG will be unable to overrun it without US air support. And with USA out of the fray, Turkey will feel emboldened to attack the YPG whom they view as a greater threat than the IS itself, because of their claims on Turkish soil for the creation of Kurdistan. So, the war is likely to linger and perhaps take on different tones altogether.

In Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria, the long standing civil wars still smolder – for the large part forgotten by the world community. Of this, the most dangerous is Yemen which is fast becoming a theater of conflict between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Not just in Yemen, Iran-Saudi rivalry is playing out across much of the Middle East. After the US pulled out of the US –Iran Nuclear Deal this April, Iran has been angry and resentful. To its credit, it has stood by its part of the deal, but as sanctions sink in and economic hardships increase, the hardliners will become more vocal. Iran may be tempted to take action by using its proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah to strike at US, Israeli and Saudi interests in the region. Worse, Israel may become emboldened to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities, and then the powder keg of the Middle East will truly implode.

The aggressive policies of Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi add to the uncertainties of the region. Actively supported by the USA, it has now forged an unlikely alliance with Israel with the common aim of curtailing Iran. Saudi’s image has diminished somewhat after the October assassination of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi who went into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul for a visa, never to return. The assassination of Khashoggi led to the imposition of sanctions and halt of weapon sales. But these are cosmetic measures and it will soon be business as usual. Saudi is too important an ally, and along with Israel, will continue to be propped up to maintain US influence in the region. But that influence is fast receding.

The equations in the Middle East have changed with Russia emerging as the major player after its role in Syria. Iran too holds its own, sanctions or no sanctions, and using its proxies has carved a ‘Shia crescent’ across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In addition, the long standing Palestinian issue shows no signs of solution, especially with increased Israeli intransience. The cauldron of the Middle East simmers away, as always, and is likely to continue in this vein.

One traditional flashpoint has suddenly and surprisingly abated. The Inter-Korean Summit between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in in April this year, halted the nuclear and missile tests and the rhetoric that accompanied them. But for how long? The Korean Peninsula has seen a year of calm, which we hope will last. But then, if there is no forward movement on Kim’s promise to de-nuclearise (which he also sees as the removal of US nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula) will the rhetoric and tests ratchet up again? 2019 will provide the answers to that.

The Year in the Sub-Continent

2018 has been a somewhat ‘iffy’ year for India. The internal security situation has seen no major terrorist attacks, but Kashmir, unfortunately remains on the boil. Though a greater number of militants have been killed, the rising incidents of stone-pelting reveals an even greater alienation of the local population which needs to be checked for any long term solution.

Along the volatile LOC, cross-border action by both sides has continued. In fact, on the last day of the year two Pakistani Commandoes were killed in an attempted cross-border raid. Fortunately, there has been no Uri type of incident, but any such attack could generate a cycle of response and counter response that can get out of hand.

With a hawkish new Prime Minister who is firmly under the sway of the Army, Pakistan’s position is only likely to get more hostile in the coming year. There is unlikely to be any peace overture by either side, more so with General Elections in India due in May. Any political initiative can be expected only after August or so when the new government is in place. By then, Pakistan, in spite of its economic travails, would have been emboldened by its success in Afghanistan and will rejuvenate its actions in Kashmir.

With China there have been no border incident after Doklam. The LAC has been calm, but then as we have seen in the past, a flare-up can take place virtually any time. India and China have come together on a number of issues, including trade and climate change but our long term strategic interests will always clash. China’s slow creep into the sub-continent via the CPEC has placed it at a strategic advantage which it will want to consolidate. The CPEC passes through POK, in Indian Territory illegally ceded by Pakistan. It is likely that China – with a little prodding from Pakistan – may get a little more involved in the Kashmir issue, to protect their investments and lines of communication passing through POK.

Political events in the neighborhood have favored India, in spite of a series of initial hiccups. The re-election of Shiekh Hasina means that Indo-Bangladesh ties will remain friendly (except for the passions running on the cricket grounds) and keep each other’s interests in mind. Maldives too has sprung a surprise after its tryst with Emergency declared by the pro-China President Abdulla Yameen. Elections have ushered in the opposition candidate Mohammed Solih, who is more inclined towards India. It is significant that Prime Minister Modi himself attended the swearing in at Male and also extended a $1.2 Billion line of credit to help wean them of Chinese influence. A friendly regime in Male will enable us to retain our sphere of influence in this vital strategic space of the Indian Ocean.

Sri Lanka too recovered from its blip of political turmoil. President Sirisena abruptly dissolved Parliament and replaced Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Mahinda Rajapakshe – known for his pro-Chinese stance. It was fortunate that Ranil Wickremesinghe has been reinstated by the Supreme Court. Having a pro-India government in Sri Lanka is essential to India’s security interests and will help stave of Chinese influence so close to our waters.

As we go into the New Year, India faces a period of uncertainty. With General Elections due in the middle of the year, there will be political turbulence till around August or so. This period also coincides with likely changes in Afghanistan, increased hawkishness in Pakistan and creeping Chinese influence. Changes in US policy means that the Indo-US embrace is not as warm as it promised to be, and US support cannot be assured on any issue. We may have to realign our relationships and our foreign policy will have to be nimble to cope with the changes in the neighborhood and beyond.

Overall, 2018 has been a year relatively free of conflict and without major upheavals. It could have actually been a year where even the existing wars could have reached some kind of conclusion. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, Syria and the Middle East, the knee-jerk policies of President Trump have created a situation where these conflicts would again gain momentum and see the emergence of players inimical to world interests. That has been the downturn of the year and that is the danger that we would have to confront in 2019.