I know that many readers are stressed over micro-events like people not wearing masks and breathing heavily as they reach for the broccoli in the grocery store. While this may impact your short-term well-being, I would like to remind you that the geopolitical tensions that caused us concern pre-COVID are still ruminating and getting worse. Eventually we will have a vaccine and our attention will return to Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and the South China Sea. The article will provide an all-too brief of what you have been missing.
In Iraq, the draw-down of American troops has created new opportunities for al Qaeda and ISIL to reorganize and engage in attacks against coalition forces with the objective to hasten their withdrawal. Interestingly, the new Prime Minister Kadhimi, initially supported by both the US and Iran, has moved to counter Iranian proxies in Iraq and curtail their rocket attacks on coalition forces. Kadhimi has also instituted economic reforms to avoid the popular unrest witnessed over the past two years. Iraq remains fragile with Sunni and Shia tensions within the government and the population with the Shia in the east closely aligned with Iran. The Kurds, having been abandoned by the US at the behest of Erdogan in Turkey, are barely able to assert control of their territory. Iraq remains a playground for multiple insurgencies and a weaker US-led coalition risks destabilization of the central government by externally backed extremist forces.
The situation in Syria is similar but worse. The weakened Assad government is at once in the hands of the Russians who have expanded their permanent bases on its territory and is facing economic collapse after nine years of civil war and economic sanctions. The Turks have created an incursion zone in the east that has brought them face-to-face with the Russians in a hot war zone. Al Qaeda and ISIS each have cells in the territory and will attack whenever and wherever they can. The Druze, once loyal Assad allies, are now associating with various Syrian opposition groups. Trump had announced a withdrawal from Syria but then backtracked somewhat, creating confusion and a loss of confidence in the diminished US presence. Turkey is a NATO ally and is right up against the Russians. If Turkish troops are attacked in Syrian territory by the Russians, would Turkey call for NATO support? The potential for a hot war is real and intensifying.
Russia has experienced a major failure in Iran to contain the Coronavirus and that country is experiencing the highest rates of infection and death in the Middle East. The potential for a popular uprising in Iran is real and the West is not prepared for a destabilized Islamic regime even though there have been factions in the US military and intelligence agencies who have advocated for regime change since the Ayatollahs came to power in 1979. Be careful what you wish for, because there is no contingency planning, nor shadow government in waiting to take their place. The Pahlavi family will not be welcomed back as the Shah – the prospect of an Iranian military dictatorship backed by the Russians is a real possibility.
Libya is another location where Turkey and Russia are facing off. Turkey has been able to support the Government of National Accord and turn back gains previously made by the Russian-backed Libyan National Army. Egypt is being drawn into the conflict, promising support for the government against the Russian-backed militia. In a related move, Turkey is asserting control over segments of the Mediterranean Sea claimed by Greece and Cyprus. I am going to assume that practically no readers were paying attention to this, and neither did I until I started researching this article.
The US-Taliban peace deal in Afghanistan is encouraging Al-Qaeda to replicate the deal in Mali and get the French to pull out, which would leave the terrain bare for a fundamentalist takeover of Mali. This may be one of the reasons Canada chose not to extend its peacekeeping mission there. Furthermore, the Taliban are indicating that they will not respect a key element of the US peace accord, namely the removal of support for Al Qaeda. It is possible that the US will substantially withdraw from Afghanistan and permit the re-establishment of the pre-9/11 alliance between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. America’s longest war will have been for naught. While President Trump asserts that he has reversed the decay in US influence and power projection in international hotspots, my quick summary of several conflict zones demonstrates quite the opposite. Obama may have failed to control the Arab Spring and allowed the Russians to seize effective control of Assad and Syria, but Trump has not reversed the facts on the ground. The Economist currently gives Joe Biden a 90% chance of becoming president – he will need a superlative national security team and a renewed international coalition of western allies to reverse the decay in US influence abroad. These festering conflicts and others not covered here are going to deliver the worst international inbox facing any US president since Harry Truman inherited the imminent Cold War after Roosevelt died. We can only hope that work has already begun on an experienced transition team for January 20, 2021.