Much like 2018, 2019 presents risks of confrontation—deliberate or inadvertent—involving the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. The first three share a common view of the government in Tehran as a threat that has been emboldened for too long and whose regional aspirations need curbing. For Washington, this has translated into withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal, the restoration of sanctions, more aggressive rhetoric, and threats of powerful retaliation in the event of Iranian provocation. Riyadh has embraced this new tone, and— mainly in the voice of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—suggested it will fight back and seek to counter Iran in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and even on Iranian soil. Israel has focused on Syria, where it has regularly struck Iranian and Iranian-aligned targets, but it has also threatened to target the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon.
So far, Iran—confident in long-term trends and deterred by the possibility of retaliation—has opted to hunker down. While it has resumed missile testing, and the United States has accused it of using its Shiite proxies in Iraq to threaten the U.S. presence there, its response appears calculated not to invite a harsh reply. But as economic pressure builds on Iran, this posture may not last. Moreover, the risk of an accidental clash originating in Yemen, in the Persian Gulf, in Syria, or in Iraq cannot be discounted.
The main source of tension, so far, has been the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the reimposition of secondary sanctions against countries engaged in business with Tehran. That Iran has not responded in kind to what it describes as economic warfare owes much to the efforts of the deal’s other signatories, namely European countries, Russia, and China. Their attempts to preserve a modicum of space for trade coupled with their continued diplomatic engagement with Tehran have given sufficient reason for Iran’s leaders to adhere to the terms of the deal. Those leaders also seem to be hoping for a one-term Trump presidency.
This calculus could change. While U.S. and Saudi hopes that sanctions will force Iran to modify its disruptive behavior or prompt regime change almost certainly will be disappointed, the economic squeeze is hurting ordinary Iranians. As more pain is inflicted on Iran’s citizens, hard-line voices urging the Islamic Republic to eschew the agreement will grow louder, especially as jockeying for President Hassan Rouhani’s and, possibly, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s posts heat up. Even if they comply with nuclear constraints, the temptation could grow in Tehran to make Washington pay a price for its actions by taking aim at its presence in the region, for example by encouraging attacks by Iraqi Shiite militias against U.S. targets in Iraq.
Hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is playing out in proxy struggles across the Middle East, from Yemen to Lebanon. Any of these conflicts could escalate. Yemen is arguably the most dangerous. Should a Houthi missile inflict casualties in a Saudi city or if the Houthis target international commercial shipping in the Red Sea—a move they have long threatened to make—the conflict could enter a far more dangerous phase.
In Syria, Israel has so far been adept at striking Iranian targets without prompting a wider war. Iran, no doubt aware of the potential cost of such escalation, calculates that it can absorb such attacks without endangering its deeper interests and longer-term presence in Syria. But the Syrian theater is congested, Iranian forbearance is not limitless, and the likelihood of a miscalculation or an attack gone awry remains a risk.
Hanging over these dynamics will be continued reverberations of the October assassination of Khashoggi. The murder amplified criticism in the United States of both Saudi foreign policy and the seemingly unconditional U.S. support for it. These feelings will intensify next year as Democrats assume control of the House. One can only hope this leads to stronger U.S. pressure on Riyadh to end the war in Yemen and to greater congressional scrutiny of U.S. and Saudi escalatory policies toward Iran.
In a world with fewer rules, the only truly effective one is knowing what you can get away with. The answer today, it turns out, is: quite a lot.
As the era of largely uncontested U.S. primacy fades, the international order has been thrown into turmoil. More leaders are tempted more often to test limits, jostle for power, and seek to bolster their influence—or diminish that of their rivals—by meddling in foreign conflicts. Multilateralism and its constraints are under siege, challenged by more transactional, zero-sum politics.
Instruments of collective action, such as the United Nations Security Council, are paralyzed; those of collective accountability, including the International Criminal Court, are ignored and disparaged.
Nostalgia can be deceptive. Too fond a portrayal of the era of Western hegemony would be misleading. Iraq’s chemical weapons use against Iran in the 1980s; the 1990s bloodletting in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia; the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Sri Lanka’s brutal 2009 campaign against the Tamils; and the collapse of Libya and South Sudan: all these happened at a time of—in some cases because of—U.S. dominance and a reasonably coherent West. A liberal and nominally rules-based order hardly stopped those setting the rules from discarding them when they saw fit. The erosion of Western influence, in short, looks different from Moscow, Beijing, and the developing world than it does from Brussels, London, or Washington.
Still, for better and for worse, U.S. power and alliances have for years shaped international affairs, set limits, and structured regional orders. As the West’s influence declines, accelerated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s contempt for traditional allies and Europe’s struggles with Brexit and nativism, leaders across the world are probing and prodding to see how far they can go.
In their domestic policies, many of those leaders embrace a noxious brew of nationalism and authoritarianism. The mix varies from place to place but typically entails rejection of international institutions and rules. There is little new in the critique of an unjust global order. But if once that critique tended to be rooted in international solidarity, today it stems chiefly from an inward-looking populism that celebrates narrow social and political identity, vilifies minorities and migrants, assails the rule of law and independence of the press, and elevates national sovereignty above all else.
Trump may be the most visible of the genre, but he is far from the most extreme. The wind is in the sails of strongmen worldwide. They realize, at times perhaps to their surprise, that constraints are crumbling, and the behavior that results often fuels violence or crises. Myanmar’s mass expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya, the Syrian regime’s brutal suppression of a popular uprising, the Cameroonian government’s apparent determination to crush an Anglophone insurgency rather than tackle the grievances fueling it, the Venezuelan government’s economic warfare against its own people, and the silencing of dissent in Turkey, Egypt, and elsewhere are but a few examples. All are motivated in part by what leaders perceive as a yellow light where they used to see solid red.
Beyond their borders, these leaders test norms, too. Having annexed parts of Georgia and Crimea and stoked separatist violence in Ukraine’s Donbass region, Russia is now throwing its weight around in the Sea of Azov, poisoning dissidents in the United Kingdom, and subverting Western democracies with cyberwarfare. China obstructs freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and arbitrarily detains Canadian citizens—including the International Crisis Group’s Michael Kovrig. Saudi Arabia has pushed the envelope with the war in Yemen, the kidnapping of a Lebanese prime minister, and the gruesome murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul. Iran plots attacks against dissidents on European soil. Israel feels emboldened to undermine ever more systematically the foundations of a possible two-state solution.
Such actions are hardly new or equal in magnitude. But they are more brazen and overt. They have this much in common: They start with the assumption that there will be few consequences for breaches of international norms.
The U.S. government has hardly been an innocent bystander. Trump’s disdain for human rights and penchant for transactional diplomacy have set a strikingly negative tone. So too has his flouting of America’s international commitments: tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and, worse, threatening to impose economic punishment on those who choose to abide by it; hinting he will leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty if U.S. demands are not met rather than working within it to press Russia to comply; and signaling, through attacks on the International Criminal Court and chest-thumping speeches about U.S. sovereignty, that Washington regards its actions and those of its friends as beyond accountability.
The danger of today’s free-for-all goes beyond the violence already generated. The larger risk is of miscalculation. Overreach by one leader convinced of his immunity may prompt an unexpected reaction by another; the ensuing tit for tat easily could escalate without the presence of a credible, willing outside power able to play the role of arbiter.
True, not everyone gets away with everything all the time. Bangladesh seemed poised to forcibly return some Rohingya refugees to Myanmar but stopped, almost certainly in response to international pressure. The feared Russian-backed reconquest of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, has, for now, been averted, in no small measure due to Turkish, European, and U.S. objections. The same is true (again: for the time being) when it comes to a potential Saudi-led offensive on the Yemeni port of Hodeidah, with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi largely deterred by warnings about the humanitarian impact and cost to their international standing.
Elsewhere, leaders anticipating impunity have been taken aback by the severity of the response: Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, by the stiff sanctions and show of united resolve that Western powers have maintained since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the killing of its former agent on British soil; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by the outrage that followed Khashoggi’s murder.
Overall, though, it is hard to escape the sense that these are exceptions that prove the absence of rules. The international order as we know it is unraveling, with no clear sense of what will come in its wake. The danger may well lie less in the ultimate destination than in the process of getting there. As the following list of 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019 amply illustrates, that road will be bumpy, and it will be perilous.
Read the original text at Foreign Policy.