As 2016 comes to an end, the tumult of the past year shows the truly unpredictable state of world affairs.
Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US showed the inherent failures of relying too heavily on public polling, while the scope and ability of ISIS attacks worldwide served as a crude wake-up call to the group’s deadly reach, even as it loses ground in the Middle East.
But even as 2016 proved to be a year full of surprises, several of the predictions from Business Insider’s Military & Defense team for what the year held proved to be accurate: The South China Sea has only become more militarized, the leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo has extended his rule beyond constitutional limits, and the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey has gone off the rails.
Here are 11 big geopolitical events that we think will come to pass in 2017.
Paul Szoldra’s predictions: North Korea will present one of the first tests for a Trump White House.
The Hermit Kingdom has always been a wild card on the national security stage. While most experts can make predictions as to what countries would do in certain situations, the only prediction one can really ascribe to North Korea’s leadership is bluster and chest-thumping.
Whether its joint military training exercises with the US and South Korea militaries or US Navy ships being seen too close to North Korean shores, Pyongyang often has a response, and it’s usually not good.
One example that comes to mind is North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island in 2010. Would President Trump be a hardliner toward the North, possibly increasing tensions? With Kim Jong-un inching closer to having a viable offensive nuclear weapons program, those tensions may come sooner rather than later.
Russia will make more provocative moves against Baltic states to see how Trump and the world respond.
Russia has been emboldened by its moves into Ukraine, especially when it was able to infiltrate and eventually annex Crimea — with little recourse from the international community.
Moscow’s top government hackers conducted a major cyberattack against the US electoral process, and though it was called out in public by the Obama administration, Russia’s denial of hacking brings to mind its initial denials of taking over Crimea. Only after a large portion of the world comes out against Moscow does Russia finally say, yeah, you caught us.
We expect more of Moscow’s meddling in other’s affairs, especially in the Baltic states. Russia moved nuclear-capable missiles very close to Poland and Lithuania in October. NATO has responded by putting troops and tanks in Baltic states.
Will this Cold War-like buildup continue? That’s very likely. And with President Trump in charge, it will be interesting to see whether Moscow gets the pushback it has seen in the past — or whether it encounters a new, conciliatory tack.
The Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa will be directly attacked by a large-scale ground assault.
ISIS’ power is on the trend downward, and that’s going to continue into 2017. The US and Iraq finally have their act together when it comes to confronting the terrorist group within Iraq’s borders. Although efforts to rout the group from Mosul are going slowly, it’s likely that the city will be back in the hands of the Iraqi army by early next year.
US military leaders say it could be another two to four months of tough fighting before Mosul is secured. After Mosul, it can be expected that ISIS will try to hold out in remaining Iraqi cities before most fighters fall back to its Syrian capital.
That’ll mean a much, much tougher fight once Raqqa comes under assault, but we think an attack in 2017 is likely, especially if Mosul falls and Syria’s government forces take more control back from rebels.
In the past, Syrian government forces have basically ignored ISIS and its Raqqa stronghold. If the war looks to be coming to a close against the anti-government rebels, it’s likely that Damascus will then go after ISIS — which could mean a very awkward coalition emerges between the governments of Syria, Russia, Iran, and the United States.
As ISIS is further put on the defensive, the terror group will lash out through more terror attacks and lone-wolf killings.
Terrorist groups don’t typically go quiet into the night. That’s going to be especially true of ISIS. As the heat turns up on ISIS’ stronghold of Raqqa, you can expect the group to up its propaganda efforts, especially highlighting civilian deaths, to inspire new recruits and lone-wolf killers to attack wherever they are.
A paper written by West Point’s Combating Terrorist Center in March made this point: “As the Islamic State continues to lose ground, the international community should brace for a surge in international terror.”
ISIS has been losing significant ground in 2016, and it will lose much more in 2017. And with its “caliphate” at stake, ISIS will want to minimize territorial losses with headline-grabbing attacks, instead.
The group also sees external attacks as a way to force its adversaries to beef up security at home, but it’s much more likely big terror attacks will strengthen the resolve among Western nations to destroy the group once and for all.
Alex Lockie’s predictions: Assad will stay in power in Syria.
With the fall of Aleppo, Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have cemented their position in control of most of eastern Syria. Trump has repeatedly questioned the wisdom of the US’s Syria policy, specifically arming and supporting opposition to Assad.
Trump will likely allow, even endorse, Assad staying in power in Syria in exchange for some favor from Russia. This could go a long way toward forging friendlier ties between the US and Russia, something for which Trump has also advocated during his campaign.
Meanwhile, the opposition to Assad will be evacuated or crushed in place. Horrific scenes like the ones that played out in Aleppo in recent weeks will repeat themselves as the US and other Western allies withdraw support for the rebels.
China will be checked by the US.
China’s recent grabbing of a US Navy drone from international waters demands a response. Trump’s initial quip, “Let them keep it,” speaks to the limited nature of the offense committed by China.
But the bigger, underlying issue remains unresolved.
China’s unlawful claims in the South China Sea, and its willingness to confront the US Navy over them, weaken the US’s standing in the Pacific. Valuable trading partners like Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia would lose faith in the US if it fails to back up its position in the South China Sea.
Trump’s team has shown a diverse group of tools it could use to confront and check China. Labeling China as a currency manipulator, starting a trade war with Beijing, supporting, (however gently) Taiwan, or even increasing naval patrols around China’s “massive military complex” in the South China Sea all could possibly work to push back against China’s aggression. At the very least, these moves would return the volley, putting the ball in China’s court.
Trump will not rip up the Iran deal.
Trump campaigned vigorously in opposition to the Iran deal, but he will likely not, at least immediately, move to “rip up” the deal. Essentially, the deal is multilateral, and Trump can’t rip it up. Other nations still can, and most likely will, do business with Iran.
Instead, Trump will create a toxic environment around investing in Iran and use soft power to dissuade US companies and allies from enriching the Islamic Republic.
The latest reports coming from the UN on Iran’s nuclear program show that the country has been cooperating. However, Trump’s surprising election can serve as a new inflection point in the deal, which could possibly lead to further concessions from the Iranians so that they may fully access the Western markets with Trump’s blessing.
ISIS will morph fully into a social-media presence.
ISIS, increasingly consumed by the air and ground offensives pushing them further and further out of their once-vast “caliphate,” will become impaired in their ability to launch attacks overseas, especially in the West.
As ground troops rush ISIS’s Syrian capital of Raqqa, the true believers in ISIS will face losses on the battlefield and damage to their reputation. The situation in Syria will stabilize somewhat, with Western powers withdrawing their support for the opposition, and intensifying their air campaign against ISIS while supporting ground forces. ISIS outposts in northern Africa and Asia will persist, but lack the central organization and funding that ISIS provided at its peak.
By the end of 2017, ISIS’s most notable presence will likely not be in any physical territory, but rather a social-media presence that outlives the “caliphate” online. They will continue to attract extremists, Islamic hardliners, and enemies of the West, but Iraq and Syria will, for the most part, rid themselves of ISIS.
Christopher Woody’s predictions: Trump will halt Obama’s opening to Cuba, but he won’t totally undo it.
Like many of his other policies, Trump vacillated on Cuba in the run up to the election. But the position he staked out ahead of the vote and in the weeks after was a more hardline one, catering to the anti-Castro tastes of the staunchly anti-rapprochement crowd of exiles and others in South Florida.
Trump has inveighed against Obama’s deal with Havana, threatening to undo it if Cuba doesn’t agree to a new, “better” deal. After Fidel Castro’s death, the president-elect said he hoped the occasion “marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.”
This devotion to freedom for Cubans rings hollow in light of Trump’s seeming affection for Vladimir Putin of Russia and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines — two leaders who have shown little interest in safeguarding human rights.
What we can likely expect, as noted by Florida International University professor Frank Mora, is a return to the status-quo ante and a Cuba policy driven by US domestic political concerns.
If Trump moves to impose punitive policies, it’s likely that prominent voices in the GOP will back him, though other Republicans who have vested interests in maintaining some of the connections with Cuba that have been reestablished will likely temper the White House’s new policies toward Havana.
A US-Mexico border wall, or fence, will do little to stop the flow of drugs into the US.
It might be a big, beautiful wall. It might be a combination of walling and fences. It might even be a “digital wall.” Whatever it is, such a border barrier will do little to halt the flow of drugs from South America and Mexico into the US.
This is because much of the illegal narcotics that are smuggled to the US aren’t transported through the wide-open spaces that new walling, or fencing, or technology would cover.
“Mexican [criminal organizations] transport the majority of their illicit drugs into the United States over land through the [border] using a wide array of smuggling techniques,” the US Drug Enforcement Administration wrote in its 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment.
“The most common method employed by Mexican TCOs involves transporting drugs in vehicles through US ports of entry.”
Land ports like Tijuana-San Diego (the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere) or Ciudad Juarez-El Paso see immense amounts of traffic, both by private citizens and commercial vehicles. Inspecting all of them would present logistical hurdles that couldn’t be overcome any time soon and not without severely disrupting that traffic.
Given that US-Mexico border traffic feeds the $1.46 billion value of US-Mexico bilateral trade, such severe disruptions would not go over well.
Colombia’s FARC rebel group will cease to exist, but some old problems will crop up.
After a four-year negotiation process, a surprise defeat in a national referendum, and a harried renegotiation, Colombia has a peace deal to end the half-century civil conflict waged by the left-wing rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC.
FARC members have already started the group’s shift into solely a political party, leaving behind its name and status as a rebel group, but implementing that deal is likely to be as arduous as the negotiation process, if not more so.
After signing the new deal at the end of November, the FARC rebels were to move to 27 zones for demobilization and disarmament. But two weeks after this process was to begin, those camps are not able to host the rebels.
“There is limited access to potable water, food, health services and electricity,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.
An uncertain or inhospitable demobilization environment makes it more likely that FARC rebels will fall back into illegal activity. This month, the rebel group expelled five high-level commanders, several of whom were involved in drug trafficking. At the same, hundreds of FARC members have left pre-concentration zones.
Meanwhile, Colombian criminal groups have expanded into areas FARC rebels are leaving, in some cases coordinating with FARC dissidents. The leftist National Liberation Army, Colombia’s second-biggest guerrilla group, has stepped up its attacks and could be angling to take over territory and activities vacated by the FARC.
Alongside turmoil in the FARC demobilization process, social violence remains present. Through December this year, 94 social leaders have been killed around Colombia, including peace activists. Criminal groups have also reportedly moved into new areas around the country, causing civilians to flee.
Assertiveness among these criminal groups raises the specter of the right-wing paramilitary campaign that slaughtered FARC members the last time the rebel group tried to demobilize. Indeed, many current criminal groups evolved from those paramilitaries.
Violent criminal groups and guerrilla forces have long afflicted Colombia. While deadly violence in the country has declined considerably, recent events indicate that the old problems of conflict related to drugs and social strife will continue in Colombia — even without the FARC.