A precipitous U.S. withdrawal could destabilize the Afghan government and potentially lead to an expanded, multiparty civil war. Conversely, a prolonged presence could prompt the Taliban to walk away from talks and intensify their attacks, provoking a major escalation. Either would mean that 2021 marks the year Afghanistan loses its best shot at peace in a generation. Ethiopia: If the federal government invests heavily in Tigray, works with the local civil service as it is rather than emptying it of the TPLF rank and file, stops the harassment of Tigrayans elsewhere, and runs disputed areas rather than leaving them to Amhara administrators, there might be some hope of peace. It would be critical then to move toward a national dialogue to heal the country’s deep divisions in Tigray and beyond. Absent that, the outlook is gloomy for a transition that inspired so much hope only a year ago.
Without more concerted efforts to tackle the Sahel’s rural governance crisis, it is hard to see how the region can escape today’s turmoil. Broadly speaking, such efforts would require state actors and others to focus first and foremost on mediating local conflicts, talking to militants where necessary, and using the resulting agreements as the basis for the return of state authority to the countryside. Foreign military operations are essential, but international actors should emphasize local peacemaking and push for governance reform. Little suggests the military-first approach will stabilize the Sahel. If anything, over recent years, it appears to have contributed to the uptick in inter-ethnic bloodshed and Islamist militancy. Yemen: Absent a course correction, 2021 looks set to be another bleak year for Yemenis, with the war dragging on, disease and potentially famine spreading, prospects for a settlement evaporating, and millions of Yemenis getting sicker and hungrier by the day. -Venezuela: At present, Maduro’s government shows no sign it would hold a fair vote. Most of his rivals want to overthrow and prosecute him. A settlement looks as distant as ever. But after two years of fruitless and harmful efforts to provoke sudden political rupture, building support for a more gradual transition is the best path forward. Somalia: Much hinges on the February presidential vote. A reasonably clean election, whose results the main parties accept, could allow Somalia’s leaders and their foreign backers to step up efforts to reach agreement on the federal relationship and constitutional arrangements and accelerate security sector reform. On the other hand, a contested vote could provoke a political crisis that widens the gulf between Mogadishu and the regions, potentially triggers clan violence, and risks emboldening al-Shabab.
Fighting seems unlikely to flare back up in the immediate future because outside actors, while keen to consolidate their influence, do not want another round of open hostilities. But the longer the cease-fire terms go unfulfilled, the higher the risk of mishaps provoking a return to war. To avoid this outcome, the U.N. must help forge a road map to unify Libya’s divided institutions and de-escalate tensions among regional foes. Iran-United States: Incoming US President Biden has signaled that he will shift course, agree to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran resumes compliance, and then seek to negotiate a follow-on deal tackling ballistic missiles and regional policy. Tehran has signaled that it is prepared for a mutual adherence to the existing nuclear deal. That seems the safest and swiftest bet, although even then, obstacles will abound. The U.S. and Iranian governments will need to agree on the sequencing of steps between sanctions relief and nuclear restraints and how sanctions should be lifted. The window could be short, with presidential elections in Iran scheduled for June and a more hard-line candidate predicted to win. But if they return to the JCPOA, the larger challenge will be to address the regional tensions and polarization that, left to fester, will continue to jeopardize the deal and could trigger conflict. European governments are exploring the possibility of prompting Iran and Gulf Arab states to engage in a dialogue to reduce regional tensions and prevent an inadvertent outbreak of war; the Biden administration could put its full diplomatic weight behind such an effort. Russia-Turkey: Russia has seen tensions with the West mount against the backdrop of wars in Ukraine and Syria, charges of election interference, and the poisoning of opponents on foreign soil, as well as U.S. and European sanctions. Turkey chafes at U.S. support for the YPG and refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen—the cleric Ankara accuses of masterminding an attempted coup in 2016—as well as European critiques of its democratic backsliding and alleged bias in the Cyprus conflict. Sanctions imposed by Washington in response to Ankara’s purchase and testing of the Russian S-400 missile defense system encapsulate these tensions. By cutting bilateral deals in various conflict zones, both Russia and Turkey see the potential for gain. Still, ties born of opportunity don’t always last. With their respective forces so close to multiple front lines, potential flashpoints abound. A downturn in their relations could spell trouble for both nations and more than one warzone.
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