A world split wide open by conflict

STANLY JOHNY | Updated on March 09, 2018

Barren view Man on the edge of war REUTERS

US and Russia are at loggerheads, while Islamic revivalism has gathered momentum. Welcome to 2015

It was a disastrous year in international politics. From the rising Islamist/sectarian militancy in West Asia and Africa and Israel’s devastating attack on the Gaza Strip to the US-Russian standoff over Ukraine, 2014 saw several crises setting the geopolitical agenda. The dominant powers remained either parties to these crises, or were incapable of solving them.

These crises also point to the structural problems of the post-Soviet world order. This was defined in the early 1990s by American unilateralism, globalised capitalism and “consensus” among big powers on key economic and geopolitical issues. If unilateralism was challenged in post 9/11 attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the foundations of globalised capitalism were shaken during the 2008-09 financial crisis.

The third factor, consensus, which was under strain ever since the US started its war on terror, collapsed in 2014, with Russia directly confronting the West in Eastern Europe. The world enters 2015 with this broken order. The conflicts of the past remain unresolved: West Asia is violent; East Asia is tense; Russia is vengeful; Europe is in an economic crisis and the US is in decline. To be sure, many risks await 2015, but three in particular portend to destabilise parts of the world further, and even lead to major wars.


Thirteen years and $1 trillion later, the US-led Nato troops formally ended combat operations in Afghanistan on December 28. From a peak 1,40,000 troops in 2010, the coalition forces will now have just 13,500 troops in the country, who will mainly train Afghan forces and provide battlefield support.

The pullout happens at a time when insurgent attacks are steadily rising in Afghanistan. In 2014 alone, over 5,000 Afghan security forces were killed.

Kabul’s reach in outlying districts has shrunk over the years, while the Taliban controls huge swathes of territories and is capable of launching attacks from anywhere in the country. 2015 being the first year after the US troop pullout, is a crucial one for Afghanistan, and Asia at large. Any advances of the Taliban towards Kabul will have far-reaching effects on South and Central Asia.

A number of countries, from India to Iran to Russia, are wary of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Imagine, if the Taliban eventually takes over Kabul, imposes its violent sectarian regime on the people, and recognises the Islamic State (IS) of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This is not as implausible a scenario as it might seem right now. Factions of the Pakistan Taliban have already declared allegiance to the IS. Look at Iraq. The war George W Bush launched in 2003 never came to an end. The country, weakened beyond repair, disintegrated immediately after the US troops were withdrawn. The Afghan war is also unlikely to end any time soon. But 2015 could tell where it’s heading.

The Islamic State

The Sunni militant group, which controls a territory as big as Great Britain straddling the Iraqi-Syria border, had been in the news in 2014 for all the wrong reasons. They have effectively redrawn the map of modern West Asia by establishing an ‘Islamic Caliphate’.

Jihadis from around the world have joined this brutal, sectarian, revivalist project that resembles medieval ages’ religious states, and have unleashed disproportionate violence on both combatants and civilians in the Syraq (Syria-Iraq) region. So far, their growth has been phenomenal. Iraqi troops melted away in front of them in the country’s second largest city — Mosul — in June 2014.

Syrian troops, who lost territories in the east to the IS, have been unable to launch any sustained attacks on them. American air strikes, launched in August against IS, have been largely ineffective as the militants are now spread among the population in the regions they control. The only credible resistance the IS faces is from the Kurdish militias.

The IS is very ambitious, and at least two factors stand in their favour. One, a weak, sectarian, Shia-led government in Baghdad is actually helping the IS consolidate its position among the Sunni-inhabited northern Iraq.

Two, the continuation of the Syrian civil war provides the group a much needed battlefield, and a cause to continue its violent campaign. What remains to be seen is whether the IS emerges stronger from the Syrian civil war, or captures more territories in Iraq. If they do either of these, that would be devastating for the already damaged Shia-Sunni equilibrium in the region. If the IS moves further south in Iraq, where Shias live, that would invite the direct involvement of (Shia) Iran.

If they try to expand towards Damascus in Syria, that would get the Hezbollah (Lebanese Shia militant group) involved in the conflict, because the Syrian regime is one of the patrons of the Hezbollah, which has already vowed to defend President Assad. In no time, the crisis will spread to Lebanon, and possibly to other parts of the region, on sectarian lines.

Cold war 2.0

The third and most important geopolitical risk is a further deterioration in the ties between Russia and the US. The Obama administration and its European allies have imposed financial sanctions on Russia over the country’s involvement in Ukraine at a time when Moscow is struggling to cope with an economic meltdown.

The American strategy is to isolate and weaken Russia. The Moscow plan is to resist any kind of Western expansion towards its area of influence — Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Both sides have made their plans clear. And Ukraine, the main theatre of this conflict, is already suffering.

As of now, there are no serious efforts to defuse the crisis. The US is actually planning to impose more sanctions on Russia, while President Vladimir Putin has indirectly named described Nato and the US military as dangers to Russia’s security.

It’s to be seen whether the US policy of isolating Russia will work in the long term, but it has already destroyed the partnership both sides painstakingly built after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though weak, Russia is still a great power with nuclear weapons and huge influence over Eastern Europe.

And the rising tensions between two great powers — one weak and the other in decline — is very risky for the world at large.

The world is in transition. Unilateralism is dead. The emergence of a trilateral (Russia-China-US) or multilateral world order will take time. And transitions are meant to be chaotic. They could also be disastrous. That’s the real risk the world faces now. Get ready for more in 2015.

Published on January 01, 2015

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