New Year, New Forecast: What to expect in 2019?
Leading experts and organisations – Stratfor, Crisis Group, Financial Times or Time magazine – are all chipping into the debate on what to expect in 2019.
We should not anticipate many new topics rather the continuation and deepening of old problems. We could also start feeling the problems of long-neglected issues, like the erosion of international institutions.
Experts predict escalation and continuation of the strategic competition between U.S. and China. Bejing will be under pressure from sanctions and tariffs posed by the U.S. Likewise, security relations between the countries will be tense. Experts anticipate disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea, as both countries will assert their territorial claims and interests. In response to the fragile situation, Australia, Japan and India are expected to bolster cooperation with the U.S.
Disputes are also expected in the Middle East and Africa. The U.S. and its allies will continue posing sanctions over Iran, seeking coming back to the negotiations. Even though this will have some negative consequences for Iran, the regime will survive in its position. The sanctions will only intensify Iranian unrest against Washington, leading into its will for retaliation. What is more, conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen will preserve, as well as the crisis in Cameroon.
In Europe, topics like Brexit, populism, Russian aggression, and the East-West divide will be the most challenging. London and Brussels will try to minimise the economic effects of Brexit. Regardless of how it happens, the EU and UK will negotiate the post-withdrawal trade agreement which can last more than a year. Experts predict that populists will win the historical maximum of seats in the May 2019 EU parliamentary elections. Observers also await the strengthening of populist positions in the European Commission, European Council, but also in France and Italy.
Central and Eastern European countries will continue in the established course. Hungary, Poland, and Romania will challenge the EU institutions. However, this effort will be limited to the scope of not threatening their EU membership. On the other hand, Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states will be willing to become host countries for U.S. military assets.
Disputes Home and Abroad: Romania Takes Over EU Presidency
The New Year’s Day saw Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dăncilă assuming the six-month rotating EU Council presidency from the Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz. For Romania, it is the first mandate since its accession to the EU in 2007. Until the end of June, Romania will seek to acts as an impartial mediator and a consensus facilitator. Tough challenges lie ahead – EU Parliament elections, Brexit or 2020 budget negotiations.
The presidency motto “Cohesion, a common European value” will dominate the awaited strategic debates over the Union’s future. The agenda should stand on four pillars: Europe of convergence, A safer Europe, Europe as a stronger global actor, and Europe of common values. Priorities presented by Goerge Ciamba, Romania’s EU Affairs Minister, include determining the future financial framework, developing EU’s social dimension, supporting cooperation facing new security challenges, advancing the enlargement policy, and encouraging solidarity and social justice.
Despite pursuing integrity and consensus, Romania has found itself in an unflattering political situation. Tensions between the Social Democratic government led by Dăncilă and President Klaus Iohannis, supported by the liberals in opposition, could affect the course of the presidency. One of the main disputes concerns the country’s representing body at European Council meetings. The Prime Minister expressed her interest in this role, however, it bears upon the head of the state according to the Constitutional Court’s decision.
Weeks before taking over the presidency, the EU Commission adopted a highly critical report saying that Romania was backtracking on the rule of law progress it made since joining the EU. There was even a discussion about skipping Romania’s presidency and handing it over straight to Finland. The Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker revealed his doubts about whether Bucharest was ready for political compromises, although, as he stressed, it was technically well prepared for the presidency. In response, the Romanian government accused the EU of “discriminatory” treatment and condemned being treated “as a second-rate” country.
U.S. Troops Leaving Syria, Betraying the Kurds
On 19 December, President Donald Trump announced a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Syria within 30 days. However, John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, later clarified that the withdrawal will be conditioned by the defeat of the so-called IS and Turkey’s assurance not to harm the US-backed Kurdish militias.
EXCLUSIVE: Why Did Defense Sec. Jim Mattis Quit?
Pentagon source: "He was told after the fact Trump was closing one of our largest INTEL bases in MidEast, in #Syria. That base, which protects #Israel, #Kurds, Jordan, intercepts regional threats to US homeland."#SyriaWithdrawal pic.twitter.com/nB2Cd5cISi
— US News Agency (@USANewsAgency) December 29, 2018
There are approximately 2000 American Troops in north-eastern Syria tasked with training, advising, and supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Kurdish-majority forces. The withdrawal would seriously endanger the SDF, it would leave them without crucial ground support in their fight against ISIS while exposing them to an attack by Turkey. The Kurds have already reached out to the Syrian government for help in defending the city of Manbij amidst the ongoing build-up of Turkish forces in the region. This might directly benefit Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
The Kurdish controlled area is strategically important to Iran and the Syrian government because of its oil resources and a land route connecting Assad’s territory with Iraq. The Abu Kamal border crossing provides Tehran with land access to Syria, Beirut and the Mediterranean coast. Therefore, the U.S. presence also kept a check on Iran’s actions in Syria, limiting its access to the oil fields.
Trump justified the withdrawal as delivery of an election promise to bring troops from Syria home, claiming that Iran is pulling its forces from Syria too. However, the decision seems to contradict Trump’s overall strategy to counter Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
Although IS has lost most of its territory and is no longer in control of any major cities, its active cells still prove a serious security threat. Observers fear that the withdrawal may serve as a resurrection for IS, which may attempt to take advantage of the power vacuum.
The abrupt announcement has caught U.S. partners by surprise and caused a split inside the White House. The Defence Secretary James Mattis resigned over Trump’s decision, claiming the withdrawal will betray the Syrian Kurdish allies, hinder the fight against IS and practically cede the Northeast of the country to the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies.
…I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places. Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working. Just doing what I said I was going to do!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2018
U.S.-Russia ‘Arrest tit-for-tat’
On 28 December 2018, a U.S. citizen Paul Whelan was detained on charges of espionage by the Russiam Federal Security Service (FSB). No further details concerning the detainment were mentioned at the time. However, Rosbalt, a news agency, came out with a report claiming that Whelan was caught ‘red-handed’ with a USB drive containing a list of employees of a classified security agency. The allegations were not yet verified and many are sceptical. If found guilty, Whelan could face up to 20 years of imprisonment.
According to his family, Whelan was in Russia for his friend’s wedding. He has been working as a corporate security director since 2017 but is also discharged US Marine, did two tours in Iraq and worked as a police officer. His background makes him a very unlikely undercover operative, experts claim.
On the other hand, Whelan was active on Russian social media and has travelled to Russia extensively. Russia’s law enforcement claims that Mr. Whelan’s activity has been focused on individuals who could possibly have access to classified information.
The incident comes at a time of increased tensions between Russia and the U.S. The arrest comes a month after a Russian gun activist Maria Butina, arrested in the U.S., pleaded guilty of conspiring with Russian officials to infiltrate the conservative movement. This leads some experts to the conclusion that Whelan’s arrest was retaliation. According to the Russian Foreign ministry, another Russian citizen was detained a day after Whelan’s arrest.
It is yet unclear how the situation will play out. In Russia, Butina’s case is seen as an act of political blackmail. Also, Whelan is not only a citizen of the U.S. but also of Canada, Ireland, and the UK.
Image: WikimediaCommons | Partidul Social Democrat
STRATPOL Memos is a project which on a bi-weekly basis provides a short overview of the most important selected moments of Euro-Atlantic security and related areas. Our goal is to provide brief and informative comments with short analysis putting news into a broader context.
Responsible editor Ondřej Zacha.
Authors: Ivan Illiev, Kristína Urbanová, Dominik Novosad, and Denis Takács
The text has not undergone language revision.