Many in Syria and abroad are now banking on the regime's imminent collapse and assuming everything will get better from that point on. The reality could turn out to be quite different. As dynamics in both Syria and the broader international arena turn squarely against the regime, many hope that the bloody stalemate finally might end. But however much it now seems inevitable that President Bashar al-Assad will leave the stage after his regime's terrifying brutality over recent months, the initial post-Assad stages carry enormous risks.
On the one hand, the emotionally charged communal polarization, particularly around the Alawite community, has made regime supporters dig in their heels, believing it is "kill or be killed," and their fears of large-scale retribution when Assad falls are very real. On the other, the rising strategic stakes have heightened the regional and wider international competition among all players, who now view the crisis as an historic opportunity to decisively tilt the regional balance of power. In that explosive mix, the first cross-border concern is surely Lebanon: The more Assad's ouster appears imminent, the more Hezbollah -- and its backers in Tehran -- will view the Syrian crisis as an existential struggle designed to deal them a decisive blow, and the greater the risk that they would choose to go for broke and draw to launch attacks against Israel in an attempt to radically alter the focus of attention. "Powder keg" doesn't begin to describe it. The danger is real that any one of these issues could derail or even foreclose the possibility of a successful transition.
Even if Iran and Israel somehow manage to sail safely past the rocks of the Syrian crisis, the enmity between them over the nuclear issue could blow them very dangerously off course. Though sanctions against Iran and saber-rattling all around intensified at the end of 2011, some may see this as merely the continuation of a long-term trend in the epically poor relations between Iran and Israel.
Two factors make 2012 a possible turning point for the worse, however. First, the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report is particularly unambiguous: It may not have turned up significantly new evidence of Teheran's intention to build a nuclear weapon, but it did highlight more clearly than ever before Iran's obfuscation and unwillingness to cooperate with the international body. Second, the U.S. elections will force support for Israel onto the U.S. domestic agenda even more than usual, and generally create a favorable environment for Israel to act, with any number of unexpected, unintended -- and potentially disastrous -- consequences.
A decade of major security, development, and humanitarian assistance from the international community has failed to create a stable Afghanistan, a fact highlighted by deteriorating security and a growing insurgent presence in previously stable provinces over the past year. In 2011, the capital alone saw a barrage of suicide bombings, including the deadliest attack in the city since 2001; multiple strikes on foreign missions in Kabul, the British Council, and U.S. Embassy; and the assassination of former president and chief peace negotiator Burhanuddin Rabbani. The prospects for next year are no brighter, with many key provinces scheduled for transfer to the ill-equipped Afghan security forces by early 2012.
The litany of obstacles to peace, or at least stability, in Afghanistan is by now familiar. President Hamid Karzai rules by fiat, employing a combination of patronage and executive abuse of power. State institutions and services are weak or nonexistent in much of the country, or else so riddled with corruption that Afghans want nothing to do with them. Dari-speaking ethnic minorities remain skeptical about the prospects for reconciliation with the predominately Pashtun Taliban insurgency, which enjoys the backing of Pakistan's military and intelligence services. The Taliban leadership in Quetta seem to reason that victory is within reach and that they have simply to bide their time until the planned U.S. withdrawal in 2014.
Throughout 2011, Pakistan's relations with the United States were sliding from bad to worse, and NATO's deadly yet apparently accidental bombing of Pakistani soldiers in November turned a miserable relationship into an all but openly hostile one. Partially as a result, but also due to the Pakistani military's support of militants operating in Afghanistan, ties between Islamabad and Kabul are fraying. The elected government has made some progress in its rapprochement with India, moving to normalize trade relations. Yet the process remains hostage to the military's continued support for militant groups such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the renamed Lashkar-Tayyeba, responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Another terror attack could result in all-out war between the two nuclear-armed adversaries.
The biggest dangers for Pakistan, however, come not from external sources but rather from within. The transition from dictatorship to democracy is not at all consolidated, and the military still control crucial areas of foreign and security policy. Radical Islamism is destabilizing and even dominating the country at times, with violent attacks on leading liberal political figures shaking what little confidence anyone may have had that Pakistan can escape disaster. Yet there is still some hope, because radical Islamists lack popular support, and the two political parties that are likely to win the next general election in 2013 (provided the democratic transition is not disrupted by the military) -- the ruling PPP and the opposition PML-N -- have the capacity and the political will to take the country back to its moderate moorings.
Yemen stands between violent collapse and a thin hope of a peaceful transfer of power. Under increasing pressure from international and regional actors, President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally signed a transition agreement on Nov. 23. Under the agreement, he immediately transferred significant authorities to his vice president and is scheduled to officially leave office after early elections that are scheduled for Feb. 21. This was an important first step, but one that fell far short of solving Yemen's problems.
Many challenges remain, including holding signatories responsible for implementing the transitional agreement, adequately addressing unresolved issues of political inclusion and justice, and improving dire economic and humanitarian conditions. Moreover, tensions between Yemen's competing armed power centers, particularly Saleh's family on one hand versus defected general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the (unrelated) powerful al-Ahmar clan on the other, remain unresolved and are a potential flashpoint for further violence. One of the most challenging tasks during the first phase of the transition will be securing a durable ceasefire, removing all military and armed tribesmen from urban centers, and beginning meaningful reform of the military and security forces.
It's a tall order, and international actors have a part to play. Threats of targeted sanctions against Saleh and his family from members of the U.N. Security Council played a part in bringing some regime hard-liners to the negotiating table. Now, with an agreement signed, implementation requires that pressure must be applied to all sides: Saleh and his supporters on one hand and the opposition parties and their affiliates on the other. For now, support has coalesced around Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who, according to the agreement, will be the consensus candidate in the February elections. As a relatively neutral figure, Hadi may encourage some measure of compromise and security.
Several states in the region are surviving on luck: their infrastructure near collapse, their political systems eaten away by corruption, their public services almost nonexistent. On top of all this, Tajikistan, for example, now faces a growing security threat from both local and external insurgencies, something it has almost zero capacity to contain. Adding to the country's woes, relations with neighboring Uzbekistan are at an all-time low, with their long-running water dispute no closer to resolution and occasionally deadly border incidents threatening to spark deeper violence.
As for Uzbekistan itself, Washington increasingly relies on Tashkent for logistics in Afghanistan, but the brutal nature of the regime means it is not only an embarrassing partner but also, ultimately, a very unreliable one. Already there has been at least one attack on the rail line transiting U.S. material through the country. Given how U.S.-Pakistan relations seem to hit a new low every week, Washington may feel it has little choice, but it certainly seems to be "out of the fire and into the frying pan" at best.
Then there is volatile Kyrgyzstan. Without prompt, genuine and exhaustive measures to address the damage done by the 2010 ethnic pogroms in the south, the country risks another round of mass violence. The ultranationalist mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov, who has in the past claimed that Bishkek's writ does not extend to the southern city and now muses out loud about creating a municipal police force independent of the Ministry of Interior, will no doubt continue to fire shots across the bows of the central government in 2012.
Reassuring declarations from the government in Bujumbura sound hollow, as the end of the Arusha consensus, which concluded the civil war in 2000, combined with the deteriorating political climate that followed the boycott of the 2010 elections, have contributed directly to an escalation of violence and insecurity. The elements of the peace deal are being dismantled one by one. The not-so-hidden struggle between the opposition and the ruling party, combined with the government's intensifying repression, is leaving ever more victims since the 2010 polls. Independent media are harassed by the authorities, who are allegedly commissioning targeted assassinations. At the same time, state corruption is on the rise, governance indicators are in the red, and social tension is mounting as living conditions deteriorate due to rising prices of basic commodities. Unless the government takes measures to reverse these trends, Burundi could edge toward renewed civil war in 2012.
Adding to the uncertainty over Yemen's future are southern activists whose demands may yet range from immediate independence to a federation of North and South Yemen, and Houthi rebels in northern Yemen who seek greater rights for their community and a degree of local autonomy. And, while politicians negotiate in Sanaa, government forces and local tribesmen are in an ongoing fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Abyan governorate. The one certainty is that the struggle for Yemen will last long into 2012.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Joseph Kabila has been re-elected president and officially sworn in, but that's unlikely to satisfy his political opponents, particularly supporters of opposition candidate Etienne Tshisekedi. The vote was badly flawed, with reports of pre-marked ballots, voter intimidation, localized violence, widespread mismanagement and fiddled results. The election commission and Supreme Court were also stuffed with Kabila loyalists, rendering their arbitration worthless in the eyes of an angry opposition that may be marginalized for the next five years if legislative election results are also mishandled.
The election standoff is a symptom of larger trends. In his five years in power, Kabila has stacked many national institutions in his favor, leaving his opponents with few avenues to pursue grievances peacefully. International players have also quietly disengaged from Congolese affairs. Despite the sizable U.N. presence in Congo, and the involvement of donor countries like the United States and Britain, together with the European Union, little has been done to check Kabila's consolidation of power.
As calls for international arbitration fall on deaf ears in Kinshasa and most Western capitals, Congo's electoral authorities appear unable to salvage any sense of credibility from results. Kabila's illegitimate mandate threatens not only Congo's peace and stability. The muffled international response to the flawed polls, and the silent acquiescence of regional leaders, bode ill for democracy across the continent. If only the African Union reacted to stolen elections with the outrage it reserves for coups -- both are, after all, equally unconstitutional changes of government -- politicians might at least think twice before rigging.
It is too soon to tell whether Kenya's recently launched military campaign in southern Somalia will succeed in defeating al-Shabaab -- the militant Islamist group that formed during the fragmentation of the Islamic Courts Union, which controlled most of southern Somalia for part of the last decade -- or end up a protracted and messy conflict. Now that Kenya will become part of the African Union's mission in Somalia, however, it looks like it is there for the duration. Its prolonged presence in southern Somalia could be very unpopular, and the risks for Kenya's internal stability are very real. Following the launch of the campaign in mid-October, al-Shabaab immediately threatened retaliatory attacks. The possibility of an al-Shabaab terror campaign has to be taken very seriously and there is a palpable sense of unease in Nairobi. In late October, the organization carried out two grenade attacks in the capital on Kenyan, not Western, targets. A Kenyan al-Shabaab member was jailed for the attacks. Since then there have been a number of incidents near the border with Somalia.
Kenya has a sizable ethnic Somali and wider Muslim population, most of whom are critical of the government's military campaign in Somalia, the more so for its associations with the Western-led counterterrorism struggle. There is significant risk that the military campaign exacerbates already worrisome radicalization in Kenya, particularly if it goes badly and civilian deaths mount.
In response to the threat of al-Shabaab attacks on Kenyan soil, the Kenyan government has launched a massive sweep in ethnic-Somali majority areas, aiming to flush out the group's supporters. Although the police and security services have mostly shown restraint, local leaders in the northeastern border region have already accused the military of excessive force. The real test will come if al-Shabaab carries out a major attack in Kenya. There are fears this would trigger a draconian crackdown on ethnic Somalis in Kenya, with grave consequences for intercommunal relations and societal cohesion and harmony, especially ahead of general elections this year, the first since the 2007 polls sparked widespread ethnic violence.
Venezuela's homicide rates are among the highest in the hemisphere -- twice those of Colombia and three times those of Mexico -- despite largely escaping the world's attention. Rates were rising even before Hugo Chávez assumed power. But under his 12 years they have skyrocketed, from 4,550 in 1998 to 17,600 last year. The victims are predominantly poor young men -- killed for as little as a mobile phone, caught in gunfire between gangs, or even subject to extrajudicial killings by security forces.
Criminal violence has not yet permeated the country's politics. But signs ahead of presidential elections next year are ominous. The regime itself has armed local civilian militias to, in its own words, "defend the revolution." Thus far it has failed to tackle corruption within the security forces, or their complicity in crime. Arms are easily available -- reportedly more than 12 million weapons circulate in a country with a population of only 29 million. Impunity is a major driver of violence, with judicial independence eroded through sustained attacks by the government. According to some estimates, fewer than one in 10 police investigations ever leads to arrest.
It's not yet clear who will face off against Chávez for the presidency, nor do we know the extent of political space in which candidates will be able to contest for office. But with the president's ailing health adding considerable uncertainty, bitter enmity between him and some opposition leaders, and Venezuelan society polarized, militarized and lacking credible institutional conflict-resolution mechanisms, next year could prove testing indeed.
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