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War in 2018

As 2017 comes to a close, bloody conflicts rage on in many parts of the world and new wars are seemingly on the horizon. To get a clearer picture of what could happen in the new year, Newsweek reached out to experts for their predictions and perspectives on the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as the potential for war between the U.S. and North Korea. 

The Ukraine conflict

The conflict in Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatists, which began in 2014 (and coincided with the annexation of Crimea), has claimed over 10,000 lives––including 2,500 civilians. Meanwhile, roughly 1.6 million people have been forced from their homes. The war's 285-mile frontline has become the third most mine-contaminated region in the world, Reuters reports, which has contributed to the deaths or injuries of 103 civilians in the first nine months of the year. 

As the world's attention has been diverted to the rise of nationalism in Western countries, the Syria conflict, North Korea's long-range missile tests and other issues, this war has largely been forgotten—but it is alive and well.  "The conflict remains in full force," John E. Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, told Newsweek. "There’s not been one day since April 2014 where there’s not been fighting in Ukraine. Every day since then, they’ve been averaging two score or more ceasefire violations a day."

Despite claims from Russian President Vladimir Putin to the contrary, Herbst said there are several thousand Russian troops currently in Ukraine. "This is a Russian war against Ukraine," Herbst said. "This is in no sense the people of east Ukraine rising against their government." At present, the conflict is a complete and utter stalemate, Herbst said, as Ukraine has "proved more capable" than Russia anticipated and the Kremlin is not willing to launch a full-scale attack. 

But is there any hope of this war ending in 2018? Don't hold your breath, according to Herbst.  "This will play out for many years––possible a decade or two," Herbst said. But he added that time is very much on Ukraine's side. The economic sanctions leveled against Russia because of the conflict will take a toll and Putin, if reelected in 2018, will eventually face pressure to wind down his country's involvement, he said. "The people of Ukraine––the large marjoirty––are in this fight. They understand Russia has taken their territory and they want it back," according to Herbst. The Russian government, however, does not have large-scale public support in the same way. 

"This is a war between the Kremlin and the people of Ukraine," he said. "This gives Ukraine more staying power than the Kremlin." 

The Syria conflict

The devastating, bloody conflict in Syria has raged on for more than half a decade. Since its onset in 2011, the war has claimed over 400,000 lives, according to the U.N., and made Syria the largest source of refugees in the world. At present, there are roughly 5.4 million Syrian refugees, according to the U.N. refugee agency.  

Some have described the conflict as a civil war because it began as a fight between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government rebels. But it quickly evolved into a complicated, messy affair involving multiple, competing factions––including jihadist groups. On top of this, Assad has been accused of committing war crimes against his own people. 

The chaotic situation presented an ideal scenario for the Islamic State militant group to rise to power and it succeeded in taking over large portions of territory across the country and its neighbor, Iraq. Though ISIS has largely been defeated in Syria and Iraq, it still remains a problem. The fighting has not stopped in Syria and experts don't sound hopeful about a cessation to hostilities in the new year. 

When asked if the war might end in 2018, Jennifer Cafarella, a senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War, told Newsweek she was "sad to say" it doesn't appear to be a realistic possibility. "ISIS retains both will and ability to continue to wage an insurgency. Al Qaeda has an army in Western Syria and intends to bring the war back to Syria's cities while resurging in eastern Syria, its historic stronghold," Cafarella explained. "The Assad regime is completely dependent on Russia and Iranian-provided Shia militias to conduct both offensive and defensive operations but still intends to reconquer the entire country."

Moreover, there is no substantive peace process at the moment, Cafarella said, describing the "diplomatic track" set up by Russia, Iran and Assad as a "sham" with the primary goal of prolonging Assad's regime by any means necessary. "Assad has never actually demonstrated a willingness to negotiate on terms remotely acceptable to the opposition. The US has done nothing to compel him to do so, instead surrendering as Russia and Iran breathe life back into his regime," Cafarella said. 

Moving forward, America's role in the war is also uncertain and the Trump administration has many questions to answer. "America's gains against ISIS to date are at serious risk of unraveling in the near term," according to Cafarella. "We can secure what we've won and build on it, but only if we're sober about the risks and requirements and we don't overestimate what it gets us. We are nowhere near an end to this war, nor a diplomatic solution to it."

The North Korean nuclear threat

The U.S. and North Korea have been enemies for well over half a century, but tensions have reached historic heights in 2017 as Kim Jong Un's regime has ramped up long-range missile tests as part of a broader effort to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the mainland U.S. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and Kim have been engaged in an ongoing war of words, consistently trading threats and insults. In late November, North Korea tested its most powerful ballistic missile yet. The missile reached an altitude of 2,800 miles––over 10 times higher than the International Space Station––and traveled for approximately 50 minutes before landing in the Sea of Japan. Roughly two months before that, in early September, North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date. Since then, it's threatened to conduct a seventh nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean. 

The U.N. has issued harsh economic sanctions against North Korea in an effort to get it to step away from its nuclear program and Pyongyang has even faced pressure from China––its top trading partner and most important ally. But Kim obstinately refuses to give up on his nuclear ambitions and his regime has argued such weapons are necessary to ward off "repressive U.S. imperialists." The White House has sent mixed messages on this issue, confusing all parties involved. Trump's top advisers have often championed diplomacy, only to see the president undercut them with bellicose threats and an apparent preference for military options. 

Amid all of this, much of the world worries the two countries are on the brink of war. "The worst possible thing that could happen is for us all to sleepwalk into a war that might have very dramatic circumstances,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Thursday. This past week, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said there's a roughly 30 percent chance Trump will start a war with North Korea.

Experts from the academic community also seem somewhat worried a war might occur in 2018. "I believe a conflict is unlikely [in 2018] but still possible, perhaps more so than at any time since the nuclear crisis of 1994," Charles K. Armstrong, a historian and the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies in the Social Sciences at Columbia University, told Newsweek. 

With that said, Armstrong also seems optimistic the Trump administration will sit down for talks with Kim's regime early in the new year. "Ultimately negotiations are the only way to avoid a conflict," Armstrong said. If talks don't begin soon, Armstrong anticipates North Korea will conduct more missile tests in 2018. 

"North Korea's goal is to prove it has the capacity of striking the US with a nuclear-tipped [intercontinental ballistic missile], and there is still some doubt among experts whether North Korean missiles are able to safely re-enter the atmosphere and carry a nuclear payload. So there may be more missile testing unless talks with the US begin fairly soon," Armstrong said. "However the latest test may have satisfied the North Koreans that they have sufficient deterrent capacity, so they focus their attention more on domestic economic development. This is the other half of North Korea's 'byungjin' policy since 2013: simultaneous advancement in military affairs and economic development."

North Korea is believed to have anywhere between 25 to 60 nuclear weapons, but, as Armstrong noted, there's a debate over whether it has the technology to successfully launch one toward the mainland U.S.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff said in November a ground invasion, which would likely occur in the context of a full-scale war, would be necessary to fully eliminate North Korea's nuclear arsenal. Many experts have warned a war between the U.S. and the rogue state could lead to millions of deaths. A recent Congressional Research Service report concluded as many as 300,000 would die in the first view days of fighting alone, even without the involvement of nuclear weapons.

 John Haltiwanger