What was the most important international story of 2015?
For many, the obvious answer might be the global threat posed by the Islamic State militant group. Others might say that the nuclear deal between Western powers and Iran could be more important. Another likely suggestion would be the refugee crisis that engulfed Europe, a crisis that seems likely to change the continent both demographically and politically.
These stories are all important, but it would be foolish to suggest they were the only important events of the year. There were plenty of other things going on around the world this year that had a big effect on a significant number of people.
And in many cases, these stories didn’t get the attention you might expect.
The truth is, we don’t know yet what the most important international story of the year was — and it may take years for us to really know.
Years ago, few would have expected that al-Qaida in Iraq, a group led by a hard-drinking Jordanian ex-convict, would become the threat that is the Islamic State. And the general public had no idea in 2014 that the refugee crisis stemming from Syria’s civil war would soon play out in the center of Europe and become a key factor in the early stages of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
So what are the international events that were overlooked in 2015 and how could they effect the future? Here are some cautious suggestions, in no particular order.
▪ The war in Yemen.
The Syrian war is not the only important conflict in the region. The ongoing civil war in Yemen has left a similar trail of destruction, with thousands of civilians killed and cultural treasures destroyed.
Worse still, while the United States and other Western powers are only tangentially involved, it’s still very much an international conflict.
A Saudi-led coalition fights on one side to prop up President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s embattled government, aided with unusual partners such as the Sudanese military and even Colombian mercenaries. On the other side of the fight are ambitious Houthi rebels, supported by Iran. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula remains a factor in the conflict, as does a new group loyal to the Islamic State.
While Yemen’s divisions have been around for years and are largely the result of local factors, the conflict seemed to morph into a regional fight in the past year, split along the Middle East’s sectarian lines and sapping the regional will to find a solution in Syria. Now, with so many interests involved, it’s becoming harder and harder to imagine a stable Yemen anytime soon.
▪ Confirmation that the leader of the Taliban was dead.
On July 29, the Afghan government confirmed that Mohammad Omar, the reclusive one-eyed leader of the Taliban, was dead. In fact, they revealed, he had probably died two years ago.
While much of the intrigue surrounding the news centered on the nature of Omar’s death and how it was kept secret for so long, the more worrying question was what would happen to the Taliban without him.
Perhaps surprisingly, the group saw some major gains in 2015, even briefly taking over the strategically important northern Afghan city of Kunduz. However, it also found itself fighting for the hearts and minds of its fighters as it encountered competition from the more extreme Islamic State, which managed to gain a foothold in Afghanistan this year.
Both factors are likely to be big in 2016, with the United States and its allies forced to again acknowledge that the Afghan government still needs help in its fight against the Taliban and that the Islamic State is likely the bigger threat. Even Russia, a historic rival of Afghanistan’s Islamists, is now sharing information with the Taliban to aid Moscow’s fight against the Islamic State.
▪ The potential beginnings of a Turkish civil war.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party came away the victor in important elections this year, but Turkey looks increasingly far from stable. The country is not only deeply involved in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq (even coming close to open warfare with Russia in November), its tenuous cease-fire with domestic Kurdish rebels has broken down completely.
Last week, Turkish tanks and artillery attacked Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in the southeast of the country, with reports of considerable numbers of militant and civilian deaths among the local population. The situation is complicated by the civil war next door in Syria, with the fighting taking place just over the border from areas held by Syrian Kurdish groups.
Given that many Kurdish militants fighting the Turkish state are younger and outside the control of traditional rebel groups, there’s a new layer of unpredictability to this conflict. It’s possible that 2016 could see an all-out civil war in the country — if it hasn’t begun already.
▪ A breakthrough in Colombian peace talks.
While the opening of relations between Cuba and the United States remained the biggest story for Latin America this year, a lower-key but perhaps just as important moment was also reached in one of Latin America’s most intractable conflicts, with Colombian officials coming to an agreement with the FARC rebel group that could pave the way for a peace deal in 2016.
The potential end of a conflict that has dragged on for four decades and left more than 220,000 people dead is great news for the region and the world. But it may well have unexpected consequences, too.
Illegal coca cultivation has recently been surging in Colombia, in part because FARC and other rebel groups have encouraged farmers to grow the crop. This has resulted in a glut of cheap cocaine reaching the United States through Mexico, part of a broader increase in hard-drug trade across the border this year.
▪ Continuing Saudi royal family drama.
In January, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died at age 90 and was succeeded by the 79-year-old King Salman. Whereas Abdullah had become known for allowing a modicum of reform in Saudi Arabia in recent years, it quickly became apparent that Salman hoped to make his mark in a different way: by emboldening the Saudi kingdom’s foreign policy and making dramatic changes to the line of succession within the Saudi family.
These changes have proven divisive. Saudi Arabia’s big foreign policy moves strike many as counterproductive — see the conflict in Yemen and a recently announced “Islamic military alliance” against terrorism for evidence. Some also voice concern that the 30-year-old deputy crown prince in charge of this new foreign policy, Mohammad bin Salman, is aggressively consolidating power in the country and plotting a leadership challenge to Mohammad bin Nayef, the crown prince and favored partner of the United States.
There have been repeated, though unconfirmed, reports that Salman is in ill health, adding an air of urgency to the debate. And given that Mohammad bin Salman is his son, many view his ascent as very likely. “Let’s face reality,” one prominent Arab official told The Washington Post’s David Ignatius earlier this year. “He’s the son of the king. There’s a strong chance he will be the next king.”
▪ How a drop in commodities prices affects Latin American politics.
Compared with the death and destruction described above, the falling prices of commodities probably sounds banal. However, it’s remarkable to see the political consequences of this economic situation across an entire region. Over the past decade, a commodities boom had dramatically helped enrich Latin American countries and lift huge numbers of people out of poverty.
But prices for goods such as oil and metals began to drop in mid-2014, thanks partly to declining demand from China’s slowing economy.
The immediate effect in parts of Latin America was obvious — for example, the chronic shortages of basic goods in Venezuela. Now the longer-term political effects are also becoming apparent. Across the region, leftist parties that were used to spending big during the good times are seeing their support decline: December saw a strong anti-government vote in Venezuela’s congressional elections, the return of a pro-business president in Argentina and a protest movement in Brazil that threatens to oust leftist President Dilma Rousseff.
▪ China’s confusingly broad definition of terrorism.
Terrorist attacks linked to separatist movements in Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority province in western China, have led to a heavy-handed response from Beijing in recent years. In 2015, however, it looked increasingly as if this response was targeting Islam rather than terrorism. Beijing banned the Islamic burqa in public spaces in the city of Urumqi and ordered Muslim shopkeepers to sell alcohol and cigarettes. Recently, even Communist Party members in the region were accused of being disloyal and supporting terrorism.
Whatever the reality, the Chinese government has attempted to obscure it by harassing and obstructing foreign journalists who have tried to visit Xinjiang.
In official statements, the Chinese government has linked its fight against separatists from Xinjiang’s Muslim Uighur population with the U.S.-led war on terror. After gunmen affiliated with the Islamic State committed deadly attacks in Paris in November, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested that China was “also a victim of terrorism” and that there shouldn’t be a “double standard.”
However, a recent comment from one Chinese official linking the Dalai Lama with the Islamic State was telling. “The line between peaceful political activism and violent acts of terror is frequently blurred in China,” Australian scholar James Leibold noted for the National Interest.
▪ The rise of right-wing populism in Europe.
The resurgence of fringe far-right parties across Europe has been feared and talked about for years. In 2015, with economic and security fears gripping the continent, it began to look as if those concerns had finally come true.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, came close to making major gains in regional elections, before being (yet again) set back by the nation’s two-round electoral system. A plethora of far-right parties became political players in Scandinavia, where they often helped influence anti-immigrant legislation. And in Poland, a right-wing, anti-immigrant party won a majority in October (already the Law and Justice party’s critics say they are trying to change the legal system in undemocratic ways).
The continent is perhaps just beginning to feel the influence of these parties. For example, Britain’s David Cameron, bowing to pressure from the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, has promised to have a referendum by the end of 2017 on whether Britain should leave the European Union. While it remains unlikely, a “Brexit” could be a dramatic change for the entire continent — perhaps opening the floodgates for more countries to leave.
▪ The deaths of Shiite Muslims in Nigeria.
Between Dec. 12 and 14, the Nigerian military conducted raids on a number of mostly Shiite locations in the northern town of Zaria after an attempted assassination of an army chief. According to Human Rights Watch and other groups, soldiers fired on unarmed children during the raids. As many as 1,000 people may have been killed.
This is far from the first time the Nigerian military has been accused of human rights abuses, but the killing of so many Shiites has sparked protests in areas as far as Tehran. It serves as sad evidence that Nigeria’s problems go further than just the Islamic State-linked terrorism of Boko Haram — an extremist Sunni group responsible for more deaths in 2014 than the Islamic State.
Despite the widespread attention paid to the abduction of almost 300 schoolgirls in 2014 (most of whom are still held captive by Boko Haram), the world has a habit of overlooking problems in Nigeria. That’s a mistake — the complicated country, a key U.S. ally in the region, has the largest population in Africa and, by some measures, the continent’s largest economy.
▪ Russia’s economy.
Faced with economic sanctions because of the conflict in Ukraine (which, by the way, is far from over) and the aforementioned falling commodities prices, Russia’s economy has slid into recession. Russians are finding that their income is falling and the level of poverty is rising: A recent protest by Russian truck drivers is evidence that the economy is squeezing Vladimir Putin’s working-class base particularly hard.
Politically, we may already be seeing the results of this. Russia’s intervention in Syria, as disastrous as it may appear so far, seems designed to rally support at home. It has also opened diplomatic doors in the West, with Secretary of State John Kerry emphasizing that both countries view the Islamic State as their enemy. The future of European sanctions against Russia now looks increasingly uncertain as the continent is split over whether to work with Putin.
Whether Putin can ride out this economic uncertainty and return to (relatively) good relations with the West is unclear. Economic stability and growth was one of the core promises of Putin’s Russia. Upcoming elections in Russia’s parliament, the Duma, could reveal the level of discontent in the country. The disputed results of the country’s last legislative elections sparked the biggest protests of the Putin era. (And to make things just that little bit extra complicated, many of the Russian nationalists who fought in Ukraine are now back home . . . with their weapons in tow.)