2016 has been a long year. There was a presidential election we thought would never end. The political correctness war, replete with transgender bathroom debates and campus unrest, rages on.
But it’s also been a long year on the foreign policy front. So long, in fact, it can be hard to recall all that’s happened and why it’s important. As we close out the year and prepare for the incoming Trump administration, here are the top ten foreign policy developments of 2016 that will set the scene for 2017.
1. The Syrian Civil War
This year saw the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, reach an apex of violence and death with more than half a million people dead and many more displaced. The Syrian regime took back the rebel-held eastern portion of Aleppo earlier this month after continual bombing of civilians and hospitals. Meanwhile, the international community, including the United States, watched and did nothing.
The war isn’t over, but the rebels have suffered a mortal blow in Aleppo, and Syrian president Bashir al-Assad will retain power in Syria with an iron grip. The Syrian civil war’s greatest legacy, however, will not be the reign of Assad but the retreat of America from the Middle East.
2. Russia Became a New Superpower in the Middle East
Russia emerged this year as a new superpower in the Middle East, showcasing its regional dominance by allying with Assad. Under the guise of fighting ISIS in Syria, Russia helped Assad bring the Syrian rebels to their knees at a great cost of human life. While they were barrel-bombing civilians, Russian diplomats kept U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry distracted with endless talks and ceasefire agreements that were destined to be broken.
Under President Obama’s leadership, America has been replaced by a much more nefarious power in the region. Russia’s goal in Syria was never to defeat ISIS. It was to show America’s enemies how empty our threats are, and our allies how useless our promises. In this, Moscow has succeeded.
3. The Iran Deal Went Live, Immediately Began to Crumble
At the beginning of 2016, the infamous Iran nuclear deal came into effect. The agreement between the international community and the Islamic Republic was lauded by the Obama administration and their “echo chamber” of liberal media and nuclear experts, who praised the deal as a landmark step toward preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Sceptics were guaranteed “inspections anytime” to ensure Iran doesn’t enrich uranium at a military grade.
But once the deal was made it became clear that this crucial aspect of accountability was just as much a lie as Obama’s promise that “if you like your health insurance, you can keep it.” Not surprisingly, the Iran deal has already begun to crack up, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordering the development of nuclear-powered ships that will most likely surpass the uranium grade permitted by the deal.
4. ISIS Faces Territorial Threats in Mosul and Beyond
In October, the battle began to take Mosul back from ISIS control. A coalition of Iraqi security forces, Shia militia, and Kurdish fighters began systematically clearing the outskirts of Iraq’s second-largest city with the help of the U.S. military. Successful in the outlying cities, the battle within Mosul is slow-going and arduous. While ISIS is losing territory both in Iraq and in its strongholds in Libya, it is by no means finished.
5. ISIS Had a ‘Successful’ Year for Terrorism
The Islamic State had a successful year of terrorizing the West, whether directly or by inspiring radicalized young men. 2016’s list of terror attacks includes the bombing of the airport and a metro line in Brussels in March, the Orlando nightclub shooting in June, the horrific Nice truck attack in July, and the recent truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.
In addition to these large-scale attacks were a series of smaller attacks, including the murder of an 84-year old French priest, an axe attack on a train in Germany, and an attempted bombing outside a German concert venue. ISIS might be facing the threat of territorial defeat in the Middle East, but they are still able to inspire, plan, and carry out terrorist attacks in the West.
6. Europe’s Migrant Crisis and Rise of the Far-Right
This, of course, has strong links to the migrant crisis in Europe, where there is ongoing concern about ISIS operatives disguising themselves as refugees. In the first three quarters of the year, 951,140 non-European Union migrants applied for asylum for the first time. The top three countries of origin were Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. There is additional fear that many of these refugees are adherents to strict interpretations of Islam and are therefore susceptible to radicalization.
Europe has been struggling with how to balance taking in refugees from the Middle East with providing an acceptable level of security. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has maintained a strict open-arms policy amid growing criticism after terrorist attacks on German soil this year. The migrant debate and the suggested refugee quotas from the European Union have helped drive the rise of far-right political parties throughout Europe.
Seen by many as anti-immigrant, these political parties, from Hungary to Austria to France, are self-professed nationalists who want to preserve their ethno-cultural heritage. They also want to reestablish national sovereignty and weaken the authority of the EU. Beginning with Brexit in July, this wave of populism has fueled fears of the dissolution of the EU and an end to the post-World War II European order.
7. Russian Aggression in Eastern Europe
Russia has also been busy insinuating itself throughout the European continent. This fall, Russia moved its nuclear-capable Iskander weapons into their enclave, Kaliningrad, situated between NATO members Lithuania and Poland. Russia also unveiled its newest missile, the “Satan 2,” that’s reportedly capable of wiping out an area the size of France or Texas. It’s clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to test NATO’s resolve and the Trump administration’s commitment to that long-standing treaty.
8. Turkey’s Coup, Crackdown, and Shift from Western Allies
In July, a coup attempt in Turkey resulted in a prolonged state of emergency and the arrest of 41,000 alleged co-conspirators. In a claim that strains credulity, President Recep Erdogan blamed the failed takeover, as well as the December assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, on a cleric living in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, placing a strain on U.S.-Turkish relations.
The coup was followed by a crackdown on journalists, dissenters, and many of Erdogan’s political opponents, leading some to suspect that the coup may have been staged, a “false flag” to justify Erdogan’s consolidation of power. Regardless, Turkey is moving away from democracy and its Western alliances and toward Islamism and stronger ties with Russia. This shift threatens to upend longstanding strategic cooperation between the West and Turkey, which until recently was an important key to maintaining relative peace in the Middle East.
9. Obama’s Pivot Toward Cuba
Obama made headlines in March by being the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge. After having led the effort toward thawing relations with Cuba in 2015, Obama legitimized the brutal communist regime not only by visiting the island, but also by holding a mockery of a press conference with dictator Raul Castro before a national press corps that’s under the thumb of the communist regime. Ignoring the ongoing human rights violations of Cuba, Obama prioritized his own “legacy.”
Later in the year, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died. Cuban dissidents rejoiced while many in the liberal media mourned. The Cuban people now find themselves living in strange times. The island is opened to American tourists and some business for the first time in more than 50 years, while Raul Castro’s boot print is still firmly planted on their faces.
10. The Rising Threat of China
Last but not least—and likely most important in the long run—is the growing aggression of China. The People’s Republic of China has continued its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, taking control of islands claimed by other nations as well as constructing man-made islands to establish a military presence in the area. The PRC’s move infringes on the territorial rights of other nations and threatens international shipping lanes, but it also risks military confrontation. The build-up continued this week when China sailed its first aircraft carrier and five other warships into a contested area. In a further sign that the PRC means to make its territorial claims permanent, last week it began daily civil charter flights to one of the disputed islands.
2016 has been a year of foreign policy unrest. In the wake of Obama’s strategy of withdrawal from foreign engagement, the international order has shifted. Old powers like Russia are rearing their head. Old enemies like Iran are gaining legitimacy. China is rising. The established political equilibrium in Europe is cracking. And Islamist terrorism is becoming mundane. This is the foreign policy landscape that President-elect Trump and his national security team will face on January 20.