Making security predictions can be a perilous affair. Nevertheless, the events of last year offer us some background for calculated assessments for the year ahead.
According to the UK’s National Security Strategy 'we live in a period of startling change', where uncertainty reigns supreme, but 2013 was the year we learned to accept surprises: a British Number One can win Wimbledon.
Events in 2013 reinforced the trend of global fragility - driven by a diffusion of power, the diminishing control of states over the means of violence, and increasing economic interdependence. Extreme events continued to challenge governments and populations across the world. So what will 2014 bring?
On reflection, the dominant theme of 2013 was about things breaking apart: of betrayal, defiance and protest. The Snowden revelations; the balkanisation of Syria and increasingly of the wider region down sectarian lines; the protests in Ukraine; the multiple conflicts in central Africa and the relentless terrorist attacks in Iraq suggest 2014 will see the international system under even more strain. Can it cope?
Events in 2013 reinforced Palmerston’s dictum ‘We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual.’ . If that is the case then the argument for thinking about the future is even more important – especially as we head to a Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2015. Below are ten assessments for the coming year on the understanding that we (humans) are dreadful at making predictions. But they are a tradition at the beginning of each year and have arguably become more popular as our world becomes more rational and routine. So in the spirit of the season, aware of the follies of forecasting, here are some calculated guesses:
1. Al Qa’ida’s Affiliates Take Control
The death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 deprived the group of a charismatic leader but has had little effect on the movement as a whole which will continue to grow in the Levant and Middle East. The Arab Spring did not undermine the Al Qa’ida’s potency – if anything it has benefited from the ensuing chaos.
2013 showed Al Qa’ida’s and its affiliates to be resilient with groups operating from the western Sahel to the Philippines. 2014 will show that the movement is still capable of radicalising and training many people.
2. Iraq Teeters on the Brink
The United Nations says at least 7,818 civilians and 1,050 members of the security forces were killed in violent attacks across Iraq in 2013. A major battle is currently underway for Fallujah between Islamic State in the Levant, the Al Qa’ida’s affiliate, and Iraqi Special Forces underlining the abject failure of the authoritarian Nouri al-Maliki to manage the powersharing agreement with the Sunnis. It is hard not to see Iraq spiral into further chaos in 2014.
3. Contagion in the Levant
2014 will see Bashar al-Assad remain the biggest – but not the only –warlord in Syria. Weakened by the conflict he still has more cards up his sleeve than his opponents. Ethnic cleansing will continue in large swaths of the country. Rebel groups will continue to fight among themselves for territory. Extremists now hold the upper hand on both sides.
Lebanon and Jordan will act as the refugee crisis turns into the worst humanitarian disaster of our time. A diplomatic roadmap won’t be agreed this year given US reluctance to become involved and primary focus on nuclear negotiations with Iran – but watch Russia, its strategic ally in the Middle East that is disappearing. Putin will act sooner rather than later.
4. Data (Part 1)
The Snowden revelations woke many Americans up to the activities of the National Security Agency in their own country. Stories of spying on world leaders drew anger and irritation from Europe and further afield. More revelations will follow in 2014. But will 2014 see the beginnings of the balkanisation of the internet?
Brazil's government has published ambitious plans to promote its own networking technology. In Germany Deutsche Telekom and others have set up a secure national email service. Meanwhile Michel Barnier, the European Union’s internal market commissioner has called for a European data cloud, and the European parliament voted on new data protection rules.
5. End State in Afghanistan
Don’t look for parallels in other theatres of conflict like Iraq – the situation is too depressing. Yes, one can argue that British forces, together with the international community, have prevented Al Qa’ida from using Afghanistan as a base to launch an attack on the West over the past decade. But the British public will ask – was it worth it? Politicians and senior military commanders will need an answer. Most assessments seem to suggest the situation deteriorating in Afghanistan from the middle of 2014 onwards.
6. Optimism for Iran
The one potentially positive note in 2014. 2013 gave us an interim agreement between Iran and the E3+3, demonstrating that Iran and the United States can hold high-level talks, and establish an ambitious timeline for resolving the dispute as a whole. Yes, the work could be undone by domestic politics in Iran and the US – and the way ahead looks perilous but analysts remain optimistic.
7. Natural hazards Tests UK Resilience
Parts of Britain began the New Year under water, as storms lashed the country. The Government’s response was criticised. Building the UK's Resilience to extreme weather will be a key theme of 2014 with questions being raised about energy security in the UK and the ability of the NHS to cope with pandemic influenza.
8. Data (Part 2)
The Snowden revelations have not just affected governments, they have raised questions about our personal data and how it is managed by big business. 2014 will see a backlash against the private sector – those data-accumulating companies which use, trade and (sometimes) lose our data on a massive scale. The top five largest breaches in 2013 affected about 450 million personal records. These are good times for cyber criminals and as more services we depend on go online things can only get worse.
...will remain in the United Kingdom.
10. The X-Factor
We live in uncertain times so it will be no surprise that something will happen in 2014 that will come as a surprise, has a major effect on the UK, and will be inappropriately rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.
Our predecessors grappled with the brutal certainties of the Cold War while we face a complex range of threats from a myriad of sources. The aim of forecasting is therefore to try and minimise uncertainty and to identify and evaluate risk.
Such exercises play an important role in strategy if only to understand the spectrum of opportunities and risks that lie ahead. Based on such an assessment, decision makers can identify where to invest finite political capital. 2013 was about things coming apart, this year may follow a similar course if action is not taken. Binding states together for a common cause has become an altogether more difficult challenge than in the past. Collective responsibility will be the key to success in 2014.
Senior Research Fellow