Global flash points continue simmering as 2014 approaches

Between civil war in Syria, nuclear negotiations with Iran, and an erratic, unstable North Korea, 2013 has been a trying year on the world stage for U.S. policymakers. And on the cusp of 2014, with none of those issues resolved and new problems on the horizon, it doesn’t look like the crisis atmosphere is going anywhere.

Still, 2013 was not an entirely frustrating year for American interests abroad. Despite a bloody civil war and a dangerous ingathering of al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, there is now a possibility that the Syrian regime will soon relinquish its chemical weapons. And the election of a new president in Iran has thawed the decades-long frost in U.S.-Iranian relations and helped begin a deal that could prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

As the architects of U.S. foreign policy try to build on some glimmers of progress in the new year, it seems appropriate to take stock of where we’ve been – and where we’re going – with these foreign policy flash points that have dominated the headlines for months.


The civil war in Syria, fought between loyalists to President Bashar Assad on one side and a diverse mix of moderate and extremist resistance groups on the other, rages on as 2013 comes to a close.

Just about nobody expects that to change any time soon.

The fighting took a dramatic turn in August, when evidence emerged of a chemical weapons attack by the regime in a suburb of Damascus. President Obama's administration began girding for a military strike on Syria, but that plan was eventually averted by a tentative deal to have the regime hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles to international negotiators. The U.S., Syria, and close Syrian ally Russia continue negotiating the specifics of the agreement, and those talks are likely to continue in 2014.

In the meantime, though, the ongoing war has taken a grave toll on the country: fighting has displaced millions of refugees, both internally and externally. 130,000 people have been killed, if not more, and several major Syrian cities have been battered almost beyond recognition.

CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate said it’s difficult to overstate the scope of devastation, calling the situation in Syria a “humanitarian crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen.”

More troubling still has been the civil war’s emergence as a rallying point for al Qaeda aligned extremists and foreign fighters, who have poured into the war-torn country “at numbers that are much greater than we saw in Iraq, or even Afghanistan,” Zarate said.

The result of that influx has been “Al Qaeda and the extremists gaining power and moderates being marginalized,” he said. “From a U.S. perspective, sort of the worst of all worlds.”

“All of the things we worried about Syria – the rise of extremism, refugees, instability – they’re there,” Zarate explained.

The U.S. was even forced to suspend aid to Syria in December after extremist rebel groups captured a warehouse that contained aid sent from the U.S. to moderate rebels.

Given the intractability of the civil war, the difficulty of pushing Assad out of power, and the tough slog of chemical weapons negotiations, “We enter 2014 in a very difficult position,” Zarate said.


  If the situation in Syria deteriorated as 2013 wore on, the opposite seemed to be taking place in Iran, where 2013 ended on a more optimistic note.

In June, Hassan Rouhani, a man who stressed moderation and dialogue with the west, won Iran's presidential election. After decades of strife over its nuclear program, Iran and the United States plus five U.S. allies negotiated the first stage of a deal in November that would prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and unwind economic sanctions that have taken a deep bite out of Iran’s economy.

“We’re in the middle of a diplomatic process,” Zarate explained. “There’s been an interim deal signed; inspectors are now in Iran looking at some of the sites that we’ve not seen before.”

The negotiations, which produced a six-month interim agreement as the parties continue talking, offer the prospect of a long-term deal, but the “devil’s in the details,” Zarate cautioned.

“What will Iran give up in terms of its nuclear program?” he asked. “Will it ultimately decide that it won’t enrich uranium, for example, in Iran? On the other side…the U.S. and its partners, what do they give? The details here will drive whether or not there can be a long-term deal, with a lot of suspicion and mistrust on both sides.”

That suspicion has, in part, created another effort  in Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran as negotiations continue. President Obama has asked lawmakers to wait and see what the nuclear talks produce, and he’s vowed to veto any sanctions bill that reaches his desk with negotiations ongoing, but the drama has already given diplomats on both sides a headache.

With diplomacy moving to the fore, it appears that any potential U.S. military action against Iran is “off the table” for the time being, Zarate said.

“If talks break down in 2014,” he added, “then we might see talk of military action again.”

North Korea

 Few countries had policymakers sweating in 2013 like North Korea, where a combination of threatening behavior and internal turmoil grabbed headlines across the world. And as 2014 approaches, the Pacific Rim pariah state seems poised to continue creating anxiety in national capitals from Washington to Beijing.

The year began provocatively, when the North Korean state news agency announced in February that the government had conducted its third underground nuclear test. In May, North Korea launched a series of missile tests. Both events set off a firestorm of international condemnation.

 Fears of North Korea lashing out have been intensified by the inscrutable behavior of Kim Jong Un, the new dictator and son of late leader Kim Jong Il. In December, word emerged that Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, had been executed at the behest of his nephew.

The uncle was widely seen as a powerful force behind the scenes – a man who’d helped Kim Jong Un’s father during his reign and who helped steer the transition of power to the younger Kim. Zarate described his execution as part of a “purge by Kim Jong Un to control power."

Another point of concern: Jang Song Thaek’s close relationship to China, North Korea’s most important international benefactor, and what his execution might say about the difficulty even the Chinese could face in restraining the regime’s new leader.

“This could be a very volatile year in 2014 as Kim Jong Un tries to wrest power from those around him and perhaps takes volatile action in the neighborhood,” Zarate said.