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The biggest foreign policy challenges of 2014 and what lies ahead in 2015

Foreign policy challenges played a much more prominent role in 2014 than they have in years past as conflicts erupted across the globe. While the biggest challenges from the end of 2013 - including a civil war in Syria, nuclear negotiations with Iran and tensions with North Korea - remain, a host of new challenges have now reared up with more likely to come in 2015.

The rise of ISIS

In 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged as a major security threat, which came into the American consciousness in June, after Islamic militants began seizing control of cities across northern Iraq and Syria, threatening minority religious groups and executing Western journalists and aid workers they had captured. The U.S. has deployed about 3,000 military advisers to help local forces in the fight against ISIS and has led an international coalition carrying out airstrikes to blunt and hopefully roll back their advances.

Flash Points: Why are foreign fighters gathering in Iraq and Syria?

"This was a group, a terrorist organization that was able to erase the border between Iraq and Syria, establish itself as the best-resourced terrorist organization in the world and really threaten not just in Syria the [Bashar] Assad regime and the stability there but also the Iraqi state," said CBS News National Security Analyst Juan Zarate. "ISIS in many ways has rejuvenated the very notion of a caliphate and has given life to the imaginings of the jihadis around the world and that really is dangerous and it's why it's been such a big issue in 2014."

The other major threat posed by the group is the rise of foreign fighters, western individuals who have been radicalized and traveled to the region to fight and can return to their home countries with relative ease.

Russia's incursion in Ukraine

ISIS was another element of instability to the Syrian civil war and gained strength as the U.S. was in the midst of another territorial incursion in Europe. After massive protests threatened the power of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian militias began displacing the Ukrainian military in parts of the country's eastern half. That included the Crimean Peninsula, which voted to secede from Ukraine and was officially annexed by Russia in March. The U.S. began responding with sanctions that targeted top officials and key sectors of the Russian economy.

Obama: Russia meddling in Ukraine threatens "post-war order"

In July, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine by pro-Russian militias may in some ways have complicated the crisis by inflaming tensions, but in others, was really just symptomatic of what Zarate calls a "change of posture and relationship with the Russian state itself."

Russian President Vladimir Putin "is clearly in confrontational mode, he's in aggrandizement mode for the Russian state and trying to recapture Russian influence and grandeur on the world stage and that has meant conflict in Ukraine which he sees principally a part of the Russian empire and sphere of influence," Zarate said. "Despite diplomatic efforts the Russians have changed the landscape."

Cyber warfare

Off the physical battlefield, 2014 saw the expansion of cyber warfare. It was a year marked by cyber attacks on corporate giants like Home Depot and JP Morgan. The biggest news story at the end of the year was the Sony Pictures hack designed to stop the company from releasing the film, "The Interview."

"I think you have an awakening in the public's mind of real risks that we face from both state and non-state actors to our personal data and to our systems online," Zarate said.


2015 stands to be a year filled with more foreign policy challenges, particularly with the amount of conflict in the Middle East.

Flash Points: Will more negotiating time help world powers craft a nuclear deal with Iran?

"Iran remains a central issue, question of stability in the region. Iran continues to meddle around the Middle East, continuing to expand its influence and also continuing to develop its nuclear program," Zarate said.

In late November, Secretary of State John Kerry announced an extension of the talks to curb Iran's nuclear program, with the goal of reaching a political agreement within four months and a final deal within seven months.

Zarate said the Saudi Arabians, Egyptians and Turks will all be watching carefully to see what happens with Iran in the coming months.

"If a deal is not had what happens then? Are we facing confrontation of a different sort with Iran in 2015?" he said.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

The other big question will be what will happen with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Mr. Obama plans to have all troops out by 2016, and the number of American military personnel is supposed to be down to 9,800 by the end of the year, though a last-minute scramble for NATO troops may delay the drawdown.

The U.S. and NATO officially end combat mission in Afghanistan

"The Taliban seems to be more aggressive going after more sites, trying to create instability in a sense of discomfort in Kabul and the Afghans themselves asking for longer and more sustained support from the West," Zarate said. "What happens in this year as we draw down becomes a very important signal for what happens in South Asia and frankly what happens in Pakistan."

The Pakistani Taliban recently carried out an unusually brutal attack, storming a school in Pakistan in Decembe and killing 141 people, mostly children.

"This is not a region that's peaceful and it's one that in 2015 I think it's going to be one to watch," Zarate said.

The arc of instability

Finally, Zarate discussed the "arc of instability" in that runs through the Middle East, North Africa and West and Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries like Nigeria and Libya have seen a sharp increase in the amount of militant activity of late and areas of safe haven for terror groups like al Qaeda and Boko Haram.

"These are regions ripe with instability and conflict that terrorist and militant groups are taking advantage of and we've got to keep our eyes on those because they relate to some of these other big issues that we're going to have to watch," Zarate said.

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