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'World Views' Year-In-Review, And Looking Ahead To 2016

Messages of support for migrants and refugees chalked on a wall in Budapest, Hungary - Sept. 3, 2015.

Last year saw the Middle East dominate international headlines, with instability that started in 2010 with the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Lebanon continuing and spreading across the region.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries became involved in Yemen's civil war, and radical, fundamentalist terrorism by jihadis affiliated with or inspired by the self-proclaimed Islamic State affected Europe and the United States, with attacks on French newspapers, nightclubs, and sports arenas, the explosion of a Russian airliner over Egypt, and a shooting in San Bernardino, California that left 14 dead.

"ISIS struck out at the world," said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of the blog Syria Comment. But in 2016, Landis expects more stability in the Middle East due to the weakening of ISIS.

"Ramadi is a big loss for ISIS," Landis said. "But their oil supplies have been smashed by the Russians and the Americans, and their economy is collapsing. And there's weakness all around the perimeter of ISIS territory."

Landis also says he expect this year's nuclear deal will bring growth to Iran, which will also help shore up several states in the Middle East, and lead to fewer terror attacks than 2015.

The Migrant Crisis And Other Terror Groups

More than one million people have been displaced from Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries due to the civil war and ISIS's rise, with many dying during dangerous trips across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.

Rebecca Cruise, a comparative politics expert and the assistant dean of the University of Oklahoma's College of International Studies, says refugees will continue to stream into the west from areas outside the Middle East like Kenya, Somalia, and other sub-Saharan countries due to other extremist groups like BokoHaram and al-Shabaab.

"Eritrea, for example, saw a large number of people fleeing, getting into these sorts of situations where they are then paying traffickers exorbitant amounts of money to then go on unsafe journeys to try to reach Europe," Cruise said.

On the flip side, Europe's response to the migrant crisis and the influx of refugees also played out in the political arena. Time Magazine named German chancellor Angela Merkel its "Person of the Year" because her country took the brunt of the refugees.

"Earlier in 2015 we talked about some of the organizations in the eastern side of Germany that were protesting what then seemed like large numbers of migrants, but that certainly upped over the summer," Cruise said. "We watched the situation in Hungary, in the former Balkan states, as people were trying to get across various borders. Police were dragging them back. So it was a very big issue, and one which, sadly, probably isn't going anywhere any time soon."

President Obama talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the 70th United Nations General Assembly Sept. 28, 2015.
Credit Pete Souza / The White House
The White House
President Obama talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the 70th United Nations General Assembly Sept. 28, 2015.

Russia's Rising Role

This time last year international attention to Russia centered on its role in Ukraine, after the invasion and annexation of Crimea following civil unrest that broke out toward the end of 2013. Throughout 2015, Russia reasserted itself in international politics by stepping up and playing a key part in the Syrian conflict.

Landis says Russia's involvement turned things around for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. During the summer, he'd lost several major cities, and Sunni rebels supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey were making headway.

"That has turned around, and I believe - I'm going to make a wild prediction here - I think that the peace process the United States is promoting is not going to get off the ground," Landis said. "But what will happen is that Assad, backed by the Russians, will reassert himself in Syria as the dominant player - taking more and more territory from the Sunni rebels and from ISIS."

When Russia increased its support for the Assad regime, the Obama administration called it a sign of Russian weakness, and said they would get stuck in an unsustainable situation. Landis expects the United States to let Russia take the lead and become the major international decision-maker in the conflict.

"The Russians are going to take Assad to fight ISIS. And then America is going to be really confused, because they want to destroy ISIS," Landis said. "They do not have a partner on the ground. They do not want to partner with Assad, but Russia, they might just sit back and let Russia do it if they can get Assad to take on ISIS."

Cruise says all of this - increased involvement in Syria, moves in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and Putin trying to garner support in Europe over the summer, are part of a broader plan to return Russia to the stature it held before the fall of the Soviet Union.

"It's important because Russians really struggled this last couple of years because of their economy. Their economy is having difficulty," Cruise said. "Some of this is because of sanctions which the United States and European countries put on them because of their involvement in Ukraine. And also because of oil prices that have gone down. And so their economy is struggling, so the other side of that is the power play, or the political game that Putin is definitely playing."

Satellite images from March 17, 2015 show new structures and construction equipment present on Mischief Reef in the South China Sea
Credit DigitalGlobe/Asia Maritime Transparency Institute / Center for Strategic and International Studies
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Satellite images from March 17, 2015 show new structures and construction equipment present on Mischief Reef in the South China Sea

Looking Ahead To Africa, Europe, And Asia

As Landis alluded to, once the Middle East stabilizes, the type of instability that tore apart the Middle East will shift to Africa, due to population growth, especially among youth. A large, young, and poor population, coupled with bad governance and corruption, means there's little hope for education or opportunity to escape poverty. All the ingredients are there for the same recipe in Africa as what the world saw in the Middle East.

"[Migrants from the Middle East are] going to be replaced, I think, by African migrants coming to Europe. And Europe is going to face this big challenge that's going to hurt it politically." Landis said. "And the right-wing parties are going to push forward, and they're going to do this. And it's not going to be Merkel, as we've seen in the past year, embracing immigration. I think Europeans are going to push back."

Cruise says much of this is related to the environment. Warming temperatures, expanding deserts, water scarcity, and disappearing forests lead to political instability and population shifts

"We're going to see this and are seeing this in Africa, and already many migrants into Europe from it. We're seeing this in other parts of the developing world as well," Cruise said. "That can also take us over to Asia, where we see China in disputes for islands in the South China Sea and elsewhere, where they're actually adding on to some of these islands, creating political might, but also affecting the environment, affecting the fisheries, and those sorts of issues that lead to people's livelihoods, and could lead to islands, countries disappearing in very tenuous situations in the South China Sea and elsewhere."

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