Syria, Afghanistan Among Top U.S. Foreign Policy Challenges in 2013

By Patrick Goodenough | December 27, 2012 | 4:41 AM EST

President Obama announces his nomination of Sen. John Kerry as the next secretary of state, at the White House on Friday, Dec. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

( – From Syria to Afghanistan to China, the coming year holds foreign policy challenges for President Obama’s second-term secretary of state at least as perplexing as those of 2012.

If a major annual survey by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action is on target, the conflict in Syria will be at or near the top of John Kerry’s list, once he’s confirmed as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s successor.

The Preventive Priorities Survey, which taps the views of more than 1,500 government officials and experts, found intensification of the civil war in Syria to be the number one conflict-prevention priority for U.S. policymakers in 2013.

The issue is adjudged to be among “likely” contingencies for the year, and one which will have a “high impact” on U.S. interests. The survey defines a “high impact” contingency as one that “directly threatens the U.S. homeland, is likely to trigger U.S. military involvement because of treaty commitments, or threatens the supplies of critical U.S. strategic resources.”

The relevant treaty commitment in the case of Syria involves NATO and specifically the spillover of the conflict into neighboring Turkey, a member of the alliance. Under article five of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on any member is considered an attack on all.

Article five has yet to be invoked in the current situation, although after cross-border shelling killed five Turks last October, NATO did meet under another treaty provision, article four, which says members “will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”

Also high on the Center for Preventive Action’s priority list is the possibility of a “major erosion of security” in Afghanistan resulting from the drawdown of coalition forces. The survey found this to be “likely” in 2013, with a “moderate impact” on U.S. interests. (A “moderate impact” contingency is one affecting countries of strategic importance to the U.S., but not involving a mutual-defense treaty commitment.)

The U.S. currently has some 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. Although the end of 2014 is the declared date for the completion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, numbers are expected to drop during 2013. In his timetable announced last year, Obama said that following the Sept. 2012 departure of the additional “surge” forces, “our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead.”

Meanwhile ISAF’s second-biggest troop contributor, Britain, said this month it would reduce its contingent from 9,000 to about 5,200 by the end of 2013. Among other major contributors, France ended its commitment this month and Germany plans to begin a gradual withdrawal in January.

The next level in the survey – “plausible” contingencies in 2013 with a “high impact” on U.S. interests – include a major military incident involving China, such as a clash with Japan over disputed islands.

The past year has witnessed an escalation in bilateral tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and the return to power in Japan of a conservative prime minister at a time of growing Chinese nationalism may see the situation worsen in 2013.

The U.S. has reaffirmed that the islands fall within the scope of its 1960 mutual defense treaty with Japan.

Among other plausible/high impact 2013 contingencies in the survey are a mass casualty attack on the U.S. or a treaty ally; the acquisition by non-state actors of Syrian biological or chemical weapons; a highly disruptive cyber-attack on U.S. critical infrastructure; instability in Pakistan as a result of terror attacks or a civilian-military crisis; and serious developments in the Iranian nuclear standoff “such as a surprise advance in Iran’s nuclear weapons/delivery capability followed by an Israeli response.”

Further down the list are a worsening of the crisis with North Korea; unrest or instability in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Jordan; sectarian violence in Lebanon as a spillover from the Syria conflict; and armed confrontation in the South China Sea relating to territorial disputes between China and various countries including the Philippines (also a U.S. mutual-defense treaty ally) and Vietnam.

One perennial crisis area that does not make an appearance in the Center for Preventive Action survey is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nonetheless, current developments in that theater will doubtless continue to generate headlines in 2013 and keep the State Department busy. They include the continuing effects of the United Nations’ upgrading of the Palestinians’ status at the world body; Israel’s plans to press ahead with house construction in disputed areas despite international condemnation; and signs of a widening acceptance by governments of the Hamas terrorist group, following the example set by Turkey, Egypt and Qatar.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow