The new year ought to bring with it new hope and optimism for the time to come. But it's hard to feel positive after a 2014 marked by so much conflict and tragedy. Scanning the globe, here are WorldViews' gloomy predictions for how things may get worse in 2015.
Syria's civil war and Iraq's spiraling violence: Yes, the extremist militants of the Islamic State are on the backfoot, pinned down by a U.S.-led bombing campaign and increasingly undermined by their own incompetence. But the jihadist organization that rose so dramatically last year won't fade as quickly, and eradicating it will require not just a concerted military campaign, but a larger vision for how to address the crises in Iraq and Syria.
That involves reckoning with the stubborn Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which has presided over a brutal civil war that has seen at least 200,000 Syrians die and millions flee their homes. And it also involves reckoning with Iraq's dangerous dysfunctions, where political discord led to renewed violence that spawned a refugee crisis bigger than what took place during the sectarian conflict that raged between 2006 and 2008.
There are no easy solutions in either place, and countless innocents will continue to suffer as a result. In recent years, we've witnessed upheaval and dislocations on a scale that we haven't seen in the Middle East since perhaps the establishment of Israel in 1948. Expect more unraveling in 2015 -- but not, sadly, any clear sense of the new politics that may bring stability.
Russia's economic crisis: Slumping oil prices hit Russia hard toward the end of 2014, cratering its currency and piling pressure on the country's demagogic President Vladimir Putin. Russian banks and companies owe some $600 billion to the outside world, and Moscow's spending a good chunk of its reserves bailing out leading financial institutions. A thaw with the West (and an easing of sanctions) would soften Putin's plight, but there's little sign of rapprochement right now. And pain on the domestic front may lead to more bellicose chest-thumping abroad.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process: Thwarted this week at the U.N. Security Council, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is now pushing for recognition of Palestine's statehood status at the International Criminal Court, which could then lead theoretically to the prosecution of senior Israeli officials on alleged war crimes. That could kill off the faint hope for a revival of talks between Israel and Abbas's Palestinian Authority, although many would argue the prospect of a two-state solution was long dead.
Meanwhile, Israel is preparing for fresh parliamentary elections that could end the reign of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But, judging from the the potential opposition coalition preparing to challenge him, not much may change vis a vis Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
The project of the European Union: In 2015, a host of major European countries will go to the polls, including Britain, Spain and crisis-hit Portugal. Beginning with a snap election in Greece this month, euro-skeptic and anti-austerity parties are expected to make considerable gains — and may dial back progress toward further European integration.
Post-war Afghanistan: The United States announced the formal conclusion of its war effort in Afghanistan at the end of December. But Washington leaves behind a weak government in Kabul, still vulnerable to the Afghan Taliban, whose appetite for battle and destruction did not slacken despite 13 years of American occupation.
Sri Lanka's election: The island nation's presidential election, scheduled for Jan. 8, was expected to be a formality for sitting President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But surprising defections from his camp in recent months means the race will be one of the closest Rajapaksa has ever fought. And given critics' fears of the president's authoritarian tendencies, don't discount the prospect of street violence, voting irregularities and darker dealings in the days ahead.
The crises in Yemen and Libya: In the shadow of a coup in Egypt and the disastrous conflict in Syria and Iraq, democratic transitions in Yemen and Libya unraveled horribly in 2014. In Libya, battle lines have hardened between two parallel governments -- one backed by secular forces and elements of the old Gaddafi regime, the other by Islamist militias -- and led to astonishing scenes, such as the burning of key oil facilities (above). In Yemen, the Houthis, a political movement that is in part led by members of the Zaidi Shiite sect, have swept aside the central government and are now clashing with Sunni militias, including al-Qaeda fighters. The death toll and dysfunction will likely only rise in 2015, while what's left of the unified Yemeni and Libyan states continue to fall apart.
Hawkish Iranian and American rhetoric: There is no question that both President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani want to arrive at an agreement on Iran's controversial nuclear program before a July deadline for negotiations to succeed. But hawks and hardliners in both Tehran and Washington will do their best to scuttle the move toward rapprochement. A deal with Iran would be another diplomatic feather in Obama's cap after his dramatic opening with Cuba in December -- but it still looks only a distant possibility.
Ebola in West Africa: Global health authorities struggled to combat the deadly epidemic in 2014, which swept through three ill-prepared and unequipped West African countries. Some experts suggest the outbreak won't be eradicated without a vaccine, something that could be available by mid-year, but still may not wholly effective.
Tensions in Asia-Pacific: 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is bound to stir up nationalist rhetoric in both China and Japan. Who can forget November's painfully awkward meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe? Tokyo and Beijing are still squabbling over an archipelago, administered by Japan but claimed by both governments.
Observers also warn of new potential flare-ups in the South China Sea, where China's assertive stance -- it claims virtually the entire body of water as its maritime territory -- has led to naval standoffs and skirmishes with Vietnamese and Philippine vessels. The specter of U.S. naval involvement, particularly in concert with Manila's interests, also looms.
Global inequality: Surveys toward the end of 2014 highlighted the overwhelming concern of the majority of the planet: the threat of joblessness and, parallel to that, deepening social inequities. While the big banks have recovered from the Great Recession, millions of ordinary people are still coping with reduced incomes and the toll of government austerity measures. The trends suggest that, in some places, income inequality will only get worse in 2015.
North Korean craziness: We went through the Looking Glass with Pyongyang in 2014, with a decidedly terrible Hollywood movie turning into one of December's main geopolitical flash points. Kim Jong Un's regime is the world's most opaque and mysterious, and probably its most awful. The Council on Foreign Relations says a military provocation by North Korea, sparked perhaps by internal instability, may be one of the graver threats facing U.S. foreign policy makers in 2015.
The plight of the Rohingya: Spare a thought for one of the world's most prominent "stateless" communities. The Rohingya of western Burma number more than a million and can trace their existence in the country back generations. Yet they are not recognized as citizens by the Burmese state, which considers them Bengali Muslim interlopers from neighboring Bangladesh. Those who have been displaced by sectarian violence and racist, Buddhist mobs live in "apartheid-like" conditions, according to reports.
As Burma readies for potential elections in 2015, even its most prominent opposition figure, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has so far refused to speak up on the Rohingya's behalf.