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North Korea tops foreign crises confronting Trump in 2020

President Trump will face a volatile world in 2020 as he seeks to make his case for reelection.

From North Korea’s renewed threats of a nuclear escalation to Trump’s perennial desire to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, global hotspots will test Trump in myriad ways in the coming year.

Foreign policy is rarely a focus of presidential campaigns, as voters concern themselves with issues closer to home. But a major crisis could cause foreign policy issues to break through to voters.

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Here are five foreign policy crises Trump could face in 2020.

North Korea

Trump’s first test in the new year is on track to be North Korea.

Pyongyang has ominously threatened to deliver the United States a “Christmas gift” and warned it would pursue a “new path” if the United States doesn’t soften its negotiating position by the end of the year.

U.S. officials and regional analysts are expecting the gift to be a long-range missile test. 

North Korea has adhered to a self-imposed moratorium on tests of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads since talks with the United States began last year. Trump has touted the moratorium as a sign his diplomatic efforts are working, even as North Korea launched more than a dozen short-range missiles this year.

Trump has downplayed North Korea’s recent threats, saying leader Kim Jong Un “knows I have an election coming up.”

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But if North Korea follows through with a long-range missile test, Trump will have a choice: brush it off in an effort to keep tensions low during the election year or return to the days of threatening “fire and fury” on Pyongyang.

Afghanistan and Syria

Amid renewed peace talks with the Taliban, Trump has been expected for the last couple weeks to announce a drawdown in Afghanistan to about 8,600 U.S. troops.

Meanwhile, about 600 U.S. troops remain in Syria after Trump caused a firestorm in October when he ordered all U.S. troops to withdraw.

Trump has made clear he wants U.S. forces out of both countries by the 2020 election to be able to campaign on fulfilling his pledge to end so-called forever wars.

But a full withdrawal from either place could give Trump a crisis both at home and abroad.

Trump’s previous aborted attempts to withdraw were met by fierce criticism from lawmakers in both parties, as well as some within his administration, that he was acting precipitously.

Meanwhile, if those lawmakers’ and officials’ dire warnings prove true, U.S. withdrawals could leave a vacuum that terrorist groups such as ISIS fill.

Turkey

Closely tied with a potential crisis in Syria is Turkey.

Trump already faced a Turkey-borne crisis this year when Ankara launched an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, an operation Trump was widely seen as signing off on when he ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria.

As 2019 fades into 2020, Turkish forces remain in northeastern Syria, where Kurdish forces have repeatedly accused them of cease-fire violations and where Turkey has proposed resettling Syrian refugees in a plan critics say is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers have lost their patience with Turkey. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has advanced a sanctions bill against the NATO ally, and committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) has said he will work to bring it to the floor after the Senate finishes Trump’s impeachment trial.

Ankara has threatened to retaliate if Congress approves sanctions, including by kicking U.S. troops out of Incirlik Air Base. Incirlik has been a major launchpad for U.S. military operations against ISIS and is said to be the home for about 50 U.S. nuclear warheads.

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Iran

The United States appeared on the brink of war with Iran several times in 2019, and there are no signs 2020 will be any less tense.

Tensions skyrocketed this year as Trump significantly tightened sanctions following his withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018.

Iran responded by breaching key limits of the nuclear deal one by one and has threatened to continue doing so until the United States backs off sanctions or Europe finds an effective workaround to them.

This week, Iran started running a secondary circuit at its heavy water nuclear reactor at Arak. Turning on the secondary circuit is not a violation of the nuclear deal, but still showed Iran improving its capabilities.

As Trump maintains his so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran and the nuclear deal continues to unravel, the threat of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States lingers.

Protest movements

From Iran to Hong Kong to Iraq, protest movements sprouted across the global in 2019, any one of which could escalate in 2020.

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In Iran, protests that started because of a spike in fuel prices have been described as the worst unrest in the country since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago. The Trump administration has placed the death toll at about 1,000, while human rights groups have said the number is more than 300. Reuters, citing three unnamed Iranian interior ministry officials, reported this week that 1,500 people have been killed.

The Trump administration has so far reacted with statements of support for the protesters and by levying sanctions on officials involved in crackdowns.

In Hong Kong, protests started in the summer over a proposed law that would have allowed extradition from the semiautonomous territory to mainland China. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, withdrew the bill in September.

But protests, punctuated by bursts of violence, have persisted as demonstrators’ demands grew into wider calls for Lam to step down, for investigations into police brutality and for more democracy.

Trump avoided instituting harsh penalties against China over the violent crackdowns in Hong Kong while he negotiated a trade agreement with Beijing, though he did sign a bill supporting the protests after Congress passed it with veto-proof majorities. The United States and China have agreed to a “phase one” trade deal, but Trump is eyeing a next phase, potentially again consuming his energy as it relates to China.

In Iraq, protesters have been demonstrating for three months with demands to end corruption and halt Iranian influence in the country. More than 500 protesters have been killed and 19,000 wounded, according to the United Nations.

The protests led to the resignation of Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister at the beginning of the month. But as the year ends, no replacement has been chosen and questions about larger reforms persist, factors leading to fears about instability in a country where U.S. troops continue to operate. 

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