Top 11 U.S. Conflict Prevention Priorities Going Into 2016: Survey

A Syrian woman makes her way through debris following an air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo on Ju
A Syrian woman makes her way through debris following an air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo on July 15, 2014. More than 170,000 people have been killed in the three-year war, one third of them civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. AFP PHOTO / KARAM AL-MASRI (Photo credit should read KARAM AL-MASRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Preventing further intensification of Syria's civil war should be the top priority for U.S. policymakers in 2016, according to leading experts who took part in the Council on Foreign Relations' (CFR) eighth annual Preventive Priorities Survey. Syria's civil war has replaced the conflict in Iraq as the number one concern among respondents.

The Preventive Priorities Survey seeks to evaluate conflicts based on their likelihood of occurring or escalating and their impact on U.S. national interests. This fall, CFR's Center for Preventive Action solicited suggestions from the general public on potential conflicts that could erupt or escalate next year. CPA narrowed down the nearly 1,000 suggestions to 30 and invited government officials, academics and foreign policy experts to rank them. CPA then categorized the scenarios into three tiers, in order of priority for U.S. leaders -- high, moderate and low.

"Our annual survey aims to highlight potential areas of instability and help U.S. policymakers anticipate contingencies that could be harmful to national interests. By prioritizing conflicts based on their overall risk to the United States, the survey helps to focus their attention and resources for specific conflict prevention efforts in the year ahead," said Paul Stares, General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and CPA director.

Of the 11 contingencies classified as high priorities, eight are related to events unfolding or ongoing in the Middle East. One of the 11 -- intensification of the civil war in Syria -- was rated as both highly probable and highly consequential. Participants considered Syria more important to U.S. interests than they did last year, when the conflict was ranked as a having only a moderate impact on U.S. interests.

Respondents also increased the priority level of the continued political fracturing of Libya, intensified political violence in Turkey and increased political instability in Egypt. All three rose from moderate priorities in the 2015 survey to high priorities in the 2016 survey.

Among the new contingencies introduced in this year's survey are political instability in European Union countries caused by the influx of refugees and migrants and increased tensions between Russia and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states.

Top 11 U.S. Conflict Prevention Priorities in 2016: 1. The intensification of the civil war in Syria 2. A mass casualty attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally 3. A highly disruptive cyberattack on critical U.S. infrastructure 4. A severe crisis with or in North Korea 5. Political instability in EU countries stemming from the influx of refugees and migrants 6. Continued political fracturing of Libya 7. Heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians 8. Intensified political violence in Turkey 9. Increased political instability in Egypt 10. Increased violence and instability in Afghanistan 11. Continued fracturing of Iraq due to territorial gains by the self-proclaimed Islamic State and ongoing Sunni-Shia sectarian violence.

Three contingencies included in last year's survey were deemed less likely to occur in 2016: armed confrontation in the South China Sea, renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine and political instability in Nigeria due to Boko Haram activity.

View the accompanying online interactive: CPA's Global Conflict Tracker.

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