August 18, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Civil War, Cybersecurity, and Climate Change

• Several true global crises and challenges are not being met in a unified or effective manner.

• The failure to resolve the Syrian civil war has produced immense suffering, unprecedented displacement, and shaken regional power dynamics.

• Reports of a possible breach of the U.S. National Security Agency’s servers present another major hit to confidence in the security of cyber networks.

• While many questions remain over the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change, July marked the hottest month on record, with global temperatures around 1.5 degrees above average.


In many measurable ways, the world is in considerably better shape than at any point in recorded history. Yet several truly global challenges have proven resistant to traditional approaches for solutions. These challenges include the Syrian civil war and its array of misery and divisiveness; serious cybersecurity concerns that have diminished trust in the computer systems on which modern life is increasingly reliant; and accelerating climate change that is speeding past an international community that has been slow to address it. Given the demonstrated lack of ability and will to meaningfully confront these challenges, all three have the potential to devolve into worse-case scenarios.

Now in its fifth year, the Syrian civil war is already one of the worst humanitarian and geopolitical disasters in recent history. As devastating as the war has been—with as many as 400,000 killed and more than half the pre-war population forced from their homes—events over the past five years have repeatedly demonstrated that the conflict can always get worse. The back-and-forth swings of momentum between the Assad regime and rebel groups has continually provided each side with just enough optimism to view peace talks as counter-productive. Pervasive war crimes such as the use of incendiary and chemical weapons, the targeting of hospitals and first responders, and sieges on civilian populations have become common tactics in the raging civil war.

Despite sustained UN efforts to bring both sides to the table, the war is as far from a negotiated resolution as it has ever been. The Syrian conflict has exposed the international community’s inability to pressure for meaningful negotiations in the face of immeasurable human suffering. It has also led to worrisome levels of Russian-Iranian cooperation, which threaten to extend in some fashion to Turkey as well—a NATO member. The unprecedented number of desperate refugees trying to reach Europe is generating political and societal stresses that threaten the very fabric of the EU system. Millions of Syrians have fled the country, and millions more have been internally displaced. Yet the displacement could still get worse as fighting increases in heavily populated urban areas such as Aleppo. It is difficult to overstate the cost in lives, money, and lost opportunities that the war continues to squander on a daily basis.

Another challenge with significant global consequences is the persistent insecurity in cyber networks and information databases. The technological foundations of the modern world economy are proving exceedingly vulnerable to exploitation. Online banking and data storage, as well as many other economic engines, depend on both the reality and perception of security. Repeated breaches of consumer and personal data—such as the 2013 Target consumer data hack, the 2015 Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hack, and countless others—undermine public trust in even the most secure data systems. Recent reports indicate that even the National Security Agency (NSA)—one of the most sophisticated and secretive cyber organizations on the planet—may have been penetrated in 2013, leading to the public release of some of its most powerful hacking tools. These tools can penetrate or disable protected networks of governments and corporations. As so many aspects of modern life increasingly move online, the inability of large organizations and government entities to protect sensitive and personal data is an immense concern.

Overlaying these two crises is the reality of accelerating climate change, examples of which can be seen with increasing frequency. The ongoing floods in Louisiana are the worst natural disaster in the U.S. since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Persistent droughts and flash floods are spreading in numerous regions of the planet. Each of these disasters breeds regional—sometimes global—instability, contributing to and exacerbating conflicts around the world.

With July 2016 marking the hottest month measured since records began in 1880, the prospect of achieving the goals set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change—still yet to take effect—seems increasingly out of reach. Putting aside the extreme divisiveness that accompanies the issue, accelerating climate change poses enormous human security risks in every region of the world. International systems built on some level of global stability will be tested as droughts and storms become more prevalent and destructive.


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