5 World Leaders to Watch in 2013

1. Dioncounda Traoré, Mali

The West African country is undergoing an active armed rebellion that has succeeded in recent weeks in taking the town of Konna and forcing government forces to retreat. The conflict was catalyzed by the influx of Mailian returnees from Libya following the overthrow of Gaddhafi, exacerbating tensions in Northern Mali where the al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels control large swathes of land.

When an armed rebellion broke out in the North led by Touareg militias, dissatisfaction among the lower ranks in the army sparked a coup against the popularly elected president Amadou Touré. After his overthrow, ECOWAS instated an interim government led by President Dioncounda Traoré. The capture of Konna by rebel fighters, a town which straddles the border between the government-controlled lands and the north of the country, has sent a warning signal to the international community. France has deployed troops and carried out airstrikes to backstop the interim government.

However, Traoré’s grip on power in the country is severely threatened by instability in the north, and the government’s inability to contain armed militias without direct military intervention by foreign powers.

2. Bashar al-Assad, Syria

Today, Syria continues down a path of increasing violence and the threat of further escalation in the scale of loss of life in the country is a severe threat. The primary demand of the revolutionary fighters in the Middle Eastern country is the removal of the long-serving Assad family from power. Assad’s allies in the region and the U.N. Security Council have shown no sign of wavering in their support for the regime, despite a nearly universal call for action from the international community for an end to the war which has left more than 60 thousand dead.

However, as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) becomes more sophisticated and support for the regime continues to erode, Assad remains in a tenuous position.

Key things to watch for are the use of chemical weapons by Assad, a point that the Obama administration has called a “red-line,” a coming leadership change in Iran (who is a key supporter of Assad), any shift in Russia’s position, an unlikely but critical component of any change in the status quo at the level of the U.N., and any reliable assurances made to the Allawite community in Syria by the FSA.

3. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan

With the American-led coalition forces scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan this year, the longest war in U.S. history may be drawing to a close. However, fears of instability in the wake of the exit of foreign troops has led Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has pledged not to seek relection, to consider moving the country’s next presidential election earlier to be held in the presence of coalition forces.

Critics say the move is aimed at securing a favorable transition for the long-serving Afghan ruler, bypassing the possibility of a fair election brought on by electoral reform ahead of the proposed elections. Many Afghans severely mistrust Karzai, who was appointed by Western and Afghan political leaders to head the interim Afghan government codified in the Bonn Agreement, but won the country’s most recent election amidst widespread signs of voter fraud and low turnout.

Today, Afghanistan is at a crossroads and the country’s leadership will see substantial changes, whether ahead of schedule or not. With Karzai’s support in the country severely eroded, the next phase in leadership could be dictated largely by mistrust for a foreign-backed leader and the failure of Karzai to halt corruption. The threat of an appointment within Karzai’s inncer circle has the potential to further destabilize the country and contribute to an atmosphere of increasing mistrust of the central government.

4. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran

2013 marks the year that Iran will hold presidential elections and two-term President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no longer eligible to run. The 2013 election will dictate a great deal about the path forward for Iran as well as the state of the opposition. In the previous election in 2009, evidence of fraud and voting irregularities led to public protests and a government crackdown on opposition figures.

This year, with Ahmadinejad out of the running, and tensions high between the president and the country’s powerful religious leaders, the potential for conflict is high as many Iranians will be looking for a sharp break from Ahmadinejad’s legacy and the extreme isolation the country has faced throughout the past decade. Khamenei and Ahmadinejad grappled for power last year, a conflict that has damaged the prospects for Ahmadinejad to exert his influence in the selection of the country’s next leader. 

5. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu will be seeking a third term this year. While polls show him as a favorite to lead a coalition government, there are signs that his strong-man image is not as pervasive as it once was. While the majority of Israelis polled say Netanyahu is well equipped to handle the conflict with Iran, he has also presided over increasingly poor relations with the U.S. over that very issue. With a leadership change in Iran underway, if the tone in Tehran changes, Bibi may find less ground to stand on.