The Year in Review

Our Top Stories of 2019

From turmoil in northeastern Syria to censorship in China, here are the stories that caught our readers’ attention this year.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters evacuate a wounded comrade near the Syrian border.
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters evacuate a wounded comrade near the border town of Ras al-Ain on Oct. 13. NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images

2019 has been full of dramatic international stories that look set to continue in the new year: Pro-democracy advocates marching against the government in Hong Kong, U.S. President Donald Trump facing potential impeachment over his dealings with Ukraine, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leading his Conservatives to a big majority and a mandate to push through a Brexit deal.

What has captured Foreign Policy readers’ attention? Here are our top 10 stories—as measured by traffic on our website—this year:

10. If We Have to Choose Between Compromise and Genocide, We Will Choose Our People

by Mazloum Abdi, Oct. 13

On Oct. 6, the Trump administration abruptly announced it would begin withdrawing U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, where it was supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The move immediately threatened the region’s fragile peace. Days later, Turkey launched a swift offensive against the Kurdish militias, pushing them to turn to Russia and the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad. More than 200,000 people have been displaced. Shortly after the Turkish incursion, SDF Commander in Chief Mazloum Abdi explained why he was ready to strike a deal with Assad and Russia.

9. Russia’s Next Land Grab Won’t Be in an Ex-Soviet State. It Will Be in Europe.

by Mikheil Saakashvili, March 15

Russian President Vladimir Putin has teased military adventurism this year, contributing to rising tensions with NATO. Military aggression has always served to bolster his domestic popularity when it dips, and as Putin’s approval ratings have fallen sharply this year, another crisis could be on the horizon. Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of Georgia when Russia invaded in 2008, argues that Putin’s next land grab isn’t likely to be an ex-Soviet state but instead a non-NATO country in Europe, such as Sweden or Finland.

8. Top U.S. General: It’s ‘Very Possible’ Iran Will Attack Again

by Lara Seligman, Nov. 23

This year, Iran has undermined stability in the Middle East, particularly by supporting proxy forces in attacks against its neighbors. Facing harsh U.S. sanctions that have devastated its economy, Iran has allegedly carried out or sponsored attacks against commercial shipping and oil infrastructure in the Persian Gulf, including a strike against Saudi Aramco in September. In an interview in November, U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman that he thinks it is “very possible” that Iran will attack again.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Princess Haya bint Al Hussein attend the Royal Ascot race in England on June 19, 2014.stuart c. wilson/getty images

7. The Fairy Tale Is Over for Dubai’s Royal Family

by Ola Salem, July 10

In July, news emerged that Princess Haya bint al-Hussein—the best-known wife of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum—had fled the royal family, the second woman to do so since last year. Princess Haya’s departure was part of a notable trend in the Arab world: women fleeing violence in their homes to seek safety abroad, Ola Salem writes. Her departure shows that “even women in the region’s ruling class are quietly suffering,” Salem writes.

6. U.S. Cancels Journalist’s Award Over Her Criticism of Trump

by Reid Standish and Robbie Gramer, March 7

This year, the U.S. State Department has repeatedly refused to engage with Trump critics, both at home and abroad. This aversion to criticism has led to unconventional diplomatic outcomes such as the resignation of U.K. Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch, after his candid emails about the Trump administration were leaked in July. Back in March, Foreign Policy broke the story that the State Department had rescinded the offer of an award to the Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro after officials discovered she had criticized Trump on Twitter. Already set to attend the ceremony, Aro was caught by complete surprise.

5. Britain Can’t Afford the Queen’s Weakness Anymore

by Adam Tooze, Aug. 30

It was a tumultuous year for British politics, culminating with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rare request that Queen Elizabeth II prorogue Parliament as the United Kingdom approached its scheduled exit from the European Union on Oct. 31. The deadline was extended until Jan. 31, but in the long run Johnson’s bet paid off: His Conservatives won a strong majority in a snap election held on Dec. 12. Back in August, Adam Tooze argued that the fusion of the prime minister’s power with the monarch’s formal responsibility—while remaining apolitical—undermined the system. “At a moment of extreme politicization, that means that she has no basis on which to act,” he writes.

Muslim worshippers walk around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Aug. 17, 2018.ahmad al-rubaye/afp/getty images

4. Mohammed bin Salman Is Making Muslims Boycott Mecca

by Ahmed Twaij, July 2

Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses remained in the global spotlight this year, despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to draw attention to his plans to modernize his country’s economy. Between the rising civilian death toll from Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen and the investigation into the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, some of the kingdom’s Sunni allies began to reconsider their support for Saudi Arabia. In July, the crises even led some religious scholars to call for Muslims to boycott the hajj, Ahmed Twaij writes.

3. Egypt’s Economy Isn’t Booming. It’s Collapsing.

by Yehia Hamed, June 7

In April, Egyptians voted to approve amendments that could extend President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule through 2030. The government says that Egypt is on the path to economic recovery under Sisi, who came into office in 2014. But Yehia Hamed, who served as the minister of investment under former President Mohamed Morsi, argues that Sisi’s government is actually mismanaging its finances. “This is but the first step on a narrowing road toward total state failure,” he writes.

2. What Actually Happens When a Country Bans Abortion

by Amy Mackinnon, May 16

In May, lawmakers in Alabama captured global attention when they passed a bill that would ban abortion in the state almost entirely. (The law remains blocked—for now—by a federal judge.) Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon took a look at a real-life example of what happens when a country bans abortion: Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, where abortion and contraception were outlawed for more than two decades to boost the population. The results, Mackinnon writes, were devastating. An estimated 10,000 women died due to unsafe procedures, maternal mortality skyrocketed, and hundreds of thousands of children were sent to state orphanages.

A H7N9 bird flu patient is treated in a hospital in Wuhan, in central China’s Hubei province, on Feb. 12, 2017.stringer/afp/getty images

1. The Real Reason to Panic About China’s Plague Outbreak

by Laurie Garrett, Nov. 16

In China in 2019, censors use both traditional tactics as well as messaging apps such as WeChat to shape the narrative on events such as the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong or the internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. In November, the government responded similarly to an outbreak of plague, seeking to manage the public’s reaction. But China’s response should raise more concern than the plague itself, which isn’t likely to cause a modern pandemic, Laurie Garrett argues in Foreign Policy. “If the goal was to avoid stirring panic at home, the effect may have been the opposite,” she writes.

Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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