Ariel Rothfield/ Medill

WASHINGTON— Three international security experts Wednesday told staffers from the Department of State, the National Intelligence Council, the Department of Defense and others what to worry about this year – brewing conflicts in several countries between Sunnis and Shiites, a potential Iranian missile crisis and a military dispute with China were high on the list.

Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, outlined crises most likely to affect the United States in 2012.

“Already we have seen conflict and instability around the world,” Schneider told the audience at a Council on Foreign Relations briefing. “If we ignore some of these issues then they … threaten international peace and security because they will not stay within their boundaries.”

Schneider and two other experts addressed political risks overseas and weighed the significance of these threats for the United States.

“There are countries where you can see policy lines very clearly,” Schneider said. “But there are others, like Syria, where the roadmaps to policies are not so clear. These are the places we have to pay close attention to.”

David Gordon, head researcher and director of global macroanalysis for the Eurasia Group, broke down potential geographical crises into three main regions— the Middle East, the Pakistan, Afghanistan, India territory and the China and North Korea area.

“The risks and threats from last year were about the tensions from the overthrows of the ancient regimes,” Gordon said. “This year the main risk is the brewing conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Syria, Iraq, the region with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.”

For instance, Syria is facing a sectarian conflict between its Sunni Muslim majority and the governing Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

“As the violence increases within the country, it could easily influence neighboring countries like Iran, who have a Shiite majority,” said Gordon. “This would cause a bleed-over into issues like Iranian nuclear power and the possibility of an Iranian attack.”

Paul Stares, director of the Center for Prevention Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, further categorized the geographical threats by placing them in three tiers.

“Not every contingency warrants equal attention to the United States,” said Stares. “Our goal is to prioritize attention and resources for the events that need it.”

Tier one consists of contingencies that directly threaten U.S. homeland security and would prompt U.S. military involvement, he said. This is when the United States would use most of its resources.

Examples include an Iranian missile crisis and a major military dispute with China.

“We have come close to conflicts with China all the time because we both have expectations and red lines,” said Gordon. “But if you assume it is going to be manageable then it is going to be problematic. China is now assuming everything will be manageable.”

Stares’ second tier consists of threats involving countries of strategic importance to the United States. However these would not trigger an automatic U.S. response, he said.

“Pakistan has risen in people’s concerns less because of the usual concerns about nukes but more the possibility of a direct rupture between U.S.-Pakistan relations,” he said.

The last tier groups humanitarian crises that are of limited strategic importance to the United States. Increased conflict in Somalia and political instability and violence in Libya are two examples, Stares said.

“We are going to see famine within three to four weeks in Sudan because the government refuses to allow humanitarian workers to enter,” he said.

In addition to specific threats, the panelists said a growing international danger is the lack of leadership within some countries. Sudan, Yemen and Egypt are examples of this political instability.

“Today conflicts do not end neatly because there is a lack of leadership,” said Schneider. “We need to do something to prevent this.”