This is the first post in a series of seven on the Middle East in 2016. The first three will look at what I think will happen in the region this year; the second three will discuss how I think Western countries should respond; and a final post will discuss Australian policy.

To understand what will happen in the Middle East in 2016 the most obvious place to start is Syria. Indeed, so many issues are bound up in the Syrian conflict that what happens there will determine a lot of what happens in the broader region, not just this year, but in coming years as well.

This conflict drives the current humanitarian and refugee crises. Its outcome will determine not just who rules Syria (or parts of it), but also the future of Islamic State and other extremist groups. It will decide whether Iran consolidates its position as the region’s ascendant power and what role other regional powers will play. It is shaping (negatively) perceptions of the West in the Middle East and it will largely define what role the US and Russia play in the region in coming years.

With so much at stake it is hardly surprising that shifts in the conflict have tended to be grinding to date. When one side makes gains, the other side, with the support of its external allies, fights back. The result has been less a stalemate than a see-saw of escalation and counter-escalation.

In recent months, however, the conflict has swung more decisively in the regime’s favour. Russia and Iran’s muscular intervention last year has saved Assad, caused massive new humanitarian suffering, but probably also helped to make possible recent moves to cease hostilities and resume peace talks.

More significantly, there is unlikely to be a military counter-move that will shift the momentum back in favour of the opposition. US military efforts will remain focused on Islamic State and other extremist groups. This will also mean that the US will continue to place pressure on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional players to limit the amount and type of military aid they provide to the opposition lest it fall into the hands of the extremists. Any (unlikely) change in US policy would need to wait for a new administration next year.

Meanwhile, talk of a direct Saudi or Turkish military intervention is mostly just that; talk. Saudi Arabia lacks the capability and the will to make anything more than a token military intervention on the ground. Turkey has greater will and capacity, but probably does not want to fight a war with Russia (and its NATO allies certainly don’t want it to). But even if there were some significant new military intervention against the regime it would probably just see the saw again.

Against this background it is very difficult to see how the armed opposition could, on its own, shift the momentum of the conflict back against the regime. Indeed, the most extreme, and in some respects more effective, parts of the opposition will be targeted more intensively this year. So far the US-led effort to degrade and destroy Islamic State has been slow and fitful, with uneven results. But this doesn’t mean that this effort won’t work over time, especially as the Obama administration grudgingly agrees to requests from its military for more special forces on the ground.

In recent months Islamic State has suffered a series of serious military reversals: it lost control of Sinjar cutting the highway linking its capital in Syria, Raqqa, to its biggest outpost in Iraq, Mosul; it lost control of Ramadi in Iraq to the Iraqi army with strong US support; and its siege of the strategically important Kweiris airbase in Syria was broken by the Syrian army with heavy Russian support.
 
More military setbacks for Islamic State can be expected, perhaps punctuated by the occasional tactical gain. In particular, the US and its allies will focus on dislodging the group from Raqqa this year and maybe even Mosul. But any gains against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will come at the cost of more terrorist attacks in the West and elsewhere as the group tries to compensate for its losses on the ground.

Who will pay for Russia’s facts on the ground?

Russia’s military intervention and the declining power of the opposition means that Moscow will continue to set the terms for any diplomatic moves to settle the conflict in 2016. Such a settlement seems unlikely at this stage, but for the Russians it does not really matter. They will use ceasefires and the diplomatic process to reinforce the facts on the ground established by their military campaign.

But the Russians are also at an interesting point in Syria. In some respects Moscow (and Tehran) are in the same position as Washington was in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Russians have secured their man, but having your client in the capital, or even in control of key cities, is not the same thing as having him govern the country over the long term.

The US invested billions of dollars and made a huge effort to extend the writ of the regimes it supported beyond the boundaries of Kabul and Baghdad, with very mixed results. It is hard to see Moscow putting the same resources and effort into trying to re-build governance, security and the economy in Syria, or even a rump of Syria (and not just because Moscow watched Washington’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq fail).

But Moscow may also be thinking it can get others to do this job. Short of other options (at least ones that it is prepared to take), the West’s focus has been on building and maintaining the cessation of hostilities and providing some humanitarian relief to help stem refugee flows, while intensifying the assault on the extremists. The problem is that, even if all of this works, the limited triage now being applied in Syria won’t significantly stem the human suffering and refugee flows caused by the conflict.

Syrians will still be left sitting among the ruins of their broken society, economy and national infrastructure. The number of humanitarian refugees seeking to leave Syria may ease, but the flow of economic ones will probably increase. Indeed, even if Islamic State is destroyed other extremist groups will rise to take its place in the ungoverned and misgoverned spaces that will remain in the country. (Although, there will also be other communities in Syria that will continue to escape the control of either the regime or the extremists)

As Richard Gowan has argued, assuming that the current limited cessation of hostilities does not break down completely (a big 'if'), the UN could well be placed in the 'morally and politically invidious position of trying to consolidate peace on terms effectively set by President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Moscow and Tehran'.

Western capitals are in a similar position. It seems unthinkable that the West would even consider making investments in post-conflict stabilisation in a way that might prolong Assad’s rule in Syria. But faced with a choice between consolidating the current fragile cessation of hostilities on Moscow and Assad’s terms, or a continuation of the fighting with all the consequences that this entails, Brussels, Washington and New York may gradually and grudgingly choose the former.

This is in effect the ‘Assad as the least-worst’ option argument. The problem is it's pretty hollow. It is true that for a while Assad may be able to count on some combination of defeat, exhaustion, consent and continued coercion to ensure his rule over a rump of the country. But this won’t last long. To remain in power, let alone extend to other parts of the country, he would need to rebuild infrastructure, reconcile warring communities and provide jobs, security and a new social contract with Syria’s citizens. If all this sounds fanciful, it’s because it is.

But even if it is true that Assad is not a viable option for returning stability to Syria, it does not mean that the Russians will quickly or easily abandon him. No-one will be more receptive to Russian interests in Syria than Assad because no-one owes the Russians (and the Iranians) more than Assad does. Moreover, jettisoning its chief client would be a strange way for Moscow to celebrate its victory on the battlefield and the reputation it has earned for sticking with its allies.

Indeed, hoping that the Russians will abandon Assad may repeat the mistake made by Western capitals at the outset of the conflict when they assumed Assad would quickly fall. Forced to accept Russian terms for re-launching the diplomatic process last year, this year Western capitals may find that Moscow is not only expecting them to accept its terms for a settlement in Syria, it wants them to foot the bill as well.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user David Axe