Winners and losers are beginning to emerge in the wars that have engulfed the wider Middle East since the US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003. The most striking signs of this are the sieges of east Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, which have much in common though they were given vastly different coverage by the Western media. In both cities, Salafi-jihadi Sunni Arab insurgents were defending their last big urban strongholds against the Iraqi Army, in the case of Mosul, and the Syrian Army, in the case of east Aleppo.
The capture of east Aleppo means that President Bashar al-Assad has essentially won the war and will stay in power. The Syrian security forces advanced and the armed resistance collapsed more swiftly than had been expected. Some 8,000 to 10,000 rebel fighters, pounded by artillery and air strikes and divided among themselves, were unable to stage a last stand in the ruins of the enclave, as happened in Homs three years ago, and is happening in Mosul now.
But what gives the rebel defeat in east Aleppo its crucial significance is not so much the battle itself, but the failure of their foreign backers – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to come to their aid. Ever since 2011, the advance and retreat of government and rebel forces in Syria has been decided by the quantity of arms, ammunition and money they could extract from their outside backers. President Assad always looked to Russia, Iran and Shia paramilitaries from Lebanon and Iraq.
The decisive moment in the Syrian war came in September 2015 when the Russian air force intervened on President Assad’s side. The US did not like it, but they were not prepared to oppose it militarily. Russia may not be a global superpower, but it is seen as a superpower in the Middle East. Come the assault on east Aleppo, the rebels’ old allies in Ankara, Riyadh and Doha proved incapable or unwilling to raise the stakes unless backed by the US.
If the rebels’ traditional allies did not help them when they still held east Aleppo, it is unlikely that they will do so after they have lost it. This does not mean that the US is the fading power in the Middle East as Mr Obama’s critics claim, but the White House has been very careful not to be dragged into a war in Syria to serve somebody else’s agenda. Getting the US to overthrow Assad was at the heart of the Syrian opposition’s policy since 2011, when they believed they could orchestrate regime change in Damascus along the lines of what had just happened in Tripoli with the overthrow and killing of Muammar Gaddafi.
US policy is more proactive than it is given credit for. Obama gave priority to defeating Isis and it is unlikely that Donald Trump will change this. Isis is proving a tough opponent in Iraq and Syria and in December was able to recapture Palmyra, which the Syrian Army, strongly backed by Russia, had taken amid self-congratulatory celebrations in March. An important event that did not happen in 2016 was the defeat of Isis, whose continuing ability to set the political agenda was bloodily demonstrated when a stolen lorry mowed down people at a Christmas fair in Berlin on 18 December.
A more substantive sign of Isis’s strength is the ferocity and skill with which it has fought for Mosul. The Iraqi army and Kurdish offensive started on 17 October, and Mosul city was reached on 3 November. Since then progress has been slow and at the cost of heavy casualties. The Iraqi security forces, including the Shia paramilitaries, lost 2,000 dead in November according to the UN. Isis is using hundreds of suicide bombers, snipers and mortar teams to slow their enemy’s advance, which has so far only taken 40 per cent of east Mosul. Some of the battalions in the elite 10,000-strong “Golden Division” are reported to have suffered 50 per cent losses.
In the longer term, the Iraqi government will probably take Mosul, though by then it may not look much different from east Aleppo. One of the few items in Trump’s foreign policy that was made clear in the campaign was that there will be total priority given to eliminating Isis. This will have important consequences for the region: the great Sunni Arab revolt in Syria and Iraq aiming at regime change, which seemed to come close to success several times between 2011 and 2014, is faltering and is likely to go down to defeat. Assad and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad are going to survive.
Russia was a big gainer in 2016 as other powers began to view it, perhaps to an exaggerated extent, as a superpower reborn. President Putin is demonised by Western governments and media, but this is a backhanded recognition of his global influence. At the same time, the US had suffered no great defeat and is repairing relations with Iran. Obama’s goals may have been modest, but, unlike those of George W Bush, they were attainable.
Syria has become the battlefield in which confrontations and rivalries that had little to do with Syria are fought out. This is why the war became so intractable. Iran has come out ahead because the Shia alliance it leads is winning in Iraq and Syria. It may look more powerful than it really is because the US destroyed the Taliban in 2001 and Saddam in 2003, the two Sunni powers that had previously hedged Iran in to the east and west. It will soon see if its more positive relationship with the US will be reversed by a Trump administration.
The Arab Spring of 2011 saw revolution, but also counter-revolution: Saudi Arabia and Qatar, followed by the oil-rich Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, sought to take over the leadership of the Arab world that had once been dominated by Egypt, Iraq and Syria. The Gulf states have proved incapable of fulfilling their new role and their various initiatives have produced or exacerbated calamitous wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s more proactive and aggressive policies since King Salman succeeded to the throne in January 2015 have generally ended in frustration. Saudi intervention in Yemen has not ended a stalemated war and air strikes have brought the country to the verge of famine.
The biggest loser of all in 2016, aside from the Syrian and Iraqi people, has been Turkey. It helped stoke the war in Syria only to find that the main beneficiaries were the Syrian Kurds, whose political and military leadership was drawn from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been fighting a guerrilla war in Turkey since 1984. The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is devoting his greatest efforts to thwarting the creation of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Syria, and the displacement of Assad has become a side issue.
Erdogan is creating a more authoritarian state as he tightens his grip on state institutions and media in the wake of the failed military coup of 15 July. He justifies his actions as reactions to crises, such as the Turkish Kurd insurgency, that are in large part his own creation. Isis, whose volunteers were once allowed to cross the Turkish-Syrian border with little trouble, are now creeping back to carry out suicide bombings in Turkey.
Donald Trump may try to change existing US policy in the Middle East, but not if he wants to carry out his domestic agenda. On the other hand, the Middle East is the region of perpetual crises which sucks in outside powers whether they like it or not. What the last five years have shown is that violence bred in the Middle East cannot be contained, and it impacts on the rest of the world in the shape of desperate migrants seeking new homes or savage terrorist attacks