Donald Trump is about to inherit a changed strategic situation in the Middle East, for better and worse. I’ve written extensively about the battle for Mosul. As the fight continues — and American and allied forces continue to push ISIS out of the city — America has a second chance to do the right thing in Iraq:
By the time the next president takes office, Iraq could be almost entirely free of ISIS, with American troops on the ground in sufficient numbers to guarantee a measure of stability and an opportunity to hang on to our hard-fought gains. That won’t be easy. We’ll need to keep sufficient forces on the ground to stiffen the Iraqi Army against any future jihadist counterattack, limit Iranian influence, and help mediate the country’s unceasing sectarian rivalries and conflicts . . . by the end of the Mosul battle, the nation may be free of genocidal dictators and of genocidal jihadists, and it will have the opportunity to forge a long-term alliance with the United States. None of this is guaranteed — the next president will have to demonstrate a long-term commitment to Iraq’s future, and we can’t fall victim to short-term, impulse-driven politics. But victory is once again attainable.
But that’s not the only major urban fight in the region. It looks like Assad’s forces — with Russian and Iranian help — are on the verge of winning the Battle of Aleppo:
After four years of grinding urban combat that has killed thousands of civilians and destroyed large parts of the ancient city, the rebels face a stark choice: die fighting or surrender the enclave and hope to fight elsewhere. In public, rebel fighters and opposition politicians remain belligerent, vowing to fight to the last man rather than surrender to a government they despise. They have called for a five-day ceasefire to evacuate civilians and hundreds of wounded before discussing the future of the city, but fighting continues.
Victory in Aleppo would deal a devastating below to potentially American-allied rebels and make it even more difficult to replace the Assad regime with a friendly (or at least neutral) government. Assad endures, but he doesn’t rule Syria. American-allied Kurdish forces dominate the north, and ISIS still has its zone of control around Raqqa.
If Assad truly is hell-bent on reconquering his entire country, it will be interesting to see how President Trump responds if/when Assad’s forces converge in force on our Kurdish allies. In the meantime, however, Assad seems intent on finishing off his other enemies. Here’s Uri Friedman, writing in The Atlantic:
If Assad reclaims Aleppo, he will achieve his most significant victory yet in Syria’s long war—a victory that would also belong to Vladimir Putin and the leaders of Iran. Still, the fall of Aleppo would likely usher in a new phase of the conflict rather than end it altogether. As Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explained to Kathy Gilsinan earlier this year, Assad would then control all of Syria’s major cities—Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, and Hama—and thus “essential Syria.” This would allow him and his allies to go on the offensive in other parts of the country like Idlib province, just southwest of Aleppo, where Syria and Russia have been funneling rebel forces defeated elsewhere in the country. (The Russian strategy is simple, an anonymous European diplomat told Reuters this week: “Place them all in Idlib and then they have all their rotten eggs in one basket,” for Russian warplanes to target.) Eventually, perhaps months or even years later, Assad’s coalition could turn its attention to ISIS. In this scenario, an internationally brokered peace agreement would presumably be on terms favorable to Assad.
America should not repeat the Obama administration’s mistakes. That means keeping troops in Iraq — contrary to some of Trump’s campaign statements. At the same time, its options in Syria are narrowing. We can and must continue to defeat ISIS, but deposing Assad looks like it’s off the table — at least for the foreseeable future. The best outcome in Syria may be an agreement that protects our Kurdish allies but leaves Assad in power and Russia on the rise.