Secretary of State Tillerson has returned from a five-nation tour of the Middle East designed to shore up American influence. The results were underwhelming. When military hostilities flared up between Israel and Iran, it was Russia’s Putin, not Tillerson, who stepped in and calmed things down. However, the bigger picture is more nuanced. After years of conflict in both Iraq and Syria, the ultimate geopolitical outcomes remain far from certain — but there is greater clarity today than was true a year ago.
The most obvious strategic development has been the dramatic weakening of ISIS. In June 2014, ISIS militants routed the Iraqi army and seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. This was just part of a stunning sweep across the Sunni-majority lands of western Iraq and eastern Syria. The ISIS leader declared a new Arab “caliphate,” echoing the earliest days of Islamic rule. The government in Baghdad seemed powerless with Sunni jihadists controlling the desert interior and Shiite militias controlling the Shia majority areas of central and southern Iraq. Massive explosions from suicide truck bombs regularly rocked the capital. The most likely course of events looked to be a bloody, prolonged, civil war between ISIS and militias backed by Iran. For Iraqi citizens, it was hard to imagine a greater nightmare. In Syria, ISIS took advantage of an already ongoing civil war by seizing control of Sunni-majority lands outside the capital, Damascus. Soon the “caliphate” extended across much of Syria, massacring any who were less than totally devoted to the black flag.
By September 2014, ISIS forces were attacking villages near the town of Kobane on the Syrian-Turkish border. A small contingent of outgunned Kurdish militia were defending the town — but surely doomed to defeat and death. At that point, something important happened. The Obama administration committed to help defend the town with airpower plus military equipment and tactical assistance to the Kurds. The “caliph” saw the climactic battle between the “believers” and the “infidels” foretold in the Koran and poured his best fighters and commanders into the battle. The open terrain was ideal for air strikes and ISIS militants died by the many thousands. Kobane became the kickoff to a sustained American effort to support the Kurds and the Iraqi army in their separate campaigns against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. That support took the form of aerial bombing, reconnaissance/intelligence and training and equipment for ground forces. As the offensive took shape, the Pentagon pledged to “annihilate” ISIS.
The results have been dramatic. All the territory captured by ISIS in Iraq has been returned to government control. In the process, the democratically elected al-Abadi administration has begun to look like a real government. In Syria, battle-hardened Kurds, in close coordination with U.S. airstrikes, have driven ISIS from one redoubt after another, including its “capital,” Raqqa. The number of ISIS fighters has gone from well over 200,000 to less than 2,000 today. ISIS-controlled territory has shrunk to a couple of sparsely populated desert tracts along the border with Iraq.
What does this all add up to for the future of the region? The destruction has been incredible. Major cities like Mosul and smaller ones like Raqqa look like Dresden after the fire bombings of World War II. Thousands (no one knows how many) of civilians have died. The casualties and destruction have been overwhelmingly in the Sunni lands. ISIS, the self-declared champion of the Sunnis, has been a catastrophe for that population. Among the many indelible lessons from the carnage will be this: when the American military promises annihilation, it means it. The United States also has made promises to the Kurds, who have carried the burden of the battle against ISIS. Turkey, a NATO ally, demands that the United States break those promises. Tillerson spent hours in consultation with Turkey’s leaders trying to find some middle ground. The jury is still out.
So what happens next? The process of reconstruction is already under way in Iraq. Tillerson attended a donors’ conference in Kuwait, where the Sunni-led Gulf states pledged $30 billion in assistance to Baghdad. The U.S. contribution to the overall total was paltry. But what we see is at least the prospect of a viable, rebuilt Iraq with an effective — maybe even democratic — government. The United States and Iran will continue to vie for influence, but a clever administration in Baghdad can exploit that competition to its advantage.
In Syria, the situation is far darker. Unlike in Iraq, the fighting goes on unabated, even as ISIS fades. The core conflict is between the Alawite dictatorship of Assad and the majority Sunni population. The regime has used every means at its disposal, including chemical weapons, to subdue the rebellion. Even so, Assad would have long since been defeated and deposed except for the intervention of Iran (and its proxy, Hezbollah) and the Russians. The former provided ground forces and the latter airpower. Much has been written about how the Kremlin has outfoxed Washington in Syria. However, if you are Vladimir Putin you may not be quite so sure. Moscow is now irreversibly committed to Assad in a civil war that seems likely to go on indefinitely. The attendant destruction strains belief: over half of the entire population has been displaced, many of them becoming international refugees. Even if the fighting somehow ended tomorrow, who will provide the $100 billion-plus needed for reconstruction? Russia? No chance. Ditto for the Gulf States. Iran has its own economic problems. Syria has no oil. Would you want to own this outcome?