2016 in review: Talk of peace but little hope of ending Syria and Iraq violence

Despite the Assad regime’s gains against the rebels in Syria, and the ISIL retreat in Iraq, Turkish-aided rebels and Shiite militias may bring more conflict.

The White Helmets, Syrian civil defence volunteers, rescue a boy from the rubble in Aleppo last month. Ameer Alhalbi / AFP.
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The past year has brought significant developments in the wars in Syria and Iraq, with Syrian rebels suffering major defeats and ISIL beaten back to its last major redoubt in Iraq. While such gains could inspire hope that the conflicts may soon be over, violence in both countries is primed to continue in 2017 as Syria and Iraq further settle into the cadence of wars that seem endless, at least for now.

In Syria, rebels have been forced from Aleppo, the country’s most populous city before the war. The victory was the government’s most important one and the loss of Aleppo has made the conflict seemingly unwinnable for the divided, disorganised and outgunned rebels.

But the recapture of Aleppo has not put an end date on the conflict. Rebel fighters remain strong in Idlib province, where the former Al Qaeda branch Jabhat Al Nusra, now named Fatah Al Sham, dominates opposition fighting groups. Retaking that province alone could take the Syrian government and its allies a year or more, though they may be sidetracked by trying to push back gains made by ISIL while they were distracted by Aleppo.

Turkey’s intervention in Syria in August is also set to lengthen the war. With its help, rebel proxies have carved out a large chunk of territory along the Syria-Turkey border as they fight ISIL and the Kurdish YPG faction, a group Turkey considers to be part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it is at war with at home. Turkey’s allies on the ground have so far been obedient and not fought against the Syrian government. But in his quest for total victory, it is unlikely that Syrian president Bashar Al Assad would allow such an enclave to exist. By breathing new life into these rebel forces, Turkey has created yet another formidable regime opponent in the conflict.

While Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned his attention away from the Syrian government in his intervention, he could still use Turkey’s involvement in the war to act against the regime. Erdogan said on December 24 that he would discuss the implementation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria with United States president-elect Donald Trump, who has himself said he backs “safe zones” in Syria. If Syrian and Russian jets were grounded in that part of the country, anti-government rebels would have a safe place to organise themselves.

But the war in Syria does not just hinge on the government’s ability to defeat the remaining rebel pockets. Kurdish YPG forces have created a de facto autonomous zone stretching hundreds of kilometres along Turkey’s border with Syria and will be unwilling to let that go. ISIL has been weakened in Syria, and Kurdish forces and Arab allies are planning an attack on the extremists’ capital in Raqqa, but the group still holds large amounts of territory in the country and has recently retaken the ancient city of Palmyra from government forces. In any scenario where peace is to be established in Syria, ISIL will need to be driven from the country.

In Iraq, ISIL appears to be on the verge of defeat. The group lost huge amounts of territory in 2016 and is down to its last stronghold in Mosul, its largest city. Mosul has been under attack from Iraqi government forces, pro-government militias, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and US-led coalition air and artillery strikes since October. Now, government forces have dug in on the city’s eastern side and are pushing forward their advance. The city’s capture, and ISIL’s defeat in Iraq, appears to be only a matter of time.

But ISIL’s defeat in Iraq could only serve as a new beginning to conflict there. To the casual eye, the cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian anti-ISIL offensives undoing the massive gains the group made in 2014 may have the appearance of a unified front. But once the battle against ISIL in Iraq ends, these groups may find themselves once again competing with one another, resuming conflicts that existed before ISIL’s takeover and even beginning new ones.

The war against ISIL has seen the rocketing significance of Shiite paramilitary forces fighting on behalf of the Iraqi government. These overtly sectarian militias have made Arab Sunnis as well as Kurds uneasy and have been accused of committing atrocities during, and after, battles. They have expanded into Sunni areas of the country where their presence could cause conflict if they remain after ISIL has been defeated. And in November, Iraq’s parliament fully legalised these militias.

Ahead of ISIL’s territorial gains in Iraq two years ago, there were growing tensions between the country’s Sunnis and a government they perceived as Shiite-dominated. Massive protests broke out in Sunni-majority cities, with the government eventually turning to helicopter gunships and troops in an attempt to quell the dissent. These grievances have never been resolved, and after ISIL is defeated, the even more dominant role of Shiite groups in the government, combined with the allegations of Shiite militia abuses in the Sunni heartland, will likely lay the groundwork for additional trouble.

Josh Wood is a foreign correspondent with The National.