Two of the biggest cities in Iraq and Syria are about to fall. But the wars aren't any closer to ending.
- By Emile SimpsonEmile Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was formerly a British Army officer.
Two cities, two battles, one question: Will Aleppo and Mosul be turning points in the vicious war that has consumed Syria and much of western Iraq? Militarily, yes. Politically, no. The fall of these cities would merely mark the transition from one phase of this sorry conflict to another.
In Aleppo, the Bashar al-Assad regime, backed by Russian airpower and Iranian-sponsored ground forces, have relentlessly and indiscriminately pounded the rebel-held eastern districts of Syria’s second city.
While some rebel factions in Aleppo are hard-line Islamists, the city is one of the last bases for what remains of the supposedly more moderate rebel factions originally supported by the West. As things stand, the regime looks likely to take the city in due course, having inflicted horrific levels of civilian casualties in the process.
Militarily, the fall of Aleppo could be a turning point. It would allow the Assad regime to move toward closing off a corridor connecting the city with Latakia and Idlib, which would mean the end of the rebellion’s existence as a movement in control of significant territory in northwest Syria.
That said, even if the Assad regime were to retake the northwest, the bitter grievances that have animated the rebellion by the mostly Sunni elements of the population there won’t evaporate overnight. The regime would have to pacify the area in an unforgiving counter-insurgency campaign for years to come.
One variable is whether Hillary Clinton is elected the next U.S. president and carries out her plan to impose a no-fly zone over parts of northern Syria to provide a sanctuary to civilians fleeing the violence, and to pressure the regime to enter a negotiated settlement. But if that sounds attractive, remember that absent the presence of U.S. ground forces to patrol the area, a no-fly zone would in all likelihood provide a sanctuary for the very hard-line jihadi groups that present a terrorist threat to the West. The U.S. public has no appetite for such a long-term ground presence, especially not to shoulder the burden of a humanitarian disaster created by Assad, Moscow, and Tehran.
One way out of this fix is for the United States to allow Turkey a greater role in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to see the fight against the Islamic State as an opportunity to establish a long-term Turkish-patrolled buffer zone inside Syria that would become a “demilitarized zone,” but could also allow Turkey to fend off the advances of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Syria’s Kurdish separatists. This would bring its own problems for the United States, not least resentment from the Kurdish forces upon whom the western coalition relies to fight the Islamic State in northeast Syria, but whose territorial ambitions Turkey has always opposed. But a Turkey-administered buffer zone may nonetheless end up emerging as the most realistic option for winding down active hostilities in northern Syria.
Three hundred fifty miles east of Aleppo, Iraqi forces, supported by U.S. airpower and special forces, are massing for their long-awaited offensive on Mosul due to start in the coming days. The Islamic State has held the city since June 2014. Mosul will probably fall — it does not make military sense for the Islamic State to invest major resources in a battle of attrition to hold the city when they can trade space for time, conserve forces, and counter-attack later.
The fall of Mosul, the largest Islamic State stronghold in Iraq, would signal the beginning of the end of the Islamic State as a territory holding force in the country. It is the culmination of a relatively successful phase of coalition military operations in Iraq over the summer, which have gradually pushed the Islamic State farther and farther up the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, back toward Syria.
But as in Aleppo, the fall of Mosul would not signal the end of the conflict in the area, since nobody has yet worked out the politics of pacification.
For a start, while Baghdad has banned Shiite militias from taking part in the offensive in the ethnically diverse city, rightly fearing ethnic cleansing of Sunni and Kurdish residents, there are no guarantees that they won’t enter the city after it is cleared of the Islamic State by regular troops, and spark a new round of sectarian conflict.
This is not a problem confined to Mosul. It affects wide swaths of western Iraq, where the mainly Sunni population will fear that with the Islamic State gone, the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad will resume the predatory behavior toward them that fueled resentment and enabled the Islamic State to take Sunni areas with so little resistance in the first place.
Then there are the Iraqi Kurds. Even while the Islamic State has provided a common enemy for the Kurds and the mainly Shiite Iraqi forces, there have already been frequent skirmishes between Kurdish forces and Shiite militia in areas cleared of Islamic State fighters, and tense standoffs between Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi national forces around Kirkuk.
Finally, there’s the Turkish military presence in Iraq around Mosul, which is near the Turkish border. This week, Erdogan ordered those forces to stay in place, in ominous defiance of a demand by the Iraqi government that they vacate Iraqi sovereign territory. As in Syria, Erdogan seems to want to establish a buffer zone to fight Kurdish separatists operating from Iraq, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). (Though it should be noted that Ankara has a relatively good working relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government based in Erbil.)
Where does this leave the state of the conflict that spans Syria and Iraq? One trend is that while the Islamic State, and other Sunni jihadi groups, are gradually losing ground to largely Shiite ground forces in Syria backed by Russian airpower, and largely Shiite ground forces in Iraq backed by U.S. airpower, the grievances of the Sunni populations against their government in both states may well lead to longer-term, but lower-intensity insurgencies. There is also a serious risk of Iran-sponsored Shiite militia engaging in ethnic cleansing in both cases, which will provoke more flows of refuges and fuel further sectarian conflict.
Another trend is the collapse of high-level efforts to reach a peace agreement. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been nothing if not valiant in his tireless efforts to broker a deal, but his efforts have failed.
This should not surprise us. The nature of the conflict in Syria and Iraq is networked, fragmented, and multiplayer. Its kaleidoscopic dynamics do not fit the conventional paradigm of the two-way peace deal that ends a two-way war. Networked conflicts cannot easily be ended in one diplomatic move, because there is not one polarized relationship at its heart, but several cross-cutting, multilateral relationships between the various players, who each fight for themselves, not as part of one of two “sides.”
A better way of thinking about the end of such conflicts is in terms of how individual bilateral relationships within the web of conflict can evolve and settle down, whether through political deals, or de facto configurations of power that harden over time into accepted political realities. In the short term, the key players to watch are the various Kurdish factions, and their relationships with the Turkish government on the one hand, and the Iraqi government on the other. The Syrian Kurds already hold a sizable portion of territory in the northeast of the country, and the Iraqi Kurds have pushed into Kirkuk in northern Iraq and will squabble with Baghdad over control of Mosul.
As the Islamic State is pushed back, the basic political question in the next phase of the conflict will be the political fate of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. If this is mishandled, we could see a new round of fighting between the Syrian Kurds and Ankara, and the Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad. If a deal can be reached in both cases, Kurdish-controlled areas, whether cantons in a federal structure, or new states, could start to stabilize at least one part of the conflict.
This is the complex problem that U.S. diplomats should be focusing on if they want to make a difference in the near term. Peace, if it arrives, will arrive from the bottom up, piece by piece, rather than through ambitious — but ultimately futile — attempts to impose top-down comprehensive peace deals.
Trying to predict the long-term outcome of conflicts of the sort that have engulfed Iraq and Syria is a fool’s game. While the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have dragged on for years, the complex religious wars in Europe they resemble lasted more than a century. Although the fall of Mosul and Aleppo would mark the boundary between one military phase of the conflict and another, the underlying politics of the conflict are still in a mess. Until there’s progress from the bottom up, don’t expect this war to end.