It looks as if the fighting in Iraq and Syria will draw to a close in 2017. We won and lost.
ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda, whatever name the Jihadists call themselves, have been pushed out of the remains of Aleppo and are hanging on by their blood-soaked fingertips in Mosul and Raqqa.
Also destroyed and seeking peace terms are Western-backed rebels in the Free Syrian Army and its dozens of feuding constituent parts.
The Obama Administration and its 13 allies backing air strikes could claim victory. They may even try to do so. And in terms of denying the Jihadists a territorial base, there are justifiable grounds for a victory claim.
However, Islamic extremism is far from defeated. Jihadists have repeatedly displayed their prowess in filling political vacuums wherever they occur, and Western intelligence agencies are issuing dire warnings of attacks on Western soil orchestrated by bitter battle-hardened extremists in full flight from the Middle East.
No, the real winners are Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iran and Hezbollah. And the real result is a massive defeat for the democratic hopes of the 2011 Arab Spring and a victory for tyranny.
Syria has not been a nice place to live for some time. Successive dictators—including Bashar’s father Hafez—have ruled under state of emergency laws since 1963. There was no way that Bashar Al Assad would loosen his tyrannical reins. The result is the humanitarian disaster that is the Syrian civil war. Before 2011 22 million people lived in Syria. Now, the UN estimates that 6.1 million people have been either killed or internally displaced. Another 4.8 million are refugees.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International estimate that the Assad regime has tortured to death up to 75,000 people. At least 200,000 are in detention in facilities from which the International Red Cross is barred.
Assad and Putin – Photo – Alexei Druzhinin/AP
The stated aim of the Western Alliance was to topple Assad, even though air strikes were restricted to Jihadist targets. Thanks to Russia that aim failed. By September 2015 a combination of rebel rivalry and lack of Western resolve had resulted in a stalemate. Putin spotted the opportunity to tip the scales in favour of the Syrian leader and – coincidentally – establish Russia as the dominant Non-Arab power in in the Middle East.
He intervened on the side of Assad and dispatched planes, special forces and eventually an aircraft carrier, to attack not only the anti-Assad Jihadists but also the Western-backed rebels. The Russians lacked the smart bombs of the West that limited collateral civilian deaths. But they had the advantage of being at one with Assad in ignoring such social niceties.
The inevitable result came on Thursday when Putin announced a ceasefire agreement and the start of peace talks with virtually all the rebels except the Al-Qaeda affiliates. He further announced that Russia and Turkey – whose tanks occupy a slice of northern Syria—would be guarantors. The US and its allies are pointedly excluded.
To achieve this goal, Putin has formed alliances with anti-American Iran and Iranian-backed Hezbollah—two of the most vehement opponents of Israel.
As a price for his support for Assad, Putin has also secured an air base in Syria at Khmeimim and strengthened the long-term Russian naval base at Tartus. On top of that he now has the right to move equipment and personnel in and out of the bases without inspection or interruption by the Syrian authorities. Khmeimim and Tartus have become de facto sovereign Russian territory.
To sum up, the Russian President has rescued Assad, started to split Turkey away from NATO, strengthened the position of Iran and Hezbollah, created two military bases in the heart of the Arab world and established himself as the strong man of the Middle East.
The last point could prove to be the most telling. Arab leaders are realists. They respect power and success and will work with those who achieve it. At the moment that is Assad and Putin.
Tom Arms is a broadcaster and columnist focused on world affairs. You can hear his weekly world affairs podcast at www.lookaheadnews.com and follow him on twitter @LookAheadTV. Tom is available for public speaking engagements.
LookAhead Radio World Report for week commencing 2 January 2017: