When we look back at 2017, the most important event to have unfolded in the Middle East was the military victory over ISIS.
Although there are still some ISIS strongholds that remain unconquered on the Syrian-Iraqi border and the pseudo “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still on the run, as was Saddam Hussein in his time before he met his fate we all know how, this dark phase of three years is well-nigh over.
On the scale of history, this span of time may count as a mere second, but at the humanitarian level it lasted for nearly an eternity.
New war of shadows
For the local people who experienced the nightmare, irrespective of their community, the end of the ‘Caliphate’ has come as immense relief. The Christians of Mosul celebrating Christmas — even though only a few have survived to see the day — is a positive sign that raises hopes.
According to Mgr Louis Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldeans of Iraq, some churches have been restored by young Muslims. It is in this spirit of fraternity that Iraq and Mosul can be rebuilt as a new Eden.
We will see if Russians are able to create a dynamic for breaking the Syrian impasse. For Moscow, it is a test of credibilityChristian Chesnot
In 2018, the ISIS chapter would have closed, even though the jihadist organization might resort to carrying out clandestine attacks. Today, the issue is no longer of military significance but has turned into a security one, as a war of shadows has begun involving intelligence services.
At the political level, ISIS failed to erase the Sykes-Picot boundaries and the territorial boundaries of Syria and Iraq remain intact, as nobody is thinking of redrawing them. The referendum fiasco in Kurdistan is testament to this fact. There clearly appears no future outside a national framework, even though Kurds might enjoy provincial autonomy — a principle applicable not only in Iraq but in Syria too.
Military to political
However, the important question to be tackled in 2018 would be on how to handle post-ISIS Syria and Iraq? On the political front, the big maneuvers have already begun; with a first meeting in Sochi in the Black Sea in late January.
Here, Russian President Vladimir Putin convened a ‘Congress of the Peoples of Syria’. No one doubts that the solution of the Syrian crisis now lies with the Kremlin. But in Sochi, we will see if the Russians are able to create a dynamic for breaking the impasse. For Moscow, it is a test of credibility.
To turn their military success into a diplomatic one, Russians need the blessings of the UN, Europeans and Americans. Some experts have estimated the reconstruction of Syria to cost $400 billion, which will take a long time as there is no international consensus on when the crisis might end.
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In any case, Syrian opposition must be given serious assurances so that Westerners can be convinced about moving forward. Even though Bashar al-Assad remains in contention, the situation cannot revert to what it was before March 2011, as that would invalidate the legitimacy of Syrian opposition forces. The Russians are well aware of this fact.
In Iraq, the test will also be political. Legislative and local elections are scheduled for May 2018. We can then measure the influence gained by Hashd al-Chaabi militia (Popular Mobilization Forces) that the government must demobilize. Nothing would be worse for the country than a return to sectarianism that had peaked during the reign of Nouri al-Maliki.
Internationally, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is respected and recognized for his balanced positions. It is no coincidence that Saudi Arabia has just accredited a new ambassador to Baghdad. An election date in the spring of 2018 promises to be crucial for the future of Haider al-Abadi and that of Iraq because the militia of Hachd al-Chaabi, who after fighting ISIS has every intention to claim its share of the parliamentary pie.
In short, after the military war, the political battle in 2018 might prove to be a protracted and bitter one both in Iraq and Syria.
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.