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Trudy Rubin: Mideast mess unlikely to improve in new year

Trudy Rubin
Trudy Rubin KRT

After the grim foreign-policy news from the Mideast in 2015, can we hope for anything better in the new year?

That would be a relief, after a year in which the Islamic State thrived amid the Mideast chaos and civil wars that flooded Europe with 1 million refugees, half of them from Syria.

So is there any reason to expect things to improve in 2016? After all, in December the world's major powers agreed on a framework plan for ending the Syrian civil war, right? And the Iraqi army (retrained, yet again, by U.S. officers) made some progress against the Islamic State last month, didn't it? And Iran is implementing the nuclear deal it reached with the West, Russia and China, right?

All true, but it's hard to be optimistic. Here are the signs to watch for in the coming months:

On Syria

Despite the framework for a peace accord, there is little sign the combatants or their foreign backers are ready to compromise. Russia wants to keep the murderous Bashar Assad in power by carpet-bombing all the Sunni rebel groups that oppose him -- except for the Islamic State. That way, Moscow can present the West and Sunni Arab states with only two options -- Assad or the jihadis -- and tell them to choose.

That brutal approach may appeal to Donald Trump, who has declared his admiration for Vladimir Putin, but it won't stop the Islamic State or end the civil war.

Why so? Because neither Putin nor Assad's other best ally, Iran, is willing to make any concessions to Syria's Sunni population, which makes up the majority of the country. Sunni civilians are being devastated by Assad's barrel bombs and by indiscriminate Russian bombs that target hospitals and markets. These war crimes are driving more civilians out of the country or into the Islamic State's ranks.

There has to be something in this deal for Syria's Sunnis and their Arab backers, who view the war as an attempt by Shiites (Iran and its proxy, Assad) to dominate the region and its majority of Sunni Arabs. Moreover, Syrian Sunnis can no longer live under the rule of the man who tortured and murdered them by the tens of thousands. Until these grievances are addressed, the fighting will go on.

So watch to see whether a formula emerges that would ease Assad out of power before elections two years from now. And watch to see whether the Syrian and Russian militaries get serious about targeting the Islamic State. I doubt either will happen.

Take note of whether Putin has a Plan B that might accept a de facto partition of the country into three parts: a rump Syria ruled by Assad, an autonomous Kurdish region, and a Sunni area in which the rest of the world would aid non-Islamic State militias to oust the Islamic State. That might be a plan Sunni Arabs and the West could consider as the least bad option. Otherwise, the fighting will continue and the Islamic State caliphate will survive.

On Iraq

Yes, the Iraqi army's (not yet complete) retaking of Ramadi, a Sunni city seized by the Islamic State in May, is a belated step forward. Given the difficulties of making headway against the Islamic State forces in Syria, it is essential to first rout them in Iraq.

But the Ramadi victory is only a first step.

In retaking the city, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had to fend off efforts by Iranian-backed Shiite militias to spearhead the offensive, which would have terrified Ramadi's Sunni inhabitants and undercut the operation. To hold the city, Abadi must empower Sunni tribes in the province. And to liberate Mosul, a much larger city that is the economic heart of the so-called caliphate, it will be necessary to arm Sunni tribes in the north.

So watch to see if Abadi derives enough political capital from the Ramadi victory to start reintegrating Sunnis into Iraq's political and military system. One key: whether he can circumvent Iran's proxy politicians and militias in Iraq and authorize Sunni tribes to form an official national guard.

And watch to see if President Barack Obama puts full U.S. muscle and focus behind this effort. With a Sunni Arab ground force in Iraq there could be real pushback against the Islamic State in 2016. Otherwise, the Islamic State will remain in Mosul for a long time.

On Iran

Yes, Tehran is implementing key terms of the nuclear accord -- sending its low-enriched and 20 percent-enriched uranium out of the country to Russia and dismantling thousands of centrifuges as well as its plutonium reactor.

This is big stuff -- Iran was heading inexorably toward the point where it had enough fissile material to make a bomb, and now that threat is pushed back for at least 10 to 15 years.

But Tehran will continue to pursue its own regional interests, such as arming Hezbollah and sending fighters to Syria and Iraq -- behavior that is not covered by the accord, and must be countered independently of it. So watch to see if hard-liners in Congress use this as an excuse to try to undermine the deal as they are already attempting.

It is possible there might be better foreign-policy news this year from the Mideast, but not very probable. But we can hope.

Write Trudy Rubin, a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer, at trubin@phillynews.com.

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