The Islamic State is crumbling in Syria, but the country is still facing a murky future. The extremist group is finally on its very last legs as a conventional force there, after almost four years of being pummeled from the air and on the ground. Driven from practically all significant urban terrain and crippled by heavy casualties, it has lost its ability to seize and hold territory in the face of the large number of forces arrayed against it. And while the group has dominated the attention of the key regional and international actors in the area, its downfall raises the question: What comes next for Syria?
The U.S. Mission
No other major player in Syria has been as singularly focused on destroying the Islamic State as the United States. In contrast to the other forces in the region, Washington largely sought to put the anti-Islamic State mission above all other considerations. It has done so by siding with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), even when this hurt its longtime strategic partnership with Turkey. And the United States further strengthened its Islamic State focus earlier this year when it cut military support for rebel forces
actively fighting the Syrian government. Only briefly did Washington appeared to shift its focus, when it made a military response to the use of chemical weapons (sarin nerve agent) by loyalist forces on opposition-held areas in April 2017.
Even with the apparent decline of the extremist group, the United States will remain geared toward avoiding a resurgence of the Islamic State or a similar group. Last week, Defense Secretary James Mattis stated that U.S. forces will remain in Syria to prevent such a rebirth. The U.S. military has seen how the Islamic State's predecessor reconstituted itself in the region in the wake of a hasty U.S. departure from Iraq in 2011. But what was left unsaid by Mattis is that the U.S. presence will also help contain the growing presence of Iran in the region, especially in Syria.
Extremist groups such as the Islamic State thrive in power vacuums and in areas with high instability and low governance. Therefore, as long as the Syrian civil war endures, with its associated destruction and instability, it will continue to serve as a breeding ground for terrorism and radical groups. Beyond embedding a military force with the SDF in eastern Syria, the United States can be expected to push for a political solution to the war. This is, however, where the inherent intractability of the conflict surfaces, manifesting in all rounds of negotiations in Geneva. Not only does the U.S. vision for a post-war Syria differ significantly from those of the other key players, but the rebels and their backers also remain polarized on the political process, as do the loyalists and their supporters to an extent.
The U.S. position in further negotiations relies on pushing for three things: a meaningful political transition, a significant role for the Kurds and a reduced Iranian role in the country. Of all the major players on both sides of the rebel-loyalist divide, these goals ironically come closest to those of Russia. Moscow has maintained that the Kurds deserve a significant say in the future of post-war Syria. And among Syria’s loyalist backers, the Kremlin has been the most vociferous in demanding Syrian government reforms. It has also been willing to limit the Iranian presence, seen in the U.S.-Russian agreement for a "de-escalation" zone at Daraa, which set a 3.5-mile buffer space between the Golan Heights and Iranian forces. Additionally, as it is in search of an exit strategy
that locks in its major gains in Syria, Moscow is the most willing of the loyalist factions to compromise in order to reach a peace agreement. During President Vladimir Putin's Nov. 22 summit in Sochi with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about resolving the Syrian conflict, he will likely encourage compromise.
Still, it is important to recognize the limits of the similarities in the U.S. and Russian positions on Syria. These resemblances are notable only because of the extensive differences among all the other parties involved in the conflict. A gulf remains between Washington and Moscow on the extent of the political reforms needed in Damascus and on the limits to the Iranian presence. In fact, with the government of President Bashar al Assad as entrenched as ever and with far-ranging Iranian influence in Syria, Russia faces real limits when it comes to forcing al Assad to compromise and limiting Tehran's influence. Both Syria and Iran are eager to focus on an outright military victory given their current advantage, and Russia could undermine its enhanced regional position if it pushes its allies too hard and is publicly rebuffed.