The last two years were full of surprises in the Middle East, most of them unpleasant, and 2016 looks to be no different. The combination of sectarian war among Sunnis and Shiites, Russian intervention on the side of Syria’s Assad regime, geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran and growing economic stress brought about by the low price of oil will make for a difficult year—both on the ground and for the Washington policy makers looking for a way forward.
The dilemma that paralyzed Washington in 2015 has not been resolved: The Obama administration still has not found a way to fight Islamic State without strengthening Iran and Russia in the region and thereby further damaging our existing alliance system and fanning the flames of Sunni radicalism.
We must hope that the president will recognize that the growing power of Iran is the key factor destabilizing the region and start to address Sunni fears about a perceived U.S. tilt toward Iran. Failing that, American foreign policy is likely to be torn between two opponents in the Middle East: a Russia-Shiite axis linking Iran, Syria and Iraq with Moscow, and a set of radical Sunni jihadist movements.
The question will be what happens to the remaining relatively stable Sunni governments in the region: the Saudis and the Gulf states, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan. Distrustful of their longtime American protector, frightened by the specter of Iranian and Russian power, challenged by the rise of Sunni jihadist movements, these states also face difficult economic times. Oil prices are low, tourism is moribund, and the regional economy has been disrupted by the worst violence and refugee crisis in decades.
Islamic State may not benefit as much from this chaos as it hopes, as its loss this week of the Iraqi city of Ramadi suggests. The coalition of forces against Islamic State is strong, and it is harder to fight a conventional war than to carry on guerrilla resistance. So we should already be thinking about the endgame: What does the world propose to do with the legions of fanatical rapists, murderers and looters now fighting under the black flag of Islamic State? Who will eventually govern the territories it now controls? It is not too soon to plan for the defeat of Islamic State; otherwise, its fall could be as destabilizing as its rise.