This year may be a critical turning point for Syria and the five-year civil war, at least for the Assad regime, which is poised to regain full control of the country.
After the crucial Aleppo victory, Russian-backed Assad forces have besieged al-Bab in tandem with Turkish forces already involved in a bloody battle, with Islamic State (IS) suffering heavy casualties. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is keen to push Turkey out of the equation and claim a victory at al-Bab, a critical gateway town on the way to the de facto IS capital in central Syria, Raqqa.
The capture of al-Bab will be followed by a full assault on Raqqa. Smelling an opportunity for glory, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already declared he would be involved in the battle for Raqqa.
The biggest wild card is the direction US President Donald Trump is likely to pursue in Syria. His inauguration speech promised complete eradication of “radical Islamic terrorism”. That is likely to translate into a full declaration of war on IS, the embodiment of brutal violence and terrorism.
If it comes to pass, this will have two major consequences. First, Trump will approach Syria with a cost-benefit analysis of the quickest and cheapest way of eliminating IS. He will have no qualms about outsourcing the Syrian problem to the Putin-Erdogan-Assad trio. This, in turn, will serve to legitimise the Assad regime and its collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan.
Secondly, and counter-intuitively, the excessive measures and reckless rhetoric of Trump will provide much needed help to IS in promoting the line that US and Russia are collaborating with local puppets, Assad and Erdogan, to eradicate Islam.
IS social media machinery will campaign hard to attract a fresh supply of gullible young recruits. IS will also actively ramp up its brand of remotely orchestrated terrorism in Europe, the US, Russia and Turkey.
We could well see Raqqa falling to an unlikely coalition of major players in 2017, signalling an end to IS’s political existence in Syria. IS will almost certainly continue to exist as a hybrid movement of violent insurgents and terrorists.
Domestically, the Assad regime will produce a constitution legitimising Assad as president. Meanwhile, the country will remain partitioned as a federation divided along ethnic and religious lines. Sadly, while Assad regains the upper hand, the Syrian civil war is likely to continue beyond 2017.