In one typical example of the advice offered to President Obama’s administration in regard to the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria, one of the “experts” in Washington recently said, “[the president’s] strategy has to start with this: who’s the real threat in that part of the world now? And the answer is, in Syria, it’s the jihadis. And in Iraq, it’s the jihadis. So we’ve got to look for allies to confront that threat. That’s the most serious thing. And in Syria, it means cooperating in some fashion with the guys we don’t like and eventually want to get rid of, namely President Bashar al-Assad, and requires working as well with Iran and Russia, who also oppose the jihadis in Syria.
“But it’s not just a Syria problem or a single country problem. It’s always been spilling over into Iraq, and our natural allies there are the Iranians again. And I’d work with them to deal with this immediate problem, because if the jihadis are allowed to, in effect, prevail in Iraq and to some extent in Syria, there’s no time to develop the kind of political solutions in both countries that we need for a more stable peace down the line. And in both countries, the only kind of peace that could possibly work is a federal system”.
It is rare to find so many errors in such a few lines. The Sunni Jihadis are not a superficial entity that can be peeled off Syria and Iraq by enlisting non-Sunnis as a kitchen knife to peel them off. After all, non-Sunnis have been fighting them—almost perpetually—to no avail. As MEB has said before, the only examples of success in the fight against Sunni Jihadis came when Sunnis fought them. Just remember the example of Al Anbar province in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
To solve the problem you have to understand the problem. The problem in Syria is the total alienation of the majority. In Iraq, it is the total alienation of the minority. You solve nothing for Iraq when you get the neighboring Shi’a Iran to assist militarily those very same Iraqis who have alienated an important portion of the population in Iraq in order to force them into submission to a regime that treat them as second class citicizens.
And you solve nothing when you call on the U.S. to go and assist the Iranians—and both current regimes in Iraq and Syria—to simply continue their previous repressive, sectarian policies. These previous policies will simply spread Jihadism even further and it will be directed not only against regional parties but also against the US.
Iran, which is proposed as the force that will fight the sectarian oppression that gave us the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), was the very same force that enabled Nouri Al Maliki to impose sectarian oppression in the first place. It is a tautology to keep repeating that the Iranians will be able to quell the Sunnis. They and Al Maliki simply cannot achieve it. Al Maliki is the principle enabler for Iran in Iraq. He did all what the Iranians ordered him to do. The political dynamics in Baghdad as it is now does not inspire hope to produce a “national” leader. As Arabs say, do not expect to see water in a sieve.
The only strategy that will work is to devise a comprehensive framework to “give Caesar what is Caesar’s”. Whether the form of the plan is federalism, confederation, or preserving the “national” state, is secondary. The content should be based on admitting first to that we are dealing with a deeply sectarianized Middle East and must redraw the lines accordingly. Sykes-Picot is haunting the region, but at least a new version of the regional partition lines should be drawn in return for a commitment from the Sunnis to fight Jihadis and respect minorities, and a commitment from others to assist them in doing so. When it was first applied, Sykes-Picot arrangement gave Kirkuk to Syria and gave Dair Al Zour to Iraq. Few years later it was modified as Britain was interested in oil and France in water. So Dair Al Zour became part of Syria and Kirkuk part of Iraq. Could anyone now say what difference does it make? Both towns are now under the control of ISIL.
It will be left to history to initiate a proper process of nation state creation in that region if that is ever to happen. If the fight is about the central government, render this central government symbolic, and time will tell if these divided peoples will find their own way to unity voluntarily or they will continue oppressing and killing each other.
The role of the international community will be to help to get the transition to a new, sectarianly defined, partition within the national borders accomplished in a bloodless way. New lines on “natural” boundaries within the same states must be drawn just to avoid a widening of this medieval chaos. The current wave of jihadi fighting threatens even semi-homogeneous states like Jordan, which stands to be the next victim of the assault of ISIL. It is therefore wrong to assume that the problem can be contained and confined by external forces. Extremism does not recognize political borders. If today it stems from sectarian confrontations, tomorrow it will mount on social causes. Wildfire burns all and everything. The assumption that this could end by intensifying the sectarian oppression through using external force is as foolish as the assumption that this kind of crisis could be confined within one country. Sectarian bonds, and enmities, do not recognize political borders.
The supposition that Sunnis love ISIL assumes therefore that the Sunnis are not human. The atrocities of the cannibal thugs of ISIL reject and offend anything human. The line that connects sectarian oppression and fanatical reactions is too thick not to be seen. But as long as ISIL attacks those who alienate the Sunnis, who humiliate them, and who treat them as second class citizens, it will be applauded by these oppressed who do not know any other way to free themselves.
It is high time for the U.S. administration to invest heavily in a diplomatic approach that gets the relevant international and regional powers together and redraws the lines in the Middle East. National states can be preserved, but in a different form. This should be done peacefully and diplomatically, or else we must be prepared for the Middle Eastern version of the 30 Years’ War, and a wider spread of the Jihadists who feed so well on such wars as did the religious fanatics in Europe in 1618.
The diplomacy will require intensive ground preparation, bilaterally and multilaterally, and the participation of the Russians, the Turks, the Iranians, the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Lebanese, the Qataris, the Egyptians and the Europeans will be important. After all, it is their collective problem as well.
A modern version of Sykes-Picot that considers the sectarian lines in both Iraq and Syria must be researched, debated and implemented. Military force will spread terrorism and fanaticism even further. Al Maliki and Al Assad are both sectarian leaders presiding over two torn countries in the midst of a boiling region. It is time to try to tackle the direct reason of this war before it reaches an uncontrollable point.