By Dr. Alon Ben-Meir
The current escalating sectarian violence between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Iraqi forces, as well as the unending civil war in Syria have become intertwined. Neither can be resolved without the other, and it will require a dramatic shift in strategy from the U.S. to bring about drastic change in the political and military landscape in Syria and Iraq.
What is happening in Iraq today, and how the unfolding events may play out in the coming months or years, is directly related to three central developments:
First is President Bush’s misguided Iraq war, which has precipitated the violent conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis in the region. Second is President Obama’s failure to reach a security arrangement with Iraq before the complete withdrawal of American forces, as well as conditioning continued American support of Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki on the establishment of an inclusive government of reconciliation. Finally, is the unwillingness of the U.S. to provide the rebels in Syria early in the conflict with the kind of military hardware needed to blunt Assad’s onslaught that could have prevented the rise of ISIS and the potential disintegration of Syria. President Obama’s decision to provide vetted rebels with $500 million in U.S. support will be helpful but may well be too late. The combination of these factors brought about the convergence of Al-Qaeda and Islamic jihadist groups into Iraq and subsequently into Syria, causing the unfolding horror we are witnessing today.
The legacy of the Iraq war has finally forced the Obama administration to reassess its involvement, or lack thereof, in the raging violent conflicts both in Iraq and Syria, and it must now develop a strategy that might help marginalize ISIS in both countries.
There is no clear-cut solution. The bloody conflict in the neighboring countries transcends ISIS’ aspiration to establish an Islamic Sunni state encompassing Iraq and Syria. There will be continuing violence embedded between the Sunnis and Shiites for many years. It has now reached a new peak as Shiite-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia assumed the leadership of their respective sects, which are waging a proxy war in both Syria and Iraq and determined to preserve their hegemony if not the survival of their regimes.
For these reasons, the U.S. ought to now pursue a multi-pronged strategy that must first deal with the urgent need to stop the advancement of ISIS toward Baghdad, and then address the long-term Sunni-Shiite conflict that plagues the region.
In connection with Iraq’s growing violence, the U.S. is left with no choice but to take the lead and orchestrate a military response against ISIS forces. Such an effort must be conditional upon Maliki’s full cooperation on the military front, as well as an agreement to form a new government of reconciliation that must include Kurds and Sunnis.
Moreover, to show goodwill and encourage Sunni tribal leaders to support the efforts against ISIS, the U.S. must insist that Maliki release thousands of Sunni prisoners who have been incarcerated for years without trial, and stop exhorting (alongside Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani) young Shiites to form militias against ISIS, which is creating a recipe for an intensified sectarian war and chaos.
Even if Maliki takes any of these measures, , during the next few months the U.S. should quietly encourage other Iraqi Shiite leaders, who are unhappy with the corrupt authoritarian Prime Minister and are committed to establishing a government of reconciliation, to push him out of power. This will be necessary to change the domestic political outlook and encourage the Kurds and the Sunnis, who deeply resent and distrust him, to cooperate in the longer term.
The U.S. should also make every effort to contain the mutual animosity between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as both governments need to realize that the danger at hand must first be addressed. Whereas Iraq holds “the Saudi government…responsible for the dangerous crimes committed by these terrorist groups,” the Saudis blame Iraq for the ‘sectarian and exclusionary policies implemented in Iraq over the past years that threaten its stability and sovereignty.’
It appears that Obama is seriously considering enlisting Iran politically and militarily to help Maliki stem the advances of ISIS towards Baghdad. But the U.S. should keep in mind that in whichever capacity Iran’s involvement in Iraq may be, it will only strengthen its hold on Iraq and further advance its regional ambition to become the dominant power.
For this reason, Iran’s involvement must be conditioned upon Tehran’s commitment in words and deeds to end its support of the Assad regime and help bring about the end of the horrifying civil war in Syria. Iran’s professed desire to engage its neighbors constructively and contribute to regional stability stands in total contrast to its continued support of the murderous Assad regime.
It is also important to note that while the enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not likely to recede any time soon, there is a temporary common interest between the two. A commitment by Iran to assist in ending the civil war in Syria and to eventually allow the emergence of a representative government in Damascus could ease the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran and de-intensify the Sunni-Shiite divide.
The Saudis are also fearful of the spread of extremist Jihadists and are particularly concerned about ISIS’ intention to target the monarchy as much as Iran is concerned that ISIS’ potential success will lead to the establishment of an extremist Sunni state governed by strict Sharia law next door. These two common concerns may well create a thaw between the two countries.
Finally, the use of American military forces against ISIS is no longer avoidable. Without American military support, Iraq and the entire region will face a long period of violence and instability, which could draw other countries into the conflict with menacing implications.
Being that ISIS is on the move and is adept at guerilla warfare, it will be extremely difficult to bomb ISIS targets, particularly because they hide among civilians. This may necessitate some American special forces on the ground, but the bulk of the forces will have to come from the Iraqi military.
Counterintuitively, the current conflict in Iraq and the changing geopolitical dynamics could accelerate the process of ending the civil war in Syria. To that end, the U.S. must seize upon this opening and spearhead the delivery of weapons to the rebels to stop Assad from continuing his indiscriminate bombing of rebel hideouts while killing thousands of civilians in the process.
For this reason, once the U.S. commits to preventing ISIS from achieving its goal, it cannot do so incrementally. All countries in the region have a common interest to bring an end to ISIS’ destructive ambition. They must now set aside their differences and rally under American leadership to achieve their common objective.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.