by Henry Precht
A bunch of fanatic radicals is on the verge of inflicting grievous damage on the traditional states of the Middle East. Only sensible, but also radical changes in American policy can hope to arrest their advance. The first business is to understand what can’t be changed, what bits of history can’t be rewritten:
- The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) cannot be caused to disappear. Its seizure of Mosul and other Iraqi and Syria towns appears to be supported by their Sunni populations who bitterly resent their nation’s non-Sunni leaders. Their like has succeeded before in Vietnam and Afghanistan: Insurgents succeeding in an ocean of friendly fish.
- President Bashar al-Assad’s hands are deeply stained with the blood of his countrymen. He must go, albeit with a measure of grace permitted in his exit. Elements of his regime should be combined with secular oppositionists in new a governing setup.
- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also must stand aside. He, like other rulers (Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi) who were excluded from political life, was too greedy and refused to share power with his competitors. Another Shia grandee willing to join with acceptable Sunni elders should replace him.
- The Kurdish occupation of Kirkuk should be ignored — especially if peshmerga troops are to be helpful against ISIS.
Next we turn to changes that are essential if the ISIS uprising is to be managed:
- Washington must realize that it has been backing the wrong side in the Syrian civil war. We mistakenly thought that some so-called moderate, free market democrats opposed to Assad could bring him down. They simply couldn’t compete and were outclassed by ISIS and like-minded Islamic extremists. Not so long before the strife began Washington quietly applauded Assad’s struggle against al-Qaeda. As distasteful a dictator as he is, he and we were brought together by a common enemy. Using an international front group with Russia, Iran and others, the US ought to let it be known that Damascus deserves help in the fight against ISIS before a replacement government can be set up.
- Taking an even bigger bite of crow meat, the US should acknowledge Iran’s importance in bottling up ISIS with units of its armed forces. To secure further cooperation, President Barack Obama and Co. should accept a reasonable nuclear deal with Hassan Rouhani rather than insisting on deal-destroying, but unnecessary, terms favored by Israel. Iranian cooperation will also be necessary if their friends Assad and Maliki are to be removed from office.
- Egypt might also be enlisted in the ISIS containment effort.
- Saudi Arabia, which has supported Sunni fanatics against Shia across the region, should be told that such behavior is inconsistent with a close defense relationship with the United States. The same message should be delivered to other Gulf regimes and intended as well for their ISIS-funding private citizens.
- Turkey and Jordan must be made to see that their borders with Syria need to be closed to the movement of fighters and their armaments. Otherwise they could be future ISIS targets.
- Iraq and Syria should be strongly encouraged to move to a genuine decentralized, federal system of government. Funds for humanitarian relief and reconstruction must be mobilized with cash coming from the Arabian Peninsula.
- Israel and its friends in Congress would be briefed on plans in general, but not allowed to impede them.
The alternative to diplomacy is a military operation. Such a US-led plan to defeat or, rather, contain ISIS would involve supplying arms to the Iraqi forces (which have proved to be in no shape to employ them) or mounting drone attacks and other surgical strikes — with the same probable results as seen on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. If US planes or troops are used against ISIS, their retaliation against American targets can be expected together with Libya-like instability on the ground.
The guiding principle for America in this crisis ought to be to stay out and to remain as far back as possible, leaving the heavy lifting to those regional states — however previously repugnant — to do the needful. Their futures are at stake; they must take the lead in resisting ISIS.