The international community finally is in agreement on the need to destroy ISIS. They are in accord also on the need to employ greater military force against the self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq; even Germany has committed some 1,200 military personnel along with reconnaissance aircraft, tanker planes and a frigate to support the fight. The United States has apparently decided to put a higher priority on destroying ISIS’s logistics and money-making networks than on protecting the environment. Russia is adding forces to its base in Syria, although whether for the purpose of fighting ISIS or countering NATO has yet to be determined.
However, neither the U.S., France, the rest of Europe, Russia nor local actors, have any desire to firmly grasp the nettle and do what will be necessary to actually drive ISIS from the territory it holds in Syria and Iraq, which is to deploy relatively large numbers of ground forces. U.S. presidential candidates of both parties vie with one another to appear resolute, even warlike, and more aggressive than President Obama while promising to deploy only a handful of U.S. and allied forces. They are arguing about the difference between five- and ten-thousand military personnel on the ground (the current number already is northward of 3,500). The other nations are, no practice, no better.
Ultimately, the world will find it necessary to shed such blood and expend such treasure as is required to destroy ISIS. But this will not be the end of the problem.
What almost no one is seriously discussing is what to do after ISIS is defeated. How is a victorious coalition going to re-establish order in the region? How will it do so without reigniting a classic Great Powers free-for-all? While this clearly requires, in part, the destruction of ISIS and the liberation of the captive peoples of Syria and Iraq, there is a lot more involved. At least four nations in North Africa and the Middle East have ceased to function. It is hard to see how Syria and Iraq can be reconstituted. Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and even the United States all have their favorite clients.
One of the few observers to address this issue, not surprisingly, was Henry Kissinger. In a stellar editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Kissinger argued for an end to the focus on tactical expedients and the development of a strategic concept for the region. Dr. Kissinger basically proposed a return to the status quo ante, meaning Syrian and Iraqi states within their recognized borders with national political structures based on some form of federalism and special attention to the interests of the outside parties, notably Russia and Iran. The United States would have some role as the guarantor of Sunni security. Essentially this would be the Concert of Europe as applied to the Middle East.
Although I certainly agree with the former Secretary of State’s insistence that there needs to be a strategic response to the collapse of order in the Middle East, I disagree with his proposed solution. Three forces militate against this approach. First, several of the players that must be roped to this Concert, specifically Russia and Iran, are non-status quo powers. Russia is clearly a revanchist state and Iran shows no sign, to use Dr. Kissinger’s own words, of “returning to its role as a Westphalian state within its established borders.” Second, the U.S. shows no evidence of being willing to play the necessary leadership role to bring about this grand bargain and hold the pieces together. Third, the animus among the rival religious and ethnic groups is not going to be containable within any conceivable federalist structure. Look how little time it took for Iraq to fall apart.
So if a “contained” ISIS is not acceptable and, therefore, it must be defeated and stability re-established in the region, it may be time to consider a new Sykes-Picot agreement. This was the arrangement in 1916 between England and France, with Russian support, which drew the lines for the modern Middle East out of the territories that once belonged to the Ottoman Empire. While many now criticize Sykes-Picot as the source of much of the current chaos in the region, it is worth noting that the boundaries drawn held for almost a century, preventing Great Power conflicts and limiting even those within the region.
A second Sykes-Picot agreement would seek to redraw the national boundaries in the region in line with the realities on the ground and the interests of the major parties. Syria and Iraq would be broken up. An Alawite mini-state, Russia’s client would be preserved, a rump Iraq running essentially from Baghdad to Basra would be an Iranian “satrapy,” the Kurds would have to get a homeland while giving up any claim to territories in Turkey and the Sunni space in Western Syria and Eastern Iraq would become a new nation. If this seems like an impossible plan, just think about how difficult it will be to create stable, federalist states in Syria and Iraq.
The logic of Sykes-Picot II extends to strong support by the United States and, hopefully, other Western nations, for the major Sunni states of the region, specifically, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Algeria. The U.S., Europe and Egypt need to settle on a way of ending the civil war in Libya. This approach also means support for France’s role as the guarantor of stability in the Francophone part of North Africa.
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