Any serious attempt to formulate a strategy for addressing the multifaceted crisis we confront in the Middle East should begin with acknowledging some unpleasant facts of life. The first is that neither willpower nor faith alone will alter the incontrovertible realities of this daunting situation.
Washington has been the main contributor to the emergence of a singularly complex challenge that threatens our interests and the stability of the region. We only compound our culpability while reducing the chances of finding a tolerable way out of the jam if we remain addicted to fanciful thinking. The Obama administration is in thrall to a set of totally unrealistic propositions that form a make-believe world which bears no relation to reality.
So forget about transmogrifying al-Nusra/al-Qaeda into mere expressions of genuine Sunni grievances; forget about seeing it as the instrument for militarily crushing ISIL just because there is nobody else willing or able to a job America won't take on; forget about expectations of Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies giving priority to defeating the various Salafist groups rather than to the removal the Alawite regime in Damascus; forget about cutting ISIL's financial lifeline without destroying the infrastructure of their oil trade and getting Turkey to cease and desist their complicity in sustaining it; forget about "isolating" the Russians and denying them a major role in determining Syria's future by calling Putin dirty names and reciting the number of worthless partners in Obama's ersatz coalition; forget about relying on phantom Syrian rebel armies devoted to tolerance and democracy that don't exist except in the escapist visions of Washington's strategic non-thinkers; forget about establishing a no-fly buffer zone in northern Syria to satisfy Erdogan's ambition to keep open his supply line to al-Nusra and his lucrative commercial dealings with ISIL - it contradicts our purpose and, in any case, would not be tolerated by Russia; and forget about embracing as an article of faith that it is within the power of the United States to shape the Middle East to its own specifications while contesting a legitimate place for Iran, Russia, Yemenese Houthis and anyone else who doesn't hew the Saudi-Israeli-Erdogan line which Washington has endorsed.
After clearing the decks of the shards from punctured delusions, the time has come to accept that there is a lot of hard, dirty work ahead - with no guarantee of success. America is not smiled upon by some benevolent deity who protects it from the consequences of its arrogance and obtuseness. Barack Obama dearly wishes for some deus ex machina to relieve him of the pain and suffering he has earned by his own failings. His entourage of sycophants and companions in self-delusion encourage the President to believe that it will arrive. It won't. At the diplomatic plane, he will have to muster what little courage he possesses to confront the reckless royals of the new Salman dynasty in Riyadh and the aspiring Caliph in Ankara and the ever more repressive as well as arrogant Prime Minister of Israel. All three are working at cross purposes to any reasonable and intelligent strategy when not in direct contradiction to it. In addition, he will have to find it within himself to treat with a Vladimir Putin who is at least as smart as he is and has a far more dexterous political mind.
Finally, there are certain givens that the parameters for devising and implementing a serious strategy. First, Iraq cannot be knit back together as a unitary state. At best, Kurdistan has to be accorded autonomy within a confederal structure. Where the boundaries of such a political entity are drawn, a matter that includes the question of incorporating any portion of Kurdish Syria, will be open to negotiation. The overwhelming Sunni regions of Iraq also will have to be accorded some measure of political autonomy along with an equitable revenue-sharing arrangement between it and the central government in Baghdad. Those two givens may be in conflict since the Kurdish government in Erbil and the Sunni Arabs (with Turkey's sympathies) both have their eyes cast on Mosul. That points to a related given: Erdogan's dispatch of Turkish forces into the Mosul region without permission of the al-Abadi government in Baghdad foretells his ambition of establishing a presence and playing the role of arbiter for his own purposes.
Second, a quasi-partition of Syria would be far harder for demographic reasons and because the divisions are less clear-cut insofar as many Sunnis and all the minorities prefer a non-sectarian regime to living (if permitted) as marginal in sectarian defined provinces. It follows that no presumption should be made that partition is the only viable option for the long-term.
Third, ISIL must be militarily defeated and its pseudo-state apparatus uprooted. No measure of stability can be achieved so long as that fanatical movement is capable of taking concerted action against other religious or political formations. Its very being is predicated on exclusiveness. Its core ambition is to subordinate, suppress and dominate all rivals. Therefore, mustering the force requisite for neutralizing ISIl is an absolute precondition for a restoration of an approximation to normalcy. By implication, the United States cannot in principle exclude from a de facto alliance any party that can make a substantial contribution that such a military effort - unless it is prepared to deploy a 100,000 or so American troops and maintain them in Syria indefinitely. That means fashioning some working relationship with Russia, the Syrian National Army, the various Kurdish forces and -in Iraq - with the Hashed Shi'ite militias. Logically, there is no alternative.
1. Military success on the ground must occur prior to a political agreement. Unless and until ISIL and al-Nusra & Assoc. (e.g. Ahrar al-Sham) are defeated (or at least isolated) it will be impossible to reach agreement on the framework for a post-conflict political settlement. The Vienna peace talks involve only external parties. They have differing interpretations of the situation, different goals and different relationships with the main protagonists. Above all, they do not speak for those latter parties. Their influence is potential; but that potential depends on a drastic narrowing of their divergent perspectives which, in turn, will only occur when the constellation of fighting forces tips decisively in one direction or another.
In any event, those talks are likely to come to an abrupt halt. Saudi Arabia is pressing hard to have Ansar al-Sham designated a "moderate" opposition force eligible to participate in deliberations on Syria's political future. Washington seems inclined to go along - since it already gives al-Nusra/al-Qaeda a free pass as a non-terrorist group. Were that to occur, there is probable that Russia would refuse to proceed on those terms. Among Ahrar al-Sham's features is its welcome into its ranks of fighters from Chechen, Dagestan, and Uzbekistan - that is to say, the very people the Kremlin worries most about.
2. The military campaign should focus first on al-Nusra & Assoc. This is so for a number of reasons. Their forces are more concentrated in a restricted geographical area. That is one. Their arsenal of weapons does not include the armor that ISIL "acquired" from the Iraqi National Army. That is two. Most important, there is an effective opposition force in a position to crush them: the Russian coordination R+6 which includes the Syrian National Army, Hezbullah, Iranian elements and formidable Russian airpower (perhaps supplemented by their commando units - the Spetsnaz). That is three.
Finally, decisive defeat of al-Nusra & Assoc, means taking Turkey out of the military dimension of the game. Al-Nusra & Assoc. is Erdogan's primary instrument for fulfilling his ambitions of unseating Assad and establishing a Turkish zone of control in northern Syria. Once that proxy is eliminated, he is left with only the more tenuous ISIL link. That latter entity is less susceptible to Turkish direction. The economic ties as manifest in their joint oil ventures are mainly to ISIL's political advantage - not Turkey's. Therefore, it is hardly likely that Erdogan will fall back on ISIL as his last best hope to keep alive his ambitious plans - certainly not in the face of the external pressures that could be brought to bear on him and a concentrated assault on oil infrastructure and transport.
3. Drying up the tributary inflow of fighters via Turkey would be most critical in denying ISIl the experienced Chechens, Uighurs and Uzbeks whom Turkey has been escorting into Syria. Thy count far more than the kids from Bradford, St. Denis and Sydney.
4. Successful implementation of these first two steps will isolate ISIL geographically, militarily and diplomatically. That would discourage the KSA, Qatar, et al from continuing their heavy financial and political investment in them. Isolation would be achieved through a combination of cutting external lines of support and directing R +6 against ISIL positions in central Syria. Pressure could be increased by simultaneously moves by the Kurds (however geographically limited), the Hashed, whatever competent forces the Baghdad government can muster in Anbar - all in combination with a serious American air campaign of the kind we have not as yet seen. ISIL forces will be stressed and stretched with mobility reduced by the need to cover multiple fronts and by the air interdiction of troop movements.
A series of setbacks will do much to break ISIL's momentum - undercutting its image as an irresistible force and spearhead of a Salafist conquest. That psychological aspect of the movement's success is significant in terms of morale and in terms of recruits and in terms of its Gulf financiers' readiness to double down on their risky bets. The other proposed steps to dry up the inflow of foreign fighters and recruits would both put ISIL on short rations, increasing the odds on its suffering battlefield losses, and reinforce the impact of those defeats once they register.
An additional psychological weapon could be destruction of Raqqa's power plants. Turning out the lights could literally as well as figuratively dim ISIL's lights. A blacked-out capital does not conform to the impression of a winner riding an irresistible wave. It is not easy to posture as the Mahdi while groping about in the dark - and even during daytime under black clouds of smoke from smoldering oil fires. There may be some price to pay in causing hardship for the city's captive Sunni population. It is by no means evident, though, that the net effect would be to turn them into avid adherents to ISIL given all their other grievances. Elsewhere in the country, those empathetic pains would be overshadowed by the afflictions of the millions who have suffered personally far greater suffering.
The Political Dimension
1. As to Iraq, there is little that the United States can do to reconstitute an unitary Iraqi state. It is up to the Iraqis to find their way to that measure of reconciliation among sectarian/ethnic groups that will permit stable and effective governmental structures of a confederal kind to put down roots. The main contribution that could be made by the two outside powers, Iran and the United States, is to avoid working at cross purposes. That depends on the readiness of Tehran and Washington to talk candidly about a modus vivendi that will serve both parties' interest. Success in doing so depends on two things: First is the establishment of a modicum of trust. Its sine qua non is bringing a halt to defamatory rhetoric. It serves the interests of neither side - except to score a few points with angry domestic constituencies. The second is to dampen the wider sectarian war that is inflaming local conflicts across the Middle East.
The Obama administration, through a number of witless incremental actions, in effect has chosen the Sunni side. That is reckless and counter-productive. It needs to reverse course. That means: withdrawing backing for the Saudi campaign in Yemen. Impress on the current impetuous leadership of the royal family that the United States is not writing any blank checks in support of its ambition to become kingpin of the Gulf if not the entire Arab world. That entails driving home the fundamental truth that Saudi Arabia needs the U.S. much more than the United States needs Saudi Arabia. It means further Washington's committing itself to a low-key diplomatic effort aimed at facilitating co-existence between the Sunni states of the Gulf and Iran.
2. As to Syria, the best one can aim for is a gradual process of normalization - once al-Nusra & Assoc. has been eliminated as an organized force and ISIL has been reduced in terms of both capability and area of control. Low-grade guerrilla activity will continue, of course, for some indefinite period and some provision must be made for forces that can handle it.
Once the military situation is stabilized to the point where fighting is limited to the Northeast, the opportunity opens for moving toward a permanent political settlement. As this phase, external parties have a significant role to play. It would involve a collective effort to refrain from fomenting factions and instead encouraging them to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. The particulars should be left mainly to the Syrians. The United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others can best serve the cause of peace and stability by acting as facilitators, honest brokers and underwriters.
A prior condition for a settlement, or even the opening of serious talks, is Assad's removal from office. That should be kept separate from an abdication of the entire present regime - a step that is a recipe for chaos. Putin has stressed that Assad and his regime are not identical while voicing a preference for keeping him in office for the time-being. However, that probably is unworkable. Selling the idea of cutting Assad loose to the Iranians will require Russia taking the lead in bringing Tehran around. That would be roughly analogous to the role it played is resolving some of the last stumbling blocks to the nuclear accord.
The strategic plan outlined here, or any similar plan along these lines, faces long odds. That is obvious. Looked at from the American perspective, the concern that immediately jumps to mind are the formidable requirements it places on imaginative thinking, comprehensive planning, diplomatic skill and political fortitude. Frankly, none of these ingredients is evident in adequate amounts in the Obama administration.
The shortfall is apparent at all levels. The President himself never has demonstrated the leadership qualities called for - especially when faced with the intense opposition that embarking on such an approach would engender. To state it bluntly, he lacks the fortitude, the conviction and the talent to move the country onto such an ambitious course which deviates from the path he himself his marked out as the only sensible one - however lost we have become as a result. Moreover, Barack Obama shows increasing signs of being disengaged. His mind and feelings seem to be drifting into post-Presidency mode. He's coasting. That disposition is encouraged by his White House confidantes and reinforced by his lackluster foreign policy team (to be generous) which - by any reasonable standard - is not up to so daunting an undertaking as suggested here. Were a strategy such as presented here to largely achieve its goal, would that mean an end to violent jihadist Islam and terrorism? No - of course not. Everything won't be coming up roses. There is a very big difference, though, between what we confront now and an ISIL that's been cut down to size. Today we have a threat from a proto-state propagating a fanatical, violent creed that has won adherents around the world. That is different by several orders of magnitude from a shadowy rump network that operates without the tangible, if veiled backing, of supporters with deep pockets.
Ultimately, the greater challenge is the still growing influence of Wahhabism in the Islamic world. Its wellspring, promoter and paymaster is Saudi Arabia - along with like-minded persons elsewhere in the Gulf. This is the problem that must be addressed frontally if the tide of Islamic terrorism is to ebb. At present, the United States is doing absolutely nothing to pressure those whose hands are on the helm.