The extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not acting alone in Iraq but is part of a de facto alliance of other disaffected Sunni opposition groups, including former Baathist army officers and civilians. And that is what makes the changes to the political map more lasting. The fortunes of ISIS might rise or fall, but the Sunni population of Iraq, like much of the Sunni population of Syria, has made a decisive break with the Shiite- (or in the case of Syria, Alawite) dominated central government.
Sunni opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, with backing from regional players, have been battling to topple the regime in Damascus, and to topple Maliki or at least regain a meaningful share of power in Baghdad. Having failed in both goals, ISIS has effectively shown another way forward: to forget about Damascus and Baghdad for now, forget about the Sykes-Picot borders and create a new political space out of the parts of Syria and Iraq that their capitals do not control--a large and viable political territory with major historic cities, trade routes, oil resources and borders potentially abutting Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. For now, let's call it Syriaq. In this, they might be emulating the Kurds, who long ago decided to concentrate on controlling their own areas rather than relying on politics in the capital.
Whether controlled fully by ISIS or eventually by a coalition of Sunni groups, this new political space is likely to be part of the Middle East map for the foreseeable future. It might harden into a robust proto-state as has happened in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, or might be a transitory political reality that is effective as a bargaining rod and melts away again if new and meaningful political deals are struck in Baghdad and Syria.
There is no doubt that most Iraqis and Syrians--Sunnis included, of course--want to be part of the national political institutions of Iraq and Syria, respectively. Assad in Syria has made it quite clear that government is his and certainly not for sharing. And although most Sunnis were part of the political process when the Americans left in 2011, Maliki has systematically excluded them (and Iraqi Kurds) since then and pushed them to more desperate options.
Theoretically, there might be a way to roll this back in Iraq through the formation of a broad national unity government with strong Sunni and Kurdish representation. However, the response from the Maliki government and its supporters has been basically the opposite. Maliki has doubled down on his consistent sectarian rhetoric, Iran has responded by sending military reinforcements, and even Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has been a beacon for maintaining national unity, called for Shiite conscription rather than national reconciliation. One has to conclude, that for the immediate future at least, Iraq has ceased to exist as a political reality.
While much attention has rightly been directed at the bitter harvest of America's attempt at empire building under George W. Bush, as the prize colonies of Iraq and Afghanistan are falling apart just a decade after they were set up, the attempt of Iran at empire building seems even more feckless. Three years ago, Iran was poised to inherit the entire Levant; now through the mismanagement of its own clients, its prize possessions are falling apart before its eyes.
Three years ago, their client Assad comfortably controlled Syria; since then, he's lost control of more than half of the country, and they've had to send Hezbollah and massive reinforcements to help him keep control of the capital and a few key regions. Three weeks ago, their ally Maliki seemed in control of Iraq, sitting atop massive oil wealth, commanding a large US-provided army, and fresh from a resounding electoral victory. Now, he too has lost control of much of his country, and they're scrambling to send reinforcements to help him hold the capital.
Three years ago, Iran and Hezbollah topped popularity polls throughout the Arab world; now they are both reviled. Iran will retain massive influence in the rump states based in Damascus and Baghdad, and in Lebanon, but their ambition of dominating an integrated Levant has been lost.
For the Arab states of the Gulf, the developments in Iraq impact their calculus as well. They are fearful of blowback from radical groups such as ISIS, but they cannot but be impressed by the rapid gains made by this Sunni group, and heartened by the weakness of the Maliki-dominated Iraqi army and influenced by the new geography that ISIS has outlined.
A few weeks ago, most Gulf leaders seemed quite resigned to the impression that Assad has gotten the upper hand in Syria and that Maliki would continue to dominate Iraq; today the impression is quite different. Recent events have shown that Sunni groups might be stronger than previously assumed and their Shiite or Alawite opponents more vulnerable. Unfortunately, this will only throw more fuel onto the sectarian war that is raging in the Levant, as one side now rekindles its hopes for victory, and the other side digs in its heels in desperate defense of its gains.
There is no military resolution to this region-wide crisis. Certainly U.S. military intervention helped create this mess in the first place, and would now only complicate the situation. It is up to the main regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to walk back from decades of sectarian escalation and forge a way for Shiites and Sunnis to coexist as religious communities in the Islamic world and to help Iraq and Syria forge political compromises that are built on coexistence, power sharing and decentralization rather than exclusion and repression. This is a tall order, but the bloodshed in Syria and Iraq--which also threatens to engulf other countries in the region--demands exceptional efforts.