The Iraqi catastrophe is the latest expression of the systemic crisis of the Middle East. Neither popular protest nor political Islam could solve that crisis. Now the jihadis are trying to fill the void in the artificial, weak, fragmented, sectarianized “states” created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement a century ago (and, in Iraq’s case, also by an invasion and occupation that Thomas E. Ricks famously described as a “fiasco”). The current crisis is simultaneously another front in a regional Sunni-Shia war that the West seems determined not to acknowledge.
There are two short-range causes: when Sunni jihadis became the strongest opposition to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, they acquired a base in northern Syria for their operations in Iraq. At the same time, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, free of US restraint, was running a sectarian Shia government in Iraq, reversing the gains of the Sunni Awakening, which alienated Sunni tribal leaders. This made possible a wider Sunni collaboration with ISIS in northern Iraq. That’s the force now marching south.
This development has produced excruciating dilemmas for US policymakers: Partner with Iran to stop ISIS? Use US military force to stop ISIS? What does a political solution look like, and how can it be brought about? Bet on Maliki and seek to persuade him to bring about a national unity government in Baghdad? Look beyond Maliki? But to whom?
The consequences of failure in Iraq will be huge.
First, the de facto division of Iraq. This will have mixed consequences. The Kurds might be the winners here, virtually or actually gaining their own state. The West should invest heavily in the Kurds: they have built one of the few functioning entities in the Middle East, with a relatively successful economy, a fighting force—the Peshmerga—that actually fights and beats jihadis, decent governance, and an inching toward democracy. The West should stop thinking about only supporting states and central governments: get behind the Kurdistan regional government now.
However, a crack-up would also mean a jihadi Sunni entity in the north, stretching into Syria, and a Shia resistance entity in the south, linked to Tehran and Damascus. (Iran is trying to repeat the Syrian model: create a reliable new fighting force, send proxies, advance regional hegemony.) None of this is good for the West or Israel.
Second, Jordan could be the next target for an emboldened ISIS. The militia has said it wants to kill King Abdullah. The biggest contingent of foreign fighters in Syria is Jordanian, maybe 2,000 to 3,000 of them. They will return home and try to stir unrest there.
Third, the freak-out of the Saudis will only get worse, with unpredictable consequences. They are obsessed by what they perceive as “US weakness.” Seeing the US and Europe partnering with Iran to defeat ISIS makes the Saudis feel isolated. And baffled: Shia-sectarian Iran does not offer a solution in Iraq but only a deepening of the problem and irreversible sectarian civil war.
Fourth, Iran is better placed to strike a bargain with the P5+1 that achieves its goal of becoming a nuclear threshold state, capabilities fully intact, awaiting the right geopolitical moment to break out. That would mean a regional superpower with nuclear capability and the desire to attack Israel holding leverage over the West just as a regional Shia-Sunni war heats up.
What space is there for intervention? The current debate is polarized and unhelpful. “Stay out!” versus a vaguely defined “Intervene!” Most thinking is short-term. There are a range of options in the grey area. Most involve the long term.
First, concerted support for non-Islamist opposition groups. Failure to do so early on in Syria led to the hegemony of the radical Islamists and jihadists in the Syrian opposition, which in turn has created two crises: an ISIS push in Iraq and a Western fear—well-grounded—of returning jihadis causing mayhem in their home countries.
Second, back our friends. That means the Kurds, but also Jordan. Diplomatic support to achieve secure borders, economic support to help with the refugee crisis (there are more than 600,000 Syrian refugees in a county of 6.2 million people), and secure cheap energy (the jihadis blew up the pipeline from Egypt) and overcome the problems caused by the closure of the Syrian trade route.
Third, over the long haul, stand for the rising generation of Tahrir Square and the regional democrats with the same determination the jihadis bring to the fight. (A job best left to civil society experts such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the Global Trade Union Federations, and others, but the bully-pulpit still counts: President Obama’s muted response when the Iranian students rose in 2009 demoralized our friends and emboldened our enemies.)
It’s a bleak picture. Watching the news this week I was tempted by the gloom of the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who said, “For the world is Hell, and men are on the one hand the tormented souls and on the other the devils in it.” He wrote that in 1850. There are days when the Middle East of the early 21st century seems determined to prove him right.