The essential fact of the sectarian conflicts (internal and external) that have characterized the MidEast for decades has been the artificial boundaries left behind by empire and the colonial powers. The basic question facing any political approach to restoring peace would be whether to seek to preserve those boundaries or draw new ones that would somehow recognize the ethnic and religious realities on the ground.
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By Gerard M. Gallucci
It seems increasingly clear that there is no purely military solution to the chaotic conflict engulfing Syria and Iraq. Given the extreme sectarian nature of the over-lapping confrontations, and the various outside forces involved on the several sides, an air war alone is unlikely to achieve anything beyond metastasizing the violence and may not be able to prevent further gains by the Islamic State (IS). It is hard to see how even a ground war – i.e., the introduction of US, NATO or other combat forces – could gain a stable outcome. America’s generals have freely admitted that the war may be a long one. The situation seems to cry out for a political approach.
President Obama had been long reluctant to get involved in another foreign intervention. But perhaps led by the political pressures upon him to be seen doing something – and apparently ill-advised by his current national security team – Obama first undertook a half-hearted effort to aid Syrian “moderate” rebels. Then after the IS beheadings, he decided to launch the current air war against the IS in both Syria and Iraq. The aim of the air war is to prevent further IS gains and “degrade” its capabilities. In Iraq, the US now has a Shia government perhaps more able to keep further Sunni from going over to the IS. In Syria, it is “vetting” rebels to find some it can entrust with its weapons. Some have criticized the US focus on IS rather than on overthrowing Assad in Syria. Turkey has been especially critical. Ankara seems understandably reluctant to take on fellow Sunnis who are fighting Assad, himself supported by Shia powers Iran and Hezbollah. (Turkey also may not object to IS delivering setbacks to Kurds.) In Iraq, it is not the Iraqi army confronting IS but Shia militia. US special forces are on the ground in Iraq and probably Syria as well. In all, the US has stepped into a conflict in which everyone seems to be fighting everyone else and the Arab powers and other outsiders all have their favorites.
If there is no military solution to the conflicts then what is to be done? The answer seems, in principle, obvious: engaging the many parties in some political process, some form of negotiation. But about what, including who and how to go about it?
The essential fact of the sectarian conflicts (internal and external) that have characterized the MidEast for decades has been the artificial boundaries left behind by empire and the colonial powers. The basic question facing any political approach to restoring peace would be whether to seek to preserve those boundaries or draw new ones that would somehow recognize the ethnic and religious realities on the ground. The US and West Europeans customarily reject, as a matter of general policy, reopening the question of borders with Washington especially looking to preserve multi-ethnic states through democracy and minority participation. But exceptions have been made. Yugoslavia was allowed to fragment along ethnic lines. Despite US and EU efforts to construct a multi-ethnic Kosovo out of part of Serbia, the effort has run aground on the lack of enthusiasm of Serbs in the north for living under “Albanian rule.” Keeping Syria and Iraq within the current boundaries would, at the least, require a massive and prolonged outside invention focused not only on keeping the peace but on nation building.
Related to the question of “what” is of course the question of “who” would be included in any negotiations. All the parties – including the outsiders – would have their own views, especially on the issue of who to leave out. But it would seem that the only way to achieve an outcome that would stand a chance of being sustainable would be to somehow include everyone. The list would certainly have to include the Iraqi government. But that would be the only “easy” one. What about the various Sunni, Shia and Kurd communities and factions? And Assad? How about the Iranians, the Gulf States, Turkey and Washington, Brussels and Moscow? They would have to be part of any process that would have a chance of success.
In some cases, perhaps the outsiders might represent the interests of the conflicting parties. Iran might speak for the Shia, Saudi Arabia for the Sunni. Turkey – which must have some way of talking to the IS since it won the release of the 49 hostages – might be able to bring it into the mix. Perhaps Russia might speak to the future of Assad? While everyone would find the participation of some “distasteful,” it’s hard to see how anyone could be excluded if they have not been able to be eliminated militarily.
This bring us to the “how” question. It may be necessary to work toward convening an international conference of those foreign powers with interests and potential roles, perhaps under a mandate from the UN Security Council. The US might work toward such a process by reaching out to the major outside powers including Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Such a conference might first work out a common approach to the conflicting parties to engage them – with appropriately provided encouragements and constraints – in considering what sort of settlement they would accept.
Does all this seem unlikely? For sure. It is not clear that IS, for example, would settle for anything other than everything. So perhaps there remains a role for military actions to degrade it to the point that other Sunni abandon it or its leaders accept a political outcome. But this might also have to be in the context of accepting that some form of Sunni state be made from parts of Syria and Iraq. But then what about the Kurds and Turkey? This is all very complicated. And it doesn’t by itself touch on the other big questions in the region, Israel/Palestine and Iranian nuclear. It is hard to see how these might all be kept separate.
Since Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld broke Iraq, the Pandora’s box has been open. War alone – from the air or on the ground – won’t close it. Only a political approach can find a way to survive the forces that have been released. What else is there?
Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He was Diplomat-in-Residence at Drake University for the 2013-14 school year and now works as an independent consultant.