Sunday, November 29, 2015

What ISIS Really Wants. By William McCants.

What does ISIS really want? William McCants interviewed by Eric Bolling. Video. The O’Reilly Factor. Fox News, November 19, 2015. YouTube.

How the Islamic State group justifies violence with an apocalyptic vision. William McCants interviewed by Margaret Warner. Video. PBS NewsHour, November 2, 2015. YouTube.

How the Islamic State Declared War on the World. By Will McCants. Foreign Policy, November 16, 2015.

The Week Terrorism Took Over the 2016 Presidential Campaign. By Dick Morris.

Brunch Alert: The Week Terrorism Took Over the Campaign. By Dick Morris. Video., November 29, 2015. YouTube.

Bill Maher: Liberal Idea That Muslims Share American Values Is “Bulls**t.”

Fox News Insider:

Last night on Real Time, Bill Maher went off on liberals who “don’t want to recognize” that many Muslims, including Syrian refugees, have “values that are at odds” with those of Americans.

The HBO host said that many Muslim countries either have or want Islamic sharia law, which he said is not in line with “our values.”

“This idea that somehow we do share values, that all religions are alike, is bulls**t, and we need to call it bulls**t.”

Video also here, here, here, here, here, here.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Islam: “The Strongest Retrograde Force in the World.” By Roger Kimball.

Islam: “The Strongest Retrograde Force in the World.” By Roger Kimball. PJ Media, November 24, 2015.


Does the Zeitgeist have a mournful sense of irony? Barack Obama could be forgiven for thinking so. In January 2014, he made the now-infamous remark that he regarded ISIS as merely a “jay-vee” threat. The months that followed saw that group slaughter hundreds, maybe thousands, in the most public and grotesque manner. Allied groups in Africa raided schools and villages, shooting, hacking, and raping their way through the populace. On the morning of November 13 (the anniversary, incidentally, of the end of the Ottoman Caliphate), President Obama told George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America that his administration had “contained” ISIS. That very evening, less than a year after the massacre by ISIS affiliates at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a series of carefully coordinated, cold-blooded attacks by ISIS erupted across Paris, leaving some 130 dead and more than 250 wounded. One of the attacks, at the Stade de France, came within yards of François Hollande, the French president, who was there for a football match. Some containment.

The world is still reeling from the bloody attacks in Paris. President Hollande has declared a state of emergency, closed the country’s borders, and imposed the first general curfew on Paris since 1944. French jets have undertaken a few bombing missions against the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, actions that critics dismiss as pinpricks. The war against terrorism, Hollande said, will be “pitiless.” Perhaps. We’ll see what sort of campaign the French people will countenance. A widely reproduced picture of the man who had dragged his piano, decorated with a peace symbol, to the Bataclan theater, the primary site of the massacre, and then sang John Lennon’s single most emetic composition, “Imagine,” is not reassuring. As the commentator Mark Steyn acidly put it, “What kind of parochial solipsist would think that an appropriate response a day after mass murder?”

In the course of his remarks deploring the attacks and registering his solidarity with the French, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uttered the phrase “militant Islamic terrorism” at least three times. Barack Obama, in his first remarks about the slaughter, did not mention Islam at all. The attack was, he said, not just an attack on Paris or the people of France but “an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

The trouble is, it is patent that the “values” to which Barack Obama gestures are anything but “universal.” On the contrary, they are Western, liberal values that are conspicuously not shared by much of the world. They are most flagrantly not shared by Islamic culture. Religious freedom, including the freedom of apostasy, freedom of speech, equality before the law and between the sexes: these are a few bedrock Western values that are neither preached nor practiced by the dominant currents of Islamic thought.

As Andrew C. McCarthy observed recently in “Islam and Free Speech,” whenever Muslim populations surge in Western countries, “so does support for jihadism and the sharia supremacist ideology that catalyzes it. The reason,” McCarthy continues, “is plain to see, even if Western elites remain willfully blind to it: for a not insignificant percentage of the growing Muslim millions in Europe, infiltration—by both mass immigration and the establishment of swelling Islamic enclaves—is a purposeful strategy of conquest, sometimes referred to as ‘voluntary apartheid.’” This, too, is inextricably at odds with those putatively “universal values” that Barack Obama invoked.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Netanyahu described the attacks as part of “a war to reverse the triumph of the West.” He was right. But this is something that no amount of slaughter seems to bring home to a certain species of blinkered leftist. Around the time that Netanyahu offered his lapidary observation, a prominent Hezbollah leader explained that “we are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.” Subsequent events have demonstrated with unexceptionable clarity what he meant.

The Somali-born writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali outlined the correct response to the Paris attacks. The West, she wrote, must do “whatever it takes militarily to destroy ISIS and its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Not ‘contain,’ not ‘degrade’—destroy, period.” Hirsi Ali is also right that ISIS is only the tip of the spear. The larger problem is “Islamic extremism,” a phrase that has been excised from the vocabulary of U.S. diplomacy but which names a reality that must be acknowledged if Western values are to prevail.

George Orwell famously observed that an indispensable adjunct to freedom is a willingness to call things by their real names. Islamic extremism is not, as a British home secretary once fatuously declared, “anti-Islamic activity,” nor is the slaughter of a baker’s dozen U.S. soldiers in Texas by a radicalized Muslim officer an instance of “workplace violence.” Euphemism is the enemy of true security.

What is the relation between Islamic extremism and “mainstream” Islamic thought? That is not, I would suggest with sadness, an easy question to answer. Winston Churchill, writing about Islam back in 1899 in The River War, observed that “no stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund”:
Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science—the science against which it had vainly struggled—the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.
These days, it is worth noting, Islamic entities are scrambling to achieve mastery of “the strong arms of science,” as Iran’s rapidly accelerating nuclear program should remind us. “Death to America!” is a chant one often hears echoing from the mullah-besotted crowds in Iran. Ayaan Hirsi Ali outlined one possible course of action. Barack Obama, who seems to believe that the greatest threat to national security is Republicans, not ISIS, pointed to another when, a couple of days after the massacre in Paris, he noted impatiently that “what I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning or whatever other slogans they come up with. . . . I’m too busy for that.” It’s not pretty, but at least we know where we stand.

From Syria to China, U.S. Leaders Don’t Know What America Is For. By Robert W. Merry.

From Syria to China, U.S. Leaders Don’t Know What America Is For. By Robert W. Merry. The National Interest, November 26, 2015.


Every president’s primary imperative is protecting America and its citizens, not humanity, from outside threats.

The United States suffers from a severe case of strategic confusion, manifest in the country seeing enemies where none exist and showing an inability to concentrate action where they do exist. Given the immensity of American power relative to the rest of the world, this malady has a tendency to wreak havoc and generate tension in areas of American involvement. And the confusion seems so thoroughly embedded in the country’s collective psyche that prospects for any reversal remain dim. That bodes ill for America and for the world.

Consider our actions, and their consequences, of the last fifteen years. Following the seminal events of September 11, 2001, when the country was attacked by that tightly wound Islamist knot of anti-Western fervor known as Al Qaeda, the United States toppled the Afghan regime that had succored Al Qaeda and dislodged the Islamist force from the habitat from which it sought to menace the West. This was necessary and entirely appropriate.

But then we invaded Iraq, ruled by a secular tyrant who had nothing to do with the kind of Islamist radicalism that was the true enemy. This generated multiple consequences of immense difficulty. It unleashed sectarian fears and passions in the country that for years destroyed prospects for stability—and led to the deaths of nearly 4,500 Americans and an estimated 174,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians. It enflamed the region in ways that spawned a new Al Qaeda force in Iraq where previously none had existed, or could exist. It upended a centuries-long balance of power between Sunni-dominated Iraq and Shiite Iran, thus creating new challenges of stability and new difficulties in the U.S.-Iran relationship. Perhaps worst of all, the Iraq invasion and its chaotic aftermath have sapped America’s appetite for confronting the true enemy in the Middle East.

The true enemy is Islamist fundamentalism, just as it was when President George W. Bush took America on the Iraq detour. The Al Qaeda aim then was to draw America into a desert quagmire and diminish its confidence, unity and strength. It couldn’t succeed in doing that without American strategic confusion.

What the U.S. invasion didn’t do was turn Iraq into a Middle Eastern model of democratic practice, as many invasion advocates, in their confusion, had predicted. Some people thought the so-called Arab Spring, a wave of seemingly pro-democracy protests across the Middle East beginning in December 2010, would usher in such a new era. President Obama promptly expressed support for the protesters, including some motivated more by Islamist fundamentalism than by true democratic impulses. He undermined the standing of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a staunch U.S. ally for decades, and assisted the emergence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (which ruled the country for a time before the old military oligarchy regained governmental dominance).

This represented strategic confusion of a very high order. It had been Islamist fundamentalism that had attacked America on 9/11, that had attacked Britain and Spain in succeeding months, that had vowed a relentless terrorist campaign against the West. Mubarak was opposed to all that; the Muslim Brotherhood had flirted with that kind of radicalism for decades. Why would an American president undermine a foreign leader who was a steadfast U.S. ally and an opponent of the Islamist fundamentalism that represented one of America’s most menacing enemies? There’s only one answer: strategic confusion.

Then, when Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi found himself beleaguered by internal protests, Obama turned on Qaddafi, who had promised to end anti-Western terrorist activities and abandon efforts to produce weapons of mass destruction. In exchange, he was to be left alone. But Obama reneged, leading a bombing campaign against Qaddafi, who represented no threat to America whatsoever. The president cited “our responsibilities to our fellow human beings” and said that if America had stayed out of the fray it would have been “a betrayal of who we are.”

We know the result: a Libyan civil war producing utter chaos in the country, masses of Qaddafi’s weapons making their way into the hands of the rabidly radical Islamic State, the killing of a U.S. ambassador and other American officials. All in the name of “our responsibility to our fellow human beings.” That phrase in itself represents a highly distilled form of strategic confusion. Where does this responsibility lead us? How many bombing campaigns and wars would have to be waged if the protection and happiness of our fellow human beings, all around the world, were to be our global remit? What does this have to do with every president’s primary imperative of protecting America and its citizens, not humanity, from outside threats?

Then there’s Syria. When its brutal president, Bashar al-Assad, found himself beset by internal dissention, the U.S. government promptly adopted a position that he had to go. Then came the emergence of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), potent enough to capture territory in Iraq and Syria and use that territory as spawning ground for further regional expansion and growing global menace. Its aim was to topple Assad and dominate, in the name of a restored caliphate, the lands that have been Syria since the end of World War I. Our aim was to thwart the further territorial gains of ISIS and destroy its ability to project terrorist activity into the West. Assad’s aim was to defend his country from the growing ISIS threat (along with other forces bent on destroying his regime). Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the Kurds of Syria and Iraq all wanted to defeat ISIS.

A sensibility of strategic coherence in Washington would have produced a clear understanding: Since ISIS represents a major threat to regional stability as well as to the security of Western nations, whereas Assad represents no threat at all, the obvious approach would be to align with those forces bent on defeating ISIS and not worrying about the fate of Assad. But such strategic coherence eluded Washington policymakers, who couldn’t abandon their conviction that Assad must go. The result was a kind of policy paralysis, with Russia moving in and capturing the initiative with a much tighter view of the situation.

Arecent AP story suggests that the “tide of global rage” against ISIS after the carnage of its Paris attack produced a sense of “greater urgency to ending the jihadis’ ability to operate at will from a base in war-torn Syria.” The news service said that this emerging attitude “could also force a reevaluation of what to do about… Assad and puts a renewed focus on the position of his key patrons, Russia and Iran.”

But the piece quotes U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as repeating his constant refrain that Assad’s departure “has to be part of a transition if you’re going to end the war”—hence more strategic confusion. A casual review of the relative power on the ground tells us that we can’t defeat ISIS while also waging war with ISIS’s primary opponent in Syria, the Assad regime, particularly as Assad is supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Consider the strategic confusion of the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, when he wrote in a Washington Post piece that we need to create an anti-ISIS coalition made up of Kurds, Turks, Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians. As conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan pointed out, his coalition (leaving aside the Kurds) includes countries and forces that haven’t demonstrated any serious anti-ISIS commitment, and excludes all the countries and forces that have demonstrated through dangerous action their opposition to ISIS.

This is not serious strategic thinking. It lacks even a rudimentary sense of the realities of the situation and hence lacks a potential for generating a decisive American initiative against ISIS. One big stumbling block for Romney and likeminded people is Russia, the subject of much strategic confusion in America.

Given its resources and position upon the Eurasian landmass, Russia always has and always will represent a potential threat to the West. That needs to be borne in mind in policymaking at all times. But Russia’s geopolitical center, lying unprotected behind vast expanses of steppe grasslands, also renders it highly vulnerable to invasion from the West, whence major incursions have emanated in just about every century of its existence. Given that, Russia inevitably will resist efforts to rip away its traditional areas of influence, including Crimea and Ukraine. It will resist NATO efforts to push up to the Russian border with rockets and troops. It will take umbrage when American NGOs and foreign policy officials whip up dissension in western Ukraine as a way of ripping that territory away from Russian dominance, which Russia has maintained almost uninterrupted for centuries.

Weighted down by strategic confusion, many American politicians and foreign policy officials seem to think that Russia can be kept at bay only by bellicose rhetoric and provocative policies, designed to push into Russia’s traditional spheres of influence and neutralize its influence. This won’t work. It will simply incite, as indeed it has incited, Russia’s natural sense of vulnerability, and stir provocative and bellicose responses.

A more strategically sound approach would be that which Otto von Bismarck adopted after he consolidated the German nation under Prussian auspices in 1871. Knowing this powerful new entity in the center of Europe would generate fears among its neighbors, he studiously refrained from actions that could exacerbate those fears. His aim was to project the image of a restrained and friendly power satisfied with its favorable position upon the continent. After Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck and embarked upon a policy of provocative military expansion, the European equilibrium collapsed, and a course was set toward World War I.

The American approach following its grand Cold War victory has been just the opposite of Bismarck’s measured approach. It declared itself the “indispensable nation.” It promoted its governmental and societal structures as being most appropriate for peoples of all civilizations and cultures. It upended other governments with abandon, contributing to the killing and uprooting of masses of hapless people that followed the chaos that followed American intrusions. In Europe, it fostered an eastward push that could only generate anxiety in Russia and produce an unnecessary belligerence between the Orthodox and Western civilizations.

And it has left America unnecessarily vulnerable in the face of a possible—one could say probable—confrontation with China in coming years. If ISIS represents the most serious immediate threat to America and the West, China represents the most serious prospective threat. That’s because China very naturally wishes to supplant America as Asia’s most powerful nation, dominating sea lanes and forcing lesser nations to bend to its will. America will have to decide how far it is willing to go to accommodate these Chinese regional ambitions. If it decides to remain unyielding, hostilities will be difficult to avoid.

And then the Russian bear, so menacing in the faulty view of so many American politicians and commentators these days, will loom as the single most important ally America could have. But no such alliance will be likely with a Russian leader who is dismissed by prominent U.S. politicians as a “gangster” and “organized crime figure,” as GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio characterized Russian president Vladimir Putin recently.

U.S. leaders with an instinct for strategic coherence would keep their eyes on real threats and real enemies and not manufacture enemies where they don’t exist or don’t need to exist. They wouldn’t insult foreign leaders unnecessarily because they would know such leaders may have to be brought into a desperate coalition in the future, as Franklin Roosevelt parleyed with Joseph Stalin in the 1940s. They would take into account the legitimate regional interests of other nations as part of a broader concept of maintaining influence through cordial relations wherever possible. They would embrace the concept of balance of power over moral preachments. They would maintain a crisp sense of who their immediate enemies are and also who their prospective adversaries might be—and then move decisively to defeat their immediate enemies and outmaneuver their prospective adversaries. They wouldn’t get hung up on gauzy humanitarian notions when such notions might get in the way of protecting U.S. national interests. They would calculate with care the price of military action in terms of blood, treasure and political capital—and also in terms of prospects for stability or chaos in the wake of such action. Their diplomacy would maximize the full force of U.S. power and maneuverability, but never with swagger.

We haven’t seen many such leaders over the past fifteen years. The result has been strategic confusion in America—and a world that seems to be slipping into ever-greater chaos.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Deconstructing the Syrian Nightmare. By Michael O’Hanlon.

Deconstructing the Syrian Nightmare. By Michael O’Hanlon. The National Interest, November/December 2015.


U.S. POLICY towards Syria since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 has been a litany of miscalculation, frustration and tragedy. The ascendance of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as the major element of the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime may not amount to an imminent threat to American security; indeed, to date very few Americans have died at the hands of ISIL or its affiliates. But ISIL’s rise does place at much greater risk the security of Iraq, the future of Syria itself and the stability of Lebanon and Jordan. It could jeopardize the safety of American citizens as well, given the possibility of attacks by Westerners returning from the Syrian jihad or “lone wolves” inspired by ISIL propaganda. Massacres on a par with the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, or worse, could easily occur in the United States. The potency of the al-Nusra organization, Al Qaeda’s loyal affiliate, within the Syrian opposition is also of considerable concern.

This is not a situation that requires an invasion of Syria by tens of thousands of Western troops. But nor is it a situation that can be allowed somehow to burn out on its own. Even if the Assad regime soon falls to combined opposition forces, the problem will hardly be solved, since ISIL might then be in a position to dominate an entire country rather than just half. An ISIL advance westward would put the 10 to 15 percent of the population made up of “apostate” Alawites, as well as the 10 percent of the population that is Christian (according to prewar tallies), at severe risk of massacre. Upheaval in Syria would intensify, having already displaced half the country’s population and ended a quarter of a million lives. All of this would further validate ISIL’s apocalyptic narrative of a caliphate beginning in Syria—a narrative that, even if it has no chance of being realized, could aid the group in its already-impressive recruiting efforts, which are currently bringing about one thousand new fighters a month to the battlefield. This pace is probably adequate to replenish the loss rate from U.S.-led airstrikes, estimated by one U.S. official to have killed ten thousand ISIL fighters. Indeed, the U.S. government’s upper-bound estimate of some thirty thousand ISIL fighters has not changed for months despite the air campaign.

WHAT’S NEEDED to end the carnage is a radically new approach: working toward a confederal Syria. Put even more starkly, the only credible path forward is a plan that in effect deconstructs Syria, especially in the short term. A comprehensive, national-level solution is too hard even to specify at this stage, much less achieve. Instead, the international community should work hard, and devote substantial resources, to create pockets of more viable security and governance within Syria over time. With initial footholds in place, the strategy could develop further into a type of “ink-spot” campaign that sought to join the various local initiatives into a broader and more integrated effort. This approach builds on the ideas of classic counterinsurgency efforts but has a much different application. In this case, of course, the United States and foreign partners are taking the side of the insurgents rather than the government, and the goal is not to defeat the insurgency but to support and empower it.

This strategy might produce only a partial success, liberating parts of the country and then settling into stalemate. But that should not be seen as failure, even if it happens. One possibility is two or three safe zones in more remote parts of the country, backed up by perhaps one thousand American military personnel and other countries’ special-operations forces in each (with an implied annual cost of perhaps several billion dollars), rather than a snowballing and successful nationwide campaign. Generalizing the strategy from, say, the Kurdish areas of the country in the northeast (where a “lite” version of such an approach is now being attempted by Ankara and Washington), to the heavily populated and intermixed population belt from Idlib and Aleppo through Homs and Hama to Damascus could be very difficult. It would be substantially more dangerous, and also much more logistically challenging. It would be important that Washington not precommit to comprehensive regime change on any particular time horizon, since the number of available “moderate” partner forces may not prove adequate to that task, even once recruiting and training begin within the safe zones.

In fairness to the Obama administration, a realistic and comprehensive plan for Syria has always seemed elusive, without even factoring in self-imposed U.S. political constraints. And now, American “allies” in the war together constitute perhaps the fifth-strongest fighting force in the country, after Assad’s own military, ISIL, al-Nusra and even Hezbollah. Some of these so-called allies may not be so moderate, or dependable, after all. Kurdish fighters in Syria have had some success, and are now integral to a plan Ankara and Washington have developed to establish a safe zone in northern Syria that will greatly complicate ISIL’s ability to connect logistically with the outside world. But the ability of the Kurds to liberate any territory further south is unclear, and Turkey’s willingness to go along with any such escalation of the Kurdish role is also in doubt.

The woes go on. The central peace process appears to be in tatters. Moderate forces are not currently strong enough to achieve a significant governing role through any plausible negotiation outcome. Any willingness by Assad to defect as part of an integrated plan to produce a new power-sharing government (perhaps backstopped by an international peacekeeping force) would likely be seen as evidence of weakness by his enemies. It would probably fail to produce a durable and stable outcome. An actual large-scale U.S. military intervention is off the table, in light of what the nearly decade-long effort in Iraq produced; not even the most hawkish candidates in the GOP field for president in 2016 are calling for such an approach. Development of a new Syrian army of tens of thousands, able to take on Assad as well as ISIL, may be conceptually appealing. But it seems hugely ambitious in a situation where the United States has failed to train even a few thousand moderate fighters a year, and where there are few individuals who could provide political or military leadership of an integrated Syrian opposition. An integrated army may be the right long-term plan, but it is probably not a realistic goal with which to begin.

Instead, a more limited strategy could have major benefits. It would help the United States and other outside powers protect several million Syrians who would no longer have to fear being overrun by Assad or ISIL, as well as allow them to collectively attack and pressure ISIL from more locations than possible today. Such a strategy would send a clear message of U.S. engagement to regional partners and create new opportunities that may not presently be foreseeable.

QUALIFYING STANDARDS for opposition fighters wishing for U.S. training, equipment and battlefield assistance would be relaxed under this approach. Requiring that they are untainted by past associations with extremists and that they swear to fight only ISIL would no longer be central elements of the vetting process. To avoid American legal issues, the subject could simply not be raised the way it is now. The United States would not have to bless, or encourage, their aspirations for overthrowing Assad, but it could stop trying so proactively and unrealistically to squelch those ambitions. “Accidental guerrillas,” to use David Kilcullen’s memorable phrase, who had previously been in cahoots with some of these groups could in some cases be forgiven their transgressions, if there were reason to think that they were dependable.

Training opposition fighters in the safety of Turkey, Jordan and other friendly countries would still be the first step. But it is not sufficient, and this new strategy would recognize as much. Many opposition fighters are reluctant to leave their home territories—and thereby leave their families and communities unprotected—in order to go abroad for training. The wiser idea would be to help moderate elements establish reliable safe zones within Syria as catalysts to much broader recruiting and training efforts that would then occur within these zones on Syrian territory. American and allied forces would act in support, not only from the air but eventually on the ground via the deployment of special-operations forces into Syria as well. This would entail risks, but manageable ones. Syria’s open desert terrain would make it easier to monitor for possible signs of enemy attack against these zones, through a combination of technologies, patrols and other methods that outside special operators could help Syrian local fighters set up.

Were Assad foolish enough to challenge these zones, even if he somehow forced the withdrawal of the outside special-operations forces, he would be likely to lose his airpower in ensuing retaliatory strikes by outside forces, depriving his military of one of its few advantages over ISIL. Deconflicting U.S./allied efforts to attack ISIL with the expanding Russian activities in the country would, however, be important.

With this approach, given the direct American and other allied assistance that would be provided, one could be confident that sanctuary sites would never again have to face the prospect of rule by either Assad or ISIL. They would also constitute areas where humanitarian relief could be supplied, schools could be reopened and larger opposition forces could be recruited, trained and based. UN agencies and NGOs would help in the effort to the extent they were willing and able, focusing on health, education and basic economic recovery. Governing councils would be formed, more likely by appointment than election, to help international agencies make decisions on key matters relevant to rudimentary governance. Regardless of details, relief could certainly then be provided more effectively than today.

At least one such area should adjoin Jordan and another Turkey, and these should be created in cooperation with Amman and Ankara. These locations would allow secure transportation lines for humanitarian as well as military supplies. They would also provide bases from which to attack ISIL in its strongholds, a mission that Western forces could carry out in conjunction with local allies. The ultimate endgame for these zones would not have to be determined in advance. The interim goal would be a deconstructed Syria; the ultimate one could be some form of a confederal Syria, with several highly autonomous zones. One of those zones might be for Alawites, perhaps partly protected by Russian forces. But none of the zones could be for ISIL, al-Nusra or Assad and his inner circle.

At some point, the emergent confederation would likely require support from an international peacekeeping force, once it could be somehow codified by negotiation. The United States should be willing to commit to being part of a force, since without it, it is dubious that the conflict’s various parties will have confidence in the stability of any settlement. The challenge of creating governance structures that protect the rights of Syria’s various communities would be especially acute in the intermixed central population belt of the country. But in the short term, the ambitions of this strategy would be limited—they would be, simply, to make individual zones defensible and governable, to help provide relief for populations within them and to train and equip more recruits so that the zones could be stabilized and then gradually expanded.

As safe zones were created, over time some would eventually coalesce. For example, once appropriate understandings were reached with Turkey, a single Kurdish zone would make sense. Major sectors in the south near the Jordanian border, and in the north near Idlib and Aleppo, could be logical. Over time, if and when feasible, zones near some of the central cities such as Hama and Homs could be envisioned, though the logistical challenges and the safety challenges for Western forces (and the difficulty of collaborating safely with any Russian forces) could be greater in those cases. Prudence would have to be the watchword. In some cases, even the various members of the so-called moderate opposition might come into conflict with each other; outside parties might have to threaten to withhold support of various types to discourage such behavior.

The plan would be directed in part against Assad. But it would not have the explicit military goal of overthrowing him, at least not in the near term. American forces could concentrate on supporting opposition units fighting ISIL. Still, this plan would probably have the effect of gradually reducing the territory that Assad governs, since it would train many more opposition fighters and would not try to prevent them from liberating areas of the country currently controlled by the central government. If Assad then delayed too long in accepting a deal for exile, he could inevitably face direct dangers to his rule and even his person. The plan would still seek his removal, but over a gradual time period that allowed for a negotiated exit—with stronger moderate opposition groups part of the negotiation than is the case today—if Assad were smart enough to avail himself of the opportunity. In the short term, however, the current tacit understanding with Assad, whereby he chooses not to challenge Western airpower in Syria when it is used against ISIL, ideally would continue.

The opposition would need to accept that a peace deal that includes post-Assad Alawite elements remained Washington’s goal—and if they wished economic and other help down the road for rebuilding a new Syrian state, they would have to tolerate some influence for the United States as well as other key outside players. This approach, while not ideal for many elements of the opposition who surely seek more systematic revenge against Assad and his cronies, could nonetheless provide a more workable basis for making common cause than is the case today, since it would in fact ultimately aim for an end to Assad’s rule. For these reasons, whether they fully endorsed it or not, America’s main regional allies in the effort—Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states—would likely welcome such an approach since it would move significantly in the direction they have advocated. Moreover, it would be more credible than previous American strategies, stated or implied, because its means would better match ends.

This strategy might soften Iran and Russia’s opposition to the broader approach as well—perhaps reducing their inclination to escalate support for Assad and also possibly even enlisting them in an eventual negotiated deal about Syria’s ultimate future and associated peace-enforcement operations. Indeed, the strategy strikes a balance in its approach to Iran and Russia. It would grant neither a major role. But it would seek to mitigate the risks of escalating rivalry with them by holding out political hope and the prospect of an autonomous region for Alawites (even those previously associated with the Assad regime, as long as they were not from Assad’s inner circle). This approach may appeal even more to Moscow and Tehran if Assad continues to suffer battlefield setbacks. Damascus and Moscow would be much more likely to support a confederal Syria to the extent they believe that the alternative has become the complete overthrow of Assad and his government, the elimination of meaningful Alawite influence in a future government or, in a best case, civil war of indefinite duration.

An ultimate settlement could include outright partition of the country if necessary. However, partition would not solve the question of how to address the mixed cities of the country’s center belt. As such, while it should not be taken off the table, it would hardly represent a panacea.

Should Assad fall, the essence of this strategy would still apply, but in a modified way. Moderate insurgents would still need strongholds from which to build up capacity to challenge ISIL (the presumed main winner in such a defeat of Assad).

Ideally, the U.S. Congress would explicitly support this strategy, but existing authorities and funds are adequate to start now. Ideally, the UN Security Council would endorse the approach, too—including the near-term idea of providing relief (without Assad’s blessing) in some safe zones, and the longer-term goal of deploying a peace-implementation force to support an eventual peace deal. But again, given the emergency situation, the security stakes and the UN’s interest in the notions of the responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide, existing authorities are sufficient to embark on this strategy.

THE BASIC logic of this ink-spot and regional strategy is not radical. Nor is it original or unique to Syria. In effect, variants of it have guided Western powers in Bosnia, in Afghanistan in the 1980s and since 1993 in Somalia. The last case is particularly relevant. Somalia, while a site of tragedy for U.S. forces in 1993, has since shown some signs of hopefulness. The Puntland and Somaliland in the north are largely self-governing and autonomous. Similar types of zones would be the interim goal for Syria as well.

We must be honest with ourselves: the interim period, including some type of American engagement in the war effort, could last a long time. For a country weary of long wars in the Middle East, this would constitute an on-the-ground role in yet another. That said, it is worth bearing in mind that while the Afghanistan war today continues to consume American resources and cost some American casualties, it is not a major source of domestic political acrimony within the United States. Perhaps Americans are more patient with long military operations than is often argued. That is especially the case if the strategy that the operations are designed to serve is responsive to a real security threat, and if it is at least moderately successful in its implementation.

There would of course be risks associated with this strategy. The most glaring would be the possibility of American casualties—either through “green on blue” insider attacks of the type that have taken dozens of American lives in Afghanistan, or through ISIL or regime elements overrunning a safe zone in which American forces are located. This is a significant risk, to be sure, and one that would have to be carefully managed, as noted above, by careful selection of where the safe zones are to be. It would also require deployment of American quick-reaction forces in the area, in more locations than they currently are found today, to improve the odds of coming to the aid of such U.S. forces in a timely fashion if their positions are brought into danger. In these ways, the operation in Syria would resemble the beginning phases of the Afghanistan campaign in 2001 and 2002, in which modest numbers of U.S. forces worked closely with the Northern Alliance and then the fledgling Afghan government, participating in raids and occasionally suffering casualties. Casualties could also be expected in any future peace-implementation mission, as spoilers use suicide bombs and other weapons to attack outside forces.

It is worth noting that two other types of risks associated with this strategy would be no greater, and in most ways probably less, than under current policy. First, there is the matter of U.S. prestige. Some would argue that by declaring itself committed to a change in battlefield dynamics, the United States would lose more prestige if in fact that proved more difficult to achieve than anticipated. But this risk must be measured against the real blow to American credibility that has already resulted from four years of an ineffective policy. Moreover, even partial success would help liberate and improve the lots of millions of Syrians who are now living under ISIL, Assad or anarchy.

Washington is already at war with ISIL—not only as a matter of formal policy but also in the ongoing bombing campaign underway in Iraq and Syria today. ISIL has already demonstrated its lack of restraint in its dealings with the United States in the 2014 beheadings of American hostages within its reach. Its social-media outlets are already trying to encourage lone-wolf attacks against the United States and its civilian population today. ISIL is currently encouraged by a sense of sanctuary and a sense of military momentum. Making Western attacks against ISIL more effective seems just as likely to put the group on the defensive as to occasion new attacks. In acting more aggressively to stabilize Syria and defeat ISIL, the Obama administration would not be plunging America into a new conflict. Instead, it would be recognizing that it is already engaged in one.

Iraq in Pieces. By Ali Khedery.

Iraq in Pieces. By Ali Khedery. Foreign Affairs, November/December 2015.


Breaking Up to Stay Together.

American leaders contemplating Iraq have made a habit of substituting unpleasant realities with rosy assessments based on questionable assumptions. In 1991, after the Gulf War, the George H. W. Bush administration hoped that Iraqis would rise up against Saddam Hussein and encouraged them to do so, only to abandon them to the Republican Guard. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, officially embracing regime change and transferring millions of dollars to an Iranian-backed convicted embezzler, Ahmed Chalabi. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration assumed that toppling Saddam would lead to stability rather than chaos when the U.S. military “shocked and awed” its way to Baghdad. In 2005, as the country descended into violence, Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that the insurgency was in its “last throes.”

In 2010, still flushed with the success of Bush’s “surge,” Vice President Joe Biden forecast that President Barack Obama’s Iraq policy was “going to be one of the great achievements of this administration,” lauding Iraqis for using “the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.” And in 2012, even as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was running an increasingly authoritarian and dysfunctional regime, the administration continued its happy talk. “Many predicted that the violence would return and Iraq would slide back toward sectarian war,” said Antony Blinken, then Biden’s national security adviser. “Those predictions proved wrong.”

Today, of course, the Iraqi army has all but collapsed, despite some $25 billion in U.S. assistance. Shiite militants who have sworn allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader operate with impunity. And the Islamic State (or ISIS) dominates more than a third of Iraq and half of Syria. Obama’s successor will thus certainly earn the distinction of becoming the fifth consecutive president to bomb Iraq.

Still, the next resident of the White House can choose to avoid the mistakes of his or her predecessors by refusing to unconditionally empower corrupt and divisive Iraqi leaders in the hope that they will somehow create a stable, prosperous country. If Iraq continues on its current downward spiral, as is virtually certain, Washington should accept the fractious reality on the ground, abandon its fixation with artificial borders, and start allowing the various parts of Iraq and Syria to embark on the journey to self-determination. That process would no doubt be rocky and even bloody, but at this point, it represents the best chance of containing the sectarian violence and protecting the remainder of the Middle East from still further chaos.


Since the founding of modern Iraq in 1920, the country has rarely witnessed extended peace and stability. Under the Ottoman Empire, the sultans ruled the territory as three separate vilayat, or provinces, with governors independently administering Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the center, and Basra in the south. After the Allied victory in World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, however, the Treaty of Sèvres created new and artificial borders to divide the spoils. France assumed a mandate over the Levant, and the British were determined to carve out a sphere of influence in oil-rich Mesopotamia, installing a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, Faisal bin al-Hussein, as Iraq’s first monarch in 1921.

By 1932, however, King Faisal I had already concluded that Iraq made little sense as a nation:
With my heart filled with sadness, I have to say that it is my belief that there is no Iraqi people inside Iraq. There are only diverse groups with no national sentiments. They are filled with superstitious and false religious traditions with no common grounds between them. They easily accept rumors and are prone to chaos, prepared always to revolt against any government.

Those words would prove prophetic, and in 1958, his grandson, Faisal II, was murdered in a coup d’état along with the royal family. Three revolutions and counterrevolutions followed before the Arab Socialist Baath Party took power in 1968, with Saddam seizing total control in 1979.

Once the center of regional politics, science, culture, and commerce, Iraq regressed on every front under Saddam. In the 1980s, his Anfal campaign exterminated tens of thousands of Kurds, and his disastrous war with Iran left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. His equally catastrophic incursion into Kuwait in 1990 led to a lost war, the ruthless suppression of Kurdish and Shiite rebellions, a dozen years of devastating sanctions, and some $130 billion in debt. Not even Saddam’s core constituency of Sunnis was immune from frequent pogroms; countless relatives of Saddam, party officials, generals, and tribal chieftains were liquidated over the years. These decades of misrule caused a majority of Iraqis—not just Kurds and Shiites but also exiled Islamists and secular Sunnis—to reject Baghdad’s rule.

The post-Saddam Iraq that emerged after the 2003 U.S. invasion was supposed to be different. Having failed to unearth weapons of mass destruction, the United States expended an extraordinary amount of resources to compensate for the error and pursue pluralism, stability, prosperity, democracy, and good governance. Some 4,500 U.S. soldiers were killed and 32,000 wounded, not to mention the trillions of dollars in direct and indirect costs and the millions of dead or displaced Iraqis. Yet the intervention ultimately failed, because it empowered a new set of elites who drew their legitimacy almost purely from divisive ethno-sectarian agendas rather than from visions of truth, reconciliation, the rule of law, and national unity.

Shortly after the invasion, Machiavellian politicians pressed U.S. officials to disband the Iraqi army as they hijacked the U.S.-instituted De-Baathification Commission and used it to extort or purge their secular political opponents, Sunni and Shiite alike. Hundreds of thousands were left permanently unemployed, embittered, and primed to seek violent retribution against the new order.

In the mountainous north, Kurdish leaders sought to consolidate the considerable gains they had achieved through self-governance following the introduction of a no-fly zone in 1991. After a vicious civil war in the mid-1990s, they established the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region, securing peace and attracting foreign investment. Once Saddam was gone, they maintained control of key positions in Baghdad under a new ethno-sectarian quota system as a hedge against further repression.

In the south, the Shiite Islamist parties that had battled Saddam’s secular Baath Party for decades, often with Iran’s covert support, emerged victorious and sought to compensate for past repression. They asserted their will as the majority by defying the Baath’s taboos and establishing numerous official religious holidays, cementing their brand of religious values in the national school curriculum, and placing members of the armed wings of their religious political parties on government payrolls. In the halls of power in Baghdad, the word of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest authority in Shiite Islam, reigned supreme.

Iraq’s minority Sunnis, the nation’s ruling elite for centuries, found themselves in disarray. To correct perceived injustices, they eventually settled on a strategy of boycotting democracy in favor of insurgency and terrorism. Hopelessly divided and lacking leadership and vision, Sunni Arabs often fell into the trap of battling the U.S. military occupation and the surging influence of their historical arch-nemesis, Shiite Persian Iran, by striking a deal with the devil: al Qaeda.

So began an endless cycle of killing among militant radicals of all stripes, from remnants of the Baath Party to al Qaeda in Iraq to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. With each religiously charged atrocity, the Iraqi national identity grew weaker, and the millennia-old senses of self—tribal, ethnic, and religious—grew stronger.

Of all the main forces, perhaps the single most corrosive was Maliki, a duplicitous and divisive politician who served as prime minister beginning in 2006. After he lost the 2010 elections, he managed to stay in office through a power-sharing deal backed by Washington and Tehran, only to consolidate his authority further by retaining personal control of the interior, defense, and intelligence ministries, among other important bodies. With Obama distracted by the global economic meltdown and advised by top aides that Maliki was a nationalist rather than a sectarian, the prime minister secured nearly unconditional Iranian and U.S. backing and purged professional officers in favor of incompetent loyalists. He intentionally pitted organs of the state and his hard-line Shiite Islamist constituency against all manner of opponents: Shiite secularists, Sunni Islamists, Sunni secularists, Kurds, and even rival Shiite Islamists.

Although Maliki achieved many successes during his first term, which coincided with Bush’s surge, his second, from 2010 to 2014, was catastrophic. Violence rose from the post-2003 lows to new heights. Entire divisions of the Iraqi army melted away in the face of vastly smaller forces, leaving billions of dollars’ worth of vehicles, weapons, and ammunition behind for use by terrorists. The entirety of Iraq’s Sunni heartland fell to the Islamic State. Baghdad’s relations with Iraqi Kurdi-stan and the Sunni provinces collapsed, and the central government lost control over more than half its territory. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias that Maliki had once crushed rebounded so ferociously in the face of the Islamic State’s assaults that they now likely outnumber the official Iraqi security forces. Most damning, both the Islamic State and the Shiite militias now wield advanced U.S. military hardware as they commit atrocities throughout Iraq.

Across much of the Middle East today, a sad truth prevails: decades of bad governance have caused richly diverse societies to fracture along ethno-sectarian lines. In Iraq, it is now evident that Shiite Islamists will not accept secular-nationalist rule by Sunnis or Shiites and that neither camp will accept rule by Sunni Islamists, especially the radical version espoused by the Islamic State. The relatively secular Kurds, meanwhile, are unwilling to live under Arab rule of any sort. In short, these powerful groups’ visions of life, religion, and politics are fundamentally incompatible. As for the minority Christian, Shabak, Yazidi, Sabean Mandaean, and Jewish communities that once numbered in the millions and occupied Mesopotamia for millennia, they have faced the Hobbesian fate of violent death or permanent displacement.


Despite some tactical gains, such as the liberation of Tikrit, the strategic situation has only gotten worse since Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi succeeded Maliki in September 2014. Over the past year, the Islamic State has enhanced its position, even in the face of coalition bombing campaigns chronicled on Twitter by top U.S. officials, who, echoing General William Westmoreland during the Vietnam War, cite body counts and the number of air strikes as metrics for success. Mosul was taken by the Islamic State in June 2014; today, few are talking about liberating it anytime soon, and the terrorists have thrust forward to capture Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province. The barbarians that Obama dismissed as the “JV team” are now a few dozen miles from the gates of Baghdad, as they expand their reach in Syria and establish franchises across Africa and Asia. Earlier this year, when I asked one of Iraq’s deputy premiers how Baghdad looked, he shrugged and said, “How should I know? I can’t leave the Green Zone.”

The collapse of the Iraqi security forces and the rise of the Shiite militias have weakened Baghdad’s already feeble grip on the country and empowered Tehran, since the militias have sworn allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader and are directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. U.S. military commanders have rightly voiced alarm over the growing strength and popularity of these terrorist groups, which are responsible for bombing U.S. and allied embassies and killing and maiming thousands of Iraqi, U.S., and coalition troops. Every time the militias thrust into Sunni enclaves, they carry out new atrocities and displace more people, inevitably enhancing the Islamic State’s appeal. Every time the Islamic State bombs innocent Shiite civilians, the Shiite militias grow stronger, and the Iraqi government grows weaker.

Compounding Baghdad’s nightmare has been the plunge in oil prices, which has left Abadi’s government with a budget deficit in the tens of billions of dollars, a limited ability to borrow on the international capital markets, and the prospect of looming stagflation. Youth unemployment has stayed chronically high. This past summer, with temperatures rising well above 120 degrees Fahrenheit and households having no more than a few hours of water and electricity per day, the seething population was primed to explode.

And that is precisely what happened. In July, tens of thousands of largely peaceful and secular protesters filled public squares across Baghdad and the provincial capitals of southern Iraq, decrying sectarianism, corruption, the lack of jobs, and nonexistent government services. Angrier protesters burned in effigy leading national politicians, namely Maliki, who was now one of Iraq’s three vice presidents yet still wielding power behind the scenes in a bid to undermine Abadi. Government offices in Maliki’s hometown were sacked, and crowds threatened violent action against the Basra-based international oil companies, Iraq’s only economic lifelines.

After Abadi announced limited reforms, Sistani, sensing mass unrest and a budding threat from rival clerics in Iran, instructed Abadi through his representatives’ weekly sermons to “be more daring and courageous.” In response, Abadi announced a series of major reforms, including the abolishment of the offices of the three deputy premiers and the three vice presidents, along with 11 of 33 cabinet posts. To overcome paralysis and hold officials accountable, Abadi promised to eliminate the ethno-sectarian quota system in the government and prosecute dozens of top civilian and uniformed leaders for corruption and dereliction of their duties in the face of the Islamic State’s assault.

In a rare show of unity, parliament unanimously adopted the measures on August 11. Mass rallies erupted in Baghdad, with protesters chanting, “We are all Abadi.” But Maliki and the other two vice presidents refused to step down, insisting that their positions were constitutionally mandated. And so the paralysis in Baghdad continued.

A week after the reforms were approved, Sistani issued a direct and dire warning. Iraq’s politicians had not served the people, and their misdeeds had enabled the rise of the Islamic State, he argued. “If true reform is not realized,” he said, Iraq could be dragged into “partition and the like, God forbid.”

So began the most recent chapter of the centuries-long intra-Shiite rivalry, as Sistani and Abadi battled Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his favored proxies in Iraq, namely, Maliki and the militia commanders, for control of Mesopotamia.

Although little noticed or understood in the West, and in a reminder than no major ethno-sectarian group can ever be monolithic, Shiite Arab and Shiite Persian rivalries have persisted for centuries, pitting Iraq’s Najaf seminary against Iran’s Qom establishment. At the time of this writing, Najaf’s Sistani is discreetly blasting Iran’s leading militia in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah, for its alleged involvement in kidnapping 18 Turkish civilians and for its threat to target the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Undeterred, Tehran is attempting to consolidate its gains over Arabia, where, as the former Iranian intelligence minister Ali Younesi declared in March, “Iran has become an empire . . . and its current capital is Baghdad.”

Given the hellish combination of regional proxy wars and conflict between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites and between its Arabs and Kurds—and within each group as well—the most dangerous era of modern Iraqi history may have only just begun.

It is hard to see how members of the feckless national political elite, who built their reputations by sowing ethno-sectarian hatreds, can satisfy impatient protesters in the coming months. Following decades of misrule under Saddam and Maliki, there is little reason to believe that a critical mass of pluralistic Iraqi nationalists remains to salvage the Iraqi national identity. The divisions now run too deep. As Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, once put it to me, “The Shia fear past repression, the Sunnis fear future repression, and we Kurds fear both.”

Nor is there much reason to believe that Iraq can rid itself of the corruption that is ingrained in the very dna of the post-2003 order. Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, secularists and Islamists—whatever their disagreements, all have been united not by God but by greed. The insatiable lust for power and money evidenced by virtually every national leader I met during my more than 2,100 days of U.S. government service in Iraq still leaves me dazed: a Kurdish official’s $2 million Bugatti Veyron parked along several other supercars at his beachfront villa abroad, the private airplanes of a secretive Sunni financier with several cabinet members in his pocket, a junior Shiite Islamist official’s $150,000 Breguet wristwatch to complement his $5,000 monthly salary from the office of the prime minister. These are the small fish.

As one friend, a tireless but beleaguered Iraqi civil servant, put it to me early during the war, “Under Saddam Hussein, our ministers dreamt of stealing millions. If Saddam caught them, they were immediately executed. Only Saddam and his sons dared steal en masse. These people you Americans have brought to rule us—they’re stealing billions.” My friend earns about $500 per month, an average wage. Years after we visited the White House together, his home was accidentally bombed by U.S. aircraft, wiping out his family’s life savings. The Pentagon offered him no apology or reparations. His fiancée was then shot in the head by a passing foreign security convoy; she suffered permanent brain damage and paralysis. The son of a Sunni father and a Shiite mother, like millions of Iraqis of mixed descent, he fears kidnapping and murder by both the Sunnis of the Islamic State and the Shiites of the Iranian-backed death squads.


There is no question now that George W. Bush waged a poorly conceived and poorly executed war. There is also no question now that Obama precipitously and irresponsibly disengaged from Iraq after backing a divisive leader in Maliki. Washington’s Iraq policy failures have transcended administrations and parties. But the next president has a chance to do better.

In an ideal world, Abadi would survive the looming assassination and coup attempts, and the current Iraqi government would not only remain intact through 2017 but also become functional. Baghdad would mend the country’s ethno-sectarian divisions, slash corruption by prosecuting and jailing top officials (starting with senior judicial and cabinet figures), and reverse the advances of the Islamic State and the Shiite militias. If this somehow happens, Washington should reward Iraq’s leaders by continuing the Bush-Obama strategy of diplomatically backing a strong central government while providing military and counterterrorism assistance strictly conditioned on further reforms.

It is far more likely, however, that Iraq will continue its current slide and its government will keep failing to fulfill its basic obligations to deliver security and services. In that case, the next U.S. president should act decisively to prevent Iraq from degenerating into a second Syria, a zombie state terrorizing its citizens, exporting millions of refugees, and incubating jihad. This would mean openly encouraging confederal decentralization across Iraq and Syria—devolving powers from Baghdad and Damascus to the provinces while maintaining the two countries’ territorial integrity. In extreme circumstances, Washington might resort to embracing Balkan-style partition and a new regional political order.

Such a policy would represent a sharp departure for the U.S. national security establishment, which, among other things, has difficulty adapting to the unforeseen and dealing with nontraditional actors. Yet precisely because Washington’s traditional authoritarian counterparts have failed so spectacularly, it is nonstate actors that now dominate the Middle East. As a result, across the region, millions of youth have become disillusioned and radicalized, and extremists have exploited power vacuums to wage transnational jihad.

As it acknowledges the realities festering on the ground today, the United States will have to adopt an overarching strategy for the Middle East, one that goes far beyond Obama’s counterterrorism-focused approach. In Iraq and Syria, artificial borders have been erased, and the governments in Baghdad and Damascus have lost legitimacy in the eyes of millions of citizens. Because Washington can no longer deal with these governments as the exclusive representatives of their people, it will have to work with the world’s other great powers and the Middle East’s regional powers—Iran, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and the Arab monarchies—to define new spheres of influence.

This process will be neither quick nor easy and will involve hundreds of delicate maneuvers. To begin with, however, the United States should work through the UN Security Council to launch a Middle East détente initiative that brings everyone to the table, much as Clinton convened various stakeholders in the Dayton peace talks to end the Bosnian war. Although it is not without risk, the strategy will rest on embracing the universal right to self-determination guaranteed by the UN Charter.

To that end, global and regional powers should agree on a new political order, try to broker cease-fires, deploy peacekeepers, and, as administrative and security conditions permit, allow every district in Iraq and Syria to conduct cascades of UN-monitored referendums. Although Iran may play a spoiler role and seek to preserve its ability to attack Israel by securing its land bridge across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, it can eventually be neutralized by unanimous global pressure, as the recent nuclear deal demonstrated. Some Sunni powers will surely deploy their own dirty tricks in an attempt to predetermine outcomes; global powers must make it clear that there will be zero tolerance for such behavior and, more important, that they are prepared to inflict tangible pain if bad acts continue. They must also make it explicit that the civilized world is now at war with radical militant Islamists and that state sponsorship of these terrorists, whether Sunni or Shiite, will no longer be tolerated.

Under the present conditions, one can imagine that the Syrians would vote for rump Alawite, Christian, and Druze enclaves along the Mediterranean coast, one or more Sunni Arab governments across the heartland (which would rise up against the Islamic State in an Iraq-style “tribal awakening” should the appropriate campaign plan be adopted), and a semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north. The first would fall under the spheres of influence of Iran and Russia, while the latter two would fall under the Turkish, Arab, and Western spheres. No longer caught in the clutches of a genocidal dictator, Syria’s diverse and industrious population could begin to rebuild, just as the war-ravaged citizens of Germany, Japan, and Korea once did. To cement truth and reconciliation, the Security Council will have to guarantee mass amnesty, or, should the stakeholders agree, the International Criminal Court will need to start indicting perpetrators of war crimes from all factions in a bid to deter further bloodletting.

In neighboring Iraq, a nearly identical pattern has already emerged on the ground. The Shiite provinces would likely choose to form anywhere between one and nine regions; oil-rich Basra, for instance, has been threatening self-rule for a decade in the face of Baghdad’s failure to deliver security and services. The Sunni provinces would form between one and three regions and cleanse their territories of the Islamic State through a reinvigor-ated and internationally supported “tribal awakening.” And Iraqi Kurdistan would no doubt continue down the path toward economic self-sufficiency, leveraging the opportunity to export oil and gas to Turkey and the European Union. Special independent status could be granted to the diverse and geopolitically sensitive provinces of Baghdad, Diyala, and Kirkuk (à la the District of Columbia), in a last ditch effort at maintaining their pluralism. Unlike in Syria, in Iraq, many of these processes are already permitted by the constitution.

As Iraqi Kurdistan demonstrated during the 1990s, transitions to self-determination are often attended by regional interference, warlordism, corruption, cronyism, and internecine conflict. Nonetheless, as that case has also shown, with time—and with constant international rewards for good behavior and sanctions for bad behavior—self-determination always produces better results than authoritarianism. Were Saddam still terrorizing the Kurds today, a Kurdish insurgency would be raging stronger than ever. Instead, autonomous rule in Kurdistan, albeit far from perfect, has contributed to relative security and the development of basic infrastructure and economic opportunity. This should serve as a model for the rest of Iraq and Syria.

Indeed, those eager to destroy the Islamic State at any cost should remember that al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated not by the U.S. military and intelligence services, the Kurdish Pesh Merga, or Iranian proxies but by Sunni Arab Iraqis, who led the fight with international support. Likewise, al Qaeda in Iraq’s supercharged successor, the Islamic State, can never be defeated by air strikes or foreign boots on the ground alone. The Islamic State’s root cause—poor governance—is indigenous. Thus its root solution—good governance—must also be indigenous. Only local actors can break the vicious cycle of poverty, disenchantment, radicalization, and extremism and spark a virtuous cycle that offers security, jobs, education, moderation, dignity, and, most critically, hope that tomorrow will be better than today.

Barring a miracle, managed decentralization across Iraq and Syria may soon be the only viable path ahead. The next U.S. president could choose to respond to the inevitable crises there by following an ideological course, as his or her predecessors did, or attempt to manage them actively yet rationally. With or without Washington, a new reality is dawning on Mesopotamia.