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.

To Defeat ISIS, Create a Sunni State. By John Bolton.

To Defeat ISIS, Create a Sunni State. By John R. Bolton. New York Times, November 24, 2015.


America is debating how to respond to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Unfortunately, both President Obama’s current policy and other recent proposals lack a strategic vision for the Middle East once the Islamic State, or ISIS, is actually defeated. There are no answers, or only outmoded ones, to the basic question: What comes after the Islamic State?

Before transforming Mr. Obama’s ineffective efforts into a vigorous military campaign to destroy the Islamic State, we need a clear view, shared with NATO allies and others, about what will replace it. It is critical to resolve this issue before considering any operational plans. Strategy does not come from the ground up; instead, tactics flow deductively once we’ve defined the ultimate objectives.

Today’s reality is that Iraq and Syria as we have known them are gone. The Islamic State has carved out a new entity from the post-Ottoman Empire settlement, mobilizing Sunni opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Iran-dominated government of Iraq. Also emerging, after years of effort, is a de facto independent Kurdistan.

If, in this context, defeating the Islamic State means restoring to power Mr. Assad in Syria and Iran’s puppets in Iraq, that outcome is neither feasible nor desirable. Rather than striving to recreate the post-World War I map, Washington should recognize the new geopolitics. The best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.

This “Sunni-stan” has economic potential as an oil producer (subject to negotiation with the Kurds, to be sure), and could be a bulwark against both Mr. Assad and Iran-allied Baghdad. The rulers of the Arab Gulf states, who should by now have learned the risk to their own security of funding Islamist extremism, could provide significant financing. And Turkey — still a NATO ally, don’t forget — would enjoy greater stability on its southern border, making the existence of a new state at least tolerable.

The functional independence of Kurdistan reinforces this approach. The Kurds have finally become too big a force in the region for Baghdad or Damascus to push them around. They will not be cajoled or coerced into relinquishing territory they now control to Mr. Assad in Syria or to Iraq’s Shiite militias.

The Kurds still face enormous challenges, with dangerously uncertain borders, especially with Turkey. But an independent Kurdistan that has international recognition could work in America’s favor.

Make no mistake, this new Sunni state’s government is unlikely to be a Jeffersonian democracy for many years. But this is a region where alternatives to secular military or semi-authoritarian governments are scarce. Security and stability are sufficient ambitions.

As we did in Iraq with the 2006 “Anbar Awakening,” the counterinsurgency operation that dislodged Al Qaeda from its stronghold in that Iraqi province, we and our allies must empower viable Sunni leaders, including tribal authorities who prize their existing social structures. No doubt, this will involve former Iraqi and Syrian Baath Party officials; and there may still be some moderate Syrian opposition leaders. All are preferable to the Islamist extremists.

The Arab monarchies like Saudi Arabia must not only fund much of the new state’s early needs, but also ensure its stability and resistance to radical forces. Once, we might have declared a Jordanian “protectorate” in an American “sphere of influence”; for now, a new state will do.

This Sunni state proposal differs sharply from the vision of the Russian-Iranian axis and its proxies (Hezbollah, Mr. Assad and Tehran-backed Baghdad). Their aim of restoring Iraqi and Syrian governments to their former borders is a goal fundamentally contrary to American, Israeli and friendly Arab state interests. Notions, therefore, of an American-Russian coalition against the Islamic State are as undesirable as they are glib.

In Syria, Moscow wants to dominate the regime (with or without Mr. Assad) and safeguard Russia’s Tartus naval base and its new Latakia air base. Tehran wants a continuing Alawite supremacy, with full protection for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.

As for Iraq, Russia and Iran want the Sunni territories returned to Baghdad’s control, reinforcing Iran’s regional influence. They may wish for the same in Kurdistan, but they lack the capability there.

Sunnis today support the Islamic State for many of the same reasons they once supported Al Qaeda in Iraq — as a bulwark against being ruled by Tehran via Baghdad. Telling these Sunni people that their reward for rising against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will be to put them back in thrall to Mr. Assad and his ilk, or to Shiite-dominated Baghdad, will simply intensify their support for the jihadists. Why would they switch sides?

This is why, after destroying the Islamic State, America should pursue the far-reaching goal of creating a new Sunni state. Though difficult in the near term, over time this is more conducive to regional order and stability.

Creating an American-led anti-Islamic State alliance instead of Moscow’s proposed coalition will require considerable diplomatic and political effort. American ground combat forces will have to be deployed to provide cohesion and leadership. But this would be necessary to defeat the Islamic State even if the objective were simply to recreate the status quo ante.

The Anbar Awakening and the American military’s 2007 “surge” provide the model, as do Kurdish successes against the Islamic State. Local fighters armed, trained and advised by the United States would combine with Arab and American conventional forces.

The military operation is not the hardest part of this post-Islamic State vision. It will also require sustained American attention and commitment. We cannot walk away from this situation as we did from Iraq in 2011.

The new “Sunni-stan” may not be Switzerland. This is not a democracy initiative, but cold power politics. It is consistent with the strategic objective of obliterating the Islamic State that we share with our allies, and it is achievable.

The Palestinian Death Cult. By Elder of Ziyon.

The death cult. Elder of Ziyon, November 25, 2015.

Elder of Ziyon:

Today, we learned the details of the interrogation of an 11-year old boy who decided to stab Jews on a light rail train two weeks ago:
The 11-year-old, a sixth grader from Shuafat, is the youngest assailant arrested to date in the current upsurge of Palestinian terrorism. He is too young to face charges under current Israeli law; the 14-year-old is facing charges of attempted murder. 
In their interrogation, the two children said they carried out the attack as an act of revenge, without planning in advance and with no encouragement from any adults. 
“We travelled from Shuafat to Damascus Gate in order to stab a soldier but did not do it because the soldiers were in groups and we didn’t find one standing alone,” recalled the 11-year-old. “Then he told me ‘let’s do an attack together to revenge the death of Muhammad Ali.’ He opened his bag and showed me the knife. At Damascus Gate I bought a pair of scissors and then we boarded the light rail and looked for Jews to stab.” 
Two light rail security guards boarded the train, but the boys decided “not to stab them because there were two of them. Later on one of them got off and we immediately attacked the one that remained.” 
“I stabbed him in his head, my cousin stabbed him in his chest and stomach until the guard pushed me and fired three bullets in my stomach,” said the 11-year-old. 
The two cousins had decided they were ready to die as shahids, or martyrs, he said.
Any person with a the slightest sense of morality would be aghast at the words from this child.

I have yet to find a single article in Palestinian media that shows the slightest regret that they have raised a generation of children who literally want to die for a chance to kill a Jew.

Think about that. Not a single Palestinian adult is willing to publicly express anything negative about children being brainwashed to die.

The children listen to music that extols death. They watch videos making murderers and even those who die failing to murder into heroes. Their teachers tell them that there is no higher calling than to be a martyr. Their preachers preach hate for Jews. Their newspapers publish cartoons that incite stabbings. Their friends brag about how they manage to throw rocks at soldiers.

But the worst part is not the hate and the incitement and the antisemitism. The worst part is the fact that there are no Palestinians willing to publicly say, in Arabic, that this is disgusting.

There is no debate about whether it is a good or bad thing for children to put themselves in danger to stab Jews. On the contrary – there are football tournaments named after the stabber children.

In the past eight weeks of reading Palestinian Arab media from all political viewpoints I have yet to find anyone who is willing to say anything negative about a culture that literally raises children to kill.

Not that every Palestinian parent supports their kids going off with the family knives to stab anyone with a kipah. Surveys show that roughly half are against violence and I have no reason to doubt them. But Palestinian society is set up in such a way that no one is willing to stand up and say the obvious – “We must stop raising our children on a steady diet of hate.”

Sure there are the exceptions like the Khaled Abu Toamehs and the Bassem Eids. But they prove the rule.  Their words carry no weight within Palestinian society precisely because they dare go against the party line. Because they are willing to take positions that are so obviously moral, they are ostracized, and as a result no one wants to join them for fear of being labeled a collaborator.

That is how a cult works – any independent thought that goes against the official line is silenced and the people behind it punished and blacklisted.

Palestinianism is a death cult.

If that statement is offensive to you, then kindly point me to the editorials or school curricula or cartoons or TV shows or music videos in Arabic that say that it is not a good idea to die while trying to murder Jews. I will happily retract and publish the articles that criticize a generation that glorifies death.

But you won't easily find them, because the such ideas cannot be safely said in Palestinian society.

The next issue is, why are so many Westerners coddling this death cult instead of criticizing it?


The Cold Realism of the Post-Paris War on Terror. By Emile Simpson.

The Cold Realism of the Post-Paris War on Terror. By Emile Simpson. Foreign Policy, November 20, 2015. Also here.


The time for supporting democratic regime change across the Muslim world is over. It’s accept Assad and his like, or embrace the chaos.

Like then-President George W. Bush’s declaration of a war on terror after 9/11, French President François Hollande declared France to be at war following the appalling attacks of Nov. 13 by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. While the Paris attack provides a fresh impetus for the West to defeat the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism, it also shows how profoundly the post-9/11 war on terror has failed. After all, haven’t jihadi networks massively proliferated since 2001, leaving Western capitals and cities across the Muslim world perpetually on edge, poised for the next fresh carnage? Post-Paris, the war on terror won’t be part of a neoconservative project to remake the world in our own image, but a Burkean conservative posture that accepts the devils we know.

The fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the litmus test of this proposition: He’s a murderous butcher, but only his ground forces can realistically retake much of the ISIS-controlled territory. They haven’t been able to until now, because Western and Gulf states have backed a kaleidoscopic variety of rebels seeking to oust Assad, tying down much of the Syrian military. The fact that much of the territory lost by the Assad regime has wound up in the hands of ISIS and hard-line Islamists has created a climate of moral relativism, where neither Assad nor ISIS make for an attractive option. But this moral relativism has led to inaction and tragedy. Call it the Hamlet non-strategy.

But the Paris attacks will impose a cold strategic clarity. Whatever the objective threat, the West cannot tolerate the humiliation of terrorist attacks from an enemy that, so far, it has merely sought (and failed) to contain. For all the self-congratulatory talk of “historic” progress at the recent diplomatic talks in Vienna, a “political solution” cannot fix the problem of ISIS and hard-line Islamists — for neither Washington nor Moscow would ever accept a negotiated peace with them. The territory they hold must be cleared and held by infantry. But whose infantry? The Kurds can retake only so much ground, given their limited resources and lack of desire to expand substantially beyond ethnically Kurdish areas. Non-Kurdish rebels are small in number and fragmented. And in many cases their “moderate” credentials are dubious, at best.

That leaves the West, Russia, or the Assad regime and its Iranian proxies.

There’s no chance the United States, France, or NATO wants to hold ground on its own, or back Assad. So scratch the first option from that shortlist. Handing the moral and military quagmire over to the Russians — who will, in turn, back the Syrian Army — begins to seem like the only option.

Moreover, the anger and anguish of Paris comes on the heels of a refugee crisis of such magnitude and consequence for Europe’s fate that it makes dealing with the Greek debt crisis look like child’s play. The overwhelming urge to impose stability in Syria will mean that moral relativism transforms into moral necessity: eliminate ISIS before all else. Perhaps Russia will agree to allow Assad to transition out of power following the defeat of the Islamic State, in return for sanctions relief. We’ll see. The bottom line is that while the West can hardly support Assad, in the aftermath of Paris, his transition suddenly becomes a secondary matter.

This reality already seems to have sunk in. France appears to be at least agnostic towards Russian strikes in Syria, and may even be coordinating with Moscow. Speaking in Vienna the day after the Paris attacks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that “it is time to deprive the terrorists of any single kilometer in which to hide.” Translation: We’re going to finish off ISIS, and tacitly accept Assad. For now.

Thus, Assad’s fate is a weathervane for the future of the wider war on terror. Syria has, in three respects, turned into the graveyard of the post-9/11 phase of this conflict.

For one thing, U.S. policy towards Syria begins to dispel the notion that the war on terror is part of a broader freedom-promotion agenda. In his address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, then-President Bush defined the war on terror as a moralizing revolutionary project. The refrain was still alive six years later. “This war is more than a clash of arms — it is a decisive ideological struggle,” Bush said in his 2007 State of the Union address. “The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity.”

And what is Washington’s bipartisan answer to this “great question of our day,” from the perspective of 2015? A decisive “no,” unless you think that the Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime in Cairo, which holds up to 40,000 political prisoners in its torture-ridden jails, is allowing Egyptians to share in the “rights of all humanity.” Or, perhaps, that our trusted ally Saudi Arabia doesn’t actually have a rancid human rights record after all. Or that the atrocities being committed against Sunnis by Baghdad’s Shiite militias in Iraq aren’t really happening. In truth, the freedom agenda was always gilded with hypocrisy, given that the Bush administration doubled down on its support to repressive regimes after 9/11, from Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt to Islam Karimov’s Uzbekistan. Now, we’re simply regressing to the mean.

Syria makes plain that we don’t, actually, have an alternative to Assad. Yes, the Syrian strongman himself may well ultimately be “transitioned” out of power, but his repressive regime will stay intact. Whatever Assad’s personal fate, dissolving his regime means removing any vestige of state order that remains in Syria, and replacing it with even more chaos. And surely we’ve learned by now that things can always get worse. Syria merely confirms the lesson the West should have learned from Iraq: that the freedom agenda in the Muslim world is dead.

Second, we now know that the notion that regime change leads to a better democratic or a humanitarian outcome is decidedly false. From Iraq, where the West tried a heavy footprint strategy, to Libya, where it opted for a light one, the idea that Europe or the United States can actually execute democratic change by force has been exposed as a fallacy. In Iraq, $2 trillion dollars, over 4,000 dead Americans, and over 200,000 dead Iraqis created a country run by an Iranian puppet who turned out to be a vicious sectarian maniac. In Libya, we simply have chaos, with much of the state run by hard-line Islamists. Those who say the United States should have intervened in 2011 to topple Assad are left having to explain either how they could have rallied U.S. public support for an Iraq-like occupation and rebuilding of Syria, or, in the absence of that, how Syria would have avoided Libya’s fate.

The role of intervention, post-Paris, will be exactly the reverse of the post-9/11 model. Interventions will occur, but only to back fragile governments — not unseat them — without attaching any guarantees of future democratic transformations. France’s successful intervention against al Qaeda in Mali in 2013 is a good example of this model.

Finally, we should no longer doubt that gaps in fragile states in the Muslim world will be filled by anything other than hard-line Islamists. Sure, there were always terrorist networks like al Qaeda that could set up bases in ungoverned space. But 14 years later, we see how the information revolution has massively catalyzed the formation of jihadist networks. The speed with which ISIS has risen, proselytized, and formed franchises all over the world, cannot be explained without accounting for the interconnectivity of contemporary communication. In Afghanistan and Iraq, radical Islamic terrorists took years to build up cells; in Libya, hard-line Islamists were part of the rebellion from the outset. The result in today’s networked age is that every potential armed opposition movement in the Muslim world now becomes a potential jihadi branch. The West can’t risk that.

Here, too, Syria represents the culmination of this trend. The moderate rebels of 2011 stood no chance of survival against the hard liners who managed to rapidly mobilize foreign fighters and take over the majority of the insurgency. The result is that, post-Paris, Western capitals will be skeptical of regime change of any sort. It will be clear that when intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign (albeit repressive) states becomes a vehicle for democratic change, that vehicle will probably be hijacked by radical Islamists, and will arrive at a substantially worse political destination than intended.

The post-Paris war on terror will affirm the West’s commitment to fighting radical Islamic terrorism, but, in the process, it will reject the idiom of revolutionary, moralizing democratic change inherited from President Bush. Syria was the end of the line for that approach. This new phase will assume that terrorists are nonstate actors, and will take the view that if you have an international system built around strong sovereign states — no matter how brutal or unconcerned with human rights — life becomes much harder for nonstate armed groups, including terrorists.

This is simply a reflection of the new realities we face, not a celebration of that shift.

Of course, privileging the idea of strong sovereign states above all else is simply another way of re-stating the basic principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other sovereign states, a principle that dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and echoed in the U.N. Charter. In this sense, there is strong historical precedent for what we will see post-Paris: revolutionary moments that tend to spin out of control, leading to mass violence that requires a return to prioritizing stability over all else.

It’s worth recalling that the very word “massacre” comes to us from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 as depicted in Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan play, The Massacre at Paris. This savage episode of religious terror on the streets of Paris, sparked by a Catholic move against Protestants, was but one episode in a century of open-ended religious warfare in Europe, in which confessionally divided states sought to fashion each other’s internal affairs in their own image. To Catholic monarchs, protestant Queen Elizabeth I was the Saddam Hussein of her day, illegitimate leader of a rogue state, excommunicated by Pope Pius V as “the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime,” and targeted for regime change by Spanish King Phillip II’s Armada of 1588. This was but one strand of a chaotic web of ideologically driven interventions and counterinterventions, with an epicenter of violence in Germany and the Netherlands.

This was a path to social disaster. In Germany alone, religious wars from the mid-16th century to 1648 killed over a third of the population. The Westphalian system of nonintervention provided an exit from Europe’s “forever wars” of religion, because it abolished appeals to a higher moral or religious justification that trumped state sovereignty. But Europe arrived at that point only after a war so vicious that it convinced all parties to accept stability as an end in itself, and Thomas Hobbes devised the modern concept of the state in the Leviathan in 1651, published three years after the Westphalian settlement of 1648.

It has been fashionable to attack the state since the early 1990s, when liberal interventionists could make claims about the “responsibility to protect.” These claims made sense during the twilight of the pre-networked age. Meanwhile, the neo-conservatives were able to make hypothetical claims about democratic regime change that look ridiculous after the nightmare of Iraq. That world is now gone, and the state will reassert itself with a vengeance — that’s what Paris means.