Good policy here begins by understanding that the United States should not take the side of Iraq’s Nouri al-Maliki in his sectarian war against the Sunni insurgents. Sending U.S. fighters or drones to bomb the new extremist strongholds in Mosul and Tikrit would, as retired Gen. David Petraeus argued Wednesday, turn America into Maliki’s air force and deepen the Sunni-Shiite chasm.
President Obama sensibly appears to be leaning toward an alternative policy that would replace Maliki with a less sectarian and polarizing prime minister — and then begin using U.S. military power on behalf of this more broadly based government. The White House is already mulling a list of alternative prime ministers.
The people who will pull the plug on Maliki are Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and other Iraqi kingmakers. The U.S. should push them to signal unmistakably that Maliki is finished. And they must do so in coordination with Iran, which will effectively have a veto on the next Iraqi prime minister, whether we like it or not.
To create a broad-based Iraqi government that can begin to destroy the brutal insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the U.S. and its allies need to quickly gain the support of Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders. I met with several of them in Amman two weeks ago, and it was clear that although frightened of ISIS’ power, they were using it to attack Maliki. This Sunni opportunism can be reversed. The tribal leaders told me they want American help. I hope U.S. emissaries are on the way.
Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which have leverage with the Sunni tribes, began talking this week with tribal leaders to pull them away from ISIS. That’s a plus, but traditional bribes won’t be enough here. The tribal leaders want political power. Saudi Arabia wants Obama to announce that he opposes Maliki. It would be better just to move him out, rather than hold a news conference.
Targeting ISIS perhaps could begin with its safe havens and infiltration routes along the Syria-Iraq border, where there’s less chance of hitting Sunni tribesmen. “We know where their base camps and training camps are, which is where we can start — and it’s important to start,” says CENTCOM adviser Derek Harvey.
Political cover for the campaign to co-opt the Sunnis and defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria could come from the Gulf Cooperation Council. This alliance of Gulf monarchies has sometimes been toothless in the past, but recently it has worked effectively to keep Yemen from splintering, and it can play a key role now, working in tandem with fellow monarch King Abdullah of Jordan.
The GCC should call for an immediate summit with Iran to discuss the crisis in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, (hopefully with Iranian acquiescence) it should call for a GCC or Arab League stabilization force to be deployed in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria.
As the coalition broadens to include the U.S. (and hopefully Russia and China, whose anti-ISIS sentiments match America’s), this stabilization force can resemble the broad coalition that liberated Kuwait from Iraq in 1991, or the so-called “Arab Deterrent Force” that stabilized Lebanon after the worst years of its civil war in 1975 and ’76.
Training should come from U.S. Special Operations forces, under Title 10 military authority that Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is prepared to use. The Pentagon estimates that the U.S. could train a force of nearly 10,000 Syrian moderates by year-end; similar numbers would be needed for Iraq.
Good policy for Iraq and Syria can’t rely on military force alone. America’s misadventures after the 2003 invasion of Iraq surely teach that lesson. What will stabilize this part of the world (slowly, slowly) is political action backed by military power — conducted under a series of umbrellas: The first umbrella is a new Iraqi unity government; the second is a U.S.-Iranian dialogue that draws in Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners; the third is an international coalition backed by the United Nations.
It could take 15 years to end the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, just as it did the one in Lebanon. What’s crucial is for the White House to get started and move decisively, as soon as it can visualize a coherent strategy.
David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post.