A Yalta Conference for a Post-ISIS Middle East
Seventy years ago this month, the leaders of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union gathered at the Crimean resort city of Yalta to plan the international order in the aftermath of Nazi Germany’s defeat. What made Yalta unique was not only the totality of power concentrated at this one conference at that particularly point in history, but that the issues of greatest concern to the participants had already been determined by realities on the ground. Specifically, and notwithstanding Stalin’s perfunctory promises to the contrary, the active deployment of three army fronts and two million Soviet troops made British and American insistence on free elections in Eastern Europe a dead letter. Similarly, Stalin, although acquiescing to Roosevelt’s idea of a United Nations, was already intending to pull the Soviet Union out of any post-war Anglo-American reconstruction program. In other words, despite American idealism, what was actually discussed at Yalta was not how to create a new international order, but how to avoid imminent confrontation within an order already in existence based upon the positions and relative strengths of its architects.
After more than twenty years of incoherent adventurism in the Middle East, regional powers, pundits and concerned observers are again clamoring for comprehensive, sustained U.S. intervention. The speed of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) advance, consolidation of its foothold in Syria and Iraq and, most conspicuously, sheer barbarism of its treatment of those under its yoke have led to collective cries of “enough is enough”. Boots on the ground now! scream the politicians. Recommendations range from embedding U.S. troops with local forces to giving Jordan predator drones to a unilateral U.S. military attack with over 10,000 ground troops. Notwithstanding the dimensions of the threat, the question of the circumstances under which the U.S. should lead efforts to destroy ISIS is a real one and perhaps more important than the means by which that mission is carried out.
Ever since Yalta and the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. has been one of the greatest victims of diplomatic and military moral hazard in history. Western Europe and client states in the Middle East came to comfortably free ride on American security guarantees while pursuing their separate interests. With respect to the Middle Eastern Arab states, after decades of siding with the Soviet Union to wage proxy wars against Israel and receive generous arms subsidies, a shift toward America began after Washington intervened to save the Egyptian army from total defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Saudi Arabia changed its relations with the U.S. from lukewarm to almost intimate in the early 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for fear that Riyadh would be next. Jordan followed suit in the early 1990s, receiving billions in U.S. military aid, diplomatic embrace and economic support. As of this writing, and notwithstanding the strange case of Qatar (the tribal enclave downplayed by Saudi Arabia and hated by the UAE) and Assad’s Syria, the broader Arab world lies snug under the American security umbrella — this has to change.
Before a single American soldier deploys to Syria or Iraq to destroy ISIS, the U.S. must assemble the leaders or representatives of the major Middle Eastern Arab states and Turkey (Israel can be temporarily excluded) to set the terms of its intervention and clear expectations for what a post-ISIS Middle East will look like. Washington must explain that the era of no-strings-attached assistance is over and the balance of power in the broader Middle East must be reconfigured. Beyond this, the attendees must be made to accept certain realities on the ground the day after captured ISIS flags are set aflame and its leadership summarily executed.
This article outlines a few items which should be on Washington’s list of must haves (in brief).
Jordan and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Ever since Jordan formally relinquished its jurisdictional control over the West Bank and Israel initiated the Oslo Process with the PLO in the early 1990s, Amman has been an unhelpful bystander in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel and Jordan negotiated a peace treaty in 1994 grounded in “peace for peace” wherein neither side was compelled to make any territorial concessions and the Palestinian Arab issue was taken off the table. As the myth of the two-state solution gave way to reality, the average Israeli and Palestinian Arab continued to lose patience and the PLO (kosherized of its terrorist past and bankrolled with billions of foreign aid from the U.S. and Western Europe) enriched itself while making maximalist territorial demands which no sane sovereign state could accept, a search for alternatives began and Jordan’s involvement (directly, through annexation of parts or all of the West Bank, or indirectly through reinstatement of citizenship and/or repatriation of Palestinian Arabs) became more attractive. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, in a column for the Washington Post, expressly argued for Jordanian annexation or de facto control of the West Bank as part of a “three state option” with Israel and Egypt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
With Hamas firmly in control of Gaza, the focus of any long-term breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in what to do with the West Bank. Despite growing calls for its engagement, Jordan continues to keep a distance and content itself with periodic exhortations for Israel to give away the proverbial store to the PLO. Jordan’s regime quashes any discussion of Amman’s taking some responsibility for the West Bank as anti-government propaganda and keeps the immigration door shut for West Bank Arabs (despite letting in thousands of Syrian refugees). This posture is troubling given that the majority of Jordan’s population is Palestinian Arab and the Kingdom had once annexed the West Bank. Worse, Jordan continues its hands off policy without any reaction or reproach from Washington. As Hamas grows in strength and lobs rockets into Israeli population centers, the PLO engages in sustained diplomatic and legal attacks on Israel and Israeli forces and settlers continue to tangle with Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank, Amman quietly receives economic and military assistance from America as if on demand. So important is Jordan’s mere existence, and status as a non-Islamist quasi-client state, that the idea of pushing it to change course regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered almost blasphemous.
If the U.S. is interested in achieving a sustained Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough, and the dividends resulting from it for regional stability, it should make Jordan’s direct involvement in West Bank conflict management part of the price for wider American confrontation with ISIS. Moreover, and knowing that the Jordanian regime 1) cannot defeat ISIS on its own and 2) could well disintegrate without active U.S. backing, the U.S. should aggressively use its leverage to threaten a freeze on all future military, diplomatic and economic assistance to Amman unless it cooperatively works with Israel to resolve the Palestinian Arab issue.
The destruction of ISIS should result in full Kurdish independence in Iraq (at a minimum) and potentially parts of Syria under coalition control (pending negotiations with Turkey over viability). The issue is not just a moral one given the Kurds’ distinct peoplehood and desire for self-determination, but a near inevitability based upon the critical role played by Kurdish troops in ongoing operations against ISIS. As I previously blogged on these pages, the resistance to Kurdish independence stems largely from the West’s national unity fetish regarding Iraq (further discussed below). Such an obsession is detached from the tribal dynamics on the ground. To force the Kurds back to a subservient status quo with Baghdad in the aftermath of an ISIS defeat (when Kurdish troops could well be within striking distance of Damascus or southern Iraq) would be ridiculous.
Additionally, alongside Jordan’s shift on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, few things could provide more stability and assist with a U.S. regional exit more than a secular Muslim state at the strategic heart of the Middle East – a new Azerbaijan allied with Israel and America out of principle rather than necessity. Kurdistan would simultaneously become a check on Turkish revanchism, Iranian machinations and Sunni Islamist awakenings in northern Syria and Sunni-majority parts of Iraq.
Washington should make clear to Erdogan, Assad and Abadi that Kurdistan is a fait accompli and the only question to be discussed in a post-ISIS Middle East are its borders. Whereas independence in Iraq could be assured with considerable ease given that regime’s loss of half its territory to ISIS, the Syrian question will require the diplomatic aerobics of a Bismarck. In this battle of interests, keeping Assad in power might be a card the U.S. should consider playing.
Tribal Partition of Iraq
Due to Washington’s obsession with Iraqi unity, it is possible that Iraq’s Sunnis would be compelled to make peace with the Shiite-majority government in Baghdad and revert to the pre-ISIS status quo in the aftermath of ISIS’ destruction. It is also possible, and perhaps probable, that no serious Sunni tribal leader would accept this with memories of Maliki’s repressions and American disengagement still fresh. ISIS has grown from a core of hardened Islamists affiliated with what was Al-Qaeda in Iraq into a multi-faceted army composed of religious radicals, Sunni tribes mistrustful of Baghdad and Washington and elements of Saddam Hussein’s military and security services. After victory, something has to be done with the thousands of Sunnis presently sympathetic (or not overtly opposed) to ISIS out of fear of Iran and the Shiites in Baghdad.
Back in 2006, in a rare moment of original thinking, then Senator and current Vice President Joe Biden proposed partitioning Iraq into three parts based on tribal and/or ethnic distinctions – Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni with a confederate government in Baghdad. With ISIS controlling half the country and the government in Baghdad struggling with problems of legitimacy, Biden’s idea should be dusted off and applied (with the caveat of Kurdistan) to partition Iraq into Sunni and Shiite states or special administrative areas following a U.S. coalition victory. Washington should abandon the chimera of keeping Iraq together — ISIS and Maliki have made this a pipe dream — and make clear to Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province that America will not abandon them again like it did three years ago.
In order to make sure that ISIS or a similarly inclined group cannot stage a comeback in Sunni-controlled parts of Iraq, ironclad guarantees of either self-determination or self-rule must be given with a similar understanding that a minority Sunni government for all of Iraq is also out of the question. Saudi Arabia and/or Jordan would be expected, or encouraged, to take an active socioeconomic and military role in the new Sunni Iraqi entity as part of what should be Washington’s objective of recreating a long-term balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For its part, Washington would leave Baghdad and the Shiite north of Iraq to Tehran independent of the status of negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. In effect, as with Stalin’s forces in Eastern Europe in 1945, Washington would formalize Iran’s de facto control over Shiite Iraq.
This article is not meant to be an exhaustive list of everything Washington should extract from its Middle Eastern partners (or potential partners) in exchange for its leading a coalition to destroy ISIS. It must be recognized that ISIS poses an independent threat to the U.S. and has killed at least two Americans in cold blood, which actions should warrant a sustained military response. Nevertheless, and taking the example of forward-looking statesmen of the past, the U.S. should not involve itself in another bloody ground war without a clear vision for the aftermath and some prospect that a post-ISIS Middle East would be shaped to Washington’s liking.