Only a truth and reconciliation ending can save Syria and the greater Levant from the “black hole” of jihadi terrorism and regional state collapse. Simply put, in order for such an ending to happen, both Assad and ISIS must go. Any thought that the defeat of ISIS could be possible without empowering the Sunni majority in Syria and allowing for minority rights within Iraq, has been (and will be again) proven to be an utter falsehood. Iran and Assad are guilty of crimes against the Syrian people, as are ISIS and their fellow travelers. Without a far-reaching and fair political settlement, both the Syrian and Iraqi stalemates will continue far into the future. The great irony is that for Syria and Iraq (long-time authoritarian dictatorships), only a democratic outcome will suffice to make their respective Arab political communities viable.
The sectarian divide within the Arab world has been seriously exacerbated by both the decades-long drive for Sunni hegemony against Shiites in Iraq and the inevitable push-back by Iran through its use of sectarian allies in proxy wars throughout the region. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s has now spun off into a series of civil wars involving Islamic factions from both sides of this sectarian abyss. The Assad dictatorship (controlled by Shiite-like Alawis) in Syria has proven itself to be just as bad as the infamous Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. By the time of the American invasion of Iraq, a distinct perception of a tilt in favor of the Shiites arose across the Levant and caused dramatic changes in both Sunni confidence and political orientation.
First came the Iraqi civil war and the rise of Zarqawi under the banner of al-Qaeda. Over time, however, the traditional Sunnis began to loathe Zarqawi. With a strong US military presence within the country and assurances of a fair deal with respect to electoral politics and democratic norms, eventually Zarqawi and his Islamic State brand of hideous psychopathic violence was rejected by traditional Sunni Muslims. Within the tribal framework of Sunni Iraq, a new type of Iraqi politics was being born. A democratic and constitutional format appeared to be a far more palatable prospect than the savagery of Zarqawi and his local branch of al-Qaeda lunatics.
This was a great victory for Islam and civilization, as the Iraqi election of 2010 brought substantial crossover voting and inter-sectarian peace. In fact, Iraqi Sunnis voted for a moderate Shiite candidate for the leadership role in their country. This was a truly important moment in the modern history of the Arab Middle East. But a viable political democracy in Iraq was not in the interest of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Instead, Tehran was bent toward regional hegemony and its own brand of revolution. Sadly for the Sunnis, the American administration of President Obama was keen to communicate with the ayatollahs in Iran. Obama had promised the US electorate a withdrawal from Iraq and the greater Middle East. The issue of the Iranian nuclear program threatened to derail that key Democratic Party promise. Obama was looking ahead to his reelection campaign of 2012, and the last thing he needed was any direct military involvement anywhere within the region. He wanted a negotiated settlement with Iran over its nuclear program, and that would require a hands-off policy in Iraq and Syria. For the first time in decades, Iran sensed a regional vacuum.
Naturally, this opened the door for greater Iranian intervention and mischief. Even though the ISIS brand of al-Qaeda was forced to leave Iraq for Syria, and Zarqawi had been dead for four years, the lack of US staying power created an eventual power vacuum within Iraq. This power vacuum was filled by Iran, as a more militant Shiite perspective on the Sunni community emerged within the Iraqi body politic. Obama squandered the great possibilities of the Iraqi election of 2010. And by the end of 2011, the US administration had prematurely pulled out of the country completely.
However, the Iraqi election of 2010 dramatically helped to give the Arab world a sense of democratic empowerment. The events of a year later have been termed the “Arab Spring”. Their initial impact was an inspiring blossoming of a normative political agenda that spoke of pluralism and the rights of citizenship. The Islamic ideal of non-coercion within religion also appeared, as even religious movements adjusted to the call for individual and communal empowerment through a just constitutional rendering of politics. However, after decades of US support for Arab authoritarians, the Obama administration was loath to give President Bush any credit for his support of Arab democracy. Such an admission would have extremely negative consequences for the Obama reelection campaign.
Indecisiveness characterized the Obama response to the Arab Spring. In Syria, Assad perceived Obama as unable or unwilling to project the force necessary to alter a brutal regime crackdown. Of course the Syrian dictator was correct about the US president. Over the course of 2011, Obama fiddled while the peaceful Syrian demonstrators were either shot or imprisoned and tortured. All along, Iran edged even closer to Assad, while events in Iraq pushed Shiite Baghdad and Tehran to break from the promising political dialogue that had been created in the aftermath of the defeat of ISIS (al-Qaeda) in Iraq. Iran sensed an enormous turn-around in geopolitical forces within the Levant as a whole. For both the short and long term, the rulers of Iran were certainly not about to allow Assad and Syria to slip out of their regional network.
From 2012 on, the Syrian civil war morphed from a democratic enterprise into a sectarian bloodbath. Assad and Iran are chiefly responsible, but ISIS has re-emerged as a major player which feeds on this Iranian-backed, proxy-sectarian chaos. Make no mistake, ISIS has become a global threat with branches spread across the Muslim world. Its impact is also felt in Europe and China. Russia is especially alarmed. But Russia must understand that defeating ISIS will require a level of international support unknown over the last four years of fighting within Syria. There is no force on the ground capable of defeating ISIS without an international agreement on the future of Syria. That means that, in order to get an international agreement, Assad must go. Only the timing of such an arrangement needs to be negotiated.
The people of Syria must be allowed to institute their own democratic formation, as the promise of the Arab Spring must be allowed to continue forward. There is no escaping the vital importance of the events of 2010 and 2011. Even though we are approaching a five to six-year hiatus, the initial democratic foundation of Iraq, Syria and the Arab Spring is the only way to propel a truth and reconciliation ending to this devastating conflict. Without a democratic structure for Iraq and Syria, the Arab world (both Sunni and Shiite) can simply not trust that total victory would not be the eventual goal of their sectarian opponents. Iran and its proxy forces must not be allowed any legitimate place in the politics of Syria or Iraq. Likewise, Sunni extremists such as ISIS and others must never be allowed to seek violent retribution for war crimes and terrorism. Their role — within a democratic framework for both countries — needs to be expunged. Both Sunni and Shiite Arabs must be protected at all costs from the ravages of vengeance. Hegemony by either sect is a non-starter.
There is no military solution for Iraq and Syria other than stopping the warring parties through the will of the entire international community, acting through the UN Security Council. Only the United Nations can disarm ISIS and Hezbollah. And only the United Nations can protect the various communities from armed retribution. There is no other solution to Syria and Iraq than to be occupied by an international force committed to peace and reconciliation through political democracy and compromise. Russia and the US cannot achieve anything without the full support of the Security Council. Troops will be needed from many countries. If the promise of the Arab Spring is to be fulfilled, a total UN effort will be needed. Without such an international force, direct action by Iran to save Assad and their many Shiite allies will only draw in other regional powers. This could very easily lead to a vast escalation of the fighting and could also create a very unstable global situation.
Russia’s claim that only Assad and his allies can defeat ISIS is a spurious one. In fact, even with the help of Russian airpower, Assad has great difficulty taking back lost territory. Russia can certainly help protect the non-Sunni communities of Syria and beyond (Lebanon), but for how long? Are the Russians willing to stay a year, or five, or ten? An international occupation of Syria and Iraq could last for as long as it takes to achieve a workable multi-party democracy, whereby all the communities of the Arab Levant can begin to have confidence in one another. No one knows just how long that will take, but it won’t be quick.
Meanwhile, with Assad in power, the war will grind on without settlement as the region inexorably spins toward escalation and nuclear proliferation. This is a truism. The Iranian reach for hegemony will eventually draw fire from Jordan and Turkey. Of course Egypt and Israel cannot be excluded from the picture. Iran’s goal is to balance Israel with respect to nuclear weapons, and nothing within the present nuclear framework can alter such a scenario. Without a new regional non-hegemonic architecture, backed by a just geographic conventional security structure, equality outside of a nuclear weaponry framework becomes impossible. Obama and Kerry negotiated a disgrace of a nuclear deal. But now the ball is in Israel’s court in order to propose an alternative. A non-hegemonic region without nuclear weapons has been proposed by this blogger for the last twenty-five months. Only within such a peaceful structure could all the global powers accept the inevitable burdens of what must be done to resuscitate the Levant. But nothing short of an international force can alleviate what is certain to be even greater risk (nuclear proliferation) without such an action.
Assad must go, and Iranian designs must be countered and defeated. Russia can stand with Assad and Iran, but they can’t expect peace. Both Russia and the US know about quagmires in the Middle East. Going it alone is no option. But doing next to nothing like Obama in Iraq and Syria (as well as his greatly flawed Iran nuclear deal) will continue to have grave consequences as well.
All the great powers of the world need to act, and to act in an agreed unity. The Middle East needs a vision of peace and democracy. The best way to achieve this is through collective action leading to collective security. There should be no coercion in matters of politics or religion. Dictatorship is the enemy of all righteous religions; there can be no exceptions. The Arab world needs to return to the Arab Spring. Assad must be removed from the region, and all weapons of mass destruction outlawed. It is past time to reset the reset button between Moscow and Washington. The people of Syria and Iraq have suffered long enough. It is high time for the UN and the world community to finally react.