The Status Quo in the Fertile Crescent
ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, aka ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has transformed the political reality of the Fertile Crescent.
In Iraq, all of the inhabited territory to the north of Baghdad that is not controlled by the Kurdish regional government that had de facto control of Kurdish Iraq even before the Iraq War and has its own military forces, despite its official subordination to the Iraqi government, is controlled by ISIS. These areas have long been majority Sunni Arab, the ethnic group that controlled the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and a close ally of the Baathist regime of Syria which was controlled by crypto-Shiite Alawites. But, in the U.S. led Iraq War the Baathist regime in Iraq was deposed and replaced with an elected government dominated by Iraq's majority Shi'ites, mostly from the Southeast, and favorably inclined towards Shi'ite controlled Iran, although Kurdish and Sunni participation was maintained, at least for show. Also, during the Iraq War and subsequent U.S. led occupation of Iraq, ethic violence broke out and led to the massive increase in ethnic segregation in the country. Sunnis fled the majority Shiite Southeast and Shiite neighborhoods in the capitol mostly heading to the Sunni majority north that resisted U.S. led occupation most fiercely; Shiites and Kurds fled to Sunni majority regions in the North, to regions where their ethnic groups held majorities. Smaller minorities hunkered down in their local communities when they could.
ISIS have forcibly displaced or killed many of the people who were not Sunni Arabs who remained, particularly smaller ethnic communities in the north, and have tried, with only slight success, to take cities and oil refineries in Kurdish areas.
ISIS controls most of the inhabited territory of Syria to the east of its coastal mountain range outside greater Damascus, and most of the Tigress and Euphrates river valley to the north of Baghdad, as well as some towns in Iraq's largely uninhabited empty quarter in Southwest Iraq.
The remainder of Syria's territory is controlled by the Baathist, one party dictatorship that controlled the country for decades. But, when people marched in the streets to demand political reforms in the Arab Spring that began in Tunisia producing regime change there, and spread to Libya and Egypt where it also produced regime change, the Syrian protests gave rise to a civil war.
Early in the Syrian civil war, the U.S. refrained from intervening with air power as it had in Libya, in part, because it didn't want to cross Russia (which is now preoccupied in its military and political efforts to reclaim the Ukrainian province of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine), and in part, because it feared that the Islamist rebels opposed to the Baathist regime would triumph in the civil war (as ISIS now has in Eastern Syria).
After Syria bombed its people indiscriminately with aircraft and used chemical weapons on its own people, earlier in this civil war, the U.S. and its Western allies have ceased to recognize this regime of war criminals as legitimate and have more or less openly backed some of the rebel factions that oppose it in an ongoing Syrian civil war that has resulted in immense numbers of deaths and serious injuries, and many more refugees.
This Syrian Baathist regime has largely ruled Lebanon as a tributary state for most of that time period, and southern Lebanon has also been a base for Hezbollah fighters launching missile attacks against the Golan Heights and other areas in northern Israel, without formal Lebanese support, but Lebanon has not vigorously suppressed Hezbollah fighters either.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are effectively Palestinian colonies, with local self-government with U.N. humanitarian support that intermittently backs armed attacks on Israel and the abolition of the Israeli state. But, Israeli forces are militarily superior, have instituted tight border controls to shut down Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel proper, has embargoed the Palestinian region from international travel and trade, and has when push comes to shove, militarily and legally supported illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank that threaten to demographically and economically overcome the Palestinian population there and make the West Bank an area that is in substance Israeli and Jewish.
Israel mounted a major military campaign in the Gaza Strip this summer to reassert military control over the region, to close tunnels under the border between Gaza and Israel, and to bring to a halt a campaign of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.
Campaigns of ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, genocidal mass murders and rapes of civilians, taunts at the U.S. and U.K. by the high profile beheading of several of their citizens, and the kidnapping of many Turkish citizens with the threat that they will be killed if Turkey intervenes, has made the ISIS regime intolerable.
So, the U.S. has intervened with air strikes against ISIS in both Iraq (with the Iraqi regime's permission) and in Syria (without consulting the Baathist regime). The U.S. seeks to support non-ISIS Syrian rebels, Kurdish militias and Iraqi military forces on the ground against ISIS.
The U.S. claims that it has also discovered an anti-Western terrorist organization gaining power in the liminal area near Aleppo that is between areas controlled by ISIS and the areas controlled by the Baathist Syrian regime, which it has bombed.
What Is The End Game?
It is certainly within the realm of possibility, even probability, that the U.S. and its allies will be able to destroy the ISIS regime in Syria and Iraq. But, it remains far from obvious that once that goal is achieved, that Iraq and Syria should be put back together again.
The Kurdish regional government in Iraq doesn't need or want to be under the Iraqi government's rule, and does so only because international politics make it expedient at the moment, and because the central government has granted it de facto near total autonomy.
A triumphant U.S. coalition in Syria will be loath to hand over a Syrian majority that was oppressed by the Syrian Baathist regime and rose up against it with U.S. support to a reconstituted Syrian government, particularly because the Baathist regime is showing no signs that it will be successfully removed from power.
The Sunni Arabs of northern Iraq gave into the ISIS regime's rise to power because they feel marginalized by the dysfunctional new Iraqi central government that is openly Shi'ite and allied with Iraq's historically Iranian nemesis, rather than just because they fear the ruthless tactics that ISIS has employed to cow people into submission. They will not be eager to reinstate the central Iraqi region of control and their sense of identity with ethnic compatriots in Eastern Syria has been heightened by the ISIS regime in a manner that goes beyond the particular kind of Islamic State that ISIS has sought to impose.
Creating a new more moderate democratic state with more respect for human rights and international expectations for the conduct of a sovereign in the territory now controlled by ISIS may be a more viable end game than trying to restore the pre-ISIS boundaries of Iraq and Syria, which neither government was able to maintain control of on their own.
Or, perhaps, this territory ought to become a protectorate of, or annexed to, some better behaved Sunni Arab state in the region, such as Jordan, rather than letting Islamist leaning majorities reinstate ISIS via the ballot box. The coalition against ISIS shouldn't be above rewarding states in the region like Jordan's constitutional monarchy (with a balance between elected and hereditary power similar to England ca. 1700 CE), that best exemplifies their vision for a future Near East, while punishing those, like the incompetent, dysfunctional and demagogue run Southeastern Iraq dominated rump regime, or the war criminal led Syrian Baathist dictatorship.
It is hard to see that rule of ISIS as a Saudi Arabian protectorate would be any great improvement over ISIS. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that merely because we can buy cooperation from Saudi Arabia with weapons, oil purchases and the like, and because Saudi Arabia can maintain control of its own territory, that it medieval regime can ever really be a true ally that shares our vision of the future for the region. Saudi Arabian elites were behind 9-11, funded the Taliban in Afghanistan, and drive Islamic terrorism worldwide, despite the efforts of the absolute monarchy there to distance itself from them.
Turkey is another possible protectorate ruler for the region, and is even closer geographically and has more resources to do so, as well as being a full fledged Republic and more moderate than any other predominantly Muslim country in the region. But, its long standing conflict with Kurdish insurgents in its own country, and apparent lack of interest in intervening militarily on the ground in ISIS territory, casts doubt on its suitability in this role.
Quite frankly, Jordanian annexation of the West Bank, and Egyptian annexation of the Gaza Stripe, as a means of resolving the "Palestinian problem", also makes sense.
Perhaps, in a reversal of roles, rump Syria could be turned over, either via annexation, or as a protectorate, to Lebanon, which has historically been multi-ethnic and has greater affinity and similarity to rump Syria than any other state in the region.
Perhaps we should strive towards a future Near East in which:
(1) Syria is removed from the map,
(2) Palestine ceases to have a political identity of its own,
(3) the Syrian coast and greater Damascus are annexed by Lebanon,
(4) Jordan annexes the West Bank, ISIS controlled territory and Sunni regions in Southwest Iraq,
(5) Egypt annexes the Gaza Strip,
(6) the Kurdistan regional government is granted sovereignty as a Kurdish state, and
(7) rump Iraq is reconstituted as a predominantly Shi'ite state of Sumer rather than a multiethnic Iraq.
These redrawn boundaries in the Middle East, might be more governable than those that existed prior to the ISIS crisis, where political regimes that have behaved well would be rewarded and where those who have behaved badly would be permanently ended.
Egypt would be better a restraining local militants in the Gaza Strip than Israel or the local authority in Gaza, and would provide Gazans with long overdue access to the outside world. Jordan would similarly be better at restraining local militants in the West Bank and provide them with long overdue access to the outside world, a role that they already fulfill to some extent.
Jordan would be more capable of securing some sort of meaningful acceptance of their legitimacy than a Shiite dominated, incompetent civilian regime in Baghdad, or actively hostile regime in Damascus, while preventing the emergence of an Islamic State, in ISIS territory and Southwest Iraq, and maintaining so level of tolerance for ethnic minorities. Its king can rule with clarity, while its emerging genuine parliament can provide a path for transition to a more democratic regime for a people not yet socialized enough to be ready for full fledged democracy.
A civilian government for Shiite Southeastern Sumer would be more humanly possible to run without the need to maintain a fragile Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish-minority ethnicity coalition, and with less territory to control and few people actively opposed to the regime and taking up arms against it.
Lebanon's regime provides a better model for how coastal Syria ought to be governed than the Syrian Baathist regime.
The Kurds have long had their house in order and the existence of a Kurdish state might encourage relocation of Kurds elsewhere to it rather than trying to fight local insurgencies. Running the Kurdish state would also be easier without Iraqi central government concerns to consider.