Contrary to what pessimists are saying, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s sudden sweep across northern Iraq does not have to end with the Middle East’s borders redrawn. That would be a calamity; the United States should do all it can to avoid it. And we can — if American diplomacy, rather than military intervention, is the main tool.
Yes, America may have to resort to surgical airstrikes to help Iraq check the advance of this extremist group, known as ISIS. But in the end, Iraq can be pulled back fully from the brink only if its quarreling sects agree to share power under a new constitution. And that will not happen unless American diplomats re-engage as mediators among the sectarian leaders.
The Shiite-Sunni divide has grown too wide for Iraqis to reconcile their differences by themselves, and Iraq’s neighboring powers are in no position to be honest brokers. Iran stands firmly behind Iraq’s Shiites, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey sympathize with its Sunnis.
So Americans alone have the ability to bring together all the stakeholders to end the fighting. Once we take on that role, the cooperation of the three regional powers would be not only useful, but essential.
And it would be in all of our interests. ISIS has carved out a vast Sunni region, from Aleppo on Syria’s border with Turkey to Samarra deep in central Iraq, that threatens to redraw the maps of both countries by creating a landlocked and impoverished Sunni realm that would covet its neighbors’ riches and be a breeding ground for extremism. That realm could expand further to include parts of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and then project influence across the Sunni world, from Africa to Southeast Asia.
In Syria and Iraq, the rebellion began with protests against anti-Sunni harshness by sectarian governments. Now it may be peaking; ISIS is unlikely to seize Damascus or Baghdad, and its extreme sectarian tone and record of heinous violence are provoking a reaction in kind among Alawites, Christians, Shiites and even among Sunnis, who once admired its fight against the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Still, there is no predicting the ultimate reach of ISIS. That is why it is critical for Iraq and Syria to remain intact and keep hold of their Sunni regions.
Consider the intersecting challenges: two failed states, populated by warring sects and ethnic groups, and ruled by ineffective and predatory governments; they are now besieged by brutal extremists backed by menacing neighbors with regional allies. That is a problem far too large and deeply rooted for a military solution alone.
In the long run, the key to stability and peace is rule from Damascus and Baghdad that is less centralized and that provides more justice and equality for Sunnis than in the past. And that, in turn, is achievable only if Iraqis and Syrians agree to power-sharing deals.
However estranged the quarreling parties are right now, they might respond to our diplomacy, with the buy-in of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The effort should steer clear of war-making, nation-building and goals as quixotic as ending the Middle East’s sectarian and ethnic divisions.
Rather, its guideposts should be three achievable goals: don’t let the extremists control territory; protect the territorial integrity of the region’s states; and promote governance by bargaining, to allow each sectarian community a fair chance to live in peace.
The task for American mediators would be formidable. While many Iraqis cling tenaciously to the idea of a unified country, the dysfunctional wrangling among Baghdad’s politicians pales when compared with the deep sectarian distrust left in the population by a decade of violence and displacement. In addition, the Kurdish region in the north has already left Iraq for all intents and purposes. And America has far less leverage than in 2006, when it had troops in Iraq to quell sectarian violence, and more financial and political levers with which to influence Iraqi politics.
Iraq’s Shiites, an overwhelming majority of its Arabs, will resist talk of sharing power with rebellious Sunni extremists. Most Shiites want instead to vanquish ISIS, then embrace Sunnis only as junior partners in a Shiite-dominated state. Many Sunnis, by contrast, feel the wind in their sails and think they can again rule Iraq; they are unlikely to settle for less than an equal partnership.
Breaking those attitudes may require a new government in Baghdad. But even with one, keeping Iraq intact will also require a new constitution to define how power is shared. A workable formula would have Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds governing their own domains, while sharing national power in a weaker center. A similar formula ended the ethnic war in Bosnia in the 1990s.
One factor in favor of this plan is the fear already sown by ISIS. Even leading Sunni Arabs who criticize Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and who have supported ISIS in Syria, worry that an ISIS triumph in Iraq would threaten their own interests; in particular, an emergent “Sunnistan” could strengthen other Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, which they have opposed in Egypt as too populist. As angry as these Arabs are with Mr. Maliki, they have little appetite for breaking up Iraq.
As for Iran, its ties are with the current rulers in Baghdad and Damascus, so it wants them to keep their borders. And with a Sunni minority of its own, Iran fears that even it may not be immune from efforts to redraw the map of the Middle East.
America can build a diplomatic plan on the common interest in keeping Iraq intact. It can rally the region and nations around it. It needs to start the effort now.
Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.