It’s time to renegotiate the contract that put the Middle East together.
The “contract” is the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The world that document created exists now only on yellowed maps, and the issues left unsettled — primarily the need for separate Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish territories — have come home begging. War is not fixing this; diplomacy might.
In November 2014, I wrote the only solution to Islamic State was to use American peacekeepers to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide inside Iraq.
However, in the intervening 15 months, Turkey and Russia entered the fight, and the Saudis may soon join the fray. Meanwhile, the United States and its allies — as well as Iraq, Islamic State and Iran — never left. Only a massive diplomatic effort, involving all parties now on the playing field, including Islamic State, has any potential of ending the bloodshed. That means a redivision of the region along current ethnic, tribal, religious and political lines.
A new Sykes-Picot Agreement, if you will.
The old Sykes-Picot Agreement was enforced by the superpowers of the day, Britain and France, with buy-in from Russia. The immediate aim was colonialism; the long-term goal stability, following the massive realignment of power that was World War One. The lines were literally drawn for the next nine decades.
Another important goal of the era, creating “Kurdistan,” never actually happened. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres left an opening for a referendum on Kurdish independence. Problem one: the referendum only included plans for Kurds outside of Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of fighting that saw the Turkish people separate themselves from the remains of the Ottoman Empire and fight for two years to prevent the dismantling of what is now modern Turkey. The result was 20 million Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
From a geopolitical perspective, here’s what we have now: the 2003 invasion of Iraq blew open the struggle among the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. It unleashed the forces behind some of the Arab Spring-driven chaos in Syria, and drew Iran deep into the Iraqi conflict. Shi’ite militia and Iraqi government attacks on Sunnis opened the door for Islamic State to step in as their protector.
The struggle metastasized into the ongoing, broader conflict. The Kurds are expanding the land they control, out of Iraq, and into Turkish and Syrian territory. The Turks look to repel that effort, and perhaps seize some territory to tidy up their own border with Syria. Russia has re-entered the region as a military force. The Saudis may yet send in troops. Iran is already there via proxy forces. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still holds territory, but only alongside Islamic State. The United States is training, assisting and equipping groups often fighting each other.
That all has led to human suffering on a genocidal scale, including refugee flows no one seems sure how best to handle. The ongoing effort to bomb away the problems has resulted in destroying cities like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and soon Mosul, in order to “save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without concrete results, and Obama‘s successor will be number five.
The only answer left, the one not yet tried, is to negotiate a comprehensive resolution that addresses all of the issues, borders and struggles now underway. That resolution will need to be enforced with military power coordinated by the United States, Russia and Iran, with each speaking for, and agreeing to corral, its proxies.
It will mean giving Islamic State a seat at the table, as the British were forced to do with the Irish Republican Army in the 1990s to resolve the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. One, by definition, must negotiate peace with one’s enemies. That is why, in part, the current ceasefire in Syria, which excluded Islamic State, has little chance of achieving any long-term progress.
Out of the new negotiations will have to emerge a Kurdistan, with land from Turkey, Iraq, perhaps Iran, and Syria. Assad will stay in power as a Russian proxy. Iran’s hold on Shi’ite Iraq will strengthen. A Sunni homeland, to include the political entity Islamic State will morph into, will need to be assured via a strict hands-off policy by Baghdad.
That Sunni homeland offers the first real way to geographically contain Islamic State. There obviously is risk in overtly allowing Islamic State to continue to exist, though that lives alongside the questions of whether it can be militarily destroyed, or if another group will simply take its place, as Islamic State did with al Qaeda in Iraq. These groups are symptoms of the broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem, not problems of their own per se.
The payoff of such a broad resolution will be a measure of stability, and a framework to enforce it. American efforts will shift from fanning the flames (American weapons are as ubiquitous as iPhones in the region) to putting out fires.
At risk for not acting: an empowered Islamic State, thriving on more chaos. An explosive dissolution of Iraq. A Russian-Turkish fight that could involve NATO. The shift from a Saudi-Iranian proxy war to a straightforward conflict between the two countries. A spark that forces Israel to act. A mini-world war, in the world’s most flammable region, that will create its own unexpected and uncontrolled realignment of power, and leave behind a warehouse of the dead.
Yes, I hate it, too. It is a very imperfect resolution. But an elegant solution is no longer viable.
Peter Van Buren, who served in the State Department for 24 years, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, a look at the waste and mismanagement of the Iraqi reconstruction. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent.