Stop pushing military solutions to a diplomatic problem in Syria

Here They Go Again.  Once again, anonymous Pentagon officials are pressing the President to give them more resources and more authority because only they can solve our problems.   The New York Times headline reads:  “More Is Needed to Beat ISIS, Pentagon Officials Conclude”   It’s a worn Washington gambit.  Anonymous officials say “just give us more resources and we can fix your problem.”   Then the press, Senators and politicians start asking why hasn’t the President delivered.  If he resists, he’s a wimp.  If he goes along, he just digs himself in deeper.     

The anonymous officials are right.  We do need more.   But not more military.   Hitting napalm with a bigger hammer is not going to solve the problem of ISIS.   Our strategy is already 90% military and 10% diplomatic.  Solving the problem requires an effort that is ⅓ military, ⅓ political and ⅓ diplomatic.

In Iraq and Syria, we are witnessing the third Sunni uprising.  The first was the Anbar uprising in 2004-2007 when US occupation and de-baathification threw the Sunnis out of government in a country that was, and remains, more than 40% Sunni.   Only by cooperating with local Sunni tribes were we able to stabilize Fallujah and Ramadi.

Then in 2013-2014 the second Anbar Uprising began when the Malaki government in Baghdad arrested the Sunni finance Minister.  The arrest exploded into demonstrations in Fallujah and clashes between protesters backed by local groups and the Iraqi security forces, which, like the Malaki government, were dominated by Shia. Even the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr sympathized with the protests, seeing the outbreak of an “Iraqi spring.”   By December, Sunni members of parliament were resigning en masse.  Repression and some accommodation with Sunni militias contained the problem, but didn’t solve the underlying question:  what is the place of Sunnis in the governance of Iraq?

Which leads to the new incarnation of Sunni discontent: ISIS.  Local Sunnis displaced by the Iraqi government, ex-Baathists and Saddam’s military leaders plus ever more extreme jihadists combined to join ISIS.  The Baathists are subsumed and integrated into the ISIS command and military structures (See this excellent Reuters piece).   Same mix as the previous uprisings.  Same underlying problem:  no place for the Sunni to govern.   The Kurds have emerged as the most able fighters against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.  Why?  They were fighting for their own space.   

So, why do we keep trying the solutions that didn’t work in 2003, when US forces fought house-to-house in Fallujah until we had Sunni Allies.  Why do we keep trying the repression by Shia forces that hasn’t worked for the Iraqi government?   Maybe we should stop and think and not just add forces and advisors.  The Pentagon is the place to solve this problem.

First and foremost, we need to get the right players together.  The negotiations in Vienna and now Geneva are finally bringing together the right outsiders.  It’ll take all the neighbors, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and all the major powers, including Russia, the US and Europe, to set out an agreement.  Yes, Assad will have to stay for some time, perhaps until a UN-supervised election can be organized in a highly-decentralized Syria. The Russians will have to keep their base in Tartus.  The Iranians will have to maintain a support base for Hizbollah in Lebanon.  Israel will need to keep a buffer in the Golan heights and influence in the Druze community of Syria.  The Saudis will support the Sunni, but let them support a Sunni homeland not a Sunni uprising.  

Much will stay the same.  This is not the chance to transform the region into democracies and to push the Russians back into the Black Sea.  But it is a chance to set forth a new governing model that gets us beyond the delusions of harmony created 100 years ago with the Sykes-Picot agreement and the mandates given to France and Britain, and beyond the simplistic ideas of the Bush administration that everyone would live happily together in Iraqi democracy.  It hasn’t worked in Iraq.  It hasn’t worked in Libya.  So don’t expect it to work in Syria.

Second, we need to provide a path to Sunni governance and autonomy, so that Sunnis, like the Kurds, have an autonomous future in Iraq and in Syria.  Sunnis need something to fight for.   We need to get as many Sunni groups as possible to the table in Geneva, especially local Sunni leaders in areas not occupied by ISIS.  Our only hope is to break up the toxic mix of tribes, generals and fanatics.  It won’t be easy but the conditions and goals of Sunni autonomy need to be clearly stated, and may begin with local self-governance in areas that are opened through military pressure on ISIS.  

Third, we need to continue steady military pressure on ISIS with bombs and advisors.  But, adding more explosives to the cauldron will only intensify the fighting and Sunni resentment.  We won’t solve this rebellion by adding more US forces to help Shia kill Sunnis and put their land under control of Shia-dominated governments in Iraq and Syria.   Sorting out the diplomacy and opening up prospects for Sunni self-governance just might work.