Andelman: Who will get to run the new ‘Syriac’?

(Photo: AP )
By David A. Andelman
Iraq is at the beginning of the endgame of its existence that began more than a century ago, and there is little the United States can do about it. Joining the fight, as we seem ever closer to doing, will only ensure we are defeated by the overwhelming forces of history. Yet left to evolve, these same forces will also defeat our intended enemy, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The sharp spear of this endgame is a violent, sectarian organization that seeks to turn back the clock not a century but a millennium. Ironically, we have less to fear from ISIS than we have to a host of other forces they have unleashed that must be allowed to play themselves out.

The clarion call from many in Washington is that we cannot allow such forces to redraw the map of the heart of the Middle East.

Too late. They have done so, and it won’t be reversed. All ISIS is doing is what the peacemakers of Versailles did 95 years ago at the end of World War I.

Today, we are facing a single, vast nation of “Syriaq” that stretches from the borders of Lebanon, and perhaps eventually all the way to the Mediterranean, and back to the gates of Baghdad. The paramount question, of course, is who will rule it — not who will we allow to rule it. That is no longer within our control and should not be. There is no suggestion that ISIS has any substantial experience running anything.

Unlike the succession of largely dictatorial governments that ruled Iraq from its inception, ISIS governs by beheading its sectarian opponents, which only goes so far. Collecting taxes and regulating commerce take a whole different set of skills.

Not that the corrupt, utterly sectarian Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the U.S. effectively installed has done a whole lot better. But terrorist organizations are notoriously bad at managing anything. And here, a host of other players have announced themselves willing to jump in to lend a hand.

Moderate Sunnis within Iraq are opposed both to the violence of ISIS and the sectarianism of Shiites. Next door, a collection of wealthy Sunnis in places such as Saudi Arabia are said to be bankrolling ISIS. Eventually, however, they will want their money to begin talking.

Saudis are, or are supposed to be, U.S. friends and allies. They want nothing more than a peaceful and prosperous Sunni nation as a neighbor — a truly hospitable homeland for Sunnis in the heart of Mesopotamia. That would hardly include a Taliban-like ISIS.

When you have individuals as diverse as Iranian Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu counseling caution to any U.S. intervention, it’s time to think seriously about such an idea.

“When your enemies are fighting each other, don’t strengthen either one of them,” was how Netanyahu put it.

We would be far better served holding ourselves in check so that our good offices as honest brokers could be brought to bear when circumstances are closer to sorting themselves out.

Can we not imagine that the first targets of ISIS would be the U.S. military advisers in the hope of sucking us in so that they could kill even more Americans?

Or on the other hand, might we envision our Shiite friends quietly targeting these same Americans in the hopes that this will encourage the dispatch of more U.S. “advisers” to help beat back their Sunni enemies?

“This is the most dangerous moment for Iraq since 2003,” a Human Rights Watch researcher observed. “The reliance on abusive Shiite militias and Maliki’s general call to arms has pushed Iraq one step closer to civil war, if it’s not there already.” Is this where we again want our troops, where we should expend whatever shards remain of our credibility as honest brokers, peacemakers even, in a region that has only rarely known any moments of peace?

The best we can do is stand back and let it happen — or risk getting crushed beneath the wheels of history.

David A. Andelman is editor in chief of World Policy Journal.