The Levant will never be the same

I spoke Thursday morning at the International Affairs Institute (IAI) in Rome on “The Fight Against ISIS and US Middle East Policy.” The powerpoint I used is attached.

Questions focused on Iran and whether it might play a positive or negative regional role if a nuclear deal is reached. My guess is that it may continue to play a negative role, because the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will lose something in a nuclear deal and may require compensation. That could come in the form of a free hand to pursue aggressive Iranian objectives in the region, including not only Syria and Iraq but also in Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain.

There is, however, one important constraint on Iran: partition of Iraq or Syria would be against its interests, as it would likely lead to problems in the Iranian province of Eastern Kurdistan. Iran will not want its strong support for Shia militias in Iraq or for the regime in Syria to precipitate partition of either of those countries. The question is whether they will recognize the danger before it becomes irreversible. In my view, it is important to have Iran inside any future multilateral talks on Syria, precisely to expose them to the risks of going too far.

A couple of people raised the question of how the ISIS is financed. I know of no one with a really good answer to this question. I certainly don’t have one. It is clear enough that they used to get lots of money from trading in oil and oil products, but the anti-ISIS coalition has destroyed a good deal of their capacity to refine (and the drop in oil prices hits them too). They gained a good deal of hard cash from banks in Mosul, but that is a non-renewable resource. My impression is that Gulf funding has largely dried up, though it may still continue from private sources.

One person asked about the mutual silence of ISIS and Israel. They seem to be leaving each other alone. I think that is a temporary bit of restraint. Both recognize the danger and enmity of the other but are not willing yet to engage. That condition won’t last forever. Israel wants to be sure ISIS does not gain control of its border with Syria. ISIS will go after Jerusalem when it feels strong enough to do so.

A good deal of the discussion, including Riccardo Alcaro’s enlightening introduction, revolved around the question of how stability might be brought to areas liberated from ISIS as well as the necessity of doing so. General Allen has only just begun the process of talking with the Iraqis about stabilization. There are no easy answers, but security, governance and essential services will need to be provided. We are a long way not only from defeating ISIS but also from ensuring that the war does not create vacua that even more radical groups might seek to fill.

If you think of the war against Islamic extremism as having begun with the US attack on Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001, it is clear we have been more successful in fragmenting and spreading the enemy than in containing him, much less defeating him. That’s due in large part to stabilization failures, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. It would be better not to repeat that experience, though I have little confidence we have either the means or will required.

The war has displaced and impoverished many millions. Minorities are on the run. Relative majorities are frightened and distrustful. States are failing. Borders are evaporating. Extremism is reaping rewards. Moderation is fading. The Levant will never be the same.


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