Modest Proposal to End Syria’s Civil War, Destroy Islamic State

Ending both the Syrian war and the Islamic State will require cooperation unseen since 1945.

And modest, of course, it will be, involving cooperation on a scale not seen since World War II. But to genuinely destroy the Islamic State and end the regional crisis that fuels it, one must think big.

Diplomacy has been tried in the past, but diplomacy tends to fail when equally matched powers are unwilling to give ground. For all intents and purposes, every force within the Middle East is capable only of influencing and protecting portions of the region; even the United States has proven unable to impose a solution. This has produced a stalemate and between the partitioned spheres of influence these outside forces have left no man’s lands. Within those no man’s lands, predictably, the madmen are king.

Now, in the wake of Paris and the downing of a Russian airliner, geopolitical forces are converging that may well make international cooperation possible.

And if the great powers are serious, this is one plan they may consider

  • The region cannot be brought if sides insist on morality and justice before peace; in order to achieve a lasting truce, many war criminals must go free.
  • The Armageddon-haunted relationship between the United States and Russia must be leveraged to the hilt, since both sides know that to fail could well mean a nuclear war.
  • Meanwhile, virtually every power in the region must be forced to act responsibly with some, like Iran, giving up influence while others, like the Gulf states, forced to take on more responsibility and still others, like Turkey, forced to do nothing.
  • Finally, while the Islamic State may readily be defeated on the ground, its ideology can only be destroyed by reforming Sunni Islam, starting with reestablishing the office of caliph in a way that would closely mirror that of the modern pope.

So, step 1: Understand peace is more important than justice

World leaders applaud as Presidents Slobodan Milošević of Serbia, Franjo Tuđman of Croatia and Alija Izetbegović of Bosnia and Herzegovina sign the Dayton Agreement at the Elysée Palace in Paris, France, December 14, 1995
World leaders applaud as Presidents Slobodan Milošević of Serbia, Franjo Tuđman of Croatia and Alija Izetbegović of Bosnia and Herzegovina sign the Dayton Agreement at the Elysée Palace in Paris, France, December 14, 1995 (NATO)

The Balkan Wars, not World War II, is the model to follow here. There, in the 1990s, outside powers were willing to make deals with many a devil to establish a cease fire and then a permanent peace. It’s been remarkably successful: Bosnia has seen no new killing fields. That’s partially because elites at the time with blood on their hands felt they could stop fighting and survive.

For Syria, this means accepting the Assad regime, if not Bashar Assad himself, for the short and medium term. Other rebel groups, as well as Shia militias in Iraq, will also enjoy impunity in exchange for peace. To have credible threats of war crimes trials hanging over the head of any given faction — minus the Islamic State, which is a special exception — will only cause that faction to fight to the death, with their foreign backers supporting them along the way.

Only the Islamic State, with its total absence of allies, can be wiped off the map: everyone else, with the debatable exception of Al Qaeda’s affiliate, has powerful backers that won’t let them die off readily.

Step 2: Realpolitik between Russia and the United States

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter's dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter’s dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Key to a permanent solution will be the two former Cold War rivals. The US will have to reconcile that only it has the power and influence to impose a peace on the Sunni rebellion and to destroy the Islamic State. Loath though the US is to fight yet another Middle Eastern ground war, the alternative is a forever festering Islamic State willing to strike the US itself.

But with Russian forces in Syria, it cannot hope to occupy the whole country; all the better, since that’s not a good idea. Rather, the US will accept Moscow as the guarantor of Assad-ruled Syria with the US given responsibility for the rebel Sunni hinterlands.

In exchange, Russia must ditch the notion that it can trade cooperation in Syria for control of eastern Ukraine. As the bombing of its airliner shows, it has a direct stake in destroying the Islamic State too. Syria is no longer a pawn on its chessboard, but is a new metaphor entirely: an Islamist zombie slowly lumbering to Moscow.

Once done, the two will have to leverage the incredibly dangerous nature of their relationship to impose a realist-based solution. Both already know full well that to cross one another’s paths could spiral to a nuclear war. That knowledge keeps Russia troops from shooting American ones and vice versa; as ceasefire lines are established and Syria is informally split up, Russia and American troops must solidify anywhere where the demarcation lines are unclear. They will have the weight of Armageddon upon their shoulders to make them behave.

Step 3: Russia and America must rein in their allies

Presidents Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the Kremlin in Moscow, October 21, 2015
Presidents Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the Kremlin in Moscow, October 21, 2015 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russia must force Assad, Iran and Hezbollah to cease offensives. While Russia doesn’t have the influence with Tehran that it does with Assad, Iran will be more likely to go along with such a plan knowing that the Assad regime will remain in power for some time to come — and that to resist could alienate Russia.

To keep the peace, America must ensure its Gulf allies starve any recalcitrant rebels of supplies. During the interim before a formal ceasefire was signed, the Assadists and Russians might be allowed to strike back at any bitter-enders along the front lines, but that’s only until the next step was completed.

Step 4: America and its Sunni Arab allies go on the offensive against the Islamic State

American secretary of state John Kerry speaks with Saudi foreign minister Saud bin Faisal Al Saud in Riyadh, March 5
American secretary of state John Kerry speaks with Saudi foreign minister Saud bin Faisal Al Saud in Riyadh, March 5 (State Department)

The idea of using the Kurds is great, except that the Islamic State is Sunni Arab and the Kurds are not ready to occupy Arab territory.

Instead, a combined force of Egyptian, Jordanian and Gulf Arab troops will sweep into Syria into designated zones. While limited Russian forces stiffen the Assad lines, the other coalition will have free reign to move into the rest of Syria and Iraq. Each force would be backed by US airpower and special forces. If necessary, regular US units would be on the frontline.

Since the Islamic State is a weak conventional force, such an invasion would rapidly roll on Raqqa and annihilate IS as a territorial force. That would be a huge blow to its ideology; the Kingdom of God that cannot defeat infidels in the open would look all the more bankrupt.

It would be key that captured territory not be occupied by Kurds or Americans. Instead, America’s Sunni allies, led by the Gulf states, would keep the peace; the United Arab Emirates’ forces, for example, have a good track record of peacekeeping in Afghanistan. Jordan and the Gulf states would be the best choices: many of those soldiers are still tribal and have links to the very tribes now supporting the Islamic State. They’ll be able to cut deals of much better use than a UN or NATO-led force; it’s to them that the job of occupation should fall, with the US providing the firepower to win battles but not occupy towns.

Instead, US troops would, in small numbers, be deployed to friendly Free Syrian Army towns that might be shelled by a cheating Assad. With US troops in harm’s way, the stakes would be much, much higher and Assad much less likely to try to use last-minute violence to change the game in his favor. The Russians would have incentive to keep him and his supporters under control; should they prove uncontrollable, Russian troops could replace them on said frontlines.

The alliance would rapidly converge on Raqqa and drive the Islamic State underground with US forces withdrawing to avoid an anti-American insurgency and Arab troops patrolling the newly conquered territory. Since none of these Arab forces come from democracies, they’d also be able to limit the movements of journalists; that’d be key to avoid yet another round of rebellion, since US missteps, widely reported in both Iraq and the US, fueled the insurgency during the American occupation.

Step 5: Redraw the map without redrawing the map

Map of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, showing proposed British, French, Italian and Russian territorial gains and spheres of influence
Map of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, showing proposed British, French, Italian and Russian territorial gains and spheres of influence

Much fear is involved in recognizing that both Iraq and Syria don’t work. But the Bosnian formula found a way to get around that: federate broken states.

With the Islamic State driven underground, both Iraq and Syria would have to be heavily federalized. Syria would be split into an Assad-run rump protected and guaranteed by Russian power; a Sunni Arab autonomous republic made up of occupied Islamic State territory and what remains of the FSA guaranteed by the US and its Sunni Arab allies; and a Kurdish autonomous republic that would still technically remain part of Syria and would not be allowed to merge with Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraq would also be broken up three ways: an Iraqi Sunni republic and a Kurdish republic in the north would have vast autonomy from a Shia-led central government in Baghdad. In Iraq, the autonomous republics would be protected by the US and the Sunni Arab alliance.

Iran could be given a sop in Syria; limited Iranian troops could protect Shia holy sites and pilgrims.

Turkey would be kept out of the whole affair. Instead, Turkey would clamp down on its borders and stop the flow of fighters to the frontlines. Turkey couldn’t be trusted not to fight with Kurds, nor, long term, can Turkey be trusted not to try to subvert both Syria and Iraq back under its influence. Instead, Turkish power would remain in Anatolia.

Step 6: Address the need to reform Sunni Islam

The Abraj Al-Bait Towers in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, November 17, 2010
The Abraj Al-Bait Towers in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, November 17, 2010 (Al Jazeera English/Fadi El Benni)

A major hurdle to reforming Sunni Islam, and thereby ending jihadism, is that there has been no central Sunni religious authority since the caliphate was abolished by the Turks in the 1920s. This has allowed any idiot with a microphone (and today a webcam) to claim religious authority over all Sunni Muslims.

So after destroying the Islamic State and driving it underground, a new caliphate must be established, elected by the Sunni ulema. Thankfully, Sunni tradition keeps the election of the caliphate relatively democratic. In a neutral city (Tunis comes to mind), Sunni scholars could converge to elect a new Sunni caliph. Representation would have to be worked out, but population proportion seems to make the most sense; that would also guarantee that the Saudis, whose poisonous brand of Islam gave birth to both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, wouldn’t have undue influence.

After, the caliphate would need to be given their own Vatican City: a city state where the caliph would be free to focus on religious rather than temporal politics, but would be grounded by the management of a city state enough to avoid radicalizing. The city that makes the most sense is Mecca: Saudi Arabia is awful at managing it and Mecca is too important to Islam to leave to such wretched authority. Saudi Arabia will hate that, but by the time a caliph is chosen the House of Saud may be so unstable it won’t have much of a choice anyway.

That city state would be protected in the near term by UN peacekeepers staffed by Muslim troops from around the world. A joint Russian-American force could also be utilized if absolutely necessary, but because of the sensitivity of the holy city, Muslim UN peacekeepers would be best.

This caliphate would moderate Sunni Islam over time by providing a central religious authority to sort out the many messy issues regarding doctrine. Rejectionists would exist, of course: they have since the beginning of Islam. But a caliph free to speak their mind and guarded by the UN would have more religious authority to combat extremism.

And should a caliph ever be an extremist themselves, removing them wouldn’t be difficult.

Not particularly modest, but perhaps workable

Rapid geopolitical conditions are converging that will force everyone to recognize their current strategies of attrition aren’t working. The Islamic State is far too dangerous to allow territory; it must be destroyed sooner rather than later. This will require cooperation unseen since 1945. That may bode well for the rest of the world, since a rapprochement between Russia and America is in everyone’s interests.

While China, India and other major powers might volunteer power, none of them are necessary to the success of said venture: simply having them vote favorably in the UN would be enough.

But most of all, the world must aid the reformation of Sunni Islam. It cannot wait until Islam suddenly becomes unfashionable, as Christianity has in Europe; instead, it must work with what’s there and Sunni Muslims need a central voice to guide them out of the darkness of Qutbism.

So, what do we think? Find holes and let’s plug them together!

A proposal must be open to criticism: have at them in the comments.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, November 23, 2015.