US intervention in Iraq and Syria is the right policy, but we should get Iraq right first. If the Iraq policy is succeeding, we are more likely to achieve our goals in Syria. If we bite off more than we can chew too early, we may lose both endeavors.
Consider this precedent: the USG tried for years without success in the 1980s to organize a broad-based international conference on Middle East peace. The effort finally succeeded after the triumph of Operation Desert Storm, via a multi-national coalition. The US government forged that coalition of the willing to include many states with which the US had difficult relations, and even some states that had major problems with each other. But the common cause of expelling Iraq from Kuwait in early 1991 was compelling. The Madrid Peace Conference took place in October of 1991, following months of demanding, but successful US diplomacy. It is worth remembering the unprecedented optimism and energy that followed in the Middle East in the few ensuing years (until the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995). The Oslo Accords of 1993 also helped give further momentum to the process. For a short while, it seemed that anything was possible in that perennially quarrelsome region.
The unifying effect of ISIL cruelty and barbarism, and the threat of increasing its grip in Iraq and Syria, have created the possibility of a new coalition of the willing. The President has told us that such a coalition is in the works for Iraq. Our apparent strategy helped solidify the participation of this heterogeneous collection of nations: (1) demand new governance in Iraq that is inclusive, tolerant, multi-confessional, and legitimate in the eyes of the Iraqi people; (2) insist that sovereign Iraqi institutions take the lead for their own defense; (3) organize broad-based international support for the effort in terms of advice, training, equipment, and humanitarian relief. That also includes specific and limited supporting military activities, such as tactical air strikes, logistics, communications, and intelligence; (4) achieve longer-term international cooperation with a renewed Iraq to integrate it fully into the region and the world.
If the participating nations conclude that this Iraq strategy is indeed working for their own national interests, then perhaps they might acknowledge that the strategy can apply to Syria as well. These nations would have to agree first and foremost on the need for a political process to achieve legitimate, inclusive, tolerant, multi-confessional governance in Syria. We tried this in Geneva, but it failed for a variety of reasons. Now there is greater likelihood of success if:
• the US and its allies strengthen the moderate Syrian opposition sufficiently to change Assad’s calculus about “winning” via military operations;
• regional players with influence inside of Syria, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, Iran (yes, Iran), Qatar, Russia (yes, Russia) and others, discover that the Iraq model of new governance is the only way forward for the Syrian catastrophe; and
• all actors understand that cooperation over Syria despite other ongoing disputes with each other takes priority right now, and in fact might even become the basis for improved outcomes on those issues, too. This will be painful and difficult for some, including the US, but patient diplomacy can help forge this consensus.
President Obama’s plan to ramp up training and equipment for the Syrian opposition now is a good start, but it must be an aggressive effort. However, we should only consider immediate airstrikes into Syria as tactically necessary for the Iraq campaign – attacks near the border, for example. We should avoid the premature appeal of winning a battle in Syria, but eliminating prospects for resolving Syria’s civil war. ISIL will have its hands full in Iraq very soon, and there will be time for a coalition to strategize over eliminating them in Syria, too – given the right conditions.