Syria and Iraq: US Leadership for International Intervention

Syria and Iraq demand immediate international intervention. Yet, there is far too much complaining about US reluctance – how little America is doing, how urgent deeper American involvement is, even how the Obama administration is/will be to blame for whatever catastrophes transpire next in both countries. There is a legitimate call for renewed American leadership into each hornets’ nest. But it must come in the context of generating pro-active, collective international political intervention. The stability of the Middle East region is at stake, and there are many stakeholders, not just the United States.

Syria degenerates day by day, and the calls for US military involvement increase. Perhaps military operations are or will soon become necessary, but they alone will not protect US interests. Only a political solution between opposition factions on one side, and the current supporters of the Asad government on the other, will end the carnage and promote the possibility of inclusive, tolerant, participatory government in Syria.

The US can and should lead that charge. Today, Washington and Moscow announced their intention to convene just such a meeting. Good start, but it will need a lot of work, and many international hands to make that happen, especially from within the Middle East region. As I have written before, Iran should join the effort, but not as a way to validate any strategic Iranian role in the Arab Levant.

Political negotiation is understandably repugnant to many militants currently giving their lives against the horrors of the Asad regime. Same for the innocent victims of the regime’s brutality. Same for the innocent victims of opposition violence. But only a political solution derived together with elements of the regime (not Bashar al-Asad) and its supporters will bring peace and stability to Syria. And Syria requires both peace and stability.

The international community can provide, among other things, two diplomatic tools: patient, credible help in mediating this crisis (as has been done for Northern Ireland, for instance), and a subsequent process of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) for most armed elements in the conflict. The “national reconciliation” and DDR processes will especially have to deal with extremist militias on both sides.

Iraq similarly is degenerating day by day. Former US Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey argued at USIP recently that fortunately Iraq’s new constitutional institutions still exist and are more or less functioning. That is true, and gives us something to build upon. Nevertheless, such institutions require citizens’ trust in them in order to function effectively. Trust inside Iraq is eroding rapidly, especially on the part of Sunni Arabs. Kurdish/Arab trust is also fragile.

For Iraq, too, some argue that the US must intervene. True. But let’s use our leadership and persuasion to build an international network to weaken centrifugal forces and bolster the rickety Iraq state. The US cannot and should not bear that burden alone.

I’ve seen this movie before in Iraq. I was a senior officer at the US Embassy in Baghdad 2005-2006. The US and UK diplomatic missions worked collaboratively to build Sunni Arab trust in Iraqi institutions. The Sunnis had opted out of elections in early 2005 and veered toward violent resistance to the Shi’a and Kurdish leaderships. The US and UK were nearly alone in cajoling all Iraqi parties to participate in their new system. While we were making some progress toward the end of 2005, most nations were sitting on their hands on the sidelines. I give great credit to the government of Turkey for avoiding actions that might have exacerbated tensions in the north and working to achieve some harmony between the two countries. That has paid off handsomely for both countries. However, many actors were working aggressively against internal Iraqi political cooperation – mainly Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a violent extremists and militias. And egging them on were Iran, al-Qa’ida, and especially Abu Musab al Zarqawi (the late leader of al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia). Their goal: make sure that Iraqi Sunni and Shi’a remain divided antagonists. They succeeded in 2006.

Today the same dynamic appears before us: cooperation between Sunni and Shi’a is rapidly eroding and al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia is on the rise. The US and the UK should work with other global partners and regional players to shore up the Iraqi experiment. Some key Arab players are understandably preoccupied—Egypt and Jordan for instance. But they have a huge stake in the outcome. They should do what they can. But other regional nations must gear up to play a constructive role in one of two ways. They can either work to build hope, confidence and trust among Iraqis, or at least they can work to undermine the destructive elements that are determined to fracture Iraq.

The US can and should take the diplomatic lead to make this happen in Syria and Iraq. If the Obama administration is doing so already, it must announce that loud and clear to the world.

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