What to do with Syria and ISIS is one of the most often debated questions lately. Suggestions vary from President Barack Obama’s past hands-off approach, relying on a belief that this conflict will burn itself out (which it obviously did not), to Secretary of State John Kerry’s hope that he can negotiate with Russia and Iran (why wouldn’t he include ISIS as well according to his idea that we “negotiate with enemies not friends?”), to “just destroy them” (except no one dares suggesting sending significant American military contingent to the Middle East). So let’s think out of the box.
The first thing to do is to simplify the problem to make it solvable (just as in math) — by defining allies (who mostly have common interests with America in this region at this time) to help, foes (who mostly have opposite interests with America and want to hurt us) to harm or destroy, and adversaries (who mostly have opposite interests with America but do not aim to hurt us directly and are also strong) to partially satisfy but not strengthen.
It is, of course, difficult considering the complexities of the conflict: Turkey is against Syrian President Bashar Assad and ISIS, who are fighting each other, but is also against Kurds who are the best fighting force against ISIS, which is also Iran’s enemy. But Iran is the biggest threat to Gulf States, much more than ISIS, and America’s agreement with Iran amplified their fears and reduced their willingness to fight ISIS, which they fear may help Iran. On the other hand, Assad and Russia are interested in keeping ISIS alive because it justifies their fight against “terrorists.” So, keeping in mind American interests in this region first, let’s identify foes: ISIS, Iran, Assad, Iraq (unfortunately, it is too much under Iran’s influence), and Hezbollah (and by extension, Lebanon, where it governs); allies: Gulf States, Kurds, and Jordan (mostly, because in this fight our enemies are their enemies); and adversaries: Russia and maybe Turkey.
Now here is the plan.
First, promise to help Kurds with their independent state on territories where they constitute majority within Iraq and Syria. Also warn Turkey not to attack Kurds and give them autonomy in exchange for not including Kurdish territories within Turkey into a future Kurdish state and not expelling Turkey from NATO. This will encourage Kurds to keep fighting ISIS, undermine Iraq and Assad (and by extension, Iran), and will keep Turkey under control.
Second, suggest creating an Alawite state under Assad’s leadership north of Lebanon where most Alawites live. Promise Russia to consider recognizing its ownership of Crimea (it is de facto recognized already) in exchange for agreeing to form Kurdish and Alawite states, preventing Assad from helping Hezbollah, and leaving the Donbas region. This will allow Assad to save his face while making him harmless and Russian President Vladimir Putin to get what he wants the most (naval bases in Tartus and Sevastopol) without making him stronger — and will further undermine Iran.
Third, support creating Sunni states from the rest of Syria and Sunni areas of Iraq provided ISIS is defeated. This will hurt Iraq and Iran (and Hezbollah since it will be cut off its main sponsor), but will give Sunnis an incentive to abandon ISIS, which will lose its basis of support (i.e. its presumed fight against Assad and Shia Iraq). This will weaken ISIS enough to either wither away on its own or be defeated by Kurdish and other states around it; in either case, American involvement will not be necessary. And if ISIS gets to power in a new Sunni state (which ISIS de facto already has anyway), it will become more exposed to strikes than when it is a stateless entity.
Fourth, stop all help to Lebanon – anything that comes there will end up in Hezbollah’s hands since it is a part of the Lebanese government. The painful truth is: The Cedar Revolution is over and Lebanon is lost to Iran. Despite all U.N. resolutions, agreements, and wishful thinking, Hezbollah has acquired more weapons and gained more strength since 2006 thus increasing chances of a nightmarish war with Israel. Confining Assad to his Alawite territories, far away from Hezbollah’s hub in South Lebanon, and separating him from Iran will weaken Hezbollah and Iran.
And fifth, conduct a cyberwar against ISIS and shut down all its websites immediately as they appear; if Anonymous can do it, the CIA can do it better (this has nothing to do with the free speech or “closing the Internet”). That will force ISIS to concentrate on its Middle East operations, where it mostly fights American enemies, rather than encourage terrorism in the world.
Of course, it is important to also know what not to do. Militarily, America should not bomb ISIS without bombing Assad because it helps him and Iran. In fact, totally defeating ISIS in the current situation means making Assad and Iran significantly stronger, which is counterproductive, so it may be reasonable to let Hezbollah and Iran, who would hate an idea of a Sunni state buffer between them, keep fighting ISIS. And ideologically, the so-called “battle for hearts and minds” of people in the Middle East should be abandoned. Regardless of how peaceful Islam may be, terrorists use it as a justification for their acts; so that is where their hearts and minds are and it is impossible to find a replacement for their religion. It should also be remembered that many terrorists are educated and well off, so poverty and lack of opportunities are not the reason for them to become terrorists either. They do not care about our “hearts and minds,” or our limbs and lives for that matter, and neither should we care about theirs.
Osama Bin Laden once said that people prefer a strong horse, and he knew the mentality of people in the Middle East. So let’s become that strong (and smart) horse that people will either prefer or be fearful of. We haven’t been one lately!
Ilya Gutman is an immigrant from the Soviet Union who now lives and works in Marshall, Minnesota.
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