The Islamic State continues to spread their Caliphate throughout the Levant into Mesopotamia. Along their road of plunder and devastation they've begun an ethnic and religious cleansing of Kurds, Christians, and anyone else not willing to convert. The U.S. has begun airstrikes on IS positions, and U.S. lawmakers have encouraged even more extensive military action.
Is this the right action?
The question shouldn't be "How do we destroy the Islamic State" but rather "How do we use this to make the region a better place". My fear is that the Obama Administration isn't thinking along these lines.
The hard truth is that if the United States intervenes too forcefully with the Islamic State Iran stands to benefit the most from the aftershock. The Iraqi government is already borderline proxy status to their neighbor Iran. A quick victory against the IS will help Baghdad consolidate their power base which in turn helps Iran consolidate theirs. Iranian influence would be uncontested from Tehran, to Baghdad, to Damascus. There would be no real change in the region. Just more of the same dysfunction they've seen since after WW1.
What's the solution?
We're now seeing an area (Iraq and Syria) that is battling border lines that should never have been drawn. The Sykes/Picot Agreement was a solution brought forth by outsiders looking down on a foreign land. Sooner or later geography and the people that reside on that geography are going to revolt.
Over the years through shear brutality and force warlords such as Assad and ruthless dictators like Saddam have ensured these border lines have remained intact. However, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring have both served as a catalyst to enable the Levant and Mesopotamia to draw their own borders along a more natural progression.
You'll often here of Iraq as being divided between 3 areas: Sunni, Shia, Kurd
(map via stratfor.com)
The above map illustrates the Sunni, Shia, and Kurd divisions. It's easy to see this and think that Iraq's problems are a religious war with a minor Kurdish dilemma. This is far from the truth. Iraq's problems go much deeper. They involve tribal, clan, religious....a full spectrum of issues from people that have lived in the area for a thousand years.
Take for instance during the Anbar Awakening. Sunni tribes joined forces with Shia to oppose Sunni jihadists. If it were merely a religious dispute this type of union would have never happened. Even today Sunni tribes in Iraq are joining forces with Shia militias and Iraqi military to battle the Islamic State.
Yes religious differences play a role, but it's only one of their problems.
Quite bluntly, Iraq is not governed anymore from Baghdad. The Baghdad based Iraqi government is only legitimate in that it is recognized by the UN. In country, however, things are quite different. Tribal leaders in Iraq, be they Sunni or Shia, see themselves as Mesopotamian rather than Iraqi. They govern their lands independently. The Iraqi government governs Baghdad and that's about it.
The Middle East evolved.
As of the writing of this blog entry we've been arming and assisting the Kurds in Northern Iraq to fight off the Islamic State. I think this is a fantastic move and we should take it further. It is now time to push for a National Home for The Kurds. More than just an autonomous region in Northern Iraq. An independent Kurdistan where Kurds from the entire region can call home. Be they in Turkey, Iran, etc they would all be motivated to make Arbil their new capital.
Kurdistan would become the "Israel" for the Kurds. A bastion that they could feel safe in and that they would all be willing to die for to defend. Arming the Kurds would be not just a short term project to help them against the Islamic State but a long term strategy. They would be a viable check to the Iranians and radical jihadists.
The right for self-determination (supported by the UN) would be infectious in the region. The fact that tribal leaders in Iraq are willing to cross Sunni/Shia barriers for overall stability is a good sign. It's not too difficult to imagine a new nation state evolving that encompasses both the Levant and Mesopotamia. It also wouldn't be a stretch for it to be named "Greater Syria" or al Sham. Historically that would make since to the residents that live within those current borders. A federalized government that recognizes the differences (cultural, sectarian, religious, etc) in each "state" within Greater Syria.
The moderate Sunni's would eventually overwhelm the radicals. A strong Kurdish nation state in the north and a Greater Syria at peace would transform the Middle East.
Yes, IS must be put down...but the Kurds need to be the ones to do it. They need to use that as leverage to finally make independent Kurdistan a reality. Syria and Iraq's destiny is joined. A federalized Greater Syria has the chance to erase the sins of post WW1 and evolve the Middle East.