Middle East Escapism
Robert B. Zoellick
Wall Street Journal
Secretary of State John
Kerry’s new diplomatic process for dealing with Syria’s harrowing civil
war involves convening a series of talks in Vienna. The effort is probably
well-intentioned. But I cannot conceive of what he expects to accomplish.
Does anyone really believe that Syria can be put back together
again and then revived through democratic elections? The danger is that the
all-purpose diplomatic resort to “process” will lead the United States to
ignore realities and even make them worse.
America faces two interconnected perils in the region: the
expansion of Islamic State and the breakdown of the Middle East’s century-old
security order. The Obama administration’s fear of involvement and denial of
the fundamental struggle for dominance in the region increases the risks for the
U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia. The conference in Vienna last week—involving at
least a dozen interested parties, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia—was
escapism, not a serious strategy. The next gathering in a week or so will be
more of the same.
The old state borders and authorities of the Middle East,
established during and after World War I, are disintegrating. The Arab lands are
now the scene of a terrible contest for power. As former U.S. Army Gen. David
Petraeus explained to Congress in September, “almost every Middle Eastern
country is now a battleground or a combatant in one or more wars.”
The antagonists recognize that the stakes are for nothing less
than control of this crossroads for Asia, Europe and Africa. It is the home of
three of the world’s major religions, the world’s primary source of energy,
a cradle of civilizations and graveyard of armies and empires—and is now the
scene of possible nuclear-weapons proliferation.
Islamic State, or ISIS, bubbled over from this caldron.
Pursuing the ideal of offensive jihad, ISIS—whose motto is “enduring and
expanding”—seeks to hold and enlarge the territory of its declared
This barbaric army feeds off Sunnis’ sense of dispossession.
The ISIS promise of power depends on a victorious image—and on the absence of
a successful Sunni alternative in the battle against ancient and modern foes.
Iran views the regional breakdown as an opportunity finally to
win the Iran-Iraq war, establish dominance over Shiite populations and expand
Persian hegemony over the Middle East. Iran’s alliances with Bashar Assad’s
Syria and with Hezbollah, and Tehran’s convergence of interests with Russia,
are backed by Shiite militia, Iran’s Quds Force and supplies of weaponry and
The traditional Sunni Arab states—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf
entrepots, Jordan and Egypt—are fearful. Lower energy prices are draining
resources. ISIS can never conquer Shiite Iran, but it does threaten Sunni
rivals, which are tempted to compete through more sectarian strife. These Sunni
states suspect that the aim of U.S. policy is to accommodate Iran’s power or,
worse, to rely mistakenly on Iran to provide stability in the region. The Sunni
states are watching Iran’s nuclear program, missile tests and regional
subversion with high anxiety because they believe that they stand alone in this
contest for power and even for survival.
The Russian and Iranian interventions in Syria further darken
this bleak picture. Bashar Assad has killed about a quarter-million of his own
people and depopulated half the country. More civilians have died at his hands
than by ISIS violence. ISIS will recruit Sunnis repulsed by the Assad regime’s
heretical (Shiite and Russian Orthodox) reinforcements. Moreover, Russia’s
bombardments in support of the regime have targeted Sunni forces resisting both
Mr. Assad and ISIS. If Mr. Kerry’s “peace conference” presses these anti-Assad
forces to accept a cease-fire, ISIS will gain legitimacy as the only counter to
Peace depends on the future power balance. A Sunni
counterforce won’t fight ISIS unless it and the Syrian people are protected
against enemies. If Iraq is unable to offer its own Sunni tribes a secure
existence, they will feed—or acquiesce to—Islamic State’s rule. The
Turkish and Jordanian ideas for safe zones within Syria would offer the
opportunity for the formation of a Sunni alternative to ISIS and the Assad
These zones, in addition to providing a space where Sunni
forces could build military capacity, could gain legitimacy if they were used
for humanitarian relief, including health and schooling for refugees. The U.S.
could again provide assistance and protection as it did for Kurds in Iraq after
the first Gulf War. The Sunni states could direct their aid to this project,
joined by the Europeans, who have an incentive to stem the flood of refugees.
The allied effort, including Kurds who are now fighting
alongside Arabs, needs to counter the prevailing image of Islamic State success.
The jihadists’ possession of extensive territory makes ISIS vulnerable to
attacks on supply lines and to economic warfare that targets resources, such as
the smuggling of oil and antiquities. A social-media counterattack should
highlight negatives like Islamic State’s sex slaves and its violence committed
against other Sunnis; the allied technological pushback should include shutting
down online propaganda sites and radio networks.
The Obama administration won’t take these steps. Others will
consider them too hard or costly. The U.S. and its allies should then
acknowledge the likely result. First, America will forfeit influence over the
new order that emerges from this Middle East power struggle. Second, ISIS is
likely to consolidate or extend its reach in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Africa
and beyond. And third, America’s interests and friends are likely to suffer.
Conferences in Vienna will neither influence nor provide an escape from the
brutal realities mounting daily in the Middle East.
Mr. Zoellick is a former World Bank president, U.S. trade
representative and deputy secretary of state.