The news that Islamic State has taken Ramadi should provoke a profound re-think of the West’s Middle Eastern Policy. The killing by the US of a middle-ranking Islamic State finance expert, and the seizure of his wife, is scant compensation. In Iraq, the Kurds and Iraqi army, with US air support, have been holding Islamic State at bay, but have not been rolling them back. After Ramadi, maybe not even that. The story is the same in Syria, with the archaeological treasures of Palmyra now at the jihadists’ mercy. Successes in Iraq, for example re-taking Tikrit, have depended heavily on the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Shiite militias, which risks turning this into a Shiite crusade against Sunnis. Obama’s promise to eradicate Islamic State remains empty rhetoric.
This should not be surprising. The rhetoric was never supported by a coherent strategy for securing its aims. Obama cannot deploy serious boots on the ground, and has had difficulty in finding credible surrogates. The Iraqi army is not up to the job, even with US air support. The Kurds fight well in defence of their homelands, but are reluctant to venture further afield. Neither the Turks or Saudis (who have their own problems in the Yemen) have been wiling to deploy ground forces. This leaves the Iranians. At least part of the motivation for Obama’s cautious rapprochement with Tehran has been the potential of Iranian forces as allies, albeit tacit, in the fight against Islamic State. The trouble is that this only makes the situation worse. Not only does it irritate the U.S.’ traditional allies the Saudis (hence their snub of the recent Camp David meeting), it also convinces the Sunni tribal leaders that they have no stake in abandoning Islamic State.
In many ways the situation is similar to that in 2007, when a coalition of Al Qaeda in Iraq with Sunni tribes and ex-Baathists nearly dominated Western Iraq. Although many claimed that this was stopped by the “surge” in military forces, the Al Qaeda in Iraq assault had already peaked by then. More important was the Sunni Awakening movement which broke the alliance between Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni tribes. To a large extent, Sunni tribal leaders were convinced to sign up by large quantities of cash. But they were also given assurances about their treatment by the Shiite dominated Iraqi government. These assurances proved empty, as the al-Maliki government pursued its sectarian policies. As a result, the Sunni tribes are again allying with foreign jihadists and ex-Baathists, this time in Islamic State. The only successful strategy will again be to break up the coalition. But it will not be as easy as in 2007. I doubt CIA officers will be as keen as then to drive around Western Iraq with suitcases full of dollars. More seriously, it will be difficult to convince the Sunni tribal leaders to break with Islamic State after they felt betrayed last time.
A successful strategy will need innovation, both in content and substance. Western Iraq is a dangerous place. Attempting physical contact with Sunni tribal leaders or ex-Baathist officers could prove suicidal. This is where digital diplomacy can come into its own, not just tweeting and blogging about the inequities of Islamic State, but by providing networking tools and platforms to achieve a diplomatic objective, namely to take down one coalition and put together another one in its place. Specifically, digital tools can be used to build relationships with Sunni tribal leaders and ex-Baathists to break up the Islamic State coalition and to construct a new coalition which will leave the jihadists isolated and vulnerable. Western security and intelligence agencies already make extensive use of chatrooms and other digital means to secure intelligence and disrupt terrorist operations. Diplomats should make similar use of such technologies to reach out to potential partners, exploring possible weak links and what their real agendas might be. Once these are clearer, diplomats can begin to use these digital tools to start breaking up Islamic State’s coalition and constructing a new one. Digital tools do not rule out eventual face-to-face meetings: the trust essential to good diplomacy cannot be created online (not least because you never quite know who you are talking to). But they can make the initial steps a good deal safety.
But there is no point in engaging in negotiations if you have nothing to offer. We may need to be even more innovative in substance than in process. Money alone may not be enough, not least because the jihadists with their oil revenues may be able to outbid us. Assurances about treatment in a multi-ethnic Iraqi state will not work again, even with Al-Maliki removed from power. The Sunni tribesman will know that, with the U.S. withdrawn from the region, Iran will inevitably dominate any Iraq government. It may be time to revisit Sykes-Picot. The borders that derive from that agreement reflect efforts to balance Anglo-French interests in the region rather than reflect any reality on the ground. The British and French are long gone. Islamic State has blown Sykes-Picot apart, creating a de facto Sunni jihadist state straddling the Syria-Iraq border. We should offer the Sunni Tribal leaders and Ex-Baathists to formalize a Sunni state in the region, provided they join with us in expelling the jihadists and guaranteeing that the new state has democratic structures. As a quid pro quo, the rump Syria and rump Iran could be combined into a Shia state, with a Kurdish state formed in the north. Would it wash? The Sunni tribal chiefs would get their state, but without the misery and violence of doing so with the Jihadists. Turkey would resist the creation of a Kurdish state, but would get rid of Islamic state and, probably, Assad. Iran would maintain a Shiite axis through to Hezballah. The Saudis would get a new Sunni ally in the region, and get of the Islamic State hook of their own making. More importantly, being willing to think in such radical terms could help open up an issue that otherwise looks like slipping out of control.
The Islamic state jihadists are worried about their coalition being broken up. Hence the videoed decapitations of western hostages or burning alive of the Jordanian pilot. Hence the destruction of archaeological treasures. Like Himmler in his 1943 speeches in Posen, they want to implicate their coalition partners so deeply in their atrocities that they see no way of breaking out, or expecting acceptable terms. If the jihadists are that concerned about the fragility of their coalition, breaking it open should be the focus of our policy. It will require radical and innovative thinking, in both substance and process.