It’s now too late to stop the civil war in Iraq, but we may yet succeed in preventing it from becoming a regional meltdown. President Bush’s decision to send 21,500 more troops into Iraq is an act of desperation, as they, like the rest, will end up trying vainly to referee a multi-sided civil war. Washington should focus on a more achievable — and more vital — objective: working with Iraq’s neighbors to quarantine the violence there. If the war spills over beyond Iraq’s borders, it could easily escalate into a Sunni-Shiite conflagration, undermining U.S. policy throughout the Middle East.
Iraq’s neighbors are already lining up on opposite sides of the internal sectarian struggle. Predominantly Shiite Iran has close ties with the two leading Shiite political parties and has supported the even more radical Muqtada al-Sadr. Tehran wants a Shiite-controlled government to retain power in Baghdad and would react badly if it appeared that Iraq’s Sunni minority might be poised to regain power.
But Iraq’s other neighbors are apprehensive (to put it mildly) about a Shiite-controlled Iraq. Saudi Arabia regards the prospect of such a state on its northern border as anathema, worrying about the impact on its own Shiite minority — which is concentrated in the principal oil-producing region. There are indications that wealthy Saudis are already providing funds to Sunni forces in Iraq.
Syria retains significant ties to Baathist elements in Iraq and has, at the very least, looked the other way as fighters and military hardware pass through the Syrian border to enhance the insurgency in Iraq. Turkey has its own policy priority: to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish republic in northern Iraq.
A regional proxy war in Iraq would turn the Bush administration’s mission there into even more of a debacle than it is already. Worse, Iraq’s neighbors could be drawn in as direct participants in the fighting — a development that could create chaos throughout the Middle East. Washington needs to take steps now to try to head off those dangers.
The best approach would be for the United States to convene a regional conference that included Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. The purpose of such a conference should be to make all parties confront the danger of the Iraqi turmoil mushrooming into a regional armed struggle that ultimately would not be in the best interests of any country involved. Washington should stress the point that Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq’s other neighbors risk having events spiral out of control if they do not quarantine the violence in Iraq. The U.S. goal should be a commitment by the neighboring states to refrain from meddling in that country’s sectarian strife.
A regional conference must focus solely on preventing the violence in Iraq from spreading. It should not attempt to address other issues such as the Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, or democratic reforms in the Middle East. Broadening the agenda in that way is a recipe for failure.
Even with a limited agenda, there is no guarantee that such a conference would be successful. All of Iraq’s neighbors have significant incentives to try to prevent a victory by one Iraqi faction or another. But U.S. leaders can make it clear to Turkey and Saudi Arabia that their close ties to the United States will be at risk if they exacerbate the chaos in Iraq. Dealing with Iran and Syria requires the opposite approach. Washington should convey to both countries that reasonable restraint will be rewarded with improved relations with the United States.
The Bush administration needs a healthy injection of realism to adopt a quarantine strategy. The goal of preventing civil war in Iraq is already lost, and maintaining a long-term U.S. military occupation of Iraq to forestall a regional proxy war is too high a price to pay, both in money spent and American lives sacrificed. Enlisting Iraq’s neighbors to contain the violence is the only feasible alternative.