Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

What can be done to topple ISIS

It is easy to blame the United States for the mess in the Middle East today; discrimination against Sunni Muslims is the root cause of the rise of terror group ISIS.

We don't have a strategy yet: This cutaway remark, uttered by United States President Barack Obama in an unguarded moment in response to a question about what should be done to tackle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group, will haunt him for the remainder of his term in office, and perhaps even beyond.

In one goofy sentence, Mr Obama appears to have confirmed the worst accusations hurled at him by critics: Not only does he have no interest in tackling foreign policy crises but also, perhaps more egregiously, he does not mind admitting this in public.

Yet, criticism of the US and its President is both misplaced and unfair here. The real problem is not that Washington is gasping for ideas on how to confront ISIS, but that defeating one of the most murderous organisations ever to spring out of the Middle East requires a lengthy operation of mind-boggling complexity. Seldom before has a gang of criminals created so much havoc.

It is by now commonplace to blame the Americans for any problem in the Middle East, and especially for the disintegration of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. However, this knee-jerk tendency of ascribing every ill to the US is not just factually incorrect, but also downright dangerous, since it obscures the real causes of the current violence in the Middle East, and therefore hampers the search for solutions.

Regardless of one's opinions about the legality or wisdom of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, it does not follow that, had the invasion not taken place, Iraq would be united or stable today. Indeed, what is far more likely is that, left to its own devices, Iraq would have imploded in the same way that Syria has: Their regimes adhered to the same ideology, faced similar internal problems and used the same levels of repression.

Who is to blame?

The Americans are not responsible for the discrimination against Sunni Muslims in both Syria and Iraq, one of the chief factors behind the rise of ISIS: That has been the work of the Shi'ite-dominated governments in those countries, and of Iran, which helped and armed them both.

It was not the US but Turkey that turned a blind eye to the large number of foreign volunteers who poured through its territory, largely because the creation of ISIS initially suited the Turks, who believed this murderous organisation would keep the Kurds of Syria in check. And it was not the US but some of the governments in the Gulf and wealthy Arab donors that provided the cash to various extremist organisations that subsequently morphed into ISIS.

At most, the US can be blamed for failing to foresee some of these developments, for not intervening at an earlier stage, before ISIS rose to become the monster it is today. But these are American sins of omission; the real sins of commission, the truly significant mistakes and misjudgments, lie with the governments of the region.  

Does this mean that ISIS is now invincible? Not at all, but tackling this terrorist menace that espouses a degenerate interpretation of a faith entails disentangling all the web of errors, by removing one layer of old Middle East policies after another. The process is similar to peeling an onion: eminently doable, but not straightforward and guaranteed to generate tears.

The first imperative in tackling ISIS is modesty in acknowledging what can realistically be accomplished. With all the best will in the world, the damage created by the violence that has taken place in the Middle East over the past few years is largely irreversible. Even if the civil war in Syria were to end tomorrow, that country could not return to being a centrally run, functioning state; at best, it would be a loosely connected federation of enclaves.

Stopping the ISIS cancer

The same applies to Iraq: Even if a new, inclusive government were established in Baghdad, this would come too late to reassure the minority Iraqi Sunnis that their interests would be taken into account, and it would not entice the Kurds, who have suffered the brunt of the fighting against ISIS, into giving up their quest for independence. Neither the US nor any of its allies should be tempted by the idea that the way to defeat ISIS is to re-create what are essentially failed states; that might be desirable, but is no longer feasible.

A much more feasible objective is to prevent the ISIS "cancer", as Mr Obama aptly described it, from spreading elsewhere in the region. Jordan, a neighbour of both Syria and Iraq and the most vulnerable, must be protected at all costs, largely because any trouble in Jordan would also ignite the Palestine-Israel powder keg and could set fire to the entire region. A good start was made last week, when King Abdullah II of Jordan was invited to the Wales summit of the Nato military alliance, which was hosted by Britain.

Restricting the impact of ISIS must also entail US pressure on Gulf states to drop their petty internal quarrels, and to desist from undermining one another through their support for various fighting militias inside Syria and Iraq. Similar pressure should also be applied on Turkey to seal its border, thereby throttling the flow of volunteers as well as the chains of logistical supplies operated by ISIS.

Still, none of this would be feasible unless the US reassures its regional Arab allies that it will not be tempted to cut and run, by striking backroom deals with either Iran or the Syrian government. In theory, that option is tempting: Such deals could undermine ISIS inside Syria, and bring about the organisation's downfall.

But the reality is that such deals would be a disaster for American policy. Any arrangement - however tacit or secret - with Iran is bound to be interpreted by everyone in the region as US acquiescence to Iran acquiring nuclear capability, and that would create even greater mayhem.

The 'frenemies' strategy

Moreover, far from defeating ISIS, any signal from Washington that it is prepared to strike a deal with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would only boost recruitment efforts by the terrorists. In short, forging a coalition of "frenemies" with Iran and Syria, as many members of the US Congress are advocating, is not only a dumb idea - it's about the worst way to manage the region.

The alternative is to launch air strikes against ISIS targets, and expand the offensive through attacks by special forces from the US and some of its key European allies; it is an open secret that some of these forces are already on the ground. That would not defeat ISIS, but would blunt its advance, force its fighters to spend most of their time hiding in order to escape direct hits and complicate its logistical arrangements. ISIS prides itself on running a state, the so-called Islamic Caliphate; bombing ISIS formations would expose the sham of this statehood claim.

In a medium-term perspective of six months to a year, Washington's objective must be to unify the opposition movements inside Syria on a platform that is more than just religion, and use this to topple ISIS from its current pre-eminent position. This will not be easy, and will require more attention to detail than Washington has hitherto shown. But it is feasible to oppose both the Syrian president and the murderers belonging to ISIS in his country at the same time.

The challenge for the US is that the current crisis undermines all its policy assumptions. The Obama administration has worked in the Middle East on the assumption that each conflict can be dealt with separately. Thus, the Iranian nuclear talks were handled separately from questions of Gulf security and the Israel-Palestine dispute was kept firmly apart from other regional matters, while the approach to political changes in places such as Egypt was differentiated from US policies in other Arab countries.

A lesson for the US

Awkwardly, however, ISIS is the best proof of how all the longstanding troubles afflicting the Middle East can combine into one, a reminder that none of these troubles can be resolved in isolation. ISIS cannot be defeated without addressing the problem of Iran, the rising tension between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, the aspirations of local Arabs for good governance, huge economic disparities, and deep rivalries between nations.

The problem for Mr Obama is not so much that he is not aware of what can be done about ISIS but, rather, the realisation that, in order to defeat this terrorist threat, the US will have to discard most of its current policies in the Middle East.