As the Iraq Study Group's recommendations for a regional conference gather dust, the states, factions and sects of the "Greater Middle East" tremble on the edge of a chasm of massive military conflict-with potentially staggering implications not only for the people of the region but also of the West. And while the banter about negotiating with the major regional players has gained some momentum, there has been less appreciation of what the dimensions of such a discussion might be, where the trade-offs might lie, and what grand bargains America and others might have to strike. There has also been little recognition of a potential source leading the way forward: history.
The circumstances in the "Islamic Culture Continent"-extending from Morocco to Indonesia and from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean-do not differ so much from Europe's predicament in the aftermath of the Napoleonic War. Decades of what Clausewitz thought to be "total war" had ruined the economies and "status quo ante" social systems of the many European states. To overcome the instability of the continent and the likelihood that this would lead to further disastrous warfare, the great powers of the time met at Vienna after 1815 to create a system of balanced agreements that would bring into equilibrium the interests of all possible adversaries in Europe. This system preserved European peace for many years, until it came to pieces in August 1914. The system has been known as the Concert of Europe. What is now needed is a Concert of the Greater Middle East.
The difficulties of the Greater Middle East are preponderant. Iraq is beset by Sunni insurgencies, both secular and jihadi. It is "governed" by a controlling Shi'a majority, which itself is riven by competing Shi'a militia armies. Iran pursues a dangerous nuclear program-which threatens all its neighbors (including Israel) with the possibility of war and hegemonic domination-while meddling deeply in Iraq and abetting its political destruction. The Kurdish "nation" now possesses a homeland in northern Iraq, which is threatened in the long run by Turkish animosity and suspicion. Syria exists in a precarious state, balanced between American hostility and the policy pressures of its Iranian senior ally. The long-term stability of its government is threatened by sanctions and political covert action. Lebanon is transitioning toward a political expression of its Lebanese Shi'a majority, which could lead to civil war. Lebanese Christian allies of the United States and Israel do not want to give up the unwarranted power in the country that their small numbers no longer justify.
These and many other factors threaten war in the region both inside and among these countries-war that could easily spread to their sponsors in the world community. This situation is so dire that a regional conference of all the actors is justified-indeed, imperative. This conference should be designed to bring into equilibrium the interests of state and non-state "players" whose real or imagined grievances and needs threaten the peace of mankind. Just as the great powers of 1815 sponsored the Congress of Vienna to forge an understanding of what had to be done to achieve a lasting peace among those who hesitated on the brink of war, the present great powers-the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain-must call for a definitive international round of negotiations to settle all outstanding disputes among the peoples of the Greater Middle East.
Given the present structure of international law, the series of conferences would have to meet under the auspices of the United Nations, but the attitudes and direct and continuous participation of the great powers will be a prerequisite for success. What might the set of agreements and policies of a Concert of the Greater Middle East look like? From an American perspective, it may look like this: a grand bargain with Iran, under which the Iranian and Shi'a aspiration to be treated for the first time in history as equal in importance in the Islamic world with the Sunnis-and as a major power in the Greater Middle East-is accepted by the United States. In return, the United States should demand of Iran that it place its nuclear and missile programs under full international controls and that it both restrain the Shi'a government of Iraq from destabilizing excesses and desist from supporting international jihadi terrorism, for which it is well known.
A bargain among allies could also be struck between the United States and Turkey with regard to a Kurdish homeland, in what is now northern Iraq. The terms would be: Kurdistan will make all its oil export and refining deals with the Turks, abandon irredentist claims in the Turkish republic and take an active role in the suppression of armed PKK activity in Turkey. In addition, Kurdistan will support the rights and position of the Turkoman minority in areas accessible to it and, in particular, in Kirkuk. The
United States would maintain an air base and substantial ground garrison in Kurdistan to enforce all of the above-which would be necessary in any case to provide a military "reserve" to secure a U.S. diplomatic presence in Iraq.
The bargain would also entail bringing Lebanon and Syria to a mutual and legal recognition of their distinct national identities, in which Syria undertakes to refrain from political activities of any kind in Lebanon. Syria would have to accept that a violation of that bargain would open it legally to armed international intervention in its internal affairs. In return, the regime in Damascus would be absolved from the unending American hostility to its existence. In addition, Israel must be a full participant in all conferences and meetings involved in this process. In return, Israel will undertake to make Palestine (the state) a vital and thriving economy
Finally, on a more strategic front, in the Sunni-Arab areas of Iraq, the United States should learn to differentiate among: those who fight against Shi'a domination; nationalists and Ba'athi who fight for their condemned leader; Sunni Bedouin tribesmen who fight under tribal sheiks; "Alawi"-style nationalist Shi'a; and local or international jihadi types. The United States and the international community must learn to "divide and conquer" in Iraq. The variety of people in the Middle East is no different than anywhere else. The need to "neuter" Islamic jihadis is overwhelming. Muslims and Arabs hate the idea that outsiders can see the "daylight" between them and make use of it, but the fact is that there are enough mutually hostile factions in the "Sunni Triangle" that some factions can be made allies in the fight against jihadism. In this regard, the needs of mankind outweigh the psychology of anti-colonialism. It is likely that the Bedouin tribes would become allies against the fanatics. A choice should be made among present adversaries and allies found to rally against the true enemy.
In addition, U.S. forces in Iraq (outside Kurdistan) should be scaled back in their activities to a mission that concentrates on training the forces of governments friendly to the United States and securing our citizens and embassy.
Is there a practical alternative to a gathering in the spirit of the Congress of Vienna? Yes: war and chaos.
W. Patrick Lang is president of Global Resources Group, Inc., a consulting firm, and former head of Middle East Intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency.