A strategy for the post-ISIS Middle East

Editor's note:

This op-ed originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

With Islamic State nearly vanquished in Syria and Iraq, it’s time for a serious debate about the broader U.S. security strategy in the Middle East. Leaving aside the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its unpromising near-term prospects, this debate must address the array of issues affecting American interests in the region: violent conflict, alliances, political and economic reform, and the central challenge of dealing with Iran.

The U.S. currently leads a military coalition in support of the Iraqi government and moderate insurgent forces finishing off ISIS in Iraq and Syria. American naval and air power ensures the free flow of oil through Persian Gulf waterways. Working with the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, the U.S. bolsters regional defenses against ISIS, al Qaeda and Iran. And it wisely tries to de-escalate disputes among its coalition partners, such as the ugly row pitting Qatar against Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni-majority states.

But the U.S. and its allies struggle on other fronts. Most glaring is a lack of a promising strategy to end the region’s civil wars and strengthen the states suffering internal conflict. Also missing is any serious plan to advance economic and political reform in the region, which is essential for long-term stability. The stakes are probably highest, and the current dilemmas most acute, in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. Here is what Washington, working with allies and regional partners, should attempt in each:

  • Pledge a longer-term U.S. military presence and aid package for Iraq, ideally supported by the Gulf states and NATO allies. Iraq has suffered generations of war and misrule, and years of low oil prices. With ISIS-held cities mostly liberated, a successful rebuilding effort engaging Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds and preventing a return to civil war or the arrival of ISIS 2.0 is urgent. The stakes, and America’s previous investment, warrant aid levels comparable to those showered on Afghanistan and Egypt. In the coming months Iraq will need significant help monitoring and restraining Iran-backed Shiite militias as they are disbanded and partially incorporated into Iraqi Security Forces.
  • Similarly, limiting but not excluding Iran’s influence in Iraqi Kurdistan would help bridge the internal political schisms that created opportunities for Tehran in the first place. With President Masoud Barzani out of office, there is a fresh opportunity to make this diplomatic démarche in a way that restores cooperation between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq. A wise policy should insist on an end to land grabs by both sides.
  • On Syria, the key word is regionalism. President Bashar Assad isn’t going anywhere soon, yet the U.S. cannot work with such a monster. He has permanently discredited himself in the eyes of much of the world. The U.S., its allies and global aid agencies should work around his government to secure and rebuild the regions free of Assad’s rule and ISIS’ interference. Some areas should be treated as temporary autonomous zones. The West needs more leverage in and around Idlib, where the al Qaeda affiliate formerly known as the al-Nusra Front remains active and our allies are vulnerable.
  • The Yemeni civil war has spawned yet another humanitarian catastrophe in the Middle East. Since its 2015 invasion, a Saudi-led coalition has been stuck in a quagmire. More than half the country’s population has been displaced. Malnutrition is severe and widespread. The country is experiencing the world’s worst cholera epidemic in 50 years. The crisis presents a strategic opportunity for Iran as well as al Qaeda and perhaps ISIS. Washington and Riyadh must try to advance a durable peace process with support from diplomatic partners in Europe and elsewhere. The watchword here is compromise—no outright military victory appears to be within anyone’s reach. A national unity government could stop the killing and enable the kind of humanitarian and reconstruction effort necessary to avoid future violence.
  • Elsewhere in the region, America should encourage political and economic reform. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is not the ideal American ally but he is preferable to chaos or extremism in that country. He has preserved the Israeli security partnership. But long-term progress will require respect for the law and political pluralism. American aid should be cut in half until Mr. Sisi establishes meaningful institutional protections for basic human rights. With strong Saudi and Emirati support, the Sisi government will survive such a cut, but American pressure can help restrain Egypt’s decline into authoritarianism.
  • Jordan, which has absorbed 1.4 million Syrian refugees into a population of eight million, should become the anchor of a new, multilateral Marshall Plan. That term is often tossed around casually, but Jordan’s government is trustworthy enough to help steward a major inflow of resources. Winding down the Syrian civil war would ideally create an opening—and provide an imperative—for historic investment in the development of the Middle East and its people. Along with allies in Europe and the Gulf, Washington should spearhead a reconstruction program providing jobs to the region’s youth and reducing the appeal of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

The sum total of a serious U.S. strategy for the Middle East will require a greater financial investment by the American people—perhaps as much as a few billion dollars annually—and modest increases in Central Intelligence Agency and military involvement, in Syria in particular. It will not, however, bust the bank or drag American forces into another protracted war.