Frederic C Hof writes: Islamic State (Isis) is the catastrophic consequence of political illegitimacy in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, created a governance vacuum. With the unflagging support of Iran, he disenfranchised and alienated Sunni Arabs through narrow, partisan and utterly sectarian policies. In Syria the vacuum’s creator is Bashar al-Assad – with the enthusiastic backing of Iran, he pursues a political survival strategy of collective punishment, featuring mass homicide focused on civilians. Legitimate governance in both places may be a long way off. But keeping Isis from sinking roots in Syria is an urgent priority, which, if unmet, will enable this criminal band to sustain its combat operations in Iraq from a secure rear area where it will also menace Turkey and Jordan.
Political legitimacy – a condition in which the citizenry agrees on the rules of the political game – is a tall order for the two countries in question. Can Iraq survive as a state, even as a confederation? Is there a future for Syria within borders drawn during the colonial era? Surely a stable, peaceful and confederated Iraq is not right around the corner. And for Syria, reconstruction, reform, and reconciliation may be generational undertakings.
No doubt the process of overcoming the conditions that made large swaths of Iraq and Syria safe for Isis will be a long one. The hardships associated with this process will be borne in large measure by Syrians and Iraqis. Yet to admit that the struggle for political legitimacy will be extended is not to say that the battle against Isis must be a multi-year engagement. Indeed, in Syria it must not be, as this deadly combination of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein loyalists seeks to establish itself in a country where it has no natural constituency. [Continue reading…]