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There is a Sarajevo somewhere in Jordan. It lies well outside Amman, somewhere in the hostile terrain to the east or the north. Were the armed ISIS extremists — who now call themselves representatives of the Islamic State and soldiers of the new caliphate — to cross this line, the current conflict that engulfs Syria and Iraq would likely explode and grow more complex and costly by quantum degrees. This is not the sort of red line that is the product of an ill-considered, halfhearted burst of presidential bravado. This is the type of red line that triggers historic change and is worth considering as we mark the epoch-making events in Sarajevo that spawned World War I 100 years ago.

For now, the wars in Syria and Iraq seem almost to be inviting the United States to remain more or less on the sidelines. Once an amorphous mess, it has seemed to take on something of a shape and symmetry. In both countries today, alliances featuring the ruling governments working in collaboration with Iran and Russia are taking on the extremists. With the announcement this weekend of Russian planes and munitions being shipped to the government in Baghdad, the orchestrated bombings last week of ISIS targets by Syrian jets in Iraq, and the active role of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in both places, it almost seems like a traditional conflict with two sides vying against one another.

Further, with Moscow and Tehran willing to take up the fight against ISIS, it might be tempting for Washington to effectively sit this one out. After all, if the United States wants promises of political reform and the Iranians and Russians clearly don’t require it to intervene, the Iraqis will be even harder for America to deal with. Intransigent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may simply opt for the support of Tehran and Moscow, as well as a tacit alliance with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, avoiding the hard work of creating a truly representative Iraqi government — which also happens to be the most self-serving possible choice. Unfortunately, for the world, the route of “letting others fight our battles for us” might be “easier” — but it’s exceptionally dangerous.

The two wars that have spilled into one another do not represent a simple two-sided conflict. In Syria, not only is the opposition still fragmented, containing extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra that are themselves bitter enemies (usually) of ISIS, but it also involves more moderate groups, like the Free Syrian Army. You remember them? That’s the collection of rebels the United States has effectively resisted supporting thus far because it was uncertain of their allegiances or trustworthiness. Three years later, of course, now that ISIS has gone from terrorizing northern Syria to marauding across Iraq, the United States has somehow discovered that it is possible to “vet” suitable partners among them and start offering training and aid. The $500 million that Barack Obama has pledged to this effort is a good thing, though it’s diminished by its lateness. Meanwhile, in Iraq, it is not just Sunni extremists versus an out-of-touch Shiite regime in Baghdad. There are more moderate Sunnis who don’t relish the prospect of living in ISIS’s 13th-century self-declared caliphate. And there are the Kurds who seek and deserve independence — a fact not appreciably advanced by the declaration of support they received over the weekend from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is not exactly the ally of first resort you want in that neck of the woods.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that in its current configuration — and absent a constructive move toward effective political resolutions in Iraq or Syria — the conflict offers a panoply of unappetizing potential conclusions.

It is fine to pit Assad and Maliki plus Iran and Russia against ISIS, except under the following circumstances: Either side wins or, alternatively, there is a draw.

ISIS winning and establishing control over Iraq, Syria, or a large zone encompassing parts of Iraq and Syria would be a catastrophe that could haunt the region and the world for decades to come. Were Assad and Maliki to triumph with big debts owed to the Iranians, it would not exactly be a formula for regional stability, and it promises further insurrections and abuses to come. The most likely outcome, a draw, doesn’t look much better. Northwestern Syria will be a region of nominal governmental control, with the help of sponsors; some portions of Syria and Iraq will get an ISIS caliphate, a hot zone of extremist mayhem that will likely infect much of the region and from which more global terrorist efforts will emanate. Partition-by-default is a formula for unending conflict.

This frames the problem of staying out or disengaged. The United States might mitigate risk by leaving the messy business of a distant war to others with more skin in the game. And, it has to be admitted, this might work. All parties might deplete themselves, wear each other down, stay focused on fighting each other, and leave U.S. interests more or less intact. But this also raises the chances that the United States may get outcomes over which it has little or no influence — that may someday (possibly very soon) require of the country much riskier, more dangerous action, whether it wants to be involved or not.

This brings us to that red line in Jordan. Go find a map. Now you determine where this red line might be. You might say it is right at the Jordanian border because any breach of the sovereignty of such a valued ally and bastion of moderation in the Middle East would be intolerable. Jordan has been so dependably helpful to the United States and its interests, so constructive in the peace process with Israel, and such a pillar of the moderate and reforming path in the region that even the U.S. Congress, champions of inertness and the black hole of democracy that they have become, would likely demand American intervention. Read more…

By David Rothkopf

David Rothkopf is CEO and Editor of the FP Group. His next book, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear is due out in October of this year.

Published on June 30 in foreignpolicy.com

 

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