As ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), following on from overrunning a third of Syria and Iraq, is now trying to encircle Baghdad which could make the survival in its present borders untenable, there are very few options left. Western airpower alone cannot halt ISIS except temporarily, and neither the US nor any of its European counterparts including the UK are going to risk Western boots on the ground on sufficient scale to halt and reverse the ISIS advance. Supplying Western arms to the utterly demoralised Iraqi army, which is by far the most likely option chosen by the West, carries a greater risk of advanced Western munitions falling into ISIS hands than stalling the ISIS conquest. The only force now that can break the demonic sectarian spiral that has been unleashed across the Middle East are the regional powers of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, sworn enemies but conceivably brought together by their mutual fear of unlicensed barbarity lapping dangerously close to their borders. If that breakthrough is not secured, and only utter desperation will pave the way for it, ISIS will carve out both the new borders and institutions for Iraq in a manner that could end up genocidal for the Shias. How then might this unholy alliance be achieved?
If this debacle is not to be settled on the battlefield, which it still may very well be, there is only one way of resolving disasters of this nature, and that is by urgently calling together an international conference of all the main parties involved – Saudi, Iran, the US, the EU, Russia, and the leaders of ISIS. The leaders of ISIS may well take the view that that they are having such continuing success on the ground that they need no truck with negotiating with others, though it should certainly be made clear to them that this is not about seeking to maintain the now untenable 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and that there are no prior conditions for the conference. If ISIS refuses to participate, that should certainly not abort the conference, but rather give urgency to the key regional powers in trying to reach some accommodation as to how together they can halt the ISIS advance sufficiently to bring ISIS to the negotiating table to redraw the Middle East.
Even that, which is difficult enough as it is, is only the beginning. A long-term settlement has to establish strong confederal institutions which can guarantee equal citizenship and secure diversity and which can command assent by devolving power and defending minority rights. We are at the start of a huge process of change, but it will only happen if all the parties concerned are prepared to make concessions which up to now would have seemed impossible, including acceptance of an Islamic state provided it is not enforced by the sword and the gun and rests on consent. But impossible things can happen in the face of impending cataclysmic disaster.