It’s near impossible to do something significant to ISIS without benefiting its rivals in Syria (and Iraq by the way). It’s not something the US coalition should be held responsible for, however. Doing nothing the last three years about this war is the result of not wanting to tip the balance in favor of anyone, and the action that is apparently going to start soonish against ISIS is also not out interest of tipping things in anyone’s favor. But the US is going to have to change the way it views certain groups to have anything comprehensive come out of this, and that probably means getting deeply involved in negotiating an end to the Syrian Civil War, mediating Kurdish-Iraqi disputes to a final agreement and finding some federal alternative for Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq.
It’s actually kind of liberating, no pun intended, that the US has to get more involved in the political process. This isn’t exactly a situation with that much precedent. The only thing that has motivated the US and Europe to hold Iraq (or Syria) together as a single country is convention and to maintain the status quo in international borders. ISIS might have done any new negotiators in Syria and Iraq a favor by making the border between the two countries flexible or erasable.
Seriously, the US needs to reconsider the position of the YGP in Syrian Kurdistan. Its links to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a terrorist organization, could be treated pretty much the way Europe treats Hamas: as one organization with different wings. It’s not an exact analogy (and since I find the policy repugnant, it’s kind of a disturbing analogy), but the YGP is running a stable, de facto independent state in Syrian Kurdistan that Kurds call Rojava. Rojava and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq are for all intents and purposes, independent states with armed forces that could capture and hold territory and take it out of play for ISIS or other rival Islamist factions. Run with it. Allow the KRG and Rojava to keep their autonomy and see how far they go with their independence. Perhaps they will see fit to erase the border between their two territories in the future as well.
A simultaneous option would be to threaten Bashar al-Assad with an air war as well were he to launch any attacks against the Free Syrian Army at the same time that the FSA launches operations against ISIS. See ISIS and Assad’s Syrian Republic as two enemy states. It might actually be impossible to topple Assad at this point, but it might be feasible to contain him and tempt his sense of self-preservation. There was an old assumption among some observers that were a civil war like this to ever break out, the Alawi-dominated Syrian army would consolidate its hold on Alawite-majority areas along the Syrian coastline and reconstitute the short-lived, post-World-War-I “Alawite State” created by post-WWI France. That state is thought to have had a 60% Alawite majority, presumably similar to how numbers would pan out today. Containment here would mean to push Assad back and into this enclave, where the mountainous terrain might serve as a natural border between an Alawite-Ismaili-Christian area and the Sunni-majority regions of Syria. From there, the FSA can focus solely on its northern and eastern fronts against ISIS or the Al-Nusra Front or any other group not has prominently in the news right now.
Arab Sunnis between Baghdad & Damascus
In Iraq, the system used to grant Iraqi Kurdistan de facto autonomy should be employed in Al-Anbar province where most Arab Sunnis live and constitute the base of ISIS support in the country. Support for ISIS there is more a reflection of locals supporting the strongest Arab Sunni force that can either keep the government in check or push them away. It’s not satisfying, but Baghdad and DC will have to deal with these people if they have any serious inclination toward retaining the Arab parts of Iraq as a single country. In all likelihood, this won’t work, but I felt like it would be criminal to not include it and let people assume the country still had this option up its sleeve. Iraq was once three separate Ottoman provinces . . . for a reason. After World War I, Iraq immediately descended into civil war. The country hasn’t allowed itself to exorcise the collective memory of major rivalries for all these decades of civil wars. It won’t work because that legacy is too strong. Iraqis are well aware of history, especially the brutality of the last 10 years. So federalism is something Iraqis should negotiate, but not because it will work but because it will bring rivals to a table instead of a battlefield; to talks rather than to blows.
The Arab Sunni elements of Iraq might very well belong to part of the same country as those regions in Syria. Internally, ethnic homogeneity might be the best answer to both countries’ issues. This doesn’t pretend that the risk of Islamist rule isn’t there for a Sunni-majority country, but it does illustrate a scenario where we allow the map to be redrawn. It brings with it the risk of industrial and economic isolation because of scarce resources and such a country being landlocked, but that economic isolation already exists in Iraq and Syria, where the central governments ignore rural Sunnis anyway. Responsibility for governing their own state would eventually bring with it some concern, theoretically, for having good relations with neighbors and initiating trade.
This really isn’t as sloppy as it sounds. Both countries have been partitioned like this before. Defined borders can create armistice lines and eventually let these areas develop relations each other from across a table instead of a battlefield.