On Thursday, in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination Hillary Clinton laid out the basic cause of ISIS control of territories and populations in the Middle East and the way forward to combat the existential threat on the civilized world.
In her remarks, Clinton isolated one of the key issues that drives much of the conflict in the Middle East – the competition for power, influence and territory between the Sunni and Shia divisions of Islam (the other key issue is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, not touched upon by Clinton on this occasion- one crisis at a time, please).
Here is a litany of complaints that Sunni have. Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a relatively safe place for the Sunni minority of that country. In fact, Sunni held most of the ruling positions of power. The incoming Shia led group that took over ruling the country after Saddam never allowed for adequate Sunni representation in the new government. The fall of Sunni power and influence in post Saddam Iraq and the weakening of Iraq’s military left a vacuum in the region that was filled by Shia led Iran. The Sunni in Iraq never felt that they received adequate support and sympathy from the powerful Sunni rulers in Saudi Arabia, a prominent ally of the United States in the region.
Enter the conflict in Syria, a country whose population is almost 75 percent Sunni but is ruled by a Shia Alawite dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s brutal war against the country’s majority Sunni population has killed and displaced millions of Syrians. The chaos in Syria and Iraq has allowed militant ISIS fighters control of large portions of Syria and Iraq. This gives ISIS its power base.
After making clear that the heart of the crisis is the conflict between Sunni and Shia adherents of Islam and the loss of territory in which Sunni can feel they have a voice, Clinton states that …” we need to lay the foundation for a second Sunni awakening. We need to put sustained pressure on the government in Baghdad to get its political house in order, move forward with national reconciliation, and finally, stand up a national guard. Baghdad needs to accept, even embrace, arming Sunni and Kurdish forces in the war against ISIS. But if Baghdad won’t do that, the coalition [of allies] should do so directly.” We must make it clear to Baghdad that we will arm the Sunni tribes and the Kurds because they have to be in the fight.
On Syria, Clinton added that we need to move for a political solution to the Syrian civil war, implying that Assad must go. President Putin of Russia has not been helpful, but Clinton said there is no alternative to a political transition that allows Syrians to end Assad’s rule.
Clinton said that she believes a no-fly zone in Syria is merited and can be implemented and can be helpful in limiting bombing attacks by the Syrian military on the Syrian people.
On the Syrian refugees, Clinton said, “Turning away orphans, applying a religious test, discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every Syrian refugee—that is just not who we are.”
Clinton’s speech and remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations garnered high marks from an unexpected place. None other than conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times wrote of Clinton’s speech in his column on Friday, ” The speech was very impressive. While other candidates are content to issue vague calls to get tough on terror, Clinton offered a multilayered but coherent framework, not only dealing with ISIS but also putting that threat within the crosscutting conflicts that are inflaming the Middle East.”
Given the importance of this foreign policy issue for the next President of the United States, this is close to an endorsement from a prominent conservative commentator for the Clinton candidacy.