The New “Great Game” in the Middle East: Looking Beyond the “Islamic State” and Iraq

The U.S. has good reason to try to prevent the creation of a violent, extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to reverse the gains of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria)/ ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), and to help move Iraq back towards a more stable and unified form of government. This may still be possible in spite of a steady drift towards civil war that has now lasted at least three years, and in spite of IS’s gains and Maliki’s failures and intransigence.

Such an effort does mean, however, that the U.S. must find some way to limit and roll back ISIS/ISIL without taking sides in Iraq’s broader civil war. It means creating a bridge across Iraq’s increasingly polarized and divided factions while also meeting the challenges to create a more effective and unified national government in Iraq, and try to support and to rebuild Iraqi forces.

At the same time, the U.S. must consider the risks posed by a much broader set of new strategic forces in the Middle East that go far beyond Iraq’s borders and are beginning to involve the U.S. in a new form of competition – or Great Game – with Russia and possibly, China as well.

The Burke Chair at CSIS is issuing a new report that examines both the option in Iraq and Syria and the broader goals the U.S. should pursue in the Middle East. This report is entitled The New “Great Game” in the Middle East: The Impact of Iraq. It is available on the CSIS web site at

This report addresses the reality that Prime Minister Maliki is in many ways as much of threat to U.S. security interests as ISIS/ISIL, and U.S. policy towards Iraq cannot be separated from the civil war in Syria or Iran’s ambitions in the region. At the same time, it addresses the fact that the U.S. needs to think strategically about the region over the next decade, rather than focus on a given short term crisis. This means putting first things first, rather than simply focusing on the crisis in Iraq and Syria.

In practice, the report describes the following steps in detail:

  • Focus on partnership and stability in key regional allies.
  • Focus on the truly violent extremist and terrorist threat without taking sectarian or ethnic sides, or sides in a civil war.
  • Treat Iraq and Syria as an integrated mix of threats and opportunities.
  • Approach Maliki as much of a threat as ISIS/ISIL and Assad.
  • Provide strong support for a truly unified national Iraqi government if one should emerge, and encourage Iraq to create some form of federalism and a more workable basis for unity.
  • Ensure Iraqi Kurds have an option, and step up coordination with them.
  • Contain the Assad regime as much as possible and keep the option open for a moderate opposition or post-Assad compromise.
  • Focus on a successful P5+1 Negotiation with Iran without setting unrealistic goals for a broader rapprochement, and while actively seeking to contain Iranian influence in Iraq and elsewhere.
  • Actively respond to new Russian and Chinese activities and strategic challenges.
  • Work with Israel to ensure its security while continuing visible peace efforts.
  • Keep U.S. ties to Egypt while seeking to moderate the Sisi regime.

A strategy of living with problems is never going to be as popular as one of trying to find short-term solutions, but it is likely to prove far more realistic over time. While miracles can happen, they almost never happen to the people whose plans depend upon them. Moreover, while the U.S. may not have to fight a long war against extremism, it almost certainly is going to have to continue to deal with multiple crises in the Middle East for at least the next decade.

The end result is a clear need for strategic patience and realism. It is also for an acceptance of the need to just how unavoidable the complexity and uncertainty of the new Great Game really is, as well as the need for domestic political acceptance that the U.S. must take risks and even the best judged options can and will fail. These are not natural American virtues, but they have clearly become necessary ones.