THE BLOG
09/11/2014 04:42 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Confronting ISIS Through a New Balance of Power in Middle East

President Obama's vow to pursue a "steady, relentless" war against ISIS was welcomed in many Arab capitals, but serious doubts still linger about the president's long-term regional commitment. In sharp contrast to his previous inaction and reluctance on Syria, Obama has promised to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS. Despite Obama's firm rhetoric, the drive to achieve this aim must ultimately emanate first and foremost from within the region.

Although the U.S. and other western allies can provide the critical enablers to stem ISIS' advance, the effort must be pursued and endorsed collectively across the sectarian divide -- not only in Iraq but throughout much of the region and principally by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Failure to unite in this endeavor will only further destabilize the Middle East and threaten global stability.

Having learned valuable lessons from the defeat of its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS is proving a more formidable opponent. They swiftly eliminate adversaries, restore services and provide order when grabbing land. Their ability to embed themselves effectively in urban centers will complicate any removal process and involve higher collateral damage.

Although ISIS can be downgraded militarily in the foreseeable future, its long-term defeat can only be guaranteed by addressing the grievances and the sources it thrives upon. That is, largely undoing the narrative ISIS so effectively espouses and which remains so compelling to many Sunnis in the Middle East and beyond. In part, this entails halting, or at least neutralizing, the threat of Shiite regional dominance. Nouri Al Maliki's rule in Iraq, Assad's brutality in Syria, and Hezbollah's preeminence in Lebanon -- all under Iranian tutelage -- have fueled the fires of the narrative.

Furthermore, the narrative's appeal to young western recruits presents an increasingly serious threat. The challenge of identifying and confronting them remains an ongoing challenge for law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in the years ahead. Due to geographical proximity and porous borders, Europe is particularly exposed.

In Iraq, expectations must be managed in the rush to form a new "inclusive" government. It may prove too little, too late. In historical hindsight, preventing Iraq's breakup may be beyond the point of no return. Overcoming the impact of Al Maliki's caustic sectarian policies remains an enormous challenge.

Ideally, a new balance of power in the Middle East should emerge, either formally or informally, through a regional security framework that provides a forum for direct engagement. Based on current regional realities, this may seem far-fetched or perhaps a suitable project for the distant future. However, the Middle East now desperately requires such an arrangement.

A rapidly shifting, and unpredictable, regional landscape marked by continuous turmoil and increasing violence presents a constant threat internationally. Although the Arab uprisings of 2011 may have sparked this process, the ISIS factor has further accelerated it into a dangerous unknown zone.

A substantive regional security dialogue could only materialize through bold leadership from within the Middle East -- particularly from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Support from beyond would be critical -- particularly from the West and other emerging global powers. Although external players can play a critical role in helping to overcome mutual threat perceptions through confidence-building measures, the hard work can only be achieved by the regional players themselves. Such an initiative should go beyond the scope of the Arab League, since it would involve non-Arab regional forces such as Turkey and Iran.

The generational struggle against violent jihadism has entered a critically new and more dangerous phase. Its followers are no longer just hiding in safe havens and operating from remote locations. They are now holding large swathes land and engaging in direct combat in the heart of the Middle East. This global menace can only be confronted through concerted and multilateral engagement. The course of action must be determined by necessity and conditions on the ground in the Middle East and not by domestic public opinion polls or ideological resistance at the upper echelons of decision-making in western capitals. Time is of the essence. There is no longer room for dithering and megaphone reluctance. President Obama must remain publicly engaged on the ISIS issue at home and abroad. His September 10 speech provided an encouraging start. It must now be followed by firm and, above all, sustained action and not rhetorical half-measures.