09/18/2014 01:21 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

The Islamic State Is Obama's Rubik's Cube

Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

There is no greater challenge than prognostication about the multi-layered conflicts in Syria and Iraq. A diverse array of players, the involvement of external parties, crosscutting interests and allegiances, and few if any stable elements make this turbulent scene susceptible to rapid, unpredictable developments. Stable resolution of any kind is not visible.

Still, in order to get begin getting an intellectual grip on the situation we are obliged to make an effort at comprehension. Perhaps the place to begin is the identification of those things that are much discussed but will not happen. In this category we can place the following: The IS-led forces will not be capable of marching to the borders of Jordan and/or Saudi Arabia (the latter, by the way, is not contiguous to Syria contrary to White House assertions); Assad will not cede power and cannot be forced out; Turkey will not send troops to combat the IS; Iran will not send combat troops to confront the IS -- except in the unlikely extremity of its seizing Baghdad; airstrikes alone will not succeed in rolling back most IS territorial gains; American support for the "moderate" FSA opposition to the Assad regime will have no significant bearing on the military contest; the only "boots on the ground" opposing IS will be Iraqi (including Peshmerga); there will be no serious terrorist attacks on the United States instigated by the IS in the foreseeable future.

Having eliminated the improbable, what features of the field of action are discernible? First, on the Iraqi government side of the equation, the following are noticeable:

• The Baghdad government remains irresolute and ineffectual. This is true in the political and military spheres, both. A strong national unity government dedicated to overcoming sectarian differences in the interests of establishing a viable state has not emerged, nor are there leaders committed to doing so and strong enough to have a chance at success. The increased bitterness engendered by atrocities and ethnic cleansing is steadily adding to the obstacles that block that course of possible action. Militarily, the combined pro-government forces do not appear able to evict IS from most of the territory it has seized especially the cities and major towns. However, they do appear able to prevent IS from bringing Baghdad under its guns or extending its reach elsewhere. In this, it is the Shi'ite militias hardened by Iranian cadres who are playing the critical role. The effectiveness of American airpower will diminish as the enemy adjusts its deployments and operations accordingly. It will continue to play a role, though, in curtailing IS's offensive capabilities. The training and reconstitution of a new Iraqi army is a long-term project whose importance in the near future is unforeseeable -- even if David Petraeus is brought out of retirement for a second try.

• As to external parties, the so-called "coalition of the willing" will not amount to much except for its contribution of money to anti-IS forces of various hues, and the aforementioned American airstrikes. So long as no regional states are prepared to send in competent troops, their military role will be marginal at best. In regard to drying up IS' supply of recruits from places beyond Syria and Iraq, the prospects are not promising. Turkey is the key; and the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan shows no inclination to police its borders. (The same holds for the interdicting of oil smuggled across the border and supplies smuggled in the other direction.) Erdogan has too much of a personal stake in toppling Assad, in being recognized as the savior of Sunni Islam, and in Islamizing the region's politics to turn against the radical movements which he has nurtured from more than three years and whose mantle is now worn by IS. Saudi Arabia, too, will continue to temporize since it feels intense cross-pressures in the face of the IS Frankensteinian monster it fostered and which now threatens the House of Saud, on the one hand, and the popularity of the IS mythic stature among its own people, on the other. For the IS has become the Arab world's dream machine for the young and disaffected.

• Iran is the key external party on the Shi'ite side. Were Tehran able and willing to work in tandem with the United States, the military future of IS would be bleak. The United States clearly is not prepared for that; and the Iranian leadership isn't either unless America shows an unequivocal readiness to normalize relations with the Islamic Republic. The present tacit collaboration without direct communication suffices to satisfy Iranian purposes. That is to say, IS' reach is limited and its military capabilities will be progressively weakened. The Shi'ite led government in Baghdad, its protégé, will survive and continue to control those parts of the country of most interest to Iran. A semi-autonomous Kurdistan under its current leadership is less than ideal but not a problem of the first order.

• The United States has less reason to be complacent -- insofar as it genuinely worries about terrorism in the West and destabilization of its Sunni allies across the region. For IS will not be suppressed (or "destroyed" or "crushed"), even if contained. As a presence in the region, all of its nefarious influences and effects will remain prominent facts of life. They include: a potential springboard for terrorist operations in neighboring countries (whether or not they are punctuated by occasional forays into the West); an inspiration and source of practical support for other or related salafist movements from Morocco to Malaysia; and a constant catalyst that keeps the sectarian pot boiling between Sunnis and Shi'a. This last condition implies heightened instability domestically and in terms of regional relations. Instability, in turn, militates against resolution of every other Middle Eastern problems -- Palestine, Iran's nuclear energy program, the future forms and influence of political Islam, the parlous state of the Gulf autocracies, etc.

• Allegiances will be highly fluid. Tactical coalition members are liable to shift their allegiances according to their reading of changing circumstances. This applies to Iraqi tribes, factions of the Syrian opposition, militias, the former Ba'ath elements in Iraq and all governments.

What could/should the United States do?

It has no good strategies. Finding oneself in a situation where all paths seem to be dead-ends (if not indeed liable to lead to a worsening of the situation) represents the ultimate failure of American foreign policy in the Middle East. We are, of course, the immediate cause of IS thanks to our reckless invasion of Iraq. In that sense, we are IS's godfather. Overall, it is Washington's array of misguided actions in the 9/11 era that have put us in this unenviable position. It is tempting just to distance the United States from the Syria/Iraq quagmire where America has no friends, multiple enemies, and little hope of gaining any mastery of the situation. In truth, official Washington is also far from having an intellectual mastery of how it got itself into this jam or of its limited options.

One is reminded of the apocryphal story that relates an incident in the Roman Senate when Attila's Huns were at the city gates. A venerable Senator rose with difficulty and proclaimed that the only logical policy was to do nothing. Derided as senile, he defended his recommendation with the impeccable logic that since all knew that "the Huns will stop at nothing," doing nothing would lead them to cease and desist. In effect, this was the Obama policy until the IS breakout in June.

The most likely course will be for Washington to do what you're accustomed to doing. That means leaning heavily toward employing military assets which are available in abundance. That carries with it a heavy liability. Every bomb dropped risks radicalizing those on the receiving end who may be innocent or relatives of combatants. When bullets fired by troops on the ground are added to the bombs, the negative effect is magnified. Moreover, the very knowledge that the United States is again killing Muslims may register in the same way. After a decade of killing (many Sunni) Muslims with no good cause, the claim the united States is now killing them with cause is less than wholly persuasive, In the case of Iraq and Syria, the adverse effect is accentuated because each victim also has a sectarian identity, i.e. we will be seen as taking the Shi'ite side in the Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation. Awareness of this phenomenon is one reason that Iran will be cautious about how large a physical presence it is prepared to have in Iraq.

We already have heard the testimony of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin E. Dempsey, that he would recommend to the President the deployment of American ground troops were air power to prove insufficient to achieve our objectives. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at his side did not object. The obscurity of what exactly those objectives are makes this comment difficult to decipher. President Obama, in his address to the nation ten days ago, did declare that it is imperative to "destroy" IS, which seems to imply that it must be eliminated or at least degraded to the point where it no longer poses a threat to major American interests. Security of the homeland from terrorism? A stable Iraq with a functioning government? Ensuring that our friends and allies are not threatened by IS type subversion in Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, the Gulf principalities, Egypt, et al? We really don't know what the White House has in mind because it hasn't said -- and likely does not itself know the answers. In truth, once Obama gave the IS a five star enemy rating, the line between what the United States would or would not do to eliminate it was certain to blur.

We have seen this movie before in Afghanistan, where for 13 years we've been trying to achieve similarly wide-ranging but unreachable goals. Now we are getting ready to leave with no important objective reached other than the exiling of al-Qaeda -- which was achieved in January 2002. Obama officials used to be fond of saying that, in Afghanistan, "we will know success when we see it." So, too, with IS. Unfortunately, our angle of vision may be a supine one.