This story has been corrected.
With President Obama weighing possible airstrikes in Iraq, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned on Friday that a military attack against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, could backfire by seeming to bolster the extremists’ claim that the United States is conspiring with the region’s Shiite forces to put down the country’s Sunni Muslims.
"The Sunni extremists of ISIS are trying to show that the government in Baghdad, Iran, and the United States are working together to support atrocities against Sunnis," Ban said in a speech at the Asia Society that was devoted mostly to one of his harshest criticisms to date of the government of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. "This perception would help them mobilize support from the Sunni majority that does not share the extremists’ agenda. It is essential that the government of Iraq and its supporters do everything possible to avoid falling into this trap."
Ban’s remarks came one day after President Obama ordered 300 military trainers and advisers to Iraq to help President Nouri al-Maliki’s government reverse a lightning military offensive by the Sunni extremist group, which was previously affiliated for many years with al Qaeda.* Obama said he is prepared to take "targeted and precise military action" if needed, and left open the possibility that the United States could target ISIS in Syria, where it has been fighting both President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and other anti-government rebels. Obama was also harshly critical of Maliki’s government, which he accused of pursuing an openly sectarian agenda that boosted the country’s Shiite majority at the expense of its Sunni minority.
U.S. officials maintain that the United States has no intention of taking sides in the country’s increasingly sectarian crisis, and that President Obama shares the U.N. chief’s belief in the need for a political solution to the crisis that leads to a more inclusive Iraqi government.
In his remarks Thursday, Obama assured that the U.S. "will not pursue military options that support one sect inside of Iraq at the expense of another. There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States. But there is an urgent need for an inclusive political process, a more capable Iraqi security force, and counterterrorism efforts that deny groups like [ISIS] a safe haven."
Ban’s cautionary warning was buried near the end of what the U.N.’s chief aides promoted as his most important speech in more than a year on the conflict in Syria. In his address, titled "Crisis in Syria: Civil War and Global Threat," Ban called for the imposition of an arms embargo on Syria and disclosed that he was close to announcing a successor to Lakhdar Brahimi, one of two high-profile envoys who have struggled without success to end a conflict that has left more than 150,000 people dead and threatened to destabilize the entire region.
"I am here to express my disappointment at the cold calculation that seems to be taking hold — that little can be done except to arm the parties and watch the conflict rage," he said. "It is irresponsible for foreign powers and groups to give continued military support to parties in Syria that are committing atrocities and flagrantly violating fundamental principles of human rights and international law."
Ban urged the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Syria’s combatants, but conceded that it might be impossible to do so given sharp divisions between Western and Arab backers of the rebels and Russia, which is a principle supplier of arms to Syria. In the event of a showdown, he said, "Syria’s neighbors should enforce a firm prohibition on the use of their land borders and airspace for arms flows and smuggling into Syria."
Even as he pushed for an arms embargo, Ban conceded that the initiative would undercut the ability of the opposition to reverse the Syrian government’s military advantage.
"I recognize that an arms embargo would risk freezing an imbalance in place, given the extent of the government’s weaponry," he said. "But the Syrian war cannot be won militarily. The sides will have to sit across from each other again at the negotiating table. The only question is how many more people must die before they get there."
Ban highlighted the need to cut off support for extremist groups in Syria like ISIS and the Nusra Front, another brutal extremist group. But he said many armed opposition groups have embraced negotiations on a political settlement. He also blamed Assad for starting a war that has radicalized the Syrian opposition, provided a foothold for extremists, and "has now spread visibly and devastatingly to Iraq."
"It did not have to be this way. In 2011, when tens of thousands of Syrians peacefully filled the square of Dara and other places, they were not calling for regime change," Ban said. "After decades of repression, they wanted reform, not revolution. The response of the authorities was merciless; snipers and tanks firing indiscriminately into the crowds."
Prospects for a political settlement never seemed more distant.
Earlier this month, Assad won reelection for a seven-year term as president, dashing hopes for a U.N.-backed effort to negotiate the terms of a new transitional government.
"Diplomacy seems to have stopped in its tracks," Ban said. "The presidential election earlier this month was a further blow to the political process. The election did not meet even minimal standards for credible voting."
But Ban suggested that the Syrian government is deluded if it thinks that the election and a series of military gains it has achieved on the ground amount to a military victory. "For the moment, the greatest obstacle to ending the Syria war is the notion that it can be won militarily," he said. "I reject the current narrative that the government of Syria is ‘winning.’ Conquering territory through aerial bombardments into densely populated civilian neighborhoods is not a victory. Starving besieged communities into surrender is not a victory. No one is winning; no one can. Even if one side were to prevail in the short term, the devastating toll will have sown the seeds of future conflict."
*Correction, June 20, 2014: Al Qaeda severed ties with ISIS in February 2014. A previous version of this story implied their relationship was still intact. (Return to reading.)