CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about the latest developments in Iraq, and what role the United States might play. This is an edited version of the transcript.
Has the conflict basically come down to just holding Baghdad? Is it all won or lost in that city?
Well, that's a hugely important issue – whether you lose the capital or not. But Baghdad is now essentially a Shia city. It used to be mixed, but Sunnis have been driven out. Of course, there are still many, many Sunnis, but it's mostly a Shia city and has become part of the Shia-dominated government's stronghold.
So, the reason that the Iraqi government lost lots of territory is that locals were, if not sympathetic to the insurgents and sympathetic to ISIS, then they were pretty anti-government. That's not true in Baghdad, and the army will fight it – a Shiite core that will fight there. But it only reinforces what is the central element here, which has now turned into a sectarian civil war.
The U.S. military advisers who are in Iraq, we are told they're going to make recommendations in the next few days about what they need after they've gathered intelligence. If the military recommends to the White House that they need more than the few hundred troops that the president has already authorized, does this become an issue that President Obama is not able to untangle? Is he going to be able to sell more troops in Iraq to Congress and to the public?
Well, I hope he doesn't go down that route because the problem here isn’t that the Iraqi government doesn't have troops and fire power – the Iraqi government has between its security forces and army something in the range of 650,000 soldiers or people under arms. It has a defense budget around $17 billion. It’s trying to defend itself against a few thousand lightly armed insurgents.
The problem is that the insurgents have the sympathy of the public in these areas, in these Sunni areas. We've seen this movie before. This happened in 2007 and 2008, and with 140,000 troops, General Petraeus still said the only solution was political. You had to reach out to the Sunnis, to the tribes, you had to divide the Sunnis so they could stop supporting groups like al Qaeda. That's the same solution here, and if Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki isn't willing to do it, sending in a few hundred more American advisers or a few thousand more American troops is certainly not going to solve the problem.
And let's talk about that, what was called the Sunni awakening and all those tribal leaders were able to join with the government's effort. A lot of them felt abandoned after the U.S. left. A lot of them felt like they stuck their neck out and that al-Maliki, who is Shiite as you pointed out, basically turned his back on bringing Sunnis into the government. What needs to happen? What does al-Maliki need to do for this to work?
I think the American demand should really be stronger than it is. Al-Maliki should step down. It’s very difficult for me to imagine a circumstance in which al-Maliki can regain the trust of these groups. Remember, as you pointed out, before the Americans left, he stopped paying out those Sunni tribes on deals that General Petraeus had made, he reneged on power-sharing agreements, his government went and targeted Sunni officials.
Now, you know, he can't come around and say "I was just kidding, folks. Let's all hold hands and sing kumbaya." That's not going work. I think you need a fresh face ahead of the Iraqi government, and that should be our demand if the United States is going to provide anything substantial in terms of support.
The last of Syria's declared chemical weapons have been transferred to an American vessel according to the organization in charge of gathering the chemical weapons. Is this significant?
It’s significant because one of the complexities of the raging civil war in Syria was that things could spin out of control. And they could spin out of control in several ways, but the use of weapons of mass destruction was one of them, and then that produces circumstances where Israel could get involved, other countries could get involved in retaliation, terrorists could get control of those weapons. The fact that those weapons aren't there doesn't solve the Syrian civil war, but it takes one very combustible element out of the arena – and that has to be seen as a diplomatic triumph for the Obama administration.