It's been twelve years since the invasion of Iraq, but Iraq's Sunni Arabs are less inclined than they have ever been to submit to Shia-led government -- especially one tied to Iran's apron strings.
As the Sunnis now see it, their only alternative is to break away. So, as Talleyrand advised, we'd be better off foreseeing the inevitable and expediting its occurrence -- in other words, we must deal with the fact that Iraq is no more.
Yes, Baghdad very well could take back Ramadi from ISIS. And, yes, with enough American (and Iranian) backing, it could retake Mosul. But at what cost?
Considering that massive aerial bombardment and street-to-street fighting would be required to take these cities, the cost would likely be extremely high. Not to mention that the Sunnis would be even less inclined to live under a Shia-led government.
It's in this sense that you have to wonder if in fact ISIS didn't actually WIN the fight for Tikrit this March.
The group's fighters may have lost Tikrit itself, but in the bargain ISIS proved its point that Baghdad intends to stop at nothing in order to crush the Sunnis. Pictures of Tikrit's utter destruction and stories about Shia militias looting and murdering their way through Tikrit played right into ISIS's propaganda.
Couple this with the fact that in order to take Tikrit, Baghdad had to call in foreigners (the United States and Iran), which was all the convincing the Sunnis needed that there's a global plot afoot to annihilate them -- and the only thing keeping them alive is ISIS.
What we need to understand about ISIS is that it's more than a terrorist organization -- it's not just al-Qaeda 2.0.
To be sure, ISIS employs terror, but it's also a classic guerilla group that is able to survive thanks to the implicit support of the local population. One reason ISIS couldn't hold ground in Iraq's Kurdish areas is because the Kurds rightly understand their existence is at stake. It's for the same reason that ISIS will never be able to take Shia Baghdad.
Or look at it this way: Few Sunni Arabs have bought into ISIS's radical ideology and mindless violence -- for lack of a better alternative -- but they see ISIS as the schoolyard bully who scares the hell out of them but at the same time lets them survive the day.
As the former American Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford put it: "For every one Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, 50 people are joining the Islamic State driven by anger ... not ideology."
Let me get to it before someone else does: Iraq's Sunni Arabs aren't exactly without blame.
Saddam Hussein was far more brutal than the current Shia regime in Baghdad. He murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands of his own people with the sole purpose of keeping himself and his fellow Sunni minority in power. He killed more than a million Iraqis in an ill-advised war against Iran.
Honest Sunnis will own up to Saddam's mistakes, but right now -- with their backs against the wall -- they don't care; they just need an armed force to protect them.
By the way, do we really care if Iraq breaks up? It's been more than 12 years since the invasion of Iraq, and in spite of the trillion or so dollars we wasted trying to fix it, the only thing we have to show for it is more civil war.
Keep in mind that modern Iraq is an artificial country: Its borders were carelessly drawn, first by the Ottomans, and then by colonial administrators who lacked a deep understanding of the country's demographic make-up.
Is it worth the candle trying to preserve mistakes of history like this?
For what it's worth, moderate Sunni friends in al-Anbar province tell me we shouldn't completely give up hope of preserving some vestige of Iraq by rewriting the constitution creating some sort of loose federal system.
What they have in mind is the same arrangement Baghdad has with the Kurdish Regional Government -- no federal troops or police based in Sunnis areas and a "fair" share of oil revenues.
They admit it gets trickier when it comes to dividing up mixed populations, and in particular the cities of Kirkuk and Baghdad. Their solution is to turn them into "open cities" administered under federal authority.
But are the Sunnis the only Iraqis thinking this way?
I ran the idea by a friend close to the political leadership in Tehran. He assured me that -- at least privately -- Tehran is all for partition.
"It's the only way Iran can hope to control Iraq's Shia," he said. "They don't give a damn if the Sunnis rule over some remote desert kingdom in western Iraq."
I realize this is a long way from a consensus. And, okay, it may all sound messy -- not to mention that "federalism" is the smallest of fig leaves to cover the de facto break up of Iraq. But it beats an open-ended scorched earth campaign against the Sunnis. And it's a good bet as any that it would undercut the appeal of ISIS.