Isis is supposed to have ‘morphed’ within barely a month from an insurgency group in Syria into more or less a regular army in Iraq. It is flush with money and weapons. It has taken much of the Sunni Arab north of Iraq. American generals say the Iraqi government cannot recover the territories lost to Isis by itself. It will need “international assistance.”

What does this mean? US/Nato air strikes? Boots on the ground? Whose? The Kurds and Iraqi Arab Sunnis would first insist on the removal of Maliki. But he says in view of his successful electoral performance last April that he is entitled to, and will, serve a third term. Will Ayatollah Sistani force him out? The Iraqi parliament is deadlocked over who should head the next government. Meanwhile, Isis has set up an Islamic Caliphate which will certainly view Baghdad as its historical capital. Will Mullah Omar publicly endorse Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s call for personal allegiance from all Sunni Muslims including their participation in the jihad he claims to head?

Iran is confronted with a painful dilemma. On the one hand it cannot accept a militant Sunni take-over of Baghdad, and especially a Caliphate that proclaims anathema on Iran and the Shia throughout the region. On the other hand, it is against the reintroduction of a US military presence in Iraq as long as the US in its view seeks to bring about regime change in Tehran. However, Iran’s greater fear would be the consolidation of Isis in Iraq and the strengthening of the Taliban in Afghanistan. So will it begin to probe the possibilities for a contingent collaboration with the US to beat back the Sunni threat?

The US had earlier resolved Iran’s Saddam problem in Iraq and its Al-Qaeda and Taliban problem in Afghanistan. But it completely mismanaged its relations with Iran, and so forfeited Iran’s essential cooperation in Iraq. Can the US learn from its mistakes? The record is unpromising. Moreover, the US is likely to view its options through the prism of its compliant if disenchanted Sunni clients in the region. And they have a decidedly murky relationship with ISIS. They see it as a major asset against Iran if also a longer term threat to themselves.

The reality could be the exact opposite. Iran is the most stable country in the region with the exception of Turkey. Given the Shia-Sunni stand-off in the Middle East there is no way a US return to battle in Iraq to stop Isis will not be a zero-sum game –. one that inescapably generates further instability and violence in the region

US public opinion may countenance air strikes and special operations against Isis in Iraq. This may be enough to stop it in its tracks. But how would it address the sectarian problem which has ensured continued instability and extremism in Iraq and the region. Will the US seek to impose a secular political process after its failures in Afghanistan and Iraq itself? How would Obama even consider such a nation-building option which would require a whole range of ‘surges’? It would have a zero chance of success or even getting US public support. The US is caught between policy insufficiency and policy impossibility. This is the measure of the failure of US policy in Afghanistan, Iraq and the region. Policy confusion reigns. Meanwhile the natives continue to die.

Which other Shia leader could replace Maliki with Sistani and Iran’s approval, and also be acceptable to the Kurds and Arab Sunnis? Ahmad Chelebi is brilliant (he has a doctorate in mathematics from MIT) and he is secular. But he is considered too ambitious and unreliable by many. He may have Iran’s support – one reason the Americans may not favour him, leave alone the Sunnis.

Could Ayad Allawi step in? He is a former prime minister, tough and secular, and has significant Sunni support. But it is not sure Sistani or even Iran will support him against the pro-Iran Shia clerics who dislike him. The Arab Sunni tribes and former Baathist military officers – despite their dislike and fear of Isis – are not likely to fight against it for a Shia cleric to head the Iraqi government. The Shia clerics are likely to oppose any secular Shia leader with significant Sunni support.

Ironically, Maliki, a non-cleric but with a strong al-Da’wah and anti-Saddam resistance background, appeared at first to have the potential to meet the essential criteria. But unfortunately his record shows he lacks the skill-sets and imagination to be a political reconciler.

Can Isis be defeated by air power alone? The Taliban were chased away in a matter of weeks after 9/11. But the Northern Alliance and US Special Ops forces were on the ground to complement the American air strikes. Will the Kurds care to play the same role in Iraq? They have said they would not join Baghdad against Isis. They have grabbed Kirkuk. They will be wary of antagonising the well-funded, well-armed and battle-hardened Isis militants, especially if it has the backing of other Sunni groups in Iraq and the region. However, the Kurds also know that the Sunnis will not accept the permanent loss of Kirkuk. Under a more secular Shia leader with more broad based support they could review their options.

How can Iraq emerge from this mess which can so easily link up with the brewing calamity in Afghanistan – and Pakistan? US policies have been the primary external factor responsible for the overall state of affairs in the region. But the contributions of their indigenous dependents have been even greater. To be fair to the US, its policies are not primarily or even significantly motivated by prejudice against Islam and Muslims, whatever many might believe to the contrary.

In fact, the regional minions of the US are often devout Muslims. Moreover, many of them personally dislike the US with a passion equal in scale to the stolen assets they have stowed away in that country, and elsewhere. The US National Security Agency (NSA) which has developed total surveillance capabilities keeps a constant and watchful eye on these minions and their assets – just in case. A leak can be fatal for wayward minions, and they know it. Assange, Manning and Snowden have all of us in their debt for their courageous and self-sacrificing actions on behalf of the truth and the prospect of a better world.

US policies, in fact, are motivated by the needs of global capitalism including control over its institutions and processes. If any group or country leadership –whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu, whatever – stands in its way, it is dealt with as an ‘impediment’ that has to be removed. One such impediment would be a leadership that followed an independent foreign policy and prioritised the interests of its own people over American strategic imperatives. Within these Wall Street parameters, US policy effectively tells their regional clients: “you can have all the crony and phony ‘democracy’ including ‘anti-American tantrums’ and bits of disobedience and defiance you want, if this helps you fool and exploit your people while serving our interests and your assets in our care. You can serve us in any language.”

This is the reality that our policymakers and commentators are at pains to suggest is irrelevant because it is unchangeable. Whether or not this is so will depend on the outcome of the struggle between the established ‘smart power’ of the US and its regional clients, and the as yet unleashed ‘people’s power’ comprising the force of the aspirations, rights and potential of the excluded and exploited masses. Those who look for ‘champions’ providing ‘solutions’ instead of ‘servants’ assisting ‘struggle’ will always be on the side of established power.

The writer is a former envoy to the US and India and former head of the UN Mission in Iraq.