Crude Oil ( ) Brent Crude ( ) Natural Gas ( ) S&P 500 ( ) PHLX Oil ( )

Commentary by Richard Zoellick, Special to The Wall Street Journal

Secretary of State John Kerry’s new diplomatic process for dealing with Syria’s harrowing civil war involves convening a series of talks in Vienna. The effort is probably well-intentioned. But I cannot conceive of what he expects to accomplish.

Does anyone really believe that Syria can be put back together again and then revived through democratic elections? The danger is that the all-purpose diplomatic resort to “process” will lead the United States to ignore realities and even make them worse.

America faces two interconnected perils in the region: the expansion of Islamic State and the breakdown of the Middle East’s century-old security order. The Obama administration’s fear of involvement and denial of the fundamental struggle for dominance in the region increases the risks for the U.S., Europe, Africa and Asia. The conference in Vienna last week—involving at least a dozen interested parties, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia—was escapism, not a serious strategy. The next gathering in a week or so will be more of the same.

Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein on terror attacks against Jews and the link to Iran. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The old state borders and authorities of the Middle East, established during and after World War I, are disintegrating. The Arab lands are now the scene of a terrible contest for power. As former U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus explained to Congress in September, “almost every Middle Eastern country is now a battleground or a combatant in one or more wars.”

The antagonists recognize that the stakes are for nothing less than control of this crossroads for Asia, Europe and Africa. It is the home of three of the world’s major religions, the world’s primary source of energy, a cradle of civilizations and graveyard of armies and empires—and is now the scene of possible nuclear-weapons proliferation.

Islamic State, or ISIS, bubbled over from this caldron. Pursuing the ideal of offensive jihad, ISIS—whose motto is “enduring and expanding”—seeks to hold and enlarge the territory of its declared caliphate.

This barbaric army feeds off Sunnis’ sense of dispossession. The ISIS promise of power depends on a victorious image—and on the absence of a successful Sunni alternative in the battle against ancient and modern foes.

Iran views the regional breakdown as an opportunity finally to win the Iran-Iraq war, establish dominance over Shiite populations and expand Persian hegemony over the Middle East. Iran’s alliances with Bashar Assad’s Syria and with Hezbollah, and Tehran’s convergence of interests with Russia, are backed by Shiite militia, Iran’s Quds Force and supplies of weaponry and money.

The traditional Sunni Arab states—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf entrepots, Jordan and Egypt—are fearful. Lower energy prices are draining resources. ISIS can never conquer Shiite Iran, but it does threaten Sunni rivals, which are tempted to compete through more sectarian strife. These Sunni states suspect that the aim of U.S. policy is to accommodate Iran’s power or, worse, to rely mistakenly on Iran to provide stability in the region. The Sunni states are watching Iran’s nuclear program, missile tests and regional subversion with high anxiety because they believe that they stand alone in this contest for power and even for survival.

The Russian and Iranian interventions in Syria further darken this bleak picture. Bashar Assad has killed about a quarter-million of his own people and depopulated half the country. More civilians have died at his hands than by ISIS violence. ISIS will recruit Sunnis repulsed by the Assad regime’s heretical (Shiite and Russian Orthodox) reinforcements. Moreover, Russia’s bombardments in support of the regime have targeted Sunni forces resisting both Mr. Assad and ISIS. If Mr. Kerry’s “peace conference” presses these anti-Assad forces to accept a cease-fire, ISIS will gain legitimacy as the only counter to Mr. Assad.

Peace depends on the future power balance. A Sunni counterforce won’t fight ISIS unless it and the Syrian people are protected against enemies. If Iraq is unable to offer its own Sunni tribes a secure existence, they will feed—or acquiesce to—Islamic State’s rule. The Turkish and Jordanian ideas for safe zones within Syria would offer the opportunity for the formation of a Sunni alternative to ISIS and the Assad regime.

These zones, in addition to providing a space where Sunni forces could build military capacity, could gain legitimacy if they were used for humanitarian relief, including health and schooling for refugees. The U.S. could again provide assistance and protection as it did for Kurds in Iraq after the first Gulf War. The Sunni states could direct their aid to this project, joined by the Europeans, who have an incentive to stem the flood of refugees.

The allied effort, including Kurds who are now fighting alongside Arabs, needs to counter the prevailing image of Islamic State success. The jihadists’ possession of extensive territory makes ISIS vulnerable to attacks on supply lines and to economic warfare that targets resources, such as the smuggling of oil and antiquities. A social-media counterattack should highlight negatives like Islamic State’s sex slaves and its violence committed against other Sunnis; the allied technological pushback should include shutting down online propaganda sites and radio networks.

The Obama administration won’t take these steps. Others will consider them too hard or costly. The U.S. and its allies should then acknowledge the likely result. First, America will forfeit influence over the new order that emerges from this Middle East power struggle. Second, ISIS is likely to consolidate or extend its reach in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Africa and beyond. And third, America’s interests and friends are likely to suffer. Conferences in Vienna will neither influence nor provide an escape from the brutal realities mounting daily in the Middle East.

Mr. Zoellick is a former World Bank president, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state.