Rt. Hon. Peter Hain MP, University of South Wales Lecture
20 November 2014
In September I voted for a parliamentary motion authorising British military strikes on ISIL in Iraq. I did so because I believed that it was essential to help prevent the genocidal attacks ISIL has launched on everyone who does not conform to its fundamentalist theology – including fellow Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and minority groups such as Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and Turkmen.
ISIL’s barbarity has been truly horrific. Atrocities include the execution of 700 members of the Syrian Al-Sheitaat tribe in July. 1,700 Iraqis are known to have been summarily executed in Tikrit but aerial photographs hint at the existence of at least two more mass killing sites. Victims have been forced on camera to kiss the heads of the recently decapitated moments before their own deaths, eyes have been gouged out of defeated enemies and minority groups are reportedly hunted for sport according to eye-witnesses reporting to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Air strikes against ISIL were requested by the Iraqi government and by the Kurdish authorities – and backed by regional powers in the Middle East: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Turkey. The collective decision of Parliament in favour of bombing ISIL was consequently both legal and had political and democratic legitimacy. Although some say that it is none of our business to intervene in a faraway conflict, allowing SIL’s barbarism to stampede unchecked risks engulfing the Middle East in a catastrophe of terror, sending shockwaves of instability raging through the region with incalculable political and humanitarian consequences.
Iraq is never far from my thoughts, I am painfully aware of the legacy of 2003’s ill-fated invasion. I was a British Cabinet Minister then and I backed Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq because I honestly believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I was wrong: he didn’t – we went to war on a lie, and the aftermath was disastrous. The ensuing decade has made me deeply allergic to any form of British armed intervention in the region – especially anything remotely hinting of western cowboy action. Not even Libya – a supposedly surgical operation consented to by Parliament in 2011 – has been a good advertisement for intervention: for Libya has since become ungovernable, engulfed in conflict between warring fiefdoms.
Since 9/11, the West has had a pretty poor success rate for its interventions in Muslim countries, even though these were undertaken by the Governments in power for what were believed to be honourable reasons. The consequences are playing out in front of us. However, we must not indulge in the fictitious luxury of isolationism which would mean never intervening abroad, turning our back on our international obligations, doing nothing in the face of genocide as the West so shamefully did over Rwanda in 1994.
Tony Blair’s Labour government in which I served as Africa and Middle East Minister was right to intervene and save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000 and also to prevent the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo in 1999. In Pristina (the capital and largest city of Kosovo) there is a statue to Bill Clinton and the Guardian newspaper has found large number of Kosovar Albanian children christened Toni, Bler or the full Tonibler after the man they consider to be their hero. Much the same sentiments are to be found in Sierra Leone.
Now, we are helping defend, with support from Iran, a fledgling Iraqi government that has the potential to unite Iraq and create a lasting peace. In ISIL it faces a barbaric brigade who want exactly the opposite, and whose terrorism provides a convenient cover for Shia militias to conduct their own, broader, sectarian campaign . President Obama’s recently christened operation “Inherent Resolve” – involving military support for forces fighting ISIL – demonstrates that, far from being a re-hash of the 2003 Iraq intervention, the US understands that this may well turn out to be a very long-term commitment, and that it will only be resolved militarily and politically by countries in the Middle East themselves, not by Western nations.
Nevertheless there is a real danger that, by stepping in at all, western powers risk freeing regional governments and their militia proxies to pursue other sectarian agendas to the detriment of the anti-ISIL campaign. In other words the West must be very determined and careful to ensure there is regional ownership of, and responsibility for, tackling the ISIL problem, rather than allowing Middle East governments to duck their own obligations.
Although its cadres were active in Iraq for about a decade, first under the guise of Al-Qaeda and later as ISIL, it has sprung from a horrific situation playing out in Syria since 2011 when President Assad first repressed, then unleashed a campaign of butchery against protestors peacefully demanding the democratic values of the Arab Spring for Syria.
ISIL is medieval both in its barbarism and in its fanatical religious zeal. But, at the same time, it is a product of a deep seated sense of Sunni disenfranchisement and grievance at the leadership and Sunni regimes in the region which lack popular legitimacy. Unless that political malaise is addressed, ISIL – and groups like it – will continue to feed off such popular resentment.
ISIL’s members possess a devout belief that the conservative Wahhabi sect – which dates from the 18th century within the Sunni strand of Islam – possesses the sole truth. ISIL labels non-Wahhabi Muslims (even fellow Sunnis) as apostates – providing justification for exterminating both them and any other religious group blocking the way to establishing its objective: a caliphate, that is to say an Islamic state, encompassing all Muslims and led by a caliph, successor to the prophet Mohammed. Consequently ISIL has a chilling certainty of
its righteousness and fundamentalism.
According to US intelligence estimates, ISIL commands between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters, and another 31,500 fighters, with an efficient administrative framework to keep it functioning. According to Fuad Hussein, chief of staff of the Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, the number is closer to 200,000 ISIL fighters. He also told the Independent on Sunday in November 2014 that the so-called caliphate established by ISIL includes a third of Syria and a third of Iraq, with a population of between 10 and 12 million, covering 250,000 square kilometers, an area of land the size of Great Britain. It controls land in Iraq that accounts for 40 per cent of national wheat production.
The rise of such a new caliphate has long been the stated aim of global Jihadi terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. Yet the narrow interpretation of fundamentalist Wahhabism specific to ISIL makes them an even more potent threat than Al-Qaeda, the bogey-men of the last two decades.
Global Jihadis see the world as a confrontation between their way of life and that of the West, a dichotomy re-enforced by the Bush administration’s invocation of a similar binary world view. The Arab Spring, confounding hopes that it could be a harbinger of democracy and secularism in the region, has resulted instead in the collapse of several states that were led by allies of the West, leaving a power vacuum and the opportunity for Jihadis with long-held anti-Western aims to take that space and establish some authoritarian control.
In Syria and Iraq, ISIL fed on the power vacuum created by decades of violence. The risk of them making further strategic gains as they spread is real and they will exploit geo-political frailties again and again, especially where there’s also a power vacuum, perhaps even extending their caliph to Afghanistan – creating a 2,000 mile long so-called Islamic State with ready-made supporters among the Taliban.
ISIL’s leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi Sunni. He is not an ordained Imam or preacher though he did sometimes lead the prayers in his local mosque. He has a doctorate in Sharia Law, a wife, a son, and it is suspected he was probably radicalised by a stint in an American-run jail in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War. His ascent has been dramatic and it’s unclear why he was elected by Al-Qaeda to lead the insurrection against Al-Maliki’s Iraqi government, but he soon began arguing that the struggles against the regimes in Syria
and Iraq were ideologically the same which lead to a split with the leaders of Al-Qaeda who wanted Abu-Bakr and his men to concentrate on Iraq and not Syria. Furthermore, he disavows the existence of a border between Iraq and Syria, countries created from the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – an agreement deemed by ISIL and Al-Qaeda to have been imposed on the Arab tribes by imperialist “crusaders”.
Unlike moderate Sunnis, and most adherents to other branches of Islam, Christians and Jews are not considered by ISIL as ‘people of the book’ to be protected, but as infidels, justifying its systematic forced conversions of Christians on pain of death. At its heart ISIL is attached to the concept of the caliphate and the idea that fighting to establish the caliphate is mandated by divine law. Whether the caliphate is a real state or an imagined community, whether that fight is physical or ideological, are arguments that have been prominent among Muslim scholars for centuries but which really took hold over the last three decades among the Middle Eastern diaspora. ISIL comes from the tradition that states the caliphate is a physical goal to be achieved through physical, largely violent, means.
ISIL adherents are nationalists in their belief and dedication to the concept of umma, a vague but powerful expression of pan-Arab Islamic nationalism, the exact substance of which is hotly debated. But umma has also been the driving force of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda amongst others, and so for all its vagueness cannot be ignored as a potent, uniting concept.
It is the concept of umma that attracts followers and leads some Sunnis to turn a blind eye to the very real evil perpetrated by these extremist followers of their faith. Local Sunni support for ISIL has been encouraged both by the disastrously anti-Sunni sectarian government of the previous Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, a Shia, and by the butchery of Syrian President Assad, also Shia-aligned.
The resulting chaos in both Iraq and Syria means that ISIL can even be quite popular in Sunni areas it controls because it has brought stability and security out of chaos. Authoritative commentators on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even worry that Israel’s failure to negotiate a settlement could allow ISIL to gain a foothold amongst Palestinians totally frustrated at the inability of their leaders to win recognition over many decades of struggle for their own state.
There are other groups who would also look favourably upon an ISIL-led caliphate spreading their way; groups that already inspire fear by practising terror: Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia for example.
ISIL is motivated by revenge against the Shia sectarianism of the Al-Maliki regime which openly persecuted Sunnis and was considered too close to Western powers and crucially Iran.
As a result one of the first things that ISIL does when capturing new territory is to round up government workers and execute them. Under Al-Maliki most government appointments even at a lowly level were perceived as going to Shias, both angering the Sunni minority, and scaring them.
ISIL’s sectarianism is evident in everything that they do and in their carefully calibrated symbolism. Their leader Abu Bakr has taken the name of the first Sunni Caliph rejected by the Shias after the death of Muhammad. His name represents a Sunni call to arms.
Because Maliki’s Iraqi government was so unpopular with the Sunnis, that call to arms resonated with those who normally wouldn’t support extremism – especially the brutal lengths that ISIL go to – a state of affairs reminiscent of the Northern Ireland Troubles where many otherwise peaceful Irish Catholics tacitly supported the IRA: even though they generally abhorred IRA violence, they had faced generations of persecution and
This is one of the reasons why the Iraqi army folded so easily at the sight of the oncoming ISIL hordes earlier this year – the army included Sunnis who were disinclined to fight a group which states its aim is to destroy a government that those Sunni soldiers resented or even hated. This is also the danger inherent in relying on the Iraqi army to take the lead in destroying ISIL.
The Global Terrorism Database states ISIL are the most deadly terrorists in pure numbers of fatalities ever recorded. These numbers are an unreliable measure of horror and, extraordinarily for an avowedly Sunni group, so far the main fatalities of their bloodlust have been other Sunnis. Yet Iraqis and Syrians of all stripes are the real victims.
In fact reports of ISIL’s barbarity usually come from or are corroborated by their own quasipress office. They publish an English language magazine called Dabiq which in a recent issue detailed ISIL’s justification for the capture, enslavement, and sale of Yazidi women and children, actions encouraged by the Dabiq author.
Consequently any claims that the worst atrocities are perpetrated by rogue members are quite false. The degradation of women and children as a primary tool for creating terror both defines ISIL and is a policy imposed from the very top. Human Rights Watch in August 2014 reported: ‘We heard shocking stories of forced religious conversions, forced marriage, and even sexual assault and slavery – and some of the victims were children.’
Worryingly for Britain, ISIL’s specific concept of the umma is proving more attractive to young British men and women than our own concept of a secular nation state. Although it is fanciful to suggest that ISIL represents an existential threat to us all, if its appeal ever led to the erosion of a worldwide consensus that democracy and liberalism is the way of the future, then that would indeed be the case.
Across the world there has been progress towards eradicating slavery which ISIL would see brought back, having already sold 14-year old girls into sexual slavery. Their social media posts project a category of ‘lesser humans’. For example: ‘Enslaving the families of the [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Quran and the narrations of the Prophet.’ In an era where capital punishment has been widely banned across the world, ISIL shamelessly uses it for all manner of perceived crimes – in direct contravention of advances towards implementing values of non-violence, equality and tolerance.
Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIL are running the necessary trappings of a “state” in captured areas – with courts, schools, and a degree of welfare support for the elderly and infirm. All these elements bring people used to an unregulated, chaotic and often violent power vacuum on side, and sets ISIL apart in a more tangible way than the suggestion that they are more ‘extreme’ than Al-Qaeda. Although ISIL have killed more in a shorter space of time, for most of their existence they were called ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’. The two groups share the same longterm goal: the return of the borderless Islamic caliphate based upon Wahhabi fundamentalism: an extremist, violent ideology overwhelmingly rejected by Muslims the world over.
Most of our understanding of the inner-workings of ISIL comes from 160 of its flash drives seized on the outskirts of Mosul by Iraqi forces in June 2014. These contained information on their seizing and likely sale of 8,000 year old antiquities from the al-Nabuk area in Syria, and revealed the names of both key operatives and operatives that required ‘supervision’ or who weren’t performing adequately.
Unlike Al-Qaeda which is a secretive, cell-based and fragmented movement, ISIL is highly centralised and highly vocal. ISIL adherents have successfully built up a brand, to use marketing jargon. This ISIL brand is strong, recognisable, clear and direct – which makes it ideal for recruiting, especially among disaffected young people. ISIL runs an expert and highly effective propaganda campaign, waged through the use of social media. ISIL fighters use both twitter and Facebook among other platforms to circulate images and videos of sectarian massacres – creating hysteria which precedes ISIL’s arrival in new towns and provinces.
Many of the fighters have their own social media accounts also used for recruitment, where the message is coloured and brought to life through personal testimony. To young, disaffected Muslims in the UK, this is a unique chance to see into the life of a British ISIL recruit before committing, and it makes minor ‘celebrities’ of those fighters with the most active social media presence.
Another ISIL ‘innovation’, if that’s not too crude a way to describe its methods of violent brainwashing, is an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or Dawn. It is an ‘official’ ISIL ‘product’ and is advertised as a way of keeping up to date on ISILrelated news.
It allows ISIL to tweet through one’s twitter account so that hundreds of accounts across the world issue the same ISIL sanctioned tweet in a short time frame. These tweets include links, hashtags, and images and influence what topics are trending, particularly in the Arabic world. Organising hashtag campaigns is a trick used by western political parties and charities to get an issue trending, with hundreds, sometimes thousands of users repeatedly tweeting a hashtag. According to the Arab Twitter account @Active Hashtags which tweets the day’s top trending tags, ISIL hashtags receive on average 72 retweets, before those retweets are then retweeted to reach a very large audience – amplifying ISIL’s online support to make it look bigger, thereby legitimising support and drawing in more. UK corporations hire social-mediamarketing gurus to produce this kind of result.
In just one month between 17 September and 17 October 2014 there were more than four million mentions of the English acronym ISIL or ISIS on Twitter; the Arabic acronym was mentioned two million times over the same period.
However, in November 2014 an authoritative report into ISIL by Richard Barrett, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, argued that the social media platforms the group has exploited so successfully to disseminate propaganda will also play a key role in its demise by rapidly spreading discord among the millions of people under its rule.
Barrett stated: ‘The thirst for change that Islamic State has managed to exploit will not be slaked by its totalitarian approach towards its subjects. In today’s world, no state, however remote, can hope to control its population by limiting its access to information or suppressing its ability to think. It will be no more able to harness the social, economic, and political forces around it than were the states that, through their failure, allowed the space for Islamic State to grow.’
Aside from being the bloodiest, ISIL is also, allegedly, the world’s richest terrorist organisation with reserves of over $2 billion according to British Intelligence. The money is a combination of illegal oil exports from refineries they control in Syria and Iraq, extorting non-Muslim Iraqis and Syrians of protection money, and the requisitioning of goods along the way. Although the biggest source of revenue, oil can also be a liability because not many countries want to buy it and it is hard to smuggle out of the country. It is therefore heavily discounted to entice buyers, most of whom are in Turkey, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan (the latter two ironically ISIL’s targets).
ISIL’s fighters are paid, another factor which has featured prominently in recruitment material. The payment is a flat rate for themselves, for each wife and for each child, and those payments are supposed to carry on being made to the family if the fighter dies – an example of how ISIL is emulating the functions of a state. All of these transactions are made in cash via couriers, relying on the honesty of couriers and on the cooperation of border guards. ISIL survival and success does therefore depend on a carefully calibrated if unorthodox economy. One reason why Turkey is currently under no immediate territorial threat from ISIL, is that it relies too much on smuggling routes through Turkish territory both to purchase vital goods and to sell discounted oil. Then there is a steady stream of donations, especially from sources in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although the amounts are small compared to oil revenues.
When in August 2013 Parliament – rightly in my view – decided not to agree on military trikes against the Assad regime or arming the moderate Free Syria Army, many of those opposing the Prime Minister’s recommendation to do so were concerned that arms were likely to fall into the hands of Jihadis, as happened in late October 2014 in Idlib. Both Jabhat al-Nusra (which functions as Al-Qaeda in Syria) and ISIL were already looking like the more successful partners in the coalition of rebels fighting Assad. Arms from the UK to moderate rebels would not have helped to prevent this state of affairs, because it would not have matched the international funds reaching ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, particularly from funders in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.
Several Sunni Arabic states are generally assumed to be playing a double game, denouncing ISIL at state level but turning a blind eye to private citizens (especially the really wealthy and powerful ones) making donations to ISIL. Iran has been very vocal about this double game, as a Shia minority country in a Sunni dominated region. Iran’s officials have expressed frustration that Sunni countries which are nominal allies of the US have been funding Sunni extremism, including ISIL for years and are only now seeing the consequences of how this might threaten their own existence. We can be certain that, given the opportunity, ISIL would be unlikely to baulk at expanding its activities onto the territory of erstwhile bank-rollers. Indeed ISIL considers the governing Saudi Monarchy as ‘corrupt betrayers’ of their common Wahhabism.
Emiratis have carved a distinct role, perhaps the most coherently strategic of all the Gulf states. The UAE is highly critical of Qatar’s role, and instrumental in opposing it in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Whereas Qataris and Saudis have openly and generously funded radical Syrian Islamist groups, including indirectly and perhaps inadvertently ISIL, Abu Dhabi has been much more cautious: keen on a transition from Assad but concerned that this does not open the door to Jihadist fundamentalism and even greater chaos. They have also been by far the leading Gulf nation participant alongside the US in air strikes against ISIL. Kurdish protesters in the West have pointed the finger in particular at Turkey and Saudi-Arabia for being soft on ISIL, accusing the British Government amongst others of hypocrisy for supporting those countries whilst attacking ISIL. Qatar is never far from these criticisms either.
Yet the dilemma for Britain is first, can we really afford to support Qatar and Saudi Arabia, knowing that they harbour nationals who would, or do already, fund groups keen to mount terrorist activities against Britain? And second, can Britain afford to take a stand whilst relying on Qatari gas and Saudi oil, as well as lucrative sales of military equipment to those countries?
In proudly publicising its own atrocities ISIL seeks to goad the West into reacting emotionally not strategically, on the basis of a hypothetical threat to the West when the real threat is in the region. A highly successful strategy thus far. Yet for all their bloodlust, serious capabilities and money, ISIL is no match for the military,
surveillance and intelligence capacities of NATO, especially the US and Britain. US air power has already provided the Iraqi government with the help needed to come to the support of the Kurds and other minorities facing genocide. But although the significant contribution of half a dozen Arab countries has helped slow down ISIL’s remorseless advance, air power will always be insufficient, which is why those Sunni regional powers must coordinate on the ground – and preferably liaise with Iran and Turkey.
Iran’s de facto, if covert, blessing for Western military strikes is also of seismic importance, opening up an opportunity for future engagement and collaboration which could be transformative for the whole region, Israel-Palestine included.
But where Britain has made the right choice helping local Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL with air strikes, drones, military equipment and other support, British troops on the ground would be entirely counterproductive.
Countries in the region must take ownership of this battle because ISIL threatens each of them. And none more so than Saudi Arabia, whose King enjoys the position of being the spiritual as well as political figurehead of Sunni Wahhabism according to the traditional three pillars of Wahhabism. Abu Bakr’s ISIL rejects those three pillars which state that “One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque” falls to Saudi Arabia. Instead Abu Bakr considers himself to be thus anointed in a direct challenge to the supremacy of the Saudi King.
Many commentators have drawn a parallel with US funding of the Afghan muhajideen fighting against Soviet invaders. For these fighters later turned their attention and their US funded guns on the West. Saudi nationals funding of ISIL risks encouraging a similar subsequent attack against their own King – indeed perhaps they wish that.
However rather than being disparaging about Sunni/Shia sectarianism in the region, the West should show some humility and acknowledge that the relative peace we take for granted today has developed out of centuries of our own bloody history of internecine Christian conflict, some of it as in Northern Ireland very recent.
There were ferocious religious wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Protestant reformation’s stated aim was to purify Christianity after centuries of perceived degradation by the Catholic Church who in turn chose violence to repress these ‘heretics’ with carnage and terror. Although there is no direct theological comparison with today’s Shia-Sunni conflicts, each side of this Muslim divide believes that to make concessions to the other is to risk total elimination, and each side’s religious aims have been co-opted by regional governments in order to gain control for themselves.
There is a striking parallel between repression by medieval Catholics and ISIL’s approach to the Yazidis. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, so-called heretics were annihilated by the Catholic Church – the Cathars in particular were accused of devil-worship and perversion, much as the Yazidis have been demonised by ISIL. In Western Europe ruling Catholics succeeded for a long time in wiping out religious sectarian difference, and silencing all dissent. If ISIL succeeds the same fate awaits the Middle East.
After the wars of religion in Europe came the Enlightenment, and secular nationalism eventually developed into the predominant model of government, with religion relegated to a more private position in society and religious tolerance implemented. A similar secular consensus should be the objective of all in the Middle East. But this is unlikely to be fostered by any existing players, including the so-called moderate fighters in Syria. Although they areopen to democratic elections deciding the future of the country, they still favour an Islamist government, and are illiberal in their views towards women, secularism and non-Sunis.
As long as the Sunni-Shia fault line divides and dominates the politics of the Middle East, the region will be never be stable. Rapprochement is essential. Defeating ISIL will be impossible without substantive progress in Iraq towards a democratic, secular and unified government encompassing Sunnis, Shias and Kurds – with the country perhaps based upon a federal structure. This would provide the stability that almost no Iraqi has experienced in living memory but that Iraqis crave and deserve. We are also seeing the beginnings of enhanced regional cooperation. The coalition of Arab States currently engaging in air strikes against ISIL is a positive sign that those states understand the threat that it poses and do not want a return to a medieval caliphate but look forward to building modern nations.
The last few months have also seen an alignment between the US and Iran, because of threats to Iranian interests. ISIL represents the end of Shia rights in Iraq which is not only home to a large Shia population but also to sacred locations in the Shia tradition. To the overwhelmingly Shia population and leadership of Iran this is incredibly important, important enough to be discreetly backing their old enemy, the US, in the bombing of ISIL strongholds. There is, however no prospect of Iran, which has consistently opposed US involvement, especially military, in the region, to turn cheerleader. A thawing of relations with the West is the most that can be expected, for the immediate future at least.
The flow of young men from states in the Middle East and North Africa to ISIL, is in part due to the failure of the Arab Spring to secure genuine change for that generation of worldly, connected young people. Many young Arab men and women were switched onto politics by the events of 2011, and have not been satisfied by either changes in regime or the small reforms granted by those regimes that survived. To them ISIL is a cause, an exciting, successful rejection of a life which has left them with skills but without jobs or a stake in their own societies. Poverty and disparity in education are also factors. As Chatham House analyst Jane Kinnimont has written, ISIL are ‘not deeply rooted in Iraqi or Syrian society’, instead they are ‘an indication of how desperate people are for an alternative to the status quo.’
The King of Saudi Arabia has often expressed the need for Arab ownership of security issues in the region, a position that has sometimes lead to tension with the US which considers itself to be the key player. But unless the US and Europe are prepared to embrace Arab ownership of the region’s conflicts and to put the onus on Arab states to find a solution, there is no prospect of establishing peace and stability in the Middle East. Despite the benefits from getting rid of Saddam, Iraq is a salutary case study of how Western intervention can go disastrously wrong.
Therefore Western mission creep much beyond air strikes should be resisted. The US and its allies cannot defeat ISIL. All we can hope to do is help contain them. Unless responsibility is taken by states in the region to take on ISIL both militarily and politically, and to drive a common strategy to resolve the grievances and state failures upon which it thrives, there is no prospect of a solution.
Otherwise Western states run the risk of minimising the threat of ISIL against Arabic states, thus minimising those states’ responsibility to act. That path leads to a never-ending cycle of intervention and withdrawal that has weakened and radicalised the entire region. Currently the West and its regional allies have no clear plan or political and military strategy for defeating ISIL. Having initially and successfully fought like a proper army out in the open, ISIL suffered heavy casualties from air strikes, but subsequently resorted to guerrilla tactics not so easily targeted. Furthermore, containing ISIL in Iraq is not enough. It has to be done in Syria too because ISIL controls a chunk of land across the border which to it is invisible. If it is pushed back from Iraq it will retreat into Syria and regroup.
Syria’s Russian supplied air defences have been hit by the fighting, yet they remain quite sophisticated. Even the US has had to pre-inform and liaise with Assad’s forces about the timing and location of its air strikes. Although without either UN or Syrian government authorisation air strikes in Syria may be illegal, there could well be justification under international law without UN agreement, for instance under the UN’s Responsibility To Protect doctrine. And UN authority for air strikes in Syria won’t be granted without agreement of Russian President Putin – maybe Iranian President Rouhani too.
Such engagement is very difficult, and understandably to many very distasteful, yet what is the alternative? Of course Assad’s forces have unleashed horrifying waves of violence on sections of his people, though his Jihadist opponents too have committed terrible atrocities. But instead of trying – and humiliatingly failing – to bounce Parliament into backing a military strike in Syria in late August 2013, the British Prime Minister should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. That was always going to be the only way to get Assad – and more important his backers – to shift towards compromise. Continuing to insist as a precondition on Assad’s removal was never going to work, indeed has helped prolong a conflict taking about 100 lives a day.
For Syria never was some simplistic battle between evil and good, between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people. It is a civil war: a quagmire into which Britain should tread at dire peril. At its heart is an incendiary political struggle that is feeding an unleashed internal Islamic clash of Sunni versus Shia, and their chief protagonists and sponsors Saudi Arabia versus Iran. And also a cold-war hangover: the US with all its considerable military and intelligence assets in the region versus Russia with its only Mediterranean port and an intelligence capability in Syria.
Even more crucially, Assad is backed by around 40 per cent of the population, his ruling Shia-aligned Alawites fearful of being oppressed by the Sunni majority along with Kurds, Christians and other minorities. Although few like his repressive Baathist rule, they fear even more the alternative – becoming victims of genocide, Jihadism or Sharia extremism: and with very good cause as we now see.
Assad, backed by such a large proportion of his people and by the power of Russia and Iran, was never going to be defeated. If western military intervention had somehow toppled him without a settlement in place, violent chaos in the Syrian quicksand would still have ensued. Some analysts believe it would have been even worse than the appalling cruel, brutality Assad unleashed, driving his people into carnage and chaos instead of responding positively to non-violent protests when the Arab Spring reached Syria in March 2011.
As Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy until May 2014, set out three years ago, a political solution was always the imperative. That means negotiating with Assad’s regime, and with the Russians and Iranians standing behind him. The West’s failure to undertake this is a major reason why the civil war has been so prolonged and why ISIL has been allowed to flourish.
We need a comprehensive strategy with the continuation of US air strikes in parallel with Arab boots on the ground in Iraq, accompanied by an international effort to foster a local, ceasefire-led approach in Syria. As an immediate priority the West must abandon any ambition of doing away with Assad or his regime.
Yet engaging doesn’t mean befriending. Rather, akin to Churchill in 1941: 'If Hitler invaded hell,’ he told his private secretary as Germany readied to invade Stalin’s Russia, 'I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.’
Handled sensitively this could be an opportunity both to kickstart a proper Syrian peace process and to defuse longstanding, deep and inflammatory divisions amongst Muslims in the Middle East. Iranians as Shiites sponsor Hezbollah and other militias. Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsor Al Qaeda and other Jihadists – including ISIL where they have helped unleashed a monster threatening to devour them all.
By acting carefully not bombastically, and by making common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to confront a common ISIL enemy, Britain could possibly even help realign Middle East politics to overcome the bitter and violently corrosive Sunni/Shia fault line in the region. A big ask, an even bigger task, but one that could be immensely valuable in the mission to create a lasting, just and stable peace.