Britain should beware sliding back into Middle Eastern war

Published by The Independent (20th July, 2015)

Slowly but surely, Britain is being dragged back into wider military intervention in the Middle East. For months, the ground has been prepared with retired generals beating the war drums following outrages and taunts by Islamic State. Now David Cameron has said our nation must ‘step up and do more’ in the fight against the jihadists in Iraq and Syria, telling American television viewers he is determined to crush the Caliphate while Downing Street indicates his desire to beef up forces in the conflict zone.

This is unsurprising. Although Cameron is not a neo-conservative who sees it as a sacred duty to impose democracy around the world, and was privately sceptical about the last invasion of Iraq, he is a liberal interventionist who firmly believes in taking action to stop atrocities. He was shattered when plans to bomb Syria two summers ago were shackled by the Commons, the most significant parliamentary event of the previous government that substantially weakened prime ministerial authority in the world. And he is right that the globe is engaged in a generational struggle against Islamic extremism.

There should also be no doubt Isis poses a direct threat to Western nations, although it is arguable some others from the Kremlin to Mexican drug cartels pose bigger dangers to safety and security. The IS threat does not just come from attacks such as the recent killings in Tunisia or from deluded recruits leaving their homes in London and Glasgow to join this twisted cause, all of whom deserve to be stripped of British citizenship. There is also clear evidence calls for Western followers to mount attacks have been followed almost instantly by terrorist incidents, such as the murders of three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last year.

Few sane people would quibble with the concept of this malign group being crushed to smithereens, ending its hideous rampage of murder, rape and repression. Yet warning lights should be flashing. For events in the Middle East show with stark clarity the confused and inconsistent state of our foreign policy, with short-term lurches and lack of discernible longer-term strategy. After all, two years ago the government wanted to bomb Bashar Assad’s side; now it aims to attack his most lethal foes, despite signs Damascus fanned these extremists to win Western support.

Similar contortions can be seen across the region. As Libya descends into chaos, our allies are on both sides of an evolving proxy war while Isis moves in to exploit the meltdown. Among those involved is Egypt, where once the West delighted in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak but now cuddles up to an even-more authoritarian general who took power in a coup. Then there is Saudi Arabia, a barbaric feudal regime that has for years funded Islamic militancy around the planet and was a major source of money for both al Qa’ida and Isis – yet shamefully remains a close friend of both London and Washington.

Both Iraq and Libya illustrate the need for caution before military engagement in Middle East hotspots without an end game. Just last year, Barack Obama was casually dismissive about Isis. Now it is hard to see anything close to real Western strategy beyond a reactive desire to get rid of them – yet as Patrick Cockburn argues, there are seven similar conflicts raging away from Afghanistan to Nigeria. And as former chief of staff Lord Richards said on the BBC, it will take more than air strikes to winkle out this wealthy, well-armed group.

Yet surely the more gung-ho generals and ministers should wonder also about the wisdom of doing precisely what is sought by militant jihadist ideologues, who have openly said they want to force America to fight them. They know it can create a backlash and believe we in the West have reached ‘a stage of effeminacy’ that makes us unable to sustain long, brutal campaigns. Certainly the recent history of Western interventions in the region is unhappy: military successes followed by largely disastrous consequences due to incompetent diplomacy and inept politics.

Just take a close look at the creation of Isis. As Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan shows in his superb book on the group, its seeds were planted long ago as far afield as Afghanistan and Chechnya, while many key figures were once loyal to Saddam Hussein. This includes both deputy leaders, who met the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US prison camp in post-invasion Iraq, while all four members of its security body – responsible for those real-life horror films – were senior officials in Saddam’s security apparatus. Then there was the dead dictator’s former deputy, killed fighting for IS three months ago.

And why did a comparatively small terror group manage to win control of territory the size of Britain? Partly because having ejected Saddam, the West backed a corrupt, sectarian Shia leader in Iraq who so alienated the Sunni minority that it drove many of them into the arms of an extremist group of religious thugs. And in one more grotesque twist to the tale, our side even helped Isis end up extremely well-equipped by pouring military resources into an Iraqi army that turned into ghosts when confronted by determined fighters. It is one thing to win a war; quite another to sort the politics and secure the peace. One day we will learn this lesson.

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