Why British military action against Isis’s barbarity, but not Assad’s butchery? And shouldn’t the ill-fated legacy of Iraq instruct us to stay well clear?
In the cabinet in 2003, I backed Tony Blair over the invasion of Iraq because I honestly believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I was wrong: he didn’t – we went to war on a lie. And the aftermath was disastrous.
All of which has made me deeply allergic to anything similar in the region – certainly anything remotely hinting at western cowboy intervention.
But that doesn’t mean doing nothing. When I was Africa minister we were right to intervene in 2000 to save Sierra Leone from widespread acts of savagery, and also to prevent the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo in 1999.
The Syrian horror from which Isis has sprung is very different. Of course Assad’s forces have unleashed waves of terror, but his jihadist opponents have also committed terrible atrocities. Instead of trying – and humiliatingly failing – to bounce parliament into backing a military strike in Syria in late August 2013, David Cameron should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning.
For Syria never was a 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 step with deep trepidation, for at its heart is an incendiary internal Islamic conflict; Sunni versus Shia, and their chief protagonists – Saudi Arabia versus Iran. There’s also a cold-war hangover: the US, with all its considerable assets in the region, versus Russia, with its only Mediterranean port in Syria.
Even more crucially, Assad is backed by 40% of the population, his ruling Shia-aligned Alawites fearful of being oppressed by the Sunni majority along with Kurds, Christians and other minorities. Few like his repressive Ba’athist rule, but they fear even more the alternative – becoming victims of genocide, jihadism or sharia extremism.
Assad never was going to be defeated. And if western military intervention had somehow toppled him without a settlement in place, violent chaos would still have ensued.
As the UN set out, a political solution was always the imperative. And that means negotiating with Assad’s regime, and with the Russians and Iranians standing behind him. Our failure to undertake this is a major reason why the civil war has been so prolonged and why Isis has been allowed to flourish.
Medieval both in its barbarism and its fanatical religious zeal, which views its own narrow Wahhabi sect dating from the 18th century as possessors of the sole truth, Isis labels non-Wahhabi Muslims (even fellow Sunnis) as apostates – the justification for exterminating any religious group blocking its way to establishing a caliphate.
The icy cast-iron certainty of Isis’s fundamentalism has to be stopped, and like the US, Britain has military, surveillance and intelligence capabilities which those fighting on the frontline do not. In northern Iraq, only US air power – at the request of the Iraqi government, the Kurds and the minorities facing genocide, and crucially with the military participation of half-a-dozen nearby Arab countries – has knocked back Isis’s well-equipped army.
That Iran gave its de facto, if covert, blessing is of huge importance, opening an opportunity for future collaboration which could be transformative for the whole region, Israel-Palestine included.
Britain should also help local Iraqi and Kurdish forces with air strikes, drones, military equipment and other support. But not with troops on the ground. Countries in the region have to take ownership of this battle because Isis threatens each of them.
However Isis will never be defeated if it is constantly allowed to regroup from its Syrian bases, and UN authority for air strikes in Syria won’t be granted without Assad and Putin’s agreement – maybe Iran’s president Rouhani’s too. Yet engaging doesn’t mean befriending. Rather, akin to Churchill in 1941: “If Hitler invaded hell I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
Iranians as Shiites sponsor Hezbollah and other militias. Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsor al-Qaida and other jihadists – and in Isis they have helped unleash a monster which threatens to devour them all. By acting carefully not bombastically, and by making common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to confront a common Isis enemy, Britain could possibly help realign Middle East politics to overcome the violently corrosive Sunni/Shia faultline in the region. A big ask, but a worthwhile one.