Why British military action against ISIL’s barbarity, but not Assad’s butchery? And shouldn’t the haunting, ill-fated legacy of invading Iraq instruct us to stay well clear?
In the Cabinet in 2003 I backed Tony Blair over 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.
Which has made me deeply allergic to anything similar in the region – certainly anything remotely hinting of western cowboy intervention.
But that doesn’t mean doing nothing. When I was Africa Minister we were right to intervene and save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000 and also to prevent genocide of Muslims in Kosovo in 1999.
The Syrian horror from which ISIL 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. That was always going to be the only way to get Assad – and more important his backers – to shift towards compromise.
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 the incendiary internal Islamic conflict – Sunni versus Shia, and their chief protagonists Saudi Arabia versus Iran. And 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 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.
Assad never was going to be defeated. And if western military intervention had somehow toppled him without a settlement in place, violent chaos in the Syrian quicksand 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 ISIL has been allowed to flourish.
Medieval both in its barbarism and in its fanatical religious zeal which views its own narrow Wahhabi sect dating from the 18th century as possessing the sole truth, ISIL labels non-Wahhabi Muslims (even fellow Sunnis) as apostates – the justification for exterminating both them and any other religious group blocking their way to establishing a caliphate.
The icy cast-iron certainty of ISIL’s fundamentalism has to be stopped, and like the US, Britain has military, surveillance and intelligence capabilities which those on the front line fighting it do not. In northern Iraq, only US air power – at the request of the Iraqi government, the Kurds and the minorities facing genocide by ISIL’s remorseless advance, and crucially with the military participation of half a dozen nearby Arab countries – has knocked back ISIL’s well-equipped army.
That Iran gave its de facto if covert blessing is of seismic importance, opening an opportunity for future engagement and collaboration which could be transformative for the whole region, Israel-Palestine included.
Britain should also help local Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL 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 ISIL threatens each of them.
However ISIL 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 Rouhani’s too.
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.’
Iranians as Shiites sponsor Hezbollah and other militias. Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsor Al Qaeda and other Jihadists – and in ISIL they have helped unleashed 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 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, but a worthwhile one.