The west is a couple of weeks into the latest air campaign in the Middle East, targeting the group we know among other names as ISIS. It is too early to see an outcome on the ground. The first test of its success is Kobane on northern Syria’s border with Turkey. As the fighting goes on, it seems the bombing could not halt ISIS’ continuing advance to the town though there are claims it has started to have an impact on the street-to-street fighting. Amid the uncertainties on the ground, three questions remain relevant.
In case anybody is offended by the apparently flippant tone of these questions, apologies in advance. It’s a product of frustration at the way these issues are debated in the UK and elsewhere: Here they are:
1. Has the west ever done anything like this before in this region?
2. How did that go?
3. What is the definition of madness?
Now read on.
We need no reminding that ISIS has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria and has declared itself the caliphate and Islamic State. Likewise, we know it revels in promoting itself worldwide with videos displaying its brutality and barbarism. It is a truly awful organisation even if, lest we forget, it has not killed nearly as many people as the Assad regime has in Syria.
We should need equally little reminding that despite its name and claims, the organisation does not represent Islam. It has been condemned repeatedly by leading Muslims including British Muslim leaders and Egypt’s senior religious authority. Its declaration of a ‘caliphate’ – the establishment of the authority of the Prophet Mohammed’s successor over all Muslims – lacks all credibility and has been denounced by representatives of almost every strand of Muslim opinion. Its actions are justified by nothing except its leaders’ and fighters’ twisted view of the world.
The case for air strikes
These points are important because they combine to make the core of the case for the west, together with some Arab allies, to use military force against ISIS. Some advocates put a few layers round this core, primarily the argument that if we do not fight them “over there”, we will end up having to fight them “over here”. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has spoken to the UN General Assembly about ‘the mortal threat we all face’ from ISIS. The extra layers seem to be quite popular, appealing to fears that have real foundations if one thinks back to bombs in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005.
In their simple, everyday politics form, these additions are not especially persuasive. It is not clear exactly why ISIS would attack the west if the west did not attack it but terror strikes in response to attacks on it seem a rational response and quite likely. And if western actions defeat ISIS on the battlefield, why that would make clandestine terror actions impossible is also unclear. More likely, an inability to win on the battlefield will make clandestine terror a more attractive tactic. Suppress the problem in one place and it will appear in another. Its ability to do this should not be doubted thanks to international recruitment and because it is the richest group of its kind in the world, while successful strikes by the west give it a clear motive. In short, ISIS is more likely to be a threat “over here” if the west attacks it “over there” than if it is left alone.
A better case can be made, that, because it is actually seizing and controlling territory, it will have a profound impact on stability in the region. But the pragmatic, self-interested security case for the west’s military campaign is weak.
Such objections are not relevant, however, if you just focus on the core argument that ISIS is terrible and must be stopped. It has not been more eloquently or vividly expressed than by the avowedly anti-war Tim Stanley, who thinks ‘bombing rarely helps anyone’ but who, writing for The Telegraph blog, calls bombing Iraq ‘an act of mercy’. He puts it this way: “When a shark swims towards a group of people stranded in the water, what do you do? You shoot the shark. Conservation be damned.”
The shark and the people
But it’s not so simple. First of all, the shark is not heading towards the people, it’s already among them and looks a lot like them. Though ISIS has regular military formations, it is also in control of territory and functions by infiltration as well as frontal attack. This may be why President Obama has decided that the rules he imposed last year to prevent or at least minimise civilian casualties from drone strikes will not apply in the present bombing campaign against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. So the ‘act of mercy’ argument falls at its first and simplest hurdle: its impracticality, recognised at the highest levels, eliminates the action’s apparent moral clarity.
It might give advocates of air strikes some further pause for thought if they took note of reported scepticism among some of the very groups the strikes are intended to support – the Syrian opposition.
What would success look like?
Even if those difficulties did not exist, the strategic purpose and shape of the mission are unclear. Yes, to degrade and defeat ISIS – but exactly how? As Mehdi Hasan, UK political director of The Huffington Post, tweeted on the day of the House of Commons debate, ‘The definition of ‘victory’? In General Petraeus’ famous phrase: ‘Tell me how this ends.’ Can anyone?’
There are two components to the argument here: one is military, going from tactical aspects to strategic; the second is political. That air strikes alone will not suffice is a commonplace of current commentary, confirmed by a recent head of British armed forces. And as General Sir David Richards pointed out when saying air strikes would do not the job against a tank-equipped conventional enemy that is ready to fight, this does raise the issue of who will provide the rest of what’s needed.
On the ground: allies or boots?
In Syria the opposition to ISIS consists of Assad and allies whom the west won’t support, Islamist groups (including those allied with al-Qaeda) that the west hasn’t wanted to support though some of its Arab allies have, and a weaker opposition that the west has tried to support but which seems to be getting steadily less effective. Indeed, in Syria, which groups western force will aim to support may still be an open question. Kurdish forces offer committed and solidly organised resistance to ISIS but their strength should not be over-emphasised. The Kurdish YPG militia has appeared unable alone to prevent ISIS entering Kobane.
In Iraq, the lavishly trained and equipped Iraqi army has proven wholly unable to resist ISIS. The Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq have a reputation forged out of long years of battle with Iraqi government forces but whether they remain as capable now as in earlier years has not been put to the test. In any case, they may be tougher defending their homeland than in mounting an offensive. Not surprisingly, then, the once reviled Mahdi Army, a Shi’a force against which US ire and force were concentrated repeatedly during the attempt to stabilise Iraq, has drawn some attention.
How strange, if the west’s best hope for protecting ourselves against the mortal threat of ISIS turns out to be Assad in Syria, and Muqtada al-Sadr and the forces of a would-be state the west has steadfastly refused to recognise for 90 years.
Or else, as General Richards said, there is always the possibility of western Boots. On the ground. In Iraq. Again. And in Syria.
Politics, ideology and, of course, history
Beyond this warning that air power is not enough to achieve the military objective, the other thing that, as one commentator said, is a matter of ‘common sense and natural wisdom,’ is that nor will military power alone bring peace. Nor military power plus state-building on the lines of the US approach in Iraq since 2003 and Afghanistan since 2001. That the confrontation with ISIS has to be more than military seems, to be fair, well understood in the US administration, but several commentators have pointed out that the track record shows US administrations ill suited to successfully operating with a more rounded approach.
More fundamentally, however, this is a political and ideological issue. ISIS sprang from al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and broke away in 2013. The roots of ISIS, like al-Qaeda, go back into networks of political militants and romantics in, above all, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and 1980s. The driving forces behind their rise and continuing appeal will not be addressed and weakened without political change both in the Middle East and in relations between the west and the Middle East.
Broadly speaking and simplifying massively, they need accountable instead of arbitrary authority (that’s what the democratic movement of 2011 and since has been all about) while we–the west–need to behave with a bit of respect. Those two things would be a good start, at least.
But none of that is going to happen quickly. Instead, the arrogant west aligns with unaccountable Arab rulers. The unquestioned politics of it and the default resort to force get in the way of every other possible action to remedy deep-seated ills that these same actors have inflicted on the region over many decades.
And so we return to the uncertainties. The fog of war is swirling, made thicker by the foggy politics of western intervention and even foggier Middle Eastern politics. There is a lot that is not known about what is happening on the ground. This is war and truth is always one of its casualties. Air strikes could slow ISIS and encourage the emergence of new coalitions of fighting forces in Syria and Iraq. In these wars, forces wax and wane because groups make transitional alliances of convenience. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there will be developments across the next few weeks that give grounds for those who advocate and those who are carrying out air strikes to feel optimistic and anticipate success. How long that optimism might endure is another matter. There have been optimistic moments before, not least in Iraq, several times.
Thus, my questions: have we been here before, with what results, and why does that not encourage our political leaders to think again?
This piece was originally posted on Dan's blog on October 8, 2014.