For months, almost unchecked, the jihadists of the Islamic State (also known as Isis) have advanced across Iraq and Syria. With modern weaponry and medieval savagery – stonings, beheadings, crucifixions – they have conquered an area larger than the United Kingdom. In this self-declared caliphate, all those who do not subscribe to the group’s extreme Salafist ideology face a choice between conversion or death.
It took the threat of genocide for the west to intervene. Haunted by the memory of Rwanda and Srebrenica – and by Saddam Hussein’s massacre of the Kurds – the international community retains a special horror of this crime. Barack Obama, who withdrew US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, was right to deploy air strikes against Isis to safeguard the 40,000 Yazidis sheltering in terror on the desolate Mount Sinjar. The doctrine of “responsibility to protect” may be selectively enforced but that is preferable to it being disregarded entirely.
Within a day of the beginning of the offensive, at least 20,000 Yazidis had managed to flee to safety. The air strikes and the arming of the Kurdish peshmerga (“those who face death”) have also allowed some territory to be retaken from Isis. In Iraq’s present state, these are worthwhile gains.
The UK government has been right to contribute humanitarian aid and to refuse to rule out military involvement if the situation deteriorates. There is a case for parliament to be recalled to debate the appropriate response. Downing Street may protest that military action is not under consideration, unlike in the case of Syria last year, but it is precisely to determine whether this is the right stance that MPs deserve to be consulted. Meanwhile, the UK should follow the example of France and open its borders to those fleeing persecution in Iraq. The Conservatives must not allow their aspiration to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year to override Britain’s humanitarian obligations.
The ironies of the present situation run deep: the US is now firing on its own military equipment, which was looted by Isis from the hapless Iraqi army; a president who was elected on a pledge to end armed involvement has been forced to intervene again; and the country that the west invaded in 2003 to rid it of jihadists is now overrun by them.
It was the intervention in 2003, which we opposed, that led to many of the current woes. The hasty overthrow of the Ba’athist regime allowed sectarian hatreds suppressed under Saddam to surface. The subsequent dismantlement of the state and the Iraqi army created the conditions for them to flourish. For eight years, the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who in effect has been deposed, sowed the seeds of Sunni hatred through crudely discriminatory policies, depriving the government and its institutions of national legitimacy. When confronted by Isis in Iraq’s northern capital, Mosul, the splintered and unmotivated army, which outnumbered the jihadists by 40 to one, crumbled in just three days.
The result is that the country is in danger of regressing to a Hobbesian state of nature. As the historian John Bew writes on page 22, the rise of Isis is less a symptom of jihadist strength than it is of governmental weakness. When Leviathan is absent, new monsters rush to fill the vacuum.
The immediate priority remains to prevent Isis from achieving its genocidal ambitions. This will involve a sustained military commitment but Mr Obama is right to reject Republican demands for a more ambitious and extensive offensive against the group. As the Iraqi ambassador to Britain, Faik Nerweyi, warned at a meeting in the Commons last month, the jihadists are too well integrated with the local population to be evicted by US force from Mosul and other strongholds. Any wide-ranging assault would result in Sunni civilian deaths that could strengthen support for Isis.
The precondition for the defeat of the jihadists is the formation of an inclusive government, capable of commanding support from all ethnic and religious groups. This administration, along with the regional superpowers of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, must then devise a strategy to defeat Isis.
Recent history, in the shape of the western actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, shows how interventions can lead to the gravest of unintended consequences. An all-out confrontation with Isis would satisfy the moral injunction for “something to be done” but it would not be accompanied by any reasonable guarantee of success. If Isis is to be defeated, the fightback must be led from within the Middle East, not from without.