Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border, 13 August. Photo: Getty
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Leader: We have a responsibility to protect the Yazidis of Iraq

The UK government has been right to contribute humanitarian aid and to refuse to rule out military involvement if the situation deteriorates.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.