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

Photo: Getty
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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.