Iraqi soldiers from the Abbas Unit, travel along a dirt road in Jurf al Sakhr, 60 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, on August 10, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The US and the UK can’t defeat ISIS – Arab states have to take the lead

The destruction of this caliphate must come from a Muslim-led force. 

On Friday last week, as he became the fourth US president in succession to authorise airstrikes in Iraq, Barack Obama effectively said the world's most powerful terrorist group, ISIS, was an Arab problem and that regional leaders would have to deal with it.

"The nature of this [ISIL / ISIS] problem is not one that the US military can solve," he said, offering the clearest indication of his thinking. "[W]e can then be one of many countries that deal with the broader problem that ISIL poses," he said during the press conference, but the US was not going to take the lead.

Over the last year ISIS has captured territory that is now larger than Great Britain. It is among the fastest-growing and richest terrorist groups of all time. After initially funding its efforts with extortion, smuggling and private donations, it literally struck gold in June when it made off with $400m in cash and gold from the central bank in Mosul. Since then it has also captured oil fields and earns up to £3m a day by selling the resource on the black market. The group also has a modernised arsenal from the weapons and vehicles it has captured from the Iraqi army. Even the well-trained and feared Kurdish forces are being pushed back in places.

The plight of Iraq’s minorities, especially the Yazidis, has struck a chord strong enough to raise demands that the USA and UK should intervene to help such groups and destroy ISIS. I don’t say this as a blind anti-interventionist - I supported the invasion of Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban and heavy military intervention in Syria to avoid a humanitarian crisis - but such a course of action would be foolhardy and counter-productive. On this, President Obama is absolutely right: the problem posed by ISIS cannot be solved by US military.

A wide-scale military operation spear-headed by the US or UK to defeat ISIS is doomed to failure. In fact they welcome the prospect. "Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones," a spokesman for the group told Vice News. "Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, god willing," he added. ISIS would love the United States and UK to invade with soldiers or to step up aerial bombardment across the country.

There are two key reasons why I oppose such action. Firstly, aerial bombardment won’t make much difference, and may well lead to extensive civilian casualties. ISIS are well-versed in fighting an established army - in Syria - and constantly move around equipment and people. In case of (a highly unlikely) ground war, they would bog down American and British troops in a costly and draining ground war stretching over years, if not decades.

To reiterate, ISIS aren’t a rag-tag bunch of rebels hiding in caves, as al-Qaeda is largely reduced to now. It is a well-equipped urban guerilla army fighting on several different fronts and winning in most of them. While Saddam Hussain’s army barely put up a fight against American troops, the warriors of Islamic State would relish fighting them on their holy land.

A western-led attack on ISIS would also be counter-productive because of the inevitable blowback. The establishment of a caliphate has not just made ISIS more attractive than al-Qaeda, it also puts us in a deep quandary. To put it bluntly, the US or UK cannot be seen as cheerleading the destruction of the most successful caliphate in recent times.

It doesn’t matter how many imams or Muslims across the world have distanced themselves from ISIS, the destruction of this caliphate must come from a Muslim-led force. Otherwise the symbolism is such that we would be fending off terrorist attacks forever. To offer one example of their popularity - while not one Indian Muslim has been found fighting with al-Qaeda (in a country with the world’s second largest Muslim population), ISIS has not only inspired imams but attracted four Indian Muslim fighters already. The symbolism of a caliphate cannot be underestimated, and neither can the symbolism of its destruction.

I suspect Obama knows this. This is why there is hesitation across the American and British administrations, and why he said Arab leaders had to lead the charge against ISIS instead. The airstrikes authorised by Obama last week were limited, solely to help Kurdish armed forces fighting ISIS in northern Iraq. The British government isn’t even debating the prospect of joining its ally in these airstrikes and Labour opposes any such action outright.

There’s a reason, too, why we can afford to take a step back from this conflict. In contrast to al-Qaeda, the focus of the Islamic State is inward. It wants to consolidate territory across the Middle East before it takes on the might of the United States. It’s ironic that Saudi Arabia, which sponsored Wahhabism for decades, is now threatened by a group based on its ideology. We should let it deal with the consequences.

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

Getty
Show Hide image

Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change