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.
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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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle