A volunteer member of the Iraqi security service in the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. Photo: Getty
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Leader: The solution to the Isis uprising must come from the Middle East

A lasting settlement cannot be imposed from the outside.

Tony Blair is a peace envoy who remains one of our keenest advocates of war. If our Panglossian former prime minister could have his way, British troops would be fighting in Syria and would soon be on their way for another tour of duty in Iraq.

Mr Blair sadly refuses to accept that the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the long civil war that followed the dismantling of the Ba’athist state was a tragedy for himself, for the west and, most of all, for the unhappy people of Iraq. That war shamed the Labour Party and created the Iraq of today: a crumbling pseudo-state broken apart by Sunni-Shia sectarianism and Islamist fanaticism.

Yet events are as they are. We should not be seeking to fight the battles of 2003 again or, indeed, repeating old arguments. The decision was taken to invade Iraq and we must accept the consequences. What is at stake today as a blood-red tide washes over the Middle East is the very survival of those states created after the First World War in the old Ottoman lands of the Levant: Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

All three countries, where minorities once prospered, are being ripped apart by sectarianism. One could say that so artificial were these states from the beginning that Syria and Iraq, in particular, were held together only through the force of will and brutality of secular strongmen. But at least they were secular states. One can only be fearful about what might replace them once they have been partitioned into Sunni and Shia statelets.

In recent days, in response to the advance of Isis (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), there have been calls – led by Mr Blair, naturally – for western military intervention. Fortunately the British government has ruled this out. But this does not mean that the west should merely look on in horror as Isis captures cities and rampages towards Baghdad.

There is much that can be done in terms of offering humanitarian, strategic and intelligence support. It is encouraging that relations between Iran, the regional superpower, and the west are slowly beginning to improve. We welcome the 17 June announcement that the British embassy in Tehran will soon reopen. More should be done, too, to encourage the Gulf autocracies to stop funding and arming Sunni militants in Syria and Iraq.

Iraq is unfortunate in having Nouri al-Maliki as its prime minister. His Shia-dominated government has worked assiduously to alienate the Sunni minority and its misrule has contributed hugely to the present difficulties. The war in Syria, which has been raging for three years, has also created the conditions in which a group such as Isis could flourish. The open border between Iraq and Syria allows any number of atrocity-minded jihadists to move freely between the two countries.

Of great concern are the estimated 500 British men who have travelled to fight in Syria, some of whom are now in the ranks of Isis. The diplomatic failure in Syria will surely result in blowback for the west when some of these fighters one day return home.

The best hope, at present, is that the Iraqi army, bolstered by large numbers of Shia volunteers, and supported by Iranian military expertise, will be able to repel Isis. Meanwhile, Isis has unwisely opened another front against the well-trained army of the Kurdish peshmerga in the north of Iraq. This, as John Bew and Shiraz Maher write on page 22, “could be the battle to watch”.

No one should doubt that we are on the brink of all-out Sunni-Shia war in the Middle East, which will have far-reaching consequences for the region and the world. Western military intervention in the form of air strikes would halt the advance of Isis in Iraq but any success would be transient. There is no stamina in the west for a long-drawn-out occupation of Syria and Iraq. Nor should there be. The solutions to the various conflicts in the Middle East – if indeed there are solutions – must come from within the region, not be imposed from outside. 

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.