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.