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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French presidential election: Macron and Le Pen projected to reach run-off

The centrist former economy minister and the far-right leader are set to contest the run-off on 7 May.

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will contest the run-off of the French presidential election, according to the first official projection of the first-round result.

Macron, the maverick former economy minister, running under the banner of his centrist En Marche! movement, is projected to finish first with an estimated 23.7 per cent of the vote, putting him marginally ahead of Le Pen. The leader of the far-right Front National is estimated to have won 21.7 per cent, with the scandal-hit Républicain François Fillon and the left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon tied for third on an estimated 19.5 per cent each. Benoît Hamon, of the governing Socialist Party, is set to finish a distant fourth on just 6.2 per cent. Pollsters Ifop project a turnout of around 81 per cent, slightly up on 2012.

Macron and Le Pen will now likely advance to the run-off on 7 May. Recent polling has consistently indicated that Macron, who at 39 would be the youngest candidate ever to win the French presidency, would probably beat Le Pen with roughly 60 per cent of the vote to her 40. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, he told Agence France Presse that his En Marche! was "turning a page in French political history", and went on to say his candidacy has fundamentally realigned French politics. "To all those who have accompanied me since April 2016, in founding and bringing En Marche! to life, I would like to say this," he told supporters. " 'In the space of a year, we have changed the face of French political life.' "

Le Pen similarly hailed a "historic" result. In a speech peppered with anti-establishment rhetoric, she said: "The first step that should lead the French people to the Élysée has been taken. This is a historic result.

"It is also an act of French pride, the act of a people lifting their heads. It will have escaped no one that the system tried by every means possible to stifle the great political debate that must now take place. The French people now have a very simple choice: either we continue on the path to complete deregulation, or you choose France.

"You now have the chance to choose real change. This is what I propose: real change. It is time to liberate the French nation from arrogant elites who want to dictate how it must behave. Because yes, I am the candidate of the people."

The projected result means the run-off will be contested by two candidates from outside France's establishment left and right parties for the first time in French political history. Should Le Pen advance to the second round as projected, it will mark only the second time a candidate from her party has reached the run-off. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, reached the second round in 2002, but was decisively beaten by Jacques Chirac after left-wingers and other mainstream voters coalesced in a so-called front républicain to defeat the far right.

Fillon has conceded defeat and backed Macron, as have Hamon and the French prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve. "We have to choose what is best for our country," Fillon said. "Abstention is not in my genes, above all when an extremist party is close to power. The Front National is well known for its violence and its intolerance, and its programme would lead our country to bankruptcy and Europe into chaos.

"Extremism can can only bring unhappiness and division to France. There is no other choice than to vote against the far right. I will vote for Emmanuel Macron. I consider it my duty to tell you this frankly. It is up to you to reflect on what is best for your country, and for your children."

Though Hamon acknowledged that the favourite a former investment banker – was no left-winger, he said: "I make a distinction between a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic."

Mélenchon, however, has refused to endorse Macron, and urged voters to consult their own consciences ahead of next month's run-off.

The announcement sparked ugly scenes in Paris in the Place de la Bastille, where riot police have deployed tear gas on crowds gathered to protest Le Pen's second-place finish. Reaction from the markets was decidedly warmer: the euro hit a five-month high after the projection was announced.

Now read Pauline Bock on the candidate most likely to win, and the NS'profiles of Macron and Le Pen.

 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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