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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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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