Obama is the fourth successive US president to order air strikes on Iraq. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

US air strikes on Isis add fuel to extremist ideologies

The US risks amplifying the message that IS and similar groups have been trying to spread for years.

President Obama has become the fourth successive US president to order air strikes on Iraq and the first to launch them on Syria. It is a remarkable submission to history for a president whose candidacy in 2008 was largely defined by his opposition to America’s recent past.

The Obama administration would argue that the current mission is different from previous campaigns, primarily because of the manner in which the US now projects its military power abroad. Boots have been replaced with drones and ever more mechanisation. Such an approach evidently assuages public concerns over sacrificing more western lives for seemingly elusive stability in the Middle East.

Yet this is true only to an extent. The marked increase in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen under Obama has destroyed much of al-Qaeda’s core leadership. While drones can eliminate leaders, however, they cannot dismantle terrorist networks. The unpicking of al-Qaeda’s global network, as demonstrated by the killing of Osama Bin Laden, was the result of conventional military deployment.

In this context, it is hard to imagine how Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis) will be defeated with air strikes alone. The group controls swathes of land, has an army of tens of thousands and possesses highly sophisticated weapons. Were aerial bombardment enough to crush IS, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad would have put an end to the rebellion long ago.

For now, Obama has limited himself to ordering air strikes while ruling out a more vigorous military response. The perils of such an approach are many. There is the danger of mission creep – but there also broader issues that have been poorly understood.

The US risks amplifying the message that IS and similar groups have been trying to spread for years. When the uprising in Syria first began, thousands of civilians were abandoned to Assad’s regime. He tortured and slaughtered them with impunity and practised the worst form of dog-whistle politics.

Many Syrians called for intervention to tip the balance. Instead, as law and order broke down and instability increasingly took hold, jihadists moved in to fill the power vacuum. The west, they told Syrians, doesn’t care about the deaths of Sunni Muslims. This was a repeat of the Bosnia narrative, which peddled the view that European governments were indifferent to the plight of Balkan Muslims.

Many Sunni Muslims in Syria have similarly questioned the west’s concern over the fate of minorities in their country. What about the majority, they ask? They were abandoned to the regime and Obama was stirred into action only in defence of the Yazidis.

Although the US president has stopped short of saying so explicitly, we are left to understand that Assad is the lesser of two evils. So it is that discreet diplomatic channels have been reopened to the Assad regime. That much is clear from a statement issued by Lieutenant General William Mayville, a Pentagon spokesman, who confirmed that Syrian air defence systems were “passive” during US raids on IS targets in Syria.

We have been here before. Months before the 2011 uprising, Vogue showered encomium on the Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad, describing her as “a rose in the desert”. The American academic David W Lesch similarly described Bashar al-Assad as “the new lion of Damascus”. The authoritarian bargain that the Syrian president offered seemed to enchant western observers. Asma al-Assad launched civic empowerment projects for children, the Four Seasons opened new hotels in Damascus and laws were passed allowing for casinos. Yet, behind the scenes, it was business as usual. President Assad continued to crush all dissent, while providing a vital air route for Iranian intelligence to supply Hezbollah.

Those clambering to support Assad should remember just how much blood of our troops he is responsible for. In the last Iraq war, Syria provided the primary thoroughfare for foreign jihadists wanting to fight western coalition forces. Syrian intelligence not only turned a blind eye to the fighters passing through the country but also actively supported their efforts, releasing a number of senior jihadists from prison.

Obama’s initial inaction helped to create the conditions in which the jihadists could flourish. Now, he has reacted with hasty half-heartedness and delivered the worst of both worlds. This confrontation with IS will almost certainly extend beyond the end of Obama’s presidency in 2017, after which he will be able to repent at leisure. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

Getty
Show Hide image

Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution