The Conservative-led government, endorsed by the Labour Party, has returned to the scene of one of our worst foreign policy misadventures and British fighter aircraft are once again dropping bombs on Iraq. The 2003 US-led invasion, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the chaotic dismantling of the Ba’athist state were meant to be an exercise in enlightened “liberal intervention”. But today Iraq is a broken state, ravaged by sectarian conflict. Its border with Syria, fractured by perpetual civil war, no longer exists. Barbarous Sunni supremacists have flourished in the group formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. A self-declared caliphate has been established by Islamic State (IS) and its highly motivated and well-trained militants, many of them from Europe, are intent on genocide. Air strikes may have halted their advances in northern Iraq and parts of Syria but the militants will inevitably regroup, just as the Taliban has done in Afghanistan.
Ancient minorities – Yazidis, Christians, Kurds – are being persecuted, murdered or cleansed from their ancestral villages. Theirs is an existential struggle for survival.
Meanwhile, the conflict between Sunnis and Shias in the region festers and bleeds. President Assad and his fellow Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect, hold on to power in what is left of Syria largely through the support of the Iranians and their Lebanese client Shia militia Hezbollah, which has sustained heavy losses fighting rebel groups in Syria.
The corrupt Gulf autocracies, which have been funding and arming the various anti-Assad groupings but now fear blowback, have joined President Obama’s fight against Islamic State. Saudi Arabia in particular looks both ways on terrorism: it does all it can to export and promote hardline Wahhabism worldwide while posing as an ally of the US and Britain, from which it buys fighter jets and other military hardware. In some ways, IS is a product of Saudi foreign policy – and what a monstrous creation it is.
President Obama was deeply reluctant to be sucked into another Middle East war. In August last year, the US and the British were preparing to intervene in Syria on the side of the rebels after the murderous Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. Now, the US-led coalition is bombing IS and the Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria, while remaining ostensibly opposed to President Assad. This is not a coherent strategy for the Middle East: this is something-must-be-done foreign policy.
So what is President Obama’s plan? What stamina does the US have for nation-building in the Middle East? How does it intend to defeat IS when its fighters are so adept at melting back into the civilian population and when the president refuses to countenance the use of US ground troops? How do the Americans propose to broker peace between Sunni and Shia tribes in Iraq? What of diplomatic relations with Iran, without which there can be no lasting peace in the Middle East? Turkey, too, needs to be fully engaged. The ultimate solution to the conflicts in the Middle East must come from within the region itself.
Does this mean it is better for the west to do nothing? Without our aerial support, responsibility for containing IS falls on Iraq’s weak army, overstretched Kurdish peshmerga fighters, the Assad forces and a ragtag coalition of secular Syrian militias. We should continue to support the Kurds diplomatically and arm their fighters, but this alone will not be enough to prevent the genocide of the Yazidis and other minorities. If IS is allowed to gain strength, its menace may well soon extend beyond the Middle East.
Britain is right to join the US air strikes in Iraq. The Baghdad government’s plea for help makes this war legal. Furthermore, the campaign has broad regional support, and is a last resort, given that you cannot negotiate with IS.
Our involvement is a small admission of culpability for the condition of Iraq. Parliament is eager to support the Americans but only in the most limited of circumstances – it backs intervention in Iraq but not in Syria – and has only contributed the use of six Tornados, based in Cyprus.
This all amounts to little more than symbolic support, but anything beyond it would be profoundly mistaken. No matter how willing Prime Minister Cameron might be to emulate Tony Blair, there is no desire and stamina among the British people for British involvement in a regional and intra-Islamic conflict that could last 30 years or more.