The Sunni fundamentalist jihadi group that calls itself Islamic State (also known as Isis) is a force for pure evil in the world. It murders indiscriminately as an expression of disturbed religiosity and dreams of drawing the West into cataclysmic end-time battles.
Inspired by Salafi-jihadi ideology and millenarian fantasies, it enslaves and sexually violates women and children. It beheads, tortures and humiliates those it considers apostates or enemies. Its operatives throw homosexuals from the top of tall buildings. Isis has committed genocide against the Yazidi minority group in Iraq; Kurdish peshmerga fighters have discovered pits in which the bodies of Yazidi women considered too old to be taken as sex slaves were dumped. Isis is no “medieval” revivalist cult: it is a peculiarly modern phenomenon and is adept at using new technologies and social media.
There is no atrocity that Isis will not commit or action that it considers unconscionable. Its ambitions are limitless: it considers itself to be a state and has declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Its threat is growing. In recent weeks it has carried out mass-casualty terrorist attacks on civilians in Sinai, Beirut and Paris. Given an opportunity, Isis would wreak havoc across the wider Middle East and Europe. It has to be destroyed before its roots become too deep. The urgent questions are how one achieves its destruction and what role the United Kingdom should play in it.
The civil war in Syria has lasted longer than the First World War. The Austrian satirist Karl Kraus once called fin de siècle Hapsburg Vienna a “research laboratory for world destruction”. Something similar could be said of the war-ravaged Syria. As our correspondent John Bew wrote in the summer of 2013, “The conflict contains the combination of nearly every national security nightmare scenario in the world post-11 September 2001: terrorist safe havens; new fronts for both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah; training camps for western jihadists to learn their trade; chemical and biological weapons; rogue states with nuclear aspirations; sectarian bloodlust; the marginalisation of liberals and reformers; huge flows of refugees and a humanitarian crisis; and destabilisation across the Middle East, with the growing prospect of regional war.”
Two years later, the situation is much worse – and still the world seems to have little idea of how to stop the war, as the former diplomat John Jenkins notes in this week’s magazine.
As with the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the Syrian conflict has become a theatre for great-power rivalry. One hopes that, unlike the war in Spain, it is not a prelude to a more catastrophic conflagration. At times, it is as if the western powers have longed to turn away from what is happening, to wish it were not so, even though the US-led invasion of Iraq destabilised the Middle East and contributed greatly to the creation of Isis. “[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” the US secretary of state John Quincy Adams said in 1821. That has not been the experience of the early years of the 21st century. But sometimes, too, as in the case of Isis, the monsters will come looking for you, no matter how isolationist and non-interventionist your foreign policy.
The default position for many on the isolationist left and right is to stay well clear of Syria and hope for a “political solution”. Understandably chastened by the failures of the Iraq War and its long, traumatic aftermath, non-interventionists are correctly sceptical about further foreign policy misadventures. Yet one should not forget that Britain is already a belligerent in the Syrian Civil War, even if its activities at present are restricted to bombing Isis positions in Iraq but not Syria. The Allied intervention has had some effect: it has helped peshmerga forces recapture Kobane in Syria and Sinjar in Iraq, as well as halting Isis advances.
Yet, as Quentin Sommerville writes this week, what was striking after the recapture of Sinjar was the absence of Isis dead. “It seemed as though the militants had withdrawn to fight another day. And what they left behind points to their remaining strength. Militarily, they were well prepared for what was thrown at them in Sinjar. Once again, as in Kobane, Tell Abyad and other towns freed from IS control, the militants had dug in. A network of tunnels and hideaways dug deep in the earth had allowed their commanders to hide safely and their fighters to move freely.”
Isis operatives live among the population in what are, in effect, the occupied cities of Raqqa and Mosul. It should be recognised that civilian casualties are possible, even if the UK’s Brimstone missiles are the most accurate of any state. (In northern Iraq, more than 1,300 RAF missions have resulted in no reports of civilian deaths, according to the government, and have killed 330 Isis members.)
Indeed, if we look at recent western interventions – for example, in Libya – we must ask another question: are air strikes the beginning of our involvement in Syria, or the end of it? The 12-point motion approved by the Conservative cabinet and put before the House of Commons explicitly notes that Britain will not deploy ground troops, but ground troops will be required in great number if Isis is to be defeated, rather than merely contained.
The motion also “underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria”. Further clarity on this point is urgent. Even those who supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan concede that there was scant consideration given to reconstruction and rebuilding civil society. In Libya, which Britain bombed in 2011 as part of a Nato coalition, the collapse of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime has allowed jihadis to flourish and there are now estimated to be 5,000 Isis supporters in the Mediterranean city of Sirte. More than this, Libya is a failed state through which migrants and refugees pass freely on their way to Europe.
What happens in Syria if and when we achieve our ambition to “degrade and destroy” Isis? We must acknowledge that although such an outcome might make us safer, it will not solve the refugee crisis. The all-party parliamentary group on Syria found that roughly 70 per cent of those who have left their homes are fleeing Bashar al-Assad’s forces, which killed 180,879 civilians between March 2011 and October 2015. (For Isis, the figure is estimated at 1,712.)
In the rush to defeat Isis, we must remember that it is not the only monster in Syria. There is global agreement on the need to tackle the jihadi threat; in this respect, the unanimous UN resolution on 20 November “to take all necessary measures” was significant. But Mr Assad is backed by Russia and Iran (as well as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah). Without co-operation between the western coalition forces and Russia and Iran, Mr Assad will remain in power.
In the short term, Britain has a moral responsibility to its allies, the United States and France. As a “P5” nation, a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations, Britain cannot simply remain in the periphery wishing for a “political solution”: if it wants to help shape the humanitarian and diplomatic response to the Syrian crisis, it has to be prepared to act. Non-intervention is as much of a moral choice as intervention.
However, any intervention – symbolic as it may be and carried out as an expression of support for our closest allies – must be backed up by a long-term multinational plan to bring the civil war to an end, and stability to the region. Beyond this, there must be some kind of Westphalian-style settlement under which the state boundaries of the Middle East are redrawn and, perhaps, new states created. The need for patience will be perpetual.
There have been too many western misadventures in the Middle East. As John Gray wrote last week, it is easy to destroy a state but much harder to create one. The Iraq War (which the NS opposed) was a catastrophe from which the Labour Party has still not recovered. And intensified bombing of Isis positions in its stronghold of Raqqa will be worthless without the will to build alliances to take on Mr Assad and help bring peace to the blighted nation of Syria.
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war