Iraq. Just the name triggers shakes of the head, perhaps a bitter look, when mentioned in the UK. It’s no surprise that the conflict continues to cast such a large shadow that the mere notion of any form of military involvement is now virtually off the table. Sure, the war did replace a dictator with an at least passable form of democracy, but this case for invasion was never really given. It was WMDs or nothing, and nothing turned up. With that came the feeling of being duped, and subsequent public mistrust, an emotion that UK politics has struggled to shake off ever since. The only other claim was a link to terrorism, the Bush doctrine connecting international terrorism with ‘rough’ states who possessed or were thought to be seeking weapons of mass destruction. There lies a bitter irony here. For it is in the absence of the imposed order seen under Saddam that old sectarian splits have been able to emerge, bringing with them terror groups from throughout the region. It is a story similar to that of Yugoslavia after the death of Tito. And we all know how that one turned out in the end.
The result is ISIS - a group now thought to be in the thousands, that is remarkably tech savvy, aware of how social media can bring attention to their cause and entice would-be fighters, especially Europeans, to a region where they can fulfil this desire. Their march through northern Iraq means they also now have an array of sophisticated weaponry, given by the West and abandoned by the retreating Iraqi army. Now they head squarely for Baghdad, bringing with them tales of brutality, mass executions and strict regime rule that in many ways seem eerily similar to that of the Taliban. With open warfare between the ISIS Sunnis and the predominately Shia government forces now almost inevitable, continued violence in Syria and the possibility of Iranian involvement, the situation even by Middle Eastern standards is critical and the reality of a sectarian quasi-civil war across borders is a very real danger. This is a threat beyond the region too, for the increasing number of European citizens fighting in the region brings the added long-term risk that a potential return of battle-hardened radicals could pose.
Urgent action is needed then, and among the options available military options should be given serious consideration. This would not be full deployment á la 2003. But what the UK and the US do have in particular is counter-terrorism expertise and, of course, the technology needed to halt the spread of ISIS; buying more time for a political solution. There is no question this is needed. The distinctive groups in Iraq need political representation and perhaps long term the country requires a more federal system that reflects these differing ways of life. But while this must be done, the reality is that ISIS are heading for Baghdad. Right now, is a diplomatic solution possible? There are no indications this is likely and, if there was, it’s certainly not going to happen when ISIS believe that they are in the ascendency. Halting and pushing back ISIS is the critical action needed for there to be any progress and, to do this, Iraq will need military help.
There are further thematic issues to consider too. The first is whether the Iraq War was the right or wrong thing to do. The nation borne out of the ashes was built by the West and so to a certain extent, it is partly responsible for that nation and ally it created. To abandon them at their most critical time only tells others that the UK and co. offer nice words but no substance when really needed, an undesirable opinion if one is to be a be a successful negotiator internationally. Then there is Iran to consider. Easily the most powerful actor in Iraq, they share the concern over the rise of ISIS, and while the Ayatollah has spoken against US involvement, President Rouhani’s administration has shown willingness to discuss the matter with the US. This move cannot be underestimated – the two nations have barely talked to each other since 1979. It is a decision borne out a necessity of course, the old cliché of my enemy’s enemy and all. But with talks of nuclear proliferation ongoing, engagement with Iran will continue, and success in these discussion can surely only be improved by an increasing desire to work together to solve common problems. Action against ISIS then could not only serve to bring back a nation from the brink of sectarian war, but long term it could also show conviction in support of allies and possibly improve lines of communication with a nation which, like it or not, is going to have to be worked with in the future.
Yet there appears little appetite for action in the UK, and this reluctance brings again the question that continues to hang over the UK in foreign policy – just what position in the world does it now wish to have? Right now, there is a determination to avoid active engagement in international events, with focus being on maximising humanitarian support. This is not a unique position, Germany has adopted a similar view for some time. Nor it is an inherently wrong perspective; it is understandable given the UK has been brow beaten by military engagements for much of this century. What is worth remembering though is that, just as if you do not vote, you cannot complain about the outcomes when circumstances go awry. So if the UK does decide on this withdrawal, it will have to deal the consequences of that choice. In the case of ISIS, these could be very grave indeed.
Backbench Foreign Secretary