The last UK combat troops have left Afghanistan, as have their US counterparts, and debate on this side of the Atlantic is turning to whether UK troops have the capability to intervene now in Syria or Iraq against the Islamic State (IS) and, more acutely, whether we should.
The discussion began after we started the air strikes against IS, and then gave arms and training to the Kurds, and it continued when all the experts said that air strikes alone would not defeat this enemy. But there are a number of questions in this particular confused web, apart from the issue of our boots on the ground. Should we talk to Bashar al Assad about coordinating efforts against the IS? What should we do about Iran, whose aims and objectives in Iraq overlap to some extent with ours? We have seen the hugely ironic coincidence of Syrian, Iraqi and NATO aircraft all flying over Iraq and Syria with the same mission, to degrade the extreme Sunni forces of IS. Iran is giving military advice and support to the Iraqi Shi’a dominated government, as are the US and other NATO allies. So, NATO, Iran and Syria all wish to see the Sunni IS defeated, whilst we are trying to persuade the new and much delayed Shi’a government in Baghdad to include and consider the Iraqi Sunnis, but only the moderates.
And then we have one NATO member, Turkey, moving significant forces to its border with Syria and then doing little, if anything, to help the Syrian Kurds defend their towns and territory against IS. Doing nothing, and seemingly saying that the US and other NATO members could launch air strikes against IS from Turkish air fields, and then changing their mind. There is a little movement in the Turkish position lately in allowing passage to some Kurdish troops across its territory to join the fight against IS. President Erdogan says the clear objective should be the overthrow of the Assad regime in Damascus, and that is why Turkey is standing back, because other NATO members seems to be reinforcing Assad in their fight against IS. Erdogan says little about the more likely driving force behind his inactivity, the age old Turkish fear of the actions and desires of the Turkish Kurdish population, now watching the growing autonomy, if not independence of their brothers and sisters in Iraq and to some extent in Syria. Turkey likes the current nature of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, given its overwhelming need for Kurdish oil and gas and the Iraqi Kurds overwhelming desire for their own dedicated pipeline through Turkey, but Ankara fears and distrusts any moves to a greater Kurdistan.
Finally there is the appalling issue of the hostages taken by IS and whether we should negotiate for their release by offering money or other things such as exchange of prisoners for hostages. Some countries do negotiate and make deals with IS. The UK does not, we never have at government level, although like many other countries we have a flourishing ‘kidnap for ransom’ business sector. Should we stand on our principles whilst our citizens are beheaded, or does the horror of it all make negotiation worth the price of encouraging further kidnappings?
So the strands in the web are clearly visible: our dislike for the Shi’a linked Assad regime in Syria; our suspicion and to some extent fear of the largest Shia’a state Iran, which threatens security in the Persian Gulf, Israel and the security of oil supplies from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Oil, which is still important to the West, even with the growing US home based production;, the need for the Iraqi Shi’a government of Al-Abadi to include Sunni ministers with meaningful portfolios, reform the discredited and poorly led Iraqi Armed Forces and give the Sunni part of the Iraqi population a feeling that their voices will be heard and listened to in Baghdad in way that they never were under the Al Maliki governments; what position should we take towards the future of Iraq, even we defeat IS, if the movements towards Kurdish independence and Sunni autonomy grow stronger, and then, where I began, how do we defeat IS without getting our own troops involved?
A long and difficult list to which I have no certain answers, but only opinions. Air strikes only will not defeat IS, but any troops should be from Iraq and the near region, not from NATO. That will be hard to achieve, given the attitudes of and towards the Sunni governments with money and troops to spare, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar. It is hard to see troops from these states fighting alongside the Shi’a dominated Iraqi Army, to say nothing of whether Iranian troops could be kept away. So, the best option is to encourage, support and train a more inclusive, professionally led Iraqi Army, but immediately. Then the Iraqi Sunnis should feel able to prosper within Iraqi and moderate Sunni leaders must be encouraged to take their place in the Iraqi governmental infrastructure. Most people everywhere just want to live secure and safe lives, working for themselves and their families free from fear and interference, Arabs are no different. We should strive to keep the geography of Iraq as it is today, but a more autonomous federation of Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish regions within a more equitable whole. And we should not negotiate with terrorists, and that is what the IS is, to free our citizens, however dreadful the consequences.
The second part of Sir Walter Scott’s couplet, “oh what a tangled web we weave”, is “when first we practise to deceive” and, given our leading role in creating the flawed state that is post Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and our prevarication over what could or should have been done in Syria 2 years ago, over how to deal with the post Mubarak Egypt and our responsibility for the mess that is Libya today, and over where red lines may or may not be, we should stop deceiving ourselves at least.
The big deception was to think we could impose pluralist governments in Iraq and elsewhere. We said we would bring democracy, without thinking what that meant. Our push for pluralism merely imposed the dictatorship of the majority over the minority, as it will do again and again in the divided sectarian, tribal and religious driven countries in the region. Iraq is the prime example, but we saw it with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and we see it in Libya. The ballot box does not guarantee democracy, but it can legitimise the dictatorship of the majority.
Democracy is about building institutions, not like ours, but fit for purpose in the the countries concerned, where they can give the population confidence that they can speak freely and that their voices will be heard. That the rule of law applies to all citizens and exists to defend rights not to underpin the well being of the ruling elite. That corruption will be recognised and not denied. The list of things to achieve is long before democracy can be said to exist. Elections and the triumph of this factional party or the other are in many ways the end and not the beginning. Let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that we offer a political example for other countries to follow, but rather do what we can to encourage with an open velvet gloved hand the moderate elements in each place our iron fist has touched.