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Friday, 26 September 2014

Iraq: war without end?


By the time you read these words, RAF Tornados will either have started, or will be about to start, bombing targets in Iraq. Here we go again …

Six weeks ago, I wrote: "We should be in no doubt: we, the West, are back in Iraq." And so it has come to pass. It is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise, once the murderers of Islamic State (or Isis or Isil, take your pick) started killing American and British journalists and aid workers on video.

The primary task of any government is to defend its citizens -- so once those citizens are being brutally murdered, any government would feel compelled to take action. We can debate whether dropping bombs in the desert is the right action to take, but I seriously doubt that anyone would wish to argue that there's no need for the government to do anything at all.

As always, the US is in the driving seat. But unlike his White House predecessor, President Obama has demonstrated the utmost reluctance to go to war -- some would say he has been far too reluctant in the face of repeated warnings of the likely consequences of inaction -- but he now says the US has a  “comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” to confront IS and allied groups in both Iraq and Syria.

I find that a deeply troubling formulation. "Sustained", as in long-lasting, implies that US policy-makers envisage this bombing campaign as open-ended. Mr Obama may talk glibly of destroying the terrorists, but he knows full well that that's a fool's mission. The UK defence secretary Michael Fallon has suggested the action could last three years. My guess is that it'll be longer.

As for "comprehensive", well, no, Mr President, it isn't. In the words of the analyst Lina Khatib, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, "the strategy is a positive step forward after years of relative inaction on part of the United States, but it is far from comprehensive." The lack of any thought-out political plan for Syria is a gaping hole; what's the point of bombing jihadi rebels if you have no idea, and no plan, for what's likely to be the aftermath.

For obvious reasons, President Assad seems not to have objected to the US bombing his own country. After all, the people the Americans are attacking are the same people (some of them, at least) who are attacking him. Iran isn't complaining either, for the same reason. Any US action that weakens Assad's enemies must, by definition, strengthen him.

This morning (Friday), it was reported that his army has already been taking advantage of the US air strikes, sweeping through several villages in the north-east of the country, and making gains around Damascus. You could call it an unfortunate by-product of having to deal with the IS threat.

So we have entered a bizarre Alice-in-Wonderland world in which Washington, Tehran, Damascus, Riyadh and Doha all seem to be lining up on the same side. The Saudis, Qataris and Emiratis even seem to have deployed some of their own aircraft, which I suppose at least proves that they do know what they're for.

I always try to apply a simple test when confronted with complex conundrums: is the proposed course of action likely to do more good than harm? Will bombing IS targets in Iraq and Syria destroy the murdering zealots of Islamic State? (And by the way, I fully expect the UK to be joining the Syria bombing raids before long.) Answer: no, but they may significantly weaken the group's capacity to seize new territory.

Will more Iraqi and Syrian civilians be killed as a result of the bombing raids? Answer: yes, inevitably. That's what happens.

Will the raids encourage more young fighters to join IS, emboldened by propaganda that seeks to portray this fight as one between true believers and infidels, whether Western, Shia, or fellow Sunnis? Answer: quite possibly, although by greatly increasing the odds of IS fighters being killed, the bombings may also cause at least some potential recruits to think twice before signing up.

And there's another question that needs to be answered as well: is the military action legal? In the case of Iraq, the answer is plainly yes, given that the government in Baghdad, imperfect though it be, has requested it. As for Syria, the answer has to be, at best: hmm. A case can be made, on the grounds that protecting Iraq necessitates action across the border, but it's far from clear cut.

(As for the wisdom of hitting supply lines and bases in neighbouring countries, I would have thought that the precedent from the Vietnam war, when the US pulverised neighbouring Cambodia, supposedly to neutralise the Viet Cong, should give planners much pause for thought. The prospect of a Syrian version of the Khmer Rouge is a chilling one.)

Beyond the immediate issue of to-bomb-or-not-to-bomb (I write before Friday's House of Commons vote, but it seems to be a foregone conclusion), there's a deeper and far more difficult issue that Arabs themselves will need to confront sooner or later.

The Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem, of the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya TV news channel, wrote in a recent article: "Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism -- the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition -- than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed …

"The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk -- what was left of a broken-down civilization. They are a gruesome manifestation of a deeper malady afflicting Arab political culture, which was stagnant, repressive and patriarchal after the decades of authoritarian rule that led to the disastrous defeat in the 1967 war with Israel."

If he is right, defeating Islamic State will be just the start of a far longer, far more difficult process: the rebuilding of what was once one of the world's great civilisations and the revitalising of some of the Arab world's greatest cities. Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo were once by-words for scholarship, culture and learning. Now, they are either hollow shells where people live in oppression, fear and poverty, or they are destroyed by civil war. It will be a long haul.