How to handle the Isis crisis

To the outside world, until a week ago, Iraq was a problem best filed away in the ‘to ignore’ category. The toxic legacy of the original intervention still haunts those once proponents and the public have grown weary of stories of the country’s chronic instability and its ‘Game of Thrones-esque’ domestic political machinations.

Only rarely would the level of bloodshed force the country onto the news agenda – usually if the epidemic of market place car bombs killed over a hundred unlucky souls. Meanwhile the steady rise of chaos to boiling point went largely unseen as the crescendo ticked up to suddenly the worst rates of violence for six years and over 4,000 dead in 2014 to date.

The issue of lack of attention was compounded by not framing the coming storm in the correct manner. Isis  – and the fall of Iraq’s second city Mosul – is not an Iraqi issue alone but rather reflects the expansion of a group whose geography is not confined by poorly demarcated and historical contentious international borders. For the Durand Line and Afpak read the 376 miles of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier and a conflict that must be viewed from the perspective of both sides – the ‘Syraq’ crisis, if you will.

Isis – born of the al-Qaida franchise but disfranchised by its leadership and tactics – may seek a caliphate in the long term but in the short term their ambitions are far more pragmatic. Their jihadi blitzkrieg across the north of the country has been characterised not only by extreme tactics – executions etc – but also by clever use of looting, releasing prisoners and electronic media for propaganda purposes allowing the shadow of the group to stand far taller than its actually capacity.

These led commentators to panic-speculate over the ‘death of Iraq’ and the ‘fall of Baghdad’ almost as if the refocusing of attention on the country had to be justified by a hyperventilation in the headlines that explained what had happened.

So what to do next?

At PMQs this week Cameron explained correctly that ‘it would be a mistake to believe that the only answer to these problems is the hard attack of direct intervention – we know that that can create problems of itself’. Meanwhile President Obama, leader of the most powerful military in human history, stated before the Isis surge that ‘just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.’

The rapid failure of the Iraqi army to stand up to Isis lies not in its equipment nor training but rather the lack of reconciliation that followed Iraq’s civil war of 2006-7. We should remember that the insurgency that bedevilled the American occupation of Iraq was largely Sunni-based and was only becalmed by General Petraeus and his counter-insurgency plan that involved bringing would-be enemies on board via the ‘Sons of Iraq’ programme that was allowed to pivot against the cack-handed attempts by the then ‘Islamic State in Iraq’ to run urban centres in the west of the country.

These ‘Sons of Iraq’ were to become orphans under prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasingly centrist tendencies providing ripe territory for the emergence of Isis that has allowed sectarian oxygen and then strategic depth by the withdrawal of the Syrian state from large swaths of the east of the country. Maliki has now come out to ‘call upon the tribes to renounce those who are killers and criminals who represent foreign agendas’. This may be the right tactic but it remains unproven as to if Maliki is the man to own it.

The United Kingdom and the United States must insist their support to the fight against Isis – whether it is intelligence, logistics or even lethal force – is based on obtaining effective political leverage on Maliki and the incumbent Iraqi elite to adapt a far more practical and inclusive vision of the country ahead. The 2006-7 civil war was brutal and saw large scale sectarian cleansing of parts of Iraq. Such horror was never followed by a genuine reconciliation process like the arduous but necessary ones seen in places like South Africa and Rwanda.

The saying goes that ‘love binds and strife separates’ – it is time to show Iraq a bit of love.

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James Denselow is a foreign policy specialist at the Foreign Policy Centre. He tweets @JamesDenselow

 

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