You are here
On 5 February, the House of Commons Defence Committee published its report on The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (Daesh). The report was critical of the UK government’s tepid military response to a threat that the Committee saw as both real and demanding intervention. The report also criticised the inability of government and senior military leaders to provide an articulate statement of the UK’s objectives or plan in Iraq.
But although the operational expression of government policy hardly matches its rhetoric about the extent of the threat, the report provides a good summary of the many reasons why the UK has found it so difficult to formulate an effective policy for dealing with the Islamic State, and why in the absence of a clear policy, more robust military engagement is not a good idea. In fact despite its criticism of the government’s backseat role in the coalition, the thrust of the report largely endorses its cautious approach.
Daesh is far more an expression of the problems of Iraq than it is the cause of them. Certainly, the existence of Daesh does not make it easier for the Iraqi government to address the weaknesses of its institutions, the fissiparous nature of its population, or the sectarian and ethnic hatreds that provide the fuel for its bitter discord. But until Baghdad has something better to offer, the Sunni tribes are unlikely to risk their lives by rising up against the rule of Daesh.
As the report points out, Daesh has at least brought some security and order to areas under its control, getting bureaucrats to work, stamping out corruption, and providing basic services. There is no doubt that this order comes at a high price, and that few who live under Daesh would support its grotesque violence and arbitrary rule-making, but it may yet compare favourably with what went before.
This is a fearful indictment of the way in which Nouri al Maliki ruled Iraq, and a measure of the distance that his successor, Haider al Abadi, has to go to repair the damage. But it was not only the deficiencies of the Iraqi government and its security forces that provided the space for Daesh to grow. An important catalyst was the break down of order in Syria, and the way in which Daesh now straddles the border between Iraq and Syria adds obvious complications to policy-making.
For a start, while the report accepts a clear legal basis for UK forces attacking Daesh in Iraq, especially as they have been invited to do so by the Iraqi government, it is less sure about the legal justification for doing so in Syria, where the government is not a partner in the international coalition. Indeed, if the humanitarian crisis brought about by Daesh is the strongest reason for attacking it in Syria, the same inherent principles of the Responsibility to Protect should lead to attacking the Assad regime as well.
It is axiomatic that Daesh cannot be dealt with in Iraq unless it is also dealt with in Syria, and vice versa. There cannot therefore be one strategy for Iraq and another for Syria. But although there is a vaguely articulated policy to degrade and ultimately destroy Daesh in Iraq while the government builds its capacity to take its place, there is no such end state envisaged for Syria. The strategy developed against Daesh appears to be completely separate from any strategy to deal with Assad. This has led to a gaping hole that is likely to suck in more and more resources without any prospect of - or even belief in – the possibility of success. Just as there is an unrealistic expectation of what Abadi can achieve in Iraq, so too is there an unrealistic expectation of what moderate rebels can achieve in Syria – that is if any can be found.
What should the UK do?
The Committee is correct to point out that the UK, for all its self-deprecation, still has considerable resources, but it also points out the paucity of those resources devoted to understanding the culture and politics of the region. Even for a non-expert, it would seem that one thing the region does not need is another military campaign. Certainly Daesh should be contained, but there should be great care not to empower Shia militia or Kurdish forces as a result.
If Iraq is to stay together, even in a federation, it must have a strong and inclusive central government. Clearly that is lacking for the moment and will be for some time. Furthermore, the problem of Syria cannot be solved by the non-regional powers alone, and until Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, can sit together and agree a way forward, the influence of even the US and Russia will be insufficient, even if they start to see things in the same way.
The Committee’s report acknowledges this; but of course the likelihood of those three countries assessing the threat from regional collapse as a larger problem for their own security than allowing a rival to gain advantage is still some way off. The conclusion then should be that the UK continues to support a policy of military containment of Daesh, which may not require much more effort than it currently expends, while bringing whatever pressure it can to bear on the regional powers to agree what to do about Syria.
At the same time, Abadi must be supported in his effort to reform the Iraqi government sufficiently to win the confidence of the Sunni tribes. But how to achieve this, over what time frame, and with what monitoring mechanisms, is not something that anyone has been able to articulate, anywhere, and understandably so.