Friday, 26 September 2014

Tyranny, Like Hell, IS Not Easily Conquered.

I've been reminded of this famous quote from Thomas Paine during today's Parliamentary debate on whether to authorise air strikes against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq.

Had I been a Member of Parliament, I would have opposed today's motion even if it possesses the legality that last year's motion on Syria lacked and even though it enjoys broad cross-party support.

Let me explain why..

I'm no apologist for IS and I don't need Nick Clegg repeating ad infinitum how "vile and barbaric" IS has become in order to appreciate they aren't nice people. To be fair, they aren't the first group of bad people and they won't be the last.

Does IS pose an immediate threat to Britain ? If we are talking about IS troops marching down Piccadilly, hardly. If we are talking about IS supporters forming a terorist cell and launching suicide attacks, then yes, conceivably. But I'm a Londoner - I've lived my entire adult life under the shadow of terror whether it be from the IRA or Al-Qaeda. I was travelling on the Tube on July 7th 2005.

I see IS as nothing different from Al-Qaeda and a combination of personal and collective vigilance which has been in place since 2005 needs to be re-emphasised. Beyond that, what's changed here ? In my view, very little.

IS have emerged from the destabilising shambles of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Syrian Civil War so in a sense we are responsible for our own terror as we were with Al-Qaeda and arguably the IRA as well.

The military success of IS stands in contrast to that anarchy - IS have filled a vacuum and provided a murderous stability across a wide swathe of Iraq and Syria. Before the first American and French airstrikes a couple of months ago, IS forces were threatening Baghdad itself (though it's highly unlikely they could have captured the city) as well as the Kurdish capital of Kirkuk (again, highly unlikely they could have captured the city). In Syria, on the other hand, they have been held by Assad's army and have never seriously threatened Damascus so while they are a military force to consider, they aren't invincible.

And yet..

The objective in the West seems to be to "eradicate" or "destroy" IS by the use of air power but if history tells me anything, it's that strategy won't work. It didn't work with Nazi Germany for example. Tyrannies aren't easy to conquer and there are only two ways to overcome a tyranny - internal change or physical conquest.

Into the first category fall Communist Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989-90 and Wilhelmine Germany in 1918. Neither were physically invaded but both collapsed due to a combination of external pressure and internal contradiction.

Into the second category fall the likes of Nazi Germany, Bonaparte's France, Amin's Uganda, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Each of these tyrannical regimes was eventually ended by physical invasion and conquest.

IS will fall the same way - it will either fall apart externally or be conquered externally. The question then becomes if you believe IS can change from within - that seems unlikely and from that the only conclusion is that IS will only be ended by physical invasion and conquest of its territories.

Who will achieve this ? The Kurds can defend their own regions perfectly well but the performance of the Iraqi Army has been poor even with American air support. Holding their own lines is not the same as recapturing lost ground and that's what will be needed.

Today's motion in the Commons is further limited by the fact that it restricts air strikes to Iraq and doesn't include Syria. The logic of this escapes me completely. IS will simply be able to withdraw across the border into Syria IF they are forced from Iraq. On Syrian territory, they will be able to regroup while we (or whoever) will have to garrison the Iraq-Syria border ad infinitum let alone the potential threat to Jordan.

So we're back to the key issue - who will battle IS on the ground and expel them from Iraq ? Who will then destroy them in Syria ? The former requires either a transformation of the Iraqi Army or the presence of other forces which will inevitably raise the issue of American or British troops getting involved. I would oppose that and I suspect most of the British public would too and it would be politically suicidal for David Cameron so close to a General Election.

The latter is even more problematic - the logical approach would be to arm the Free Syrian Army or even Assad's forces to enable them to destroy IS on Syrian soil but the former may not have the means and the latter aren't known for their subtlety so a
gain what's the conclusion ? Do we authorise troops to chase IS into Syria and, if so, what happens if they meet Assad's forces ?

So much of this seems, to me, to be poorly thought through. I'm of the view that the only strategy available is one of containment. For all David Cameron's hyperbolic warnings of a "Caliphate on the Med", the truth is that IS doesn't have much room for manoeuvre. It's bordered by Turkey to the north, a NATO member. To the East is the Shia controlled Iran, a powerful and hostile regional power. To the south are Kuwait and Saudi Arabia whose security is guaranteed by the United States and the protection of whose oil is a primary tenet of western foreign and defence policy.

To the south west is Jordan which then borders Israel. Jordan is protected by US guarantee and of course Israel is more than capable of defending itself. That leaves Syria which is a huge country. The capital, Damascus, is much nearer Israel than the Iraqi border and while Aleppo remains a battleground in the Syrian Civil War, an IS takeover of the whole country seems improbable to me at present. Even if IS can control large parts of Syria, there remain in Lebanon and Israel large hostile forces to contest IS forces.

One thing would be clear - peace and stability would be a long way off in the whole region.

The only real answer of course is diplomatic - working with Turkey, Israel, Iran and other powers in the region to confine, control and contain IS is the real answer rather than airstrikes. It won't be easy for us to work with Iran given our history but that's realpolitik for you. As for Syria, I don't know - it would be nice to see both Assad and IS gone but realistically an internationally-brokered deal involving Assad and the FSA looks the best option perhaps involving a de facto partition of the current country.

There are only two ways to wage war - all or nothing. Anything in between risks failure or compromise. I can live with nothing but that has a risk. I could live with all but that means ground troops and that also means Syria and that also comes with a risk.

What I can't live with is a half-hearted or half-measured response and that is, I believe, what is on offer with this motion. I believe we will live to regret today's short-term political expediency driven, as it has been, by a hyperbolic media more interested in generating fear than asking the difficult questions.

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