The situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq is dire. The tyrannical rule that the Islamic State - or IS - imposes in the areas of Syria and Iraq which it controls are chilling. Their persecution of the Yazidi and other minorities is an affront to our common human decency. Now they are exporting murder to their neighbours, in Beirut and in Ankara, and more recently in Paris. I can understand the calls to do something, to use the West’s massive military power to help those who suffer under IS. A lot of people calling for intervention in Syria have the best intentions of civilians at heart. However, that does not make their desire to intervene is correct and I feel it could do much more harm than good.
What is typically meant by intervention against IS is usually bombing. Britain is currently bombing IS territory in Iraq. France, Russia and the US are heavily bombing IS in Syria and in Iraq. Our involvement in the regional conflict between IS, secular rebels and the governments of Iraq and Syria makes it more difficult to bring about a diplomatic solution. We can hardly argue against violence while using violence ourselves. We can hardly encourage any side to stop spreading the chaos and carnage, while we are spreading the chaos and change. At the same time chaos and destruction created by our bombing is the environment in which IS thrives.
I do not think there is an example of when bombing a Middle Eastern country has improved the situation for civilians. Our military has been heavily involved in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and the situation has deteriorated to the point where a medieval death cult controls vast swathes of land. When it was argued that we should not attack the Saddam regime, the counter argument was: "it can't get any worse". It can and it did. Now the same argument is being used to support attacking IS. It can get worse than IS and it will get worse the more we bomb. The west has been bombing this area of the world off and on for the last 25 years and it is in a worse state now than ever. Eventually we have to try something else.
It is difficult to talk about intervening against IS without looking at the wider issues. Firstly, Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria. No one in favour of attacking IS can clearly say what Assad's role in their downfall should be. To some he is our natural regional ally; to others he is as much a part of the problem as IS. Russia supports Assad, but Britain and America want him to go. Assad's actions are clearly fanning the flames of IS, but fighting a war on two fronts in Syria would be much more difficult. If we must throw our military weight around, the Assad question has to be resolved first.
Secondly, IS needs to be put in the wider regional context. Looking beyond Syria and Iraq, we can see the wider Sunni Muslim world is in revolt against many factors: the secular governments which ignore the religion of their citizens, tyrannical regimes controlling the holy sites of Islam, the growing power of Shia Iran, heavy-handed Western foreign policy, artificial borders between nations which make no sense on the ground - some of which date back to the Sykes-Picot treaty in 1916 - and many other factors. Bombing IS to dust will not pacify an entire region. We are entering a long phase of conflict in the Middle East that cannot end until the above issues and others are resolved. This goes beyond religion, nationality and ideology, but involves all of these. A lasting and just peace for the region - which is what everyone really wants - cannot be brought about by the destruction of one group of fighters.
Another question that has yet to be resolved is what form should intervention take? We are currently bombing IS and have been for a while, but this has had little effect. I am not sure what more bombing by Britain can achieve that bombing by the US, France and Russia cannot. However the main question I would put to those who support bombing IS is how far do we go if bombing does not stop them?
Do those who support bombing believe that the British government should support a Turkish ground invasion? This will most likely result in heavy casualties for the Kurdish minority in the region, who are frequently targeted by the Turkish army. When that comes, it make may bombing supporters choke on their brown flakes when they read their Sunday Times.
Would those who support bombing IS, support a British and American ground invasion of Syria? Simon Jenkins of the Guardian claimed on the Moral Maze that it would take a deployment of 500,000 allied troops and the occupation of most of the region to defeat IS. Do we have the stomach for that? Do we think that re-creating the British Mandates in the Middle East will bring a just and lasting peace? Is that what is in everyone's wider interest? Will the Syrians who object to being ruled by Assad or IS welcome British rule with open arms? I think not. Most likely we would make an enemy of every side in the conflict and unite them all against us. This would destroy any chance of a negotiated peace.
Even if we send in the troops, as I have seen many people argue for, and defeat IS – what happens after that? What is our wider plan for the region? If there is anything we have learned from our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that our post-invasion plan needs to be a lot better. Look at what happened in Libya: it would be generous to say that the post-Gaddafi plans for Libya were drawn up on the back of a cigarette packet. Now the country is in a state of chaos with violent clashes between different factions, including IS who were not present in Libya before. If we are intervening in Syria and Iraq in anyway, we need to have a clear understand of the type of society we are trying to build, who will be our allies in this process and how we cleanly transition to this. None of these criteria have been satisfied.
What we have right now is a rush to find a solution to IS. When you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. When you have a billion pound military based heavily on air superiority, then every problem starts to look like one you can bomb with jet planes. From most of the commentators in favour of bombing, I have heard a lot of "bombing is definitely the solution, we just need to find out why". We are currently sleepwalking into a half-century long conflict in the Middle East and we cannot let a sudden desire enact our revenge on IS dictate regional foreign policy.
None of this answers the question of what we should do about IS? Simon Jenkins says nothing. I would recommend discontinuing military operations to give the maximum weight to diplomacy. If we must do something militarily, then we should support the Kurds who are currently fighting on the frontline against IS. This support for the Kurds should include supporting their desire for a state and standing up to Turkey who oppresses them.
Above all, I would counsel caution at a time like this. We cannot be selective in our foreign policy and still claim to stand on the moral high ground. We cannot oppose the tyranny and brutality of IS while supporting the tyranny and brutality of Assad. We cannot say we are opposed to the spread of chaos and fear while using our military to spread chaos and fear. We cannot say we oppose religious nihilism while offering nothing more than a power vacuum and more dead bodies as an alternative. It is okay to admit that we do not have the answers and cannot act now. It is far worse to admit we do not have the answers and act anyway.