Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
“Marchons, marchons!/Qu’un sang impur/Abreuve nos sillons”
(“March on! March on! Let an impure blood/Water our fields”)
The words are from the Marseillaise, but they might as well find a place in the battle hymn of the Islamic State (IS – as the terrorist group ISIS now styles itself.) High on killing and the early successes of a revolutionary war of movement, no atrocity is too great, for God will compensate anyone wrongly killed with eternal life in paradise, and the terror the violence inspires had served until now to scare their enemies into flight, not steel their resolve.
Observe two great empires: a Persian one to the East, and a rather more Christian one to the West, warring amongst themselves, retreating before fast-moving Arabs fired with faith in the one God and Muhammad his messenger. Haven’t, we might expect the IS men to say to each other, heard all this before? For the Iran read the Sassanian Empire; for the West, Byzantium – the latter too absorbed with its declinist introspection to use its still vast power to suppress the faithful new warriors from Arabia vanquishing all before them.
At last, though of course late, Barack Obama has decided to act. The weekend’s air strikes appear to have given the IS men some pause, and allowed the Kurdish Peshmerga to regroup. But they are still desperately short of weapons and ammunition, the IS having captured more equipment than they know what to do with from the disintegrating Iraqi army, and reportedly having looted $500 million from the branch of the Iraqi central bank in Mosul. Immediate measures to rescue the Yazidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains and help provide for the hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced into Kurdish territory are now in place, but the war against IS is going to take a long time.
Supporting the Kurds is both necessary and relatively straightforward. It is a mark of shame that Britain has limited itself to offering humanitarian aid (even Italy, reports today’s Corriere della Sera, is considering dispatching weapons) because unless sufficient material can be supplied to the peshmerga, all the humanitarian aid in the world will not protect people from the IS’s genocidal intentions.
The next priority is to secure Jordan’s long eastern border against infiltration (a project in which Israel is actively engaged), and ensure that Amman is in a good enough economic position to ward off domestic social unrest.
Iraq’s president Nouri Al-Maliki, by ruling in the interests of Iraq’s Shia, allowed ISIS to expand from Syria to regain support among the Sunni population of western Iraq. He has evidently failed to hold the country together; and reports that loyal troops were deployed at strategic locations across Baghdad yesterday suggest measures to dissuade a coup. A new Iraqi government determined to repeat the hard work of General Petraeus in winning the loyalty of Sunni tribes may eventually replace Maliki, who squandered it, but that is likely to be a hope too far.
Rather, it seems that the borders drawn by the Sykes-Picot agreement to carve the remains of the Ottoman empire into French and British spheres of influence have outlived their usefulness. A boundary that lasts 90 years has had a good innings, but these borders no longer correspond to the distribution of political power in states that have undergone immense social change in the last hundred years (nor have the states within them been able to accommodate themselves to those changes), and any eventual peace will have to recognise this fact.
It would be absurd to speak of victory in these hideous wars of Ottoman succession. Right now the aims of our policy are necessarily limited: arm Kurdistan, secure Jordan, prevent the relatively moderate rebels in Syria from being entirely overrun. The West finds itself in this position through its own ignorance, short-sightedness and self-absorption. Though Western interests and ultimate human values are at stake in these conflicts, Iraqis and Syrians are not fighting them because of us; they have no interested in the Anglo-American obsession over whether our leaders “lied.” The Iraq war didn’t end when Britain and America withdrew their troops, and Iraqis are now paying the price for the haste with which Western forces were removed. Will we repeat our mistake in Afghanistan as well?