Now that the third Gulf war is underway, the most commonly expressed concern is that we don’t have clear military objectives. This may be the case, but in the previous Gulf wars we did have military objectives – i.e. get Saddam out of Kuwait (first Gulf war) and get Saddam (second Gulf war) – that were not only clear, but also quickly achieved.
Neverthless, here we are again.
Writing in the Independent, Patrick Cockburn warns that it is the lack of clear political objectives that we should really worry about:
“Britain has joined a war against Islamic State (Isis) within a political framework that guarantees frustration if not failure…
“There is a role in Iraq and Syria for foreign airpower to act as a fire brigade to stop Isis from storming Erbil in August or taking Kobane now. But go beyond this limited but important role and air strikes swiftly become counter-effective.”
The underlying problem is a tangle of diplomatic loose-ends that we haven’t tied-up and which our leaders won’t even acknowledge.
First of all, Turkey’s role in the conflict. There is, argues Cockburn, “strong evidence that Ankara can see the advantages of using Isis against the Kurds”:
“Reporters on the ground on the Turkish side of the border say that Isis militants still found it easy last week to cross backwards and forwards, unlike Turkish Kurds wanting to fight Isis… For all Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statements at the UN in New York that he opposes Isis, the militants receive a degree of toleration from the Turkish state.”
The parallels aren’t exact, but Cockburn is right to point out that, as in the Afghan conflict, we are being undermined by our most important regional ally:
“…the US is committing the same mistake it made in Afghanistan after 2001 when it failed to respond to Pakistan’s covert but crucial backing for the Taliban. Several US diplomats later saw this as a massive error that doomed from the start American and British intervention in Afghanistan.”
The West is surely much better placed to influence Turkey than Pakistan. For a start, Turkey is part of NATO. Also, the ruling political party recently joined of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, of which the British British Conservative Party is a founding member. So, if we can’t even bring the Turks fully onside then why are we even attempting to bring stability to Iraq and Syria?
In an earlier piece for the Independent, Cockburn asks some pertinent questions about some of our other ‘friends’:
“The US and British alliance with Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan – all Sunni monarchies – creates other problems. It is hypocritical for Mr Cameron to pretend that US and UK intervention are in support of democratic, accountable and inclusive governments when he is in a coalition with the last theocratic absolute monarchies on earth.”
Then there’s the Iraqi government, whose army we spent billions training and equipping only for it fall apart in the face of a much smaller number of ISIS fighters (meanwhile, the more reliable Kurdish forces were left woefully under-resourced).
As for the Sunni Arabs of both Iraq and Syria, what incentive do they have to resist the rule of ISIS, when the only alternative on offer is to have a hostile Iraqi government and the brutal Assad regime reassert control?
And let’s not forget Iran, in regard to which our foreign policy becomes more incoherent by the day.
Therefore, to summarise, we are for the third time sending our service personnel into combat without a serious and concerted Western effort to sort out a coherent regional deal.
Carl von Clausewitz said that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means.’ But in the case of the West’s intervention in Iraq and Syria, one has to ask: what politics?