Dom Morris is Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Exeter, and has worked to improve the stability and security of numerous fragile or conflict-affected countries. Garvan Walshe is away.
Despite the harrowing images of war that have filled our screens in recent months, the Middle East is fundamentally a political problem. Accordingly, any lasting solution will require us to win a fundamentally political contest.
Recent violence has rightly kicked our politicians and media into action. In particular, the speed of the advance of the ‘Islamic State’ (IS – formerly ISIS) across Syria and Iraq and their attempts to redraw the national boundaries of the Middle East for the first time since Sykes-Picot in 1916 deserve attention.
But the coverage so far has focused on the barbarity of IS foot soldiers, rather than the intent and ability of its leadership.
The focus on foot soldier brutality has resulted in the media and decision makers underestimating the political skills of IS’s leadership, misunderstanding its gains and overlooking the need for a political contest to resolve a political problem – the failure of the Syrian and Iraqi states to provide for their citizens.
Before being selected to stand for Parliament, I worked in a number of worlds from RAF pilot training to conflict zones. Now, every evening I knock on doors on the campaign trail to be elected as Exeter’s MP. Trust in our public officials is at an all time low and so people often ask me, “what do you know about real-world problems”.
Before fighting Exeter, I worked on the Foreign Office’s Syria Team. It was there that I learned about IS.
When I got on the plane out there I thought I was going to help the moderate opposition fight President Assad with UK non-lethal assistance. What quickly became clear was that IS was at least as big a threat to security in the region as the Assad regime.
Yes, IS are better funded and better organised than other terrorist groups, but the key to their success has been much more than just access to oil and cash.
The unpalatable truth is that IS are significantly more politically astute than their predecessors – including Al Qaeda – and have much more potential to create a real Islamist alternative to current regimes and borders in the Middle East.
The brutality of their campaign is hideous and must not go unpunished. I find their actions abhorrent. But behind the brutality is a much more subtle political agenda that goes unseen by our media.
IS pretends to offer something that the Iraqi government has chosen not to provide to large swathes of the Iraqi people – recognition and a political solution to the political dissonance that has wreaked havoc across Iraq since our intervention in 2003.
When Al-Baghdadi broke away from Al Qaeda in Iraq to form IS, the group moved to Syria. That war-torn country provided a safe haven, recruiting sergeant, treasure chest and training ground for their new Islamist movement.
When Parliament chose not to provide military support to the moderate opposition in Syria, IS stepped in.
Abandoned by the international community, Syrian moderates found themselves squeezed between Assad’s Russian-supported military on one side and IS and their backers on the Arabian Peninsula on the other – they didn’t stand a chance.
IS fought both President Assad and the moderates and gained ground in both directions, gaining more treasure and to some extent public approval.
It is interesting to note that President Assad’s forces rarely attacked IS positions, their very existence suits his narrative of fighting the extremists and bolsters his support.
Crucial to IS ‘success’ has been the lessons learned by Al Qaeda in Iraq, and IS are now doing things differently, and much more successfully. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, IS learned that to hold ground they must serve the local community, not isolate them. Accordingly, IS has begun to deliver public services (the best example being the seizure of bakeries to provide for the hungry).
We paid little attention to why the Taliban succeeded in Afghanistan and we are falling into the same trap again when it comes to IS in Syria and Iraq. When IS swept into Northern Iraq almost unopposed, we struggled to understand how they’d done it.
The answer again is political.
Despite a significant Western-trained and -equipped Iraqi military, the defeat of Iraqi forces was caused by the strength of the IS’s political ‘offer’, making Iraqi military commanders unwilling to take on IS fighters.
Many Sunni Iraqis feel abandoned by the Shia-led Iraqi government installed after Saddam was toppled. IS offered them a change – and a voice.
While I don’t for one moment believe that IS will bring a change for the better or a voice to the marginalised, hope is an agent of change in politics – and change is what is occurring at scale in the Middle East.
President Obama became the fourth successive President to authorise air strikes in Iraq. Similar calls in Westminster are growing.
Philosophers view war as an extension of politics by other means. In other words, air strikes will only have an affect when deployed as a military ‘means’ to a political ‘end’.
It is these political ‘ends’ that I believe should first be defined by parliament before we deploy further military ‘means’.
I suspect that some of my former RAF squadron mates and foreign office colleagues will have been busy this last week. I commend them for their courage.
When parliament returns to debate further intervention, I’m sure that our MPs will be just as brave in tackling this very real political problem. I hope that this will propose a political contest to bring about a lasting political solution for this very political problem.