Last Friday, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of Britain joining the US-led air campaign against ISIS in Iraq, with only 43 MPs voting against the motion. There is a marked contrast here with David Cameron’s defeat in Parliament a year ago over intervention in Syria, both in terms of support amongst MPs and from the public. However, the risks in this instance are considerably greater. Last year, Barack Obama sought to do no more than give Bashar Al-Assad a smacked bottom for crossing his previously stated ‘red line’ over the use of chemical weapons. Any military action would have been limited and not even aimed at changing the essential balance of forces in the conflict. What Parliament committed itself to last Friday was rather different: an open-ended deployment of air power—in Iraq in the first instance at least—to contain, degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS over a period officially projected to be around three years (for what little such official projections are worth).
Those of us to the left of mainstream politics tend to come out against Western military interventions more often than not because we reject the conventional assumption that Western power is essentially benign. That, I would say, is the root of our apprehension when such wars begin (whereas those who see the British and American states in a more positive light hold, predictably, rather different expectations). Of course, it doesn’t logically follow from our account of the nature of Western imperialism that an intervention is inevitably the worst thing that could possibly happen in every single case. It certainly makes it considerably more likely that the humanitarian effects of intervention will be negative, but one has to look at the facts of the case in question, as well as the nature of the intervener, in order to make the full judgement. In my view, the latest military action in Iraq probably falls down on both scores. Here, I will explain why, focusing on the situation in Iraq.
Much of the discussion concerning the rise of ISIS has framed the issue almost purely as a military or a 'security' problem—that is to say, how can ISIS physically be defeated? It’s a reasonable question, given the degree of sadism and cruelty exhibited by the group, and the improbability, to say the least, that it can be negotiated with. And a reasonable answer, on the face of it, appears to be 'by the superior force of a US-led coalition' since, even to those of us who have strenuously opposed such interventions in the past, it is hard to see any alternative that is either more plausible or less unpalatable.
However, the grave security threat posed by ISIS to the peoples of the region is born of a political context which has barely been touched upon in the reams of comment, analysis and debate that this situation has produced. The rise of ISIS in Iraq is the symptom of a problem that is fundamentally political in nature. Without an appreciation of that context, it is impossible to talk meaningfully about how ISIS can best and most safely be defeated in Iraq, and the likely consequences of the British government’s decision to involve itself in the conflict at this stage.
ISIS has already been beaten by Iraqis once before, in its previous guise as Al Qaeda in Iraq, a group that came to prominence during the insurgency against the US-led occupation ten years ago. AQI’s brutal tactics, and its aggressive attempts to control territory and impose severe puritanical governance, alienated the Sunni Arab tribes and armed groups who for a time had tolerated their presence in the fight against the Americans. When those who had previously prioritised anti-occupation resistance decided to prioritise anti-AQI resistance instead, the Americans saw an opportunity to cut their losses and offered to help, working with tribal leaders and providing arms and cash.
The so-called Sunni Arab ‘Awakening Councils’ were formed on the understanding that once AQI was beaten, Sunni armed groups would then be integrated into the military structures of the Iraq state and, more generally, Sunni Arab Iraq would be given a place in the new, post-Saddam dispensation. But once the Awakening had served its purpose, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hung them out to dry. Instead, Maliki set about concentrating power—particularly power over armed forces, internal security forces and Shia militia—in his hands, and governing on a narrow sectarian basis, eliciting some frustration from Washington but still, ultimately, enjoying its support, along with that of Tehran. Political efforts to end the collective marginalisation of the Sunni Arab communities were repeatedly thwarted by the Maliki regime, which treated such challenges purely as a 'terrorist' threat, rather than a political responsibility falling to a national government, and repeatedly chose violent repression over socio-economic and political reconciliation.
While this was happening, AQI had shifted its focus to Syria, evolved into ISIS, got itself excommunicated from Al Qaeda for being too extreme even for them, and exploited the space made available by the Syrian civil war to revitalise itself and regroup. In the end, the reason ISIS was able to return to Iraq and act as the vanguard of a general Sunni Arab uprising against Baghdad in June of this year is that many Sunni Arabs had been driven to their limit by the sectarian exclusion, violence and discrimination of the central government (see this report for a full, detailed background). They were prepared, essentially, to do a deal with the devil in the hope of ending this state of affairs and securing what they regarded as fair treatment and some stake in the country’s future.
Two points should therefore be underlined before proceeding further. First, those elements of the Sunni community (it is not homogenous—a few colluded with Maliki) who, in an act of desperation, allowed ISIS to return, have, on a previous occasion, proved themselves willing and able to take it on and defeat it under the right circumstances. Indeed, there have been signals since the June uprising that they are prepared to do this again, once their broader concerns are addressed (including but by no means limited to the ejection of Maliki). Second, this marriage of convenience with ISIS was not entered into in a state of ignorance. There are signs that ISIS is already alienating those communities under its control, but fundamentally, if any Iraqis were under illusions about its nature in the mid-2000s, that is certainly not the case in 2014. The fact that ISIS was able to return in spite of previous experiences is a measure both of the desperation felt by those who allowed it to happen and of their fear and hatred of the regime in Baghdad. Therefore, a second anti-ISIS ‘Awakening’ cannot simply be taken for granted, especially given what happened after the first one. It is not a question of whether or not Sunni Arabs come to hate and fear ISIS, so much as whether or not they hate and fear them less than the central government.
In terms of addressing root political causes, there are some encouraging signs beyond the recent enforced resignation of Maliki and his replacement by the reportedly more collegiate Haider al-Abadi. Al-Abadi has ordered the end of Assad-style barrel bombing and indiscriminate shelling of Sunni areas, and apparently wants to stand up Sunni national guard units to take the lead against ISIS on the ground. But plans for a national guard with local legitimacy need to be fully realised, not merely announced, and that can only happen in any sustainable way if the political context is right. The unity government Al-Abadi was supposed to put together is still not finalised, nearly four months after the rout of the Iraqi army by the ISIS-led revolt, and at least as far as I am aware, there has been no serious, comprehensive offer made (let alone accepted) that addresses core Sunni Arab grievances. Yet the West is going ahead with military support for Baghdad as though replacing Maliki with al-Abadi ticks all the required boxes in itself. It doesn't. Al-Abadi comes from the same party as Maliki—a fact that won’t be lost on many Sunni Arabs—and the danger of supporting him in advance of the required political transformation is that it disincentivises Baghdad from seriously addressing the core political issues.
It should be emphasised that ISIS has not conquered territory, either in Syria or Iraq, so much as filled a vacuum of ungoverned or badly governed space. It is the relationship of central government to those spaces that will ultimately decide what happens next, for better or worse. Given that the reason for the return of ISIS to Iraq is essentially political, it follows that if the political context of any military effort to destroy ISIS is wrong, it could well make matters worse.
In a report from Iraq for Human Rights Watch published on the same day as the vote in the House of Commons, Erin Evers notes that, away from the world media's attention, Shia militia still under Maliki's control (a sign of how formidable the power base he constructed was) are in the process of besieging Sunni towns and committing atrocities against the local population. Evers calls on the US to:
...raise [with Baghdad] the abuses Shia militias and Iraqi security forces have committed and ... make sure that US intervention in Iraq does not embolden militias whose crimes remain unnoticed and unpunished. The US and its allies should be aware that if they facilitate abuses by Iraqi forces and militia through military assistance, they risk complicity in crimes.
She warns that ‘failure to address the broader effects of international assistance in Iraq’s fight promises to further polarise Iraq’s communities, multiply abuses, and may ultimately undermine the efforts against the Islamic State: it threatens to push Sunnis directly into the Islamic State’s waiting arms’.
As was shown during the sectarian civil war that blazed through Iraq in the middle of the last decade, AQI/ISIS are not the only potentially genocidal force in the country. Shia militia systematically depopulated Sunni areas of Baghdad employing truly savage tactics, and ultimately conquered the city to all intents and purposes (which victory does more to explain the subsequent dying down of the civil war than the simultaneous ‘surge’ of extra US troops). Those of us who closely followed the news from Iraq at the time will remember the daily reports of corpses being found at dawn by roadsides and in garbage dumps, showing signs of torture and mutilation by electric drill. The organisational networks, power imbalances, grievances and hatreds that gave rise to the 2006-2008 bloodbath are still in existence today, which ought to give a sense of what is at stake.
The British political class has convinced itself that it is doing no more than answering the call of a national government to assist in the battle against ISIS. But in the continued absence of a genuine political transformation in Baghdad, that is simply not the current dividing line in Iraq, however much impatient pro-interventionists may wish it to be the case. The dividing line remains, for now, a government with a brutal sectarian record versus the majority Sunni Arab communities.
Now consider a specific, worst case scenario. If the beneficiaries on the ground of Western air strikes are Shia militias (or Shia of a sectarian mindset wearing Iraqi army uniforms) the West will be taking sides in a sectarian war. Western liberals have spent the last twenty years talking about ‘preventing another Rwanda’. If Shia troops wade into Sunni towns and cities with the USAF and the RAF effectively providing cover, or at least having softened up their targets beforehand, the West won't be preventing another Rwanda, it will be enabling one. To repeat, ISIS are not the only potentially genocidal force in Iraq. Only Sunni troops in some formation can reclaim ISIS-held territory without precipitating an outright catastrophe (not that it won't still be very, very unpleasant indeed).
Even if Shia forces do not make a concerted attempt to conquer ISIS-held territory, Sunni Arab Iraq has already witnessed Iran, the US and various European states rallying round a government in Baghdad with a brutal record of sectarian discrimination and oppression (notwithstanding the belated move to depose Maliki, which is insufficient by itself). This is potentially a strong signal to them that the feelings of isolation and despair that led to the alliance with ISIS were well justified. Certain tribal leaders and armed groups may have been overconfident in believing that they could use ISIS as a bargaining chip in a dramatic gamble to improve their position, and then discard it when it had served that purpose, but that nevertheless appears to be the calculation that was made. Advancing fulsome support to Baghdad without any serious pressure on it to make decisive changes not only incentivises it not to make those changes. It also tells the Sunni Arab allies of ISIS that their pact with the devil is worth sticking with for the time being; the exact opposite of the message they need to hear if this situation is to be resolved with the minimum of bloodshed.
So the prospects for Iraq at this juncture hinge on Baghdad making Sunni Arabs a compelling and credible offer in terms of jobs, economic development, human rights and political representation. And given the betrayal of the previous Awakening, Baghdad has a lot of convincing to do. It is worth noting that the government motion adopted with virtual unanimity in the House of Commons last week (a few honourable exceptions aside) made zero mention of the need for dramatic political change in Baghdad. As an absolute bare minimum, military assistance in the fight against ISIS should have been made formally contingent on such changes being made. But then one hardly expects serious rather than rhetorical humanitarian concern from a British state that colluded in the devastation of Iraq through sanctions in the 1990s, and George Bush’s invasion and occupation in the following decade (which did so much to bring us to this point, as I have elsewhere explained).
The situation in Iraq today is so dire that one could possibly envisage some political circumstances in which some limited form of Western intervention could turn out to be the least worst scenario available (even taking into account the brutality and cold self-interest that invariably accompanies such actions). The formation of a genuine and credible national unity government under Al-Abadi with a serious plan for cross-sectarian reconciliation, and the subsequent outright rejection of ISIS by Sunni tribal leaders and armed groups would broadly constitute such conditions. Under those circumstances, if the West’s military assistance was requested then only the most dogmatic of anti-imperialists would choose to march against it. But we are miles off that at the moment, and RAF Tornados are already in the skies.
If the risks outlined in this article are avoided, it will be more down to blind luck than the considered and benign judgement of the Western political classes. History will credit George Bush and Tony Blair with the dubious achievement of making Iraq even worse than it was under Saddam Hussein, which seemed unimaginable to many at the time. Iraq under the shadow of ISIS is already the stuff of nightmares, and there is plenty of scope for matters to get much, much worse.
David Wearing researches Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states at SOAS, where he teaches courses on development and politics in the Middle East. He is a former editor and founding member of the New Left Project collective.