I hate to say it, but Jeremy Corbyn is right where I have been wrong. Corbyn’s protest that the Syrian intervention displays a ‘lack of a strategy worth the name, the absence of credible ground troops, the missing diplomatic plan for a Syrian settlement…’ was spot on. I am embarrassed to say that last year, I penned a rather conceited piece – for Spectator Australia, no less – in which I mocked proponents of non-intervention against the millennial, genocidal fascists of Isis. Having watched events since publication, I feel little but embarrassment.
True, it makes little sense to restrict our campaign to Iraq: as James Forsyth rightly noted, Isis don’t recognise international borders, operating in Iraq, Syria, and other territorialities simultaneously through recognised ’emirates’. But the West’s campaign against Isis has a fundamental weakness: there is no political will for the sort of enormous effort, both military and diplomatic, that it would take to truly defeat them. The West has become akin to a drunk desperately flinging his expensive watch down on the table for another hand of Texas hold’em: gambling on new success where all previous attempts have failed.
Take the situation in Iraq, where the split between Shia and Sunni predates Isis and – as David Petraeus warned almost a decade ago – is becoming increasingly violent. Iraqi Sunnis view Isis as imperfect masters, but preferable to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, whose security forces wrought havoc against Iraqi Sunnis, and whose policies have disenfranchised them. (The chilling reports of Sunnis being murdered by Iraq’s security apparatus was masterfully captured in Fred Kaplan’s superb The Insurgents.) In return, Sunnis actively took up arms against the Iraqi Security Forces when Isis began their annexation of Iraqi territory last year. For us to obliterate Isis-driven Toyotas in Syria does nothing to alleviate this fundamental schism in Iraq’s domestic politics.
In Iraq, with the Iraqi security forces being either unwilling to fight, or too poorly equipped to cope with Isis onslaughts, the government have turned to Popular Mobilisation Forces, comprised almost solely of Shia militias, either heavily influenced by, or under the command of, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Phillip Smyth has written one of the must-read monographs of 2015 on this phenomenon.
In Syria itself, things aren’t much better. Isis have been contained, to be sure. As Tom Switzer wrote in the Australian Financial Review, ‘its strategic reach is confined to only some Sunni Arab populations in eastern Syria and western Iraq. In the north, there are the Kurds; in the south, Jordan and Lebanon; in the east, Iraqi Shiites; in the west Assad and the Alawites, protected by the Iranians and now Russians.’ But there is little chance the West can actually defeat them.
No government is willing to commit ground troops, and the most effective partner force on the ground in Syria – the Westernised, heroic Kurdish fighters – are viewed as convenient proxy forces, but ultimately less important than Turkey. Sunni Gulf States, for their part, view Isis as a direct national security threat, but have been unwilling to commit anything in their substantial military arsenals beyond punitive airstrikes, because they view Isis as a useful bulwark against Iranian-led Shiite expansionism in the region.
It is probably politically sensible of David Cameron to extend Britain’s role in the anti-Isis campaign. But Britain and the wider West have no teeth for the fight that it would take to truly defeat Isis. For all the hyperbole, lobbing missiles into Raqqa will not do much to combat the threat from IS. What’s needed instead is stringent counter-terrorism at home.
Joseph Power is a freelance writer and member of the Executive Council at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Queensland. Views are his own.