Intervention in Iraq: necessary military action, or a failure of foreign policy?

Concrete colomist Dian Atamyanov and Comment Editor Joe Jameson take an indepth look into the West’s recent decision to launch airstrikes against IS (formerly ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.

Dian Atamyanov, For:

Almost a year and a half has passed since the Islamic State of Iraq and Lebanon (ISIL) rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (from hereon ISIS), which marked the beginning of a frankly unsurprising turn of events in the Middle East. After all, the terrorist group which is now known as IS, has been around since the beginning of the last decade, albeit under different acronyms and abbreviations, and it was once a branch of Al Qaeda in Iraq. But since then, IS has gained so much traction in the region that it’s quite possible to say that the student has surpassed the master, both in terms of efficiency and extremism (going as far as to have Al Qaeda itself describe the group as “too extreme”). All of this naturally leads to the question, if they’re so bad that even extremists think they’re pushing it, why are they so successful? The answer to that is very complicated, but it mainly lies in understanding the culture of the region and the nature of recent and not-so-recent conflicts.

At first glance, IS may appear to be disliked by virtually everyone on the planet, but the truth is that they have far more support than people might want to believe. In Iraq, the Shia-held government has been actively oppressing the Sunni minority, which is why some Sunnis are putting their hopes in the group. But all of this is just a symptom of a much larger illness that comes in the form of an ideology. Wahhabism (or Salafism), named after the 18th century Islamic scholar Abd al- Wahhab, is broadly the idea that the Muslim world is in dire need to revert back to harsh austerity and a strict alignment with Sharia law, which is what most Sunni Arabs believe to be “pure Islam”. The irony here is that most of the West’s allies in the Middle East are directly responsible for the spread of this ideology. In particular, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar can almost be labelled as the official sponsors of wahhabism across the world, and their reluctance to act swiftly despite what seems to be chaos looming at their doorstep is indicative of their position on the matter. It’s important to note that without these types of support, IS would’ve crumbled a long time ago, and the West should recognize these and other nuances before conducting any efforts to stop them.

However, a military intervention is still invariably a must, because although IS fighters are small in number, they repeatedly prove to be well prepared and highly resilient. This was highlighted in their fare with Iraqi forces back in early 2014, when the army struggled to dislodge them from Fallujah, a city near the capital of Baghdad. The situation is even worse in Syria, where there’s already a civil war going on, and it doesn’t bode well for the rebels. The Syrian government is actually benefiting from both the IS and US airstrikes, because rebel groups are either pressed to fight on two fronts or outright join the invaders in their common cause against the Shia government.

All of this makes organising an effective force in Syria much more difficult to achieve, and it’s not hard to see why the British parliament approved military action in Iraq, but put airstrikes in Syria on hold. This leaves the West few other alternatives to concentrating a campaign in Iraq, such as allying with Iran, another Shia majority country with a bad track record in US foreign policy books. So while the Western allies commit themselves to training and equipping the Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces necessary to defeat IS, efforts to disrupt their operations must be made relentlessly, or else risk leaving them to come back stronger.

It seems that long after the events of the Iraq war, policymakers in the UK and the US are finally beginning to understand that the long-term remedy to extremists is not just “bomb ‘em”, but a focus on changing the social and political environment of the region, as well as enabling the people to defend themselves. That being said, it would be hard to do so if there is no Iraq or Syria left to change.


Joe Jameson, Against:

The recent decision taken by the British parliament to back the government’s plans to target IS fighters and positions with ‘strategic’ air strikes is a travesty for UK foreign policy. This is not a fantastic solution, it is a desperate, rushed and last-minute policy, which has simply been recycled. This course of action will only achieve one thing, which is to drag us into yet another conflict within the Middle East, it has been repeatedly said by government ministers and military advisers that “air strikes alone will not beat ISIS”. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Western plan to combat IS on the ground is for the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, along with elements of the Iraqi army, to conquer all of Iraq and Syria, and until another solution is suggested we are left asking questions. The only thing which this current state of affairs can tell us is that we were not successful in Iraq the first time, and if one were to be rational it would suggest that we are unlikely to be again. If the airstrikes which the US and its ‘coalition’ of allies are taking is not enough, but they refuse to take the steps which they think they do need to take, then why bother with the air strikes in the first place?

Labour MP Diane Abbott raised an worthwhile, but swiftly forgotten point during the debate in parliament over using RAF fighter-bombers to target IS targets in Iraq. She argued that such action only grants those killed by them to be seen as martyrs, as fighters who gave their lives to defend themselves and their religion from an enemy who are already seen as “Western Imperialists”. Would we not simply be adding fuel to the already blazing inferno that is the imagery of the West as Christian crusaders, risking yet more radicalisation of young Muslims?

There is also a worthy point to be made about the domestic repercussions of our actions; the KKK are not, by any sane person, understood to be representative of Christianity, so why should it be assumed that IS are representative of Islam? If we are so focused on the idea of ‘hearts and minds’ just as America were in Vietnam, and the Russians were in Afghanistan before us, we should not ignore the impact of our words and actions on Western domestic populations, where ignorance and misunderstanding can result in an increase of racial tensions and a souring of community relations.

The biggest failing, however, lies with Nato over Turkey. This country, which has shown great desire to be considered as a dependable Western ally in the Middle East is simply sitting on their hands and are watching as the strategic border town of Kobane falls into the hands of IS fighters. Obviously it would be impossibly unreasonable to ask Turkey alone to launch a ground offensive against IS, however the fact that they do not feel compelled to act, shows just how badly Western foreign policy has failed in the Middle East, after years of rebuff from organisations such as the EU is it really surprising they aren’t listening now?

Although the US has managed to garner support amongst a number of Arab countries to take action against IS, Washington has, conveniently, overlooked the role in which many individuals from these countries have been linked to funding IS over the years. It is no surprise that the IS advance has been so rapid, especially in Syria, where their superior arsenals of captured Iraqi equipment, and financial support from wealthy Sunni donors, has enabled them to cut their way through the previously static battle lines in that already messy civil war. Although this fight is different from the UK and American experience in Iraq a decade ago, the issue remains the same; it is not possible to destroy an ideology, religion or opinion.


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July 2021
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