Our policy in the Middle East is bad and getting worse

The fact that Iraq and Libya fell into chaos hasn’t stopped us, we simple continue to bomb without a thought for the consequences

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The Independent Online

If you thought Britain’s approach to the so-called Islamic State was already confused and misguided – it just got a whole lot worse. It seems that, when David Cameron last week said that he wanted Britain to “do more” against Isis, he actually meant more to make the situation messier, more volatile and more dangerous.

Britain is now signed up – via Nato – to a US deal with Turkey, by which the coalition against Isis can use Turkey’s Incirlik airbase, in return for which Turkey can use fighting against the caliphate as a pretext for resuming its war against the Kurds. For all the insistence by the US State Department that the convergence of these two things – the agreement to use Incirlik and Turkey’s airstrikes on the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)  – is a “coincidence”, it is clear that Turkey could not have embarked upon this without tacit approval. Indeed, days ago, the White House said Turkey had the “right to defend itself” against PKK attacks. And so, as Turkey rounds up suspected PKK members as well as Isis fighters, its fragile ceasefire with the Kurds comes to an end.

To recap, the PKK – with its Syrian sister organisation the YPG – are the group doing the most to fight Isis on the ground. But Turkey is more worried by Kurdish territorial gains than it is about Isis (which it has for some time been accused of tacitly supporting, or at the very least enabling).

The effectiveness of Kurdish efforts against Isis are in stark contrast to the US-led airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria, which have done little to dislodge the group – a situation unlikely to change even with the use of a Turkish airbase that is far closer to their Isis targets. That’s because, as has repeatedly been pointed out, airstrikes are pointless without local forces and political solutions on the ground. The West has a terrible recent history in the Middle East of bombing without thought for the day after. Both Iraq and Libya fell into chaos following supposedly humanitarian attacks, sorry “interventions”. but that hasn’t stopped us pursuing the same deadly policy, while expecting different outcomes. That US-led, UK-backed coalitions keep doing this, while also flip-flopping in their support for Kurds or other groups on the ground, is precisely the sort of moral inconsistency that violent extremists use to spur their further recruitment campaigns.

Meanwhile, noting the West’s fruitless search for “moderates” on the ground, violent Islamist groups in Syria have been trying to rebrand themselves to fit the bill. First came the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which, according to Human Rights Watch, is responsible for “systematic and widespread violations” including targeting civilians, abductions and executions.  Back in June, some commentators suggested it might be pragmatically evolving and thus worthy of consideration for the coveted “moderate group on the ground” position.

Next up came Ahrar al-Sham, another sectarian, intolerant al-Qaeda affiliate, which managed to secure op-ed pieces on both sides of the Atlantic recently. Earlier this month, Labib al Nahhas, who is apparently Ahrar al-Sham’s “head of foreign relations”, used a column in the Washington Post to proclaim the organisation as a “mainstream Sunni Islamic group” with deep support within Syria, yet “unfairly vilified” by the US administration.

Then, last week, the same man was this time commissioned by the Daily Telegraph and berated former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who, during a democratic, parliamentary vote in 2013, urged against UK military intervention in Syria. Nahhas once again insisted that his deadly, fundamentalist group is moderate and mainstream – cuddly, almost – and he cautioned the West not to wait for a non-existent “perfect” moderate group as an ally, which is like telling us not to hold out for our ideal partner, but “settle” for a violent, abusive one instead. Perhaps these newspapers should commission an op-ed from al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahiri – going straight to the source, instead of messing about with some of its offshoots?

It’s not hard to see why both groups pursue such attempts at rehabilitation – insisting they aren’t al-Qaeda, swearing they won’t harm minorities, pumping themselves up as having more cred on the ground than is actually the case.

After all, the West’s recent history in the Middle East is one of finding inappropriate partners and propping them up as puppet regimes who then pursue catastrophic sectarian agendas: look no further than the post-invasion support for Iraq’s disastrous, divisive former PM, Nouri al-Maliki for proof of that. Not unreasonably, then, these two Syrian al-Qaeda offshoots think that if they make the right noises, they will nudge the right buttons and Western countries might be stupid enough to see them as legitimate opposition forces.

Turkey, along with some allied Gulf states, has already signalled a preference for either Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham, which often worked together on the ground and, until a few years ago, also operated alongside Isis. As has been the case for some time in both Syria and Iraq, different countries back different players based on their own strategic considerations – none of which has anything to do with the people who are dying and fleeing this war.

Interventionists insist that we must “do something” to help. But one of the most helpful things we could do right now is the one thing we are studiously avoiding: taking in refugees. So far, the UK has taken in less than 200 Syrian refugees from a total of four million. In this, we are at the bottom of the league table – and, a better indicator of how much David Cameron and his Government really care about the Middle East you could not hope to find.

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