It seems only yesterday that Parliament was being asked to endorse air strikes against Bashir al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Yet today it is Mr Assad’s most potent enemy that is the target of our hostility: Britain is supporting the United States in its air strikes against Isis, which dominates an area of Syria and northern Iraq larger than Britain, and now David Cameron is softening the public up for us to play a more proactive role against it. The cynical laughter in Damascus can practically be heard above the exploding of barrel bombs. Rarely has Western foreign policy tied itself in such elaborate knots.
Nonetheless, in his article in The Sunday Telegraph, Mr Cameron makes several points that we endorse. Isis is, as he says, “an exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement” and must be defeated. The present humanitarian effort is important but more must be done. His rejection of direct military intervention – “we should avoid sending armies to fight or occupy” – does not go far enough.
As we learned from bitter experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, direct Western military involvement on the ground is counter-productive in two ways. First, the amount of money we inject along with our soldiers inevitably attracts the most corrupt element in the population and corrupts the honest. Secondly, in countries where the ugly experience of imperial domination is only a generation or two in the past, it is a vivid reminder of all the humiliation which that entailed, when the “infidels” called the shots. Far from inducing love and admiration of the West, it has precisely the opposite effect.
Saddam Hussein was not, as was widely claimed at the time, allied with al-Qa’ida prior to the West’s invasion of 2003: on the contrary, he was bitterly hostile to the jihadis. The cruel irony of that appalling war was that, by polarising and radicalising the Sunni minority which had formerly ruled the country, we succeeded in conjuring into existence a menace that had not existed there before, on a far greater scale than al-Qa’ida. Playing the imperialist in these post-colonial times is a very dangerous game. Everywhere it has been tried, the unintended consequences have been devastating.
But Isis must be stopped. What can we do that will not make the situation worse? The key is the fact that all the existing states and forces in the region, whatever their other differences, are united in fear and loathing of Isis and what it represents. This applies even to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which jointly share most of the blame for raising this evil organisation to its present, undeserved eminence.
We must do all we can to galvanise these regional actors. We are now belatedly arming the Kurds. That is right and proper. We must find a way to get beyond our chronic differences with Iran. We must lean on Turkey, which has played a pernicious role in empowering Isis. Above all, we must do all in our power to encourage Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to pull Iraq back from the brink of self-destruction by making political space for Sunnis and Kurds within his administration, to restore their belief that Iraq has a future.
If he moves in this direction, Mr Cameron will deserve our support. But we must not permit the Government to use the crisis in Iraq and Syria as an opportunity to tighten the Government’s grip on our lives. Mr Cameron speaks of taking “uncompromising action against terrorists at home”. If that is code for further eroding our personal liberties, it must be stoutly resisted. He speaks of defending our values “with determination, courage and tenacity”. He must not be allowed to forget that at the heart of those values is personal freedom. Sacrifice that and we have already conceded the game.