Having done all in his power to end the wars he was bequeathed, Barack Obama was more unwilling than any other American leader of recent times to start a new one; and the war on which he opened a new front this week, authorising warplanes, drones and cruise missiles to strike Isis positions in Syria, is by some measure the most delicate military operation of recent times.
Diplomatically delicate, that is. In military terms, there was nothing delicate at all about the American onslaught which struck a wide range of targets inside Syria, including the insurgents’ de facto capital, Raqqa, as well as new targets in Iraq.
The diplomatic delicacy is owing to the fact that while in Iraq the US is fighting to restore the territorial integrity and military morale of the Iraqi state, in Syria it is intervening in a civil war. And the bald fact is that it is intervening on the opposite side to that on which Mr Obama, loyally flanked by David Cameron and William Hague, tried and failed to intervene last year. In 2013 he proposed attacking Bashar al-Assad, to punish him for using chemical weapons against his own people. In 2014 he is attacking one of President Assad’s most potent enemies.
The contradiction is stark. But despite the evident incoherence, we believe he had no choice in the matter. And by launching the new attacks with the participation of five Arab allies, he has done all in his power to defuse in advance the most obvious risks of this new initiative.
The dangers are as follows. Had the US gone it alone or in company with other Western countries in attacking Isis, it would have run the obvious and immediate risk of re-igniting Muslim fury against a new “Crusader” attack. Western boots on the ground, as proposed by Tony Blair, would multiply that risk. But in this case, the West’s enemy is equally Islam’s enemy: as Muslim organisations from across the religious spectrum have made clear, the ruthless brutality of Isis is profoundly un-Islamic, whatever its claims to the contrary. This helps to explain why Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been persuaded to enlist against it.
The other principal risk is of the West getting sucked into the bitter ongoing proxy war between the Sunni and Shia strands of Islam. The reason Isis has prospered in both Syria and Iraq is because the Shia-dominated regimes of those countries have made life hell for their Sunni populations, persuading huge numbers of Sunnis that their best hope of survival lay with Isis. That is why it is so important that five Sunni-dominated states have signed up for the attacks against Isis, whatever the actual extent of their participation. Conversely it is equally important for the US not to be seen to be entering the fight on the side of the regime of Mr Assad – even though it is likely that he will be strengthened if the Isis tide can be turned.
This war, in short, is so messy as to make the earlier conflicts seem straightforward by comparison. But in moral terms it is unambiguous. As mainstream Muslims recognise, Isis is a force of stark evil in the world, with its genocidal ambitions against the Shias and other minorities. It is not at all clear that it can be defeated in the short term. But it cannot be allowed to prevail.