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The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

The UK cannot ignore the dangers emerging from Syria and Iraq

Ed Miliband
Friday 29 August 2014 22:59 BST
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014. (AFP/Getty)

This summer’s crises in Iraq, in Gaza, and on the Russian border with Ukraine have reminded us that the peace and security we sometimes take for granted here in Britain are fragile and precious.

Even those who might think they had become accustomed to the horrors perpetrated in our world will have been shaken by these events and, in particular, the atrocities committed by Isis, which calls itself Islamic State.

The perverted mission of this organisation is the systematic destruction of anyone who refuses to share its religious ideology.

It has led to the terrible suffering of the Yazidis, Kurds, Shia, Christians, journalists such as James Foley, as well as Sunnis who do not join Isis’s fight. Such actions have appalled people from every community in our country.

And more than this, we know that Isis is challenging a democratic government in Iraq – albeit an extremely imperfect one – and attempting to establish a new state across the region which would be a source of deep threat and instability to our world.

In the face of this danger I am clear we cannot ignore Isis or simply shrug our shoulders and hope it goes away. But, if we learn anything from the events of the past decade, it is that we must proceed with clarity about our objectives and the means to achieve them.

That is what Labour has done in this Parliament, supporting military strikes in Libya to prevent a humanitarian disaster but opposing a rush to war in Syria last summer.

The immediate priority has been to protect innocent people in Iraq. That is why Labour has supported the US air strikes against Isis and the EU’s steps to provide military assistance to the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has played a crucial role in holding back its advance.

The unique military capabilities of the US clearly have a big role to play but, rightly, neither the US nor the UK governments are proposing putting boots on the ground in Iraq. As President Obama has said, we can only comprehensively defeat Isis with a multilateral alliance, embracing the region, for political, diplomatic and humanitarian action.

This multilateral strategy should have a number of objectives: to tackle the root causes of support for Isis from within Iraq; to starve them of backing from outside; to bring regional powers together for a lasting political settlement and greater stability; and to provide humanitarian help to those facing the horrific consequences of this conflict.

Firstly, the international community needs to insist on an inclusive government within Iraq which reinforces the importance of civil liberties, free speech, and respect for human rights. Any strategy to deal with Isis has to understand how it has successfully tapped into the deep well of unaddressed grievances of many Sunnis in Iraq over the past years.

The selection of a new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, provides some hope that a country riven by sectarian conflict can move closer towards a sustainable agreement for power-sharing and the legitimate representation of all interests. The Sunni minority who felt excluded by Nouri-al-Maliki’s government should be able to resolve their concerns without walking into the lethal embrace of Isis.

Secondly, we should also be doing far more to ensure that, rather than give succour to groups like Isis, other countries in the region recognise their responsibility to tackle the threat. Since 9/11, we have been too slow to make it clear to countries across the Middle East that providing military or financial backing to extremist groups such as Isis is not only highly dangerous but also totally unacceptable.

The UN Security Council has already threatened sanctions against those who finance, recruit, or supply weapons to Isis. Britain should now be exerting maximum pressure to stem support for Isis from other Middle East countries – including some of our allies – as well as tightening their borders in neighbouring countries to slow the flow of arms and fighters into Iraq.

Thirdly, we should recognise that any strategy to tackle Isis requires the active engagement of important neighbouring countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran for a long-term political settlement in both Iraq and Syria.

Finally, we should offer support to partners in the region who are coping with refugees fleeing Isis brutality from both Iraq and Syria. The humanitarian impact is pushing countries like Jordan to breaking point, with some towns tripling in size and forcing those who fled the bloodshed to live in appalling conditions.

The UN estimates that 1.45 million people have been displaced in Iraq this year, hundreds of thousands of them children. Humanitarian agencies must have both the funds and high-level co-ordination required to identify those in the greatest need, and to reach them with help.

I welcome President Hollande’s call for an international conference to respond to the threat posed by Isis. This should be convened under the auspices of the United Nations. As one of five permanent members of the Security Council and its current chair, the UK should be leading this diplomatic strategy and doing everything in our power to secure the participation of key countries in the region. The legitimacy and effectiveness of our response to Isis requires this multilateral approach.

This work to combat and defeat Isis will take time, and require consistent commitment, including here at home. That Isis’s atrocities are partly being perpetrated by hundreds of British citizens has been rightly condemned across all communities in our country.

Here too, we should act with clarity and determination. Such action must include an overhaul of the Home Office Prevent programme to equip communities with the tools to stop young people being sucked into extremist ideology. We should also do more to prevent potential fighters from travelling to the region, and promote an effective, mandatory programme of deradicalisation for anyone who is drawn into the fringes of extremism in Syria and Iraq.

For the most serious and high-risk cases, as the independent reviewer on terrorism has recommended, the Government should strengthen existing powers, including revisiting the case for control orders.

The events of this summer have underlined how turning our back on the complexities and instability of the Middle East is not an option.

But we must also show Britain has learnt the lessons of our recent history with an approach based on a genuine multilateralism, working with others to build alliances across continents against Isis and their ideology.

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