Give diplomacy in Iraq a chance

We are not opposed to air strikes. The important thing is the difficult, unglamorous work of negotiation

Saturday 27 September 2014 20:35

It is often said that "doing nothing is not an option". It always is, and it is sometimes the best option. As the forces of Isis continue their murderous, genocidal and misogynistic advance in Iraq, it is an option that should be seriously considered. In the end, however, only 43 MPs voted against the "something" that the Prime Minister proposed on Friday.

Doing nothing would have been the right option in 2003, as this newspaper led the way in arguing. That is not always our view, however. We are in favour of the use of British military force as a last resort and we can be sure that it would promote or defend human rights.

In the present case, it is tempting to say that the deployment of six RAF aircraft is irrelevant. It is not, quite. It is unlikely to make much difference to a US-led operation that has been in progress for some weeks – an operation that has had a limited effect in Syria and Iraq so far, with little prospect of pushing Isis back in the coming months and years. The best that can be said for the air campaign is that it might help to hold Isis and its allies back while giving diplomacy a chance.

The situation now is not like that in 2003, although the US-British invasion obviously contributed to the desperate state of Iraq today. The British people certainly view the question of military action differently. While there is no desire for troops to go back into Iraq on the ground, our ComRes opinion poll today finds that there is more support for than opposition to British forces taking part in air strikes in Iraq and Syria. We should note that the level of support – 45 per cent support, 26 per cent oppose – falls short of a majority and well short of the sort of consensus that ought to be demanded of a more ambitious military action.

No doubt public opinion is strongly influenced by the hostage videos put out by Isis. But we must remember that these are propaganda, designed to provoke a western response that is precisely what the West is providing. And we must remember that the question is not whether Isis is a wicked death cult but what should be done about it.

As Patrick Cockburn argues today, the fight against Isis is complicated by some of the hidden motives of the regional powers. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, for example, wants to get rid of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, and wants to avoid helping the Kurds for fear of strengthening Kurdish separatists in Turkey. That hardly makes him a reliable ally against Isis.

As both Cockburn and Richard Williams argue, an air campaign alone against Isis is fraught with problems. A successful campaign requires two things: a political settlement that gives the Sunni population of northern Iraq an interest in resisting Isis; and armies on the ground capable of defeating the attempted caliphate. Neither the Iraqi national army nor the Kurdish militia yet seems up to the task.

Meanwhile, we should also remember Libya. In 2011, Mr Cameron proudly joined a Nato coalition that used air power without ground troops, in the first instance to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi. That action had what seemed to be the welcome consequence, some months later, of toppling the Gaddafi regime. Since then, the country has descended into bloody chaos.

We are, therefore, not opposed to British air strikes against Isis. But they are not the important thing. The important thing is the difficult, unglamorous work of negotiation. To what extent we British as the recent occupiers of Iraq and as, longer ago, the former colonial power have anything useful to offer to that effort is uncertain. To the extent that we have influence with the Sunni monarchies that are part of the coalition against Isis, we should use it. Mr Cameron's rapprochement with Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, was a sensible step. It may be that some accommodation with Assad will have to follow. But no lasting solution to the problem of Isis is possible without a realignment of the political forces in the region.