Tomorrow’s debate in the Commons brings to a head the issue of what action should be taken to stop Islamic State in its murderous rampage across northern Iraq and Syria. It is not this time another invasion of Iraq, but a desperate plea by the new Iraqi government for outside assistance to help combat what is seen as an existential threat to the Iraqi state. Nor is ISIS just another enemy in the complex and lethal sectarianism of the Middle East, but rather a monster with a blood lust which can be compared with the Genghiz Khan Mongols or the latter day Nazis, and one which the world can surely not turn aside from and wash its hands of. But equally it would be foolish not to recognise the risks of military action via air strikes – the inevitable civilian casualties, the death threat to hostages, the risk of terrorist retaliation on British soil, and the mission creep towards action on Syria with its uncertain consequences on the civil war against Assad.
But perhaps the biggest problem, as always in the case of war, is the exit strategy. No war can be won from the air, and this war can only be won on the basis of conditions which will be very difficult to achieve. First, it depends on the powers which have underpinned ISIS by the provision of money, arms and political support reaching some agreement mutually to withdraw this oxygen which keeps the pyre burning. Second, it depends on achieving some reconciliation between Shia and Sunni Muslims which has flared up to a lethal intensity because of the highly discriminatory policies of the previous Maliki government. The new Iraqi government seems to recognise this, but has yet to set in place a power-sharing arrangement which will bring the majority Sunni population on side. Third, the moderate Sunni element needs to be split from the extremists, and there are signs that that may already be happening, but the lessons of Sahwa, The Awakening, which played such a significant role in turning round the insurgency in 2007-8 need urgently to be revisited. And fourth, most difficult of all, it depends on some agreement being reached between the major actors in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Iran, using their influence to restrain their proxies and to restore a real degree of coexistence across inflamed sectarian lines.
Ultimately the war against ISIS can only be won by the repair of the broken Iraqi state, though there is no prospect whatever at present of the repair of an irretrievably broken Syrian state. In the case of Iraq, the new Prime Minister has made clear he does not want US or Western troops on the ground and insists that he has enough volunteers to contest ISIS with Iraqi forces in collaboration with air cover where needed. But in the case 0f Iraq and Syria, as well as of Libya, Afghanistan and Nigeria, political weakness has turned into economic weakness, and both together become a major security weakness which turns into a black hole in which the nastiest and most brutal militias can thrive.
The only serious answer is to turn them back into real countries once again, but that takes economic and aid commitment from outside interests, especially though not exclusively from the US and Europe, which was so notably lacking in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. It will certainly not be achieved by air sorties and firing off missiles. The only justification for military action is not just to halt the momentum of ISIS and to protect communities, but to provide the time and space for political and diplomatic action to be put in place for the reconstruction of these broken States, the reconciliation of sectarian-torn communities along agreed power-sharing lines, and long-term support to bring about the revival of their economy and social institutions.