TO BEAT IS we must stop our ostensible allies in the Middle East from supporting Islamist groups, writes Allan Massie.
In Greek mythology the Hydra was a poisonous water-snake which Heracles was ordered to kill in the second of his labours. The problem was that it had several heads and that each time one was cut off, another grew. However, the hero fulfilled the task set him thanks to the help of his friend Iolaus who, as Heracles cut off the heads, seared the stumps with a burning brand so that no new head could appear.
The Islamists engaged on jihad are today’s Hydra, growing a new head each time an old one is cut off. Osama bin Laden’s original al-Qaeda was destroyed in Afghanistan. It grew a new head in Iraq. That one was severed too. Offshoots appeared in various parts of Africa and the Middle East. The latest and most dangerous is IS or Islamic State. It is far more dangerous than Bin Laden ever was, because it is a military organisation, not just a terrorist group; and it now controls territory which it calls the Caliphate, as he, living on sufferance under the protection of the Taleban, never did.
Islamic State has grown out of the civil war in Syria, and is now apparently on the point of taking the Kurdish town of Kobane on the Syrian-Turkish border.
We have all seen TV pictures of Turkish tanks massed on their side of the border, but they seem to be serving only as a warning: this far but no further. Turkey is a member of the Nato alliance, and, if Islamic State, having taken Kobane, crosses the border into Turkey, we would be bound by the terms of the treaty to come to Turkey’s aid.
However, such an invasion is unlikely because Turkey has been aiding the Syrian rebels, including Islamic State, in their war against president Bashar al-Assad. Last week, the American journalist Charles Glass, whose experience of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq goes back more than 30 years, reported that Armenian villagers had told him last month that, in March, they had seen Turkish military vehicles bringing Islamist fighters across the border to attack and occupy Armenian villages in the region of Kessab.
Turkey is not the only western ally that has been assisting the Islamists. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the chief funders of the various Islamists groups that have evolved into Islamic State in the war against Assad. They have supplied them with money and weapons – weapons which were sold to them by the US. In the confusion of the Middle East it is hard to know who is a friend and who an enemy.
Islamic State must be stopped and destroyed. We in the West are agreed on that. But the air war we have launched is unlikely to be enough. It can damage, but not destroy. There is no sign that it is halting Islamic State’s advance; it may not even be slowing it. The only ground forces fighting at all effectively against IS in Iraq are the Kurdish peshmerga who are, however, short of the weapons they need to fight anything other than a defensive war. The Iraqi army has proved feeble, and in Syria itself, Assad’s army can defend the territory it still holds, but is apparently incapable of launching any offensive that has a chance of success.
So it seems likely that, whatever our doubts hesitations and reservations, we – that is, the Americans with some help from the UK and France – will send in ground troops. This is something we want to avoid, but the pressure to act will become intense with every advance Islamic State makes and with every murder of the western hostages it holds.
No doubt we have the capability to defeat Islamic State on the ground. Military intervention would be bloody, difficult, and would soon be unpopular if prolonged. But even success would not solve the problem. The Hydra would grow another head. We would see a repetition of what followed the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the Iraq war of 2003, the presence of western troops serving as a recruiting agent for the Islamists.
The root of the problem is the support given to the Islamists by our ostensible allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Both have been funding Islamist groups and the madrassas where young men are radicalised. They have done so with impunity; indeed for decades the West, which really means the US, has turned at the very least a blind eye to these activities because the Saudis were seen as a bulwark against Arab nationalists and socialists. It’s time for the double game to stop. Of course this is difficult. Much of the UK’s liquefied gas comes from Qatar and Saudi Arabia is still a huge oil producer. But there is financial pressure we might exert. Both have huge investments in the West which we might subject to judicial scrutiny, and threaten with confiscation. Both regimes probably need western support to survive for much longer.
Islamic State itself now controls oil and gas fields. But oil and gas are valuable only if you can sell them on the international market. We can put pressure on potential buyers. Money talks, and financial transfers can be monitored and blocked.
Third, there needs to be peace in Syria, a negotiated settlement. Arguably we have been on the wrong side there from the start. We should have backed Assad. Whatever the brutality of his regime, it was secularist. If the Islamists are our enemy, then their enemy should be our friend.
Finally, how to stop the Hydra from growing a new head? Financial pressure on any state that gives support to the Islamists is the most effective burning brand at our disposal.
Starve Islamic State of resources and take the same line with any state that promotes Islamism in any form. This must be the long-term policy. In the short term, if it is necessary to send in ground troops to defeat Islamic State in the field, we should make it clear that they will be quick in, quick out.