Allan Massie: Do we have the stomach to fight IS?

The advance of IS forces across Iraq and Syria has been traumatic. Picture: AP
The advance of IS forces across Iraq and Syria has been traumatic. Picture: AP
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OUR OWN forces are insufficient and our proxies are inefficient but the battle needs to be fought, argues Allan Massie

Anyone who has seen the video showing militants from Islamic State (IS) torturing a 14-year-old boy can have no doubts that the jihadist movement is vile. Actually of course we’ve known this for a long time, and the reports of what followed the taking of Palmyra a couple of weeks ago only served to confirm it. I doubt if there are many people here who are not horrified by the atrocities committed by these fanatical Islamists, and I assume that most British Muslims are appalled by them.

Indignation is natural, and all very well, but what is to be done about it? The regular Iraqi army, trained at great expense by the Americans, has had a few successes, but, at Ramadi recently, it collapsed in the face of the IS assault. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said they weren’t driven out of Ramadi: they just drove away. The US secretary of defence Ashton Carter said “we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight”.

IS holds large parts of both Iraq and Syria. Neither country is now a functioning state. It’s tempting to analyse the mistakes we have made which have led to this. But this is now irrelevant. History cannot be rolled back. We are where we are, whether this is a consequence of the invasion of Iraq and defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and of the decision to back the originally reputedly moderate and democratic opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, or not. Doubtless IS wouldn’t be where it is now – might not even exist – if we had made different decisions in the past.

For months the message from the White House has been that IS was being defeated. Air strikes and targeted assassinations of its leaders were taking their toll. The message was evidently too optimistic. IS has resumed its advance and ten days ago the US State Department, usually less gung-ho than the Pentagon, warned that IS was “a significant threat to all our partners in the region, and” – even – ”a significant threat to the US homeland. We’ve never seen anything like this. This is a formidable, enormous threat.”

The concern is understandable, but exaggerated. There is no military threat to either the US or western Europe (though there is of course the danger of a terrorist attack). Nevertheless there is no prospect of a return of stability to the Middle East until IS is defeated and disbanded, The situation is so grave that Lord Dannatt, former commander-in-chief of the British Army, has said that our government should “think the previously unthinkable” and send troops to Iraq. Air strikes cannot do the job alone; they are no substitute for boots on the ground.

Nevertheless he must know that there is neither political nor public appetite for such intervention. Moreover, cuts in our army have been so severe that it is doubtful if we are capable of doing this; and the Americans, who have the capability to intervene, are equally unwilling. President Barack Obama is ready to wage war from the air, either with conventional aircraft or by the use of drones, but seemingly nothing more than that.

Yesterday our Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, attended a meeting in Paris to discuss Syria and Iraq. It’s unlikely that anything other than pious words will emerge from it. The truth is that nobody knows what to do. The US alone among western nations has the military strength to defeat IS, but understandably, after its experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, now lacks the political will to be the world’s policeman. The public mood in the US has veered towards isolationism. Meanwhile, the American attempt to create and train a national Iraqi army capable of maintaining order and defeating IS has evidently failed. The failure seems to have been so complete that there must be real doubt whether Iraq can survive as a nation-state.

If it doesn’t do so, it may break up, with the Shia part of the country protected, and dominated, by Iran, the Sunni areas held by IS, and the Kurdish north achieving full independence, de facto if not yet de jure. This may be the best we can hope for.

It is said that the American-trained Iraqi special forces have performed better than the regular army, and so some argue that reinforcing them with more American special forces, who have the ability to direct more intensive aerial attacks on IS, would be enough to redress the balance of the war. An even more bizarre suggestion is that the Iraqi government should be encouraged – and perhaps even paid – to recruit mercenaries such as the South African-based STTEP (Specialised Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection) which, working with the Nigerian army, has succeeded in dislodging the Islamist force known as Boko Haram from Michika and other northern Nigerian towns. Private military companies (PMCs) were employed in Iraq during the years of the American occupation, and played some part in suppressing the Sunni uprising then, So their use now is not inconceivable but one suspects that IS is a more formidable fighting force than Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, we look on with horror at the atrocities committed by IS: the torture and beheadings of prisoners, the rapes and enslavement of women, the many thousands driven into exile to fill refugee camps, the persecution of Christians and other minority religious groups, the destruction of world-famous heritage sites which remind us of the glories of past civilisations in the Middle East, and, having expressed our horror, we look away.

Is this how our long involvement in the Middle East is ending – with a post-imperial sigh and a sad recognition of our impotence? The British public always responds generously to natural disasters, but when it’s a case of a man-made disaster and sheer wickedness, are we content to shrug our shoulders and say it’s none of our business and in any case there’s nothing we can do?

“First they came for the Jews, and I wasn’t a Jew. So I did nothing…”