The American and British people are being lied to. The arguments being made for intervention to counter the rise of ISIL in Iraq and Syria and to placate the Western public make little sense in the broader context of the situation. In seeking to appease both those who desire a cautious approach as well as war-hawks who want to violently solve the region’s problems, a strategy which accords with neither approach is being articulated and carried out.
Let me begin with a reminder of the dire circumstances in Iraq and Syria, much of which is lost in the rhetoric coming from both isolationist and hawkish positions. From any perspective, Syria is in truly deep trouble. The number of refugees now exceeds three million, and the number of deaths is approaching – if it has not reached – over one percent of the Syrian population, a higher death toll per capita than the UK faced in World War 2. In Iraq, the government and army have failed to maintain order and to placate the country’s diverse population, leaving thousands dead from sectarian violence. Even more are now under the control of extremists rather than the supposedly sovereign parliament and government.
The mass suffering and instability is an awful thing – however, this has not been the primary focus of Western rhetoric. What Obama, Cameron, and others have been discussing has been the rise of ISIL. This group, with around 50,000 militants, has taken control of swathes of territory in both Syria and Northwest Iraq, and has demonstrated a higher level of organization and competence than other sectarian groups or militias. It has also promoted an especially extreme anti-Western jihadist message and taken the lives of several Americans and Brits held hostage in an appalling fashion. It is to this threat that Western powers are responding. Obama has promised to “degrade and ultimately destroy [ISIL] through a comprehensive and constrained counter-terrorism strategy.” His speech and this statement prove that he is hoping to appease those who advocate caution in military intervention and those, like McCain and Graham, who obsess over destruction.
As far as I can tell, there are three arguments that have been articulated to support the current strategy: two are hawkish. The first is that ISIL represents a significant threat to the continued security of Western nations. The second, is that the group represents so significant a threat to the stability and security of Iraq and Syria that it must be contained. However, given the political and military realities of Iraq and Syria, neither of these is valid. The strategic focus on ISIL will fail to answer either of the problems these arguments say it will: ISIL is but the symptom of the awful problems confronting Iraq and Syria.
The destruction of ISIL – the permanent disruption of its coordinated military activity and failure of its organizational structure – will not change the fact that Syria faces the deaths of thousands more, and the continuations of the war for years to come. It will not change the fact that the Iraqi army has proved incompetent in securing its people and the government has failed to dissolve sectarian tensions. These, however, are the cause of both the future terrorist threat to Western nations, and the plight of Syrians and Iraqis. If we were seriously committed to stopping terrorist threats and stabilizing Iraq and Syria, we would pursue a substantial long-term strategy with well thought out endgame plans in both nations. This would likely mean a plan for Syria that includes Assad (there is no viable end to the war that does not involve the current government, giving vast amounts of arms to extremists, or sending in thousands of troops). Such plans would also require international accountability and oversight for the Iraqi military and government.
The third argument that has been expressed comes from the isolationist side, and advocates restraint. It says that it is not the duty of other countries to solve the problems facing Iraq and Syria, and that matters (other than ISIL of course) might eventually sort themselves out. This view, if held sincerely, is a naive fantasy. There is nothing to suggest that there will inevitably be a clear end and solution to either problem, with or without intervention.
Given this, the rhetoric surrounding the strikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria is simply that. The arguments in favour of increased involvement are falsifications. The current strategies do not allow for a non-Western solution, will not prevent future terrorist threats, and will not help the Syrian rebels or the Iraqi government enough to solve the underlying problems. This means that Obama, Cameron and company are either hopelessly incompetent – or they are lying in order to placate the public in the face of ISIL taking territory and recruiting and beheading Westerners. I, for one, believe the latter.