Parliament’s recall brings into sharp focus the question of whether the use of force against ISIS is justifiable. It is easy to build a convincing ethical case for military force, but political questions remain as to whether the overarching strategy to combat ISIS is itself coherent and likely to succeed. The use of force against ISIS might be ethical, but is it strategic? If it’s not strategic should we resist using military force until such as we have got the wider strategy right?
The ethical case for using military force against ISIS is pretty clear cut. It provides an opportunity to punish evil and reverse an act of aggression. It is being done at the invitation of the Government of Iraq and as part of a broad based international coalition. It is both legal and legitimate. The intention is not to seek territorial aggrandisement or to protect narrowly defined national interests, but to protect universal values and to store up a fragile world order.
Despite this compelling case questions remain as to whether there is a reasonable chance of success. There is little question that operationally missiles will – for the most part – reach their intended target, but will this be sufficient to secure wider strategic success?
Air power will help to degrade ISIS’s military capability, but on its own it will not be sufficient to defeat ISIS and crush its poisonous ideology. There are no real fighters for air power to support in Iraq and Syria, other than the peshmerga, and it is far from clear at this moment that they will venture beyond their own territory. Retraining the Iraqi army is a long term venture and even then there is no guarantee that this effort will be any more successful now than during the allied occupation of Iraq post 2003.
Airstrikes might buy the new Government of Iraq time to implement its programme of reform but that is all it does. As the UN General Secretary said in his address to the UN Security Council yesterday missiles kill terrorists, but it is good governance that kills terrorism.
Killing terrorists is the easy bit. Building good governance is a distinctly more tricky exercise and takes time. No one will mourn the departure of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, but it is far too soon to conclude that the appointment of Dr Haider al-Abadi will lead to a government in Iraq that is both inclusive and functional. Even if the early signs are encouraging, the Iraqi government will need to undertake a sustained outreach with disaffected Sunnis that address their long standing grievances.
In view of the importance of securing a wider political reform in Iraq, it is legitimate to ask what steps the Government is taking to assist the Government of Iraq implement its programme for inclusive government? To what extent will any UK support for the international strategy against ISIS be conditional upon there being a credible programme of reform in Iraq? How do we measure success and over what timeframe? What happens should the reform process falter?
These questions don’t necessarily affect the immediate decision before Parliament, but they still need to be addressed.
There are understandable domestic political reasons why Parliament’s attention will be narrowed to the use of force in Iraq even if the over arching objective of defeating ISIS requires engaging with this terrorist organisation in its Syrian stronghold. Even if the Government decides to restrict its military involvement to Iraq, Parliament needs to look again at whether the Government’s strategy for resolving the conflict in Syria is at odds with its more strategy to defeat ISIS.
The convergence of interests in the region and the start of a Saudi-Iran dialogue and the steps by both towards practical cooperation in Lebanon provide a rare and possibly temporary reconfiguration of interests that the British Government and others needs to build on. With a significant number of ISIS fighters coming from Chechnya, Russia too has an interest in defeating ISIS which has the potential to create new diplomatic openings. Are the UK and others making the most of this fluidity?
As in Iraq, airstrikes in Syria will count for nothing unless it is in support of a wider peace process that provides for the common good of all Syrians. The danger and risk with tomorrow’s parliamentary debate is that it risks focusing exclusively on the military dimension to the detrimental of other more concerns.
Military force only has utility if deployed in the service of a wider political strategy. At the moment, that strategy is still evolving.