Obama’s strategy to destroy ISIS


In a televised address to the American people on Wednesday night President Obama outlined his grand strategy to combat ISIS. How comprehensive a strategy is it and what does it mean both for the region and those countries, like the UK, willing to partner the US in implementing the strategy?

ISIS Speech Obama made clear that the overarching objective is to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS through a comprehensive and sustained counter terrorism strategy.”

The strategy comprises 4 pillars: a systematic campaign of air strikes against ISIS; increased support to forces fighting ISIS on the ground; a substantial counter terrorism effort to cut of ISIS’s funding and to counter its warped ideology; continued humanitarian assistance to protect innocent victims.

The US President recognises then that the campaign against ISIS is likely to proceed in stages over a period of time and will involve a range of kinetic and non-kinetic instruments.

The strategy’s objective far exceeds that which Obama has previously set out. In his statement of 7 August Obama explained that the decision to launch air strikes against ISIS had 2 operational objectives: protecting US personnel and facilities and preventing a potential act of genocide.

Obama’s justification for this new overarching objective rests less on the threat that ISIS poses to the US and more on the danger that it poses to the people in the Middle East. Obama accepts, however, that if left unchecked ISIS might over time become a threat to the US and its allies.

This assessment that is not necessarily shared by some within his own administration or indeed for that matter analysts and pundits across Europe who are quick to argue that ISIS pose a serious threat to everything that we stand for. The competing understandings of the risk presented by ISIS needs to be teased out further.

As with his statement of 7 August, Obama’s statement of 10 September went to great lengths to make the case that “American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqi’s what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region. And that’s why I’ve insisted that additional US action be dependent on Iraqis forming an inclusive government, which they have now done in recent days.”

No one will mourn the departure of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, but it is far too soon to think that the appointment of Haider al-Abadio will lead to a government in Iraq that is both inclusive and functional. All too often inclusive government in Iraq entails carving up government ministries between a tiny elite drawn from each ethnicity and sect.

Further consideration also needs to be given to how the intensification of military action might impact disaffected and marginalised Sunni communities in Iraq? Will military action cement or alleviate the drivers of the conflict?

The deep sectarian divisions within Iraq are not lost on Obama and explains why he places such a premium on developing a broad regional alliance against ISIS. It remains uncertain, however, whether even such an inclusive coalition against ISIS will be sufficient to challenge the perception on the Arab street that this is just another western intervention.

A lot depends here on the division of responsibilities within the coalition for taking this strategy forward. The drawing together to date of 37 countries from Albania to Saudi Arabia sounds impressive, but if it is only the US undertaking airstrikes with others providing humanitarian aid or supplying arms from afar then this strategy is likely to run into the buffers prett quickly.

Doubts also exist as to whether Obama will be able to maintain such a diverse coalition over the long-term. The emerging coalition appears united in its fear of ISIS, but the coalition might come unstuck when ISIS is in retreat, but not yet defeated.

By setting the objective of destroying ISIS, Obama has widened the theatre of operation from Iraq to Syria. The strategy rightly recognises the transnational character of ISIS, but it is short on details of how the fight against ISIS will be taken forward in Syria and the time frame over which this will be pursued?

Will the campaign in Syria be sequential or concurrent to the effort in Iraq? Is the intent to degrade ISIS in Iraq before moving to destroy it in Syria?

This ambiguity is understandable given the decidedly more complex environment any coalition of the willing faces in Syria. In his address on Wednesday, Obama rules out working with the Assad regime in combating ISIS in favour of strengthening the opposition as the best counterweight to ISIS while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.

All this sounds fine and dandy, but – as Obama acknowledged in an earlier interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times some weeks back – the US has had difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”

It’s hard to know what has changed in the last 2 weeks to change this assessment. Is there a danger of allowing our fear of ISIS to over ride our better judgment that has so far held that the situation on the ground in Syria is so murky that risks of arming a volatile and fragmented far outweigh the potential benefits?

Obama’s emphasis on finding a political solution to the crisis in Syria is welcome and remains the best long-term strategy of defeating ISIS, but the failures of Geneva II earlier in the year underline how wicked and intractable the conflict in Syria has become. The diplomatic fall out between the West and Russia over Ukraine adds a further layer of complexity that ward against a diplomatic solution.

To be fair to Obama, the televised address to his fellow Americans was a public relations exercise. The aim was to reassure a public worried both by the ISIS threat and the fear that the US might find itself embroiled alone in another conflict in the Middle East with all that it might entail in terms of boots on the ground. Despite its billing this was never going to be a speech that was high on detail, but at some point someone needs to do just that.

What does all this mean for the UK?

Of the strategy’s four pillars the last 2 are probably least problematic politically for the UK. On the humanitarian side, the UK has so far provided £23 million of aid, while it led on the effort to secure a strong UN Security Council resolution to disrupt ISIL’s financing flows. In both these areas it is likely the UK will want to continue to play a proactive role.

The UK is also playing a role supporting forces fighting ISIS on the ground. As with opposition groups in Syria, this support in Iraq has taken the form of providing non-lethal equipment.

The question will arise, however whether the UK should move to provide lethal equipment as well? This might be less problematic in Iraq – where the Peshmerga forces are a more cohesive unit – than in Syria, but it will still need close public scrutiny to ensure that any assistance does not contravene the government’s own ethical criteria that underpins its arms transfer regime.

More problematic for the UK is the question of whether it should take part in the systematic campaign of air strikes against ISIS? There will be some MPs who will want to make amends for last year’s Parliamentary decision against military action in Syria, but there will be others who, while supportive of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, will be more cautious about extending air strikes to Syria. No 10’s rebuke of the Foreign Secretary’s comments yesterday ruling out British airstrikes in Syria indicates that this tension runs deep throughout Government.

And yet, still others will be resistant to any military involvement even in Iraq, on the grounds that each time the UK, and others, have intervened in that country over the last 30 years it has generally left the country worse off. Why military action this time around will be any more successful than in the past is an uncomfortable question, but one that still needs answering.

The body of questions that arise then when debating whether Britain should commit to airstrikes against Iraq aren’t just political or strategic, but deeply ethical. It is important that they get raised in the debate. We can’t allow the horrors committed by ISIS to lead us blindly into using military force without first thinking through the appropriate checks and balances as to its use.

Similarly, we shouldn’t allow the terms of the debate to be narrowly drawn. We need to look at how the use of military force fits in with the overarching strategy and whether this strategy is itself coherent.

At present the lack of any detail makes it very difficult to have an informed debate and to reach a reasoned positioned on how best to proceed.

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The limits of military action in Iraq


This blogs reviews the US decision to launch limited air strikes against ISIS in Northern Iraq.

In his statement of 7 August, President Obama announced that he had authorized two operations in Iraq.

First, targeted airstrikes to protect American personnel in Erbil from the imminent threat posed by ISIS in Northern Iraq. These personnel, he explained, are considered vital to joint operations with the Kurds and the Iraqi government.

Second, a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped on the Sinjar mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death. As part of the humanitarian effort he authorised limited airstrikes, if necessary, to help Iraqi forces that are fighting to beat back ISIS’s siege on the mountain and to protect the civilians there.

The immediate goals then are to protect US personnel and facilities and to prevent a potential act of genocide. As presented, this is not the start of an open-ended military campaign aimed at defeating ISIS. Nor is it the start of a wider humanitarian intervention to protect all innocent civilians from murder or displacement at the hands of ISIS.

Obama used the 7 August statement and his televised address to the nation 2 days later to place these limited operations within a wider political strategy, namely empowering Iraqis to confront this crisis by reconciling their differences.

Obama noted: “Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and that can fight back against the threats like ISIS”. Once a new government is in place the US would then “work with it and other countries in the region to provide increased support to deal with this humanitarian crisis and counterterrorism challenge.”

Seen from this perspective, the designation of Haider al-Abadi as the new Prime Minister of Iraq is a significant step towards opposing ISIS in Iraq, but given the depth of sectarian polarisation this will clearly be no easy task. The challenge could yet be significantly complicated by Maliki’s initial refusal to give up office. A intra-Shia conflict though possible is unlikely, but an uncooperative Maliki could still make the politics of reconciliation that much harder.

In a subsequent op-ed interview with Thomas Freidman for the New York Times, Obama explained that pursing a more ambitious military campaign would mitigate against the wider political strategy as it would invite the Iraqi government to avoid facing the difficult question of how it developed an inclusive politics of no victor/no vanquished. There is a clear understanding here that the best way, maybe the only way, to defeat the ISIS threat in Iraq is by reconstituting the Iraqi body politic in such a way that it provides for the common good of all.

The emphasis that Obama places on inclusive government explains why in part he has been willing to work with and through the Kurds. In his interview with Thomas Freidman, Obama notes:

“I do think the Kurds used that time that was given by our troop sacrifices in Iraq. They used that time well, and the Kurdish region is functional the way we would like to see. It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it’s important to make sure that space is protected, but, more broadly, what I’ve indicated is that I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force. I don’t want to get in the business for that matter of being the Kurdish air force, in the absence of a commitment of the people on the ground to get their act together and do what’s necessary politically to start protecting themselves and to push back against ISIL.”

Although the US has taken the lead to date, you only have to look at the White House website to see the efforts the Administration has taken to internationalise this campiagn. These efforts have met with some success with plenty of countries coming forward to assist with or contribute to the humanitarian effort.

Several countries – France, Turkey and the UK included – have moved beyond humanitarian assistance to provide logistical military support. In the case of France, this has now extended to arming the Kurdish forces in Iraq. Not surprisingly there remain diplomatic sensitivities and political divisions, as illustrated by the inability of EU member states to agree yesterday on a common policy on the question of arming the Kurds.

It remains unlear, however, whether this internationalisation will in turn see an intentional or unintentional widening of the military campaign, or whether the internationalisation is itself predicated on the campaign remaining narrowly defined and in support of the wider political strategy that Obama has set. To date it appears the latter. As per David Cameron’s announcement today’detailed plans’ are being put in place to assist stranded Yazidi in Iraq, but there appear to be no plans at this stage to widen the focus.

It is certainly possible that any success achieved in blunting the advance on Erbil and preventing a genocide on the Sinjar mountain might lead to the modus operandi being applied to other areas in Northern Iraq. Yet, even if that were to happen there are natural limits to this pattern of operation which will thwart wider efforts to combat ISIS.

It is difficult, for instance, to see this model being extended easily beyond Iraq to combat the ISIS threat in Syria. Assad has shown himself to be far less malleable than Maliki and unlike Kurdistan the US and its allies still has no reliable opposition partner in Syria.

It is revealing here that in his interview with Thomas Friedman, Obama acknowledged that the US has had difficulty finding, training and arming a sufficient cadre of secular Syrian rebels: “There’s not as much capacity as you would hope.” Yet, even if they did exist, Western governments remain reluctant to take ownership of the fight against Assad.

Highlighting the transnational character of ISIS and widening the lens of focus beyond the Sinjar mountain top is to suggest that our efforts to safeguard the territorial integrity of Iraq and to help protect its people from the evil that is ISIS will remain incomplete so long as the there is no coherent international strategy to deal with Syria.

That is not to say that the use of force against ISIS in Northern Iraq is not necessary or timely, merely that we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that the deployment of military force can resolve fully the horrors we are currently witnessing.

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Parliamentary exchanges on ISIS & Iraq


A few weeks back when Parliament was still sitting the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christoher Cocksworth, tabled a series of written questions in the House of Lords pressing the Government as to how it was responding to the unfolding events in Northern Iraq. The situation has obviously changed significantly since these written questions were tabled, but the Government published today its response to several of the Bishop’s questions. The Parliamentary exchange between the Bishop of Coventry and the Government is set out below and is worth reading in full.

Some of the responses, such as that concerning the humanitarian response, don’t tell us anything new, but other responses provide a useful insight into the measured way in which the Government has engaged with religious leaders from the region both here in London and in Iraq. There is much here that is encouraging even if the deep concern felt by the Government about the situation in Iraq for religious minorities seems a little understated.

The difficulties in referring the human rights atrocities committed by ISIS to the International Criminal Court (ICC) is interesting, but it does raise the follow on question of whether the Government might press the United Nations Security Council to refer this issue to the ICC. Similarly, it would be helpful to know whether the Government is offering any assistance to the Government of Iraq to document the human rights abuses not least in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.

The Bishop of Coventry is still waiting a response to 2 questions that relate to whether the Government might look to resettle a fair proportion of those displaced from ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. The delay is frustrating but probably understandable given that Parliament is now in recess. For those with conspiratorial minds, it’s worth noting that the Bishop of Derby is still waiting responses to 5 questions on human trafficking and modern-day slavery that he tabled at the same time as those tabled by the Bishop of Coventry.

The Parliamentary exchange between the Government and the Bishop of Coventry underlines the important contribution that Bishops make to the House of Lords, but it also illustrates the detailed seriousness with which the Church is pursuing its concerns about developments in North Iraq and the innovative and varied tools that it has at its disposal to do so.

There is an obnvious pressure for Bishops

Religious freedom
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the state of freedom of religion and belief in Iraq.

Lord Popat (Con): We are deeply concerned about the situation in Iraq including freedom of religion and belief. We condemn the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) threats to ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq, including Christian, Yezidi and Turkomen and the desecration of mosques and churches by ISIL. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the member for Bournemouth East ( Mr Ellwood), met Archbishop Athanasius of the Syriac Orthodox Church in London on 29 July and issued a statement strongly condemning the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Iraq. Our Ambassador in Baghdad has met religious representatives, including Chaldean Patriarch Luis Sako, and the Consul General in Erbil has met the Archbishop of Erbil and the Archbishop of Mosul to discuss the current situation, the needs of the Christian community, and UK humanitarian assistance to those displaced by fighting in Iraq. On Sunday 3 August, the British Chargé d‘Affaires attended a service at St George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, joined by officials from our Embassy, to highlight the British Government’s continued support to Christians and other minorities affected by recent violence in Iraq.

Humanitarian situation
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to respond to the humanitarian situation caused by the displacement of persons from ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq

Baroness Northover (LD): We are deeply concerned by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq. DFID deployed an advisory team to Erbil in June 2014 to conduct a rapid humanitarian assessment and has committed £5 million of humanitarian aid to respond to the level of need in the north of Iraq. This will be distributed to those most in need through trusted and long-standing humanitarian partners.

Human rights abuses
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to referring the alleged human rights abuses committed by ISIS to the International Criminal Court for further investigation and eventual prosecution.

Lord Popat: We condemn all human rights abuses in Iraq. However, Iraq is not a state party to the International Criminal Court and any referral would need to be through the UN Security Council. We have no plans for this at present but we will keep this under review. We are calling on the Government of Iraq to ensure that all crimes and human rights abuses committed in Iraq are properly documented to assist with the investigation, and bringing those responsible to account in the future.

Role of religious leaders
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to assist religious leaders in Iraq to respond collaboratively and in a non-sectarian manner to the human rights abuses allegedly committed in Iraq.

Lord Popat: We condemn the reported human rights abuses in Iraq and call for those responsible to be held to account. We meet representatives of Iraqi religious groups both in the UK and in Iraq, and fund a series of grass roots meetings with religious leaders of different faiths to combat sectarianism. We are encouraging influential religious leaders in Iraq to speak out publicly and condemn sectarian violence. The High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq has issued a strong statement of solidarity with Christians and Muslims in Mosul and Ninevah, citing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s actions to be entirely un-Islamic.

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Looking beyond the Mosul tragedy


As the full horrors of what has happened in Mosul slowly begins to sink in, the question of how we might respond surfaces. This blog attempts to sketch out a first response.ISIS 2

Acknowledging the deep psychological trauma that has been inflicted on the affected families and communities would be a good place to start. At the moment they feel abandoned. Statements by religious leaders, ecumenical and interfaith bodies all help, as does the series of prayers released this week by the Archbishop of York.

It would be helpful if the British Government and others followed suit. It is pretty shocking that the ethnic cleansing going on in parts of Northern Iraq is happening in full sight with little if no condemnation. Last week, the situation featured as no more than an aside in a speech by the UK Ambassador to the UN. There has yet to be any official statement on the subject by the new Foreign Secretary. This silence merely reinforces the sense of abandonment and despair.

Acknowledging the trauma is one thing, but we need also to recognise the full-scale of the crisis. We shouldn’t allow our concern with the fate of the Christians of Mosul to blind us to the tragedy experienced by other minority groups – Shia, Shabaks, Turkmen Yazidi and others – who are being persecuted on the grounds of their religion and ethnicity.

Nor should we overlook the wider destruction caused by the conflict. I’m not just referring to the physical loss of ancient shrines and sites of worship, such as the Prophet Jonas Tomb and Mosque in Mosul – although that is a form of cultural vandalism that is truly shocking – but rather to the 1.2 million people, mostly minority members who have now fled the northwest of Iraq.

The Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Chaloka Beyani, noted this week: “This huge displacement is turning into a humanitarian crisis. History has shown that minority communities are particularly vulnerable to displacement. Special protection for them and other internally displaced people in Iraq is now vital.”

Let’s be clear here – if we don’t provide this protection, the displacement of religious and other minority groups from Iraq could well prove irreversible. UN Officials admit that the Government of Iraq’s and the Kurdistan Region Government’s capacity to adequately and rapidly respond to the increased needs of the affected populations has been quickly overwhelmed.

The UK has committed over £600 million to help those affected by the Syrian conflict. Given that this conflict has now drawn Iraq in to its centre some of this money now needs to be earmarked to assist with the resettlement of refugees and IDPs in north Iraq and in Kurdistan.

Iraq might not be as sexy or as profitable a crisis to respond to as Gaza, but agencies like Christian Aid, CAFOD and Islamic Relief need to look at ways in which they can respond to this crisis. It would be great if they could work together on this.

Hopefully the Government has learnt the lessons from last year’s mishandling of the resettlement of Syrian refugees here in the UK. Obviously, we must do everything to support those who want to remain in the region, but we must also be willing to use the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme to provide refuge to a fair share of those most at risk.

Engaging with the displaced families and communities is also vitally important if we are to document effectively their testimonies. ISIS and other armed groups stand accused of gross human rights abuses, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Documenting alleged abuses now will help ensure prosecution at a later date, but it might also send a clear signal of intent to those who are committing such atrocities that at some point they will be held accountable for their actions.

Responding to the immediate situation is one thing, developing an effective strategy to counter the ISIS challenge is another thing entirely.

Sadly, we might need to accept that while the military advance of ISIS has been stopped, it will take a concerted effort by the Iraqi government, regional allies as well as the wider international community to reverse the territorial gains. Even if a reversal is possible – and it’s worth remembering here that Mosul hasn’t been under Baghdad’s rule since 2005 – any counter–terrorism strategy is going to take time to draw up and implement.

It is possible then that time might be the best solution to ISIS.

It’s difficult to see ISIS meeting the needs and aspirations of those that it governs. The relationship between ISIS and disenfranchised Sunnis looks like a marriage of convenience that could quickly end in divorce. There are already signs that Iraq’s moderate Sunnis are cooling to ISIS rule.

That’s not to say that Baghdad, Tehran, Brussels and Washington should sit back and do nothing. There is a lot that can be done to reinforce the national rather than sectarian identity of Iraq.

Developing a representative government in Bagdad that is capable and willing to govern for the common good would help to rebuild legitimacy and restore trust. Being open to a more consociational system of government might provide for greater regional autonomy while also helping to lessen the burden on Bagdad.

Religious leaders both in Iraq and further afield have a role to play not least by avoiding a sectarian response. We need to store up the moderate ground by encouraging religious leaders to speak out together against a cruelty that contravenes all sacred texts. The Vicar of Baghdad is doing some good work here.

There are some positive signs here which give grounds for hope. Following a meeting in Najaf on Thursday with His Eminence Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the UN General Secretary said:

In this time of crisis, when we see the shocking treatment of minorities by the Islamic State, His Eminence continues to preach peace, love and unity among all elements of Iraqi society. I encourage all religious authorities to follow that example and stand up for tolerance, mutual respect and non-violence. Such calls would help silence the voices of those who wish to advance their own violent and divisive agendas. Such appeals would contribute to the unity of the country.

It would be great if religious leaders and communities here in the West helped support this process by moving beyond talking about the atrocities experienced by their own communities to speaking up for the rights of others. The Al-Khoei Foundation has taken the lead here by focusing its official statements on the Christian community of Mosul rather than its own besieged Shia flock. It would be good to reciprocate.

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Gaza: a plague on all our houses


I’m not a pacifist, but the conflict in Gaza sickens me.

The indiscriminate military tactics of both sides dehumanises all parties. The shelling of innocents erodes rather than legitimiates the moral narratives both sides are frantically promoting over the airwaves. With both sides seemingly intent on the destruction of the other, it is inevitable that this conflict will escalate, inflicting yet more human misery and suffering.

We too are complicit in this horror.

The latest cycle of violence is so depressingly familiar and predictable that it merely underlines the paucity of our attempts over the decades to resolve this crisis. We might try to kid ourselves otherwise, but we know that when we say that all sides should show restraint and return to the negotiating table that the chances of actually resolving the crisis through existing diplomatic mechanisms are slight. This is both a failure of political will and human imagination.

The Middle East Peace Process has become a euphemism for conflict management rather than conflict resolution. It is a process that unwittingly legitimates the status quo. It has become a self-sustaining industry of peacenicks, lobbyists and envoys that drains rather than nourishes hope. Our dilemma however is that the status quo is no longer sustainable. With Hamas rockets now landing so deep into Israeli territory, Gaza can’t – nor should it – be managed as if it’s a cancerous boil in need of periodic lancing.

Whatever else, both sides need to be held accountable for their actions and we – the international community – need to take responsibility in making them do so.

The conflict should not be so exoticised that either side are excused of their human rights obligations. With everything that has happened over the last few weeks surely it is time for an international fact-finding mission to investigate alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. By framing the conflict in human rights terms the international community might also find a new framework within which to recast the wider peace process.

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Cameron’s European Void


Travelling by train from London to Strasbourg this week gave me the rare opportunity to catch up on some long intentioned reading. My book of choice for the journey through the sun kissed French countryside was Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. This blog reviews the book and tests out some of the analysis on the recent European Parliamentary election.

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Ruling the Void is an extended and unfinished essay. It develops the analysis that Mair first put forward in an article in New Left Review where he documented the declining political participation across advanced democracies. Sadly, Mair’s untimely death in 2011 means Ruling the Void remained unfinished, but it has been edited to include previously unpublished material as well as a collection of his writings from the previous 6 years.

Ruling the Void makes the case that even if political parties remain, party democracy in advanced democracies has now passed. He argues that while citizens have disengaged from politics and retreated into their private lives, the parties that used to be embedded in civic life have become nothing more than appendages of the state (a governing class that seeks office rather than a chance to represent ideas and people.) Ruling the Void is about the space that has opened where traditional politics used to be.

Mair suggests that over the last 20 years we have witnessed a gradual shift from popular to constitutional democracy and the concomitant downgrading of politics and of electoral processes.
For Mair, this disengagement, or the widening gap between rulers and ruled, has facilitated the often strident populist anti-establishment challenge that is now a feature of many advanced European democracies. He also holds that it has led to the relocation of political decision making and policy making to non-majoritarian institutions such as the EU, the WTO and IMF.

This analysis is helpful when thinking through the recent European Parliamentary elections. The relief that the turnout was no worse than previous elections has also been tinged with political anxiety. Overall 57% of EU citizens didn’t vote, but in Slovakia this figure was as high as 87%, while in Poland – where the EU has a high popularity rating – 78% of the electorate didn’t vote. All this despite the doubling of the powers of the European Parliament over the last 20 years, and the decision by some to try and link the election to the selection of the new President of the European Commission.

What will worry many people in Brussels however is that the stabilisation in turnout was only achieved by the solid performance of populist and insurgent parties. It was the dispossessed who turned out to vote rather than the middle classes. Rather than voting for establishment parties the election returned an unprecedented number of populist and Eurosceptic representatives, from Denmark and Hungary to Germany and Greece, via the striking success of Britain’s UKIP and France’s Front National.

Using Mair’s analogy it is insurgent populist parties like Syriza in Greece and the Dutch Party for Freedom that are filling the void that mainstream political parties have vacated. Drawing on Robert Dahl’s ‘Reflections on Opposition’ (1965) these movements represent an opposition of principle rather than of policy. They are obviously opposed to a range of EU policies, but more importantly they are opposed to the system of elite governance itself.

This opposition isn’t just EU centric; it is also directed at national institutions. After all, the process of Europeanization is such that it is difficult to separate out what is European and what is domestic. Similarly, the disengagement that has occurred at a national level has seen political elites retreat back into non-majoritarian institutions like the EU where they can govern consensually in a safe space free from the vagrancies of electoral politics.

As Mair writes:

“It is not so much that popular democracy needs to be established in the EU, but rather that the EU – along with various less significant non-majoritarian institutions – is actually a solution to the growing incapacity of popular democracy. In short, the EU is not conventionally democratic, for the simple reason that it has been constructed to provide an alternative to conventional democracy.”

This isn’t to say that the EU is anti-democratic – it’s not, it’s a constitutional democracy whose legitimacy is depended on effective policy outputs.

What is perhaps surprisingly however is that so much principled opposition has been directed at the European Parliament when it is national politicians who are responsible for giving shape to the EU polity. There are signs that this is changing as illustrated by the UKIP decision to contest this year’s local council elections and its commitment to field candidates in next year’s General Election. But UKIP is for the moment the exception rather than the norm.

The distinctiveness of UKIP’s electoral strategy does help to explain why David Cameron has felt so moved to contest the choice of Juncker as President of the European Commission. Yet, it is strangely ironic that in contesting the appointment, Cameron is also arguing that the appointment of the Commission President should reside fully with the Council rather than the Parliament. While stressing that the new Commission President must be responsive to the rise of anti-establishment parties, Cameron is also seeking to downgrade normal democratic processes. Here then is Cameron’s quandary. By trying to ride the anti-insurgent wave, he is advocating a form of decision making that UKIP and others find deeply distasteful. This might explain why despite his best efforts in Brussels this week, his strategy of opposing Juncker is not likely to give him any domestic political relief.

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Syria – preparing for a decade of conflict


Syria

Syria - a decade of conflictThere is a growing recognition that despite its brutality, the civil war in Syria is going to be with us for some time to come, maybe as long as a decade. This conclusion is based on both an understanding of the specifics of the conflict in Syria as well as a wider understanding of how civil wars end.

Although the frequency of civil wars has remained pretty constant over the last century, the length of civil wars has grown since the end of the Cold War. While the average civil war lasted 2 years in 1947, it lasted 15 years in 1999. Where rebels fight for secession or natural resources, and where they are funded by smuggled goods, it tends to be longer than in other cases. Civil wars have their own internal clocks which need to be properly understood.

It might offend our liberal sensitivities, but sadly, most civil wars end with the military victory of one side, while only 30% result in a negotiated settlement – a trend that has been somewhat reversed since the end of the Cold War, when international preference (and pressure) for negotiated solutions emerged.

The chances for negotiated settlements to succeed depend, essentially on 2 criteria.

First the leaderships of the parties involved must have the commitment and the capacity to execute what is agreed on (in a fragmented situation, the latter is not always the case). Second, all sides involved have to have realised that they cannot win militarily. Such realisation depends largely on perception: how a party in a civil war assesses the likelihood of victory is contingent on subjective as well as objective factors. The supply of weapons from outsiders, for instance, not only enhances the probability of a civil war but also increases the expectation of an eventual military victory.

As the hope of outright victory decrease with time, a negotiated solution is more likely the longer a conflict lasts. Outsiders can play an important role here, since the success of a settlement depends in part on a ‘guarantor’ who is both willing and able to enforce the agreed framework (e.g. NATO in Bosnia and UN in East Timor).

One option to end a civil war is a full scale military intervention. Statistics show that intervention on the government’s side tends to lengthen a war, while intervention on the rebels’ side shortens it. If both sides are assisted by outsiders, the conflict reaches a stalemate and is therefore prolonged – which explains why, on average, civil wars involving outsiders are both deadlier and more difficult to resolve. In addition, military intervention alone does not alter the conflict’s structure: if the political and economic causes underlying the war are not addressed simultaneously, then terrorism and/or insurgency against the outside forces will begin (eg Multinational Force in Lebanon in 1983).

Sadly, Syria has all the characteristics of a long rather than a short civil war. All sides still believe that they can win militarily. In part this is due to the political and military support they are receiving from their backers (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah v Qatar, US, Saudi Arabia, UK and France). The intensity of the civil war might fluctuate, but until one or more sides recognises that they cannot win militarily the essential dynamics are unlikely to change.

The divisions and tensions between Russia and the US that grew out of the West’s regime change in Libya means there is limited coordinated international pressure and preference for a negotiated settlement. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the subsequent international response has fractured yet further the international community’s capacity and appetite to resolve this conflict.

The US, UK and France have shield away from military intervention in support of opposition groups in Syria. This has removed, perhaps, the one instrument that they had at their disposal to radically change the terms of the conflict. The subsequent supply of military assistance – both lethal and non-lethal – to rebel groups helps build their resilience and even guarantees their survival but it is insufficient to tip the scales militarily in their favour.

A further complication is that the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition group that has to date participated in the talks in Geneva, has little legitimacy with those opposition groups in Syria and therefore has limited capacity to execute anything that might be agreed upon. The sad reality is that Western governments have limited leverage with the regime players in Syria and they have limited traction with the myriad of opposition groups inside Syria.

All of this should help in explaining why the West’s policy towards Syria isn’t working and why it is in serious need of review. Three years on, West is still falling foul of simplistic meta narratives and is at risk of pursuing a multiplicity of goals not all of which are complementary.

The West needs to acknowledge both the complexity of this conflict and the lack of leverage that it has to affect positive change. In doing so it needs to learn the lessons from the wider literature on how civil wars end.

The West needs to refocus its efforts on joint humanitarian-political goals and look to a more transactional diplomacy. It needs to avoid backing winners and look instead to engage with a broader array of Syrian opposition and civil society groups regarding Syria’s future. These steps might not foreshorten the war but they won’t prolong it and they might just help to minimise the violence and ensure the continued territorial integrity of Syria.

Finally, even if the complex dynamics of this conflict prohibit a negotiated settlement over the short and medium term, the civil war will at some point come to an end. Western governments, especially those on the United Nations Security Council, need to start thinking through how security will be negotiated in any post-conflict Syria, as this is likely to be the key to any successful negotiated transition.

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