Democracy in action.
Today, Friday 26th September, ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ will be taking a momentous vote. It is not the subject of the vote–to bomb ISIS in Iraq or not–that is momentous, rather it is the fact that a vote is actually taking place. You may be asking yourself why is this so momentous? The outcome of the vote is known, the UK Government would not have recalled Parliament if there was any doubt that they would win. Yes there will be some MPs who will vote against the motion and they, in some cases at least, have valid concerns but what makes this vote in particular so momentous?
It is simply this, the UK Government appears to be the first to realise that an elected executive cannot simply engage in what is, in effect, going to war without a debate and an affirming vote. In America President Obama, after much soul-searching, committed American airpower against ISIS. In France, President Hollande joined in. Both of these worthies (?) did so without consulting their respective democratically elected institutions. Whilst there may be grounds for thinking that those institutions would have approved of the military involvement, there was no vote. The UK Government, bruised after last years refusal by Parliament to back military action against the Assad regime in Syria, has once again returned to Parliament to seek approval for action in Iraq. It may feel confident that such approval will be forthcoming, but then it was last time. If now, as then, the calculations are incorrect, then action will not be taken and an important principle will have been upheld, namely that governments are elected on the strength of their election manifestos and that does not give them carte blanche to do as they will.
Dithering in a dangerous world.
There are those who make the case that the conflict in the Middle East is purely a regional conflict and as such we should keep out of it. On the other hand, there are those who strongly maintain that we have a moral duty to intervene, not least because we are partly responsible for the current mess. They are both right and they are both wrong. There are three conflicts in the Middle East. The one between Israel and the Arabs is slowly, quietly, privately being solved. It will take time but there is co-operation on the ground, on a daily basis, between Israelis and Palestinians. There are contacts between Israel and the Arab world. Sometimes brokered by either Egypt or Jordan and sometimes directly, discreetly, between Israel and some of the Gulf States. Then there is the conflict between Sunnis and Shias. Finally, the conflict between Sunni and Sunni.
The conflict in Iraq and Northern Syria is a battle for the hearts and minds of Sunnis. It is a religious war and it must be clearly seen as such. Reading that last sentence, many will say ‘so we should keep out of it. Doctrinal wars are nothing to do with us’. Not so. The raison d’être of ISIS is to create a caliphate which spans those lands occupied by Islāmic powers when they were at the nadir of their expansion. In order to do this they must first overthrow existing governments, first in the immediate region and then in Southern Europe. That some countries in Southern Europe and the Balkans are already Muslim is not the point. The point–and danger–is that ISIS espouses a particular brand of Islam that brooks no compromise. It will never settle for living peacefully alongside Christian, or Jewish, nations. It will always seek to conquer. If it is not stopped now it will have to be stopped later, and at greater cost.
Planning to fail?
Western governments are making much of the fact that they are not planning ‘boots on the ground’. Partially this is assuage public–and political– opinion. Statements issued by all Western Governments notwithstanding, the fact is that Special Forces are already on the ground. They have to be, they are essentially intelligence-gatherers and in order to make effective use of airpower there must be accurate intelligence. Yes, Special Forces can also stage daring raids to free hostages. Such raids, if successful, capture the public imagination. When they fail, there is much ‘tut-tutting’. Most of the work of such units is reconnaissance. Men–women have their roles in covert operations but as yet, to the best of my knowledge, do not join units such as the SAS or SEALS–hide out in the desert or mountains for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. They watch, they report on what they observe.
ISIS are fighting a very mobile war. To do this they are using mechanised vehicles and they are effectively deploying heavy weaponry, either captured from Government forces (Iraqi or Syrian) or purchased using the proceeds of the oil-producing facilities they have captured. Air power is very effective in destroying heavy weaponry and can be used to devastating effect against mobile troops, who by definition will be out in the open. What airpower does is degrade and destroy but it cannot occupy. For occupation, the only way to defeat ISIS, boots on the ground are needed. The question to be answered is, whose boots?
The current answer is ‘Arab boots’. That is all well and good and might, might happen. Certainly Jordan has expressed willingness to field troops. Western Governments must be clear in their own minds that Jordan is only willing to do so because ISIS represents a clear and immediate danger to Jordanian territorial integrity. At the moment, no such territorial imperative exists for other Arab nations who might be tempted to commit ground forces. What airpower can do is create time for Arab countries to become truly incentivised but time is not infinite–at least not in this instance. Heavy losses will drive ISIS forces to hide among the civilian populations of the areas they occupy.
In order to successfully prosecute a war, clear political aims must be decided upon. In the current situation, the political aim is two-fold. Firstly to destroy ISIS as a military force and secondly to destroy them as a political force. The only nations that are militarily capable of defeating ISIS on the battlefield are Western. The only nations that can destroy ISIS as a political force are Islāmic nations. By all means encourage Arab nations to fight alongside Western nations but be under no illusion. Militarily speaking, it is only Western nations that can defeat ISIS. The subsequent battle for hearts and minds must be fought by the forces of moderate Islam.
Whether those forces can rise to the challenge is another story but that is not an excuse for doing half a job. I think we all know that if you do a shoddy job the first time round then you inevitably have to repeat the process at a later date. This is not the same as 2003. It is not ‘Gulf War 3’. Air power alone will not do the job. What is needed is close-air support and that only works if air power has troops on the ground to support. At the moment, Western Governments are planning to fail. They are right to proceed with some caution. They must be certain that there is Arab support for action against ISIS but they must start planning to succeed.