The war against ISIL and the illusion of choice

The fight won’t be over before Christmas. Their brand of government is self-destructive, but their belief in their cause is absolute. If unchallenged, the beheadings will only become more frequent.


A military and ideological battle against ISIL is inevitable. The question is over what role, if any, the west should play in the coming carnage, and what strategy it should pursue in doing so.

Since the 1990s, and perhaps even earlier, jihadist ideology has been predicated on the belief that making life as difficult as possible for the west will give us no choice but to abandon the Middle East, at which point the region would be ripe for taking by the forces of reaction. We cannot let this happen. ISIL wants a war because they believe they can win. It’s our duty to remind them that they can’t, and won’t.

A wave of pacifism swept across Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, a legacy of the suffering endured by all sides during the intense militarism of the first world war. Ultimately, this policy of non-intervention collapsed with the Nazi invasion of Poland, but up until this point, the dominant force in Britain’s policy towards other countries was an unwillingness to act in the face of aggression.

Given the disaster of Iraq and the subsequent weariness of the British population in matters of intervention, coupled with the hammering of public services and the rise of dramatic inequality, a parallel can be drawn between the non-interventionist movement of 2015, and that of the Munich Agreement of 1938.

Although the public couldn’t have known it then, a year after Chamberlain’s securing of “peace for our time” the most catastrophic war in the history of humanity spread across the continent, and later, the world. In 2015, faced with a Syrian conflict that threatens to engulf a region in bloody sectarian strife, it is folly to believe that peace can be secured without challenging ISIL directly first.

The lessons from Chamberlain and his contemporaries hold to this day. There can be no peace between civilisation and barbarism, only postponement, and even deferring the inevitable comes at a high price. In 1938, it meant abandoning the Sudetenland. In 2015, it means abandoning Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa.

Intervention needed

The situation in Syria is more complicated than most casual observers can even begin to imagine: shifting alliances, underhanded business deals, unspoken truces, Russian bombs falling over Aleppo more often than they fall over Raqqa and forever-existing sectarianism perpetuating from the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It is often cited that ISIL are the product of the Iraq war. Although the group were formed in 1999, it was the invasion the subsequent destruction of Iraqi civilisation that allowed the group to make a home in the midst of the flames. This is an oversimplification. The overtly sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki between 2011 and 2014, coupled with the Iraqi government’s use of force against Sunni protest movements, contributed to ISIL’s ability to take control of large swathes of territory in the north. But if ISIS is a monster born from our misdeeds, then it is only right that we be the ones to drive the stake through its heart.

An argument made by non-interventionists is that western intervention never works. There have in fact been at least two successful interventionism since 1991. In Bosnia, western forces, in coordination with the UN, carried out a programme that forced the Bosnian Serb Army to return to negotiations. It is also worth remembering that the west’s perceived inability to act sooner in defence of Bosnian Muslims was used as a key tool in jihadist radicalisation programmes during the 1990s, demonstrating that our inaction can become a means of generating extremism just as much as our actions.

In Sierra Leone, perhaps the least discussed western intervention, the failure of the UN to ensure peace compelled the British to intervene, leading to the forced disarmament of the RUF and the establishment of peace. The lessons from these interventions should be clear. Western intervention can work if properly managed, and if the political will exists to do it properly.

The nature of ISIL requires that the west act, drawing on past experiences to halt the advance of Daesh. In fact, this has already happened to some extent, as what many people seemed to have forgotten about the vote on airstrikes in Syria is that it is an extension. The UK has been bombing ISIL in Iraq, with permission from the Iraqi government, for the past year, and this has allowed Kurdish Peshmerga forces to retake Sinjar. Less than a year ago, ISIL stood poised at the gates of Baghdad. That is no longer the case.

A self-evident truth about war is that it is accompanied by death, but perhaps more importantly, these deaths are often people who had no direct role in the war but happened to be caught in the middle. This was the case in Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leone and it will undoubtedly be the case in Syria too.

But what is the counterfactual? If we intervene children will die, but if we don’t intervene, children will die in perhaps greater numbers as the conflict continues. The only difference between bombings conducted by western forces and those conducted by Assad is that western forces don’t actively target civilians. When western soldiers commit crimes, these scandals shake the core of our societies. The same cannot be said for the other perpetrators of violence in Syria; for them, violence against civilians is an end in and of itself.

What’s more, our technological capacities allow us to target militants while ensuring minimal civilian casualties. Of the 8,000 coalition airstrikes conducted against ISIL in Iraq so far, there have been perhaps between 600-900 civilian deaths. These deaths are tragic, but considering the extent of the sustained attack, the number is relatively small, certainly much smaller than any other power operating a similar strategy over the same period of time.


Being distrustful of governments is good, especially with regard to foreign policy, but as much as I struggle to believe Cameron’s motivations are genuine, I trust Putin, Khamenei and Nasrallah even less. Russia’s interests revolve around Syria’s strategic location, with the port city of Tartus being Russia’s only direct access to the Mediterranean. Putin, thus, is willing to bomb the Free Syrian Army into oblivion if necessary.

Whatever western leadership interests are in Syria, their plan is preferable to that of Assad and Russia, and they’re the alternative. Either the west intervenes to combat ISIL, while at the same time pressuring Russia, Assad and the rebels into a diplomatic solution, or we allow a scramble for Syria where the various regional powers grab what they can through whoever they can find, with no thought for the future of the country.

Ground war isn’t an option. Having soldiers on the ground risks alienating our supposed allies in Iraq, and undermines the cause of moderate rebels. It provides concrete targets for ISIL to attack and risks turning secondary intervention into another burgeoning war at a time when the populations of the west have become sceptical about direct intervention in the Middle East.

The role for the west, then, is confined to the skies. To provide assistance to fighters on the offensive, and back-up for areas threatened by ISIL. The west can do more to defeat Daesh if it allows others to take the lead. When a city is liberated, it is preferable that the population come face to face with fellow Muslims. It is important that ISIL aren’t allowed to make this a war of “crusader” against jihadist; it must be a war of everyone against the jihadists. The west cannot do this alone, and it is vital that we rely on regional forces as well as our own power.

Any policy on Syria must be long-term and cannot rely solely on airstrikes. Establishing a secular Kurdistan, while supporting the 70,000 or so moderate Syrian rebels, as well as local tribes, in their fight against ISIL is necessary. It’s usually forgotten, but the Free Syrian Army has consistently shown itself to be capable of fighting ISIL, having removed Daesh militants from Idlib, Latakia and Aleppo.

The problem is that the FSA is haemorrhaging fighters and territory to other, less enlightened rebel groups like Al Nusra and Ansar al Sharia. The longer the west takes to formulate an effective policy towards the rebels, the more attractive anti-ISIS jihadist groups begin to look to disillusioned Syrian rebels.

Against Assad the rebels must be supported too, although preferably at the negotiating table, and furthermore, this must be coupled with assurances that the Sunni population can determine its own future, either in a federalised Syria or even as an independent state. At home, anti-radicalisation programmes, the tackling of socio-economic problems affecting isolated and deprived Muslim communities, as well as the monitoring of suspected extremists is also necessary. It should be clear that as long as the “Islamic State” exists in any meaningful sense, this isn’t possible.

ISIL’s motives

Another argument often forwarded by those opposed to intervention is the belief that combatting ISIL in Syria will give the regime an upper hand. However, Assad has – or rather, Assad’s political advisors have – realised that the regime has the same short term interests as the jihadists, namely to destroy nationalist revolutionary forces within the country. It benefits Assad if the rebels become increasingly jihadist, as this would leave the west and its allies no choice but to cooperate with Syrian state forces.

To this day, Assad and Russian forces spend more time, resources and energy bombing other rebels groups, the vast majority of whom are opposed to ISIL in Syria. So far, the west has fallen into this trap; an important argument against supporting the Free Syrian Army in 2011 was that weapons would ultimately find their way into jihadist hands. The opposite has happened, as without significant military support, moderate groups found it difficult to maintain the loyalty of their fighters, a substantial number of whom left for the ranks of better-funded jihadists.

If our goal is to limit the reasons ISIL have for attacking us, we’re going to have a tough time. A quick glance at a general list of jihadist demands demonstrates the futility of talking to them. The independence of East Timor, the separation of church and state, the abolition of Israel, and the return of Spain to the caliphate aren’t issues that require negotiation. We already know our answer, and so do ISIL.

Their demands are designed to be unrealistic because they want a war, but they don’t truly consider the west to be a threat. Bin Laden himself never believed that the United States would strike back. He believed that the west was weak, lazy and incompetent, unable to care for long enough to secure its own future. If we don’t participate in this war, ISIL propaganda will portray us as unable to fight them.

If we do take part, it will portray us as lustful crusaders full of vice, but this will be a harder sell if our role is secondary. ISIL cannot be allowed to control the narrative of this conflict, and the fact that the ground war is being conducted by other Muslims undermines their claims. It is precisely other Muslims that can construct and provide the best alternative to ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but their chances of succeeding are almost non-existent without our support.

The fight against ISIL won’t be over before Christmas. Their brand of government is self-destructive, but their belief in their cause is absolute. If unchallenged, the beheadings will only become more frequent. They will not be satisfied with their borders; they will expand.

There is a tendency to view intervention against ISIL as just another intervention against another state, but it’s not. ISIL won’t stop until every man, woman and child from the Sahel to Samarkand is under their control. So while we sit here in our comfortable chairs debating the merits of intervention and non-intervention, keep in mind the 2-5 million people that have been enslaved. Take a moment to contemplate what life must be like when women are murdered en masse because they are considered too old to be sold as sex slaves. And be thankful that you’ll never have to experience that, at least not until they come for us too.