Amidst all the clamour for the UK to take military action in Iraq again we should pause and ask ourselves whose side are we on? What would we be fighting for? These questions are equally acute if we simply supply arms, logistic support and intelligence to others to do the fighting.
I do not think the UK should back either the Sunnis or the Shia in the underlying Islamic struggle. Nor do I think we should fight to ensure the current borders and patterns of states remains immutable if people who have to live there no longer like the current lines on a map. After all we are just having a democratic vote in part of our country to see if our country still suits all its inhabitants.
Past UK policy has been incoherent, expensive in lives and money, and unhelpful to settling the future of the Middle East. The UK has wanted to keep current Iraq together, but has wanted to help the opposition forces in neighbouring Syria who wish to dismember the Syrian state. Now the UK is considering sending weapons to the Kurds, whose ultimate aim is an independent Kurdish state. Is that now the UK’s aim? Have we sounded out our Turkish allies in NATO on this matter? If a Kurdish state is split off, do we need then to support other divisions within former Iraq? How do we avoid a Sunni state in part of the territory?
I hold no brief for the current borders of Syria and Iraq, nor do I think the UK should participate in a war either to maintain the current lines or to create new states there. The huge instability, the wide range of factions and armies and the intensification of the civil wars in both countries makes stabilising a new settlement extremely difficult. Sending more weapons in is unlikely to make it better. Many US weapons sent to the government of Iraq to defend the Iraqi state are now in the hands of IS who wish to establish a new Caliphate state.
The people who say we should arm the Kurds need to answer some other questions. The Kurdish peshmerga forces have KDP and PUK wings who disagree with one another. Which of these would we favour, or would we arm each equally? What would we do if the Kurdish forces did seek to establish an independent Kurdish state as the reward for fighting the IS forces? How could we support them sufficiently to avoid capture of some of the new weapons by IS forces?
Not so long ago I urged the government with a group of Conservative colleagues not to intervene militarily in Syria. We were successful when Labour eventually joined us in opposition to such intervention. One of my reasons for opposing intervention was I did not see how our support for the opposition forces could be confined to the so called moderates as the government hoped. It seemed obvious we would also be helping the extremists, as IS was an important part of the opposition to Assad. I have no time for Assad and his brutality either. The irony of today’s position for the west is opposing IS forces means helping Assad, who is one of the principal forces of resistance to IS.
Labour’s war in Iraq was a bad mistake. Fighting another one would not right the wrongs of that war. There is a continuing lack of clarity over who we support and who we wish to defeat. The West has an unfortunate history of changing sides or revising their view of which is the worst cause we need to oppose. My enemy’s enemy may not be my friend. In the latest case my enemy’s enemy that I was wanting to help last year is now apparently my worst enemy instead. That does not make my old enemy my friend, but if we wish to stop IS Assad may be part of the means to do it. It would also help if our relations with Russia were better, as they too have an interest in stopping IS forces in the Middle East.