Trying to help settle Iraq, Syria and Libya is proving very problematic for the west. The politics of identity and religious loyalty is always complex and can become violent if governments fail to carry enough of their people with them.
Perhaps we should remember the UK’s difficult experiences in Northern Ireland. No-one then suggested escalating the violence because some in the Republic supported the IRA, and no-one thought the UK should take action against the USA because some US citizens were helping fund the Republicans. The UK state tried to keep it as a law and order matter in the province, seeking to enforce laws against violence whichever side in Northern Ireland perpetrated it. On the occasions when the police or army used too much force on the ground, by mistake according to the authorities, it usually set back a solution rather than helping. The more people who died on both sides, the more the bitterness intensified. Progress was only made when all agreed to sit down and talk about how to come up with a better future.
We need to ask what we learned from this difficult situation, and whether that knowledge can be deployed in places like Ukraine and Iraq where there are worse civil wars and terrorist actions within the state. The intervention of external forces may be well intentioned, but it is very difficult to see how military engagement can lead to a stable peace when there are so many struggling factions and when there are underlying power struggles between Shia and Sunni and between large regional powers surrounding Iraq. The barbarism of ISIL is rightly widely condemned, but other factions, armed bands and armies are killing people as well.
The west is going to find it difficult to help. We lack enough people with the language skills and with a deep understanding of the religions and politics of the area. It is asking a lot of our troops when we commit them to police a foreign country where they cannot speak to the people they are trying to help, where they do not automatically understand many of the local customs, and where attitudes towards the law and obedience to the authorities are different to those in a western democracy. I am glad this time we are not putting boots on the ground. The boots that do the walking have to support the men that do the talking. It is going to take more talking and politics of a high order to bring some stability and peace out of the civil wars in current Middle Eastern states.
There are also worrying reports coming out of Iraq that ISIL forces are now well embedded with the civilian population and are involved in providing or taxing and controlling some local economic activity. This makes any military solution that does not also kill the people we want to help so much more difficult, and reminds us that as and when ISIL forces are defeated there needs to be recovery work on the ground to rebuild damaged facilities and assist in creating a new functioning economy and civil society. The unwillingness of Turkey to take action against ISIL for fear of helping Assad, and their worries about Kurdish separatism, provides further evidence of just how complex and difficult this situation is. Turkey is after all a member of NATO and should be a strong US ally, but on this occasion sees things differently to the USA.