I have read enough to know how little I understand about the complex theological and political struggles within Islam, and about the large number of differing terrorist groups operating in the wider Middle East. I do not speak or read Arabic and have not read enough of the literature or history of these very different countries. I have read enough to be suspicious of simple solutions seeking to elevate just one group into a position of being the only or main problem. I wish in this blog to pose some questions to those who do know more, and to those who seek to frame our strategy towards the region.
Time was when the enemy of the West was the Taliban. Today they have been brought into Afghan society and form part of the democratic dialogue. Then the enemy was Al Qaeda. They have not gone away and still exercise considerable influence in a range of countries. Now the evil one is ISIS.
Recently news came that 7 people were brutally beheaded in Afghanistan by Uzbek fighters. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has taken territory in Yemen and has a presence in Aden. Do these present a threat to us? What should be our response?
Meanwhile Jabhat al Nusra seek to extend their influence in Syria and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb increase their activities and smuggling profits in Libya. Does this concern us, or do we wish to co-operate with them because they are against ISIS?
Are we on the side of the Sunni or the Shia factions fighting the Syrian civil war? Or do we believe it is possible to form a Syrian democracy that can hold the peace between these two and offer decent civil rights to all?
The UK government accepts that it will need a political strategy for Syria to run alongside any bombing attacks. It seems to be seeking a new government of the whole of Syria, based on the military elimination of ISIS and the voluntary surrender of power by Assad. Does it wish to help a coalition remove Assad after the removal of ISIS? Does it believe Assad will go voluntarily? Who are the moderates and where are their forces who will fight for a vision of a united Syria under democratic rule? Who in Syria has the belief in toleration towards Christians, Sunnis and Shias and has the force to establish such a society? Will the West end up accepting the Russian view that Assad is the least bad option in an all too violent society?
By encouraging the Kurds to take action in the north of Syria we are encouraging them to gain and hold territory that they think should be part of a Kurdish state. What do we say and do if they want to extend that into Turkey against our wishes and against our Turkish ally in NATO? Who could establish a government for all of Syria who would have the Kurds confidence and persuade them to give up territorial gains they have made?
Is the West clear that it can help establish a united Syria at peace, or does the West think now there has to be partition between a Kurdish Syria, and a Sunni and a Shia one? Or does the West now accept that the days have gone when great Western powers could draw lines on a map of the Middle East to conjure states out of the rival tribes and the desert?
Either way, knowing who our enemies are is crucial, and knowing who we might inadvertently help if we intervene on one side or another is important.