Conflict resolution and the politics of identity.

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.


  1. Lifelogic
    October 8, 2014

    I agree fully. Not a great deal we can do in military terms that would improve the situation.

    Six ageing RAF Tornados perhaps killing a few hundred people (and very expensively too), is not likely to have much of a positive impact for anyone. It is gesture politics at its very worst.

  2. Derek Hoxha
    October 8, 2014

    The US mid term elections are a month away, a load of US diplomats in the Green Zone and their only way out of Baghdad via the airport is less than 50 miles from where IS is (presumably IS also have a fifth column amongst the Shia who live in Baghdad too?). You think the Democrats are going to put all of this at risk after what Iranians did to Jimmy Carter when they over ran the Tehran embassy? This time the hostages will be on display to the world’s media minus their heads. The only way for Obama to prevent another humiliation is to send the troops in and as usual Dave the puppet will be putting our boys lives at risk too.

    1. Derek Hoxha
      October 8, 2014

      Sorry should be a Sunni fifth column

  3. oldtimer
    October 8, 2014

    You make many sound points and a compelling case against Western boots on the ground. I agree with them all. The UK experience in Northern Ireland is a relevant analogy. Often violence and terror will only end when enough people become exhausted with it and demand a non-violent outcome. The many conflicts in the Middle East are nowhere near that situation. It is the local participants who must and will define and decide their own future.

  4. Tad Davison
    October 8, 2014

    You’re so right John, and this makes me wonder why the interventionists like Blair and Bush couldn’t see the consequences of the second invasion of Iraq in 2003 well in advance. Surely the planners and advisors must have known about the likely instability that would follow, and that is an absolute prerequisite before the embarkation of any foreign military adventure.

    There really is a case for Blair and Campbell to answer, but when I hear the war rhetoric from Mr Cameron, and see the wests incremental and creeping manoeuvring towards a wider war in/with Syria and the Ukraine, I am convinced this hasn’t been properly thought through. If on the other hand, the consequences HAVE been thought through and the risk of further intervention and escalation is already known but are being kept from the British people, then that makes Mr Cameron just as bad as Blair. It would also indicate that Mr Cameron is only too pleased to put someone else’s interests above those of the people of the UK whom he is supposed to serve.

    Do you think you could have a quiet word with Mr Cameron and Mr Hammond, and tell them we are far from happy with the UK’s foreign policy?

    The world right now is far from safe. I see no advantage in making it worse.

    Tad Davison


    1. Margaret Brandreth-J
      October 8, 2014

      I cannot conceive any move being made without British/USA intelligence being involved.

    2. Hope
      October 9, 2014

      That is why Thatcher did not remove Hussein first time around-she could easily have done so. She said every country had a right to self- determination.

      It is not for us to impose our way of life on others no matter how we disagree with it.

  5. Edward2
    October 8, 2014

    Until nations such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt decide to get involved either militarially or actively in a peace process then we in the West should not get involved.
    Watching Turkey’s leaders deciding not to engage or even verbally threaten the lines of tanks sitting in the open in daylight just a few miles from their border, said a lot about their political attitude.
    A public criticism of the USA not to do the job for them, was their only pathetic response.

    This is an Arab world battle and should be fought between them. They just need to wake up and decide which side they are on.

    1. Derek Hoxha
      October 8, 2014

      Give or so ten miles and IS are about as far from the Green Zone as Wokingham is from Westminster. IS is the current variation of holier than Saud branch of Wahabism that rose up similarly in the 1920s and were just a big a nuisance in the ’70s with the assassination of King Faisel and the invasion of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Given Baghdad’s place in the history of Islam we can only assume the capital will be of interest to them. Presumably Dave has a plan to stop our ambassador appearing on Youtube in an orange jumpsuit? He should do, if he does not want his recent poll lead going up in smoke, though he is not averse to an omnishambles. Any rescue plan will include troops and lots of them. We will definitely be going in if IS head South to Kuwait and Saudi, otherwise its $500 a barrel oil and/or Iran coming across to Dharan to save their co-religionists from the head choppers.

      1. Edward2
        October 9, 2014

        Im sure our Ambassador can leave well before he is captured.

        Why is it always the UK that has to get involved and fight?
        Where are the huge armed forces of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey etc
        Why not call on them to form a powerful military alliance and fight the IS threat themselves?
        Perhaps it might bring about a new union of middle east nations instead of constant tribal wars.

        Whoever controls the oil fields will want to sell it just as every previous Middle East leader has in order to enrich themselves and ensure their control over their land continues.
        Even ones who professed a hatred of the West still greedily sold their liquid gold through OPEC at a market price, so whilst price per barrel might rise due to war then claim of £500 per barrel is a fantasy in my opinion.

  6. zorro
    October 8, 2014

    All reasonable views John, but it doesn’t take account of the larger geopolitical reasons for these conflicts and the rush to control natural resources. Without doing that, it will always be difficult to implement what you say.

    With regards to intelligence activity, the West has many agents on the ground within these islamic organisations, and is perfectly aware of what is going on. With regards to the authorities claiming that they hadn’t a clue where these supposed hostages were being kept…not withstanding not mentioning their abduction for months previously…is just not credible. The US intelligence agencies have amazing budgets and very advanced technology (as does GCHQ) which could pinpoint EXACTLY where they were.

    It is also nonsense to believe that ISIS is supposedly wandering around the Middle East unchallenged in open territory with armoured vehicles and no air support. If, and this is a big if, air support was being used properly, they would not be able to undertake any assault on an urban area in armoured tanks/vehicles or ‘Humvees’ but would be running rather breathlessly in their Nike trainers….

    As for the bombing of strategic targets like oil refineries in an effort to stop oil production…. well it doesn’t take much searching to see where they are selling the oil which somehow manages to get out of the area….. Again, whose foreign policy aims is ISIS serving?….. Well none other than the good old USA and VP Joe Biden!….Who wants to split Iraq into competing religious areas and break up Syria? Where were these ISIS people trained? Ask yourself what do you really think is happening? Are ISIS being pumped up as a bogeyman to keep the war going? 30 years to defeat ISIS? etc ed

    Reply There is no evidence to support extreme conspiracy theories

    1. zorro
      October 8, 2014

      But remember don’t disagree too much with the official view or you may be classed as a ‘non-violent domestic extremist’…


      1. forthurst
        October 8, 2014

        Yes, you have to wonder who writes his speeches, don’t you? Someone without a Physics degree presumably.

      2. zorro
        October 9, 2014

        The forerunner to my post appears to have done a runner, hence it looks out of context.


    2. zorro
      October 10, 2014

      John, I’m not sure which ‘extremist conspiracy theory’ you are referring to. But I did notice that you didn’t print that article from those notorious conspiracy websites and USA Today which talked about the plan put about by Biden et al to split Iraq into three. All I am saying is that it’s funny that ‘ISIS’ seems to be doing exactly that. You can call it an ‘extreme conspiracy theory’ if you want, it really doesn’t bother me….. Just don’t tell Dave or Theresa

      1. zorro
        October 10, 2014

        It seems that the U.S. airstrikes are for some reason missing the ISIS targets…….

        Even with Black flags flying, for some reason the U.S. sophisticated weaponry which can laser target with such provision isn’t able to destroy the US made arms and vehicles/armoured vehicles which ISIS are using…… Who would have thought that?


  7. Alte Fritz
    October 8, 2014

    To be involved actively means allying oneself with one or more parties to the exclusion of others. Sir Richard Dannat has spoken of effectively being allied with Syria. I think we should never have tried to subvert the government there and we should, of necessity support it now.

    There are lots of very nasty governments in the world China is nasty but we seek to ingratiate ourselves with China for many money related reasons. Syria is not lovely, but, for example, Christians driven out of Iraq were finding refuge there post 2003 and for several years following.

    If we decide that IS is the enemy, events will determine who are our friends.

  8. The PrangWizard
    October 8, 2014

    Is this how you would have suggesting dealing with Hitler after he had started his aggression? What might your view have been in the Middle-Ages as people with the same motivations and blood-lusts marched through Spain and France murdering as they went? What will be your view if and when the IS enters Turkey on their way into Europe while they wake their sleeper cells here? The idea that we must not fight lest some innocent people are killed – indeed while they are being killed by their oppressors – is a councel of despair. A reason for doing nothing and allowing the enemy the initiative. It follows I imagine that you would have been against most military action WW2, fighting through France for example or bombing factories and so on.

    What will be your advice on handling a situation of violence in Wokingham, after a few shoppers are shot by an armed gang and killed one Monday morning – like the Kenyan Mall event? Negotiate while the killing goes on?

    1. Ted Mombiot
      October 8, 2014

      First you have to decide who the enemy actually are and then identify them on the battlefield as unlike the Nazis they refuse to wear uniforms.
      Life was rather more simple back in the 30’s and 40’s
      Then you need to have a plan of engagement.
      Easy to say, lets get stuck in.
      Not so easy to be one of the squaddies given the job.

      For example would you balk at demolishing a whole village and everyone in it, if there was a good tactical advantage to doing so?
      With 24 hour satellite TV beaming pictures back in seconds every act is under a microscope for the whole world to see and comment on.

  9. Bert Young
    October 8, 2014

    Let them sort things out themselves ; if we get involved it will only stir up troubles and exacerbate hatred towards us . Opposing sides have much to gain by sitting down and discussing their views more often than not with a respected independent mediator ; when such a meeting is publicised a record and future check is there for the participants to follow . The United Nations has singularly failed in this respect and cannot be relied on to keep peace in the world – it lacks the follow up bite to inflict discipline and control . Most conflicts are affairs of relatively local geography and are best settled locally .

  10. mike fowle
    October 8, 2014

    OT but just to say that your link to Archbishop Cranmer needs updating.

  11. agricola
    October 8, 2014

    The division of Iraq is possibly the solution. It is after all an artificial country created after the First World War.

    To do this , or to achieve any sort of solution it is clear that ISIL must be eliminated. Degrading them will require the cooperation of Russia, Turkey, Syria (Assad), Syria (Whatever you define as the forces opposing Assad and ISIL ), Iraq (Bagdad), Kurds, USA, UK, plus any other Arab countries who wish to help in a positive way. This could be where the Foreign Office start earning their money.

    I would suggest that Western boots on the ground are a necessity for a speedy resolution to the immediate problem of ISIL. Helicopter borne cavalry supported by gunships would I suspect show ISIL to be the rabble it is. They only look good when up against an irresolute Iraqi army.

    When the military solution is over, divide the area into natural Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia states with a properly thought out Marshall Plan to make the solution sustainable.

    Only today do we have news of ISIL returnees trying to kick off some form of atrocity in London. The only argument I can see for letting them return is the intelligence bonus they might bring. However with our porous borders and the chance of any one of them coming in under the net, it is a high risk strategy. Government should be reminded that it’s first duty is to keep it’s citizens safe. These events only reinforce the need to deal with ISIL on the ground and without further delay.

  12. Ian wragg
    October 8, 2014

    Since the misguided defence review of 2010 we have neither the equipment or manpower to police the world. Your government will for ever be known as the one that decimated the military
    Putin et al must be quaking in their boots

    October 8, 2014

    We should discover but one country in this world which is not discussing whether or not to send its soldiers including airsoldiers to somewhere in the Middle East, nor the slightest bit interested in the area.
    Then , we should send governmental delegations, British MPs for study courses so that every MP spends at least a month of learning in the country; then, a continual stream of UK media personnel to similarly learn from their advanced culture.

    It will take a long time to break the British habit started by Richard the Lionheart who fought Saladin in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to live in peace on our little island and stop bothering people overseas.

  14. Eddie Hill
    October 8, 2014

    Indeed – this is one we need to stay out of.

    According to this website, Turkey’s armed forces are half as big again as ours, the war is on their doorstep and they are asking the West for help, which makes no sense.

    I watched a programme on PBS America entitled “Losing Iraq,” which I highly recommend as compulsory viewing for anyone who thinks we can solve what is happening in the Middle East. In it, an interviewee said that an Iraqi army of 30,000 soldiers fled when several thousand ISIL insurgents came over the horizon.

    If their standing armies are too cowardly to fight far smaller opposition forces, these countries deserve to be subjugated. If ISIL were opposed by the Israeli Army, the outcome would be in no doubt.

  15. Gary
    October 8, 2014

    Eisenhower warned us about the rise of the Military Industrial Complex. Add to that petrodollar hegemony and petrodollar recycling, and you have the elephant in the room than NOBODY wants to discuss. People prefer good guy, bad guy cartoon characterisations.

  16. Eddie Hill
    October 8, 2014

    Just read this:

    May we take it that you disagree with your colleague Nadhim Zahawi on this issue?

    Also, some of the comments on this article are worth reading; there seems to be a view that Turkey is engaging in RealPolitik rather than engaging ISIL, because it prefers the idea of having ISIL as a neighbour to a US-backed independent Kurdish state!

    Clearly, there are far too many interlocking issues at work here for us to even attempt to work them all out.

    We must stay out of it!

    Reply There is no rule that I have to agree with Nadhim! I thought I had made my view clear. I wish us not to participate in these wars in the Middle East.

  17. forthurst
    October 8, 2014

    “The intervention of external forces may be well intentioned”

    Unfortunately, an entirely false premise with reference to neocon originated conflicts, and as to the war in Syria, the actions of our ME ‘allies’, particularly in respect to a NATO member, in trying to overthrow the Syrian government by infiltrating Jihadists for hire into the North of the country which have then been referred to as ‘moderates’ by the ‘West’ is not the appropriate way to facilitate a petrochemical pipeline and has lead directly to the rise of ISIS.

    We should not only be concerned about involving ourselves in military conflicts but also in involvement in using NGOs to destabilise and initiate civil disturbance and wars, as with the case of Ukraine, Georgia, and recently in Hong Kong. The greatest threat to world peace are the neocons and these crazies could even initiate a nuclear war through their attempts to destabilise Russia and China. We should aim as far as is possible towards coexistence with regimes, even when we do not regard them as paragons of western style democracy and coexistance does not mean trade embargos either; we seem to be able to do it without difficulty with several ME states, why not others? As to ourselves, if we are so concerned about ‘security’, why are our borders almost entirely open and our armed forces deliberately depleted.

  18. Brian Tomkinson
    October 8, 2014

    I see in the Independent that : ‘The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war has cost more than £9m, including £1.5m in the last financial year, even though it was not sitting’. Furthermore, the chances of publication before the election seem slim – how you politicians love to kick important issues into the long grass whilst costing the taxpayers millions.

  19. Richard
    October 8, 2014

    I agree with what you say except for the sentence concerning the ME :

    “We lack enough people with the language skills and with a deep understanding of the religions and politics of the area.”

    The problem is simply that the ME is both tribal and Muslim. Consequently democracy is not possible and the existing nation states are unstable.

    Almost any intervention from the West makes the situation worse both for them and for us, as we have already seen in Iraq and Libya. Even just the threat of bombing Syria has led to the creation of IS.

    It is not our job to police the world and certainly not to try to force democracy upon the tribes of the ME.

    By the way, it is not a mystery as to why so many young Muslims brought up in the UK have become radicalised and wish to fight in the ME. For the same reason that Mr. Cameron is a Tory and Mr. Miliband is a left wing leader of the Labour Party.

    1. Mondeo Man
      October 9, 2014

      “We lack enough people with the language skills and with a deep understanding of the religions and politics of the area.”

      Well Britain has never been more multicultural and multilingual.

  20. Max Dunbar
    October 8, 2014

    As we have neither the will nor the military ability to influence the, so far, undefined outcome positively in any meaningful way we will do more harm than good by intervening.
    Our modest aerial attacks on a small number of tactical targets will achieve nothing of significance and only stoke up further the support for extremists against us. Withdrawing our small forces after these token operations will then expose us to criticism by the Kurds for abandoning them.
    We can’t either win, whatever that means, or direct the main players in this theatre of operations. The only result will be damage to what little prestige we have left both to our military and government.
    The best exit strategy is to adopt a position of non-belligerence in the first place.

  21. Mondeo Man
    October 8, 2014

    The Irish issue was resolved only when one side capitulated. But even in this conflict the various tribes had relatively sane objectives and were rational.

    This is always the way that conflicts are resolved. One side loses.

    IS is fanatical, murderous, suicidal and often beyond rationality. The last time the West faced such a foe they had to use the nuclear option – twice. And even then the Japanese weren’t anything like as illogical as IS.

    So how did regime change go then, Mr Blair ? Mr Cameron ? Something so bad emerged from it that even Al Qaeda are repelled.

    Our biggest threat, for all this, remains Ebola. I don’t doubt IS supporters have seen its military potential either. Meanwhile our borders remain wide open.

    Is Mr Cameron really up to the job ?

  22. Anonymous
    October 8, 2014

    Not all of us who were against the invasion of Iraq were bleeding heart liberals.

    We said that destablising ordered countries was dangerous. However unpleasant the Hussain regime was we knew that far worse could fill the vacuum – and it did.

  23. Alan Wheatley
    October 8, 2014

    I do not detect any similarity between the “troubles” in Northern Ireland and the waring factions in the Middle East.

    In Northern Ireland those seeking to achieve their objectives by the use of force only changed their attitude when a peaceful route and a more realistic plan was an offer they could not refuse.

    In the Middle East I do not see anything like this on the horizon.

  24. ian
    October 8, 2014

    Expect out break of ebole soon in the uk, government does not know what it is doing, Flights still come from Africa also no health checks on passengers coming in. Sending out NHS staff to be infected and flown back home. That means to bring it back hear. With people on the NHS always coming 2nd, what with waiting times to see a doctor about a week and 8 hour waits A&E with doctor&staff being infected, this could big, expect hospital quarantine, shopping centres no go places and so on. If we go to red alert how will that affect your voting. I keep telling you they have no intelligence.

  25. mickc
    October 8, 2014

    Within three weeks Parliament will be asked to support military action by the UK in Syria.
    This should be opposed.

  26. Alan Stephenson
    October 14, 2014

    Hello John

    I am a great admirer of you and have (nearly) always agreed with your views.Today, I am following the Commons debate on UK Devolution with great interest, although I have not yet seen my MP Martin Vickers speak yet, can I say I fully support your views and agree with all you have said in this very interesting debate.I really hope you and your colleagues can make some progress with this issue.E V E L forever!

    Alan Stephenson

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