This week one of my Parliamentary colleagues in a private meeting (not the NTB lunch!) summarised the problems with Mr Obama’s coalition in such scathing terms that quite a few MPs present just laughed in nervous agreement and changed the topic with the Minister present. Many of the MPs who would normally agree with the USA and be willing supporters have grave doubts about the current war.
The first concern many have is where are the boots on the ground to win this war in a timely way? Are the armies of Iraq and the Kurds able to defeat ISIS with just some air support by the west? How long will it take the west to train and arm the Iraqi forces to ensure victory? What guarantee is there that rearming the Iraq forces will not lead to more loss of good US equipment to the forces of ISIL?
The second concern is what is the future for the Kurds. If their army is successful in the north will it then hand over to the Iraqi forces, go home, and accept Iraqi rule? How hard will the Kurds push their claim for an independent state?
The third is the role of Turkey. Turkey should be one of the USA’s prime allies in the region, as a member of NATO with substantial ground forces, planes and airbases. Turkey’s recent intervention has been against the Kurdistan Workers party. Turkey remains very nervous about helping the Kurds, and ambiguous about the whole coalition strategy.
The fourth is how do you define the ISIL enemy? It may be clear in the areas ISIL has seized in Iraq, though even here identifying and killing or capturing every ISIL soldier is an extremely complex and difficult task as they are embedded in the local community and have taken over many flats and homes. In Syria it is even more complex, with the need to distinguish ISIL fighters against Assad from so called moderate opposition fighters against Assad. The coalition is not seeking to defeat a field army in uniform willing to come out and fight conventional battles which the west could win.
The fifth is where will the political leadership come from in Iraq to unite the country, offering fair and peaceful government to Sunni, Shia and Kurd that each community accepts? How do more deaths and more destruction of property assist the task of reuniting the country? What does victory look like, and when does politics take over again from war? In Syria where is the political leader or coalition of parties that can take over power and unite that country behind peaceful democratic government?
The sixth is how do you prevent any military success against ISIL merely displacing the centre of their activities? What relationship does ISIL have with some of the armed bands that now roam in Libya? Where else could ISIL forces go for cover and assistance?
The seventh is to learn the lessons from western intervention in Libya. The democratic government there is now cowering in Tobruk, unable to venture into much of the rest of the country and unable to enter the capital city. Successful military intervention by the west got rid of the dictator, but local politicians were unable to establish their authority and construct a government that works. Do we now know how to get a better outcome in Iraq and Syria?