The long Sunni-Shia civil war continues in several parts of the Middle East. The news from Syria is not good, with reports that the more moderate opposition that the west wishes to encourage against Assad is being squeezed between government and its more extreme opponents. Meanwhile in Iraq it is proving difficult to marshall the forces on the ground to counter the ISIL fighters.
As many military experts have predicted, it is difficult identifying and hitting suitable targets from the air against ISIL when they are dug into residential areas and are not easy to single out amidst the general population. Air power can destroy their larger military equipment when it is suitably exposed, and can deal with any concentration of ISIL fighting force outside residential areas, but it is less useful when fighters have infiltrated a community and can use the local population as cover or as collaborators.
In Libya the democratic government struggles to exert much authority over the country, which remains gripped by various armed bands and militias fighting for supremacy or advantage. The democratic government of Iraq has still to find the right voice to win over the parts of the country it does not control, as it also goes about the difficult task of trying to remove the influence of ISIL and other hostile forces from some of Iraq’s communities.
The recent BBC documentaries on the Afghan war served as a timely reminder of the trouble the previous UK government experienced in trying to win over the province of Helmand for the Afghan civilian government. The BBC voiced US criticisms of the UK for not committing enough troops to the huge task, leaving our forces at times exposed or needing to retreat. US reinforcements were finally delivered in recognition that the province was very large and in need of substantial numbers of well armed personnel to try to provide the level of security the civilian administration wanted.
I read that we are now becoming more involved again in training local forces to help them carry out the dangerous and difficult tasks of policing these areas subject to civil war and ISIL insurrection. It should be easier for local forces than our own, as they speak the local languages and understand more of the local customs and politics. However, their task too will prove difficult or even impossible if there is not a sufficient intensive political process undertaken to prove to most of the people living in modern Iraq that the borders make sense and it is best as one country. Their forces also need to attain the highest levels of professionalism, keen to be neutral in the cause of justice between the competing people and communities. This is something they have to want to do. It is not easy teaching people unless they see the need themselves to behave in the recommended way.