The Defence Select Committee of the Commons is wrong to chide the UK government for doing too little to fight ISIL. They are right to warn against supporting Assad in Syria as part of any campaign against ISIL.
ISIL are a very nasty group of fanatics, but they are not unique in a troubled Middle East. They are one faction amongst several fighting for supremacy. They need the oxygen of publicity to help their recruitment. They use the western media to show their potential followers that they are able to stand up to the west, that they are the best at pushing ahead with extremist aims, and they can command the attention of the most powerful states and alliances. They use extreme exhibitions of bestial violence to draw attention and seek a response.
ISIL want to turn local wars into international wars. They want to turn a Sunni/Shia conflict into a wider conflict between Islam and the west.If our government defines them as unique amongst all the warring bands it flatters them and serves their purpose. They are trying to get Jordan to cut loose from what they define as the western side of the conflict. If we allow ourselves to be driven into committing our armed forces to intervention on the ground we give them a further cause to resist and a new argument to terrified local populations to accept their mastery.
It is not easy in the west to urge caution or to say there are limits to what we can and should do. The west wishes to believe in its own invincibility and right. Any sensible retrospection on our interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya should give us pause for thought. It is not always possible to make things better for people living in these countries, however good our intentions and however skilled our armed forces. Sometimes it is best to avoid doing harm.
It is said that the western air strikes to date have arrested the advances of ISIL, and have given the Kurdish forces the chance to fight back successfully in some places. That may prove to be an intelligent use of western power. However, it does not solve all the problems. It still requires substantial military effort by local forces on the ground, and above all will need great political skill in turning any victory there into a successful outcome.
Will the Kurds wish to live in some remodelled Iraq or will they want their own country? When will the Iraqi government be able to win over most of its Sunni population? When will there be some outcome to the long and bitter Syrian civil war?
Bombing more targets in Iraq, or sending in more special forces and military advisers, is not going to solve these huge problems. In the meantime it is important not to rise to ISIL’s provocation in ways which they can exploit.