Paradoxically, it is unusually difficult in a democratic society for politicians to oppose wars. I know that it is hard to envisage an elected government lying to take a country to war unlawfully, but this really did happen when President Polk invaded Mexico in 1846.
The war stood in stark contrasts to the ideals of the American republic, and the Whig party opposed the war. Indeed Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln from Illinois brilliantly exposed the lies and inaccuracies that the government had used to hoodwink the public. Consequently, despite his manifest talents, he lost his Illinois seat at the next election, and its opposition to the war deeply weakened the Whig party, contributing to its extinction not long after.
British participation in a war against the soi-disant “Islamic State” is undoubtedly popular. It is also undoubtedly legal, as the Iraqi government has asked for military assistance within its sovereign territory. Even were the war to extend into Syria, this could be legally justified if it were to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe; and it could be argued that IS operates only in areas where the writ of sovereign authority of the Syrian government does not hold.
It is also true that only military action can contain and defeat ISIS. I have written before that it is a warlord polity, that has grown into a vacuum where the sovereign states have lost their monopoly of the use of armed force. As a warlord polity it has no civic infrastructure, and a coalition of interests holds together a military force through momentum, patronage and charisma. Military reverses may well see the whole structure collapse. (Historically, warlord polities have also sometimes been ended through absorption back into the state – but sectarian Jihadi ideology, global ambitions and political unacceptablity means that this simply cannot happen with ISIS)
However, this does not mean that British military action is right nor appropriate, nor that the US led coalition is going to succeed. There are real dangers in entering any war where the military objectives are open ended, and the political objectives are unclear.
General Lord Richards, former head of the UK military, today said that ISIS cannot be defeated without ground forces. Indeed, a global coalition of air power arrayed against ISIS, including the Western powers may enhance the “lost cause glamour” and defiant rebel charisma of the terrorists; unless ISIS can also be defeated on the ground.
But whose ground troops would they be, and what would their objective be? The US led coalition includes states like Qatar and UAE who themselves have backed Islamist movements, and many of the military allies assembled may regard the Damascus government of Assad as a greater enemy than ISIS. Would Turkey be happy to see ISIS defeated by Kurdish forces in northern Syria?
The USA has entered into a war that will almost inevitably be shaped by the regional aspirations of its allies; and the tail will wag the dog, as the US gets embroiled in the complexities of civil war in Syria and embroiled again in confessional division in Iraq.
It was a mistake for the British government to make an open ended military commitment without any pre-defined criteria for success, and no exit strategy. ISIS does need to be defeated, but that can only be done by first agreeing a regional political framework, and agreed military and political objectives; and this cannot be done by pretending that the Syrian government of Assad does not exist.
Not for the first time, Peter Oborne at the Telegraph has been a beacon of common sense.
The literal-minded Americans are determined to destroy ISIS, and are ready to make the necessary compromises. This is why they have opened up unofficial lines of communication with Assad through intermediaries in Damascus and elsewhere. However, Saudi Arabia (which carried on backing ISIS up to the early spring of this year, almost certainly with the tacit approval of Britain and America) remains preoccupied with the destruction of Assad.
For [ISIS], the Saudi role in this week’s air attack gives fresh credibility to [ISIS leader, Al Baghdadi's] claim that the regime in Riyadh is a catspaw of the United States. No wonder that the Saudis contributed only four F-16s to the attack. Meanwhile, Qatar (owner of the Shard and the Olympic Village, host of the 2022 World Cup and all-round friend of Britain) deployed its Mirages, but dropped no bombs. Turkey has done its best to remain on good terms with all sides, including ISIS. Meanwhile, Israel is reported to be cooperating with the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra against Assad, thus consolidating its quiet alliance with the Arab states. (The shooting down of a Syrian plane by the Israelis should probably be seen in the context of this unlikely friendship.)
Amid this military and political shambles, one central fact is obvious: the coalition has no reliable partner on the ground. Three armed groups have proved themselves capable of confronting ISIS on the battlefield – the Syrian army; Hezbollah; and the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish militia. America and others are not prepared to work openly with any of these, because doing so would destroy the alliance with Saudi Arabia, and hence the anti-ISIS coalition.
There is a terrible logic here that air war will lead to ground war, and that ground war extending into Syria will involve conflict against Assad’s forces, and further chaos, war and destablisation.