Whatever help the West offers to fight Islamic State, it should have conditions.

October 2, 2014

A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq

What should the West’s military policy be toward Islamic State?

Most observers fall into two camps. Some point to the sorry history of Western intervention in the Middle East and argue the job of combating the Islamic State should be left to local powers.

Others say the West, led by the United States, should be more active in fighting the insurgents. Only the West has the firepower to defeat the group, the argument goes, and it has a responsibility to fix what it has broken as well as a strategic interest in stopping the Islamic State militants from becoming more powerful and dangerous.

But there is a third, better alternative: make the West’s help conditional on local powers taking the main responsibility for dealing with the Islamic State threat. That doesn’t just mean fighting the jihadists. It means also not fighting each other. If the United States, Britain, France and others start throwing their weight around, the risk is that regional players will be under less pressure themselves to make difficult compromises.

President Barack Obama started off pursuing roughly this third option. The president didn’t want to act as Iraq’s air force until its Shi’ite-led regime reached out to moderate Sunnis and Kurds, and included them in the government.

This strategy was absolutely right. If Washington had rushed to Baghdad’s defence, the highly divisive Nuri al-Maliki would probably still be prime minister. There would have been little chance of getting an inclusive government — and little chance of wooing back Sunnis, some of whom have felt they had no other option but to throw in their lot with Islamic State militants.

In the end, Obama moved in early August before Maliki was ousted. This was because Islamic States was threatening to overrun the Iraqi Kurds’ capital and massacre a large group of Yazidis stranded on Sinjar Mountain. The action was reasonable because of the emergency. It helped other groups rather than Maliki’s core supporters. Maliki resigned soon after and was replaced by the more emollient Haider al-Abadi.

However, Obama has not followed the same approach in Syria — despite his earlier inclination to keep out of a grisly civil war, which has already killed about 200,000 people according to the United Nations. President Bashar al-Assad runs a far more divisive and brutal regime than Maliki ever did. Yet the United States America has gone ahead and bombed Islamic State inside Syria.

Obama’s switch of policy seems to have been prompted by Islamic State’s beheading two U.S. journalists and by the scathing criticism he endured in late August for saying that he didn’t yet have a Syria strategy.

Though that was an unfortunate remark, Obama compounded the error by taking the fight inside Syria before there was a political deal. The action has had the unwanted side effect of taking the pressure off the Assad regime and its backers in Iran. Some, but not all, of the Syrian moderate rebels — who have been fighting both Assad and IS — have been dismayed.

Ultimately, the only half-decent solution to the Syrian nightmare will be some sort of political deal between the regime and the moderates that sees the Assad clan leaving office. On the back of such a deal, the West — and, in fact, the whole international community — could support a new Syrian government in an effort to clean out Islamic State militants.

Such a peace agreement may yet occur. But the U.S. military intervention has cut the chances of it and pushed it further into the future.

Some may argue that there was little chance of getting rid of Assad anyway. But before the United States started bombing, Islamic State fighters had inflicted a series of military defeats on his army in northeast Syria. Assad was feeling the heat even from traditional supporters in Damascus. If the Islamic State onslaught had continued unchecked for a few more months, some people in the regime might have realized that the only way forward was to oust Assad.

It is not too late for Obama to turn down the dial of his attacks on IS in the north-east of Syria. That would require making it clear to Damascus (and its Iranian backers) that he is doing so until it makes peace with the moderate Syrians.

But what about northwest Syria, where Islamic State is close to surrounding Kobani, a Kurdish stronghold? Surely Washington is justified in bombing the militants there, as it has been doing in recent days, in an attempt to prevent a humanitarian disaster?

The answer is a qualified yes. The world does have a right, and even a duty, to intervene to prevent crimes against humanity, genocide, ethnic cleansing or war crimes when the government of the country in which they are occurring is unable or unwilling to act itself. This is the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” which was unanimously approved at the U.N. World Summit in 2005.

But such humanitarian military interventions (if that isn’t an oxymoron) are unlikely to end well unless several other conditions are met. One is that the intervening powers should genuinely want to help the people threatened with massacre. That means, among other things, that they should be prepared to stick the course and rebuild the afflicted area even when the crisis is no longer on their citizens’ television screens.

One only has to look at Libya’s descent into a semi-failed state since 2011 to realize the risks of military interventions undertaken with an eye on the evening news but without a proper follow-through plan.

Before engaging in humanitarian military interventions, governments should also aim to get the approval of the U.N. Security Council, since that would give their actions greater legitimacy. Ideally, the mandate would be clearly defined, preventing mission creep. This was not the case with Libya, where the Anglo-French-led coalition used U.N. authorization to impose a no-fly-zone as a cloak for getting rid of Muammar Gaddafi.

A Security Council mandate to intervene to protect the Kurds in northwest Syria would be hard to obtain because Russia might veto it. But the United States should still try to secure one.

Indeed, the role of the Security Council was explicitly mentioned in the World Summit’s backing of the responsibility-to-protect doctrine. If Washington fails, it could seek the support of the U.N. General Assembly — in which all countries have a vote and none has a veto.

Although this is not the normal way of getting authorization for military action, the General Assembly did pass the so-called Uniting for Peace resolution in 1950 to get round vetoes in the Security Council. This said that, if the Security Council failed to exercise its responsibility for maintaining peace because of a lack of unanimity among its permanent members, the General Assembly should consider the matter with a view to making recommendations to members — including “the use of armed force when necessary.”

Apart from legitimacy, a proper U.N. debate and mandate might clarify what the world’s strategy is for combatting Islamic State — something that is still unclear.

That, in turn, would increase the chance of success.

This post has been updated to clarify the Uniting for Peace resolution.

 PHOTO: A pair of U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria, in this U.S. Air Force handout photo taken early in the morning of September 23, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/Handout

 

3 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Assad is not going anywhere and that’s fine with Obama. Obama wants the Syrian people to be slaughtered.

Posted by dochi1958 | Report as abusive

I doubt that peace in Syria is the goal of the US right now. Now that Shiites are no longer in control of northern Iraq, the quasi-geographical link that formerly existed between between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon is no longer intact.

Israel has openly proclaimed that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a far greater threat to the world than ISIS. Obama is less vocal about that point of view but he is not ignorant of that fact. Netanyahu made sure of that last week.

I think Obama is doing everything he possibly can to pressure Iran into softening their negotiating position. By November 24, 2014, if there is still no agreement, the focal point of violence in the Middle East will shift to Iran. It’s no accident that the US has been re-establishing a military presence in the area.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive

To end the religious wars in islam one must remember how and why they ended in Europe. The destruction became unbearable and forced the clergy to reform or lose support and maybe become the target of more violence. The 30 years war was a mess for people in the area.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive