The Iraqi crisis calls for a global approach

So far news reporters have been reluctant to modify their terminology accordingly, but the reality is that “Iraq”, as we know it, is no more.

The alarming events unfolding in Iraq today seem to vindicate earlier misgivings about the wisdom of the 2003 invasion of that country by a non-mandated international coalition. But while the millions who marched globally against the Iraq war may well have reason to say ‘I told you so’ to the governments which ignored their warning, this in itself does not offer any solution to the present impasse.

Today’s crisis forces us to return to the original conundrum of what to do when faced with the rapidly disintegrating social cohesion of a nation... an issue we have seen time and again since the second Gulf war: not least in nearby Libya, when an anti-Gaddafi insurgency also necessitated Western involvement in a confusing situation that has since spiralled out of control.

Meanwhile, the deepening chaos of the Middle East is likely to unleash an even greater refugee crisis than the ongoing civil war in Syria. For these and other reasons, it is not a conflict the international community can afford to ignore. The crisis has global ramifications, and calls for a concerted international response.

Yet the same central dilemma remains unanswered. As the USA contemplates re-sending troops to help in the defence of Baghdad, and the UK reopens its embassy in Tehran – signalling a change in diplomatic relations with Iran – there seems to be no clear-cut policy regarding whether, and to what extent, other countries should involve themselves either in the immediate conflict, or in the longer term.

Faced with video evidence of atrocities being committed by the advancing Sunni militants, few voices are now heard cautioning against direct military intervention. The situation is analogous to Libya in 2011: failure to act, on that occasion, would have resulted in a massacre of civilians. UN-sanctioned air strikes were therefore considered acceptable, even among people who would normally advocate a policy of non-interference.

Then as now, however, the problem cannot be confronted only with short-term goals in mind. Halting the advance of ISIS and putting a stop to summary executions may be a vital immediate target; but unless any military involvement is considered part of a more holistic (and ideally UN-mandated) plan for the future of the entire region, it is only likely to provoke further chaos in the long run… again, as we saw in Libya.

Failure to act altogether, on the other hand, would only result in a second Syria. Indeed it is possible to argue that the rise of ISIS was itself a direct consequence of the rest of the world looking the other way in Syria.

On this occasion, the failures of recent history may ironically come to aid. If there was a lesson to be learnt from the 2003 Iraq invasion, it was that unilateral action by third countries is no substitute for the broad consensus-driven policy of seeking UN legitimacy for military action… as had been the case with the less controversial first Gulf War of 1991. The second lesson is that military intervention is not an end in itself: there have to be clear and achievable targets in mind, and these must include forethought for the Iraq of the future.

Already we are seeing the map of Iraq alter on an almost hour-by-hour basis. Whatever the outcome of this conflict – with or without foreign intervention – the old borders that were defended by Saddam Hussein, and retained by the post-invasion governments, are very clearly no longer the ones that will define the Iraq of the future.

The makings of an independent Kurdish state are already visible in the north; Baghdad is now an isolated Shia province in the south, leaving a huge swathe of mostly Sunni-dominated territory (regardless of whether it is under direct ISIS control) stretching beyond the borders of a now-ravaged Syria.

So far news reporters have been reluctant to modify their terminology accordingly, but the reality is that “Iraq”, as we know it, is no more. Even if ISIS is utterly defeated, it is not realistically possible to return to the realities of yesterday.

But the same conflict has redefined more than just the national frontiers of the Middle East. The transnational alliances that formerly dictated so much of the region’s inner politics – the affinities between the USA and Saudi Arabia, for instance, or its animosity with Iran – also have to be reconsidered. Paradoxically this represents a rare cause for optimism.

With traditionally sparring antagonists such as Iran and the USA converging on a set of common goals, both sides are afforded a unique opportunity to re-forge their strained relations, paving the way for a lessening of tension in future. At the same time, an alliance between the USA and the Shia government of Iran may also deepen resentment and swell the ranks of the Sunni insurgents.

Given the sheer complexity of the situation it is perhaps disappointing that there seems to be no attempt to forge the same sort of UN-mandated alliance that gave legitimacy to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Surely, the unfolding crisis is serious enough to warrant an emergency summit of the UN Security Council, with a view to building an international approach to a situation of global concern.

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