Taking on ISIS: doing something is a high risk strategy. Doing nothing is disastrous

We have a responsibility to protect where feasible.

We have a responsibility to protect where feasible

‘Do something’ is such a weak argument. To enter a war without a crystal clear strategy and a definitive exit strategy is incautious. And to enter a war in the complex patchwork of Syria and Iraq is doubly so.

There are so many examples of mission creep and inconclusive outcomes following an invasion that ‘do something’ should surely be shown for the historical failure it is?

To enter into this war will draw in new fighters to the ISIS cause. It will create new refugees, as indeed it may have already done so as 140,000 Syrian Kurds have been displaced.

The loss of life will be considerable. All sorts of unforeseen consequences abound. There will be blowback- in our country potentially as some British men now fighting in Iraq and Syria return radicalised.

These are consequences of the ‘do something’ mindset. Instead, the Middle East should be left to fight its sectarian wars until they are exhausted. There is no way to unravel history nor should we try. Instead we should stand aside and let history and ethnic conflict take its course. Look at the damage we’ve done already in recent decades.

And all this sounds vaguely plausible. It might all come to pass. It’s a highly fraught strategic course that Barack Obama has chosen and our leaders will probably also do so today (at least with regard to Iraq). The critique of ‘do something’ is so routine.

And let’s be honest, these attacks on ISIS are in the ‘do something’ mould. There is no particularly clear strategy, no clear exit. It’s not a neat war (what war is?) It could be over in months but is more likely to take years.

It would be foolish to pursue a ‘do something’ strategy but for one simple thing. That simple thing is that the alternative – do nothing – is far worse. How do we know? Well, because we have seen the consequences of ‘do nothing’ for some time now.

A year ago, there was the opportunity to deplete the war machine of Bashar al-Assad. Almost 200,000 deaths and 3 million refugees (and 6 million internally displaced) are the result of Assad’s refusal to relinquish power. ISIS has slithered into the vacuum created by Assad’s war. But wait, aren’t ISIS and Assad in opposition?

Far from it, Assad has stood aside and let them flourish. They are two sides of the same coin. His mistreatment of the Syrian people has been a recruitment sergeant for the group. Assad has found a convenient deflective tactic. Assad, in desperation, needs ISIS.

So we have had chemical attacks, beheadings, massacres, ethnic slaughter, conquest and suppression and we have done nothing for the fear of ‘do something’. Our Parliament even patted itself on the back for its do nothing vote.

But it’s not our battle, right? When there is genocide and human displacement on this scale then there is no hiding place from the aftershocks. War on this scale is global in the modern age. Humanity is globally connected. There is no hiding place.

Do something is a high risk strategy. Do nothing is disastrous. We don’t get to choose our choices and sometimes they are all bad. Yet some are worse than others. For all the historical examples of ‘do something’ leading to long and bloody conflict and even defeat, the ghosts of Bosnia, Rwanda, and now Syria are far more haunting.

This won’t be simple and there will be disasters. The alternative is worse: turning a blind eye to genocide and human catastrophe.

We have a responsibility to protect where feasible. We had that responsibility a year ago, we chose to shirk it, and we still have it now. We can now put right our wrong. I’d rather be on the side of something rather than nothing.

Anthony Painter is a contributing editor to Progress and was previously director of the Independent Review of the Police Federation

Also on Left Foot Forward: Why the West keeps getting it wrong on Iraq

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