Why the West keeps getting it wrong on Iraq

If bombing was the answer to extremism, Gaza would be the safest region on Earth. As a coalition of Nations look set to begin US-led airstrikes against Islamic State let’s ask the simple question – why does history keep repeating itself in Iraq?

If bombing was the answer to extremism, Gaza would be the safest region on Earth. As a coalition of Nations look set to begin US-led airstrikes against Islamic State let’s ask the simple question – why does history keep repeating itself in Iraq?

Iraq once again finds itself in the grip of a heinous Islamo-fascism. The Kurdish Peshmergha still remember the mass graves of Hatra as a result of Saddam’s “Al-Anfal Campaign” – one of the regime’s most gruesome genocides. Similarly Yazidis will remember the 2007 bombing campaign by Al-Qaeda long before their recent ordeal on Mount Sinjar.

The Islamic State has facilitated the near collapse of the Iraqi state across large swathes of the country. In March of this year over 1,000 Iraqi police deserted because of the threat posed from IS and 30,000 Iraqi Army troops ran away from just 800 IS militants at Mosul.

The CIA estimates the total military strength of IS to be around 25,000 fighters – this compares with over 250,000 Iraq State Troops, armed with American military hardware and backed with humanitarian aid from Western nations. On paper this war should have been fought and won before it even started – which begs the question how have IS captured so much?

For the answer we need to look at the three S’s – Syria, Sectarianism and Western Stubbornness.

The recent vote in Congress was a clear example of America’s over eagerness to arm rebel Jihadi groups against its enemies. The Free Syrian Army had previously contained elements of ISIS in 2013: is 2014 likely to be any different?

Unless the Obama administration somehow had the psychic ability to differentiate between moderate and extremist Jihadis there would be no guarantees they wouldn’t simply use the arms to fight the Assad regime instead. Provided Syrian moderates fell in line and were successful, a majority of the Caliphate would then exist in Iraq not Syria. Why would Syrians cross the border to fix Iraqi problems?

Arming Syrian rebels is only likely to see more of those arms falling into the hands of ISIS and other extremist groups. The majority of the Syrian fighting is now between Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Bashar Al-Assad. The US could then be complicit in a massacre involving Syrian FSA proxies against the Syrian regime, further alienating Russian and Syrian governments.

Jubhat Al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda extremist group which contains many former FSA fighters within its ranks also wishes to establish a Caliphate in Syria. Is the US willing to allow arms to fall into the hands of groups with similar objectives to ISIS?

On the Iraqi side of the border little is being done to address the root cause of conflict – the alienation of Sunni minority by the Shia majority. The watershed moment for many Sunnis was the removal of the Sunni vice-president Tariq Al-Hashimi in 2011 sentenced to death in absentia by former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

Since leaving office Al-Hashimi has been critical of the lack of attention given to Sunni oppression in Iraq, stating just three weeks ago:

“The international community has focused on a few thousand Christians, a few thousand Yazidis, but it has turned a blind eye to 1.6 million Sunni Arabs who have escaped Nouri Al-Maliki’s barrel bombs in Fallujah, Al-Ramadi and other places. Many of these families have gone into the desert without shelter or sanctuary, without housing or food. Their condition is far greater than that of the Christians and the Yazidis.”

For many Sunnis taking their chance with the Caliphate is preferable to being on the receiving end of “barrel bombs”, condemned by Human Rights Watch because of their ability to erratically target civilians. Until the Iraqi government offers real power to disenfranchised Sunnis, extremist groups will continue to thrive long after the destruction of IS.

The West’s stubbornness in refusing to commit to a clear long term strategy for Iraq is the most pressing concern for the future of the country. Whilst enthusiasm for various flavours of military activity has been considerable, not nearly enough is being done to prepare for the post-conflict landscape of Iraq.

Much will change in the next 12 months but one thing that won’t is that Sunnis and Shias will still have to live side by-side in Iraq whatever the outcome of the current conflict. Peacebuilding will be essential to help heal the sectarian divide in Iraq. It will take considerable and sustained effort by both the Iraqi and Syrian governments to reduce the proliferation of small arms across the region.

Poverty is always the great incubator of extremism and repairing the massive damage to Iraqi infrastructure caused by the conflict must also be top of the agenda. A sustained effort to repair the water supply will be a key part of this. Hunger and thirst fuel the desperation that predisposes anyone towards violence. As the author Neil Gaiman reminds us:

“It has been said that civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism.”

Iraq and Syria are no exceptions.

Foreign policy in the 21st century won’t be the gunboat diplomacy of centuries past – it will be the building of stability, prosperity and influence through long-term peacebuilding. America must redefine foreign policy beyond military intervention and look at the factors which continue to resurrect Islamic extremism.

Alleviating poverty, reducing the flow of arms and a more inclusive politics would be a good start. A world beyond war starts with systemic investment in peace. I hope America takes note, otherwise I fear we will be back to the future – again – in Iraq.

Shaughan Dolan is campaign manager for which campaigns to protect and promote UK’s contribution to non-military International peace building

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.