Comment: Is anyone actually proposing a pacifist solution to ISIS?

Even Jeremy Corbyn knows ISIS can't be negotiated with


A week on from the vote to bomb Syria and British airstrikes have faded into the new normal, along with the seemingly-forgotten strikes in Iraq. It’s time for the Left to move on from its familiar psychodrama over Jeremy Corbyn, Stop The War and Blair’s looming shadow, and face its own hypocrisy.

Regardless of the high tone taken by those who oppose strikes (myself included), with the immediate debate done the peace camp should abandon its moral high ground. For not only is the case for pacifism in Syria hopelessly misguided, it’s not actually being made.

There have been sensible suggestions made about stemming jihadi finances, but anyone who thinks this alone is going to cripple ISIS is deluded. For one thing, it seems as though outside donations have dried up and may have never been that important anyway.

Oil revenues may count for as little as five percent of the total. ISIS will continue to be able to tax its people at more than $1m a day whatever we do. And in any case, financially crippled or not, we are talking about an army preparing for a guerrilla war against an eventual Western intervention. There are few examples of such armies being beaten due to their high operating costs.

The Labour MPs who stood up in the Commons last week to propose such alternatives would admit as much. Jeremy Corbyn himself referred obliquely to ‘internationally backed regional forces taking back territory from ISIS’.

The problem is that the silence surrounding this eventual assault is so pervasive that it allows us to forget what we actually mean when we agree ISIS can’t be negotiated with. We have allowed the horror of what we all accept must eventually happen to make us flinch away and talk about anything else.

To maintain any principled stand on the war issue, the Left owes itself honesty about what we mean when we talk about these international troops and their prospects in battle. The moral calculus of Corbyn’s take is not so complex as to resist a few back-of-the-envelope calculations.

Before the 2003 invasion General Eric Shinseki, later of President Obama’s cabinet, had advised Rumsfeld that ‘several hundred thousand troops’ would be needed to contain the insurgency that common sense and army planning had assumed would happen. Previous plans for the invasion had assumed 400,000. They got 130,000. The results speak for themselves, with eight years of vicious sectarian war against ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and half a million dead civilians.

Now what, precisely, has changed since then? The opponents we now fight are not only many of the same we fought then, but the best of them, the ones who survived and have passed on their skills to a batch of new recruits. The war we expect to fight at some unspecified point is precisely the war they are good at fighting: a brutal insurgency against an occupying ground force.

Back then there were around a thousand of them, now there are maybe 30,000. The numbers are not stacked in the favour of a short, swift campaign by these ‘internationally-backed troops’, even if you could find 400,000 of them. The ‘anti-war’ Labour MPs are in effect still anticipating backing a re-run of the Iraq war at its 2006 height.

Nor do you have to have much of an imagination to picture what kind of war Assad’s army and Hezbollah might fight when they reach Raqqa, should they form part of this coalition. If nobody is advocating peace, then we are all advocating war, and we need to be able to face up to the blood-soaked arithmetic that implies.

That includes the arithmetic that makes precision missiles from our planes better than barrel bombs that can kill 100 civilians at a time. When we hold aloft signs saying ‘Not In My Name’ we are delegating the task of killing civilians to others. We must now start asking ‘Then In Whose?’

Fred Maynard works in PR. He graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2013 and has worked as a field intern for the Lib Dems. He writes about theatre, politics and cultural issues.

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