Sunday, 15 June 2014

The situation in Iraq

You'll have to forgive me for being a bit late to the Iraqi party but I had a tooth extracted the other day and have been in some considerable pain, along with the usual time pressures. Commenting here and over at Think Defence has been about all I could handle, along with watching the World Cup.

But I have the opportunity now to sit and write for a bit (Switzerland vs Ecuador not exactly being a clash of the titans) and so I'd like to touch on the situation in Iraq because much guff has been written about it so far.

Firstly let's look at ISIS/ISIL, the group that is pushing east into Iraq. Henceforth they will be referred to in this article simply as "the insurgents". The main reason for this is because there is no real cohesive organisation that we can pin down as being responsible.

The names ISIS and ISIL for example are both fabrications designed for western audiences, much like the phrase "Al-Qaeda in Iraq", a phrase that to date the group tagged with the title has never actually used. It's also worth noting that the main group behind this insurgency has changed names more times in the last decade than most British army regiments have in their several hundred year histories, which is quite some feat.

The reason this is important is to remind us that groups such as these insurgents are transient. One year they're fighting for Sunni freedom in Iraq, the next they smell an opportunity for an Islamic state in Syria, suddenly it then becomes Iraq and Syria, then just Iraq again, and so on and so forth.

The insurgents could best be described as Jihadists and even that is inadequate. What we have here is a blob of people. Some of them are Iraqis who follow the Sunni branch of Islam. Some of the are actually Syrians. Many of the insurgents are from abroad, who have come to fight because they believe it to be a religious duty. Some of the fighters are local Sunnis who simply desire more recognition politically.

This blob is fighting its way towards Baghdad, but how realistic is it that they will actually take control? Not very realistic is the answer.

At the minute the insurgent numbers are unclear. The estimates range from 1000 to as many as 5000 fighters, but frankly it's impossible to tell at this stage. The important point is that although the Iraqi army has struggled to stand up to them - mainly it would appear because officers are abandoning their posts with their men in tow shortly afterwards - there is still a formidable series of obstacles to overcome.

The first of these is the rest of the Iraqi army. That seems odd considering the failures of the Iraqi army so far, but the reality is that other portions of the Iraqi army have had time to organise and prepare themselves properly, as opposed to being over run suddenly in their barracks. These units, with air support, appear to already be stemming the tide.

The second obstacle is the Shia militias. Numbering many times more than the insurgents, these militias have more than enough manpower and firepower to hold off the insurgent tide. Whether they will volunteer to press further west and north to clear out the insurgents from places like Fallujah and Mosul is up for debate. 

Essentially then, while there is a crisis of sorts taking place, the crisis isn't likely to be as bad as some initially expected. The application of American airpower in assistance might even turn the tide a lot earlier than previously believed. 

Does Britain need to intervene? Not really. A British intervention would have taken a while to organise and by now still wouldn't be in place. I think the best thing is probably for Britain to just sit and wait to see how these events unfold first. 

If - hypothetically speaking - the situation does get much worse, should Britain intervene then? Well I'm inclined to say we should at least consider the possibility. The threat posed if the insurgents take over the country is not so much that all the work done between 2003 and 2009 will have been done in vain, as it is the possibility that the insurgents could export trouble to neighbouring regions.

One of the reason that Jihadist groups are so interested in somewhere like Iraq is the potential to use it as a platform to destabilise the surrounding region such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Egypt. The ultimate goal being to kick start another war with Israel. The fact that a lot of the people who live in the middle east have no inclination to be governed by an extreme slant on Sunni Islam appears to be no barrier to the insurgents plans.

I think the chances are small that Iraq will be taken over completely. The risk is more that an enclave is formed in the west, one which the Iraqi government finds difficult to close down. In this area weapons could be stored and individuals trained, either for acts of terrorism abroad or for fighting in somewhere like Syria. 

Under those conditions I can see the UK making a contribution of some form as being of value. It might only be a small contribution, perhaps very much of the sneaky special forces variety. Just enough to help the Iraqis get their whole state back. Long term I don't see a large UK presence on the ground being necessary (or indeed desirable).

What I've found the most interesting about this whole spectacle though is the reactions from ministers, commentators and the public. We have well and truly entered what you might call our own "post-Vietnam" era, where the government is afraid to use the military for anything other than the most desperate situations, in order to avoid public backlash.

This atmosphere beset the US after the end of Vietnam and has the potential to be very dangerous. One of the calculations that Saddam Hussein made when invading Kuwait in 1990 was the (incorrect) assumption that the US no longer had the stomach for intervening around the world, away from its home. 

I've talked about this in the past, but to reiterate reality is not as important as perception. Other peoples perception of you determines whether they take you seriously or not. Your actual military capabilities and your willingness to use them are irrelevant if they enemy does not believe that you can or will engage your military strength to a given task.

The situation in Ukraine is a perfect example. NATO could roll into Ukraine and have the whole thing tied up and done in a matter of days if it chose to. There isn't the will to intervene though, or even to offer that much help to the Ukrainians it would seem. Thus Russia is free to act within certain limits, gradually winding its tentacles tighter around the Eastern provinces. 

This inaction by NATO - coupled with a hesitancy over Iraq and Syria, born out of a similar fear of public perception - is sending the message to the world, slowly but surely, that the US and its allies are out of the intervention business, regardless of how important that intervention might be.

It is creating precisely the kind of climate that allows for mistakes in geopolitical judgement by certain leaders that could prompt a much more serious crisis in the next decade. I wonder just how long it will be before we see a heavy handed regime take its chance, believing that the US and the UK will be too afraid to step in? 

These are dangerous times.

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