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Overcoming the Past and Accepting Realities - The Necessary Evils to Defeat ISIS are Boots On The Ground in Iraq and a Diplomatic Channel With Assad

03/11/2014 13:52 GMT | Updated 27/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Western foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq & Syria is an incoherent and ineffective mess. It is becoming painfully obvious that the lazily sporadic Western/coalition air strikes in the two countries, particularly in Iraq, are proving ineffective at pushing back ISIS, let alone defeating it. The self proclaimed caliphate has infiltrated territory less than 10 miles from Baghdad, and the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga are merely holding the line. The Assad regime appears to be mounting a more effective campaign but nothing close to what is needed to push ISIS into full scale retreat. Meanwhile, ISIS is controlling vast swathes of Iraq and Syria as well as large portions of the populations and natural resources of both countries, giving them the unprecedented influence and power to perpetuate their extremist ideology and carry out tyrannical extreme Islamist oppression not seen since the brutal rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Children are being indoctrinated in extremist controlled schools and the rule of secular law has been brushed aside. The genocidal massacre of the Yazidi population in Iraq and the persecution of Kurds and other minorities are just a handful of the deplorable crimes committed by the organisation. One thing is certain - there is consensus the world over that ISIS must be stopped, but the present strategy simply isn't working.

At the heart of the problem is that current efforts are not only halfhearted, the West is trying to implement a "one size fits all" strategy in both countries. Air strikes weaken ISIS but they do not comprise an effective counter attack to retake the lost territory containing vast swathes of valuable natural and human resources which are fueling ISIS' war effort. History has shown time and time again that air power alone cannot win wars. The current strategy does not take into account the differing contexts and situations on the ground in each state. As far as Iraq is concerned, it is becoming clear that the democratic government in Baghdad is completely inept at governing the territory it does control let alone able to mount a successful counterattack on the ground. This is partly due to the US' premature withdrawal from the country, which had more to do with Barack Obama's 2012 reelection campaign than with any real confidence that the Iraqis were ready to provide their own security. The Iraqi army has proven to be unorganized and poorly disciplined - leaving in the wake of their hasty retreat scores of technologically advanced US provided materiel which ISIS now uses to its advantage. But despite the fact that Iraq is crumbling before our very eyes, the West is reluctant to provide any real assistance. Baghdad's Western allies have allowed the legacy of Iraq's failings as well as the memories surrounding the loathed Bush Doctrine to constrain the execution of anything close to an effective strategy. No doubt one of the most important things for policy makers to bear in mind when formulating foreign policy are the lessons of history - having an awareness and appreciation for the mistakes of the past and acting accordingly to prevent repetition. But one of the most dangerous paths policy makers can go down is to allow the mistakes of the past to constrain future decision making to the point that fears of public reprisal and concerns of one's place in the history books prevent effective and necessary policy from being enacted. This is what is happening in Iraq. Nobody wants to return to Iraq, but sometimes the only options on the table are bad ones.

The West, particularly Britain and the United States, have become prisoners of the past - afraid to act in fear of repeating the sins of 2003 and the failures of the subsequent occupation, regime change, civil war, and insurgency. This fear is a fallacy. This isn't 2003 and this isn't a regime change. The mistakes of the 2003 invasion and the failures of Iraq can no longer constrain us - it is clear that ISIS can only be stopped and pushed back with a commitment of Western ground troops in Iraq to aid the woefully untrained and undisciplined Iraqi army. Western nations are the only states with the experience and the effective power projection to meet the task at hand, with the Arab League proving yet again to be nothing more than an impotent and ineffective talking shop. Arming the Kurdish Peshmerga as has been widely advocated is a vital step, but alone it is a short sighted strategy aimed at merely keeping Iraqi Kurdistan free from ISIS influence. The Iraqi Kurds have neither the ability nor the will to fight ISIS in the Arab populated regions of Western Iraq where the militants are strongest. The simple fact is that the original Iraq mission remains unfinished and was terminated prematurely for reasons of Western domestic politics. But let's be clear about one thing, a return to Iraq isn't about national security - Theresa May's scaremongering that ISIS poses a threat to the United Kingdom is unfounded and hyperbolic. Neither is a return solely about international and regional security, though ISIS does pose a threat to both. A return to Iraq is primarily about meeting obligation and responsibility. Regardless of the rights and wrongs surrounding the 2003 invasion, to not aid the democratic government in Baghdad is tantamount to a death sentence to a country and people the West owes security to at the very least. Those states in particular which partook in the 2003 invasion and catalysed a chain of events which slowly but surely destabilized the region into its present state are indebted to Iraq. The questionable legality of the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation are food for thought but they are now moot points - policy in 2014 should be formulated according to the needs of 2014. Yes we should remember the failings of the past but Iraq now has as close to a democratic government as it has ever had, and to allow that to fall to an extremist group whose ideology we have been fighting for over a decade is simply unacceptable. Granted an ideology cannot be stopped with the use of military force, but the tangible effects of its execution can.

But ISIS' transnational presence across the Iraqi-Syrian border means even if the West does intervene and defeat ISIS in Iraq, the organization maintains a foothold in Eastern Syria. To defeat ISIS, the organization must be crushed in both states. This leads us to accepting an uncomfortable truth; that a tacit relationship with the Assad regime is currently the only way to ensure ISIS is fully militarily defeated in both countries. Western ground troop presence in Syria is out of the question, and the "moderate" Syrian opposition has become so intermixed with the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat-Al-Nusra that the distinctions between moderate secularists and Islamist extremists, albeit non-linked to ISIS, are no longer apparent. The blurring has reached such an extent that it is impossible to support the moderates without aiding Islamist extremists allied to the West's nemesis by default. Similarly to the situation in Iraq, arming Syrian Kurds is a step in the right direction but is not a strategy in itself. The Kurds have little interest or ability to fight ISIS outside Kurdish populated territory. It is becoming all too apparent therefore that the West was right to not intervene in the Syrian Civil War in the aftermath of Ghouta chemical weapon attack of 2013, not solely because the perpetrator of the attack has been unconfirmed (though all evidence points to Assad's Ba'ath regime) but because the Syrian government has proven to be the sole effective fighting force keeping ISIS and Islamic extremism at bay in Syria. An attack on the Syrian regime would undoubtedly have aided an enemy which the West has been combating for over a decade.

I know what you're thinking - Assad is a monster, or more accurately, the ruling Syrian Ba'ath Party regime is monstrous. The extent to which Basher al-Assad is actually in control of 'his' government let alone his country is a matter of debate, but what has been clear for decades is that the ruling regime is one of illiberal and brutal despotism hell-bent on maintaining its grip on power at the expense of the Syrian people and wider regional security. The crimes of the Ba'athist regime became quite clear prior to the onset of the Civil War with the gunning down of peaceful demonstrators in Damascus. One might rightly ask therefore why the West should have anything to do with such a despicable regime. The sad fact is there a few other options. Lamentably, foreign policy and diplomacy is invariably a game of contradictions and hypocrisies, and let's be frank - the Syrian regime is a considerably lesser evil than ISIS. Double standards in diplomacy more often than not serve a purpose and a much needed channel of communication with Assad is no exception. The West maintains close ties with a plethora of questionable bedfellows the world over, many like Saudi Arabia and Yemen possessing far worse human rights and civil liberties records than Syria. Many of these uneasy relationships are forged because they are beneficial economically, but many of these alliances of convenience are essential in the maintenance of international security. Co-operation with Assad doesn't have to be a formal treaty, it doesn't mean the West and Assad would be best friends. Cooperation can come in the form of intelligence sharing or the co-ordination of offensives. A communicative channel with Assad would be an acceptance that the situation in which we now find ourselves is intolerable and that alliances of convenience, as history has shown, serve wider humanitarian interests. If the parties of the Chinese Civil War could put aside their differences to fight Japanese imperialism, if Churchill could sit with Stalin to defeat European Fascism, then London and Washington can call Damascus to defeat ISIS. The beauty of alliances of convenience is that they are just that and nothing more. They serve their purpose and can end as soon as they become redundant.