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IS Is Pure Evil; So Is Assad: We Must Be Prepared to Fight Them Both

25/08/2014 15:50 BST | Updated 23/10/2014 10:59 BST

Appalling news arrives from Iraq, where the Islamic State (IS) has beheaded a journalist, James Foley, in a deliberate and public manner. This is a war crime, and those who committed it are very happy to show off that fact. All of this demonstrates further (as if more evidence was needed after years of Islamist brutality in Syria and latterly Iraq) the barbarism of IS and its methods, and the core of hatred at the heart of its actions.

For the theocrat, there are no serious deterrents; for the fascist, there are no illegitimate targets. In the case of the former - and this is especially true of IS, which comes, with its sinister propaganda reels and its incessant brutality, as close as any grouping in recent times to epitomising that ominous yet overused phrase 'a cult of death' - eternal life is the reward for barbarism, and there is little on this earth which can come close to the promise of paradise. And for the latter, seemingly anything is justified in pursuit of the objective at hand. Obviously, there is a great intersection between the two, and the vulgar ceremony which fills the streets of Raqqa with the militaristic and the mystical at once exemplifies this with ferocious, daily certainty.

And there is another link between the forces of autocracy and the new 'caliphate'. James Foley was thought to have been captured and incarcerated by the forces of the Assad tyranny in Syria, not IS. This raises questions about the link between the two - or it would do, if cooperation between the Syrian regime and IS had not been fairly well documented.

IS has been selling Iraqi oil to the Assad regime since at least as far back as January. In addition, some of its fiercest campaigns have been directed against rebel groups (I hesitate to preface that designation with 'other'), and especially those of a more moderate, Western-friendly slant.

The Assad government has a keen ear for propaganda, and its strategy has recently evolved. Where once the threat of Western intervention to end the slaughter was deflected with appeals to supposed US exceptionalism or even imperialism, now the focus has shifted; in light of the many atrocities committed by the Syrian government that we now know about, Assad wants to be seen as a lesser evil.  He is able to do so because the actions of IS are so monstrous, and because we let him.

Dogmatic isolationists, such as Peter Hitchens, refuse to row back on the claims that they have been making for months, if not years. In a recent column, Hitchens sidestepped the mounting evidence that links Assad and IS in order to declare that war against the regime would have put us on the same side as the jihadists 'now murdering, persecuting and mutilating their way across the Middle East.' Others openly advocate allying with Damascus against the terror state - a position as self-defeatingly futile as it is morally abhorrent.

For the citizens of democracies far from the territory now under the control of IS, the horror of Foley's murder might go some way to begin to demonstrate what the citizens of Syria and Iraq well know by now. IS is not an abstract concept, and nor is it going away without a fight. Barbarism of this political magnitude demonstrates both intent and desperation. IS has overplayed its hand here. In killing a US citizen, it has committed a brazen act of terrorism. That will elicit a response - and rightly so.

For all the talk of the fabled 'Iraqi political solution', tranquillity and clear-headedness does not come easily to a nation under attack from an existential threat. Nor does it deal with the seedbed for all of this: Syria, were over 200,000 have met early, preventable deaths, and where a tyrant is poised to use all the talking points at his disposal to turn IS - the rise of which is at least partially  his fault - into a reason for his own staying in power. In other words, international action might useful here, and not just necessary.

There is a serious point to be made here: Fighting IS in Iraq is utterly vital; protecting the people there, including minorities who have been credibly threatened with genocide, is the only moral course of action when confronted with evil of this nature. But that is not all. IS is proud of its destruction of national borders, and its operations are not nicely confined to one imperilled nation at a time. Weaponry and vehicles looted from the Iraqi army have already found their way back to Raqqa, and are being employed in Syria with devastating effect. There is a serious possibility that airstrikes and aid that focus on Iraq alone will not be enough. We must also consider action in Syria, and not just against IS.

The Assad regime supports IS, and is also responsible for the murder of thousands of civilians. Is it churlish to point out that it has also avoided punishment for chemical weapons attacks and other savageries and actions of calculated callousness? In addition, it is more than a little inconvenient for those advocating alliance with Assad to point out that his government is reasonably believed to have carried out the torture and murder of over 11,000 people in state prisons. Worse than that - and things can only realistically surpass this evil in matters of scale - he is poised to do so again, and to a far greater number of people. In its current state, the Middle East ought to demonstrate the fallaciousness and opportunism of 'enemy of my enemy' calculations. Sadly, for some, the reverse appears to be the case.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron is hampered by a quest for domestic political success, which led to his leaving Libya unmade and Syria untouched. Hence my own cynicism: I just can't expect much from any Iraq policy enacted by this government.

However, that does not mean that questions about an extension of the American combat mission (and the potential for British involvement) should not be asked. After all, do we really need telling that IS comprises a bunch of murdering fascistic war criminals? With that in mind, the more America can do to fight IS and its sponsors in the Assad regime the better, and the situation can only be improved if Britain begins to do the same.

James Snell is a Contributing Editor at The Libertarian