Jonathan Russell explores why it is right for Britain to intervene in Iraq.
The House of Commons consensus over the UK joining the air strikes from the international military coalition against the terrorist organisation Islamic State is welcome.
We are now at war legally, proportionately and necessarily to achieve the aims of degrading and destroying this vile medieval organisation, Islamic State (IS).
Only 43 people voted against the motion, but many throwaway statements have been made criticising intervention. Let’s clarify things.
‘Air strikes are ok in Iraq, but we shouldn’t put boots on the ground or fight IS in Syria’
IS have the capabilities to resist. With their finances, equipment, personnel and territory spanning two countries, they will fight us and it will take an awful lot of patience to defeat the group. But now we have decided to fight them, we should leave it to our military strategists to decide how.
Air strikes seem a good way to start, and judging by the propaganda response from IS they feel threatened by the combined air capabilities of over 40 countries. But boots on the ground may be required at some point too just like engagement in Syria – two things about which there was not consensus in the parliamentary debate on Friday. If the military aim is to destroy IS, ground troops will be required and a similar military coalition, with ground troops from Sunni Muslim-majority states too.
Forcing IS out of Iraq will likely push them into Syria, so more diplomatic work will be required to find a solution for tackling IS in a country where we will not be talking to the leadership, let alone invited in.
‘Let’s co-opt non-violent Islamists to tackle jihadists’
And it is an ideology that we must defeat rather than an organisation. An Islamist spectrum which shares a common ideology that is completely incompatible with universal values like human rights, equality for all minorities and international law. On the fringe of this spectrum is the jihadism that IS practises, and all the violence that is underpinned by this poisonous ideology.
We can engage in air strikes against IS, but the Islamist ideology needs other civil society based responses. We certainly must not co-opt those on this Islamist spectrum to defeat those on the jihadist fringe, for it grants ideological legitimacy to the very people we are trying to fight.
After all, jihadist organisations do not recruit from the ether; rather they recruit and aim to violently radicalise those who are already sympathetic or empathetic to Islamism, even if that is non-violent. We must engage this pool of non-violent extremists to integrate them into mainstream British life and to offer them an alternative set of values to Islamism, for if we do not, jihadists will work to push them to violence.
‘The RAF will kill British Muslims in Iraq’
The UK government maintains a responsibility for all British citizens, whether military, civilian, or jihadist. It has systematically urged Britons not to go to Iraq or Syria, and has made clear the legal framework that prevents them from going to fight alongside IS.
One reason is that they exacerbate the conflict and boost a terrorist group with which we are now at war; another reason is that it is an ungoverned space and that Britons will be exploited by IS; a third reason is that the RAF and others in the military coalition may soon be bombing areas where British jihadists are based. Just like the death of Ibrahim Kamara, the British-born Jabhat al-Nusra fighter killed earlier in the week, this would be a tragedy, precisely because it was avoidable and anticipated.
We must also anticipate that as British jihadists die, others may become sympathetic to their cause because group grievances will become personal for their friends, families and communities, and perhaps beyond that for fellow British Muslims.
‘Just like the Spanish civil war, British Muslims are justified in fighting for what they believe’
More must be done to stop Britons going out to the region to fight with terrorists and I am particularly pleased to see the unanimously-passed United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178 that implores member states to do more to prevent this phenomenon. British Muslims have long been told not to go to Iraq and Syria and the government has clearly established the legal framework that classes those that do fight with IS as terrorists.
Islamists may point to the inevitable British deaths caused by air strikes to apologise for the actions of jihadists; they may point to the overwhelming majority vote for the air strikes in the house of commons to point to the cause of their political disenfranchisement or even further ‘proof’ that the West is at war with Islam; they may even point to the failure to go to war against Assad for his genocidal chemical attacks as evidence of democratic hypocrisy and global conspiracy against Muslims.
These narratives only tell half the story.
‘More blowback and more radicalisation will be the consequence of our involvement’
Following previous conflicts in Iraq, the words on everyone’s lips now are blowback and radicalisation. It is right to be aware of this, but we should make it clear that the question is not whether there will be blowback but when. The presence of 500 Britons fighting with IS, not to mention the 100 who have already returned, means we have already had significant radicalisation without British military intervention, and that there is an ongoing threat of radicalisation and the terrorism it causes on the streets of the United Kingdom.
Not going to war will not stop this. Defeating IS militarily will not stop this. Only preventative counter-extremism work and targeted deradicalisation work has any hope of success, and must be coupled with robust counterspeech to offer people alternatives to the Islamist ideology and the narrow worldview that they have been sold.
While their workload will invariably increase, the security services, police and criminal justice system have the tools available to protect our national security against IS sympathisers, returning British jihadists and extremists intent on doing us harm.
Alongside this crucial work and the military strategy to take the fight to IS, we must turn the ideological tide by improving integration and showing the compatibility between British and Muslim identity.
As John Kerry has identified, it will take several years to fight IS. It will take even longer to defeat their ideas.
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