22 Jan 2015

Today’s anti-IS meeting is fantasy masquerading as policy

The British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said that it will be “months” before the Iraqi army is ready to combat Islamic State militants, and at least two years before the jihadis are driven out of Iraq.

He was speaking at the meeting of what the Foreign Office calls the “anti-Isil coalition” – the group of nations intervening in Iraq on behalf of the government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.

What’s interesting is not the foreign secretary’s timeline, but that he continues to assert that Iraq will exist as a unitary state in two years time. Reality looks rather different.

Already the Kurds have formed a de facto state, and the rest of Iraq is increasingly divided between Shia and Sunni. The US spent 10 years and $25bn creating, training and equipping the Iraqi army, but when Isis seized territory Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons and fled. Sectarianism and corruption had sapped morale and effectiveness. So what good will a few more training sessions do?

It was Colin Powell, US secretary of state at the time of the US invasion of Iraq, who invoked the Pottery Barn principle: if you break it, you own it. Well, Iraq is broken as a result of western policy but that doesn’t mean western policy can mend it. Call it the Humpty Dumpty principle – all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put Humpty together again.

Syria policy is also based largely on magical thinking. Somehow, the US and the UK hope that the “moderate” opposition will prevail over the far richer, better equipped Islamic State, at the same time as fighting President Bashar al-Assad‘s troops, which are reinforced by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. In fact, the “moderates” have been squeezed so hard that in much of Syria they scarcely exist, and the fragmented rebel forces inside Syria take no notice of the western-backed opposition leadership swanning around Istanbul.

Official US and UK policy remains that Assad is an enemy, not a potential ally against Isis, but it’s slipping – you don’t hear resounding calls for Assad to go from John Kerry or Obama these days, and the Syrians politely ignore US jet fighters flying over their territory to bomb Islamic State targets. Not that the Americans admit the change: there’s now public policy, real policy and reality. The three bear little resemblance to each other.

So what point in today’s meeting? One hopes that, gathered round the table in private, the foreign minsters of all these countries who fear Islamic State militants will seriously discuss how to counter them, both in Iraq and at home.┬áJust don’t expect the public statements to bear much relationship to reality on the ground.

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