LONDON – Is the international community at last making progress in imposing some kind of order on the chaotic and violent Middle East — at least in Iraq, if not in Syria?
Even to pose the question sounds premature when women and children are being bombed and blow to bits in Aleppo, when the Islamic State group continues its grisly executions, when Russia and America are bickering bitterly about who destroyed a major aid convoy, and when 10 percent of Iraq is still under IS control.
Yet the Iraqi authorities seem confident that the city of Mosul, IS’ major trophy citadel, can be recaptured before the end of the year and everywhere in Iraq there are signs that IS is on the run and getting desperate. The Iraqi National Forces, trained and directly supported by both the Americans and the British, are at last beginning to show their mettle after many disappointments.
But over in Syria, although IS seems on the retreat there too, everyone is fighting everyone. Russian-backed Syrian government forces are clashing with American-backed Syrian rebel forces. Rebel groups are fighting each other. Syrian President Bashar Assad is against IS, but the West is against Assad. The Peshmerga Kurdish militia are attacking IS. Turkey, although opposing IS, is also attacking the Peshmerga, whom it labels terrorists. Iran is backing Assad, along with Hezbollah from Lebanon. No one is sure who the Saudis are backing except that it won’t be their major enemy — the Iranians.
The reality is that through the fogbank of nationwide violence it is impossible to gain a true picture of what is happening in Syria. All one can do is identify some basic absolutes in the whole region which stand out.
First, IS is a movement of undiluted, undisguised and disgusting evil, an affront to universal human values and all humankind. It has taken the international community some time to recognize even this, despite the glaring evidence. Second, Assad has put himself in almost same category. Despite his mild appearance he has ordered, or at least condoned, the gassing and murder of women and children on a major scale.
Here we have forces for darkness on a major scale, unamenable to reason or compromise — a direct threat to all humanity. Certainly in the case of IS, it should be wiped from the face of the Earth. On these two fronts diplomacy will not work. That will regrettably require more organized force, although obviously led by local powers with wholehearted support from the outside world.
But beyond these defined missions what is the case for international intervention in the seething Middle East disputes and the religious civil wars between Shiites and Sunni Islam?
The old answer was simply oil. Throughout the 20th century, the overriding view was that the Middle East and Gulf regions had to be kept under some kind of control to ensure vital oil supplies. In London there also lingered the view that somehow the last vestiges of empire need to be preserved by stability and peace in the Middle East and freedom of passage through the Suez Canal.
All this has of course long gone. Other energy sources have developed, the OPEC cartel has lost its power; green energy is replacing fossil fuels. Oil is not the problem any more.
Then there was Israel. Up to only a few years ago, no conversation with a regional expert or leader ended without the assertion that the prime problem was the Arab-Israel dispute, poisoning the whole area, and that once this was settled all would be peaceful. Now this is scarcely mentioned (except perhaps in Washington circles), although it certainly remains unresolved.
Instead of being seen as a region of vital economic lifelines to be safeguarded with a heavy military presence, the Middle East is now being viewed much more as a hornets’ nest of civil, tribal and religious conflict, which outside military intervention cannot possibly resolve. The world threat now comes not from interruptions to oil and gas supplies but from two new 21st century sources — first the export of jihadist terror and murder into New York, Paris, Nice, Brussels and other Western world heartlands, and second, the impact of migrant and refugee flows so vast that they undermine all previous norms and threaten to split Europe apart by their sheer weight and volume.
There are some who say that therefore the powers should give up intervening at all, staying on the sidelines and watching the people of the region slaughter first their rulers and then each other. Libya is the latest to be cited as an example of failed conventional outside intervention — on top of past failure in Iraq and Syria. And Yemen could prove another bottomless pit of outside involvement that seems to make things worse rather than better.
But total disengagement cannot be right. In a network world there are no safe sidelines. Turmoil in one part of the connected global system rapidly spreads out everywhere. It has already done so.
So responsible and coordinated intervention there has to be, but in the digital age it needs to be different. Troops, jets, missiles, drones and battle fleets become near useless, even for containment. The new spearhead has to be through winning the narrative of success (the so-called dialogue war), sparking the sources of entrepreneurship, wealth creation and prosperity, and mobilizing, in the Arabian case, the latent and creative energies of its once — long ago — proud populations.
Some wiser Arab leaders have already perceived that a good future without gushing oil revenues is possible throughout the region, for Sunni and Shiites alike. This is where the West and its allies should be stepping in and using their resources, especially through education, training and even greater daily connectivity. People have to be convinced that there really is a future for the battered Middle East, and that it could be a better one.
David Howell is a British Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is currently serving as chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.
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