In Depth

IS threat grows as Obama and Cameron prevaricate

Can 'coalition of the willing' come together to deal with Islamic State? Not if Cameron can help it

Robert Fox

Barack Obama and David Cameron seem united in their indecision about what to do about the Islamic State (formerly Isis) in Syria and Iraq. Their technique to date appears to be to blow hard with the rhetoric and then do the minimum required by public and press opinion.

Obama was advised in straight terms last week by a senior general and his Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, that he needed to carry the air war into Syria if there is to be a realistic chance of the advance of IS being checked this summer. Hagel suggested that a deal must be done with Bashar al-Assad’s military regime in Damascus to facilitate a successful operation.

Cameron has been given much the same counsel by the former Tory Defence Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who also sees Assad as the key to the campaign to stop IS making the Mediterranean the western boundary of its caliphate – which it is about to do. A former head of the British army, Lord Dannatt, has also advised that is a case of "my enemy’s enemy is my friend".

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, warns in the Financial Times that the forces of the Iraq government and Kurdish peshmerga just aren’t up to the job of holding IS back. The only feasible option is to do a deal with Assad, because only his forces have the firepower and capacity of manoeuvre on the ground to check IS in Syria. "The Assad government may be evil – but it is a lesser evil than Isis, and a local one," Haass argues.

And what response have we had to such powerful argument?

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, whose vehemence in such matters is worrying given his recent arrival in the job, has said he is ruling out any cooperation with Assad’s administration. He says the UK will continue to work with "moderate Sunni forces in Syria" - meaning, I suppose, the fractious and increasingly irrelevant Syrian Free Army coalition.

Just this morning we hear that the SFA’s rival and al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, has captured the Quneitra crossing on the Golan Heights, which has strategic oversight of south Lebanon, northern Israel and Damascus. They have done this while also fighting their deadly foe in jihadi fundamentalism, the IS forces in Syria.

The efforts of the US and the minimalist operations of Britain’s RAF, whether in attempting to hold back the IS advance across Iraq or helping the Yazidi refugees, now appear to have achieved less than previously advertised.

According to The Guardian, the Yazidis camped out on the Sinjar range are desperate for drops of weapons, more than food and water, to help in their fight with IS forces who have been closing with them for weeks, despite the efforts of the pinprick strikes of the US Navy F18s.

Over to the east, some 12,500 Turkmen are under increasingly desperate siege from IS in Amerli. Philip Hammond has mumbled about something perhaps needing to be done to help them, but there's been no mention of British special forces going in to help get the Turkmen out, or even an armed strike by the underworked RAF Tornados sitting on the tarmac at the Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus.

The Turkmen and Yazidi Kurds are part of the rich, cultural and ethnic mosaic of the northern end of the Fertile Crescent now fast disappearing before our eyes. 

I doubt if Obama, Cameron, and Hammond – nor Merkel and Hollande for that matter - thought or knew much of the Yazidis and the Turkmen before this summer. This is understandable; in politics they are domestic animals.

Yet none of them seems to know how to shape and implement a policy – a scheme of manoeuvre – for the contemporary, interlinked, globalised world, where the fate of a remote minority can trigger devastating reactions from a minority near you.

Washington, Whitehall and Berlin seem to operate on an 18th Century conception of narrow national self-interest. Thus Cameron and Obama insist they are not committing their mainstream forces to another intervention in Iraq – no "boots on the ground" - though in political terms the US and UK are already involved there.

IS is without doubt a deadly serious proposition, a regional and potentially global menace.  Today the New York Times, working from Pentagon briefing documents, reveals the extent and maturity of its operation.

It is no clone of the al-Qaeda-in-Iraq outfit of the psychopath Abu Musab al–Zarqawi, killed by a US air strike in 2006. Today it is running a state with its own ministries for finance, oil, prisoner handling and foreign relations.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now the self-proclaimed new Caliph of Iraq and Syria, has divided his commands into 25 districts and army commands. He works with a three-man cabinet, and his key commanders are former officers in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime army.

They know how to organise, supply and plan full-scale military operations – a capacity Baghdad, Washington and London seem to lack in the present context.

The strength in depth of IS gives a sense of the major intelligence slip-up by the governments and agencies of the US and UK who clearly didn’t appreciate the novelty and real strength of IS until very late.

But the New York Times report also points to a serious lack of intelligence in another sense – the lack of real understanding and intelligent thought at the head of government in both London and Washington since 2001.

The key commanders in IS became radicalised, according to the Times, when they were imprisoned and in some cases tortured in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, where al-Baghdadi honed his radical command skills. Previously they were professional soldiers in Saddam’s army.

This underlines the criminal stupidity of the decision by George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and their creature Paul Bremer, to disband the Baathist army and administration in Iraq a decade ago.

The spectres of George W Bush and the messianic posturing of Tony Blair cast long shadows over Obama and Cameron today. 

Mesmerised by Blair, David Cameron has read the wrong lessons in his refusal to "get involved in Iraq again". Now he is faced with two major crises, in Ukraine as well as Iraq/Syria, to which inertia and inaction are the current answers.

Obama is now – slowly - shifting to authorising air strikes against IS in Syria. But he wants a "coalition of the willing", including the UK, Australia and Turkey, to back the US. 

Yet on the present briefings from the Ministry of Defence and Number Ten, Cameron isn’t shifting. The Times says he does not wish to get involved "so close to a general election".

In his lack of urgency, a preference for holidays rather than creative thought, particularly in foreign and security matters, Cameron has shown us the very model of a part-time prime minister.

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