On an arid day in October, a group of prisoners in ISIS-occupied Iraq are marched into the desert for hours. Many of them ask for water, but are told that “there will be water in paradise”. They are ordered to separate by race and religion, with Shias and Sunnis put on separate sides of a ravine. Any Shias hidden amongst Sunnis are warned that they would have their heads cut off with a sheet of metal. The fighters who have taken them there discuss the best way of disposing of them. One holds a knife to a man’s throat. But this is rejected as inefficient. The men have just enough time to kiss pictures of their children and each other goodbye, before they are shot at point blank range. 600 people slump forwards into the ravine and lay motionless.
The reason this piece starts with such a harrowing story of ISIS brutality (and believe me, when researching this there were many to choose from), is to try and frame the debate around Syrian intervention. We’re talking about trying to do something to help people who are suffering at the hands of ISIS. The past few weeks since Corbyn’s ascendency have demonstrated how much established opposition there is to this type of action, just this week we have seen many of the placards outside the Tory conference referencing Syria and war in general. Therefore it is critical that we examine the moral case for military action in Syria.
We in the West are in a position where we can feasibly do something about this. We have a military might that dwarfs that of ISIS, and allies (admittedly extremely unpalatable regimes themselves) in the area that would support such an intervention. And yet there are loud voices that are saying we should not pursue such action. Simply look at the reaction to two known ISIS fighters, who were alleged to be planning an attack on British soil, being killed by a British airstrike.
Too often pacifism is seen as a moral default setting. Those who claim to be pacifists see themselves as occupying the ethical high ground. This is not the case; to see suffering, have a capability through conflict to stop it, and then do nothing is an immoral standpoint. Most people, upon seeing a pensioner being attacked in the street, would step in to help with a certain degree of aggression. They wouldn’t stand at the side and try and pursue a dialogue with the attacker, watching the poor person get bludgeoned. This does not negate a belief that the world would be better without violence, but this argument is an irrelevance in a world where violence is so prevalent. We appear to have reached a point where we will not step in to save ten civilians in case we kill one.
There is a competing view to the one presented here, that action other than military intervention could resolve the crisis. As if to make our point, Jeremy Corbyn believes that a political solution can be found in Syria. To be clear, if this were the case we would support it wholeheartedly. There are many instances of international conflict that have been resolved around a negotiating table without a shot being fired – clearly the preferable resolution to anything. But ISIS is not like any enemy we have faced in recent history.
ISIS is seeking to establish a caliphate in the Levant. They believe they will occupy the holy lands where the Muslims will be led to victory against the ‘Armies of Rome’. This is an apocalyptic army; it is therefore a delusion to believe that we can reason with these people. It demonstrates a failure to understand what we are facing and trying to solve. If we let a belief in pacifism trump the reality we are seeing in front of our eyes, we face the very real prospect of vast swathes of the Middle East falling under ISIS control; along with the death and destruction that will bring.
The biggest reason we are given for not intervening is the results of what happened in Iraq. This is important to examine. To describe Iraq as a success would be a very tenuous claim; the post-war planning was atrocious and we faced an enemy we were completely unprepared for with equipment that had no place in a 21th Century conflict in the desert. Civilian deaths caused by violence in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 are estimated at around 150,000. No one can look at this statistic and not have pause for thought. It goes without saying that this must not be repeated in Syria.
However, there is a tendency to look at the past with rose-tinted glasses when presented with an unpleasant outcome. Are we to imagine that on the 19th of March 2003 Iraq was a wonderful, free, enlightened and peaceful nirvana? Or can it at least be conceded that freeing Iraq from being a single party state run by a Ba’athists was a positive thing? Yes, there is a strong case to be made that the public were misled over the evidence that took us into war. But regardless of the incentives that started the war, the initial outcome that was achieved was something that most people would support. This is a regime that abducted 8,000 Kurdish men, women and children, many of whom have since been found in mass graves in Southern Iraq. Not to mention a track record of horror that includes torturing children in front of their parents, dipping people in battery acid, and feeding them into meat grinders feet-first.
Is it inconceivable that it would have been possible to remove Saddam without the bloodshed and instability that followed? If we were to go back now, and do it again with what we know now, could we get it right? If so, this has a direct application to the situation in Syria. It simply cannot be taken as a given that intervention would always make the situation worse. We need to accept that intervention is the right thing to do and that all we should be arguing about is strategy.
Iraq was not the first time that the West has intervened to protect people. Throughout the 1990s ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were facing state sponsored, ethnically motivated oppression. They were unable to work in public institutions and their children were blocked from going to school. Serbian forces massacred 45 of them at Račak, triggering a NATO led air campaign. While the situation today cannot be described as perfect, this is a proud moment in the history of Western foreign policy. With no gain for ourselves, we stepped in to save people. Tony Blair’s role in this is still celebrated in the province, with even second hand car dealerships named after him.
I fear for a world where, because of a bodged war, the West is no longer able to stand up for besieged, innocent people around the world. Put yourself in the place of a Yazidi mother on an Iraqi mountainside, watching ISIS forces advance on you, conscious that all that awaits you, your husband and your children is rape, torture and death. Knowing that the West had the capability to do something about your plight, would a response of “Well we screwed up Iraq…” be enough?