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Opinion: The US should step back and let the Middle East tackle Isis

It is time to stop air strikes and let the people of the Middle East decide their own fate – together and without interference.

Niall McGlynn

AIR STRIKES ARE the buzzword of the day. Every day carries new stories about more countries joining in or threats and dire warnings from militant groups about retaliation. Obama and his advisors seem to spend every second press conference assuring the American public that they will not put boots on the ground, while various analysts debate whether Obama’s focus on airpower is genius or cowardice.

What no one seems to be asking is what cost the air strikes will have for the people of Iraq and Syria. The debate centres on whether air strikes alone will destroy the Islamic State (Isis); the issue of innocent civilians getting destroyed along the way is conspicuous by its low profile.

For as long as Isis are based in the countryside, in readily identifiable locations that can be targeted from the air, civilian casualties will stay low. But as the group adapts, this will change. As they come under pressure from the air campaign, IS will move into urban areas, basing their supplies and fighters in residential areas or next to hospitals and schools. They will start to disguise their convoys using civilian vehicles, or by pretending to be aid deliveries.

Western air strikes will ultimately strengthen Isis

If the United States and its allies intend to continue to hit the group from the air, then they are going to have to start bombing built up areas, homes, shops and apartment buildings. Once Syrians and Iraqis start pulling the bodies of their neighbours and families out of the rubble of buildings flattened by American bombs, the Isis will find itself in a position of great strength. The group will be transformed from a fringe of lunatic extremists into the valiant defenders of Sunni Muslims from western ‘imperialist aggression’.

The groups’ recruitment and popularity will soar, while public pressure from American and other western countries will start to build against air strikes. As the number of civilians killed grows, the Americans, the British and the French will all be forced by their respective electorates to curtail or halt the air campaign. Meanwhile a rejuvenated Isis will be able to intensify its campaigns in Iraq and Syria, further destabilising the region. Forced into urban areas and denied the ability to wage large-scale assaults, IS will turn increasingly to suicide bombings in densely populated areas. This will lead to even more civilian casualties.

The whole cycle will repeat itself

In time, once the air strikes have stopped, the violence will drop back down to a level the west finds acceptable and Iraq and Syria will recede from the headlines. Then, in a few months or a few years, the violence will start to rise again. A new group, even nastier than the Isis will emerge. Just like the Isis, their brutality will see them anointed as the next great threat to the west. They will have emerged, like all their predecessors, from the anger generated by the most recent western intervention involving high explosives. People living in bombed out towns and cities, oppressed by despotic western-backed governments will turn to them, and they will begin a period of rapid growth and conquest.

A chorus of voices will emerge calling for intervention to stop them, and to protect innocent civilians. The group’s heinous actions and brutalisation of their host countries will serve as the justification. The fact that this new foe will be a response to western bombs and interference in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern nations will be swept under the carpet, as will the failure of all previous interventions. They will be presented by the media as a grave, existential threat, unlike anything that has been seen before, and requiring a military response.

Western governments, fearing the consequences of committing large numbers of ground forces, will instead tout air power as a cost-free way of winning the fight. A new bombing campaign will start, and the whole cycle will repeat itself, at least for American and Europe. For the people of the Middle East, it will be a continuation of their ongoing nightmare, a nightmare created by misused oil wealth from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, misused firepower from the west, and misused anger being channelled through extremists like the Isis. We in the west appear to have no hope of learning from our mistakes, and so the people of the Middle East have no hope of escaping them.

The only real solution 

There is a way to break this cycle of violence. It requires the countries of the region, in particularly the leading powers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Qatar to come together and take responsibility for their neighbourhood. For as long as these countries know that every time a group like Isis gets out of hand, America will charge in to deal with it, they will do nothing. While America and the west are willing to step in and try to bomb their way to a solution, Saudi Arabia won’t stop its citizens from funding extremists, Turkey won’t close its borders to foreign fighters trying to join the conflict, and Iran won’t take responsibility for protecting Shia Muslims from Sunni fringe groups like Isis.

Each of these countries has more at stake than America and they are better equipped culturally and geographically to tackle these threats, but they have the luxury of stepping back and letting America and its allies try to tackle the problems. If America and the west can step back, refuse to send more useless bombing missions, curtail military aid and diplomatic support to their supposed allies, then things will change.

If Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar become responsible for containing the extremist groups their own citizens support, they will rapidly find methods of defeating them. They will curb the money flowing from their own coffers to the groups, they will focus on developing the Sunni areas where these groups draw their support to turn people away from extremism, and they will above all bring a shared religion, language and culture to the task. They won’t try to use laser-guided munitions to solve problems that require dialogue and reconciliation.

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Let the people of the Middle East decide their own fate

Likewise, Iran, if America stops fighting its battles for it, will change its behaviour. If the Iranians are suddenly handed responsibility for Iraq then they will bring their considerable influence to bear. They will end the political bickering in Baghdad, and they will put money and energy into rebuilding Iraq and bringing the Sunni Muslims into the government and society, giving them a stake in Iraq’s future.

Saudi Arabia, Iran and the others will do all this because they won’t have a choice. Without America’s firepower, and knowing that it is useless anyway, they will be forced to attack the roots of the violence in the Middle East, the anger and disconnectedness of the regions’ minorities, especially the Sunni tribes in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Only the region’s main players can do this because, in the end, the Middle East is home to everyone, from the members of Isis to the Saudi Royal family.

Only when those in the region who have the power to help actually use it will things change. The supporters of the Isis in Iraq and Syria need to be given a stake in their countries, and the only people who can give them that are the powerful neighbours who shape the fates of both these countries. It is time to stop bombing and let the people of the Middle East decide their own fate, together and without interference.

Niall McGlynn is a graduate in history and science from Trinity College Dublin. He has written articles on Irish and global affairs for Trinity News, and blogs on both with his brothers at http://lazyhermes.blogspot.ie/ and tweets at @NiallMcGlynn1.

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