Keith Locke: Take on extremists with words not war

Countering the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq requires solutions that are mainly political, not military.

[On 21 October 2014 the NZ Herald carried my  opinion piece advocating that New Zealand provide humanitarian aid to Iraq and Syria, and not contribute to the US-led military campaign.]

New Zealanders are right to be concerned about the rise of the Islamic State (Isis), but our best contribution would be to provide more humanitarian support, rather than play a military role.

In Syria and Iraq the solutions are mainly political, not military. Isis got the upper hand in Iraq mainly because the Iraqi government troops turned and ran.

The reason they refused to fight, even though they greatly outnumbered the Isis forces, was that they didn’t believe they had a government worth dying for. No amount of good military training by American (or New Zealand) armed forces can overcome that problem.

Politics has also enabled Isis to administer the vast swathe of territory it has captured. Short of administrators, it has been able to keep control by working with Sunni tribal authorities who had been alienated by their Shia rulers.

Bombing Isis-controlled areas has probably been counter-productive in the political sense. Residents are not won over by such bombing, which inevitably results in civilian casualties and the disruption of economic life.

The anti-Isis coalition has discovered that, away from the front lines, real military targets are hard to find because Isis has dispersed its fighters and military assets.

Focusing on a military solution can also make it harder to achieve a political solution. This can be seen in Iraq, where the United States is increasingly reliant on fighters from extremist Shia militias who have a pretty murderous reputation. As the Herald reported this month, “people in the Sunni provinces are frightened of being reoccupied by the Iraq army and Shia militias bent on revenge”.

In Syria the bombing of Isis positions has emboldened the Assad regime, to the despair of non-jihadist rebel groups. This may make Bashar al-Assad less interested in a political solution.

We should also learn from the unfortunate aftermath of recent Western military “victories” in the Middle East.

In Libya, Muammar Gaddafi was ousted, but into the power vacuum stepped rebel fighters with conflicting interests and tribal loyalties. Now Libya is in the midst of a destructive civil war.

The exercise of awesome military power was able to remove dictators from power in Libya and Iraq, but so fractured both societies that armed extremist militias were able to prosper.

In Iraq the Sunni militias thrived by presenting themselves as the strongest opponents of the American invaders.

The most extreme among these militias, al-Qaeda in Iraq, has now morphed into Isis.

Once again, following US bombing of its positions, Isis is able to use its fight against the foreigners as a major recruiting device. The Israeli paper Haaretz headlined a September article “Islamic State recruitment is soaring in the wake of US bombing”.

The US bombing has also pushed the other big Syrian jihadist group, al-Nusra, into a closer working relationship with Isis.

We need to have more faith in the Iraqi and Syrian people. Sunni tribal leaders may currently protect the Isis extremists because of the Iraqi government’s bad treatment of Sunnis and fear of what the extremist Shia militias could do to them.

But this will change. Extremist Isis ideology is not a good fit with traditional Sunni practices.

This doesn’t mean countries like New Zealand can’t do anything to help the Iraqi people. I see our role as twofold. Firstly, to provide humanitarian aid and to assist in the development of non-sectarian civic institutions. Secondly, to support any initiatives by Iraqis and their neighbours which help overcome community divisions and make the country more tolerant and democratic. Such an approach would be much better than New Zealand providing military assistance, which may only make matters worse.

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Keith Locke is a former Green MP.

– NZ Herald