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Monday, August 11, 2014 

Stop me...

Stop me if you think you've heard this one before.  An armed force is approaching a major cityAlready hundreds of thousands of people have fled in their wake.  There is a very real threat of genocide being committed.  Those on the ground are pleading for help from the outside world.  Doing nothing isn't an option.  Parliament has to be recalled.

It's all too wearily familiar, isn't it?  In fact, if you were the cynical sort, you could say that seems to be the point.  The difference is that unlike in Libya a few years back, there really is a genuine possibility of an entire community being slaughtered, the Yazidis of Iraq threatened in a way they never were during the reign of the Ba'ath party by the self-proclaimed "Islamic State".  It's difficult therefore to object at all to the steps taken by the Americans since the flight by up to 40,000 Yazidis to Mount Sinjar, of whom up to 20,000 are now thought to have managed to escape into Iraqi Kurdistan.  How much help the airstrikes and drops of aid have been is open to question - there are suggestions the food and water parachuted down hasn't survived the impact with the ground, while in the past the aid itself has proven deadly - but if it has allowed the peshmerga the breathing room to evacuate some of the refugees, all pessimism should be tempered.  The danger is not just directly from the jihadists, but also the fearsome Iraqi summer: without shelter or water, heat exhaustion can affect the young and the elderly very quickly.

This said, these strikes are not anything close to altruism.  Over the weekend US media reported on the "thousands" (later "hundreds") of Americans in Erbil, the Kurdish city that has become a mini-Dubai, except far more liberal and tolerant than the emirate beloved by the corpulent Western elite.  As Steve Coll reports in the New Yorker, the vast majority of however many Americans there really are in Erbil are there because of the oil, with a far smaller number of military operatives also in residence.  Erbil probably wasn't at imminent risk of being overrun by IS, as the peshmerga would most likely have regrouped and been quickly reinforced, as indeed they now have.  Still, it never hurts to be absolutely certain, and the plight of the Yazidis and other minorities provided an opportunity to bomb a few Islamic State vehicles in the bargain.

Quite what the US plan now is doesn't immediately present itself.  If the idea is a rerun of Libya, with the US carrying out attacks on IS targets which get too close to areas they've decided to protect while the Kurds and hopefully also the central government properly get their shit together, this could take a while.  It's clearly not a coincidence that in Baghdad today there's been a coup against Nouri al-Maliki, after the reports Maliki himself was preparing a coup.  The appointment of Haider al-Abadi as the new prime minister, instantly welcomed by the US, hardly suggests the turmoil and torpor in the Iraqi capital is going to be over any time soon.  Nor is replacing one Shia Islamist from the Dawa party with another Shia Islamist from err, the Dawa party likely to win over the disenchanted Sunnis whom have either worked with the Islamic State or done little to oppose their takeover of much of the north of Iraq.

Exactly why it is then some MPs are now chomping at the bit to get ourselves involved is a bit of a mystery.  Or rather, isn't.  Ever since the Syria vote there's been continued murmurings from those convinced the only way we can stand tall on the world stage is to support America in absolutely everything she does.  When parliament voted against intervening in Syria at that time, something David Cameron took as ruling it out for all time, it was only a matter of days before government ministers were complaining this meant the royal prerogative had gone out the window, and we would no longer be regarded as a reliable ally, much less a "full spectrum" one.  It doesn't seem to matter the US hasn't made any suggestion as yet it could do with more help, and besides, we've already taken it upon ourselves to carry out further humanitarian drops of aid.  They've even gone so far as to suggest parliament could discuss Gaza at the same time, just to make sure it appeals to those on the opposite side, devious buggers that they are.

The real difficulty is knowing how much blame to put on each state actor for the current desperate situation.  Amazing as it is, at the weekend both Hillary Clinton and John McCain were insisting if only we'd armed the Syrian rebels earlier we wouldn't now be in this mess.  The fiction that there is or was a Syrian moderate faction ready to be trained and empowered before the Islamic State and al-Nusra established themselves as the big two continues to go unchallenged.  A more than healthy dollop of blame must obviously be put on Bashar al-Assad for his murderous reaction to the original, peaceful protests which demanded reform, not revolution.  After the switch to armed struggle, the funding of the most extreme factions by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, some of it through private donors, some of it direct, is how IS managed to reach the point where it was able to hold not only a large area of Syria, but also launch an operation to control much of northern Iraq, having previously been reduced to a mockery of its former self.  The west either turned a blind eye to this, or in some cases, facilitated it and encouraged it with little concern for the potential consequences.  Only last year did the west suddenly realise the monster it had helped create, and even then useful idiots and apologists for the other rebels kept pushing the nonsense there was some sort of deal between Assad and IS where they didn't attack each other.  Finally, al-Maliki and his Iranian/American backers bear a grave responsibility also for his antagonising and marginalising of the Sunni population to the point where so many were prepared to align themselves with the Islamic State.

Whether if given the same shock and awe treatment as Iraq was back in 2003 IS would quickly disintegrate doesn't enter into the equation.  Even with quite possibly the most violent and potentially dangerous jihadist force the world has yet seen dismantling the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Americans aren't interested in getting involved to such a point again, entirely reasonably.  At the same time, by carrying out attacks on IS from the air they seem ready to step into the role of ostensible Iraqi air force, with all that entails for possible civilian casualties and potential further disenchantment of the Sunni population should IS eventually be pushed back.

Call me crazy, but I think it might just be best if we sat this one out.  Don't count on it though.

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