Amid reported criticism from the most senior serving British Army General in NATO, Sir Richard Shirreff suggesting that, ahead of next year’s General Election “politicians were terrified of any form of intervention”; confirmation that the UK is to send Marham based Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 jets to provide surveillance assistance in support of the already under way humanitarian relief mission in Northern Iraq seems to me to be a sound, sensible and very appropriate response by HM Government.
Unfolding events in Ukraine and Gaza have been quite bad enough for the ‘West’ to watch during this year, but with rising tension and increased levels of internal conflict now very evident in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other parts of the Middle East region, we can be in little doubt that world is witnessing a significant rise in geo-political tensions. We do need to be concerned and we need to not only redouble our diplomatic and humanitarian based efforts but also accept the relevance this has to the defence and security of our own nation and the reduced ability that our armed forces now have to engage in more than one international conflict.
With the Iraqi based sectarian ‘genie’ now out of the lamp’, the rise in the number of authoritarian based power struggles and sectarian based conflicts could quickly spread to other nations within the Middle East region. The world frets about events in Syria, Iraq and the emergence of ISIS. It frets over what it sees in Gaza and of how to bring the various elements of this much troubled Palestinian nation to a lasting peace with Israel. The world is constantly watching Iran and it fears also for Jordan just as it also does for what might yet emerge in Afghanistan when western troops have completed the task of departure.
The world is then far from being at peace with itself and with the situation in Ukraine no nearer being resolved, Russia too remains in the dock of critical western opinion. Why is it that I, now following sign of an increased desire for authority by the incumbent president, fear that before long we may even be adding Turkey to that same list?
But it is events in the Middle East that dominate our thoughts today. Whilst remembering that we have ourselves been partly to blame for a history of events across the Middle-East region in the century past, the question now is whether we should become further embroiled in sectarian and internal power based disputes such as the one that is currently playing out in Iraq and over which we can even with the strength of our military might in the end have no ultimate control?
Clearly, having engaged in many parts of the Middle-East region in the past, we in Britain have an unequalled level of moral responsibility, particularly in terms of the constant process of diplomatic effort and where required, the supply of humanitarian effort. We must also recognise that those that would oppose our chosen way of life are very well aware that western public opinion is on balance probably against having troops on the ground.
To change the current public attitude and view that, following on from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya campaigns, ‘enough is enough’; would require not only demonstrable leadership on the part of our political masters in putting forward the undeniable message of the potential threat that we face through the rise in geo-political tension in terms of future security of our own nation; but also tacit admission that current levels of planned defence capability in the UK are far too low.
With British and American troops in the process of rather too publically pulling out of Afghanistan and as a direct consequence of ill thought out support of the Maliki government I would suggest that recent (ISIS) IS-led Sunni rebel activity has torn apart hopes that Iraq might remain a single nation. I doubt that even if Nouri Maliki departs, as he clearly should if the current constitution of Iraq is not to be violated, that by handing over to ‘prime minister’ designate, Haider al Abadi the worsening situation in Iraq can now be contained.
Meanwhile events in Northern Iraq, and particularly the separate persecution of the minority Christian population and desperate plight of the minority Yazidi people, are without doubt appalling even if not particularly new to those forced to escape the new militants. We may hope that such appalling acts of wrongdoing may soon be halted, but despite the huge effort now being put in to support these oppressed people together with the minority Iraqi Kurds, my fear remains that the determination of ‘Islamic State’ IS looks all but unstoppable.
The question and debate over whether scaled up western involvement within yet another middle-east based conflict is either vital or necessary has been the subject of some serious and well written press articles this week. There are those that say while becoming embroiled in yet another internal middle-east conflict is undesirable it may also now be very necessary. Perhaps, but having been to Iraq several times in my life, the last being with British forces in 2005, I have to say that I remain cautious that even if we were to choose to attempt to do more than is already proposed by HM Government, any success achieved would merely to push back the inevitable power struggle even further.
Sectarianism almost always defies diplomatic resolve and determination. Whilst that does not excuse the attempt, I for one would not be against further involvement by UK armed forces provided the Government can carry the weight of public opinion based on national security need alongside. For my part I will support whatever decision is taken either way and, unlike sceptics, I remain content that HMG will in this context do the ‘right thing’.
With the NATO Summit weeks away the Prime Minister, David Cameron will carry a heavy burden of responsibility leading a discussion in a background of worsening geo-political tensions. This is the most critical NATO summit in years and I suspect that we will not only see an interesting dialogue and debate, but also views consistent with the need for NATO members to raise rather than cut spending on defence and security. NATO must of course ensure that it remains relevant, but even if rising geo-political events in the Middle East are not strictly speaking to be considered a specific issue for NATO, what the Prime Minister and others say will assist in determining agreed policy toward the Middle-East region.
Strong leadership will be prerequisite for the NATO summit and it is for this reason alone that I do not begrudge the fact that Mr. Cameron has chosen to remain at his holiday destination. Politically induced criticism postured by those that say he should be back here in No 10 is all too easy in circumstances such as these. Neither, at this particular stage would, I support the ridiculous notion expressed by some in the press that there is anything to be gained by recalling Parliament.
The history of the Middle-East is a litany of conflict that stretches back over many thousands of years and so it will remain whatever course of action that we might yet decide to go. Yes, it is true that because of oil we in the west have long had a rather different vested interest in the region and for its future security. We have over the years done a great deal in our attempt to secure peaceful coexistence in the region and we have lost not only many lives but also some trust in the process. We have made our decisions on who we should support and sometimes, or should I say too often history has determined that we have not always got it right. Over time we have seen tyrants come and go and rightly or wrongly, we have sometimes chosen to become involved for the wrong reason and purpose. We have done so at times on the back of a view that suggests ‘democracy’ has to be right for everyone and that wherever possible it is this that should be imposed, completely failing to recognise that you cannot impose democracy, it will only succeed if it evolves.
We have, though the various mandates given us by the League of Nations and its successor organisation, the United Nations, redrawn maps and boundaries at various times and sometimes, we have even created vast new nation states. Israel is but one example but there are others too. But, whether we like it or not, we must also recognise that however it has been achieved in the past the central authority of Middle East doctrine and governance will in this region almost always be determined by sectarian based power be it minority or majority.
The ballot box has little place in the Middle-East and even in some places where it has become the adopted as a process for a short time, such as seemingly in Egypt three years ago; its very survival cannot be guaranteed by us. We may loathe authoritarian based regimes and dictatorships but that does not mean we have an automatic right to interfere. Just as we determine our own system of chosen government through the ballot box so it is that power across all nations, whether these may be based on say Christian, Muslim or other recognised religious freedoms, on traditions or based solely on tribalism, will in the end be decided by some form of majority or minority based power and on whose tenure may be far from being perceived as permanent.
Christians are well used to being persecuted of course just as are Iraq’s Kurds. We in the UK can assist and we can and should also provide ‘humanitarian’ assistance wherever necessary, just as we and our US allies are doing just that in the Mount Sinjar region of Iraq. It does not need that much political will for us to decide that we can provide forms of assistance that will enable those in the minority to better defend themselves. But after decades of failure to find a peaceful solution in the region it is, apart from using every sinew that we have to find a diplomatic solution to various disputes, probably not for us to believe that we have an automatic right to attempt to determine sectarian or politically based power struggles in Iraq, Syria or Iran unless and if as a direct result we as a result are threatened.
As to the wider view of whether by failing to act in Syria and now in Iraq we stand accused of allowing system of power that we abhor to spread I would say that it was far better that we placed our efforts toward ensuring that we maintained high levels of deterrent defence capability that will ensure the integrity of our national security is maintained.
CHW (London 12th August 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785