Labour must rise to the challenge of Iraq and Syria

by Jonathan Todd

A monopoly on violence is a pithy definition of statehood derived from Max Weber. On these terms, thugs in the Middle East have recently achieved this standard. There was a gang in the East End of London, the Krays, who did the same in the 1960s. The People’s Republic wasn’t then declared. This waited for Lutfur Rahman.

The key word that I’ve missed from Weber’s definition is legitimate. The violence visited on James Foley is no more legitimate than that of the Krays. That’s why James Kirkup insists that Foley’s killing was a murder, a criminal act, not an execution, something states do to breakers of their most important rules.

Ken Livingstone, who has topped Labour’s NEC “constituency reps” ballot, helped Rahman to his current status. Livingstone’s victory indicates the strength of Labour’s left, which tends to be more suspicious than the Labour right of military intervention and the motives of the US, as well as quicker to explain Islamic extremism in terms of the perceived failings of the west.

If ISIS doesn’t prompt the Labour left to consider military intervention, will anything? If US bombing of ISIS, in an attempt to avert genocide, doesn’t justify support from the Labour left for US action, will they ever support such action? If the brutal murder of an American, a civilian only seeking to do his job as a journalist, can be explained in terms of supposed US failings, can’t everything?

The Labour left might now be questioning their presumptions. Or maybe not, maybe the Iraq war’s shadow remains too long. As David Miliband, often dismissed as a Blairite by the left, has recently conceded, the outcome of that war “induces a high degree of humility”. Therefore, if the Labour left are now reassessing, they are doing what the Labour right has done for the past decade.

I wrote recently that Labour needs new thinking on the Middle East. Atul Hatwal has provided some – arguing the case for a pragmatic approach to President Assad in Syria. And Lord Glasman has too – advocating that we be pro-Kurdish, pro-Iranian and pro-Christian.

The regimes in Iran and Syria strain Weber’s legitimacy criterion. Neither are democracies. Both violate fundamental rights. Nor is Iraq the place that supporters of Saddam Hussein’s toppling hoped for. But its new prime minister, Haider Al-Abadi, can claim more democratic legitimacy than the rulers of Iran and Syria. Or, for the matter, the rulers of the west’s claimed allies, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.

If Al-Abadi runs a non-sectarian administration, unlike his predecessor, fortifying him must be part of the ISIS rebuttal. Solutions are also required in Syria, however. Here the safe haven for terrorism that was part of the justification for intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq has rapidly taken hold more broadly than it arguably ever did in either of these countries.

To the extent that the patronage of the Gulf states has enabled this, the journalist Robin Lustig is right to push for western governments “to publicly demand that they disown these murderous zealots”. It is, Lustig laments, “no longer fanciful to see the conflagration that has engulfed Syria and Iraq as the Middle East’s version of the First World War”. Which the Labour MP Khalid Mahmood thinks has already been joined by many more than the 400 Britons that the Foreign Office claims.

As we seek to push back against the force that these Britons are drawn to, we are reappraising our attitudes to Assad and Iran, a state with significant regional influence. It’s not just their limited legitimacy that makes us queasy in doing so. It’s not even the lack of justice, one year on, for the victims of Assad’s chemical attacks. Or their aggressive hostility to the region’s most democratic state, Israel.

The deepest kernel of this queasiness is involved with taking sides in the Sunni-Shia conflict that is at the heart of the region’s instability – a conflict in which neither of its leading proponents (Iran and Saudi Arabia) embody values we revere. This conflict has not remained, contrary to the recent expectation of Sir Richard Dearlove, ex head of M16, “essentially Muslim on Muslim“. Foley’s murder and the recruits noted by Mahmood mean that this isn’t a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.

The UK ambitions and appeal of ISIS mean that we have a dog in the fight against them. Even if we don’t in the broader Sunni-Shia conflict. As we anticipate parliament’s recall to address these matters, Ed Miliband might reflect he didn’t “stop the rush to war” last year. Syria was already at war, which continued, leaving us where we now are. If he’s most interested in party management, he’ll read the tea leafs of the NEC result. If he’s keener on being statesmanlike, he wouldn’t bother.

Chuck Hagel – a critic of the Iraq war and US Secretary of State for Defense – rightly says that the fight against ISIS cannot be won in Iraq alone. The UK cannot leave all the running to the US. Which will require Labour to fulfil our responsibilities too.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut 

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8 Responses to “Labour must rise to the challenge of Iraq and Syria”

  1. Madasafish says:

    I am sorry but this article summarises for me how out of touch and wrong the UK’s political elite are with both reality AND the mass of UK voters.

    We all now know the invasion of Iraq was based on lies and spin . Where the BBC tried to identify some of that, it was ruthlessly squashed and the journalist fired – just like a totalitarian state would do.

    We all now see that the Libyan uprising backed by the UK Government just left a power vacuum busily being filled by jihadists.

    Last year the UK Government – with opposition support – was gung ho on fighting Syria. It was only a last minute Opposition change of heart that stopped it.

    We were assured that Coalition forces would leave Iraq with a strong and democratic Government. Oops.

    All the above were MAJOR errors of judgement basically showing that the UK Government , Opposition and Military had basically no clue about what they were doing and had not properly thought through the potential consequences of action – BEFORE they acted.

    (In some cases – Blair – it was downright spin mendacity and I suspect will be found to be outright lies— when the Chilcott report is published. If it ever published without major redaction making it worthless.)

    And now a year after the proposal we bomb Syria was rejected, there are proposals seriously floated to ally ourselves with Syria.

    All this proves is we have no idea what we are doing and worse still don’t think things through before we act.

    Don’t take this a s personal criticism.. it is not. But the UK politicial elites are out of their depth and lost in a complex maze of hatreds and feuds going back nearly not decades or centuries but nearly fourteen hundred years.

    So on the basis on the rise of ISIS is a year or so, we expect to solve the problems that have festered since the Sunni Shia split in 632 AD ?

    And we expect to make this decision after due consideration of what – a few weeks.? A couple of months…?

    Unbelievable. You need at least 6 months to work out what is most likely to happen and who would react how. And then a year or so to plan a campaign.

    What I find most disturbing of all is the arrogance which suggests we know it all and can solve a centuries old problem in a few months.

    More likely centuries.

    Obviously No lessons have been learned from Northern Ireland at all.

    Threatening to repeat the same mistakes over and over again shows the UK political elites are unsuitable to even discuss the problem – let alone act.

    I hardly think I am alone in this view.

  2. swatantra says:

    Jonathan highlights some of the deep issues that the troubles in the Middle East have raised, and which I myself have been raising in these blogs.
    As others have pointed out there is a deep and bitter religious struggle going on in that region which was last seen during the Crusades and which then moved across to C16 Europe in the Reformation upheaval and the religious wars that followed. It is a process which is evolving and developing and I doubt if outsiders like ourselves can actually have an effect on the outcome. My argument is that we are and must be bystanders, and see how it all unfolds; we should not interfere unless ithe attacks are directed at us, and Al Quida broke the rules when they attacked the USA in 9/11, and forced the American to respond, disproportionately as the case turned out. You cannot equate 3000 killed in the Twin Towers with the 2 million killed because of the religious wars in the ME from Afghanistan down to N Africa. There was a chance after in 1917 to settle the ME, but because of the greed of France and Britain it was missed. The 2nd big mistake of interference in the affairs of these tribal peoples was to introduce a European Jewish Tribe back into the ME when creating the State of Israel. From then it all escalated, downhill. The West could no longer be trusted.
    There is a schism in the ME and theres nothing we can do but let them fight it out and settle it for themselves. That means us not taking sides, between Shia and Shiite or between Royalist and Parliamentarian. Its Civil Wars which we cannot control or influence.
    That means keeping out; journalists are part of the problem and being used in propaganda, as James Foley tragedy shows. ISIS is a criminal organisation like the Krays on a larger scale a Mafia that uses extortion bribes threats menaces like those EastEnders did. It inot a State, unless recognised bty the community of Nations; so we should stop calling it the Islamic State.
    In this thearte of war the key actors are Iran and Iraq and Turkey and they should have suffiecent clout to achieve some kind of resolution. Turkey as the former imperial power should actually be taking a lead on this, and would if the Americans kept out.

  3. Robert says:

    The US reluctantly decided that it had no option but to intervene in Iraq and I do not disagree with the current air strikes. However, people like Jonathan need to accept that the invasion of 2003 was wrong before lecturing other people.

  4. Dave Roberts. says:

    No madasafish, you are not alone in your views it’s just that they tend to be held by the ultra left, the I told you so’s and the whatabouters.

    You have to deal with the situation as it is and not how you would like it to be. We need to do several things. Contain ISIS or whatever it’s called this week. It has to be contained and hopefully destroyed and that means airstrikes and will mean boots on the ground whatever any politician says.

    All of the nations that came out of the old Ottoman Empire with the exception of Turkey are unstable to one degree or another in the way that Europe isn’t after renaissance, reformation, enlightenment, industrial revolution and parliamentary democracy.

    All we need from the middle East is oil and they need to sell it to us. The Kurds, Christians and other minorities should be armed and trained as buffer states and forces and Turkey forced to invoke the NATO treaty.

    Internment without trial should be used against anyone British Jihadi returning or attempting to go to the area of conflict. It failed and was illegitimate in Ireland because Catholics had perfectly reasonable demands, to be treated like any other UK citizen. Everything, except a united Ireland, has been achieved because the IRA realised it was unattainable. The demands of this lot of Jihadis are complete surrender which we will not do.

    As to Livingstone getting the top vote for the NEC Miliband now has a serious problem. I would imagine Crosby and the Tory strategists are, I would imagine, already planning a campaign which will have graphics of him and Lutfur Rahman on the hustings along with one of Rahman with Abdul Rahman Al Sudais te Imman of the Kabbah of Mecca who has called Jews pigs and snakes and is somewhat uncomplimentary to Christians as well. Time for dinner, back later.

  5. Tafia says:

    I find it quite bizarre that the same dullards in Labour that were screaming for the west to intervene in Syria and help topple Assad are now screaming for intervention in Syria to stop ISIS (and thus as a result Assad will win annihalate his opposition and cement himself in power for the next 50 years).

    Next they’ll want taking seriously. Muppets.

  6. Jonathan are the really linking Rahman to the Krays and ISIS? If so I can’t see how that will help break many of our brightest Muslim youth from following a path towards extreme Islamism. If you want to fight Rahman, or Livingstone, do it with principled arguments and not smears. I am rather surprised you went down this route as I thought more than that of you despite the problems you become so embroiled in.

  7. Tafia says:

    You also fail to address a very basic truth – virtually every ruling regime in the middle east is deeply unpopular at street level and the vast bulk of their citizens/subjects oppose them and want rid – and in most cases their preferred alternative is islamist. Most of the royalist countries are only kept in power by foreign recruited armies – they don’t even trust their own people to be their armed forces.

    So, if you support democracy you must support what their people want and oppose what they currently have. It is pointless being a supporter of democracy if you refuse to let people have what they want because it isn’t what you want. That makes you just as bad as the rulers they now have and that is why their people do not like us – we are propping up what they despise.

    So, your armed intervention – is it to give what the people of those countries want, or to help keep them suppressed by working in support of the ruling regimes, because you cant have it both ways. Is the so-called free west a liberator of the people or a suppresor of the people. If the people of the middle east think it’s the later, not only will you fail in stopping ISIS, but their (and similar such as Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah) support will continue to grow and they will get more and more powerful.

    The current position we appear to have of ‘we support democracy for you but only if it’s what suits us’ is a pathetic position and largely fueling hatred of us.

  8. Madasafish says:

    Dave Roberts

    You said: “You have to deal with the situation as it is and not how you would like it to be. We need to do several things. Contain ISIS or whatever it’s called this week. It has to be contained and hopefully destroyed and that means airstrikes and will mean boots on the ground whatever any politician says

    Let’s think about this:

    we failed to settle Iraq with democracy despite overwhelming armed force.
    We failed to settle Iraq despite with democracy despite overwhelming armed force.

    We failed to settle Libya with democracy despite overwhelming armed force.

    And now you are telling me we can sort out ISIS in Iraq AND Syria using overwhelming armed force? For the forseeable future?

    I despair.

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