Baroness Kishwer Falkner writes: We should not repeat previous failures in Iraq in the hope that we might succeed this time

iraqEvery year, as the long summer recess approaches, those of us who cover foreign affairs speculate as to which international crisis will precipitate a recall of Parliament. This year we were spoilt for choice with Russia, Syria and Gaza dominating.  However when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) overran Mosul, the lack of any obvious course of action prevented a recall. But now as a US strategy has been revealed, there are some clear pointers about what the UK needs to consider in its response. We need to be clear about the implications of our action and its implications.

First, it is a mistake to characterise the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria as a purely sectarian conflict. ISIS murders Sunnis as well as Shia, and similar hatreds exist among radical Shia Islamist groups too. Alliances between jihadi groups’ form and break where there are weaknesses and vacuums rather than as a matter of clear ideology, as we have seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  ISIS cross-dresses for the benefit of different insurgents.  It has broken with Al Qaeda, but is a bedfellow of Iraqi Ansaar al Islam, as well as numerous Sunni tribes, former Baathists and other groups and individuals from across the Muslim world.

The emergence of ISIS is a consequence of politics and military conditions on the ground – a brutal war in Syria pulled in jihadis from the Middle East and wider afield who moved into the stalemate and took territory. Having gained a foothold in Raaqa, it was only a matter of time before ISIS made common cause with the disgruntled Sunni tribes of Western Iraq. Since the US withdrawal, they have been subject to Maliki’s violent repression, starved of resources from Baghdad and since Maliki’s re-election they saw that their situation could not improve under his regime.

Second, we are here because of geopolitics. While the UN Security Council was deadlocked and impotent to act, the regional powers did not stay out. Unsuccessful in seeking Western intervention, Saudi Arabia and Qatar actively funded and armed the various factions including jihadis in Syria.  Iran could not allow its client Syrian regime to collapse and provided military support, confident of a Russian veto on the Security Council. Turkey, which as a NATO member and EU applicant could have held back, turned on Assad in a complete reversal of its previous policy, cynically using jihadi Islamists as tools to overthrow him.

Third, the combination of radical political Islam and geopolitics may mean that this is a long drawn out war, but that does not make it an open ended ‘global war on terror’ as it is again being seen in the US.  Rather, it is a more conventional war for control of borders, regime-change and religious ideology, between states as much as within them.  For these reasons, the UK should hold back from rushing to intervene, unless the UNSC invokes action under the norm of Responsibility to Protect.

As someone who called for UK action to arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA) till last year, this might appear to be a change of position.  But we are in a different situation now. The FSA has lost support to ISIS and other jihadis, and grows weaker by the day. On the Iraqi side, it is clear that the Kurds will seek independent statehood, precipitating the break-up of Iraq, which may or may not be peaceful. Repelling ISIS from Iraq as the US hopes to do will involve ground forces and a significant escalation of conflict.  Pushing it back into Syria will still leave it as a force with the capacity to destabilise Iraq unless the Assad regime cooperates with the West. Take Ansaar al Islam, an ISIS partner, which continued to operate in Iraq despite the US surge and subsequent withdrawal.  As Washington and London have ruled working with Assad, a strategy of dislocation cannot succeed.

If our security is threatened by our own citizens, then we need to deal with that though domestic measures.  For us to join the US in being sucked into another Iraq war with a Syrian dimension can only do harm, as our involvement clearly encourages jihadi recruitment. The war shifts from being a war for the heart of Islam to a narrative of righteous warriors defending holy lands against infidel aggressors.

At this point the real choice is for Muslims themselves.  They have to choose between moderate, modernising, non-authoritarian Islam on the one hand, or lurching between authoritarian monarchy and strongmen or variations of jihadi and Taliban rule.  For them it is a brutal Caliphate across borders as witnessed in Islamic State, Saudi and Bahraini type domestic oppression, or supporting strongmen like Assad and Sisi as the alternative to more upheaval.  Insofar as we can help, we should do so through conventional alliances and support for moderate, democratically inclined states, not fighting open-ended wars.

When historians write the history of this chapter of Middle Eastern politics, a over-hasty withdrawal from Iraq, and a lack of timely intervention in Syria will surely be seen as precursors for what has followed. We should learn the lessons from those mistakes and not repeat failures in the hope that this time we might succeed.

This article was written on 17th September and will be published in the Liberal Democrat Conference edition of House magazine

* Kishwer Falkner, Baroness Falkner of Margravine, is a Liberal Democrat and a life peer and the party's lead Foreign Affairs spokesperson in the House of Lords

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  • “ISIS murders Sunnis as well as Shia, and similar hatreds exist among radical Shia Islamist groups”

    This statement is potentially misleading. IS of course kills anyone who gets in its way, Sunni or otherwise; but it kills Shi’ites, Christians, Yazidis and Jews because of their religion. This is an important difference. Baroness Falkner would seem to be suggesting that IS is no different from other military and political factions in the region, but this is not the case. It differs in two important ways: first, in that it has an essentially genocidal ideology; second in that, unlike other groups with a similar ideology, it has the power to enforce its will on a large scale.

  • “For us to join the US in being sucked into another Iraq war with a Syrian dimension can only do harm, as our involvement clearly encourages jihadi recruitment. .”

    Kishwer Falkner, Thank you for making this point.

  • David-1
    You have your facts wrong. The self-proclaimed Caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi kills all Muslims because of their religion unless they convert to his peculiarly violent Saudi inspired and sponsored Wahhabism.

    Kishwer Faulkner’s measured and informed piece is a welcome change from some of the ignorant nonsense which is circulating in so,e parts of LDV and the mainstream media.

  • I think I know the answer to this question but is it really too much to hope for that Nick Clegg should take counsel of the Lib Dem members of the second chamber before precipitate action in the Commons?

  • Clegg’s statement in favour of more war is another nail in the coffin of the Liberal Democrats.

    The man isn’t a social, economic or any other kind of liberal just a political opportunist.

    Britain needs a strong liberal voice but as long as Clegg leads the party in coalition it doesn’t have one.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Sep '14 - 3:02pm

    The author puts our life in danger by trying to derail military action with calls not to attack ISIS. You say we should just help the moderates, but we have already tried this and they killed David Haines for helping the Kurds. They already want to kill us and the only way to save more British lives and the lives of moderates in the middle east is to attack ISIS directly.

    They’ve killed one of our citizens and will do it again. Once we have decided violent extremists need to be stopped we should do it as quickly and efficiently as possible, not letting brave moderates in the middle east do all the work.

    Seriously, the life of everyone who votes for military action is in danger and we shouldn’t allow people like Kishwer to make it worse. I can understand favouring ground troops, but the article isn’t about that.

  • Nigel Lindsay 25th Sep '14 - 3:03pm

    Thanks for an excellent article. Another mistake from which we could learn is the intervention in Libya which, as Salim Lone pointed out in his well-informed and perceptive “Guardian” article yesterday, is “now a country in ruins, with no government and dozens of militias fighting for power”. How long before we Liberals learn that military intervention solves nothing, and usually makes matters far worse? As usual, Nick Clegg has let himself be drawn into backing an unwise Conservative policy without considering what the Liberal response should be. At the very least, he should have insisted on a UN Security Council resolution before considering the use of force. Come back, Charles Kennedy. Please.

  • I have just been watching the President of Iran speaking live at the UN, thanks to Al Jazeera.

    His criticism of the so-called Caliphate is crystal clear.
    He called for any solution to the crisis in Syria/Iraq to come from within the region, not from outside the region.
    Iran has not been invited to join the international coalition against the un-Islamic extremists in Syria/Iraq.
    He repeatedly speaks against extremism and extremist groups who use violence.
    He also says interesting things about democracy.
    He is critical of the western media which has boosted extremist groups by repeating their claims.
    On an international deal on nuclear power production he would appear to be optimistic of an accord in the near future.

    President Rouhani is unlikely to get any accurate coverage of his speech in the UK media, so it was interesting to be able to listen to it without someone from the BBC mediating and telling me what I should think.

  • Richard Dean 25th Sep '14 - 3:35pm

    If we do not support action against ISIL, we would be repeating the second mistake that Kishwer identifies in her last paragraph – a lack of timely intervention.

    It’s not true that this is a conventional local war. ISIL have declared war on the whole planet. They recruit from the whole planet. And as we see in Algeria, they inspire sinful people across the whole planet.

    We are human beings, and it is our humanity that led us to try to rescue the Yazidis. We did right there, and we are right to respond as human beings to the many other atrocities committed by ISIL.

  • @JohnTilley: “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi kills all Muslims because of their religion unless they convert to [. . .] Wahhabism.”
    Your source for that claim? I can find no basis for it in any reliable news report. Most Iraqi Sunnis are Hanafi or Shafi’i, not Wahhabi, and yet I find no mention of the mass executions of a majority of the Sunni population that would naturally follow from the truth of your claim. If that were indeed going on, I expect it might even give Ms Falkner pause.

  • David-1

    This is from the Times of India yesterday. I think it originally appeared in The New York Times. The sources included in the article include a number of academics from USA as well as Islamic scholars.

    Or you could simply google Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The link with the Saudis is not a secret, nor is it new.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Sep '14 - 6:29pm

    David-1’s first comment is worth highlighting. As he says: “ISIS essentially have a genocidal ideology with the power to enforce it on a large scale”. And others want to sit back and watch the horror unfold without trying to stop it.

    They kill people because of their religion. They are absolutely abhorrent.

    John Tilley, can you not see that this is our opportunity to stop these people? Kishwer’s argument is basically saying if you miss one shot at goal you should quit football.

  • Little Jackie Paper 25th Sep '14 - 6:50pm

    Nigel Lindsay – ‘At the very least, he should have insisted on a UN Security Council resolution before considering the use of force.’

    So bombing places is qualitatively better if the UN says A-OK? Who voted for the UN anyway?

    Eddie Sammon – ‘can you not see that this is our opportunity to stop these people?’

    No, I can’t.

    No intervention of any sort – it is that simple.

  • Richard Dean 25th Sep '14 - 7:00pm
  • Eddie Sammon 25th Sep '14 - 7:13pm

    If anyone stands up tomorrow and says “no intervention of any sort”, like the commenter above, then they can forget receiving help when they want it, unless their life is in danger.

    You need a good reason not to risk your life to help others and “no intervention of any sort” is not good enough.

    I’m going now, but I won’t forget it without an apology if I hear anyone else taking the cowardice line of not helping others in case it comes back to haunt them.

  • Eddie Sammon
    I wish it were as simple as “taking an opportunity”, dropping a few bombs and then congratulating ourselves that we have saved the world from the Wahhabis.

    I have asked in one of the other threads on the rush to war what victory will look like.

    To be fair Richard Dean hevoffered an answer – which was to quote President Obama’s reference to “total destruction” of the enemy.

    But what is total destruction? Killing anyone, anywhere in the world who is a Wahhabi inspired fanatic? Are we to open a front in this war that stretches from Nigeria, through Algeria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi, the Gulf States etc. etc. Are we going to “degrade and destroy ” them all?

  • Richard Dean 25th Sep '14 - 9:18pm

    @John Tilley
    Consistency is fine for armchair intellectuals, it’s often not practical or possible, and is often undefinable anyway.
    We are going to do what we can, I hope.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Sep '14 - 9:24pm

    Dear John, I have thought about this previously and I came to the conclusion that the best chance for world peace is small scale perpetual warfare.

    The two alternatives are:

    1. Occasional big war. I.e. leave threats until they have caused so much destruction you can’t ignore them.
    2. Refuse to use force outside of your borders, but this leads to global anarchy, economic ruin and injustice.

  • Stephen Donnelly 25th Sep '14 - 9:48pm

    Good analysis, but..

    “When historians write the history of this chapter of Middle Eastern politics, a over-hasty withdrawal from Iraq, and a lack of timely intervention in Syria will surely be seen as precursors for what has followed”. But surely only as a footnote to a chapter pointing out that the root cause was the (illegal) Iraq war. I am not clear that any of our interventions in the middle east are making the situation better at all.

    But the key point is “If our security is threatened by our own citizens, then we need to deal with that though domestic measures.”.

    I am very uncomfortable with the jingoism surrounding this intervention, and disappointed that Clegg is not at the very least a reluctant participant. Maybe our MPs will add some balance.

  • @Richard Dean
    “It’s not true that this is a conventional local war. ISIL have declared war on the whole planet. They recruit from the whole planet. And as we see in Algeria, they inspire sinful people across the whole planet.”

    The great danger for the West is that if we put a stop to the march of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – as I agree we have a moral obligation to do – then the extremists will likely slope off back home and carry on the fight in places like Britain.

    Though I disagree with pretty much everything the OP says, I do agree with this bit :-

    “At this point the real choice is for Muslims themselves. They have to choose between moderate, modernising, non-authoritarian Islam on the one hand, or lurching between authoritarian monarchy and strongmen or variations of jihadi and Taliban rule.”

    The only long-term solution to the problem of Islamic extremism has to come from the Muslim community itself. But unfortunately, too many Muslims are of the view that those who condemn the likes of IS are just pandering to Islamophobes, as the current hashtag battle between #NotinMyName and #MuslimApologies makes depressingly clear :-

    I don’t remember there being a backlash against the millions who held banners saying “Not In My Name” back in 2003, so why has this commendable campaign (started by a British Muslim youth group) come in for so much stick?

  • Eddie has now seriously proposed ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’. That’s almost as absurd a notion as perpetual motion.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Sep '14 - 10:27pm

    Nick, my suggestion was to tackle violent extremists wherever they are and I don’t regret saying so. War will stop when there are no violent extremists or some kind of international anti-terror force can take its place.

    Does anyone have any better ideas!? I haven’t heard any.

  • Thank you, JohnTilley; I had in fact read that article, but it is well worth reading again. However, it does not say that the IS is killing all non-Wahhabi Sunnis in the territory under their control. Apparently they aren’t; at the very least, it seems that Sunnis (Arab Sunnis, at least, not Kurds) are given a chance to show their adherence to IS, whereas members of other religions are summarily killed.
    While I do not intend to defend the Sa’udi religious establishment in any way, it does appear that they have condemned IS and do not recognise them as fellow Wahhabis.

  • A Social Liberal 26th Sep '14 - 12:40am

    First you have to assess why failure in Iraq occurred, then you have to ensure that those mistakes are not made again.

    *The first mistake, on the British side, was to attack Iraq at the time they did. By doing so the government were not able to commit the necessary troops to either Afghanistan or Iraq – indeed they denuded the former in order to adequately prosecute the war in Iraq.

    *The allies then removed all Iraqi control of their country. By insisting on de-baathication the collective governments created a power vacuum which was not adequately filled.

    *Those governments then forgot all lessons learned and removed the vast majority of their forces from the country. We beat the IRA because we dominated Northern Ireland militarily – it took Patraeus and his surge to stabilise the situation. In doing so the US had to relieve much of the territory under British control because we would not commit the level of troops necessary to effectively control the regions we were responsible for.

    *Then, after the Surge had normalised Iraq for the most part. the governments of the US chose to leave the country much too soon. They left an Iraqi police force underpaid, undermanned, inexperienced and under equipped, an armed forces that was the same and a government which was partial to one side of the population.

    Now, I understand that some posters are under the impression that we should not have invaded at all. To those I would point out that the administration was one that had come to power by a military coup, it had committed acts of terror in other countries (the Iranian Embassy attack in London was an Iraqi operation), it had invaded two neighbouring countries and was actively attempting to destabilise a third. Worst of all, Iraq was acting with a barbarity just as inhumane as that which ISIL is currently doing in its attempt to create a Caliphate. It was effectively committing genoside against two different peoples and had violently subjicated four fifths of its people. In my opinion we had to go to war with Iraq, but did so at the wrong time.

  • David-1 25th Sep ’14 – 11:13pm

    I would not disagree with most of,what you say in this comment. I would however suggest that there has been some “back-pedalling” in the last month from those Saudis in their intelligence service who are close to the USA.
    It would not be the first time that the Saudi autocracy has backed both ends against the middle in regional conflicts.

    Meanwhile we have a Sun Newspaper poll this morning saying we are all gung go for war.
    A ComRes poll last month found that 45 per cent of people supported airstrikes against Islamist militants, compared to 37 per cent who opposed.
     A Channel 4 NewsFacebook poll yesterday has shown people narrowly against Britain joining in with US-led airstrikes.

    If the objective of bombing the cut-throats of Daesh is to “degrade and destroy”, how many people will have to be destroyed (killed) before victory for the bombers can be recognised?

    The Central Intelligence Agency believes that the Daesh has between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters in Iraq and Syria and estimates that 15,000 of the jihadists are foreign recruits.  500 from the UK. It points out that some are former Saddam military who have joined with the Wahhabis.

    This is from a comprehensive piece from The New York Times which is helpful to anyone who wants to look beyond slogans and propaganda and wants to understand who the Daesh are and how they have swept to prominence over the summer of 2014.

    It also includes this information–
    Conflict Armament Research, a private firm that investigates arms trafficking, has tracked small arms and rockets used by the Daesh that appear to have been provided to other combatants by Saudi Arabia and the United States.

  • Saudi Arabia and UAE have been funding Sunni extremism but at last appear to be aware of the Frankenstein they have created. Egypt and UAE have bombed targets in Libya . Qatar appears to be the main funder of ISIL and as a consequence Saudi Arabia , UAE and Bahrein have with drawn their ambassadors. The fact that Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan are bombing ISIL makes a big difference.

    The first objective must be to stop ISIL expanding. The area is semi-desert and therefore destroying ISIL vehicles from air is relatively straight forward. If special forces are used to call in air strikes then ISIL can be contained.

    The medium term strategy must be to reduce funding of ISIL from muslim countries, stop them selling oil and making sure sunnis are adequately represented in the Iraqi government. Force will not solve the problem but a lack of force will mean many reluctant people will support ISIL. Most people want aquiet life and will support the winner. If people living within ISIL controlled areas see that the surrounding counties allow funding of ISIL, buy oil from them and refuse to use violence to destroy them, why should be they resist them?

  • Can those who are keen to rush to war in Iraq explain why the RAF were not sent  to bomb Boko Haram in Nigeria ??

    From CNN —
    Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that Boko Haram shared a common agenda with other terror groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda — that being “to unleash terror, mayhem, destruction, and instability around the world” — but that Nigeria was working hard to root out the group.
    “Nigeria knows too well the destructive effects of terrorist activities,” he said.

    “Over the past five years, we have been, and are still confronting threats posed by Boko Haram to peace and stability predominantly in the North Eastern part of our country.
    “The costs are high: over 13,000 people have been killed, whole communities razed, and hundreds of persons kidnapped, the most prominent being the mindless kidnap of our innocent daughters from Chibok Secondary School, in North East Nigeria.”
    The terrorist group abducted an estimated 276 girls in April from the boarding school in Chibok. Dozens escaped, but more than 200 are still missing.

  • Nigel Lindsay 26th Sep '14 - 10:28am

    Jackie – I hope I made clear my view that “that military intervention solves nothing, and usually makes matters far worse”. I am reinforced in that view by the armchair generals who have contributed since your post.

  • Richard Dean 26th Sep '14 - 10:40am

    ISIL/IS is a military and religious intervention that creates suffering and solves no problem. It has certainly made matters far worse. The West will hopefully intervene to at least relieve that suffering.

    Although Iran may have a different or wider understanding than we do, its use of the situation to further its nuclear ambitions tends to sour its credibility. The only practical type of intervention is a military one in the short-term, to resist the ISIL/IS military intervention.

    If we also manage to resolve some problems that will be great too, but the problems are likely to be deeper-rooted, and solvable only in a long term.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Sep '14 - 11:08am


    The only long-term solution to the problem of Islamic extremism has to come from the Muslim community itself.

    Yes, that’s a line I’ve been trying to put myself, but it hasn’t been easy, and at least one of the message I put HERE trying to make that point was blocked with the false claim that it was “racist”. One of the things that has happened following this appearance of a group of people who are so obviously psychopaths but who claim to be the best and most holiest of Muslims, is that is has finally got decent Muslims who ought to have done this a long time before to take a good hard look at themselves and consider perhaps that they DO have some responsibility for the way elements of their religion have slid in this way, and perhaps they DO need to consider how it is that they put across what their religion is about, and what aspects of it they choose to emphasise.

    I followed one of your links and read the comment “We don’t ask Oz Catholics to condemn child abuse when church has caused harm”. Well, that is just untrue. As a Catholic myself, I am very much aware of how the Catholic Church was shamed into doing something about this issue. It most definitely did NOT involve the sort of kid-glove treatment that Islam has had over terrorism in its ranks, whereby any mention of the problem had to be accompanied by loads of disclaimers about this of course not being what the Catholic church really teaches, and not being anything that Catholics should be attacked about because of that. No, it involved abuse aimed directly at the Catholic Church. It was considered fine, for example, for Guardian newspaper humorists to write stuff along the lines “Catholic Church? huh huh, just an organised conspiracy of child abusers, huh huh, aren’t I a funny and modern person for saying that?”. Some of those attacks were unfair, but I certainly wouldn’t say they should have been banned, or considered unacceptable to be said, and I think to some extent the shaming did work.

  • Richard Dean 26th Sep '14 - 11:26am

    Glad you survived the Sunbacks episode, Matthew. I think you’re making more sense now.

  • Jayne Mansfield 26th Sep '14 - 12:39pm

    @ John Tilley,
    You beat me to it.

    Boko Haram have been indulging in acts worthy of all the adjectives that we rightly use to describe the sadistic monsters of ISIS. The kidnap of schoolgirls received widespread publicity, but their barbaric acts like burning schoolchildren alive in schools received very little attention.

  • David Allen 26th Sep '14 - 1:09pm

    Yes, the West often have the wrong motives and do the wrong thing, especially Iraq 2003. Then again, the mistake in Bosnia was to intervene too late, the mistake in Rwanda was not to intervene at all. There is no universal truth here.

    Yes, we very often end up negotiating with people we described, rightly or wrongly, as evil terrorists. (Wrongly with Nelson Mandela, rightly with some much closer to home). But can we conceivably negotiate with ISIL? Would it have been possible to negotiate with Hitler?

    Yes, Western intervention can unify Muslims against the West, sometimes. Will it do that this time? Rouhani has talked a lot of sense about the need for solutions from within the region, but he hasn’t either supported or condemned Western intervention.

    Yes, we must not be driven to make bad decisions by the appalling news of small numbers of Westerners being beheaded. The mass murder of Yazidis and others, however, cannot lightly be dismissed.

    ISIL are a malignant cancer. If they had not been stopped by late but vital intervention, they would now be in Baghdad. The unique way they operate – a cross between a Jim-Jones-style death cult, a social media phenomenon, a terrorist organisation which revels in its own barbarity, and an efficient “state” organisation which brings a parallel with Adolf Eichmann to mind – is a powerful threat to civilisation itself. Just wars are rare, but this is one of them.

  • Simon Banks 1st Oct '14 - 11:23am

    Any solution to the Iraq/Syria mess must involve Turkey and Iran.

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