The crisis in the Middle East – Is this the ‘end of the beginning’?


As the tide of war turned in 1942 following the second battle of El Alamein, Winston Churchill spoke about “the end of the beginning” of the fight back against fascist oppression. I have to confess that these words went through my mind as I sat through many hours of TV parliamentary debate last Wednesday on whether or not to bomb Daesh in Syria. For those who are cynical about the goings on at Westminster, this was an occasion that illustrated perfectly how important our parliamentary democracy really is.

There were some cracking speeches on both sides. Tim Farron rose in my estimation with his contribution, as did Margaret Beckett and Alan Johnson and, as for Hilary Benn, could this be the end of the beginning of his march to the leadership of his party? I noticed that one critic claimed it was short on facts; but there are times when “fight them on the breaches” carries more emotional and symbolic weight than the practicality of fighting on sand. I just  wonder whether the reaction to his speech had anything to do with the shoring up of Labour’s majority in the Oldham by-election.

Some people think that an MP’s first loyalty is to their party. In my view their loyalty lies first and foremost to all the people in their constituency, to those who voted for them, to those who didn’t and to those who couldn’t be bothered to vote at all. Those of us whose critical comments often populate this website tend to forget that there is a world out there many of whose citizens do not share our rather narrowly focused beliefs.

The final result, after over ten hours of debate, was pretty conclusive. Whether it represents the majority view in the country is hard to judge. But a decision has been made and it’s now time to concentrate on getting a positive result rather than raking over the past, as some are already doing. With this vote we really could, if we are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, be witnessing, like Churchill a year before I was born, the end of the beginning of the real war against radical Islam.

Bombing alone will not produce the desired result. We need boots on the ground as well. But, as General Sir John Dannatt said recently, the $64,000 question is whose feet should be in these boots. What we need is a United Nations force comprising at least the USA, Russia, the UK, France, Germany, China and Iran. These troops need to stay in Syria/Iraq for as long as it takes to allow the diplomatic work now taking place in Vienna to bear fruit.

The first thing to do is to revisit the agreement concluded in 1916 on behalf of Great Britain, France and Imperial Russia by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, upon which the settlement in the territories formerly part of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East after World War One was concluded. With Russia in isolation following the Bolshevik revolution and the decision of the USA to stay away, it was left to the UK and the French to carve up the land which was yielding increasing quantities of much needed oil between them by the creation of artificial states that had little to do with history or religious and cultural affinities. This was substantially the argument put forward by Owen Paterson in his speech last Wednesday.

Sykes/Picot needs to be unpicked and populations consulted to create viable states and radical Islam needs to be challenged in its heartlands. This is where states such as Iran and Russia need to be brought in from the cold. They have a vital role to play as well.

We need to learn the mistakes of the past, from the Treaty of Versailles, through the summits of Yalta and Potsdam to the Iraq War at the beginning of this century. Winning the war is no good if you haven’t got a plan for the peace, which will stand the test of time.

* John Marriott is a former Liberal Democrat councillor from Lincolnshire.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Bill le Breton 7th Dec '15 - 9:12am

    You don’t see any danger in welcoming Russian, Chinese and Iranian troops in Iraq and Syria?

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Dec '15 - 9:18am

    Hilary Benn is considered by some to have made a good speech, and suddenly he is a candidate for leadership of the Labour Party.

    Indeed, Niall Ferguson in an article in yesterdays Sunday Times , explains why as an historical analysis, Benn’s speech was wrong.

    ‘ Labelling the ISIS killers as fascists only makes it harder to defeat them.’

  • Did I go to sleep and wake up and overnight someone reinstated the British Empire and forgot to tell me?

  • Bill le Breton 7th Dec ’15 – 9:12am…………….You don’t see any danger in welcoming Russian, Chinese and Iranian troops in Iraq and Syria?……………..

    My thoughts too…And, after Syria, what next, Libya/Mali/Somalia?…..There has been much said about how easy it is to get into a war and how hard to get out….I think the same might apply to a large military presence of Chinese, Russia and Iranians…Getting them to leave afterwards might be a lot harder than getting them in… Xi Jinping’s ‘Pledges’ at the Johannesburg China Africa Summit are worth a read

  • If the Russians , Chinese and Iranians put troops in they will be hard to get rid of . But unlike us they will rebuild the infra structure of the country. Unfortunately, too many in power in the West now believe if we back moderates that at are anything but moderate civil society and democracy will blossom in the rubble. No matter how good our intentions we have become a malign presence in the ME.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Dec '15 - 11:22am

    I agree with trying to get a positive result out of the airstrikes vote, but I disagree with cosying up to Russia. Lots of respected commentators from left to right are saying Russia’s intervention in Syria is making things worse not better.

    Check out this podcast including the head of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.

    “Any co-ordination with Assad would be an absolute disaster for the UK’s credibility in the region”

  • Steve Coltman 7th Dec '15 - 11:48am

    I was in a meeting last Friday discussing this subject – one of the group is a Syrian. I put to him the question – “is it possible or worthwhile to put Syria back together again as it was?” He said yes. Although Syria was built upon artificial borders the people still think of themselves as Syrian it seems. I still remain doubtful though – in Iraq the Shia majority took power from the Sunni minority and abused that power. This was one of the factors that drove Saddam Hussain’s remaining Baathists into the arms of ISIS/Daesh. Would it work any better in Syria – would the Sunni majority treat the Shia/Alawite minority any better? Would the Alawites dare take the risk? Being backed by Russia and Iran, do the Alawites even need to take the risk? Would western powers like us even dare think about re-drawing borders, it’s a Pandora’s box many would like to keep firmly shut.
    Personally I don’t see an obvious way of ending this exceptionally complex war. There are too many actors involved not just simply taking one side or another but using Syria for the pursuit of their own objectives.

  • Eddie,
    I think one of the problems is that Cameron thinks Libya was a success and from his perspective it was. It removed Gadhafi which was the main aim and generated good press. The fact that it destroyed a country is a side issue. We talk about mad leaders elsewhere but for great chunks of the world fumbling buffoon George Bush and shiny faced war zealot Tony Blair were replaced by inept Obama and Mr Piggate.

  • Geoffrey Payne 7th Dec '15 - 1:47pm

    To do what?
    The lineup on your list which includes Russia and Iran suggests that the UN would be backing Assad.
    There is some logic in that. Assad does not throw gays off roofs, assassinate cartoonists, behead or stone people. ISIS on the other hand would kill every ethnic minority – of which there are many in Syria down to every last woman and child. However by siding with Asad, local Sunnis would feel alienated and would mor3e likely side with ISIS, not just in Syria but elsewhere aqs well. And what would this force do with the Kurds? Sensibly you do not have Turkey on your list, but what would the Iranians do to them?
    It is one thing to make a “great” speech in the House of Commons – Tony Blair managed that when he proposed invading Iraq. For me the real test is do you understand what you are doing and the complexities of the region. For unless you do then your great speech on the Commons is as worthless as Tony Blair’s was.

  • Jenny barnes 7th Dec '15 - 2:08pm

    Back in th edays of sykes picot the turks were encouraging an independent kurdistan movement, supported by the french, with the objective of capturing the oil fields round mosul. Any sensible analysia of what is happening in syria and the wider Middle East needs to go back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. The British Imperial need to protect the Suez canal as a major commercial artery to India comes into it too. There is no question that we are a long long way past “the end of the beginning”. About a century, I would say.

  • looking at the countries involved why would any listen to an english parliament. Westminster’s political input into this is going to be zero. The MPs can pontificate all they like but none of the nations involved are going to listen. For over 50 years the real power countries in the world have been ignoring westminster.

  • Jayne Mansfield 7th Dec '15 - 5:26pm

    @ John Marriott,
    But should be untroubled by the fact that people seem to have been swayed by emotion rather than the content of a speech?

    The way that media commentators who are opinion formers, have rushed in to praise the speech, or report the opinions of individual who have, rather than take the time, or make the effort to critically analyse the factual content, seems to me to be the epitome of dumbing down. Niall Ferguson’s own analysis should also be critiqued, but it accords with my own views.

    We know that there will be boots on the ground, but I question why we rushed in almost immediately after the vote when even Michael Fallon who uses the 70,000 ‘moderates’ figure, accepts that, if they exist, they are not a unified force in a position to back up the bombing at present.

    I would argue that there should have been more diplomacy and help to bring together those countries in the region most closely involved BEFORE any escalation in our military involvement A banging together of heads ( metaphorically speaking) and that any boots on the ground should be provided by a regional force made up of a coalition from these countries.

    If we, or America put boots on the ground, what next? This is a question that our politicians have not answered satisfactorily as far as I am concerned.

    I want to see the end of ISIS and their ideology, but I feel that our current behaviour is in danger of making any at long- term resolution amongst regional countries most closely involved, harder to achieve. Too many of our men and women have given their lives or been disabled fighting battles that we cannot win by military means. ( You no doubt read of the spread of ISIS groups into Afghanistan in yesterday’s Sunday Times). American troops have not been out of that country for long.

    We can offer help, but ultimately, people must fight their own battles and it is for the regional states to create their own stability in the area. I want our pilots and aircrew safely back home.

  • Jenny Barnes – You are bang on the money; it seems not much has changed since Sykes-Picot. The Turks still want to control the oil fields round Mosul.

  • This will never be solved by redrawing borders. Islamists are pretty uncompromising in their belief that, once conquered, not a single inch of “Muslim land” should ever be given up – hence all that stuff in the Hamas charter about removing Israel entirely from the map.

    No doubt many of the other various factions in the region are equally intransigent.

    The whole idea of drawing borders around each little group so they can live in isolation seems curiously illiberal to me. No doubt there are people in Britain who would like to do the same kind of thing here. Whatever borders had been drawn after the breaking up of the Ottoman empire were always going to be arbitrary, since nation states had barely ever existed in the region, so we shouldn’t overplay the supposed injustices of Sykes-Picot – that’s just playing into IS’ hands. Ultimately, the people in the middle east need to learn to live together, regardless of where their borders are drawn.

  • Jayne Mansfield 8th Dec '15 - 10:33am

    @ John Marriott,
    My understanding of the history of the Middle East is to put it mildly, shaky. But I would like to echo what Stuart says in his last paragraph .

    The borders were drawn almost 100 years ago. The redrawing of borders which did not take into account religious and tribal differences, and the control given to, for example, the House of Saud may have been a mistake, but the world has moved on. We know that ‘race’ cannot be explained in biological terms, it is a social construct. We know that cultural and ethnic differences can be accommodated if there is an agreement on what the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are.

    The problem, in my opinion , is that religious, ethnic divisions have very little to do with religion or ethnicity, and rather more to do with the way they are used to gain unfair access to power and share of available resources. People are people and I have no reason to believe that it is any different in the Middle east than it is in our own society.

    Once one strips away the false causes of conflict and start looking at the underlying problem, there is a basis for a solution. But it is an understanding that the people themselves must reach, and no amount of military involvement by outsiders, or re-drawing of borders by outsiders, or involving ourselves in how power is shared is going to be effective.

    We made mistakes one hundred years ago, we should put our hands up to that , but the continuing conflict is not our fault, it is the fault of those in the region who refuse to accept that it is their behaviour that is preventing peace and stability in the middle east, and they need to sit down and decide what they are going to do about it in the knowledge that some superpower ( in their own self-interests), isn’t going help any of them to maintain an unfair advantage.

  • Jayne Mansfield 8th Dec '15 - 8:15pm

    @ John,
    No your assumption is wrong. I just don’t want to repeat the arguments that have appeared in the many posts that have been written on the subject, the importance of cutting off their weapons supplies, financial support binging pressure to bare on some of the key actors in the region etc.

    I am opposed to bombing for one reason and one reason alone, I do not believe that it will be effective. Furthermore, I think it will increase support for ISIS when we need to be undermining it. We risk alienating the very people that we need to persuade to relinquish their support for ISIS.

    A belief that we should use diplomacy to help bring a diplomatic solution amongst the key participants , is not the same as doing nothing and there are ways that pressure can be applied to get them round the table ad to take negotiations seriously.

    Don’t worry I won’t be blaming you when the next atrocity takes place, I shall be blaming the perpetrators. I would never offer them any crumb that they could twist to justify their psychopathy.

  • Bravo Jayne Mansfield! Excellent post.

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