The images on our TV, phone and computer screens and in our newspapers, help to convey the horror but really it’s almost unimaginable. Like the many constituents who have written to me in recent days, I urgently want to see an end to the terrible suffering of Iraqis caught up in the brutal campaign being waged by the jihadist Islamic State (ISIL). A campaign that has seen 1.2 million people displaced in Iraq since the beginning of the year; Christians and other religious minorities attacked and subjected to the most horrific abuses of their human rights; mass graves; torture; kidnappings; and tens of thousands mainly Yazidi people forced to flee for their lives to Mount Sinjar and beyond.
It is right that the international community has provided urgent humanitarian assistance and in Britain we must do all we can to ensure those in need of aid and refuge get it, without delay.
Yesterday I wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to recall parliament because I believe MPs must have the opportunity to debate the escalating crisis in the Middle East and Britain’s position on it.
It worries me deeply that, despite promising Britain will not get involved in another war in Iraq, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have offered to provide weapons to Kurdish forces and have confirmed we are already engaged in activities such as the sharing of intelligence. These decisions are bringing us closer to taking a direct combat role without any proper parliamentary debate and scrutiny.
I also see very little awareness of the fact that the states currently coming to the ‘rescue’ of the Iraqi people are responsible for, as Seamus Milne writing in the Guardian puts it, “at least 500,000 deaths, 4 million refugees, mass torture and ethnic cleansing in Iraq over the past decade.”
Such an apparent failure to reflect on the consequences of previous actions means that there is also likely to be little understanding of the role that the US-British occupation played in allowing groups like ISIL to flourish. The ISIL leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, joined the insurgency that erupted in Iraq soon after the 2003 US-led invasion. The political structures set up after the invasion were designed to encourage state sectarianism and very little has been done by the West to challenge former Prime Minister Maliki’s discrimination against Sunnis and their subsequent receptiveness to ISIL. Nor was much done to confront ISIL’s extremism when they formed part of the opposition to Assad in Syria. There, they were useful to the West, so blind eyes were turned.
And then there’s the ongoing crisis in Palestine. The collective punishment of the Palestinian people, including the recent military attacks by the Israeli army that have resulted in the loss of so many lives - these kinds of human rights abuses must end immediately, as must the rockets fired from Gaza.
WHAT ARE WE TRYING TO ACHIEVE?
The US and the UK have supported successive Israeli governments in taking military action against those whose rights to resist occupation are protected under UN law, and this sends a very clear message to the young men over whose radicalisation so many hands are currently being wrung in dismay. That message is that Muslim lives do not count for much.
If we are serious about preventing the march of religious extremism we must not shy away from holding the Israeli authorities fully to account for the state terrorism it commits. We must stop providing them with the means to kill more civilians - that means an immediate end to arms sales, as I proposed weeks ago - and we must demand an end to the occupation of Palestine. That is the morally right thing to do and it is also in the best long term interest of the West.
We also owe it to all those suffering across the Middle East not to repeat the mistakes of the past and condemn the region to yet more bloodshed. More often than not, even when well intentioned, our “help” has made matters far worse. We need to get it right this time and that means asking difficult questions. It is MPs who should be asking those question of the Government, not journalists alone.
Perhaps the most important question is what exactly are we trying to achieve? Speaking yesterday morning on the Today Programme the Foreign Secretary asserted that he wanted to contain ISIL, push it back, and to counter the poisonous ideology that it promotes. If that really is his primary purpose then we need to reflect on all the likely consequences of military involvement.
Including the fact that there is surely nothing that will please ISIL more than what they will portray as a “crusader-Zionist" military operation around which to mobilise, recruit and propagandise.
VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE
As Professor Paul Rogers of Bradford University’s Department of Peace Studies explains:
“…a priority for ISIL until the end of 2014 will be to recruit more experienced paramilitaries from across the region. The group will also want to attract volunteers from wider diasporas, though the latter require months of acclimatisation and training to have much impact.
In the longer term, ISIL planners are looking to secure and consolidate an Islamist caliphate stretching across large parts of northern Syria and northwest Iraq. This will require increased support from abroad in the form of financial and material aid as well as the boost in personnel.
The greatest help in advancing these aims would be open western military intervention in any form, even if restricted primarily to the use of armed drones.”
There are no easy answers but this we do know. Violence begets violence.
BUILDING A FUTURE
If we truly care about peace we need to focus our attention on offering genuine refuge to those fleeing the conflict – it is disgraceful that the UK has not pledged to offer asylum to Yazidis, Christians and others threatened with persecution.
We must focus too on securing an agreement between regional powers, including Turkey and Iran, that would deliver long term stability, justice and an end to poverty in the region. We must hold to account Gulf States like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar who by failing to clamp down on the flow of funds to ISIL have facilitated its expansion.
We must do all we can to work with, and properly fund, aid agencies to deliver the best possible on the ground humanitarian assistance.
We must redouble efforts to secure an end to the blockade of Gaza and the occupation of Palestine, to secure a fair and meaningful peace that respects the rights of Israelis and Palestinians.
It’s essential this all happens within the international legal framework of the UN.
And we must focus our attention on genuinely supporting a break with ethnic and sectarian politics in Iraq and Syria in order to allow the development of functioning states that give all people a proper voice. Support does not mean imposing our own version of what we think the people there need. It means listening, taking years if that’s what’s needed to build trust and bridges, build schools and hospitals. Build a future.