As IS killings mount, what are Cameron’s options in Iraq?

Running out of options, fast, Cameron prepares for his COBRA meet. EPA/Will Oliver

With Islamic State atrocities mounting – and an explicit threat made to a British citizen being held there – UK prime minister David Cameron is under pressure from some to act. But how? After all, recent experience of military intervention there isn’t encouraging.

The original 1990 Gulf War arguably laid much of the groundwork for action in Iraq after the 9/11 attacks on New York. George Bush senior refused to keep the tanks rolling to Baghdad and pushed for a Kurdish uprising against Saddam. Washington’s neo-conservatives, enraged by Bush’s actions, eventually got their way with Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. With this action, Tony Blair made good on his promise to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with America after the Twin Tower attacks.

In those heady days of early 2003, in the run-up to the invasion, one voice of scepticism raised a pertinent point which fell on deaf ears. Colin Powell, George W Bush’s increasingly isolated Secretary of State, invoked the dictum often associated with well-known chintzy homeware store Pottery Barn when he warned: “if you break it, you own it”. Bush may be gone, but responsibility for ownership of post-Saddam Iraq passed to Barack Obama and David Cameron. And the product is still very much broken.

The similarly chaotic civil conflict in neighbouring Syria, which began in 2011, now seems to be one of the biggest forces driving unrest in Iraq. The remnants of Al-Qaeda in Iraq merged with Syrian Islamist forces to become the Islamic State, making an audacious push into Northern Iraq.

Caught napping

IS appears to be one of the most organised, well-armed and effective insurgent organisations to have operated in the Middle East for some time. Now with two high-profile murders behind them and another threatened, Obama and Cameron are reassessing their policy options.

The West seems to have been caught unawares by the rise of IS. This is in large part a result of the Iraq War’s toxic legacy. Governments are loath to launch more regime-changing interventions, which only seems to energise violent sub-state organisations. They take advantage of security vacuums in countries where weak governance has provided ample opportunity for extremism to flourish.

So far Downing Street has eschewed calls for direct intervention but David Cameron did indicate that the UK was “ready to help” fulfil a military-coordinated aid mission to assist minority Christian and Yazidi groups fleeing the IS onslaught. This is neither direct intervention nor non-intervention. It is an example of indirect intervention – an increasingly popular option for world leaders.

Third time lucky

The decision made at the recent emergency EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels to provide weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga militias stands as the most telling of all the policy responses so far though.

A proxy-war strategy now appears to be the default position for those lacking the political will to intervene but who are sick of their wringing hands. But this is a dangerous halfway house in which to take refuge. It lacks both the moral urgency of a humanitarian intervention and the sanctity of a refusal to get involved.

The new foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has indicated that the UK would “favourably” consider requests from Kurdish groups for British weapons. This represents a third attempt by the UK to reassert some form of control over the state of Iraqi politics and security in under three decades. But this new scenario, which essentially sees the outsourcing of responsibility and risk to a non-state proxy, is fraught with danger.

Proxy war problems

The undertaking of a proxy war against IS in Iraq holds a three-fold set of problems. First is the danger of long-term dependence. The Kurdish region has been the most stable in Iraq and is benefiting from its oil-rich resources. But its semi-autonomous government has been left exposed by the frailties of the broader Iraqi body politic that new prime minister Haider al-Abadi has to strengthen has his first priority.

The flow of arms to the Peshmerga in the short-term may stem the flow of IS incursions into Kurdistan, but in the long-run it reminds the outside world of Iraq’s inability to secure its own borders and may increase calls for outright Kurdish independence, requiring strong sponsorship from the West.

The second major consequence of launching a proxy war is the potential intensification of the violence. Downing Street has made noises about the need to put a halt to IS atrocities but flooding a volatile region with more weapons may cause greater problems down the line. There is often an assumption on behalf of interventionist powers that the adoption of a proxy war strategy is the quickest way to bring a war to a swift end by indirectly allowing one side to gain an advantage in terms of manpower, training or weaponry. But the understanding that proxy interventions actually prematurely end an existing conflict belies evidence that on the whole they actually prolong such conflicts largely because a weak warring faction is boosted to the point of creating stalemate.

New buyers beware

The third problem is one of conflict over-spill. Cameron and his new foreign and defence secretaries are basing their new Iraq policy on the crude political assumption that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Yet they run the severe risk of creating unintended, counter-productive consequences once the war is over. Such “blowback” can be high profile or subtle, immediate or delayed in its manifestation. It should therefore be of little surprise if the Turkish government is getting increasingly anxious about the chances of UK-provided guns eventually getting into the hands of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party insurgents, with whom Turkish security forces have been fighting a bloody conflict for decades.

British intervention in Iraq since the end of the Cold War has moved from limited war to major ground war and counter-insurgency to a new era of indirect intervention. David Cameron’s refusal to recall parliament to debate the Iraq crisis was, he feels, vindicated by the government’s “clear” strategy on Iraq. But the adoption of a proxy war as a way of dealing with Iraq could not have settled on a more ambiguous strategic approach to the problem. Iraq may have been broken a while ago, but the new buyer should still beware.