Given the nature of their engagement in “diplomacy by other means” it is perhaps not surprising that the most sensible comments on what ought to be the direction of foreign policy in the Middle East has come from a retired United States General. John R Allen was President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS. Before that he commended NATO and US forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013.
His analysis of the current situation in Syria, and the wider Middle East, sees victory over ISIS as a necessary response to an immediate threat. However, he believes military success on the battlefield will yield no lasting peace. Battlefield war will simply evolve into terrorism, or “war carried on by other means”. Worse, for those in the West, is that this might mean more atrocities on the streets of London, Paris and New York.
At the moment the major part of the conflict is elsewhere and the vast bulk of the resources of ISIS and their backers is devoted to a military campaign for territory. If that territorial battle is decisively lost will the leaders and ideologues of militant Islam give up? Will they recognise defeat and accept the status quo ante?
General Allen’s view is this is highly unlikely. Much more likely is a terrorist diaspora. Battalions of soldiers will go home or to some other part of the world and become dispersed cells of terrorists along the Al-Qaeda model. What is happening in Syria at the moment is a battle, which ISIS may well be losing. If they do lose the battle however, we should not think we have won the war. The problem will not go away it will simply relocate. This might be in the west or it may be elsewhere in the region causing another round of death, destruction and dislocation. The result of this will be even more people fleeing the region creating greater tensions in Europe as they attempt to find a safe haven.
The citizens of Europe and the United States are fed up with the endless turmoil in the Middle East. More they do not want to expend blood and treasure trying to solve what looks like an insoluble problem when they are being told they must accept another half decade of austerity. This general opposition is reinforced by a wholly reasonable belief that when it comes to wars in the region our political leadership are incompetent or duplicitous, or both.
It is clear that the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq had no thought to what needed to happen beyond a successful campaign on the battlefield. Similar criticisms were levelled at Mr Cameron’s unclear war aims when he proposed the intervention in Syria in 2013.
The reality the region remains one, which has strategic importance for the west and will continue to do so for years to come. Clearly the supply of oil is a major consideration with more than 25% of the world’s annual oil production coming out of the area. Significant disruption of this would have an impact on the global economy and the living standards of millions of people.
The populations of the region are unlikely to stop in their struggle for political freedoms and, perhaps more importantly, economic progress. This will result in more conflicts, population disruption and emigration to regions perceived as safer and offering more opportunity.
The option of ignoring the problem, therefore, is not a practical one. However, continuous forays into the region to shore up one regime or change another is not a viable long-term strategy either. General Allen made the point on the Today Programme on 22 October 2016 that what is needed is a radical, long-term plan of engagement with the region. He recognised the challenge of securing this. He felt however that until we “embrace the enormity of the newness of thinking” required we shall be condemned to “interminable conflict” in the region which we can neither ignore nor avoid being dragged into.
What new thinking was he proposing? In essence something like the Marshall Plan. This was the provision by the United States of something in excess of $12bn (circa $120bn in today’s money) to help rebuild Western European economies after the Second World War. The ambition of this is not lost on General Allen. However, you can see that without something along these lines, which helps establish a dynamic economy in the region benefiting the vast bulk of the population peace is likely to be a pipe dream.
Clearly progress needs to continue to be made on the military and diplomatic fronts however a prerequisite of effective democracy is social cohesion and that is only possible when people have a stake and a future in the society they live in. This can only happen if there is a functioning economy which provides gainful employment to the majority of the people.
Recent years have seen massive destruction of cities across the Middle East. They need to be rebuilt. As Lord Stern makes clear in his recent book “Why are we Waiting” the next twenty years of infrastructure development are going to be absolutely crucial to determining whether the world meets its targets of constraining global warming to less than 1.5 degrees C.
It would make sense for the West to work together to help fund the reconstruction of those cities and to treat it as a demonstration of what can be achieved in terms of low-carbon development, management and maintenance of urban centres.
All this may sound hopelessly idealistic but we should keep in mind that between 2003 and 2009 the Iraq war cost the UK alone £8.4bn. Whatever happens we and the rest of the West are going to be spending large amounts of money trying to stabilise recurrent conflicts in the region. Eventually we will either reconcile ourselves to perpetual war and the insecurity this generates or face the need to try a radically different approach. There is no doubt this would require political leadership in the West of the highest order and to be fair that doesn’t look likely to arise any time soon.
General Allen has pointed a way forward. He recognises this is a generational strategy not a tactical deployment between elections. Investing in this would support building the economies of the region, create employment and save millions of lives from the blight of war. It might also contribute to saving the planet. It must be worth a go.