Waleed Aly

As I write this, Australia is considering an American request to undertake an expanded military campaign against ISIS in Syria. Actually, let’s be more accurate: we’re considering our own request, made formally by America after we pushed for it to do so. If that sounds unusual, perhaps the Abbott government’s determination – revealed by Laura Tingle – to find a national security announcement every week until the election might help explain it. As you read this, the “decision” has probably been made.

Which doesn’t necessarily make it entirely baseless. Truth be told, it never made any sense to confine airstrikes to Iraq. For as long as Australia wasn’t asked, it could avoid Syria under American camouflage. But ISIS has completely dissolved the Iraq–Syria border as a matter of practical reality. It exists now only as a political fiction, and Tony Abbott is undoubtedly correct to suggest that our adherence to that fiction can only help ISIS. Indeed, as David Kilcullen has shown, it is precisely this fiction that allowed ISIS to develop in the first place: to regroup in Syria after failure in Iraq, and return as a more hardened and formidable fighting outfit. It remains the case, as Kilcullen notes, that “the Islamic State can always use its sanctuary in Syria to recover from defeat in Iraq.”

So we’ll go. But what we almost certainly won’t do is anything resembling what Kilcullen suggests in Blood Year. No “radically increased weight of air power” and certainly no “larger number of ground troops than at present – but under very different rules of engagement.” Kilcullen is clearly as sceptical about this as I am, pointing to President Obama’s foreign policy instinct to resist anything hawkish that isn’t executed by remote control. The other widely acknowledged factor is simply that, for better or worse, we’re over this stuff. Western nations are drained of the political will that would see them make a new blood sacrifice. Hence the reflex rejection of “ground troops” in favour of more managerial terms like “advisers.”

Our present strategy of airstrikes coupled with training of local groups (including the Iraqi Army) to fight ISIS is only the strategy because we don’t really have one. In fact, it is surely the opposite of a strategy, since we’ve been following it – with an unblemished record of failure – for over a decade. And not just us: NATO, Jordan, South Korea, Romania – even Iran – have attempted the same thing. America blew something in the order of $40 billion trying to train these groups. Then, at the first sign of ISIS, they buckled or fled.

So Kilcullen is plainly right in saying that if we’re serious about stopping ISIS – by which he means removing its state-like properties – our “advisers will have to be able to accompany their supported units into battle.” But there is something telling about our reason for not doing this. Our inaction is not typically explained as a strategic decision. It is not sold to us as a matter of careful restraint. We aren’t withholding ground troops because we feel that our military absence is a prerequisite for success; that our presence is so politically toxic that it will only strengthen ISIS’s hand. Rather, the aversion to sacrifice seems to be the point. We’re scared of ISIS. We’ll talk them up as a “death cult” that is “coming after us.” But we’re clearly not concerned enough to risk anything serious.

Which is why I had a deeply impolitic thought: what if, for all the huffing and hyperventilating, no one really – really – cares about ISIS? Not just us in the West, but anyone in a position to do anything about it. Because we’re far from alone in our unwillingness to risk soldiers’ lives. The Iraqi military cannot avoid confrontation, but it is perfectly happy for Shi’a militias to carry the load. Those militias, of course, are backed by Iran, but are most often local fighters. Iran is happy to be a patron, but scarcely more. Its clear preference is to keep its military at a distance, with senior officials occasionally touring the frontlines for photo opportunities and morale-boosting. It is the Iraqi Shi’a poor who do the dying.

The reasons for this, it turns out, aren’t vastly different from those prevailing in the West: the Iranian people are queasy about sending their own soldiers to die. They don’t like ISIS. Like us, they fear them to a point – no doubt more than we do, given their closer proximity to ISIS’s lands. But not enough to reconcile them to anything more than a training-and-support strategy in Iraq and Syria – even as it becomes clear that this won’t be sufficient. So when Bashar al-Assad admits his army is depleted and has lost territory, and while Iran’s Revolutionary Guard chief Qasem Soleimani makes interventionist noises in the wake of a series of Syrian government losses, nothing seems to change. The strategy – for all its lack of success – remains: local militias in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Syria.

But then, success is relative. It is largely a matter of what you’re happy to accept. By that measure, perhaps the strategy has succeeded. It’s true ISIS continues to exist. But it’s also true that the Kurds have recaptured most of the lands they’d lost, and that, for now at least, thanks to the US-led air campaign and the Shi’a militias, ISIS is contained. And then there’s life in Baghdad, which, if you believe Nicolas Pelham’s recent account in the New York Review of Books, is returning to something strangely mundane: “less of a failed state than normally depicted … uncannily lacking in trauma.” Pelham notes the minutiae. Police fining drivers whose paperwork isn’t up to scratch. Courts sentencing those who don’t pay. People talking about ISIS in the past tense, while young men blast ISIS-mocking pop songs from their car stereos. Bars and nightclubs open. Literary festivals. Museums re-opening and high-school students touring them for the first time in nearly twenty-five years. New trains. Businesspeople investing their money locally. Suicide bombings down to roughly one a week. Normality, I suppose, is relative too.

The north really is another country. The militias provide a degree of security in the south, but they can’t penetrate ISIS’s northern heartlands. Meanwhile, the Sunnis trapped in ISIS’s régime de la terreur are rapidly growing to detest their brutal overlords, but might just fear the Shi’a to the south even more. This, as Kilcullen notes, is the consequence of Nouri al-Maliki’s disastrously sectarian rule, and it is not easily unwound. All of which raises an obvious question: if life in the south is approaching some version of normal, if ISIS is contained, and if the Sunnis in the north and the Shi’a in the south are so divided and mutually hostile, then why would the Iraqi state bother any longer? Why not say goodbye to the north, and stay resolute in defending the south from any ISIS advance? 

To be sure, that outcome would trouble the West. If Baghdad relies on Tehran-backed militias for its security, then the Iraqi state is beholden to Iran. No doubt Iraq’s prime minister knows this. But it is less clear how Western intervention of the kind Kilcullen proposes would change that. Perhaps he is right to suggest Iraq would rather have American help than Iranian, but that help is clearly not urgently needed in the south. It would make much more difference in the north, but there the Iranians are hardly competing for influence with unbridled vigour. 

A more muscular intervention of the kind Kilcullen advocates would likely prevent Iranian domination of a huge swathe of the region, running from Iran itself right through to Syria. That would no doubt please the Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as Israel and America. But sadly, the politics of the region are never so neat. What, for example, would be the political aftermath? Who would rule the north? Baghdad? The nation formerly known as Iraq is now so deeply rent that any strategy for stronger intervention must surely include a strategy to convince the Sunnis that in spite of everything they’ve suffered at the hands of the recent Iraqi state, things will be different this time. Maybe Prime Minister Abadi can win such an argument. But we would want to be confident before intervening, because it’s unlikely the Sunnis will be in much of a mood to listen to the same Western forces whose invasion took away the dominance they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein. The perception of American–Shi’a collaboration runs deep in Sunni Iraq. And if the Sunni tribes detest the Shi’a enough to put up with ISIS, they might not think much of us, either.

And this, of course, is to say nothing of Syria, which, by consensus, simply must be solved politically should any response to ISIS be successful. Indeed, Kilcullen has as a condition of his military proposal that Assad agree to a political settlement. That much is utterly essential. But it has thus far also proven to be utterly fanciful. The UN is incapable of enforcing anything, thanks to Russian obstruction, and Assad shows no sign of agreeing to a settlement. In any event, such a settlement would need to identify who would control the Sunni parts of Syria – and with all the Sunni turmoil in the region, who could take on this mantle without immediately being besieged by forces as bad as ISIS?

There may be answers to these questions. And if there are, I’d certainly trust Kilcullen to guide me to them. But call me pessimistic. Pessimistic that the noxious politics of the region, which we helped stir up by invading Iraq, will somehow become less noxious with the application of greater military force. Pessimistic about our capacity to navigate these fault-lines, given the trust and political capital we’ve shredded so far. Pessimistic because the relatively successful intervention in the Balkans provides no model for a region as wrecked as this one.

Right now, I can imagine a long-term outcome that leaves a reconfigured Middle East: a Shi’a state in southern Iraq, an Alawite one in what remains of Syria, and a contained ISIS no one is particularly desperate to dislodge as long as the atrocities are confined to those unfortunate enough to be ruled by it. Such reconfigurations are always extremely bloody, and this one would leave in its wake two profoundly evil regimes – maybe three, if Iran gets hold of Baghdad. The human cost will be catastrophic. But the world has shown impeccable form when it comes to ignoring such catastrophes. Assad has been banking on it for years.

I’d like to avoid that. So, in my helplessness, I’m open to being convinced on military intervention. To be sure, we’ve shown we’re not terribly good at it in the Middle East. But there is at least the logical possibility that we’ll do it well the next time. For that, though, we’ll need every question answered. We’ll need to show not merely that a desperate situation exists – that we have to do something – but also that we’re on top of the politics, and that the cure we’re offering won’t end up worse than the disease.


Waleed Aly is a presenter of The Project and a lecturer in politics at Monash University. He is the author of Quarterly Essay 37, What’s Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia, and People Like Us: How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and The West.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 58, Blood Year. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 59, Faction Man.


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