Islamic State was born in Iraq - our last misguided Middle Eastern military campaign

So after all the rhetoric and spin, despite 97% of Scotland's representatives voting against, Scotland is again involved in what I believe to be a misguided military adventure in the Middle East. I fear for the future, there and here, and I struggle to see much cause for optimism. The stated aim of the intervention, to tackle the odious gathering of psychopaths, misogynists and gangsters which calls itself the Islamic State will I fear prove entirely counterproductive.


First published in The Sunday Herald, 18 October 2015

A citizen journalist from Aleppo I hosted in Brussels likened attacking ISIS in isolation to trying to take down someone by targeting his shadow. Unless we put a lot more resource into understanding the reasons how ISIS came to be, how it exists and how it gains support, bombing (even assuming the bombs reach their targets) is targeting the symptoms, not the root cause.

ISIS was born in Iraq, our last misguided Middle Eastern military campaign. The effective exclusion of the Sunni political elite from post-Saddam Iraq's power structures created a feeling of marginalisation amongst Sunnis. Existing sectarian tensions were inflamed by foreign funding and support, notably from Iran and the Gulf States, and as the country descended into anarchy, security could no longer be guaranteed by Baghdad, then the beast gained its own momentum. In the dangerous, desperate disaster Western foreign policy helped create, it is little wonder violent men with violent ways came to the fore.

Iraq and Syria share a lawless border four times as long as the Scottish-English border. In the aftermath of the Syrian revolution, from April 2013 ISIS established itself in Syria, in its easternmost, poorest parts: Raqaa and Der-Ezzor. In Syria, it is crucial also to remember that ISIS has been partly propped up by the Assad regime both because it is a handy extra set of guns against the opposition, and as a scarecrow to divert international focus from Assad's crimes against his own population. All violence is abhorrent, but the deaths from Assad regime far outnumber deaths by ISIS. Estimates are of course difficult, but it is thought between seven and ten people die at the hands of the Assad regime for every one person killed by ISIS. Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, barrel bombs and vacuum bombs are all being used against civilians on a daily basis.

As evidenced in the notorious Caesar Report I exhibited at the European Parliament last July, the Assad regime should also be held accountable for crimes against humanity perpetrated at a massive scale. According to this UN-backed report, 11,000 Syrians – men and women, Christians, Alawites and Sunnis alike, were tortured to death in two of Assad's military hospitals. ISIS does not have a monopoly on barbarism.

Indeed, ISIS controlled territory has been largely untouched by Assad's bombers and death squads. In the upside down conflagration Syria has become, this actually means that ISIS controlled territory is comparatively safer to live in than opposition held territory subject to daily Assad regime, and more lately Russian, air strikes. The population that lives under ISIS-rule is overwhelmingly opposed to its abhorrent practices, but also sees populated cities like Aleppo, Idlib, Hama or suburban Damascus are under constant shelling by Syrian and Russian jetfighters. Bombing ISIS in Syria will not solve the fact Syrians are not safe under Assad's bombers. The only logical consequence is that still more will flee and become refugees.

What is worse is that the stated aim of the Russian intervention - fighting ISIS - is a demonstrable cynical lie. Russian jets have targeted the rebels, the very forces who have acquired invaluable experience in fighting ISIS on the ground since 2013. Last Sunday a market was bombed leaving 40 people dead, while last month a dozen field hospitals were targeted, according to Doctors Without Borders.

If we are serious about tackling ISIS then we must also tackle the Assad regime. The world community must force it to finally stop bombing its opposition, engage in a dialogue as it formally vowed to during the Geneva talks, and shift from a military solution to a political compromise in the interest of the country. The omens are not good. So far it has not upheld any of its truces, even under pressure from the UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan and the Arab League in 2012. Bringing all parties to the table remains the only viable strategy, including Iran, as in the Vienna talks. Involving the Kurds would also be welcome - the more inclusive, the better for the region's future.

The families of the victims, some of whom I have met, expect more from us than to just bomb ISIS in the desert. Dropping a few bombs is easy, building a sustainable peace will be long and hard.

I therefore welcome the UN's request to the Scottish Government to hold a conference in Scotland with women’s voices for peace in Syria. The ravages of war have left Syria without legitimate representatives: neither Assad, nor the rebels nor indeed ISIS represent Syria's incredible diversity and talent. I have met voices from all religious and social backgrounds that aspire to a democratic and peaceful Syria. That is where we ought to engage, and there may well be a military component to any future efforts but it cannot be the first place we go to. Let's give Syria's children a future. Let's learn from our past mistakes and respect the real aspirations of the Middle East: peace, justice and equality.

Alyn Smith MEP, Scottish member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament and a member of the delegations for relations with Iraq and the Arab Peninsula.