Iraq crisis: the West now faces a world beyond known extremes
As a psychotic Sunni jihadist state establishes itself on the border of Turkey, it is clear America is losing control of the Middle East
By Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent
9:46PM BST 11 Jun 2014
Events in northern Iraq are a fearsome demonstration of what has become ever clearer over the last three years: America is losing control of the Middle East.
A region seen since the discovery of oil as the central pivot of Western international policy is victim to raging wars which Washington and its allies are powerless to stop. Parts are beyond the remit of any government at all.
It may be of little consolation to President Obama and certainly no mitigation for his critics, but everyone else is losing control too.
Mr Obama used a speech in Cairo five years ago this month to announce an American change of heart towards the region, offering a gentler, kinder engagement than his predecessor’s.
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He envisaged his listeners forging their own path, resetting their own order, and that is essentially what has happened. It is just a messier and more sectarian process than he foresaw.
The governments of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, and more nefarious agents somehow working with them, have relentlessly promoted their proxies, heedless of calls for restraint. Those proxies are killing without mercy.
Al-Qaeda, which for so long we thought was the West’s gravest foe, has been outflanked. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has taken on the hostility to the western world of its parent and added into the mix the capture of territory and a toolbox of terror from beyond the known extremes: kidnappings, beheadings, crucifixions.
Whoever “wins” the war in Syria, whatever that now means, will be ruling a country over the east of which it is hard to see any Damascus-based government regaining authority.
As for Iraq, to say that its rulers have proved inadequate to the task of maintaining sovereignty and unity since the British and Americans began pulling out troops would be a euphemism. Western diplomats lavished praise on them for two successful elections even as they lost a third of the country to jihadists. Another slice, run by the resilient and better-organised Kurdish autonomists, has effectively declared independence.
Eight long years ago President George W. Bush hoped his “surge” would see off the jihadi threat to his administration’s signature project, the democratisation of Iraq. Now a jihadi surge, specifically aimed at replacing democracy with a caliphate, has knocked the plan sideways.
In the immediate future, this may all seem to make little difference to the West. We have been told the main threat to our way of life is “the returning fighters”, those idealistic young Sunni Muslims from Bradford and Portsmouth who have headed off to join in the fight for their faith, and become radicalised and trained.
They themselves insist they do not need to return home: they now have a Dawla Islamiya, an Islamic State, to call their own. It is “beautiful, you should see it”, declared one Briton the other day on Twitter to anyone who was listening.
That was about the same time a colleague was posting a picture of the bloodied corpse of a recipient of ISIS justice being suspended by his arms and legs from a signpost in the Syrian town of Raqqa.
The response from London and Washington, which oversaw the birth of post-Saddam Iraq, has been muted. The White House said there would be no immediate statement to the latest ISIS advance.
The Foreign Office offered its full support to the Iraqi authorities; at the same time David Cameron said military support was “just not on the table”. That coincidence of statements neatly summarised the current state of western policy: we will do absolutely everything to achieve what we want in the Middle East, except what it takes.
Some will ask is this really how a century of western policy is to end? Is this the purpose for which so many thousands of British, American and other lives have been lost?
There is a view that with fracking and new oil and gas reserves being discovered in hitherto little explored parts of the world we no longer need the Middle East. That is a nice theory.
But it is hard to countenance our standing by while a psychotic Sunni jihadist state establishes itself on the border of Turkey, a Nato ally, and neatly interposing itself between Israel and Iran. Does anyone really believe that we will not be back?