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The Middle East: is there a way forward?

Image credit: www.fightersweep.com

At the time of writing, France is sending the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (above), the French flagship and the largest Western European warship, to the Middle East to join Russia’s bombing campaign. The fact that a NATO member is currently joining a sustained attack on ISIS with Putin’s Russia, a country that is still occupying the Crimean peninsula and fighting a proxy war in eastern Ukraine on Europe’s frontier, is itself a testament to how radically the situation has changed with the recent atrocities in Paris. Russia has begun to help Assad in Syria since the outbreak of civil war there while the United States of America continues to fund the opposition, thus producing another proxy war, in this case against the United States. Yet now the west is turning to this proto-fascist to make a Faustian bargain to maintain order at its borders.

This would have been less likely to have happened, had America not been turning away from its position as de facto leader of the free world. Under President Obama, the United States has moved from the destructive yet consistent policies of Bush to an incoherent debacle. President Obama no longer wishes to repair relations with the Muslim world. Instead his administration supports the populist uprisings of the Arab Spring. Now however there is a new stage in this evolution of policy, in the form of attempting to contain ISIS’s “caliphate”. To much international commendation, Russia has emerged as the active nation, actively taking the fight to the extremists, while America made vague threats about hypothetical ‘red lines’.

The NATO alliance is not only fracturing due to weak American leadership; Britain seems to be drifting further and further away from the mainstream European view, as Brexit becomes more likely and the British economy continues to reap the benefits of being outside the Eurozone. The refugee crisis is tearing apart the nations within the Schengen agreement and many EU countries are having their economies ruined by EU measures to keep the Euro afloat.

The Paris terrorist attacks appear not in a political vacuum but in a febrile international context, in which the world seems to be in flux. We haven’t seen an attack on this scale in Europe since the 7/7 bombings in London, eight years ago, yet those attacks were not propagated by a faux-state that is now issuing its own currency and is at the borders of Turkey (and, by extension, NATO). In that time the West was still in its relative pomp; undiminished by the financial crisis, unchallenged by Russia and not yet truly traumatised by its misguided venture in Iraq. Moreover, ISIS, even more so than Al-Qaeda, is the antithesis to the values the West (at least in theory) holds dear; as shown the barbarism of its acts in its videos which creates a greater sense of horror but also fear.

The question that must be asked however is, where do we go from here? Despite the ‘War on Terror’ and the fact that it is fourteen years since the start of the war in Afghanistan, we seem to be no closer to achieving the security which is so badly desired. Indeed, it’s been disclosed recently that in the last twelve months there have been seven terrorist plots foiled in Britain alone. Furthermore the instability in the Middle East isn’t subsiding with the old neuralgic Shia-Sunni schism, something alive and well in the atavistic cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who both, regardless of domestic concerns, do little to maintain any semblance of stability.

Perhaps the only real strategy we have left is to assert the values by which we stand, the values that are the foundations of our society; secularism, liberalism and democracy. In modern Britain, a lot is made of this supposedly pusillanimous liberalism; it’s become, in much of our society, associated with a bizarre form of alleged ‘cultural appeasement’. This, being based around lots of anecdotal evidence involving the supposed banning of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and the apparent replacement of Christmas with ‘Winterval’, is according to various stories appearing in the press.

In reality, secular liberalism isn’t weak or fatuous. It is the best defence we have against ISIS. Its most basic tenement is the equality of treatment, irrelevant of race, religion or creed. It incorporates democracy and secularism and this is why ISIS and Boko Haram and plenty of other extremists of all breeds, whether Islamist or white Neo-Nazi, hate it. Because of its inherent pacifism and its rationalism, it is the complete opposite of the medieval clericalism of ISIS and it must be used as a beacon against their atrocities.

To do so, it would involve a coherent and united Western response; despite all of the stagnation since the global financial crisis, NATO still has immense military and financial muscle and must start to direct in the direction of ISIS. To rely on Russia’s support would be foolish and would allow President Putin to entrench the gains he has made. The combined military spending of all NATO members is over seventy per cent of the total military spending in the world. There should be a combined hard and soft approach to tackling global extremism; whenever the West sends military aid to Iraq they should also support schools which teach democratic and anti-extremist views.

The fact that Britain is now committed to spending 0.7% of its GDP on foreign aid should be exploited in order to spread more liberal ideas such as the emancipation of women, democracy and free markets. ‘Hearts and minds’ strategies are just as important, if not more so, than the military ones for preventing the spread of extremism. After all, the overwhelming number of victims of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram and their poisonous ideologies are Muslims themselves.