Seumas Milne Guardian/UK 13 August 2014
Barely two years after US forces were withdrawn from Iraq, they’re back in action. Barack Obama has now become the fourth US president in a row to launch military action in Iraq. We’re now into the sixth day of US air attacks on the self-styled Islamic State, formerly known as Isis – the sectarian fundamentalists who have taken over vast tracts of Sunni Iraq and are carrying out vicious ethnic cleansing against minorities in the north.
The victims of this sectarian onslaught need urgent humanitarian aid and refuge. But the idea that the states that invaded and largely destroyed Iraq at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives should claim the cause of humanitarianism for yet another military intervention in Iraq beggars belief.
But of course it’s not just about the Yazidis or the Christians. As Obama has made clear, they’re something of a side issue compared with the defence of the increasingly autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan – long a key US and unofficial Israeli ally – and American interests in its oil boom capital Irbil, in particular. The US is back in Iraq for the long haul, the president signalled, spelling out that his aim is to prevent IS establishing “some sort of caliphate through Syria and Iraq” – which is exactly what the group regards itself as having done.
The idea that the states responsible for at least 500,000 deaths, 4 million refugees, mass torture and ethnic cleansing in Iraq over the past decade should now present themselves as having a “responsibility to protect” Iraqis verges on satire. The majority of Iraq’s million-strong Christian community was in fact forced out of the country under US-British occupation. The state sectarianism that triggered the Sunni revolt and rise of IS in Iraq – the ultimate blowback – was built into the political structures set up by George Bush.
Britain and the US – which didn’t want to “take sides” when Egypt’s coup leaders carried out one of the largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in history last summer – are the last countries on Earth to bring humanitarian relief to Iraq. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have a responsibility to provide aid. But the record of western humanitarian intervention over the past two decades isn’t a happy one. In 1991, no-fly zones in Iraq allowed massacres of Shia rebels in the south and only functioned with thousands of troops on the ground in Kurdistan, followed by 12 years of bombing raids.
In 1999, Nato’s air campaign in Kosovo, also without UN authorisation, triggered a massive increase in the ethnic cleansing it was meant to halt. In Libya, in 2011, Nato’s intervention ratcheted up the death toll by a factor of about 10 and gave cover for rampant ethnic cleansing and indiscriminate killing. Its legacy today is complete state breakdown and civil war.
It might be said that the latest US bombing campaign in Iraq has greater legitimacy because the Iraqi government appealed for support. But it did so back in June, after which Obama stayed his hand until the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, could be replaced with someone more acceptable to the US.
At the same time, US arms are now being supplied directly to Kurdish forces, independently of the central government, fuelling the disintegration of the Iraqi state. And IS – whose sectarian ideology is in reality only a more violent version of the Saudi regime’s, the west’s most important ally in the Arab world – is consolidating its hold on western Iraq and eastern Syria, where it is in effect allied with the US and its friends.
Selective humanitarian intervention without UN and regional authorisation is simply a tool of power politics, not solidarity. To imagine that the solution to the disastrous legacy of one intervention is to launch yet another is delusional folly. Its rise is a tragedy for both peoples. But another round of US and British military intervention would only strengthen IS and boost its credibility – as well as increase the risk of terror attacks at home. The likelihood is that it can only be overcome by a functioning state in both Iraq and Syria. That in turn demands a decisive break with the sectarian and ethnic politics bequeathed by a decade of war and intervention. [Abridged] Twitter: @SeumasMilne