Once again, the Middle East is in flames. The Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is overrunning cities across Iraq and Syria. Last week, IS was on the outskirts of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and its militants were circling Iraq’s Yazidi minority, threatening them with genocide. At this point, the United States belatedly decided to intervene and is currently bombing IS outposts.
The collapse of Iraq – what should in fact be called Iraq-Syria as their crises are linked – raises two important questions. The first: Why has Western strategy been so incoherent towards the region? The second: Where can Canada play a part?
Governments from Washington to Berlin have continued to back autocracy in the name of stability in the Middle East, precisely the same strategy that gave us the Gadhafis and Mubaraks of previous decades. After the Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi lit himself on fire to protest his government’s corruption, and street protests cascaded across the region, the United States decided to take a case-by-case approach that screamed confusion: Tunisia’s and Egypt’s revolutions were supported and Libya’s rebels militarily backed while protestors in Bahrain and Syria were left at the mercy of brutal government militias.
In Syria, the West called for Assad to go but did nothing to support the Syrian opposition, which then become beholden to jihadist funding from the Gulf. Like so many revolutions before it, Syria’s was hijacked by an extremist group that was better organized and better armed than all other rebel factions.
In Iraq, the West reaffirmed its support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an imperious leader who repeatedly used his office to exclude, then target Iraq’s minorities. He alienated the Kurds, threatened the Sunnis, and was in the pocket of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, even allowing Iran to use Iraqi airspace to bolster its ally in Damascus. What Mr. Maliki represented was not federalist, republican democracy but Shiite autocracy.
All of this meant that the United States and its partners were backing Iran’s man in Iraq; opposing Assad to little effect; shelving the human rights agenda in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates; and doubling-down on the alliance with Saudi Arabia. In the middle, state structures were collapsing and chasms were opening up, which the Islamic State moved to fill.
The jihadist death cult that calls itself an ‘Islamic’ state has amputated limbs, forced minorities to choose between conversion and death, indiscriminately killed Shiites, and taken the wives of the men they have slaughtered as brides. The word ‘evil’ is difficult for journalists to say, since it seems to convey intellectual simplicity. But even this word does not approach the monstrosity that is the Islamic State, an entity that can be confronted only through direct military means. There is no negotiating with IS. Either they win or we do – we being both Muslims and non-Muslims who envisage a tolerant and pluralist Middle East. To say that Western countries have an obligation to assist our friends in Kurdistan and Syria and Iraq is to recognize reality.
Canada has a role to play here and it is on refugee assistance. For decades, Canada has opened its vast borders to refugees and dissidents escaping the nightmares of totalitarianism. Today, there are almost 20,000 Iraqi refugees living within our borders, but barely 200 Syrian refugees. Many thousands more Syrian and Iraqi refugees must be allowed in and the process must be expedited. The Syrian civil war alone has displaced more than three million people who now live in squalid refugee camps; that the largest democracy in the world by physical size has only accepted 200 of them is morally contemptible.
This December will mark the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring. Through these years, many millions of Arabs have been maimed, killed, or displaced fighting dictators Western governments supported. While the battle for democracy and individual rights will continue for decades, the sacrifice made by so many Arabs – most of them youth – must not and cannot end with a caliph named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.