Monday, 4 January 2016

Beheadings and beheadings, and how the West has no idea how to react to any of them.

Curious times we live in.

We’re rightly shocked and sickened by the appalling behaviour of ISIS. It has released yet another video of a gruesome beheading of people the group disapproves of. We’re particularly upset in Britain because the main figure has a British accent. It wasn’t that long ago that a drone took out a similar British-accented assassin, so-called Jihadi John. This was presented at the time as a major success for the Western cause, which was to be further reinforced by the Royal Air Force joining in US-led airstrikes against ISIS positions in Syria.

Well, a few weeks on, it seems that those airstrikes haven’t achieved much. Jihadi John’s heir is in place and, apparently, plying his bloody trade just as fiercely as his predecessor. Indeed, those airstrikes aren’t even finding much to do. Planes have had to come back with their weapons unfired for lack of targets. Instead, if they take any useful action, it’s in Iraq supporting the advance of the Iraqi army back into the city of Ramadi.

Iraqi troops retaking Ramadi from ISIS
with support from Western airstrikes that actually served a purpose
Oddly, the government has yet to admit that critics said all along that a campaign of airstrikes in Syria would be useless, until there were forces we could back against ISIS on the ground – as in Iraq. No doubt that’s an oversight by Cameron which he’ll correct as soon as he can, when he admits he got that call wrong.

He’ll no doubt be as keen to admit his error as Blair was to admit his own, and far greater one, of invading Iraq in the first place.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has decided to do some of its own beheading. Like ISIS, it carries them out in public, to make the process as ghoulish as possible. On the other hand, it doesn’t film them or post the videos on-line for the edification of the West – indeed, it goes out of its way to hide what it’s up to, suggesting that it’s rightly ashamed. It also works at quite a scale: fully 47 killed in the latest outrage.

What’s worse is that one of those murdered – executed is far too anodyne a term – is a leading Shia cleric in this Sunni state. Now, he wasn’t a particularly savoury character, by Western standards. He favoured the establishment of a theocratic state, with religious leaders running the state, rather like Iran at its worst. But by killing him, Saudi Arabia made him a martyr. Specifically, a martyr for Iran with its 90% Shia population.

So there have been ugly protests in Tehran, including an invasion of the Saudi embassy. Now Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan, models of democracy all, have joined the Saudis in severing or reducing their diplomatic ties with Iran. On the other side, Iraq, tipped into being another Shia-dominated nation under the tutelage of Iran, following Blair and Dubya’s ingenious invasion of 2003, has come out on the side of its mentor.

Few developments could be more worrying for the whole world, let alone the Middle East, than increasing tensions between the two regional superpowers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And that’s what now’s happening, as a result of the barbaric behaviour of the former. Barbaric behaviour not unlike that of ISIS.

The West doesn’t confuse these two series of killings. So it will do no more than express token regret over the Saudi beheadings. Saudi, of course, has oil and huge financial influence in the West. ISIS has neither, at least for the moment. In addition, the West has a track record of entirely miscalculating the reality of tensions in the Middle East. One can’t help wondering whether distinguishing between the two types of assassination isn’t just a measure of its underlying confusion.

So here are the key questions: was it actually sensible to let governments with that level of incomprehension of the situation in the region, take further military action out there? Or might it have been more judicious to take a little longer to think about alternatives? And if none came to mind, perhaps hold back from ill-judged gestures unlikely to improve matters?

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