Fighting the fires they lit

Armed with an overwhelming parliamentary endorsement, the British government has joined the United States-led coalition of countries that have been conducting aerial bombings of regions in Syria and Iraq under the control of the Islamic State (IS). The territorial expansion of the regime in Iraq appears to have been halted, at least for the present. Last August the very same Parliament had roundly rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal that Britain intervene militarily in Syria in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against anti-government Syrian forces. Clearly, much has changed in the space of a year. The frenetic growth of the latest and most fierce avatar of jihadist terrorism in the Iraq-Syria region, the rapid export of its ideology to the young and disaffected in Britain and Europe who are joining its fighting forces in droves, the barbaric forms of punishment it employs against its critics, and its access to staggering financial resources — through oil from captured oilfields, and even the plunder and sale of a vast reservoir of antiquities in northern Syria — has given it a presence and strength that poses a direct threat to the region and beyond. Indeed, the protection of the United Kingdom from IS-sponsored acts of terrorism topped the list of reasons Mr. Cameron advanced in his speech to Parliament in justification of British air strikes against IS bases in Iraq. Crafted to win the support of the Labour opposition, the carefully worded motion seeking approval for armed intervention promises that British aircraft will not bomb Syria, and there will be no British “boots on the ground”.

Of a well-considered military plan, a mission-aim, a pullout strategy and a timeframe there was little evidence in Mr. Cameron’s speech; even less so the signs of any political and diplomatic vision of positive intervention. The brutal instances of beheading by IS activists of western journalists and aid workers captured on video and circulated on social media might well turn out to have been a bait by IS to draw the West into a war which in turn could feed an even more virulent brand of jihadism. However, Version 2014 of the Iraq story is an outcrop of Version 2003, when the western alliance declared war against Iraq on the concocted premise of the presence of weapons of mass destruction, destroying a once-prosperous society. This fanned sectarian and religious divides in the country, and created a bubbling groundswell of popular hatred of western governments. Today the same military alliance is struggling to douse the fires that it set 11 years ago — and it may end up stoking them.