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Only unity will defeat extremism

4 min read

Crossbench peer Lord Rana explains why the West must resist polarisation and division in the fight against Isis. 

As we approach the Commons vote on extending airstrikes to Syria, we still reel in horror and shock over Paris – will we be the next target? How do we combat ISIS? Do we intervene? What is our responsibility to help and protect? What should be done about Assad? There is a lack of consensus on how to approach the largest terrorist organisation and refugee crisis since World War II.

Having lived in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles, I have all too frequently encountered deeds of a similar nature to those committed by ISIS – targeted atrocities that seek to sow division and hate, to split the world between black and white.  Yet the world is more often than not coloured in shades of grey. I have found that solutions are more than often found in the determination to come together and move forward in a spirit of compromise, and resisting an “us” and “them” mentality.

Although the difficulties we face in Syria and with ISIS contrast heavily to those in Northern Ireland, there are three important lessons to be drawn. First, conflict is never black and white. Second, compromise and the cessation of hostilities must engage all parties equally; it must reach out to win hearts and minds. Finally, diplomacy and conflict resolution are ongoing processes; there are no hard or fast solutions.

With these lessons in mind, the Prime Minister’s approach to Syria outlined last week should be broadly welcomed. Cameron has set out a long term plan that is predicated upon defence at home; inclusive diplomatic and political processes towards transition in Syria; further humanitarian aid; and military action against ISIS. It is not enough for the UK to stand by idly, to watch ISIS terrorise innocent civilians in Iraq, Syria and abroad, while we wash our hands of refugees. Yet indiscriminate bombing without local support and political compromise will achieve nothing.  Intervention must be part of a wider resolution among all parties to end ISIS’ reign of terror and bring peace to the region.

But it is in Syria that the hardest of all compromises will have to be made, as all parties have different visions for the future of Syria – Turkey’s downing of Russia’s jet has added the most recent complications to this process. Cameron has re-iterated that the removal of Assad through political transition is necessary for peace in Syria, and that “we cannot win over majority Sunni opinion… if we suddenly change position”. Yet, the conflict in Syria is far more complex: it is political, sectarian but also above all socioeconomic – Removing Assad is not a universal panacea.

A recent study has noted that, despite the large number of Sunnis, the Syrian Officers Corps and Public Services alarming loyalty to Assad. Sectarian ties alone do not account for Assad’s survival.  In addition to Iranian and Russian support, the regimes patrimonial form of social mobility has engendered loyalty within broad social groups.  Any political transition must focus on these wide ranging causes and appreciate various non-sectarian divisions within Syrian Society.  The compromise in Northern Ireland required the same difficult co-operation, the need to delicately piece society back together from its polarized state.

ISIS plays upon this same polarisation.  The group’s millenarianism and its eschatological beliefs pit it against the West in an apocalyptical battle.  The division of the world between haqq and batil - truth and falsehood - attempts to polarise the world and other Muslims.  It is no coincidence that the Paris attackers entered Europe with refugees, it seeks to divide the world, to turn us against those we should help.  It wants to create a utopian caliphate for those we would reject. Academic analysis of ISIS’ media output has shown that only 5 percent of the imagery it produces is violent, the majority builds an image of a functioning state.  It disseminates images of an idealistic caliphate, of serenity and repentance, alongside the victimisation of muslims by the West. 

It is wrong to think further military involvement will merely deepen this divide, that to attack the Islamic State is to play into their trap. For IS this divide already exists: the beheadings, and attacks on Paris are emblematic of this; their existence as a state is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The UK must show the Middle East that we are committed to the peace process, through our involvement at Vienna; further humanitarian aid and support; but also our commitment to defending all those at risk against ISIS at home and abroad.  It is a battle of hearts and minds.  Thus the UK’s challenge is to demonstrate it is willing to commit before the end is in sight and show that we stand together. Further involvement is needed to show that this division between them and us is an illusion.

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