The Guardian recently reported that Major General Tim Cross, the most senior British officer involved in post-war planning in Iraq, echoed sentiments previously expressed by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter when he said that the collapse of the town of Ramadi showed that the Iraqi army lacked the will to fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
Cross framed his criticism in terms of “moral cohesion,” suggesting that the Iraqi forces lacked both the effective leadership and motivation to achieve defined objectives in the region.
Such remarks, though accurate, strike an ironic chord in light of the seemingly confused objectives that underpin Western policy toward both ISIS and Iran. Indeed, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Suleimani, turned Carter’s criticism back on him, saying that the U.S. “hadn’t done a damn thing” to stop the ISIS advance on Ramadi and had shown no interest in seriously contributing to its defense. He went on to claim that Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy, its proxies, and its allies were the only forces that had shown a true willingness to take a proactive role in the fight against ISIS.
We should pay close attention to Suleimani’s taunts. The overall lack of Western leadership in the Middle East and the perception of a diminished British role in that region threaten to have serious consequences if uncorrected. There can be no doubt that the Tehran regime is seeking to fill the power vacuum left by an ineffectual Iraqi military and an equivocal Western response.
As a consequence, the conflict is taking on increasingly stark sectarian dimensions, marginalizing moderate actors and diminishing the possibility of a repeat of the “Anbar Awakening” of moderate Sunnis that helped beat back Iraqi militants during the Second Gulf War.
British and American concerns about becoming mired in another Middle Eastern war are understandable; but both history and current events demonstrate that placing troops on the ground in Iraq is not the only way for Western powers to demonstrate moral cohesion. Furthermore, it is illusory to believe that allowing Tehran to take the lead in the fight against ISIS will ultimately lead to a stable Iraq.
What both Britain and the U.S. should be doing is to encourage a new and much broader awakening of the forces of moderation, not just in Iraq but throughout the Middle East.
There should be no doubt in the West that Tehran is using its proxies to compete with ISIS for dominance in Iraq, Syria and the wider Middle East. Iran has absolutely no interest in defeating and degrading the Islamic fundamentalism that is threatening the region.
The West should understand this reality and seek to forge a strategy that gives the nations of the Middle East back to their own people, supports popular democratic aspiration and helps build strong democratic institutions.
A true will to fight will be on display on June 13 in Paris, when the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the democratic coalition of Iranian opposition groups, holds its annual rally against the destabilizing policies of the theocratic regime in Tehran. Last year’s gathering was attended by almost 100,000 Iranian expatriates and their international supporters. The rally was an indication of the extent of the often marginalized networks which, however, enjoy significant popular support that exist both in and beyond the Middle East and which work for democratic progress in Iran and throughout the region.
The Iranian resistance, the Free Syrian Army, and the other moderate Middle Eastern movements that will be represented at this year’s event attract support from a range of British and American political figures and jurists, as well as from representatives of other liberal democracies. Many will be voicing that support at the Paris rally; but more support of this kind is needed if Western nations are to be able to show moral cohesion on a broad scale. Without explicit support for groups such as the NCRI, Britain will never truly confront the brand of Islamic fundamentalism that ISIS represents.
To do so requires more than simply making common cause with those with whom we believe we share common enemies. It requires examining the motivation, leadership and objectives of all those on all sides of the conflict, and then putting the full force of Western leadership behind those who best align with our democratic values and ideals.
If we are to seek moral cohesion from the combatants in the region, we must first understand the need to show moral clarity ourselves.
The Rt Hon. David Jones, Secretary of State for Wales (2012-14), is a Conservative member of the House of Commons and a leading member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom (BPCIF), www.iran-freedom.org