This week, Dr Charles Tannock MEP will be meeting the European Union’s representative in Baghdad to discuss the civil war taking place in Iraq and the Union’s response. However, while he will do so as a member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, he makes it clear there is also a dangerous domestic angle to the conflict.
“It’s no longer just about foreign policy,” Charles Tannock says, as he prepares to return to Brussels for the first European Parliament session since the election. “There are several hundred jihadi fighters in Syria and, and we don’t know how many in Iraq, who are EU citizens. It’s quite a serious issue. Some of these have joined up and fought with the jihadis and have come back, radicalised, to turn their anger on the member states.”
We spoke before the release of the chilling video featuring a British citizen from Cardiff encouraging his fellow Muslims to join ISIS’s Islamist army in its campaign against the Iraqi government and the development only goes to reinforce Dr Tannock’s point – unlike the no less dangerous British occupation of the Middle East between the wars, the conflict in Iraq and Syria has very much become a domestic security issue.
There is a grotesque irony to this – George W. Bush took the United States to war with Iraq in 2003 on the wafer-thin pretext that Saddam Hussein’s ‘rogue state’ posed a threat to world security by potentially providing safe haven and assistance to the Islamist terrorists that, as a Ba’athist socialist, he despised. Such a blatant lie would never have stood up in Britain, of course, which is where Tony Blair’s infamous dossier came in. Dr Tannock, like many Conservatives, has been left with something of a sense of buyers’ remorse for having swallowed the story.
“I have to say that a lot of the Brits in the Conservative party were sneering at the French for their huge reservations about the invasion but perhaps they knew a bit more about the region than we did. I supported the war but, if I knew then what I know now, I don’t think I would have been so gung-ho about the whole thing. If Blair said it was about a tyrant massacring his own people, that would be more honest, but more people have probably died as a result of the invasion than Saddam would ever have killed. He was actually pretty quiescent by the end of his years because of the no-fly zones – he wasn’t doing too much about internal repression and killing his own people. People were actually suffering because of the sanctions and it may well have been a wiser course of action to let him peter out.”
British Conservatives’ opinion about the conflict are not the only to have changed, however, with the number of Americans agreeing that the US ‘should mind its own business internationally’ up ten percentage points on a similar poll conducted at the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. This war-weariness which, together with the shale revolution may radically alter US foreign policy, is reflected in President Obama’s cautious approach to the conflict – to the extent of suggesting the US would not even be willing to provide air cover for Nouri al-Maliki’s beleaguered government unless the Prime Minister himself stepped down. There is a very good reason for this, says Dr Tannock.
“He has pursued a very sectarian approach to government and a very repressive campaign in the al-Anbar province. Women and children have been bombed by artillery on the pretext of routing out terrorists. The effect of this is that the population has welcomed ISIS with open arms – it’s a complete mess. Iraq also has the third largest reserves of oil in the world – the amount of money ISIS could make if they got hold of that is frightening but the problem member states have now is, while we don’t want to get sucked into the conflict, we don’t want to turn a blind eye either.”
The threat, indeed, is so great that it wasn’t just during the Argentina game that Brits were reluctantly supporting Iran – the UK has reopened its embassy in Tehran and relations appear to be thawing out of deep freeze a degree or two. “Much as I hate the Iranian regime, I think ISIS is in a league of its own,” Dr Tannock says. “They are a dangerous group intent on exporting extreme versions of sharia law and repressive caliphates across the region and the Christian and Shia population in Iraq is in grave danger as a result. The Kurds have managed to put up a cordon sanitaire in the north but, had they not done so, Christians and other minorities could have been wiped out.
“But I’m very nervous about this tactical alliance with Iran,” he adds. “The enemy of your enemy is not always your friend, as the Americans found when they backed the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. The Iranians have been destabilising countries with Shia majorities for a long time now and, in Bahrain, they even tried to overthrow the monarch there. They would love to overthrow the Saudis and, in Syria, they support Assad because he is from a Shia offshoot background.”
This sectarianism within Iraq, a federal state, could end with the country being partitioned into three different parts, Dr Tannock adds, with the silver lining for the Kurds being they may finally achieve the longed-for dream of an independent Kurd state in the north. “I suspect what we are going to end up with is a war of attrition and stalemate with Iraq disintegrating into three different states. It’s worth recalling the British promised the Kurds a state in 1922 and the autonomous region in the north of Iraq has been a model of stability and democracy in the region in recent years. We can be grateful to the Kurds that they kicked the Islamists out of Kirkuk and protected the Christians so they should be rewarded for that.”