I spent a few days last week in Iraq and Saudi Arabia leading a delegation of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. We were rushed from airport to meeting after meeting in armoured vehicles, wearing body armour and helmets at the ready. Personal protection officers bristling with weapons seemed to us a bit ‘over the top’ until we heard of two suicide bombs in Baghdad the day we left killing about 40 people. Baghdad is like a mediaeval fortress – concrete walls and barbed wire, destroyed luxury hotels, people living in constant fear of bombs and bullets.
We are trying to come up with some ideas to help end the bloody conflict across the region, which has been raging in one form or another for a hundred years and more. We hear of Ramadi, a town of 500,000 recently ‘liberated’ from Daesh, who destroyed 80% of the houses before they left, rigging up booby traps in the others. Returning refugees are routinely blown up when they flush their lavatories or open their bread bins. All of the talk was of a full-scale assault on the Daesh heartlands in Mosul- a town of over a million people, which could no doubt expect the same treatment as Ramadi. The Mosul Dam was a particular area of concern- currently in Coalition hands and being repaired by Italian contractors. But should Daesh retake it and smash it, the destruction would be on a horrific scale – tens, probably hundreds of thousands of people would be drowned, Mosul and Baghdad completely inundated.
The battle of course has partly moved to Syria, where we welcomed the ceasefire, but are a bit cynical about whether or not it can ‘hold’, with the Russians reserving the right to continue bombing anyone they deem to be ‘terrorists.’ There is some suspicion that they mean anyone opposed to President Bashar Al Assad by that. Meanwhile their new best friends, the Kurds in Northern Syria are being shelled by NATO members, Turkey, who perhaps not unreasonably hate the terrorist Kurdish elements, while quite wrongly conflating them with the Peshmerga who are one of our greatest allies in the region.
The whole thing is a complete mess, and anyone who claims to have an answer to it is fooling themselves or their listeners. It will take a generation or more, and who knows what will be left after that? Meanwhile, the war against Daesh has moved onto Libya, Kenya some were predicting, Mali. And of course it is here in Europe in the form of the millions of homeless heading our way, and in the form of Daesh outrages on our streets.
No-one has a solution. But it is right and important that all of us should put our minds to trying to find one. Only by visiting these places, having meetings with the military, with the diplomats, with the Sheikhs, and with ordinary people can we western politicians begin to get a handle on what is going on. Those poor people need all the help they can get, and it is our historic duty to try to find what we can do for them.