If the world won’t take on ISIL, what will we fight for?

We can't stand by while ISIL, with whom we will never be able to negotiate, threatens millions around the world, argues Sholto Byrnes

If anyone had predicted in early 2013 that the world would soon countenance the creation of a terrorist state in the Middle East, they would surely have been dismissed as peddling apocalyptic fantasy. If they had gone on to say that this state would grow to take in huge swaths of Syria and Iraq, and would later establish an exclave including 240 kilometres of the Libyan coast less than 500 kilometres from Europe, they would have been confirmed as delusional.

And yet that, in the form of the areas controlled by ISIL, is exactly what has come to pass. Under the eyes of billions, a true terrorist state – one that rules through terror and that all too successfully exports terror around the world; one that has revived slavery, legitimises rape and raises children to believe that blowing themselves up in order to murder others is morally praiseworthy.

No one yet recognises it as such; although the odd pragmatism-addled ultra-realist has foreseen the day when we will regard the men in black as people with whom we can do business. But it functions as a state, both taxing and providing services such as schools and hospitals.

Indeed, the United States defence secretary, Ashton Carter, recently boasted of how American forces are “systematically eliminating ISIL’s cabinet” after announcing the death of the group’s minister of finance, weeks after his colleague who held the war portfolio had also been taken out. “The momentum of this campaign is now clearly on our side,” said Mr Carter.

Despite territorial gains against ISIL, Mr Carter’s optimism is badly misplaced, not least because this is clearly not a situation where the removal of a few leaders can deliver an oppressed people from their tyrannical yoke. ISIL’s followers are fully signed up to the doctrine of oppression.

But Mr Carter also drastically underestimates the gravity of what has happened. Never in the past 100 years, not for centuries perhaps, has the world tolerated the establishment of a terrorist state. There have been countries labelled as such, for sure – Libya, for example. But a propensity for terrorism was not inherent in the state itself. The three provinces that make up the country have histories and identities dating back to antiquity. Whether it was wise to join them into one may be debatable. The legitimacy of Libya’s constituent parts, however, is not.

It was, primarily, the late Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s support for international terrorism that led his country to be so designated. And it was a description that could be, and was, removed after he came in from the cold and agreed to give up his weapons of mass destruction programme in 2003.

The area controlled by ISIL is different. It has no historical claim to the lands over which it casts its shadow. It has not come about through an act of national self-determination. It has no legitimacy of any kind. It is a state defined solely by its terrorism, both against its subjects and those it seeks to intimidate and kill across the globe.

It is extraordinary that the international community has sat back and allowed this monstrosity, built on a stomach-churning perversion of a religion of peace, tolerance and culture, to emerge; rather as if in the 1970s the Red Brigades had managed to take over a chunk of Europe, or the island of Cyprus, say, and everyone had just shrugged and said that there wasn’t much anyone could really do about it.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary responses. Which is why, for possibly the first time in my life, I find myself saying this: I agree with Tony Blair.

I was firmly against many of the former British prime minister’s policies at home in the UK, and I deplored his liberal interventionist foreign policy forays, both the invasion of Afghanistan (we were right to go after Al Qaeda, but not to intervene in a civil war dating back to the 1970s) and that of Iraq.

But when in a Sunday Times article, he called for the West to combine with regional forces and "crush" ISIL, I could not disagree with him. "We must build military capability able to confront and defeat the terrorists wherever they try to hold territory," he wrote. "Ground forces are necessary to win this fight and ours are the most capable."

Mr Blair rightly pointed out that decisive action should be Arab-led. There would be many challenges: convincing local people in Syria and Iraq that this would not be a war against Sunnis, as ISIL would undoubtedly try to paint it; planning properly for the aftermath; coordinating allies with different strategic interests and sometimes opposing views about the forces already fighting ISIL.

I am generally wary of intervention, for all sorts of reasons, not least the strong chance that it leaves countries in a worse state than they were before. But that could not possibly be the case in areas subjected to the barbarity of ISIL’s rule. Similarly, the sentiment “something must be done” can too easily lead to hasty action with little thought of the consequences.

But Mr Blair is right. We can no longer stand by while ISIL, with whom we will never be able to negotiate, threatens millions around the world. Its ability to sow death and destruction appears to be little impeded by the air strikes on its Mesopotamian heartland. It is, yes, time to “crush” it. If the international community will not gather to exterminate this new abhorrence, one may well ask: What on Earth will we fight for?

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National