Stopping Islamic State in Iraq: parallels with Vietnam

The ongoing disaster that is Iraq continues. When the Americans (with British help) invaded Iraq in 2003 I must confess to feeling it has the potential to become another Vietnam. As time has gone on that appearance has strengthened centrally in that like Vietnam the Americans would have been wiser not to invade and having made that error the best way to compound it was to leave.

The spectacle in Vietnam involved refugees and poor treatment of the old South Vietnamese regime supporters by the conquering North. The full horror of the debacle in Southeast Asia was of course in Cambodia with the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge.

Although history does not really repeat itself the parallels with Iraq are becoming progressively more accurate.

The beginnings of a new collation against the Islamic State militants may be developing but until now the Iraqi army have been notably powerless against Islamic State. Most of the militant’s heavy weapons are modern US ones left behind by the fleeing Iraqi army.

The west seems to be pinning much of their hopes in stopping Islamic State on the Kurdish regional government in Iraq and its forces. Britain has suggested a willingness to arm them as both the USA and France already have done so. Whether the Kurdish forces can stop the Islamic State fighters is open to some debate: much of their current weaponry is fairly old. In addition they are more used to guerrilla operations than retaking and holding territory in a classic military fashion. Although not the most conventional news source Vice News analyses the problems well here.

The one group in the region that has demonstrated an ability to fight and defeat militant Islamists has been the Syrian Army along with their allies in Hezbollah. The Syrian government has not fought ISIS that much and something of a Mexican standoff has developed between the two groups fuelling some conspiracy theorists claims that Assad is allowing them to defeat his other opponents. That may well be partly true but the simple fact is that the most effective regional military force capable of taking on Islamic State is the Syrian army. The Syrian government has already made this point and rejected any suggestion of its support for Islamic State.

Hilary Clinton’s claim that more proactive American involvement in the Syrian civil war to defeat Assad’s forces would have prevented the development of ISIS seems highly unlikely. It is maybe time for the west to realise (as is seems have many Syrians) that the devil you know is in this case much better than the devil you don’t (or now know only too well).

In light of the slow, incremental but progressive ability of the Syrian army to defeat its opponents over the last two years of the civil war they are probably the West’s best option to defeat Islamic State; if they are not willing to send in troops themselves. Again the analogy with Vietnam is haunting. It was the Vietnamese who finally ended the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.

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