Islamic State Militants Patrol Syrian Border

Photo: Corbis/Medyan Dairieh

Owen Smith: the Jihadi Whisperer

Owen Smith, current contender for the Labour Party leadership, recently made the suggestion that an inclusive approach to negotiation over Syria would be the best way forward. The inference here is that individuals representing Islamic State (IS) would be involved in future talks as “all solutions to these international crises do come about through dialogue”.

by Lay von Mann   31/08/2016              

This article is a guest post and was first published on the author's blog - Layman's Review.

Smith is right in saying that dialogue and a shared stake in stability are crucial to creating a sustainable, and stable peace. The Treaty of Versailles, in which a post-war Germany  suffered due to the terms, is testament to the idea that a “dictated peace” can merely sow seeds for the next conflict. But context is everything, and no process can be applied universally or without an understanding of each individual scenario. Negotiation is crucial, yes, but IS should not be involved; a decision that is due to ideological and humanitarian considerations, as much as it is due to the political realities on the ground in Syria and Iraq.


Ideology plays a key role here. It is actually quite arrogant of us in the West to expect that IS would deign to enter negotiations with a puppet of Satan. The foundational premise of IS is that it wishes to impose a Caliphate or “Islamic State”, that promotes an extremist interpretation of Islam, and wishes to apply it universally, and in direct objection to the decadence and hypocrisy of the West. Never mind the hypocrisy involved in suggesting that a Western patriarchal system should be replaced by slavery and mass-rape for apostates and non-believers, what legitimacy IS has rests on its zealotry, and compromise with third parties is probably going to put a dent in that zeal-appeal. This is neatly captured in the IS PR team’s emphasis on the desecration of the Sykes-Picot agreement. You cannot wipe away a colonial border, claim it as a great triumph, and then agree to involving the same colonial manipulators to help with deliberation on a new arrangement.


On a more knee-jerk, human level, the atrocities perpetuated by the “Caliph” and his followers are irredeemable. Owen Smith’s desire to keep the door open to all possibilities, seems to discount this issue completely. IS have essentially gone too far, too openly, all with remorseless cruelty. Whilst the West may commit it’s own morally dubious acts, to engage IS in any negotiation over the future of the region would be morally reprehensible and signal the death knell for social liberalism in a huge swathe of the world. The ideals of the West, no matter how nebulous and unevenly enforced they may be, are simply not compatible with the medieval methods of IS.


Owen Smith’s team attempted to clarify on this point: “Owen is clear that there should be absolutely no negotiation with Daesh, or any terrorist group, until they renounce violence, cease all acts of terror and commit themselves to a peaceful settlement”. Quite right. However, it would be hard to argue that IS have peace, at least as we understand it, as an objective. In fact if the group were stripped of its violence and terror, it would be a completely different entity, with different leaders, and different supporters. It seems that the point being made here is that, IS will be welcomed to the table, once they are no longer IS or, less confusingly; IS are not welcome to the table.

Legitimacy here is paramount. IS has none. Their dominance in the region is not down to popular support, but rather to strategic acumen and coercion. Their break-away success in Iraq in 2014 could in some way be attributed to their identity as Sunnis in a Shia world. After the de-Ba’athification of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, the Sunni population was marginalised by a Shia-led government installed by the US. The protests across the country in 2013-2014 testify to the feeling of disenfranchisement and oppression that Sunni muslims felt, and contributed to the IS advance. Seeing two evils, the Sunni’s of Iraq may have had a difficult choice. As one resident of Mosul says:


“When Isis took control of Mosul, they treated locals decently, clearing out all checkpoints imposed by the army and opening roads. People could not believe their eyes that there was no Shia army in the city, no more detainees and bribes”


But to equate a desire to gain a voice in their own country, with outright support for an oppressive, fundamentalist state would be facile.

Since then IS has subsequently lost any right to claim fraternity, let alone sorority, with the wider population. Mass killing, brutality, and stringently enforced social oppression have alienated many. The liberation of Manbij, a Syrian town, in May this year testifies to the realities of life under IS, where the population celebrated after the caliphate was defeated.


“They have poured into the streets enjoying basic rights they had been denied for two years, including shaving off their beards and smoking”.


Without any sort of mandate to rule, IS should not be in negotiations, because they represent none but themselves, and therefore do not have the right to decide the future of the region.


A final piece of this puzzle is the political, and military reality of the situation. By the above arguments, we could say that the rejection of Assad’s regime from any negotiation would be just as obvious. Assad has overseen the mass slaughter of his own citizens, and whilst his ideology is not as extreme as that of IS, the authoritarian, corrupt nature of his rule flies in the face of Western principles. His legitimacy has crumbled, and it is this issue that caused the civil war itself. With a mandate that extends only from a small loyalist contingent of the population, a record of atrocities, and very little political freedom under his rule, why is he still at the table, but IS must go?


The hard-to-swallow truth is that Russian backing, and Assad’s entrenched position mean that he and his cohorts will not simply disappear, or be militarily defeated without a drastic change in international relations, that seems, at best, unlikely. Including him in talks may mitigate the pernicious effect he has on Syria, and ultimately, depending on the situation on the ground, may result in his removal. But excluding him, is not currently a feasible option.


By contrast, IS appear to be on the back-foot. Their military success of 2014 looks to be short lived as the strongholds they took are slowing being lost to a range of different forces, including the Iraqi army, Assad’s regime, Turkish forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga. As their territory recedes they may be beaten back into the underground terrorist organisation that they are, dispelling the delusional grandeur of their so-called “Islamic State”. Their sponsored attacks across the world have also hardened popular resolve and made it impossible to use diplomacy as a realistic tool of communication. It is after-all a terrorist organisation, and whilst the havoc of war in Syria and Iraq allowed them to transform into something bigger, this ultimately has been a hollow facade, and everyone is aware of the old adage, “we don’t negotiate with hollow facades”.


The end-of-IS is one of the almost universally held goals in Syria and Iraq, but their defeat will not eradicate the problem of regional or even global terrorism. Allowing their ideology any legitimacy, or even a voice in any political talks would be wholly counter-intuitive.


IS are definitely not a candidate for the negotiating table, and Owen Smith’s comments reveal either a lack of understanding of the situation, or a somewhat ill-advised, please-all attitude in a bid for support. You cannot deny Smith’s own experience in Northern Ireland, but clearly that is a very different animal. Talking to violent groups is not out of the question, and indeed can lead to progress. It has worked in Myanmar, between rebel groups and the central government, and talks have also led to a breakthrough agreement between the state and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, and with FARC  in Colombia. All reveal that in many cases a history of violence is not grounds for exclusion, and nor should it be.


But Smith’s comments treat this notion as a universal maxim. IS is not the same, and whether it is on ideological, political or just purely practical grounds, they should not, and nor do they need to be, included in a blueprint for the future.

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