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Why the West must ignore Iraq's pleas for military intervention

By Charlie Cooper, Middle East researcher at Quilliam, Special to CNN
updated 2:24 PM EDT, Fri June 20, 2014
An Iraqi child walks through a displacement camp Saturday, June 28, in Khazair, Iraq. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria. An Iraqi child walks through a displacement camp Saturday, June 28, in Khazair, Iraq. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cooper says Western military intervention would play into ISIS hands
  • Jihadists use 'war on Islam' to fortify their tenuous relevance to the modern world
  • To undermine that, there needs to be Western restraint
  • Turkey or Jordan could provide firepower; the West the humanitarian aid

Editor's note: Charlie Cooper is a researcher on the Middle East at Quilliam, a think tank formed to combat extremism. The opinions in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- All other arguments aside, the West should not militarily intervene in Iraq.

Regardless of what might be said by politicians, Iraqi or not, Western intervention to aid Baghdad in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) does not constitute a solution to the current crisis, nor does it work towards one.

Far from it: direct military intervention by a Western state -- even if Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is requesting it -- would dramatically worsen the situation, and ISIS, contrary to what pro-interventionists might say, would inevitably come out on top.

Charlie Cooper is a researcher on the Middle East at Quilliam, an anti-extremism think tank
Charlie Cooper is a researcher on the Middle East at Quilliam, an anti-extremism think tank

While all options might, as John Kerry said this week, remain on the table at this point, some are more "on it" than others.

Indeed, it seems there is an international consensus that there is no appetite for Western "boots on the ground" (besides a very limited presence to secure national assets).

If there were to be any intervention, therefore, it seems likely it would take the form of "targeted strikes" from the air -- be they via drones, jets or missiles. And we are told that in that case, the focus would be exclusively on "ISIS strongholds" in order to "minimize civilian casualties."

Removed from the rhetoric of politicos, though, Western intervention would bolster the propaganda efforts of ISIS, for any attack would inevitably kill or injure Muslim civilians, regardless of how well it had been planned or how good the intelligence behind it was. This would be good news for ISIS.

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Indeed, the group actually relies on its ability to attribute civilian casualties to its enemies. By doing so, it bolsters the skewed jihadist narrative of international politics and presents an opportunity to exaggerate the non-existent "Crusader threat" and defend the group's false legitimacy.

In short, the more civilians that die, the more events in Iraq can be internationalized, and the wider the appeal of ISIS can become. This effect would be grossly amplified if there were deaths at the hands of the U.S. or the UK.

After all, one of the central tenets of the jihadist narrative is the so-called "War on Islam." Through this much abused paradigm, any international involvement in a conflict involving Muslims is used by jihadists to fortify their ever-tenuous relevance in the modern world.

And even were we to set aside all of the above, we still could not in any way justify intervening against ISIS in Iraq but not against Assad in Syria.

Rightly or wrongly, this would be read by the region's most vulnerable as incontrovertible evidence that the West will only intervene when its own economic prosperity is at stake. Why else would it defend the rights of civilians here and not against Assad after his apparent use of chemical weapons?

The West must ignore Baghdad's plea for military assistance. We must not play into the jihadists' hands.

Instead, we must focus on humanitarian assistance for refugees and diplomatic pressure on al-Maliki to force him into profound and far-reaching reforms.

In the long term, the only solution there can be is a political one: Iraq's economically and politically marginalized Sunnis need to be brought back into Iraq's decision-making process.

But even if it is not our place to carry out military action, this is not to say that military intervention is categorically inappropriate. Indeed, if the Iraqi national army cannot pull itself together, I would argue it is absolutely necessary.

However, it must be at the hands of a Sunni Muslim-majority country, in order to diffuse the narrative of Western armed forces once again attacking Muslims. If a country like Turkey or Jordan acts against it, ISIS's "War on Islam" rhetoric would not have anywhere near the same impact.

Leaving its operational and strategic capacity to regional players, the West's focus needs to be on ISIS's ideological heart.

We need to undermine its greatest rhetorical asset: that Muslims, worldwide, are under attack by the "Crusading" West. This can only be achieved with a policy of restraint.

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