It turns out that not only was Karl Marx a bad economist, he was also a poor historian. Events unfolding in the Middle East belie his claim that history repeats for the first time as tragedy and the second as farce—for while happenings in Syria and Iraq can be described in many ways, farcical is not one of them. It beggars belief that the Western powers are, for the third time since 1990, again going to war in Iraq. It beggars it further that the very president who first made his name opposing the disastrous 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein is leading the charge. And it beggars it beyond words that large majorities—at least in the US, Canada and Australia—are willing to back yet another military campaign in that country.
There is no question that the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS, or more commonly in Western media, ISIS, for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is savage beyond description. Its crimes include mass executions, sexual brutality and perhaps even genocide. Only the wicked and the insane dispute that it would be best for civilized people everywhere were ISIS to vanish tomorrow. But the fact that the group is evil is insufficient grounds for war; the issue is not whether ISIS is bad, but rather whether intervention would improve matters. After all, when faced with a problem, it makes no sense to consider only the extent of the difficulty but not the soundness of the proposed solution. And yet the pro-war argument seems to be largely that terrible things are happening in Iraq and therefore something must be done, with some observers veering into outright hysteria, such as when US Senator Lindsey Graham shrieked that the US needed to go to war “before we all get killed here at home.”
A sensible case for military force would include a plan on how to accomplish the goal, which is presumably to expel ISIS from northern Iraq and Eastern Syria. (Granted, that may be presuming a lot, given that when a State Department spokeswoman was asked if the mission would be “completed” before 2017 she responded, “I don’t even know what that means.”) Instead, the idea seems to be to use air power to buy time until someone—either the Iraqi army or another regional power—sends in troops to defeat ISIS on the ground since, as many have acknowledged, air power alone will not win the day.
Unfortunately, no such white knight is likely to emerge. After a decade of American training, 30,000 Iraqi soldiers fled Mosul in June when they were attacked by fewer than 1,000 ISIS fighters. So it seems improbable that another few months of boot camp will produce a credible fighting force. As for regional actors, the three military powers neighbouring Iraq are Turkey, Iran and Syria. Iraqi Kurds (whom we are supposedly trying to help) would surely recoil at the thought of a Turkish invasion of Iraq. The odds of American fighter jets effectively acting as Iran’s air force are between zero and none. And perhaps even less likely than a Washington/Tehran axis is an alliance with a regime in Damascus that a year ago the West was going to bomb for its apparent use of chemical weapons. Finally, while local militias like the Kurdish peshmerga might be useful allies, they are certainly not going to finish the job by pursuing ISIS all the way to their Syrian “capital” of Raqqah, 200 km away from the Iraqi border.
While the bombing seems unlikely to produce the desired results, it is almost certain that it will have myriad negative consequences. For one, it has reportedly helped ISIS win recruits, who perceive their religion as under threat. Rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—the same one accused last year of chemical warfare—are denouncing the air strikes as “an attack on Islam,” and erstwhile enemies of ISIS are now rallying behind it. And each of the unavoidable civilian deaths caused by Western jets will radicalize friends, families and neighbours who may provide fertile ground for violent ideologies.
Frankly, it is hard to envision how the Western powers can emerge from this conflict with anything resembling victory. Instead, the fight will likely drag on as civilian casualties mount, costs rise, popular support wanes and the troops come home. ISIS can survive indefinitely by confining itself to crowded urban centers where they are surrounded by human shields. In other words, ISIS can “win” simply by being patient. It is highly possible that the outcome of this war will therefore be a stronger, invigorated jihadi movement that can bask in the glow of a victory against the “crusaders.”
So if we are not going to be able to bomb ISIS into oblivion, what is to be done? Is there anything we can do to stop them, or at least to help their victims? I can think of one solution that would cost nothing and have the added benefit of not killing anyone: open our borders. Admitting Syrian and Iraqi refugees would allow them to flee a war zone and to find safe haven in a secure and peaceful country. The Canadian government has thus far accepted only a few hundred refugees from Syria’s civil war, with a promise to allow in another 1,000 or so. Tiny Sweden, in comparison, has taken in about 30,000. While admitting large numbers of refugees would normally strain the public purse, there is an obvious solution: grant them the right to stay here, but not to access state funds. There are doubtless many who would gladly accept such an offer, simply for the chance of a better life outside of the killing fields. And legitimate concerns about admitting security threats can be mitigated by working with humanitarian organizations on the ground, the United Nations and local authorities who can help properly identify the incoming migrants.
ISIS is as brutal, cruel and fanatic a group as ever there was, and it is a noble impulse to want to stop them before they inflict themselves on even more victims. But as in all things, the first duty is to do no harm. Air strikes are deeply seductive: They virtually guarantee no casualties on our side, they contrast our state-of-the-art technology with ISIS’s seventh-century mentality, and they deliver an enormous amount of killing force against the enemy. But they are no panacea, and again, are only likely to make things even worse. In 2011, the West used air power to combat a murderous dictator in Libya, and the country is now a failing state that threatens to collapse into warring tribes and further destabilize the region. The clear lesson is that short-term humanitarian impulses can easily lead to medium-term humanitarian disasters.
If we want to help people, we should at the very least first ask whether we are actively doing anything to hurt them. In the case of terrified and desperate refugees, it is worth remembering that we are deliberately exerting ourselves to prevent them from entering Canada to find safety. By merely allowing those who escape the nightmare of ISIS and make it to our borders to remain as long as they wish so long as they hurt no one, we would do a lot more good than any amount of ordnance dropped from a fighter jet ever could.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.