SEVERAL Arab countries took a calculated gamble when they joined
the United States in the extension of the air attacks against
Islamic State (IS) to include targets in Syria this week.
The involvement of forces from Sunni-dominated countries in
strikes on Sunni insurgents risks a public backlash if civilian
lives are lost. On the other hand, allowing the continued existence
of the IS's self-declared caliphate increases the risk that the
jihadists might gain public support in a region characterised by
The IS is a rare example of an Arab group presenting a clear
Islam-rooted ideology. The caliphate, by its nature, throws down a
direct challenge to Saudi Arabia's position as the guardian of
President Obama's decision to order air strikes inside Syrian
territory came in the wake of swift progress over previous days by
IS fighters in Kurdish areas in the north of the country.
As the Church Times went to press, the UK Parliament
was expected to be recalled today, to debate British air strikes
against the IS. David Cameron told NBC News on Tuesday: "There is
no doubt in my mind it [the IS] has already undertaken and is
planning further plots in Europe, including in my own country, in
order to kill and maim innocent people. . . This is a fight you
cannot opt out of. These people want to kill us."
Mr Cameron was due to meet the Iranian President, Hassan
Rouhani, at the UN on Wednesday, the first such meeting for a
British Prime Minister since 1979.
On Wednesday, Baptist and Methodist leaders warned of the "huge
risk" of military action. "Any intervention must be legally
justified, and can only be supported as one part of a broad
political and economic strategy which must have the support of
countries in the region."
Before the jihadists' advance, there was a surge in the number
of civilians fleeing towards the Turkish border, raising the demand
for humanitarian assistance across the Middle East.
A representative of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Carol
Batchelor, has called for outside assistance for Turkey to help it
cope with the latest influx. The country is already caring for
about one million homeless people.
"This is an international responsibility," she said. "The
question is: what will the international community do to provide
support and solidarity to Turkey to ensure that the capacity is
there? We appeal to all countries to increase their aid." Refugees
were "deeply fearful. This is no longer an issue of access to food
or water. They are fleeing for their lives."
Christians and others waiting in refugee camps across the region
are watching to see whether the expanded military campaign against
IS might signal an eventual end to their suffering.
But the signs are that a significant change of circumstances in
Iraq and Syria is still a distant prospect. Despite the intensified
airstrikes, IS forces continue to capture more territory and impose
their uncompromising ideology on those in their path.
Non-Islamic communities are particularly at risk. Churches and
other symbols of Christian faith continue to be destroyed. In a
recent incident, IS fighters are said to have desecrated and
destroyed a church in the eastern Syrian town of Deir al-Zur which
commemorated the Armenian genocide of 1915. The Armenian Foreign
Minister, Edward Nalbandian, denounced "this hideous crime. . . The
international community should immediately stop and uproot this
plague threatening the civilised world."
The desire to uproot IS is as strong among Arab leaders as
anyone else. But the decision of Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi
Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to join the military coalition
raises the temperature in the Middle East. Jihadists and their
sympathisers are already denouncing these states as agents of the
West (or "the Crusaders", to use their terminology).
There is still anger and disappointment among Arab leaders that
the West failed to intervene early on in the Syrian crisis to bring
down the Assad regime before IS became a powerful force. Equally,
there is little expectation that Western governments will take
action beyond air-strikes.
The likelihood, then, is a period of prolonged airstrikes in
Syria and Iraq, and prolonged tension in Arab countries which will
be bracing themselves for a negative reaction to their decision to
back the US-led campaign. All of this means that the millions of
displaced Syrians and Iraqis are unlikely to be heading home for
months, possibly many months.
Schooling can help fight
terrorism - Paul Vallely
Should the UK take part in military action against Islamic
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