‘Hostis humani generis’ is a 17th century legalism that means ‘enemy of all mankind’. It was at that time applied to the pirates, particularly those who had set up shop in the Caribbean where they had safe ports to go to such as Port Royal and even their own ‘pirate republic’ in Nassau at one stage.
The indiscriminately brutish behaviour of many pirates had made them thoroughly unpopular with all and sundry, and there was no shortage of people who were after their blood. But tensions among the European powers – the Spanish, English, French and Dutch – stood in the way of effective cooperation towards combating the common threat.
Pirates were actually seen as quite useful when they attacked ships of rivals, particularly the Spanish, and deals were struck between local governors and so-called privateers who were offered safe havens in return for promises to not attack ships of the protecting nation and a cut of booty seized. It was only in the early 18th century that the attitude ‘enough is enough’ prevailed and the pirates were finally dealt with decisively by the European naval powers.
There are striking parallels between the pirates of old and ISIS – the largely indiscriminate and often bestial behaviour that has made them almost universally despised, the safe havens and nominal statehood, the local deals surrounding the sale of ISIS’s oil and other plundered assets, and above all, the complex geopolitics that stand in the way of decisive action being taken against them by opponents who, should they set aside their differences for just a few short weeks, could annihilate them with little effort. There is indeed a ‘coalition of the willing’ acting against them, but the coalition is far from a united one. For one thing, it is sharply divided over the extension of the campaign into Syria. Iraq is a straightforward matter of the government of a sovereign state requesting assistance in dealing with an insurgency, which is entirely permissible under the UN Charter (although the Iraqis do not want the US’s Arab allies to strike targets on Iraqi territory). The Syrian government did not, however, request any such support, and indeed did not consent to it – the Syrian UN delegate was merely passed a letter from John Kerry by the Iraqi delegate prior to the commencement of the attacks to the effect that they would be happening. There is a common view in Washington and Whitehall that the al-Assad regime is ‘illegitimate’, and need therefore not be consulted about violations of Syria’s territorial sovereignty – a position rather at odds with the UN dealing with the Damascus regime as the government of the Syrian Arab Republic with respect to the disposal of its chemical arsenal. Russia and Iran have, unsurprisingly, denounced the attacks on Syrian soil as illegal under international law. Thus far, the European powers have restricted their operations to Iraq, although the French have mooted the possibility of including Syrian targets after the murder of one of their nationals by ISIS affiliates in Algeria. Despite David Cameron’s dismissive view of the regime in Damascus, the British parliament would have to authorise strikes in Syria in the course of a second vote (unless he invokes his prerogative powers, which he could have done to begin with but chose not to).
Another issue is the scope of military involvement. As senior members of the British and American top brass have pointed out more than once, air strikes alone can not and will not settle ISIS’s hash, and ‘boots on the ground’ will be needed. However, both the US and UK leaderships appear to be adamant in their assertion that it won’t be their troops that do the dirty work. All eyes are on the Kurdish peshmerga, the deal being, I suspect, that the West won’t kick up too much of a fuss when the Kurds declare independence probably next year. But Soviet-era weaponry is no match for the 21st-century arsenal ISIS possesses courtesy of the Iraqi army and some shadowy suppliers. Several European nations have promised to supply the Kurds with the hardware they need, but Turkey has been howling in protest as they fear those weapons will be turned on them by Kurdish separatists afterwards, and most of the promises remain to be acted on.
The West is also talking about arming the ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition. Getting the gear to the intended recipients would be quite a feat in itself given that this nebulous entity is the meat in the sandwich between the al-Assad regime and various extremist groups all gunning for them. They may as well airdrop those military supplies straight into ISIS’s lap as that’s where they’ll almost certainly end up anyway.
To win this war, Mosul and Raqqa need to be recaptured. The Iranians could probably take Mosul with a single crack regiment. Cameron has been trying to snuggle up to his counterpart in Teheran, but the bloodymindedness of the British and especially the Americans with respect to the regime in Damascus has thrown a spanner into those works. And of course there’s no way active cooperation with Damascus would be given a moment’s thought, even though it is just about impossible to see how Raqqa could be retaken without the Syrian army getting into the act.
We have been warned that this war is going to take not months but years. And yet it could be over in weeks, even without any Western ‘boots on the ground’ if Teheran and Damascus were brought on board and the Kurds were properly equipped. (Direct Turkish involvement would be useful too – as I write, the Turks are considering active military involvement, but no doubt there will be strings attached relating to the Kurds, and it is likely that the Turks would not be prepared to extend their military presence beyond a security zone adjacent to their border.) Allowing this war to drag on and on – which is the way it’s starting to look unless there is a radical change in Western policy– can only have the most regrettable consequences. With every engagement, ISIS becomes more experienced and effective as an army. Every instance of ‘collateral damage’ – and there has been some already – adds grist to their propaganda mill that is sure to feed into the disquiet that many Arabs feel concerning the West’s true intentions. And the longer all this goes on, the more opportunity ISIS has to do some serious al Qaida-style planning for attacks on Western targets both outside and on Western soil. As the Australians discovered last month, the tentacles of the organisation already extend far beyond the Middle East.
Then there is the spectre of ‘legitimacy creep’ as the Islamic State begins to look and act more and more like a nation-state. It is already starting to look like a ‘real’ government with formal political and administrative structures, the latter including ministries and government departments. Although they are tight-lipped about it, the Turks reportedly engaged in negotiations with ISIS over the Turkish hostages at the diplomatic level. The attributes of nationhood as outlined in the Montevideo Convention 1933 – a defined territory, a permanent population, a government, and capacity to enter into relations with the other states – are being approached by the Islamic State at a perceptible rate. They are unlikely to be recognised by any other country, but the Convention stipulates that nationhood is actually independent of recognition. The Islamic State is on its way to joining Somaliland as a self-declared independent nation that is not officially recognised by anyone but which has dealings with other countries as though it were. Surely the rest of the world can not allow the Islamic State this luxury – but with all the indecisiveness borne of mutual distrust and conflicting interests, that is exactly what is being allowed to happen.
Once the imperial European powers said ‘enough is enough’ with regard to the Caribbean pirates, the game was up fairly quickly. Unfortunately, it took decades for that stage to be reached, with untold suffering for countless victims in the meantime. I hope we are not looking at history repeating itself, or, even worse, waiting for Godot while a terrorist de facto state emerges before our very eyes. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to be proved wrong on both counts. But I suspect it will take a truly cataclysmic incident to spur ISIS’s enemies into decisive action, such as a massive attack on Western soil or – perhaps – the desecration of the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, located in a Turkish enclave in Syria – and currently surrounded by ISIS fighters.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc (Auckland), BA, BEdSt (Queensland), MAppSc (Curtin), PhD (Otago), DipCommonLaw, PGDipLaws (London) is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.