Bill Carmichael: Conflict of interests in the Middle East

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SO are we on the brink of World War III?

Looking at the week’s headlines after a Turkish F16 shot down a Russian bomber close to the Syrian border, you might think so. It is the first time a Nato country has downed a Russian warplane in 63 years.

Certainly the war of rhetoric has already broken out, with Turkey angrily accusing the Russians of violating its airspace and claiming the pilots ignored repeated warnings.

Russian president Vladimir Putin
has replied that the incident was a “stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists” and warned of “serious consequences”.

In Moscow, a mob attacked the Turkish embassy and burned the Turkish flag and Putin has ordered a warship to steam towards the Syrian coast. Aircraft carriers from Turkey’s Nato allies, the US and France, are heading for the area too.

In this poisonous and volatile atmosphere, David Cameron seeks to make the case for the UK to become involved in the Syrian conflict “in our national interest”, and the Commons is expected to vote on whether to authorise British airstrikes within weeks.

All extremely worrying – and you can only hope that some of this sabre rattling by Turkey and Russia is for domestic consumption and cooler heads will prevail in coming weeks.

What all this shows is how fiendishly complex is the political and military situation in the Middle East – and how difficult it will be to forge an international coalition to destroy the Islamic State.

There were hopes that after the downing of a Russian passenger jet and the atrocities in Paris – both committed by Islamist extremists – that Russia and the West could sink our differences and come together to root out Isis.

But the events of this week show this will be easier said than done. The truth is that, besides the joint desire to destroy the jihadis, there is little common ground between the various parties of this conflict.

The key to understanding events in the Middle East is to look at the Sunni-Shia schism – a 1,400-year-old Islamic blood feud driven by vicious sectarian hatred that few in the West even begin to comprehend.

You might think the Islamists hate us in the West; true, but they hate their fellow Muslims even more.

In the latest episode of this never-ending civil war, we see Sunni Turkey using the chaos on its border with Syria to hammer Kurdish separatists.

Many suspect that some among Turkey’s Islamist government are sympathetic to ISIS and offer some support. Certainly an estimated 20,000 foreign jihadis – including at least 700 from the UK – have used Turkey as a stopping off point before crossing the porous border to join Isis in Syria.

Other Sunni countries – most notably our “ally” Saudi Arabia – are rightly accused of spreading extremist teaching around the globe.

On the other side of the current dispute is the blood-soaked tyrant, Bashar Assad of Syria, who allies himself with Shia Iran and its client terror group Hezbollah.

In the absence of any effective leadership from Barack Obama – without doubt the weakest president in US history – Putin has backed this Shia coalition to prop up Assad in the hope of increasing Russian influence in the region.

Russia calls anyone who opposes Assad “terrorists” and has been bombing rebel groups – including the so-called moderates that are armed by the West.

Isis may be the vilest of the various players on both sides – but none of them are friends to liberty and democracy.

To paraphrase Henry Kissinger on the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s: “It is a pity they all can’t lose.”

So what should the UK do? In a phrase – tread extremely carefully and be realistic as to the likely outcome.

If RAF airstrikes do go ahead, the best we can hope for is to degrade Isis’s offensive capabilities and contain the threat before building some kind of coalition to root out the cancer.

But, sadly, what we are not going to do is spread peace and love throughout the region. That would require us to persuade Muslims to be more tolerant of each other and that is not going to happen anytime soon.

The whole of the Middle East – with the glorious exception of tiny, democratic Israel – will remain a benighted hellhole for the foreseeable future and there is little we can do to change matters.