George Hepburn: Once again we are at war without a clear aim

Journal columnist George Hepburn says the murder of Alan Henning was grotesque, but the way forward must be diplomacy and not war

Alan Henning, the British aid worker who has kidnapped and brutally murdered by IS militants
Alan Henning, the British aid worker who has kidnapped and brutally murdered by IS militants

I woke up on Saturday to the news that Alan Henning had been beheaded. It made me feel sick. That is exactly the effect that Isis wanted to achieve. Another victory for the jihadists But I must nevertheless hang on to my belief there is no point in bombing them in return.

There is something especially primeval and grotesque about this form of death. Sadly, it is not only the Queen of Hearts who has a penchant for summary execution. This is all too real and repulsive.

It is the stuff of war, and always has been. Reading Anthony Beevor’s account of the Spanish civil war, I was shocked at the way that opponents with a different ideology or even a different shade of the same ideology – the Stalinists shot anyone suspected of Trotskyism – stood their opponents against a wall and shot them without more ado, again and again.

Isis militia are similarly accused of killing civilians, abductions, and desecration. In August, according to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, “150 women and girls, predominantly form the Yazidi and Christian communities, were reportedly transported to Syria, either to be given to Isis fighters as a reward or to be sold as sex slaves.”

But it is the death of a British man, on a humanitarian mission to Syria, that brings the story back on to the front page, after a week in which we have tried to pretend that we are not at war with Isis.

I had been wondering what all the fuss had been about. Two Tornados a day hitting specific targets in Iraq was no big deal; sophisticated weaponry maybe but hardly shock and awe. The motion to bomb Iraq may have been passed by a massive majority thanks to a three line whip but the debate did not convince anyone the following day.

Here was a nervous Prime Minster, humbled by his failure to get support to bomb President Assad only a year ago and haunted by the vote for war that ruined a predecessor back in 2003. There were few signs of sabre rattling this time and much equivocation about whether this limited resolution would have any effect. No one believes bombing can turn a war. It is a symbolic move to join the American led coalition and we have been there before.

Perhaps I should be pleased that Britain can now only go to war if Parliament approves? The result was a compromise motion that nobody wanted: opposition parties aware of the coming election and not brave enough to oppose the motion.

I was impressed by Rushanari Ali, a Muslim, who wrote eloquently to Ed Miliband resigning her shadow cabinet post. “Despite good intentions” she said” too many mistakes have been made over the last decade and far too many people in conflict zones have had to pay a high price for misconceived actions by the UK and other countries.”

I admit to a sinking feeling that once again we are at war without a clear aim in a country where we have no right to be and where our past endeavours have only made matters worse.

I remember the dodgy dossier and so doubt what I hear from the front benches. Are we being strung along with a story about a group of extremists, only 1300 strong when they saw off the Iraqi army in June, but are now deemed to be such a threat to world security? Are the fears of atrocities to be committed by returning radicalised Muslim soldiers blown up out all proportion?

We have been sucked in again. The showcase execution is a honeypot that draws western governments into a war they cannot win. Muslim extremism thrives on retaliation which kills more innocents and swells its ranks. The jihadists know they can wage a crusade far longer than public opinion in the west can bear.

The government would be better to redouble its diplomatic efforts. This may involve trying to persuade the Saudis, to whom we sell arms and hold in such respect, not to bankroll Isis. It may mean making friends with the new more moderate regime in Iran. It should lead us to recognise the government of Palestine.

In the strangest turn of events, it probably means supporting a repressive and brutal regime in Syria which we were trying to overturn last year.

We have to learn that well meaning attempts to overthrow oil rich dictators and introduce democracy have been presumptuous wishful thinking.

Alan Henning may not be the last hostage to be executed. The most dignified way we can honour his memory is to work towards a diplomatic solution to the problems of the Middle East in whatever way we can.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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