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Tuesday 10 February 2015, David Bowden

How do you solve a problem like ISIS?

There are no easy answers for Western foreign policy.

The horrifying execution of Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh last week has sharpened international attention on the bloody rise of Islamic State (ISIS). While Jordan has responded with a significant intensification of aerial strikes, backed by its partners in the US-led air campaign, confusion still reigns as to how exactly the West should respond to the threat of ISIS. This morning’s claims by Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad that his country is being kept informed of coalition air strikes – barely 18 months after the UK parliament narrowly voted against joining US-led strikes against Assad’s own government – is merely the latest illustration of the problems facing Western foreign policy in the Middle East.

How should we respond to the threat of ISIS? That was one of the most contentious topics debated at the Battle of Ideas last autumn, with stark divisions on the panel. For Chatham House’s Nadim Shahidi, the current crisis is a result of Western failure to act decisively enough against Saddam Hussein’s regime; for international relations scholar Vanessa Pupavac, the situation requires a significant rethink of the West’s own strategic interests in the region before further intervention; for Middle East commentator Karl Sharro, the future lies in cautious realpolitik, with international actors having to accept that a bloodbath of their own making will not offer easy moral options in terms of future interventions.

While events may have become even more shocking in the months since the discussion was held, the participants do an excellent job of anticipating many of the developments – not least with the question of Kurdish sovereignty post-Kobane – and is well worth a listen.

Should foreign policy be guided by a sense of humanitarian purpose, or has the recent history of Western intervention discredited it beyond hope? If we accept the failure of Western ethical policy, as Sharro suggests, does the West still bear some moral and political responsibility for dealing with the consequences? These are some of the tough questions which sixth-form students around the country will be grappling with this spring, in the Debating Matters Regional Final motion ‘Western humanitarian intervention is a valid tool of foreign policy’. This debate was regarded as a real highlight of last summer’s National Final and, only a few months later, already poses a radically challenging new angle. The topic guide is well worth a read for anyone, student or otherwise, struggling to get a handle on one of the toughest contemporary issues facing society.

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