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the ghost of 2003
syria is just like iraq – and it isn’t.

Cathrin Schaer
The debate over whether or not to intervene in Syria is bringing back bad memories in Iraq. The bloody ghost of 2003’s invasion and its aftermath is causing many in the West to debate whether intervention is…
5.09.2013  |  Berlin
Anti-war protestors in 2003, demonstrating against US plans to invade Iraq.
Anti-war protestors in 2003, demonstrating against US plans to invade Iraq.

Over the past ten days, ever since the idea of some kind of military intervention into Syria was first mooted, there have been plenty of comparisons made between what might happen there and what happened in Iraq in 2003. As Western nations debate whether the fact that Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, should be punished for using chemical weapons against his own people, the international conversation has been haunted by the bloodied ghost of 2003’s invasion of Iraq.

“All this is reminiscent of events from a decade ago, when the United States bypassed the UN and used fallacious information on the presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destruction to launch an adventure, the consequences of which are known to all,” the spokesman for Russia’s foreign ministry, Alexander Lukashevich, put it bluntly.

Somewhat less officially, the UK’s Labour party leader, Ed Milliband, tweeted that: “we learnt lessons of Iraq & made PM see sense” following a vote in the UK parliament about the possibility of British intervention in Syria that anti-interventionists won.

“Most observers see the current Syrian conflict through a lens coloured only by the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq,” former German deputy foreign minister, Wolfgang Ischinger, commented in the German news magazine, Der Spiegel. “These conflicts stand for Western hubris, for the insolubility of some religious and ethnic conflicts, for the danger of a slippery slope, in which even a minor, short-term military engagement may end up lasting for years.”

The comparisons were being made so often in fact that the White House was forced to issue a statement on whether Iraq was like Syria. In their opinion, it was not. President Barack Obama said it, in no uncertain terms.

But what is the reality – and in particular, what is the reality when viewed from an Arab-centric perspective, rather than a Western one? One immediately notices a lot of similarities between Iraq and Syria – between their leaderships and between their segmented populations. But there are also a lot of differences to this situation, most of which have to do with the external actors and their approaches.

Similar Power Structures: The Baath Party in Syria and Iraq

Saddam Hussein and his family ruled over Iraq between 1979 and 2003 and they did so as heads of the local Baath party. The Baath party was actually formed in Syria first, in the 1960s, and most of its manifesto had to do with unifying Arab nations and running Arab affairs free of external interference; it also had socialist leanings. The al-Assad family, who have ruled Syria from 1970 until today also lead a Baath party.

However, despite the fact that both countries’ Baath parties may have started out with popular pan-Arabist intentions, they both eventually became vehicles for dictatorship.

“Syria is organized along similar lines as Iraq with its form of Baathism used to legitimize rather than guide actions undertaken by the regime,” writes W. Andrew Terrill in a study for the US-based Strategic Studies Institute, called Lessons of the Iraqi De-Baathification Program for Iraq’s Future and the Arab Revolutions. “Citizens in such systems have obligations to the government, but they have no right to question the leadership or the leader’s vision in any public way.”

At first the Baath parties had little to do with religion or sectarianism. But eventually the two governments needed to insulate themselves against their enemies and shore up their power structures and they did this by surrounding themselves with members their own families, extended families, close friends and those with tribal or sectarian connections. IN Hussein’s case, this meant Sunni Muslims. In the al-Assads’ case, their sect – Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam – benefitted.

This is part of the reason why not all Syrians are opposed to al-Assad’s rule and why not all Iraqis were opposed to Hussein.

“Many Alawites undoubtedly fear revenge for 40 years of brutality and misrule under the Assads,” Terrill notes. “The bloody conflict … has also added horrendous new grievances to the already long list of injustices for which the Alawites may be held accountable.”

And here, Syria’s Alawites and other minorities, like the Christians, who have been isolated from the conflict in their country so far, may well be glancing nervously over the border. The violence that ensued after US-led forces invaded Iraq in 2003 was the result of the dictatorial lid being taken off a pot of seething ethnic rivalries, historical enmities and religious hatreds; elements of US mismanagement didn’t help either.

Saddam Hussein Used Chemical Weapons - And Nobody Cared

In mid-March 1988, in response to ongoing Kurdish resistance and Kurdish collaboration with Iran, with who Iraq was at war, Hussein had various chemical weapons, containing a combination of deadly toxins, dropped onto the northern, mostly Kurdish, town of Halabja. The horrifying attack killed as many as 5,000 people there and injured as many as 10,000.

But what is interesting in light of accusations currently being levelled at Syria’s al-Assad, was the reaction of the US and other Western nations. These reactions may go some way toward explaining some of the Arab cynicism toward any intervention.

At the time of the Halabja gas attacks the US supported Hussein against Iran; the US spent a long time cosying up to the many dictators of the Middle East and Iraq was considered to be the lesser of two evils. After Halabja, the US government blamed Iran for the chemical attacks, even though the Iranians denied this. Yet the US’ explanation was widely accepted for several years. It was only in the 1990s that it became clear that the Hussein and the Iraqi military were responsible for launching the chemical weapons that murdered so many in Halabja.

“According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officials … the US had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks beginning in 1983,” a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine concluded. “The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war… it was the express policy of Reagan to ensure an Iraqi victory in the war, whatever the cost.”

US-Iraqi relations eventually soured after Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US was forced to go to Kuwait’s aid. In December 1998, then US-President Bill Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox, a four-day missile and bombing attack on Iraq with the aim of degrading Hussein’s chemical weapons collection.

Hussein’s chemical weapons came up again too, before the US decided to attack Iraq in 2003- much was made of Hussein’s chemical weapons capability then and was often used as an argument for invading Iraq. The fact that the US had tacitly supported their previous use against Iraq’s enemies and had potentially even helped with their manufacture, was conveniently, and cynically, forgotten.

Then, “for a quarter-century, no chemical attack came close to the scale of Saddam\'s unconventional assaults,” Foreign Policy magazine pointed out. “Until, perhaps, the strikes … outside of Damascus.”

At this stage, the chain of events starts to look eerily familiar again, as do the players: A US President getting together “a coalition of the willing” to intervene in the affairs of a Middle Eastern nation, based upon inconclusive evidence of wrong doing? We’ve heard that one before.

However if one looks beyond the broad brush strokes, there are some important differences.

Your Philosophy on Guns and Bombs, Sir

The reasons for going into Iraq in 2003 were fairly clear, even back then. Liberals will tell you that it had to do with politics, who was in charge in the White House and what their philosophy was on guns and bombs. It had to do with securing sources of oil for a nation utterly dependent on it and it certainly had to do with a nation’s revenge for the shocking terrorist attacks of September 11, two years earlier. It’s hard to know how much anyone believed in the explanation most commonly given, but most Westerners now think that it never had all that much to do with any weapons of mass destruction. Many in the Arab world never did believe that.

However, while far from flawless, the current US administration, headed by President Barack Obama, doesn’t seem to have quite the same neo-conservative, empire-building philosophies as former US Presidents did. President Obama has deliberately pursued a very different, non-interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East.

While there are doubtless still plenty of entanglements behind the scenes as well as critics of the US government in the Middle East, some clear steps have undeniably been taken in this direction – that includes the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, and increased détente in places like Egypt and Libya as those countries undergo political change. It also includes US behaviour during the Libyan revolution where the US did not play a leading role but worked alongside allies to help revolutionaries.

There can be no doubt that the two US administrations – Obama’s and Bush’s - differ in their approach to the Middle East. Beset by economic woes, the US itself has changed, it is no longer the “world’s policeman” and after Iraq and Afghanistan, voters seem to have rather less appetite for sacrificing lives in a country where the US has no serious vested interests.

Why Now?

So why this negative attitude toward the Syrian regime and their chemical weapons? And why now? After all, as some have said, although al-Assad has killed a fair few of his own people through conventional means, he still hasn’t murdered as many with chemical weapons as Hussein did.

Is it because al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons violated “international norms”? Is it all about that fun, United Nations-styled acronym, invented in 2005: the R2P (right to protect) citizens against genocide or crimes against humanity?

Or are there some US interests in this game, that nobody is talking about yet? Mention has been made of what various US allies, like Israel or the Gulf States, might like to see happening in Syria, as well as what move would most damage perceived opponents of the West, like Iran. Iran supports Syria and Syria has always confronted Israel rather than collaborated. Because some of the most effective groups fighting al-Assad in Syria are religious extremists waging a kind of holy war, there are also fears that Syria is heading towards extreme theocracy, if those guys win.

Indeed over the past two years the Syrian conflict has become something of a melting pot for the region’s deadliest, most intractable conflicts. Sunni Muslim against Shiite Muslim. Kurdish against Arab. Iran versus the Gulf States. Israel versus everyone. Russian and Chinese diplomacy against the US and Europe.

The most recent figures also suggest that an estimated two million refugees are now putting intense social and economic pressure on their hosts – countries like Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq – and the conflict has been threatening to boil over the Syrian borders in a more serious way for some time now.

Some strategists have suggested it could be time to even up the playing field so much that all of the parties involved are forced to the negotiating table, or risk mutual destruction.

Comparing Syria to Bosnia

In Der Spiegel, Ischinger makes a comparison with Bosnia that’s becoming more and more popular for those who advocate intervention in Syria – even though one of the main problems with that comparison is the huge difference between the two countries, their demographics, their location, the potential for UN involvement and the likely, eventual outcome. “For a long time the situation in Bosnia was - as it still is today in Syria - assessed as if the costs of inaction were lower than the potential costs of an intervention,” Ischinger writes. “This calculation did not change in Bosnia until after the Srebrenica massacre in 1995.”

A peace agreement was finally concluded there, Ischinger argues, because the parties involved “suddenly developed an interest in a negotiated solution after all; the Croatian side had made territorial gains and the NATO operation had shown that the West was taking the matter seriously. In other words, the result … was only made possible by the threat (and limited use) of force.”

Perhaps this is where intervention is headed. Ongoing talk in the US about chemical weapons and “the international norm” seems to be mostly about politicians painting a black-and-white, cowboys-and-Indians, type of picture of the situation in Syria so that people will go along with them.

Of course, those explanations could be seen as just another spurious justification for an invasion to further a nation’s own selfish ends. And there are plenty of holes to pick in that reasoning, not least legal and evidential holes. After all, one could argue that the Bush administration did exactly the same thing when they were justifying their invasion of Iraq.

The reality in Syria today is far more complex. It would be very difficult, nigh on impossible, to explain what’s really going on there within the space of a televised, 60-second, sound bite. Any further explanation about why military intervention might be a good idea requires even longer – because the true reasons for it may well lie closest to an uncomfortable mash of all of the above – geo-political, regional, security-related and humanitarian.

“Knocking back the Iranians and Assad, bleeding their ally Hezbollah, aiding the Syrian refugees, building up the FSA – all of these are not simply efforts “to solve” the Syrian problem. They are vehicles for promoting the establishment of a new regional order that serves American interests,” Middle Eastern security specialist, Michael Doran, wrote for US think tank, the Brookings Institute, recently.

So what this comes down to, when deciding for or against intervention, is whether one believes the Obama administration is to be trusted on this or not. And whether one believes the Syrian civilians who are in the way will get anything out of it. A lot of external factors come into play here too, not the least of which is the general public’s traumatic, past experience of US intervention in Iraq.

This jaded attitude is not just limited to Westerners. Terrill writes: “the Iraqis viewed the US presence in their country with steadily increasing criticism, with Washington receiving very little credit as a liberator, due to a local belief that the United States invaded their country to advance its own agenda for obtaining cheap oil and establishing military bases that could be used to dominate the region”.

\'No War\' In The War Zone

“The fundamental difference between Syria and Iraq is that Syria began as an attempt by a mass movement of Syrians to free themselves from tyranny,” wrote the Financial Times’ international editor, David Gardner. “Iraq was an unprovoked invasion.”

And this may well be the most important difference between the two situations. As your psychotherapist might tell you, it’s all about intention.

While some theorists have suggested Iraq was the first country of the Arab Spring - in that Hussein was one of the first dictators to be removed and his removal inspired new ways of thinking - the country certainly had that great title thrust upon it. At the time the US arrived to take over, there is no doubt that Iraq was, if oppressed and yoked by fear, than at least, relatively stable. But the Syrians, those first protestors, who have been so brutally suppressed, were a genuine part of the Arab Spring.

There is most definitely a brutal civil war underway in Syria today – a confused, and confusing, war; one that began with what appeared to be forces of good (peaceful protestors calling for democracy and an end to an oppressive regime, as in other countries of the Arab Spring) versus evil (the oppressive regime) but which has since devolved into a war on several fronts, where, at times, the revolutionaries, with their widely divergent philosophies and motives, are fighting each other as much as they are the regime.

And the fact that there is already a bloody civil war going on in Syria is a rejoinder to all those crying “no war, no war”. It may also be one of the most pressing reasons for military intervention. And while the regional impact of foreign military intervention remains a frightening unknown, one could also argue that there’s not a lot left to lose, not inside the country anyway – Sunni Muslim jihadis are already imposing Sharia law on some of the areas they control, Shiite Muslim fighters are heading there for a showdown with them, al-Assad has already used chemical weapons on innocent civilians. Almost all attempts at diplomacy have failed, the opposition has no united front from which to negotiate anyway and the regime doesn’t want to negotiate; the conflagration shows all the signs of getting way out of control and intervention might be a last chance to save the lives of a few innocents. Or it might not.

As British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Lebanon argued this week in an article mostly discussing the flood of Syrian refugees into the neighbouring country: “The wider point is that the West’s current approach towards Syria has coincided with 100,000 deaths, about a third of the entire population being driven from their homes – and the conflict spilling into neighbouring states. Given that appalling litany, can anyone in London or Washington seriously argue that more of the same is the answer?”

Basically, whatever happens in Syria now, no matter who wins if, indeed, anyone does, it is going to be messy. And there’s another important similarity: mess is something that Iraqis can certainly tell their Syrian brothers all about.