One consequence of the Iraq war has been to create a passivity in our approach to foreign policy. But when will we examine the consequences of that, asks Gary Kent
Fifteen years ago a million plus people marched to stop the Iraq invasion, which began in March 2003. Some have amplified their anger with exaggerated figures of both that protest’s attendance, and the number of fatalities that came partly as a result of an extended, botched occupation, but mainly caused by those seeking to defend Saddam Hussein’s sectarian dictatorship.
Not that any occupation would have been easy in an Iraq that had been ruthlessly repressed for decades and where politics was a novelty for those who had returned from exile or only conceptualised government as a sectarian zero sum game: you win, they lose and die, and there is no middle ground. Any social fabric had long been broken.
Those who opposed the invasion and occupation were mostly decent-minded people whose views deserve respect, not least because so many of those who advocated and supported it recognised it was a finely balanced decision but worried about what would happen without action. The route of the road not taken will always be unknowable but could have been much worse.
Likewise, the road not taken to stop Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad will never be known. The decision to largely stand aside will shame us forever but understanding why is necessary to both ensure we do what we can now and that there is no repetition as and when other mass slaughters face humanity, and we can usefully intervene.
As for why, one reason is the backlash against the invasion of Iraq, with its attempt to discredit an honourable prime minister as a war criminal rather than one seeking answers to the genuine problem of a rogue regime with the blood of a million or more on its hands and which was a cancer in the Middle East.
The anti-war movement failed to stop the war but succeeded in curtailing the room for manoeuvre for future governments as it cultivated the ‘not in my name’ meme that made any western action more difficult. It nurtured a puerile anti-imperialism allied with more traditional isolationism.
Add to that the other consequence of Iraq, begun by Tony Blair, and that was giving parliament the right to prior endorsement of military action and you have a ratchet that makes intervention more difficult. The more sound principle should be that the executive decides on military action but is later held to account by the legislature and by the people.
But the doctrine allowed the blurring of president Barack Obama’s red line on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in 2013. Anti-war activity actually helped extend the war in Syria with catastrophic results for millions and great pressure on Europe from those seeking to escape the carnage.
We should also recognise that many people were fed up with interventions. A decade back, I came across a veterans’ rally in Boston, Massachussets and spoke to a heavily bemedalled soldier who angrily demanded to know why the United States was always asked to carry the can. My guess is that he voted for Trump.
Obama had won by opposing ‘dumb wars’ but his disengagement created other threats. The Iraqi government was keen to end the US military presence in their country, and Obama was not minded to push back. The American departure swiftly strengthened the hand of Shia parties, eventually isolated the Kurds, weakened Sunnis who had helped defeat Al-Qaida, and unleashed a chain of events that catapulted Islamic State to its genocidal notoriety with Sunni support.
At the beginning in 2011 of the repression of democracy demonstrations in Syria, my assumption and that of many others was that Assad could not survive. We had not reckoned with his reckless policy of regime survival at any cost.
Among many reasons advanced for inaction was that Syrian air defences were a match for any attackers. That a US cruise missile strike could destroy maybe a fifth of its warplanes and that Israel could destroy a third of its air defence batteries indicates that a battle for air supremacy could have been won, and ended barrel bombs, chemical attacks and many deaths.
Obama’s ‘leading from behind’ doctrine and Trump’s behind in leading approach have opened the Middle East door for Russia and Iran, which have far less fastidious approaches to human rights. American passivity has abandoned key players such as the Kurds. And Iraq is a failing state given its punitive imprisonment of the Kurds (whose airports were blockaded and federal funding slashed), the poor condition of Basra, widespread corruption, and uncertainty about the rights of Sunnis as they settle back in their ravaged lands.
Thankfully, anti-war opposition to United Kingdom air strikes against Isis in both Iraq and Syria was repulsed. The airstrikes protected the Kurdistan region. Peshmerga commanders on the frontline in Kirkuk two miles from Isis made it absolutely clear to me and several MPs in 2015 that British jets were vital, and could they have a couple more Tornados, please. And our airstrikes had protected Kobane, and helped the Kurds and their allies capture Raqqa from Isis in Syria.
The situation in Syria was and is now even more complex but the scenes of daily slaughter are an affront and a cause of shame. The arguments about Iraq will endure, I am sure, but it is time to examine the consequences of inaction in Syria through some form of John Chilcot-esque inquiry. It is time to call a halt to the dither and drift that has helped sustain misery in Syria.
Gary Kent is secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region and writes in a personal capacity. He has visited the Middle East thirty times since 2006 and tweets at @garykent
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