Robin Yassin-Kassab

Lesson from Iraq and Syria

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Everybody’s asking what lessons can be learned from Iraq twenty years after the invasion and occupation. But more can be learned by looking back further, to 1991.

I’ve just listened to the two episodes on the The Rest is Politics podcast in which Rory Stewart grills Alastair Campbell on the 2003 invasion. It’s a fascinating discussion which I recommend listening to, but there are some glaring omissions. First, there’s lots of talk about British military casualties and the effects on western politics in the years since (and good they mention the Iraq hangover’s role in the west’s criminal inaction in Syria), but not much talk on the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians. Next, and most importantly, there is no mention of the American decision in 1991, after driving Iraqi forces from Kuwait, to not only leave Saddam in office but to give him permission to use helicopter gunships to put down the uprising in the mainly Shia Iraqi south.

That was the time to remove Saddam from power, not as a remotely decided regime change, but in support of a population that was already rising against the tyrant. At that key moment, America (and its allies) decided to NOT protect the Iraqi population. America had soldiers right there in southern Iraq watching as Saddam’s forces massacred civilians and filled mass graves. The reason for this was probably fear that Iran would take advantage – but if this terrified decision makers then into such immoral behaviour, why in 2003 did British and American decision makers not bother even considering how Iran would take advantage of their invasion? Of course the end result of the 2003 invasion was the takeover of Iraqi institutions by Iranian-run militias. This was the key factor in the rise of ISIS and then the consequent war to destroy the so-called ‘caliphate’.

So in 1991, after destroying the Iraqi army and liberating Kuwait, the US chose to allow Saddam to slaughter the southern Shia. Then it imposed ruinous sanctions which destroyed the Iraqi middle class. Sectarianism became much worse as Saddam used loyal Sunni troops to massacre Shia, and as he turned to sectarian rhetoric to shore up his damaged rule. By 2003, when the US and Britain decided to invade for their own reasons, on their own timetable, it wasn’t surprising that the place soon collapsed in civil war.

Why is this so important? Because the lesson of Iraq and Syria together should be this: it is in everybody’s interest for powerful states to intervene to protect civilians from mass slaughter & expulsion. It is in nobody’s interest for powerful states to intervene to impose regime change just because they feel like it. The first case reduces danger, prevents extremism, saves lives. The second case does the opposite. It isn’t possible to impose democracy. But it is necessary to support a population which is already demanding democracy. If you stand by and watch as an unpopular dictator burns a nation rather than gets out of the way and accepts people’s desire for freedom, the result will be war, terrorism and a refugee crisis, as everybody now knows.

It’s also important that full-scale invasion and occupation is not seen as the only possible paradigm of western intervention. No Syrian wanted an invasion and occupation. At the earliest stage of the counter-revolutionary war on Syrians, it would have been enough for western powers to threaten diplomatic and economic sanctions against any other imperialist who decided to intervene. Instead the west did deals with Iran and Russia as they moved in to Syria. Then it would have been enough to properly arm the Free Syrian Army so it could have defended civilians in liberated areas. But the west vetoed serious arms to the FSA. So then it would have been enough to destroy Assad’s airfields. The west didn’t do this either, but did intervene to destroy Syrian cities when it didn’t like a symptom of its inaction – ISIS – but it still left Assad alone. The result was the total destruction of Syria, the expulsion of most of its people, and the occupation of every inch of the country, by Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US, and the Turkish-Kurdish PKK.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 22, 2023 at 8:07 pm

Posted in Iraq, Syria

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