Iraq is no justification for Syrian intervention

Tenth anniversary of a mistaken war is a timely reminder of the growing need to reach a negotiated settlement, writes Allan Massie

If TONY Blair is to be believed, the Syrian civil war justifies the invasion of Iraq. “How come?” you may ask, being interested – even if you are one of those who no longer believes anything our former prime minister says. Well, you see, it’s like this: if we hadn’t invaded Iraq, ten years ago this week, then there might have been an uprising against Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime and the outcome would have been a civil war even more nasty and bloody than the one in Syria today. Saddam would have been more ruthless in suppressing a rebellion than Bashar al-Assad is because the Syrian president is, according to Mr Blair, “only one-20th” as awful as Saddam.

I hope this is clear and that you are now convinced that Mr Blair was quite right to join his friend, then US president George W Bush, in the war against Saddam. It has saved the Iraqi people from an even worse fate. Mr Blair tactfully didn’t add that Saddam might well have used his famous “weapons of mass destruction” against any Iraqi rebellion – if, of course, there had been such a rebellion.

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You may think that justifying a war in one country ten years ago on the grounds that it saved that country from a fate worse than Syria’s today is pretty specious reasoning. Moreover, the assertion rather skirts an unpleasant fact: that the invasion did indeed lead to a nasty civil war in Iraq, in which the death toll came to more than 100,000, while many more Iraqis fled the country, just as Syrians are fleeing Syria.

In 2003, there were 1.5 million Iraqi Christians; only an estimated 200,000 are still living there. Nor is all sweetness and light in Iraq even now. The tenth anniversary of the invasion was marked by a series of car-bombings in Baghdad, which resulted in dozens of deaths. Indeed, there is a continuing Sunni insurgency in the country and what is called al-Qaeda in Iraq is more active than it has been for a couple of years. Resentment among the Sunnis of the Shia-dominated government is acute, and that government itself is being propped up by Iran. One consequence of the Bush-Blair war has been the weakening of western influence in the Middle-East and the strengthening of Iranian influence. This is not what was intended.

In a BBC interview marking the tenth anniversary of the war, Mr Blair says that the history of the invasion should be rewritten in the light of the Arab Spring revolt against the long-standing secular dictatorships that dominated the Middle East for decades. Now, we may agree that the secular dictatorships of president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya, and Mr Assad in Syria were all vile, but it is not clear that what has replaced them, or may replace them, is any better. Is an Islamist dictatorship preferable to a secular one? Only, surely, if you are an Islamist. Even in Saddam’s Iraq, some things may have been better than they are in Iraq today after the Bush-Blair war of liberation.

In 2003, Saddam presented no danger to the West. He had – it seems probable – destroyed his famous weapons of mass destruction. Certainly, none have been found. The no-fly zone authorised by the United Nations had enabled the Kurds in northern Iraq to achieve a degree of protected autonomy. Saddam had, indeed, been corralled. He had not been in a position to make war on another country since he was thrown out of Kuwait in the first Gulf war in 1991. The beast was chained.

Mr Blair now says: “I think that if Saddam had still been in power, it’s true there would have been, probably, an uprising amongst his people…”

“I think, “it’s true”, “there would, probably…” To which the honest answer is: “Perhaps, but we don’t know.” For Mr Blair to justify his war because of what has happened in other countries years later might have happened sometime in Iraq is not even casuistry; it is just blethers. The truth is that his war destabilised the Middle East and we are living with the consequences.

It is easy to start a war. It is difficult, and may be impossible, to control what happens afterwards. This is a lesson politicians seem reluctant to learn. There is talk now of supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels, and this is justified by intelligence that Iran and Russia are still re-arming Assad. It is said, of course, that weapons will be supplied only to the “moderate” rebels, not to the Islamist ones who, as it happens, are doing most of the fighting. This is folly.

As Patrick Cockburn, a journalist who has covered the Middle East for a long time, wrote this week: “It is wishful thinking to suppose that even if weapons in large quantities are channelled to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels, this is going to make much difference at this stage. Assad’s government is not going to collapse like a pack of cards as western leaders were hopefully prophesying up to a few months ago. Only negotiations can end this war, and fresh supplies of arms will put off the day they start.”

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This is surely true. Wishful thinking on the part of the American and British governments got us into the Iraq war. We know how that turned out, and few – except, of course, Tony Blair – regard it as anything but a terrible mistake.

Wishful thinking is prompting intervention in Syria and making a negotiated settlement less likely – or at least more distant. Of course, it is a horrible war. Of course, Assad is, as the cant saying has it, “making war on his own people”. But the truth is that his own people are making war not only on him, but also against each other.

We have no good reason to back one side or the other. We have every reason to try to persuade both sides that a negotiated settlement is in the interest of Syria and the Syrians. But that is all that we can usefully do.

Attempt more, feed the conflict and in ten years’ time don’t be surprised if a discredited politician steps forward to say it was all justified because if we hadn’t acted something even worse might have happened there later, or in some other place at some other time.

The Foreign Secretary William Hague should have a quotation from Churchill placed prominently on his desk: “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”