Will Syria be "another Iraq"?

Rhetoric aside, how does Syria today actually compare to Iraq in 2003?

Iraq has been the benchmark against which many commentators judge American foreign policy in the Middle East – no one wants “another Iraq”. But rhetoric aside, how does Syria today actually compare to Iraq in 2003?


1. Bashar Al-Assad vs Saddam Hussein

Both Assad and Hussein were Ba’athist dictators presiding over countries that are an unstable balance of different sectarian, political and ethnic groups. Long before any talk of US military involvement, both regimes committed atrocities against their civilian populations. In 1988 Hussein dropped chemical bombs on Kurdish citizens in Halabja, killing around 5,000 and injuring many more. Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar’s father and Syria’s former leader, crushed an uprising in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, killing 20,000 people.

In the political vacuum created by the US-invasion, Iraq was plagued with sectarian violence, and this continues today. The Syrian civil war is already dividing along sectarian lines at a time when these divides are deepening across the rest of the Middle East.


2. The case made for war

The case made for the US-led invasion in Iraq centred on Hussein’s failure to co-operate with weapons inspections and since-discredited evidence on the country’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. When it comes to Syria, Obama has signalled that Assad’s use of chemical weapons on unarmed civilians is a “red line” and the US wants to disrupt and degrade the regime’s military capabilities against civilians.

The UN estimates that around 100,000 have been killed in Syria so far. We know that if the US doesn’t intervene, many more will die before a political solution is found, but we don’t know how many will be killed if the US carries out military action. The Iraq body count estimates between 114,407 and 125,380 civilians have been killed following the US invasion. It’s hard to argue that this many would have died if Iraq was not invaded in 2003.


3. The cost of intervention

Estimates of the overall cost of the Iraq war run as high as $2trn. The US has signalled that military action in Syria will be more limited, and there will be “no boots on the ground.” This blog by the Cato institute has a stab at estimating the cost of a Syrian intervention. It suggests training rebels could cost $500m and that establishing a Syrian no-fly zone could cost $500m initially, and then up to a billion dollars a month.

The Cato Institute blog also points out that in 2003 then-Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki predicted in February 2003 that it would take “several hundred thousand soldiers,” to stabilize Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s ouster. So expect costs to inflate beyond official figures.


4. Outside involvement

Unlike Iraq pre-2003, there is already a high level of external involvement on the ground in Syria. The Gulf States and Turkey as well as the US and Europe are offering varying degrees of financial and military support to a broad range of anti-Assad factions, while Assad can still count on backing from Iran and Russia.  There can be no doubt that Syria’s interventions will have far-reaching repercussions across the Middle East, and post-Arab Spring, politics across the region is far more volatile and unpredictable than it was ten years ago.


5. Appetite for war

The US’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have dampened public appetite for war, and have reduced expectations that any US military involvement will be neat or quick. If Obama wins support for the Iraq war in Congress, the US will go to war in Syria with France as its chief European partner, not the UK. The US can expect support from the Arab League, too. It urged the international community to "take the deterrent and necessary measures against the culprits of this crime that the Syrian regime bears responsibility for". Just as in Iraq, the US cannot hope for UN backing for its actions – arguably this was seen as more important in 2003 because today we have lower expectations of the UN’s divided Security Council.

 

 

A member of the Free Syrian Army holds a burning portrait of Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: When Corbyn met Obama

The Labour leader chatted socialism with the leader of the free world.

Child labour isn’t often a subject for small talk, and yet it proved an ice-breaker when Jeremy Corbyn met Barack Obama. The Labour leader presented the US president with a copy of What Would Keir Hardie Say? edited by Pauline Bryan and including a chapter penned by Comrade Corbyn himself.

The pair, I’m informed by a reliable snout, began their encounter by discussing exploitation and how Hardie started work at the tender age of seven, only to be toiling in a coal mine three years later.

The book explores Hardie’s relevance today. Boris Johnson will no doubt sniff a socialist conspiracy when he learns that the president knew, or at least appeared to know, far more about Hardie and the British left than many MPs, Labour as well as Tory.

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Make what you will of the following comment by a very senior Tory. During a private conversation with a Labour MP on the same select committee, this prominent Conservative, upon spotting Chuka Umunna, observed: “We were very relieved when he pulled out of your leadership race. Very capable. We feared him.” He then, in
a reference to Sajid Javid, went on: “We’ve got one of them.” What could he mean? I hope it’s that both are young, bald and ambitious . . .

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To Wales, where talk is emerging of who will succeed Carwyn Jones as First Minister and Welsh Labour leader. Jones hasn’t announced plans to quit the posts he has occupied since 2009, but that isn’t dampening speculation. The expectation is that he won’t serve a full term, should Labour remain in power after 5 May, either as a minority administration or in coalition in the Senedd.

Names being kicked about include two potential newcomers: the former MEP Eluned Morgan, now a baroness in the House of Cronies, and the Kevin Whately lookalike Huw Irranca-Davies, swapping his Westminster seat, Ogmore, for a place in the Welsh Assembly. Neither, muttered my informant, is standing to make up the numbers.

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No 10’s spinner-in-chief Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver’s decision to place Barack Obama’s call for Britain to remain in Europe in the Daily Telegraph reflected, whispered my source, Downing Street’s hope that the Torygraph’s big-business advertisers and readers will keep away from the rest of the Tory press.

The PM has given up on the Europhobic Sun and Daily Mail. Both papers enjoy chucking their weight about, yet fear the implications for their editorial clout should they wind up on the losing side if the country votes to remain on 23 June.

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Asked if that Eurofan, Tony Blair, will play a prominent role in the referendum campaign, a senior Remainer replied: “No, he’s toxic. But with all that money, he could easily afford to bankroll it.”

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism