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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A loyalist rebranded: will Ségolène Royal run again to be the French President?

The French press is speculating about Ségolène Royal replacing François Hollande as the Socialist candidate.

“I will lead you to other victories!” Ségolène Royal told the crowds gathered in front of the French Socialist party’s headquarters on 6 May 2007.

Many at the time mocked her for making such an odd statement, just after losing to Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election. But nearly ten years on, she might just be the candidate the French left needs to win the upcoming presidential election.

There is growing speculation that the current President François Hollande – who was Royal’s partner for 30 years and the father of her four children – will not be in a position to run again. His approval ratings are so low that a defeat in next May’s election is almost inevitable. His own party is starting to turn against him and he can now only count on a handful of faithful supporters.

Royal is among them. In the past, she probably would have jumped at the opportunity to stand for election again, but she has learned from her mistakes. The 63-year-old has very cleverly rebranded herself as a wise, hard-working leader, while retaining the popular touch and strong-willed character which led to her previous successes.

Royal has an impressive political CV. She became an MP in 1988 and was on several occasions appointed to ministerial positions in the 1990s. In 2004, she was elected President of the Poitou-Charentes region in western France. In 2006, Royal won the Socialist party’s primary by a landslide ahead of the presidential election.

She went on to fight a tough campaign against Sarkozy, with little support from high-ranking members of her party. She ended up losing but was the first woman to ever go through to the second round of a French presidential election.

After that, it all went downhill. She split up with Hollande and lost the election to be party leader in 2008. She was humiliated by only getting 6.95 per cent of the votes in the 2011 Socialist presidential primary. She hit an all-time low when in 2012 she stood as the Socialist party’s official candidate to become MP for La Rochelle on the French west coast and lost to Olivier Falorni, a local candidate and Socialist party “dissident”. Royal then took a step back, away from the Parisian hustle and bustle. She continued to serve as the Poitou-Charentes regional President but kept largely out of the media eye.

Royal was very much the people’s candidate back in 2007. She drew her legitimacy from the primary result, which confirmed her huge popularity in opinion polls. She innovated by holding meetings where she would spend hours listening to people to build a collaborative manifesto: it was what she called participatory democracy. She shocked historical party figures by having La Marseillaise sung at campaign rallies and Tricolores flying; a tradition up until then reserved for right-wing rallies. She thought she would win the presidency because the people wanted her to, and did not take enough notice of those within her own party plotting her defeat.

Since then, Royal has cleverly rebranded herself – unlike Sarkozy, who has so far failed to convince the French he has changed.

When two years ago she was appointed environment minister, one of the highest-ranking cabinet positions, she kept her head down and worked hard to get an important bill on “energy transition” through Parliament. She can also be credited with the recent success of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Above all, she has been impeccably loyal to the President.

Royal has reinforced her political aura, by appearing at Hollande’s side for state occasions, to the extent that French press have even labelled her “the Vice-President”. This has given her a licence to openly contradict the Prime Minister Manuel Valls on various environmental issues, always cleverly placing herself on virtue’s side. In doing so, not only has she gained excellent approval ratings but she has pleased the Green party, a traditional ally for the Socialists that has recently turned its back on Hollande.

The hard work seems to have paid off. Last Sunday, Le Journal du Dimanche’s front-page story was on Royal and the hypothesis that she might stand if Hollande does not. She has dismissed the speculations, saying she found them amusing.

Whatever she is really thinking or planning, she has learned from past errors and knows that the French do not want leaders who appear to be primarily concerned with their own political fate. She warned last Sunday that, “for now, François Hollande is the candidate”. For now.

Philip Kyle is a French and English freelance journalist.