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.

Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp
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Meet Jorge Sharp, the rising star of Chile’s left who beat right-wingers to running its second city

The 31-year-old human rights lawyer says he is inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s alternative politics as he takes the fight to the Chilean establishment.

Bearded, with shaggy hair, chinos and a plaid shirt, 31-year-old Jorge Sharp does not look like your typical mayor elect. But that does nothing to stop him speaking with the conviction of one.

“Look, Chile is a country that solely operates centrally, as one unit,” he says. “It is not a federal country – the concentration of state functions is very compact. In reality, most of the power is in Santiago. There are many limitations when it comes to introducing significant changes [in local areas].”

In October, Sharp upset Chile’s political status quo by defeating establishment rivals in the mayoral election of Valparaíso, the second city of South America’s first OECD country. He is taking office today.

Often compared to Podemos in Spain, Sharp’s win was significant – not only as yet another example of voters turning against mainstream politics – because it denied Chilean right-wing candidates another seat during local elections that saw them sweep to power across the country.

As the results rolled in, Conservative politicians had managed to snatch dozens of seats from the country’s centre-left coalition, led by President Michelle Bachelet, a member of Chile’s Socialist Party.

Sitting in one of Valparaíso’s many bohemian cafes, Sharp accepts the comparison with Podemos gracefully but is keen to make sure that Chile’s new “autonomous left” movement is seen as distinct.

“What we are doing in Chile is a process that is difficult to compare with other emerging political movements in the world,” he says. “We are a distinct political group and we are a modern force for the left. We are a left that is distinct in our own country and that is different to the left in Spain, in Bolivia, and in Venezuela.”

Sharp’s Autonomous Left movement is not so much a party rather than a group of affiliated individuals who want to change Chilean politics for good. Considering its relatively small size, the so-called Aut Left experienced degrees of success in October.

Chilean voters may have punished Bachelet – also Chile’s first female leader – and her coalition after a number of corruption scandals, but they did not turn against left-wing politics completely. Where they had options, many Chileans voted for newer, younger and independent left-wing candidates. 

“We only had nine candidates and we won three of the races – in Punta Arenas, Antofagasta and Ñuñoa, a district of Santiago,” he says. “We hope that the experience here will help us to articulate a national message for all of Chile.”


Campaign pictures/Office of Jorge Sharp

For Sharp, the success of Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit movement are due to people fed up – on a global scale – with their respective countries’ mainstream political parties or candidates. Given that assumption, how would he describe the cause of his own election success?

“The problem in Chile, and also for the people in Valparaíso, is that the resources go to very few people,” he says. “It was a vote to live better, to live differently. Our project for social policy is one that is more sufficient for all the people. It’s a return to democracy, to break the electoral status quo.”   

Sharp – like many – believes that the United States’ Democrat party missed out by passing up the opportunity to break with the status quo and choose Bernie Sanders over the chosen nominee Hillary Clinton. “They would have been better off with Sanders than Clinton,” he believes. 

“The [people] in the US are living through a deep economic crisis. These were the right conditions for Trump. The people weren’t looking for the candidate from the banks or Wall Street, not the ‘establishment’ candidate. The way forward was Sanders.”

Turning to other 2016 geo-political events, he claims Brexit was a case of Britons “looking for an answer to crises” about identity. Elsewhere in South America, the tactics of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe – who led the “No” vote campaign against peace with the Farc – were “fundamentally undemocratic”.

In the future, Sharp hopes that he and the rest of the Autonomous Left will be better-prepared to take power in higher offices, in order to further reform social policy and politics in Chile.

“For these elections, we weren't unified enough,” he concedes. “For 2017 [when national elections take place], we will have one list of parliamentary candidates and one presidential candidate.”

And while Sharp clearly sympathises with other left-wing movements in countries throughout the world, this is not a call for a unified approach to take on the rise of the right.

“Every country has its own path,” he finishes. “There is no single correct path. What we need to do [in Chile] is articulate a force that’s outside the political mainstream.”

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.