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Will Syria be "another Iraq"?

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

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

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.