Syria is not Iraq (but at least the Iraq War had a clear objective)

28 August 2013

3:47 PM

28 August 2013

3:47 PM

A decade ago, I was sure that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do. I persisted in that belief for a long time too, well beyond the point at which most supporters of the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power had recanted their past enthusiasm.

The link between 9/11 and Iraq was quite apparent. Not because (despite what some mistaken people insisted) Saddam had any involvement in the atrocity but because removing tyrants and dictators seemed the best way of spreading the pacifying forces of commerce and democracy that might, in time, render Islamist extremism and terrorism obsolete.

Why Iraq? Because it was there and because it could be done. Besides, there was unfinished business. Not just from 1991 but from 1998 and Operation Desert Fox as well. And, also, because it seemed obvious that sanctions were not working, that the sanctions regime would collapse and that Saddam would soon, if nothing was done, escape the “box” in which he was said to be confined. And who knew what would happen then? Inaction has consequences too.

There were other arguments as well. I was at the United Nations to see Colin Powell’s presentation on Iraq’s weapons programmes. Powell made a powerful case that something had to be done to challenge Saddam. I wasn’t alone in thinking that; diplomats from many countries, including plenty from nations with no immediate stake in the conflict, agreed.

A decade later that all seems hopelessly optimistic. Worse than that, naive. Nevertheless, that was where we were and what I believed. The arguments in favour of doing something were strong and compelling. Millions of people agreed, some reluctantly, others enthusiastically.

And there was something else too, something which gave the argument greater urgency: this was to be the great cause of our time, the great project that justified the expenditure of blood and gold in pursuit of a noble, historic, objective. This would be the anti-piracy or anti-slavery movement of our time.

So it has been a chastening decade. It did not work out like that and all that youthful certainty seems like reckless hubris now. But there is no point or advantage in denying how it seemed at the time.

It helped – and this is a point of which I am not especially proud – that so many of the wrong people were opposed to the war. Who wanted to be on the same side as George Galloway, Stop the War [sic] and Seumas Milne and all the rest of them?

We know a little better now. We have a better understanding of how little we can do and a more sensible appreciation of what we can realistically hope to achieve.


So it is hard – perhaps impossible – to contemplate the prospect of bombing Syria in isolation. Syria is not Iraq but the ghosts of Operation Iraqi Freedom can’t be banished so easily. Refighting the last war is a foolish exercise but refusing to consider lessons from the past is folly too.

So, like Tom Harris, I would envy some people their certainty if I did not also suspect that certainty was misplaced. I agree with Chris Dillow’s suggestion that “The fact that everyone seems to have an opinion on Syria tells us more about the ease [with] which opinions are formed that is does about what is actually happening in Syria.”

 And it seems to me that the idealistic argument for intervention in Iraq a decade ago was stronger than the case for intervening in Syria today. (That said case was subsequently shot to pieces by events is a different matter.) At least Iraq had a clear objective: removing Saddam Hussein from power. (Tony Blair would have avoided some difficulties if he had been clearer on that point.) Syria is different.

What, exactly, are we attempting to achieve? We are clear that we do not wish to remove Bashar al-Assad from power. So we do not think his use of chemical weapons is that big a deal. Certainly not a big enough deal to make the case for regime change.

The plan, in as much as there is one, seems to be to put him in detention rather than expel him. But to what end? Will bombing Syria persuade Assad to modify his behaviour? Is our objective to make him offer the rebels a “fairer fight”? There are other questions too.

We do not want Assad to win but we do not want him to lose either. We certainly do not want to find ourselves in a position in which we are responsible for “fixing” Syria in the future. That’s realpolitik of the driest, coldest kind.

But once you bomb you are part of the conflict. How, having intervened once, can the United States and its allies walk away? Shoving Assad onto the naughty step seems an insufficient response to his misdeeds. If the aim is simply to persuade Assad that any further use of chemical weapons will bring additional consequences it might be wise to consider what those consequences might be.

In other words, what if spanking Assad does not work? How far are we prepared to go? What do we do next? And, for that matter, what great difference does it make to the Syrian people if they are killed by chemical weapons or by “conventional” arms? Upon what grounds do we make that moral distinction ourselves? Chemical weapons are horrifying; so is war. Is it worse for 1,000 Syrians to be killed by chemical weapons than it is for 5,000 to be slaughtered by “traditional” means?

I don’t know. I know that the argument for doing something can seem preferable to doing nothing at all. But, again, what are we really hoping to achieve? Would a limited two day bombing campaign really provide the kind of exemplary punishment that would make other tyrants think twice before they wage war against their own citizens? Perhaps it would but that does not seem obvious either.

So for whom – and what – would we be fighting? Not for the Syrian opposition since, again, we do not really want them to win either. And not for the Syrian people either.

Not unless the objective is to inflict such damage upon Assad that he cannot win the war either and has no choice but to be dragged to a peace conference. But bringing Assad to heel most probably – surely – means accepting that he and his party must have a role and a place at any peace talks. Otherwise what, however much this sticks in the craw, is in it for him?

I’d like to share Michael Weiss’s confidence that “Conditions are fertile for the weakening of the jihadists at the expense of the moderates.” But even if this is so it suggests that even if Assad is defeated and eventually removed from power the United States and its allies will be returning to Syria to take sides in a second civil war between the jihadists and the (relative) moderates. Are we prepared for that too?

The current situation in Syria may be untenable; unfortunately that does not mean any of the plausible alternative scenarios are any more tenable. Or welcome. There is certainly a moral case for action and I do not think those who favour it should be dismissed as warmongering know-nothings. But the arguments against intervention are just as compelling.

Which means I do not know what David Cameron, Barack Obama, Francois Hollande and their arabian allies should do but I am suspicious of the certainty with which so many other people – on all sides of the discussion – seem to view this dilemma.



Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • pandu Darmawan

    There were other arguments as well. I was at the United Nations to see Colin Powell’s presentation on Iraq’s weapons programmes. Powell made a powerful case that something had to be done to challenge Saddam. I wasn’t alone in thinking that; diplomats from many countries, including plenty from nations with no immediate stake in the conflict, agreed.

    Harga Hp oppo :

  • HarryTheHornyHippo

    I would have thought by now the conditions for going to war are quite straightforward:

    1: The Yanks want it.
    2: The oppo doesn’t yet have nukes of its own.
    3: It’s within easy reach of HMS Limp-a-long and it’s merry band of Olympic rowers.
    4: It can be done in less than three months.
    5: The domestic agenda has ground to a standstill and the PMs bored of looking like an impotent buffoon.

    Syria ticks some… but not enough of the above.

    Otherwise we’d have left Kim-Il-Bonkers swinging from a tree a long time ago, along with Bobby Mugabe, the goon running Uganda who’s just banned three or more people from assembling in the same place at the same time and a whole heap of others…

  • Eyesee

    I’m confused by your clarity. The Iraq War had a clear objective? And you claim that objective was to remove Saddam Hussein. I’m sorry but I was living in Britain at the time and here in this country a Prime Minister called Tony Blair (the same name curiously as in the country you refer to) went to great lengths to convince us that we had to go to war because of Weapons of Mass Destruction. In fact I think it was the US that had a bit of a flip flop over the reasoning, changing from regime change to WMD when Blair pointed out that regime change had no legal support. And the lengths Blair went to included fabrication and straight forward lying, so I don’t see that the objective was clear. Naturally, if you are an apologist for Blair then you would need to rewrite history and perhaps that was it. I mean the cover up included the removal of a troublesome individual, so it was pretty important to someone that the story stuck to an approximation of that peddled by Blair and Campbell (who presumably still expect WMD to be found any day). Syria though is complicated? They have WMD and have used them, but that isn’t the issue any more? Ah, I forget, it wasn’t that, it was regime change. Has that been legalised now?

  • stevefereressq1

    I’d like to share Michael Weiss’s confidence that “Conditions are fertile for the weakening of the jihadists at the expense of the moderates.”

    I’d sure Weiss wants everyone to share his confidence, but the guy is far to closelt embedded with the FSA to be an objective source on this – that’s before we get to his actual sources. He’s been an apologist for any FSA war crimes from day one. Much like his ‘expertise’ on Russia, what this amounts to is his parroting the lines of a certain faction.

    And his ‘ways to securee FSA victory’ are just pie in the sky nonsense – ‘performance-based incentives’? How is that going to work on the ground?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    …”but at least the Iraq War had a clear objective”
    Oh, you mean steal Iraqi oil?

  • James Strong

    Does nobody in a position of power play chess?
    What will Assad do if his regime is attacked by the West?
    What will Russia do?
    A Western strike will not be the end of matters.
    It might be thought worthwhile to risk/accept a response by Assad or by Russia, but it is idiocy and lunacy not to consider in advance what their response might be.

  • FreddyMays

    Now I’ve read this pearl I know for certain that you are just a little bit….well, thick.

    “this [The Iraq invasion] was to be the great cause of our time, the great project that justified the expenditure of blood and gold in pursuit of a noble, historic, objective. This would be the anti-piracy or anti-slavery movement of our time.”

    Could you really not see that George Bush is just a war mongering simpleton?

    As for choosing sides on the basis of “Who wanted to be on the same side as George Galloway, Stop the War [sic] and Seumas Milne and all the rest of them? ”

    They were right and you were wrong pal. So you are doubly right to “not be proud” of that.

    Isn’t is great to know a so called journalist chooses his beliefs because he’s worried that his buddies/cronies/peole he crawls to might not think his opinion was fashionable enough.

    How about having an opinion of your own, you risible little man. After all, you are supposed to be a journalist.

    • allymax bruce

      The 4×2’s pay the scumbags wages.
      So nice, to be like Andrew Marr, Eddie Mair, Kirsty Wark, & Herod McConnell; fukcing trators, to humanity, everyone.

  • Don Logan

    “The link between 9/11 and Iraq was quite apparent”………maybe to the very stupid it was.

  • FreddyMays

    “A decade ago, I was sure that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do”

    Must admit – I’ve only read that single line before posting this comment, but I strongly suspect you are a fool. 2 million people marched on Parliament to try to have that war stopped. And you reckoned it was a good idea??

  • allymax bruce

    This is my message to UK Prime Minister David Cameron; don’t do it!
    It will cost you the election.
    David, you are absolutely guaranteed to be re-elected; don’t waste another 5 years of ‘guidance’ and control, for a manoeu’vre that only suits the Zionists.
    David Cameron, I know your heart, your soul, and, your mind; don’t do it.

    Besides, there’s another way!
    I will help you.

  • Rob

    Personally I think Tony Blair has the right idea – somebody has to intervene in this maniac, war-torn hellhole:

  • Noa

    When you supported Blair in invading Iraq and Afghanisation did you consider, then or now, that, by proxy, the resulting blood on his hands also covered yours?

  • Wessex Man

    This is why I can never understand how you’ve got as far as you have. You were one of the guilty fools who accepted what Blair was spouting while there were millions of us who had the measure of the man.

    Are you going to volunteer your services?

  • dougthedug

    “The link between 9/11 and Iraq was quite apparent. Not because (despite what some mistaken people insisted) Saddam had any involvement in the atrocity but because removing tyrants and dictators seemed the best way of spreading the pacifying forces of commerce and democracy that might, in time, render Islamist extremism and terrorism obsolete.”

    Alex, that paragraph sums up the stupidity of the Iraq war. In order to combat Islamist extremism and terrorism with the pacifying forces of commerce and democracy the West attacked the secular dictatorship of Iraq not the proselytising, hereditary theocracy of Saudia Arabia whose citizens comprised the majority of the 9/11 hijackers.

    What you don’t address in all this is what is Russia going to do? Syria is Russia’s client state and they won’t take a western attack on it very well when they’re doing all they can to support its fight against the rebels.

    If it is true that Saudia Arabia has threatened Russia with attacks by Chechens on Sochi during the Winter Olympics unless they abandon Syria then things are going to get very bad in the Middle East and elsewhere where Russia has influence. Russia will be as enraged by these threats as by western missile attacks on its client.

    • allymax bruce

      Doug, Russia is twice as big as USA, in armaments etc; it would be absolute stupidity for USA to take on Russia, in Russia’s own back yard.
      Besides, Barack Obama, is nobody’s fool; Barack Obama is the quintessential Statesman/politician, of this brand new 21st century. It’s all poltics!
      Can anyone tell me why little jumped-up scumbag retro-starts, Is-ra-el, are pronouncing war? Death, and horrible suffering to little girls & boys?
      That’s Is-ra-el for you folks. Nothing but mindless, evil murderers. They even murdered Jesus!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        They are still murdering the descendants of Jesus.

  • Trofim

    I still haven’t grasped why being poisoned with nerve agents is a much worse thing than being blown to bits or having one’s limbs torn off by bombs. These methods of killing and maiming also extend to children, don’t they? Can anyone explain?

    • Penny

      I don’t know all the ins and outs of this but I’d say that in a conventional weapons scenario not all will be killed but of course, some will experience pain, distress and possibly a slow death if there are no medics in the area. But in a chemical attack all those targeted are likely to die horribly because the only defence would be masks (and possibly suits) which they do not have. I can’t see that they’d have much by way of warning either so there’s no escape. The risk to the aggressor is zilch and a regime using these methods can wipe out an awful lot of people in one go. I’d suggest chemical weapons are more likely to affect civilian populations given that regular armies will have gas masks to protect them.

  • Keith D

    I’ve seen precious little evidence that Assad launched this chemical strike.Why would he? He’s winning and is hardly likely to invite Western missile attacks on a whim.
    In our de facto allies camp,the rebels,we have jihadis beheading Christians,burning churches and shooting 14 year olds in front of their parents.They’re certainly capable of it,as are their Saudi puppetmasters.
    And of course Obama is just itching to carry out the Saudis wishes.

    Is this the US and Saudis going for a back door entry to war with Iran?
    Do they think a “surgical” strike on Syrian Chemical stores will result in no fall out with potentially huge casualties?
    The mind boggles at these duplicitous unspeakable morons.

    • Andy

      You have also seen precious little evidence that the rebels launched this chemical strike.

      You ask ‘Why would he ?’ I would have thought that was relatively easy to explain. First of all the actual spread of the attack suggests that it was the Syrian Army, as opposed to the rebels. What sort of delivery system did the rebels use ? Bows and arrows perhaps ? I do not think they have the capacity to launch such wide spread attacks. And maybe this was a way to terrorise the rebel districts – it has worked quite well – and as an act of revenge as The Times points out today. The rebels had tried to assassinate Assad not so long ago and last year his brother (who is a ruthless man) lost a leg in the bomb attack on the defense ministry. And as for ‘invite Western missile attacks’ all that seems to have happened to date is dither and confusion.

      • Damon

        And do you really suppose the Saudis have supplied their rebel clients with nothing more than ‘bows and arrows’? Your innocence is touching. If the Syrian government really IS behind this attack, we must assume they are either very reckless or very stupid. In any case, inspectors must be allowed to do their work before we go in, all guns blazing, in support of the jihadists.

        • Andy

          So prove the rebels did this. You seem very quick to defend the Socialist/Fascist Regime of Assad. He is well known to have a stock pile of chemical weapons and he undoubtedly has the means to deliver those chemical weapons. And you are assuming he is ‘either very reckless or very stupid’ but that is merely you applying your middle class British perspective. Maybe Assad has used a different calculation – that the West is a paper tiger – and they might lob a few missiles in his direction but it will amount to diddly sh*t. He is riight by the way. You are actually assuming that Assad is in full control of the regime – he is not his father remember – so this might not have been ordered by him but could have been a rogue commander, like his nutty brother. It was Obama who drew this ‘red line’ in the sand, so maybe Assad is calling his bluff. Assad is fighting for his life so from his perspective gassing a few rebels is fair game.

          And the UN Inspectors are there to find out if chemical weapons have been used, not who used them. That is not part of their terms of reference as the Russian Foreign Minister pointed out.

          • hatfinch

            It was you who made the argument that the rebels couldn’t have made the attack because they lacked the technology. Damon was simply refuting that, which does not require him to prove that the rebels did indeed make the attack.

            It seems you’ve missed the major point of the article — that uncertainty about one party’s involvement does not imply certainty about the other’s.

            • Andy

              I’ve missed nothing. What I said was that I doubted that the rebels had a capacity to make the attack – and this was not one single attack but a coordinated attack in a number of locations. And I’m merely pointing out that the balance of probability lies with this being the work of Assad and his regime. This does not ‘fit’ with the prevailing vogue here where far, far too many are far, far too busy excusing away the inexcusable. The report of the JIC, published this morning after I had gone out, states that Assad has used Chemical Weapons on 14 occasions since the start of 2012. You are welcome to disprove that statement if you can. Can you ??

        • Penny

          I’ve not made up my mind about which side carried out this CW attack because we’ve got very little to go on – but I don’t think it follows that if it is Assad he must, therefore, be very reckless or very stupid. The West is, after all, not of a mind to put boots on the ground or engage in an attack with the aim of tilting the balance of power. The West – if it carries out a missile strike – will be dishing out a rebuke.

          I’m not sure Assad’s first and only consideration is how the West will view his actions. He’s hardly toed the line thus far! What is also going on in the ME is a Sunni-Shi’ite battle and it seems quite likely that Assad is mindful of how he is perceived in his own region where Strong Horse politics are the order of the day.

      • Keith D

        And when have Obama and Cameron ever demonstrated anything other than dither and confusion?.It wont prevent them from doing something even more confused.
        Sure,I’ve seen no evidence it was the rebels and thats the point.No-one knows yet.
        I think the keenness to blame the regime is part of a longer game by the Americans who seem to have zero difficulty befriending jihadists.They should not take sides in a sectarian conflict.

        Informed opinion seems to be that a western response would target chemical facilities.Great,lets have vast clouds of the stuff blowing over Syria,that’ll help no end.
        This is what the UN is supposed to be for,but I wont hold my breath on that score.

        • Andy

          Yes well I tend to agree that Obama is a waste of space and ‘Call me Dave’ is not much better. They are, of course, both career politicians just like those other sh*ts Red Ed and Cleggy.

          No you have not seen any evidence it was the rebels, nor the regime. However the balance of probabilities would suggest it was the regime simply because of the density of the attack. I have read reports that mention a telephone conversation between the Syrian Defense Ministry and a commander which confirms the use of chemical weapons.

          So let us assume it was the regime that used these weapons, and you were in Obama’s place, what you going to do about it ? Sod all ??

          • Keith D

            Obama made a rod for his own back with this red line.He appears to have discounted that its still a vivid memory how we were lied to to justify Iraq.
            People are just not going to believe the political Pimnms quaffers any more.
            We need proof.

            • Andy

              And that is the worse legacy of Blair and Brown. The Prime Minister should be able to stand at the dispatch box and we should believe what he tells us on issues like this. Proof indeed.

    • FF42

      I suspect a grouping associated with the Regime did carry out the chemical attack, but it was against the instructions of the Government. The Assad regime doesn’t show any particular interest in picking a fight with the Americans. On the other hand they have lost control over the people fighting for them. The professional Army has defected in large numbers, somewhat replaced by armed gangs and random Hisbollah groupings. Someone probably thought, we have these chemical weapons – let’s use them.

      The only real reason for bombing Syria is that Obama said that he would if anyone used chemical weapons and America would look weak not to do so now.

      There’s not much we can do, except act as a support to anyone who might eventually want to sort the situation out. We should have offered that support earlier, but there you go.

  • Angus McLellan

    There haven’t been “two sides” in Syria for a long time, if ever there were just two. These days we have “moderate” Sunnis (relatively speaking), including Kurds, a collection of Jihadis, Assad loyalists of all shapes and sizes, and the non-Sunni minorities, most of whom are loyal to Assad faute de mieux. Among those last the Alawites are the main group and they at least are armed to the teeth and unlikely to roll over just because Assad is removed from the scene. What’s more, their friends in Iran and Lebanon are unlikely to abandon them.