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Iraq could have been Syria on steroids

David Aaronovitch returns to Iraq in his column in The Times today (£). He writes as we reach the tenth anniversary of the parliamentary debate that gave the go ahead for Britain’s part in the invasion of Iraq and two weeks before we had the anniversary of the ‘Great Iraq Demonstration’. A march that will forever remain a pinnacle of political activism for certain people on the left and their strange bedfellows.

Also significant are some upcoming dates. On March 20 it will be ten years since the invasion began and Aaronovitch includes another anniversary in his piece: that of March 16. That date marks the 25th anniversary of the gassing of the Kurdish/Iraqi town of Halabja.

In the piece he recounts some of the terrible costs of the war. There is the loss of Iraqi life, put at around 180,000, as well as the loss of American and British lives at 4,179 as well as the financial and reputational costs that the war resulted in. He touches also on how the war has left the West. How the West is more timid and anxious about taking action and the implications that has for future foreign policy and more importantly intervention. As it is the legacy of this we are experiencing living through.

Then, of course, there are the once many supporters of the war who in the Labour ranks have largely evaporated like so much April snow. Or else they have taken the Ed. That’s the Ed Miliband line (“I was abroad at the time, I didn’t say anything, but I was against it…”).

As Aaronovitch puts it revisiting some of this can be an exhausting process, but putting that aside it is timely to do so not just in terms of weighty anniversaries but because of what might have happened otherwise.

“That’s why I mentioned Halabja. Saddam was not a Robert Mugabe or a Korean Kim. He was far worse.

“In 1980 he invaded Iran and 400,000 died. In the eighties he killed between 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds in a genocidal campaign. Both times he used chemical and biological weapons. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait. In 1991 he put down the Shia uprising with up to 50,000 deaths. His refusal to abide by UN resolutions in the next decade led to sanctions that had a terrible impact on Iraqis.

“No Invasion, and Saddam, or his murderous sons, Qusay and the psychopathic Uday, would still be there. Or not? “No!” object many anti-war people. “Saddam would have been topped by the Arab Spring! Or there’d have been a coup!”

Would any of that predicted by those who opposed the war have come to pass? Take a look at a fellow Ba’ath Party regime in Syria. Assad is a shadow of Saddam, but he has not been felled by any Arab Spring or internal coup.

“[Assad] presided over a repression and a civil war that has killed 70,000 in two years in a country significantly smaller than Iraq. Right now, the unaided Syrian opposition is compromised by extreme jihadis filling the vacuum we have left.

“If Saddam had been left unscathed, can one imagine what he might be doing now as Syria implodes? And if he’d been sprung by the spring, surely Saddam’s civil war would have been Syria on steroids.”

Aaronovitch concludes, rightly so, by saying that we feel more strongly about Iraq as it is where we intervened and shared the trauma, than we do about Syria, where we have watched from the sidelines as it unfolds.

The end game in Syria is still playing out and the West’s reaction to what is happening there will be no doubt long discussed at anniversaries yet to come, but Aaronovitch like others already shares a sense of foreboding.