Arguing over 2003 Won't End the Current Crisis in the Middle East

By Tony Blair

The civil war in Syria with its attendant disintegration is having its predictable and malign effect. Iraq is now in mortal danger. The whole of the Middle East is under threat.

We will have to re-think our strategy towards Syria; support the Iraqi Government in beating back the insurgency; whilst making it clear that Iraq's politics will have to change for any resolution of the current crisis to be sustained. Then we need a comprehensive plan for the Middle East that correctly learns the lessons of the past decade. In doing so, we should listen to and work closely with our allies across the region, whose understanding of these issues is crucial and who are prepared to work with us in fighting the root causes of this extremism which goes far beyond the crisis in Iraq or Syria.

It is inevitable that events in Mosul have led to a re-run of the arguments over the decision to remove Saddam Hussein in 2003. The key question obviously is what to do now. But because some of the commentary has gone immediately to claim that but for that decision, Iraq would not be facing this challenge; or even more extraordinary, implying that but for the decision, the Middle East would be at peace right now; it is necessary that certain points are made forcefully before putting forward a solution to what is happening now.

Just a few years ago Al Qaida in Iraq was a beaten force. The country had massive challenges but had a prospect, at least, of overcoming them. It did not pose a threat to its neighbours. Indeed, since the removal of Saddam, and despite the bloodshed, Iraq had contained its own instability mostly within its own borders.

Though the challenge of terrorism was and is very real, the sectarianism of the Maliki Government snuffed out what was a genuine opportunity to build a cohesive Iraq. This, combined with the failure to use the oil money to re-build the country, and the inadequacy of the Iraqi forces have led to the alienation of the Sunni community and the inability of the Iraqi army to repulse the attack on Mosul and the earlier loss of Fallujah. And there will be debate about whether the withdrawal of US forces happened too soon.

However there is also no doubt that a major proximate cause of the takeover of Mosul by ISIS is the situation in Syria. To argue otherwise is wilful. The operation in Mosul was planned and organised from Raqqa across the Syria border. The fighters were trained and battle-hardened in the Syrian war. It is true that they originate in Iraq and have shifted focus to Iraq over the past months. But, Islamist extremism in all its different manifestations as a group, rebuilt refinanced and re-armed mainly as a result of its ability to grow and gain experience through the war in Syria.

As for how these events reflect on the original decision to remove Saddam, if we want to have this debate, we have to do something that is rarely done: put the counterfactual i.e. suppose in 2003, Saddam had been left running Iraq. Now take each of the arguments against the decision in turn.

The first is there was no WMD risk from Saddam and therefore the casus belli was wrong. What we now know from Syria is that Assad, without any detection from the West, was manufacturing chemical weapons. We only discovered this when he used them. We also know, from the final weapons inspectors reports, that though it is true that Saddam got rid of the physical weapons, he retained the expertise and capability to manufacture them. Is it likely that, knowing what we now know about Assad, Saddam, who had used chemical weapons against both the Iranians in the 1980s war that resulted in over 1m casualties and against his own people, would have refrained from returning to his old ways? Surely it is at least as likely that he would have gone back to them.

The second argument is that but for the invasion of 2003, Iraq would be a stable country today. Leave aside the treatment Saddam meted out to the majority of his people whether Kurds, Shia or marsh Arabs, whose position of ‘stability' was that of appalling oppression. Consider the post 2011 Arab uprisings. Put into the equation the counterfactual - that Saddam and his two sons would be running Iraq in 2011 when the uprisings began. Is it seriously being said that the revolution sweeping the Arab world would have hit Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, to say nothing of the smaller upheavals all over the region, but miraculously Iraq, under the most brutal and tyrannical of all the regimes, would have been an oasis of calm?

Easily the most likely scenario is that Iraq would have been engulfed by precisely the same convulsion. Take the hypothesis further. The most likely response of Saddam would have been to fight to stay in power. Here we would have a Sunni leader trying to retain power in the face of a Shia revolt. Imagine the consequences. Next door in Syria a Shia backed minority would be clinging to power trying to stop a Sunni majority insurgency. In Iraq the opposite would be the case. The risk would have been of a full blown sectarian war across the region, with States not fighting by proxy, but with national armies.

So it is a bizarre reading of the cauldron that is the Middle East today, to claim that but for the removal of Saddam, we would not have a crisis.

And it is here that if we want the right policy for the future, we have to learn properly the lessons not just of Iraq in 2003 but of the Arab uprisings from 2011 onwards.

The reality is that the whole of the Middle East and beyond is going through a huge, agonising and protracted transition. We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we' have caused this. We haven't. We can argue as to whether our policies at points have helped or not; and whether action or inaction is the best policy and there is a lot to be said on both sides. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it.

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This essay first appeared on http://www.tonyblairoffice.org/

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