Monday, 5 August 2013

Syria and Iraq: Painful lessons in history and restraint

Syria and Iraq share many things in addition to an extensive and poorly policed border. They are both post-colonial states, constructed arbitrarily from an eclectic mix of racial and religious groups. They both suffer from serious tensions between these different groups, and have a history of repression by one or more of these groups. In the case of Iraq it was the repression of the Shia Muslims majority and Kurdish minority by another minority, the Sunni Muslims. In the case of Syria it was a neat reversal, with a Shia led “coalition of minorities” repressing the Sunni majority. Of course, this is a simplification. Inter-ethnic and religious relations in both nations are complicated and fraught, with questionable acts on both sides. In both cases however, pre-existing conflict between factions has been immeasurably worsened by outside intervention.

Iraq is the more well known and spectacular case. The US led invasion of 2003 was supposed to topple the dictator Saddam Hussein and establish democracy. What it succeeded in doing was lift the lid on simmering tensions, which Hussein had, with unquestionably vile methods, successfully repressed.  The result was a bloody civil conflict from the invasion on, with a series of peaks and lulls, and which now looks as though it is reigniting. The repression by the Sunni minority Hussein led has been replaced by savage all out conflict, and the fragmentation of Iraq. Far from building the country into a liberal, democratic society, Western intervention may in the long term have succeeded only in destroying it altogether.

The intervention in Iraq has not only failed to meet any of its objectives, it has made the situation worse. To the horrific death toll of the Iraqis themselves, the Western forces have managed to add thousands of their own troops. The brutality of Saddam Hussein has been replaced by the chaotic, dysfunctional and semi-despotic regime of Nouri al-Maliki. Violence, which under Hussein was kept in the hands of the state, is now in the hands of any and all groups who have an axe to grind. Coalition troops have died in vain, and the horrendous violence now unfolding in Iraq is potentially worse than anything Hussein’s regime could have done.

This leads us to Syria, where western intervention is again being mooted, albeit in a more limited fashion. Britain, France and factions within the American government seem to believe that if they simply outsource their intervention by arming the Syrian rebels, they will avoid all of the disasters of Iraq. This is, quite simply, a complete inability to understand the nature of their failure in Iraq. Iraq was a failure not because the right side didn't win; Iraq was a failure because western countries got involved in a conflict they did not understand. There were no right sides in Iraq, just competing factions looking for an advantage by any means necessary.

Likewise in Syria, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys”. There are simply competing factions, with their own goals, agendas and particular ideologies. The obsession with whether or not any arms sent over might fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or its affiliates misses the point entirely. Whoever gets the arms, be it the Free Syrian Army, the al-Nusra Front or any of the other multifarious rebel groups in Syria, will use them to carve out their own victory at the expense of all the other factions. The civil war in Syria is not a conflict between the government of Bashar al-Assad and a rebel movement. It is a multi-sided free for all, with ethnic and religious complexities that makes the Balkans conflict look clear cut by comparison.

Sending weapons in isn’t going to hasten a rebel victory, it will just add more bullets to the fighting, and get more people, including civilians killed. Even if by some miracle the particular group of Syrian rebels which the West has arbitrarily chosen to favour get all of the weapons and don’t lose any of them, they will promptly use them to establish their own political solution, at the expense of all the other factions. Western bullets will be used to achieve decidedly non-Western goals. When you attempt to break up a bar fight, you don’t just give the one guy you happen to like a baseball bat to try and end it quickly. In the case of Syria, the West has stepped into the bar, looked around, and started tossing in meat cleavers randomly.

This kind of misguided policy has two outcomes. Either the those intervening (i.e. the West) get stuck in wholesale and end up adding their own casualties to an already bloody conflict (as happened in Iraq), or they stand back, add more guns to the situation and then watch as yet again the violence and suffering spike. Given the stubborn refusal of the Western powers to learn from their mistakes, we can dread equally fruitless attempts at making things better in the rapidly deteriorating situations in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and possibly Tunisia and Lebanon. Let us hope, for the sake of all the innocent victims of the Middle Eastern conflicts, the people of the West chose to learn the lessons their governments won’t.

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