The ghost of Iraq lingers

Thursday’s House of Commons debate on the principle of military action in Syria to relieve humanitarian suffering was notable for the distinctly conciliatory tone adopted by Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron was undoubtedly in a weaker position than he had been envisaging – parliament had been reconvened early with the express aim of gaining approval for a limited intervention. The government was forced into watering down its initial motion, however, when it became clear that the opposition Labour Party would not support strikes before the UN chemical weapons team in Damascus had completed its investigation. Ed Miliband’s resistance risked embarrassment for Downing Street given the likely number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat rebels.

The scaled-down nature of the motion cannot in itself, though, explain the somewhat passive nature of Cameron’s performance at the despatch box. The PM repeatedly framed possible Syrian engagement in terms of what it wasn’t, insisting: “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict, it is not about invading, it is not about regime change and it is not even about working more closely with the opposition”. He stressed that there was no “smoking gun” piece of intelligence that would unequivocally attribute blame for last week’s grotesque attacks at the door of the Assad regime. Central to these statements is the simple reality that, a decade on, the memory of the disastrous Iraq war still burns brightly in the minds of our political class – not least our commander-in-chief. As Cameron admitted, that conflict well and truly poisoned “the well of public opinion” with regard to foreign military intervention.

The Iraq ghost has had a leading role to play in several contributing factors that consigned the government to defeat on Thursday night’s motion. As Cameron spoke the most significant word was one that was utterly avoided (indeed one which has been stripped entirely from the political lexicon) yet hung in the air nonetheless – ‘dossier’. In admitting, very openly, that no one strand of evidence could condemn Assad beyond any doubt, the PM was at pains to avoid parallels with the ‘sexed-up’ document that supposedly justified intervention in Iraq in September 2002, on the grounds of the existence of WMDs. We all know what happened there. In the event Cameron’s willingness to hit the Syrian government before the UN team had even finalised its findings – he implored MPs to make a “judgement” based on circumstances that were not 100% conclusive – came off as dubious. Ultimately, his desperation to avoid Tony Blair’s toxic Iraq legacy meant that he did a lacklustre job of pitching Syrian action.

Memories of his former party leader were also keenly felt by Miliband. His decision to demand the maximum possible legitimacy and legal cover in exchange for Labour support for intervention was an attempt to put to rest the ghost that has stubbornly encircled his party. Downing Street officials were well aware of how far this compromised their position, furiously accusing the Labour leader of playing politics and aiding the Assad regime. This opposition to the original motion, combined with the deep scepticism already felt by many MPs, paved the way for the government’s stunning defeat.

The security forces themselves have also not forgotten their implication in the Iraq conflict. The Joint Intelligence Committee analysis relied on by Cameron asserted that it was “highly likely” that the Syrian government had carried out last week’s chemical weapons attacks. However a former British intelligence official has stated that this was probably an understatement of the committee’s true belief, as a result of the manner in which the UK security community got its fingers burned by the ‘dodgy dossier’ episode. Additionally, top defence figures are said to have been doubtful of plans for a punitive missile strike on the Assad regime, describing them as naïve and childlike. These considerations may well have contributed to the slightly underwhelming nature of the intelligence report, constituting another factor in Downing Street’s parliamentary loss.

The specter of Iraq, then, heavily influenced Thursday’s events. It hung over the presentation of Cameron’s pitch, shaped the reaction of the Labour leadership and MPs of all parties, and may even have seeped its way into the workings of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Tony Blair’s actions a decade ago, and the legacy they left behind, have had the knock-on effect of weakening the current PM’s authority – it is unheard of in modern times for a UK leader to fail to get his way on foreign policy. The effect on any wider Syrian intervention will probably be minimal – the US has signalled its willingness to carry out action without the military support of its closest ally, and the French are still ramping up their rhetoric. However, after a summer spent closing the gap with an increasingly rudderless Labour opposition, the self-confessed ‘heir to Blair’ may live to rue the boldness of his political antecedent.

Alex Rickets

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The Arab Spring unravels

Contrasting yet similar situations in Syria and Egypt illustrate the risks of popular uprisings against autocratic regimes

Two and a half years ago the western world looked on as the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring unfolded and massive protests swept the Middle East nations of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. There was a definite feeling, however widely held, that a once-in-a-lifetime shift was occurring; that a stubbornly regressive part of the world was finally grasping a more representative, rights-oriented future. Fast-forward to the second half of 2013, however, and it is clear that any initial notions of a peaceful and orderly transition were naïve in the extreme. International headlines over the summer have been dominated by situations in Syria and Egypt which can be described as fundamentally different yet depressingly similar. Middle East citizens in their millions have made clear that they desire balanced and democratic societies over autocracies. It is nothing less than a tragedy that the socio-political structure of the region has led to many deaths in the pursuit of this ideal, and means that many more will die before it can at last be realised.

The vast majority of ‘Arab Spring’ deaths have occurred in Syria. In April 2011 President Bashar al-Assad reacted to demands for his resignation by employing the Syrian army to fire on protestors across the country. His brutality ensured that the uprising escalated into a civil war which to date has claimed the lives of well over 100,000 people, and displaced millions more. Russian and Iranian military support for the Assad regime has given it the upper hand in the conflict; the government has recently been accused of firing chemical weapons at thousands of its own people, killing hundreds. International reaction to these developments, meanwhile, has been muted due to the more cautious foreign policy outlook of the Obama administration in comparison to, and largely in consequence of, its predecessor. The appalling bloodshed highlights the danger of uprisings against a dictatorial establishment that has no wish to be unseated.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, conversely, stepped aside at the behest of demonstrators in February 2011 comparatively willingly. Ensuing events have been anything but straightforward. In the aftermath of the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political organisation, won presidential and parliamentary elections in which turnout was low. Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood became Egypt’s first democratically elected leader in June 2012, winning over many secularists in the absence of an organised liberal movement. What followed led to the deeply polarised Egypt that we see today. After months of government mismanagement and attempts to impose religious law on Egypt’s constitution, popular demonstrations at the end of June and beginning of July prompted an army coup. Both sides have since been unwilling to compromise: hard-line Islamists believe they have been robbed of their democratic legitimacy and demand Morsi’s reinstatement, while the interim administration’s line that Morsi activists are terrorists plotting to bring down the country has been swallowed by many. Over the last few weeks religious attacks and numbers of Muslim Brotherhood detainees have proliferated. Frantic international efforts to ease the tension came to naught when the Egyptian security forces violently cleared two demonstration camps a fortnight ago – in all likelihood over a thousand people died in that event alone.

The situation in Egypt differs from that in Syria, fairly obviously, due to the contrasting levels of success enjoyed by protestors in ousting autocratic leaders. All too similar is the tragic bloodshed in both cases. Both events demonstrate the danger of attempting democratic transitions in countries in which repressive dictatorships, and religious extremism, have lingered. Established autocratic regimes generally do not give up easily; even where they do, the unfamiliar void left behind is all the more potent in societies split along deep sectarian lines. The reality is that religion should have no role in the running of states: beliefs in religious law, which can lead to impassioned rejection of other views, do not sit well with democracy, which is dependent on compromise.

The unravelling of the Arab Spring in Syria and Egypt illustrates how the fair, balanced societies coveted by millions in the Middle East will not come easily to the region. Indeed, the recent military overthrow of Mohamed Morsi risks setting a dangerous precedent that democratically elected yet disapproved of governments can be removed at any time. This precedent would be undesirable given that the democratic process largely holds together populations and averts social unrest. More seriously still, the coup risks further alienating hard-line Islamists and stoking religious violence.

These problems, however, should not necessarily signal an end to attempts to secure progress in the Middle East. The comparative peacefulness and stability of much of the western world demonstrates that proper inclusive, representative democracy is the best way of ensuring lasting prosperity for societies. At the same time it cannot be doubted that structural issues in the Middle East have thus far rendered the shift chaotic and bloody. It is for the region’s citizens to decide whether the associated medium-term suffering is offset by their long-term goal.

Alex Rickets