The Third Iraq War
The House of Commons has voted for Britain to go to war in Iraq for the third time in a generation. Yet again, Britain will be bombing the Middle Eastern state. The Gulf War of 1991, to expel Saddam from Kuwait, was carefully calibrated to leave him in power in his own country. This was followed by a grotesque regime of sanctions which killed around 500,000 Iraqi children during the 1990s – a “price worth paying” according to the US Secretary of State of the time.
In 2003, Tony Blair notoriously took Britain to war in Iraq once again, following George Bush into an illegal conflict sold to the public on the basis of a series of lies about the Saddam regime’s military capability and links with terrorism. The downfall of Saddam was followed by a military occupation that gave rise to a campaign of military resistance by the Iraqi people – and a sectarian civil war largely prompted by the Anglo-US occupation’s policies. As many as a million more Iraqis may have died – and up to four million became exiles – before the military forces of the occupiers were withdrawn and the Iraqi people left to the mercies of a dysfunctional and sectarian state presiding over an economic and social ruin.
It is this wrecked and ruined country which is yet again under bombardment, in a war which has already spread to neighbouring Syria, itself destroyed by civil war. Britain is not yet involved in the bombing of Syria, but the USA, leader of the enterprise, is. British forces will likely follow – on the air and in the ground – as this latest mission starts to “creep”.
As the Stop the War Coalition has long warned, British policy towards the Middle East, in alliance with Washington, is a policy of endless war. The calamities which attend each intervention generate the crises which provide the pretext for the next assault. This war will be no different. It is past time to break the cycle of endless war and end British interference in the Middle East.
There is a particular irony in the present bombing campaign. Just over a year ago, David Cameron went to the Commons to ask MPs to join in a military attack on the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. MPs voted him down, in a historic decision which led, in turn, to the US projected war unravelling. Today, Cameron wants bombing against Assad’s opponents in Syria – the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (known as ISIS, or Islamic State). Had the master strategist in Downing Street had his way in 2013, ISIS might well be ensconced in Damascus by now, since it would have been the main beneficiary of an attack directed against the forces of the Syrian government.
So you might search in vain for a coherent underpinning for Cameron’s present policy – or Obama’s for that matter. The new bombing campaign has in fact been presented as a response to the barbarism of ISIS and its fighters, which has imposed a religious tyranny over the territory in Iraq and Syria which it controls. There is no doubt that ISIS, fuelled by a depraved religious bigotry, has persecuted many thousands of people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, in its “Islamic State”. Conveniently for Cameron, and all those wishing to break the public opinion “syndrome” aversive to more Middle East wars, expressed in last year’s vote against attacking Syria, ISIS have accompanied these cruelties by the brutal beheading of British and US hostages, uploading videos to the internet with English-language commentary. What the thinking is behind these outrages by ISIS is not easy to imagine. Certainly they have made it easier for western politicians to mobilise opinion to back war against them.
War on Terror – continued
A year ago almost nobody had heard of ISIS. Now Britain and the US are waging war on it, having designated it the latest “enemy number one” in the region. It is legitimate to ask if the stated purpose of the new war is the actual reason, the more so since it appears almost impossible to achieve the given objective – eradicating ISIS – by the methods being employed: aerial bombardment unaccompanied at present by any ground offensive to recapture the territory over which the ISIS flag presently flies.
In fact, the bombing can only be understood as the latest instalment in the so-called “war on terror” launched by George Bush and Tony Blair in 2001. It has already led to one disaster after another.
At the end of this year, British troops are scheduled to finally leave Afghanistan, the original battleground of the war on “terror”. The original objectives of that war were speedily accomplished – destroying the bases of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and removing their Taliban hosts from power. The subsequent occupation, which saw British troops fighting in Helmand province, has failed in its objectives. Afghanistan is impoverished and corrupt, with a government that no-one attaches any credibility to, and is ripe for the Taliban to make at least a partial comeback as the expression of nationalism among much of the Afghan population.
This was followed by the Iraq war of 2003, the baleful consequences of which have already been mentioned. The British role in the occupation – policing Basra in the south of the country – ended in humiliation. Rejected by the people, British troops retreated to a base at Basra airport for a year before pulling out altogether. For the last five years, the Chilcot Inquiry has been looking into how Britain was led into such a disaster by Tony Blair. It has yet to report, among all the signs of an establishment cover-up. Indeed, the Third Iraq War has begun before the disaster of t second one has been properly scrutinised and accounted for. The dilatory Lord Chilcot has been lapped by the war-makers.
The “Arab Spring” of 2011, in which ordinary people across the region started to take affairs into their own hands by challenging the abysmal assortment of cliques, dictators, monarchs and puppets governing them, provided new opportunities for western intervention. Cameron was to the fore, allying with French President Nicholas Sarkozy to intervene in the civil conflict in Libya to help – by bombing – the forces fighting ruler Colonel Gadaffi. This was supposed to be the “good war”, redeeming the failures of previous interventions. It has turned out anything but good. Post-Gadaffi, the Libyan state has more-or-less collapsed, with warring militias seizing control of different areas of the country. Elections solved nothing. Today, Libya has two “governments”, neither of them actually governing, preferring to fight each other. The Libyan people seem worse off than ever, with a wrecked economy and human rights trampled underfoot. This is the direct consequence of the NATO intervention organised by Cameron and Sarkozy.
Britain has also been taking a hand in the Syrian civil war, supplying arms and money to the forces fighting the Damascus government. This has purportedly been to assist democratic elements. This can surely be taken with a large helping of salt. The British government did nothing when the Bahraini monarchy, with Saudi support, repressed the democratic movement of the Bahraini people in 2011; nor was a peep heard when Egypt’s western-financed military overthrew the elected government in Cairo – the main gain of the “Arab Spring” – in 2013. The interference in Syria had less to do with a desire to see the back of Assad’s dictatorship than with breaking the back of another powerful Arab state with a history of not giving western interests the 100% support they demand.
So will this latest war lead to any better outcomes? Or has the time come to put an end to more than a century of British intervention in the Middle East and give the people of the region the chance to shape their own destiny?
And will a new war make the British people themselves any safer – the reason Cameron has given for dispatching the RAF over Iraq once more?
One War Leads to Another
Where did ISIS come from? ISIS’s present strength is the product of the collapse of the Iraqi and Syrian states, in a regional environment of heightened Sunni-Shia conflict, itself caused in large measure by the policies followed by the US occupation of Iraq after 2003, and the activities of western allies like Saudi Arabia above all.
It is a product of western intervention in the region, above all of the of last Iraq war. That conflict did not just remove Saddam’s Baath regime from power. It shattered all the foundations of the Iraqi state in a bid to create a “ground zero” for a made-in-Washington free market utopia to be imposed on the Iraqi people. The army and civil service were disbanded or dispersed. The economy was plunged into a chaos from which it has yet to emerge. While elections have been instituted in this impoverished and riven country, this has not led to anything like a recognisable democracy. Indeed, each election has been followed by many months of horse-trading between political factions largely defined on a sectarian or ethnic basis.
The government of Nouri Maliki (he served as Prime Minister and also Minister for Defence, for Security and for the Interior!) further developed the sectarian underpinnings of the state which the US had introduced from the outset of the occupation. Sunni Muslims have been excluded from many sensitive posts, and a programme of ethnic cleansing implemented across much of Iraq, effectively dividing the country into three areas – a Shia area south from Baghdad to Basra, a Sunni area north and west of the capital, and a Kurdish region in the north-east. Maliki’s regime had no authority or credibility in the Sunni areas in particular – Sunnis felt discriminated against and often subject to official and unofficial terror campaigns.
The point made by George Galloway MP during the Commons debate on the war is surely correct – ISIS could only maintain its grip over such a large area with a relatively small number of fighters if they had the acquiescence, at least, of much of the population around them in Iraq. The blundering sectarianism of the US-installed Baghdad government has alienated almost all Sunni Muslim opinion in the north and west of the country. Without the tacit backing of the Sunni tribes across the area, the Islamic State could scarcely sustain itself. That equation is not likely to be changed by Anglo-US bombing.
The second source of ISIS is to be found in the ceaseless stream of religious bigotry pumped out by the rulers of Saudi Arabia above all. The doctrine and outlook of the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia has poisoned the well of Middle East politics. The Saudi elite have used this to reframe Middle Eastern politics on a sectarian basis, alleging that the hand of Iran is to be found behind all Shia Muslims, and that this can be opposed, not by democracy or progress (obviously not ideas appealing to the princes of the oil wells), but by a Sunni sectarian mobilisation. ISIS is the fruit of such work. It will be no surprise to find that ISIS, like al-Qaeda before it, has benefitted from generous Saudi funding and a stream of Saudi citizens as its fighters. As long as such groups leave the regime in Riyadh alone, the Saudis are happy to see them operate with impunity elsewhere in the region. Saudi Arabia, it need hardly be added, is the closest ally of the USA and Britain in the Arab world, and alongside Israel, is a pillar of the “world order” in that region.
The third leg of ISIS’s support has come from the civil war in Syria. The uprising against Assad’s regime in Damascus has long since degenerated into a sectarian conflict. The west has poured money and arms into this civil war, thereby prolonging it and wrecking the Syrian state for the most part. ISIS has filled the vacuum in the east of the country, directing its fire against the Assad regime and its secular, western-supported opponents alike.
So the present crisis represents the bankruptcy of western policy in the Middle East. The victims, as ever, are the Arab, Kurdish and other peoples on the ground, squeezed between reactionary movements like ISIS and neo-colonial violence and political interference. None of this excuses the medieval barbarism of ISIS, directed against many Muslims as well as those of other faiths or none. It offers no future whatsoever for the Arab and other peoples in Iraq and Syria.
But can beheading be defeated by bombing? And does the answer really lie in more Anglo-American military involvement. More likely, the vote in the House of Commons corresponds to Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing again and again and expecting different outcomes. Just as the second Iraq War laid the ground for the Third, so will the present conflict merely prepare the ground for more.
A Reactionary Alliance
Any serious attempt to tackle religious bigotry in the Middle East would have to start by addressing the activities and influence of the Saudi petro-theocracy. Not only is the main support for every anti-democratic initiative by the rulers in the region, its reactionary Wahhabi theology, policed by a powerful clergy, is exported across the Muslim world and is the main fuel for sectarian hatred. Yet the Saudi regime retains unstinting western support – because of its oil supplies, of course. The irony of the Saudi military taking part in a war against a movement which beheads people will be lost on no-one. Saudi Arabia is the decapitation capital of the world, with dozens being so dispatched every year, for crimes like “sorcery”, inter alia.
The other Arab “allies” enlisted by Obama in the current war are little better. Bahrain’s rulers drowned their people’s aspirations for freedom in blood, and continue to arrest, imprison and torture dissenters. The only “justification” is anti-Shia sectarian attitudes. The United Arab Emirates marches in lockstep with the Saudis, and with just as little democratic sanction. Jordan’s monarchy is a long-standing British puppet, and a pillar of pro-Israel politics.
A solution imposed by such regimes, allied to the US and Britain, will not prove to be a solution at all. It would leave unchanged the underlying problems besetting the region. The Arab people want democracy, as they proved in 2011. They will not get that either from the Gulf autocracies, or regimes which play the sectarian card. They want prosperity, and a share in the wealth their natural resources can bring. They will not get that from a system rigged to benefit the ruling elites, the giant oil monopolies and the governments in Washington and London. Above all, they want peace, which they will not get and have never got from the imperial powers, for whom resort to force is the unvarying answer to any tremor in the Middle East which appears to menace their interests.
The response of the British and US governments to the “Arab Spring” has been one of unabashed cynicism. There has been overt intervention in Libya and Syria to bring down (or attempt to) regimes perceived as unreliable stewards of western interests, at the price of bloody civil wars and complete state collapse. Yet Cameron and Hague not only sat with arms folded when the Bahraini ruling gang suppressed the democracy movement, with Saudi military backing, they ache since welcomed the Bahraini princes to London.
Likewise, barely a peep was heard when the Egyptian military overthrow the elected government in Cairo and embarked on a terrifying campaign of repression that has seen thousands slaughter on the streets, death sentences handed down en masse and all the political gains of the 2011 revolution set at nought. In effect, the restoration of the Mubarak regime has been welcomed by the world elite (Tony Blair’s unstinting support for the dictator al-Sisi is a fair indicator of that). The British government has responded by instituting an inquiry into the…Muslim Brotherhood, the winners of every free election yet held in Egypt, and the victims of the military’s crackdown!
The victims of the new junta in Cairo are not just Egypt’s people, but also the Palestinians of Gaza. Sisi, in line with the Egyptian military’s long-standing alliance with Israel and the US, has cracked down on the border with Gaza, and for the first time actively encouraged the recent brutal Israel assault on the blockaded territory.
This all establishes that the British and US governments remain on the wrong side in the Arab world – on the side of despots against democracy, of elites against popular interests. They want regimes that will sell them oil and buy arms in return. They are now prepared to endorse religious sectarianism to preserve their position, and intervene only to ensure things do not slide out of control.
As of this writing, the British military involvement in the latest war does not appear to amount to very much. The Commons vote precluded – for now – any intervention in Syria, apparently to satisfy legalistic consciences on the Labour side of the House. So as things stand, a couple of RAF missions a day are looking for viable targets to strike on the Iraqi side of the Sykes-Picot line, with which British and French colonialists divided the country during the First World War, the peoples concerned being unconsulted of course. So far, a truck has been destroyed.
This of course highlights the difficulties in bombing a relatively small, mobile and widely-dispersed military force embedded in a large civilian population, including in many major towns. Even President Obama has now noted that bombing alone is not going to dislodge ISIS from ground already gained, although it may inhibit further advances, towards Baghdad or Iraqi Kurdistan for example. Where the bombing is less inhibited, as seems to have been the case in Syria, then the number of civilian casualties will obviously escalate.
So this mission will “creep” as night follows day. Indeed, British troops are already serving as “trainers” to Kurdish forces in Iraq, following the precedent set by the first US “advisers” in Vietnam. But where is the ground force which can carry the fight to ISIS. The Iraqi army has so far proved unequal to the task, having been constituted by al-Maliki on a corrupt and sectarian basis. Its Sunni soldiers for the most part will be reluctant to fight ISIS in the interests of a sectarian Baghdad government, while many Shia will be more interested in protecting their own regions rather than operating in Sunni tribal areas. Indeed, the same forces which abandoned the battlefield to ISIS north of Baghdad have been energetically assisting in the sectarian cleansing of Sunnis in “mixed” areas of Iraq right down to today. So an effective Iraqi army – the army of a functioning democratic state – seems a long way off.
Still less are the west going to turn to the Syrian army to challenge ISIS – this, after all, is the army which Cameron and Obama were urging war against just twelve months ago. Even if it had the capacity, supporting the full-scale restoration of Assad’s authority across Syria is not on Obama’s agenda. Then there are the Kurdish forces, in Iraq and Syria. While there is no doubt that these will fight valiantly to repulse ISIS incursions into their territory, it cannot be supposed that they will fight to dislodge ISIS from the broad Arab-populated areas they presently control.
It is therefore most likely that the US-led bombing campaign will be supplemented by a land offensive driven by US and allied troops on the ground – either that or, once boxed in, ISIS will be left to hopefully wither. That is of course likely to take a very long time absent a genuine political settlement emerging from the peoples of Iraq and Syria themselves, rather than one externally imposed.
Here we need to consider one of the questions most exercising western opinion – how to support the Kurdish people in Iraq and Syria? The plight of Kobane, the Kurdish city on the Syrian-Turkish border besieged by ISIS forces, has attracted great attention, as did the ISIS thrust, now stalled, into Kurdish territory within Iraq at an earlier stage. The cynicism of the Turkish government, which gives every appearance of preferring an ISIS victory to support for either Kurds purportedly aligned with the Turkish Kurd party PKK or for the Syrian government, has outraged the world. Turkish President Erdogan as refused to let PKK fighters mobilise to defend Kobane, such is his hostility to his own Kurdish people.
The Kurdish question is a running sore of world politics. Divided between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the Kurds have been denied, ever since the Treaty of Versailles, of the self-determination which is their right. The last century has seen them manipulated and betrayed by one external or regional power after another. Today, the administration in Kurdish Iraq enjoys a broad autonomy which is on the verge of amounting to de facto independence. The smaller Kurdish areas in Syria have also slipped central government control. Certainly the Kurds have every right to oppose the religious fanatics of ISIS and to procure the arms to do so wherever they can.
But two reservations remain. The first, as indicated above, is that whatever happens to the Kurds, this will not determine the future of ISIS on the broader canvass. Its main strength lies in Arab areas. The second is that the US will use arms supplies to further its latest manipulation of the Kurdish people, using their aspirations for self-determination as a lever to secure their own ends, only to abandon them once more as the crisis passes. We have seen this particular movie many times before.
The truth is that the existing state system in much of the Middle East, itself the product of colonialism and decisions taken at the end of the First World War, nearly a century ago, may be disintegrating. Boundaries are dissolving, and the misalignments of states with peoples is causing increasing pressure, and raising contradictions – as in Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds – which will not easily be resolved. But one thing should be clear – the resolution of these problems must rest exclusively with the peoples of the region themselves. Only they can construct a stable future – the days of dictates from outside are long played out.
History of War
ISIS is just the latest bogey figure used to justify great power military intervention in the Middle East.
In 1956, Egyptian leader Abdul Gamal Nasser was the “new Hitler”. Britain and France intervened against his Arab nationalism. Since then we have intervened against Baathist regimes – having earlier supported them. We have intervened against Gadaffi’s “green book” government – again, having embraced him just a few years earlier. We have interfered to support monarchies, as in Kuwait. And we have gone to the threshold of war with the Islamic Republic in Iran.
Clearly, no type of regime in the Middle East is acceptable to the west – unless it guarantees the interests of the big powers. That secured, almost any sort of government is acceptable, however repressive or obscurantist it may be. Today’s war forms part of that pattern. The aim – it is barely even an underlying one – is to maintain hegemony over the region and its resources (oil, of course); over its finances, increasingly critical in the global economy; to keep other powers out; and of course to strengthen the position of Israel as a regional policeman.
It is all of a piece with the dangers emerging in other parts of the world. The relentless expansion of NATO and the European Union into eastern Europe, in defiance of pledges given to Mikhail Gorbachev in the last days of the Soviet Union, has helped spark the crisis in the Ukraine, the overthrow of its elected government and the current civil war in that country’s eastern regions. The risk of a military clash with Russia has grown enormously as a result of these reckless policies.
And Obama has executed a military “pivot to the Pacific”, redeploying the Pentagon’s vast resources to the Far East in a bid to encircle and confront the rising power of China. Flashpoints now exist throughout a region stuffed to overflowing with armed forces, military bases and the other technologies of war – disputed islands, control of resources and sea lanes etc. The aggressive posture of the US and Japan, above all, is setting the stage for even greater conflicts than we are seeing in the Middle East.
All these issues, despite their differences and their specific features, have a common root – the drive to expand and entrench the US-dominated “new world order”, in which Britain is a core co-conspirator. Obama may pursue the goal of world hegemony with more subtlety and nuance than did George Bush, but the objective remains control by the US and its core allies like Britain over every country and continent. It is that which threatens peace across the world, more now than ever before.
That is why last year’s vote in the House of Commons against the planned bombing of Syria was so important. Not only did it stop that whole conflict from unfolding, against the wishes of David Cameron, it also represented the first time Britain had detached itself from US war policy in generations. The vote was a reflection both of the calamity of the Iraq war, sold to Parliament and people on the basis of lies, and of the enduring influence of the anti-war movement. It is only by breaking the alliance with Washington – for which a “blood price” must be paid, in Tony Blair’s memorable words – that Britain can stand to stand for peace in the world.
As things stand, however, the Third Iraq War will surely impact on the British people too. Indeed, seldom has “blowback” blown back so swiftly. On a Friday, the Commons voted for war, and on the next Monday Home Secretary Teresa May was using the same arguments about “terrorism” as had been advanced to justify the bombing in support of sweeping new proposals to clamp down on political speech, by banning particular organisations and individuals from the media. War abroad almost invariably leads to a war “at home” on civil liberties, and governments of both parties have consistently sought to use the “war on terror” to justify an attack on long-held freedoms here.
Community cohesion will also come under fresh assault, as Muslims in Britain are made to answer for the sins of ISIS. Already Rupert Murdoch’s Sun has commenced a fresh attack on British Muslims, as if they had anything whatsoever to do with the barbarities being committed by ISIS in the sands of Anbar or the streets of Fallujah. The war will further fuel the xenophobia on which the UK Independence Party is thriving.
Questions should further be asked as to how the immense cost of the war – a single Tomahawk missile costs nearly a million pounds to replace – can be justified at a time of public spending cuts and austerity. Each bomb dropped on Iraq represents a library closed, or nurses sacked here in Britain. This is a government which can always find money for war, but never money for the poor.
Nor will the bombing make Britain less vulnerable to terrorism. Never mind that ISIS, unlike al-Qaeda, does not appear to threaten attacks in the west. The mere fact of fresh intervention in the Muslim world will make terrorist acts by a tiny minority of misled and alienated young people more likely. Only peace can start the process of draining that particular pond.
So the consequences of the Commons vote for war can be swiftly summarised. More Arab civilians will die as a result of the bombing; the Middle East will be further wrecked and the possibilities of democratic advance set back; bitterness and hatred will be entrenched; and British society itself will suffer.
Fighting Against War
45 MPs took a brave stand against the war in the House of Commons vote. A small minority, to be sure, but larger than the one which opposed the start of the Afghan War in 2001. Moreover, it included MPs from all parties – Labour, Tory, Liberal Democrat, Scottish Nationalist, Plaid Cymru, Green, Respect and UKIP. This is an indicator of the deep unease felt about waging further war, and the potential breadth of opposition that exists.
The Stop the War Coalition must be urgently strengthened to reflect and amplify that opposition. There is none of the tub-thumping jingoism that has sometimes accompanied past wars, despite the shocking impact of the videos of innocent hostages being apparently beheaded. People are anxious, confused and unconvinced by the official and media rhetoric.
First, people must hear the arguments against the war set out in this pamphlet and elsewhere. We will get a nearing. The anti-war movement has been proved right every time. We do not need the endless labours of Lord Chilcot to establish the point in relation to Iraq. The war was illegal. The occupation was not welcomed by the Iraqi people. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Peace was not brought to the wider region. The Palestinian people did not secure their freedom. Likewise the once-derided arguments of the Stop the War Coalition against the occupation of Afghanistan, or the bombing of Libya, are now accepted almost as common sense. We would rather not be in a position of always being proved right, but this war will likely prove to be no exception.
The arguments need to be connected to people’s daily lives too. The anti-war movement should return to the mosques to ally with Muslims against Islamaphobia. And it should connect the cuts in services and spending with the costs of war.
Next year all the MPs who voted for war, and many other candidates, must confront their electors. We must ensure that the war is an election issue, and that as many candidates as possible are won to pledge to halt it when re-elected. This will require concentrated campaigning in most constituencies.
There will still be people who look at the situation in the region, and the depredations of ISIS and say, in all sincerity “we have an obligation to do something.” Britain has a history of “doing something” in that part of the world, from the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement which between them set the contours of the present crisis, to the overthrow of the democratic government in Iran in 1952, to the partition of Palestine, the war in Aden, the destruction of Iraq, the chaos in Libya, the support for the Gulf tyrants and more. It is time we accepted that we do not want our rulers to “do something”. Whatever they undertake will only compound the problem. It is time to allow the people of the Middle East to make their own future without the shadow of our bombers overhead.
October 12 2014
Andrew Murray is vice chair of the Stop the war Coalition and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto