Going back before going forward: learning from Iraq and Syria

What Britain's recent history in Iraq and Syria can teach it about taking action in future.

As the situation in Iraq worsens there are increasing calls within Britain for it to join the US in airstrikes. While Prime Minister David Cameron has been quick to limit UK involvement to humanitarian aid, others – like General Sir Richard Dannatt – feel military intervention is necessary. The international community has in general looked at US airstrikes favourably. The Iraqi government requested US assistance and Kurdish forces admit they would not have been able to recapture territory without them. Europe is also supportive. For example, President François Hollande has called for a global strategy and has sent arms to Kurdish forces. Even Germany, who has been reluctant to engage in conflict situations since the end of World War Two, has said it will ship weapons to the Kurds.

Given this renewed positivity about military intervention it is important to remember Britain’s recent history. While looking back can provide no decisive answers, Iraq in 2003 proved to the UK that military intervention is complicated, unpredictable and may even make situations worse. Yet, inaction in Syria last year taught us that it may also be necessary.

The situation in Iraq is very different to eleven years ago – for example, this time the Iraqi government requested US support – however, the impact of the 2003 intervention was profound and its lessons should be considered before engaging in the country. After six years, 179 lives and £6.5 billion, Britain finished in Iraq a broken nation. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s premiership was ruined by the war, as were British relations with Europe. Further, for all the hurt it did Britain, it achieved very little in Iraq. Just a few years later, Iraq has been engulfed by such violence that it is now one of only four countries to be given a level three emergency status by the UN.

The war changed the mentality of the British nation; a “once gung-ho nation” became completely against intervention. YouGov found that those backing the war had gone from 53% in 2003 to 27% in 2013. This opposition was clear when David Cameron tried to intervene in Syria; despite the horrors unfolding before the British public 60% were opposed to military deployment purely tasked with protecting civilians. Cameron is right not to forget this changed mentality, which punished him in his efforts to intervene in Syria. If British lives are lost in Iraq again public opinion may quickly turn against any intervention.

The 2003 Iraq War also had a detrimental impact on the British government’s relations with its own Islamic community. Many Muslims felt forced to choose between being British and being Muslim[1] - especially as the war was used as a rallying call for Islamic radicalisation. This is important to remember before fighting the Islamic State, IS, militia. Around 500 UK nationals are estimated to have already gone to Syria to become jihadists, mostly joining the IS. The disturbing video of a British jihadist beheading American journalist James Foley shows they are active and dangerous in the field. Moreover, at least half have returned and, as the conflict continues, the risk of them committing violence in the UK (or of more joining the conflict abroad) may increase – especially if the UK directly fights the IS.

Despite the arguments against intervention after Iraq, Syria shows that inaction can be devastating. Kofi Anan warned in 2012, “if things do not change [in Syria], the future is likely to be one of brutal repression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war” – yet, the world did nothing. Parliament’s failure to pass a vote for intervention stopped Obama following up his “Red Line” threat over chemical weapons and stopped any intervention. The country continued to spiral out of control, now Anan’s predictions have all materialised; 191 300 are estimated to have died and, amidst the chaos, IS were able to gain power and spread violence across the border into Iraq. The situation in Syria is now far too complex and fragmented for intervention, yet many admit that to combat IS action is needed in Syria.

Cameron has some difficult decisions ahead and he is right to be hesitant in expanding UK commitment to military involvement. Those who would join the US without such hesitation seem to have forgotten the past and could push the UK closer to another dangerous foreign conflict. Saying this, Syria has taught us that inaction cannot be the answer to such massive crises and, unfortunately, the British Government may have to do something.

[1] Black, M. and Keith, A. Khan, Kalbir S., Johnn S. (2002) New Labour’s White Heart: Politics, Multiculturalism and the Return of Assimilation, Political Quarterly, vol. 73, issue 4, pp. 445-454