Iraq-Iran-Syria: triangle of war

The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 launched a grand strategy to reorder the middle east. A decade on, growing tensions over Iran and the conflict in Syria suggest that it created the seeds of even greater instability.

The George W Bush administration spent much of 2002 planning for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, confident that a rapid termination would change the face of the middle east. During this preparatory period, some analysts expressed doubts about this assessment. The Oxford Research Group, for example - in its paper Iraq: Consequences of a War (October 2002) - concluded that a war would create many civilian casualties, the likelihood of an insurgency, and a rise in anti-American sentiment that would fuel the development of al-Qaida and related groups (the paper did err in saying it was possible that the regime, if it faced oblivion, might use a small cache of chemical and biological weapons).

In the event, the United States-led assault launched in March 2003 soon faced great problems. Even as US forces were heading for Baghdad and before the collapse of Saddam's rule on 9 April, a column in this series raised the prospect of a "thirty-year war":

"The Iraq war may be over within three months or it may take longer; in either case, it has the potential to signal the development of a much more sustained conflict. Whether this occurs depends on a key variable: the endurance and success of the Bush administration's conception of international security, the essential requirement for a New American Century.

If this conception does succeed, a thirty-year war is in prospect. If, by contrast, a saner approach to international security develops, the beginning of a peaceful order could be shaped. What happens in Iraq in the next few months may determine which route is taken" (see "A thirty-year war", 4 April 2003).

A number of subsequent columns have returned to the theme (see "The thirty-year war, revisited" [4 August 2008], and "The thirty-year war: past, present, future" [20 January 2012]). Now, a decade after the Iraq war was being planned - and in light of subsequent experience, including the Arab awakening and its ongoing effects - does the idea of thirty years of conflict still resonate?

The retreat

By 2008, after five years of insurgency in Iraq, the war had lost so much support in the United States that the incoming Barack Obama administration could argue persuasively for a withdrawal. This was combined with a hope that a sizeable military presence could be maintained, but the refusal of Iraq's regime led by Nouri al-Maliki to accept US troop immunity from Iraqi laws meant that almost all American forces have now left.

The legacy of US involvement is bleak. Iraq remains deeply unstable, with profound internal divisions and near daily armed attacks. Washington has suffered a grave strategic reversal, in that its ambition to curtail Iran through occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has failed. Iran today has far more influence than it had in 2002-03, and may gain yet more if most coalition troops leave Afghanistan on schedule by the end of 2014.

The pullout from Afghanistan is so far proceeding to that timescale. If it ends as planned, an outcome partly dependent on Obama being re-elected in November 2012, then perhaps it will be claimed that George W Bush's conception of international security and the planned "new American century" have receded into history, and indeed that the thirty-year war in the event will have lasted barely half as long. There are still many factors in play, however; and the conflict in Syria, in the context of the Arab awakening, suggests that it would be premature to discard the longer-term prognosis.

The panorama

In coming to a balanced assessment, four issues are relevant.

First, the United States's and its regional allies' opposition to Iran and the associated strategic rivalry remain powerful factors. Tehran's increasing reach and Saudi Arabia's fear of Iran make the tensions more acute.

Second, the Arab awakening expresses people's desire for freedom from autocracy and for greater equity; but autocrats - whether they are monarchs or military cabals - do not go easily (see "The Arab rebellion: perspectives of power" [24 February 2011]). Saudi Arabia, a powerful regional player, is not remotely interested in any democratic transition. Indeed it fears such a trend and will work vigorously to suppress it, as it has in Bahrain in support of the authorities. As the Saudis hold to this stance they continue to be aided, armed and encouraged by western states (which simultaneously profess a commitment to democracy).

Third, it follows that there is a direct conflict of stated aims - particularly, at present, in Syria - between the Saudis (and Qatar) and the west. The former want to remove the Bashar al-Assad regime in order to curb Iranian power, but they do not want a genuinely popular democracy. Indeed, there will be few worries in Riyadh over Islamist tendencies among the rebels, and a fair bit of unofficial support to them on that account.

By contrast, Washington views the emergence of jihadi currents in Syria with alarm, both on in its own account and because it places the US in effective alliance with al-Qaida-linked jihadists. This was most definitely not in the game plan. The US and its allies seek al-Assad's removal (which is one reason Kofi Annan had little chance of a compromise agreement), but it fears a violent struggle for the succession where jihadist factions exert greater influence (see "Syria, al-Qaida, and the future", 2 August 2012).

Fourth, there is a direct and substantial link between the Iraq war and the turmoil in Syria. Many of the paramilitary jihadis now entering Syria are experienced urban warriors who were trained by combat in Iraq. This continuum alone places Syria at the heart of a potentially prolonged conflict.

The prospect

None of this turns the scenario of thirty years of war into an actual prediction. But two aspects, one short-term and one persistent, do point in its direction.

The short-term aspect is that the combination of the United States's reluctance to intervene in Syria with full-scale military action and Iran's strong support for Bashar al-Assad means that the regime in Damascus remains - for the moment - resilient.

Many of the Syrian rebels, as a result, feel a sense of betrayal (see Liz Sly, "Syrian rebels feel abandoned, betrayed by U.S.", Washington Post, 8 August 2012). They have been engaged in a brutal conflict for over a year, with thousands killed. They and their civilian supporters expected direct external military aid, at least in the form of no-fly zones, but (in marked contrast to western action against Gaddafi in Libya) it has not been forthcoming.

This abandonment, in their eyes, could well lead to a strengthening of the more radical Islamist elements. This, in turn, may actually increase support for al-Assad from Christians and other minorities - not because they approve of him and his brutal regime but because they fear the alternative even more.

The persistent aspect, almost always forgotten in the United States and western Europe, is Israel and the occupation of Palestine. It is a running sore which, even if not always visible, pervades the region. Moreover, many people there view Israel and the United States as a single entity.

If the strategic factors (including the fundamental contest between the United States-Israel and Iran) are placed alongside the economic ones (including that the countries around the Persian Gulf have over 60% of the world's oil and 30% of its natural gas), the difficulties of making a stable peace come into sharp focus. There have been great changes since 2010-11, but the underlying problems endure. With that in mind, only a very different approach based on sustainable security - applied with far greater wisdom and commitment than is now evident - will be able to avert many more years of crisis and conflict.

About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here

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Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here