The Saddamisation of Bashar al-Assad: how Britain may just have escaped another Iraq

The Commons chose to stand back from the cusp of military intervention in Syria. Is this a knock for British national pride or a chance to learn from our imperial past?

David Rickard
6 September 2013
sadam hussein.jpeg

Statue of Saddam Hussein. Flickr/Gerard Van der Leun. Some rights reserved.

The few days since Parliament’s expectation-defying decision not to authorise the UK’s participation in a unilateral military strike on Syria have been characterised by much predictable hand wringing about its impact on Britain’s standing in the world and on the country’s reputation as a power that ‘punches above its weight’ in defence of its values. Most of this commentary seems incapable of looking beyond wounded national pride and taking a long, hard look at what the real purposes and likely consequences of such an attack might have been and may still be. But when an effort is made to think through these issues logically and strategically, the commentariat’s bleatings look – ironically – is incredibly insular and self-indulgent.

For a moment, let’s take at face value the British and US governments’ claim that all that was planned was a ‘limited’ strike intended to ‘send President Assad a message’ that use of chemical weapons is totally unacceptable. Prior to Parliament’s surprise support for peace, I had assumed that this claim was a pretext for a broader intervention. I still think it is a pretext, but one that is based on a real fear (as opposed to a fear of something real).

When I heard that Israelis have been busy kitting themselves out with gas masks ahead of an anticipated US strike, it suddenly occurred to me that the concern to demonstrate to the Syrian president that the West will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons – at least, not by regimes it opposes – is in part motivated by the fear Assad might start using them against Israel. Maybe this is the particular emotion that is behind the militant stance of America, France and – until last Thursday – Britain, rather than that stance being motivated merely by a general concern to enforce international law on the use of chemical weapons. After all, it is widely reported that much of the ‘intelligence’ upon which the US has relied upon in its declarations – it has ‘compelling’ evidence that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on 21st August – derives from Israel.

Clearly, in Israel and in the international Jewish community, and in the West at large, the prospect of a lethal chemical-gas attack on Israel raises the spectre of past horrors, which are never far from the West’s strategic deliberations on the Middle East. Indeed, other ghosts of the 20th century seem permanently to haunt the minds of our leaders, and particularly those of Britain, whenever decisions about going to war are in play.

For the UK, these moments of crisis endlessly re-play Britain’s decision to declare war on Nazi Germany 74 years ago (to the day as I write), despite the fact that the country was ill-prepared against the German military machine and the threat of chemical-gas attack on civilian centres loomed large – a threat which in the end did not materialise. Back then, in 1939, Britain and France took a principled stand against the Nazi evil, and Britain’s post-war ‘brand identity’ as a ‘great power’ that is prepared to take arms against tyranny, no matter the cost to itself, was forged in the ensuing inferno. Every time a British prime minister sets out the case for war and ‘courageously’ commits Britain to it, the memory of Churchill is evoked. It is almost as if every PM worthy of the name must have his, or her, ‘Churchill moment’ to prove their mettle as deserving to lead our noble warrior nation: Thatcher and the Falklands; Major and the Gulf War; Blair, and Afghanistan and Iraq; and now Cameron, and Libya and Syria.

The difference in the case of Syria, however, as we were told last week, is that this would not ostensibly have involved committing the UK to a full-blown war, but would merely have entailed a few ‘surgical strikes’ to make the stakes too high for Assad to risk using his chemical-weapons arsenal ever again.

The phrase ‘never again’ echoes another ghost from the 20th century: the Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’, from where our horror of chemical weapons, and our determination to prohibit their use, derive. Perhaps we genuinely seek to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons, but in this push to do so, are we being driven more by the ghosts of our own history than by a realistic assessment of present circumstances? As we feel ‘compelled to repeat’ – by ‘compelling evidence’ – the great moments of our history, are we not in fact being driven less by reason and evidence, and more by what Freud calls Thanatos: the death drive and the urge to (self-) destruction? [1]

For a while, before last week’s vote, it felt as though, in the urge to confront the demons of World War I, we were indeed destined to repeat it. The situation in Syria and the Middle East had, and still has, all the potential to play out like a re-run of the causes of the Great War – uncannily, nearly 100 years ago. Every country and faction in the region could easily be drawn in to an unimaginably horrific conflagration, with all the chances that it could go global as the great imperial powers (or the states that won’t let go of their 20th-century statuses as such) take sides. For once, our MPs’ refusal to be dictated to by our past imperial ‘greatness’ means we have a chance to escape it and avoid repeating history [2]. In so doing, we may well have also avoided repeating the disaster of Iraq.

Last week’s parliamentary debate was inevitably haunted by memories of the debate over Iraq and the decision to go to war in that country, ten years ago, as Anthony Barnett has so vividly described. Indeed, Parliament’s decision this time to deny the recourse to military action was in large measure motivated by a fear of repeating the error of going to war on a ‘false prospectus’. Then, the purported war aim was that of eliminating Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, including chemical weapons, which in the end proved non-existent. This time, the purported aim is to prevent Bashar al-Assad from re-using his chemical weapons. In contrast to Iraq, no one is denying that Assad does have a substantial arsenal of chemical weapons; although trust in our politicians has been so damaged by Iraq that the public and a sufficient number of MPs do not yet accept it as compelling the evidence that it was Assad who authorised their use on 21st August. Instead, Parliament chose to let the UN process run its course and potentially to seek UN authorisation for any action, which may conceivably still take place with UK participation, depending on how the situation develops.

The parallels with Iraq are not just in our collective memory of past trauma, but also in the way Syria and the Assad regime are being positioned effectively as another Saddam in US thinking and strategy. It is only in respect of geo-political strategy that a strike against Syria and its chemical-weapons capabilities can be fully understood. In the case of Iraq, the fear of the US was that, unless he was eliminated, Saddam Hussein might use his alleged WMDs against Israel and other Western strategic interests in the region. This fear appeared justified, as Saddam had in the past used chemical weapons against his own people and against Iran (with Western backing) and had seriously threatened Western interests by invading Kuwait. In the wake of 9/11, the US was also clearly driven by the ‘terror’ of an unholy alliance between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, with the possibility that Iraqi WMDs could then be passed on to ‘terrorists’ to attack Israel and the West.

In other words, while the purported aim of the Iraq War was preventing Iraq from using its alleged WMDs, the ultimate aim was regime change and elimination of a strategic threat. Similarly, the purported aim of Western strikes against Syria – that of deterring Assad from further use of chemical weapons – is really a pretext for entering the Syrian civil war and ensuring that Assad loses it and is replaced as Syria’s leader. The strategic rationale is the same. The fear appears to be that, emboldened by Western inaction over his chemical attack of 21st August, Assad will start using chemical weapons more systematically in order to decisively turn a war in his favour that has presently reached stalemate. Then, if Assad does emerge triumphant in the Syrian civil war, what is to stop him attacking Israel and other pro-Western countries in the region, or undermining them by backing Shia-led protest movements? Or else, Syrian chemical weapons could mysteriously fall into the ‘wrong hands’, such as those of Israel’s sworn enemy, and Assad’s ally, Hezbollah. It’s the hysterical Iraq Terror nightmare and before that, the Domino Effect, all over again.  

Whether such fears are realistic or not, this is perhaps a case of the logic of security, which involves inuring ourselves against our feelings of insecurity about past terrors as much as it involves confronting real, present threats of ‘Terror’. Our fear of past horrors repeating themselves leads us to engage in actions that re-create them or the appearance of them.

Be that as it may, Assad is rapidly emerging as the ‘new Saddam’: a sufficient threat – real or imagined – to US and Western interests that the only option the US is prepared to contemplate is regime change, for all of David Cameron’s protestations in the Commons last week that such was not the aim. Logically, US intervention can be driven only by the goal of regime change. Even supposing any initial US and French strikes were targeted and limited in such a way as to be read out as a punishment for Syria’s use of chemical weapons and as a warning not to use them again, Syria will inevitably retaliate, perhaps even by carrying out further chemical attacks or by redoubling its bombardments of the civilian centres held by insurgents. It seems inconceivable that, having launched missiles against Syria with the aim of deterring the use of chemical weapons, the US and France could then blithely sit back and watch Assad continuing to massacre his own people by ‘conventional’ means and going on to win the war. They would have to attack again, and so a cycle of escalation would begin, and the only exit strategy for the US would be Assad’s downfall, even if the successor regime were none too well disposed towards the US in its turn. Ultimately, the only way to completely eliminate the threat of Assad’s chemical weapons, and to remove him as a threat to US interests, is to eliminate Assad himself. Syria is the next Iraq.

Indeed, all the signs now are that the US is planning something bigger than a mere surgical strike or punitive action. For example, on 3rd September, there were reports of former US senior commander General Jack Keane saying the US intends to degrade Assad’s whole military capacity and offer training assistance to rebel forces; and a ballistic missile practice was carried out together with Israel, if you please. Now the talk is of the ‘limited’ US bombardment lasting as long as 60 days.

To take an analogy with the school playground: when you pick a fight with the school bully, you either run away or pursue the fight to the bitter end, whatever that might be. The problem is the fight could end up spreading to the whole playground – the Middle East region – as Assad is indeed threatening to make happen. However, by not picking a fight with Assad, the UK has not run away like a coward, but has concluded this is a fight where there may be no winners and where the destructive consequences are incalculable. That doesn’t mean you have to stand back and let the playground bully carry on picking on the defenceless children around him. There may be other means to stop the bully in his tracks. Now, the UK will have to pitch in with the international effort to find them. But you don’t have to act like a child and fight rather than trying to work things out like an adult. Let’s hope this means the UK has finally grown up and that its rare display of common sense will not be derailed by a trigger-happy US wanting to play cowboys and Indians.

So while Assad is being lined up by the US as the next Saddam to be dethroned – whatever the consequences for the sectarian divisions within Syria and the whole region – the UK may finally have proven that nations are not necessarily bound by their history or destined to repeat it. We may well just have escaped from a new Iraq; but more than that, this could now be the beginning of the end of imperial, war-like, Churchillian Britain.


[1] One of the behaviour types that reveal the activity of Thanatos, according to Freud, is the ‘compulsion to repeat’, whereby we re-create traumatic moments of our past that we have not succeeded in working through and moving beyond.

[2] Alan Finlayson writing in Our Kingdom, argues that, from the Conservative perspective, last Thursday’s vote represented the triumph of a ‘Powellist’ repudiation of a certain delusional, ‘English’ attempt to hold on to the grandeurs of Empire: “England, Powell claimed, was trapped in a fantasy of its global significance that distracted it from taking a good look at itself. . . . ‘It is difficult to describe, without using terms from psychiatry, a nation having so few points of contact with reality’”. For Finlayson, however, the resurgent ‘Little Englandism’ manifested by last week’s Commons vote is itself a form of delusional, ideological self-aggrandisement. For a contrasting view, see ‘The Rise of the Little Englander’.


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