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Learning the Wrong Lessons From Iraq in Syria

30/09/2013 11:35 BST | Updated 30/09/2013 11:35 BST

Controversy about British participation in an exemplary strike against Assad rumbles on. Last month, President Obama, David Cameron and President Hollande united because, as the French Socialist said, "the chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished. Otherwise it would be taking the risk of an escalation that would normalise the use of these weapons and threaten other countries."

Cameron called an emergency parliamentary session to endorse swift joint military action, expecting support from Labour which wasn't forthcoming. Cameron then altered the government's stance to accommodate it although this meant delaying action. Labour judged the concessions inadequate, lost its alternative and rejected Cameron's as did 39 Government rebels so neither motion succeeded. A cross-party deal would have been best:

Both propositions had much in common. The UN Security Council should first consider the inspectors' report and vote but not necessarily endorse action, improbable given Russia's veto. They proposed limited objectives to avoid being sucked into a quagmire. A further Commons vote would follow. But after his historic defeat Cameron announced that Britain would eschew military action. It became doubtful that Obama could win authorisation for action.

The argument was then overtaken by events which led unexpectedly and farcically to a Russian plan to decommission Syria's chemical arsenal. The UN backs this albeit with ambiguity about the consequences if this perhaps improbable project fails. American credibility is weakened.

Russian President Putin is in his element having secured his last major asset in the Middle East and its naval base. Assad remains at large to slaughter Syrians.

Actions such as humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones could have made a difference two years ago but were flunked. Most least worst options have been undermined by over-caution. Veteran Labour MP Mike Gapes told the KRG fringe meeting at the Labour conference that the Syrians were betrayed then and the situation is now much more complex.

It is rare for an opposition to stop a government and, given its angst over Iraq, Labour heralded it as a triumph for multilateralism. It also chimes with most British people who, like the Americans, are weary of foreign entanglements.

At last week's party conference, Labour Leader Ed Miliband claimed this stance as a major example of his leadership. Miliband, who framed it as part of learning lessons from Iraq, argued that the vote "would have been a rush to war, it wasn't the right thing for our country. So I said no. It was the right thing to do."

Prompt and measured action, in my view, was necessary to enforce the red line on chemical weapons but some delay to widen support was fine. It's the underlying analysis that hasty intervention is the problem that is problematic.

The West ignored Saddam's genocide against the Kurds which included using chemical weapons. Worse, it was complicit in these crimes. The attack on Ghoutta was arguably the 15th time chemical weapons had been used. And over 100,000 Syrians have been killed by conventional weapons.

The trouble is excessive caution. One Iraqi lesson is that allowing dictators to carry out atrocities with impunity emboldens them and encourages others. Failing to hold Saddam to account for Halabja probably gave the green light to invade Kuwait. That proved to be Saddam's undoing and saved the Kurds but it took a decade of UN sanctions and many ignored resolutions before Saddam was overthrown.

The Kurds were luckier in 1991 than the Iraqi Shias who heeded American calls to rebel and were left in the lurch to be slaughtered. This abandonment understandably made them deeply suspicious of America for the next decade and less amenable when Iraq was liberated. Syrians can be forgiven for mistrusting America and it helps account for the increasing islamicisation of the Syrian rebellion.

Time will tell if decommissioning Assad's chemical weapons will work. The strong disinclination to intervene in Syria on the basis of the wrong lessons from Iraq will need to be overcome if circumstances change. One thing worse than an American intervention is American non-intervention although Labour's foreign affairs supremo Douglas Alexander rightly rejects "knee-jerk" interventionism and isolationism but adds that few problems can be solved without American engagement.

The moral imperative is that the great powers help Syrian democrats, encourage a settlement for the Syrian Kurds and other minorities and massively increase humanitarian support for millions of refugees whose lives are being blighted.

The KRG's UK High Representative, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, powerfully appealed at Labour's conference for urgent assistance for refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. There is little awareness of the pressures there of 220,000 refugees, 50,000 of whom arrived in one month, and as winter nears. Helping the refugees is the least to ask of leaders in defending the weak and opposing the strong.