The lessons that the West must learn when intervening in the Middle East’s complexities
Fifteen years after al-Qaeda’s attacks led the West to a “war on terror” that ended up creating more damages than those it had aspired to heal and taking more lives than those it had aimed to protect, the Chilcot Report -commissioned by the British House of Commons to assess the government’s decisions with respect to the war in Iraq – brought to light new evidence. The Report is an open (and due) condemnation of Blair’s foreign policy, but –more importantly- is a crucial document containing lessons that need to be learnt to develop more aware and informed foreign policies (especially when it comes to delicate regions that rest on ever more fragile balances such as the Middle East).
The UK, under the leadership of then-PM Tony Blair, intervened in Iraq in 2003 following the United States and remained in the country until 2009. Of the Report published on July 6th by Sir John Chilcot, two things particularly stand out. The first is that – contrary to what had been claimed by the USA and the UK governments at that time – the attack against Saddam’s Iraq was not a last resort; the second is that no clear nor informed planning had been made by Blair’s cabinet in terms of post-conflict reconstruction.
As far as the decision to go to war is concerned, the Report highlights how PM Blair decided to attack Saddam regardless of the fact that the international community was still trying to deal with Iraq’s putative WMD without resorting to war, regardless of the fact that the UN was still conducting its enquiry, and that the UN Security Council (as well as the majority of the EU partners) was not supporting military intervention.
According to the Report, the reason for Blair’s decision was that in the previous year the British PM had pledged to President Bush his country’s unshakable support, and that maintaining such pledge had therefore become unescapable to preserve the Anglo-American special relationship.
As highlighted by the Report, though, the mistake was not only the decision to intervene in a war that was not necessary nor unavoidable. The other major mistake (and one that proved to have a dramatic long-run impact) was that no clear plan had been conceived in terms of how to deal with Iraq in the post-intervention phase. Rather than elaborating an aware and coherent plan of reconstruction before going to war, the UK government missed this crucial step on the basis of the (wrong and unjustified) assumption that Washington would deal with the issue and that the UN would play a major role once the military intervention was over.
After the toppling of Saddam, though, none of this happened: the UN revealed little inclination to intervention and the USA had no reconstruction plan.
After winning against Saddam’s Baathist forces in a matter of weeks, in fact, the USA created and led a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) within which the UK had basically no relevant say and that failed to serve the interest of the Iraqi population (thus failing to win the people’s support). In a moment of delicate transition in which fair elections were needed to create a government that could give representation to all Iraqis and that could be accepted by Sunnis and Shias alike, nor the UN nor the USA succeeded in supporting the country through its delicate transition. A Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki took power in Baghdad; the tensions between Shias and Sunnis and between Arabs and Kurds were exasperated; Sunni jihadist groups (such as al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq) managed to exploit sectarian divisions to increase their action capabilities; and former soldiers who found themselves unemployed after the army was disbanded became easy recruits for jihadist groups.
Thus, the result of the war that the Bush administration had pursued and that the UK had decided to support was not a mere regime change in Baghdad but the collapse of the Iraqi state as such.
What the Chilcot Report makes clear, in fact, is that, in the moment in which the UK and the USA intervened in the Iraqi theatre without a clear and informed strategy for the post-intervention/post-Saddam phase, they set into motion a chain of events that paved the way to the rise of ISIS in 2014 and that changed (perhaps forever) the geopolitical map of the Levant.
Forced to face the mistakes made by the West back in 2003, what lessons can now be drawn to avoid their repetition and develop more aware foreign policies?
If one major lesson can be derived from what is contained in the Report is that, when intervening abroad, three elements are especially crucial.
Firstly, it is necessary to understand the dynamics of the theatre of intervention from any point of view: geopolitical, geostrategic, ethnic and religious. This understanding –especially as far as the religious and ethnic complexities of the Iraqi state are concerned- was clearly lacking on part of the UK and the USA in 2003 and explains how it was possible for power to end up in the hands of a Shia-dominated and sectarian government such as al-Maliki’s.
Secondly, it is necessary to develop realistic objectives and to embrace a relevant strategy that deals not only with the military aspect of intervention but also with the political and civilian ones – two dimensions to which the UK and the USA gave little importance when planning their intervention in 2003 and which continued to underestimate thereafter.
Finally, the third necessary step is to elaborate a post-intervention strategy that deals with the long-term and that gives to the country in which intervention was carried out and to its institutions all the support needed in a phase as delicate and crucial as that of reconstruction.
With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot – the infamous Agreement with which France and the UK divided the Middle East into artificial states whose ethnic and religious contradictions have exploded over the past few years – we are now painfully reminded that there are mistakes we cannot afford to repeat anymore, and that our approach to the Middle East cannot be successful if History’s lessons are not learnt.