MPs last week secured a Commons debate on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Although there wasn’t a vote, it provided a useful barometer of how Iraq is seen in British politics and how it influences responses to new humanitarian crises.
I could amuse you by mocking the melodramatic and even conspiracist invective of some MPs. In a nutshell, Iraq was an immoral and illegal war in which a vastly exaggerated number of people died thanks to the perverse deceits of those bogeymen, Blair and Bush. One MP opined that there is nothing to be celebrated. Let’s calmly mention that the overthrow of genocidal fascism should weigh in the balance.
But what made the debate more interesting was that some MPs, often those who have taken the time and trouble to visit Iraq and including those who opposed intervention, were much more nuanced.
Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds said that “life across much of Iraq, particularly in the south and the Kurdistan region, is peaceful for most people most of the time.” He welcomed the recent Iraqi Cabinet meeting in Erbil as “a signal of serious intent to improve relations” between Baghdad and the KRG. Time will tell.
Another Conservative MP, Jason McCartney, who had just returned from the Kurdistan Region with me and others, opposed the war but acknowledged that regime change made a huge difference to Kurdistan which is peaceful, increasingly prosperous and fairly secular.
McCartney, a Royal Air Force officer in the no-fly zone over Kurdistan in the 1990s, said that the no-fly zone “prevented Saddam Hussein from waging his war against Iraq’s 5 million Kurds.”
He added that “having been helped themselves, the Iraqi Kurds are now helping others” and described our “emotional day” at the Domiz refugee camp near the Syrian border, (which UNHCR Ambassador Angelina Jolie visited last year), adding that the KRG “deserves praise for funding and arranging” the camp.
He urged an end to bitter disputes about revenue sharing between Erbil and Baghdad and expressed hope that Kurdistan’s relative stability could be a model for Iraq.
Another Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who also opposed the war and has also visited Kurdistan with me and others, said that Kurdistan had moved forward from Saddam’s atrocities and hoped that “such success can be emulated in the rest of the country.”
Ten years on, the heat of the debate has not abated and it is clear that many agonised hard and long over the decision to invade Iraq. A brief personal note. In 2003, I enthusiastically endorsed intervention but there has rarely been a day since that I haven’t questioned this.
The continuing pain of that decision was laid bare by the Shadow Minister for the Middle East and Africa, Ian Lucas, who had just returned from the Kurdistan Region, again with me.
One could see the deep emotions that attended his decision to defy Tony Blair and reject war in 2003. He honestly acknowledged that the vote profoundly impacted on British politics, including a fundamental loss of trust in the Labour Party.
Lucas was clearly deeply moved by his trip to Kurdistan. He referred to our visit to Barzan village where we met widows at the graveyard, “their faces still etched with grief 30 years on.” Our visit to Domiz was equally emotional. Those who opposed intervention usually reflect when Kurds praise the long overdue liberation and they see Kurdish achievements first hand.
But Iraq’s long and still poisonous shadow sets the context for increasingly fraught British debates about how to deal with Syria and Iran. Iraq has soured the case for liberal interventionism for which there is little popular appetite.
Earlier intervention in Syria could arguably have isolated Assad and boosted the democratic opposition, including persuading them to recognise the rights of minorities such as the Kurds. Russia and China have now become stubborn in their resistance to intervention against Assad and the UN seems impotent. Few remember that the no-fly zone that saved the Kurds in the 1990s was imposed without UN authority.
100,000 Syrians have now lost their lives, the moderate opposition has been shredded and Al Qaeda is in poll position. Chemical weapons have been used, one incident at Utaybah was nearly 25 years to the day after Halabja.
But inaction and the changed balance of forces make stopping the war in Syria much more difficult and will place pressure on regional powers to do more themselves but in the context of the simmering Sunni-Shia split that could turn very bloody and impact on the whole region.
Sadly, the refugees at Domiz won’t be going home soon and their numbers in Kurdistan could soar from 150,000 to maybe more than twice that number within months. The ring of fire around Kurdistan could also get much hotter.
We will all have to have our wits about us to help prevent a rapidly deteriorating crisis becoming much worse. As Ian Lucas rightly said, the lessons of Iraq should inform but not paralyse policy.