‘HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION’: Ten Years after the Invasion of Iraq.

On 19 March, exactly ten years after the U.S and British-led invasion of Iraq, a series of  explosions rocked Baghdad, killing about 50 people and injuring dozens more. Although no-one has yet claimed responsibility, they were likely to have been perpetrated by al-Qaida operatives in the country. These outrages were simply the most recent and the most deadly in a continuing spate of killings that have claimed the lives of about 4.000 civilians a year. Despite attempts by apologists for the 2003 invasion to suggest that things are now far better than they were under Saddam Hussein, this view is not shared by many Iraqis. Those supporters of the invasion who continued to defend it even after it had been demonstrated conclusively that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction, have always argued that  opponents of the invasion were soft on Saddam, happy to turn a blind-eye to the atrocities perpetrated against his opponents and, in effect, guilty of conniving to keep him in power.  

This charge, apart from being gratuitously offensive, is also logically flawed. Only those who are prepared to argue that invasion is justified to bring about regime change whenever and wherever a brutal regime oppresses its opponents, deserve to be listened to when they adopt this stance towards opponents of the invasion of Iraq. They would have to advocate, to name a few examples, invading such countries as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, all of which are ruled by oppressive dictators. For the most part, supporters of the Iraq war do not suggest that Britain and the U.S. should invade these countries to bring about regime change. In fact, one of the dictators, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbeyev, has engaged Tony Blair Associates, a company belonging to Britain’s former prime minister and associate of George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq, to help him polish his seriously tarnished image. Following some years of cool relations between the U.S. and Uzbekistan, the Obama administration is now rebuilding bridges with the country, whose president, Islam Karimov (selected by Parade magazine as one of the world’s worst dictators), in 2002 eliminated some of his opponents by immersing them in boiling water, and where, according to the U.N., torture is ‘institutionalized, systematic and rampant.’ A similarly oppressive regime exists in Turkmenistan, whose dictator, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov was ‘elected’ President for Life, receiving 89% of the votes cast. The United States enjoys close, if somewhat discrete relations with the country. As far as is known, there are no plans afoot by the U.S., Britain or NATO to attack any of these countries. But if they are to be consistent in their support for ‘humanitarian intervention’, surely supporters of the war to oust Saddam Hussein should also be advocating the invasion of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to liberate their peoples from tyrannical rulers.

It should be obvious that the reason why the United States and Britain have no interest in  using military force to topple any of these monsters is primarily because of their geo-strategic importance in the Caspian Sea region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these dictators have all been very accommodating to Nato as willing participants in the ‘Partners for Peace Program’, which actually has more to do with war than with peace. A glance at the map of the region will show why. In 2001, Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, facilitated the attack on that country by opening its airspace to US forces and allowing them to use the military base at Karshi-Khanabad, a mere  90 miles from the Afghan border. This base was closed to the U.S.in 2005 following Washington’s criticism of the massacre of unarmed human rights demonstrators in Andijan, and relations soured. But since military transport routes to Afghanistan through Pakistan were closed to the U.S. in 2012, relations between Washington and Tashkent have improved and the ban on military assistance to the regime has been lifted.

Kazakhstan is also of great geostrategic importance for the for the U.S. and Nato. A country larger than the whole of Western Europe, it is the world’s largest producer of uranium and a major source of oil and natural gas. It is also one of the most repressive regimes in the world. A strike by oil workers in 2012 was crushed when troops opened fire, killing 70 and wounding about 500. Anyone who attempted to report the massacre was jailed. Torture and beating of opponents is routine in Nazarbeyev’s one-party state.

Turkmenistan has a western border with Iran and, despite the country’s nominal neutrality, U.S. military aircraft use the airport at Ashgabat, close to the border, to refuel. Military freight and combat helicopters are regularly transported through Ashgabat to supply Nato forces in Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. has access to almost all the military airfields in Turkmenistan, including Nebitdag, also on the border with Iran, which the U.S. paid to reconstruct in 2004.

The most cursory glance at a map of the Caspian Sea region will reveal a striking fact: Iran is surrounded by U.S. military bases, extending from Turkmenistan in the East through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the Gulf States in the West. By some calculations - if one includes Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - there are as many as 44 U.S. bases. While it is clear that the U.S. and Britain have no trouble accommodating some of the world’s worst dictators and abusers of human rights, and have no intention of carrying criticism of them beyond a mild slap on the wrist, Iran is a very different matter. There is a very real possibility of military intervention against Teheran. Ah, but, it will be objected by apologists of ‘humanitarian intervention’ for regime change, Iran may soon possess weapons of mass destruction and a pre-emptive strike is justified. Just as they argued it was justified, and for similar reasons, in Iraq. It should be clear beyond doubt that advocates of regime change, whether on supposedly humanitarian grounds or to pre-empt a supposedly imminent use of WMD’s, are always very selective about which regimes they think should be changed and which dictators removed. Saddam Hussein – yes; Ahmadinejad – yes; Bashir al-Assad – yes: Nazarbeyev – No; Karimov – No; Berdymukhamadov – No. Geo-strategic realpolitik reigns supreme! And, needless to say, so does hypocrisy.

Keeping the map in mind, let’s consider a possible course of events, which, however unlikely, would bring true the far-fetched dreams of neo-conservative and liberal- interventionist regime-changers everywhere.  Let us assume the pacification of Iraq and Afghanistan to the point where pro-western governments are entrenched, allowing the permanent installation of U.S. military bases. Suppose further that during the course of 2013 the British and U.S. advocates of military intervention in the civil war in Syria succeed, against overwhelming public opposition, in invading the country and toppling the beleaguered Assad regime. This is what Tony Blair and David Cameron want to see happen. What do they hope would follow from it?

They hope to replace the Assad regime with a pro-western regime in Damascus. Were this to be achieved, by removing her only ally in the Middle East, it would knock Russia from the equation. Iran would be isolated. A military assault to destroy the uranium enrichment plants that it is claimed are aimed at producing nuclear weapons, would be launched against the country by either the U.S. or Israel – or both in tandem. The U.S., Israel and the U.K., all of whom possess nuclear weapons, will argue that they were obliged to attack Iran, which does not possess nuclear weapons, because Iran is trying at least to de-stabilize the Middle East and at worst, to destroy Israel. The hope will be that by attacking Iran they will succeed in bringing about regime change – replacing the theocratic Islamic government with one favourable to the West. This grand vision is a pipe dream. Let’s look at reality.

Iraq, ten years after the invasion which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the flight of up to four million refugees, bears no relation to the fantasy-land dreamt up by the ‘liberators’. The country has experienced an unmitigated disaster, involving internecine blood-letting by sectarian Shia and Sunni death squads, often sponsored by the U.S. and British occupiers; institutionalized torture; the destruction of cities and the sanitation infrastructure; mass unemployment and irreparable social dislocation. This is the price the Iraqi people have had to pay for an illegal invasion and occupation; a price still considered worth paying by the perpetrators and their apologists who do not have to endure its consequences.

Those who perpetrated and supported the invasion of Iraq are now agitating for Western “intervention” in the civil war in Syria. They have clearly learned nothing from the disasters they unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is an irony beyond words that Tony Blair (who, if justice were to be done, should face indictment at The Hague for the crime of starting a war of aggression) should have been appointed envoy for the Quartet, seeking to mediate the Israel-Palestine conflict. That he should now urge military intervention to topple Bashir al-Assad, is in keeping with his record as an advocate of invasion to secure regime-change in certain selected cases. As we have seen, these do not include Kazakhstan (whose dictator, Nazarbayev, Tony Blair Associates has advised on how to win the Nobel Peace Prize), or Uzbekistan, whence, in 2005, he withdrew British ambassador Craig Murray for exposing the “systematic and rampant” torture practiced by the security services of pro-Western dictator Karimov.(1)  What would be the likely consequences of U.S./U.K./Nato military intervention in Syria?

The Syrian Baathist regime of Bashir al-Assad and his father before him, has for decades operated a brutal secular dictatorship that has crushed mercilessly all opposition, particularly Islamist terrorists. It now faces determined resistance and its survival is in doubt. In the struggle that has raged for the past two years many thousands have been killed. The opposition, which initially may have been inspired by the democratic ideals of the Arab Spring, has now succumbed to an eclectic mix of forces, including foreign Islamists of various stripes including al-Qaida elements, armed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, trained by Nato and infiltrated over the Turkish border. But they are only certain to win if they are supported by the kind of Western military intervention Blair, Cameron and others want to see. As this will not get U.N. backing, it would most likely be a Nato exercise, undertaken as a “humanitarian intervention.” No-one should have any illusions about the consequences of such an operation. The outcome would not be a democratic revolution in Syria. At best it would result in the kind of feuding mélange into which post-Gaddafi Libya has sunk. More likely is that it will resemble post-Saddam Iraq and collapse into long-term sectarian violence, becoming a breeding-ground for al-Qaida and other forms of Islamist terrorism.

 If the U.S., the U.K. and the Israelis think that this would be preferable to the Assad regime, they will soon come to regret their choice of friends and neighbours. But it will not be the first time that they have made this kind of mistake.

(1)Tony Blair. 2005. “Having our own ambassador making these statements about Karimov is acutely embarrassing. It’s bad for British business interests, it’s bad for stability in the region. I mean, he sends back these dossiers full of stories of what Karimov’s security forces are supposed to have done, he sends them to the Foreign Office or whatever, he sends them directly to us. I mean, does he think I’m going to read it, does he imagine I’m interested in this stuff.”