Although US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie had famously assured Saddam that the United States had ‘no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts’, the invasion of a member state of the United Nations aroused international fury. Even France and the Soviet Union, long-term allies of Iraq, approved condemnatory resolutions by the UN Security Council.
President George H. W. Bush won unprecedented international support, including from the frontline Arab states, overcame Congressional sceptics at home, and led a 34-state coalition – including Britain – in a UN-approved war to liberate Kuwait.
Operation Desert Storm turned Saddam’s ‘Mother of all Battles’ into the ‘Mother of all Defeats’ in a mere six weeks. Bush, however, stuck to the limits of the UN mandate and refused to invade Iraq.
The US still wished to preserve Saddam’s regime against America’s other regional enemy, Iran, but retained the pre-war sanctions and required UN inspectors to destroy the chemical weapons, which Saddam had used in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) and later against the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Marsh Arabs in the south.
Already heavily indebted after a decade of war, Iraq now faced stringent economic sanctions for 12 years, but the country’s defiance under Saddam would not survive the American reaction to the events of 9/11 and the onset of the War on Terror. Fearing what would happen if terrorists acquired weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration sought regime change in Baghdad.
In the ensuing war, doubts about the Anglo-American evidence of Iraqi WMD ensured that President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had neither the international support nor the UN legitimacy enjoyed by Bush’s father.
Although Saddam’s dictatorship quickly foundered, Iraq was left without a government for three years. The US-led coalition disbanded the Iraqi army and purged the Ba’ath political apparatus, provoking a protracted and costly insurgency. This insurgency claimed 4,486 US and 179 British fatalities before Barack Obama, elected in opposition to the Iraq war, completed the withdrawal of occupying forces in 2011.
In the interim Iraq had at least acquired an elected government, albeit one under Nouri-al Maliki that favoured the majority Shias. Under the Arab Awakening of Spring 2011, other Middle Eastern dictatorships came under revolutionary pressure from popular demonstrations.
Bashar Assad, who had succeeded his father as president of Syria in 2000, had watched the demise of his hated rival, Saddam. Like his father, Assad now relied upon the army and militias, dominated by the minority Alawites, to crush internal dissent.
On this occasion the time-honoured Syrian tactics foundered in the face of determined, if not well-organised resistance among the Sunnis, a majority sect in much of Syria. While co-religionists in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan supplied the rebels with arms and funding, Iran and Hezbollah have proffered support to Assad, sustaining the civil war over four years.
In spite of the ever growing number of casualties, possibly in excess of 220,000 by January 2015, and the displacement of 7.6 million Syrians, the Western powers, chastened by previous interventions in Iraq and Libya, have been loath to intervene.
Challenging this reticence has been the rise in Iraq and Syria of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Under the adroit leadership of al-Baghdadi, it has built up a membership of over 30,000, acquired cash and assets reportedly in excess of £2bn and extended its territorial control deep into both countries. Using social media, IS has promoted its ideology, recruited foreign fighters and attracted international attention by acts of appalling barbarity.
Eventually, in August 2014, the Obama administration intervened, primarily with aerial strikes, while assisting in the training and equipping of local forces opposed to IS. After one year, the US-led coalition had launched 20,000 sorties, at a cost of $10m (£6m) a day, against 8,000 targets in Iraq and Syria.
The bombing had helped the Kurds in the defence of Kobane but failed to prevent the capture of Ramadi and Palmyra.
Once again the Western powers face a challenge in the Middle East that could imperil their allies and citizens through terrorism.
Given the scale and complexity of the current challenge, any Western intervention requires a clarity and coherence of strategic purpose that was so lacking in the past.
Edward M Spiers is Professor of Strategic Studies, at the University of Leeds.