The scale of the crisis in Iraq has led many to wonder what was once unpalatable: would the country be more stable if Saddam Hussein had remained in power?
“The Iraq we knew has come to an end,” the son of the country’s president told Channel 4 News. Qubad Talabani’s words crystallised what many have long suspected: that, regardless of what happens from here, Iraq is disintegrating beyond the point of repair.
Sectarian bloodshed, the collapse of the state, the country is descending into sectarian war. Even if the Iraqi army defends Baghdad or President Obama moves in with aerial strikes as Kerry has suggested, vast swathes of the north are now under Isis control, including Mosul with 1.8 million inhabitants and Tal Afar.
Footage released on Monday purports to show government soldiers captured by Sunni insurgents and made to chant pro-Isis slogans in a desperate bid to save themselves from being shot.
The swiftness of the Isis advance alongside the lack of central opposition has led many to pose a question that may have seemed unpalatable: would Iraq actually be more stable if Saddam Hussein were still in power?
Tony Blair vehemently disputes that. “When you had the Arab revolutions going through Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt and Syria, you would have still had a major problem in Iraq,” he said over the weekend. “You can see what happens when you leave a dictator in place, as has happened with Assad now. The problems don’t go away.”
Problems indeed remain. But perhaps there is a need to rethink our approach to foreign policy. Are there cases where rather than chasing the moral imperative we are better placed choosing between two unpalatable alternatives?
The retired British major general Julian Thompson believes so. “There is no doubt we have exacerbated the situation by going into Iraq,” he told Channel 4 News. “Saddam Hussein was deeply unpleasant but he might well have held order and it was in our interests strategically that he remained there.”
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a Shia country under the control of Sunnis, while Syria under Bashar al-Assad is a Sunni country controlled by Alawites. Granted, it is difficult to speculate, but if there is one universal trait connecting dictators it is how their fear of losing power often justifies sanctioning some of the most brutal acts in order to keep it.
In Syria reports of Assad’s increased use of chlorine attacks in recent months are a reminder of the lengths he is prepared to curtail the prospect of uprisings that spread across the Middle East.
Some compare the severity of the response to Saddam Hussein’s repression of the Kurds which by 1988 had been compared to Hitler’s “final solution”, with an accelerated programme that saw thousands of Kurdish towns and villages destroyed and massacres of thousands in the years that followed.
Meanwhile Assad’s struggle in Syria has actually given Isis a lifeline. Taking advantage of the turmoil, many of its fighters have carved out territory inside Syria and then swept back into Iraq. There are reports that Assad has deliberately infiltrated rebel groups inside Syria to accelerate this, compounding his own support at home.
History will no doubt judge the actions of Saddam and Assad deplorable. Nonetheless it is yet another sign of the scale reached in this latest crisis that having a dictator in place could feasibly be the more favourable scenario compared to what happens in a country without one.