The Evening Standard

21 December 1998

 

Why the West is facing

Gulf War II

Seven years after the gulf war ended, The West once more turning is firepower on Saddam Hussein. is Gerald Segal examines examines the reasons behind the strikes and what lies ahead...

What kind of war will it be?

Now the bombs and Cruise missiles have started falling on Iraq, we at least know that the Americans, the British and other allies in Europe and around the world are serious about containing Saddam Hussein. But we do not know when or how this crisis will end and there is a real risk it will get worse before it gets better.

How did we get here?

The only surprising thing about the conflict with Iraq is the way it started. When Saddam Hussein massed troops for an invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the conventional wisdom was he would not be so foolish as to launch a full-scale attack. When he did, it was always likely but not inevitable that the US would lead a coalition of Western and Arab allies to roll back the aggression.

Under the terms of the ceasefire, Iraq agreed to UN resolutions setting up a special commission (Unscom) to ensure the destruction of Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the missiles to deliver these weapons of mass destruction.

For much of the Nineties, Unscom was remarkably successful in uncovering and destroying various far larger and more lethal weapons programmes than even the most optimistic observers expected.

Saddam had clearly lied about his capabilities and, each time he was found out, he claimed he had come clean this time. Thus despite all its successes, Unscom had little confidence it had found and destroyed all Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. As Unscom seemed to be producing diminishing returns and the likes of Russia, China and France grew anxious to make money from trade with Iraq, pressure grew to wrap up Unscom's work and lift sanctions.

The US and Britain argued that Iraq was still hiding weapons and remained a threat. Saddam exploited the divisions and in October 1997 provoked a crisis by curtailing Unscom activity. By February 1998, the US, with strong British support and help from a score of other countries, put together a military force ready to enforce UN resolutions and maintain Unscom.

Saddam then did the most audacious version of his old "cheat and retreat" trick - he signed a deal with the UN Secretary General that should have allowed Unscom to resume work. The deal never took hold, in part because Saddam saw divisions among the powers, an American president weakened by scandal at home and an Arab world fed up with America's unwillingness to take a tough line on Israel. In October this year Saddam banned all inspectors and in November air strikes were called off literally in the last hour when Saddam accepted the return of the inspectors. But it was merely a short round of "cheat and retreat" and this month the inspectors declared they could not carry out their tasks."

Inside the mind of Saddam

Saddam is a ruthless man whose rise in the military ranks includes personally killing opponents, but he is no fool or madman. While he has made major errors in his career, invading Iran in the Eighties and Kuwait in 1990, he has also been masterful in his manipulation of external powers. His strategic thinking starts and ends with calculations about what will keep him in power. He has outlasted Mrs Thatcher, George Bush and all other Western leaders who stood against him in 1990-91. His Iraqi opponents, such as the Kurds or the Marsh Arabs in the south are divided and weak.

Saddam's immediate strategy is to have sanctions lifted so he can sell more oil and be better able to dispense patronage and reduce the potential for popular unrest. Although the UN has allowed him to spend money on health services, he has built ever more lavish palaces and kept his key military allies happy. But before he could get sanctions lifted, he needed to have Unscom declare him free of his weapons of mass destruction, and therefore his most immediate aim was to see Unscom neutered and out of the equation.

What the West wants

For the Western powers, the objectives are mostly mirror images of Saddam's desires. The best outcome would be the removal of Saddam from power. Western officials know that without Saddam's removal, he will rebuild weapons of mass destruction at the earliest opportunity. Whoever is in power in Iraq, however, the West's chief aim is to restrict Iraq's capacity to deploy weapons of mass destruction.

Information is soft in this area, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that Iraq could reconstitute a chemical weapon capacity in a matter of weeks. Western officials say, more in hope than in trust of hard facts, that he has no usable ballistic missiles. An effective Unscom is the best way to ensure Iraq has no ability to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction capacity, but with Unscom effectively closed down, military attacks are the next best option.

Iraq has been very good at hiding weapons programmes and, therefore, there can only be relative confidence in military strikes continuing to deny Saddam nuclear weapons. Chemical and biological weapons can be developed almost anywhere and this is a regime practised in building deep and relatively impregnable bunkers.

Officially, Western policy claims that its objective is to see the return of an effective Unscom. Officials have to say that, if only to provide a basis for a halfway plausible UN "sanction" for attacking Iraq. But in reality, military strikes are under way because there is now no Unscom regime left to save and it is time for second-best options. An unstated objective of the Western allies is to maintain their credibility necessary for sustaining global order.

Saddam Hussein has run such rings around the great powers that other dictators in Serbia, North Korea or Libya would be delighted to see the West humiliated. Leaders in China or Russia would also benefit from a humbling of Western influence. Hence the unstated bottom line of the Allies: there needs to be a heavy price for defiance of the UN and Western powers.

Where to from here?

Of the four most likely options, the first two are the most unlikely. First, Saddam could simply cheat and retreat again. He could endure some military damage, but allow a form of Unscom operations for a few months before he tried again.

Second, he could be hit so hard that his troops rise up and depose him. Air power is impressive on television but has no record in bringing about such political change. This option may only work if it provokes Saddam to attack Israel or his neighbours, thereby leading to an even more massive Western attack on Iraq. Third, and the West's greatest nightmare, is that Saddam will hunker down, take the military blows, but win the propaganda battle. We can be sure to see pictures of real or staged attacks on civilians. He will hope a weak-willed West will have no stomach for a long air campaign that is bound to have caused horrific "collateral damage".

Fourth, and the most promising option for the West, is the current plan to hit Iraq hard at the start and then hard again as necessary to keep Saddam "con-tained". He will know this is the Western strategy and may widen the war by attacking Israel, Kuwait or even Saudi Arabia. Terrorism against Western targets is also likely. We may well be in for a long, and even bloodier war than we think.

Associated Newspapers Ltd., 17 December 1998

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