Symposium: The Iraq war 20 years on

Oula Kadhum, Louise Fawcett, Richard Toye, Aysegül Kibaroglu and Ramazan Caner Sayan discuss the 2003 Iraq war’s lasting impacts


A large crowd holds up numerous Iraqi flags at a protest.
Iraqi followers of Muqtada al-Sadr wave their national flag during a protest on 16 March 2013 in the city of Kut on the tenth anniversary since the US-led invasion of Iraq. Photo by Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images.

20 years on from the start of the Iraq war, the conflict continues to cast a long shadow. In this blogpost we bring together contributors to International Affairs to discuss the war’s impact on contemporary international relations. From its lasting effects on the Iraqi diaspora and Iraq’s water system to the long-term shifts it triggered in the wider politics of the Middle East and British foreign policy, the authors of this symposium outline some of the many ways in which the Iraq war still shapes international politics.

Oula Kadhum on the impact of the conflict on the Iraqi diaspora

There are many reasons why the 2003 invasion of Iraq was historically significant for Iraqis. It saw the overturn of a brutal regime and a political system that had oppressed almost everyone unconnected to the Ba’athist party. Yet one of its lasting legacies has been the fragmentation and emigration of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority communities, who have been neither protected by the state nor included in state-building processes.

Indeed, as the unity against Saddam Hussein which brought Iraqis in opposition together prior to 2003 dissipated, Iraqi nationhood became a site of competing visions, which ultimately empowered the majority at the expense of the diverse minority communities who enrich Iraq’s social fabric. Marginalized by the new political system, minority representation and protection has been negligible, leaving many communities existentially threatened and vulnerable.

Thus, for many in the diaspora the reverie of return very rapidly turned into a trauma as insecurity, sectarian civil conflicts and violence took hold of the country. The result has been further disintegration and emigration of many individuals and communities who no longer feel welcome or able to return, changing the demographics of who and what Iraq is as well as what the nation is imagined to be.

Oula Kadhum is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Lund University in Sweden, working on the ERC funded ‘Alterumma’ project, as well as a Fellow at the London School of Economics, where she teaches international migration.

Louise Fawcett on the war’s impact on regional politics in the Middle East

The Iraq War and subsequent occupation, aside from its devastating consequences for Iraq itself, had profound (and unintended) consequences for regional and international order which resonate today. By producing a ‘weak’ Iraqi state, the war transformed the regional balance of power into one characterized by an unstable Saudi–Iran rivalry and a volatile system of alliances. The Middle East’s already weak regional institutions were also further damaged by the conflict’s repercussions, with many actors seeking new institutional relationships elsewhere.

Furthermore, the invasion had a detrimental impact on western states’ legitimacy and reputation, while reducing their appetite for costly international interventions. The willingness of policy-makers to use traditional hard-power resources to achieve their foreign-policy objectives declined alongside a reduced commitment to the region. This diminution of western, and particularly US, power and influence has helped to create new opportunities for states like China and Russia to enhance their own strategic positions, with the former making the region a central part of its Belt and Road Initiative and the latter establishing a strategic foothold through its support for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. As these dramatic shifts demonstrate, the after-effects of the invasion remain with us in ways that make it all the more vital to gain a fresh understanding of the conflict and its regional and geopolitical fall-out.

Louise Fawcett is Professor of International Relations and Wilfrid Knapp Fellow and Tutor in Politics at St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford.

Richard Toye on the effect of the Iraq War on British foreign policy

The 2003 war in Iraq was a watershed moment in British domestic politics. Whether it also led to a fundamental shift in UK foreign policy is a difficult question to answer. Clearly, the popular reaction against the war — once it became clear that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction — led to some degree of change. It is now a convention that Parliament has the chance to debate military deployments, except in case of emergency. This does not have any legal force, but in 2013 the Commons did hinder military action against Syria when the government lost a vote to approve it. More generally, Tony Blair’s fall from public grace may have dampened leaders’ enthusiasm for foreign military ventures.

At the same time, the fundamentals of the Anglo-US relationship, including Britain’s effective subordination to American strategy, have not changed. It is also difficult to imagine that Downing Street’s reaction to, say, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, would have been radically different had the Iraq invasion not occurred. However, by sowing distrust in political elites, the events of twenty years ago may have fed the growth of British populism — and thus helped trigger the geopolitical earthquake that was Brexit.

Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter.

Aysegül Kibaroglu and Ramazan Caner Sayan on how the intervention affected Iraqi water policy

Following the invasion of Iraq, the US Department of State, the US Army Corps of Engineers and USAID played key roles in the reformulation of water policy in Iraq. The prevailing view adopted by US institutions was that planning and management in the Euphrates and Tigris river basin required, along with water-flow data, the gathering of information concerning the operation of upstream dams in Turkey and Syria. Yet during the occupation of Iraq, there was no durable cooperative framework on which to build Iraq’s relations with neighbouring states in the river basin. Hence, the aspirations of US institutions could not be realized.

The 2003 invasion resulted in a period of vicious sectarian violence. The fragile stability that emerged between 2009 and 2011 subsequently disintegrated, and even before the rise of non-state illegal actors Iraq became one-third short of its water needs due to war, neglect and persistent instability. To date, US interventions in Iraqi water policies and practices, particularly in the context of modernizing and repairing the existing water infrastructure, have not produced any tangible results in respect of effective and equitable water management at either the national or the international level.

Aysegül Kibaroglu is the Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at MEF University, Istanbul.

Ramazan Caner Sayan is a Lecturer in Policy Analysis at Swansea University.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.



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