Analysis: The Gulf War - 20 years on

How did a series of dramatic events drastically change Iraq’s domestic, regional and international relations?

Saddam 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Saddam 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The First Gulf War changed the very dynamic of relations between a superpower and a regional country – and changed the balance of power in the region as a whole.
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 created reactions that were unexpected by Baghdad: Sanctions and all-out war were unleashed by the US, along with a coalition of 30 countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

The sanctions – which lasted until the demise of the Ba’ath regime in 2003 – seriously weakened Iraq’s economy, and with it, the edifice of the regime.
The war set into motion the Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings, which broke out immediately following fighting between the coalition forces and the Iraqi army.
The importance of these uprisings were that they proved the population had overcome their fear of Saddam Hussein, served as a rehearsal for the deep political transformations in post- Saddam Iraq and brought about deeper American involvement in Iraqi affairs. (This point was illustrated by the establishment of two no-fly zones for the Iraqi air force, in the Kurdish north and the Shi’ite south.) American involvement culminated in the 2003 war, which ended with the collapse of the Ba’ath regime – creating the most revolutionary changes ever to occur in Iraq.
For the first time since the advent of Islam there 1,400 years earlier, the Shi’ites became rulers of the state.
The Sunnis, who had a monopoly on power for hundreds of years, were ousted.
The centralist state system was altered into a federative arrangement, with the Kurdish region developing into a quasi-state of its own. At the same time, the Kurds became kingmakers in Baghdad.
The government system also underwent a dramatic change from a dictatorship to a budding democracy.
BUT THE abrupt shift imposed on the society had its price in the Arab part of Iraq. Indeed, years of upheavals, civil strife between Sunnis and Shi’ites, ongoing acts of terror by al-Qaida and disenfranchised Sunni Islamist groups and severe destruction of the infrastructure occurred.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish region flourished in an unprecedented manner.
The upheavals in the foreign arena are no less dramatic: The two Gulf Wars were an unprecedented event in the history of the region, particularly in Iraq.
After World War I, no outside power occupied a country in the Middle East, or remained in it, for nearly a decade – almost like the British mandate in the early years of the Iraqi state.
Paradoxically, the American presence in Iraq reduced the US’s deterrence – as exemplified by the Iranian challenges to both the Americans and the region as a whole.
Iraq’s own external posture also underwent a revolution: From a state which constituted a permanent threat to its neighbors by launching wars, it became threatened by war. All its neighbors are trying to fill the vacuum, or influence the Iraqi agenda.
The most worrying development from the region’s point of view was Iran’s deep penetration into Iraq – and the fact that Baghdad no longer constituted a balance to Teheran.
Additionally, the Arab world has long shied away from Baghdad because it was being headed by the Shi’ite-Kurdish coalition. Being enmeshed with its own domestic problems, Iraq has failed to develop a clear independent foreign policy of its own.
Regarding Israel, many people here welcomed the collapse of the Ba’ath state, whose demise removed a potential threat. However, ultimately the impact of this development was not positive: The changing strategic map turned Iran into the hegemon without Iraq to balance it.
Furthermore, Iran’s deep penetration in Iraq – together with the alliance with Syria and strong support for Hizbullah – have proved to be a more severe challenge than the weakened Ba’ath regime in its final years.
In the end, the two Gulf Wars forever altered the Iraqi state, the strategic map of the region and the involvement of the US in Iraqi affairs, which was almost nonexistent before.
The writer is a Dayan Center senior fellow and a lecturer at the Department of Middle Eastern History of Tel Aviv University.