Lessons Learned in Iraq, Forgotten in Syria

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter rides a vehicle in Baghouz, Syria, February 18, 2019 (Rodi Said/Reuters)
The two nations are a lot more similar in their social and political troubles than some analysts in Washington want you to believe.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S eventeen years on, we have some idea of why the Iraq War was such a disaster. The reasons for failure have been debated over and over in the media, in academia, and by politicians. A narrative has emerged that identifies many of the major mistakes made before and during the war. Meanwhile, advocates for intervention in the Syrian conflict have made a case that is disconnected entirely from the emerging consensus over what went wrong in Iraq. The manner in which many advocates of the Iraq War, and even some of its opponents, argued for intervention in Syria suggested they were not eager to apply the key lessons learned in Iraq. A misguided understanding of what might have happened if the U.S. had intervened earlier on behalf of anti-government rebels continues to shape the debate over Syria. This remains relevant given Turkey’s recent intervention on behalf of rebels, in Syria’s northwest, against Bashar al-Assad’s government. That move was met with approval in some corners of Washington, D.C. Those who have advocated that the U.S. support rebels in Syria would do well to consider the lessons we should have learned in Iraq.

The U.S. assumed three major justifications for invading Iraq in 2003: Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government had supported and collaborated with terrorists; Iraq had weapons of massive destruction; and spreading democracy in the region would undermine the political conditions that fomented popular discontent and thereby caused terrorism. By the time American troops withdrew from the country at the end of 2011, it had been clear for some time that all three justifications were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the country we had invaded. As the U.S. left, Iraq was run by a barely functioning, democratic-in-name-only, sectarian government; we realized Saddam’s connection to terrorists involved in 9/11 were tangential at best; and, by the time we invaded, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. A few years after our withdrawal, ISIS took over large swathes of the country, along with significant territory in neighboring Syria. The war was counterproductive even in its stated objectives to combat terrorism and spread democracy.

The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq happened to correspond roughly with the start of the Arab Spring protests in late 2010. They gained serious momentum in 2011. It looked at first that the Arab world was undergoing a paradigm shift, and there were calls for the U.S. to intervene on behalf of anti-government rebels in Syria and elsewhere. In Syria, rebels had taken up arms in an effort to overthrow the country’s dictatorial quasi-monarch Bashar al-Assad, who had been in power since his father’s death in 2000. Calls for U.S. intervention there were entirely removed from the solidifying consensus over what had gone wrong in Iraq. For example, in The New Republic in 2013, John Judis appealed for the U.S. to intervene in Syria, and a few months later he wrote about the loneliness of being an opponent of the Iraq War back in 2003. To his credit Judis later realized his mistake on Syria, but the disconnect between the approach to Syria and the approach to Iraq was inexplicable at the time, based more on American domestic politics than on a solid understanding on the two countries at hand, Iraq and Syria.

The histories of Syria and Iraq in the 20th century are distinct in many ways but still have broader characteristics in common. Both countries were carved out of the Ottoman Empire in the colonization of the region after World War I. Each experienced a series of coups (Syria more than Iraq) before the Baath Party ultimately solidified power in the country. In each Baath Party (the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the party eventually became bitter rivals despite common origins), a strongman emerged and solidified power within both the party and the state: In Syria, Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, and in Iraq, Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979. Both were weak states. Both dictatorial presidents eliminated rivals in the party in order to take and maintain power, solidifying the central police state.

After taking power, both Assad and Saddam confronted significant domestic threats to their grip on power. Saddam Hussein’s most dangerous domestic challenge came in the wake of the First Gulf War, after the U.S. and allies expelled Iraq from neighboring Kuwait. After deciding not to continue to Baghdad and remove Saddam, the U.S. encouraged an uprising in the south of the country, which was brutally suppressed by Saddam. He managed to quell the uprising and stay in power for more than a decade. Ultimately, it took an invasion by the U.S. to depose Saddam; internal discontent was not sufficient, and the state had become stronger than many people had understood.

In Syria, the threat to Assad’s power came when the Muslim Brotherhood led an uprising in the late 1970s and early 1980s, primarily in the northern cities of Hama and Aleppo. Assad responded with brute force, largely destroying the city of Hama in 1982. His popularity declined as a result of that response, but it also helped clarify that the battle in Syria was between the state and those opposed to the state and that the state had won. This would be a harbinger of future events starting in 2011.

After the U.S. removed Saddam in 2003, the war soon turned into a quagmire, as there was no plan in place to deal with the chaos that ensued. Thomas Ricks’s book Fiasco provides a concise reminder of how many in the Bush administration and the military expected the war to be over quickly and that the U.S. could withdraw within months of taking Baghdad. “I don’t believe that anything like a long-term commitment of 150,000 Americans would be necessary,” Richard Perle, a top official in the Bush administration, said at a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute in October 2002. “I think people are overly pessimistic about the aftermath,” Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, said in December of that year.

Inside and outside the military, however, there was concern that the planning was not sufficient. “What is postwar Iraq going to look like, with the Kurds and the Sunnis and the Shiites?” Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the effort in the First Gulf War, asked in January 2003.  “That’s a huge question, to my mind. It really should be part of the overall campaign plan. . . . I would hope that we have in place the adequate resources to become an army of occupation, because you’re going to walk into chaos.” That now seems obvious, but it was clearly not the consensus at the time. Schwarzkopf’s remarks echoed the conventional wisdom in 1991, when the George H. W. Bush administration decided not to continue to Baghdad and remove Saddam Hussein from power. Those cautions were forgotten by 2003. “I think the ethnic differences in Iraq are there, but they’re exaggerated,” Wolfowitz said before the war had begun. Imagine someone saying that now! Similarly shortsighted thinking was reflected in the media. “This should be wrapped up in a month or two,” the late Anthony Shadid, one of the most effective correspondents in Iraq, said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review in late 2011, describing his thinking when the invasion was underway: “Then let’s start thinking about where else we’re going to go in the region. Seven years later, 2010, I was still sitting in Baghdad.”

The George W. Bush administration was convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. While they were not alone in that assessment, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Scooter Libby, and others engaged in the worst type of ideological thinking. They picked through intelligence and saw what they wanted to see, rather than draw conclusions based on an objective look at the whole picture. “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction,” Cheney said in August 2002, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.” But there was doubt, particularly within the intelligence community, though it was not unanimous. The administration ignored that doubt and forged ahead with the invasion. It soon became clear that the dissenters were right. The WMD found in Iraq all predated 1991, and there was no evidence that Saddam still had an active program in chemical or biological weapons.

While the lack of WMD made the war particularly painful as American and Iraqi deaths multiplied, the existence of such weapons would not have changed the trajectory of the war. It was a justification for the use of force but had nothing to do with the internal factors that drove the insurgency through the decade of war in Iraq. We would have lost just as many soldiers and still probably would have withdrawn in 2011. We would probably be debating the war on different terms, more like those in which we debate U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, where the war has been longer and where a peaceful resolution seems equally unlikely. Few would question the initial justification for invading Afghanistan. The attacks of September 11, 2001, were a direct result of the safe haven that the Taliban provided al-Qaeda. The U.S. war against Afghanistan was a legitimate response to those attacks, especially after the Taliban refused to hand over al-Qaeda leaders. The war’s legitimacy did not make its aims any more achievable, and the likelihood that Afghanistan will become a terrorist haven again after we leave is extremely high. Even if we stay, the likelihood that it will become a reasonably stable and functioning country capable of fighting terrorism is extremely low.

Another justification for the war in Iraq was that the spread of democracy in the Middle East would undermine the conditions that had led to religious extremism and terrorism. When looking at Iraq and the rest of the region today, we can see that this understanding was based on a number of clearly false assumptions, but when the Arab Spring protests began in 2010, most observers did not see a parallel between the events in Iraq in 2003 and the emerging conflicts in Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

Both the American media and the American government felt compelled to support the protesters in their demands for change, understanding them to be demands for liberal democracy. Indeed, that is what some of the protesters did want, but they did not have a common, shared vision for what should come next. The protests were focused on “out with the old”; not much thought was given to who might be included in the “in with the new.” When framing the debate about what the response to the protests should be, Western commentators did not take into account the post-2003 experience in Iraq.

In Syria, the protests were underpinned intellectually by a particular understanding of Syrian politics: that the Assad regime is the dominant cause of the country’s ills and that therefore it must be removed at any cost. Before the war, this view had support among some Syrian intellectuals, represented primarily by Burhan Ghalioun and similar thinkers. Others, such as Georges Tarabichi, had a more tempered understanding, seeing the causes of Syria’s current problems as being deeper than just its degraded political system. They argued that Syria’s problems were deeply rooted in the nation’s culture, and that removing the regime would not necessarily bring about a better alternative if underlying social problems had not been addressed. “Is democracy a magic key with which we open all locked doors?” Tarabichi asks in his book Heresies, first published in 2006. “Or is democracy, on the contrary, a crown that coronates the organic development of the society at hand, and that develops in relation to the level of society’s development?”

This more tempered assessment of the Syrian protests — that, if they did lead to a change in regime, it might turn out to be worse than the status quo — found little support in the West, where calls for freedom from an oppressive dictator found a sympathetic ear, evoking the situation in 1989, when global Communism was crumbling and a new democratic era was thought to be emerging in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. To many hopeful Westerners and Syrians alike, it appeared that the Arab world’s moment to finally catch up to the progress of history had arrived. Many ideas that have significant support in the Arab world are often deemed by Westerners to be anti-Arab racism — in this case, the idea that the region is not ready for democracy. The last few months have been a good reminder that, even in the West, progress is not inevitable. In the Middle East that had been clear at least since the civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen had ceased to resemble any sort of conflict between “good democrats” and “bad dictators,” as those countries failed to reach any semblance of democratic consensus.

Before 2011, skepticism toward democracy was already widespread in the Middle East itself, among intellectual skeptics, Islamic skeptics, and those benefiting from nepotistic regimes. The skepticism is much wider spread now in the region than in 2011. Many who have witnessed the stresses and upheavals of the past decade now feel nostalgia for life under Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad, even if in that nostalgia they often overlook the suffering those leaders caused.

It is interesting that, in American media, the narrative of what went wrong in Iraq so often contradicts the narrative of what the U.S. could have done differently in Syria to prevent the civil war, ongoing nine years after the first protests began. Many analysts, commentators, and former officials contend that the war would not have been so bloody or prolonged had the U.S. and its allies intervened sooner on behalf of “moderate” rebels. Take, for example, “The Secret History of ISIS,” documentary aired on PBS’s Frontline in May 2016. First the viewer is walked through ISIS’s origins in the Iraq War. Then the film lays out — convincingly, in my view — the missteps by the U.S. that enabled the group to spread. First and foremost was a missed opportunity to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2002 while he was taking refuge in northern Iraq. That fact was mistakenly used by the Bush administration to show a link to Saddam, but it chose, against the advice of some in the CIA, not to assassinate Zarqawi. As the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, he would become a major menace to the U.S.

The Frontline episode then walks through the next series of missteps after the U.S. invasion: disbanding the Iraqi army; de-Baathification, whereby anyone who held senior positions and was a member of the party was not allowed to participate in the new government; the unwillingness of the administration at first to see a coherent, organized insurgency and instead attributing early violence in the country to ragtag, disconnected actors; the detention of jihadists at Camp Bucca prison, where they networked and planned the next steps of the insurgency; a premature withdrawal in 2011, coupled with a total political disengagement with the country, a move that undid what progress had been made by the surge and engagement with Sunni tribes. The collapse of the weakened Iraqi state led to ISIS’s rapid expansion in 2014. This is a fairly straightforward analysis and reflects the current collective wisdom, shared by many in politics, media, and academia, about how the Iraq War got out of control. It is a reasonable analysis, though its primary flaw is its focus on U.S. actions rather than on Iraqi society. Nonetheless, it provides a good set of lessons to be learned from U.S. engagement in the Middle East.

Strangely, though, the Frontline documentary, like so much other commentary on the region, fails to apply many of the lessons supposedly learned in Iraq to the situation in Syria. One of the first mistakes made by the U.S. in Iraq was to disband the Iraqi army and ban most Baath Party members from participating in the new government. Despite the lesson learned, there was a push in Washington starting in 2011 to arm anti-government rebels who were attempting to overthrow the Baathist government in Syria. Had they succeeded, would Syria not find itself in the same position as Iraq in 2003, with Baathists and bureaucrats out of work and resentful of the new order? Some Syrian rebels claimed early on that they were simply trying to remove the “regime” (nizam) while leaving the “state” (dawlah) in place. On paper this may have made sense, but the reality is that the regime and state had become one.

Army defectors formed the Free Syrian Army, which was modeled on the Syrian army and was meant to replace it, once the government was overthrown, while leaving in place the existing structure. It is hard to see how that was achievable. While the defections were perhaps a practical necessity to overthrowing the Syrian government, they nonetheless fit a pattern of military involvement in Syrian politics that began with Hosni Za’im’s coup in 1949, which opened a Pandora’s box of military intervention that has poisoned Syrian politics ever since. Once the chain of command is deemed to be up for negotiation, there is nothing to stop the next pretender to the throne from defecting and starting his own group, as happened with the Syrian opposition as it broke down into more and smaller factions. Defections from the military to form a new, parallel military were simply another step along a well-worn path rather than a turning point on the way to the stated goal of a new kind of Syria, one committed to freedom and democracy.

Americans watching from afar should have regarded the defectors with more skepticism than they did. Instead, almost immediately a push began in Washington to arm the rebels and overthrow Assad. By 2013 that push was in full swing. John McCain traveled into Syria and met with rebels. Senator Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) introduced a bill to arm them and “to recognize the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces . . . as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” Under what authority was an unelected body of rebels and dissidents being made the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people?

One need not back the Syrian government or Bashar al-Assad to see that official recognition of the rebel forces would have been no different from the recognition of Ahmed Chalabi as a legitimate representative of Iraq leading up to the 2003 invasion. Chalabi was shown to have almost no support in Iraq and ended up spying for Iran. Salim Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army (John McCain met with him on his trip to Syria in 2013), became the figurehead of the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October 2019, a military operation that could have killed U.S. soldiers and upended all U.S. efforts to prevent ISIS from returning. Neither Chalabi nor Idris had much popular support. Both were using U.S. support to advance their own agenda, not a national agenda. Moreover, their methods were entirely undemocratic, contradicting the logic according to which the U.S. was allegedly supporting them.

To his credit, President Obama resisted significant pressure to increase U.S. involvement in Syria. Figures within his administration, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta, and CIA director David Petraeus, advocated that the U.S. arm the rebels, as did Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Syria. Critics continue to say that Obama’s failure to intervene on behalf of allegedly moderate rebels allowed jihadists to elbow them out on the ground and increase popular support for the jihadists. In “Cleaning Up Obama’s Syria Mess,” published in Commentary in November 2016, Iraq-war-advocate-turned-penitent Max Boot argued for “providing Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft missiles such as the Stingers that the U.S. supplied to the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s,” almost as if he didn’t know the consequences of arming the mujahedeen in Afghanistan: It helped create the conditions that ultimately led to the Taliban takeover of the country. Perhaps the struggle against Communism during the Cold War justified the support for the mujahedeen, but what was the larger national interest in backing the Syrian rebels? That has never been convincingly articulated.

We’ll never know what would have happened if the U.S. had more aggressively backed the Syrian rebels in 2013 or earlier. Internalizing the lessons of Iraq more accurately than his advisers did, Obama rejected rosy predictions that backing a particular group in an ongoing civil war in the Middle East would easily lead to the elevation of a democratic, pro-Western governing class. Obama instead waited until a more necessary time to intervene directly in the Syrian conflict, demonstrating a few of the lessons that the U.S. learned in Iraq. Unfortunately, he did not apply that same caution to Libya, a country now just as troubled as Syria, with little hope in sight.

Unlike early calls for arming anti-government rebels in Syria, the intervention against ISIS there came late enough into the conflict for the U.S. to see who had been effective on the ground and to choose them as partners in the anti-ISIS operation. While the rebels did achieve some success against ISIS, it was usually in conjunction with jihadists who were only slightly less tyrannical than ISIS themselves and therefore hardly a model to be scaled up and built on. The Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), on the other hand, showed itself capable of fighting ISIS, willing to doing so, and willing to advance a domestic political agenda that was amenable to U.S. interests and values. The YPG allied with Christian militias and Arab tribes, forming a pluralistic coalition that reflected the demographics of Syria, unlike the anti-government rebels, who were overwhelmingly Sunni.

While the U.S. was careful not to endorse expressly the YPG’s political project, the Autonomous Administration, it nonetheless enabled its expansion by supporting the YPG and its allies in taking territory from ISIS. In short, the U.S. intervention against ISIS, in the form of support for the YPG and its allies, was an intervention on behalf of a group that had already shown itself to be effective. That stood in contrast to the U.S. attempt to prop up a fighting force loyal to Chalabi before the invasion of Iraq — an attempt to create on paper a power that did not exist in reality. An intervention on behalf of the Syrian rebels, who quickly divided against themselves and were co-opted by extremists, would have produced results like those in Iraq. Several programs to arm Syrian rebels were tried. They were complete failures.

Despite all this, many analysts and commentators, echoing early proponents of the Iraq War, advocated that Syrian society could be reshaped into something it wasn’t. “The United States could create a new Syrian military with a conventional structure and doctrine, one capable of defeating both the regime and the extremists,” Kenneth Pollack, an advocate of the Iraq War in 2003, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2014. “A decisive victory by this U.S.-backed army would force all parties to the negotiating table and give the United States the leverage to broker a power-sharing arrangement among the competing factions. This outcome would create the most favorable conditions for the emergence of a new Syrian state: one that is peaceful, pluralistic, inclusive, and capable of governing the entire country.” It is astonishing that anyone who had watched Iraq unfold would think that to be possible, but the notion that it could have been continues to have appeal across the political spectrum.

A year later, Pollack wrote that “a successful military intervention is straightforward — if we do it right and commit the needed resources. In Iraq, for instance, many commentators said it would take ten years to stabilize Iraq. Yet, the U.S. surge, working with Sunni tribes, achieved its goals within 12 to 18 months. This quick stabilization is the historic norm.” What stabilization was Pollack referring to? In November 2015, when he was writing, ISIS controlled vast swathes of Iraq, including the tribal areas he was referring to and the important city of Mosul. A stabilization that collapses immediately when the U.S. withdraws is no stabilization at all. Pollack and others argue that the premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 is the cause of the instability that led to ISIS. That’s true to a certain extent, but the central government proved unable to maintain stability without direct U.S. assistance and so is certainly not a solution to be implemented next door in Syria.

Instead, in Syria we backed the Kurdish YPG in its fight against ISIS. Here the U.S. military applied a key lesson learned in Iraq: the need to engage Arab tribal leaders. In Iraq the U.S. did achieve modest, if fleeting, success in Anbar Province during the surge by supporting Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups. The project was not perfect. It was largely undone after the U.S. withdrew, as the sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad failed to follow through with the engagement started by the Americans. It was, however, better than the chaos that had preceded the engagement.

In Syria, the U.S. pushed the YPG to engage with Arab tribes and get them on board to fight ISIS. Those efforts helped broaden the appeal of the YPG, which later formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with its allies and assured Arab tribes that the fight against ISIS would not turn into a Kurdish nationalist project, which many suspected the YPG’s real motivation to be. By engaging the Arab tribes, the U.S. was able to bring them into the fold. That effort proved fruitful when the Arabs allied with the YPG held steady in the face of the Turkish invasion in October 2019. This bodes well for a sustainable peace in northeastern Syria down the road, but success is far from guaranteed, and tension between the YPG and Arab tribes is currently on the rise in northeastern Syria. In short, there are no magic solutions, but there are certainly better and worse ones.

We can quibble over the specifics of which policies and programs worked in Iraq and which ones would have worked in Syria if we had only given it a try. Looking at the two cases side by side, however, we can see just how much we have failed to learn from the Iraq War. Learning from it is not just about writing an accurate history book for our country. It’s also about preventing those mistakes from being made again. We need to look at the world as it is, not as we want it to be. In this instance, Syria and Iraq look a lot more similar than experts in Washington want you to believe. We would do well to keep that in mind next time we hear a grand plan to remake the Middle East in our image.

Sam Sweeney is a writer and translator based in the Middle East.

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