An American president calls for the downfall of an Arab dictator. The people rise up. The revolt spreads across the country. The rebels ask for help from the American president... who, no longer a fan of revolution, turns his back and -- as the rebels see it -- betrays them.
Could be Syria September 2013. Could also be Iraq 1991, when an uprising threatened to topple Saddam Hussein.
There are big differences, between the two calamities. Still what happened in Iraq back then, provides tragic perspective to the continuing cataclysm in Syria today.
In Syria, in 2011, in the wake of a popular revolt, Barack Obama called on the tyrant Bashar al-Assad to step down. That was followed by a lot of encouraging talk from Washington, a trade embargo, and some clandestine aid, though no serious supply of arms. Meanwhile, America's supposed allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, provided funds and some weapons to the rebels.
Now, after the flurry of negotiations over Assad' chemical weapons, no one knows -- including probably Obama himself -- what kind of support (if any) the U.S. will be giving to the rebels going forward. The rebels feel, understandably, left in the lurch. Their country meanwhile is a bloody basket case.
As for Iraq, in February 1991, as American forces were driving Saddam's troops out of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush, called for the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow the dictator.
Despite subsequent denials from the U.S that it had ever happened, that message was repeatedly broadcast across Iraq. (You can actually hear it on the excerpt of the documentary I did in 2005) It was also contained in millions of leaflets dropped by the U.S. Air Force.
Eager to end decades of repression, the Shiites arose. Their revolt spread like wildfire; in the north, the Kurds also rose up. Key Iraqi army units joined in. It looked as if Saddam's days were over.
But then, George H. W. Bush blew the whistle. Things had got out of hand. What Bush had wanted was not a messy popular uprising but a neat military coup -- another strongman more amenable to Western interests. The White House feared that turmoil would give the Iranians increased influence, upset the Turks, wreak havoc throughout the region. [Not that different from the fear in the Obama administration that radical forces, linked to al Qaeda, will take power if Assad were to fall]
But the Bush administration didn't just turn its back on the revolt; it actually aided Saddam to suppress the Intifada.
When Saddam's brutal counter-attack against the rebellions began, the order was given to American troops already deep inside Iraq and armed to the teeth not to assist the rebellion in any way -- though everyone knew that they were condemning the Intifada to an awful defeat. Thanks to their high-flying reconnaissance planes, U.S. commanders would observe the brutal process as it occurred.
At the time, Rocky Gonzalez was a Special Forces warrant officer serving with U.S. troops in southern Iraq. From their base, Rocky and his units watched as Saddam's forces launched their counterattack against the rebels. Thousands of people fled toward the American lines, said Gonzalez. "One of the refugees was waving a leaflet that had been dropped by U.S. planes over Iraq. Those leaflets told them to rise up against the regime and free themselves."
"They weren't asking us to fight. They felt they could do that themselves. Basically they were just saying 'we rose up like you asked us, now give us some weapons and arms to fight.'"
The American forces had huge stocks of weapons they had captured from the Iraqis. But they were ordered to blow them up rather than turn them over to the rebels. In his autobiography, General Schwarzkopf, without giving details, alludes to the fact that the American-led coalition aided Saddam to crush the uprising.
Indeed, Saddam's former intelligence chief, General Wafiq al-Samarrai, later recounted that the government forces had almost no ammunition left when they finally squelched the revolt.
Iraqi survivors of the Intifada also told my French reporter associate, Michel Despratx, that U.S. forces actually prevented them from marching on Baghdad. "One of the American soldiers threatened to kill us if we didn't turn back," he said. Another Shiite leader claimed that the U.S. even provided Saddam's Republican Guards with fuel. The Americans, he charged, disarmed some resistance units and allowed Republican Guard tanks to go through their checkpoints to crush the uprising.
"We let one Iraqi division go through our lines to get to Basra because the United States did not want the regime to collapse," said Middle East expert Wiliam Quandt.
U.S. officials declined even to meet with the Shiite rebels to hear their case.
The stonewalling continued even when evidence that Saddam was using chemical weapons against the rebels emerged.
"You could see there were helicopters crisscrossing the skies, going back and forth," Rocky Gonzalez said. "Within a few hours people started showing up at our perimeter with chemical burns. "' We were guessing mustard gas. They had blisters and burns on their face and on their hands, on places where the skin was exposed," he said. "As the hours passed, more and more people were coming."
One of the greatest concerns of coalition forces during Desert Storm had been that Saddam would unleash his WMD. U.S. officials repeatedly warned Iraq that America's response would be immediate and devastating. Facing such threats, Saddam kept his weapons holstered -- or so the Bush administration led the world to believe.
Rocky's suspicion that Saddam did resort to them in 1991 was later confirmed by the report of the U.S. Government's Iraq Survey Group, which investigated Saddam's WMD after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and concluded that Saddam no longer had any WMD. Almost universally ignored by the media, however, was the finding that Saddam had resorted to his WMD during the 1991 uprising. The "regime was shaking and wanted something 'very quick and effective' to put down the revolt."
They considered then rejected using mustard gas, as it would be too perceptible with U.S. troops close by. Instead, on March 7, 1991 the Iraqi military filled R-400 aerial bombs with sarin, a binary nerve agent. "Dozens of sorties were flown against Shiite rebels in Kerbala and the surrounding areas," the ISG report said. But apparently the R-400 bombs were not very effective, having been designed for high-speed delivery from planes, not slow-moving helicopters. So the Iraqi military switched to dropping CS, a very potent tear gas, in large aerial bombs.
Because of previous U.S. warnings against resorting to chemical weapons, Saddam and his generals knew they were taking a serious risk, but the Coalition never reacted.
The lingering question is why? It's impossible to believe they didn't know about it at the time. There were repeated charges from Shiite survivors that the Iraqi dictator had used chemical weapons. Rocky Gonzalez said he heard from refugees that nerve gas was being used. He had also observed French-made Iraqi helicopters -- one of which was outfitted as a crop sprayer -- making repeated bomb runs over Najaf. Gonzalez maintained that, contrary to what the ISG report said, many of the refugees who fled to U.S. lines were indeed victims of mustard gas. "Their tongues were swollen," he said, "and they had severe burns on the mucous tissue on the inside of their mouths and nasal passages. Our chemical officer also said it looked like mustard gas."
Gonzalez suggested that local Iraqi officials, desperate to put down the uprising, may have used mustard gas without permission from on high. "A lot of that was kept quiet," he said, "because we didn't want to panic the troops. We stepped up our training with gas masks, because we were naturally concerned."
Gonzalez's unit also passed their information on to their superiors. There were other American witnesses to what happened. U.S. helicopters and planes flew overhead, patrolling as Saddam's helicopters decimated the rebels. Some of those aircraft provided real-time video of the occurrences below.
On March 7th, Secretary of State James Baker warned Saddam not to resort to chemical weapons to repress the uprising. But why, when the U.S. was notified that the Iraqi dictator actually had resorted to chemical weapons, was there no forceful reaction from the administration of the elder Bush? One plausible explanation--denouncing Saddam for using chemical weapons would have greatly increased pressure on the U.S. President to come to the aid of the Shiites.
Instead, the American decision to turn their backs on the Intifada gave a green light to Saddam Hussein's ruthless counterattack. The repression when it came was as horrendous as everyone knew it would be. Tens of thousands of men, women and children were massacred. In the North, however, because of media coverage, the U.S. was finally obliged to decree a no-fly zone, thus protecting the Kurds. In the South, however, where there were no TV cameras, the slaughter of the Shiites continued
Meanwhile, anonymous government figures, wise in the ways of Realpolitik, were making statements such as, "It is far easier to deal with a tame Saddam Hussein than with an unknown quantity." [One can imagine the same sentiments today from American editorialists and statesmen]
Imagine if, instead of blocking the Intifada, George H.W. Bush had given a green light -- without even sending American troops to Baghdad -- just sent the needed signals: met with rebel leaders, ordered Saddam to stop flying his helicopter gunships.
Indeed, some in the Bush administration, like Paul Wolfowitz, were recommending that he do just that: support the revolt he had called for.
They were overruled.
Granted, if the revolution had been successful, there would have been a period of tumult. The Kurds might have achieved an autonomous or semi autonomous state, which is what they will wind up with. The Iranians would have certainly increased their influence through their Shiite allies, but no more than they have today.
There would also have been no invasion of Iraq in 2003 by George H.W. Bush's son, and no disastrous occupation of Iraq.
And, without that ominous backdrop, it's also likely that the Obama administration would have been much more open to aiding the rebels in Syria-- early on in 2011, before more radical elements became involved.
And that could have made all the difference.
Barry Lando has written a new mystery, "The Watchman's File" about Israel's most closely-guarded secret (it's not the bomb). Available on Amazon.