To Avoid Disaster In Syria, The U.S. Should Learn From Iraq

The U.S. can apply the lessons learned in Iraq to make Syria less disastrous.
04/08/2017 10:16 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2017
MOHAMMED SAWAF via Getty Images

If this all sounds familiar, it is: a brutal dictator in the Middle East slaughters his own people, a U.S. president calls for military force and the dictators removal from power and nobody has any idea what to do once the dictator is gone. I’m not talking about Iraq in 2003 but Syria in 2017. Can the United States apply the lessons learned in Iraq to make Syria less disastrous?

The top lesson from Iraq is don’t get involved militarily, but we have already passed that point. With American ground forces moving into position and a missile strike on the Syrian government, we now have skin in the Syrian conflict whether we wanted it or not. So it makes sense to find an answer to the question General Petraeus asked about Iraq: how does this end? The first step is to defeat ISIS, next have a strategy to deal with the post ISIS landscape, and finally have an exit plan for the US military presence in the Middle East.

In Iraq we learned plans don’t shape the ground truth, the ground truth shapes our plans. With ISIS on the ropes, there are three categories of problems that will have to be addressed once ISIS is defeated to make stability in Syria and Iraq achievable. For convenience they can be referred to as the three R’s: revenge, resettlement and restoration.

Revenge concerns breaking the cycle of violence; defeating ISIS won’t stop the cycle it will just kick off a new one. There will be plenty of payback to go around. Victims of ISIS will want revenge against their tormentors, and it won’t matter if the wrong people are accused. Assad wants revenge against the rebels, (the likely motive for his latest chemical weapons attack) and he won’t be squeamish about his methods. Revenge will be the most difficult of the three Rs to manage.

Instead of stopping revenge a more realistic approach would be to simply manage it. In Anbar province, where ISIS captured much of its Iraqi territory, the population is divided between those who opposed ISIS and those who joined or helped ISIS. Given the atrocities committed by ISIS against Iraqis of all ethnicities, the desire for revenge will be strong. Dealing with intense emotions in these lawless areas is currently beyond the capacity of the Iraqi government.

An international body must be created or designated to identify, arrest, and punish ISIS fighters who committed atrocities. If locals think no such effort is being made there will be no stopping their vengeance and the ensuing cycle of violence could equal the carnage wrought by ISIS itself.

Likewise in Syria if left unchecked Assad will wreak a terrible vengeance on anyone he deems a rebel or sympathizer; some sort of monitoring and enforcement of his regime will be necessary if he remains in power. Revenge is the top force which could propel Syria and Iraq into new rounds of conflict after ISIS; another factor is resettlement.

Resettlement is about returning refugees to their homes, property, and possessions and the process needed to accomplish it. Returning refugees to their homes will be difficult legally and logistically, but it must be done. Turkey and Jordan cannot sustain massive refugee camps forever. International relief organizations and major powers need to be careful not to move refugees back in too quickly. If logistics gets ahead of absorption capacity, then a flood of refugees will return fueling chaos, disputes, and inevitably violence.

A gradual return of refugees is more desirable from a safety standpoint too, as that will also provide time for properties to be cleared of threats like improvised explosive devices. Most importantly, a gradual refugee flow back will allow more time for the restoration of the host governments. Restoration entails returning the territory of Iraq and Syria to the control of its national governments, and importantly taking into account whether or not the people of those countries want that.

In Syria’s case restoration is more straightforward but dangerous. There is no practical alternatives to the continued rule of Assad, yet his likely recent use of chemical weapons cannot go unpunished. In Iraq we had no answer to the question of what would happen after Saddam Hussein was removed, and the result was chaos and disaster. Assad cannot be removed either absent a clear idea of what comes next. If he is removed from power a partitioning of Syria would be near certain; if he stays lingering resentment will be smoldering embers waiting for the chance to touch off the next conflagration. The civil war in Syria started as anti-Assad protests, and the next civil war would likely begin the same way.

The international community must address the issue of whether Syria and Iraq are still viable states. It’s not at all clear the people who live inside the borders want their old national governments restored to power. If large majorities don’t, then restoration will just set the stage for the next round of conflict.

In Iraq many people blame the Iraqi government for abandoning them to face ISIS alone. Rebuilding trust and restoring legitimacy is a struggle that has never been fully achieved since the defeat of Saddam Hussein. An organized international effort to help the Iraqi government handle the problems of revenge and resettlement would go a long way towards improving the public perception of Baghdad, and to facilitate the restoration of some semblance of law and order.

A global summit in which regional and major powers gather to forge political agreements on managing the post ISIS landscape is vital. Without long-term political solutions the violence will not stop. Critics will charge another global summit would just repeat the mistakes made at the end of World War I when colonial powers arbitrarily created the borders in the Middle East that are now collapsing. Won’t arbitrarily creating new borders again amount to the same thing?

The reality is the world has no other choice but to try. Not trying guarantees the violence will continue; trying to find political solutions at least offers a chance for peace. Meanwhile the United States has a huge bargaining chip, and now is the time to redeem it.

A post-ISIS landscape would also be one in which the United States can begin the process of leaving the Middle East militarily. America went to the Middle East to prevent the Soviet Union from threatening vital oil supplies. Today the Soviet threat is long gone and we import more oil from Canada and Mexico than Saudi Arabia. Counter-terrorism operations do not require massive bases and Cold War weapons systems to be located in the Middle East indefinitely. What would change the hearts and minds of regional powers to take a global summit seriously? Because America removing its military from the Middle East would be on the table. That’s an incentive for regional powers to participate. It makes sense for the United States too; we no longer have any vital reason to sustain such a huge military presence in the Middle East. Senator Rand Paul is right; are we just supposed to stay everywhere forever? No, we are not.

It would be foolhardy to celebrate the defeat of ISIS as if stability to Iraq and Syria are assured. It would also be dangerous to remove Assad from power with no idea what to do next. The real work of rebuilding Iraq and Syria will only begin after ISIS falls.

If the three R’s are not successfully addressed, and major powers do not find political solutions, then it’s likely the fall of ISIS will only bring about a brief pause in fighting until the next round of violence flares up over problems that were entirely foreseeable. Then the whole cycle will start over again, at enormous cost in blood and treasure. Iraq can teach us how to break that cycle if we apply the lessons learned there.