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Free Syrian Army fighters carry the body of a fellow fighter during clashes in Aleppo

“History,” President Barack Obama remarked, “will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.”  But the lessons of the Iraq War already weigh on the president. Even in defending the use of force in Afghanistan and Libya, President Obama cited U.S. difficulties in Iraq to caution against costly, military engagements in the future. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, however, was less an isolated decision as it was the culmination of short-sighted U.S. policy decisions over two decades. Chief among them was the failure to support the Iraqi opposition with enough assistance to overthrow Saddam Hussein, leaving the U.S. with few means of confronting the Iraq threat short of war. Should the Obama administration continue to withhold military assistance from the Syrian opposition, the same mistake could needlessly lead to a large-scale invasion of the country.

U.S. policy toward the Iraqi opposition to Saddam evolved in four phases. At each juncture, the U.S. failed to support the opposition for reasons that later proved misguided.

Lessons from the past

From the time Saddam came to power in 1979 until the beginning of the 1991 rebellion, Washington ignored the Iraqi opposition in pursuit of an understanding with the regime. Even after the Iran-Iraq War, U.S. officials calculated that Saddam would seek an enduring relationship with the West and experiment with democracy at home, much as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton believed before the Arab Spring that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a “reformer.”

The U.S. was forced to reassess its policy toward the Iraqi opposition after a broad-based uprising erupted against Saddam in the aftermath of the Gulf War. President George H.W. Bush – who President Obama has praised for his “traditional, bipartisan, realistic foreign policy” – called on Iraqis to “take matters into their own hands.”  But the president opted against military support for the opposition. Arming the rebels, he feared, could fragment Iraq, undermine regional stability, drag the U.S. into a civil war, and dissolve the Gulf War coalition that Washington needed to help contain Baghdad after the Gulf War. To a generation of American policymakers that had had little interaction with the Iraqi opposition, the prospect of Saddam’s opponents taking power raised the specter of sectarianism, Islamism, and secessionism. A military coup, which Washington assumed would materialize in the absence of an opposition victory, offered a less destabilizing solution to the Saddam problem.

A Free Syrian Army fighter reacts after his friend was shot by Syrian Army soldiers during clashes in Aleppo August 4, 2012.

Mistrusting the opposition

After Saddam managed to suppress the insurrection, the U.S. again adjusted its policy toward the opposition. Washington imposed a no-fly zone over Iraq as a humanitarian measure. But the U.S. declined the opposition’s request for military assistance to topple Saddam through a popular insurgency, deeming the exile-dominated opposition too divided, sectarian, and out-of-touch to govern Iraq even in the event that it succeeded in removing Saddam. The U.S. was more focused on enforcing Iraq’s compliance with U.N. weapons inspectors.  Insofar as Washington pursued regime change, it did so by trying to engineer a coup against Saddam, figuring that a new generation of Baathist military officers could deliver on the promise of a rapprochement without the messy attendant costs of fueling an insurgency.

After 9/11, Washington concluded that the nexus of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs, ties to terrorism, and domestic repression posed an intolerable threat. By this point, Saddam was so entrenched and the opposition so weakened, that a full-scale invasion was the only viable way to overthrow the regime in short order. In the run-up to the war, the George W. Bush Administration explored several options to bolster the opposition, such as training and equipping an army of Iraqi exiles to accompany U.S. forces into Iraq. Senior officials ultimately rejected these proposals, convinced that the opposition was too tainted and unreliable to be trusted with American backing. After 2003, the same Iraqis that the U.S. had discounted in opposition secured power through democratic elections. Resentments from the Saddam era continue to limit U.S. influence with Iraq’s new leaders.

Time running out

The same miscalculations that put the U.S. on a path to war with Iraq are informing the Obama Administration’s current Syria policy. Clinton acknowledged in February that the administration is counting on a coup to remove Assad. Yet Baathist officers along with Syria’s ruling Alawite minority remain loyal to the regime, believing that its military advantage over the rebels will allow Assad to negotiate a favorable cease-fire. In the absence of U.S. intervention, the status quo is likely to produce, not a coup, but a battlefield stalemate in which neither side achieves an outright victory, yet extremists gain traction with the Syrian population. In a stalemate scenario, even a no-fly zone, which Clinton hinted at during her recent visit to Turkey, would not necessarily lead to Assad’s ouster.

Like his predecessors, President Obama is acting with the same combination of reticence and resolve that could lead to another invasion of an Arab state plagued by Baathist holdouts, sectarian strife, and menacing neighbors. The President is reluctant to arm the Syrian opposition, offering the same arguments that prevailed against proposals to empower the Iraqi opposition in the decade preceding the Iraq War.  Yet President Obama has already declared that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” potentially warranting preemptive war in Syria. In a strategic context in which Assad will either survive as a pariah in the international community or find himself on the defensive against a growing insurgency, the rationale for the Assad regime to pursue and deploy WMD will only strengthen. If the U.S. is forced to intervene in Syria, today’s opposition leaders will likely come to power with bitter memories of U.S. inaction in the face of Assad’s enormities.

The U.S. can use the provision of arms to the opposition not only to oust Assad at a manageable cost, but also as leverage to bolster moderates and extract the compromises necessary to facilitate a broad-based democratic transition. The window is narrowing for Washington to choose between a limited escalation now and a costly war down the line.

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Pratik Chougule

Pratik Chougule served at the State Department in the George W. Bush Administration.

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