The legacy of minority-based regimes

The question of what to do about former elites haunts countries that have undergone a radical political transformation. Retain them in office, and dissidents will complain their revolution has been "betrayed." Purge them, and the inevitable fall-off in state services, even if it is temporary, will feed instability and spread nostalgia for the fallen regime. This dilemma has recently surfaced in Libya, where militias made up of mostly working-class ex-rebels have backed a law to purge from office anyone -- including their wartime middle class allies -- who held even a minor government position under Qaddhafi. Similar laws have been drafted in Tunisia and contemplated in Egypt, and will almost certainly figure in an aftermath to the Syrian conflict.

The United States faced this dilemma in Iraq. May 16 is the ten-year anniversary of the decision it took: Coalition Provisional Authority Order 1, the decree that removed top-ranking members of the Baath party from their positions in Iraqi state institutions, swiftly followed by CPA number 2, which dissolved the military to be rebuilt anew. Collectively they are often termed "de-Baathification."

Today, CPA Order 1 is one of the most universally condemned American foreign policy decisions of this generation Even proponents of the war tend to describe it as a terrible mistake. With Iraq's legacy under review, both because of the 10 year anniversary and because of contemplated intervention in Syria, CPA Order 1 has been invoked by both sides in the debate: one side frequently depicting it as an indication of the headstrong mindset by which the Americans helped plunge Iraq into the chaos, the other side seeing it as a mistake that, because it can be avoided in the future, does not necessarily condemn intervention as a doctrine.

Few dispute that de-Baathification helped turn a nascent Sunni insurgency into a nationwide movement. As Sunnis tended to rise more easily to top posts than Shiites, both decrees affected Sunnis disproportionately. The decrees alienated the mid-ranking military officers, tribal sheikhs, and other town- or neighborhood-scale leaders who eventually led the rebellion. The CPA decrees also purged many of the Baath party bureaucrats in charge of keeping the lights on and the sewers flowing, which undercut any chance that Sunnis might see the overthrow of Saddam as a change for the better and fueled the general sense of chaos. From there, things spiraled downhill: insurgents attacked US targets, counter-insurgency measures including mass detentions sparked more resentment, an al-Qaida-affiliated radical network entered the fray and tried to draw in the Shia with attacks on religious and civilian targets, and thus Iraq was brought to the edge of civil war. The legacy of de-Baathification persists today, where the current Shiite-led government's refusal to pursue some sort of reconciliation is threatening to push the country into a new round of sectarian violence.

But in condemning a policy must also take into account counterfactuals. We know what discord CPA Order #1 caused; what potential discord could it have averted? What would have happened had the Baath party undissolved and the army in place?

In Iraq, in 2003, some middle-class Iraqi Shia thought of the military and the ministries as "national" institutions, and felt you could serve Iraq in a career that required Baath party membership even if you detested Saddam. But if you were a working class Shiite, or one rendered half-unemployable by your family's past involvement with a Shia dissident group, it didn't take much to turn you against middle class functionaries or officers. Officials weren't your benefactors: rather, they left you to stew in the misery of east Baghdad's slums or made your life hell as an army conscript. Many of the Shia were already half-convinced that the US intended to institute Saddamism without Saddam. If CPA Order 1 had not been issued, the US could easily have been facing a full-fledged Shia insurgency by late 2003, backed by all major Shia religious parties. Such an insurgency would draw from 60 percent of the population rather than 20 percent, with the full backing of a very large Shiite state next door.

In looking at the horrors of 2003-2008 in Iraq, there is a tendency to see the path taken as the worst of all possible options. But Saddam's style of ruling -- his repression of Shia religiosity, his war with Iran, his conflation of internal dissidents with foreign agents, his parceling out of favors in exchange for loyalty -- created a very divided country. The divide wasn't purely Sunni/Shia, but it was close enough that, when the rising tide of violence prompted Sunnis and Shia to go looking for threats, each looked first to the other. The sudden prominence of two new forces that prior to 2003 could only work in the shadows, al-Qaida-style Sunni extremists and Iranian-backed Shia religious parties, further fueled this polarization. Sunnis had nothing against their Shiite neighbors -- but they were convinced that the leaders chosen by those neighbors were all theocratic stooges of Iran. The Shia likewise were proud to have Sunni friends -- but every Sunni leader was either a Saddam-lover or a terrorist.

The United States did not know it yet, but it did not have very many good options in May 2003. To have avoided a civil war in Iraq, then, the obvious conclusion would perhaps be that the United States simply should not have invaded at all. But here again, one must consider the counterfactual. To have left Saddam in place would have saved the United States a great deal of blood and treasure, but it is not clear at all that it would have been any less bloody for Iraq. During the 10-year anniversary of the invasion, one of the most though-provoking (if provocative) assessments was made by, of all people, Tony Blair. He asserted that the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 showed that, if the Iraq War had not been launched, Saddam would have faced an Arab Spring uprising anyway. He adds that Saddam was "20 times as bad" as Assad and thus the repression would have been worse.

Blair's "20 times" assertion is questionable -- but his bigger assertion on the likelihood of a nationwide uprising, while self-serving, is probably correct. Saddam and the Assad regime both used similar tactics when dealing with demonstrations of dissent. Bashar al-Assad's father applied this tactic in 1982 in Hama and Saddam applied it in 1991 in the cities of the Shiite south. Both were brutal -- and back then, brutality served them well. They isolated the uprisings, brought in security forces with strong sectarian loyalty to the regime, and crush them using whatever firepower could be brought to bear. 

2011 in Syria is not an exact parallel to 1982 or 1991 in Iraq. Assad's forces faced unarmed protesters rather than an insurrection, and he gradually escalated the use of lethal force, mixing bullets and arrests with apparent political concessions, rather than unleashing the heavy firepower from the beginning. But the tactic was similar enough -- suppress dissidents with small but dedicated "regime protection" forces authorized to kill.

This tactic turned out to have been rendered obsolete by technology. Activists used videophones to document the atrocities and satellite-based internet to upload the documentation. This allowed the protesters not just to spread news of atrocities, but to spin them. Voiceovers, music, and the help of al-Jazeera's and al-Arabiya's graphics team ensured that other Syrians would see what was happening elsewhere not as a deterrent but as an inspirational show of defiance. This caused parallel uprisings in other cities throughout the country, and when protesters turned to armed resistance the sheer number of flashpoints overwhelmed the numbers of loyalist troops that could suppress them. The result was a civil war that, at time of writing, has left more than 80,000 dead in just over two years -- if anything, a swifter descent into large-scale bloodletting than Iraq experienced, especially if you take into account Syria's somewhat smaller population. 

One can never say that any counterfactual scenario would have happened, merely that it might have happened. There are simply too many variables in play to allow any confident conclusions to be made. For that reason, they do not lend themselves to any particular policy recommendation. A comparison of Syria (a civil war conducted without foreign intervention) and Iraq (a near-civil war touched off by foreign intervention) does however suggest that the determining factor in the two greatest tragedies in the Arab world in decades are not so much the action or inaction of outside powers, but the decades-long legacy of regimes based on sectarian minorities that remained in power by practicing divide-and-rule. Confronted with this legacy, the best that the rest of the world can do is survey a range of options that at best can reduce the scale of a tragedy, not avert it. None will produce a happy ending, and each has deadly pitfalls attached to it.