The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged libya
In Translation: Of Egypt, Qatar, and Libya

I am quite late in posting the translation below, which was published in May soon after the Vienna ministerial meeting on Libya in which Western powers announced that they were prepared to put in place an exemption to the arms embargo to provide weapons and training to the fledging Government of National Accord led by Prime Minister Faiez Serraj. The piece below is interesting, as an op-ed by a newspaper that while London-based is funded by Qatar. It signals the continuing exasperation in Doha with Egypt’s foreign policy, a precursor to this week’s diplomatic spat follow the sentencing of deposed President Mohammed Morsi on charges of having spied for Qatar. And, some might say, the odd kind-of-proxy war between the Egypt/UAE-backed Haftar forces and those Islamist forces in Libya closer to Qatar (who once again clashed in recent days.)

As always we bring you this translation through our partners at Industry Arabic, a professional translation service that specializes in Arabic documents of all kinds. If you or your company has an Arabic translation need, please check them out and tell them The Arabist sent you.

Cairo Uses Haftar to Prevent Libyan Reconciliation
Editorial, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 19 May 2016

The Libyan crisis has witnessed a new development: The United States and the countries of the European Union have announced that they are prepared to arm the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Meanwhile, the option of direct Western military intervention has receded (despite the presence of American and European special forces on Libyan territory). After the GNA took over most ministry headquarters, it announced the names of its ministers. Then, forces loyal to this government began to clash with “Islamic State” forces—the main point of focus for Western powers—and to retake areas, checkpoints and border posts. The major difficulty that the GNA faces, though, is approval of its legitimacy by the recognized Tobruk-based House of Representatives. Despite a majority of representatives agreeing to this, having signed statements and announcing their explicit desire to recognize the GNA, the House of Representatives continues to refrain from doing so, for reasons that are quite clear.

The matter is related, of course, to the military control that the Commander-in-Chief of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, enjoys over the eastern region of Libya, where the House of Representatives is located. From a regional perspective, it is also related to approval by the authorities in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—the actual sponsors of General Haftar—of the international plan to move from civil war to reconciliation.
In a recent statement made by General Haftar to a Libyan television channel, he said, “It is unheard of for a government to be established during a time of terrorism.” He means by this, of course, the GNA. He further stated that he “has nothing to do with political dialogue” and that what he is interested in is “imposing security and stability and ridding Libya of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Furthermore, he argued that “democracy will come to pass over the generations,” but that he believes in it because he experienced it for 25 years in the West! Haftar’s statements contradict one another and undermine any credibility he has.

Collectively, his statements clearly express his enormous disdain for his supposed partners in Libya in his rejection of political dialogue and his acknowledgement of only one solution, the one that he imposes with his military forces and that eliminates the Muslim Brotherhood. After he establishes security and stability, he sees nothing wrong with promising Libyans (or those that are left) with democracy, which “he alone knows because he lived for 25 years in the West,” but in the generations to come!

In their cartoonishness, these statements made by General Haftar do not diverge from those of another general, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This is the man in whose footsteps Haftar had hoped—and continues to hope—to follow in moving from military control on the ground and over the government and the House of Representatives to the Libyan presidency. This has eluded him, however, for the simple reason that Libya is not Egypt and because the éradicateur solution did not work. This is what pushed the United Nations and the international community, in the end, to resort to the current compromise scenario.

Support for the Haftar option for Libya has led, in practice, to significant tragedies inflicted on the Libyan state and society. This has strengthened the hardline Salafist movement, as represented by the Islamic State. Furthermore, it has contributed to destabilizing the security of countries both close by and in Europe and to enabling gangs of smugglers to traffic across the Mediterranean those seeking refuge in Europe.
The only reason for this option to remain active on the Libyan scene is that its collapse would reveal the absurdity of the Egyptian model on which it was founded – something that Cairo is trying to postpone as much as possible.

US "meh power" in Libya

This two-part New York Times feature (one, two) on US policy in Libya is to a large extent about Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for an intervention in 2011 and her subsequent disengagement as other priorities took hold. It in an indictment of Clinton that should give anyone want to vote for her some pause, but it is an even bigger indictment of the policy process in the Obama administration and the lack of thinking-through the Libya issue. Clinton thinks of the 2011 Libya intervention as "smart power" (the most overused and meaningless foreign policy cliché of the last two decades) but it looks more like "meh power": apart from short-bursts of activism (by Clinton mostly) driven by political ambition, there is mostly lack of sustained interest. They just don't care that much about what they started.

It actually lets off fairly easily the cheerleaders for intervention on Clinton’s team, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, who advocated for intervention but did not press on the aftermath. It makes a rapid mention of the fact that the US scuttled potential negotiations with the Qadhafi regime, not giving them a chance to see what they could deliver (arguably the worst decision in the whole episode). Allies that act in a duplicitous manner to railroad the US into certain actions or to create facts on the ground, like France or Qatar, are never pushed back. It reveals that there was a US program to provide weapons to the rebels – in other words, that Washington joined Paris, Doha, Abu Dhabi and others in flooding Libya (and hence its neighbors) with weapons – but does not dwell on it. So much more could be made of the abundant material in these pieces, but what is most odd is that it suggests that both Obama and Clinton have drawn the wrong conclusions from the Libya debacle.

Still, excellent reporting and contains some scoops.

A Libyan novel you should read

Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite who grew up in Ben Ghazi, was educated and wrote in Italian, and over the course of 40 years penned an extraordinary cycle of novels about the bloody establishment, brief flourishing and troubled aftermath of the Italian colony in Libya. I had the pleasure of writing about his work in the latest issue of The Nation

Benghazi in 1938, under Italian rule (image from Wikipedia)

Benghazi in 1938, under Italian rule (image from Wikipedia)

Spina belonged to a set of privileged, wandering, mercantile minorities whose identities could not be reduced to nationalities, and who have been all but swept out of the Middle East by xenophobia, conflict, and ethnic cleansing. Spina aspired to cosmopolitanism but inverted its usual polarities: He liked to shock his Italian friends by telling them that he had “un-provincialized” himself by moving from Milan to Benghazi. His influences and references range from Proust to The Thousand and One Nights to the fifth-century Greek philosopher and bishop Synesius of Cyrene. But for all his cosmopolitanism, Spina was not interested in universalism. What he valued, above all, was being unique. He was a Catholic moved by the daily presence of the divine in traditional Muslim society; a successful industrialist who viewed modernization with skepticism and melancholy; a critic of colonialism who was also dismissive of superficial tiers-mondisme; and a scathing critic of the silence of all Italian political factions regarding the country’s colonial crimes. The nom de plume he adopted—spina means “thorn”—suited him perfectly: The Italian he wrote in is exquisite but prickly. His sentences are thickets, dense and erudite, demanding to be reread. But his sharp, poetic images lodge instantly in one’s memory. “The cold hand of that old man an unbreakable dam” is how he describes the severe and orthodox teacher who curbs the young Sheikh Hassan’s flowing curiosity in The Nocturnal Visitor. Spina abhorred shortcuts and banality—journalists, whom he viewed as purveyors of the commonplace, were his bêtes noires. And he didn’t think of difference as something to be dismissed or overcome. “Nothing is more fruitful and more vital than the irreconcilable,” he wrote.

A translation of the first three novels that make up Spina's magnum opus The Confines of the Shadow, by poet André Naffis-Sahely, is out from Darf Publishers. Hopefully there is more to come. 

Libyans don't need more weapons

My op-ed, with Claudia Gazzini on Al Jazeera English's website, on how the UN has recently re-opened the possibility of carrying a partial lifting of the arms embargo on Libya. Which would be a terrible idea:

The United Nations is walking a tightrope in Libya. Last week, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the latest non-state actor to emerge in the current chaos. Because of this threat, pressure is mounting on the UN to relax a four-year-old international arms embargo to allow weapons to be delivered to the Libyan military to fight the group.
This would be a terrible move: It almost certainly would scuttle ongoing talks brokered by Bernardino Leon, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative in Libya; dash any hope of a peaceful solution; and create fertile ground for jihadi groups to flourish.

Read the rest.

On migration in the Mediterranean

There has been an odd meme spreading around since the tragic deaths of hundreds of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean over the last week. The idea, widely spread by the press and politicians, is that Libya is the source of all these problems. For example, in Politico:

One EU migration official spelled out just what would be needed to stop the flood of people seeking refuge in Europe.

“You have to stabilize the situation in the countries of origin,” she said. That means figuring out a way to return order to Libya, which has descended into civil war and chaos following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in 2011. That was the result of a NATO bombing campaign led by EU countries.

Libya is not the country of origin or the source of the migration, for the most part. It is a largely a transit country, and if you look at the country of origin of migrants you will see that many of them are not just economic migrants. Many, perhaps most, appear to be fleeing conflict zones or repressive regimes – Syria, Gaza, Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea (where many migrants say they are escaping military service). So surely EU officials should be thinking about addressing the conflicts themselves, or at least the humanitarian crisis they engender? This seems to be particularly the case in Syria, since the humanitarian response (with chronic recurrent shortfalls in funding for refugee camps) has been largely inadequate.

The stats (for Italy) seem to bear this out:


The focus on Libya, while certainly warranted, gives the impression that if Libya had a strong government and was not in a state of complete chaos, the situation would be much better. Perhaps in terms of people trying to cross Europe. But the migrants would still be around, trying to come in through other routes or reaching other countries.

Below are some links collected on this issue.

  • Good piece in the Guardian, as well as this moving video from Syrians who made the trip across the sea:
  • Also in the Guardian, our friend Patrick Kingsley has an interesting report on smugglers in Zwara, in northwestern Libya, where many boats depart from. But the smugglers’ claim that if Berbers in the area had received better treatment they would not be smuggling is utter BS. And Europe editor Ian Traynor argues there is little the EU can actually do about it - it’s up to member states, not Brussels. Hakim Bello, a Nigerian who made the crossing, tells his story.
  • Some interesting report on what the EU is planning to do about the crisis on the new Politico Europe site, here and here. There will be a EU Council meeting on this Thursday ahead of a new migration policy expected to be adopted in May. And here is the EU’s 10-point plan to deal with the migrant crisis.
  • Good maps and infographics in the NYT.
  • Australian PM Tony Abbott advises the EU to turn back boats and not accept any migrants.
  • In the New Yorker, Mattathias Schwartz argues that EU restrictions on immigration are a bit like prohibition: “Like drug prohibition, it is a supply-side solution, and it is a failure.”
  • Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky says a comprehensive resettlement program from conflict zones is needed, not just involving Europe.
  • Mixed Migration: Libya At The Crossroads - an extensive report by Altai.
Egyptian Christians pretend to be Muslim to survive ISIS attack in Libya

A gut-wrenching account of the capture of Egyptian Christians by the Islamic State in Libya, by Betsy Hiel in the Pittsburg Tribune-Review:

“There were two rooms for Christians,” recalled Hamdi Ashour, 29, a construction worker who shared Mahrouf's quarters. “We pointed out one.”

He and the frightened workers said Christian men sleeping in the second room “were our cousins from our village and were Muslim,” Ashour said. “If they opened up that second door, we would have been killed, too,” because the gunmen would have easily discovered that the sleeping men were Copts.

“They opened up the first room and took seven Christians.”

“Of course, we were afraid,” said Mahrouf, explaining the horrible decision they made at gunpoint. “These people came at us with weapons loaded and banging on the door.”

He and the other men watched as the terrorists “jumped over the fence into the next courtyard and did the same thing” in the adjoining compound.

Like Mahrouf and his companions, the men in the second compound “were under the gun and told them where the Christians were, and ISIS took six of them.”

Osama Mansour, a Christian, was sleeping in a room of the first compound when ISIS burst in. Warned of what was happening, he slipped outside and “jumped from fence to fence just ahead of the gunmen,” he said.

He escaped but was left on his own in the dangerous city, separated from his friends.

“I stayed (in Sirte) for 30 days, but I didn't stay in the same room” from night to night, said the 26-year-old tile worker.

A man he called “Sheikh Ali,” a Muslim from his home province of Assuit, helped Mansour hide and constantly change locations. Eventually, he grew a beard in order to leave Sirte.

“ISIS had two checkpoints that they would move around. I heard they were checking for tattoos” — he pointed to the bluish-black cross that he and many Coptic Christians ink on the insides of their wrists — “and we put a plaster cast on my hand and wrist. Sheikh Ali gave me a Quran and a prayer rug for the trip.

“I had to do this — I can't have my mother wearing black” for mourning, Mansour said.

On Libya's descent into chaos and war

Sharif Abdel Kouddous reports: 

A cold wind whips across Tripoli's landmark Martyrs' Square as a few hundred protesters gather after sunset prayers. Posters of those killed in the fighting are plastered across the front of a stage outfitted with large loudspeakers. A man carrying a plastic box half-filled with cash is collecting donations for Libya Dawn amid makeshift stands selling popcorn and hot tea.
The United Nations is not popular here. A large banner strung between two palm trees bears the face of UN special envoy Bernardino León crossed out in red atop the words, "Sorry, we don't need you." Onstage, a woman is leading the crowd in chants of "Death to Hifter!" and "No dialogue, freedom to the revolutionaries!"
The demonstrations, which have been taking place on a weekly basis since last summer, when Libya Dawn took control of the capital, offer a glimpse into the enormous hurdles standing in the way of a negotiated solution to the conflict.
The UN is seeking to broker a ceasefire and strike a deal for a unified government, distant goals that still fall well short of ending the overall crisis. This month, UN negotiators for the first time held separate meetings with delegates from both sides in the southern town of Ghadames. Yet the eastern parliament this week voted to suspend its participation in the talks. Meanwhile, hardliners among the armed groups still have not joined the talks, believing they can gain more from fighting.
One cause of the growing conflict can be traced to some fateful early decisions: after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, post-revolution governments placed all civilians who had taken up arms on the state payroll, after which the number ballooned from 60,000 in 2011 to more than 200,000 a year later. The government wage bill is now almost three times what it was in 2010.
The militias operated nominally under the authority of the state but were actually loyal to their own commanders. As they began to battle one another over turf and resources, state salaries continued to be paid to fighters on all sides—a Kafkaesque cycle, in which the wealth of the country has been being drained to fund the internal conflict.

AsidesUrsula Lindseylibya
Libya and Egypt

Yesterday the Islamic State released another one of its disgusting spectacles, featuring the murder of 21 Egyptian Copts who were kidnapped while working in Libya. 

Cartoon by Amjad Rasmi in Al Sharq Al Awsat (thanks to Jonathan Guyer)

Cartoon by Amjad Rasmi in Al Sharq Al Awsat (thanks to Jonathan Guyer)

TIMEP has an account of attacks on Coptic Christians in Libya, of which this is just the latest:

With the exception of the physician from Gharbeyya, who was killed with his family, the rest of the targeted Copts come from Upper Egypt, predominantly Minya, Assiout, and Sohag, which are among the least developed and poorest governorates in Egypt. 
Recently, the Egyptian government and security apparatus swiftly intervened to successfully free kidnapped Egyptian embassy personnel in Tripoli in January 2014, and truck drivers in October of that same year. However, the government has not been as quick or as effective on the kidnapping of Copts. In fact, Egyptian officials often seem indifferent to the incidents.

This time, while families mourned in the villages of Egypt's South, President Sisi has ordered air strikes in Libya. The piece in TIMEP points out the need to plan a safe evacuation for the thousands of Egyptian Copts in the country. There are already warning of possible retaliation against them. 

Egyptian military incursions into Libya are a bad idea according to this article in the Cairo Review:

Yet the opposite is happening in Libya. First, Qatar and Turkey have and are providing arms and equipment to the Tripoli-based faction. Second, it has become evident—as well as openly announced by members of the Dignity operation—that Egypt is heavily involved in assisting efforts against Islamists in both the east and, as continuous airstrikes indicate, in the west. Libya is thus becoming a proxy for a larger regional struggle that pits anti-Islamist coalitions (led by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) against the presumed supporters of Islamists (Turkey and Qatar). Such international support for the factions undermines UN mediation efforts. In particular, the backing that Egypt provides to General Haftar and Operation Dignity empowers those forces that want to continue the armed struggle until the whole country is “liberated” from those who understand that there is no military solution to the crisis, rather only a negotiated one.

Since the collapse of order in Libya, Egypt has been the most affected by the instability. The power vacuum allows extremist elements to infiltrate Egyptian territory and carry out attacks against security forces. The temptation then is very high for the Egyptian state to intervene directly in Libya and secure at least a buffer zone, but also possibly exert full control over as much of Libya’s eastern territory as feasible. An open intervention by Egypt’s military, however, would not only hinder a peaceful settlement in Libya, but also negatively affect Egypt’s interests. It would entrench the polarization of Libyan forces on the ground, further diminishing prospects for a political solution, and entangle Egypt in a war against forces that will gain wider support as the local population shifts from anti-Islamist sentiments to animosity toward a foreign invader.

Another piece worth reading is Jon Lee Anderson's profile of General Haftar, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates' strongman of choice in Libya. 

Haftar reached out to contacts in what remained of Libya’s armed forces, in civil society, in tribal groups, and, finally, in Tripoli. “Everyone told me the same thing,” he said. “ ‘We are looking for a savior. Where are you?’ I told them, ‘If I have the approval of the people, I will act.’ After popular demonstrations took place all over Libya asking me to step in, I knew I was being pushed toward death, but I willingly accepted.”
Like many self-appointed saviors, Haftar spoke with a certain self-admiring fatalism. But his history is much more complex than he cares to acknowledge. As an Army cadet in 1969, he participated in Qaddafi’s coup against the Libyan monarchy, and eventually became one of his top officers. “He was my son,” Qaddafi once told an interviewer, “and I was like his spiritual father.”


Help translate The Confines of the Shadow, an Italian-Libyan novel

We recently received this message, regarding an effort to crowd-fund the translation of what sounds like a fascinating series of novels set in Libya during and after the Italian colonial occupation. 

We are currently trying to raise £8,000 to underwrite the production costs of Alessandro Spina's Libyan-Italian epic The Confines of the Shadow, which will be translated into English by André Naffis-Sahely. A 1300 page multi-generational series of novels set in Benghazi, The Confines of the Shadow is a sequence that maps the transformation of Libya from a sleepy Ottoman backwater in the 1910s to the second capital of an oil-rich kingdom in the 1960s.

Called “the Italian Joseph Conrad” and a “20th Century Balzac” by the Italian press, Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite born in Benghazi in 1927, and he lived in Libya for most of his life, until he was forced to leave the country during the darkest years of Gaddafi's rule. He passed away in 2013, but not before his masterpiece was awarded the Premio Bagutta in 2007, Italy's highest literary accolade.

In the run-up to our publishing Volume 1 of this epic, The Nation published Naffis-Sahely's essay 'Spina's Shadow' in their August 18-25 issue. Banipal also featured the essay on their website to help promote our fundraising effort: Who is Alessandro Spina?

As this sort of project requires extensive financing, we are asking you to help contribute to the production of the remaining two volumes. This is the link to our Indiegogo site. The pledges range from £5 to £300, and we are grateful for all of them. 

Please consider making a pledge today to help support the work of Darf Publishers. We are offering, among other perks, exclusive advance excerpts from Volume 1, a chance to put your name down for a deluxe hardcover edition of the book, as well as a limited edition of prints featuring the cover art. Once you’ve pledged, please help spread the word online.

I grew up in Italy but had never heard of Spina. I searched in vain for his books in bookstores there during a recent visit (they could be ordered but there wasn't time). After being forced to leave Libya, he lived in Italy as a comfortable recluse, entirely devoted to his writing, the friend and correspondent of several prominent Italian authors. He appears to have had a reputation but a very small audience. I don't know yet if his writing is as good as his publisher and translator claim, but I do know I'd like to find out. 


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.