A Long Overdue Update

I hope to update this blog more often.  I have made several new purchases and will post my feedback on those items as I have time.  The rise of ISIS from a Syria-Iraq issue to a transnational problem-set (and the subsequent Iranian counter to ISIS) provides a lot of material for discussion as well.

In November of 2012, I wrote a paper as a writing sample for an analyst position I applied for. I didn’t get that job, but reading this paper now could be an insight into what might have been.

To find what the people of Syria and the world will see after the end of the Syrian Civil War, one only needs to look to Syria’s east to see the struggles it will face in mending a religiously divided country after the harsh rule of a dictator and a prolonged conflict. The similarities between Iraq and Syria should be evident to anyone who is a student of the Middle East: a ruthless dictator eventually expelled or killed (assumed in Syria’s case); that dictator being from the minority religious sect (Sunni in Iraq, Shia in Syria); the influx of foreign fighters into the country during the conflict; and a poorly organized transitional government or government in waiting. Of all these difficulties, the biggest threat to peace in a post-Assad Syria is the lack of a respected, effective, replacement government. This is also the problem that is the easiest to correct and the only problem the US government can help resolve.

Since the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) transferred power to the Iyad Allawi-led Iraqi Interim Government almost eight and a half years ago, no serious consideration has been given to looking at the CPA in Iraq as a way to do move forward in a war torn nation to replace that country’s deposed government, and it should not. However, the CPA can still be useful in seeing how not to rebuild a country’s governance infrastructure. Even though the CPA was molded to be a “Marshall Plan” for Iraq, that simple goal did not take into account that Iraq was really a collection of three Ottoman regions grouped together for British administrative ease after World War I. Iraq never had a national identity until Saddam Hussein’s reign and his regime’s atrocities against the Kurds and Shia ensured that the little national identity developed under Hussein would only be embraced by the Sunni minority. Hussein legitimately tried to appeal to Iraq’s history, and tried to build an Iraqi identity not based on Islam. The renaming of Hillah Province to Babil (for Babylon) and the rebuilding of the Babylon and Ur ruins, to the disdain of many archeologists, were just two of his attempts to kindle a national spirit that was unique to Iraq and not common with many other Arab or Muslim nations. This still failed because of Hussein and the Ba’ath Party’s absolute style of governance.

This is important to remember because the borders of Syria, like Iraq, were drawn for the convenience of another Allied power after World War I. All attempts to build a cross-sect national identity have either failed or been short-lived in Syria’s history. That lack of existing national identity will hinder any attempt to form an inclusive government. Like the Ba’athists in Iraq, the Ba’ath Party in Syria has all the experience of actually running Syria. Without question CPA Order 1 and 2 alienated many Iraqis who joined the Ba’ath party during Hussein’s reign to increase their chances of getting into college, to become an officer in the military or even to be able to become a school teacher. Being a member of the Ba’ath party was a requirement to become any of these things. When those people were then isolated from a role in a post-Hussein government, the only option many had was to join the insurgency. This is a lesson that must be learned by the Syrian Ba’athists’ replacement government. This is also where, through diplomatic engagement, the US can help mentor that government in waiting, before it actually faces the enormous task of rebuilding, and uniting Syria after the civil war.

A representative transitional government comprised of Syrians who have actually lived in Syria since Bashir Assad became President is essential. Looking to Iraq again, the problems of using the Iraqi National Congress (INC) as the base for Iraqi governance after the fall of Hussein was a lesson learned in what not to do. People who have been living in exile in Europe, the United States, or the Gulf States and did not see how the Syrian Civil War started from another Arab Spring protest will not be seen as legitimate governors of power. If they do not share similar sacrifices that the Syrian people fighting the civil war are suffering, then the new government will not be respected by their constituents. The exiles that had not lived in Iraq since 1956 (in Ahmed Chalabi’s case) had a poor grasp on what issues Iraq really had to deal with. The INC’s focus on settling old scores with the Ba’athists allowed the situation in the Sunni Triangle areas to deteriorate rapidly after the end of the conventional war in Iraq. It is important for the people responsible for the murder of civilians to be brought to justice, but not immediately after the war ends.

This is another area where the US can help form a Syrian Truth and Reconciliation Committee that would not just address the actions of the Syrian Ba’ath Party while in power but also the rebels’ use of suicide bombers and other atrocities committed by all sides in the Syrian Civil War. Truth and reconciliation committees in Latin America and Africa have been successful in bringing to light many unknown atrocities so all sides can have closure and know that every side did inhumane things. Unfortunately, this may come with some limited immunity for those who participated in the atrocities (as was the case in Brazil). This was not done in Iraq, and still today the Sunni populace views convictions of previous Ba’ath members in Iraqi courts with limited legitimacy. If post-Assad Syria conducts trials exclusively against the former Ba’athists, those trials are likely to be viewed as witch trials by the Awalites (Assad’s Shia religious sect and the prominent rulers of Syria since the French Mandate). Obviously, Awalites carrying on a low-scale insurgency against a new Syrian government is an undesirable outcome so specific consideration should be given to having a representative, or even disproportionately high, number of Awalites participating in a truth and reconciliation committee. The formation and practice of these committees are areas where the Department of State can assist by leading the committee formation and provide advice, preferably by people who have been on previous truth and reconciliation committees. Prime candidates should include those involved with Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Right after the fall of Baghdad, its residents expected basic services to be available. When this did not happen it helped fuel resentment towards the US, even in Shia areas who certainty did not miss Hussein’s rule. A poor infrastructure redevelopment plan that focused on long term projects instead of providing quick, visible results was attributed by GEN Peter Chiarelli to rouse support for Mouqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Militia during the 2004 fighting in the Sadr City section of Baghdad. There is no reason to think that residents in major Syrian cities will not expect the same quick turnaround of living conditions. Multiple US agencies can help with this. Within the Department of Defense, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has gained infrastructure development experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.   High cost, long term projects could be handled by USACE or USACE could provide a smaller role by only inspecting the progress of those projects, and making assessments and recommendations to a Syrian-led reconstruction authority. Also in the Department of Defense, Civil Affairs teams have been active in Iraq and Afghanistan. Civil Affairs teams are well suited to go into areas and conduct impartial assessments and surveys of the infrastructure and security climate.   Once the civil war ends and the threat of physical harm is minimal, it would be politically feasible for US troops to have boots on the ground in another Middle Eastern country. If committing camouflage wearing troops to assist in the reconstruction is not viable, infrastructure assessments can be done by US Special Forces teams. This information will likely then have to be run through another organization to mask the where US Special Forces teams are operating.

Outside the Department of Defense, infrastructure repair and redevelopment can be aided by imagery collection and analysis from the National Geospatial Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and Central Intelligence Agency to identify damaged Syrian infrastructure, areas where food or water shortages developed, or other war-caused humanitarian crises. Information derived from intelligence collection can be sent to another government agency for rapid aid to be delivered to those affected areas. The agency that has the most familiarity of these operations is the US Agency for International Development (USAID). When paired with accurate information, USAID has the ability to assist a new Syrian government handle any humanitarian predicament. The combination of Department of Defense, intelligence agencies, USAID, and the Department of State resources will undoubtedly require some type of interagency, joint coordination or working group led by a special representative or ambassador in waiting to Syria.

As a military and as nation builder, the United States learned many lessons in Iraq, we must not let those lessons be forgotten when those lessons, discovered after honestly assessing our successes and failures, can be applied to current world problems. This applies nowhere more in the world today than in Syria. Developing and mentoring an effective government in waiting will prevent a prolonged insurgency in Syria and could help the US have an ally in the Middle East from a nation that did not seem possible even five years ago.

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