Foreign Policy

Syria: Lessons from Iraq and Libya

Jul 2 '12

The following is a guest post from Kimberly Marten, who is a professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, and Acting Director of Columbia’s Harriman Institute.  She is the author of Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States (Cornell University Press, 2012).

Creeping military intervention is underway in Syria’s civil war.  The State Department has been providing communications equipment to Free Syrian Army (FSA) insurgents for months.  Several Arab states are arming the rebels.  The CIA is reportedly working with the weapons recipients and vetting them, trying to ensure that armaments don’t fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or other extremist organizations.  Turkey is providing refuge to defecting Syrian military officers who are training the FSA.  International calls abound for humanitarian “responsibility to protect” (R2P) intervention, in the wake of ten thousand civilian casualties.

But the experience of two recent wars in nearby Arab states with similar authoritarian regimes, Iraq and Libya, should give us pause along the road to warfare.  Success in warfare is not correlated with stability or security afterwards.

In all of these cases insurgent forces have been made up of dozens or even hundreds of independent militias.  Most are not random individuals who came together for the first time to defend their homes.  They may lack prior military training, but many have long-standing experience in running local criminal protection and smuggling rackets.  They represent the economic interests of violent local power brokers, in addition to whatever nationalist goals they may have.

Iraq’s Anbar Awakening tribal leaders, the Sons of Iraq forces elsewhere in the country, and the Free Libyan Army all broke down into squabbling militias once foreign military support was withdrawn.  Many engaged in mafia-style threats and attacks against their own putative allies as well as the new regime.  This lack of post-war unity helps explain continuing insecurity in both Iraq and Libya. These recent cases suggest that even if the FSA can come together as an effective fighting force, it is unlikely to form a unified army once the Bashar al-Assad regime falls.

Fragmented militias today are particularly dangerous because Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is trying to stage a comeback.  AQI is known to have carried out terrorist bombings against Syria’s ruling Alawite minority regime earlier this year, and AQI has deep experience in leading disparate Sunni militias in bloody sectarian fighting.

The experience of Iraq tells us that it is highly unlikely that any vetting of FSA forces will stop AQI inroads once Western attention flags.  In Iraq Sunni militias changed external patrons easily: from Saddam’s Baathist regime, to the extremist Sunni AQI, to the democracy-promoting U.S. military.  These militias may be turning back to AQI once more, given the growing wave of sectarian bombings in Iraq.

When push came to shove, the interests of many Sunni militias in Iraq and Libya were personal, parochial, and criminal—not ideological.  We should expect the same thing from Syria’s Sunni militias in the future.

The lesson to be learned is clear: no matter how many dollars and lives are thrown into wars in the Arab world, the U.S. and its NATO allies cannot control the ultimate strategic outcome.