Nadim Shehadi
Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme

The debate on whether to intervene in Syria is increasingly dominated by the Iraq experience. One of the worst case scenarios for Syria would see a repetition of policy towards Iraq between 1991 and 2003, before the Iraq invasion. This was when Saddam Hussein was deliberately kept in power and the Iraqi people were punished. Much of the horror witnessed after the 2003 Iraq invasion has its roots in the legacy of that episode. Lack of clarity on Syria policy could mean a similar path taken today, which would be disastrous for both Syria and the region. 

In March 1991, Saddam Hussein looked weak when his forces were ousted from Kuwait. His military defeat in Kuwait, international condemnation, and US declarations inspired a popular uprising at home against his regime. His government lost control to rebels in 14 out of 18 Iraqi provinces. The regime brutally crushed the uprising in what was dubbed Saddam's killing fields; mass graves from the period are still being dug up in Iraq today. This all happened within sight of US troops, who did not lift a finger to protect the uprising. 

The regime later launched a campaign of reprisals that included the deliberate draining of the Marshes in Ahwaz and the ethnic cleansing of its inhabitants. Government troops then penetrated every town and punished the population. There were millions displaced and tens of thousands dead. Saddam's reign of terror went on for another twelve years. In addition Iraqis suffered under devastating international sanctions punctuated by the occasional allied military operation directed at alleviating the pressure of domestic public opinion in the West. These were calibrated so as to not upset the balance and topple the regime, and maintain the illusion of 'stability'.

Some of the statements on Iraq from that period are eerily echoed today on Syria. Dick Cheney, then secretary of defence, declared when the 1991 uprisings happened that he was 'not sure whose side you'd want to be on.' Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote later that the US's intention was to leave the regime in Baghdad enough power to survive. President George H W Bush, under criticism for doing nothing said, 'I made clear from the very beginning that it was not an objective of the coalition or the United States to overthrow Saddam Hussein.' Rebels were considered by the Pentagon to be too disunited to take over; a red line on the use of chemical weapons was declared but the use of helicopter gunships to mow down civilians was allowed. The similarities with statements on Syria today is staggering, the US even then declared that it was not going to take sides between Saddam and the rebels and accused Iran of interfering. 

Much of what happened in Iraq between 1991 and 2003 contributed to the tragic repercussions of the invasion. Iraq was fragmented with the establishment of the No Fly Zones, ethnic and religious tensions increased. This was when Iraq was really driven 'back to the stone age' by sanctions. Suspicions of Western agendas intensified and still remain, paving the way for Iranian and Syrian anti-Western influence. 

The vagueness of the current US strategy behind the proposed intervention in Syria raises the concern that this is more about US and European traumas in Iraq than it is about Syria. The fear is that a limited intervention, designed to keep the regime in power, will have similar consequences as it did in post-1991 Iraq. The illusion of a compromise with the regime is misguided; if the regime survives it will emerge stronger and more brutal and the US will have less options. The net result will be an extension of the violence while maintaining the Assad regime and in effect collaborating with it while it destroys the country. The spillover on the neighbouring countries is only one of the symptoms that will worsen.

President Assad has found himself plenty of unwitting allies in the West. This is mainly amongst those who oppose any intervention as a result of the wrong conclusions from Iraq. Twenty years later, the US apologized to Iraqis for its inaction in 1991; the Middle East today would be a very different place had it acted then. There are many lessons to be learned from the Iraq episode and a revision of that history is necessary.

Ultimately, we have to recognize that this is very much about the pros and cons of regime change in Syria. The term 'regime change' became taboo after Iraq and now we are asking the Syrians to pay the price in blood until we sort out our hang-ups.