August 3rd, 2013
10:01 PM ET

What Iraq could teach us about Syria

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By Global Public Square staff

You have all seen or heard or read about the grim situation in Syria – with thousands upon thousands of civilians dead. You might be less aware that the second most violent country in the world these days is Iraq. Yes, the country that we intervened in, with 180,000 troops at the peak, and hundreds of billions of dollars. Ten years later, it has levels of violence that would be described as a civil war anywhere else. More than 700 people died in a spate of bombings last month alone and the death toll, according to the United Nations, is over 3,000 in the last four months.

For many Americans, Iraq is a forgotten country. But recent events there provide an important set of lessons – not only for Iraq, but also for its Arab Spring neighbors, and for Syria in particular.

But let's go back to what sparked the current bout of violence. In April, Iraqi security forces killed more than forty people when they stormed a camp of protestors. The demonstrators were Sunni Muslims. Iraq's government, of course, is led by Shia Muslims. For years now, these Shias have gained power and used their majority to win elections and then brutally sideline the Sunnis. Remember, much of this is retribution: Saddam Hussein was a Sunni leader who brutally mistreated the majority Shias. The wheels of revenge keep turning.

Where did Washington fail? Some point to our withdrawal in 2011, when the White House failed to convince Baghdad it should retain a small presence of U.S. troops to train Iraqis and boost security. But even that would not have been more than a Band-Aid. Remember that when the Iraq war was at its worst, when sectarian violence killed thousands every month, we had more than 100,000 troops on the ground. Foreign troops cannot stop an internal civil war.

More from CNN: Are dark days returning to Iraq?

When the violence finally declined in Iraq, the real reason wasn't just coercion from American troops, but inclusion. General David Petraeus did wonders with a counterinsurgency campaign, but his chief contribution was to make peace with the Sunni tribes that had, so far, been battling the new Iraqi government. That effectively ended the insurgency. The Baghdad government promised, for its part, to treat the Sunnis as genuine partners and share power in every respect.

But within a few years, it became clear that these were false promises. Instead of reassuring other sects, the Shia-led government has dominated and intimidated. Its relations with the Kurds for example have become dysfunctional; with Sunnis they are now poisonous. Sunni discontent has bred conditions ripe for militant groups to flourish. Al Qaeda, which is Sunni-run, is fueling violence in Iraq. It is also working across the border in Syria, where it helps Sunni-rebels as they battle the Shia-Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Now, what can we do? Washington's failing is not a lack of military support so much, but a larger inability to broker a lasting political settlement among the key sects in Iraq. Of course, the biggest culprit here is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has shown himself to be a Shia thug rather than a Mandela-like statesman.

In any revolution or upheaval, peace, stability and even democracy can only really emerge if the majority shares power with the minorities. Let's keep that in mind as we think about the rest of the Arab world, especially Syria. Getting rid of al-Assad and the Alawite sect that he represents would be a great step forward. But if the Sunni majority then chooses vengeance and reprisals, it will mean years of violence and instability, whether the U.S. is involved or not. Just take a look at Iraq.

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Topics: Iraq • Syria • What in the World?

soundoff (86 Responses)
  1. Raul

    WHat the United States learned was that in Iraq , they got chances to get petrol but in Syria they don't . Because its not oil rich. That's why they won't help Syria.

    August 4, 2013 at 6:44 am | Reply
  2. iraqi

    Brutally sidelined sunnis? what a bunch of lies. since 2003, and sunni extremists attacking random shias and anyone who is not sunni, actually even moderate sunnis. the Iraqi government is one of few governments (if not the only one) in the region that have members of minority in great numbers inside the government. saudi arabia doesn't let 10% of shia any say in the country, neither Bahrain let the 70% shia decide. Iraq tried to overreached to Arab sunni neighbors, voting with the Arab league against syrian regime, and still most of those sunni countries single out Iraq as being supportive of Syria,

    You don't seem to understand the situation. in Iraq sunni extremists attacking randomly, with incompetence in governance cause high number of causalities. it has nothing to do with Iraqi government supposed brutality. How America would react, if Islamists attack everyday?
    Iraq didn't put sunnis in internment camp, a thing I'm pretty sure you would do, if Islamists attack you everyday. There are abuses by the government, as response to terror not Saddam Hussein, but there is no excuse for the violence. sunnis are not sidelined. maybe the iraqi government should take example from your friends the Saudis or Egyptian Mursi's anti-shia stances, so you can feel happy.

    August 4, 2013 at 8:54 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    That's right Fareed! In countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, whose national borders had been arbitrarily drawn by European colonialists, disregarding ethnic and sectarian fault-lines, we see more turmoil than peace and stability. It's time for the world to reshape the region and opt for a Yugoslavian-style breakup of these artificial states, without going through a bloody "balkanisation".

    August 4, 2013 at 11:28 am | Reply
    • George patton

      Quite true, j.von hettlingen. The same needs to happen to the Eurozone as the economies of those countries continue to suffer and their leaders continue to carry out orders from Washington D.C. with blind obedience!!!

      August 4, 2013 at 11:42 am | Reply
      • mojacar

        good post

        August 5, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Alex279

      You forgot to mention Afghanistan: its eastern border (so called "Durand Line") separates Pashtuns from Pashtuns (literally 20 Mil pashtuns living in Afg from another 30 Mil in Pak); and its nothern border separates Tadjik from Tadjiks.

      August 5, 2013 at 11:16 am | Reply
  4. George patton

    That's easy to answer. We can't even run Iraq right with all the terrorist activity going on there and now we want to take over Syria? The simple answer as anyone with half a brain would know is to forget about taking over Syria altogether. If can only we tell the die hard, right-wing politicians in Washington that!!!

    August 4, 2013 at 11:39 am | Reply
  5. GGFinn

    "In any revolution or upheaval, peace, stability and even democracy can only really emerge if the majority shares power with the minorities." Does not US history tell us that statement is false? The ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans
    worked out didn't it? You do not need to share power with a minority to achieve peace or stabiliity. You can also
    effectively remove that minority. Your statement sounds nice and it may be well intentioned, but as a statement of fact
    it is lacking.

    August 5, 2013 at 11:49 am | Reply
  6. Neill

    What a terribly written untrue article.
    It is not President Assad oppressing the sunni majority. Do you really think president Assad could control a country with 80% of the population against him???
    The majority of Sunnis who still make up the majority of the army in Syria support Assad, who is fighting the Takfiri (Islamists with the extremist ideology from Saudi Arabia).
    If you want to look at oppression look at Bahrain where the 80% majority Shia have no rights.
    This is a very poor selective article.

    August 5, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  7. ColdBlueNorth


    Just wanted to say that your articles show (at least to me) a kind of maturation as a journalist and a commentator that is admirable. I have long felt that there is no intervention, and no revolution that can promote peace and prosperity in the Middle East till the various factions can reject violence, promote dialogue, and find enough common ground to accept each other's differences. I have no idea what country or authority would be capable of brokering such a dialogue in such a way that it would be respected and trusted.

    I have often pushed the merits of secular democratic governments, not as a radical departure from government that try to adhere to a semblance of moral dogma (governments reflect the morals and character of those that are in office), but as the most realistic means to promote the welfare and fair inclusion of the variety of sects and beliefs while protecting the rights of minority groups and giving them fair access to justice and representation.

    Unfortunately, what we have seen played out are: Civil War and Anarchy, systems of Monarchy, Dictatorships, and Quasi-Democratic theocracies built around and favoring whatever religious sect that is ascendancy at the time.

    There is so much Muslim on Muslim violence, where does it end?

    August 5, 2013 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  8. WimR

    Maliki is America's heritage. It was the US that selected Maliki. It was well known that he was rather Sunni-unfriendly. But for the US it was more important that he hated Syria and Iran.

    August 5, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  9. comeon

    As long as shia, sunni or any minority or any majority do not understand that violence is not a solution to the problem, this civil war, lost and forgotten cities will always be there. US is right in its place, US do not need to change anything, they are acting towards the welfare of their country and their people and their prosperity. Only people that need to change is those fighting with each other. They need to stop thinking that war is a way to peace, war and hatred never was and never will be the path to peace. Greed ,lust and importantly fear of being suppressed within their own community has driven all the sectarian violence in middle east. Support from US or the world power is merely symbolic and can't solve the problems with in the community. people have to act themselves to realize that killing each other, blowing those innocent in the streets will not liberate them or provide them freedom, it will complicate the problem and ultimately BLOODY CIVIL WAR WHICH IS NOT GOING TO END EVEN-THOUGH THEY WANTED IT TO....

    August 5, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  10. svpyadav

    Respected Mr. Fareed zakaria Garu, Late Mr.saddam Hussain does work in Iraq with excellent skills but U.S Govt need fuel to his Country, So they allegation started on Mr. Saddam Govt. that is Mr. Saddam manufacturing nuclear weapons that is dangerous to the world and U.S. attacked Mr. Saddam and demolished his govt by U.S. militory and they bring out fuel to U.S. And now Syrian govt doing good job by Mr. Assad administration so U.S angry about this and Mr. Assad was a brave man and having good communications will all democratic countries. U.S. is unecessorly invading on Syria by with apposition.

    August 6, 2013 at 3:58 am | Reply
  11. Dave Rogers

    Since the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar got SuperPACS , our mission in the mid east has changed. And don't get wrong, we were never there for anything but campaign donations ..

    ...but once the big boys got to kicking in unlimited anonymous money after that citizens United law the SCOTUS passed... We're going to have to stop fighting Sunni and go after Shia Muslims.

    Heck, it looks like the Afghanistan war will actually end.. You know, they were going to keep it up some more years with 20k troops spread over a dozen bases "after the war" ...which is Orwellian doublespeak for "the war aint over"

    But it looks like that war will end and we'll open up more fronts against the Shia.

    August 6, 2013 at 10:57 am | Reply
  12. Sam

    "Getting rid of al-Assad and the Alawite sect that he represents would be a great step forward. " – you recommending genocide?

    August 6, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply
  13. deniz boro

    You look gray Fareed as we all do; those who try to get a reasonable sense out of what is goimg on in these Arabic or near Arabic parts of the world. Simply:
    CT IV SCENE I A cavern. In the middle, a boiling cauldron.
    [Thunder. Enter the three Witches]
    First Witch Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.
    Second Witch Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.
    Third Witch Harpier cries 'Tis time, 'tis time.
    First Witch Round about the cauldron go;
    In the poison'd entrails throw.
    Toad, that under cold stone
    Days and nights has thirty-one
    Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
    Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.
    Above was just some of the policy implemented on the Muslim states of the world not only after sept 11th but also after the "Promised state on the Pormised Land" was founded and protected regardless of any Humanity issues.
    Well, if you throw the balance of the scales from one end, it will end up hitting you from the other end.
    Among all the mixtures of policies and strategies and spring picnic parties planned on the Muslims it is no wander that there will be an overall caos of any form of organization. With the sacrificial black goat ending up upon the cross and the
    hadjis in antartica

    August 6, 2013 at 6:35 pm | Reply
  14. deniz boro

    However, I am more concerned on the issue of natural resources versus population nowadays. Oil (and before that the whale oil) is the issue that the politicians acrossed the world are trained to play by. However, economic crises seam to be sprouting off the blues too much recently. Can it be that the root of the problem is that the world has less food and less water to feed the people and you can not eat gold or other forms of securities?
    Any clever state which has a 50 or so future plans will be betting on fresh water resources and productive land (not in the sense of diamonds and pearls)
    Take a break and think wherethis last fronteer to exploit may lay?
    The rest of the skirmish is a tabloid picture.

    August 6, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  15. Rebecca

    What the United States needs to learn that the majority of the people here do not share power. Dangerous situation.

    August 7, 2013 at 1:08 am | Reply
  16. Gammorin

    Thats why "people's" revolutions fighting for "freedom" sucks

    August 7, 2013 at 8:29 am | Reply
  17. Tahir

    Revolution was started by Bush and not by the people of Iraq. No chance.

    August 7, 2013 at 11:42 am | Reply
  18. TopView20

    "Peace and stability can only emerge if the majority shares power." True. That is why there is so must unrest in the USA.

    August 7, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Reply
    • vistar hornbill

      The majority has become a huge problem and is often paralysing the US Government . They are a real pain in the behind if you ask me. And its them that is making other contries think America is in a mess!

      August 8, 2013 at 12:31 am | Reply
  19. vistar hornbill

    I think every country has its own political uniqueness.

    A small country is often very fearful and watchful of their bigger neighbours. This country's survival depends alot on the unity of their people. A small country cannot be a 'jealous' democracy and definitely cannot afford to have any internal political strive or any uprising . It's economy would be devastated if there is constant flareups among the political parties. When political strive happen, powerful foreigners are able to step in to use infiltration and bribes to install a party who becomes just a puppet government, and is beholden to the foreigners.

    True, peace and stability of a small nation can only be achieved when the Government has a majority support, a Government that has a high tolerance and respect for the opposition parties, working together for the country's sakes.

    United we stand, divided we fall,

    August 7, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Reply


    August 8, 2013 at 1:08 am | Reply
  21. Quadg

    if you look at most revolutions in history, they usually get hijacked by an opportunist.
    the french killed their king and ended up with an emperor...
    the communist revolution being taken over by Stalin..

    the only one that actually worked was probably the American one.. the exception that proves the rule that revolution is a bad idea..

    revolution simply means change, not change for the better..

    August 9, 2013 at 6:26 am | Reply
  22. MP

    Where did Washington fail? Some point to our withdrawal in 2011, when the White House failed to convince Baghdad it should retain a small presence of U.S. troops to train Iraqis and boost security. But even that would not have been more than a Band-Aid.

    This statement is very untrue. We did just that after December of 2011.

    August 9, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  23. S. Harvey

    What we should learn is that we can not solve their problems and they must solve them for themselves. We should understand the obvious that it will be bloody. That is their history. Lets not bankrupt our country and waste American lives for something we really can't control.

    August 12, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  24. Andreas

    America can win, if it correctly solves the anti-America conspiracy, and starts in their own country. Who is behind that? What are their interests? What is their prejudice? Why talk can't help. What is wrong with US media? Did US import unnecessary lots from Asia, and forgot to export in their own interest? Why a powerless and weak America can not help the world?

    August 13, 2013 at 8:58 am | Reply
  25. Rick McDaniel

    Let them fight their own wars, and then if needed we can always mop up.

    August 13, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Reply
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