Since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, Baghdad has fulfilled the checklist required to rebuild its state. In 2005, Iraqis elected a National Assembly that drafted a constitution, which they approved in a referendum. Since then, they have held three parliamentary and two local elections. Iraqis have also elected two presidents and four speakers, and have formed three successive national unity governments.
Yet despite its 12-year-old political process, Iraq is still the world’s second most dangerous country after Syria. Iraq is the sixth most corrupt country after Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan and the Sudans. And while it is one of the world’s top five oil reservoirs, Iraq’s economy ranks 47th in the world and its GDP per capita is 98, behind resource-poor nations like Jordan, at 89.
Despite hundreds of billions of dollars in arms and training, the Iraqi Armed Forces melted down at the first whiff of battle, handing Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, to ISIS in June 2014. The Iraqi forces also ran away from battling ISIS in Ramadi last summer.
America’s efforts in rebuilding the Iraqi state have been like the young scientist in Mary Shelly’s classic novel, Frankenstein, who sews human limbs together, but instead of creating a man creates a monster.
If after 12 years of political process and trillions of dollars Iraq still cannot prevent an ISIS takeover, why does America think replicating the Iraqi experiment in Syria will yield better results?
Since the UN Security Council approved Resolution 2254 on 18 December, Washington has been upbeat on Syria, feeling that Moscow has changed in a way that allows a breakthrough.
After vetoing four similar resolutions between October 2011 and May 2014, Moscow has indeed stepped back by agreeing that international intervention in Syria trumps protecting Syrian sovereignty from foreign meddling.
Yet even if the world manages to implement Resolution 2254 — regardless of its ambitious 18-month timetable — Syria will remain a failing state that provides a safe haven for terrorists.
As in Iraq, state building in Syria will fail not because of the absence of political dialogue, but because UNSC 2254 is the wrong antidote to the Syrian crisis.
What we see in Syria and Iraq today is the result of the breakdown of the post-WWI nation states in the Middle East. In their stead, we see the rise of the militias.
Some believe militias started with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Because the revolutionaries were suspicious of the army and the bureaucracy, they formed a parallel paramilitary force. The Iranian state never recovered. Today, Iran’s supreme leader has the final word over the elected president, while the nation’s paramilitary forces, the Pasdaran and the Basij, are much more powerful than the regular army, the Artesh.
But it was not the Iranians who started the militia trend. After his humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser realized that beating Israel with conventional battle tactics was nearly impossible. He therefore encouraged the formation of Palestinian armed groups and thus was born Yasser Arafat and his Fatah militia, among other non-state Palestinian actors.
Arafat’s militia and his budget overshadowed that of his host country, Lebanon, and broke it. Arafat also trained and supported Iranian opposition activists, who later ruled Iran and copied the militia model as the cornerstone of their state.
Since 1979, Tehran has replicated its militia-on-top-of-state model in Lebanon, Iraq and recently Syria, where militias have replaced both Assad’s state and his opposition’s activists.
Like Saddam in Iraq and Gaddafi in Libya, Assad’s rule was built on overwhelming troublemakers and opponents with such brutal force that dissent became impossible. In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman coined the term “Hama Rules” to describe the brutality with which late Syrian President Hafez Assad suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood’s insurgency in the early 1980s.
America broke Saddam’s barrier of fear in Iraq in 2003. The Libyans and Syrians broke theirs in 2011. A swelling population makes it hard to restore order by cowing everyone back into submission. Buying millions of people off is unaffordable for most state treasuries. Meanwhile, social media has given the Iraqis, the Libyans and the Syrians a taste of freedom that they enjoy but do not know how to handle.
The states of Iraq, Libya and Syria are broken. Whatever the international community has prescribed over the past decade clearly hasn’t worked. The world needs to understand these countries and what makes them tick, and then experiment in state building accordingly.
The 2007 surge of troops in Iraq was an encouraging start, but an amateurish Obama administration let it die off. Federalism in both Iraq and Syria might be effective in creating mini states, like Iraqi Kurdistan, whose rulers can control the population in ways unavailable to the old and failing behemoth states in Baghdad and Damascus. Other good ideas are also needed.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain