At Foreign Policy Robert Kaplan points out something that I would hope were obvious. What Syria and Iraq have in common and the reason that there has been war and chaos in both is Ba’athism:
The United States intervened militarily in Iraq in 2003, 15 years ago this month, and the result was war and chaos. But the United States did not intervene in Syria in 2011 when the regime there was challenged, and the result was still war and chaos. Though the media has interpreted the past decade and a half of armed conflict in the Levant exclusively through the failure of U.S. policy, the fact that the policy in Syria was 180-degrees different from the one in Iraq and yet the result was the same indicates that there has to be a deeper, more fundamental force at work in both countries that journalists and historians must acknowledge.
That deeper force is the legacy of Baathism. A toxic mix of secular Arab nationalism and Eastern Bloc-style socialism that dominated Syria and Iraq for decades since the 1960s, it made the regimes of the al-Assad family in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq completely unique in the Arab world. Baathism, more than George W. Bush or Barack Obama, is the father of the violent Hobbesian nightmare that has devastated the lands between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian plateau in the early 21st century.
Let me be a bit more explicit than Mr. Kaplan in characterizing Ba’athism. Ba’athism is secular, multi-ethnic, and multi-confessional. In essence it is fascism with Arab characteristics. Both Syria and Iraq were autocracies ruled by minorities, the Shi’ite-affiliated Alawites in Syria and Sunni Arabs in Iraq. In a post-Ba’athist Iraq Sunnis are subordinated just as in a post-Ba’athist Syria Alawites would be subordinated although in Syria subordination would take the form of pogroms and genocide as was the case before the French put the Alawites in charge.
The critical problem is that in the absence of Ba’athism in Syria and Iraq they wouldn’t have become liberal democracies. That’s a fantasy harbored by neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. In the wake of the failure of Arab nationalism they would have taken the same path as so many other countries in the region: they would have become Islamist and increasingly radical, as we can see happening in Turkey right now.
Now the $64 billion question. Would a radical Islamist Middle East have been better than a secular authoritarian one? I don’t think so. And that’s why invading Iraq was so stupid and why helping the anti-government rebels in Syria was foolish.