Iraq War's lessons for Syria

Story highlights

  • Zalmay Khalilzad: Disbanding of Iraqi armed forces had wide-ranging repercussions
  • As Iraqi state institutions collapsed, U.S. could not prevent emergence of dangerous power vacuum, he says

Zalmay Khalilzad is a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations. The views expressed are his own. For more, watch a Fareed Zakaria GPS special, "Long Road to Hell: America in Iraq," at 9 p.m. ET Monday.

(CNN)The Iraq war holds important lessons for the ongoing civil war in Syria. But with some calling for greater U.S. involvement to tackle the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one thing should be clear from the U.S. intervention in Iraq, namely that state institutions, and the armed forces in particular, really matter. After all, the disbanding of the Iraqi armed forces had wide-ranging repercussions that continue to this day.

Some maintain that the Iraqi army had already disintegrated by the time U.S. forces reached Baghdad, and the United States simply formalized what had already happened on the ground. It was unrealistic, they suggest, to call back the old army, which had been loyal to Saddam, had opposed the U.S. invasion, and would not have fought for the Occupation Authority.
Zalmay Khalilzad
Critics, however, respond that the U.S. military had, in fact, demanded that the Iraqi army go home and stay out of the fight. Had the United States instead invited them to return and offered to pay them, many may well have returned and assisted with restoring security instead of joining the insurgency. The decision not to pay soldiers immediately after the invasion, they note, was among the most significant reasons why officers and soldiers felt alienated by the new government.
    Either way, as Iraqi state institutions collapsed, the U.S. could not prevent the emergence of a dangerous power vacuum. Shiite-Islamist militias -- many with strong ties to Iran -- exploited that vacuum, and used it as an opportunity to take revenge on the Sunni Arab officers they had fought in the Iran-Iraq War and against the broader Sunni elite. This elite found itself besieged not only by Iranian proxies, but also by a Shiite-dominated political committee that, as part of the Occupation Authority's de-Baathification decree, oversaw their purging as former Baathists. Even technocrats and teachers with no blood on their hands were included.
    As a result, these disaffected Sunni Arabs, supported by some other Arab states, organized themselves into insurgent groups. These conditions also gave rise to al Qaeda in Iraq, which would itself become the progenitor of ISIS.
    True, U.S. adjustments brought a relative degree of stability to Iraq by 2011, and the United States made political progress by transferring sovereignty to Iraq, promoting a national compact and power-sharing between Iraq's communities, and reaching out to Sunnis.
    But the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011 created a new vacuum even as the Iraqi army again disintegrated, allowing Sunni extremists and terrorists and Shia militias to make major inroads. Fast forward to today, and it is clear that as he grapples with the legacy of sectarian and authoritarian policies under his predecessors, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's new Iraqi government has had limited success in containing the sectarian conflict.
    So, what does this all mean for Syria? Unfortunately, Syria is well on its way to repeating the Iraqi experience.
    The army is still there, but it has been seriously degraded by the sectarian nature of the war -- and its indiscriminate attacks against the civilian Sunni Arab population centers. Many Sunnis have abandoned the army, and it will require significant reform if there is a settlement in the near future. But without a near-term settlement, the army may well collapse, with its remains becoming an Alawite militia.
    All this suggests that as with Iraq, peace-building in Syria will require a comprehensive approach that integrates military, security, political and humanitarians elements. Five steps will be critical if this is to be successful:
    • Address the country's humanitarian crisis, which is sustaining extremists and terrorists, destabilizing the region and beyond. This requires not only increased humanitarian assistance, but also the establishment of no-fly zones and safe areas for civilian populations.
    • Expand and coordinate military operations against global terrorist groups such as ISIS or Daesh.
    • Design a new national compact among Syria's ethnic and sectarian groups, along with a road map for a political transition. Sunnis, who are the majority in Syria, will have the lion's share of power in the central government. But federalization can allow ethnic and sectarian minorities to run their own affairs.
    • Create an understanding between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. If any of these states oppose a deal or act as a spoiler, it will be difficult to achieve either security or political reconciliation. But an agreement among regional states at this point will be extremely difficult to achieve, because the Syria conflict is wrapped up in a broader Shiite-Sunni rivalry across the region.The new leadership in Riyadh, for example, has strong ties with the country's religious establishment and seems focused on reversing Iranian gains rather than pursuing a workable regional agreement.
    • Reach an international consensus on settling the Syrian civil war. The conflict has now become a genuine international crisis. The Russians have dealt themselves in for a range of reasons, including preventing the immediate collapse of the Damascus regime. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis has turned the Syrian conflict into a domestic issue for Europeans. Plus, several other powers, such as China, face growing threats to their economic interests in the region.
    Yet while the gap in the agendas among the great powers is significant, there is significant overlap, too. This is where the search for a settlement can start. Success here, especially between the United States and Russia, can open the door for pushing regional and internal players to also move towards a settlement.
    Active U.S. engagement on these efforts is vital. And if a U.S.-Russian understanding can be reached, and if there is subsequent progress among the regional players, an international conference should be convened to help reach a solution. Organized under U.N. auspices, such a meeting could facilitate and formalize an agreement on a multiyear transition among the great powers, regional states, and the main Syrian parties.
    And that's when we come full circle to the lessons of Iraq. Two key elements of such an agreement on Syria must be to reform, but also preserve, the national army. In addition, the demobilization, decommissioning and reintegration of the militias groups -- and the creation of a plan for reconstruction of the country -- must be based on the lessons learned from both Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Of course, none of this will be easy. But if we are to have any chance of bringing this four-year crisis to a close, this is the only realistic path forward.