As we near the proclaimed end of the Iraq war at year’s end, there has been little discussion about what would have happened if we had not invaded in 2003. With the “Arab Spring” uprising seeming to challenge President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, one of the most authoritarian rulers in the region, the question must be asked: Would Saddam Hussein have been able to survive an “Arab Spring” revolt in Iraq were he still in power today? And more importantly, should the United States have waited for the Iraqi people to rise up against their tyrant? These are important questions that still hold great relevance even in retrospect.
Demographically, Iraq is unique among Middle Eastern countries and the profound differences would seemingly make it even more susceptible to a popular uprising. Saddam’s ruling elites, the Ba’ath party, were nearly all minority Sunni Muslims. Geographically, the Sunni controlled Baghdad and north-eastward to the Syrian border. The south and west, and the majority of the total population, is Shiite Muslim. It is these Shi’a that wrongly assumed the U.S. would support their attempt to overthrow Saddam following the first Gulf War. Saddam decimated the population and put down the insurrection.
Iraq also contains a vast semi-autonomous region in the North that is completely controlled by the ethnic Kurds and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Saddam brutally gassed these people during the Iran-Iraq war. They have since brilliantly and peaceably negotiated their freedom in exchange for remaining a part of Iraq and sharing their oil revenues with the central government.
As the wave of freedom flowed across the Middle East and North Africa, the people of Iraq would surely have seized the opportunity to finally force Saddam’s ouster. After two decades of embargo and isolation following the unsuccessful invasion of Kuwait, the Iraqi people would have been motivated by their neighbors and the open support of the U.S. in these endeavors. In an “Arab Spring” type revolt, the majority Shi’a population of the south would have quickly seized control of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, while the Kurds would surely have supported and encouraged protest and uprisings in the key oil rich cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.
Assuming the U.S. continued the embargo and enforcement of the no-fly zones over the Kurdish and Shi’a areas of the north and south, Saddam would have been hard pressed to repeat the suppression of the Shiite uprising following the first Gulf War in 1991. Furthermore, an already established United States Air Force and Navy presence in the region would make for a smooth transition from enforcement to support role once the movement pushed into Baghdad. The impact of “Shock and Awe” followed by indigenous forces surrounding Baghdad from all sides would have been immense.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but it is worth taking a moment to re-evaluate the timing and execution of past conflicts with the insight of new developments. Our foreign policy and defense leaders must always be students of history. Did we make the right decision to remove Saddam from power at that time? Were there indications that the country could have been ripe for an internal movement? Could more time and resources have been used to stoke the nascent embers of an uprising?
Now that we know our intelligence indicating Saddam was producing WMDs was overstated, it is clear that timing and conditions on the ground did not warrant an immediate change in containment policy. If the U.S. had waited for the Iraqi people to see and seize the opportunity to remove Saddam from power, our military and economy would have avoided carrying the costly and burdensome baggage of this deadly eight-year conflict.
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