National Security

Before Moving on al-Assad, Don’t Forget Lessons of Saddam and Gaddafi

“The elimination of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi have shown us that the enemy we know is better than the one we don’t.”

As reports continue to swirl that Syria’s President Bashir al-Assad is planning additional use of chemical warfare against rebel adversaries, the United States and its allies will have some decisions to make. These decisions include how to prevent and counter the dictator and his measures as well as decisions regarding the level of intervention deemed necessary to see this conflict through. But before focusing just on al-Assad and future plans in Syria, decision makers should reflect on the likes of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Only by learning from past mistakes in Iraq and Libya can the West be best prepared for an effective plan of attack and removal in Syria.

Historians need not look too far at each ruler’s bio to see what lies ahead. Similarities between the three nations, and the dictators themselves, are resounding. Under Saddam, Iraqis lived under daily threat of security forces controlled tightly by the government.  Positions of power at the top were granted to those who represented a minority of the country’s population — Sunni Muslims. There was a strict rule of law that simultaneously embraced corruption for the few.

Governing out of fear of uprising by the masses, Saddam and his cohorts’ reign lasted over a quarter century.  During that time, they successfully repressed the general population and ran under the guise of a brand of socialism that only served to benefit the regime. This only came to an end after a war led by US forces that was complicated by the existence of non-state terrorists.

The aftermath of Saddam’s hanging left a debacle in its wake. With what has proved to be no effective answer to the question “now what?”, Iraq went from a country consistently on the brink of civil war, to a country in the midst of an over decade long one. The resulting conflict has drawn another round of US involvement and pits citizens of its country against the world’s leading terrorist organization.

Transforming Libya into a socialist state, Gaddafi ruled for over thirty years. And again, his presence reflected a reign that oppressed the people under the guise of government control that brought many spoils for the ruling class, but left very little to the masses. And throughout the duration, he managed a campaign of terror that led to Libya’s isolation from the much of the rest of the world. As his actions were condemned around the globe, Gaddafi’s need to exert power grew.

His rule of Libya yielded the only control he was capable of. Ultimately, his removal came somewhat unexpectedly and followed years of UN sanctions for his crimes against humanity. Though not a direct act at the hands of the US and Western allies, his removal came by way of a UN supported coalition party. His death was again an elimination of evil from this world. But in the chaos that followed Gaddafi’s removal, an even more unstable nation rose, which has become ‘Headquarter B’ for the likes of ISIS.

As with Hussein and Gaddafi, there is no debate about al-Assad’s crimes and violations of war time conventions. And he draws many commonalities in his rise and reign to his now deceased counterparts. But while those before him ruled in large part out of fear and isolation, al-Assad has the advantage of ruling with the the support of Iran and Russia. These two allies are formidable foes in their own right, who further complicate the chess board.

There is no doubt that the removal of evil dictators, whether killed or captured, means one less evil influence.  Collectively, and individually for that matter, they are responsible for more deaths and atrocities then the likes of al-Qa’ida or ISIS. But as we look to the not so distant future in Syria, and what to do with al-Assad, we need to be armed with the lessons learned of recent history. For without a sound strategic plan for the post-removal logistics, we may be left drastically underprepared. The elimination of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi have shown us that the enemy we know is better than the one we don’t.

Brandon Blackburn

Brandon Blackburn is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former CIA Counterterrorism Officer. During his time in the CIA, Blackburn served multiple tours in the Middle East; including Iraq, Jordan, and in Afghanistan. Since departing the agency, Blackburn co-founded Tip Of The Spear Productions and Consulting, where he and his team work on media productions aimed at telling the stories of law enforcement and military and also consults with law enforcement and private businesses on national security related issues. Additionally, he is a Consulting Producer for “Live PD” on A&E and co-hosts and produces the Talking Terrorism Podcast, along with reformed terrorist Mubin Shaikh. Blackburn also holds a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and an MBA with a concentration in International Business.

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