Lessons for Syria from Libya and Iraq
Even as Syria’s nightmare continues, policymakers should consider the country’s future once hostilities end.
Those planning for Syria’s “day after” should learn a lesson from the past and avoid an approach just adopted in Libya, and before that in Iraq, that would widen divisions rather than heal the wounds.
Libya’s Parliament recently voted to bar many Gadhafi-era officials from public office in a move likely to sow further discord and undermine the country’s fragile transition toward democracy. The General National Congress passed the Political Isolation Law under the pressure of armed militias that laid siege to government ministries.
The new law bans members of various groups from working in 20 categories of public service. Some of the excluded groups are fairly clearly defined, such as former senior officials under the Gadhafi dictatorship, but others are much vaguer, such as those judged to have shown a “hostile attitude toward the Feb. 17 revolution.” The law even bars people who held office under Gadhafi but defected from him years ago or during the uprising and war that ended in his fall in 2011.
Sadly, the Libyans appear to have ignored an important lesson from Iraq.
Ten years ago, after toppling Saddam Hussein, the victorious U.S.-led coalition installed a Coalition Provisional Authority before handing power to an Iraqi interim government in 2004. The Coalition Provisional Authority quickly opened a “de-Baathification” campaign to cleanse the administration, police and security forces of people formerly affiliated to the Baath Party, which underpinned Hussein’s repressive rule during his decades in power. Enacted into law, “de-Baathification” caused thousands of Iraqis to lose their jobs and be banned from working in the public sector again. Most of them, including members of the security forces, faced no charges or accusations of wrongdoing during the previous regime. They were offered no opportunity to reconcile or reintegrate into society.
Almost certainly, the vengeful and shortsighted de-Baathification policy helped fuel the political violence that still racks Iraq. Many former police and soldiers joined the insurgency, taking their organizational and fighting skills with them. Officially, the interim government rescinded “de-Baathification” in June 2004 but in practice many Iraqis remained barred from public positions because of their connection to the former government.
In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, opportunities for work, job promotion and even educational advancement rested primarily on an individual’s assumed loyalty to the only permitted political party. Some joined because they supported its ideology but, for many others, party membership was the means to secure a livelihood and avoid coming under the suspicion of the all-powerful secret police.
Syrian opposition forces and Western policymakers should heed the lessons of Libya and Iraq.
In Syria, like Iraq, the Baath Party permeated nearly every aspect of life — political, academic and cultural. To try to purge Syria of everyone affiliated with Bashar Assad’s party would be to invite an even longer, more brutal civil war.
Those who committed atrocities should be held accountable, but party members who did nothing wrong ought to be reintegrated fully into the new Syria.
Reconciliation based on justice should guide the transition in Syria, rather than exclusion and revenge.
Tamara Alrifai is the Middle East advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.