Thinking it through: What if Saddam had survived in power?

There are essentially two pertinent questions when considering what the Middle East would be like if the United States had not invaded Iraq in 2003:

1) in a hypothetical world where the U.S. did not invade and occupy Iraq in 2003, would the Islamic State or ISIL exist?;

2) and overall, in such a hypothetical world, would the Middle East be a more peaceful, a more democratic, and a more pro-American place today?

Logically, there are a number of different potential scenarios for Iraq in this theoretical world. Saddam Hussein could have continued to rule securely over Iraq from 2003 to 2015. This may be referred to as the “Strong Hussein” scenario. Or, Saddam Hussein could have continued to rule over Iraq from 2003 to 2015, but in a weakened state. This may be called the “Weak Hussein” scenario. Or, Saddam Hussein might have been ousted sometime during the past twelve years – a “Hussein Free” scenario, which could, in turn, have lead to a vast number of alternative possibilities. Each of these situations should be assessed separately.

First, let’s assume that Saddam Hussein was still in power as the absolute dictator of Iraq. Under this “Strong Hussein” scenario, the post-1991 sanctions placed on the Hussein regime would either be withering away, as they had steadily done from 1991 through 2003, or they would have completely collapsed.

It is hard to believe that President Obama – assuming he would have been elected in a world without the Iraq War/Occupation – would have pushed for stronger sanctions on a Hussein-led Iraq, or pressured Europe to maintain the existing sanctions. More likely, he would have sought to appease Hussein, much as he has done with the leadership of Iran. As a result, this would probably result in a dramatically stronger and more dangerous Saddam Hussein in 2015 vis a vis the Saddam Hussein of 2003.

What would Saddam Hussein have done with his newfound strength? Perhaps the least likely possibility would be Hussein acting to promote a more peaceful, democratic and pro-American version of Iraq. More likely, Hussein would have used his economic windfall to continue to fund his Baathist dictatorship, his desires to conquer his neighbors, and his quest(s) for weapons of mass destruction, both chemical and nuclear.

It is quite possible that he might have a weapon of mass destruction by 2015, meaning that his regime would now be untouchable, as is the regime in North Korea. This also would result in the same dire consequences for Middle East stability and non-proliferation that the Iran deal is likely to result in. Hussein presumably would have attempted to regain his control over the Kurdish north of Iraq, leading to a continuing brutal war and/or the collapse of the generally pro-Western and pro-human rights Kurdish entity. With the 2011 eruption of the “Arab Spring,” Hussein probably would have cracked down even more harshly on his own population, resulting in major new human rights abuses, possibly quite similar to those of the ISIL (whose military forces are seeded with former Baathist officers).

Hussein also would have likely taken advantage of the “Arab Spring” to interfere with his neighbors, most especially in Syria, where he could have aligned himself with Sunni forces, including jihadists, against the forces of Iran and Assad (his most hated rival). Almost certainly, Saudi Arabia and the other moderate Gulf States, as well as Jordan, would have been compelled to back the Sunni Hussein as a counterweight to the Shia regime in Iran.

Technically, in this world, it is likely that the ISIL would not exist. With Saddam Hussein strongly in power in Iraq, there would be little room for its development. However, under this scenario, where Saddam Hussein was strongly in control of Iraq, this world would probably not be much of an improvement overall to the currently dangerous Middle East situation of today. Also, other Sunni jihadist groups, such as Al Qaida, would still continue to exist; from the standpoint of the West’s democratic, pro-human rights, and peace seeking perspective, they are little different from ISIL. The “Arab Spring,” and much of the chaos it caused, would almost certainly still have happened. Also, in this world, Shia Iran would still be seeking nuclear weapons, both for its original purposes to dominate the Middle East (and the world), and as a way to balance off Hussein’s (Sunni) Iraq.

In fact, under the “Strong Hussein” scenario, this world might be even more dangerous — the Middle East would have probably been split down the middle between Iran and Iraq, with both nations seeking (or having) WMDs, and both willing to use them.

Second, let’s assume that Saddam Hussein was still officially in power in Iraq, but was dramatically weakened (somehow) post-2003; i.e., the “Weak Hussein” scenario. The most likely cause of this would be the 2011 “Arab Spring.” This is easy to envision, as the regime most similar to Hussein’s Baathist Sunni minority-controlled regime in Iraq is Assad’s Alawite minority-controlled Baathist regime in Syria, which was weakened by the Arab Spring. In such a case, it is likely that the current multi-party civil war in Syria, with the hundreds of thousands of slaughtered civilians, and the resulting exile of millions of other civilians, would have been largely duplicated on a slightly grander scale in Iraq.

To be precise, once again, under a “Weak Hussein” scenario, there would probably be no ISIL. However, once again, this would be a distinction without much of a difference for the West. Under this “Weak Hussein” scenario, Shia Iran would presumably be backing the rebel Shia jihadist groups in Iraq against the Hussein regime. From the West’s perspective, there is no functional difference between a Sunni jihadist and a Shia jihadist. Sunni Arab powers, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, etc., would presumably back Hussein as their protector against Iran. Sunni jihadist groups, such as Al Qaida, would also probably make common cause with Hussein, and/or attempt to exploit the chaos for their own benefit, by possibly carving out their own areas of control in Iraq.

Most disturbingly under this scenario, any of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction might be used by Hussein, or his opponents, be they Iranian forces, Shia jihadists, or Sunni jihadists. It is important to remember that there were chemical weapons found in Iraq (and there were credible reports that Hussein transferred chemical weapons to Syria prior to 2003).

Third, there is the “Hussein Free” scenario. There are a multitude of separate possibilities devolving from an Iraq without Saddam Hussein. It is possible that a coup from within the Iraqi military would have assassinated the dictator and seized control of the country. Considering the history of the Middle East, it is likely that any person/group replacing Hussein would be equally undemocratic and violent. If the new regime were Sunni controlled, then what would follow would track either the “Strong Hussein” or “Weak Hussein” scenarios. Neither would likely be much of an improvement over the chaos of today. If the new regime in Iraq were Shia controlled, then the new Iraq would either be an ally of Iran, or it would be an opponent of Iran’s. If the former, than we would have something similar to what we have today. If the latter, than there might be one positive development – a Shia majority not allied with Iran might result in a more democratic form of government (to cement Shia control). However, regardless of the character of the Shia Iraqi government, Shia fundamentalist Iran would continue to seek to influence a Shia controlled Iraq, through violence, bribery, and/or terrorism. At the same time, it is likely that the Sunni minority would continue to back Sunni rebels, both jihadist and non-jihadist alike, that would seek to re-impose a Sunni regime or seek independence for Sunni majority areas. And, in the north, the Kurds would continue to fight to keep themselves free of the Iraqi central government.

All these pressures would make it hard for a “Hussein Free” Iraq to maintain a democratic character, and would likely continue to promote instability within the Middle East.

Which brings us back to the question: Who is responsible for the current escalated chaos in the Middle East?  [Continued from:  Credit where credit is due: Bush toppled Saddam, Obama gave rise to a genocidal nightmare]

Originally published on World Tribune: https://www.worldtribune.com/thinking-it-through-what-if-saddam-had-survived-in-power/

About the Author

Adam Turner
Adam Turner is the general counsel & legislative affairs director for the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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